Year of Grace, Day 55. Futon

I first arrived in Tokyo almost half a century ago, and the feeling that I remember from that first encounter with a foreign land was one of a barely contained inner thrill. I can imagine that an explorer – of new  or unknown lands – would have a similar surge of excitement, with perhaps some prickles of anxiety thrown in, in anticipation of discovering something never seen or experienced before. I liken that sensation to having a slight case of butterflies in the stomach, but it is not an unpleasant feeling. I still get this prickle of excitement, even now, whenever I am in any place that I do not know and have never been — where everything and everywhere is novel and unknown and begs and waits to be known.

This intense curiosity to see what is out there is my earliest and most vivid memory of childhood. Just beginning to heave myself up and stand, I recall  holding myself up at one corner of our dining room table, then covered with some kind of cloth – an oilcloth most likely, called a mantel – and feeling quite aggrieved that I could not see the top of that table from where I was. It was such a strong feeling of frustration at not being tall enough, and not being able to articulate that I wished to see, to know what was up there, so near yet way beyond my reach and my eyes and my hands.

Those first few hours in Tokyo, I remember glancing out of the minivan that came to fetch the lot of us, seven new Mombusho scholars, from the airport – then Haneda — trying to make out from the misted windows what was out there in that dim, densely packed urban landscape. I remember my companions chattering excitedly all around me, but I was engrossed with what might be just outside. There was nothing much for my eyes to pick out as the minivan sped through empty streets, isolated from and elevated above the shadowy crowded structures of urban living below. It was well past midnight – it must’ve been around 2 or 3 in the morning – and all was still and, remarkably for such a huge metropolis, hushed. Our minivan seemed the only one on the road. Our flight had been terribly delayed. My impression was of a super clean, smooth, and complex futuristic road system – elevated expressways crossing each other this way and that at all angles, above and below. Such a world of difference from Manila’s gaping potholes and litter-blown streets. It was chilly too on that early spring morning.

Our first stop was to drop off the postgraduates and one of our sempai (older colleague) at what I would later know as the Komaba Ryugakusei Kaikan – the foreign students’ dorm near one of Tokyo University’s campuses. We reached our own dorm, a brand-new one as I was to learn, some while later and after being greeted by a welcoming committee and signing forms, we were shown to our rooms. I remember it as if it were just yesterday – my room being second from the left as you enter. It was on the ground floor.

My first task was to make sense of the Japanese way of bedmaking. There was a bed – familiar enough – a Western-style bed, along the inner wall. There was a pile of white – brilliantly white and precisely folded – bedclothes on them. I remember seeing a Japanese quilt cover for the first time with its round cut- out front edged with a decorative border, seemingly crocheted, and I can still hear the sharp, tearing sound – immensely satisfying to one, like me, who has fun popping the bubbles on bubblewrap — as one draws apart the layers and folds of stiffly starched bedlinen. I fell gratefully onto the bed once I had finished making it. My first impression of the heavy futon was how unwieldy it was, but I was immediately convinced of how right it was in that chilly room. How absolutely right its weight was, as it immediately comforted and warmed me as I settled in under it, snug and cozy. I fell asleep at once — it had been a long, tiring, and exciting day.

I have been in love with traditional Japanese beds ever since. It is such a comforting sight to behold in a ryokan or a minshuku or a traditional house — a set of futon all fully made up on a sweet-smelling tatami floor – the lower thicker and more solid one of the shikibuton and the fluffy top quilt, the traditional textile motifs peeking through the cut-out front panel. And the pillow! It is packed more solidly than a Philippine or Western pillow, and thus a bit uncomfortable for those who like their heads to sink into it – but when it has a panel insert filled with grainheads – wheat or rice — their rustling and that curious bumpy texture that I like to run my fingers over, strangely enough send me off into a deep, peaceful slumber like nothing else has ever before or since. There is nothing like the comfort of slipping into a Japanese futon in its starched, super white splendour. Do I sound nostalgic for the days of my life in Japan?

On this the 55th day of my gratefulness journal — things to be grateful for: I had a marvellous day yesterday – which turned out sunny despite the forecast for rain; a positive outcome for something I had hoped for; and for still being able to call back and record snippets of my childhood and youth despite a memory through which certain things slither away like quicksilver even though they took place just a few minutes ago.  Today it is a typical grey autumn day here in Bonn, and I am glad to be home, warm and dry.

On a day like this, I am reminded of autumn days in Japan. Here are some photos of a first unexpected snowfall around Lake Biwa, taken years and years ago so that their colours have faded. One of them is of a persimmon (kaki) tree  — bare but for its cheery fruits still hanging — a familiar and iconic sight that never fails to gladden my eyes in the cold months of the year.

