‘Round the Salthill Prom

Once again, the only time I’ve found to write real posts is in transit — there’s not much else to do after a while when you’re only an hour in on a three-hour journey between one Irish city and the next.  We’re on our way to Dublin now, the last of five stops on our two-week journey through Sweden and Ireland.  I can’t believe how wonderful everything has been so far, and am excited to finally be in Dublin at the end of this adventure.

We’re leaving Galway today, and it was our longest stop in Ireland:  arriving on Friday afternoon, we then spent two full days in the small coastal city before boarding a bus this Monday morning at 10:30 to head onwards to the Republic’s capital. And what a lovely weekend it was, indeed.  Though we left Donegal in utterly miserable weather, it did clear up quite nicely by the time we got into Galway City on Friday afternoon and it lasted well into Saturday before the wind blew the clouds back in.  Sunday was full of blustery winds and clouds, although the rain didn’t come back until late last night.  So, weather-wise for the West Coast of Ireland, Galway was rather kind to us.

 

img_0017

Low tide below the Spanish Arches looking out onto Galway Bay.

If the Salthill looked anything like it did a couple of days ago when the girl from the song met the boy, I don’t blame him for falling madly in love with her right then and there.  I mean, look at it on a beautiful sunny morning:

img_0025

I do love Galway and am glad we took two full days in this small city.  Our B&B this time around did, naturally, include an Irish fry-up with black and white pudding — both of which proved that when done right, a breakfast pud can be quite tasty and highly enjoyable to eat. At any rate, we were always well-fed first thing in the morning and made ready for long hours of exploring.  And, for a city so small, there’s still lots to see and do.

This region is home to the world-famous Claddagh Ring — the heart, crown, and hands symbolizing love, loyalty, and friendship — and, as such, Galway City is full of souvenir shops selling this particular ware as well as numerous family-owned jewellery shops where the rings are still hand-crafted in small batches of each family’s distinct designs.  My travel partner got hers up at Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold  and I found mine down at Claddagh & Celtic.  Wherever you do decide to get yours, one of these is probably your best bet for a fair price for hand-crafted silver and gold; other stores ranging from tourist shops to high-end jewellers didn’t seem to have quite the same caliber of quality for the prices listed, and either shop we went to you’ll be treated to the more intimate experience of meeting the crafters who make it their business, literally, to keep a strong Galway tradition alive and authentic.

If bookshops of the world are your thing, Charlie Byrne’s is your best bet.  With stock ranging from antique (World Book 1865, full set) to hot bestsellers from last week’s New York Times, and covering every topic, genre, and area of interest you can imagine, Charlie Byrne’s offers bookworms from all over a haven from tourist traps and large crowds.  Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves groan with knowledge and wonder and endless hours of potential.  This is where I found a beautiful green leather-bound edition of the works of Tennyson for the princely sum of €4.  Given more time, money, and room in my luggage I would have bought more. Way more.

As with any tourist stop in Ireland, Galway is full of pubs and restaurants. We took two dinners at The Daíl Bar for our Ireland pub-grub-and-pint fix, and one dinner at Eastern Tandoori to break up Isles meat-and-stodge with the aromatic spices and tender meats of Indian cuisine.  Both are equally enjoyable (the seafood chowder at the Daíl is amazing and chock-full of sea-fresh fare, while classic dishes like balti and patala at Eastern Tandoori are flavourful masterpieces that serve as a lovely departure from pub f00d).  On a longer trip with a deeper pocketbook, there are many other places dubbed “foodie stops” for you to try, and so if you do go to Galway City I’d highly encourage you to look up the restaurants online and try a few new ones for yourself as well.

On Sunday after Mass at the Galway Cathedral I had “alone time” in the city, and I had vague romantic notions of going down to the Salthill and finding a large rock on the beach upon which to perch and write some postcards and more entries in my travel journal.  However, the wind literally blew all those fancies out of my head as soon as I hit the Salthill, and I made a valiant effort indeed in walking as far as I did on the beach before making a hasty retreat back into town towards hot tea — and, because bracing oneself against gales off the sea actually does use up a lot of energy, a nice lunch.

My travel companion has been to Galway before and already knew some of its delicious secrets — in the case of Cupán Tae, quite literally – and I’m happy that she was eager to share them with me. In the case of this cosy, shabby-chic tea house facing the bay, I was so enamoured after one round of hot tea and fruit scones that after coming back form the Salthill on Sunday afternoon I beelined straight for the shop to enjoy another full pot of tea, a scone sandwich, and a slice of carrot cake during a long, leisurely lunch. Heaven on Earth does exist if you look hard enough, and I’m rather convinced that a corner of it is to be found at Cupán Tae.

img_0022

A pot of Emerald Isle brew (black tea with notes of whiskey and cocoa, followed by a creamy vanilla finish) and fruit scones for round one at Cupán Tae.

img_0040

Ham-and-cheese sandwich served with greens, red onion, and tomato on a savoury rosemary scone — perfect for lunch with a pot of Dreamy Creamy Galway bend (black tea with roasted coffee beans and jasmine flowers, with a creamy-smooth and aromatic finish).

img_0041

What else do you do when you’ve finished your lunch but still have half a pot of tea left?  Indulging in a slice of homemade carrot cake was a perfect way to finish my solo experience at Cupán Tae.  It came highly recommended by one of the serves who hailed it as her favourite slice in the whole shop, and I’m inclined to agree with her.  www.cupantae.eu for more info and to order online, if you can’t wait to get there in person, and @cupantaegalway for social media.

All in all, Galway was good to us — so good, in fact, that it will definitely be a permanent stop on all future tours of the Emerald Isle I’ll be taking in the future.  As we head into Dublin for the final stretch of our journey, I’m leaving Galway with many fond memories and the added bonus of seeing this small city in the September sunshine.

