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SUSPENDING THOUGHTS

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a place to breathe and suspend sad thoughts

I watch her as she walks down the halls, her weary eyes almost blank, and her shoulders struggling not to slope down. She must keep up appearances of a cheery disposition that actually belies a mind tormented by anguish and a heart buffeted by the opposite end of Cupid’s love arrows. She has tried to push the thoughts – of him, of what went wrong – from her mind, but like a boxer trapped in a vice, the blows rain heavy and incessantly. She tells me her heart’s agonies, which break mine as well, but all I can offer are words of solace that seem ineffectual in easing the dull throb. I know her; no, I know her very well. She never goes into something without her entire heart, she takes risks, and her understanding is to the point of fault. Unknown to him, it took her seven years to give her heart to another one having turned into an unreconstructed hard-liner against intimacy. Who could fault her? Blinded by Cupid, she followed and waited for this man who had awakened her love but had no intention of loving her in return. She wasn’t into playing games, but he was. She had realized only after she felt that hard twinge in her chest as if a hand had plunged into it and grabbed hold of her heart and, within a blink, yanked it out. Wide-eyed, she had watched him cast it aside like cotton waste. Never again, she vowed to herself. Never again will anyone have her heart, she told herself. But the universe has had always a soft spot for her, a spot for making light of her decisions and making her believe everything would turn out all right, but, like a well-crafted Poe story, would end on a saturnine note.

Now, she is dealing with the risk of having opened herself to the possibility of love – something she dared not talk about because of the inopportune situation and timing. She wakes up every day with a tightness in her chest and an urge to cry but no tears roll down. She has difficulty in breathing and is assailed by throbbing pains in her stomach. She is wallowing in wretchedness with each passing day. She has been shunned because of a perceived slight on his part which caught her off guard. She would never hurt him! Reeling from the painful brush-off, she turns the exchange of messages in her mind hoping to find an opening to explain again or for that abrupt and painful closure to a budding relationship. She argues with herself inside her head: she, of all people, knows when to back off from a situation that is fraught with drama. She actually runs away from drama: it’s a trait she inherited from her mother. She could be a drama queen if she really wanted to, but she only sees the futility in such a role.

She’s not fatuous having learned from her mistakes. What her intelligence cannot comprehend at this point is the spitefulness of the universe. She is no angel. She is far from perfect, but she has striven to not commit the same mistakes she did during those years she calls blinded vacuity. Ironically, it is the year of the Rooster – her year – and it’s off to roaring start. She doesn’t want to be mired again in emptiness and self-doubt. She knows she didn’t make a mistake this time, but why won’t he listen to her? Why won’t he talk to her? I am at a lost too at what to say to her to alleviate the silent pain running up and down in her. I can only tell her to not forgo her workout regimen with her personal trainer because happy hormones are good for her. Then there’s the beginner’s yoga class she leads, which, thankfully, I see her doing with alacrity.

The last time we met she told me she has found a respite from the steady barrage of her sad thoughts. She has a found a cozy nook where her past and present can’t get to her. It’s a breathing room she hides in which helps her to suspend the ugly thoughts doing the cha-cha on her heart and mind. I praised her for it – the universe knows she needs a break from its battering.

COSY NOOK

It has become a routine of some sort particularly after having worked on my legs with my personal trainer. Going home would have been my next move but my legs had a mind of its own. They would straight away head to this new cosy nook I discovered. Literally next Helio fitness centre at Bekasi Cyber Park, past the row of restaurants starting with Domino’s Pizza and ending with McDonald’s- or you might want to cut through the parking lot – is the newly built Aston Imperial Hotel and Conference Centre. On the left of its entrance is the lobby lounge, its comfortable sofa-like chairs surrounding either a square or circle tables, that has provided me with a quiet spot to get lost in my head. A corner near the counter is the spot I’ve selected to plonk down on the chair to collect my thoughts and rest my fatigued legs.

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iced cappuccino and chicken sandwich from the lobby lounge of Aston Imperial in Bekasi

The view is hardly picturesque from my cosy nook, albeit it’s nowhere near the undulating rice crops against the lush foliage of Bali or the rolls of waves rushing to the shore and dissipating into traces of white foam, they offer a chance to observe the denizens of Bekasi. Zooming through the intersection on an ojek – motorcycle for hire – or their own Fortuner or Avanza, I wonder at their stories: Where are they heading to? How did their day start – on a good note or not? Are they happy with their lives? Do they like their jobs? Do they like living in Bekasi? I let those questions sashay through my mind which, thankfully, overwhelm the other wretched thoughts pressing consistently and heavily on my heart and soul for a few moments.