Year of Grace, Day 54. How my garden is faring

It’s amazing what is still blooming and looking good at this time of year – the nasturtiums are still bravely holding on to their blooms. The cold and wet have not deterred the roses either, which have been flowering just about non-stop since the spring. These are not by any means roses of great refinement of form or scent, but they more than make up for this by shrugging off a severe attack of powdery mildew during a hot dry spell in late spring, and they have untiringly displayed their cheery pink clustered rosettes ever since. There are pink and white cosmos too, blown over by rain and wind, but soldiering on, leaning precariously on their sides. The Argentinian verbenas (Verbena bonariensis) are also faring well – looking very elegant with their tall stalks at the ends of which are tiny purple flowers. These have a lovely scent, not immediately sensed, but at the right moment, a slight breeze will carry it and then you are surprised to find out where this mild perfume is coming from. Even the artichokes have managed a second crop – not as plenteous as the first – but buds nevertheless.

I am keeping my fingers crossed that the passionfruit vine will survive through the winter. The vines – at least their ends – keep straying off the permanent wire attached to the house wall and seem to want to come into the warmth of the house. We’ve guided them gently back onto the wire, but they keep insinuating themselves in front of the back door, as if to say – let us in, let us in! This particular variety is known to be cold-hardy, at least in England. And I am hoping that the house wall and the western exposure will provide enough protection for it. The fruit – its only one — that I had been hoping to taste when ripe has disappeared. It hadn’t fallen off, and I suspect one of the birds – either the magpie or the jay – has taken it for a treat. I hope it was thoroughly enjoyed.

Artichoke, Verbena bonariensis

Artichoke, Verbena bonariensis

As for the cold-lovers in the garden – there are lots of blooms on the cyclamen, and promising buds on the skimmias which will open up in early spring and perfume the air.

My fridge, which has been having tantrums over the past months, has gotten another check-up and it remains to be seen whether this time it will be true to its promised no-frost character. It’s gorgeously sunny and everything is sparkling with raindrops from last night’s rain – a lovely autumn day! So much to be grateful for!

Year of Grace, Day 53. The call of the sea

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.

The Mediterranean viewed from Zichron Yaacov, near Haifa

The Mediterranean viewed from Zichron Yaacov (Jacob’s Memory), near Haifa

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.

Year of Grace, Day 52. St. Martin’s Little Summer

A lovely surprise greeted me yesterday as I came out of Epi – the French organic café and pastry shop across Bonn’s largest toy store, Puppen König. I decided to have coffee there instead of at Fried Flamingo, a bit farther away. And there just behind the Münster was a man dressed as a Roman soldier complete with red cape, armour, and helmet, just about to get on a white horse. I hadn’t known the Martinszug — the procession of children and their handmade lanterns in honour of St. Martin of Tours – was scheduled at nightfall, and I was just in time and at the right place to catch it all. It was truly lovely and made my day.

The procession was ordered by school, and each school’s lanterns followed a particular theme – geometric designs à la Mondrian with red, blue, and yellow rectangles, van Gogh-ish starry night patterns, iconic geese. Marching bands accompanied each group and at the same time the Münster’s bells kept up their ringing, that there was such a clamour. But it was all such good local homemade fun. Parents accompanied their children as they marched – all very low key and not one whiff of commercialization or, heaven forbid, “professionalism.” There were only two “floats”, if one could call them that — two live white geese in a cage mounted on a cart and a small model of what I assume is the monastery that St. Martin founded. The procession ended at the Marktplatz, in front of the Old City Hall, where an enormous bonfire was lit.

The 11th of November is the Feast of St Martin or Martinmas. Having been born on this day, I could have been named Martina in his honour had my parents been Catholic. Martin was an early convert to Christianity: as a cavalry soldier in the Roman army in the 4th century AD he refused to fight the Gauls and was jailed — the first recorded conscientious objector. He is also known for sharing his military cloak with a beggar suffering from the cold. To reward him, it is said that Heaven caused the sun to shine brightly on that day and ever since, the weather has always been milder than usual around his feast day – hence St Martin’s Little Summer.

The other name I escaped being given me is Armisticia, after the day armistice was declared in World War I. The date is quite fortuitous – the cessation of the first wide-scale warfare in Europe coinciding with the feast day of the first conscientious objector.

This day, which is regarded as the first day of winter, is also the beginning of Karneval in the Rhineland, making it the longest celebration of Carnival any where. In German, this day is termed “Elften Elften” (11th 11th). In Bonn and throughout Catholic Rhineland, Karneval officially begins at 11 minutes past 11 o’clock. Most people dress up and it is a day of full of craziness and wild merriment. I always get teased by my German friends that I come rightly by my craziness through my birthdate.

