Penman No. 106: Penguins and Paranoia

Tango_Makes_3Penman for Monday, July 21, 2014


LAST WEEK, I wrote a piece extolling the emergence of dissident themes and voices in Singaporean literature, particularly in the novel The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim, who reminded us how much of that city-state’s wealth and power grew on the back of its underclass. I’m sure that there are many voices harsher and more strident than Suchen’s among Singapore’s younger writers, which is good. We’ve long expected this kind of literary insurgency to happen, as it is almost invariably the writers of any nation who form the spearpoint of social protest.

As I said last week, many Filipinos—whether mistakenly or not—take Singapore’s enviable prosperity as the result of a pact with the devil of authoritarianism, a compromise between getting fed well and shutting up. So we’re glad to see Singaporean society loosening up and speaking out, and to meet the humans behind the industrial facade. Surely, we’d like to think, Singapore’s economic ascendancy and its emphatic claim to full modernization deserve to be crowned by a more liberal, compassionate, and inclusive democracy. A rich nation should be able to afford more, not less, freedom.

Or so we thought. Very recently, Singapore’s government delivered another rude reminder of how deep in the dark cavern of the feudal mind its ministers remain, even as their citizens have begun to step out into the sunlight.

At issue was the decision of the National Library Board—supported by the Information Minister—to remove three children’s books from the shelves and to destroy all remaining copies, out of fear that the books, because of their unusual content, would condone and promote homosexual behavior. (Singapore still has a law criminalizing sex between men, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.)

Reports say that the banned books include “And Tango Makes Three,” based on a true story about two male penguins in that raised a baby penguin in a New York zoo. In “The White Swan Express,” children are adopted by straight, gay, mixed-race, and single parents. The third book, “Who’s In My Family,” includes gay couples among different types of families. Because a conservative parent complained about these books, an internal review was undertaken by the NLB, which then deemed them unsuitable and subject to removal and destruction.

Not surprisingly, Singapore’s writers, artists, and academics—the liberal types every authoritarian regime fears and detests—are up in arms over the decision. Three prominent judges have resigned from the board of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize, and writers’ and gay organizations all over the world have denounced both the homophobia and the Hitlerite evocation of bookburning that the NLB action embodies. They point out, fairly enough, that conservatives who disagree with the books have a choice not to read them, but that others should have the option and opportunity to read them should they want to.

One of the strongest voices raised against the NLB was that of Suchen Lim, who last Thursday keynoted the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference at Singapore’s Arts House. (I should’ve been there, but thanks to Typhoon Glenda, my flight was canceled and I couldn’t rebook myself in time to catch my two events, so I decided to stay home and mend our typhoon-battered roof.) The Singapore Straits Times would report on Suchen’s impassioned attack on the NLB thus:

“Lim, 65, was a single parent to her two sons and was also brought up in a single parent family for a time before her mother remarried. She said the removal of these books was a disappointment.

“’In removing and pulping those books on various family structures, the National Library Board is telling these children that they and their families don’t count. In removing these books, NLB is reducing such children and their families into invisibility,’ she said.

“The audience in the Chamber of the former Parliament House stood and applauded her words, including Hong Kong writer Nury Vittachi and Singapore writers Verena Tay and Josephine Chia. Also present was writer Felix Cheong, who along with fellow authors Gwee Li Sui, Adrian Tan and Prem Anand, withdrew from an NLB panel discussion last week, to protest against the withdrawal of the picture books.

“Cheong, 49, wore a brand-new T-shirt decorated with three penguins, a logo which has been adopted by those against NLB’s removal of the books.”

Had I been there, I would’ve stood up myself and cheered Suchen on, even at the risk of being blacklisted and turned away the next time I present myself at Changi’s immigration line. The fight against prejudice and censorship knows no national boundaries, which is why I’m writing up this issue for Filipino readers who couldn’t care less about Singapore and gay penguins.

In truth, I’m a fairly frequent visitor to Singapore and have been the appreciative guest of both its government and of my fellow writers there. A couple of years ago, its tourism ministry took me, among other journalists, on a tour of Singapore’s cultural landmarks, including the National Library, and we were suitably impressed. I wrote glowing reports about Singapore’s emergence as a new cultural hotspot in Asia. Why not? The view from The Hub—a glass bubble at the top of the library—was breathtaking, and I was moved by a special exhibit their ultramodern library had of their prominent writers’ memorabilia. When, I thought, would we come around to making these investments in books and culture in the Philippines?

But as I noted last week, there are always two sides to Singapore, and this book-banning incident reminded me of (for us Filipinos) a much sadder story from almost 20 years ago, when Filipino domestic helper Flor Contemplacion, convicted of murder, was about to be hanged in Singapore’s Changi prison. As the editorial writer then of the now-defunct Today newspaper, on the eve of Flor’s execution, I looked helplessly at this painful spectacle and remarked:

“Something went terribly wrong with Flor’s dream—whether through her fault or someone else’s, as now seems highly plausible, only God for the moment knows for certain. Two people died, allegedly by Flor’s maddened hand, and that was tragic enough. Today, Flor Contemplacion will die in turn in judicial payment for those lives—and that, too, will cause untold sorrow, especially among her people who have rallied to her defense.

“But almost as saddening, perplexing, and infuriating as these losses is today’s freshest reminder of savagery in what had been held up, for all the world to see, as the very model of civilized society and behavior in our time. And this was hardly the savagery of individuals gone amuck, but the institutional primitivism of a government which, for all its claims to modernity and discipline, has finally revealed nothing but its simian brain and tom-tom heart. Flor’s execution will be a quick and convenient end; any further complications, by way of entertaining an appeal for a stay and a reinvestigation, would have strained the brutish simplemindedness of Singaporean justice.”

They were harsh words for a harsh situation, and even as I subsequently accepted and enjoyed, with not a little guilt, Singapore’s official hospitality, hoping that things had changed, I never quite lost the suspicion that beneath the First-World ease was a hair-trigger reflex that could be set off by any perceived threat to stability and security.

A government that fears that the carefully constructed and presumably robust society it has built can be unraveled by the affection between two male penguins is exhibiting not just ignorance but paranoia. One has to wonder of what use it is to tout such 21st-century marvels as the Marina Bay Sands—and, yes, a state-of-the-art National Library—when the consciousness that directs the place is stuck somewhere in the 16th century.

But before we Filipino beat our chests and congratulate ourselves over how much more open we are to such modern concepts as tolerance and acceptance, let’s not forget that our own public officials share something with their Singaporean counterparts. When our President denied the accomplished actress but alleged drug user Nora Aunor the National Artist Award for fear that honoring her would encourage Filipinos to run out for their nearest dose of shabu, it showed that governments everywhere don’t have the foggiest idea of how art and artists work. But they do know that art works—much more effectively than government PR—and in that knowledge, perhaps, lies the source of their fear and disquietude.

