Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I Hate Sun on Wednesday

The weather in The Hague has been so nice for the last few days. People do more activities outside while sunbathing. Classes even have to compete with weather to attract students. With the sun come earlier and last few hours later, it feels like we are in a tropical heaven. But, for horeca people, it could be a disaster. Especially me.

This is the fourth month I’ve been involved in the business of horeca, a Dutch abbreviation standing for hotel, restaurant, café and catering. This business, especially related with food, is pretty huge in the Netherlands since Dutch people usually celebrate important moments by inviting people for dinner in restaurants or hiring catering services to provide meals for some kind of celebrations. Recently, the culinary tradition in this business is getting much richer with the coming of immigrants in the country (for Dutch Labour Inspection, it is also one of main areas where undocumented immigrants are mostly hired). We can easily find various cuisines from different countries such as Cuban, Kenyan, Indian, Italian, and of course, Indonesian.

For Dutch people, Indonesian food is something very familiar since colonial time, particularly introduced by Dutch colonial officers or private businessmen. At that time, these people did not only have it during their service in East-Indies, a colonial name for Indonesia, but also in their home country by bringing along with them Indonesian babu (domestic servants) to cook for them indische food. Due to this familiarity, it is no wonder that we can find so many Indonesian food centers all over the Netherlands. In general, they can be divided into two categories: toko and restaurant. Toko is the place where we can only buy take-away food [afhalen] (even if they provide chairs and tables to eat the food on the spot, it is likely that chairs provided are for less than 10 people), while restaurant is much more bigger in terms of space with the average carrying capacity more than 20 guests. With its special service, restaurant is usually organized in much more complicated way and thus usually much more luxurious and expensive.

Me myself work in an indische restaurant. The restaurant I am working now was founded in 1920s and is still quite popular among Dutch people (at least I heard that it still frequently hosts many group dinners from many important Dutch companies/institutions). A vacancy info from an Indonesian friend, who already works for the owner of this restaurant, brought me to work in this restaurant as a dishwasher every Monday and Wednesday. For us, the dishwashers, the word “DJ” is preferred to dishwasher since we wash and touch round plates like disc jockeys in discotheques.

At first, it was not easy to work as a “DJ”. Even the restaurant I am working in already uses dish washer machine, the work is still burdensome especially because I have to pay attention to a great deal of details. Every time I am about to start washing dishes, I need to prepare two buckets of warm water [with soap]. One is for spoons, forks, and knives; the other is a bigger bucket for plates, rice bowls, schal (a kind of plates for non-rice meals). The water must be hot or at least warm to make fat of leftover foods easily swept away (peanut sauce and bumbu semur are the things I hate the most, because they both are usually still there even if plates are already drown within hot water). When I am about to put them into washing machine, I usually have to make sure that there is no fat left in those plates, otherwise I will have to wash them again. Even if those plates are already cleaned, we need to dry them again so there will be no water stains/spots marked on those plates/spoons. The last stage is to classify them into their own containers, and this prevails especially for spoons which have different styles. Each of styles have to be put in their own distinctive containers, otherwise they will be mixed up and later destroy “the beauty of food service”.

I have to do all those processes for hundreds of plates, bowls, and schals since we have what Dutch people calls as rijstafel. This is a menu package consists of different meals put in different schals. For the most simple rijstafel for two persons, I will have to wash at least two big saucer plates, two plates, 6 schals, two bowls for rice and soup, plus 2 forks, 2 knives, 9 spoons (2 for eating, 1 for rice, and the other six is for 6 schals). Wine/coffee glasses and ice cream bowls are not yet included. For my shift, the heaviest burden is usually on Wednesday when we often receive reservations (resevering) up to for 60 people. Can you count how many plates, schal, bowls, glasses and spoons I have to wash that evening?

