Life Begins at 40...
Mine almost stopped!
Oh, what I would give to be
40 again! This I wrote in an email to a friend who, only recently, turned 40
years old himself. He wished he were 20
again prompting me to ponder the seriousness of my own wish given the
highlights of the day when I hit the big 40. Remembering that day still makes
Walter –my Viennese friend
–surprised me with a train ticket to Prague where I needed a tourist visa to
visit. The Czech visa was not stamped on my passport; it was a document on a
separate piece of paper. I had never been to Prague, and Walter thought it
would be a nice birthday treat to take me there. That was long, long time ago.
I try to forget but in vain.
|many birthdays later...|
I remember the day we arrived in
Prague. It was wet, cold and grey – quite depressing I must say. Our hotel was
ostensibly one of the best in town but do not be impressed as this was during
the time when the east was still red. We were required to leave our passports
and visa document at the reception until our departure –standard hotel
procedure, we’ve been told.
|...and still counting|
While walking down the
streets of Prague I noticed a large number of Asians selling paintings. Most of
them were from Vietnam on an exchange student programme. I did not encounter
any Filipino whose presence at even the most obscure places on earth (I bet)
was quite phenomenal – thanks to our own Diaspora of Filipino domestic helpers.
Czechoslovakia at that time was still a communist country and was not a
possible market for our labour export. But that was long ago. Times are better
now and to find Filipinos living and working in Prague should not really come
as a surprise.
It was drizzling the next day,
and still grey when we went out to lunch. Still not a single Filipino in sight
but the Vietnamese students in their army-surplus jackets were there where we
last saw them selling paintings. A long queue of people caught my attention –
the soup line, my friend Walter told me. I was shocked to know that this was
really happening, especially in Europe, never mind that this was in a communist
country. The scenario reminded me of the movie Oliver Twist –in black and
white. My sympathy went out especially to those very young children freezing in
the cold, waiting patiently for perhaps their first meal of the day.
At the train station on the way
back to Vienna, Walter asked if I got my visa back. I got my passport, I said,
but not the visa. It did not occur to me that I would need it for the return
trip since the hotel reception did not give it back to me. The train was about
to leave – the last trip for Vienna that day. Walter was worried but he said
that hopefully the Czech inspector would not ask. He was wrong. At the Austrian
and Czech border the train stopped for passport control. Three border policemen
with fierce-looking German shepherds in a leash asked where my visa was. Walter
explained for me the situation but they would not listen. I was told to gather
my luggage and to get off the train. Walter tried to assure me that everything
would be fine. I felt like a criminal being escorted to jail while passengers
were looking at me from their windows. I looked back when the train started to
move. I could see Austria from a short distance. Freedom was just a glimpse
away; so near and yet so far. Suddenly I was afraid.
They interrogated me for one
hour at the train station. They screamed at me and treated me like a real con.
I tried to explain in English and in German but they just refused to speak in a
language I could understand. They gave me a form with instructions in their
language they expected me to figure out. I did not have a pen with me and they
would not give me one. I was getting frustrated, tired and edgy. I exploded. I
was no longer afraid. I told them in German that it was not my fault that I did
not have my visa, and that I would appreciate it very much if they could show
some compassion and tell me what to do. One of the officers who had been
flipping my passport stood up, and in fluent German told me that since it was
my birthday that day my wish would be granted. He said that they would call the
hotel to verify if my visa was there. Otherwise I would need to go back to
Prague and go to the police headquarters and explain how I lost my visa. I was
hoping against hope that the hotel would have my visa. Of course it wasn’t
there, I’ve been told after the police made the call. It was only 4 pm and the
next train to Prague was not due until 6 pm. After buying my train ticket I
asked the police officers for any place where I could get a drink. They
gestured to this pub at the train station. The pub was crowded with the locals
and cloudy with cigarette smoke that I had to stand for a while to get a
clearer view of the surroundings. Everybody’s gaze was directed towards the
door – with me standing still in a long winter coat, Stetson hat, a Loui
Vuitton travel bag (of course, made in China) in hand. Despite of the situation
I was tempted to laugh because, again, the scene could easily be coming from
one of those old black and white silent movies. Or better still from Casablanca
– with Bogart in his classic raincoat, hat tilted on one side of his head,
cigarette dangling leisurely between his lips, entering a bar lounge. Of course
I couldn’t pass for Bogart but Charlie Chan will do.