It is also the custom to eat goose on this day because according to legend Martin did not wish to be appointed Bishop and hid in a barn, but the geese there made such a racket that he was found out. St Martin is the patron saint of beggars, equestrians, winemakers, alcoholics, and tailors. From the cape (capella) that he tore in half comes the word “chapel” for a small church or sanctuary. This I hadn’t known before, and it is amazing how words evolve – from a piece of apparel to a sanctuary!

In all my 6 years in Bonn, I’d only ever seen a local neighbourhood’s (Dottendorf) St Martin’s Parade. The one I saw yesterday included most of the schools in central Bonn and was truly spectacular. As soon as the parade left the Münster, I proceeded across the street to one of the few remaining locally owned bookshops in Bonn – Witsch, Behrendt, and Schweitzer. As a matter of principle, I’ve now made it a habit to buy from them, because Bouvier, the other local bookstore and a Bonn institution for decades, was bought out by a nationwide chain and sadly had to close down last year. Bouvier was where you could make yourself comfortable on armchairs, choose a book you were considering and cosily browse through and read it, and no one hassled you or even as much as glanced disapprovingly at you. There was a lovely little café in one corner where fresh cookies were baked on the spot, wafting their irresistible aroma.

I bought 3 books, one of them of Robert Frost’s poems, and then headed off for Fried Flamingo, my actual destination for coffee and pastry. I haven’t visited it in quite a while. It was closed, even though it wasn’t yet 7 pm. I hope it hasn’t closed down for good. It had such wonderful French-style macarons and other decadent goodies and gorgeous coffee. To make up for it, I went to the other local bookstore – Bücherhof — near the Old City Hall and got two more lovely books. I know, I know – when it’s books, I cannot help indulging myself.

I am grateful that today is a lovely sunny day, truly St Martin’s Little Summer. Thankful too for a small pile of nice books that I am looking forward to feasting on. And thanks too that this has been a great year, the end of my 63rd. From tomorrow, I start my 64th year. May it be as full of grace and blessings as this one has been.

Year of Grace, Day 51. My favourite season

There is something about this time of the year — autumn –that is intensely moving. Perhaps it’s because nature and all creation are getting ready to rest for a while and they’re giving us a show to remember them by – their last hurrah, as it were, for this year.

For a few, like the lovely viburnum tree that used to grace the path to the front door, it was a sad final hurrah last year, much as I had suspected because it displayed its most magnificent colours. It must have exhausted itself with such tremendous effort. I was reluctant to cut it down when it had failed to leaf out in spring — its branches and trunk had an arresting and stark beauty, even bereft of leaves and flowers. I thought, half-heartedly, that it might just revive, given enough encouragement. To my regret it didn’t.

My Viburnum's last hurrah

My Viburnum’s last hurrah

At this time of year, leaves show such a spectacular range of colours — finally exposed to our view as chlorophyll returns to the roots to be stored over winter. Mother Nature knows not to throw such valuable stuff away. There in the roots it lies waiting to be called out in the spring. A marvelous cycle of life and rejuvenation.

In the back garden, the birches in the woods behind are strikingly orange in the sun, and their white trunks are displayed to great advantage. The hazels, both the contorted one and the standard one, are turning yellow. Just near the hazel hedge, a European spindle tree, a Euonymus, has had red leaves for some time now and with its pinky-red and orange berries (what a combination!), it is truly a sight. The nasturtiums, called Kapuchinkresse (monk’s cress) in German, are still going strong. I might have some time to pickle a few buds and seeds to spice up my salads in the winter.

There is a Japanese folk song about the seasons – Shiki no Uta, 四季の歌 — that I remember from my university years in Tokyo, and the words come to me now.

Aki wo aisuru hito wa

Kokoro fukaki hito  心深き人

Ai wo kataru Haine no youna   愛を語るハイネのような

Boku no koibito.  僕の恋人。

One who loves autumn

Is a person with a deep heart

Just like (the poet) Heine who speaks of love —

My beloved.

Birches and hazels

My view of birches and hazels in the sun, and just peeping to the right above a box tree, a euonymus (European spindle) tree.

Year of Grace, Day 50. The sea for lunch, and love too

There are people who just cannot get enough of seafood, and I have to admit I am one of them. I could happily live the rest of my life as a piscivore. Occasionally I know I might have an irresistible atavistic craving for meat, triggered by the smokey aroma of a lamb cutlet or thick steak on the grill, or the sight of roast pork with its blistered crackling, especially Philippine roast suckling pig known as lechon in its mahogany-lacquered gorgeousness. I have friends — vegetarians for decades — who waiver, whimpering helplessly, at the whiff of bacon cooking to a crisp. All things considered I would be more than content on a diet of deliciousness from the sea. There is so much variety that I don’t believe I would ever tire of prawns, calamari, octopus, shellfish of all kinds from mussels to oysters and razor clams, crabs, lobsters, and of course uni. And I haven’t even mentioned seaweeds, of which there is also an overwhelmingly diverse variety. One of the attractions of Chile as one of my dream destinations is that its coasts have such a rich stock of seafood that is rarely seen or eaten elsewhere. And, equally important, it has brilliant wines to partner with them.