This burden is getting heavier with the sun coming up. It is not only because we have more guests than usual, but also because nearly all of them prefer to have their dinner in the back garden. It means that, after putting all the food in schals ready to serve, I will have to bring them along walking to the garden and hand them over directly to ober (waiter/waitress). It is an additional job since in fall/winter seasons guests are having dinner upstairs where I can send the food through an elevator in the kitchen. The situation usually gets more chaotic when we (my chef and I) run out our limited schals, or we forget some of menus and the clients are asking. In such a chaotic situation, if we have more glasses broken, they usually represent psychological stress which is passed on from chef to ober or vice versa. And of course, being part of all this food chain, I myself can’t escape from this stress.

That’s why I hate sun on Wednesday!

Prins Hendrik 21K
14 May 2008; 04.10 AM

Friday, May 2, 2008

Say Cheese Say Alkmaar

Dutch people have been commonly stereotyped as “cheese head”society. The term does not only refer to their food habit, but also lexically refers to the way Dutch militia protected their head with cheese “balls” in war against Spaniards. We have a lot more to learn about Dutch cheese if we visit Alkmaar.

Alkmaar is located about 40 km in the North of Amsterdam. This small town can be reached by trains (Nederland Spoor) from all over the country. From the Hague, there is always train to Alkmaar every 30 minutes. If you want to know more about Dutch cheese culture and its industry, this is the place you should visit. There are at least two distinctive attracting sites in Alkmaar: cheese market and cheese museum, both are located in the centrum. If you do not really know Alkmaar, do not worry of getting lost. All you need is to open your eyes and find “the living signs”. I mean, if you drop at Alkmaar train station and you find many people walking in groups like tourists, follow them. I bet they are coming to visit Alkmaar cheese market. It is not surprising because it is a typical tourist site frequently promoted by local tourism board.

Alkmaar was used to be only one of many cheese market centers in the country. Apart from Alkmaar, there were cheese markets in Schangen, Hoorn, Purmerend and Edam in the North, and Gouda, Werden, Bodegraven and some other towns in the South. But, nowadays, Alkmaar cheese market is one of few ones which still exist and maintain its traditional characters. Its traditional character is maintained at least by two things, the market time and the way it is organized.

Following hundred years of tradition, Alkmaar cheese market is only held on Friday, from April to September, started from 10.00 to 12.30. But, that is only for “the show”. The actual working time for those involved in the market is far earlier and it is more complex than it looks. Cheese father, a title referring to the cheese market manager, starts preparing things for market opening at 7 am. Traditionally, just to remind him of the market, a cheese carrier will knock on his door and tell him that rooster has crowed for seven times.

Cheese father was a very respectable position in the society. He is the one who allocates places to cheese seller and lead the sale process. During the market, he is easily known by his black stick with silver knob on it as a sign of his dignity. Cheese carriers also perform important function at Alkmaar cheese market. It is these people who transport cheese from the place where cheese is vended to the weighing scale and later to traders’ carts. To perform and give good services to both cheese farmers and traders, these cheese carriers have a very strict rule. Carriers are not allowed to be late, accept tips, play games or drink beer during working hours. Breakers of the rules will be fined. The money being paid will be put into the group’s treasury to pay for “the beer evening” (hmm, it seems to be another Dutch culture deserved to be explored :-) )

The cheese carriers themselves are divided into four teams, called veems, all of them dressed in white pants and shirts, but with different colours of hat: blue, red, yellow and green. Each of these teams also has their own weighing scale since payment they receive is made according to the amount of cheese they carry. From 1773, each veem consists of six permanent carriers and a ‘bag man’, who collects weighing fees. These fees was an important source of income for Alkmaar, especially when it was granted ‘weighing rights’ from the Count of Holland and farmers were only permitted to weigh their cheese in this city with its officially recognized weights and measures.

If we look at the history of Alkmaar cheese market, we can see a more complicated links between social class, industrial relations, and culture during market operation. The start of the market is signed by a bell ringing, a privilege reserve for the honorary guests of Alkmaar city council. In the past, these guests might frequently come from some rich groups. But nowadays, due to some commercial interests, an “inclusive approach” is taken by inviting other groups as guests such as from media circle (on the day I visited Alkmaar, the honorary guests are some crews from TV Programs). There is always competition between cheese producers which held all year long. Every week, by cutting in the middle of cheese balls to allow for better judgement, the cheese they produced is tested for its colour, taste, flavour and firmness. In the end of its calendar year, the best producing company is awarded. The support to the survival of these cheese businesses is also given by those who transport from traders’ cart to the traders’ trucks. When they have to roll up the cheese into the truck, they will have to do it very carefully since their accuray in the job will determine cheese quality.

