A Paris Valentine

Well, this is unexpected. After years of (mostly) turning a blind eye to Valentine’s Day, we’re changing it up a bit. Not only do we have plans for tonight—a cocktail workshop at Amsterdam’s historic House of Bols—but in a serendipitous twist, we’ll also be celebrating Valentine’s weekend in the most romantic city on earth.

Oui, Paris!

Paris is always a good idea

A work trip to Paris fell into Marlon’s lap came along at just the right time. After agonizing over budgets and schedules and other boring, adult, parent-like things, Marlon threw caution to the wind and offered me the weekend in Paris as a Valentine present. How could I turn down such a present? Besides, as Audrey Hepburn famously said, “Paris is always a good idea!”

I’ll be back next week to report on Valentine cocktails and Parisian pleasures. In the meantime, happy Valentine’s Day and have a love-ly weekend!

Winter uniform: Isabel Marant for H&M

As a Catholic school girl, the word “uniform” always brings me back to years of white starched blouses and strictly monitored hemlines. I couldn’t wait to break free of my school uniform and was happy to leave that word behind. Well, here I am using “uniform” to refer to my personal style for the first time in years.

Confession time: I’ve fallen into the habit of wearing tight bottoms with oversized tops. Honestly, it took me a few months to realize I was dressing as if I was still pregnant! Once I discovered I didn’t need to be in an Outfit to drop off Tala at the gastouder or to swing by the Kruidvat for a pack of diapers, it was easy to succumb to the warm, forgiving embrace of sweatshirts and leggings. Winter, when it seems pointless to dress up because it all gets covered up by a coat anyway, has simply reinforced that attitude.

But wait! I haven’t given up just yet. Comfort and style don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I figure if I’m going to stick to the basics, those basics ought to look good. If I’m going to just throw on a sweatshirt to pick Tala up from daycare, it might as well be a cool one, right?

This was how I justified the madness of queuing up for the Isabel Marant for H&M collection last November. It turned out to be a logical decision, because I’ve been living in my Isabel Marant loot all season long.

Mom style Isabel Marant for H&M Balenciaga

In the earlier half of winter, I could get away with just a warm angora cardigan over this black-and-white linen t-shirt—which is, by the way, from the men’s collection. Seeing the clothes-crazed violence in the women’s department forced me to sneak up to the men’s floor as both a shopping and survival strategy. I barely escaped with my life, plus a few good buys!

Mom style Isabel Marant for H&M duffle coat

This is the coat I throw over everything: my navy wool blend duffel coat from Uniqlo. I love how roomy it is, although I wish it was more resistant to pilling.

Mom style Isabel Marant for H&M

I thought I would swear off roundneck t-shirts after turning 30, but I couldn’t resist this cute feather-printed linen tee. With a pop of fuschia stretch velvet and SuperCosy fleece tights from Primark, it’s one of my more dressy errand outfits that’s surprisingly comfy.

Mom style Isabel Marant for H&M red sweatshirt

Another menswear score: my favorite sweatshirt of the season! This sold out almost instantly, and I wasn’t prepared to inflict bodily harm on anyone to grab the last piece in the women’s department. I just love the combination of color and comfort, print and practicality.

Mom style Indian silver and lapis lazuli necklace

Isabel Marant’s modern spin on bohemian chic inspired me to dig out some of my favorite pieces of ethnic jewelry, like this silver and lapis lazuli necklace I bought while on honeymoon in Jodhpur. I thought it was a bit much for laid-back Amsterdam, but somehow it works with the casual ease of a sweatshirt and boots. I’m glad to get a little more use out of it!

Do you have a “uniform” too? What are your go-to outfits, and how do you keep them fun and fresh?

Babyconcertjes: Live classical music for babies

Do you remember the first time you heard music? I can’t identify a particular song or artist as being the first, but I remember gradually becoming aware of music at about three or four.

