A pleasant, if noisy, late afternoon powwow at Ya Udah Bistro in old Menteng. Eats, drinks, fun conversation.
Outside, the usual heavy traffic, zipping down Jalan Johar, scraping and screeching; at a table in the back of the Bistro four expatriates were amused by each other’s stories, silently listening and noisily chewing, eager to hear the latest outrage of expat life in Indonesia.
A posse of waitresses thundered down upon the table, with platters of great heavy European food barreling in. The four professionals had plenty to talk over – but first to down their salads and soups, sausages and steaks.
Mean Brett shrugged and gnawed away on a pork knuckle.
‘Beer! More beer for the Weigh-in-Awe!*’ roared Tall Paul. He acted like he was going to pick up the bill for the Group but they knew otherwise. He’d try to bounce off into the city with a hearty “Cheerio!” but Lulu would waylay him and remind to cough up his share; no easy slithering away into the crowds for Tall Paul.
(*Weigh-in-awe was the nickname for ‘WNA’, ‘warga negara asing’, the stalwart expats who continue to infest Jakarta, even after most of the grifters and scroungers and money-hungry big talkers were sent packing in 1998.)
Oddly, only four are in attendance today.
Alan from Australia, absent. Where was the fresh-faced English teacher at Rocketman Scud POW English Academy? (Their logo contained a Russian missile – the notoriously-defective model that the Russkies had foisted off onto poor Saddam Hussein – and which only posed a threat to Israelis wandering about the neighborhood as they broke up in mid-air and came down in chunks, well short of their target. The Israeli army didn’t even bother trying to shoot them down.)
‘Where’s Alan?’ intoned Tall Paul, bereft as being deprived of a victim. He enjoyed making fun of Alan, particularly in situations where Alan did not realize he was being made fun of.
Here are the dramatis personæ, stuffing their kissers:
- [Tall] Paul, yes very very tall. Snooty, elegant and condescending, as well. Has a long bule nose and runs a management firm striving to impart mysterious advanced western corporate techniques to unsuspecting Indonesian start-ups. Looks down that long nose on the whole wide world. Basically a charming but useless fuckwit selling useless shit. A ‘character’ (these are common in the East – particularly in Bali, where they are always trying to one-up each other). The others tolerate him, in spite of his manner – or rather, his lack of them). Why only God knows.
- Hiroshi. Small business operator. Around 40 years of age, looks and acts 16. Polite and fun. Perfect English. No one knows exactly what he does with the Japanese-owned pearl farm in Lombok (100% of the harvest sold to Japan, in quiet, mysterious deals) but after his dad showed up for a visit missing a couple of pinkies Hiroshi was treated very gingerly by everyone. A quiet, serious fellow. The last you would ever suspect of involvement with the yakuza. But one never knows.
- Lulu is knocking them back. She looks a hard 45. Beer today, wine tomorrow, the hangover Monday through Wednesday. Lulu is what is known in the trade as a ‘serious drinker’. But she lets off steam after yelling all day in the stock market; she pays her way in life, tips the waitress and is an all-around rewarding customer who knows how to hold her grog, and have a fine time while doing it. She’s been married and divorced in Kuwait and married and divorced in Kazakhstan and married and divorced in California to a serial line of [immensely wealthy] dummies, lambs she has shorn neatly in divorce court. Is she on the lookout for a new hubby in blissfully unaware Indonesia? Not likely, as by now with the alimony she’s scraped off the hides of her various exes she could buy and sell just about all of the candidates. But she likes to play the markets. Watch her when she folds her fat wad of folding money and stashes it in her purse: it’s nasty and frightening. So what’s she doing here? Oh she loves Indonesia. And it loves her (duit).
- Brett. Ah Brett. Brett is a bad dude and he knows it. If he didn’t know it he would soon find out because everyone tells him what an awful personality he has. Brett grew up in a bad family living in a bad part of town. He likes Indonesia because folks here just assume a grumpy whitey is a bule gila and tolerate his moody moods. He is actually trying to put a hold on ‘the Bad’ because he knows sooner or later he’ll be collared by the Immigration Police and given the bum’s rush out of Indonesia toot sweet. Nobody likes him. Secretly, he envies everybody else, because they’re happy and he’s not. But don’t expect him to show it. Brett is always mysteriously liquid, but when you ask him he is ‘currently >ahem< temporarily out of work’ (his girlfriend ratted and told everybody he’s a notorious Remittanceman) (‘stay-away-for-pay’).
- Alan. Fresh, sweet, smart, fun Alan, ‘fresh off the boat’. Alan had quickly settled into his new English-teaching job. Little did he suspect of the adventures that awaited him. He’s going to have a tough time of it but he’ll win in the end. (Proper stories always need a ‘happy ending’.)
[Flashback time, weeks earlier – like in the movies, Mortimer!]
Alan is explaining how an ESL teacher works the students, most of whom are uninteresting, placid, overweight, dull corporate drones or pejabat – but they are sometimes the source of amusing tales, shared with mates at Ya Udah Bistro.
Alan offers a typically nutty case study: ‘I started a new class last month at Bank Qabur. I grill them one by one on the first day, since I know that the placement tests are more often than not poor indicators of the actual English fluency of participants.’
‘What the devil are “participants”?’ growled Brett into his Panther Stout.
‘Students. Customers,’ Alan went on, annoyed at the interruption. ‘The school is making loads of money from selling English programs to the banking sector.