Penman No. 105: A Novel of Singapore

146Penman for Monday, July 14, 2014


IT SEEMS entirely fitting that I’m writing this review of a Singaporean novel practically on the eve of flying to Singapore for a writers’ conference. I’m actually meeting its author—Suchen Christine Lim—at that conference where she’ll be one of the keynote speakers, so I’m sure we’re going to have an interesting conversation at the kopi tiam.

We Filipinos have generally looked at Singapore with an odd mixure of liberal disdain and a pauper’s envy. We like to imagine the typical Singaporean as an ideological robot who has to be programmed to have good clean fun, even as we shamelessly admire and imbibe Singapore’s First-World comforts on our occasional sorties through Changi’s Terminal 3 and down Orchard Road. We feel deeply conflicted by the fact that over 150,000 Filipinos work in Singapore, mainly as domestic helpers—proud of their tenacity and sacrifice, while being shamed by our inability to give them good jobs at home, with their families.

This kind of duality, we soon learn, exists within Singaporean society as well. Singapore isn’t nearly as monolithic as we commonly think, and what it is today came about as a result of a complex, continuing, and often painful process, one that involves folding the past into the ever-changing present.

This is the narrative burden assumed by Suchen Christine Lim’s The River’s Song (UK: Aurora Metro, 2013). It’s a novel that sprawls over more than three decades and straddles Asia and North America, but its achievement lies less in its scope than in its intimacy, which is sustained throughout the work. There’s no great mystery or wizardry to Suchen’s technique: it’s solid storytelling, employing compelling and credible characters caught between being rich and poor, being young and old, being man and woman, and being loved and unloved.

Premised on the modern renewal of Singapore’s riverfront, The River’s Song takes us back to that city-state’s backwater days, and follows the lives of its two main protagonists, the girl Ping and the boy Weng, whose shared passion for music helps relieve their abject poverty and turn an innocent friendship between children into an almost irreparably difficult love between adults. Suchen evokes this lost age of Singapore with masterly precision:

“Weng ran out of the hut, pulled off his shorts and jumped into the river. At the crack of dawn the river had stirred to life. Fires were lit in the stoves in his neighbors’ huts. Bare-chested boatmen squatted on the decks of their bumboats brushing their teeth with a bit of coconut husk, gargling into their tin mugs like hundreds of tenors and baritones in the choir. This was the music Weng had heard since he was a toddler on his parents’ boat, when they still lived on a boat then. He swam out to the middle of the cool brown water. Smoke from the charcoal and wood stoves was starting to tickle his nostrils. Soon the food stalls in the market would open and his stepmother would buy fried dough sticks or fried vermicelli for the family’s breakfast.”

Ping and her mother are taken in by a rich man, and she later goes to America for an education and an escape from all the pain that Singapore has meant to her, hoping all the while to keep in touch with Weng, who becomes an activist for the poor, embittered by what he sees as Ping’s desertion. How they get back together after failed attempts at happiness with others forms the novel’s present, and Suchen composes and choreographs this reconciliation in musical terms, with Ping playing the pipa (a Chinese guitar or lute) and Weng the dizi (a flute):

“The pipa lets out an anguished groan. The Ming Ensemble joins in with a sobbing of erhu strings. The guqin gives a rippled cry. In a lilting undertone, the dizi sings a sorrowful accompaniment, underscoring the pipa’s grief. When the pipa rages in the desert storm in a fury of plucked strings, his dizi soothes in calm counterpoint. When the pipa weeps among the bleak sand dunes, his dizi comforts with broef snatches of melody. The rapt assembly has never heard the likes of this before. As bamboo, wind and strings sweep across the desolate plains beyond the Great Wall, weaving an intricate song of bleak beauty and sorrow, some people in the audience weep. When the pipa grieves her loss, the dizi consoles. When the dizi queries, the pipa replies. You left, he rues. I left, the pipa sighs.”

As with all good novels, The River’s Song is much more than the love story at its core, as satisfying as that already is. It’s a virtual chronicle of how modern Singapore came to be, and an accounting of the human and social costs of modernization, particularly at the fringes of society where every penny and every inch of land matters. Reflecting its author’s maturity and sensibility, it’s not the kind of angsty rant we tend to get from juvenile writers these days, but a poignant lament that holds out hope for redemption despite—to advert to a section heading—the darkness of the waters.

Here and there, in a spot or two, I might quibble with Suchen over a note that may be slightly off-key; I suspect, for example, that the stray quotation from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney springs more from the author than from the character, whose musical artistry and intelligence I can’t contest, but whose literary inclinations had never been clearly established. Otherwise Suchen—one of Singapore’s most celebrated writers—has an impeccable gift for dialogue and scene-setting; the novel is practically a script, needing just a camera to become the movie its material seems cut out for.

I spoke earlier of the stereotypes that we non-Singaporeans have of that place and its people. Suchen Lim banishes these stereotypes and much of our ignorance along with them. Of course there were poor and homeless Singaporeans. Of course there was principled resistance to the regime. Of course there’s a steamy underbelly to the façade of manicured lawn, polished glass, and hard-edged steel that contemporary Singapore projects. Those of us who visit and remark, perhaps too casually, about the “soullessness” of modern Singapore will have good cause to rethink that assumption; the soul may not be in Marina Bay Sands, but it’s clearly alive in the literary imagination.

If you want to know Singapore beyond what the Lonely Planet guidebook will tell you, pick up a copy of The River’s Song; I know I’m going to look up Pagoda Street, one of the book’s locales, when I get the chance this week. The book is available on Amazon. (Suchen, a frequent Manila visitor and friend to many Filipino writers, also left a copy with the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room of the UP Institute of Creative Writing in Diliman; have a look at it there, then find your own copy to cherish and to share.)

[Old Singapore image from; image of pipa player from]

Penman No. 104: The Psychology of Collecting

48VacumaticsPenman for Monday, July 7, 2014


EVERY OTHER month or so, I take the 200+ contents of my fountain pen collection out of their wooden boxes and leather cases—a few of which reside in a fireproof safe—to ink, doodle with, clean, and reorganize. It’s a ritual that invariably leaves me pleased and at peace. Sometimes I reorganize the pens by age, sometimes by maker, sometimes by color or material.

Any serious collector of, well, seriously anything will recognize this behavior. And I do mean anything—I’ve met people who collect not just the usual stamps or coins or even watches and cars but barbed wire and tractor seats. (I met the tractor-seat fellow 25 years ago in a barn full of antiques in Ohio; when I expressed astonishment at his specialty, he turned around and said, with scholarly disdain at my ignorance, “There’s a fanny for every seat!”)

In the pen forums I inhabit, there’s a never-ending discussion about being either a “user” or a “collector,” the implication being that collectors are simply moneyed hoarders while users are simple, practical-minded folk who’ve never forgotten what things are for. I propose that the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between; many users are wannabe collectors, and most collectors have never stopped being users. It’s pointless to think of, say, a 1925 Waterman Sheraton or a 1934 Wahl Eversharp Doric as being just a pen you can write with, like a cheap ballpoint; they may have been utilitarian tools once, but somewhere along the way they crossed the line and became jewelry and art object.