 

“…for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

Leonardo, writing in Italy on the subject of man taking flight, was still right:  once you’ve been somewhere and found more of yourself and your heart outside of wherever you call “home,” you’ll always want to go back.

And so it is with Sweden.  A few days now into Ireland and I’m still catching up with photo editing and journalling, and therefore still stuck on Sweden particularly in terms of my writing.  My heart is happy to be on the Emerald Isle at long last, but it’s also already yearning to beat once again in time with Swedens’s old, wise heart.  Luckily for me, my other half is looking forward to coming along next time, and I’ll only be too happy to oblige and indulge his own curiosities by bringing him back to places in Stockholm and Falun that I found and fell in love with on my own.

After returning to Stockholm from our weekend “at home” in Falun, we spent much of our time once again in Gamla Stan as well as Djugården Island, the former to revisit some of the more interesting and peculiar shops we’d discovered on our first outing as well as to visit the Kungligastottet (the Royal Palace) and the latter to see the Vasa Museum. We were blessed once more with beautiful weather and countless more discoveries and little marvels along the way.

As we drive now through a rainy Irish countryside to make more memories and gain new experiences of the world, images of “my” Stockholm keep a firm hold on the pieces of my heart that I found there.  I say “my” Stockholm for the way it was when I first walked upon its venerable stones will never be that way again; I will return to this northern city more knowledgeable of its ways and privy to some of its secrets, and I’m sure I will always find something new to love there — but it will be like coming back to a familiar friend who has also grown and changed in the interim, and therefore Stockholm as she showed herself to me when I first met her will always be uniquely mine.

img_0042

View of Strandvägen from Djurgårdsbron, the bridge that takes you from Stockholm proper into Djurgården.

img_0049

Stockholm, you are beautiful! 

 

img_0050

One of the quirkier shops in Gamla Stan. We don’t know its name or how anyone manages to find something to buy in here or how it’s still open. It’s as if everyone in Sweden came with a box from the attic and dumped it out in this shop.

img_0048

One of my favourite window displays ever, in any city I’ve ever been in!  A candy shop called Polkagris Kokeri in Gamlastsan (Lilla Nygatan 10) combines old books, vintage luggage, and greenery with their home-made candies and confections to create an eye-catching, whimsical, and utterly beautiful display.  @gamlastanpolkagriskokeri on Instagram for photos, and http://www.gamlastanpolkagriskokeri.se for more info.

A weekend at “home”

Early on Saturday morning, my travelling companion and I boarded a train at Stockholm Central that was heading for the town of Falun.  I’m pretty sure that a lot of people who fly Stockholm, especially for the first time, don’t necessarily plan on taking two days out of their trip to Sweden’s capital to go see a town two hours out into the countryside, but we did — because a very old, very dear, and very special friend of mine lives there.

I’ve known him for more than half my life, yet this weekend was the first time we ever actually met face-to-face. But from the first hello and long-expected hug to the last good-bye and one last hug to last us until next time, I felt like I had gone home for the weekend.

img_0078

Not actually outside his place, but rather by the entrance of an adorable little bed-and-breakfast in the former miners’ district near the Falun Mine. Half of them were torn down in the 1960s or thereabouts, and the half that survived are now cosy, but rather pricey, homes for Falun families.  The horse figure here is actually known as the Dala Häst, or Dalarna Horse, and is a prevalent souvenir option for sale in Swedish gift shops.

Not only is there a lovely old soul in this town, but the town itself is also a lovely old soul.  We three spent most of our waking hours talking and walking through Falun on impromptu tours from his apartment to the Falu Gruva (the Falun Mine) or through church graveyards (the “Old Church” couldn’t contain the town’s population at one point, so sometime in the early half of the 1600s construction began on the “New Church”).  All along the way, we were walking in the middle of the town’s streets flanked on either side by quiet houses, many of which were painted in failuröd – a distinct reddish-brown shade of paint made from the run-off of the Mines that’s composed of iron ochre, flour, and oil.

img_0035

“We haven’t really seen many people…so…what are all the Swedish people doing on a Sunday?” — “Mostly…minding their own business.”

After the hectic day-and-a-half journey from Montreal to Stockholm and a long amble through Gamla Stan, our weekend in Falun really was a lovely escape that brought us right into the tranquil, beautiful heart of Sweden and her people.  But the best part of all was finally having the chance to spend time with two of the best, most wonderful friends anyone could ever ask for, including one whose heart of gold was the reason why I insisted we trek out to this small town whose heart beats thanks to copper.

It’s strange how a place so far from where you live can feel familiar even though it’s entirely new to you.  Part of the reason was that as we were walking through Falun he was telling us the town’s story, and how intimately he knows and how deeply he loves his home came through in the narrative he gave of its old, long life.  There’s something truly transformative and magical about having a tour guide with personal connections to you as well as to the town, instead of one who’s just paid to do it as a job.  The other part of it was that, having known and talked to him for more than half my life, any conversation to be had over the weekend was merely a face-t0-face continuation of a stream of chatter that’s continuously flowed since some time in 2002.

img_0027

Maybe not everyone is as lucky as I am to be able to “go home for the weekend” while on vacation abroad, but certainly if you’ve got a long haul in Sweden it’s worth it to take a train into Falun and take in the many little marvels (as well as the one grand marvel that is the Falu Gruva) it has to show you.  I’m highly aware of how fortunate I am to have many reasons to go back to Falun on my next journey into Sweden, and how one of them can give me a hug when I set foot back in this beautiful town again.  I’ve found a big piece of myself on its quiet streets and in its unbroken, dramatic sky, and I’m sure there’s more to find down the road.