I met a very dear friend for lunch recently and it was a joy to know that we both share an almost insatiable appetite for these delights from the sea. With a glass of wine – white for me, red for her – we rolled back the decades that we hadn’t seen each other as we talked and reminisced of this and that, as we savoured a bite of crisp calamari and a bite of a sweetly succulent mussel. And at the end, we couldn’t resist sopping up the remaining briney, winey essences — slightly peppery from red chili — with some hearty crusty bread.

A sunny day, the sea in sight, a lovely leisurely lunch, great company, and the joy of rekindling an affectionate friendship – these are things to be enormously grateful for.

It is truly a blessing to have loving friendships that endure over time and distance, and to pick up where you’d left off, even though it was decades ago. I shall repeat some sage advice that Hemingway is alleged to have said: Keep your friends, hold on to your friends. Don’t lose your friends. Advice worth repeating several times over, and I most definitely and heartily agree.

And now, a question — why do friendships endure, but romantic relationships not?  Or do they?  There’s a puzzle for you.

Year of Grace, Day 49. Little Manila on the Mediterranean

While happily taking photos of fruits and other attractive produce in Old Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, I heard a voice  call out, “saluyot!” I turned to see where it had come from and it turned out to be a potherb seller, smiling broadly at me. From his deep-set hooded eyes that reminded me of those on Orthodox sacred icons, I assumed he was Ethiopian. (Several waves of Ethiopian Jews known as Beta Israel or Falasha had migrated from Gondar, Tigray and other states to Israel in the 80s.) There,  nestled among mint, basil of several kinds — Italian green and purple and royal Thai, dill, parsley, lemon grass, and the more common Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano, was indeed a mound of fresh,  inviting saluyot. This humble potherb beloved of Ilocanos is equally highly esteemed in Egyptian, Syrian, and other Middle Eastern cuisines, where it is known as molokhiya or molokheya. In Japan too, this green vegetable (Corchorus olitorius) whose leaves become silky when cooked and impart an unctuous slipperiness to broths and soups, has had a run of popularity for its health-giving properties, and is known there as moroheya. Its thickening property is so highly regarded that molokheya leaves are commonly dried for use as a staple during the winter months and throughout the year when the fresh leaves are unavailable. A chicken and molokheya stew sharpened with lemon is a Syrian specialty. Regretfully I wasn’t up to buying any saluyot from the engaging Ethiopian potherb man, as I hadn’t intended to do any cooking, Ilocano or otherwise.

The Filipino population in Israel is currently estimated at 100,000, the largest group of migrant workers in the country. (In recent years, workers from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh, Nepal have swelled migrant numbers to over 300,000; workers from Africa also come in as asylum seekers through Egypt.) I say estimated because of these about 31,000 Pinoys are legally registered to work as caregivers, mostly to older people, or domestic helpers. Other than the diplomatic corps, spouses of Israeli citizens, and a few members of the religious orders (priests and nuns), the rest are spouses, children, and other relatives and illegal workers (those whose contracts have expired and are without current registered employment). To cater to their penchant for familiar foods, Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market (named after its site on Carmel Street) has several stalls with fresh tropical vegetables, not only saluyot, but also bitter melon, small Asian eggplants (unlike the huge fat Mediterranean ones), diverse gourds (patola, young tender loofa), and several kinds of squash. I also saw shallots, green unripe mangoes, Malabar spinach, wax gourds, and long string beans. A big sign announced enormous squashes as malagkit (waxy). Shelves held Silver Swan soy sauce, patis, rice vinegar, bagoong, alamang, Mama Sita flavouring packets for sinigang  – almost all the condiments to satisfy an overseas Pinoy’s nostalgia for the tastes of home. There were even cans of sardines and corned beef.

Carambola (balimbing), anona (atis), guava, pomelo, mandarins and clementines (dalandan, dalanghita), as well as mangoes are currently in season, and in quality and sweetness equal if not surpass those that are to be had in Manila. Carmel Market itself looks much like Quiapo’s Quinta Market, but with a more international clientele. Aside from the locals who are themselves from all over the world, there were Pinoys, Ethiopians, Sudanese (who have come as refugees from the civil war in Southern Sudan in recent years), Vietnamese (also refugees who came in the 70s), and Russians busily shopping – a veritable United Nations of food culture and foodstuffs. There were lots of tourists speaking English, French and even German but the majority were a big group of Russians.

