It’s the second week of spring, and my sabbatical is coming to a close. Soon I’ll be returning to teaching after an extended break, which I had spent travelling, attending conferences, and sleeping the mornings away. My school gives me the option of taking a paid year off for research once every seven years (the Hebrew word shabbath means the seventh, or rest, day). Alternatively, I can also take a trimester off once every four years. I had opted for the former, dreaming of an adventure similar to that recounted by Elizabeth Gilbert in her 2006 memoir of soul-searching, Eat, Pray, Love.
Some things did get clarified for me. The foremost concerns the import of travel, with which I have a love-hate relationship. Friends of mine who are zodiac aficionados tell me that as a Sagittarius, I’m supposed to be a free spirit: spontaneous and fun-loving. This puzzles me because I can go for weeks just padding around the house in a bathrobe, perfectly content reading, watching videos, or playing iPad games. On the other hand, I do sometimes manage to rouse myself for a typically well-planned excursion. Like my course syllabi, my trips often follow a day-to-day schedule. It doesn’t sound very Sagittarius-like, but it works for me.
Ms. Gilbert divided her book into three parts, describing her experiences in different countries: Italy, India, and Indonesia. Each place embodied a personal theme for her, i.e. food (“eat”), spirituality (“pray”), and romance (“love”). The countries I’ve been to during my vacation also don’t seem to have much in common except for the accident of my presence. I was just one of millions of tourists, after all. However, as the Romantics see it, the character of a locale is a mirror of the consciousness that gives meaning to it. Here’s my take on the chapters of my life spent exploring England, the Netherlands, and the US.
I’ve always suspected that I was a Londoner in some past life, and my visit to the place confirmed it for me. The spiritual love affair with it may have begun when I was a kid, reading my first paperback of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The collected volumes I owned, published by Bantam, sported sepia covers: A man in a bowler hat strolls along cobblestoned streets, or drives a buggy through the fog. In Heather Nova’s haunting ballad, “London Rain,” she croons, “Nothing heals me like you do.” I adore dreary weather, the sort that calls for a cup of tea or a trench coat with the collar hiked up. The English seem to have an innate despair tempered by a sober, keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude. You can hear it in their accent, which has you yearning for some underlying meaning beneath the clipped officiousness. If London were a man, I’d like to muss his hair, perhaps mess with his cravat. There’s something about the place that speaks to my own well-ordered veneer, layered around a kernel of emptiness. London is my inner drizzle.
If London were a man, he would be Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
When my sister showed me around the city (a systems analyst, she once lived there for some months, working on a project), it was the last days of June. But the sky had a winter pallor, and the Thames was a silvery snake that bore our boat on its rain-splattered scales. From the paradisiacal Kew Gardens, we travelled eastward on the water; past the M16 headquarters fictionally blown up in the last James Bond movie, past the factories and riverside brownstones of Battersea. We glided under the occasional bridge whose unique name was emblazoned on its arch. Of all the bridges in London, only one claims to be London Bridge, which, ironically, is nondescript and easily outshone by the gilded Tower Bridge.
Giant waterlilies (the largest in the world) at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew
Approaching the M16 headquarters
My sister Terri, as our boat passed by the English Parliament
The Tower Bridge
One thing I truly appreciated about London is the free admission to museums. We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, which specialized in art and design, and of course, the not-to-be-missed British Museum. From the outside, its grimy neoclassical façade looked underwhelming, but inside were the treasures amassed by the British Empire during its glory days. I was particularly curious about the infamous “Elgin marbles,” pried off the ruins of the Parthenon in the eighteenth century. Lord Elgin, British ambassador, bribed Turkish officials—then-occupiers of Greece—to let him ship back to England sculptures from the pediments and other pieces. To this day, the British have not heeded the numerous appeals by the government of Greece for the return of the marbles.
(I had seen the Parthenon; during the previous year, I was able to visit Athens and the Acropolis. After the explosion of Turkish gunpowder foolishly stored in the building in 1687, it was catastrophically destroyed, hence becoming ruins for the first time in its almost two millennia of history. Before that, it was a fully functional structure that had served not only as a temple for Athena, but also as a church and a mosque. Now all you can see are hopelessly mismatched remains held together by scaffolding. It was still majestic though, because of its size and graceful lines and strategic placement on that beautiful plateau. The new Acropolis museum, a glass-and-steel structure with a panoramic view of the Parthenon itself, showcased the surviving sculptures from the eastern and western pediments, as well as what were left of the friezes and metopes. These pieces had been removed from the site in order to protect them from the elements. In the museum, they were arranged according to their original placement in the temple.)
