Dreams do come true!

May 3, 2017. This trip to Italy has been an amazing spiritual journey.

When we were in Florence, we attended Sunday mass at the Duomo. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, more popularly known as the Duomo, is Florence’s most iconic landmark, with its red-tiled cupola designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. It has a magnificent Gothic exterior made up of pink, white and green marble and an imposing yet graceful bell tower. Began by Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296, it took almost 150 years to be completed.

When we entered the Duomo for mass, I was struck by the sparse, almost spartan interior. It was in stark contrast to the flamboyant grandeur of the cathedral’s facade. Tourists who were not going to attend mass were being stopped from entry.

We sat in the middle pew. Looking around, I saw a sign to the right side of the cathedral for confession. I told my children I would be quick and left them. Alas, the priest turned me away, saying only Italian confessions were allowed. Crestfallen, I returned to the children and we heard mass.

Opposite the octagonal cathedral is the Baptistry of San Giovanni, one of the most ancient churches in Florence. Believed to be a pagan temple dating back to Roman times which was converted into a church, the baptistry is clad in slabs of white Carrara and green Prato marble.

In Verona, while walking along the cobbled streets looking for the house of Juliet and the famous balcony, I saw an interesting building in one of the side streets that looked like a church. I felt a strong urge to enter. It turned out to be the Chiesa di San Tomio, a Colomboni church.

Once my eyes got accustomed to the dark interior of the church, I noticed a light in the confessional box. I quickly entered and asked the kindly old priest who was praying if he spoke Spanish or English. He gave me a radiant smile and said he could speak a little English having been a missionary in Africa. He asked me where I was from, and was delighted to learn that I am a lector at our parish in the Philippines.

Needless to say, I felt truly blessed having gone to confession with such a welcoming and warm priest. As I left, I asked him to pray for my children, my mom, and Andre. He rued that not a lot of young people these days go to confession, and promised to pray for my children. He also advised me to approach the Blessed Sacrament, and ask God to be with me always, as sometimes we become too busy living life we forget to call on Him. When I came out, Niccolo asked if the priest spoke English and I said yes. I was so happy when Niccolo followed suit and entered the confessional box!

On our last day in Verona, we visited the Church of Santa Anastasia. It was a beautiful church, full of religious art, paintings and sculptures. We heard music coming from a small side door. Curious, I entered and the children followed. A mass was going on in the tiny chapel. We joined the mass which was in Italian. There must have been less than 20 people at the mass. While we could not understand what the priest was saying in his homily, he was so engaging that his parishioners were responding to him, almost conversing with him. I was ecstatic that all my children attended mass and had communion.

In Rome, we visited the Pantheon on a Saturday. A pagan temple dedicated to Venus, Mars and all the other gods, it was built between 27 and 25 BC. Destroyed in 80 and 110 AD, it was restored by Emperor Hadrian in 118-125 AD. In 609 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Phocas donated the Pantheon to Pope Bonifacio IV who then converted it to a Roman Catholic Church and named it the Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres.

It is an architectural marvel and the most preserved of all the ancient buildings in Rome. Both the diameter and the height of the circular space are 43 meters. The Pantheon is considered a perfect sundial as at midday, the rays of sunlight going through the hole in the dome are aligned with the door.

I walked around the Pantheon, taking pictures of the different niches and chapels. The first chapel in the right was The Annunciation. The second chapel was a tomb monument of the first Italian King Victor Emanuel II. I was invited to sign in their visitor book. The third niche had a statue of St. Anne and the young Virgin Mary, while the third chapel had a painting of the Blessed Virgin with St. Francis and St.John the Baptist.

As I moved along, I noticed an old woman coming out of a door and going to and from the main altar, appearing to be preparing for a mass. I also noted that there were several pews fronting the center altar where people were seated, resting. When she was near, I asked her if by any chance there would be mass. I was overjoyed when she said there would be mass at 5pm if the priest comes. It was 4:30 pm. I told my children that I would hear mass and that they could leave me there and just come back for me after.

Bea and Niccolo decided to hear mass too. A man who appeared to be in charge announced that mass would start and that tourists would have to leave if they were not going to attend mass. Several of the tourists sitting on the pews left, and so we transferred to the front pew.

The old lady then started to distribute mass leaflets which had the readings translated into several languages. The man approached the faithful seated and asked if anyone spoke English. Once again, I felt an urge to stand up and tell him I speak English and that I am a lector. He then asked me to do the second reading as well as the prayers of the faithful. I was floored! What an honor to be able to serve the Lord at mass in the Pantheon! And it was a cardinal that officiated the mass in Italian. The only parts in English were mine. I felt humbled and blessed to be chosen.

After mass, the man approached us once again. I thanked him but he said he was the one who was grateful I had agreed to serve. He then said we have two minutes. I thought he meant we could walk around the Pantheon for two minutes before they closed. We were pleasantly surprised that he meant we could have a two-minute visit to the tiny chapel behind the main altar to see the secret hidden there. We passed by the little door I noticed the old woman come out of.

And there it was: the original and miraculous 7th century icon of the Madonna and Child. The icon that was gifted to the Pope when the Pantheon was converted from a pagan temple to Christianity. Our guide told us that there was a man born blind who was outside the Pantheon. The Pope said mass and prayed for the man, and he was able to see. A cleric was sent to check if it was true. The cleric brought with him a candle from the altar and used that to examine the man’s eyes, declaring that indeed he could now see. News of the miracle spread, and the icon was venerated as miraculous. Subsequently, the Pope announced a feast to celebrate Our Lady of the Candles on February 2, which we celebrate today as the Holy Feast of the Candelaria. We prayed fervently for our family and those we love.

Yesterday morning, Bea researched and learned that there was a Papal audience at St. Peter’s Square every Wednesday at 10am. To get in, however, we needed to be there by 7am. Niccolo volunteered to wake up early and accompany me to the mass. We also needed to get tickets between 3-7pm from the Swiss guards at the Vatican. Bea and Niccolo already had tickets for the Forum yesterday afternoon, and so it was left to Cara to run to the Vatican to get the tickets.

Because I could not walk far, I stayed at the Church of Sta. Anastasia near the Circulo Massimo. I visited the Blessed Sacrament and prayed the rosary there. It was very peaceful. Then, I went out and sat at a park bench writing.

And now, Niccolo and I are seated at St. Peter’s Square waiting for the 10am Papal audience. We arrived early enough to get seats on the sixth row near the center. There is a mass of humanity waiting with us. I hear a babble of languages all around. People from different parts of the world are here today in faith and brotherhood, singing, smiling, clapping. I am so happy!

Dreams do come true!

Sent from my iPhone

In search of the perfect pizza and the best coastline

April 30, 2017. Today we decided to get out of Rome and explore Naples and the Amalfi Coast. We rented a car for the day. Our itinerary: Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi. Our objective: to eat the world’s best pizza and to see one of the world’s famous coastlines.

Our driver, Jun was a bit of a spoilsport. He kept trying to dissuade us from going to Naples, saying it was a terrible and unsafe place, and that our lives would be in danger. I was beginning to get creeped out. But, Cara, having visited Naples on her own years ago, said it was alright. Besides, the quest for the world’s best pizza is not something to dismiss that easily. Naples is known for its pizza, and Niccolo was already researching the best pizza place in Naples.

A port, Naples is a run down city. Another place lost in time. Somewhat like busy Divisoria, what with carts selling a variety of goods clogging the streets, and a mass of people weaving in and out. Clothes hung out to dry from apartment buildings. The streets were dirty, littered with refuse. Cars looked unwashed and beat up. A motorcyclist without a helmet zoomed by an uncaring cop. Yes, there was a hint of lawlessness about the city.

Our driver was so scared of Naples, he even hinted that we should take a cab into the city. But, hey, it was midday. The sun was up! And his passengers grew up in Quiapo, familiar and at ease with the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. Hello? Recto?

Niccolo chose Pizzeria Trianon, but alas, it was still closed. Cara did a quick Google search and came up with Antica Pizzeria da Michelle which was just around the corner. I must say it was the best pizza we’ve tasted, bar none. They only had two flavors to choose from: Margherita and Marinara, and they’ve been serving this up since 1870. The Pizzeria was busy, but we were lucky to find a table. We sat across the warm oven, a welcome treat from the nippy air outside.

Next on the itinerary was Pompeii. Again, Jun tried to talk us out of it saying it would take long. He asked us to drop one of our destinations as we would not have time to see everything we wanted. But visiting Pompeii has long been a childhood dream of mine. A bucket list to tick off.

The line for buying tickets was very long and snaked up the hillside. My children hesitated, asking me if I could handle the rolling terrain. We lined up nevertheless. The streets of Pompeii are cobbled and difficult to traverse, especially with a sprained foot and a walking stick, but I soldiered on, adamant to see the ruins of Pompeii.

Pompeii lies in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius. It was a bustling city, with many fine houses, a rich culture, and a booming economic economy. All these came to a halting stop when Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered the city in lava and ash. Most of the city’s 15,000 inhabitants perished, and today you can still see calcified corpses of people fleeing the destructive volcanic violence. There was a man in a sleeping position, another one hunched as if to pray. My heart sank when I saw the body of a small child and a dog. The volcano’s wrath spared none.

Pompeii lay hidden and forgotten for centuries until it was rediscovered by some diggings. And little by little, the beauty that lay beneath was unearthed and revealed, giving us today a glimpse of Roman life 800 years ago. Giant sculptures dotted the ruins, dwarfing us. What grandeur Pompeii must have had! If I could come back in time, I would like to visit Pompeii, avoiding he volcanic eruption, of course,

I wish that I was in better shape to explore Pompeii and that we had more time, but the rest of the trip beckoned and so we left. Perhaps some day I will be able to revisit this jewel from ancient times.

Soon, I saw glimpses of the startling blue sea as we zigzagged along the mountainside on our way to Sorrento. At times, the sun would be blocked as we entered a tunnel carved out of the mountain, and then the scape of sea and sun would once more be revealed.

Sorrento is a seaside town, very pretty. The apartments look airy with wrought iron balconies and colorful awnings to shield against the sun. The streets were narrow and twisting, with many a harrowing close calls as cars and buses met each other on the street. We drove down to the busy port where yachts were docked then back up again.

Just about everyone in Sorrento must have decided to come out and enjoy the sun. There were people in sleeveless tops and shorts, and here we were bundled up in our jackets. Hankering for some gelato and coffee we asked to be dropped off, and entered a hip gelatteria. I had a dark chocolate and cheese and figs ice cream while Cara had a Limon. Bea had a Nutella coffee while Niccolo had pistachio. We all loved it! Sorrento is known for its lemons, and so before we boarded the car, we bought a limoncello to bring home.

Our next stop was Positano. Once again, we found ourselves driving along the mountainside with a magnificent view of the sea on the other side. Italians drive extremely fast, and many a times we were overtaken by zooming motorbikes and cars. How they manage to escape harm bewilders me, given the sharp twists and turns of the narrow road, and the number of oncoming vehicles.

We stopped at a convenient point to take photos of Positano’s houses clinging to the cliff side. Positano is smaller than Sorrento but just as quaint. Our driver wanted to drive down to shoreside to show us the town and then head back to Rome, but we asked him to proceed to Amalfi instead so that we could catch it before sunset.

