Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas in New York

My first Christmas in New York had been snowless. In fact, this is the first time in more than a hundred years (1891 was the last time!) that snow was a no-show at Central Park on Christmas day. But then, who was dreaming of a white Christmas? Not I! I loved that the so-far mild winter and that on the weekend before Christmas we could go around Manhattan to finish our last minute shopping in just sweaters was too good to be true!

And so it came and it went - like I have emailed Hannahlou, at first I thought it would be much drama of homesickness and all that but there was none of it. I actually enjoyed my very peaceful and quiet Christmas away from home. No monsterous Manila traffic to contend with, fighting for parking space at the malls or battling the long line at the grocery for Noche Buena shopping was not missed at all. The shopping in Manhattan was pretty easy with so many stores around the city none really had long waits for the cashiers to fret about.

On the weekend before Christmas, we celebrated the holidays with friends and their kids. On one dinner with another set of friends, their 5-year old daughter Rachel sat with me in their living room and interviewed me about Christmas trees and Santa Claus. You see, she's never had neither because her faith did not align her with that kind of a celebration or holiday. I told her about decorating Christmas trees and how Santa would put small gifts inside stockings.

"Is Santa Claus Catholic?" she asked, her bright dark eyes peering at me behind dark brown curls.

I glanced at the mom who flashed me a "Gee, I'm glad you're here" smile while she pretended to finish her kitchen chore.

"Well, he's not. He is a very nice, generous old man who loves children so when kids write him letters asking him for presents then if they are good, he shows up and brings them toys. Sometimes exactly what they want, sometimes if it's not in his workshop with the elves, he brings other stuff." I replied.

"He doesn't give me anything." she pouted, "even if I am really good all year."

At this point of course, my heart was breaking. "Well, did you write him a note?" I asked.

"No," she replied.

"Maybe you should. He probably thought you didn't want anything special. Lots of kids write so for those who don't, Santa thinks you don't want anything."

She smiled back at me as her face lit up, "Will you help me write him a note next year?"

I looked at the mom who winked back at me, "Of course, I will but I think your mom knows where to write him, too." And with that she rushed to her mother to confirm with her about writing a note to the jolly old fellow next year for her gifts.

After Rachel was tucked in bed, we sat in the huge living room of the luxury apartment with a view of the west side of Central Park. While they shared stories about feeling deprieved of having a fresh tree decorated with tinsel and balls or stars and coming back to school after the holidays without a Santa Claus story, we all agreed that religion should have nothing to do with celebrating the holidays with kids.

And so Rachel's mom decided that definitely they would have a fresh tree next year (10-foot high, she insists), decorated in blue and white and with a lot of snowflake or star decorations, filled with tinsel and blinking colorful lights. And Rachel's dad wanted a choo-choo train running around on a track under the tree, something he had always wanted to have since he was a boy. And yep, Rachel would be writing Santa a letter and they would fill her stockings with gifts for the eight mornings of Hanukkah. And then we all laughed, understanding that the holiday can have a different interpretation for everyone.

I am probably the most pro-Christmas person I know. Even back home, coming up with the general theme of decorating the house, the decorations, the Noche Buena menu and the whole shebang was masterminded by none other. It was my most favorite time of the year and even here in New York, my friends say that I am highly contagious. I have gifts for everyone, even just small tokens, Christmas cards are mailed out really early and those that I have received I had set up on my window as decoration. At work, Wally and I had put up the tree that welcomes all visitors to the office and Christmas tunes are played from my computer for two weeks. That and of course, that I organize the office party every year.

Snow or without snow, Christmas in New York has been very beautiful and without the stress, definitely holy. Although I completely miss being with my favorite niece, Gabrielle and my favorite nephew, Liam while they tore through their Christmas gifts, I think for a while I had Rachel who gives the sweetest 'auntie' hug, Sarah and Josh who taught me about how the subway was dug (their version) and where snow comes from, also their version (THAT is totally another blog entry!!!).

This is the season for everyone but mostly, I think it is a special time for children. It is a time for them to feel love, to believe in Santa Clauses who have no religious affiliations and for just believing that in this world there is magic - whether in trees with tinsel or in gift-laden stockings. There is already too much cynicism in the world, magic should touch them at least once in their lives. For when else can they enjoy and believe such things?