If you manage to come to the cheese market, don’t forget to visit cheese museum, just next to the weighing house. In this museum, you can find other detailed information about cheese starting from its history, how important it is to Dutch society, “development” of cheese production from domestic work by women into male-dominated industry (and imagine there were hundreds of companies producing cheese, but now only 2 big companies survived!), social symbols played in the market (it’s nice to know that agreement between cheese sellers and traders is usually reached by clapping each others’ right hand), up to the art of making cheese.

Once you get out the museum, I am sure you will have an idea why local tourism board take a tag “Say Cheese Say Alkmaar”.

The Hague, May 2nd, 2008

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Polishing Army

Medan, 3 October 2006. It was just 11.30, an hour to go for dzuhur praying. There were still few people coming to a mosque located on Diponegoro street, next to the office of North Sumatra Governor. Normally, Indonesians call such streets where government and other important offices are located as jalan protokol (protocol streets). Here, on Jalan Diponegoro, we do not only find government offices, but also some private companies’. It is not surprising that the “consumers” of this mosque are those wearing nice dresses and shirts. Apart from those people with nice wears, there were also some children mostly in shorts sitting in groups.

At 12.15, many more people come, mostly through the northern gate of the mosque where more cars/motorcycles are parked. Together with their coming, the children previously sitting in groups were spread out approaching the coming jamaah. The children, mostly under 10 years old, were offering small paper with numbers to jamaah. They were following jamaah from the park of the mosque and wait until they put off their shoes. Without any words said, jamaah will accept that paper and the children would immediately take their shoes to their partners who had been waiting at some other part of the mosque. Without any verbal ijab-qabul (something required by Islamic law for [economic] transaction), a deal has been agreed between jamaah and the polisher community. And this polishing business only prevails on this northern part of the mosque.

This part of the mosque has been plotted for different groups.
At that day, there were at least 5 business groups conquering different sites. Each group usually consists of at least 2 persons. The younger one has a duty to “persuade” jamaah and collect their shoes; while the older one (approximately at 17 at the oldest) is in charge of polishing the shoes. However, some children are also doing polishing, though it looks like they have difficulties in polishing shoes which are as big as their arms. With a shoe brush and KIWI or Swallow, they hope they make their customers proud again with their shoes. To make customers satisfied, some of them are even putting the socks and the shoes off of customers’ feet. Of these business actors, many of them are having South Indian look. They come from Tamil race, a group which has been living in this region for centuries.

Apart from polishing shoes, this community also provides waiting services for those beautiful shoes. As widely known for Indonesians (particularly in Java), beautiful shoes or sandals are easily lost in mosques. Due to its familiarity, if Indonesians are tired of corruption cases, it is usual to compare maling sandal (sandal thief) [whom are usually publicly beaten when they are caught] with corruptor [often released from charges]. But, here in Medan, it looks like there are only few cases with or without waiting services they provide. However, if the shoes do not need any polishing, the children are still taking the shoes and put it under waiting services. Similar with tacit transaction they had, this polishing army also has the payment in tacit deals. It looks like there is a kind of common understanding between customers and this army. As far as my observation, in general jamaah would pay 2000 rupiahs per shoes polished. However, there are also customers who do not pay at all for any service they had (particularly the waiting service). And these boys do not protest.

They also look familiar with temperamental jamaah who sometimes think of them as annoying. Looking at these boys and the way they face life, feelings can deeply involved. As the case for me when a gentleman with expensive shoes and contemporary mobile phones would leave the boys unpaid. But, after some steps taken, he took two sheets of a thousand rupiahs off of his pants’ pocket. And the boys were running for it. I feel relieved watching their work paid.