And catch it we did, just as the sun was beginning to wane. The driver dropped us off at the square and we walked to the church. The steps were steep, but it looked like such a beautiful church that we wanted to see it. Besides, the church had a relic of St. Mark. A mass was going on when we finally reached the church.

We then looked for a place to eat dinner. Amalfi is known for its seafood, and so we capped our tour with a fantastic seafood dinner at La Piazzetta. We had spaghetti con alici di cetara, pangrattato e noci (spaghetti with salted anchovies and walnuts), scialatelli amafitani con frutti di mare (homemade pasta with seafood), ravioli al pomodoro ripieni di ricotta di agerola, melanzane e provola (tomato ravioli with smoked mozzarella and eggplant), frittura mista del golfo (mixed local deep fried fish), lemon cake, pistachio cake, washed down with vino blanco de la casa and limoncello to end the meal. It was an amazing meal! And to think they had just been open a week!

It was the witching hour by the time we reached Rome, tired but happy. It was definitely a memorable tour of Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, Positano, and the Amalfi Coast. And one, I would be eager to repeat but allotting two days instead of one.

Casa de Duckies Italian Visit

This year, I celebrate my 60th birthday and the 25th year of TeamAsia. Instead of a birthday party, we agreed to go on a family trip to Italy. Why Italy? Because we love it!

Bea, Cara and I have been to Italy before while it will be Niccolo’s first trip to Italy. When I was 25, I went on a five day Italian tour with my Tio Mariano and Tia Conchi. It was beautiful and I vowed to return one day. I’ve been back twice visiting my sister Pinky and her husband Ken, and now this fam trip.

Cara lived in Sicily for three months on an internship at Gran Hotel Piazza Borsa, and I visited her there. The two of us traipsed through an unforgettable trip to Taormina in 2013. Bea went to Italy solo in 2014.

From Italy, Niccolo will proceed solo to Spain to meet our Spanish relatives. It’s an Iturralde tradition that each child and grandchild of Dada has to go to Spain to discover our Iberian roots.

Incidentally, this two week trip is being planned by the children. They decide where to go, where to stay, what to see, where to eat, what to do. Niccolo checks out reviews on restaurants and finds the best places. Being the most traveled of all of us, Cara booked all of our tickets and searched for the best places to stay given our budget. Bea and Cara decide on where to stay, and so far we’ve hit gold. Bea decides on the wine selection, Cara on the food to cook. I must say Google has been an amazing travel tool, and so has Waze. It’s nice to just sit back, enjoy the trip, and be a follower for once.

Our first stop was Rome for a night’s rest from the long flight from Manila via Doha. We stayed at Ecce, close to the train station. The next morning we headed to Florence where we stayed for four nights.

Cara booked us in an old, rustic but comfy Airbnb in San Niccolo, outside the city center. The neighborhood was quaint, peppered with little family-run shops and cafes. A lush green door opened up to an old, cold, dark and narrow staircase. Our apartment was three flights up, a challenge for the girls and Niccolo who carried up our suitcases. I was not allowed to carry anything heavy because of my bad back.

The high-ceilinged apartment sported two bedrooms with comfortable double beds, a tiny living/dining room, a kitchenette and a minuscule bathroom. The kitchen was surprisingly well stocked with olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and spices. After settling in, we decided to go out and explore Florence. We walked the cobbled streets, and entered a leather shop. I tried on an attractive reversible black and red jacket, but balked at its price, thinking I may be able to get a more reasonable one in the market.

Our first day in Florence was eventful until I accidentally sprained my ankle because of a missing cobblestone. (See http://www.monettehamlin.com) This cut short our foray in the city center, and we returned to the apartment. The children bought dinner from one of the nearby restaurants. To give my foot time to heal, I stayed in all of the next day. Cara whipped up a hearty breakfast of Florentine eggs and cold cuts. After making sure I was comfortable, the children went off to the city center. Alone in the apartment, I read, rested, and cleaned my email.

When the children came back, they surprised me by singing happy birthday and asking me to open a brown package. Lo and behold, inside was the reversible red and black leather jacket! The heartwarming note that came with it said it all. I feel so blessed to be loved by my children! Somehow, I think I’ve done a good job raising them.

Once again, Cara prepared a delicious Florentine dinner of rocket salad with raspberries and buffalo scamorza, mezzi rigatoni with a choice of chinghiale or pomodoro with Salsiccia sauce, washed down with La Pliuna Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, and ending with Cannolli and a Nutella tart.

The next morning, we decided to hear mass at the Duomo at noon. With my right foot bound, I hobbled alongside my children, slowing down their pace. The sun was out, showing off the beauty of Florence, making it gleam like a jewel. The Duomo was magnificent, the rich white and rose marble glistening. Throngs of tourists milled round the square. We entered the church and I was struck by the solemn silence inside. Not too many faithful inside the church. The mass was in Italian, but we followed, grateful for the mass leaflet translated to different languages.

After mass, we went to the market in search of Bondi. Frequented by locals, Bondi is a small restaurant selling a variety of foccacine. It was packed when we arrived but we stayed on and lined up at the counter, knowing the food is excellent. I had speck and mozzarella, while the others had prosciutto and mozzarella. We ended with biscotti e Vin Santo.

We then walked over to the Museo Casa di Dante, the birthplace of Dante Alighieri, one of the finest poets of Italy and author of The Divine Comedy, a classical masterpiece. It was interesting to see how life was in Florence during the late Middle Ages and what the landscape was then. Now, I know why there are many towers in Florence, as the prominent families tried to outdo each other in having taller and better looking towers that served not just as living quarters but also as fortresses in times of war. In fact, there were two warring factions which split Italy: the Ghibellines and the Guelf families, whose extreme rivalry and hatred for each other served as fodder for Shakespeare’s Capulet and Montague families in the Romeo and Juliet love story. It was also heartbreaking to learn of Dante’s unrequited love for his childhood friend Beatrice for whom he wrote haunting poems of love.

We made our way back to the apartment to rest, before going up to Michelangelo’s Gardens nearby to catch the sunset on Florence from its highest point. It was difficult climbing the many steps up to Michelangelo’s Gardens but I felt it important since Niccolo was not able to enjoy the sunset from Ponte Vecchio because of my accident. The view was magnificent, but the place was packed with tourists, and so it was a bit difficult to get a vantage point to watch the sunset.

That night, the children were craving for Florentine steak. However, all the restaurants nearby in San Niccolo were full so we had to walk to Ponte Vecchio to Trattoria Bordino. The long walk was definitely worth it! We feasted on Florentine crostini topped with warm chicken liver, steak carved table-side, mushroom risotto and fresh pasta vongole. For dessert, we had gelato at an artisanal gelateria at the Ponte Vecchio. Too full for dinner and too tired to walk, we took a cab home.

Early the next morning, Bea and Niccolo went to the Uffizzi museum, while Cara and I bought a walking stick and an ankle sock at a pharmacy to make it easier to walk. We met up with Bea and Cara and proceeded to the market to look for tomato seeds and limoncello, and bought some leather goods as pasalubong.

Niccolo wanted to see the Boboli Gardens and the Pitti Palace, but when we got there, we found them closed because of a holiday. The tourists who had planned to do the same thing were sunning themselves, seated on the sloping pavement, and eating gelato. Tired, we opted to return to our apartment, pack, then have happy hour drinks at the Bevi Vino Enoteca Bar downstairs. I tried Spritz for the first time. Sitting outside the bar in the waning daylight, I savored the moment. Here I was, with my beloved children, enjoying each other’s company, laughing, kidding each other, and just living! Oh, what joy!

It’s been a wonderful trip thus far. Florence never fails in delighting the visitor, and I hope to visit it again one day. Tomorrow, we move to Verona, Bea’s choice. None of us have been there before, so we don’t know what to expect. Time for a new adventure!

Beautiful Florence, oh how I love you!

April 21, Florence. My favorite city in Italy. We arrived at 11:20am by train from Rome, too early for the 3pm check in at the airbnb we rented in San Niccolo. So we decided to hop into a cab with our suitcases and head for the Piazza Della Signoria, thinking Niccolo and I could visit the Uffizi while killing time. Well, we were way off the mark! The line at the Uffizi was serpentine and would take 2-3 hours to get a ticket. Some men approached us selling tickets at 45 Euros each. Scalpers exist even in Florence. We declined and decided to have lunch instead.

Bea scouted the area, and found a restaurant called Osteria Della Porcellino by a side street near the Mercato Nuovo. It was empty, and we felt it would be a good place to while away the time while waiting to check in. Besides, we had to park our suitcases somewhere. Cara was excited to try the Ragu de Chinggale, but it turned out that they had recently changed their menu. They only had seafood ragu, so that’s what Bea ordered. Cara had a fried Brie salad coated with sesame crumbs over a bed of rocket while Niccolo and I decided on Crespelle alla Florentina, which is a heartier version of lasagna with spinach and ricotta.

One thing you need to know about eating in restaurants in Italy is they charge a Pane e Servizio fee per person on top of what you eat, anywhere from 1.50 or 2.00 Euros. For this, they give you a small basket of bread, which in the Osteria’s case seemed to be days old. Another thing is that water is expensive. A bottle of water good for four glasses is 5 Euros. Wine is cheaper. They served the food so fast that we were done by 1 pm, still a long way to go till 3pm.

The waitress kept badgering us to order dessert, but we didn’t want to. Instead, Bea ordered another bottle of water. Once again, the waitress came and asked plaintively if we were going to have dessert. So, Bea and Niccolo ordered coffee. After he drank his coffee, Niccolo and Cara went off to a nearby store. By this time, the waitress was giving us the evil eye, wanting us to leave and vacate the table. Since there were several empty tables, we stayed our ground, and I ordered a macchiato, nursing it until the children came back. It was a test of wills, with the waitress giving us dagger eyes. When they returned at 2pm, we paid the bill and left with our suitcases.

With an hour to spare, we took turns window shopping and watching the suitcases by the market. I had my picture taken next to the wild boar, Florence’s version of the Fountain of Trevi. The tradition is to put a coin in the boar’s mouth, and the coin slides into a locked grate by its feet. If the coin goes in, then you will return to Florence. Bea had fun taking photos, while Niccolo went off to explore the plaza. We then took a cab to San Niccolo.

Our airbnb turned out really nice. It was an old high-ceilinged apartment on the third floor, with two bedrooms, a small living/dining room, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. It had stucco walls, a shiny wooden floor, and exposed wooden beams. Best of all, the beds were comfortable, and they had Internet! Alesso, our host, explained the rules and asked us to pay the Florentine tourist tax of 2.50 Euros per person per night. This is again another hidden cost that tourists need to be aware of when traveling to Italy. The neighborhood was quiet and pretty. After dropping off our bags, we went walking to explore the city.

Near the apartment was Via di San Niccolo, and we asked Niccolo to pose under the street name, as it was his namesake. We walked along the Fiume Arno, a river that traverses Florence, and eventually found our way to Ponte Vecchio, but not before our young man insisted we stop at Covaccini for a pizza. This little pizza shop sported an Astro menu: a different kind of pizza for each astrological sign. The children sat on the bench in front of the shop, while Niccolo ate his pizza.

