Friday, February 24, 2006

State of Emergency

Do they give Olympic golds for sliding down snow on your butt?
Forgive me for not blogging anything witty or smart, but I direly need a vacation from the vacation I just took. Last week we drove up to Briançon in Hautes Provence, thinking of doing nothing more than spending a few days inhaling chill air, enjoying the company of friends, and feasting on rich mountain food.

Unfortunately, Pierre and I are so out of it that we did not realize that the Winter Olympics was just an hour's drive away over the border into Italy, a distance short enough for the athletic endorphins to travel and infect the two other couples we were vacationing with and their accumulated four children. We knew we were in trouble when on the first morning the kids filed into our room at seven a.m., already wearing snowsuits, shaking us awake with chimed threats. "Time to ski! Time to ski!"

As I brushed my teeth, I started getting images of a giant snowball with a Philippine flag stuck to its side. It would be me, accidentally pushing my ski professor off a steep ravine so that I was left to my own devices and out of control, rolling down the slopes, gathering speed and packing up snow. Reaching ten meters in diameter, I would flatten entire families of French tourists. Forever their death screams would haunt me: "Merde!" "Putain!" "C'est quoi cette connerie?!" Screaming as well inside my prison--"Putangina!!!!!!!"--my alien vocalization would cause an avalanche and cut the town off from all major roads. After they'd run out of wine to maintain the joie de vivre and cheese to make a proper fondue, the survivors would have to walk home (school break's almost up anyway). The chic would curse me for making them look ridiculous, wearing those tennis rackets they strap on to feet and call snowshoes. Nonetheless, they would attempt to sashay and strut, the three surviving Parisians actually managing it.

I would be deported encased in ice and shame, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would have a lot of explaining to do in front of the European Community. Afterwards there would be an international ban against all Filipinos: any one of us even attempting to step on snow would be instantly shot.

Fast forward to now: We're back home and a coup attempt is the headline at We survived, but barely.

Waking up in a cold sweat, we have nightmares about spending the rest of our lives required to get up all chirpy at dawn. Pierre cracked a rib because he forgot that he wasn't twenty years old anymore and went up on the steep red slopes the first time he ever tried snowboarding. I managed to ski just fine, but fell too many times ice-skating and even got myself kicked on the calf by my husband's metal skates so that I was limping for a day. The holiday's triumph: Angie was chanelling the spirit of her countrywoman Shizuka Arakawa, gliding after just an hour on ice skates.

Adrenaline pumping anew through his aging body, Pierre threatens to bring us up again for another week, at the end of which he says I have to be skiing down the red slopes with him. Make a petition to stop him, please. It's for the national good.
Les sportifs.
A Hallmark moment between father and daughter--
except for the plastic bags on his feet!
Future ice-skating champion?
After snowboarding, Pierre tries dishwashing,
an activity he also considers extreme.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Je Suis Wicked Stepmother

She was just here, Angie, my stepdaughter, child of the world, a passport holder at 45 days old. One and a half months after being born in France, she visited Japan, lived eight months in Mexico, and, to recover, stopped a few years in the Philippines. Long enough that, when I met her, aside from English she was speaking Filipino and two Visayan dialects.

At the ripe old age of six years and eight months, she has settled down. Home is Essex, with her Japanese mom and English stepdad. School breaks she goes back to where she saw her first summer, vacationing with her French father and Filipina stepmother. She speaks the Queen's English, and of Filipino remembers only "manang" and "patay." ("Old woman" and "dead"--don't ask me why.) We're proud of how her French is coming along. This past week it was amazing to hear her forming complete sentences all on her own. (Of a lost stuff toy: "Mon chat, il est parti.")

This petite peripatetic taught me an important survival skill last summer when I heard her in conversation with our neighbor. Cesar was saying goodbye, telling Angie that maybe he'll see her again during Christmas, when she could meet his sons. The little one was looking him straight in the eye, nodding her head, enthusing every now and then "Oui! Oui!" She did this all throughout Cesar's enumeration of potential winter activities.

After he had left, I asked if she had really comprehended. Angie answered, "Oh, not really. I say Oui to everyone talking to me in French so they'll think I understand and then they'll go away." I tried the trick a few times when I just didn't have the energy to get my brain's language center working, or when the speaker's southern accent was too thick. It worked!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Why I Must Be in France

A scene from L'Express Bar. (Spot me, hiding behind the roses.)

They don't know their rice. They boil it in a pot full of water, as if it were spaghetti, and even then they don't know to make it al dente. The first time Jeanette saw me do it, adding water just until the second line of my middle finger resting nail-first on the bed of white grains, she seemed unconvinced. Some time later, with the water absorbed and evaporated, I put the heat down low to get that nice, steamed puffiness. Jeanette couldn't stand it. In that way mothers-in-law have of assuming that, yes, they can, she marched to the stove and turned off the fire. Excuse me, I interrupted, but when you look at my face do you see anything there? Yes, you got it, I told her. I'm Filipina, and I know my rice. So I lit another match.