If I had not seen all this, I probably would have been more awestruck upon entering the room of the Elgin marbles in the British museum. Instead, all I kept thinking was that everything there belonged with the other parts that weren’t, which were either in their true home in Athens or in various museums all over the world, such as the Louvre. Alas, the full glory of the Parthenon can be complete only in the mind.
Once we had our fill of museums, my sister and I made our way up the London Eye, the world’s largest Ferris wheel, which gave us a telescopic view of the city and the river that wound through it. And I found that it was possible to rise above it all, until I was one with the sky.
The British Museum
Hall of the Parthenon marbles
Sculptures from the pediment of the Parthenon
View of the Thames and Parliament from the London Eye
After London, I travelled to Oxford for an interdisciplinary conference on the subject of forgiveness. I had never been to a quainter place than that university town. Castle-like buildings dating from the medieval ages dotted the area, where tourists and students alike mingled. At a bus stop, a red-haired teenager who reminded me of Ron Weasley gave me directions to my inn. During a conference break, I circled the park around the majestic Christ Church College, where Lewis Carroll studied. There was a nearby Alice in Wonderland shop, and my visit just happened to coincide with “Alice Week.” J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Oxford dons, are also associated with the place. I got the sense that I had stepped through a corridor between menhirs and somehow time-travelled to the heyday of fantasy: Middle-Earth, Narnia, and much further back, Camelot. This was England for me.
Christ Church College
The Alice in Wonderland store
Strolling around the university town
In the Netherlands, I attended another conference, this time on the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. It gave me an excuse for an extended visit with my sister, who lives and works in Eindhoven. Her apartment was three hours away by train from Groningen University, the conference site. Eindhoven by the way is an unassuming city that grew around the headquarters of Phillips Electronics, and, after my conference, it proved to be an ideal base for visiting Amsterdam.
The land of tulips and windmills (and bicycles and wooden clogs) did not quite call to me in the way that England did, and the language was gibberish to my ear. But I was impressed by the profusion of museums, especially in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I only had time for the Rijksmuseum and the Groningen Museum. I also appreciated the engineering prowess that made the country livable, considering that about a third of it is below sea level. This genius for building is showcased at Madurodam, a miniature park in The Hague. My sister’s boyfriend took us there, where we marveled at replicas of famous places, crafted at a uniform scale of 1:25. These included the Delta Works, Schiphol Airport, the Red Light district, castles, cathedrals, skyscrapers, train stations, shipyards, bridges, even a flower farm that manufactured a tulip pin if you fed the machine 1 euro. Kudos to the Dutch; it’s not altogether surprising that during the Age of Exploration, they were a major sea power.
Listening to philosopher David Ihde, the keynote speaker at the Paul Ricoeur conference at Groningen University
“Emotional Detox: The Seven Deadly Sins” by Marc Quinn, at the Groningen Museum
The Kitchen Maid by Johannes Vermeer, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
Feeding time at the seal sanctuary in Groningen. A sea gull slyly looks on.
A traditional windmill we passed on the road in Groningen
Madurodam, the miniature park at The Hague
A model of the Rijksmuseum
A model of St. John’s Cathedral at Den Bosch
A model of the Red Light District
A model of Schiphol Airport
A miniature tulip factory
My souvenir from the tulip farm
England was the rain, the Netherlands the rainbow. For what does it take to survive and thrive in the nether regions? To suffer tens of thousands of casualties during a deluge, and by necessity, to build a dam in the middle of the sea? I’ve seen my share of floods where I live, where the poor drainage system reflects the nadir of city planning. So it was inspiring to visit a place that ably and constantly protects itself from reclamation by the sea. I thought that it was not unlike me during the lowest point in my life, not too long ago. When I think of Amsterdam, ribboned by canals, I think of my own tributaries of tears, and the quiet miracle of not having drowned. At the end of his journey to the underworld, Orpheus may have looked behind him and lost everything, but he followed the light and made his way back up.
The no-name place between high and low
By far the place where I stayed longest was, of course, New Jersey. Since my father came to live and work here more than a decade ago, and my mother followed, I’ve been visiting frequently. New Jersey is often the butt of jokes; the last Captain America movie even makes fun of it as a very unlikely tourist destination. For many, it’s just the halfway place between the more exciting Pennsylvania and New York. I don’t necessarily agree, though I won’t talk much about it here, because the traveler is silent about the place she goes home to at the end of the day.
