Monday, August 31, 2009

Small car good, big car bad

This is true at least in busy European cities like Paris.

In Helsinki, like in Paris, when a strip of road on the side is designated for parking, it's just that, a strip of road. Quite unlike in Singapore where each parking lot is marked clearly on the ground. This means that as long as your car fits in the lot, go ahead and park.

In this case, as long as the car fit and it did not disrupt traffic flow, park it.

Thus, small cars like the 2-person Smart or Mini are very popular. Large or long MPVs tend to be quite rare but I suspect finding lots in suburban or rural areas are less difficult. We also spotted a large Humvee with a Middle Eastern/Arabic licence plate parked outside a luxury hotel.

My mother-in-law saw the Smart car when she visited us this summer. She thought that this model wouldn't sell in Singapore where cars are a status symbol - the bigger the better.

But some families need an MPV since grandparents and children (and sometimes maids too) are huddled into one car.

We have a Mini - a seat for each of us. Just nice.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I wuz here

Jules and his family joined the rest of the over 32 million tourists to Paris each year. According to Econovista, Paris' promotion department, the city is the world's most popular tourist destination.

We visited many sights in Paris over the past 6 days. We checked in at the necessary attractions: the Eiffel Tower, Lourve museum and palace, Pompidou Centre, Panthéon, Notre-Dame, Jardin des Tuileries. We also went shopping at the famous Galeries Lafayette and admired its beautiful stained glass ceiling. As we strolled through the city, we also saw countless wonderful churches, opera houses, museums and other buildings whose names were too insignificant to feature on our tourist map.

We rested our tired feet at cosy cafés and munched on delectable sandwiches and pastries. There was the organic market where we snacked on fig and nut bread, muffins and even a piece of freshly rotisserie chicken. We headed to Paris' specialty street for crepes and apple cider. Our children savoured steaming bowls of wakame udon. Japanese was one of their favourite cuisine and the last time they had it professionally done was back in March.

I made time for a haircut, having had 6 inches snipped off. Ala Audrey Hepburn in the Roman Holiday, my friend tells me. Why go all the way to Paris? Because it is cheaper in Paris than Helsinki...

HG also had his hair trimmed. I noticed the hairdresser didn't speak English although her colleague helped to translate his requests. What do you think is the result?

Although we had more time this round, there are still sights I wish I could have visited. Like the Musee d'Orsay, the Bastille, Montmartre district and Little Vietnam where another friend has sourced a list of good restaurants. Do you know you can get the nicest baguettes outside France in Vietnam? I can imagine the reverse is true: one can get very good Viet food outside Vietnam in France.

Our lives and resources are too limited. I can't get enough of Paris. I'm thinking of going back already but I also want to visit other parts of France, Sweden, Britain, Japan, Korea... and the list goes on!

Can't wait to go to the next destination to stamp my mark "MZ wuz here".

D'amour Paris

Paris is lovely.

There is Disneyland in Paris so that's the excuse to make a trip with the kids. This is also a holiday for the adults where we can see, eat and shop.

Paris is best explored on foot so we walked, and walked, and walked. By Day 1, we had walked along Avenue Charles de Gaulle, all the way from La Defense to the Arc du Triomphe. That's a spectacular 4 km. I'm so proud of my kids.

In an interesting twist, we spent 2 days in Paris with two Japanese classmates of mine from the Helsinki Summer School.

Memi is partly based in Paris where she is taking a year off work to tour Europe. Yuta is taking a 3-day break in Paris before going home to Sendai in Japan.

Many Asians visit Paris for the luxury shops. Louis Vuitton along Champs-Élysee feels more like a market than a high-end boutique. Conversations in Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean were exchanged along crowded counters. Handbags filled the display shelves and counters on the ground floor of the boutique, which basically means that these are the cash cows of the brand.

Looking at the H12009 results of LVMH, Louis Vuitton's parent company, revenue fell across all categories (wines and spirits, perfumes and cosmetics, watches and jewellery, and others) except fashion and leather goods. Thus, the outlook for this sector is brightly positive. Double-digit revenue growth was registered for the first half of the year, with strong momentum in Asia, Europe and Middle East. LV thanks its Japanese clients who have been purchasing abroad (like Paris) due to the strengthening yen and not to mention, what it calls "exceptional" support from its Chinese clientele.

As for us, we thank LV for letting us use their washrooms.

I resisted buying a designer bag. Since this is my second visit to Paris, the temptation has weakened.

