Year of Grace, Day 125. Thinking of home

Yesterday afternoon — perhaps because it was a dreary grey day — I suddenly felt I wanted to go home. Not to my current home in Bonn, but the home that I once knew as a child. Home, as in a place that encompassed and still encompasses all that was and is safe and familiar, where I am not a stranger, where friends and family are, all the time. Or so it seemed then.

Born and raised in Manila, I realize with great sorrow that that city is no longer home, and has not been for a long time. My family moved to the States not long after I graduated from high school. All but a few relatives remain in Manila. And friends that I grew up with have also moved to the States. All the people that made me feel at home in Manila, save for a handful, have made the exodus to America.

My last three visits to Manila in 2008, 2010, and 2011, made me feel as if I were Urashimataro or Rip van Winkle. The city that I had once known had become unrecognizable – all the familiar landmarks torn down or obstructed by massive overhead road infrastructure. Even being in the family home, I did not feel the same. First of all, neither my parents nor all my siblings were there. I kept seeing from the side of my eyes flickering images of friends who had once habitually dropped by. And once or twice looking at someone walking in the neighbourhood, I wistfully hoped that when that person turned around, it would be someone I had known from way back, just by some odd chance passing by. Weird isn’t it – this unsettling feeling of switching between past and present, just by being in one’s family home after a long, long absence.

What is this home that I hanker for, that leaves me with such a deep, deep yearning to go back to? Home is where we are comforted when we feel rather out of sorts. Home is where when we are down, we find encouraging words and comforting warm hugs. Home is where we are delighted and uplifted by someone’s joy at a new job, or a great adventure, a new addition to the family. Home is also where we find solace when sorrow and despair invade our lives. Home then is not merely a place, but a distinct space in time, occupied by faces and feelings. And although we can go back to a place, we cannot, at least without divine or other intervention (technology perhaps still to be developed?), go back in time. Nor have people who have departed this earth, fill once again those spaces they once did. Home, the home I yearn for, is ultimately lodged in my heart.

Do not our close friendships and family provide somehow some vestiges of these familiar comforts of home? And in the reality of our far-flung lives, is it not the next best thing to being at home, the home we all once had when we were growing up – having some of our friends and family from different slices of time and space to connect with synchronously on Facebook?

I know that virtual connections cannot ever replace being there in the moment together with friends and family, sharing the same physical and emotional space. But for now, my friends and family that I meet with and greet and chat with and connect with on an almost daily basis on Facebook are, in a sense, Home for now. Sad, I have to admit and inevitably accept, but true.

It’s sunny out this morning. I leave you with one of the delights of early spring here in Bonn – the ephemeral magic of snowdrops blooming in the forest just a few minutes’ walk from the house. They bloom and set the seed for future flowers all in the space of a few weeks. Once the trees’ leaves are out and form a closed canopy, these tiny understorey plants have no chance of accessing much-needed sunlight. Nor can they compete for nutrients or water with tree roots. And so they have accepted and adapted to the inevitable reality of these conditions and go dormant, biding their time to be in the spotlight once again in early spring, when the trees, in their turn, are dormant still.

Snowdrops in Venusberg

Snowdrops in Venusberg

Year of Grace, Day 67. Repeating history, Part 2.

My Uncle Jose – my mother’s younger brother – got more than his fair share of beauty — and brains as well. He was the most good-looking of all 6 siblings, with deep-set eyes and a fine sculptured nose on a narrow face – throwbacks to the family’s Spanish genes. He went to join Uncle Mariano, who preferred to be known as Uncle Bob, then living in the States, and studied criminology there. When I was 10 or 11, I cannot recall exactly, Uncle Jose came to live with us briefly in Manila. I remember him now because he actively encouraged my bookishness. Every week he gave me a set of words to look up – of those I remember “apostate”, the very first one; “lagniappe”, and “pecuniary.” This must be the very first time I have ever used all of those words in one sentence! One day he brought me a book – The Diary of Anne Frank: it was my introduction to the Holocaust. When I’d read it, I was left disturbed and then relieved that at the time — the 1960s — wide-scale persecution of Jews and other minorities was no longer official policy in Germany and that the Jews had established a haven of safety in their own homeland, Israel. That was over half a century ago.

On my birthday this year I received a book on netsuke – those exquisitely carved toggles that secured a pouch or small box when tucked into a kimono – written by the English potter Edmund de Waal. He had inherited a collection of over 200 from his uncle then living in Tokyo. In tracing the history of those intricately carved treasures in his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, he uncovered his mother’s family’s personal experience of the Holocaust in Austria and France. Of the Ephrussi family’s collection of paintings, sculpture and other art, as well as furniture, only the tiny netsuke had survived intact, secreted by a faithful family maid under her mattress throughout the war.