There was one enterprising young man (not of any detectable Asian descent) who had set up a temporary stall, labeled Carmel Dimsum, and there was quite a crowd of curious tasters standing having a quick lunch. There was an impromptu cooking lesson going on in front of another potherb seller. A woman was explaining how to prepare mangold or Swiss chard to a crowd of women unfamiliar with this European winter vegetable. It’s a pity I didn’t understand the finer details of the open-air cooking lesson, and the potherb seller, obviously not a believer in the virtues of free  promotion for his goods, shooed her away from standing in front of his stall and obscuring his wares.

Further along there were huge trays of baklava and other Middle Eastern sweets, while towards the end of Carmel Street near the huge parking lot, a bakery had shelves stacked with tempting glistening fresh-baked rugelach, cinnamon rolls, sweet and savoury croissants, and diverse European-style breads of all kinds, whole meal loaves, baguettes, croissants, and rolls. Some were topped with seeds — poppy, sesame, sunflower, and squash – looking very much like the typical rolls in Bonn. The pita here are fluffy and chewy, perhaps due to a longer fermentation period, unlike the flat ones we get in Bonn from the Turkish shops or those we had seen in the Arab community of Jaffa near the marina in Tel Aviv, or those we had eaten in the Arab restaurants further north.

As in all markets everywhere, the operative words are caveat emptor:  a lovely pile of fresh figs set within a foil tray turned out when purchased to be mushy, a few were half rotten. As the seller was weighing it, I asked the tray to be removed, but he said, it weighs nothing at all. I wanted just half a kilo, and he removed the lovely ones from the top of the pile, leaving the scruffy ones at the bottom, well hidden within the tray. Tsk tsk. Not very nice. There is a similar strategy in the Bonn market — the perfect-looking produce is piled close to the customer, but the seller takes from a pile just behind, and what you get are bruised, low-quality produce that look nothing like the display. Be warned!

This part of Tel Aviv reminds me so much of downtown Manila — in particular Avenida Rizal, as it was called in my youth. I don’t know if Avenida Rizal is still called that – so many street names in Manila have been changed in the last 40 years. Allenby Street has the same scruffy, dishevelled, neglected look – many buildings along it have quaint balconies and facades adorned with the taste of bygone architectural fashions. The charm of these historical curiosities lies hidden under urban grime and dust and the dense shade of overhanging leaves. Even the trees, age-old sycamores and ficus, with massive trunks and branches, look tired and care-worn.

The whole area would look quite distinguished, I muse to myself, with a little sprucing up, and would make a genuine tourist attraction. Much as many historical buildings being demolished in Manila today probably would, but no one in current political or tourist promotion circles neither in Tel Aviv nor in Manila, sees the underlying beauty of these old forgotten buildings. A few of the more elegant ones closer to one of the side streets of Carmel Market have been registered as historical properties and have been faithfully restored. They are truly spectacular, especially in the pedestrianized squares surrounding Carmel Market and just behind Allenby Street, parallel to it. Some attempt has also been made to introduce flowering trees, in particular Brazilian Bombax, with their huge, pink, eye-catching blooms like orchids, protected from being stripped by avid collectors with sharp bristly spines circling the lower part of their trunks.

One can sit in the shade of trees or large parasols outdoors and enjoy a delightful cup of kafe hafukh (the second word is pronounced by locals without the initial “h”). This aromatic plain coffee is known in Bonn as crème café, though curiously despite its name it comes without cream or milk. I made the mistake of thinking “Black Coffee” on a menu was coffee without milk or sugar: it turned out to be Turkish coffee, otherwise known as botz (mud) in local slang, or more conventionally kafe Turki. I was duly corrected that what I should say when it was plain coffee I wanted was kafe hafukh, literally “inverted coffee.” I had my coffee with a decadent self-saucing chocolate cupcake, the thick chocolate sauce oozing out as it came, warm and fragrant. I sat in the shade of a large parasol, surrounded by British tourists also enjoying their afternoon cuppa with ice cream, and admired some lovingly restored buildings across the square.

On Allenby Street itself very close to the market are several used book shops, from one of which, Hazak Books (Sifrei Hazak) at No. 48, I’d bought three books. These bookshops cater for all major languages and even some obscure ones. One, aptly called Bibliophile, was so crowded with books there was hardly any room to move between the tall shelves. The man who ran it was very nice though, and said if there was anything I saw that I wanted, he would happily pull it out of the towering piles. Otherwise, he said, it was likely they would collapse and fall on my head and feet.