My earliest musical memories include being upset at not being allowed to go to a Menudo concert with my mom and sister (I was appeased by a Menudo poster, so my reasons might not have all been musical). Mom’s folksy-hippie favorites John Denver and Peter, Paul and Mary sang of magic dragons and mountains in springtime on long weekend drives to Laguna. I learned to sing nine year-old Lea Salonga’s I Am But a Small Voice in kindergarten, and burst into tears whenever she sang about missing her Mama.

Like most Filipino kids, classical music was never part of my formative experiences with music. I heard classical music for the first time when I joined the Glee Club in college. While rehearsing for competitions in Europe, we were half-envious, half-terrified by stories about how our European competitors grew up with the Kodaly method or knew how to read notes from childhood. And though my friends—many of whom are now professional soloists, conductors and choristers—infected me with their passion for classical music, I still don’t know a whole lot about that world.

That’s why I love the idea of Babyconcertjes: live classical music performances for babies 0-2 years old. I love the idea of giving Tala something I never had: exposure to classical music at an early age. How could I not seize such an opportunity?

Babyconcertjes Amsterdam baroque violin and cello

Founder Anna Smith created Babyconcertjes to give parents and babies an opportunity to enjoy beautiful, thoughtfully chosen pieces of chamber music in a relaxed environment. Each 45-minute concert is different, featuring local musicians who play solos, duets and small ensembles. Babyconcertjes are held in Utrecht, Den Haag, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Gouda and Haarlem.

Babyconcertjes Annabelle Ferdinand baroque violin

Last weekend, Marlon and I took Tala to her first Babyconcertje, featuring Annabelle Ferdinand on the baroque violin and Marike Tuin on the baroque cello.

Babyconcertjes Marike Tuin baroque cello

They played a small selection of pieces by Handel, Corelli and a few others, and presided over a mini sing-a-long for the little ones. We participated mostly via “smile and nod”, as all the Dutch parents knew the songs, but we didn’t!

Tala at Babyconcertjes Amsterdam

At first, Tala seemed more interested in the other babies than in the music. Sitting right up front was a good move—then she listened to the musicians for a surprisingly long time.

Tala listening to live baroque music

Movement was part of it too. Daddy swayed her around in time with the music, and held her when she got really excited and started bouncing up and down.

Tala and Daddy at Babyconcertjes Amsterdam

Did Tala like it? Seems she did. Will she remember it? At this stage, no. Is it good for her? Science says yes, with numerous studies documenting the benefits of music to developmental aspects such as spatial reasoninglanguage learning and more. Did we enjoy our first Babyconcertje, and would we take her to one again? Most definitely!

Find more information about Babyconcertjes on their blog and Facebook page.

Meanwhile, back in Amsterdam…

As you can probably tell from the last few blog posts, being home in Philippines stuck with me for a while. Blogging about Manila, El Nido and my family helped me extend the experience just a little bit longer.

I might’ve been somewhere else mentally and emotionally, but in reality, life goes on here in Amsterdam. And it hasn’t been so bad. The Dutch have been complaining about this “non-winter” (hardly any days dipping below 0ºC, and no snow) but I like it—it’s made the transition back from the tropics easier.

Here’s what we’ve been up to at home over the last few weeks.

Dam Square Amsterdam National Tulip Day

To celebrate the start of the tulip season, Dam Square became a pick-your-own tulip garden for a day—specifically, on National Tulip Day. It was a bit touristy for my taste and we came too late, but it was fun seeing something a bit fresher and greener than the usual living statues and street performers on Dam Square.

Cafe Tabac Amsterdam coffee and tulips

Tulips are indeed starting to pop up all around the city. It will take another month or two until they grow big, bold and bright, but right now they are a welcome pop of color in this dreary winter.

Taschen winter sale

Another mid-winter perk-me-up: sales! Many stores go on sale to start creating space for new spring inventory. After Manila, I declared a shopping moratorium on clothes for Mommy and baby… but not on books!

