Sunday, December 18, 2005

Christmas Message No. 8

Every year since 1997 I would compose my Christmas message and email it en masse to all my friends. The first time it was sent out to just a handful since not that many of my friends were connected to the internet. Last year I had been delinquent owing more to the hectic pace by which my December (2004) had been set-up. And so this year I pick up where I had left off and resume with my Christmas Message for 2005.

Christmas had always had special meaning to me. I have never outgrown the excitement for the season. Somehow, it seems that all the things we do throughout the year always culminates to this special day marked by memories that we will build up to remember for years to come, perhaps to share with our children or future children.

Christmas to me will always be about my family, sharing Noche Buena at my parent's house with my Pingping, my mom, my siblings, my daughter and now, my niece and nephew. It will always be about the Chinese ham, the turkey, the queso de bola (edam cheese) and the unabashed shower of affection at the stroke of midnight with the hugging, the kissing and the 'i love you's. It is tradition that everyone be at the dining table by 12 midnight of the 24th, so much that Francis, Gigi and I had struggled through many years stressfully hurdling the traffic of Manila (because of the Manila Film Festival parade) and of Kawit, Cavite (for the Maytinis procession) to make it in time. And if couldn't make it (Francis during his residency years; Gigi when she spent Christmas 2004 in Seattle and in 2002 when Nicole came to NY to be with me), we made sure that we called up at the exact time to greet those at home, a Merry Christmas.

That is probably why Christmas to me had always meant coming home to Manila. In 2003 someone had bought me my first fresh Christmas tree, set it up in my apartment with lights and all but it never really had the same efect on me as the seven-foot plastic tree we had back home. All around me I am surrounded by the blinking lights, the Santa Claus at the streetcorner but I am not stirred, the meaning of the yuletide seems to repel me. Until a week ago, I dreaded Christmas because it meant I would have to get on another plane and travel 18 hours confined in the square foot smaller than my closet (and I have a small closet, trust me!).

Now with ticket on hand and just a few days away from my departure, I am giggly excited. I can't wait to see Nicole and hear her stories about life, love and school. I am wrapping Gabrielle's gifts and smiling because I can imagine how she will tear through her presents. I can' wait to see Liam's antics myself after just hearing about them from my daughter and my mom. I am looking forward to coming home and being engulfed in the love of my family - hearing their voices, exchanging jokes and gossips about the neighbors and just catching up with what we had missed in the past months.

This is the season for love. Whatever you call it, however your traditions take you to experience it, always cherish the special meaning that marks this time of the year. Stop a while from the pace life has taken you and acknowledge the love and blessing of those closest to your heart.

And so from my family in the Philippines and my daughter Nicole, I wish you all Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel, Buon Natale or Happy Hanukkah and the very best for the New Year's 2006!


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Winter Begins

On the afternoon I arrived in Lyon, flurries danced with the wind and on the TV monitors at the airport the weatherman predicted the next four days to be wintry and snowy. While standing in line with the rest of my fellow passengers waiting for our luggage I had already sent an SMS message to the Italian in panic: IT IS SNOWING!!! ARGH!!!!

His return call was quick, assuring me that winter in France was nothing like what I am used to in New York. He went on to say that anything more than an inch of snow would be a major disaster whereas in Manhattan, we are used to way more than that.

I found out that the winds from the Atlantic Ocean warms up the air and doesn't make for sufficient conditions for huge amounts of snow. Along the US East Coast, however many thanks to the many lakes that dot our landscape, winters can be very very harsh.

This Friday morning as I stepped out of my apartment building, I was confronted by a winter wonderland. Snow had started to fall at 4AM and four hours later, there must have been about 3 inches of it everywhere. My world had suddenly been painted in white and honestly, even for a non-fan of winter, this is a beautiful sight. White snow everywhere - except for the streets, everywhere else snow had not yet been touched by the salt that many use to sprinkle on the sidewalks to melt it, not yet yellow because the dogs weren't taking their strolls yet and not yet slushy. Just perfect white dusting everywhere.

As I walked to the subway station however, it felt as though I was in a snowball fight with the heavens. Huge bits of snow flew everywhere and there was no way you could get away from it. No graceful fragile snowflakes like in Lyon here - we had New York snow. The kind that was determined to beat the records in terms of accumulations.

I took more pictures from my office window, after surviving the commute. The visibility was probably a block away. They say by 10AM there was already 5 inches of snow in Central Park. Almost an inch of snow an hour had been descending on us.

