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Opinion

One year, already

NOTES FROM THE EU DELEGATION - Luc Véron - The Philippine Star

It has been one year already since Nicole and I landed at NAIA. I had just received the green light (“agrément”) from the Filipino authorities to represent the European Union in Manila and, renouncing our family celebrations, we had taken the first flight out of Brussels.

NAIA hardly looked like the swarm of bees I had seen on my previous Easter 2016 visit. While ushering us through the ghost-like corridors, the protocol officer apologized that we would have to wait to experience our first ‘real’ Filipino Christmas. It was just a few days before the first Christmas of the pandemic.

After seven days of quarantine, Nicole and I were very eager to get a first feel of the city where we had just moved in. We asked to be driven along the Manila Bay. The driver remarked that the traffic was “light.” We stopped by the Rizal monument and took a picture from afar; the park was closed. We pushed to Intramuros and walked on the paved streets with a great sense of privilege because we were probably the only visitors that day. We could only admire San Augustin Church and the Cathedral from outside but the sighting was definitely worth it.

On our wish list that day there was also the bookshop Solidaridad in Ermita. We were browsing through the books when a woman approached us and said that her husband, the owner, would like to greet us. I remember looking incredulously at Nicole but, of course, we walked up the stairs and there, surrounded by books, was F. Sionil José. We sat with the 96-year-old national writer for one full hour. He spoke about his work, his roots, his travels and naturally, with passion, about the Philippines. He also asked us many questions about our countries and current affairs. What an incredible experience to meet in the flesh a literary incarnation of the country! Moreover, where else than in Manila?

Actually, conversations with Filipinos (neighbors, business folks, public officials, artists…) have been the joy of our life in the last year.

While the pandemic and the social distancing have dramatically constrained our existence, they have made these rare moments even more precious. It may sound cliché to say that Filipinos, no matter their condition in life, are welcoming and friendly but then, this cliché tells the truth. Filipinos are genuinely interested in sharing their stories and hearing yours.

In my view, in these times of Zoom meetings, there is no better justification for sending diplomats at great cost to far-away places than the possibility for them to engage with real persons.

This is the reason why I embarked on the “EU You talk” project (broadcast on Facebook) which is a series of interviews with young Filipinos active in the civil society, academe, social media and the arts. This has been a fascinating experience. It is unfair to single out any of these interviews but my recent exchange with poet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta was a true moment of pure joy. After my fortuitous encounter with F. Sionil José, I could see that the flame of Filipino literary talent will be kept alive by the new generations. The same can be said about visual artists. Two months ago, I had lunch with National Artist Bencab in Baguio and was amazed by his museum, as well as by the indigenous artists’ village Tam-Awan later on. So much artistic talents in the Philippines! And what to say about the musical scene: Ben&Ben, SB19, Moira Dela Torre, Rice Lucido...!

Roasted Sinampalukang Manok, Kare-Kare tiger prawns, dairy-free coconut ice cream … Nicole and I decided early on that in our official luncheons at the residence we would only serve local products “with a European touch” (and European wines and beverages of course!). Our guests have enjoyed the creations of our young and talented Filipino chef, JJ Manzano and, as the constraints relax, more will be able to partake.

Lest I forget to share that four days after we landed at NAIA, a Malinois puppy was born in Pampanga and, four months later, we adopted her. While we had never owned a dog before and, as a friend remarked, the choice of this particular breed may have been quite ambitious, Kaya (yes, Kaya niya) has been our brave and playful Filipino/Belgian companion through the lockdowns, self-isolation and quarantine days.

One day, several years from now, Kaya will also be at NAIA for the voyage to the land of her distant ancestors.

I realize that I have not said a word of my ‘real’ diplomatic work. On 10 February, I was prepared to present my letters “virtually” to the President, as it had been the norm since the beginning of the pandemic. On the eve, the nice surprise came that I would be the first ambassador to present credentials “in person.” I was thrilled, of course. After I delivered my prepared remarks and the President had graciously accepted my credentials, we stood side-by-side at appropriate distance for the traditional photograph. This was my time to tell him some heartfelt words I had rehearsed in Filipino about my pleasure and pride to represent the EU in the Philippines. Probably frozen by emotion and Malacañang’s decor, I just managed to mumble a few words in English.

One of the particularities of Filipino English I have discovered is the use of “already” reverberating the particle “na” in Tagalog and, one year already in this beautiful country, this is what I really want to say to the Philippines: “In love na ako.”

Maligayang Pasko sa inyong lahat.

NAIA

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