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Food and Leisure

’Tis the season to be grateful

Gabrielle Ann Guevara - The Philippine Star
âTis the season to be grateful
Believe it or not, I can actually walk from my flat going to the iconic London Eye and Big Ben (which is currently being rehabilitated, hence the scaffolding): Definitely a reason for me to be grateful.

MANILA, Philippines — Having been born and raised in Metro Manila, I thought living in a busy city like London would not require much of an adjustment. I think what I was dreading the most was the very unpredictable, most-of-the-time-gloomy kind of British weather.

But as the months passed, and the days became much shorter and colder, I realized how daunting it is to be a new kid in a massive city in the Global North. Homesickness and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are real. Some of us, including myself, had a hard time adjusting to everything.

The education system is significantly different; it teaches us to become more independent, disciplined, and critical thinkers, and to submit course works/assessments that are sometimes worth 100 percent of our grades for our selected modules. It can be quite challenging, especially for the members of my cohort, who last attended school more than five years ago. I even reached the point where I had to seek professional help just to help me get through.

Despite all of this, having a break this Christmas season allowed us, especially me, to slow down and remind ourselves how blessed we are to be part of the Chevening Philippine cohort this year.

Chevening is the UK government’s prestigious international awards program aimed at developing global leaders. This year, out of 64,408 applicants from over 140 countries worldwide, only 1,638 (2.54%) were selected to be part of the 2021/22 cohort, 34 of which are from the Philippines. We are grateful to meet new people from all over the world, go to new places, learn, relearn and unlearn things in line with our chosen field, and give ourselves an opportunity to get to know ourselves better.

For most of us, this is our first Christmas away from home and our first three months as Cheveners. It may look, taste, smell, sound, and feel different from what we are accustomed to, but surprisingly, Christmas in the UK has been a very good and memorable experience, not just for me but for my other batchmates as well. Some already have their families with them here, while some of our batchmates’ significant others came all the way to the UK to celebrate the holidays with them.

For those of us who don’t have either of that, we’ve got each other, as well as friends from all over the world who welcomed us with open arms and hearts. In short, we did not really feel that we are alone — we found homes away from home. We got to see, taste, smell, hear, and feel what Christmas is like here. And for that, we are blessed and grateful.

Paningin (sight)

Being one of the busiest cities in the world, London has so many sights to offer. If you have seen London in the movie Last Christmas starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, that’s pretty much what London looks like this season. Bright lights are all over Oxford Street, Regent Street, and Covent Garden; and there are Christmas markets (similar to our tiangges) everywhere, like in Leicester and Trafalgar Squares.

The West End also has a lot to offer, like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, Wicked, Dear Evan Hansen, etc. (sadly, some shows got canceled because of COVID-19).

For those who are fans of theme parks, there is the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, or if you prefer solitude, there are massive parks and pocket parks all over the city where you can just sit, walk, jog, run, or cycle around, and museums (the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Modern, etc.) that you can enter for free.

There is also a wide range of free and paid walking tours led by locals so that you can glimpse the history of the royal family and even pop culture.

In a nutshell, you wouldn’t run out of things to do here. To be honest, I don’t think I can actually explore everything here in London in my one year, even if I am staying already in a centrally located flat.

But for me, the best part of experiencing Christmas in the UK is seeing relatives and friends, and celebrating this most wonderful time of the year with them. Here in the UK, they truly value rest, work-life balance, and mental health. That is why on Christmas Day, almost everything — stores, restaurants, trains, buses — are not operating as they are encouraging people to stay at home with their families and friends.

When our first term in uni ended this month, I was blessed to join Christmas get-togethers that were hosted mostly by Filipinos here in the UK: by the Philippine Embassy in London, Every Nation (EN) London (my church here), and the Chevening Philippines 2021/22 cohort. As the only Filipino student in all of my classes this term, it brings me joy to see so many Filipinos in one venue talking to each other in our native tongue, eating Pinoy food, and sharing experiences. It truly is uplifting to finally see and meet people that I have already been chatting with for months now but have not met in person until we had these events.

Being in the UK has also enabled me to reunite with friends from way back whom I haven’t personally seen for three years or more. The last time I saw one of them was during our university graduation (more than a decade ago) and now she has a PhD and a family of her own!

They even adopted me on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, pulled Christmas crackers (a British tradition), talked to our families, who are in the Philippines, watched the Queen deliver her Christmas message, played with a baby who is celebrating his first Christmas ever, and just chilled out by watching movies — I have truly found a home away from home. I have enjoyed my time here so much that I plan to visit them again next year.

British Christmas food on Christmas Day celebrated with a Filipino family and British Christmas crackers (that contain jokes, trivia, paper crowns, and prizes).

Panlasa (taste) and Pang-amoy (smell)

Christmas gatherings are not complete without food, of course. And I was fortunate enough to taste both Filipino and British Christmas food here, which have both been helpful in uplifting my mood.

During the get-togethers, I was able to eat and smell again Pinoy Christmas party staples/personal favorites like lumpiang Shanghai, pancit bihon, Jollibee Chickenjoy, kare-kare, and dinuguan. Tasting all of them made me feel like a kid again… and made me feel happy again, just like when I attended Christmas parties back in grade school or high school. If you don’t look outside the window and just focus on eating and the good company in the venue, you wouldn’t feel that you are alone.