And then after lunch, the snowfall stopped, the gray clouds dissipated and the sun came out. The skies were blue and it was very bright everywhere. It was even more beautiful!

The difference 9 hours can make weather-wise when you are in New York City. In the end, six inches of snow had fallen on Central Park. I stayed in the office despite the urge to play hookie and enjoy the park - my favorite past time after a snowstorm. Probably because as I child I have never had th chance to play in snow. So for me, til now it is of childish delight to walk through knee deep fresh snow on the pathways around the huge park, walk the kids sled and just embrace the whole scenery.

And winter doesn't officially begin until 21 December 2005!

In France: As a "Deaf-Mute"

Coming to France not familiar with the language can be a frustrating experience. When I downloaded for my iPod my “In-flight French: Learn before you land” I thought I was set to go. I knew my basic phrases: hello, where, how much, and what. I would realize later that I was far from being ‘set to go’. My French pronunciations mixed with my Tagalog accent was simply too confusing for most of the people I would strike conversations with. I ended up giving up and just harnessing all the charm I can muster while begging if anyone “parlez vous anglais?”

When I decided to see Paris on my own, I felt the impact of being French-challenged. From the moment I had to get a day-pass for the train and the Metro, I had to request the station attendant to help me work the ticket machine that only gave instructions in French. She had been very nice, translating each query leading to my ticket purchase in English. After uttering endless ‘merci beaucoup’ I walked away with my pass to a day of adventure in Paris. I sat in the metro and listened to the train operator’s announcements on the PA system in French, totally clueless to what he was saying. I figured if the people all got off the train then that would mean that the train was no longer in service, otherwise it still meant I was going to be taken somewhere. I listened to the sounds around me and observed how people reacted to them.

In the few times I had tried my luck to asking for directions in French, either I received them back in English or hand signals. I couldn’t help but appreciate however the helpfulness and patience of the French with a lost tourist.

Once after asking ‘ou est le metro” a man patiently mouthed to me that it is 200 meters ‘a droite’. I thought I knew my basic French and that ‘a droite’ meant to the right or the opposite of ‘a gauche’ or to the left. So to make sure I got his instructions correctly, I repeated in English: 200 meters to the right…? He looked at me with surprise and then said: “no, a droite” to which I interpreted once more with “turn right?” He scratched his head and then responded in English, “200 meters straight”.

Later I learned from my fluent French-speaking friend Joy that ‘a droite’ sounds the same as to go straight as to go right. She said it was important that you watch the hand signal that went with the words to understand if the speaker was meant to say ‘right’ or ‘straight’. I shrugged my shoulders - as though French was easy enough without the same sounding words!

Wondering around France without skill in the native language is like getting lost in the land of the deaf and the mute. I could hear the sounds around me but was totally unable to comprehend what people were saying. At any given point anyone would have sold my soul to the devil in plain earshot and I would have smiled back totally clueless. And when I mumbled whatever little French I had taught myself, no one understood me. I had to either gesture wildly or point my way around restaurants if not to resort to talking in English. And so with much frustration I ended up avoiding situations where I have to be in conversation with anyone.

It adds to the experience, however of being in a different city. I certainly taught me to take my language classes more seriously. And then guess what? Sometimes, when worst case scenarios strike, my Italian (which is about a level better than my French) had been able to bail me out of situations. Besides, dov’e la stazione de metro is far easier to pronounce than its French counterpart and I do not even have to pretend I have an accent!

France: Part Une

He who would travel happily must travel light
(by Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

New York to Lyon

It seemed that Thanksgiving came too soon. The days building up to the weekend had been hectic, almost fast paced specially with the surprise visit of my sister to New York. As soon as she left on Thursday night, I started to set aside the stuff I had to pack for my trip. On Friday night, I was sure that not everything would fit, and that is an understatement.

By Saturday morning, a mere 5 hours before I was scheduled to leave, I was still strategizing on how to pack everything in my tiny carry-on luggage. My friend had come to my rescue and his solution was simple and logical: use a bigger suitcase! Stubborn me of course tried to explain my weird logic: I wanted to travel as lightly as possible since I was going to be moving from Lyon to Paris and then to Blois before zapping back to Lyon where I was to take my plane back to New York. The last thing I wanted was the weight of my luggage holding me back.

An hour before my bus departure from Grand Central Station, we were on our way out the door leaving behind a bulk of sweaters and other clothes as well as books and other stuff I had planned to bring to my French hosts. I figure these would have to wait until my return to be shipped to them to double as Christmas gifts.

