Night Train to Paris

Night Train to Paris
Panorama, 08.30.09

SOME YEARS AGO in May, I took the night train to Paris. I was a guest of an Italian poet in his house in Rome, and that evening his assistant, Romy Sibug, was taking me on a tour of the nearby countries. I occupied a sleeping berth near the window, and waited for our time of departure. The bed was a bit cramp, but the pillow and mattress were clean and comforting. I had already brushed my teeth and changed my clothes in the small washroom in the next compartment.

As always in such a situation, I could not help engaging in the pastime of comparisons. Why could we not have such kind of trains in the Philippines? The last time I saw the Bicol Express stopping by the España station, it was a pitiful sight—rusted on the outside, uninhabitable inside. Time and hooligans had rendered it obsolete, but the government seemed to have no time for its rehabilitation. I gazed out in envy at the many trains lined up for various destinations in Europe, looking proud and sturdy in the twilight.

Romy seemed to have followed my thoughts. "I was in Manila last summer," he said, "and I could not believe how backward it has become. So many hungry people, so many without jobs. I visited Leyte and was just in time to prevent my two sisters from dying of starvation with the goods and money I brought them. I went to Bicol in the PNR train to see some friends and I must tell you it was a nightmarish ride! Dirt and garbage in the corridors, stinking toilet, mutilated couches— "

"I know. And cockroaches everywhere."

"Those too. And they say Martial Law is a blessing from heaven. I shouldn’t care, you know. I’m already a Roman resident, but I worry about my relatives there. My uncle was picked up on suspicion of being with the underground. He was just planting eggplants on the mountainside. From what I hear in the Filipino community here, the people in power overreact to criticism of their rule."

"That’s the trouble. They see things that are not there and impose sanctions for imagined violations. Soon the imagined assumes real form and becomes their enemy. They are sometimes paranoid in this regard but they hate being ignored, so they must act. Power is not power unless it is used."

"Even to the extent of imprisoning innocent men or confiscating their properties?"

"Often to that extent, I’m sorry to say. No one is safe from their scrutiny and suspicion."

"That’s why I felt an unusual silence in Manila even though the traffic mess has not changed," he said, shaking his head. "What, the silence before the storm? Or of helplessness? But can they not do good things in the meantime? They have all the power, so why not change some things for the better? Like the train system, for a start. You see in Europe that efficient train transport contributes to the overall prosperity, for it brings people and goods everywhere they are needed. You can go anywhere in Italy by train. But I suppose they will say that will involve a lot of money and the Philippines is just a third world country."

"Don’t fall for that trick of us being called poor. We have money, only it goes in the wrong directions, if you know what I mean," I said. "That is why no public project, like a road or a building, is ever done to specification, so the people ultimate gets the rotten end of the deal, with the road or the building deteriorating after one year."

"You know I want to go home and retire in the Leyte. I am not really at home here. My heart and soul long for my place of birth, but as things are going, I might be forced to be stay here till I die. When will things improve in our country?"

As I said, that was years ago, and as our train pulled out of the station for the overnight trip to Paris, I had no answer to Romy’s question. I have no answer to the same question now, for we seem to live in a perpetual cycle of promises and disappointments when it comes to our national life. Each government seems to be like the previous one. All we can do is hope that the storm will not demolish us this time.


Rain is Good for You

Breaking Signs ( Panorama 08/23/2009 )
THE HEAVIEST RAINFALL so far this year came to my part of Quezon City last July 26.
It poured in torrents from four to six in the afternoon. I sat in the garage and watch it shake the mango tree out in the road and the plants in my small backyard garden. The bougainvillas, yellow bells, and suntan submitted to its fury. Nature is most awesome when it is angry, and angry it was that week, burying people in landslides in Cotabato and Antipolo, flooding the main streets of MetroManila, and stranding, as usual, the unlucky commuters.

I had just brought out of the storeroom for re-reading H. Allen Smith’s autobiographical narrative, To Hell in a Handbasket (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962), and was dusting it when the rain fell. It was accompanied by a gusty wind that swept everything that was not nailed down—plastic buckets, old newspapers, garden chairs. I watched in fascination as the silver drops arched and looped in some strange geometric patterns while the wind swished and swooshed in abandon. Smith provided a counterpoint to the noise with his well-known gray humor. "I have heard it said many times that a person cannot tell the whole truth about himself in a book. I honestly think that I can come closer to it than most authors of autobiographies. Gypsy Rose Lee and George Bernard Shaw have said that all men past forty are scoundrels. I am past forty and I have all the instincts of a scoundrel. Even in this time of pressures and compulsions, I tend to speak my mind."

And no one could speak their mind more than Smith who took delight in exposing the frailties and foibles of the great and the mighty. As a reporter, rewrite man, and sports commentator, he watched people and events with objective profundity and wrote about them with acidic keenness. "Scholarly investigators in the field of roughneck linguistics say that a person who is going to hell in a handbasket is going to hell because of amateur sinning, such as playing the horses, social drinking to excess, striking a lady real hard, gossiping, indulging in sex orgies, and other small misdemeanors. Such a person has not murdered anyone, he has not robbed any widows or widowers and he has not been a member of Congress. His sins have been the sins of pleasurable dissipation and I understand, from high authority, that when he arrives in hell they may even turn him away form the gate, telling him that his credentials show he belongs in the Other Place."

How close to home he was as I thought of the hundreds of congressmen we have with their endless inclination toward unpardonable transgressions. The rain pummeled the garage roof so hard that it leaked in two places, and I made a mental note to buy another can of plaster sealant. The rising water in the garden seeped into the floor of a downstair room. My wife cleared the clogged drainage outlet to ease the rise, and old newspapers came in handy in cleaning the room. When I was young, my mother would say, "Go out in the rain. It’s good for you," and so I would bring a piece of soap and take a bath in the street.

After watching the rain for a few minutes, I retreated to my room to go over Recipes for Life: Food for the Heart, edited by Jennifer Lee-Bonto and Christine Penaranda-Concio (Los Baños: Pages Publishing Artists, Co., 2009). This brainchild of St. Theresa’s College, Quezon City batch ’85 is a delightful collection of autobiographical narratives penned with sensitivity, humor, and energy. Like recipes, they are meant to guide, instruct, and direct persons engaged in the kitchen of life to feed body and soul.

As Charo Santos-Concio writes in her foreword, "Every chef has a secret ingredient: it may be the most unique spice you can find in Paris, or it may be just the right amount of soy sauce. We, women, are also chefs. We whip up the best of life. We want it spicy…sometimes sour…sweet…salty… hot… cold…or just right. What we are serving for appetizer, main course or dessert, matters. How we serve it is important. This is what made me crave reading this book. It’s the spices of life that women had to have a taste of and how women handled even the most sour and bitter of experiences. Every woman stands tall and strong…giving hope, courage, motivation and inspiration."

The 56 or so articles—three are poems— in this well-designed and unique book are arranged in the manner of daily eating structure—Prayer Before Meals; Breakfast; Lunch; Afternoon Tea & Biscuits; Dinner with its Starters, Main Course, Dessert; Cocktails, Mocktails & Bedtime Drinks; and Prayer After Meals. They concern human responses to critical situations and show us life’s beauty and meaning in the midst of battering storms that challenge our very faith in God and belief in humanity.