Friday, April 11, 2008

When Fuqaha Triumphs Over Scientists

The increasing need for acquisition of technology and modern sciences has been making traditional institutions of religious education losing more and more admirers. These institutions are often regarded as something backward, providing no contemporary knowledge needed for the current life, and thus producing generation who does not have enough compatability compared with those graduated from modern one. However, bahtsul masa’il meeting held in Jepara yesterday provided example that that is not the case. In the event, graduates from pesantren, Indonesian style of traditional moslem boarding school, proved to be in the supremation of logics over leading scientists from Jakarta.

Bahtsul masa’il, literally means discussing problems/issues, is a forum in the organization of Nahdlatul Ulama (the largest traditional moslem organization in Indonesia) to discuss social-contemporary issues exclusively from the perspective of fiqh (Islamic law). For NU followers, it is such a significant forum where they can have fatwa or hukm on certain (important) issues based on the agreement of majority of ulama’. In the organization of NU itself, it exists from national up to sub-district level. It even has its own special body, called Lajnah Bahtsul Masa’il (Body of Bahtsul Masa’il, commonly abbreviated as LBM) within NU structure. Since it is very related with fiqh which is considered quite significant in moslem’s daily life, the forum is usually prepared well. Days before the commencement of forum, issue(s) to discuss and questions to be answered are already distributed, attached to the invitation letter. This is intended to give opportunity for participants to study the case and collect ta‘bir, or reference or quotation from great ulamas to support their arguments. In the forum itself, there will be a moderator and a secretary who will write down all the discussion traffic, mustasyar team consisting of several leading old kyais, perumus team who will formulate the hukm agreement, and participants whose job is to give comments on the discussed issue and submit their takbir to the committee.

Yesterday, to commemorate NU’s Harlah (NU’s anniversary), Pimpinan Cabang Nahdlatul Ulama (Board of NU at district level) Jepara held two important formal events related with the government’s proposal of nuclear power plant which is planned to build 35 kilometer away from the district capital (besides these formal events, there was also a mass protest of thousands of villagers marching from the village of the planned sites against the proposal). Those events are a public discussion with distinguished speakers officially coming from Ministry for Energy and Mineral Resources, Badan Tenaga Atom Nasional (BATAN, National Agency for Atomic Energy), Agency for Monitoring Atomic Energy representing pro-nuclear party, and individuals and academics such as George Junus Aditjondro, Iwan Kurniawan, and Budi Widianarko representing the contra-party; and bahtsul masa’il which is held afterwards. Public discussion with those distinguished speakers was held first with supposed aim to provide basic informations needed for discussing the nuclear issue from fiqh perspective. However, the information seemed to be insufficient for them, and this is where the forum became interesting.

For these fuqâha (fiqh specialists), information provided by the scientists, either from the pro party or from the contra, is not quite firm to be a base for making fiqhiyyah decision on the questions provided in the forum. In answering the question of whether, from a fiqh perspective, PLTN, an abbreviation stands for Pembangkit Listrik Tenaga Nuklir (nuclear power plant) is a maslahah (a goodness) or mafsadah (badness), it is clearly showed that these pesantren graduates are working hard to discern the issue, and not easily convinced by high technical explanation from the scientists. From the standpoint of both scientists, who were invited again to give additional explanation at this forum, the PLTN issue seems to be already clear. For the sourceperson from BATAN, PLTN means maslahah because it will provide additional energy so to prevent energy crisis in the country in 2020s. While for the anti-nuclear, PLTN means mafsadah because it could make disastrous impacts such as what happened in Chernobyl. But for these fuqâha, who try to make reliable hukm, the issue was not as clear as the scientists see. The scientists from both parties looked struggling hard to give rational, sensible, and easy-to-discern explanations to gain religious support for their position. And it is very hard to do so, especially if the fuqâha have their own logics of thinking.