Taschen books winter sale

Cologne-based publishing house Taschen is one of my favorite publishers. I can’t get enough of their beautiful and affordable books on design, architecture, film, art, culture and fashion. So I couldn’t resist hitting up their mid-winter sale for some seriously discounted books! I’ll share my loot in another post.

Bloody Mary Bennys and Marys pop-up brunch Amsterdam

Getting back to our regular routines has made life easier and more comfortable. But on weekends, I love to find a little something out of the ordinary, like a new pop-up brunch… and a wickedly good Bloody Mary.

Speaking of pop-ups, a city icon popped up right in our backyard!

iAmsterdam Westergasfabriek

There’s a permanent Iamsterdam sign at Museumplein, but there also seems to be a traveling one. This one came to our neighborhood park together with Amsterdam Fashion Week.


iAmsterdam sign D

Guess who tried to climb it, but realized he isn’t 12 years old anymore? iAmsterdam sign Westerpark

It wouldn’t be an Amsterdam winter without lots of gloom and rain. We’ve spent many a day indoors, nursing a cough or cold, watching the world from the warm confines of the living room. Thank goodness for giant windows, and a baby who likes to watch the rain.

Inside on a rainy day
But whenever I can, I try to override this mid-winter slump with a walk around the neighborhood. Even running errands in a city like this is enough to perk me up.

Brouwersgracht houseboats Amsterdam
What’s been perking you up lately?

Leave my baby alone! Why I did & what I learned

Our El Nido trip would not have been possible with the support of my mom and sister, who took care of Tala for four days, giving us our first 24-plus hours of alone time in nine months.

Why time away from baby is important

To me, the decision to leave Tala alone with family members for a few days was a no-brainer. But as I told friends about our plans, I ran into a surprising  variety of reactions from thumbs-up happiness (“That sounds awesome!”) to concern (“Are you sure?”) to mild horror (“I could never do that!”).

Is it just a cultural thing? I wondered. In the Philippines, where extended family members are abundant and hired help is affordable, leaving babies in the care of others doesn’t seem to meet as much with as much struggle or controversy.

Curious, I tuned in to the conversations of moms in my little English-speaking expat bubble, and discovered women who claimed they would never feel right leaving their babies alone for more than 24 hours with a) third-party caregivers, b) family members, or most surprising of all, c) their own spouses.

I was pretty shocked, to be honest. Is your spouse mentally challenged or physically incapacitated? I wondered. You married him and had a child with him, and now you can’t trust him to keep that child alive for 24 hours?  I began to question the part of me that was positive that this was the right thing for us. But I also began to suspect that it came down to control and trust.

Despite the occasional doubts and a last-minute case of the nerves, I did end up leaving my baby alone. We survived, she survived, and it went great! Here are a few things I learned along the way.

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El Nido town: Rustic quirks & mango rum

Staying in the town proper is the way to visit El Nido on a shoestring. While the swanky side of El Nido is definitely still on my bucket list, there are a few reasons—other than your budget—to enjoy El Nido town.

El Nido Palawan Bacuit Bay sunrise

Waking up to this literally on our doorstep was one. This beauty is democratic: everyone gets a gorgeous sunrise on the water, regardless of the number of digits they forked over for accommodation. I love it.

El Nido bay

Natural beauty is a given, but what I enjoyed most about mainland El Nido is how undeveloped—and how real—it still is. Granted, this means that you’ll discover the less-than-idyllic side of island living. For example, there’s no electricity from 6am to 2pm. There are no ATMs on the island, so bringing enough cash for your entire stay is a must.

The soil is too salty and claylike to grow vegetables, so veggies have to be brought over by sea from Manila, sometimes as infrequently as once a month. There are no poultry farms on the island, because the intermittent electricity supply can’t power the heat lamps needed to raise chickens on a large scale. Anything not grown or produced here—from eggs to bottled water—has to come in by boat, which inflates the prices of most basic goods on El Nido as compared to similarly remote provincial towns and villages.