Ponte Vecchio is one of the most beautiful bridges I’ve seen. Lined on either side by antique jewelry and watch stores, the place seemed festive with so many people walking leisurely. As it was still too early to view the sunset from the bridge, we decided to explore the city first. And I am glad we did, because Cara spied a poster announcing a Klimt exhibit in one of the side streets. We followed the sign and ended up at Santo Stefano Al Ponte, a small church. We bought tickets and entered the church where the exhibit was. It was mind-blowing and totally unexpected!

At the crypt, we experienced the Austrian painter Klimt in virtual reality, wearing headsets that allowed us to enter into the paintings of Klimt, navigating its depth, coming up close to the lovers in The Kiss, exploring the landscape and the peaceful waters of The Tree of LIfe, feeling the heat of the fiery flames, and much more. From the crypt, we moved to the church for the main exhibit.

The exhibit was an immersive experience in Gustav Klimt’s art. Images, lights, colors, music, and sounds enveloped us as we soaked in the beauty of Klimt’s masterpieces. Everywhere we looked, Klimt’s art came alive, on the walls, the ceilings and the floor of the church. Cara and I lay down on the floor and watched entranced, while Bea and Niccolo preferred to watch from the benches. We left speechless and in awe.

I was still bemused and overwhelmed by the amazing experience I just had, that leaving the church, I did not notice that a cobblestone was missing. My right foot buckled and I fell headlong onto the pavement. The children heard my scream and ran back to help me sit up. I was deathly afraid I had broken my foot, but luckily, I could still flex my foot. Because I was bundled up for the cold, I avoided any scrapes. Gingerly, I tried to stand up and could not bear the pain of walking on my right foot.

Niccolo and I took a cab back to the apartment, while the girls went to buy supplies and food for dinner. Ever solicitous, Niccolo put cold compress on my foot and had me lying down with my right foot propped up. I fell asleep exhausted and in pain, and was woken up when the girls arrived with dinner.

Dinner was simply superb, with ragu spaghetti, meatballs with spinach, an orzo and zucchini salad, salmon and artichoke gnocchi, cold cuts and truffle cheese, washed down with La Piuma, a Montepulciano D’Abruzzo red. The only thing missing was dessert.

After dinner, Bea consulted with her doctor friends to find out what to do about my foot. Luckily, one of them is an orthopedic doctor. After a virtual consultation helped along by technology, the doctor said it appeared to be a mild sprain (no broken bones) and I was advised to rest. And that’s what I did all of the next day. I pray that I will be well enough to explore this city tomorrow.

A Crimson Beach Wedding: Loui and Rain say their “I do’s.”

March 25, 2017. This morning, I sat with my laptop on a chaise lounge relaxing with Andre by the cliff at Crimson Hotel in Cebu. It was the morning after the beautiful wedding of Loui and Rain Luque (nee Quisumbing).

Andre was godfather at the wedding, partnered with Isabel Remedios, a childhood friend of his. Loui’s mom is the beautiful and feisty Martha Tuason of Cebu’s Y101 fame, Andre’s radio partner. Martha and her husband Joseph Stevens have been wonderful hosts, and I’ve enjoyed meeting the Tuasons (Bolo and Cookie, Conkoy and Doodie, Chuchay) as well as the Quisumbings, Rain’s family.

With Andre, Martha and Chuchay

Andre has always been close to the Tuason family, and his first job was working for the Tuasons as PR for Squires Bingham, which eventually became Armscor, and also in setting up 99.5RT with Emilio Tuason. Andre is forever grateful to them for having treated him as family.

Reminiscing with Martha and Joseph while having a nightcap.

I enjoyed listening to Andre and Martha reminisce about their early days in radio. For those who don’t know, Andre’s radio handle was Tiny Andy. I also met last night Little John, another famous radio DJ from Y101, Cebu’s Top 40 station.

Wedding guests

The wedding was perfect, unfolding just as Martha and Rain had painstakingly planned. It was a beautiful sunny day. The guests in their Hawaiian-inspired outfits added bursts of colour to the garden wedding by the beach. With the expanse of startling blue sea and sky as background, the stage was set for the wedding. A drone flew above recording this momentous occasion in the lives of Loui and Rain.

   

    

It was a Christian wedding, with heartfelt vows of love exchanged by Loui and Rain (including an “I’m glad I swiped right.”), and blessed by God, witnessed by friends and family. The minister reminded the couple and all those present to keep three ingredients alive in their relationships; faith, hope and love.

Funny Andre and his piña colada.

As the sun was setting, we moved to the bar for cocktails, while the couple and the wedding entourage had their photos taken. Parched from the heat, we tried the refreshing piña colada served in fresh pineapples complete with cherries and tiny umbrellas, and nibbled on delicious Japanese sushi with spam.

From Crimson’s stellar salmon Carpaccio, tuna poke, fresh shrimps, grilled vegetables, roast beef, lechon, and more, the repast was simply amazing. Fire dancers provided entertainment during dinner. After the traditional cutting of the cake, toast and messages from family and friends, the party went into full swing as guests danced, drank and celebrated the coming together of two families.

Andre and Baching

I enjoyed meeting Binggoy Remedios, who owns Dos Mestizos in Boracay, his partner Niña Bustamante, their daughter Chabeli, Isabel “Baching” Remedios and her friend Cindy Tolhurst. Since Andre and Baching were sponsors, they had to sit at the head table, so we were left chatting at our table.

With Binggoy, Niña and Chabeli

Binggoy is an amazing and interesting individual. He relayed how he decided to live in Boracay in the 80s after he lost his job in Manila. He first set up a Hobbie Cat rental, having refurbished broken down Hobbie Cats, which he got for a song from a friend. A foodie at heart, he then decided to set up Dos Mestizos, a Boracay “must-eat-at restaurant” with a friend. He and his partner Niña have a rustic home on the mainland far from the maddening crowd in Boracay, where they grow organic vegetables for the restaurant. Niña homeschools their beautiful six-year old daughter Chabeli, who has an enviable childhood in the farm which serves as her playground, interspersed with travel with her parents.

With Cindy Tolhurst

Cindy Tolhurst accompanied her friend Baching to the wedding. It was Cindy’s first visit to the Philippines, and she enjoyed discovering her mother’s country. It is always interesting to talk to people visiting for the first time and to see the country from their perspective. Cindy loves the country’s cuisine, especially pancit palabok and halo-halo, and looks forward to sampling Cebu’s famous lechon. She recounted how she swam with the baby whale sharks in Oslob, showing me pictures of her underwater exploits. Another item to tick off my bucket list.  That, and paragliding.

The Quisumbing Family
With Martha, Joseph, Rey, Merlou and friends from Bacolod.
Tuason family and friends
Loui and Rain with Bolo and Rain’s uncles

The night before, the two families had gathered for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Cebu. Andre and I joined the Quisumbing family in the van on the way to the restaurant. Rey Quisumbing, Rain’s father, is a gentleman farmer from Pagadian, Mindanao. He grows a lot of fruit trees including the famed sweet Thai coconut, which he propagated from just 5 coconuts to 15,000 trees, and his siling labuyo, which he processes into garlic chili oil when siling labuyo prices are down. Rey gifted us with two bottles of his garlic chili oil, which I am dying to try out in Manila.

Emil Quisumbing and family

Emil Quisumbing, his only son, takes charge of distribution of soft shell crabs in Manila, in between his work schedule as supplier quality engineer at BPO Nidec Motor Philippines and taking care of his wife and son. Also in the van was Rey’s niece Paula and her friend Misha, a Nepalese-Russian. Both work in New York and had come for the wedding.

Rey Quisumbing’s chili garlic oil. A real winner!

We had a pizza and pasta lunch at the Azure Beach Cafe together with Loui and Rain and the Quisumbings.  Merlou, Rain’s mom, and her two sisters, Adeste Siguan and Imelda Sy Egco, as well as their friend Elena from New Jersey were there as well.  And finally, we had a taste of Rey’s Q’sina Sayao Farms chili garlic oil which added a zing to the pasta vongole (I forget the name of those delicious large clams).   He has a winner recipe here.

Dinner tonight was at Martha’s home, where she whipped up the most delicious prime rib roast, coupled with creamed corn and mashed potatoes. Joseph kindly did the carving for everyone. I learned later that Baching had brought the meat for the roast all the way from the US.  After partaking of the sumptuous roast beef, Konkoy, Doodie and Chuchay had to rush to the airport to catch their flight back to Manila.

Tuason Family

A low handicapped golfer, Joseph taught Martha’s grandchildren and their friends how to properly swing golf clubs.  And I got the chance to pour over a book on the Tuason’s ancestry and Martha’s facsimile of Noli Me Tangere.  We sang “Happy Birthday” for Dino and Martha’s daughter Tamara and her cousin, Yana. And later, took a family photo of the Tuasons on their staircase.  (This seems to be a tradition for most families, as we do this in ours as well).

As I write this, I look back on the past three days and thank God for the gift of friendship and pray for a long and wonderful life together for Loui and Rain.

The Gift of Sharing

If there is one thing that is totally satisfying, it is sharing one’s gift of time, talent and treasure to those who need it most.  I daresay that the volunteers and sponsors get more out of giving than the beneficiaries themselves.  We’ve been so blessed to have this opportunity yearly.  Little did we know that what we started in 2008 would snowball into a yearly tradition.

For the eighth consecutive year, the Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) and TeamAsia organized “My Dream in a Shoebox,” a beloved tradition of collecting and distributing shoeboxes filled with school supplies to less fortunate Filipino children.  With the increasing support of our compassionate industry friends, we’ve grown from 200 shoebox donations in 2009 to more than 50,000 in 2015. These shoeboxes were donated to public schools and foundations covering Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.   

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Digital campaign #ShoeboxChallengePH

This year, we set ourselves a goal of 75,000 shoeboxes, which we are still on the way to achieving.  So far, we’ve received over 60,000 shoeboxes, and pledges are still coming in.  Early December, we launched a digital campaign called #ShoeboxChallengePH, where volunteers take a short video of themselves pledging to donate shoeboxes, then nominate three friends to do the same.  Several people joined in the campaign, and this started the ball rolling.

A friend of mine, Bea Tan, vice president at Citibank, gathered her children and godchildren at her home one afternoon to stuff 50 shoeboxes and wrap them in festive paper.  They all had so much fun wrapping the gifts, and I am sure the children will remember this for a very long time. I am so proud of her effort to instill the values of generosity of heart in the young!   

Another friend, Joel Pascual of PEP Group, did a video on Facebook, and he says there were so many people interested to help, even some from overseas who contacted him through Facebook.  Friends of mine from San Francisco have also donated willingly to the cause, as have personal friends who learn about this project.  At TeamAsia, we rang the bell one day to signal the stop of work and the start of an afternoon of wrapping shoeboxes.  

Last December, I’ve helped out at three gift-giving days, and would like to share what happened then.

December 10, 2016

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Shoeboxes ready for distribution

Early that morning, we trooped to Barangay Payatas, Quezon City for our annual gift giving day of My Dream in a Shoebox at the Payatas Orione Foundation, Inc. (PAOFI). Run by the missions of the Sons of Divine Providence Congregation, PAOFI provides social welfare development programs and services to the poor,  vulnerable and disadvantaged persons/families relative to their health/medical, nutritional and educational needs.  

Fr. Julio welcomes us to Payatas.
Fr. Julio welcomes us to Payatas.