Despite the agreement that the principle of dar’u al-mafâsid muqoddam ‘alâ jalb al-masôlih (leaving things disastrous is more urgent than making goodnesses) should reign, those fuqâha are arguing about the degrees of both maslahah and mafsadah and questioning the factuality of scientists’ explanations. Though there are some participants who tended to arbitrarily pick up religious reference to support his argument, nearly all participants were working hard to find firm logical foundations complemented with religious reference to make decision. To satisfy their logical foundations, the forum was even going back and forth from participants to scientists for some clarifications. The forum process proves that the issue seems to be more complex, not as necessarily maslahah or mafsadah as the scientists think.

In the head of these fuqâha, maslahah is divided into three levels, which are maslahah tahsiniyyah (tertiary maslahah, the lowest level), maslahah hajiyyah (secondary), and maslahah dlaruriyyah (urgent maslahah; this has to be done soon, otherwise, there will be disastrous impacts). As long as it is not dlaruriyyah, something which is considered of having maslahah must not be done at all costs. In this case, after hearing scientists’ explanations, PLTN is believed to do have maslahah, but not necessarily maslahah dlaruriyyah, because there are still other available energy resources to supply power. On the other hand, on the reason that there is not yet precedent of PLTN (it will be the first of its kind in Indonesia), some participants said that mafsadah scientists believed to be inherent in it is still included as mafsadah mauhummah (still predicted), not mafsadah muhaqqaqah (proved or empirical mafsadah). While all the participants agreed that PLTN has maslahah, disagreements were still arising from the identification of its mafsadah. In identifying this, participants seemed to be divided into the materialist group and the immaterialist. The materialist think that to judge PLTN’s mafsadah, there must be factual, visible and sensible impacts on human (body), while the other think that mafsadah should not only be looked at the (human) body but also at the social unhappiness. This disagreement stopped when KH Aniq (mustasyar of the forum from Pati), concluding from the implicit agreement from the pro-nuclear party that PLTN has dangerous waste, showed that PLTN’s waste is something muhaqqaqah.

After discussing for more than three hours up to midnight, the forum finally reached an agreement that, from a fiqh perspective, PLTN is not allowed (“tidak diperbolehkan”) to build in Jepara. For some, that agreement is the most favourable decision at the moment and is believed to contribute in reducing current social unrest. However, that agreement is not the only important thing to see in the forum. The dynamics of the forum showed something which is not less interesting: graduates from pesantren managed to maintain their thinking quite independently, relatively free of interests. They even proved that the quality of pesantrens are not as low as most people think they are.

Jepara, 1 September 2007

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo

“You are lucky, you will be there at the right time,” says Kana, a Japanese friend right after she knew that I am going to her country in the end of March. I didn’t really feel that she really meant it until I spent a day in Tokyo.

Weaking up very early in the morning is now something difficult for me to do. But, that day, Sunday, 30 April 2008, I managed to do it. I needed to leave Kobe, the place where I had a conference for the last two days, for Osaka where I could buy JR Pass and catch shinkansen, the fastest train in the world. And I needed to get on shinkansen scheduled to leave for Tokyo by 7 AM.

Even though it turns out that I was not eligible to buy 7-day JR Pass, an economical way to take shinkansen and any other JR transportation within seven day-visit in all over Japan, I decided to take shinkansen still when I arrived in Shin-Osaka. The ticket price? Oh, I wasn’t thinking about it. I felt that I needed to be in Tokyo by 11 AM to meet my two Japanese friends, Hibiki and Nozomi, whom I met in Indonesia 5 years ago. Besides, I planned to spend only one night there. Later, when I was doing financial report of this trip for my university, I realized that it is very expensive. I paid 14,250 yen for a single trip. It is almost 75% of monthly bill for gas, water and electricity of an average apartment in Kobe.

It wasn’t bad anyway. The trip from Osaka to Tokyo, whose distance is about 550 km or 341 miles, was completed only in 2 hours and half. And you can even charge your laptop in the train, of course if you bring also your japanese-style socket. It seems that it is designed for rich people, bosses and executives who have to travel hundreds of mile in very short time and probably have to go back on the same day.