A full, rich day

We slept in on Friday morning — a well-earned lie-in, because ever since Wednesday evening we’d been on the move from YUL through CDG to ARL, not to mention getting into Danderyd via Stockholm (roundabout, to say the least).  Our first Airbnb booking for Sweden turned out to be a studio apartment renovated from a basement mudroom off the garage of a quaint yellow family home.  Danderyd, being a rather affluent Swedish suburb, offered us quite a scenic walk from our rental to the Tunnelbana in Mörby Centrum.   Getting between Central Stockholm and Danderyd was much easier on Friday compared to navigating the system on Thursday, and on Friday once we hit Central Stockholm we walked down from the station into Gamla Stan.

Oh, Gamla Stan!  I love the “old town” of cities, and make it a point not only to visit my own in MTL often but to also explore those of the few other places I’ve been to during my shorter travels.  There’s something exhilarating about being in such an old place: older than any city I’ve ever walked in, as its earliest strata is somewhere in the 13th Century while most of what’s visible now dates from the 16th and 17th.  As Elizabeth Kostova wrote in The Historian,  For the first time, I had been struck by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.”  

IMG_0015

These #leadinglines in #Stockholm, #Sweden that I found in #GamlaStan along #Skeppsbrokajen show my first steps on roads older than anything I’ve ever known back home in Canada, maybe even including Canada itself… A loving reminder from this #venerable #city to a #young #traveler:  to trust the journey, to bloom where she is planted, to always remember that the #curiosity of a hungry mind and a wild heart can only be satisfied by actually going out there and doing something to gain #knowledge.  

 

As this was our first full day in the environs of Stockholm before heading into central Sweden for the weekend, we were quite pleased that the weather blessed us with lots of sunshine and a bit of a breeze for our hours-long stroll through Gamla Stan.  After numerous times reminding each other that “we have time – we’re on vacation” my companion and I finally let go of any vague notions of an actual itinerary and just wandered through narrow cobbled streets, popping in and out of stores as we pleased and even picking up a few things on the way.

After walking down and seeing about six or seven “cafés” we clued in that around here, it seems that the word is used to describe a place that serves coffee as well as real bistro menus, we finally settled on stopping at an actual “just coffee” shop.  We had our first official Swedish fika at a café at Stora Nygatan 6 — Naturbageriet Sattva — where you can find organic pastries (including gluten-free, sugar-free, and even a few vegan options), pretty good coffee and tea, and a cosy table for two inside or out.  We opted for outside, enjoying coffees and a cinnamon roll as we chatted and people-watched during a long, long fika.  I myself had nearly forgotten the pleasures afforded by long coffees with old friends, and by the time we were ready to hit the stones once more I felt refreshed and bright.

IMG_0021

A little ways down the road, we stumbled upon a boutique selling household linen products that proudly bore the phrase, “Made in Sweden.”  Knowing my BigSis is back home planning her future nest with her fiancé, I had to stop in and take a closer look at what was afforded at HAPPYsthlm, Stora Nygatan 36. I ended up buying her two tea towels, both made from a lightweight pure cotton, one of which in a navy-blue and bright tomato-red print of birds and florals that seems to be one of the shop’s signature designs.  Not only was it on household linens of all sizes, but also on other products inside including various forms of stationery and ready-to-frame prints.

 

After lunching on a park bench across from the Riddarhuset, we took a roundabout route back down Stora Nygatan to Skeppsbrokajen, circling up around the eastern side of Gamla Stan past the Royal Palace.  Crossing over Strömbron, we strolled through the Kungsträdgården where my knowledge of Swedish kings (gained from the odd mixture of the Sabaton album Carolus Rex and my own mother’s hobby of studying world royalties) came in rather handy.

IMG_0013

Karl XII / Charles XII of Sweden — also known as Carolus Rex.  He ruled from 1697 to 1718, from the age of 15 until death by bullet to the head.  To this day it’s unclear whether enemy or friendly fire ended his reign, during which he was known for his moral austerity and brilliant campaigning on the battlefield.  A staunch believer in the Divine Right, his death marked the end of autocratic rule in Sweden and was followed swiftly by the Age of Liberty. 

Nearly 20 000 steps later, we made it back to Danderyd where we passed the evening editing photos, discussing further all the sights we had seen, and planning out our next day’s worth of travelling.  In fact, I’m tucked safely into my seat on the train towards Falun, where we’ll arrive soon to spend the weekend with an old, dear friend of mine who I’ve known for literally half my life but have never yet met.  I’m excited beyond words to finally make a face-to-face connection with him, as over the years he’s been a loyal and kind soul through my most difficult experiences.

So far this vacation has been so much more than just “time away” from both of my jobs.  It’s been about discovering more of my truest and best self, about finally turning dreams into reality, and about bringing the best of what I’ve already experienced in life with me to get the most out of what’s new.  It might be rather rainy and  chilly right now outside the train window, but my heart is warm and cosy.  This trip has been everything I wanted it to be, and more besides, and that bodes well for the remainder.

Good thing, too, as I’m flying home from Dublin on the 14th!

***

For all the latest on this 2016 Sweden and Ireland adventure, follow my Instagram page @demipinte — and if you want to see it all from the whimsical view of a plush-toy German Shepherd that my boyfriend gave me for the trip, go to Instagram as well to follow @kep.the.shep !  

The Food of Love

Most of my defining moments happened around the family dinner table, mainly because my parents raised my siblings and me on a steady diet of hearty home-cooked meals eaten as a single family unit every night of the week.  The family dinner table was where I learned life skills like the art of conversation, proper mealtime etiquette, and how to appreciate every morsel of food put in front of me — especially when I did not like it.  It was also where I learned how to value the time and effort of others, and how to give back to them in kind.

The dinner table of my childhood still stands in my mother’s home today and is a stately piece carved from narra wood, the national tree of the Philippines, that my parents shipped over from the Philippines to Canada when we emigrated in 1992.  I find it rather poignant and highly suitable that a Filipino family gathered daily around a table made from our homeland’s national tree, especially considering that everyone who’s taken a seat around it has helped build and strengthen the bridge between the old world and the new.