That day, however, Fr. Martin was in Lucena tending to their communities in Barangay Dalahican and Talao-Talao in Lucena City.  Instead, it was PAOFI’s executive director, the genial Fr. Julio who welcomed us at Payatas, together with Michelle and Shyla.  

We expected 500 scholars at PAOFI, but sadly only 300 of the kids  could attend the actual gift giving because of the National Achievement Test that was being administered that day.   However, 133 volunteers had signed up for that session, and we were a bit worried that we had too many volunteers.  This turned out to be a boon as the volunteers had more opportunity to interact with the children.  

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First, we grouped the children into tens and assigned each group three volunteers to serve as their big sisters/brothers, then had them come up with a group cheer.  This was a tremendous success as each group tried to outdo the other in their cheering prowess. Thanks to Bea Lim and Armo Armovit for serving as judges for the cheering competition.  The groupings also allowed the volunteers and the children to bond.

We had two games, the Newspaper Dance and The Boat is Sinking, with United Health Group (UHG)  volunteers serving as game masters with the help of FIS Global.  Emerson and UHG comprised the food distribution committee.  The big brothers and sisters took charge of distributing the shoeboxes to the kids in their care, as well as, getting them hotdog sandwiches, orange juice and Picnic shoestring potatoes.  

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We also had a storytelling session in Filipino, which I led based on a story of a young boy who was at a loss as to what to give to his teacher on Christmas.  He was sad because he could not afford to buy a gift because of his poor circumstances but was inspired when his mother told him a story about another young boy in a similar situation who drew on his creativity to come up with the best gift in the world.  I told them that the gift of love is the most important thing in the world.  

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And love it was that we experienced that day.  Hearty thanks to our selfless volunteers from Emerson, FIS Global, P&G, United Health Global, TeamAsia and IBPAP.  Thanks too to Emerson for sponsoring the food and drinks for the activity, to P&G for providing the prizes for the games, to Megaworld for the Picnic shoestring potatoes, to Asia Brewery for the yoghurt, and to all those who donated shoeboxes filled with school supplies!  And congratulations to TeamAsia’s Clah Salindato and Beverly Aguilar and to IBPAP’s Cholo Antonio for organizing this gift-giving day!  I daresay that the volunteers left PAOFI with hearts full of happiness and contentment for sharing themselves and their morning with the children.  And the smiles on the faces of the children were priceless!  

December 22, 2016

img_0194One thousand thirty-six children from sixteen damayan centers. That’s how many children awaited us at the covered courts of Parokya Pedro Calungsod in Southville 3, Muntinlupa.  This quasi-parish under the stewardship of Fr. Benjamin Molina, Jr., was established on October 14, 2012 to service the spiritual needs of the informal settlers that have located in the housing resettlement in a 50-hectare portion of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) reservation.  

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Our family with Fr. Didoy.

Not one to be fazed by such a daunting task, Fr. Didoy organized two gift-giving days for the children of the community, each one with 1,000 children.  We were assigned to the second outreach.  Come to think about it, Fr. Didoy has always set big, hairy goals when it came to helping people lead better lives.  He was our parish priest at the Ascension of Our Lord Parish for three years, and he was (and still is) very much loved by the community.   Which is why there were volunteers from Southbay and Goodwill who came to help that day.

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Fr. Didoy telling the story of the first christmas tree during his homily.

But before the actual gift-giving, Fr. Didoy celebrated Holy Mass to remind everyone that we must first give thanks to the Lord for his many blessings.  During his sermon, Fr. Didoy recounted the story of the very first Christmas tree that wanted to give homage to the King.  The children were enthralled listening to his story, as they were, to my Filipino version of the “punong-kahoy na Pamasko.”

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The volunteers distributing shoeboxes to the children.

What is amazing is that despite the large number of children, they were all extremely well-behaved, following the instructions of the youthful volunteers.  Soon, the volunteers from the different companies began arriving: Henkel, Alorica, Infosys, Intelenet, Northern Trust, Asurion, DSM Manila, Serenitea and IBPAP and TeamAsia.  And just like the multiplication of bread, the blessings overflowed that day.  Earlier, we had sent over 1,000 shoeboxes filled with school supplies for the children.  On the day of the outreach, however, Henkel delivered an additional 1,500 shoeboxes, followed by Asurion with 150 boxes and Serenitea with 155 boxes.  The children were so happy, as they each brought home not one, but two shoeboxes, ensuring that that their siblings too would have supplies for school.

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The children sang, danced, and played games with the volunteers eagerly helping out, especially when it came to distributing food and beverages as well as the shoeboxes.  I noticed too that some of the volunteers brought along their own children, which is a great way to teach them the importance of sharing with those less fortunate.  

After the outreach was over, the volunteers gathered for a souvenir photo. There were so many that we could hardly fit them in the photo, and had to take it from the second floor of the gym.

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December 30

Once again, the gifts multiplied, this time at the Ascension of Our Lord Parish outreach.  Five hundred children from the developing communities of Estrada 1 and 2, Mangga, Aratiles, Silangan, Villonco, and Waterfun were gathered early in the morning at the parish church.  Outside the church, another hundred or so children waited in the hope of being allowed to join the festivities.  Earlier, we had delivered 600 shoeboxes to Ascension.  To our surprise, Alorica arrived with another 500 boxes.  This meant we could give more than one box to each child inside the church, as well as, to the children waiting outside.  Wonder of wonders!

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While the children were singing in the church, the parish commission and youth volunteers, the corporate volunteers from VXI, Alorica, TeamAsia and IBPAP, as well as, individual volunteers like Michelle Cruz, Olette Gonzalez, Lou Mercado, Juliet and Rene Cinco, Jun and Tess Latorre, the Liwanag family, and many more were busy preparing the games, food and drinks and shoeboxes that would be distributed that day. Everyone had a task to fulfill, some as game masters, others as marshals, gift coordinators, food coordinators, and so on.  There was even a clean up committee to pick up debris left by the event.

 

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That Jolly Bee surprised and delighted the children.

A surprise visit by the Jollibee mascot got all the children excited, as did the various games organized for the children, like the straw relay, balloon relay and Japanese walk.  Even my storytelling was listened to attentively by the children.  

After the children had their snacks provided by VXI, they lined up to get their shoeboxes and other gifts from the volunteers.  After this, they  had their photo taken at the belen together with Fr. Joseph Landero, parish priest of Ascension of Our Lord.

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Tired but happy volunteers at Ascension of Our Lord parish.

When the happy children had left, the volunteers broke bread and had souvenir photos taken at the parish. From the smiles on their faces, one could see that they were very pleased with themselves. And that’s the real blessing one gets from sharing.

Chapter Two: Florida Adventure

October 16

We spent the afternoon resting at home and getting ready for the flight out.  Andrè and I took the 10pm red eye flight to Miami, had an hour and half wait at the Atlanta airport, and arrived in Miami at 9:30am. We didn’t sleep at all on the plane, and so were bleary-eyed when we arrived. We took a taxi to the home of Douglas Kamm by the Coral Gables, where we met his friend Angela Younger from New Zealand who was visiting and was just about to leave for the airport. Douglas was delighted that his Australian contact had finally met his Filipino contact after all these years.

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Andre in Douglas’ kitchen

Douglas, Andrè’s best friend from his college days, lives in a nice, antiquated house. Feeling grungy from the long trip, I freshened up at his restroom, and was immediately brought back to my childhood days. It seemed that I was back in my grandmother’s house in San Sebastian as the furnishings were so similar. Douglas’ classic sense of style was evident in the blue and white ceramic collection he had in his kitchen, his paintings and his ivory pieces.

Douglas invited us out to his garden. A bit wild at the moment, his garden was the toast of the city back in its heyday, and was featured a number of times in magazines. You could still see what made it famous back then from the variety of foliage planted. Why, it even had a mango tree, which Andrè avers produces the sweetest mangoes. I hurried back to the house when I learned that a few days ago a crocodile had snatched a pet dog away from its master who was walking it by the creek, and that this had happened a few houses away from where we were. I certainly did not want to be croc breakfast.

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Douglas driving us around Miami

Douglas gave us a grand tour of the city in his car, driving up to South Beach lined with art deco hotels and restaurants on one side and on the other, Sunday strollers on the beach. He had worked in hotels in the strip, and gave a running commentary that was entertaining. He even pointed out the exact spot where celebrated designer Versace was gunned down by a Filipino named Cunanan. After that, we did a quick spin of Coral Gables, Miami’s version of Forbes Park where the wealthy live. I loved seeing the massive banyan trees. What character they had and what tales they could share if only they could talk, I wondered.

For lunch, we went to Bangkok City for their famous crispy duck. There were several options on the menu but we settled for the basil version, along with tom kha (i.e., chicken soup cooked in lemongrass and coconut milk.) and pad thai. Andrè and Douglas have been going to that Thai restaurant for well over 30 years. We then went to Gilbert’s Bakery to get key lime pie to bring to Cachito’s home, and we ended up getting pecan pie, Grand Marnier and tocino del cielo as well.

The two men enjoyed ribbing each other over lunch, recalling capers over the years. After lunch, we headed to West Palm Beach. Just before Exit 35, the car’s left rear tire blew out, and we had to wait for AAA to come help us. Just that morning, I learned that Douglas didn’t know how to use a mobile phone, much less owned one, and so it was interesting to observe him using Andrè’s mobile phone to call AAA’s customer service. We were told it would take 90 minutes for AAA to arrive. So I began writing this blog while we awaited our knight in shining armor. I kept hoping the aircon wouldn’t conk out before the rescue vehicle arrived, as it was sweltering hot outside.

After much anticipation, the AAA rescue vehicle arrives!
After much anticipation, the AAA rescue vehicle arrives!
Waiting for Uber
Waiting for Uber

When AAA’s rescue vehicle arrived though, we learned that they could not change the tire as the spare tire was riddled with holes. The only solution was for a tow truck to come and pick up the car. This would take another 90 minutes, we were told, but since only one person could ride in the car being towed, that meant Andrè and I needed to find some other way to get to West Palm Beach. And that’s when I called Uber to the rescue. I accessed my Uber app from the Philippines, and in 12 minutes an UberX came to pick us up. There we were, perspiring from the heat of the sun with our suitcases lined up on the shoulder, when a new Hyundai Sonata driven by a lovely Cuban young woman stopped to help us.

Zuy to the rescue!
Zuy to the rescue!

Zuy Alejo, our Uber driver, was making frijoles (black beans) at home when the Uber call came in, and when she saw that we were on the turnpike, she figured that we had an accident. Kind-hearted Zuy decided to get in her car and drive to us. She was truly heaven-sent!  Zuy drove us from the Turnpike all the way to West Palms Beach.

Charming Zuy shared her interesting story with us. At five years old, she and her family came to America from Cuba on a 21-footer boat with 22 other people. They were nine days at sea, without food or water. She said they had no choice but to drink their urine. What a life changing experience that must have been for her family! Now happily married and leading the parents-teachers association in her child’s school, she works at a restaurant, and started on Uber in the past two months.

And then Andrè popped the question: “Where can we get the best key lime pie in Miami?” And Zuy said, Key West of course! But the really good ones can be found in the airport, she added. Well, this we must try on the way to Seattle.

