By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
The Dolor of Batong Paloway Goes to UK (Second of two parts)
posted 27-Oct-2011  ·  
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Ofthe eleven days I stayed in the UK, three days I spent in London, one day on ablitz through Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Banbury, and the rest I whiledaway up north, mostly in the city of Durham. London is a must, but the promdi in me liked it better outside ofthe capital city, in the more laidback and charming places. My particularattack in the short visit of UK was to have London out of my way first and fastso that I could get soaked with the outskirts where lies - I fancied and proved–the true British spirit.

Soon the very first day, even while I was still suffering from jet lag, I wentthrough the motions of visiting the familiar London landmarks and tookobligatory “I was there” shots:  theLondon Tower, the London Bridge, the London Eye (there was too a London Eyesore– the office of the city mayor that appeared like a dinosaur egg), theParliament upon the Thames, Westminster Abbey and the Buckingham Palace. Butwhat made my bagong salta day inLondon really remarkable was the Notting Hill festival, a mardi gras held where else but on Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill.Accompanying and initiating me to the ways of London was kababayan Judy Reginaldo-Banton who works as a nurse in the veryhospital where Jack-the-Ripper practiced as a surgeon. On the second day I wentback to Notting Hill and ransacked the bookstores, the antique shops and, yes,came across ukay-ukay! Then I crossed the expansive Hyde Park and squeezed timeto visit the Stonehenge two hours south of London. On the third day, I took atrain and passed through the university town of Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon(to pay my respects to the Bard), on my way to Banbury to visit a Viracnonfriend Jingle Rola. The fourth day was “high culture and arts day” where Ivisited the British Museum and watched a West End play “Phantom of the Opera”in Her Majesty’s Theatre in Picadilly Circus. Another gracious angel of a kababayan from Mindanao, Juliet Solijon,accompanied me.

Idid love some aspects of London. I was charmed by Notting Hill, not onlybecause I enjoyed immensely the mardigras, but I also savored its quaint but bohemian spirit. I was too thrilledby Picadilly Circus where many of the theatres were located it felt like thefun-loving side of New York City.  Thereof course was the British Museum where I spent three hours marveling at thecollections on ancient Egyptian, classical Greek and Roman art, and at originalVan Gogh’s, Cezanne’s, and most of the famous impressionists.  Of the properly British art, the country isnot known for really original contributions: British art is genericallyEuropean art. In architecture, of which I have special fondness, there isnothing in UK comparable to the Doumo of Florence or the Sagrada Familiacathedral of Barcelona. For sure, UK is full of nice buildings, but that’s it,they are nice but safely so, never daring and trailblazing. From pictures, Iknew that Buckingham Palace is bland, and seeing it in actuality, it wasblander.  The Westminster Abbey has noespecial character; it’s like any other Gothic cathedral.

ButLondon is an important city of the world, it boasts of many things. Like, it isrelatively easy to go around UK’s capital citty. The transport system is thebest, with such extensive subway (called the Tube) and bus route networks.Traveling is a breeze because they have all information needed available instreet signs, in brochures, and through polite and helpful people who wouldtake time to give directions to a stranger. The air is clean and there are openand green spaces where one could forget the urban choke. Outside of London,there are even more gems. The gentle topography of the English countrysidesoothes rather than amazes. Of course there is the Stonehenge (for very obviousreasons). Oxford is where The University is (Me: “Can you tell me where theuniversity is?” Guy on the info counter at train station: “Oh, walk into townand the university is all over the place.”), The Stratford by the river Avon is“touristic” but thoroughly worthy of its reputation. And how can somebody likeme professing to be a writer skip visiting Shakespeare’s hometown? But the bestthings I saw in UK were the city of Edinburgh (in Scotland) as a whole, andDurham cathedral. 

Londonis gray but Edinburgh (pronounced ‘eden brah’) is dark gray, perhaps on accountof the moss that thrives on rocks and adobe. But this darkness is contrasted bythe crisp cold air, the vibrant green of the expansive parks, the brightmulti-color of the traditional woolen kilts (skirt worn by men) and blankets,and the lilting and seemingly distant bagpipe music you hear at every turnalong the streets. Everywhere, you pass by these Scottish men in customarygarb, playing their traditional instrument and would appreciate a coin droppedby their feet. It all produces a mysterious and sumptuous broodiness that isawe-inspiring. It should be no wonder at all: it was already the highlands ofthe north; it was Scotland. Considering my underdog complex, the allure of thisplace surely was boosted by the fact that the heroes of the Scottish peoplewere those who led them in their long-running resistance of the hegemony of theEnglish.  Think of Braveheart. But allthat is history now. During my one-day stay, the famous Edinburgh Arts Festivalwas still going on. But all I was able to do was to visit the British Galleryand the Edinburgh Castle, and walked about the Old Town. I explored thelabyrinthine narrow streets lined with old buildings ranging from medieval toElizabethan, to 18th and 19th century architecture. Whatwas marvelous was how they were able to resist the itch to destroy and buildanew in order to put on a “modern” look, like what we do here in thePhilippines. 