At least that’s how I excuse amassing and periodically gloating over, say, my dozens of Parker Vacumatics, a 1930s-40s pen that forms the core of my collection. This was the pen I wrote my 1994 short story “Penmanship” about. (It’s a story about a story that I’ve often told, but the sum of it is that I found this 1938 Vacumatic Oversize in a pen shop in Edinburgh, paid a month’s salary for it, suffered buyer’s remorse, then decided to write a story about the pen, which won first prize in a contest that made me back my salary.) I know enough about Vacs that I can put you to sleep by mumbling mantras such as “Vac nomenclature covers a fascinating maze of models and colors—the Junior, the Major, the Standard, the Slender, the Debutante, the Oversize, the Senior, which is not to be confused with the Senior Maxima, since the Senior came out only in 1936….”

About 15 years ago it wasn’t pens but laptops—yes, Apple Macintosh Powerbooks, particularly the Duo line (the granddaddy of the MacBook Air and all those super-slim laptops people toss into their briefcases today). I had (and still have) about a dozen of these machines, which I used to take apart to upgrade the memory and hard drive (back when 240 megabytes made you king of the hill), before putting them back together again and then pressing the power button to hear that unmistakable startup chime that told me I had done everything right, so I could then step out and face the world and slay dragons and then sign memos.

So why do otherwise presumably sane people like me get our kicks by amassing strange objects most other people wouldn’t give a second look or drag into their homes even if you paid them to do it? I asked myself this question again last week as I changed out the inks (another ritual for the devotee) in my glorified Bics. Why do we take them out week after week, not to write a novel or a draft SONA but endless iterations of “I love this pen I love this pen”?

First of all, you want to be reassured that they’re still there. Collectibles have a way of walking away on little cat feet, and collectors have a sixth sense about what’s missing from the picture.

Second, you want to reassure yourself that you know why they’re there—that the objects have some aesthetic and monetary value. Perhaps that value’s known only to a very few people, which is not a bad thing, because it’s proof of your connoisseurship, of a certain esoteric form of expertise that’s taken you some time and expense to cultivate. It’s like getting a PhD in the truly little, truly fun things (and what’s a PhD these days except a lot of knowledge about very small things, hardly any of which is fun?).

You may be a total loser in nearly every other aspect of life—your face could resemble a well-worn shoe, your family may have deserted you for the coldest parts of Canada, your car could be an escapee from the junkyard—but if you know everything about tourbillons, carburetors, calibers, and (in my case) nibs, then you have good reason to face the world with pride if not arrogance; you have, after all, one of the world’s largest collection of GI Joes, or Tonkas, or Ken dolls, or whatever floats you boat.

Third, let’s go online and ask the experts. Dr. Mark McKinley, in a much-quoted piece on “The Psychology of Collecting” in The National Psychologist, goes back in time to note that “During the 1700s and 1800s there were aristocratic collectors, the landed gentry, who roamed the world in search of fossils, shells, zoological specimens, works of art and books. The collected artifacts were then kept in special rooms (‘cabinets of curiosities’) for safekeeping and private viewing. A ‘cabinet’ was, in part, a symbolic display of the collector’s power and wealth. It was these collectors who established the first museums in Europe, and to a lesser extent in America.”

Since I’m sure I don’t collect Sheaffers and Esterbrooks to show off my power and wealth, let’s see what M. Farouk Radwan (who holds an M. Sc., so who presumably knows what he’s talking about) says about the subject: “Since early years human beings used to collect food in order to feel safe and secure. Because acquiring food was a difficult process with uncertain outcomes humans learned to ease their anxieties by storing the food they needed. The same need, which is to feel secure, is the primary motivating force behind the creation of collections.

“Because life is uncertain and can easily make a person feel helpless some people use their collections to create a private comfort zone that they can control. By arranging and disarranging their collections compulsive hoarders can regain the sense of control over their lives. These actions reduce anxiety and helps those people cope with the uncertainty of the real world.”

So we go back to basic needs and instincts: food and security. McKinley puts these together: “For some, the satisfaction comes from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there, which can serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life, e.g., calming fears, erasing insecurity. The motives are not mutually exclusive, as certainly many motives can combine to create a collector—one does not eat just because of hunger.”

That’s a brilliant insight—“one does not eat just because of hunger”—and it leads to my favorite explanation of the psychology of collecting, propounded by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein (co-authors of Sparks of Genius, the 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People) in “The Collection Connection to Creativity” (Psychology Today, May 2011):

“The fact is collecting exercises a number of important mental tools necessary for creative thinking. The collector learns to observe acutely, to make fine distinctions and comparisons, to recognize patterns within her collection. These patterns include not only the elements that make up the collection, but the gaps in it as well. Learning how to perceive what isn’t there is as important as knowing what is! And the collector also knows the surprise of finding something that doesn’t fit the collection pattern: Is the mismatch a fake? An exception? Something that belongs in another collection? Broken patterns are often the ones that teach us the most by challenging our preconceptions and expectations.”

Patterns, designs, mismatches, aberrations: early in 1937, just for a few months, Parker came out with a special Vacumatic, with the word “Vacumatic” etched in the gold-filled cap band. It’s one of the holy grails of Parker collectors, one of the rarest and most expensive of finds, and I have one. That should make it the crown jewel of my collection, but it isn’t; it’s the pen that made me write a story about it that’s the rarest one of all, that gives me a lifelong excuse for picking up tubes that squirt inks.

(If you like pens, join us at Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, We’re marking our sixth anniversary this week!)

Penman No. 103: Too Much Drama

Penman for Monday, June 30, 2014

IN MY other life as a dramatist, which came to an end some years ago, I wrote about a dozen plays for the stage and more than twice as many television plays and screenplays, mostly for the late Lino Brocka. Lino and I happily turned out double-hanky tearjerkers with such rousingly commercial titles (which someone presumably from the marketing department thought up) as Kailan Mahuhugasan ang Kasalanan, Ano ang Kulay ng Mukha ng Diyos, Maging Akin Ka Lamang, Miguelito, ang Batang Rebelde, and my very first one, back in 1977, Tahan Na, Empoy, Tahan.

I may have stopped writing drama to focus on fiction and nonfiction, but now and then the old skills get a workout. I’ve always said that there’s no better training for a writer of fiction than to have been a playwright, because playwriting teaches dramatic economy—how to set up a scene, how to get the most out of your characters, how to use dialogue effectively (meaning, at its most complex, how to get your characters to say things they don’t mean, or to mean things they can’t say).

Last week, I said as much again to a group of writers and program analysts from a TV network who wanted to see how writers think. I told them that drama’s to be found not only in filmscripts or on the set—it’s all around us, taking place quietly in some fastfood joint or some bus stop or some hospital ward; the writer’s task is to see that drama, to palpate it from the tedium of everyday life, and to sharpen and brighten its edges so others can see the extraordinary in otherwise ordinary moments.