The most fashionable item I bought from Paris is the French edition of Vogue. The delicious jambon (ham) baguettes have been digested. The beautiful sights are captured in our minds and camera.

More show-and-tell will come in the next few days.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Live to eat

Estelle and Mommy at dinner

People have varied ideas about whether children should be seen or heard, or both or neither.

We bring our kids wherever we go. This is especially so in Finland where we live by ourselves and don't have any babysitters. Domestic helpers are not common in Finland, and even if families have nannies, they usually work during office hours or they will call it a day soon after their wards have had their dinners.

Perhaps this is why there are many children-friendly restaurants in Finland. People have to bring their children along if they want to go out. High chairs are readily available as well as microwave ovens to warm up ready-to-eat foods.

Besides places that serve Asian food where we could order some dishes to go with rice or noodles, we patronise family restaurants like La Famiglia in Helsinki or Rosso. They have children's menus, offer options like spaghetti bolognese or pizzas in smaller portions as well as a children's corner where the kids could play. Since eating out in Finland is quite expensive, we go out less often than in Singapore or Beijing. So our kids appreciate the times we give them a treat.

Thus, I found this story on "The restaurant-friendly child" on The Guardian pretty interesting.

I agree with the author that it is the parents' responsibility to teach their children to behave at restaurants. I'll extend this responsibility to include other settings, like shopping malls or parks. Children, and adults too, need to respect other people's personal space.

On the other hand, it is frustrating when public places are not accommodating towards children. I'm not referring to fine-dining restaurants where even the slightest chink from cutlery is thought of as causing a ruckus.

Which way should it be: a restaurant-friendly child or a child-friendly restaurant?

How about tackling the question in another context: a child-friendly home or a home-friendly child?

HG and I are of the opinion that instead of child-proofing our home, like installing locks on the fridge or cupboards, it's better to teach the child boundaries and not to step over them. Nevertheless, wisdom has to prevail over principles. When our kids were younger we covered our power sockets with plastics covers but we stopped when we moved to a new city. Over time, they learn to play with their own stuff, not to touch things that do not belong to them, and to ask for permission if unsure.

Note: they don't follow protocol ALL the time, in case you are thinking I have a pair of angels.

Tomorrow we leave for a short holiday to Paris. Although HG and I were just there last year, we didn't notice if Parisian restaurants are child-friendly. This time, we go as a family of four. So I hope our kids are restaurant-friendly so we will be welcomed every where we go.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Working for a living

Yesterday, I chanced upon this article on the Finnish broadcaster YLE's website. It features a fresh graduate Liu Tianyan in the tough job market.

I met Tianyan last autumn while covering a university-linked event. He was the President of International Student Organisation (Tsemppi) at the University of Helsinki and at that time, was pursuing a Masters degree in IT. He seemed like the sort who excels academically and busied himself with student activities and part-time work at a software company. He was good-looking and presented himself well.

Tianyan is Chinese. His family came to Finland some years ago. I remember his father was a diplomat and his family left when the posting came to an end. He chose to stay on in Finland partly for the free education and also because he wanted to be with his girlfriend, who was Finnish.

In Singapore, students with this kind of record seldom have trouble getting a job. Most times, they would have received offers even before graduation, sometimes even several to choose from.

Last autumn, Tsemppi arranged a get-together for students concerned about life after graduation. At that time, the economy had not plummeted so the students' anxiety seemed, to me, just normal for people preparing to enter a new phase of life. Things took a turn for the worse by Q4 and as time went by, joblessness of young people below the age of 25 became a social problem for governments worldwide.

Soon after that Tsemppi event, I dropped an e-mail to a professor from NUS who had helped me land my first job. Hearing those students made me realise I got things easy, so I'm grateful.

All these years, I have also kept in touch with my boss from my first job, who had been a great mentor, continually offering sound advice. As I come to the end of my summer course and we talked about intellectual property protection, I'm reminded that my ex-boss tried to persuade me to take up a second degree in law since the IP law is a lucrative, not to mention respected, profession. I turned down her best of intentions because I didn't really want to go back to school. Did I regret my decision? Not exactly because it wasn't what I want to do, but in view of job opportunities, I am probably more employable as a patent lawyer than as a writer.

At this point in my life, I am blessed that my family and I can lead a good life even though I am not contributing to our household income. I am happy I can spend time with the children and do things I like. Many other families out there can't have this luxury.