The trip from New York to Paris was an uneventful 6 hours and nothing compared to the transfer to the transfer flight. Charles de Gaulle Airport has got to be the apex in confusion in airports worldwide. I arrived from New York at Terminal 2F and then was whisk away in a bus to Terminal 2C for my forward flight to Lyon. As the bus wiggled in and out of the terminals, we finally arrived in Terminal 2C. After the customary check-in and security check, upon boarding, I found myself boarding another bus to take me to my plane. The bus circled through the airport, taking such a long time that I wondered if this was actually the bus that would take me to my plane or this was the bus that would take me to Lyon!

In Lyon

I arrived in Lyon on time, promptly as the heavens released the first flurries of the season. It coincidentally also marks Europe’s first coldest week of the year. After a half hour cab ride from the Aeroport Lyon Saint Exupery I arrived at the hotel. Located right across the Parc de la Tete d’Or, the room was a huge suite with a living room, a terrace that looked out to apartment buildings, a fully-modern kitchen, a bathroom with a large bathtub and a bidet (!) and a separate toilet. It was bigger than most apartments in Manhattan and definitely more than twice bigger than my Manhattan studio!

After a brief rest, my friend and I had lunch and a preview tour of Le Vieux Lyon, the old town. The weather had not been cooperating as snow changed to rain and then to sleet while we walked the cobblestone streets of the old city.

The view of the Fourviere Hill is breath taking from the Passerelle du Palais du Justice. From across the Saone River, the Cathedral St-Jean, the Cathedral De Notre Dame de Fouviere and the Tour Metallique de Fourviere, the Lyonnais counterpart of the majestic Tour de Eiffel.

We toured the traboulles in Old Lyon. The traboulles are corridors that linked the buildings in Old Lyon. These secret passageways were used during the Renaissance period to protect the silk that had become Lyon’s main trade from the weather. Eventually it became useful in moving the people to safety during the war. The passageways or traboulles are now embedded as part of residential buildings. As part of the tourist attraction of the old town, however, most are open to tourists from the old courtyards.

The next day we decided to go on an adventure of the city, starting with a walk across the Parc de la Tete d’Or. We then tried to find the local Metro that took us back to Old Lyon, only to get lost and to find ourselves instead north of our target and crossing the Pont Morand into the Hotel de Ville area where we couldn’t get a cab to bring us to our final destination.

Not being adept in the French language can prove to be a very challenging when in France. I had been lucky though that now and then I had come upon some locals who had patiently tried to help me out with directions in their fractured English. I was so grateful that they would take their time to help out a lost tourist. I, for one would honestly admit to being ‘not too friendly’ when I am approached for directions by tourists in New York. While in Lyon we have had a man find his way through giving me directions in English, I am guilty of counseling someone seeking out a Starbucks in midtown with ‘keep walking you’re bound to find one’ (which although very true is still not a very hospitable way of showing the city off to visitors. But then again, I am not the city's ambassasor of goodwill!).

After two days in Lyon I took the Bus #47 down the Boulevard des Belges to the Lyon Part Dieu TGV station. I have learned that the only way to truly experience a city is to be one of the locals – to move around on foot, riding the subway or the bus and eating in the restaurants that they also frequented. In the bus, I felt like and was treated like the native Lyonnais and it felt wonderful. I disembarked in front of the Galleries Lafayette but not before asking my bus driver where the TGV station was. He knew I didn’t speak French and so with his fingers pointed to the building across the street from the bus stop and mumbled: TGV.

I was able to book my train ticket to leave Lyon at 10:00 AM and was on the train in no time. I took the very last car in a seat bank meant for 4 people with a table in the middle. As my friend had warned me, the view on the TGV really wouldn’t be much since it would simply be flying by me in full speed. I took a few pictures, installed my iPod into my ears and then napped to Il Divo’s music.

I arrived on time at Paris’ Gare de Lyon and as per instructions from Joy, transferred to the Paris metro to find my way to the Les Halles station where I took the RER train to get to their town. When I called her from my mobile, she thought I was just arriving in Paris. She was surprised to hear that I was a few meters away from her house, waiting to be picked up!

This is how I have always wanted to travel, not helplessly dependent and putting a burden on my hosts. I had been proud of myself for figuring out how to get from Lyon to Paris on the first time I was traveling to the cities where I had absolutely no idea how to speak or understand the language. This to me, is the experience of travel. I knew this was going to be a wonderful start to a brief vacation