When the #metoo campaign came out, to be perfectly honest, it took a while for me to realize that well… me too. I had to read other women’s accounts before I realized that… well, me too. It’s never gone as extreme as seeing a man forcefully masturbate in front of me or force themselves on me (although I was followed a few blocks by a naked man who seemed to be a bit mental… oh wait, me too!) but after reading a few experiences, I realized that I wasn’t exempt. Frankly, my experience had become so normal, I had completely blanked out and accepted the normality of it all. I had gotten completely used to it.
Rather than waiting for my free 100 hours of French lessons in a school of questionable quality, I signed up for 40 hours of French in Alliance Française Strasbourg over a 2 week period in the middle of a couple of deployments. Disclaimer: universally, I am known to be terrible at languages, including my native tongue of Filipino. In university, I scorned French because I thought it was incredibly mainstream (in hindsight, this hipster decision of mine was a karmic bitch slap to the face) and took Italian instead… because I really loved Italian food. This is not the best basis for a decision like this. Sage advice, you can point at a menu without having to say a word but it’s embarrassing to have to mime using a toilet because you can’t speak the language. To this day, all I remember is “io sono Gabriela”, which doesn’t really take you anywhere.
There’s probably hundreds of articles and books written about moving to France by people of varying nationalities (Peter Mayle has probably cornered 5% profitability on that topic alone). Totally unoriginal, I’m now going to be one of those people. Don’t say I didn’t give you fair warning. Not that I think my experience is unique - far from it - but there is something about moving and living in France that appeals to my sense of humor and irony.
Last year, we made the decision to move to France after a crazy exhausting year hopping back and forth (mainly for me) from the Philippines to the United States to France to Sierra Leone. Ten months ago, we finally did it and ended up in Strasbourg, a lucky coincidence because when I visited the city last year, I fell in love with everything about it. But before the fairytale of living in this amazingly beautiful historic city, there was the comedy that came with the move.
First off, moving countries, do not recommend it. Hate it. Never want to do it again (but probably will, at some point). I have never belonged to the Marie Kondo way of life. Everything I own brings me joy. I literally keep and still wear clothes I’ve had since high school (though not a hoarder!). But moving, I’ve discovered, really tells you a lot about yourself. And I’ve discovered that I am ruthless. As I was the unemployed one by the time we were winding down our stay in the US, I made Craigslist my bitch and cleaned out our apartment to the point that we looked like we had been thoroughly robbed two weeks before we left. It also brought me the realization that the couch was actually an camper van sofa (in hindsight, no wonder that couch was a horrible shade of brown and that it was too small to even fit me!). It also allowed me to meet amazing people who gave us brand new ideas about our old furniture, like the lovely man who wanted to buy our coffee table because he was going to make it into an iguana cage for his girlfriend, and promptly sent us the photo of this gem of an idea (not that we were asking to see this treasure).
Years ago, when Barack Obama first came in as a potential Democratic presidential candidate, I was still very much for Hilary Rodham Clinton. I’m not American but I liked her style and I really wished I could vote for her. She was tough, she stood for things I believed in, and I just felt like she had proven herself many times over. But Obama was charismatic and smart, and he swayed me and I thought, “well, there’s always the next time. And she’ll be the next US President.” I was absolutely sure of it then.
After a few months off from the world of emergencies, I'm back in it as a Programme Manager for Oxfam's Ebola Response in Sierra Leone! I'm thrilled to be working in this programme, not just because it's a chance to be directly involved in an emergency I've been following since it started in early 2014, but also because it's a huge opportunity to grow more in this field. As much as the Philippines has been an excellent training ground with the numerous typhoons, floods, monsoon rains and other assorted natural disasters we're affected by yearly, working in Africa introduces a whole different world for living and working.
Why did I decide to work in this response? Though the decision was easy for me, it wasn't without weighing the risks carefully. A wealth of documents and information from the news, humanitarian organizations and Oxfam helped tilt the balance towards working here.