But I won't likely remain like this. My team mate from the summer course could tell that I won't be staying at home long, even though we've only known each other for 2 weeks.

I am in transition. The past 5 years feel like a long transition. Now that the summer course is coming to an end (tomorrow!), I wonder where life brings me next.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to nature

Last weekend was a hectic one.

The family woke up at around 8.30 am and we rushed through breakfast and attire changes so that we could reach the centre of Helsinki by 10 am. We arrived at the pick-up point at 10.15 and thankfully, the bus hadn't left yet.

About 40 minutes later, we arrived at Finland's Nuuksio National Park. No more sounds of traffic, just lapping waves on the shores of the lake and bantering of students.

I began the day with canoeing. My partner was a software developer from Switzerland and he related funny stories of his visit to Malaysia's Taman Negara. One night, he and his friends heard a loud crash on their zinc roof and everyone went rushing out. They'd thought a bomb had gone off but it was actually just a durian. He said he wouldn't have minded durian if it wasn't so pungent.

We canoed along one end of the lake, taking in the greenery and quaint summer cottages situated along the coast. Such peace and serenity.

After working out the arms, it was time to stretch the legs. We took a hike along rocky paths, which our guide said were formed as the glaciers receded after the Ice Ages. We climbed several hundred feet to look down at the pristine lake, 7 km across, beautiful.

This is my first time hiking in a coniferous forest, which I find a different experience from a tropical one. Humidity was low so I hardly perspired and we didn't encounter pests like mosquitoes or leeches. Instead of damp dead twigs and leaves, the forest floors at Nuuksio were carpeted by blueberry shrubs. There were blueberries everywhere. We didn't have lunch before the hike so many of us were kind of hungry. The berries provided some relief.

I guess I have some experience with berry picking this summer so I munched on them as I walked. Some of the other students were hesitant to eat the berries. We also spotted mushrooms along the way - mushroom season is on the way. Our guides said they were edible, if you were looking for special effects. Ah ha...

We finished the day with sauna and BBQ. The lake was open for swimming. It must have been exhilarating but I'm not a good swimmer, so I won't risk my life.

HG brought the kids to join me later in the afternoon. I saved some sausages and tortilla for them; I think they have gotten the hang of Finnish BBQ.

At some point, I want to bring our kids camping. We bought a tent from Ikea and placed it in the garden. They played in there for a while, but they moved out when the bugs moved in. Oh well, we tried.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Opening the door of knowledge...

... is tiring.

Today ends the second week of Helsinki Summer School. If we had thought the pace of last week's course was "just right", it picked up speed from Monday. We've had workshops and hands-on projects almost every day.

The students didn't really know what to expect as we begun the course, each given a broad outline. According to the programme, each day was described by a one-liner. Yesterday (Thursday), for example, was to be a two-worder: PD6 workshop.

It turned out to be the most intensive project we had to undertake, thus far. After a 1-hour introduction-cum-briefing, we spent the next few hours working on our assignment, finishing off with a prototype and presentation. Man, most of us were totally exhausted by the end of the day. We were rewarded with a BBQ, sauna and pool afterwards, for whoever cared to stay behind.

Again, I'd say that I learnt lots in the past 2 weeks. I met with many experts who were so willing to share their knowledge and threw myself into the assignments and learning from my team mates and classmates.

I have a very good team - enthusiastic, serious, knowledgeable and fun. We have built up excellent team spirit over the past few days, playing and working together.

The Summer School has organised an outing to the Nuuksio national park tomorrow. I tried to offload my place since I'm pooped and would have preferred a lazy day at home. It turned out that several of my classmates have signed up for tomorrow, meaning that those who are interested to go are going. Went to the supermarket after class today so I'm equipped with makarras, tortillas and possibly marshmallows.

I'm praying the rain will hold tomorrow. Daddy HG will be spending quality time to bond with the kids while I'm off to the wilderness. Should be fun.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What's the big idea?

Today is Day 4 of my Summer School course and the topic covered was idea generation.

How does one develop a good product? First of all, we start with a good idea. Or rather a whole lot of good ideas and pick the best one, or two, among them.

The class went through some drawing and idea generation exercises. I found the two workshops particularly intense because each team had to generate as many novel ideas as it can within short periods of time.

I enjoyed today's class very much since we spent less time listening and more time working out our cognitive faculties. I'm also happy that I can power up and get into the flow very quickly.

Thus, I am happy to announce that my team came up tops with the most number of ideas. Not bad for an official stay-at-home mom! Sshh... nobody in my class knows.