Once my view of the room
cleared up I walked to an empty table covered with a cloth filthy with
cigarette ashes and what to me looked like soil. I hesitated to sit down until
the waitress came up and with one swift stroke, lifted and flogged the
tablecloth creating a swishing sound. Now free of dirt, she put it back on the
table, stretched it flat – upside down.
Sitting at the next table
were the three border police officers who had just interrogated me, drinking
beer. They appeared to be friendlier this time as they smiled and raised their
glasses to me, proposing a toast. I gestured if they would like to join me at
my table, which they did. I said that it was my birthday and would like to buy
them a drink (hoping against hope that they would just let me go back to
Austria). I felt embarrassed when they admired my suit and my necktie, which
they said must be expensive. Western cut may be, but no, it was not expensive I
said. They asked me about the places stamped on my passport, which they only
knew by names, and told me how lucky I was to have a good job that enabled me
to travel to far away countries. It got melodramatic when they confided to me
that their meagre salaries could not provide a comfortable life to their
families, and that their children could not have nice clothes and toys children
from my side of the world might have. Since it was my birthday I told them I
would like to do something good, offering them 100 Austrian Schillings each
(about 7 Euro, which at that time was already a big sum to them). For the children,
I said. They refused the offer, telling me that it was nice of me, but buying
them a glass of beer was kind enough. Oh, no! You have no idea! Get the
money and let me free, I wanted to say.
They kept me company until
it was time for me to go. They volunteered to carry my bag to the train
station. Hmm, they were in fact friendly, I told myself. One of the officers
helped me find a vacant seat while the other two stayed on the ground – with
their German shepherds. When I shook his hand to say goodbye he asked me shyly,
and in a whisper, if the money offer was still valid. He could not accept it,
he said, in the presence of his colleagues as it would look like he was
accepting a bribe. And with that he wished me good luck in Prague and hoped to
see me again some time. It never happened.
I arrived in Prague very
late in the evening and went straight to the reception and asked about my visa.
They have it! You’re kidding me? I called earlier to ask and you said you
didn’t have it? I wanted to scream at him, which I didn’t, of course,
knowing they could make my life miserable than it had already been since being
detained at the border. I thanked him and booked a room for the night but sleep
eluded me. It must be the ordeal of the day. I went to the bar and ordered a
glass of beer. I noticed the presence of several sweet-painted ladies
–seated at one corner of the lounge; some of them giggling excitedly while
comparing notes, I presumed. I saw one looking with contempt at the lady who
didn’t waste much time approaching me, grabbed a stool, and asked in English if
I was Japanese, to which I said, Yes! I lied. She told me that she was a
student at the university, 18 years old, and wanted to know if I would buy her
a drink. Beer would be fine, she said, and thanked me with a wet peck on the
cheek for my kindness when the beer arrived. She wanted to know about my room.
Search me, but I really had no idea why she cared to know!
Single bed, and very narrow,
indeed! I tried to discourage her if she had no place to spend the night over.
I was sure that was her intention. That I snore would be a good alibi had she
insisted. After a second beer she said she needed to go to the powder room and
would be back soon. Once she was gone the lady with a sneer came up to me and
asked how old my guest relations officer told me she was. Eighteen, I
replied. Eighteen? She lied! As if I cared! She’s old, she’s in fact
28! She was full of contempt.
Oh, dear, that’s disgusting! I gasped,
mocking surprise while struggling to stifle a burst of laughter. This was
getting amusing, I thought. Will you save me from her, please?
I bought her a drink. She
was thirsty she said. That I am Japanese was a good guess, I told her, when she
asked if I were one. Might as well be consistent with my lying. This only made
her more interested in me. Tokyo, she heard, was a very crowded and expensive
city. I heard the same, I said, explaining further that I come though from a
small village, which is miles away from Tokyo, so I’ve never been there. If
only my mom could hear me! She would pray the rosary to save my soul from
eternal damnation. For lying too much!