We’ll save the rest of the drama lesson for another day; I bring this up only to establish my bona fides when it comes to talking about drama, and about my thesis today, which is that—even for a writer of melodrama, for which I make no excuses—there seems to be entirely too much drama around us these days, or theater if you will. (There’s a subtle difference, if you think of drama as the situation and of theater as its enactment on some kind of stage.)

Case in point: I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick not only of Senator Bong Revilla’s whinings about the heat in his room at the “custodial center” (it’s not even a real prison, for Pete’s sake), but also of how the media has fussed over it like it was a real news story (“Can Congresswoman Lani make it back from Greenhills in 15 minutes with the air cooler? That’s all the time she has before visiting hours end!” said one radio reporter breathlessly.) My totally un-PC prescription? Give him the fan, give him whatever creature comfort he wants, but reduce his cell to about a third of its size and keep that one window, from which I hope he sees a mall, or something with lots of people and traffic in it. There’s no better reminder of what prison means than limited space and movement, no matter what you may have with you. (I remember watching a Marlboro neon sign blink at me on the far side of martial law prison, back in 1973; that was torture.)

Senator Jinggoy Estrada’s departure for the custodial center was only slightly less theatrical, thanks again to the media who couldn’t get enough of the father-and-son story being played out in all of its bitter if obvious irony. Of course we expected the family to bond around Jinggoy, and for tears to be shed; that’s any family’s natural privilege, and its natural response. Indeed what underwhelmed me, from my dramatist’s standpoint, was how predictable everything was from start to finish, especially the inevitable “Mayor Erap, ano’ng nararamdaman ninyo sa pagkakakulong ng inyong anak?” I wanted to scream, “E ano pa?”

I can just see the video highlights from these staged “surrenders” figuring in these politicos’ next campaigns: the prayers in church, the mug shots, the hugs and waves from distraught spouses, parents, and kids; the cell doors closing, as the music goes up and under, before we hear a murmured voice-over: “May bukas pa….”

Case in point Number 2: Sometimes silence is drama; when your wife refuses to explain why she doesn’t want to talk to you, that’s drama. When the Palace refuses to explain why it dropped Nora Aunor from the list of National Artist awardees, that’s drama. All President Noynoy’s spokesmen could say was “It’s the President’s prerogative….”, which is exactly what we heard from President Gloria’s spokesmen a few years ago, the only difference being that she made dagdag, while Noynoy made bawas. I did read something about Nora’s exclusion being “in the national interest,” but it boggles the mind to figure out exactly what that means. I can understand defending the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal as being “in the national interest”; I can even understand rooting for Manny Pacquiao on fight day—temporarily setting all his other quirks and antics aside—as being “in the national interest.” But dropping Nora?

As I wrote in this corner a few months ago, I was on a large, multidisciplinary, second-level committee that endorsed Nora Aunor to a higher body (the NCCA and CCP Boards plus the National Artists); we endorsed Dolphy as well, and if I remember right, he and Nora got the same highest votes across the board. Granted that our recommendations were just that and subject to final approval upstairs, I feel among many others in the arts that we at least deserve a full and cogent explanation for all these pluses and minuses that take place in Malacañang. The Palace—and I don’t mean just the present occupant—has never been known to be a bulwark of artistic support and sensibility, if you look at funding for the arts in relation to everything else; if it never cared for or about the arts, why should it suddenly care—negatively at that—about Nora Aunor, whom the arts community clearly feels is deserving of its highest accolade? If you can’t help, at least don’t get in the way.

I’d been told by some Palace contacts that questions came up about Nora’s alleged drug use. OK, I said, it’s fair enough to raise these questions which presumably involve moral turpitude. But since when has it been fair to use morality as a standard for artistic excellence? We’ve had National Artists whose personal lives were hardly spotless, but whose art precisely may have been deepened and enriched by those encounters with their darker side. (Conversely, we’ve had National Artists who may present themselves as moral exemplars and accuse everyone else of some fatal shortcoming, but whose work is unremittingly mediocre and soporific.) Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Miles Davis, among many others, would never qualify for state honors in their countries (not that they ever cared) if our Malacañang’s standards were employed.

Last case in point: I wholeheartedly agreed with the NCCA when it protested the Palace snub of Ms. Aunor, but also wholeheartedly disagreed with the NCCA when it reportedly protested allowing the use of our national heroes’ names for such popular products as beer. (Think “Cerveza Rizal” or “Mabini Beer.”) The reason given by objectors was that it would be a sign of disrespect for these heroes to associate something as morally undesirable as alcohol with them.

Really? Which planet are we on? Didn’t our heroes drink beer and stiffer forms of alcohol—in spite (or dare I say because) of which they performed heroic deeds, anyway? Rizal complained that his fellow ilustrados in Spain drank and womanized too much, but that hardly meant that he was completely abstemious in either department. He didn’t care much for hard liquor, but drank beer (like me, on whom single malt would be a total waste). George Washington was a beer guy as well, and even famously left a handwritten recipe for his own brew (later marketed in an “Ales of the Revolution” line). So will the moral police please lighten up? If Nora’s good enough to be a National Artist, then Jose Rizal should be good enough to go on a beer bottle, and I’ll hoist many a cold Rizal in his own honor.

Heroes aren’t heroes because they’re perfect human beings; they’re heroes because—despite some truly terrible character flaws and peccadilloes (one of them even shot his wife, remember?)—they left something indelible to the national spirit and imagination, enough for us to think of ourselves as a nation. Heroes and National Artists (the real ones and the best ones) can do that; politicians—whether in prison or in the Palace—can’t.

Penman No. 102: The Cream of the Crop

2014FulbrightPenman for Monday, June 23, 2014


A FEW weeks ago, I was happy to attend a pre-departure orientation seminar for this year’s US-bound batch of Fulbright and Hubert Humphrey scholars. I’ve been to quite a few of these PDOs over the past decade or so, and normally I’d be there up front, giving one of the orientation talks.

I’m usually the closer at these seminars, my task being to remind our scholars to enjoy their stay in America and to learn all they can—and then to come home and serve their people. “Love America all you please,” goes my spiel, “but never forget where your home is, which is here—not even here in 21st century Makati, but in those parts of our country which languish in the 20th and even the 19th century. We go to the great schools of America not just to improve our lives but theirs—those Filipinos who cannot even read, or are too hungry and tired from work to read.”

Last month, I sat in the audience on the listening end, having been privileged with a Fulbright grant—again, after my first one nearly 30 years ago, when I left for the US to do my master’s at Michigan and my PhD at Wisconsin before returning in 1991. This September, if all goes well, I’ll be leaving for Washington, DC to do advanced research in connection with my ongoing book project on the First Quarter Storm, specifically to seek out American perceptions of and experiences with martial law in the Philippines, and also to interview Filipino-American activists from that period.

The Philippine-American Educational Foundation, headed by the very capable and amiable Dr. Esmeralda “EC” Cunanan, actually administers or acts as a conduit for several distinct scholarship programs that fall loosely under the “Fulbright” rubric, named after the late Sen. William J. Fulbright, who saw educational exchanges as the best way to promote international cooperation and understanding between America and the rest of the world. (The Fulbright program also sends out American scholars for studies abroad.) Indeed, as I often tell my American friends, one Fulbright scholarship will probably cost a hundredth of and produce a thousand times more enduring goodwill than one bomb. For us Filipinos, this is the pensionado concept brought over into a new century, with the important difference that our learning is no longer meant to serve American ends, but ours.

