Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Scandinavia In The Company of Old & New Friends

A survey in 2013 has reported that there are approximately 10.2 million people of Filipino descent who are living abroad. I am one of them, and so are my friends Kamille and Joaiza.

We were friends at university, lured away by the promise of prosperity abroad - they were blown towards the golden dessert of Dubai while I ended up in the green grass of western Europe - and it has been over a decade since we called the Philippines our home.

The last time we were all in the same place together was nine years ago, in Rome, with our friend Rhodora and my friend Portia. We were still girls, chasing after our dreams and looking for love, unspoilt by adult concerns and unweighted by grownup responsibilities that is now our reality. In the following years, we have mostly relied on social media as a mode of catching up although Kamille has visited my family in Spain and the UK in the last two years.

My happily cocooned life in middle-class Britain hasn't really compelled me to seek out and maintain friendships and social relationships. The truth is, once you have a family, making time for friends seem like an unaffordable luxury. But it is sometimes an indulgence that we should allow ourselves, for nothing can really beat the company of old friends who can get us to let our hair down and unburden the weight that we carry within us.

So we agreed to meet up in one of the most expensive places in Europe - Scandinavia, for an all-girls holiday to get away from the daily grind. We converged in Copenhagen and while wandering around the Danish capital, we tried to fill in the gap that the years in between has built up and rediscovered why we became friends in the first place.
Photo Credit: Joaiza
In as much as social media has allowed us to keep in touch, it has also become a vehicle for others to find us. In Copenhagen, a high school friend of Kamille's saw her post in Facebook and treated us to a fancy five-course meal in a restaurant owned by a famous Michelin-starred chef. It was cold outside but the place was cosy and the company warm, a good dose of Filipino cordiality in another land.

Over dinner, we asked Ellen Kate about life on the other side, in a country whose language and culture she would have needed time to learn. Then she drove us around to see the city at night and we asked about things we were also interested about - jobs, social benefits, crimes and immigration and what the local people feel about them, what we feel about them. We left Copenhagen feeling enriched by the experience which would allow us to see the world a little bit more differently.

The next day, we took an early morning flight to Bergen in the west coast of Norway and we're given separate seats in the tiny plane. That's when I sat across a Filipino-speaking little girl travelling home with her mother.

It isn't uncommon to meet another Filipino abroad but because I am often travelling with my family, the most I would give them is a smile of recognition, as if to say "You are not alone in this foreign land", wherever we were at that moment. But in this particular journey, it wasn't just a sense of kinship over a shared cultural identity that came over me, it was the mutual understanding of what it was like to be a mother travelling on a long journey alone with a toddler. Because I had been there.

Her name is Xandria, she is two years old and is already multilingual. I told her that I too have a little boy who understands Filipino but will only speak the language if I made him repeat it, insisting that because we live in England we should speak in English (oh how I have failed!).

I spoke to her mother Fema and discovered that we both hailed from neighbouring cities in the south of Mindanao. We exchanged numbers and she volunteered to show us around Bergen if we so wished. It was an offer we took the next day when we invited ourselves to her house, overlooking a view straight out of a Nordic postcard and tasted a much welcome Filipino hospitality in an otherwise cold and gloomy day in Norway.

It is during these experiences when I come to appreciate the concept of nationality, that despite my complaints about the culture I have left behind, there are facets of it that I still deeply cherish. For it is this cultural bond that has allowed us to make friends with a stranger on a plane, be welcomed in their home and learn about another culture in an unfamiliar land.

We asked her what we have been dying to find out after discovering that a bowl of soup with a piece of bread costs £12 - how do people afford to live in that very expensive city. But perhaps we already knew the answer in our hearts - an inclusive economy with the lowest income inequality in the world.

We found out that like most of the working population, her husband works in the North Sea oil rigs which takes him away from home most of the time. But they have a warm and beautiful home with supportive in-laws living nearby and she gets to enjoy the natural beauty of Norway on hiking trips up the mountain when the sun is out and the weather is warm and we only get to see it in her photographs.

When we said goodbye our hearts were full and our gratitude overflowing. We didn’t stay long but it felt like we have made a lifelong friend in those few hours we were together. It was one of those moments we all agreed that we were glad to be born Filipinos.

Our trip was something I have looked forward to from the time we agreed to book our tickets a few months ago although I didn’t really care about the destination. I just wanted to spend quality time with friends that a few hours of chat over Facebook messenger wouldn't allow us. I was glad I did, there is nothing like good female company to make us feel young and uninhabited again, taking us back to a time when we were all just dreamers. And it has allowed me to take stock of my life, the me then and now, and realise that I haven't done too badly after all. Because friends will give you that much needed pat in the back and tell you you've done well, and sometimes that is all you need.

So a few days later I am still singing the song that Joaiza has attached to this holiday (and the repetition is driving my little one crazy).
Such a feelin's comin' over me
There is wonder in 'most ev'ry thing I see
Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes
And I won't be surprised if it's a dream
Here's to looking forward to the next one.

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