We arrived at the home of Cachito, Andrè’s younger brother, and were welcomed warmly. That night, Cachito and his wife Rocio hosted dinner at Hoes Asian Cuisine.   It was a big group, and I was a bit overwhelmed at first. I met Andrè’s mom, Tita Dolly, his cousin Margie, his sister-in-law Margarita, and his nieces Stephanie and Angeline, and their partners Andrèw and Chris. The food was nourishing after that long day of travel, but we were so tired as we had hardly slept the night before on the plane.

October 17, 2016

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Outside the Cracker Barrel with Andre, Dolly and Gerry

The next morning, we went to the 8am mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church with Tita Dolly and Gerry Humphries, who drove us. It was a beautiful mass, and I felt at peace with the world. We then had a hearty breakfast at Cracker Barrel, a quaint shop selling country items alongside a cafe. We enjoyed sunny side up farm fresh eggs, sausage links, grits with sawmill gravy, freshly baked homemade buttermilk biscuits, fluffy pancakes with old-fashioned maple syrup, jam and coffee. We didn’t know what to do with the grits, but after Gerry told us to mix it with butter, salt and pepper and gravy, the grits turned out delicious! I couldn’t help but explore the store and picked up some shirts. Just outside the store were some pretty rocking chairs, and so had some photos snapped there.

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Enjoying a meal at The White Elephant

We then went to a mall to check the Apple Store if they had the iPhone 7 Plus available. No luck. We went back home to rest, and went out to dinner that night at The White Elephant, on the invitation of Andrè’s Uncle Jess and his wife Benguet. There we met Jess’s children, Chris, a lawyer, and Michelle, a public prosecutor.

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Michelle and her Great Dane.

Beautiful Michelle had her Great Dane with here. What a stately dog it was, and extremely well behaved! The pizza was just right and the shrimp curry delicious, though a chutney would have made it amazing. For dessert, we shared a key lime pie. The search for the best key lime pie was still on, but this was more like a vanilla cream pie. Again, we were told that the best key lime pie could be had at Key West.

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Jess then toured us around his Wellington Mall, pointing out the five schools that were there, as well as the Post Office. The mall seemed more like a museum than a mall as it had beautiful sculptures around. There were statues of game fish and horses of different kinds, including carousel horses and a unicorn, live fish in aquariums, grandfather clocks, and brass sculptures of children playing and having fun. I was happy to see the Philippine flag together with the American flag hanging in the activity area.

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Andre and his Uncle Jess

An accomplished gentleman, Jess Santamaria was elected as County Commissioner three times. He believes in sharing his blessings and has two foundations that help provide education to children as well as help for less privileged families.

We stopped to look at a poster he had of Desiderata, and I was amazed when Jess and Andrè started to recite the poem from memory. Andrè’s favorite was: “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.”

October 18, 2016

The next morning, we had breakfast together with Cachito and Tita Dolly. The night before, Rocio had prepared a Filipino breakfast of longganiza and fried rice. I fried the eggs and prepared the tomato and onion salad to go with it. Rocio’s longganiza was to die for. She said she got them at Kabayan, the Filipino store in West Palm Beach. That night, I asked her the secret for cooking it the way she did. I was happy she taught me how to do it properly.

img_0469 img_0470 img_0499Margarita then picked us up to bring us sightseeing at Worth Avenue, one of the most exclusive shopping streets in the United States. It is the equivalent of Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, where all the most expensive brands have stores: Jimmy Choo, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade, and more. I wasn’t paying much attention to the stores, instead enjoying the stroll and talking to Margarita.

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With Andre, Mike, Techie and Margarita.

Lo and behold, who do we see at the corner of Worth Avenue, sitting down by the shaded bench but Mike Bilbao, hubby of Techie Ysmael. Turns out he was waiting for Tetchie who was meeting someone at one of the shops. Soon, Techie showed up with a copy of the book she had written on her famous mother, Chona Kasten.

After bidding goodbye to Mike and Techie, we continued to look for Pizza Al Fresco, a little restaurant tucked away inside one of the garden alcoves. We had a most delightful meal of Andrè’s favorite, shrimp cocktail, a Portobello mushroom salad, and their famous pizza alfresco, washed down with a Peregrino with gas.

img_0492Over lunch, we shared our life experiences, how sad and lonely we were when our beloved spouses passed on, how we needed to get a grip on our emotions and decide to accept fate and move on, how we adjusted to the difficulties of senior dating, and how fortunate we were to discover second chances at love, along with the complexities that come with it. After all, there is so much more life to be lived and happiness to be enjoyed.

img_0460We then visited the Palm Beach Outlet Mall where we visited various shops, and chanced upon GH Bass, which had the most comfortable shoes, which Margarita and I bought. We all ended up buying various items.   A sudden downpour cut short our shopping spree, and we headed home, as we still had a dinner to attend. Angeline and Chris Gross were hosting dinner at Aglioli for the family. Margarita and I laughed when we realized we both had worn our new shoes to the dinner.

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At Aglioli with Andre’s family

Aglioli is a family restaurant that allows its guests to design their own pizza and pasta using various types of noodles, sauces, meats and veggies. After sharing the fresh house salad, which came in huge bowls, with lots of black olives and crunchy baguettes, we had fun designing our own pasta. Andrè ended up with angel hair pasta with rich pomodoro sauce and a side dish of meatballs. On Angeline’s recommendation, I got a shrimp pesto angel hair with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and grilled garlic. It was sublime! When dessert time came, we were too full to order a key lime pie.

There was much banter and lively conversation over dinner. I learned that Angeline, despite her 5’2” tiny frame, is an accomplished industrial engineer, a wind blade specialist at New Era, which used to be the Florida Power and Light Company. She climbs wind towers that are hundreds of feet high to check on the blades. Cachito says that when she sent him photos of how high she was on her first climb, that he was so nervous he had to take a drink. Kudos to her, as she excels in a man’s world.

When Rocio learned that we were on a quest to discover the best key lime pie, she offered to bake us one for the next day when Margarita was hosting dinner.

October 19

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Reliving breakfasts of before at Gabrielle’s

Early the next day, Andrè and I together with Tita Dolly and Gerry went to Gabrielle’s Café and Grille, voted 12 years running as the best breakfast place in town. Andrè recounted that this was a Sunday tradition for him and his brother Raymond, their uncle Tony and cousin JJ and a few other friends. He said it looked exactly the same, except the round table where they usually sat was now nearer the entrance.

After breakfast, we went home to Tita Dolly’s where we had dance lessons from Gerry. Gerry Humphries learned how to dance from the Fred Astaire Dance Studio, and eventually put up his own dance studio. His school produced several dance champions of the US. It was interesting how Gerry explained the science of dance so simply that we got it immediately. He made sure we learned the basic “box” and showed us how that box was applicable to various types of dance, how high our hands held should be (level with the woman’s eyes, he admonished Andrè), where to put my hand on Andrè’s shoulder, how to turn gracefully, and so on. I took a video of Gerry dancing with Andrè, and then with Dolly. A few more lessons, and I believe Andrè and I could conquer the dance floor!

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Beautiful Dolly

I enjoyed talking to Andrè’s mom. At 92, she still exudes the special beauty that captivated the heart of Rene Kahn, Andrè’s father. Not only that, she was charming and sharp as sharp can be. She relayed stories of her youth, of their courtship, of being mother to 13 children, of being asked to be a blue lady but declining, of how she and her husband were so in love with each other, and how he would not let her dance with anyone else at parties.

She had met him when she was only 12, acting as chaperone to her older sister. Because she was tall for her age, her sister’s suitors would vie for her attention and start to court her instead. Her parents advised her to dance with other boys, but when she met Rene, she was smitten and all she wanted was to be with him. He would wait for her outside at parties, and she would escape to see and talk to him.

img_0405He got a job in Cebu, but after just three months, he could no longer bear to be separated from her that he left to marry her. She conceived on their honeymoon, and nine months later she had her firstborn, Butch. She said Rene vowed he would have just one child after he saw the pain of childbirth she went through. But it was not to be as the children came one after the other. Love was not to be denied.

img_0401Dolly and Rene were inseparable, and he would bring her with him on trips domestically and overseas, even living for a year in Hong Kong while he set up the San Miguel Brewery there. As I listened to her, I wondered how she was able to cope with social responsibilities as the wife of the Coca-Cola Corporation CEO, and as mother to all her children – four girls and eight boys. But cope she did, marvelously, as her children turned out wonderfully, with solid values.

When Rene died, she moved to the US. There, she gave in to her love for dancing, and would dance for hours. She told me that once her doctor asked if she did any exercise. She said none, but that she would dance for four hours a day. The doctor was floored! No wonder Tita Dolly has kept her slim figure all these years.

Silver Wedding Anniversary
Silver Wedding Anniversary

Tita Dolly showed me her treasured albums, especially that of her Silver Wedding Anniversary. It was a beautiful album with black and white photos. Rene and Dolly looked so happy together, and they had a beautiful family! I eagerly looked for photos of Andre as a young man. He was quite handsome!

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Andre and his mom’s portrait. He was in her womb when this painting was made.

In her living room, she showed me a painting of her as a young mother, and she told me that she was pregnant with Andrè at the time the painting was done. She looked absolutely gorgeous! No wonder Rene loved her so much, and as Andrè said, put her on a pedestal, teaching his children that this was the way a man should treat his wife. I asked Andrè to stand beside the painting so I could take a photo of him with her.

After the dance lessons, we went to BJ to see what they had on sale. BJ is like Costco, and also has food samples in each lane. We were tired, so we went back home. For lunch, Cachito, Andrè and I made a quick run to Jon Smith Subs for some sandwiches. Andrè and I shared an 18-inch meatball bomb sub. A poster boasted that Jon Smith Subs was voted the favorite French Fries. There was also a cute poster of a forlorn dog with long ears that said “I hate Jon Smith. No leftovers.” Poor doggie, the fries were so good there was none left for the doggie bag.

That night, we went to Margarita’s home and met her Colombian family and friends. There was her sister Beatriz and her hubby, Andrès Gutierrez; Jon Duque, the husband of her best friend Vicky; and the Kahn family. Margarita prepared a delicious roast of prime rib, served the Kahn way with horseradish, creamy mashed potatoes, grilled Portobello mushrooms, and a green salad with avocado dressing.

For dessert, Margarita made a flaky jackfruit (langka) and plantain pie. She told us her jackfruit tree from the Philippines planted by Raymond bore a lot of fruits and she had been wondering what to do with it, so she froze the fruit and made pie. It was heavenly! But, dinner wasn’t over yet, because Rocio arrived with the promised key lime pie she had specially prepared for us. I loved it so much I had seconds! Andrè was naughty and gave me a whole slice rather than the sliver I had asked for. What a wonderful time we had at Margarita’s! Andrè and I agreed that the Colombians were a fun group.

October 20

The next morning, Cachito prepared breakfast for us: toasted Thomas English muffins with melted butter and honey, sunny side up eggs, ham, and Starbucks coffee. It was delicious! Earlier, Tita Dolly had gone to 8am mass to pray for safe travels for us. She came by to bid us goodbye.

Margarita then arrived to drive us to the airport. She was going to have lunch with Douglas and give him our “little fishies” gourmet tuyo in oil pasalubong. This was going to be a long flight, first to Atlanta and then to Seattle.