No matter where they started, family discussions always ended around the dinner table.  Get-togethers with friends and extended family also inevitably ended there, particularly during the summer months when the conversations of day-long barbecues outlasted the last encore of crickets.  Holidays never really saw us leaving it, except of course to clear away empty serving dishes and dirty plates only to return with more food and clean flatware. We ate around it as a family in both immediate and extended forms, adding not one but two leaves on countless occasions to accommodate more guests.  As a baby my nephew crawled on it in between mealtimes, we older folks standing on all sides to keep him from zooming off its polished top; as a toddler, he crawled and then ran under it before whacking his head one day on the edge.  Our dogs sat beneath it as we ate, often indulging in morsels that fell (or were surreptitiously held) under it.  We presented new friends and partners to one another around it, the “others” sizing “us” up against the yardsticks which we ourselves had measured our own progress as sociable human beings.  ((And, when not in use for its original function, my mother used it to sew clothes and curtains and sheets while we put together school projects.))

Nowadays, eating out is a slightly more frequent occurrence than it used to be during my youth and I don’t get many chances to join my mother and BigSis (and now, her boyfriend) around any table, but the family dinner is still integral to our relationship.  More recently than my BigSis, I too have started bringing my own new boyfriend along to dinner, and seeing his face around our table along with the faces of those who know me and love me best warms my heart immensely.

Last week we all went out to Junior, a Filipino restaurant on Rue Notre-Dame .  It was a grand occasion, mostly because MiddleSis and Nephew are in town as well.  As a kid I grew up desperately wanting to eat the North American fare that my classmates and neighbour-kids always tucked into instead of the dishes of islands I couldn’t even remember, but these days my more matured palate can’t get enough of the flavours and textures packed into Filipino food. I love the crisp saltiness of lechon kawali mixing with the tangy sweetness of Mang Tomas sauce; the heat and crunch of a sizzling sisig tempered only slightly by mayo and white rice; the limey zing of a fried bangus served whole, minus the needle-sharp bones of course.  Even the alarmingly sweetness and chewiness of sticky suman dipped into matamis na bao or the cold crunch of shaved ice mixed with ice cream, evaporated milk, sweet beans, young coconut flesh, fruit jellies, and jackfruit – in other words, halo-halo – seem to hit the spot on my cravings so much more accurately than North American desserts these days.

What  I loved most about this latest outing to Junior was that my new boyfriend – an Xth generation Quebecois from Sherbrooke whose Irish, French, and German roots stretch back a few centuries – is a good eater who thoroughly enjoyed the best of my homeland’s cuisine.  Of course it helps immensely that Junior is hands-down the best Filipino food you can get in the city, but even the greatest  and tastiest dishes can be lost on an unappreciative palate. I’ve witnessed it before with past boyfriends:  the polite smile with a barely-discernible trace of apprehension or even dismay at what’s on the Filipino table; the thinly-veiled suspicion of any meat that isn’t instantly recognizable as beef, pork, chicken, or fish; the staunch refusal to even try one mouthful of something new.  That is definitely not the case with this one, which in my book makes him a true keeper.

My family is somewhat leery of picky eaters, and not without good reason. Clearly, since I’ve just spent a few hundred words on the subject, our family dinner is a sacred and precious ritual, and those we invite to partake in food, drink, and company are not only invited to witness them but are indeed being welcomed into our family’s most intimate and telling moments.

But for me, having grown up with one foot in Canada and one occasionally still on the boat back to the Philippines, it means the world to have a non-Filipino partner with whom I can share my cultural roots on every level – especially when it comes to the weird food I have grown to love and re-adopt as “my own.”

The story of my family was written around that narra table; the story of the Philippines, by Spain’s use of the islands as a gateway to the New World.  In both cases food played a huge role in the shaping of such narratives, the exploration and development of which appeal to me as both an amateur writer and as an enthusiastic food-lover.  I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky and rather blessed to have grown up at a table that always had homemade meals upon it, especially from a cuisine that like the table itself was brought over from the home islands to the True North, Strong and Free more than twenty years ago.  And I certainly can’t help but feel extremely proud to share that table now, in all its laden groaning glory, with a person who will add his own words – his own chapter of the story – to that warm and loving narrative.

Shakespeare called music the food of love, but in this family the food of love is the food itself as well as the company we keep when we partake of it around our narra table.

Trusting the journey

One of the constants in my life has been, and I hope always will be, the lovely cacophony of different languages spoken by my nearest and dearest. Even though English is my mother tongue and that of my parents, I still grew up to the almost sing-song quality of the Tagalog my parents, older sisters, and extended older family spoke.

Going to school in English and French alongside a myriad of foreign exchange students and being a young pioneer of internet music forums added new sounds and writing systems to this wonderful confusion: English from the United Kingdom and Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand have mixed with Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Bulgarian in my ears over the years.  And they’ve all been interwoven with my own English, French, and (albeit limited) Tagalog in my mind into a warm blanket for my heart.

Being exposed to so many different cultures through these friendships, along with all the books I ravenously devoured in my spare time, awakened my sense of wanderlust at a young age and I’ve been longing to travel ever since. And finally, after more than a decade of such yearning, I’m finally able to do something about it.  The problem is that there are too many places to go to – a good problem to have, I know – especially with a Canadian passport, but at some point plane ticket prices start creeping even higher.

Choices needed to be made, and I’ve finally made them…and come September my well-worn boots will stir up the dust of older lands when I set foot in Sweden and Ireland. More than a decade after first messaging them on online music forums, I’ll finally be able to bother some of the humans I love best in this world right to their faces.  (Sorry in advance, guys.)

In all seriousness though, life is all about the journeys we make. Internal or external, it’s more than just about getting from Point A to Point B.  It’s about experiencing to the fullest what’s in between Point A and Point B, and if you have to take some detours along the way that’s not always a bad thing.  The scenic route always leaves lasting memories, after all.  As long as we keep making our away, eventually we’ll arrive precisely when we mean to and as the people we were meant to be when we get there.