I was very excited when shinkansen train I took finally stopped at tokyo station. Seeing friends and visiting some places I already put on my list were bringing that feeling of excitement in me. I found out later on that such excitement would not be easily fulfilled, especially if you have no cellular phone in a huge station like Tokyo. “You can’t live without mobile phone in Tokyo,” said Mike, a Taiwanese friend I just knew that day from Nozomi. Maybe he is right. I was lost in that huge station with thousands of people and I could only contact Nozomi and Hibiki, who had been waiting for me in the designated exit, through public phone. (I thought having a simcard from developed country like Netherlands is guarantee that you will have your cellular network in another developed country like Japan. It turns our that it is not always true!!). We were looking each other for almost 1 and half hour! Pffff!!

Feeling of desperation was finally gone after seeing two familiar faces in front of Marounouchi Underground Central Entrance. Hibiki, now an air traffic controller at Haneda airport, and Nozomi, who is working at Sumitomo company, still look the same. I still remember exactly how they looked like five years ago when I made them lost in their translation during their field research in Yogyakarta. Their hospitality and friendliness soon evaporated my desperation. With them, I spent my best time in Japan.

Hibiki took me to some interesting places. First to a park near Ueno station where we joined the crowd enjoying cherry, or popularly known as sakura, blossoms. It’s the first day we enjoyed cherry blossoms this year,” said Hibiki. Yes, blossoming sakura is not happening all the time. I heard that it blossoms only for two weeks in a year, in the beginning of spring. What made it very special was that it was on Sunday where everybody is free of work. Under the blossoming pink sakura mats were displayed where everybody was drinking, eating and looks very happy. The other thousands of people were just walking down through all the park area. There were also some free entertainments such as juggling and traditional japanese performance, which was look like a chinese liong-liong on the yard of Shinto temple.

Another place I visited was Harajuku, a term refers to a street where japanese youth with their own distinct fashion style usually gather. For indonesian youth, this harajuku thing is quite familiar because it was inspiring the outward appearance of Ratu, a female band which used to be very famous in Indonesian pop-music. That afternoon, I met some female tenagers dressed in extra-ordinary pink girl clothes full of broideries and typically western female cap as we’ve seen in little house on the prairie tv series. Some others dressed in quite innovative rock-style fashion. They looked very confident going from one place to another, it looked like the surrounding area is their catwalk. But, even for those who did not dress in a very extra-ordinary way, for me, japanese youth (both male and female) are generally fashion-stylist.

The last impressive place we visited is Bochi-Bochi, a traditional osaka style restaurant, where three of us had dinner. It is relatively a small place, with its carrying capacity no more than 20 people. Its interior is totally fit with my imagination about japanese houses, I gathered from Oshin tv series and some other images. They have a sliding door with its square motives, curtains whose length is half of the door, and relatively low ceilings. When we entered the restaurant, the chief chef says something like an announcement in japanese, and the other chefs were simultaneously replying quite aloud. Another interesting thing is the way they serve the meals. In each table, there is an electric stove which exhaust third quarter of the table. The remaining table is where we put a small traditional japanese plates, each with its japanese “knife” to cut the food. It is on the electric stove that chefs put his cookings And to pick up foods, of course, we use chopsticks.

While we are eating okonomi-yaki, a pan-fried batter cake usually referred as japanese pizza, and takogarlic, octopus with strong garlic taste, we were chatting about what kind of life has been going on in the last five years. “I still can’t believe that you are here,” says Nozomi at last. But, their hospitality was not ended here yet. Later that night, they took me to the place of Nozomi’s friend, Mike the one I mentioned in the beginning, where I spent the night. Hibiki helped me in calling the bus agent for the bus ticket to go to Kyoto the next morning, and Nozomi bought me and Mike some snacks and foods for breakfast. And Mike, apart from giving me a place to stay, gave me another hand for the sake of my future academic life. Yeah, he allowed me to use his laptop for the whole night to work on my essay to be submitted the next morning.

Kana is right. I am lucky, I am coming at the right time. Not only for sakura, but also for coming to see good friends like them.

The Hague, The Netherlands

5 April 2008