On the plane, I remarked to Andrè that there were a lot of pumpkins around. The malls were full of all sorts of pumpkins, from large ones I couldn’t carry to tiny ones, with different colors and textures. Restaurants all seemed to incorporate pumpkin as an ingredient in their dishes. There was pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin risotto, pumpkin sauce, even pumpkin perfume and pumpkin wine! I guess it’s that time of the year, nearing Thanksgiving. But before that would be Halloween, and the malls were replete with Halloween costumes and décor being sold. Several of the houses we had passed were already adorned with Halloween décor, from giant spiders to witches and goblins to eerie lighting and even some cackling.  Halloween was going to be interesting, but now we were off to see my side of the family, and I was terribly excited for them to meet Andrè.

 

Chapter One: California Dreamin’

October 11, 2016

I’ve only been to the US four times: the first was to attend a publishing conference in New York, the second a trip with my late husband Mike to Boston to meet with the Harvard Publishing Group, the third a trip to visit our relatives in Texas and Washington, and the last, five years ago, to attend my sister’s wedding.  This time around was different.  I was excited yet apprehensive.

In three short weeks, we would do the rounds of Los Angeles and Florida to meet Andrè’s US-based siblings and his mom, and then go to Seattle and San Francisco to meet my side of the family: two brothers and a sister.

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On the flight to LAX

I realized getting out of the LAX airport that LA is cold. Brrrr! Andrè had told me to pack light clothes for LA and Miami as it was just as hot as Manila. We didn’t account for a cold front the week we arrived in LA. It was great that Gerry Gonzalez, Maribel’s husband was there to pick us up.

Our first meal on US soil was burgers at The Habit. It was a toss up between In and Out but The Habit won. There was some discussion about which burger was better: that of The Habit or I&O. The Habit got most of the votes. The burger was delicious, but I made a mental note to try out I&O myself. At Maribel’s home I slept like a babe that night, tired out from the long flight from Manila.

October 12, 2016

The next morning, I prepared breakfast of bagel, ham, cheese and eggs. Gerry had left earlier for work. Maribel helped me pack our pasalubongs (gifts) for family in Florida, Seattle and San Francisco. When the boxes were done, Maribel drove us to Costco where I had my first experience of shopping. It was overwhelming for someone not used to shopping. I immediately settled on a sweater to keep me warm. I also found out that one could get full nibbling on free samples at Costco.

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Pumpkins galore

Everywhere we went, pumpkins were on display.  They came in varied sizes, color and shapes, though they were mostly orange.  We couldn’t help but have our photos taken with the pumpkins.

After a late lunch at Akropolis with gyros, Mediterranean salad and a baklava, we passed by the Persian Market at Mission Ranch.   Like a little child in a candy shop, I was blown away by the lushness of fresh vegetables and fruits on display, some of which I’m not familiar with, the endless variety of spices and mouthwatering sauces, and couldn’t help myself but pick up a few items.  In my mind, I was already dreaming of what I would cook with them.  Tired from shopping, we went home to a delicious lentils and boeuf bourguignon dinner that Maribel had prepared before she left for the Philippines.

October 13, 2016

Shopping is second nature to the Kahns, and this was my baptism of fire. Andrè gave me tips on how to shop, and where to look. “Head straight to the Clearance corner first,” he said. “That’s were you’ll find the best buys. Check the price tags and look for the coloured ones as they give you a further discount from the printed price. If unsure, ask!” That night, he sent me to sit with Maribel to learn about coupons and sales.

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At Target

We visited Target where Andrè loaded up on shirts, then Trader Joe’s and finally, Tuesday Morning, where I broke the ice (or should I say melted completely and gave in to a buying spree) and loaded up on bed linen, foot rugs, and towels. The cashier called out that they were closing in 10 minutes. We were the only ones in the store and had only gone through two rows, yet I already had two overflowing shopping carts. Maribel and Andrè were chuckling as I was paying at the counter. Anytime now, they said, I will be hit by “shopper’s remorse.” Andrè bought some dark chocolate bars so I would feel better.  He knows very well that chocolates lift my spirits anytime. I figured that since I hardly ever shop in Manila because of my work schedule that I shouldn’t feel guilty about shopping for things we need. That night, I filled up one balikbayan box.

In between shopping sprees, we had lunch at Cinnamon Production where I had half a delicious corned beef sandwich and piping hot pumpkin squash soup. We looked longingly at the dessert counter, and asked for key lime pie, but they had none on the menu. Instead, we settled on an apple pie to bring home.

Andrè’s brother Mario and his wife Marivic happened to be in San Diego, and they decided to swing by Maribel’s house to meet us and have dinner. Gerry popped into the oven the Chicken Marsala that Maribel had prepared, while I cooked the masa for croquetas de jamon and croquetas de boeuf bourguignon. For dessert, we opened a Chocnut from Manila. Because Mario and Marivic had a long drive ahead, they left early.

A shy person, Maribel reminded me not to post any photos of her on Facebook, and I promised I wouldn’t without her permission. Hence, I ended up not taking any photos that night.  A pity though as Maribel is such a beautiful person, her  inner warmth and kindness shining through, the kind whose irrepressible laughter brings sunshine to the room.

October 14, 2016

What a day this turned out to be!  In the morning, I did the laundry after Gerry, who was working from home that day, taught me how to use the washing machine and dryer.   In between wash loads, I formed the masa into croquetas ready for dinner that night.

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Friends and family for dinner: Tessie, Andre, me, Gigi, Mari and Gerry

The day before, Andrè had invited Tessie and her husband Toño, his classmate Mari Crespo and his girlfriend Gigi Gomez, to join us and Maribel and Gerry for dinner. I offered to make a paella and croquetas.

Gerry dropped us off at Irvine Spectrum to shop.  There, Andrè finally found the Sketchers shoe he had been searching for. We passed by the Apple store to check if we could get an iPhone 7 Plus but there was none on stock that we could get with an open line, or SIM-free as they called it here.

We had a funny yet exasperating experience at a Beauty Shop at Irvine. We were walking when a young man handed Andrè an envelope, which he inadvertently accepted. It was one of those con jobs where they try to sell you beauty products to supposedly remove your eye bags. I tried pulling Andrè away but he went into the shop, so I had to follow him. The salesman said he would put a lotion on my eyebags that would make them disappear. I said only if you put them on both eyebags and on Andrè too. He agreed and so we sat down.

The salesman put the magic lotion on my right eye, and I immediately asked him to put it on the other as well. He said wait, so we could see the difference it makes. He then put it on Andrè’s left eyebag as he tried convincing us to buy this and that product. Of course, the product worked, but the price was steep: $399 for a small stick of lotion that he said would last a year, and whose effect will last two more years. He then tried to sell us two sticks, one for each one of us, but we didn’t bite.

In the meantime, I asked him to put in on my other eye. He kept stalling, negotiating better offers, such as $399 per stick plus a free hand lotion. The man kept chatting, dialing up his sales talk, even resorting to the old trick of “if we divide $399 by 52 weeks, we’d end up paying only $11 per week to remove our eye bags for a year.” OMG, I thought, even his math was wrong. It should be little more than $7.60 a week, I computed mentally. Again, I demanded that he put the lotion on the other eye as promised. He did after much nagging, but not enough so that the other eye was still puffy. I signaled to Andrè, let’s leave.

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Paella and croquetas dinner at the Gonzalezes.

The man followed us out of the shop making his final offer in a stage whisper, “I will give you my family price of only $250 per stick. Please buy.” No way, Jose. After telling him we would think about it over lunch, the man finally gave up and went back to the store. We all had a good chuckle over dinner that night when we recounted to our guests how Andrè and I escaped without giving in, but were each left with a hint of an eyebag. That night, Tessie told us that the same thing had happened to her. We all had a good laugh about it.

October 15, 2016

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Lunch at the Rusty Pelican with Mike and Liz Hulley and Gerry and Maribel Gonzalez

The next day, Gerry drove Andrè, me and Maribel to Newport Beach where we had lunch at The Rusty Pelican, at the invitation of newly-weds Liz and Mike Hulley. Liz is Gerry and Maribel’s lovely daughter. It was a breathtakingly beautiful drive along the coast, and we passed millionaires’ homes along the way. The seafood lunch at The Rusty Penguin was absolutely fresh and delicious. We had calamari, shrimp cocktail and freshly-baked buttered crunchy parmesan-coated baguettes for appetizers. Andrè ordered the lobster salad, while I had grilled salmon with a lobster sauce. I even gave in and had a chilled Moet Chandon with my salmon. It was heavenly!

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We spent the rest of the afternoon resting at home and getting ready for the flight to Miami that night.  Tomorrow, I meet Andrè’s mom, and the butterflies in my stomach are having a field day.

Remembering the Iturralde Sisters

Invariably, whenever I would bump into an older graduate of the College of the Holy Spirit where I studied, I would be asked, “How is Miss Maria Luz? How is Dean Julia Iturralde?” And then they would launch on how the two sisters left an indelible impression on them, how much they missed them, and how thankful they are for the values and learning they received.   Sadly I would tell them that my two aunts, younger sisters of my father, had passed on.

My brothers and I grew up in the family compound right behind the Basilica of San Sebastian. My mother was widowed early, and so we were raised in a maternal environment: my mom, my father’s mom Lola Ingga, my father’s aunt Lola Teta, and my two maiden aunts: Julia and Maria Luz. My father had another sibling, Tita Rory, but she had entered the nunnery and became a Sister Servant of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) and so we hardly saw her.

My two aunts figured largely in my growing up years, and this is my tribute to the two women who I love dearly.

Maria Luz Iturralde

My godmother and aunt, Maria Luz Alvaro Iturralde died in the wee hours of December 31, 2008 while I was in Texas. I can still remember my sister Pinky’s sobbing voice trying to tell me the sad news over the phone, which she had received from Paz, my sister-in-law in San Francisco, who had in turn been called by my brother Paul. The news had traveled swiftly around the world.

I quickly called my mother in Manila. She had not even heard the news yet. All she knew was that my brother Paul had brought Maria Luz to the hospital at midnight. Then, I woke up Bea and asked her to go to Quiapo to be with my mom and help out with arrangements. Like real troopers, my daughters Bea and Cara, with their cousin Monchoy, took charge of the wake while my brother Paul made the funeral arrangements.

The rest of us siblings (Johnny, Pepito, Pinky and I) felt helpless being so far away. All I could do from the other side of the globe was write down my memories of our aunt for an online memorial. Maria Luz loved to write. This was the best way I could think of to pay her tribute.

Maria Luz or Lucy or Frenchie as her friends would call her or Dada Uds as her grand nieces and nephews called her was a writer non par. She was the longest running moderator of Action (1947-51), Veritas (1980-94), The Profile, and The Faculty Review. Udsy was also the editor of The Search and We the Alumnae. She was an excellent writer and would write under the monicker Sub-Rosa (or chismis queen). I remember many trips to the National Printing Press in Quezon Avenue to check on various publications. She guided the exhibit for the College of the Holy Spirit’s 75th anniversary.

An English teacher at the College of the Holy Spirit, Udsy dedicated herself to helping students learn to love the English language. Quick-witted, she entertained her students with stories about family and life, making her dearly beloved to all of them. She was my English teacher as well, from the time I learned how to speak, read and write. In college, I studied English under her. She prodded me into writing and editing for the school paper. My baptismal godmother, she was always there to watch over me and guide me. And I had to study extra hard to make sure that I earned good grades.