A scan of this year’s batch of outgoing scholars offers great hope for the future. Chosen from many hundreds if not thousands of applicants after rigorous evaluations and interviews, they represent truly the cream of the crop, and I felt honored to be in their company.

The so-called “classic” Fulbright scholars—those going for their master’s and PhD degrees—include the likes of Lisa Decenteceo of UP Diliman, who’s going for her PhD in Musicology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (yay, go Blue!); Neil Andrew Mijares of the University of San Carlos, who’s doing an MA in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa; and Ramjie Odin of Mindanao State University-Maguindanao, who’s entering the PhD program in Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture at Auburn University.

Among my three fellow “senior” postgraduate scholars, despite the fact that she looks young enough to pass for an undergrad, is Marites Sanguila of Father Saturnino Urios University in Butuan, who’ll be going to the University of Oklahoma to undertake advanced research in “Species Diversity and Survival in a Changing Environment: Developing a New Center for Biodiversity Conservation.”

For many years now, there’s also been a special Fulbright program focused on agriculture, the Philippine Agriculture Scholarship Program for Advanced Research, which was set up at the initiative of then Agriculture Secretary Edgardo J. Angara to improve our agricultural expertise. This year’s nine grantees include Ma-Ann Camarin of MSU-Marawi who’s going to another MSU, Mississippi State University, to do doctoral dissertation research on (hold your breath) “Disease Surveillance and Study on the Bacterial Flora of Freshwater Prawn (Machrobrachium rosenbergii) as Biological Control Against Pathogenic Bacteria.” Meanwhile, Shirley Villanueva of the University of Southeastern Philippines in Tagum is going to the University of California-Davis to conduct research on the “Genetic Diversity of Native Chicken Groups in the Davao Region.”

Among the two US-ASEAN Visiting Scholars will be Jay Batongbacal of UP, one of our foremost legal experts on maritime law, who’ll be studying issues related to current disputes in the South China Sea. The three Hubert Humphrey fellows—all accomplished professionals in mid-career—include a PNP major and former Pasay City precinct commander, Kimberly M. Gonzales, who’ll be looking into public policy and administration concerns at the University of Minnesota.

To help Americans—especially Fil-Ams—learn Filipino, the Fulbright program is sending out three Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, who include Edward Nubla from the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod; he’ll be on his way to Skyline College in San Bruno, California. Lastly, four Filipino undergraduates will soon be spending a year on a US campus, thanks to the Fulbright program. They include Michiko Bito-on of Silliman University in Dumaguete, who’s taking up Mass Communications.

It’s heartening to see the diversity not only in these scholars’ expertise and concerns but also in their representation of all corners of the archipelago, ensuring that the Fulbright experience is shared not only by the usual suspects like me from Manila’s academia, but by bright young minds from north, south, and center.


SPEAKING OF the Filipino presence overseas, a big cultural event will take place in Hong Kong over this weekend, thanks to the efforts of the poet and scholar Armida M. Azada, who’s been based there for many years now.

On Friday, June 27, 5:30-7:00 pm, Mida will sit in conversation with visiting Filipino writers Joel Toledo, Charms Tianzon, and Daryll Delgado in a symposium on new Philippine writing titled “Our Words, Other Worlds,” at the Amenities Building, Lingnan University. The next day, at noon, Mida’s new book of poems, Catalclysmal: Seventy Wasted Poems will be launched at the 7th Floor of Hong Kong City Hall in Central. Earlier that morning, from 10:30 to 12 noon in the same venue, a free writing workshop will be held for Pinoy helpers and HK-Pinoy youth. On Sunday the 29th, from 6 to 7:30 pm, a poetry reading by Filipino writers and their friends will be held on the first floor of DB Plaza Terrace near Dymocks in Discovery Bay.

This is a wonderful thing that Mida Azada—a gifted poet who was a colleague at the UP Department of English before she moved to Hong Kong and the UK—is doing not just for herself but for her fellow Filipinos in the diaspora. As prizewinning poet Joel Toledo puts it in his endorsement of Mida’s new collection, “Cataclysmal is a collection of haunts and visitations. The poems here flit in and out of the Philippine archipelago, travelling to London, Hong Kong, and New York without losing touch of a Filipino rootedness. The poet’s concerns stray and meander from the personal and cathartic to the phenomenal and ultimately global. But Azada’s voice is keen and focused, filtered on the page by a careful attention to language. One may argue that this is the poetics of the expatriate ruminating on both the post-modern and post-colonial. Yet at the heart of this collection is fierce integrity, a resonant ‘I’ persona that won’t flinch. Here are poems that both strain to capture the fleeting and restrain from exoticizing the past. The poet Fanny Howe once wrote, “Double the beautiful/because they are so little.” While phenomena can sometimes be indeed cataclysmal, the hurtful is never wasted—so long as poems remember and reconstruct and, in time, recollect the sorrows, parse them into bliss.”

Mida, Joel, Charms, Daryll, and the other fine, memorable voices of their generation—they too are the cream of the crop.

Penman No. 101: The Digital Tourist (2)

photo 2Penman for Monday, June 16, 2014


LAST WEEK I wrote about some websites that you could check out if you’re planning to go on a trip, especially to some place you’ve never been before. Practically everything today can be planned online, from choosing destinations to booking flights and hotels and buying travel insurance. But what about when you’re already on the road?

This is where travel apps come in—“apps” being those small programs or applets (little applications) that come with your tablet or smartphone, or that can be downloaded to them. These apps can be lifesavers—literally, when you’re lost close to midnight in the bowels of a subway station in a strange city, without the foggiest idea how to get back to your hotel. Some will require an Internet connection, but many won’t, after their initial installation—and that’s when you’ll be happy and relieved that you had the foresight to install them when you could, before you even left for the airport. Whatever I’ll list here won’t be your only options—in many cases, there may even be other, better apps other will know about—but these are the ones I’ve roadtested myself, over many years of traipsing around the planet, with PDA (remember those?) or smartphone in hand. (Do note that I use an iPhone, but many of these apps gave their Android counterparts. For IOS devices, go to the App Store.)

Trip planning. If you travel often, you’ll need an all-around planner to organize your trips—remind you of your itinerary, make your bookings, check your flight status, provide weather forecasts, convert currencies, and such. Your datebook can take care of some of these things, but not all. For many years now, my reliable sidekick in this department has been an app called WorldMate, which can do all of the above, and more (it can also calculate tips).