My journey to Sierra Leone started from a gray and dreary Paris (I discovered that rain + winter makes Paris less romantic. Harrumph) through Casablanca, Morocco to Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was a lucky break I was in France because the Philippines discourages travelers from going to West Africa (really, my country needs to be a little less backward about things like this) and even blocks people from leaving if they find out that's your destination. (It's disappointing that the Philippines churns out thousands of medical professionals like doctors, nurses, and are known to be excellent caregivers. And yet, the government discourages them from going to West Africa to help in the response. But anyway).
For anyone going to Sierra Leone, the trip at the moment (with all the flight cancellations to Africa) is through Air Brussels (Brussels) and Royal Air Maroc (Morocco). From Morocco, it's a 3-4 hour plane ride to Freetown (I'd be more accurate but I was passed out during my midnight trip until we landed at the annoying hour of 4am). Let me tell you, it's a huge shock to the system to go from chilly Paris and Morocco at - degree weather and come out on the other end at 30 degree Freetown (technically, that's a lot hotter than the Philippines right now!).
I am not a huge fan of couple selfies. I can't imagine people wanting to see my face cheesily posing with my boyfriend. But I do take them so I can keep little mementos of special moments in life.
And sometimes I post them because how can you not look at this gold?
P.S. A few hours later, we were engaged! I am so happy I got to have this funny sort of memory to remind me of this date.
After living with my Lola for the last five years, through my brief year in law school through multiple work trips and emergencies, I was beginning to think she was going to last through some of the major milestones in her grandchildren's lives. Even being stricken with pneumonia, being diagnosed with Parkinson's and just all the ailments that come with age, my grandmother was a strong woman.
After a few weeks in the United States, I heard the tough news from my sister that my grandmother had suffered a stroke. My heart sank at the news because I knew she was tired. She was pretty old and had lived an incredibly packed life. She'd outlived so many of her peers. But somehow, I think we all knew it was heading towards the end of her story.
Sure enough, a week later, the morning after they brought her home to rest in her own bed, my Lola passed in the early hours of the morning.
It was tough. After living with Lola for so long, I knew that I wanted to be around when she passed. But somehow my first long trip abroad, that's when she went. It's tough because I didn't get a chance to really talk to her before she left us. But it's not about me and she was able to get all but one of her nine kids with her in the Philippines before she passed. And that is pretty amazing.
I knew I loved Lola a lot but I don't think I realized how much more I did until after she passed. And so to say a proper goodbye, here's a little eulogy I wrote for her.
We're saying goodbye to Lola Carmen today. I can't say a eulogy because I will be a basketcase but it is an honor I can't pass up to say goodbye to my Lola.
(I am so obviously wide awake in the wee hours of morning, it's not even funny).
I recently met this awesome American friend of a cousin-in-law (I'll wait while you catch up to the reference), first visit to the Philippines and about to spend a guaranteed amazing time skipping around the beautiful islands of the Philippines (this ad paid for by the Department of Tourism). He immediately impressed us by commuting everywhere within the first 10 hours of being here in the Philippines and by commuting, I mean this dude took jeepneys and LRTs from Makati to Intramuros and Quiapo. Even I, a born and bred Filipino, would highly recommend a taxi. But nooo, he wanted the authentic experience + the additional excitement of saying "para po" to stop the jeepneys.
While weeding through the many tips to traveling to the Philippines (and if you ever visit this awesome country of mine, hit me. Happy to help!), we got to the caveat that 1) Filipinos love karaoke. Like insane love. 2) be prepared that a LOT of bars would have karaoke. 3) be prepared to be in a rural province with a karaoke singer wailing off in the background (and with all the space of fields and barrios, sound carries. That singer is far, far away from you) at 2am in the morning. 4) the very cute quirky PHP 5/song karaoke machine relic will be around. 5) you will sing. You will say no. But you will sing. Against your better judgment, the advice of your wise old grandmother and the bitterness of your soul.
There's only 2 ways to go around it! Number one is super easy = drink. Liquid courage. I love me some karaoke (hello, I am a proud Pinoy) but I cannot do this sober. I would rather walk hard into a wall then do this without a drink in me.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.