Thursday, 29 May 2014

Grades are not everything

This morning, a young girl hurried past me with a report card in her hand. Oh, the mid-year exam results are out! I'm so out of touch these days.

Looking at her frowny face brought back memories of my own school years. I was never the top student and neither were my kids. They've never brought back report cards with stellar results but did I fret? Not really. In fact, some people thought I was too sanguine about their grades.

Honestly I would have been pleased if they came back with good grades but I can't penalise them if they're not wired to solve difficult math problems or master the Chinese language. Math had always been my archilles heel in school, yet today, I can do mental sums faster than anyone else.

So what if they did not make it to the top ten percent in class? Right from the start, I had never piled them with enrichment courses, music lessons or tuition classes. Their childhood was spent enjoying, appreciating and discovering nature. I knew they were smart in their own ways. It was plain to see that their talents lie in areas outside of the classroom. They were intelligent, observant and sharp. To me, that's more important than scoring As in school.

Naturally, they need a good education like everyone else and I have never denied them of that. Instead of being cooped up in the room studying, they had the opportunity to develop their passions and hone their skills.

Today, they are pursuing their favourite subjects and hobbies. They are so self motivated, they excel in what they do, without anyone prodding them.

Many parents are fixated on their child's grades. They fail to recognise that every kid is unique. They should not use academic results to measure their kid's ability for it will only demoralise themselves and their children. Instead, they should identify and help them develop their talents and strengths.

If you look around and see for yourself, you will find the 'so called' slow learners in your class are now successful in their own ways. Good grades do not equate to a good future if the person is not resourceful or resilient. You need to have faith in yourself and your kids.

For me, it has been a lonely journey as a single parent. Having to make all the decisions for the children, sometimes I wonder if I had done the right thing. But seeing their achievements gives me affirmation that I must have done something right along the way.

I wish I had said something positive to the little girl this morning. It could very well be a life changing moment for her.

Things to do in Vienna - Zentralfriedhof

If you are not a history buff or if you're overdosed on culture and museums, there are plenty of other things to do in Vienna. But be prepared to walk a lot, get lost a little bit and take public transport.

Visiting Zentralfriedhof ("Central Cemetery"), one of the largest cemeteries in the world and certainly the most famous one in Vienna, can be quite an experience.

Spanning 2.4 square kilometres with 3.3 million interred here, you can spend all day enjoying the tranquility and spotting the tombs of famous people and musicians like Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Johann Strauss.

 If you are hungry after hours of roaming, there are a couple of restaurants just outside the main cemetery gate worth checking out. We had lunch at a simple cafe that serves authentic Austrian food like pork schnitzel and boiled beef with dumplings at wallet friendly prices.

Just a short distance away, we stumbled upon an interesting barn-like building with a large stone Jesus towering over an overgrown garden.

Intrigued by the building's strange freaky-morbid appearance and mysterious ambience, we pushed open the door and were surprised to find a restaurant buzzing with life inside. It is a favourite haunt of the locals!
The interior, featuring bare wooden floors, gargantuan mirrors and stained-glass roof, proved to be quite a spectacle too.

We heard the schnitzel here is fantastic but having just finished lunch, we opted for coffee and dessert which also turned out to be fabulous.

 If you're in need of some mood lifting scenery after visiting the cemetery, feel free to pop into the large nursery just across the road.

After our interesting excursion, we boarded a bus back to the city. For some reason, the bus stopped somewhere and everyone got off. We disembarked and found ourselves in an unfamiliar place. Again, we stumbled upon a gorgeous historical building which used to be a water treatment plant.

We would have hung around longer if it wasn't so chilly. We boarded the next bus back to the city. It was a nice day out.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Rediscovering Vienna

My memories of Vienna were pretty vague. It was drizzling when we arrived on a coach from Switzerland one summer night 14 years ago. We walked through the city carrying our umbrellas. From beneath the brolly, we couldn't see much but I was so exhilarated to be there with my mom that I was literally singing in the rain.