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juicy chicken satay and lontong

Prompted out of my silent musings by hunger pangs, the menu at the lobby lounge – an extension of the Imperial Coffeeshop on the second floor – is a cornucopia of savoury, filling dishes from local to international dishes that would satisfy any gastronome. The chicken sandwich on wheat bread served with French fries is a light repast that goes well with either a drinking jar of iced cappuccino or freshly blended pineapple juice. When feeling particularly ravenous, I opt for the 10-piece chicken satay with lontong (or rice cake) and sweet-spicy peanut sauce. The servings for both orders are huge so I end up packing them to go and having them again while marking papers. Meanwhile, dessert was a special treat following a post-yoga class with my gal-pal, Theresia. We were extremely famished and after completing our meal we had a sweet coup de grace of three scoops of ice cream – vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

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ice cream – a sweet ending to a meal

Finding a cosy nook is like finding a needle in a haystack in the midst of the urban jungle where everything is packed with people. But lady luck seems to have noticed that I needed a respite from my heavy heart and led me to a cosy nook, a corner that lets me recover from my workout sessions and to stay the continual assault of the low-spirited thoughts.

A TASTE OF ITALY

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Interior design at Sapori Deli


There was no way I was going to miss the one-night dinner of Chef Antonio Facchinetti, after reading that he helmed Prego, one of the premiere Italian restaurants in Singapore. In town for a couple of days, Chef Facchinetti was set to tickle the palates of Jakarta’s foodies by recreating the trattoria ambiance of Prego at Sapori Deli. Featuring a five-course dinner, “A Taste of Italy” was set at 6 pm on March 17.

A heavy downpour that Friday afternoon had me a little worried that my gal-pal Theresia and I would never make it to Fairmont Jakarta. Rain in Indonesia never augurs good tidings; it always means snarled traffic and flooded areas. Unexpectedly, the rain abated and traffic was smooth, arriving 10 minutes before 6 pm. The only bump on the road was finding our way to Sapori Deli; Theresia and I were more familiar with Spectrum, the hotel’s buffet restaurant.

We sat down amidst a softly lit room with tables festooned with mini Italian flags and elegant flowers. Our Italian repast began with a bowl of Zuppa Di Fregola Sarda or fregola (picture bigger couscous) with baby clams and broccoli leaves in tomato saffron broth. The soup was a perfect way to start dinner, having come in from wet Bekasi. The fregola was cooked to perfection and blended well with the flavourful broth and fresh baby clams.

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Zuppa di Fregola Sarda

Shortly before empty bowls were whisked away to the kitchen, flutes of Italian soda, a maraschino cherry lolling at the bottom, made their way to our table. It certainly did the trick of further whetting our appetites with its bubbles and sweetness. Theresia and I were ready for the second course of Carpaccio di Wagyu. It was a certain delicateness to eating the dish – the Chinese spoon containing the quail egg yolk threw us off. Shall we mix it with the wagyu or have it first? The suggestion: it was up to us and that the egg yolk could do a bit of salt and pepper. I chose to swallow the quail egg yolk drizzled with salt and pepper first then immediately followed it with a bite of the paper-thin Carpaccio, which melted in the mouth, and bits of the parmesan chips, garden herbs, and grated black truffle.  Splendid dance on the palate!

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Carpaccio di Wagyu

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post-dinner drink of green tea and mid-dinner drink of Italian soda

Seguing into the third course, we were deliciously treated to Bigoli Con Baccala, a plate of bigoli and “Venetian-style” salted cod fish. Served on a warmed plate, the bigoli was al dente and rolled well with the tomato sauce and cod fish. Adding to the delectability of the dish was the knowledge, shared by Chef Facchinetti himself who dropped by our table, that Sapori Deli makes its own pasta fresh every day.

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Bigola con Baccala

There was a brief interlude – we requested for 10 minutes – before our main courses were brought in, so Theresia and I chatted up a storm until the 10 minutes were up. Theresia had Agnello in Crosta, a serving of two pieces of pistachio-crusted lamb chops with fresh pea and mint pesto, which she found flavourful and succulent. The lamb was done to perfection. Meanwhile, I had the lamb changed into a chicken dish, which was similarly flavourful and tender.

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Agnello in Crosta

Chef Facchinetti decided to close “A Taste of Italy” with a delectable Torta al Cioccolato, which was far from being saccharinely cloying. The just-right chocolate delight melded well with the wild berries coulis and streaks of lemon. Whose palate wouldn’t explode in pleasure with the glorious mix of chocolate and fruitiness? It’s simply divine.

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Torta al Cioccolato

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Bravo Chef Facchinetti!

It was a superb culinary journey from the first dish to the last that wet Friday night. Theresia and I asked Chef Facchinetti when part 2 would be. He was non-committal and uttered, “It’s all up to the boss,” pointing surreptitiously to the table near the counter.  We told him we’d be waiting if we don’t get to Prego Singapore first.

