Physically I may be in Bonn, but emotionally and mentally and all-other-wise, I am still by the sea – smelling its briney and slightly iodiney scent, hearing its waves soothingly rolling, ever rolling, and feasting my eyes on the colours reflected on the waves and the clouds and the slick, moist sand. It is strange that I feel as if I’d been away for longer — much longer than a mere two weeks. Perhaps my yearning for the sea stems from childhood summers spent by the sea – a northern Philippine sea — on my grandmother Lilang Pacia’s beach.
My first memory of the sea is indelible. I must’ve been two or just a tiny bit more, at any rate I was walking fairly well on my own. I was with a band of cousins and my sister, all of them babbling excitedly of going to the baybay. I had no idea what this baybay was, nor did anyone bother telling me what it would be. I had yet to understand Ilocano fully. I also hadn’t asked. What was to ask – we were going somewhere, somewhere nice from the sound of it. I was the youngest of them all, of this generation — the nearest to my age was a girl cousin a year or so older. Other than my sister, another cousin, and me, all my cousins lived near each other close to the town center (ili) of Santiago, in adjoining plots of land that belonged to Lilang Pacia. In later years some of us would talk about her or think of her as Lola Boni, in essence converting her name to Tagalog, though we never called her that directly. We always called her Lilang or, often imitating a more endearing and more affectionate northern Ilocano intonation and accent — that of the capital Vigan — Lelang, deliberately prolonging the “e.” My grandmother’s name was Bonifacia.
Each of the extended family’s houses was identified by its location within that enclosure – compound might be too grand a name for it but I shall use it anyway for convenience. For instance my Aunt Maria’s house was to the north, and thus it was called Amianan. My Aunt Anita’s was called South, Abagatan, and if we were headed for it, we gave our destination not as Aunt Anita’s house but “diay abagatan.” It was understood among the family that it was not the general geographical south that was referred to, but the house on the south side of the compound. My parents used to have a house between these two. I do not recall having ever seen that house, but my sister, 7 years older than me, remembers it. By the time I was born, my parents had been living and working in Manila for some time.
All I remember from that piece of land where my parents’ house once stood is a stand of silag, the buri palm (Corypha elata). Its young fronds are woven into pagaspas, traditional ornaments for Palm Sunday, carried to church by Catholics to be blessed and then placed by the family altar. I remember eating its small round fruits – the size of marbles — as a child. When immature, the flesh is translucent and tender – we sucked it straight from the hard green shell; once mature it became hard and chewy, but we relished it anyway. There were always reports of tuko — monitor lizards — being seen near the silag and although I’d never seen one, I’d often heard their calls deep in the night – tuk-oooo, tuk-oooo! Walking from the Abagatan to the Amianan or vice versa through my parent’s plot of land was always a bit of an adventure for fear of coming upon a tuko. The other tree near there that I can recall is a tall duhat (Syzygium cumini) or lomboy as it is called in Ilocano. It had oval fruits, bigger than the usual, slightly astringent near the large central pip, but that didn’t detract from the purple sweet-sour flesh that stained our lips and tongues for hours afterwards.
So on to the baybay we set off, my three male cousins, about 3, 4, or 5 years older – I’m not quite sure of the gap in our ages – had gone ahead as they’d cleverly built themselves scooters out of wood. It was a terribly long walk for my tiny legs. I might’ve made a nuisance of myself, asking where is this baybay repeatedly. I recall the feeling of being unable to walk any further when a rise in the road came up, and there as I got to the top of it, I beheld a slice of piercing blue in the distance between stands of coconut trees.
There it is — the baybay! My cousins and sister yelled and everyone raced towards it. Even exhausted, complaining little me. The first sight of that immense expanse of intense blue made such an impact on me. I can still bring up in my mind’s eye being on that rise and feeling that rush of wonder and surprise at my first glimpse of this amazing baybay. It was nothing like anything I had ever seen. I must’ve seen the sea in Manila, but it was nothing compared to this. This to me was a true, proper sea with a beach of powdery white fine sand, set within the crescent of a lagoon – on one side, the left as you approached, the village of Sabangan. On the right as far as I could see, my grandmother’s land by the beach shaded with countless coconut palms. And along it, a stretch of sand, blindingly white in the sun and that incredible, amazing blue – a pale turquoise close to the sand and in the shallow parts, deepening with intensity in the distance.
There was a thatched hut somewhere underneath the coconuts – the caretaker’s house, from whose well each of us took turns lowering the little pail to bring up sweet water to rinse our bodies. I had to be helped with this, as it was heavy, and there was also the risk of falling in. I have a vague memory of falling into a well, if not this one, then another. The water from the well was not pleasant to drink – it tasted strange, not quite salty, but it had a murky taste. But we drank it anyway, from polished coconut shells. From the kitchen’s unroofed verandah with a bamboo floor – a bangsal — came fish gutted and scaled, ready for grilling, and maritangtang (sea urchin) too, to be cooked gently over charcoal and stones. There were gaps between those bamboos, and as a child, I often painfully caught a toe in between them and always navigated very gingerly while walking on them.