I returned to Vienna the following winter with my young kids in tow. Even though we spent several days there, most of my memories have escaped me simply because I kept my eyes peeled on two active boys instead of the monuments and sights. Austria was covered in a thick layer of snow and it would be unimaginable losing them there. It was an exhausting trip for me, to say the least.

My latest visit to Vienna made up for all that I had missed before. Traveling with good friends was the icing on the cake.

It was cool and sunny when we arrived at Hotel Pension Suzanne which is located steps away from the Viennese State Opera, the principal opera house in the city of Vienna. It is one of the busiest opera houses in the world. Every night, we could hear the beautiful sounds of opera from our room.

 Right across the road from the hotel is Plachutta Gasthaus zur Oper which serves authentic Austrian food. On the first day, we found the perfect place for a good lunch!

The culinary focus is on Wiener schnitzel, prepared using the choicest cut of veal, and other Viennese specialties. So, schnitzel was the first thing I ate after landing in Vienna and it was a good start. We had many more schnitzels after that but this one is highly recommended. The meat inside the light batter remained soft and succulent despite the frying.

In Austria, the meat servings are big, so it is best to share if you're not a big eater. The mains are normally served with a generous side dish of potatoes or salad too.
The famous Plachutta veal Schnitzel.

Potato side dish.

Diners are given the illustrated recipe for their schnitzel.

We also ordered the boiled beef with dumpling which, despite its plain appearance, was delicious.

White asparagus was prominently featured in many restaurants due to the harvesting season. We like its mild and earthy taste in this salad.

Having filled our tummies, we ventured out for a walk in the city. The weather was chillier than expected even though summer is just weeks away.  The sun did not set until about 9pm, so we had plenty of time to enjoy the sights at our own pace.

Art and culture had a long tradition in Vienna, including theatre, opera, classical music and fine arts.
A great many musicians such as Johann Strauss (father and son), Schubert, Beethoven or Mozart and also artists such as Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele lived in Vienna. Apart from being regarded as the City of Music because of its musical legacy, Vienna is also said to be "The City of Dreams" because it was home to the world's first psycho-analyst, Sigmund Freud.

The city attracts 5 million visitors a year and I could feel the squeeze this time. I didn't remember seeing that many Asian faces in Vienna before. But that is mainly in the city centre. If you take a walk along the Danube River nearby, you will find the local residents out relaxing with a glass of beer.    

I remember this florist from 10 years ago!

People relaxing by the Danube River.

A community farm by the river.

Lavender growing by the river.

Most residents commute by bike in the city.

Tulips in the park.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Trip roundup

Traveling is an important part of my life. I feel relaxed and cut off from all kinds of stress, it's like being transported to a dream world, away from the deadlines, customer's demands, chores, phone calls, duties, bills and errands.

Traveling keeps me sane. Now that the kids are old enough to fend for themselves, I can totally leave my worries behind when I jet off to somewhere new or even old. Some places I had been to in the past are no longer the same, just like Vienna.

 Vienna has lost its charm. It has become so touristy, the traditional shops selling paper, pen and other interesting Austrian handicrafts have made way for international brands that are ubiquitous. And the streets are cluttered with tourist groups that you can see and hear from a mile away.

It was the same in Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart and more surprisingly in Hallstatt, a village in the Salzkammergut which is such an unbelievably spectacular place that even the Chinese have created a copy of the ancient salt mine village. I guess that explains why there were hordes of Chinese tourists during our visit.
Breathtaking view of Hallstatt.

It's funny but the best way to get some solitude is at the cemeteries, which we saw quite a few of during our trip. I can assure you that you will never find groups of tourists here.

One of our favourite haunts is the flea market which you will mostly find local residents scouring for a good buy.
Flea market in Vienna.

As usual, we like to wander off to obscure places off the beaten track where the best gems are hidden. If you travel at your own pace and on your own terms, you will still have a great trip like we did. I will share more stories in the next few posts.
Graffiti under the bridge along Danube River in Vienna.
Amazing little cafe in the outskirts of Vienna.