Yesterday, I went on a dragon boat safari on the seas around Helsinki. Enough participants from the Summer School came to fill up 3 dragon boats. We took about an hour to go from the Canoeing Centre around Seurasaari and back again. I've had guy friends (one of them is my dear husband) complain that their female friends tend to sit back to enjoy the "wonderful sea view and breeze" while they paddle like crazy during canoeing trips. Well, I really enjoyed rowing!

Nearly a week after I've started school, I realised that the competitive streak in me never went away - it was just latent. It's been a while since I've felt so challenged, so motivation levels are running at all time high.

Still, I have to remind myself that my classmates come from different backgrounds and live in various circumstances. Being over-zealous will, quite definitely, backfire on me. Besides gaining some hard-core knowledge, this course is also about learning to get along and work with others.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Moon, class and Jules

We kinda know that the season is changing because the sun finishes its shift around 10.30 pm this week. I chanced upon a full moon tonight at 11.30 pm.

Today is officially my first lesson at my course. I think I have learnt a lot already, on the first day, about product development.

I was late because I couldn't find the venue - Aalto Design Factory, and was driving around Otaniemi (one of Helsinki's high tech region, quite like Silicon Valley) for over half an hour.

After a tour of the facilities, each student took turns to introduce themselves, their background, what they think are good and bad qualities of product developer, and companies or products they appreciate.

Again, it's fun to hear from everyone. Apple was an oft-quoted company and looks like it has many admirers.

After lunch, our lecturer Mr Kalevi Ekman gave an introduction to the process of product development. I came to the course thinking we'll be taught how to design new and innovative products. Then I learned (but really, it should be obvious) that there is much more involved and a lot more factors to consider before simply saying "I want to design a new product".

Besides getting lost in Otaniemi, today is also a challenging day because Jules has fallen ill. He awoke this morning to a slight fever (37.5ºC) so we decide to keep him at home. When I called during lunch, HG told me he had puked several times and not eating or drinking much. He couldn't retain any inputs.

Times like these really make me think about giving up pursuing what I enjoy and instead stay at home to fulfill my maternal responsibilities.

But I have a supportive husband, whom I have to learn to trust to take care of the household while I am away.

Jules hasn't rejected any food since dinner. He didn't eat much either but better than nothing. His fever is now hovering between 38.4 and 38.8, unfortunately.

I have a long day tomorrow. The class will meet at 8 am for a couple of industry visits and scheduled to end 5.30 pm. Just now, I read some pages from my textbook - rare! I'm looking forward to tomorrow and pray that Jules will be better when he awake.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back to school

Summer holiday is over. The children started school this week. Their daycare centre was closed for one week and we missed 3 days before that when we took a cruise to Sweden.

The kids were very excited to go back to school. Finland starts the academic year in autumn so the kids went back to new classes. They are excited to see their friends again, and seem keen to make new ones.

But I am also referring to myself. Today is the first day of Helsinki Summer School where I have enrolled in a course.

Back to school after more than a decade. I'd thought I'll be the oldest student but it seems that I have a companion in Esther, a girl from The Netherlands. I may have dwelt on my agedness too much because she had to tell me that both of us are actually still young!

During the welcome ceremony today, the course coordinator announced that 60 countries are represented among the 360 participants, starting from Albania to Zambia. The largest representation came from China (40), followed by Germany (37) and a wide array of students from all continents (except Antartica). Seems that Finland has just around 10 students. Only 1 from Singapore... moi.

My course held a briefing today so I had a glimpse of my classmates. There's a German, an Italian, a Venezuelan, a Japanese, a Finn, a Swedish Finn... I didn't catch all their names and nationalities.

It's always fun to meet people from other countries and cultures. Everyone is different... unique.

I have a Chinese classmate who spoke fluent Finnish. Initially I'd thought he is studying in Finland and has taken Finnish lessons. It turned out that he is from Beijing but had lived in Finland when he was a young boy. His primary (elementary) education was carried out in Finland and he returned to China 8 or 9 years ago. He didn't use Finnish afterwards until he arrived in Helsinki 2 or 3 days ago. Amazingly, he spoke Finnish and to me, he spoke like a native. He claimed that he isn't very good but I believe that he just needs some time to "warm up". It's like someone had turned on a switch in his brain and he speaks Finnish all over again.

I'm sure I'll meet more fascinating people the next 3 weeks. Besides meeting new people, I also hope I can follow the course and learn something useful.