Of course we feasted on young coconuts, just at that moment plucked from above us by someone agile and surefooted, sent to grasp the towering trunks between their feet, hopping up to the next foothold, up and up dizzily to the clustered green orbs of fruit, and then throwing a few down, making sure no one below was going to be hit. The green coconuts were quickly split in half with the same bolo used to cut them from the cluster above — their soft, translucent flesh silky sweet and tender, slipping down into our throats if they were not quite gelled – marabuteg (the English equivalent doesn’t sound so palatable – “snot-like”) and their sweet water refreshing after a few hours of our fun in the sea.
I am perhaps conflating several separate incidents that took place over the years of my childhood, there on Lilang Pacia’s beach – my mind playing its usual idiosyncratic tricks and my failing memory too. Sea urchins were my mother’s favourite, and when she came to the beach with us, then the offerings were more plentiful — there would be a huge pile of sea urchins to grill over the coals, as well as tinilnak (sea urchin “roe” scooped out of their shells). And an assortment of coral fish too – a parrotfish with its delightful colouring of turquoise and bright green and white meaty flesh is one that I have never forgotten. There would also be a salad of tomatoes and seaweeds – in particular ar-arosep with their dark jade mini-grapelike forms being the one that my mother loved best or fat green spaghetti-like poppôlo (the ^ denotes a glottal stop as spoken in Santiago, but some Ilocano dialects pronounce this word as pokpoklo). There was another type of seaweed that was more common and, like the ungelled young coconut, it was given an infelicitously rude name – or-ormot (“pubic-hair-like”). On these seaside picnics, my Aunt Anita would send a basket with a heavy iron pot — its exterior blackened with soot from years of use – filled to the brim with hot, just cooked rice – only the fish and seafood and coconuts were from the sea and the beach.
Is it any wonder then that I have always longed for the sea? Even storm and rain cannot dim the attractions the sea holds for me. Once, taken by my Japanese family to Atami during my first months in Japan, I was in raptures, despite being unable to see more than a few meters away as the sea and the sky were indistinguishable in monochromes of grey and grey-green and all colours in between. The waves and surf were driven madly by blustery winds and I felt energized by all the power surging around me and refreshed by the cold mist and rain’s needle-like sting on my face.
Last night my birthday was celebrated at Sapore, an Italian restaurant on Poppelsdorf. We’ve enjoyed eating there a few times and have also had their seafood. Having passed by it a few days ago, I thought they’d closed down for the winter. Most Italian-owned food places – in particular ice cream shops – are only open from Easter, and close when its owners return to their homeland like winter birds to spend the cold grey months in sunnier and warm surroundings. I was glad they hadn’t, yet.
For starters, I had a risotto of mushrooms; M had a fish and seafood soup. Both were excellent. The rice was al dente, thus avoiding the convalescent texture of a congee, and it was heady with wine and cheese and the rich, deep essences of fungi. I was half hoping though not really expecting to have some seasonal wild porcini mushrooms (penny buns or Steinpilze) in it, just like a memorable one enjoyed in a tiny eatery in the old Jewish ghetto in Rome. M’s soup was full of delightful prawns and salmon, flavoured with saffron. For mains, M chose an entrecote with a wine sauce – that was brilliant too – it came just as he wanted, medium rare. He likes his meat to almost moo. I chose grilled swordfish. And although it was good, I believe I learned a very good lesson from it.
There is such a thing as the spirit of a place, or spirits if you will – an indescribable and intangible je ne sais quoi that imparts its or their blessing on anything partaken there. The seafood and fish that I relished recently while I was within sight of the sea all tasted divine. Last night’s fish was eaten in a small restaurant — elegant for sure, the service impeccable and engaging — but not the most ideal for recreating the magic of being by the sea.
Instead of waves rolling and crashing against the sea wall, there were sounds of American and other types of English from an international group and ebullient German from a party of businessmen. At one point in that small confined space, the noise was rather strident, and it was such a relief to be out. It took a while for me later to settle into sleep – something had upset my stomach so: I was in excruciating pain. It couldn’t have been the panna cotta, as I had taken lactase to counteract lactose intolerance. I don’t know what triggered it. But I am — for the moment at least until my sensitive stomach fully recovers — (slightly) cured of wanting to eat as I had eaten by the sea not so very long ago. I believe I should stick to something local next time – something blessed by the resident spirits of this place — these fields, these mountains, these forests, these swift running rivers.
It reminds me of lamb we had eaten in Wales years back, while on holiday near the poet Dylan Thomas’ blue and white cottage by the sea. The lamb was so wonderful that we bought a similar piece from the same butcher to take back with us in a cooler as we drove back to Leamington. Roasted in the same way, it did not however taste the same as it did in our cottage by the sea. My dear neighbour, a lovely Welsh lady, who had once done the same thing, confirmed what I had suspected: that there is something about a place that imparts its unique quality to anything eaten there.
There is in Japanese an expression of the bounty of nature: umi no sachi, yama no sachi — the joys of the seas, the joys of the mountains. For a few weeks I have enjoyed the enchantments of the sea, and last night’s swordfish has broken the spell. Now I have a hunch I should be devoting my attention to the pleasures of the mountains and its forests. It is where I am after all, where I live.
For all of these things and the lessons I have learned about the spirits of place. For the blessing of the start of a new year in my life – my 64th year, in good health, in good spirits, showered with an abundance of well wishes and love and affection. And for the appreciation of my journal of grace from family and friends, I am truly and deeply grateful.