Cafes, restaurants, pubs, trendy boutiques, souvenirs, home furnishings, antiques – all manner of shops line Allenby Street, though the truly trendy ones are on Dizengoff Street. One pub, called Little Prague, had excellent European dark beers, and their food was amazingly good for a drinking place. A “Carnivore Platter” held pork chops, sausages, skewered lamb and chicken atop chunky fried potatoes. Obviously this was not a kosher place, as besides pork chops and sausages, it also featured calamari and prawns.

I thought it would be wonderful if all of these structures, even the smaller ones, could be preserved all along this quarter of Old Tel Aviv. Somehow the entire area reminds me of a once-glamorous lady, now getting on in years, who has become slightly neglectful of her appearance and dress. All she needs is a bit of cajoling into putting on some foundation and powder, perhaps a bright red lipstick and mascara, an elegant silk dress, and dressing her long, neglected hair, and she could be once more the femme fatale that she was in her heyday.

For a Filipino overseas nostalgic for tastes and reminders of home, Tel Aviv does offer some familiar treats in surroundings that are curiously similar to some that can still be found in Old Manila (that is, if they haven’t pulled them all down, as they seem to be doing lately with a vengeance). I was surprised to be served by a Pinay-looking young lady at an Italian ice cream shop not far from Tel Aviv port. Do you speak Tagalog, I asked in Pilipino. She shook her head and smiled apologetically. I was born here, she said. There is even a posh restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter (Kerem HaTeimanim) called Maganda. Pity I didn’t check out its menu, but who knows – it may even offer some adobo.

I am immensely grateful that it was peaceful throughout our two weeks in the country. I am thankful that the Mediterranean sea in its beauty and its bounty did not disappoint. The sun in the morning and late afternoon put on such stunning displays I couldn’t keep my eyes off them for a second. The Arab seafood restaurant, Hazaken ve hayam (The Old Man and the Sea) in Old Jaffa near the marina and the seafood bar at the Tel Aviv port market had the most memorable seafood meals I have had in many a year.  I am also immensely grateful for the gracious welcome we received everywhere we went and the overwhelming generosity of Arab villagers who gave us freshly pressed olive oil free and shared their lunch olives with us. I am also thankful that mangoes, anona (atis), persimmons, carambola, and feijoa were in season and that I was able to enjoy these to my heart’s content. Another thing I am grateful for is the range of excellent dairy produce — all at different percentages of fat, so that one can have 1%, 3% or 5% cottage cheese, and likewise of yogurt or sour cream. Far from its usual image as an arid country, Israel indeed has a good claim on the name “Land of milk and honey.” (Honey in this original sense may have referred originally to dates, of which I also tasted some excellent ones, but bee honey is today also widely produced.)  We were truly blessed with much grace throughout our stay in the Holy Land, and to have a bit of Manila there was the cherry on top of the icing.


Year of Grace, Day 48. Three old books and navigating through life

I’m rather glad my carry-on was stowed a few seats away – we had been among the last to board. And so when I finished reading one of the books I’d meant to tide me over the four-hour flight, I thought it was too much of a fuss to get up and get the other. This morning I’m rather glad I didn’t. I don’t believe I could’ve read that second book in full view of the public.

I know this dearth of reading material would not have happened if I’d had an e-book. I’ve had two of them, both presents from M, who prefers travelling with them. He’s got over 250 books stored in his, more than enough to keep him entertained for unexpected flight delays and travel for years. My first e-book accompanied me during fieldwork, as I’d anticipated 6 months of not having any access to entertaining reading in the remote mountains of Nueva Vizcaya. My second one was a hand-me-down from M, who’d acquired a Kindle.

If it were simply the mechanical act of reading that I like doing, then I would not hesitate to have all my favourites in an e-book. But it isn’t. I like holding a book – a physical, proper book — in my hand. I love feeling its heft, feeling the weight and texture of paper between my fingers as I turn the pages. How a book is laid out – the style and feel of its typeface, the spaces between the lines, the balance of text to paper, much as a painting is a balance of a filled surface to an empty space – these are what attract me when I’m choosing a book to read.  And despite what they say one shouldn’t do, I like judging a book by its cover. A book’s cover is what initially draws me and makes me pick it up among others in a display: it’s what sets it apart. And then I read the first few lines or pages to judge if it is worth my time and attention. A book’s form gives me as much pleasure as its content.

I had no idea the three used books I’d acquired recently — Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden, Isaac Shapiro’s Edokko, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School – were connected in some way. I had not read any of these writers before, nor had I heard of them. The Samurai’s Garden was the first one that caught my eye – anything with gardens or gardening in it always does. Its title is a trifle misleading, as there is no samurai anywhere in it at all. Edokko’s blurb offered a vicarious experience of living through the war as a child in Tokyo and this intrigued me. And Old School? – I imagined it would take me to another world, again through a child’s eyes. All three are written from the viewpoint of an outsider, someone who does not belong to the environment in which the story is set. I came to know this only after reading all three, but perhaps I, an outsider several times over, had been subconsciously aware of it when I chose these particular three to purchase.

