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24 December 2008

The night before Christmas

AS A Catholic child growing up in Manila in the seventies, magic meant three things to me: (1) my birthday, when the best gift invariably came from my eldest sister, (2) someone's wedding, where I marched as a ring or coin bearer in church and then gorged on fried chicken at the reception, and (3) Christmas Eve, the only time of the year when my siblings and I, all kids, stayed up late without getting sleepy.

Christmas Eve was always more charming than Christmas Day itself. By this time, school was over for the holidays. We had already regaled Papa's company party with a dance of endlessly repeated steps (right step, back step, arms up, arms down) choreographed by our older sisters. We had performed the same number in the annual family reunion a few days earlier, where our cousins always outdid us with loud James Last numbers. I was often too sleepy to remember what they actually did, although I remember them going home with big cash envelopes from aunts and uncles who must have loved whatever they were doing. We had already collected our colorfully-wrapped gifts from unsmiling godparents, a task completed through Mama's direct intervention. And by now we had decorated the small Christmas tree in the living room with all those gifts, with stern warnings from Mama not to open the gifts until Christmas Day itself.

Oh, that Christmas tree. We kept the same one year after year. It was a three-foot affair, made of wire cone covered in sheets of absorbent cotton. I had a lot of fun helping build it: under the cotton came the blinking Christmas lights contained in 1-inch breakable shapes, on top of it came red tinsel foil and sequin-filled balls. A bristly golden star sat on top, and it was always askew. Every night, the lights were plugged; every night, I would stare mesmerized at this blinking, glistening cotton-filled cone called Christmas tree.

On the early morning of Christmas Eve, we were roused from sleep to attend the last of nine consecutive dawn masses. I never attended the previous masses, called simbang gabi or misa de gallo, but this morning's edition would be mandatory for all of us. The rest of the day was quiet, as the older folks were doing last-minute groceries, usually at Nepa Q Mart or Queen's Supermarket. Towards the evening, we'd fuss over the brand-new shirts and jeans that we'd wear for yet another mass. With nothing but hot Milo chocolate drink to keep our tummies from growling impolitely during this late night mass, we filed into the church pews according to age. Afterwards, we trekked into the chilly night, walking home briskly to attend the most fabulous activity of all.

This was the noche buena or Christmas dinner. Those expensive, untouchable Noritake dinnerware displayed in cupboards now filled the table with the biggest servings of pancit (egg noodles), lumpia (spring rolls), estofado (pork stew), queso de bola (cheese), and, best of all, fried chicken. Mama and her sisters took turns cutting up the jamonado (smoked ham) and heaping our plates with ample slices. Even for a large extended family like ours, there was always food left on the table (and there was always food recooked for the next several days!). The house that night was filled with the aroma of boiled salabat (ginger ale) and orange peel, the music of Mitch Miller singing carols from the turntable, and reflections of lights from that cotton Christmas tree. It was always magical.

Later, when it was time for bed, my brothers and I would hang socks from the windows with hopes that we'd catch Santa Claus sneaking in. I never managed to see him: I was often the first to plunk to sleep . . . and the first to greet everyone the next morning with “Merry Christmas”.

Here’s wishing you all a “Merry Christmas” on this happy Christmas Eve of 2008!

14 December 2008

TRAVEL TALES : A quiet place in Lucknow

DRIVING THROUGH Lucknow on this chilly winter weekend, I noticed that this northern city has some of the cleanest and straightest roads in India. This is my fourth visit to the capital of Uttar Pradesh, but I never really paid much attention to the roads before. That is, until now. Perhaps I’ve been too impervious to the roads of Kolkata that Lucknow suddenly offers me a complete change of scenery. (I wanted to be a bit more descriptive about Kolkata, but that would make my Bengali friends dislike me a lot!)

Two years ago, when I first visited Lucknow, the city was being positioned as “The Next Fashion Destination”. Back then, I didn’t understand this positioning since there was nothing that impressed me in Saharaganj, the city’s most modern shopping center at that time. I couldn’t grasp the personality of the catchment as well. A weekend ocular analysis around Saharaganj revealed nothing. There was little vehicular traffic and even less pedestrian movement in the shopping center. I honestly thought back then that the entire buying population was busy staying indoors on a late Saturday afternoon and hoping that the mall would come to them!