The current leg of the adventure of my life has been a long one. It’s lasted a few years and the last two have been particularly fraught with uncertainty and worry, life-changing events and realizations, and daily struggles with my personal sense of identity.  In the last few months, I’ve had to throw a lot of things out the window, especially particular opinions, prejudices, and beliefs whose origins I could not discern.  Did these views come from me, or from others?  Were these things my true views, or did I adopt them in order to be accepted?  How authentic was I really, and how much of my identity was made for me by someone else?

Doing my internal spring cleaning has led to new discoveries about what I’m really made of and therefore who I really am. As a friend of mine told me once, “Trust the journey.”  And to me, the first step on that journey was learning to trust myself enough to start over from scratch.

I am a free spirit. To be happy, I need to know that the final decisions of my life come from within me and are made under circumstances where I feel totally informed and totally free to choose in the first place.  With this comes a personal need for openness to curiosity and exploration, to informing and educating myself about the world beyond my social bubbles, and to forging my best self out of what I have learned in this process.  I know my foundation intimately – what it is made of and where I stand on it – and I know it is sturdy enough to build a new self upon.

I also came to realize that I am made with a wild heart. A wild heart takes in and learns to cherish every experience.  A wild heart loves passionately and lives exuberantly.  A wild heart cuts all of the strings that would keep it flying in circles but still carries what’s necessary for the journey.  And a wild heart can’t be broken.

Transitions. Changes.  Growth.  A better version of myself, discerned from looking and listening inwards, that can stand firmly upon any physical ground because the internal foundation is strong and well-made.  The road rises up to meet me, and I am on my way.

 

 

Failing to fit in

I’m really into all things TED right now. I listen to TED Talks on my daily commutes and while I’m at my desk I listen to episodes of TED Radio Hour instead of music. One of the TED Radio Hour episodes I keep going back to is called “Playing with Perceptions,” and I think it’s because I can identify so deeply with the issues raised therein.

Canada is known for its diversity. We’ve all heard Canadian culture being called a mosaic in comparison to the so-called melting pot of the United States. The faces of Canada’s citizens, permanent residents, immigrants, and refugees represent numerous nations, as well as all the cultural and ethnic diversity they bring along with them. And because Canada is a nation whose inhabitants seem to celebrate, you’d think we’d all be used to it by now – used to the fact that there is no typical “Canadian” face, or that the Millennials are riding off into the sunset in intercultural/interracial/interwhateverPCtermyouwanttousetodescribteit pairs, or that non-white people in this country are doing the same activities and pursuing the same careers as the white ones.

Ultimately, you’d think that this whole multiculturalism thing would have made us all very aware of the different ways people come into Canada and become Canadian. And as a result of all this variety and the political correctness and politeness for which we’re apparently internationally famous, you’d think we’d be well-informed and educated enough to talk about the subject without offending anyone, inadvertently or otherwise.

And then conversations like the following happen:

“Wow, your mom is gorgeous! But why don’t you look Chinese? Is your dad, like, white or something?”
“Well, see, we’re actually not really Chinese. I mean, we have a Chinese ancestor somewhere I think but we’re actually mostly Spanish and Filipino.”
“Oh, cool! So do you speak Filipino with your mom at home?”
“No, we speak English at home.”
“Really?”
“Yeah.”
“Does your mom have, like, a really thick Filipino accent? I always find Filipino accents so fun to listen to!”
“No, she doesn’t really have an accent…”
“How long has she been living here?”
“We came over in –”

“Wait, you were born there?”
“Yes.”
“But you are so Canadian!”
“…what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Like, nothing racist or whatever – just, like, you’re so not ethnic. I would have never guessed that you’re not Canadian.”
“I am, though. I’m a naturalized citizen and I have a Canadian passport.”
“I thought it was like, super hard for refugees to get into Canada right now though. How did you become a citizen so fast?”
“We emigrated in 1992, and we weren’t refugees.”
“…so, wait, like – you can get a visa to come to Canada and be a permanent resident even if you’re just, like, a maid or caregiver or handyman or whatever?”

I’ll stop there and continue on in my own words – because yes, as you’ve probably guessed, this was a conversation that happened a few days ago between myself and an acquaintance. I do take offense at being seen as the daughter of a domestic worker and a menial laborer – not because I have anything against domestic workers and menial laborers (in fact, I have a deep respect for them) but rather because it simply isn’t true – and because sometimes people don’t want to hear that. 

And yes, I also take offense partially because I believe that applying that kind of narrow perception to an entire demographic is just another form of marginalization.

There have been other instances in my life in which I’ve found myself under social scrutiny on the basis of my biological, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Workplace discussions about things like food or holiday traditions or politics have often, for me, devolved into being put under the white-Canadian microscope through which I am studied with ogle-eyed fascination. Getting set up on blind dates with white guys by well-meaning friends always involves a casual remark that I look so different from other girls they’ve dated, and maybe that’s because “well, you’re exotic, right?” One blind date, upon being told I come from a Filipino family, delightedly told me that he loved dating Filipino women because “you Asian women are all so smart and hardworking and dedicated to your men, and now Asian culture is more open to white people so now you get to share that with us white dudes.” (I’m dead serious.) I have been presented to parents of more than one former love interest with surprising expediency, and the ensuing dinnertime conversations often became a civil and courteous, but nonetheless cutting, cultural cross-examination.

Basically, every time I feel totally Canadian somebody comes along and reminds me that I was not born under the Red Maple Leaf, and they were prodded to that point by their assumptions about non-white Canadians and immigrants.