Despite all those challenges, generations of people—Filipino and foreigners alike—have fallen in love with El Nido and have chosen to start afresh here.

El Nido Palawan Trattoria Altrove

That’s why you’ll find that the longest lines for dinner are for the authentic wood-fired pizzas of Trattoria Altrove, housed in an old bahay-na-bato…

El Nido crepe stand

and why you can get a real French crepe from a sawali-roofed plywood shack just like this.

La Salangane bar El Nido Palawan

In fact, the presence of a thriving French community in El Nido is the raison d’etre for La Salangane, my favorite bar and restaurant of this whole trip.

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Off the beaten track: Nacpan Beach, El Nido

You know you’re off the beaten track when the track suddenly begins to look something like this.

El Nido Palawan road trip

You may bump into a few fellow travelers on the same path…

Carabao and kids in El Nido Palawan

in fact, more than just a few… Full jeepney on El Nido road

But you may not always end up at the same destination.

El Nido Nacpan beach resort

The most important thing you need to know about the beaten track: more often than not, going off it is totally worth doing.

El Nido Nacpan beach deserted

By far, the best part of our exploration of El Nido by tricycle was arriving at the remote, far-flung and almost totally deserted shores of Nacpan beach.

 

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El Nido: Sunset at Corong-Corong beach

While island-hopping is *the* thing to do in El Nido, Palawan, it isn’t the only thing to do.

Taking a break between island-hopping days (because, you know, it’s such a tough job!), Marlon and I hired a tricycle to explore El Nido by land. Tricycles in El Nido are serious, hefty, all-terrain metal workhorses, and it’s easy to get one in town. Prices vary depending on your chosen destination; we managed to negotiate a full-day road trip to two beaches for Php 1,300.

Most island-hopping tours depart from the main waterfront of El Nido, but ours took off from Corong-Corong beach, a few kilometers south of town proper.

Corong-Corong beach El Nido low tide

When we returned to Corong-Corong at the end of the tour, this brief glimpse of the beach at sundown made me curious about coming back for another look.

Corong-Corong beach El Nido bancas at sunset

With a determined grumble, our diesel-powered chariot charged up the steep, winding road from El Nido town towards Corong-Corong beach.

Corong-Corong beach El Nido sunset

At the top of the hill, this view opened up and a tiny squeal of delight escaped me, prompting our driver to pull over to the side of the road. “Picture muna, ma’am?” he said with a chuckle.

Corong-Corong beach El Nido

He pointed out our destination: Las Cabanas, a secluded resort at the southernmost tip of Corong-Corong beach.

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Island hopping in El Nido, Palawan (2 of 2)

Our second island-hopping tour in El Nido fell on the day of our sixth wedding anniversary. It’s just a little bit extra (about Php200-400 more per person) for a private tour, so we decided to make it just the two of us on our special day.

This time, we opted for Tour A, which covers the Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon on Miniloc Island, lunch at Shimizu Island, Secret Lagoon, and a final stop at Seven Commandos beach. For me, these places, particularly the lagoons on Miniloc, are simply postcard El Nido. If you only have time for one island-hopping tour (what a shame!), I highly suggest you pick this one.

There’s a sense of discovery about island-hopping in El Nido that I love. Some of the loveliest places pose a challenge to the traveler and aren’t easily accessible. (Smart choice leaving the baby at home, I must say.) Hidden away from view and behind dramatic limestone peaks, what a wonder it must have been for the explorers who discovered these places for the first time. To follow your curiosity through a peekaboo cutout in the rocks…

El Nido Palawan island hopping Small Lagoon Entrance

and to swim through to emerge in a jewel-colored lagoon, bounded by walls made of jungle and rock.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Small Lagoon

These days, kayaking is the easier option for would-be explorers, but I loved swimming through the Small Lagoon and exploring its little nooks and coves—even if I did slice my hand on some pretty sharp rocks.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Small Lagoon swimming

With the Big Lagoon, scale adds an element of drama. Everything suddenly goes quiet as a stream of bancas float down a corridor of towering limestone, like a procession into some kind of royal hall. It feels both majestic and serene.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Big Lagoon

Our tour guide sat at the prow of the banca, which I thought looked like fun. I asked to take his place and sat there, dangling my feet into the water as our boat did one long, slow circuit around the bowl of the Big Lagoon.