WorldMate’s strongest feature is its flight planner and notifier, which comes in really handy when you have a string of flights to take in a mad dash from one airport, one terminal, and one gate to another. Let’s say you’re flying Delta to Detroit via Tokyo Narita, or Cathay to London via Hong Kong. As soon as you make your booking and receive it in your email, all you do is forward your confirmation email or e-ticket to WorldMate will automatically digest that email and reflect your itinerary on the app on your phone or tablet—and, if you’ve configured WorldMate to sync with your datebook, it’ll show up on your calendar as well. If your flight gets delayed, WorldMate will advise you of it. It will give you your terminal on arrival and departure. (WorldMate has a free basic version and a paid Gold version with more features.)

Flight tracking. You’re dashing to the airport in a cab, late for your flight, and you don’t even know which terminal or gate it will be leaving from (and if you’re really unlucky, you’ll be in Madrid, where Terminal 4 is several kilometers away from Terminal 2, and Terminal 4S takes another 20 minutes to get to); you’re praying like mad that your flight’s delayed. At this point, your friend is an app called FlightBoard, which tracks scheduled flights—arrivals and departures—at airports all over the world in real time. A similar app called FlightAware allows you to track all the flights between two airports for a given day, and to zero in on a particular one; if it’s up in the air somewhere over Siberia, it will show exactly where it’s supposed to be on a global map, much like you’d see on those onboard monitors. Both FlightBoard and FlightAware are free. (These apps are also good for when you’re meeting someone in Arrivals.)

photo 3

Getting around. Once you’ve reached your destination, there are two things you’ll almost certainly need to get around: a city map, and a local transport (subway and bus) guide. Many airports will give you free city maps on arrival, and they’re fun to spread out on the table over breakfast to plan the day, but they’re a hassle to unfold at streetcorners and in the middle of the plaza to locate where you are and where you’re going (and at that instant, you might as well wear a T-shirt saying, “I’m a lost tourist—please, victimize me!”).

A good map stored in your digital device—without needing to go online, as you would with Google Maps—can save you a lot of anxiety, if not a lot of footsteps. On our recent sortie around Europe, I was glad to be guided by one invaluable resource: Ulmon maps of Barcelona, Venice, Florence, and Paris. All of these maps were free, and could be blown up to the level of individual streets and even alleys; if you feel lost, you could input the name of the nearest street, and it will locate your neighborhood in relation to popular landmarks. Clicking on the name of a hotel will give you rates; public transport stops are also indicated.

Speaking of public transport, nearly all the major cities of the world have some kind of subway or metro rail line, and this gives me an opportunity to introduce my favorite travel app of all time—and I mean that almost literally, because I’ve been using it in its various incarnations since 1999, or 15 years, an eternity in digital time. It’s called Metro, and it’ a guide to the world’s subways, metros, and bus lines. I first used Metro on my Palm Pilot when I was navigating around London, and the app—though regularly updated—has remained essentially the same. You choose a city (say Paris), and decide that, from your hotel on Avenue Foch, you want to go to the weekend flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt. You input “Avenue Foch” and “Clignancourt” and tap an icon, and Metro will yield the information that the shortest subway route will take 16 stops involving one change (at Barbes-Roucheouart—thankfully, you don’t need to know how to pronounce these names), for approximately 33 minutes total. Each subway stop is identified, as well as the direction of the train you should be taking. The best thing about Metro? It’s absolutely free, and works offline.

photo 1

This list of apps could go on, but as travel is complicated enough, let’s keep it simple: for as long as you have these apps (WorldMate, FlightBoard, Ulmon Maps, and Metro), your next trip will be much less of a headache, and you can enjoy the view out the window rather than wonder and worry over where your train is going.

(Let me just add, before I forget: these apps will be totally useless if your phone or tablet is dead; I always travel with a universal adaptor, an extension cord, and a power bank for extra juice. If you blow air into my pants, I could go on a spacewalk.)

Penman No. 100: The Digital Tourist (1)

L1090980Penman for Monday, June 9, 2014


SOME FRIENDS who perhaps still miss the days when you dressed up for plane flights (even if it was only to Hong Kong) and carried your paper ticket in a cardboard sleeve asked me upon our recent return from Europe to draw up a digital roadmap for tourists. In other words, what kind of digital resources can tourists and travelers avail themselves of to ensure better, cheaper, and safer travel? By “digital resources,” we mean things that you can find online on the Internet, like hotels and their rates, or carry around with you on your mobile phone or laptop, like travel apps that can record and remind you of your bookings.

It used to be that all you needed in your carry-on was an alarm clock, the kind with two brass bells that roused you like your mother from your jetlagged slumber (if you remembered to set the alarm the night before). But now we travel with smartphones, laptops, tablets, and a raft of batteries, chargers, and adapters, the better to maintain that indispensable virtue, connectivity, also known as your digital tether to home, office, and social network. (All this should make us want to ask why we even left home and what a vacation is supposed to mean, but as everyone knows all too well these days, leaving home means bringing as much of it with you.)

So herewith, some of my favorite digital-travel tips and tricks:

Where to go. While our destinations are often chosen for us (a conference here, a wedding there), sometimes we actually have that rare and precious option of deciding where to go, budgets and schedules permitting. Everyone will have his or her own bucket list—I’d still like to visit South America, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe someday—but Beng and I prefer to go around Asia for quick, cheap holidays, and are always on the lookout for special deals from regional airlines. Sign up with Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines, among others, for regular advisories on their packages. This way, we’ve visited Beijing, Kota Kinabalu, Hanoi, Shanghai and many other places nearby at giveaway fares (about P5,000 round-trip, all-in, for two of us to Beijing). Be open and adventurous, and be ready to book a trip months in advance to get the lowest fares. That also allows you to reconfigure your calendar around those trips.

How to get there. Again, check out airline offers, as well as travel agency packages. Make sure to factor in taxes and surcharges, which can bloat the final bill. What you want to get is the “all-in” price. Factor in baggage allowance; some airlines will charge you even for your first checked bag, especially on local flights. Budget airlines can offer aggressively low fares, especially off-season (that’s why we went to Beijing in December—freezing, but fewer fellow tourists to nudge you around), but it won’t hurt to check as many rates as you can. There are many online guides where you can check prices and book flights—Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, etc.—but I use SkyScanner ( a lot; it gives you the price in pesos, and immediately identifies the lowest price, with many other options. Sometimes it’s also good to check directly with the airline; recently, I found that Air France, on its own website, was offering a flight from Paris to Madrid that was lower than anyone else’s. Also, sometimes, cheapest may not always be the best for you. Cebu Pacific has great regional fares, but they often mean arriving in your destination around midnight, costing you a day and some anxiety in a strange airport. Adding a little more could also mean extras like a better plane and a better layover (we chose to fly BA to Madrid and back via Heathrow, to try out the new A380 and even marginally revisit London, one of our favorite cities). For local travel, don’t forget to explore your train and bus options—ground travel may be slower and not always cheaper, but you’ll see a lot more of the country.