These conversations reminded me that, while I do hold Canadian citizenship, travel across borders under a Canadian passport, pay taxes, vote, and even paid for part of my university education with a Canadian Forces scholarship, I’m still a visible minority. And being a visible minority means my face only tells part of my story. My non-Caucasian face keeps the chronicle of my life permanently open to the public on just one chapter – and yes, I’ve met many people who won’t bother reading the rest of the book or, at best, skim over the other parts but still pin their concept of my identity on what’s written on my face. My face means on some level, I will always fail to fit in because somebody will be making an assumption about me based on how I look…and that the assumption will often bear little semblance to the truth.

But failing to fit in means I become more like myself each time, which is what I realized when I head Heitan Patel’s TED Talk.  And then I realized that instead of reacting with indignation, silent or not, to what people say about me based on my face, maybe I could share my story instead.  Maybe instead of wishing that certain kinds of people would open their eyes and see the world without privileged first-world blinders, I could use what I know and what talents I have to contribute to the conversation that would eventually lead to clearer understanding across all these divisions.

As far as Filipino immigrants go, my family was extremely lucky. We were lucky in the Philippines because we had social, financial, and educational advantages that the majority of the Islands’ population does not have. We were lucky when we left because we were able to come over as an entire family unit – two parents and five children – which is the exception to the norm of third-world migration; furthermore, we were landed immigrants which meant that the entire process becoming permanent residents and then citizens took less than ten years. And we were lucky in Canada because we spoke fluent English when we landed and my father was able to find work in finance which, with help from my sisters, put food on the table, clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and a little extra every once in a while to have fun.

This is not the story of every Filipino immigrant – nor is it the story of every other kind of immigrant that comes to Canada. Like I said, we are the exception to the norm of third-world migration. Back then we were the “One Percenters” of our demographic, yet much of my young life was spent in denial of being Filipino because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my Caucasian, Xth generation Canadian classmates. (For example, my mother is fond of repeatedly telling the story of how I, as a three-year-old, turned my nose up at a plate of white rice and adobo, proclaiming, “I want hotdogs for dinner. I don’t know about you, but I am Canadian.”)

But now that I know better my family’s immigration story does not shame me. It humbles me.

It humbles me because when I read a similar chapter in other faces I see in this city, I know that there’s more to the story than just the lines on their faces and that each story is unique. It humbles me because I am reminded that immigrants bring more than just outward indications of diversity when they land: they bring experiences and stories that often go untold or ignored, even in a country constantly praised for its openness and multiculturalism. It humbles me because their smiles and their eyes gently remind me not to forget where I came from, and that even though I’ve moved from the “immigrant” demographic to join the ranks of citizens, I am a contributor to the same chapter of Canadian history as they are.

It humbles me because as a naturalized citizen who grew up Canadian from Filipino roots, my branch of the family tree will span across many divides – social perspectives, ethnic backgrounds, cultural traditions, and even the Pacific Ocean itself – as it grows.  And part of that growth is accepting that my face will always be non-Caucasian and using the ensuing moments of marginalization, regardless of how or why they transpire, to make the voice of my cultural and ethnic background heard in Canada’s narrative.

Watering my mustard seeds

The other day, a very old and very dear friend of mine shared a humour post on Facebook – “30 Ways to Win a Catholic Girl’s Heart.”  It actually was pretty funny and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can relate to several of the points on this list — though I really do think that you do have to have some working/practicing knowledge of the system to really understand why I had a giggle fit over “Become a Swiss Guard.”

Humour aside, though, the whole thing did get me thinking about this whole “being a single practicing Catholic” thing I’ve got going on.

I turned twenty-five a couple of months ago, passing that particular milestone with the experience of a few long-term relationships and various short-lived ventures into dating. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert because I so totally am not one, but I’ve loved enough and lost enough by now to have a pretty good idea of what it takes to win over this particular Catholic heart.

Some people I know think that the most fulfilling relationship I could possibly have would be one with a practicing Catholic guy. However after my last turn around the LTR block with one, I can tell you that being of the same religious background and having a reasonably comparable level of faith formation is no guarantee to everlasting marital-worthy happiness. Sure, it makes things easier sometimes, and I definitely have peers whose young marriages are working out rather nicely due to shared faith, but castles in the air of any kind are simply that until they’re grounded in your reality.

My reality contains within it a highly secularized demographic of peers who, while perhaps not being so ardent in their natal religions as I am, are still wonderful, decent, and amazing people. And I’m not about to whittle away all my options down to a small handful of churchgoing, God-fearing guys (who I know by appearance alone because the only time I see them is during Sunday Mass) simply because I’m Catholic.

I can stand on my own two feet in my faith.  My mustard tree, though small yet and still sometimes desperately thirsty for grace, is sturdy enough that there’s no danger of me uprooting it from that nourishing soil to please somebody else.  If I am meant to share my life with another person, then I know that I will be able to freely and happily share everything about myself with them – including my faith and all the experiences that I have had because of it. But I will never beat somebody over the head with my old Baltimore Catechism, make full conversion or RCIA a dealbreaker, or drag somebody by the scruff to Mass. That’s no way to win a non-Catholic heart, and that’s also kind of hypocritical (you know, that whole “Free Will” deal and all).

I’ve come to realize that what makes things easier for me is mutual respect, honesty, and openness. If a guy can respect that I have my faith and my beliefs, and doesn’t ridicule me, put me down, or insult me because I am a practicing Catholic, then I can return to him a sizeable measure of respect. If a guy can be honest with me about why he’s lapsed, doesn’t believe in God, or doesn’t understand the whole religion thing, then I am happy to share the little I know to help bring further clarity. And if a guy can be open with me about what’s in his own heart and what his intentions are, then I can find it in my heart to return the gesture.

I’d much rather be alone and happy than be trapped in a relationship of religious convenience.  I would rather be loved, cherished, and respected for everything that I am, not just wanted because of the religion into which I was baptized and which I practice willingly as an adult.  And that’s what would warm and win this particular Catholic heart, because the end of the day, being able to share my faith with my partner on any level would be a precious blessing and I would treasure it…and I honestly believe there are many ways to share faith – many ways to grow together in faith, hope, and love, even as a “mixed” couple. If that’s what’s in store for me, then I gladly welcome it and will eagerly walk that path alongside whatever upright, just, and decent man God sends along that same way.