DurhamCity, being the venue of the conference, was where I stayed the longest. It’smy piece of the UK. Being small, it took little time to get intimate with it.On my second day, I was already giving directions to tourists on how to goabout. The entire city is a world heritage site but its centerpiece is thecathedral. Together with the Durham Castle, it sits atop a hill that is anislet of sort because it is almost completely surrounded by the river Weir.This islet-hill is skirted by thick vegetation, mostly trees, and the riverbanks on both sides are lined by a paved walkway. One can complete thisriverbanks walk in forty five minutes, a thing which I did every day of mystay, at six in the morning. At this time, nobody stirs in the city yet. So Ihad the place practically to myself to marvel at sceneries that were said tohave inspired such famous English landscape painters as Turner and Constable.  

Inmy entire stay in the UK, the cathedral at Durham was my single mostphotographed thing. It is of singular beauty, towering and massive, you neverlose sight of it while in the city. It has many of the basic features of agothic cathedral: tall cross-rib vaulted ceiling, tall stained-glass windows,rosettes, spires. But the wonder of it all is that this structure, especiallythe walls, is not held in place by flying buttresses that one sees incathedrals of the high gothic period. So it is the sheer, thick, no-jokemasonry that puts it together, like our old churches here in thePhilippines.  While it is similar toother important houses of worship in Europe by becoming largely a tourist spot,what sets it from most is the serene surrounding that must have stayedunchanged since medieval times. No noisy traffic going around like inWestminster Abbey or the Notre Dame in Paris. In addition, it maintains itsreligious routines, holding regular liturgical services. Its bells without failannounces the hours throughout the day. One time, I chanced upon a group ofteens issuing out of some medieval gate and hurrying up to the cathedral’spriory, their youthful giggles floating in the early morning cold and silence,their black robes billowing in the wind. Harry Potter and his classmates? No,they were the cathedral youth choir on their way to sing the morningpraise.  

Butthen, it remains that church attendance is meager, like it is everywhere inEurope. I sat around on a Sunday morning near the cathedral door and tookaccount of the faithful coming in for service. They were mostly elderly andthey came in trickles. By worship time, I peeped in. The small size of thecongregation was made acute by the cavernous space of the cathedral. Kapupung-aw. Suddenly, I missed home andso I hurried to the front desk of my hotel and asked if there is a catholicchurch around. They showed me a map and gave directions on how to get there. Itwas St. Cuthbert’s Catholic Church of Durham. It took me some twenty minutes toreach the place. When I arrived, I saw that it was a small church, like a largebarangay chapel, and almost filled to capacity. The congregation however wasalready singing the recessional song. Then everybody filed out. I intended tolinger a bit to offer some payers, but I had to leave because they were closingthe doors.  So I tried to scan the peoplegoing about and look for Filipino-looking churchgoers; I realized it was quitea number of days already that I did not encounter a kababayan. But I did notsee any. Durham is small and being in the northern part, there is smalllikelihood of Filipino presence. It was then that I felt so alone in a strangeplace. And being noontime already, my hunger became a craving for Filipinofood. It’s been four days that I did not taste rice. I have also noticed thatmy pants had gone loose on my waistline. I had lost weight, due to the doubleeffect of rice-less diet and all that walking I had to do.

Idid not want for Filipino food during the London phase of my stay. I was allthe time enjoying the hospitality of kababayans.While Pinoys are not as numerous there as it is in other places such as HongKong or the U.S., their presence is considerable in the UK. But being mostlyskilled professionals who only wish to be able to work in peace, these Filipino expats do not make their presence feltlike other nationalities, like those responsible for the riots. One chancesupon them on parks, trains and other public places. The few that I had closeencounter with were mostly nurses and care-givers. Most were doing well, butsome are in the red due to the recent tightening of policies on migrants.Talking to them, you hear the usual themes of OCW’s sentiments. Like howdifficult it is to be away from home. Like how they have to work so hard likehorses, taking in two or more jobs. Like how people back home do not seem torealize their ordeal, seeing them only in terms of the padala, as if these grow on trees like leaves.

Ialways assumed that Filipinos abroad would rather stay non-committal aboutpolitics of their host country. But I was proven wrong. I chanced upon aFilipino couple at the train station in Edinburgh on my way back to base inDurham. They told me they were from nearby New Castle, about an hour away, and hadjust finished a three day vacation in the Scottish city. I told them “Buti pa kayo, papasyal-pasyal.” Well,they said, they would go crazy if they do not have at least twice-a-yearvacation. Before, they would to go to continental Europe or the Mediterranean.But it’s bad times. They were feeling the bite of the economic crisis. Thenthey regaled me with a discourse on British politics, how the Conservatives isresponsible for their current woes, and how they wish that the Labor Party gaincontrol. That outpouring came as a surprise to me. This same sentiment, in lesssophisticated version I have earlier heard from my Viracnon hosts. And Iwondered: is their politics limited to verbalizations? Do they put them inaction? I was not able to explore on this. But I think that these Viracnons inUK would rather remain conservative action-wise and keep their grievancesagainst the government to themselves. Just like at home.       


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