El Nido Palawan island hopping tour guide

I had to jerk my feet out of the water when I saw these, though! I’ve been stung by a sea urchin before and the scars took six years to fade. Not going that route again, thanks.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Big Lagoon sea urchins

What else did we do? Hmmm… we squeezed through this tiny passage to find a small sinkhole called the Secret Lagoon…

El Nido Palawan island hopping Secret Lagoon entrance

and dropped anchor at a spot somewhere off Miniloc, whose name I can’t remember (baby brain strikes again, argh!) for some great snorkeling. El Nido is not spectacular for snorkeling (God is fair), but this spot was really good.

El Nido Palawan island hopping snorkeling spot

To end the day we spent an hour or so at the pristine Seven Commandos beach, which was a welcome break to just doze in the sun after all that swimming.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Seven Commandos Beach

The tours dock at Seven Commandos at around 4 in the afternoon, perfect timing for a little merienda of fresh coconut juice from a tiny, barely held-together shack on the beach…

El Nido Palawan island hopping Seven Commandos

or, my absolute favorite, a mango shake from the small beach bar on the island. Drinks on Seven Commandos are sold at tourist prices, but there’s practically nothing on this island; the locals have to recoup the costs of periodically bringing everything over by boat, plus make a living.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Seven Commandos mango shake

Sweet Philippine mangoes on a gorgeous Philippine beach—if you ask me, that’s a combination that’s pretty hard to beat!

Island hopping in El Nido, Palawan (1 of 2)

I’ve had it with this gray, gloomy, freezing winter weather. In revolt, I hereby declare this El Nido Week on the blog!

For the whole week, I refuse to blog about anything but turquoise waters, remote beaches, secret lagoons, sunny golden shores, and charming little beach bars and restaurants. Tough luck for you!

El Nido Palawan island hopping Helicoter Island beach

Looking for wintry layers, coats, boots and blankets? Look elsewhere!

Marlon and I decided to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary in another bucket list destination: El Nido, Palawan. The plan was to leave Tala with my family for a few days and aim for something a little more adventurous and off the beaten track. What better place to go than the Philippines’ so-called “last frontier?”

There are two ways to do El Nido: go for luxury with the exclusive, full-service, five-star El Nido Resorts, or do it backpacker style by staying in El Nido proper. With only our bank accounts and no baby to consider, Marlon and I joined the great unwashed among the basic, no-frills hotels of Bacuit Bay.

Regardless of accommodation, everyone goes island-hopping in El Nido. It’s simply the thing to do. All the tour companies on El Nido offer the same four itineraries with standard prices, which is brilliant because it saves you the hassle of researching or bargaining.

Our first tour took us to the beautiful white shores of Helicopter Island (see above) before depositing us at Matinloc Island for—no exaggeration—the hardest, most challenging swim of my life. And I consider myself a fairly good swimmer.

El Nido Palawan island hopping swim to Hidden Beach

Seduced by the prospect of a hidden beach, I jumped into the water without much thought and was immediately caught up in a powerful, pounding current. There had been a storm the day before, and the tide was still churning. The banca was too far out to return to, so there was nothing to do but swim to the island before the sea bashed me against the rocks. Seriously—it was a very real possibility.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Hidden Beach entrance

Somehow, after fighting the tide with everything I had, I made it! I headed into calmer shallows, and up a corridor of dramatic limestone peaks…

El Nido Palawan island hopping Hidden Beach

until I reached Hidden Beach, which is everything you hope a hidden beach could be: idyllic, remote, so beautiful it’s almost surreal.

El Nido Palawan island hopping Hidden Beach crystal clear waters

I mean, just look at that water!

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