Making myself whole again

I know I can be rather cynical and snarky sometimes, even though I know that neither looks good on anyone. It’s been something that I’ve been trying hard to change for the past few months – one of those resolutions I made when I moved out of my old apartment, along with moving forward instead of being rooted facing the past and leaving the past behind me where it belongs.

It seems to be the year of friends-in-couples moving in, becoming engaged, getting married, and having babies (many of whom I grew up with, including childhood friends and one of my own siblings). This weekend alone there were two weddings in my social circle, in addition to one happening last week and three more set for two weekends from now. There have been a fair number of first wedding anniversaries, too. My social network feeds are full of newborns in pink or blue hospital tuques and booties or of babies still in the “X months old” stage doing all their adorable drooly “firsts,” while the friends who aren’t quite there yet are posting photos of the new keys leading to cohabitational dwellings or of joined hands, one of which is now adorned by a dazzling ring.

And here I am – single, when a year ago I had stars in my eyes and hopes in my heart for all of these things with the person I thought was going to be The One. I would by lying if I told you I no longer swallow the bitter pill of breaking up whenever something reminds me that I’m single in the midst of all these happy couples in various stages of their relationships. I would be lying if I told you I no longer stop dead in my tracks in the middle of any given day because it hits me like a ton of bricks – that the dead-certain journey and destination I thought I had in my last relationships was, alas, just another one of those runaway trains.

It’s not like I can’t get out of bed in the morning and make it through the day, or that I have to keep faking smiles and fighting back tears. Trust me, I’m okay with things. Really.

But any love that you lose that you felt with all your heart, believed in with all the faith in your soul, and hoped for in any prayer is going to leave deeper cuts than you’d like to admit, right?

However, admitting to this is part of the healing, and after a long winter, fleeting spring, and sweltering summer, here I am in autumn, single and finally admitting to the fact that maybe I’m not quite as healed up yet as I’d like to have everyone believe.  I’m working on it, though.  Really.

I have never doubted that I made the right decision and, when sitting in Mass today listening to Father’s homily, I was reminded of that fact. You see, I’ve spent the last few weeks in a pretty rough patch that stretched across all aspects of my life and I was, at one point a few days ago, so close to tipping over the edge of regret and self-pity. But today’s Gospel included that bit about cutting off or tearing out the appendages that cause you to stumble – and as much as I had loved and cared about the other half of my last relationship, by the time it ended there was too much stumbling on both sides of the equation for it to have been healthy, on any level, for either of us.

But none of it was wasted time for me, because I was able to grow and I was able to learn over its duration, and coming out of it with that growth and knowledge gave me the foundation I needed to rebuild myself.

“There are many loves in this world,” as the saying goes, “but never the same love twice.” Even if you end up with somebody from a past relationship, it’s still a new kind of love because you’ve both grown and changed in that time apart.  I know I will never have that love – or any past love, for that matter – again, and I’ve come to accept that. However, when love does find me again, I know that it will be the right one if I go into it as a whole person and hold on to it for good reasons – reasons that don’t involve the fear of being alone, the desire to be adequate enough for somebody to take notice, or any one of the other things that played into why any of my past relationships happened.

In the meantime, though, I’m choosing to see singlehood as a blessing…because really, it is. It suits me at this point in my life, and for once I am in the right frame of mind to be doing things for myself on my own terms. It’s not selfish of me to do things by myself or spend money on myself if that’s going to improve who I am and make me a better, stronger, and more whole individual. It’s not cynical of me to hide certain posts from my news feeds that make me feel inadequate, unworthy, or unsuccessful simply because I am not in the same position as many of my friends and acquaintances, for that’s removing unintentional negativity from my immediate vicinity.

And it’s not spiteful of me to say I would never go back to any of my past relationships to recapture what they were, because if a relationship doesn’t make two people grow closer together towards a common goal, it’s not the right relationship. I’m single right now because I have not yet found the right relationship, and part of the reason is because I’m still a little too rough around the edges to be the best partner I can be for the kind of man I know I want – and I think that I’ll know who he is when he forgives me for taking so long to make my way to him.

But I’m on the right track now, I think, with all the things I’m doing to make the most out of my current state of singledom, and I’m sure that for the right guy that counts for something.

The 15-minute book club, #2: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” 

— Atticus Finch

My parents raised us with what I’ve come to describe as a blended education; between September and June we attended public school, but the education continued during the summer with lessons in Latin, grammar, history, art, literature, and Catechism.  Idle minds were not permitted inside our house and the summer housekeeping on our education, though loathed and unappreciated at the time, has continuously served us in good stead in our grown-up lives.

I remember it well:  the summer I turned my oldest sister was given the task of coordinating the literary component of our summer learning.  At the time my brothers were on the threshold of turning nine and ten, and although our interests were starting to diverge like the proverbial path in the woods, the “all for one and one for all” mentality still prevailed.    In retrospect my sister’s wisdom was already well-developed even then, for she chose a novel that managed to capture three young and very different minds from beginning to end.

It was a miracle that a novel narrated in the first person by a six-year-old girl was able to hold the attention of two pre-adolescent boys, but I suppose that’s part of the magic of To Kill a Mockingbird – not to mention the fact that it can exert that same strength on readers who revisit it as adults, and therefore read it under a different light.  It is a harsher light than the yellow halogen of a desk lamp, the bluish circle of a flashlight under a duvet, or the dappled summer sun filtering through a canopy of leaves and branches.  It is the harsh, bright light of experience that comes from within to illuminate the depths of words that we as children see but cannot quite yet fathom.