DURRELL’S WORLD

The name George Durrell first reached my ears when my sister’s ex-boyfriend talked about him. He – the ex – was into animals and was completely over the moon with Durrell’s works. I admired his zeal in regaling us about Durrell and his predilection for animals, but then he disappeared from our lives and so I completely forgot about him until I chanced upon a video of Tom Hiddleston reading a letter in Letters Live in London.  Tom Hiddleston was the guest reader and he was to read a love letter of Durrell to his second wife, Lee McGeorge, which was both comical and romantic. The comical part was when he said she shouldn’t make the letter public – too late for that – and the romantic part was when he described the fantastic experiences he had with nature and the animals, but which he would gladly exchange for a mere minute with his wife.

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Durrell’s poignant descriptions of the animals and their natural habitats were imprinted in my mind thus I never forgot his name. Fortuitously, I stumbled upon several books by Durrell selling for a mere US$0.99 apiece in a Salvation Army store in Santa Clarita, California. I chose “A Zoo in My Luggage”, which proved a good decision because it’s engaging (his witticisms never wane), entertaining (describing himself drenched in the urine of baby black-footed mongoose hidden in his shirt had me in stitches), and educational (his explanation of how egg-eating snakes swallowed eggs was lucid).

“A Zoo in My Luggage” chronicled Durrell’s journey to the Cameroons with his wife and staff to “hunt” for rare species (which he called “beef”) of animals. The result is his own private zoo. Durrell’s prose is smooth and engaging, each paragraph grabbing hold of the reader by the shoulders, and not letting go until the chapter has ended. Durrell’s great passion for the animals jumped out of the sentences as he expressed the gamut of feelings, ranging from admiration to frustration, going through him as he dealt with the animals on a very personal level. For a person who likes animals from a distance, “A Zoo in My Luggage” is a good way to start the journey into the animal world and, in the process, learn about good prose structure.

MARTABAK MANIA

That martabak is ubiquitous in Indonesia is an understatement. Big as a skillet or minute like the palm of a baby’s hand, one can get their fill of this thick “pancake” that is heavily drizzled with sweet stuff ranging from condensed milk, crushed Oreos, and Nutella.  I have tried the one sold on the roadside – there are several martabak trolleys at Galaxy – but the one vendor I bought from hasn’t been at his usual spot. Fortunately, somewhere along Jalan Puloh Sirih in Galaxy City is Eat Happens, the haven for martabak lovers.

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Pay for your freshly made martabak at the martabak van

It was on one fine Thursday evening, after yoga class and famished to the bone, that gal-pal Theresia and I made a beeline for Eat Happens. I am no fan of the pun in the name, but the industrial look of the interiors (think red brick walls, chairs that have seen some sitting, and) sewing machines-turned-tables) grew on me. I would suppose my being in my yoga togs had something to do with it – I didn’t feel underdressed.  I also definitely became a fan of their martabak. The choices are overwhelming (think chocolate overload and their red velvet martabak version of the popular red velvet cake) but we settled for a seemingly simple Nutella – Cream cheese martabak cut like a pizza.

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Welcome to Eat Happens!

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The martabak is ready!

Nothing was simple about it. First, the rich textures of the Nutella and cream cheese can become overly cloying if the martabak base is not done right. But Eat Happens has mastered the difficult act of balancing a far-from-bland-starchy base with just enough dollops of the rich Nutella spread on one-half of the martabak and cream cheese on the other half. Second, the serving size is just enough for one to have a slice of each flavor. Third, there was no scrimping on the Nutella and cream cheese toppings; the cream cheese was oozing out of the martabak that I had to flatten the sides of the crust to prevent it from leaking onto the table. Meanwhile, the Nutella spread just sat there contentedly looking so creamy and velvety rich.

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Delivered hot to your table – Nutella-cream cheese martabak

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One slice down

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Bowl of mie ayam jamur a la Eat Happens

Martabak aside, Eat Happens has other items to entice those without a sweet tooth. One can, in fact, have a complete repast of noodles or rice finished with a sweet coup de grace of martabak. Their mie ayam jamur (chicken mushroom noodle) is more than enough to satisfy the palate – the chicken and mushroom are flavourful while the green noodle was al dente. So, whether you’re mulling over martabak or noodles, Eat Happens has got you covered.

BANANA CRAZY

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I first caught a whiff of these beauties from an Instagram shot of one of my students. It took me a while to fully understand that it was a chiffon cake shaped into a cute banana and filled with custard. It was because she just took a picture of the box. Then other photos started showing up on Instagram. Just my luck, it’s not available anywhere except for Japan. But luck was on my side this January. One of my layovers from a trip to Los Angeles was Narita. I had more than an hour to kill so I went around the departure lounge area. I had nearly forgotten about these babies when my eyes serendipitously fell on a display counter brimming with boxes of Tokyo Bananas in three variants.  Naturally, I got all three of the flavors – original, chocolate brownie, and caramel. Sweet! Beautiful! Scrumptious! And it didn’t bore a hole in my wallet – three boxes only totaled ¥3,500 or IDR408, 968.