She taught for 49 years at the school that she loved with all her heart, and was guidance counselor for a long time. I remember her anguished crying when she was replaced as the guidance counselor. Her life revolved around that school, and when she was forced to retire, she was terribly disheartened. Writing and editing kept her alive, and when she was removed by the CHS Alumnae Foundation as editor-in-chief of We the Alumnae on the pretext that the newsletter would now be computerized, she lost all interest in life.

As a young girl, Udsy excelled at sketching. Sports-minded, she won two trophies for marathon running. She studied Elementary Education for Teaching Children at Holy Ghost College (now College of the Holy Spirit).

A frequent visitor of the school’s bodega when she was a youngster, Udsy was always sent there for being the naughtiest girl in school. She was the bane of Erundina Fernandez (who later, for a time, became my mother-in-law and wrecked her revenge on me), Teofisto Guingona who called her “kabayo” because of her kicking him with her boston, and Alejandro Reyes who later became dean at San Beda.

Udsy was brave to the point of carelessness. During the Japanese occupation, a man was shot by the Japanese on our street. Without thinking of her own safety, she ran to him to give him the Last Rites. She would always take the side of the oppressed, and if she felt any of us were being given a hard time, she would take it upon herself to defend us.

Udsy loved to clean. Cleaning was her thing. She was very OC about this. The wooden staircase was not acceptable until it was gleaming. Her room was off limits to all us, unless it was story-telling time. She never liked the kitchen, and could not cook as far as I know. Kitchen duties were reserved for her sister Julia. But, oh, how she loved to eat! To the very end, she was always hungry, even if she had just eaten five minutes before.

Story telling was her thing. And for this, no one came even close. She was a master storyteller. And we lapped it all up.

I always credited my love of reading and literature to Udsy. When my brothers and I were young, we didn’t enjoy the usual fairytales like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or Cinderella or Snow White. Instead, Udsy would regale us with stories of Greek, Norse and Roman mythology. Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Poseidon, Apollo, Athena, Hades and Ulysses. These were our heroes and heroines. The Three Fates – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos – caused me nightmares. When would Atropos cut the string of my life, I anguished? Why, before The Lord of the Rings became a hit serial movie, we knew the entire story from beginning to end.

We eagerly looked forward to her payday because she would bring us to Goodwill in Escolta or to Bookmark and Alemars in Avenida Rizal and let us buy whatever book we desired to read. We had a complete collection of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. When I got into my teens, she even indulged my love of Barbara Cartland and pocketbook love stories. On my 16th birthday, she got me a dozen pocketbooks. That was a special day!

Hot-tempered, Udsy easily got agitated. But when she was calm, she was very gregarious. She was always the life of the party, or so I remember. She would force my brothers and I to perform for her guests (mostly nuns, teachers and students) during parties at home. We had to recite a poem, dance or sing. Rock-a-bye-baby and Joyce Kilmer’s Tree Poem were favorites of mine.

When Udsy was angry, she was like a grenade, hurting everyone within reach. It was wise to stay out of her way. She would run over everyone. She would fly off the handle if she could not find a book, and would accuse us of getting it without permission. But when she would find it, her way of apologizing was to treat us to a Coke. And, oh, how she loved to drink Coke!

She wanted us to be serious about our studies, and thought anything unrelated to school work was the Devil’s work. One time, I was invited to become a model. Udsy was so angry, she threw a basin of water from her second floor window over the agents who came to take my photo. Naturally, that was the end of my budding modeling career.

Near-sighted in one eye, Udsy always wore glasses for as long as I can remember. Red lipstick was her trademark. She kept her shiny black hair short and hated it when white hair started to appear. She commissioned us to pick out her white hair with tweezers and would pay us a centavo for every three white hair we got out. She had her breasts removed when she was in her early twenties because of a cancer scare. She told me the surgeon made a mistake and took out her good breast, and when he realized his error, removed her other breast. She heard him talking about his mistake during her operation through the haze of her anesthesia. This caused her lifelong fear of doctors and medicine. Otherwise, she was in the pink of health for most of her life, all 5’4” and 98 lbs.

Udsy secretly admired my late husband, Mike, and would cut out his articles from different newspapers, save them in a brown envelope and give them to me each time I visited San Sebastian.

In her later years, Udsy became schizophrenic, thinking everyone was out to get her. It was truly sad seeing her fall into deep depression. She would physically hurt her caregivers, and so we decided to put her into a nursing home in Calamba run by nuns. We felt then that she and my aunt Julia would have better care there. We brought the family’s Christ the King statue to Calamba to watch over them. I was relieved though when my brother decided to bring them back home to San Sebastian. This was their home where they were happy.

Julia Alvaro Iturralde

On February 8, 2015 while vacationing in Rome. I received word from my mom that my father’s only remaining sibling, Julia Alvaro Iturralde had passed away. In a way, I was relieved. She had been ill for a very long time, her brilliant mind long gone, her once robust body withered and thin. She still managed a cherubic toothless smile whenever I would visit and remind her that I was Monette, her niece. Sometimes she would remember me. The last time, she did not, and it saddened me greatly. She asked why it was taking her parents long to fetch her.

Julia was born on October 7, 1931 to Jose Manalo Iturralde and Dominga Alvaro. The youngest in a brood of six, Julia or Jill as she was fondly called, was an extremely intelligent individual. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with an AB-BSE degree from Holy Ghost College, and finished two masteral programs: Master in Sociology from Ateneo University and Master of East Asian Studies from Radcliffe, where she enjoyed a scholarship. Jill held the deanship of the Liberal Arts Department of the College of the Holy Spirit for 23 years. She was also moderator of Action, Veritas and The Profile from 1964-67. A prolific poetess, Jill expressed her emotions in beautiful words.

My first recollection of Tita Jill (and later Dada Nings), as we fondly called her, was playing in my grandmother’s warm kitchen with a white porcelain tea set decorated with flowers that she had given me. I must have been less than three then. Pouring real milk tea in the tiny cups, she sat with me on the floor, and we pretended that we were having guests over. Sometimes, we would collect the moss in the garden, place them on the tiny plates and pretend it was salad. Other times, I got lucky and we actually ate food that had just been cooked in the kitchen.

When she came back from taking her masters at Radcliffe University, she brought home a huge walking doll for me. Oh, how I loved that doll with curly blonde hair! It was almost as tall as I was.

Tita Jill taught me how to pray before I slept: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love entrusts me here. Ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul to take. Amen.”

Summers, when we were growing up were spent in that kitchen. She would teach us how to bake, decorate cakes, and then let us experiment in the kitchen. I remember crying when my cake didn’t rise because I had forgotten to put baking powder in the mix. My brothers and I would fight as to who would clean up the leftover fudge in the bowl.

I loved watching how she cooked, and she would let me be her little assistant, though I was not allowed to wield a knife. I was assigned to mixing food. Getting egg whites to stiffen up was the hardest task ever. “Whip it 100 times, Monette, and don’t lift the spatula up or the air would escape,” she would admonish me. I would try valiantly to soldier on even if my arms felt like they were about to fall off. Looking back, I realize now that she had nurtured my interest in food.

Dada Nings taught Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Spirit, and to drive home learning, she would host parties at our ancestral home in San Sebastian for her students. They would cook Asian dishes, and wear dresses from the different countries they were assigned. My personal favorite was her sukiyaki. I loved watching them prepare the food, and then perform Asian songs or dances after. Oh, that was a lot of fun!

And she made life fun for her nieces and nephews. On Holy Saturdays, she would herd us into the dining room, give each of us a brush, and we would paint dozens of eggs for the Easter Egg Hunt the next day. I guess she must have hidden the eggs in the garden while we slept because we had fun hunting for them after mass on Easter Day.

We would have our own version of Flores de Mayo. We would dress up as saints using her clothes and stack of ribbons and scarves, parade up and down the house, then have a raffle of little knickknacks that she would collect. Oh, and we were not the only ones who had fun dressing up under her guidance. Her students were also in on it. I remember one Marian festival where she had her students dress up as different versions of Mama Mary and stand up like statues around the garden by the CHS Mendiola chapel.

She was a consummate writer, poet and story teller. She wrote plays about the Old Testament which her students performed in school. She wrote poems for the school paper, the CHS alumnae newsletter, and later for the newsletter she and her sister Maria Luz put up. She penned a book entitled Family Treasures which revealed all of the Iturralde secret recipes, and which I use to this day. Her friends gathered some of her poems and published them together with pieces written by my other two aunts, Maria Luz and Sister Encarnacion.

Early on, she encouraged us to perform during parties at home (Actually, I think a better word would be mandated). We either had to sing, dance, or recite a poem to the guests who invariably were their fellow teachers and nuns from the College of the Holy Spirit.

She was a very kind soul, soft-spoken, and yet you knew you were in deep trouble if you ever crossed the line. When I was in first year college, a classmate from elementary asked if she could visit me at home on a Saturday. I had not seen her for some time and was excited to see her. She came to the house with her father who was an advertising executive. A popular soft drink brand was giving away a car to the lucky person who found the tansan (bottle cap) with the winning mark. Apparently, he was running the contest, and he told me that he would make sure I would win the car, but in return I would have to sell the car and split the proceeds with him. I was to let him know my decision on Monday.

Naturally, I was very much tempted. Since my father died when I was ten, we were hard up. The funds would come in handy so I could pursue my dream of studying law, buy things I’ve always wanted, give my family a more comfortable life. At that time, I was studying on scholarship. I discussed the options with my Tita Jill, who advised me of the importance of being true to the values of honesty and integrity. That night, she gave me two cards she had drawn. Depending on my decision, I was to open one of the cards. That weekend was excruciatingly difficult for me. I decided to turn down the offer, and opened the card. Here’s what was written:

“Dear Monette,

You lost. W-a-a-a-a-h… sob sob… Boo hoo… Boo hoo. Hikbe… Sniffle… Sniffle… 

But to me, after Monday, you are taller than a giraffe, taller than Empire State, taller than Mt. Everest.

You are one of us – born losers whose poverty is their (sic) our wealth.

At any rate, I’m so proud of you, so proud that I can treat you to a Shakeys pizza tonight!!!

Love,

Ninang

October 23, 1975″

And then, I opened the other card. It said simply:

“Dear Mongga,

Hooray!! Tsup!!!

Love,

Nings”

I knew then that she was very proud of me for making the right decision. That for me was the most beautiful gift she had ever given me. I treasure those two cards to this day.

I always wanted to study Fine Arts but we didn’t have the funds for this. But the summer after the softdrink incident, Tita Jill enrolled me in a summer class in painting at CHS. I was in heaven! The next summer, she enrolled me in theatre class, along with my brother Pepito.

She was always looking for ways to encourage our various interests. I remember the day the encyclopedia set she had purchased arrived. Pepito and I who were in grade school then were so excited, we spent the entire summer reading the encyclopedia from A to Z. We also played Scrabble and Monopoly with her. Tita Jill’s bed could be spotted a mile away because of the mountains of books and papers that littered it.

College studies was a different matter. Because I was on scholarship (which was the only way I could afford studying at CHS), I had to study very, very hard. It was made more difficult because my aunts worked at the school: Sr. Encarnacion taught Theology, Maria Luz headed the English Department, and Julia served as dean of Liberal Arts. They were stricter on me than anyone else, because they wanted to prove that I could make it on my own. They were thus ecstatic when I graduated with a Summa cum Laude.