Meanwhile a group of five
young men arrived, probably in their 30s, and sat opposite us on the other side
of the bar. They spoke Swiss German and were there on business, as I had to
learn later. Seeing my company they immediately dabbled in excited conversation
exchanging naughty remarks –I could tell by their boisterous laughter, just
like the boys in my class in high school would, every time the new young
teacher would enter our classroom in her mini-skirt. I turned my head when I
noticed them looking past over my shoulder. My original GRO had just
came back from her trip to the powder room –her cheek bones suddenly made more
prominent by a generous dab of blush-on powder in terracotta shade; lips in
fiery red. She was standing behind me and was not amused to see that I was not
alone. I could easily tell Three’s Company was not her favourite TV
sitcom. An argument ensued immediately between her and my redeemer.
I speak German and can
understand some Swiss German, I said when it dawned on our Swiss audience that I
understood them because I laughed over a particularly hilarious remark they
made referring to the escalating catfight. I didn’t want to lie to them when they asked
where I come from. Hearing what I just said that I was from the Philippines,
the girls, as if on cue, stopped bickering. The one with the sneer looked at me
like she was sizing me up, left in haste while mumbling some incoherent words –expletives
I bet you –but I caught some that sounded like Philippines… Marcos! Huh?
The other one was at least honest enough to tell me what she thought of the
Philippines: A country of poor people living in the slums. That having said,
she offered a handshake, thanked me for the beer, and wished me a nice stay in
Prague. For the kind treatment I received, I felt very much indebted to the
mass media, especially to television, for an excellent job of producing –time
and again –documentaries showcasing the only interesting subject one easily
identifies my country with: Poverty.
Oh, look who’s talking! I felt the urge
to retaliate. I have yet to see a soup line in Manila! But that would
not change the image of the Philippines that was planted in her brain. I needed
a stronger drink to calm me down. A shot of vodka did it. I raised my glass to
the Swiss and greeted them the Swiss way –Gute mitenand’. They, too,
were having vodka. They asked me to join them and we ordered more vodka. We
were getting louder and our speech slurred as we emptied one bottle after
another. The episode of the poor people living in the slums was soon forgotten.
The vodka was chilled to perfection, and cheap, too, that we were drinking it
like it was water. The last bottle though tasted like water. Of course, it was
water! The barman insisted that it was indeed vodka what he served us but later
relented he made a mistake when prodded to taste it himself. He feigned
surprise and immediately dashed into the backroom where he presumably stored
his supplies. We could hear him and his staff laughing hysterically, even bent
up probably. They must had been thinking that we were too intoxicated to notice
the difference. He was back in no time to tell us that there was no more vodka
left, and apologized for giving us the bottle of water they kept in the same
fridge along with the bottles of vodka. Hello! They were still laughing
when we left.
I woke up the next day
shortly before lunch, with a light headache, and starving not having had any
food the previous night. I went to the restaurant and ordered steak with French
fries on the side from a boy who could not even be older than thirteen I
thought. He was so tiny. He was doing his internship as a waiter in the hotel.
When he came back with the food he was with an elderly guy in the hotel
uniform. He was the headwaiter and was there to watch if the intern was doing
his job according to his – the headwaiter’s –expectations. He told his ward to
serve me some fries from a serving plate down to mine. The intern was having
difficulties keeping the serving spoon and fork clamped together in his
delicate little hand to catch the fries. The headwaiter took over and
demonstrated to the embarrassed little intern how.
Now, do it yourself, he barked at
the boy. The scared little intern looked at me with an impish smile before
giving it another try. His upper lip was by then glistening with tiny pearls of
sweat, his hand noticeably unsteady. A few pieces of fries skipped the grip of
the serving spoon and fork, some landing on my plate, the rest on the table.
Furious now, the headwaiter grabbed the silver metals from the hand of his poor
intern, scooped the fries from my dinner plate back to the serving plate and
told him to do it again. Both of them froze when I pulled the plate away from
the hand of the young fellow and slammed it on the table. I did not care
anymore if he could do it. I did not care for French fries either. I was
starving and worried I might miss my train if this went on forever! Meanwhile
my steak was getting cold –the sauce turning into lard!
I finally made it to Vienna.
I did not see my captors at the border. They may not be on duty that day but I
wasn’t really keen on seeing them again. Nineteen years later, the memory of
them dragging me out of the train with their evil-looking German shepherds
still haunts me. I still wonder what happened to that tiny hotel restaurant
intern. I wonder if he survived the ordeal, or ever recovered from the horror,
of serving French fries ever.