Since my sabbatical allowed me to extend this year’s US trip, I was able to visit one of my best friends from high school, who makes her home in Topeka, Kansas. My cousins had teased me about going to the Midwest, intimating that there was nothing to see there but cows and tornadoes. (Un)fortunately, there were none of the latter, although my friend and her sister took me to the Museum of Oz; there was a tornado in Dorothy’s story, wasn’t there? All the ribbing about Kansas aside, I spent an amazing four days there, hanging out with my good friend, whom I hadn’t seen in two years, and her family. We watched movies, shopped, and ate at restaurants like we used to do in the Philippines. She also took me to Kansas City which somehow reminded me of Philadelphia, with its old municipal buildings and skyline that could rival that of any northeastern city. Particularly memorable was the Kansas City Public Library, whose adjacent parking lot was bordered by the spines of gigantic books. (American public libraries are one of the reasons I deeply regret not living in a first-world country.)
My friend Les, her dad, and two daughters at the Kansas City Public Library
Plato shelved between Bradbury and Twain
Made like tourists at the entrance
Inside the library
Outside the Oz Museum
Les’ sister Grace with their dad, Tito Oskee
At the Olive Garden with Les and her family
They say every Filipino has family or friends somewhere in the US. I’m glad this was true for me; in New York City, I was able to reconnect with a friend of mine from my college days, whom I met through the DLSU Aikido Club. She now works in Manhattan as an immigration lawyer. She took me to the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State building, and the 9/11 Memorial. (We skipped the museums this time, which I had already seen some years back.) I did so much walking, I developed subungual hematoma in my left big toe! It was worth it, though. New York City may not be as beautiful as Paris, as elegant as London, or as grand as Rome. In fact, most of the time it reminds me of a much bigger Manila, which it may likely equal in grime and crime. Still, it’s New York. I remember the last time my family and I drove into the city—my sister spontaneously hummed Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind.” Empire is right: when my friend and I went up the observatory of the eponymous building, we were treated to a spectacular 360-degree view of Manhattan. My favorite angle was the downtown side, which showed the southern tip of the island with the World Trade Center memorial building and Liberty Island in the distance.
Speaking of the WTC, I still remember that harrowing day more than ten years ago. At the time, I was living in New Jersey. Suddenly, my dad came home from work and we turned on the TV and it was full of horrific images. They say that 9/11 was the most media-covered event in history. By contrast, the spirit that pervaded the memorial was the opposite of the fear and cacophony of that day. Where the towers once stood were huge marble pools with thirty-foot waterfalls, on the borders of which were inscribed the names of the victims. The 9/11 museum in the corner was still under construction. Looming over the whole complex was the new WTC building. There were no grand monuments; it was a place of quiet reflection. I learned that during victims’ birthdays, people would insert flowers into the letters of their names that were etched into the marble. Then I realized that the remains of many people had not been found, and the memorial site was in effect their gravesite.
With my friend Emma at a deli in Manhattan
In front of the New York City Courthouse
The Flatiron Building at Madison
And then suddenly, this
The famous bull at Wall Street
Mural dedicated to 9/11
The North pool at the 9/11 Memorial, where the North Tower used to be
Names of 9/11 victims
The new World Trade Center building
The famous wall relief at the Empire State Building’s art deco lobby
On top of the world at the observatory of the Empire State Building
Manhattan, downtown view
Lately, I have been fascinated by ruins. There was a time in history when they were quite a fad, particularly for English lords who would journey to continental Europe for their Grand Tour. Back then, only the privileged few had the means to make a pilgrimage to the remains of our ancient heritage. Over time, of course, the middle class arose, tourism became the domain of backpackers and seniors, Western civilization itself was deconstructed, and the very idea of ruins was de-romanticized. We can no longer think of them in terms of past glory; after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl, and 9/11, ruins now stand for war, colonization, the ravages of technology, the problem of evil.
Nonetheless, a part of me remains a Romantic at heart. I treasure the places I travel to, less for my presence there so much as for their inevitable absence at the moment of my leaving. Paradoxically, what makes something finally ours is that it’s no longer there. Even these words, I guess, are the ruins of my year away: the phantom pain in my toe, the marble fragment, the missing towers, the stranger’s name etched on the stone.
Special thanks to Terri-Ann dela Cruz, Mary Grace Mamolo, & Emma Ramirez for some of the above photographs!