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the chocolate brownie version of the Tokyo Banana

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the one with the caramel filling

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the original flavor or the one with the custard filling

 

MANNERS AT THE TABLE

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The worst thing that can happen in a dining experience is if someone acts like a boor at the table. Face it: no one wants to associate with someone who slurps through the soup, makes a sandwich of the dinner roll, or talks to everyone at the table while chewing. It is a complete turn-off, which automatically closes all doors of opportunities.  A pig at the table becomes an unwitting victim of etiquette bullies, who take utmost delight in pointing out the mistakes. I witnessed such an event years ago when I was a still a journalist in Singapore. I was at a dinner function and next to me was an American lady who, I learned, was casually sizing up people based on what they’d do with the dinner roll.

“You know how to eat the roll!” she gushed just as I took a bite of it.

She continued: “You know how to tear it into small pieces and butter them unlike those across the table who cut it in the middle and spread butter.”

Flabbergasted, I just looked at her even after she handed me her name card that said she was some sort of an etiquette expert. I flashed her a wry smile and continued to ignore her the rest of the evening.

That incident is not a nugatory one. It smacks of a high-handed attitude of a know-it-all towards the ignoramuses, and which blatantly ignores context. Dinner buns, after all, are not compulsory in an Asian dining setting.  Asians do observe dining etiquette. Seared into my memory, I pushed for holding a seminar on western dining etiquette for teenagers when I went back to teaching. I felt strongly they must be armed to the teeth when they venture out of their homes and it begins with dining etiquette. It took several tries to finally get it right. There was always something going amiss. For instance, one time the organizer was a drifter who conned us into believing they could hold such a seminar (imagine – they had no cutlery!). The other time the organizer didn’t serve food after the seminar, saying it wasn’t part of the package we paid for (she didn’t tell us it was a separate payment for the food!).

 

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Pak Vino (right) and Pak Cecep how to fold the napkin to wipe the mouth

 

 

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time for the first course – salad

 

But this year everything fell into place with the help of the staff of Aston Imperial Bekasi Hotel & Conference Centre. Under the tutelage of Pak Vino, Food and Beverage manager of the hotel, the grades 7 and 8 students of the Cambridge Preparatory Classes of Global Prestasi School (GPS) were lectured on the dos and don’ts of western dining etiquette. The program included a brief lecture on its history followed by the very detailed rules in, for example, using the cutlery, eating the dinner roll, sipping the soup, using the napkin to wipe the mouth, body posture during eating, the plate codes, when to start eating, proper and improper attire, leaving the table to go to the restroom, behaviour for both men and women, and many more.  The students were immediately tested on what they heard from Pak Vino – they sat through a four-course lunch that included a beef salad as an appetizer, mushroom cappuccino with garlic crouton for soup, chicken cordon bleu as the entrée, and Imperial crispy banana with vanilla ice cream for dessert.

 

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napkins on the lap

 

 

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ready to tuck into the main course

 

 

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waiting for everyone to get served the main course

 

 

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buttering their dinner rolls like a pro

 

 

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helping out to demonstrate how to hold the fork

 

 

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dessert – Imperial crispy banana with vanilla ice cream

 

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the entree – chicken cordon bleu

Prior to the seminar, the students were treated to an inside look at the hotel as they visited the various departments and sections of Aston Imperial. It was a good way to introduce them to the hospitality industry. Who knows? Some of them might end up as executive chef, food and beverage manager, head of housekeeping, executive manager, or general manager of a property in Indonesia or overseas in the not-so-distant future.

It was a sight to behold my students all looking grown up in their formal wear. There was pre-dining etiquette seminar briefing on what to wear and what not to wear. There were a lot of whining and groaning when they heard that sneakers, jeans, t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops were not considered appropriate attire for the seminar. Furthermore, I had to remind the ladies to practice walking in their heels if they intended to wear heels.

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They’re all looking so grown-up.

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a post-seminar picture of grade 7A with their goodie bags and their homeroom adviser, Mayang (second row, extreme left)

The table manners seminar for GPS was held on March 3. The four-hour-plus affair saw the hotel buzzing with activities the moment the parents dropped off their children who went home with goodie bags after. Screams and giggles floated through the lobby when everyone saw what each one was wearing.  But inside the Dynasty meeting room on the second-floor seriousness punctured with episodic laughter reigned as they navigated through the intricacies of following the dining etiquette outlined by Pak Vino. Rounding off the good experience was being told that the students were very well-behaved.

Additional photos by Mayang Anestia