It's not all about beer. In college at the University of the Philippines, it was San Miguel Pale Pilsen at Gulod, near Krus na Ligas. After graduation, in the bars of Ortigas and Makati, the order remained basically the same. San Miguel Beer, this time Light. These days, I go either to Perroquet or L'Express, two bars on the village square. After having at different times imbibed moresque (pastis with almond syrup), panache (beer with ginger ale), Martini (red, white, and rose), whiskey (once with Coke and another time with fizzy water), and all kinds of wine, I have finally decided that my aperitif of choice is kir, white wine with blackberry syrup. Still, old habits die hard. When we walk over to Tac-Tac, a few cobblestoned streets away, I often return to my roots. Marco, the owner, doesn't make it easy. He gives me the drinks list, and demands that I choose from his stock of fifty beers.

They distrust water. You go visiting and you're shown Frech hospitality with one of the first sentences uttered: Do you want something to drink? Une verre d'eau, you answer. A sound like your hosts are uncomfortable, and then you're told, a bottle of rose wine is chilling in the fridge. You say, I'm sure it's very nice, but no, thank you. Just water, really. That sound again. Pretty soon, you have a complete list of everything in the alcohol cabinet. They're even willing to make you try some homemade aperitifs, although the recipe will have to remain a closely guarded secret. When they do finally bring a glass of H20, before the first sip they have to stop you. Wouldn't you really rather have some wine instead?

They have only one word for rice, and it's riz. I read that a people's language reveals what they consider important. So back in the Philippines we don't just call it kanin. It starts as palay, and when pounded becomes bigas. Cooked, it's sinaing; the overcooked part, tutong. The day after, leftovers are sautéed to become sinangag. Over here in France, there's ivre, enivré, soûl, bourré, bu, cuit, cuité, beurré, bituré, and aviné. Along with some thirty other words, all mean the same thing: drunk.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Keynote Speech #2

It doesn't matter, Tweet, Steph, all my other dearies, what nationality your man carries. This advice applies to all: It pays to know your guy's dirty secrets. Go ahead, dig and prod, unearth all those nasty things that he's got buried. It will be useful one day. Trust me.

Case in point: Many weeks ago, I was hooked. I'd hear the opening words coming from the television, perpetually tuned to a music video channel, that insouciant voice declaring, "I know you like me, it's easy to see," and instantly I'd start wiggling my ass and jiggling my boobies, dancing in front of the mirror, making like a Pussycat Doll. I even clicked on to their official site, found out that the lead singer is part Filipina. I knew it! There was something familiar in that long black-haired sexiness. I felt a connection. I thought they were, as the Fil-Ams used to say, da bomb. Dontcha?

Well, my husband, the dear, serious-minded European, answered plainly, "I don't." The Pussycat Dolls were shallow, he declared, the lyrics to the song downright stupid. Les idiotes, he said they were.

That instantly stopped me shaking my bootie. I looked at him, then back at my reflection in the mirror. I frowned, and then smiled. I remembered. Grabbing a hairbrush, I made that my mic. Opening my mouth, I started to belt.

"And I-iay-iay will always love you-ooh-ooh-oohhhh..." I went at it long enough and loud enough that if we were living in a tenement in Manila and I had the help of a karaoke machine, a beer-drunk neighbor would have dropped his forkful of sisig to come and shoot me dead in the head.

That instantly stopped Pierre badmouthing the hotties. You see, one of his deepest, darkest secrets is this: He was once an avid fan of Whitney Houston, and up to today he considers The Bodyguard one of his favorite films ever. Ha!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Why I Think I'm Still in the Philippines #1

1. My father comes from Batangas, where they have that ala-eh punto. So when I came here to the south of France, I didn't mind that they don't cut the ends off their words as they do in Paris, that they sometimes even add an "n" and a "g." I find it adorably quirky that to say "hand," le main, you don't pronounce it "luh mah" but rather "luh meng"; and the French word for "when," quand, doesn't sound like the "kauhn" they teach you at Alliance Française, but more like "kang." You want to buy bread, le pain? The boulanger will look at you funny if you utter "luh pah." Stretch it and curl it, and you'll get your "luh peng."

2. I used to live near the Mandaluyong City circle, where it was not unheard of to bring out motor boats after a big storm. Now that I'm a resident of one of the world's richest countries, I'm still not exempt from flooding. Just a few months ago, after heavy rains, they evacuated two neighbouring villages. When the baha comes, we sometimes even have brownouts too.

3. When I was a kid and came down with a fever, my mom would have called over to the house an old woman who would poke my tummy and feel my head, then stick little square mirrors to my back. The woman would murmur some words under her breath, before pronouncing me soon cured and then taking her leave. That was the hilot. Last year, Pierre fell off a motorcycle and got seriously scraped on the legs and arms. The day after the accident we went to his aunt, an old woman who cupped her hands over the wounds while whispering incantations. C'était la hilot.

4. I used to go out with a boy who grew up in Malabon, where the people are so chummy they give neighborhood characters special nicknames. Fond of playing the guitar, my ex was called "Clapton." Lucky him. He had a neighbor who was christened "Lamok" and another one was "Manok." (For the benefit of non-Filipino readers, the first neighbor was "Mosquito" and second one "Chicken.") Over here, it's the same thing. There's a man, slight of built, that they call "Anchois." A mechanic whom I met just this afternoon is "Camoui." If they lived in Malabon they would be, respectively, "Dilis" and "Langis" ("Anchovy" and "Grease").