Happy holidays to you all and a peaceful New Year's....


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas Message 2006

17 December 2006, Manhattan -This year I will spend Christmas in New York, away from my family. It is a first among many firsts for this year. Although I have been here 6 years next month, I have always made it a point to go home to Manila for the holidays. Well, except in 2001 when my then 17 year old Nicole made her first international travel on her own – one of many she would make years later.

It is also the first time I have dressed up my apartment for the holidays. A giant fresh wreath of balsam fir hangs in the apartment and fills it with its sweet scent. A drapery of tiny lighted stars runs the length of my two 6-foot tall windows. Two pots of bright red poinsettias sit on the table next to my couch surrounded by the cards I have received from family and friends. And on my dining table, a work in progress – presents wrapped and ready for the giving sit in a pile next to rolled wrappers, ribbons, bows and the transparent tape dispenser.

It is also the first time I celebrated Hanukkah. A light blue ceramic menorah sits on the window sill just where the lighted stars end their journey from the top of the glass windows. Last Friday night, we kindled the first candles and said the traditional prayers.

My world, I realize, broadened not just in the spatial sense I have placed myself away from my family but in my acceptance of the vastness of ways a special day can be celebrated. It transcends religion, faith, culture or tradition. Christmas all over the world becomes meaningful to everyone because it becomes a chance to pause in our lives and to acknowledge the people we love and the blessings we have received or the challenges we had battled. Calendar'd so conveniently a week before the end of the Roman year, it allows us to look back to the year that was and to allow some reflection before moving on to the new year.

Unlike being home in the Philippines, not everyone in my New York circle is Catholic. Jewish, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Muslims and I even have atheists among us. We celebrate, we greet each other and perhaps at times when it had not been easy to say, the season makes it convenient – we say how much we care for each other. But yes, saying ‘I love you’ comes quite easy in a season and it is with sincerity, with commitment. ‘I’m sorry if I messed up sometimes’, makes it even more meaningful among friends.

Yet again, another realization – when you are bound together by involuntary solitude, away from families who are many miles away, you create among you a new family. Brothers and sisters who readily lends a shoulder when the tears come easy, share joy to celebrate milestones, share secrets and who will even roughen you up ‘just because it is fun’ sometimes. But most of all there is a very genuine respect for one another and concern but one that does not cross lines, never meddling in each other's lives. It is the people who you do not associate by blood but who you know you will take the bullet for without a second thought.

My extended family in New York is quite a big group considering that the spouses of my girlfriends can chill with my boyfriend in a 'boys night out', that the mom of one would cook pancit or make ensaimada for me only because I had mentioned that I was craving for it or a girlfriend would volunteer to go with me to my next check-up at the first mention of a health problem. Not related by blood but linked by a bond that is quite difficult to explain. We look after each other because away from our own families, we have only each other. We become our family.

Christmas for me always meant waiting up for midnight, enjoying the feast of the Noche Buena and then watching the kids tear through their presents. They will continue with the tradition at home and I will probably spend much of Christmas morning on the telephone getting a recap of their celebrations and Gabbie and Liam’s newest antics. I am comforted that I will be home in mid-January and will have a late Christmas celebration with my favorite niece and nephew. And in turn, I will get the greatest gift of all – my daughter is graduating from college.

No Noche Buena for me but Christmas day lunch was booked with friends in a favorite Italian restaurant on the West Side. I am expecting a quiet Christmas in New York with no karaoke singing by my neighbors (thank you, God). New Year’s will be fireworks and asthma-free (nope, I doubt if I will adventure to join the throngs of humanity who will be at Times Square). Yet the season is not all lost - everything is how you perceive it. With so much love from people who are close by and the real family who are back home, it validates the meaning of the Season of Love.