Edokko and Old School are biographies of Jewish boys: one of Russian descent, born in Tokyo, raised in China, and educated in international schools in Tokyo; the other boy is American and narrates his experience as a scholarship boy in an exclusive school where his identity as a Jew is unknown. Samurai’s Garden is told by a Chinese youth sent to recuperate from tuberculosis to Japan, where his family runs a business.

It is a wonder to me how the Russian-Jewish family survived in Tokyo during the war, nor were they harassed by the Kempeitai (the secret police), though the protagonist narrowly escaped being cut down by a Kempeitai sword just as the Emperor announced Japan’s surrender over the radio. No one was supposed to be out in the streets as a sign of respect during the Imperial broadcast, but this irrepressible teen was out on his bicycle – the only one in the deserted streets, other than the Kempeitai. It is a feel-good autobiography: author Isaac Shapiro went on to become a successful lawyer in New York and president of the Japan Society for many years.

Old School is about a boy who has successfully disguised his identity as a Jew among privileged gentiles in the 1960s. It is profoundly touching and relevant to our times because anti-Semitism has resurfaced yet again. In its current reincarnation, it has grown in malignancy — metastasizing and spreading throughout the world, not only among the upper classes or within the countries where Jews had lived and been driven out, but in places where Jews had once been offered a safe haven just a few decades ago. Old School’s narrator uncovers his identity in a story. The story is plagiarized, however, and the boy becomes an outcast – he is expelled from the school.

It was only after finishing the book and pondering the boy’s tragedy that I linked it to the outcast lepers of the Samurai’s Garden. The lepers had been cut off from their community, including their own kin who regarded them as having brought dishonour to the family through illness. Though it is not mentioned outright, I recognized this as the Japanese traditional practice of ostracism or murahachibu (mura = village; hachibu = 80%; isolation from the village).

I know what it is like to be an outsider, as I said earlier, to not really belong in the community where I live. And I have encountered this even in my own birth country the Philippines where, because of the darkness of my skin as well as being of the non-dominant religion (Protestantism), I was made to feel an “other.” But never have I been subjected to physical abuse or outright ostracism or threat of death – verbal abuse, yes, having been called “negrita” and “coloured” — by elementary schoolmates, the latter being uttered to my face at a reunion just a few years ago. I was shocked into silence by it. It is appalling how prevalent these prejudices still are – despite awareness campaigns worldwide for equality – and among educated and intelligent people too, or at least I took them to be so.

What would it feel like to be an outcast, ostracized by the wider community – to live as one of the Untouchables in India, one of the burakumin in Japan, of the Dalit caste in Nepal, a Roma, or one of Baekjeong in Korea? Our world – not the greater world of nature, but the human world — has created many more outcasts than I have mentioned here. How does one navigate life under widespread opprobrium and scorn? How does it feel to live under vigilant self-defence or to hide one’s identity if one wants to avoid being hated by others or, worse, being beaten up or deprived of life?

And you may well ask — what has gratefulness to do with this fact – the bitter reality that there are hated and reviled and despised outcasts in our world? Ostracized not for anything they have done personally, but for simply being, for being born to this family, this culture, this nation – this particular one – and not any other.

Despite my sadness, I can still be grateful — grateful for these three books, two fictional and one from real life, for making me painfully aware of prejudice and injustice and making me feel and care about these issues. As I said, I was glad I did not read Old School on the plane, because I would not have been able to hide my sorrow as I pondered the connections between it and the other two that I’d just read, and the wider implications of those connections.

I am grateful for writers who are brave enough to reveal who and what they are, despite widespread prejudice and at the risk of being ostracized.

I thank these brave souls, fictional and non-fictional alike, for revealing the painful truth — about themselves, about ourselves too, about life — through these books and showing us and teaching us by example how to navigate the complex, tortuous, and often life-threatening paths to survival.

I am also grateful for a universal truth about life, one ascribed to Hemingway: Keep your friends, hold on to your friends. Don’t lose your friends.

I leave you a refreshing view of the sea taken a few days ago, to ease your spirits and lighten your hearts.  And mine too.Beach colours

Year of Grace, Day 47. The Old Man and the Sea

Anyone who has read Hemingway’s book of the same title would be likely to agree with me that “The Old Man and the Sea” is a lovely name for a fish restaurant. Ideally set facing a marina, it was where we had an exquisite seafood lunch the other day. I have rarely had seafood prepared to such perfection in a restaurant (outside of Japan, that is). And this was by no means an haute cuisine establishment. The children did the ordering: grilled prawns, fried calamari, grilled dorade, steamed crabs. I was hesitant about the crabs – more than a few times I have had them overcooked to a dry stringyness, or if not then they are hardly the best representatives of crabhood. But I was overruled and I graciously acquiesced.