The Dreyfus affair – that infamous persecution and inhuman exile of a French Jewish army officer in the 1890s of which I learned in my World History class in high school — had a part to play in de Waal’s book. One of the Ephrussis – Charles — had supported Parisian impressionist artists by buying or commissioning paintings when hardly anyone was prepared to buy them. But when French society was sundered between those who sympathized with the unjustly accused Dreyfus – the Dreyfusards – and the anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards, artists who had previously benefitted from Charles Ephrussi’s financial support turned against him. All except Monet. It is against this background that I can now make sense of various references throughout Monet’s biography (read years before) to the troubles that Clemenceau, one of the Dreyfusards, went to Giverny – Monet’s famous garden — to seek a restful haven from.

In my previous post, I wrote of having read halfway through Robert Harris’s book on the Dreyfus affair – An Officer and a Spy – given me by a German friend. I have finished it now, and it ended on a happy note: the narrator of Harris’s fiction – Colonel Picquart — was vindicated in the end: appointed a Cabinet Minister by Clemenceau and promoted to Brigadier General. Dreyfus was eventually declared innocent of espionage in 1906, once a Count Esterhazy was confirmed as the actual guilty party who had passed on notes and copies of a weapons manual to the Germans, as proved by Picquart’s investigation. But perhaps the anti-Dreyfusards had the final word decades later – very few French Jews survived deportation to the Nazi concentration camps.

Why am I writing about this now? Because yesterday in Paris, 3 men broke into a house where a young Jewish couple were staying, raped the  girl, withdrew all the money from their bank account, and took all the jewelry and valuables from the house. The reason? Because they were Jews. Worldwide in 2014, it is open season on Jews. Even in American university campuses – in a country where once Jews found a place of safety. Especially so in Israel – also once a haven of safety for Jews from all the world’s continents from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and expressly established for that purpose. Every single day anti-Semites come closer to their avowed goal of total annihilation of Jews. When they cannot do it physically, they assassinate verbally in the international media and other fora. Just over half a century after 6 million Jews and uncountable other minorities were exterminated by the Nazi regime, there has resurfaced the same age-old hatred for this one race. No longer confined to one country such as France or Germany, Jew-hatred has become a global pandemic.

One has to ask why there is so much hate towards Jews and Israel worldwide. And you perhaps are  asking, why should I, a Filipina, care? I care because I care about injustice. I care because one group of people is unfairly treated. All over this world, there are those who care about wildlife and biodiversity and their disappearance from this earth. As a researcher of social ecology interested in the preservation of biodiversity, I care deeply about the earth and its biodiversity – its biodiversity in the widest sense — not merely of plants and  wild animals, but also of the genus Homo sapiens,  an animal speciesI am beginning to doubt that specific “sapiens”  in light of all the unsapient acts humans have been and continue to be capable of. Here is one ethnic group, one among the diverse groups that make this earth and this world of ours a richer and more interesting world. And we – who care about our pets, the orangutan in the forests, the lions and elephants and whales and other charismatic wild animals in the forests and savannahs and the seas; who denounce the cutting down of forests and age-old trees – shouldn’t we care as much about one of our kind that is a similarly threatened and endangered species? Isn’t this a convoluted form of self-loathing – hating one group of humans?

One group of people that has contributed much – so overwhelmingly much in all spheres of human endeavour – in diverse aspects of culture and science, business and philosophy, ethics and religion, popular entertainment and medicine, information and other modern technology. And yes, philanthropy too – wherever in the world disaster strikes – an earthquake, a tsunami, typhoons, and recently Ebola — there is unfailingly an immediate humanitarian Israeli presence. Perhaps therein lies the root of all this focused human self-loathing – unadulterated envy of the unfair share of talents and skills showered in overflowing measure on them by the Creator of the Universe: manifold blessings in compensation for their being unjustly despised from generation to generation.

My journal of gratitude is in its 67th day. What do I have to be grateful for on this day in the light of this unfathomable and sickening state of affairs in our world? Perhaps gratefulness is not an emotion I can rise to at this moment. I can merely remain positive and hopeful. I would like to think that we – the human species, Homo sapiens – are capable of rational, sapient thinking and behaviour. I would like to reserve a space in my heart for hope – hope that all that is good and positive will prevail and triumph over the evil and negativity that threaten our species and our world. Because we, as a species, are the lesser for hating one of our own, for killing one of our own, for trying to obliterate one of our own.

As John Donne concluded centuries ago in the poem, No Man is an Island: “Each man’s death diminishes me,/ For I am involved in mankind.” Centuries earlier, a disciple of Jesus, an early humanitarian – whether you believe in his divinity or not is irrelevant — quotes him in The New Testament, Matthew 25:40: “Truly I say to you, that whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do also to me.”Jesus as a persona is not confined to Christian theology; he is regarded as a prophet in Islam.  Moreover Eastern philosophy echoes the Christian view that what affects one of us affects the whole.  As Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics writes,  “The essence of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events…. All things are … interdependent and inseparable parts of [the] … whole….”

When we indulge in hate and seek to destroy others, we ultimately destroy ourselves.


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.