From my family in the Philippines and my daughter Nicole and I, we wish you all a very special and happy holiday season and a wonderful New Year’s.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Brenner in New York

I am a major chocoholic. And I have it worked out so that I can have my daily chocolate fix and not have the calories move to my hips or thighs (at least not most of it!). How? I replace a meal with my sweets

Since I work in an office where most everyone is anything but American so when co-workers say they are going home it often means they are traveling to Europe. And when they come back, we have taught them the value of the 'pasalubong'* and this comes in the form of Belgian chocolates and truffles, huge Cadbury or Toblerone bars (which they claim is different from the ones sold in American stores), or any other fancy, delightful gift to satisfy the sweet tooth. And then there are times when people travel locally and come back with either a box of See's or some other brand not available in New York.

Our office occupies one whole floor of our building and so we have the north end and the south end. On both sides there are baskets that are often filled with bite-sized chocolates (Hersheys, Kitkats, Snickers, Reese's - you name it and we have it). It gets worse post-Halloween when the fathers in the office would bring to the office the excess of their kids' loot, collected during the holiday. Just as when you thought you have OD'd on chocolate bars and just grateful that the last time you checked the basket it was nearly empty, you pass by and realize it has been re-filled to the brim once more.

My boyfriend knows that when my feathers are ruffled, there is only one way to appease me. The closest Neuhaus store is at Grand Central, where the Godiva store is also located and where there is a steady supply of fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate. If I cannot be swayed by Neuhaus then it would have to be La Maison du Chocolat and there is nothing La Maison cannot solve. And within the same area at the Rockefeller Center is the Swiss Teuscher chocolate store where the champagne truffles are to-die-for.

I thought for a while that I have Manhattan's chocolate spots covered. Last Saturday when I stepped off the bus at Union Square, I found myself standing in front of the chocolate store of the 'bald man'. New York had just opened my newest favorite place - Max Brenner. I had not been to the one in Makati, which my daughter had bragged to me was one must-see place the last time I came home but we had no time.

The wait line for a table for two was 20 minutes - not bad for lunch and so we waited. While waiting to be paged, my friend and I roamed around the store and savored the variety of bonbons and other mouth watering goodies displayed behind glass shelves. Some women would pine for diamonds, I crave for chocolates. This is my heaven.

When we were finally seated, we browsed the menu and lingered due to apparent indecision brought about by so much choices that I swear if we could we would have sat there the whole afternoon ordering one item after the other until we have tasted everything in the little orange book.

OK - there will be other weekends to check out the other for the meantime we decided to share an order of the Urban S'Mores - you get a tiny stove the size of a teacup and to toast your marshmallow in and a cup of thick warm chocolate to dip it in after you press it between graham crackers and one Melting Chocolate Heart Cake. For drinks, I had the Mexican Hot Spicy Chocolate (a perfect mix of sweet and spice) and my friend had the chocolate with marshmallows.

It maybe major sugar rush to some people but to me - it felt like I had died and gone to heaven.

We live for days like these - when it is a mild late autumn outside and you are sharing nice warm chocolates with a friend indoors. Yum....

Wonka lives!!!

*Pasalubong - something you bring back after a trip : souvenirs, goodies, anything from the place you came from.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Lumang Tugtugin

My first weekend back in New York. With the weather outside too cold for a night out (well, was out the whole day, anyway) I indulged myself with a cup of instant noodles and started listening to the oldies Filipino music I had brought back from home.

Music from Hotdog (listen:, Dina Bonnevie (listen:, and my all-time favorite, Apo Hiking Society (listen: brought back so much nostalgia. It was probably more than the memories of adolescent awkwardness and confusion. It was definitely about first crushes and hoping that games like FLAMES had more truth to it. Of couse what I can't comprehend now was how I actually thought I had a chance to be Shaun Cassidy's girlfriend when my first love who was another awkward lanky pre-teener didn't even notice me.

Gorgeous, gorgeous ass....... :-)

It was a great time nonetheless, to be young and naive and to feel like I own the world. A time when life was about playing patintero with classmates when classes ended and we were just waiting for the schoolbus to bring us home. And of terrorizing the nuns and the teachers and other classmates without actually firing Uzis at them.

Life was simple then. The greatest horror that could happen was waking up to a huge zit on your face. Ahhhh.... the woes of growing up, something I certainly enjoy looking back to now but would never want to re-live once more. No, I would not trade my life now albeit the weight gain and the few gray hair to 'be young again'. Been there, done that....I'm moving on.