Meanwhile, I got the full British Christmas experience during my stay with my Filipino college classmates’ family in Manchester, where we ate for seven hours straight on Christmas Eve (a Filipino trademark) and ate Christmas dinner after watching the Queen’s message at 3 p.m. in Christmas jumpers (commonly known as “ugly Christmas sweaters”). We ate roast pork, roast potatoes, pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon), Yorkshire pudding, gravy, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts, and Quality Street chocolates, just to name a few.

I may have experienced and tasted foreign food on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but in my heart, it was a Filipino Christmas because I felt the love and warmth overflowing from the food that we ate. It was not just my tummy that got full; it was more of my heart getting full.

Being in Manchester also allowed me to hang out and have meaningful conversations with a Filipino Chevening batchmate while going to local cafés and pubs on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas and very well known for shopping discounts like Black Friday. Many establishments may have been closed that day, making the city center of Manchester look a bit like a ghost town, but I actually had fun trying out local coffee, food, and drinks while reminiscing about our entire Chevening journey, from the application process where most of us were complete strangers and having self-doubts, up to the time that we are here in the UK, still having self-doubts but trying our best to become the person we are supposed to be. It was a time for me not just to feed my body, but to feed my mind and soul as well. In one word, I can say that my stay in Manchester has been truly a refreshing one, just like the fruity cocktails that we ordered to cap my last night in the city.

Some of the tastes and smells may be completely different. I do miss the smell of puto bumbong, bibingka, or the street foods in tiangges so bad, but the people surrounding me made me feel so much at home and made my first Christmas abroad exceed my expectations — that it’s totally okay to miss those things for now.

Brunch at the famous Federal Café in Manchester: We queued for 20 minutes outside the café while it was raining to be able to eat this IG-worthy Eggs Benedict, French toast, and cappuccino.

Pandinig (hearing) and Pansalat (touch)

Christmas carols are also staples here, but often you must go to certain places just to hear the carolers sing like in churches, which made me miss the Philippines even more. There is also the mandatory videoke for Filipino households and the games that involved music and singing — a signature Filipino move. These I have also enjoyed as they reminded me of the true meaning of Christmas, which is God giving His Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem the world, along with the preaching that I listen to during Sunday services and the devotional podcasts that I tune in to on a weekly basis. Indeed, this is a season of rejoicing.

But what helped complete my Christmas here was the prayers, and words of affirmation and encouragement from home and the people who became your home away from home. For somebody who’s struggling with mental health this season, it really means a lot when people sincerely ask how I have been and truly mean it. I had the rawest and most honest conversations here in the UK, especially this Christmas season. This is something that I get to do in flats, cafés, and parks, usually away from London’s usual hustle and bustle. And I did feel the weight lifted off my shoulders when people who truly care talk to me, taking the time to help me process the journey that they and I are going through. This is not an exclusive Filipino thing because I had classmates from all over the world whom I have been talking to and they truly felt like a safe space — to the point that I even cried in front of them. Little did I know that some of them actually have been through depression before and told me that it’s okay not to be okay, but things will get better, especially when winter is over.

What makes the words more comforting are the matching warm hugs that come with them. As a Filipino who left the Philippines during a tight lockdown last September, I did not have a proper sendoff. There was the Delta variant scare back then, so we were forced to isolate just to be safe from COVID-19. Before my flight, security was so tight that the airport personnel did not allow my family to stay long to bid me goodbye. So being able to hug and be hugged by people in the middle of this cold and dark weather means so much to me. God makes me feel that I am truly not alone in this journey and that He’s got my back, because He always sends the right people on time.

I truly am also thankful that I was able to spend Christmas here in the UK since its urban design, particularly in London, enables people to still gather publicly with the many green and open spaces available and infrastructures with better ventilation. Yes, some streets may be narrow, but there are a lot of spaces for people to move, and various mobility options to choose from. Because of this, we got to enjoy this season worrying less compared to a highly congested area with a very dense population. But of course, precautionary measures are still needed to ensure safety from the virus.

Nevertheless, I am immensely happy that experiencing and enjoying Christmas by maximizing the five senses enabled me to still have an enjoyable Filipino Christmas in the UK despite the gloomy situation here and in the Philippines, and the global Omicron scare. I found a home away from home in just a short span of time — a safe space in this journey of self-discovery. I’m grateful that even with the rising COVID cases, the majority of us are alive and safe, having each other’s backs. It has just been three months, but God continues to show us that He indeed is good.

* * *

Gabe Guevara is a licensed urban/environmental planner and one of the founders of Ecosensya Solutions for Environmental Sustainability. She is currently taking up Sustainable Cities MSc at King’s College London as a Chevening Scholar (UK government scholarship). She has 10 years of experience in urban and rural development work, either as a development worker for foreign-assisted projects (funded by World Bank, ADB, USAID) or as a civil servant (both national and local government).

Her interests are sustainable and inclusive mobility, sustainable water management, green open spaces, urban agriculture, and good governance —all towards a more sustainable urban present and future. You can reach her at [email protected]

CHRISTMAS

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