Where to stay. Beng and I are lucky to get special rates from the Starwood chain (Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, etc.) because our daughter works there, but when we have to find other hotels, then TripAdvisor and are our best friends. As a rule, I never book a hotel (even a Starwood one) without checking the TripAdvisor reviews, which can reveal problems like “great hotel, but terrible location” or uncover pluses like “free, strong wi-fi, two minutes’ walk from the Metro.” TripAdvisor can rank hotels according to your budget and other preferences, assigning one to five stars. Once, on a lark, Beng and I decided to go slumming in Hong Kong and stay in the cheapest dive we could find, so I reversed TripAdvisor’s rankings and found a one-star place on Nathan Road. It was cheap—and fun; we survived! is another great guide to hotels and bed-and-breakfast places; they allow you to book often without any downpayment, cancellable without penalty within 24 hours of your stay. I booked our Venice hotel in Mestre and our Madrid airport hotel on this site. (A tip about Venice and Mestre—hotels in prime tourist spots like Venice can cost a fortune, but staying in places like Mestre, a very short train ride from Venice, can save you precious euros better spent on food and sightseeing.)

What to do. Every destination will have scores of travel guides online, but again, TripAdvisor’s thousands of reviews will give you a good sense of what’s worth visiting and what you can forego, especially on a tight budget and schedule (we passed up going to Halong Bay in Vietnam—pretty pictures, but a very pricey day trip). Like I wrote in a recent column, this is where we often let Serendipity take us by the hand and just let one streetcorner lead to another. Unlike many others, travel for us isn’t racking up a series of posed shots before famous landmarks; it’s about seeing what most other people will miss, or doing what most other tourists won’t. I don’t necessarily mean “going native,” which no one can honestly do on a three-day parachute tour, but finding or straying into unusual places, like that dusty, forgotten museum in Shanghai filled with dinosaurs and ancient, mummified Aryans, or that bookshop in Hanoi selling bright purple ink for 20 pesos a bottle.

Before I forget, and even before you begin your digital tour, scan, save, and upload (to one of your own email accounts) copies of your passport, visas, and travel insurance. (Yes, you can and should book travel insurance online—it’s one of those things you’ll be happy to never need.)

Next time, I’ll list and discuss specific apps—WorldMate, Metro, and FlightBoard, among others—and other tools (maps, photos, currency exchange) to help make that next trip of yours a more pleasant and fulfilling experience—as long as you don’t lose your tablet or smartphone.

Penman No. 99: The Bromance of Fred and Wash

FredWashPenman for Monday, June 2, 2014


IT WAS with great sadness that I read last week about the passing, at age 92, of Alfredo M. Velayo—an outstanding accountant, teacher, citizen, and philanthropist. Fred Velayo was best known as the “V” in SGV or Sycip Gorres Velayo & Co., the pioneering accounting firm that he co-founded with Washington SyCip and Ramon Gorres after the Second World War.

I had the great privilege and opportunity of writing Wash SyCip’s biography some years ago, and among the delights of that assignment was meeting and interviewing Fred Velayo—who, like Wash, was already well advanced in years but still sprightly and brimming with boyish mischief. Tall, handsome, genial, and an irrepressible joker, Fred was the perfect foil for the more private and more formal Wash.

Fred and Wash had one of the most memorable friendships (today they call these unusually durable male bondings “bromances”) I’ve ever come across—certainly one of the longest ones, starting in the 1920s at the tender age of five, when both boys attended Padre Burgos Elementary School in Sampaloc, Manila. Their first meeting, on the first day of school, wasn’t too auspicious. The children started crying when their mothers and yayas had to leave—except Wash’s mother, who was a good friend of the principal’s, and was allowed to stay. So Wash sat there unperturbed, and Fred would remember with a chuckle that “Right that first day, of course, we all hated him. Naturally. He was looking at us, saying ‘Why the hell are you little kids crying?’”

With his brilliant mind and work ethic—qualities that Fred himself displayed—Wash would never again have to lean back on privilege to get ahead. But a little luck never hurt. Bright as they were, both boys got accelerated in grade school—not once, but twice. In Wash’s case, it didn’t occur just twice, but thrice. Fred always wondered how that happened when he was just as smart as Wash—and Wash didn’t tell him the real reason until they were in their mid-70s in 1996, when Wash let slip that there had been room in the upper class for just one more boy, and the teacher chose him—alphabetically.

Fred and Wash caught up with each other in V. Mapa High; they both lived in Sta. Mesa and walked to school together. The friendship—and the rivalry—continued over high school, then went on to college at the University of Sto. Tomas, from which both graduated summa cum laude. As I would note in my book, “To no one’s great surprise, Wash finished his four-year course in two-and-a-half years, graduating a full year ahead of Fred, and ending up being Fred’s teacher in one subject at the ripe old age of 17. Amazingly, Fred would close the gap a bit by also getting to teach in his junior year, also at 17.”

Wash went to Columbia in New York for his PhD and was caught by the War there, and joined the US Army as a codebreaker in India; Fred stayed behind and married the girl who would become his wife of over seven decades, Harriet. After the War, their paths crossed again—Wash came home, and Fred went to the States with Harriet and joined the Army.

But when Wash had to go back to the US to fulfill a residency requirement (he had to take US citizenship to be able to work as a codebreaker), he needed someone to mind the small accounting business he had started in Manila, and there was no other person who could fit that bill but his old pal Fred Velayo. He wrote Fred a letter that would become part of SGV lore. He told Fred, on December 16, 1946: “Dear Fred, Received your letter from Alaska the day after I mailed my last letter—but hasten to write you this note. You should try to return as soon as possible as the top opportunities here are excellent—the earlier you start the better. Master’s degree doesn’t mean much—ninety percent of the FEU accounting faculty do not have anything more than a bachelor’s degree—including some of the highest paid ones. But now is the time to get started as I believe that the more you put it off, the greater will be the competition when you get settled. There’s a lot of accounting work—and you can combine this with teaching and importing (with Miller-Gates)—the returns are much larger here than in the States and the competition for a capable person is much less. So cabron, get the hell on that boat and come out here. The various bills before Congress will undoubtedly increase the work of CPAs—but you have to get in on the ground floor… some come over fast. You can also try your hand at insurance—good and profitable line. Cost of living has been going down during the past month in spite of strikes in the States. Housing isn’t worse than in the States—so make up your mind—be your own boss—and come to virgin territory! See you soon. Wash.”

At first, Fred said no—he and Harriet had just begun to settle down in the US—but in January 1947, Fred changed his mind and took a plane home. The rest, as they say, is accounting history. Fred had a funny story about what supposedly happened next:

“One day, years later, Wash came back. He was still earning a little more than me. And so he came to my room. (WS) Fred, this has got to stop. (AMV) What are you talking about? (WS) The fact that I’m earning more from the firm than you. From now on everything will be equal. Our monthly drawings, even perks, club membership, everything, the same. It’s not fair to you that I’m getting a little more. (AMV) SOB, how come it took you so long? (WS) Never mind, from now on we’ll be equal partners. As he walked out of my room, he started laughing. (WS) Anyway, you’ll always be my junior partner. (AMV) After you said we’re equal from now on? (WS) I can’t help it. I’m 57 days older than you. He even counted!”