‘Some of these smart young men and women have learned how to fiddle their test scores magnificently, but when you talk to them, you say something like “What miserable hole do you come from?” they just stare at you blankly. Are you speaking Old Javanese? What are those odd sounds coming out of your mouth?
‘Anyway the first day of class I go around the room and speak to each new participant individually, to see whether he or she is maybe placed in the wrong level. You know – “What kind of beast do you eat for breakfast, Nellie?” or “Yudi, have you ever fiddled the books and escaped to the mountains?” or “That’s a very shitty necktie you are wearing today, Bambang”.
‘I can tell from their response whether or not they belong in that class.
‘So I get to this one mousey little girl looking down at her cell phone. Typical. I smile and say “Hello, Desy. I see you are a secretary. Do you have any hobbies?”
‘She bats her tiny eyelashes cutely and gazes at me. “I like to cry”.
‘I take it in stride. “Well Desy that sounds like a nice economical hobby. You can do it anywhere, without special equipment. But please don’t cry in my class, OK? It will slow down the learning. Maybe it will affect the banking as well.”
‘My wit went unnoticed. I didn’t get a single laugh.’
All his fellow Bistro patrons did however chuckle and snort appreciatively.
Lulu chimed in.
‘Bank Qabur isn’t the only one making a “load of money from the banking sector”’ she observed snarkily, glancing around to make sure no untoward ears picked up her potentially offensive criticism of the delicate Indonesian banking system. ‘I presume the Bank Qabur executives themselves have plenty of “take-home extras”. How about you, Alan? Is it “share and share alike”?’
Alan looked offended. ‘You mean my “Komisi”? I am still awaiting the billions and trillions in bonuses,’ he sighed. ‘So far all I’ve gotten is sticky sweet cakes and horrid tepid Nescafé.’
‘Isn’t that something,’ Brett muttered. ‘In a coffee-growing country like Indonesia they serve you that poisonous chemical instant shit.’
Lulu waved airily. A faraway waitress awakened out of her dream state and awaited a further beckoning. But no – Lulu was just making a point. ‘Every time I go into a company for a business meeting they serve me “instant chemical nightmare”. I’ve learned to ask for Aqua only.’
Now Brett came awake, climbing out of his mug of Panther Stout to contribute. ‘There are exceptions. My dad’s company has a contract with Maersk Logistics – that Danish shipping company.
‘I had occasion to visit their offices in Menara Batavia one day. I walked off the elevator to the aroma of the most heavenly fresh-ground coffee you ever smelled.’
‘What, a Snarbucks on the same floor?’ asked Lulu.
‘Nope, a four-thousand-dollar computerized coffee-bean-grinder-plus- boiling-water-dispenser, set right in the middle of this office of white-shirted drones.’
Alan, Lulu and Hiroshi looked puzzled. Tall Paul pretended to be bored. Hiroshi: ‘My brother back in Osaka is a coffee fanatic and has one of those instruments. He goes through a ritual that takes 20 minutes just to get a cup of coffee.
‘But why would a European company spend that kind of money on their employees?’ he smiled.
Brett stared at him. ‘So they can wire the local drones up on caffeine and work them to death,’ he explained somberly. ‘Those guys are in the office seven days a week, twenty hours a day, graveyard shift and all.
‘Anybody starts to look woozy and unsteady on her feet they just punch a button and this thing growls and shudders and beeps and flashes and emits this fantastic aroma. They hold the half-dead girl down and pour a cup of the delicious elixir into her gullet: then she’s back at the computer, tapping away furiously.’
[Meanwhile, back at the Bistro…’ Yes Wilbur the flashback is over.]
Today Alan was conspicuously absent from the assembled gang of instructors.
‘Where’s Alan?’ asked Lulu brightly. She had just arrived at Yaudah Bistro and was studying the menu hungrily. ‘I’m so hungry I could eat the menu’ she growled, scanning the soups, salads and pasta.
‘Please refrain from nibbling on the menu’ Tall Paul intoned gravely, ‘or the owner will have to add that to his list of “NOs”.’ Lulu and Brett looked at him blankly.
‘Well I’m an old-timer, and when Yaudah Bistro was located on rough’n’ready Jalan Jaksa a large sign was prominently displayed, reading ‘No Fights / No Animals / No Drugs / No Credit…’ and so on.
‘It would be a pity to have to add “No gnawing on the menu” to that list,’ he concluded sadly.
A nice fresh young waitress, fresh from Central Java, pops up and smiles at one and all. He pencil is poised and her expression alert.
Hiroshi carefully carved on his smoked snapper. ‘When Japanese tourists visit Vancouver they all bring back loads of smoked salmon. I’ve probably eaten half the catch from the Pacific Ocean.
‘But this smoked snapper is more delicate – it’s moister than the smoked salmon, which is usually dry and crumbly.
‘Well how do they compare?’ asked Brett.
‘This one’s more flavorful, for sure. I like the tartare sauce as well, just for the edge.’
Lulu was insistent. ‘So does anybody know what happened to Alan? He never misses our Bistro sessions.’
‘At a funeral’, Paul said softly. They all looked at him. ‘His ex-wife’s.’
IF YOU HAPPEN TO BE CURIOUS ABOUT ALAN AND HIS DEAD-EX, JUST TUNE IN TO NEXT WEEK’S BLOG AND HEAR THE WHOLE WILD STORY…