In no time at all a huge array of “little, little things” was laid on the table with a pitcher of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Little, little things are what my family calls the varied salads and preserves and dips that constitute a meze. They come in small bowls and are replenished on request – which reminds me that in Korea they have a similar tradition. Almost half a century ago in Kyongju, I was given fresh shucked oysters in one of these dishes. No sooner had I emptied the dish than another came. And I, being the greedy oyster eater that I am, swiftly scoffed that up and the next one as well. I must have had over a dozen oysters altogether. I was to ruefully repent having been so greedy. I remembered passing by the street behind the restaurant earlier that day, and saw a woman cleaning the oysters outside right on the street in, shall we say, not the most salubrious of conditions.

But back to meze — every eating place has its own particular combination of these amuse bouche. They are a constellation of the stars of Middle Eastern home cooking. Over the past week I have not had the same appetizer repeated in any of the places we’ve been. Or if the ingredients were the same, the taste definitely was not. My favourite of the month is finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and mint spiked with garlic in olive oil and lemon juice – tabouleh without the bulgur. I know that sounds so plain and unexciting. But absolute freshness is key. And that is perhaps the secret to all of these tiny salads. Put any kind of green herby leafy dish on the table and the Southeast Asian in me — or to be more precise, the Ilocano in me — will be unable to resist. A green leafy dish is to a Southeast Asian what a red flag is to a bull. No else was as interested as me in this emerald green delight.

At another unprepossessing place we called The Garage, being as it was annexed to a petrol station, we got to sample some unusual little, little things. Most extraordinary were pickled baby aubergines, slit in half, like huge red-purple grapes; perfectly ripe tomatoes, peeled (unusually!) so that their pink flesh showed off the tracery of their delicate veins as they glistened in their dressing of olive oil and lemon juice with parsley. One companion’s favourite were sweet carrot coins in lemon juice – so simple and plain, yet so more-ish in their crisp texture that complimented the soft and unctuous texture of the other salad dishes. And the natural sweetness and acidity of the dish was a refreshing contrast as well.  We praised that one so much we got the second helping in a larger bowl.

I had to remind myself not to fill up on these supporting stars to leave room for the main attractions. And when they came, they did not disappoint. The calamari were tender inside their light coat of pale batter, almost tempura-like though not as crisp. The prawns were grilled to perfection – they had retained their sweet moistness. The dorade had been split in half and brushed with olive oil before grilling, and it was also prepared with due care to leave its meaty white flesh tenderly succulent. And the crabs? They were exquisiteness itself – juicy and tender and oh so sweet. I’m glad the children insisted. I used the skewer that came with the grilled prawns to fish out (pardon the pun) every last bit of succulence. The only special seafood cutlery provided was a cracker – one’s own fingers are meant to suffice. Nothing but nothing can compare with a perfectly prepared fish and seafood feast. Tiny crisp-fried pastries drenched in honey and rosewater came with cardamom-scented coffee to end this splendid repast. The only thing I can cavil about is that the coffee came in tiny paper cups. Coffee needs a ceramic surface of just the right thickness for the lips and tongue to savour it properly. Paper just doesn’t do it justice. A walk around the marina and the old town and market to expend some of those calories was followed by “proper” dessert — artisanal passionfruit sorbet and an extraordinary caramelized olive ice cream.

A splendidly memorable day filled with a great many blessings — the utmost of which was having family together and being able to breathe in that seaweedy, salty scent of the sea.  It is a scent that reminds me of my grandmother’s beach and which always takes me back to childhood summers by the sea. For all of these I am deeply grateful. Oh, and for the praying mantis – strangely beige — that hitched a ride with us too.


Year of Grace, Day 46. Once upon a dish

Every summer in June, a potters’ fair is held on Bonn’s Münsterplatz, and potters from all over come for a weekend to display their craft. The mugs I use everyday were bought here. The first year I got 2 with a mottled blue glaze and 2 with a butterscotch-like glaze. The year after I got 2 more from the same potter, this time with a turquoise glaze over a grey-beige body. These mugs were not really to my liking at first — as you may have cottoned on to by now, blue is my preference. The interesting thing about these subtle mugs that I hadn’t loved at first sight is that in time, they became my absolute favourites. I have fully and deeply fallen in love with their quiet, subdued, shibui character.

Another item from the fair is a small, flat dish from a Korean lady potter. I had a bit of fun with it and some things lying around the kitchen recently. Simple things from everyday life – for the joy and pleasure that they bring, I am truly grateful.