While I’m sure my brothers found the book’s “bigger picture” to be more interesting than the day-to-day happenings of the Finch family, that first encounter appealed to the tomboy I was back then for I could relate to Scout Finch on many levels.  From trailing along on the shirttails of older brothers who were starting to lose interest in their little sisters to enduring trials at school in both the classroom and the playground, Scout and I had a lot in common and I wished she and Jem could materialize in the real world so that we all could be friends.  Jem could be the male third my brothers were starting to long for when we weren’t with our closest cousins, and Scout could be the female best friend who had always been missing from my early life.

We in the real world even had our own version of the Radley House at the end of our street, complete with its own lore derived mostly from the overactive imaginations of neighborhood children.  My young mind would overlap that house with the one in the book and conjure up new inhabitants, and the adventures we would have there with the Finches always involved Scout and me teaming up against our older brothers and outperforming them in bravery and boldness.

My early years in school were similar to Scout’s, particularly where actual book learning was concerned.  I remember being told by the school librarian that children in grade one could only borrow from the section of the library where there were picture books – a rule reinforced by my teacher and, once it came to the attention of my parents, promptly ignored and undermined by means of my first card for the public library.  A year later, reading about Scout’s interactions with Miss Caroline Fisher on Scout’s very first day of school brought back the memory of being turned away from the school library check-out counter by the steely-haired, flinty-eyed librarian because I wanted to check out two novels “too advanced for my grade’s reading level.”

That summer flew by as I chased daydreams inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird but all too soon it was to become a thing of the summer – as short-lived as the sweet freedom of the season itself, and like the last rays of the sun on the final night before school started not even the light of that beloved book could outshine all that I was to learn in the next year.  When September arrived I found myself in the third grade under the tutelage of a teacher who supported my literary precociousness and encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.  When I told her what I’d read that summer and proved that I could spell, define, and properly use the book’s advanced vocabulary, I also told her that I had spent the previous two years bored to tears during class trips to the school library because I wasn’t allowed to venture to the other side where the novels were kept.   I don’t know what passed between my third-grade teacher and the librarian, but whatever words were exchanged my teacher’s evidently were stronger –  because from then on I was able to borrow whatever my heart desired from whatever shelf I felt drawn to any given day of the week.

To Kill a Mockingbird soon disappeared under piles and piles of other books.  Most were borrowed from the school library, the public library, and my father’s study; some were procured with pocket money from various book sales at the community centre and church; and a few – my treasures at the time – were  bought brand-new with birthday and Christmas money.  But it came back to the top of the pile in grade ten, when the English curriculum called for it as a class novel study.  I went along with the coursework, completing the entire book and assignment package in about a week – a feat that left me more time to delve deeper than my classmates into the story.

This was, perhaps, one of the first times I experienced how a classic book changes with the age of its audience.  The parts I had found highly hilarious as a child were, nearly ten years later, only amusing.  Adolescent retrospect made me see my childhood delights and daydreams as silly flights of fancy and I, like Jem and my brothers, chose to pay more attention now to the bigger things in life than to Scout and the world she inhabited between Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house and the Radley Place.  The novel, which my younger self had seen as amusing and entertaining, revealed to Teenage Me its more somber face.  As I dove deeper into it, trying to find out what Harper Lee was really trying to say, I was swept into the undercurrents of Maycomb’s society until I was washed up on disenchanted shores where I waded through muddy waters where history crashed against fiction.  I realized then that my first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird was only one way by which I might experience the novel, and that as precocious as I might have been at seven I had subconsciously skimmed over the later chapters of the book because my childhood mind could not quite understand why Harper Lee would have spent so much time on “boring, grown-up things” in a book that I thought to be about an idyllic and carefree childhood.

Soon, To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared once more under other books.  I gave it barely a thought during my university years, during which any reading I did was hardly for the mere pleasure of opening a book and forgetting a cup of tea three sips and two chapters later.  When Go Set a Watchman was released earlier this summer, its predecessor came to the forefront of my mind and I found myself more eager to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird than I was to discover Go Set a Watchman.  In my current phase of audiobooks, I was delighted – though hardly surprised – to find several audio versions of that beloved novel and immediately downloaded the edition narrated by Sissy Spacek.

The hormonal sullenness of adolescence now long behind me, I’ve found that I can enjoy the amusing portions of To Kill a Mockingbird with delight similar to that of childhood.  I’ve also realized that the novel has more amusing lines and passages than my younger eyes had ever seen, thus proving that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean you entirely lose either your sense of humor or your ability to find lightheartedness anywhere.  As for the parts where teenaged eyes could only see distress, discouragement, and disenchantment, my adult observations can now see what good can come out of the novel’s darker elements.

Although it reads as a memoir and a coming-of-age-story, Scout tells it all from the point of view of a child.  The words Harper Lee gives her to tell her story are mature and eloquent, but Scout recounts the events of her early life in a tone as straightforward and frankly as only a child’s voice can be.  Scout is suspended in time within the book, forever a child in an idyllic environment only just beginning to crack under the pressures of the larger world beyond picket fences.  Out here in the real world, I have aged; I have grown up in all kinds of ways, losing innocence in the process and therefore sometimes losing hopefulness and faith.  Though Scout grows up too, at the end of the book she is still in that liminal phase where life’s harder lessons are now perceptible but not quite yet tangible, not yet quite learned.

To Kill a Mockingbird keeps Scout in that safe zone within Calpurnia’s earshot, and because of that I can go back to the novel any time I please and be transported to a childhood whose memories and stories are perfectly preserved.  It means that I, now an adult, can still walk up to meet Scout on the porch and re-experience that childhood.  Enough years have gone by between my first meeting with Scout and now for me to be able to do any discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird the justice owed it.  Even though I see things now for what they really are in that seemingly lovely version of Maycomb, I have a child’s hand by which I might be led through those dusty red streets and by whose touch I am reminded to look through even the darkest moments of life with the hope and faith that a light may still be seen somewhere in it.