Although she was the youngest sibling of my father, Tita Jill appeared to be the head of the family when it came to decision making. She was always protecting her older sister from harm. When Tita Jill and Tita Udsy (Maria Luz) were forced to retire from CHS, they started a newsletter to keep their minds busy. I suspect that Tita Jill used her retirement funds for this as Tita Udsy who had unceremoniously been removed as editor-in-chief of We, the Alumnae, had gone into deep depression. She wanted to make her sister happy. Tita Jill bought a computer and learned to use it.

Things got worse when my cousin Jose Rene and his mother Vicente died and Tita Jill was left to cope with the legal issues on inheritance. The stress was too much for her, and she suffered one stroke after the other, with complications from diabetes. She lost her eyesight, and this was a crushing blow to someone who was as widely read as her. As the years went by, she became less and less interested in life, and would just lie down, seeming to wait for her parents to come and fetch her. And now, they have finally and they are all reunited in their real home in heaven, with Christ.

Though I miss them terribly, I am happy that they are now at peace. I thank the Lord for the gift of having had them both as my aunts, and will always keep them in my heart. May they rest in God’s embrace forever.

The French Connection in Tagaytay-Alfonso-Nasugbu

Spontaneity won the day!  It was a three-day weekend, and we had guests from France to take around. My niece and goddaughter Sam who lives in Sallanches in front of Mont Blanc came visiting with her French beau Sylvain Aubry. As my girls had a birthday party to attend Saturday and Niccolo was vacationing in Bacolod with his girlfriend Sam and her family, Andre and I agreed to take our guests around Tagaytay and Alfonso.  My mom Dada joined us.

Since it was a long weekend and traffic Saturday morning would be horrendous, Andre suggested we leave Friday night. And so we did. The trip was a breeze.

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Roadtrip to Tagaytay
On Sam and Sylvain’s  bucket list were mountain climbing and swimming. Our two guests wanted to trek to the Taal Volcano.  We had planned to stay in Alfonso overnight but while chatting in the car, we realized that Andre’s house in Tagaytay was closer to the jump off point to Taal than my Alfonso farm. And just like that we decided to stay at Tagaytay, knowing full well that the house had not been lived in for two years. Being a meticulous planner, poor Andre was apprehensive that there would be no running hot water, and that the air conditioners and ref would not work. We assured him that we were all Cowboys, and would adjust. Voila! Everything worked just fine.

Early the next morning, I checked the kitchen to cook breakfast.  I got the gas burners working, and was puttering around when I spied two hideous looking ceramic chickens on the countertop glaring at me. I let out a huge scream, being deathly afraid of chickens. Sam kindly moved the offending chickens and covered them with a cloth.

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Beautiful but deadly Taal Volcano
After a sumptuous breakfast of piping hot coffee, corned beef, eggs and toasted pan de monay with guava and orange jams, we left for the Taal Yacht Club where we could arrange for a boat to bring our guests to Taal volcano.  The second most active volcano in the Philippines and considered the smallest volcano in the world, Taal Volcano is a geologic wonder as it features a lake within an island within a lake within a larger island. It is part of the deadly Pacific Ring of Fire.

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Sam and Sylvain’s Taal Volcano Adventure
Accompanied by a guide, Sam and Sylvain took off on a motorized outrigger to take the secret trail to the volcano on horseback, and to go swimming in the lake within the volcano.  As their trip would take four hours, we arranged lunch for them at the Yacht Club. Meanwhile, the oldies (Dada, Andre and I) went to Tagaytay Highlands where we had a delicious Chinese lunch of assorted dimsum, crispy seafood noodles, and a hotpot of eggplant and dried fish.

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Naughty Dada and the Lion
While waiting for Andre to park the car, ever impish Dada had fun posing with the huge lion at the entrance of Dynasty Restaurant, acting as if the lion bit her.  Oh, Dada!

In the afternoon, we visited Alfonso.  I planned to prepare a paella pobre for dinner, but since I did not have lemon and chicken, I convinced  Andre to pass by Mahogany Market. Well, the promised five minutes stopover took much longer with the variety of fruits that were being sold. Spotting some ripe langka, I bought some, intending to make our favorite turon with saba.   We loaded up on lemons, mangoes, and lanzones which were so sweet that Dada and Andre quickly finished it off.

Plants were on sale beside the fruit market, and I couldn’t help myself from approaching them. I went gaga over the potted herbs on sale, and picked up tarragon, basil, dill, mint, sevia, and thyme to plant in Alfonso. I also bought a lovely smelling creeper called yesterday, today and tomorrow because of its tri-colored flowers. Hopefully, this plant would thrive in SouthBay.

We then went to the meat section so I could buy the chicken. Normally, I buy only deboned and skinless chicken thighs and breasts at the supermarket, but this being the wet market, they only had whole chickens. Luckily, I didn’t have to hold the chicken myself.  I remembered that we didn’t have lumpia wrappers for the turon so I had to run back to the vegetable section to get some.

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Alfonso, almost at dusk
Finally, we arrived at Alfonso just as the sun was beginning to set. I felt peace settle in my soul as I always do coming home to this retreat. The rambutan trees were in full bloom.  I asked our caretaker to harvest rambutan and coconuts to bring home to SouthBay. After a quick walk around the farm, I started preparing the aioli and cooking the paella, while Dada taught Sam and Sylvain how to make turon.  As I had to get an entire chicken at the market, it was left to our farm caretaker Bleng to cut the chicken into pieces and debone it for my paella and an adobo.

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Paella pobre, simple but filling
Our simple dinner of chistorras al ajillo, paella pobre, and chicken adobo paired with a Vin d’Alsace was superb. Even Andre announced that it was my best paella so far.  From such a discerning gourmet, that was one great compliment. The turon, mangoes and pineapples were a sweet finale to the dinner.

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The lake within Taal Volcano. From afar, it looks serene, but close to it, it’s hot enough to boil an egg on one side, yet warm enough to swim in on another side.
During dinner, Sam and Sylvain regaled us with their adventures at Taal. The horses were tiny, she said, just like ponies and they were worried the horses would not be able to carry them up the mountain, and then down into the inside rim of the crater where the lake was.  Apparently, no living thing, even bacteria, can thrive in the lake inside the Taal volcano because of its high sulfuric content. Besides, the water is too hot as evidenced by the steam rising from the lake. The guide explained that an egg could be boiled if left on the rocks to one side of the lake. The water on the lake’s other side, however, was not boiling, and Sam and Sylvain swam in it.

As we were eating, the skies opened up and cried a river.  The sound of the heavy downpour was lulling us to sleep on the veranda, but we decided to drive back to Tagaytay while it was still early enough. Good thing we did because there was zero visibility on the road. The fog was so thick we could hardly see in front of us.  Andre followed the white lines on the road but would be dazzled by oncoming cars using high beams. Our guardian angels must be working overtime as we got home safely.

Sunday morning, we enjoyed a breakfast of steamed rice, Connie’s Best tuyo with capers, scrambled organic eggs and chicken adobo. We then got into the car and drove to Terrazas de Punta Fuego in Nasugbu.  Between weekenders going to the various destination restaurants along the Tagaytay Ridge and the faithful attending mass, traffic was heavy.  It was almost noon by the time we arrived at Terrazas.  Driving down to the beach, we were transported to the French Riviera. The view of the sea sparkling in the sun was simply spectacular.

 

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Chilling and swimming at Terrazas de Punta Fuego
Andre had reserved a cabana so we could go swimming. We agreed on a late lunch as breakfast had been heavy. After a refreshingly cold lychee shake, Dada, Sam and Sylvain headed for the beach to swim. The strong waves crashing on the shore got the better of them, and the young ones transferred to the swimming pool, while the not-so-young ones lounged at the cabana. Ravenous after the swim, we transferred to the clubhouse for lunch.

img_6644Soon, Pablum Lobregat, Eddie and Lita Legarda showed up to join us. Pablum is the cousin of Andre’s late wife Ito, and Eddie her younger brother.  Conversation revolved around the best beaches that Sam and Sylvain could go to, like Honda Bay, Coron, Puerto Princesa and Mindoro.

Pablum and Andre started kidding each other, sharing funny stories. We learned about this hilarious incident involving what turned out to be a very expensive cheese pimiento sandwich which Pablum offered to Andre. Transferring from one boat named Cocoa to Pablum’s other boat where the sandwich was waiting, Andre had one foot on Cocoa and the other on the second boat when the two boats started to move away, forcing Andre to do an impromptu split. The boats drifted farther than farther apart until Andre fell into the water, and lost a brand new slipper. The next day, he was black and blue and had to go for a full check-up.  He never forgot that pimiento sandwich.

After lunch, we all got onto Pablum’s sailboat. We got drenched walking to the boat and getting on to it as the waves kept beating us up.  The waves carried off my hat when a huge wave washed over me. Luckily, Eddie saved it for me.  My 81-year old mom climbed onto the boat, little knowing that it would be a turbulent ride. Poor Dada! She ended up with a severe case of seasickness.  Except for Dada, we all had a wonderful time on the boat, with the wind in our hair, the sun warm on our skin, and the warm water splashing all over us.

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Sailing in Nasugbu
It was my first time to go sailing, and I was curious about the unfurling of the sails. I clambered to the side and sat on the blue tarpaulin to the side of the boat. Lita kindly explained what was happening on the boat, as the crew got it working. I kept my head down for fear of being decapitated by the mast, and held on tight to the ropes for fear of sliding off.  All my fears melted away as I marveled at the beauty of the sea from my perch. It was a glorious feeling! No wonder so many people love to sail. I understand now how they could fall in love with the sea.

The trip back to Tagaytay was tiring. Dada was asleep in the car, spent from the afternoon’s excursion. The fog was back in full force and so was traffic. Waze though helped us find a detour through the back roads of Tagaytay and Alfonso.   Back in Tagaytay, I quickly prepared a capellini pasta with bottarga, anchovy, dried chilies, parsley, olive oil and lemon.  It was our last night in Tagaytay and the sound of the rains was music to our ears as we chatted over dinner.

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My farmer and me
After breakfast Monday morning, we packed up everything and left for the farm so Sam and Sylvain could see what a hydroponic farm was. They were thoroughly impressed by the healthy produce at the farm. Andre gifted me with a giant yellow gumamela flower, along with a special message. Sam commented that the plants were all on steroids, seeing how large and healthy they all looked.

On the way home, we bought lanzones and more rambutan. We also stopped by LZM, which Andre swears has the best boneless bangus in town.  I was relegated to going in to order the bangus, and as I write this blog, the delicious aroma of the fried bangus permeating the car Is tantalizing our senses.  We’re all looking forward to lunch and being reunited with Bea and Niccolo.

All in, it was a most marvelous weekend spent with people I love.  Special thanks to the warm hospitality of Pablum, Eddie and Lita for bringing us for a spin in the sailboat. I enjoyed meeting such wonderful friends and family of Andre.  And I believe Andre enjoyed the time spent with my family as well. I am sure Sam and Sylvain will treasure the fun they had this weekend. After all, it is more fun in the Philippines.

TeamAsia founder and president, trainer, event organizer, food and art lover. President, Philippine Association of Convention/Exhibition Organizers and Supplier Philippines · teamasia.com