This weekend, having had the chance to move around the city, I realize that Lucknow oozes with old-world charm, not of the British colonial variety, but closer to its Muslim heritage. While traversing a wide, almost endless avenue that connected me from the airport to the city, I saw sandstone sidewalks that are actually being used by pedestrians (most city sidewalks in India are used by peddlers), tree-lined side streets, marble domed buildings with wide gardens, and small Islamic monuments dotting the road.

I realize that the gentle, laid-back character remains. In fact, it’s what makes Lucknow pretty. At Fun Republic—now the largest mall in town with several designer boutiques—footfalls were low, and they came from twenty-something youth strolling hand-in-hand. They included men holding hands, which I decided might be an Islamic social custom. I didn’t see much of an older audience, but the few senior couples I saw were tagging along what could be their grandchildren.

Dressed in unobtrusive winter wear, the crowd I saw did not look and feel cosmopolitan. Perhaps “Next Fashion Destination” refers less to their sense of clothing and more to their sense of style: the Lucknowites may lack the glitz of their fellow northerners in Delhi, but they do carry themselves with the quiet air of good breeding.

Related Stories: Official Web Site of Lucknow; The City of Nawabs

12 December 2008

People, people who kiss (and honor) people

George Bush and Barbra Streisand share an awkward kiss
Link reference:

WHEN KENNEDY Center announced in September that Barbra Streisand was one of this year's Kennedy Center Honorees for exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts, two things came to my mind. One was, "How will she behave with Bush?" We all know that Miss Streisand, a long-time Democrat, is the entertainment world's most mercilessly vociferous critic of the George W. Bush administration. And Kennedy Center tradition dictates that the President hosts the honorees in a glitzy dinner at the White House and then graces the star-studded gala, seated in the same dais as the honorees and joining the ovation. In this case, the dinner and the gala were held last Sunday evening.

So how did Miss Streisand and President Bush survive each other on Sunday? As it turned out, there was no collision at all. At the White House, President Bush shook Miss Streisand's hand, bent over . . . and gave her a buss on the cheek! Check the Internet: it's now filled with scattered pictures of the kiss they left behind.

And there's more: during the gala, Miss Streisand and the President threw winks and air kisses at each other. Can it be that it was all so simple that night? Or has time rewritten whatever nasty thoughts they had in mind?

The singer-actress-director-writer-composer-citizen-feminist-activist has since said: "Art transcends politics.” Such graciousness! Such class! I'm impressed! Read what else she had to say about that night (from her blog):

Last weekend, I was in Washington DC to accept the Kennedy Center Honors, and I noticed that the kiss between me and the "soon to be former" President Bush created quite a stir. The Today Show even proclaimed that it was a sign of the apocalypse. The timing is ironic. After eight years of President Clinton and on the cusp of at least four years of President Obama, I get selected to receive this prestigious award . . . during the Bush Administration. I have never met George W. Bush, but for the past eight years I have been blogging about him and his administration on my web site. I have relayed my frustration at the direction he has taken our country in no uncertain terms. So it was just as surprising to me as it apparently was to the press that upon meeting President Bush and extending my hand to him, he said to me, "Aw c'mon, gimme a hug and a kiss," and then he proceeded to embrace me. I must say, I found him very warm and completely disarming . . . even though I think perhaps he was kissing me hello as I was kissing him goodbye . . .

During the White House ceremony, the President described each honorees attributes. After he listed mine, he added, "She's also been known to speak her mind," to which the audience first laughed and then applauded. I genuinely thought he was very funny and very gracious.

During the Kennedy Center Honors, President Bush gave me his signature wink (which he must have passed on to Sarah Palin) and mouthed, "We showed ‘em." I guess in some small way, he and I proved that we could agree to disagree, and, for that weekend, art transcended politics.

See? They got nothin' to be guilty of!

As for the second thought that came to my mind: "Why is she being honored only now?” In her 46-year trailblazing, record-breaking career, Barbra Streisand must have won every single performance accolade available for public consumption, possibly more than any other entertainer in her generation. It really seems bizarre that it took the Kennedy Center 31 years to recognize her achievement. But never mind: her latest bestowal further cements what everyone knows about this Diva of Divas being an indelible work in progress. Oh, and by the way, did anyone ever mention that she's also the first female director to be selected for the Kennedy Center award?

Congratulations to Barbra Streisand on her latest win . . . and to President Bush on his magnanimity!