When we interviewed Fred for Wash’s book (Fred already had his own biography published before Wash), he told us a hoary joke, often recounted at SGV reunions, about dying ahead of Wash and getting to heaven sooner. I guess he knew something Wash didn’t. Bon voyage, Fred Velayo.

Penman No. 98: On Tour with Serendipity

Penman for Monday, May 26, 2014


MAYTIME IN Europe, particularly in Spain, is a festive season; Madrid has the same patron saint and feast day as many Philippine towns such as Lucban—San Isidro Labrador, on May 15—and so it was a fine time to be there these past two weeks. We missed the actual feast days, and in France all the buzz was going on in Cannes while we were in Paris, but it was just as well because the crowds were a bit smaller but the experiences no less interesting at the periphery.

As I mentioned last week, doing six cities—Madrid, San Sebastian, Barcelona, Venice, Florence, and Paris—in 12 days is murder for sexagenarians, and maybe not the best way to get to know places, but the intensity of this “amazing race” approach has its own advantages and surprises.

I’m usually an obsessive planner when it comes to travel, going digital as much as I can, months in advance—from consulting TripAdvisor to making plane and hotel bookings to reconnoitering possible spots to visit and downloading street maps, subway guides, and travel apps. (I’ll do a separate piece on this madness, one of these days.) This time, aside from some basic planning, we left many things to chance, going by such general interests as “museums and flea markets” or “art galleries and food” to guide us though a city. Serendipity (informed, to some extent, by a limited budget) proved to be the best tour guide, as we allowed one street to lead to the next, and open up to unexpected delights.



San Sebastian, or Donastia in Basque, was the wild card on our itinerary. The place doesn’t figure in most visitors’ travel plans, and frankly, as global-savvy as I pretend to be, I had to look it up on a Spanish map when our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry mentioned it to me. The two had met Anthony Bourdain at an event in California, and had asked him where in the whole world he would retire if he had his choice, and Bourdain didn’t take two seconds to answer “San Sebastian,” obviously because of the food.


That answer stuck with Demi and Jerry, and when the four of us started planning our European sojourn early this year—we made all our bookings in mid-January—San Sebastian was firmly on the list, although we knew very little about it. For me, the appeal was that it was up in Basque country, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay close to the French border, so it promised an atmosphere different from central Madrid, or Barcelona in the Balearic-Mediterranean south. I also relished the thought of taking the five-hour train ride cross-country; train travel is one of Europe’s most relaxing treats.


The Basque language, I’m sure, has its poetic charms, but to the untrained eye and ear (like mine) it might as well be Klingon, with a surfeit of X’s, K’s, and T’s. Many words have absolutely no relation to their Spanish or Latin counterparts; a restaurante in Spain or a ristorante in Italy is a jatetxea in Basque.

That said, food is a universal language, and while I’ve maintained a stubborn and silly pride in calling myself a culinary philistine (as usual, I brought six packets of ramen in my suitcase), I had to yield to the majesty of Basque cuisine, particularly their pintxos—the local version of the more familiar tapas. Laid out on the bar of every jatetxea we entered, and selling for a little over a euro each, the pintxos were scrumptious combinations of such staples as shrimp, crab, mushroom, asparagus, anchovy, jamon serrano, and bread.


Good, affordable food would be our constant on this tour, often found in rather unlikely places (no Michelin guide for us, just our budgets and our noses): the best pasta we’d ever had, in a nondescript restaurant in Florence; a roast chicken, rice, and salad dish at the Doner Kebab place beside our airport hotel in Madrid; a dish of stewed mushrooms in Madrid and then also in Barcelona.


Our next high came from shopping—albeit more with our eyes than our wallets. Beng and I are incorrigible flea and weekend market addicts, and we’ve been to a few of the world’s better-known ones, from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan and Portobello Road in London to Chatuchak in Bangkok and Panjiayuan in Beijing. Providentially, our European schedule coincided with the Mercat del Encants in Barcelona and the Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen at Clignancourt in Paris. Hundreds of stalls and tons of glorious junk met us in both places, from century-old magazines and posters to ‘20s flapper dresses and hats and erotic postcards of nubile maidens long vanished.


I did find quite a few fine fountain pens—only to realize, alas, or perhaps fortunately, that I should be happy with my present collection, and that looking without buying can be pleasure enough. I came home from Europe with a new panama hat from Madrid (where, I would find, it was quite the fashion) and a 4-euro, 1960s bottle of Pelikan ink in royal blue, still almost full and certainly usable, from Barcelona. Beng and I kept looking at marvelous pieces of décor and sighing, “If we had a larger house…” or “If we were younger….” and then taking a picture for the memory before walking away.


Third, next to food and markets, were the sights themselves. With limited time, we focused on museums, landmarks, and gardens. Everyone goes to Barcelona to see Gaudi’s outrageously magnificent Sagrada Familia, and we did, if only from the outside, from where there was more than enough to appreciate, from the strawberries to the scripted verses climbing up the spires. What resonated more deeply with me was a visit to the Castell de Montjuic, an imposing fortress with a tragic past, including the brief incarceration of Jose Rizal in 1896, shortly before his forcible return to the Philippines; an exhibition room in the fortress is named after Rizal.


IMG_4060IMG_402214221967192_1862edc90d_zVenice and Florence were the original reasons we thought of this tour; having visited them three years ago, I vowed to bring Beng along to see them, and we just had time for a long vaporetto ride around Venice in the gathering dusk and a day trip by train to Florence. Both cities offer a surfeit of majestic sights, but again it was less the landmark everybody knows than the accidental detour to a spectacular sunset from a little bridge and a view of steeples in the Tuscan countryside that mattered more.


Beng and I had been to Paris twice before, for very brief sorties like this one. In 1999 we almost literally breezed through Paris on a bus from England, on a 99-pound all-in weekend tour; Beng made the mistake of going to the onboard loo while we whipped past Rodin’s “The Thinker.” In 2002 we spent another couple of days in Paris on our way home from my month-long fellowship in Bellagio, and I was so starved for Chinese food that we ate nothing but Chinese, in the restaurants behind the Galeries Lafayette (we went back there last Sunday for a reprise, but the place was closed, much to our dismay).


We revisited the Louvre, and of course again the Mona Lisa (this time set a little farther back from the public than it used to be, but still accessible enough for the inevitable selfie). The Louvre draws 15,000 visitors a day, most of them, like us, paying the standard admission of 12 euros—a cost you’ll quickly forget the minute you step into the galleries. This time I happily stumbled into a hallway exhibiting three of the most iconic of French paintings: Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, and David’s The Coronation of Napoleon. Somewhere in the Egyptian antiquities section, my knees began to wobble, and I knew it was time to declare an end to our museum-hopping.


What we’ll remember most from this trip is a leisurely walk through the Jardin des Tuileries, across the bridge to the Musee d’Orsay, then back to the big fountain in the park, trying to take in the immense joy and gloriousness of a spring day shared with the one person you’d like to see the world with. It was the gift of a lifetime, for which Beng and I would like to thank Demi, Jerry, and the gods of poker.