Monday, July 06, 2009

The Song is Ended

June 2008 - I sometimes just listen to songs on my iPod, seated in a comfortable chair with a chilled Baltika 3 close to hand. A decent enough way to enjoy the time away from home in a place with nothing in English on TV except for BBC News.

3 years ago, I was in a car with 3 other friends, Philip, his wife Anna, and Martin. We were driving back to Manila after a holiday at a country house in a nearby province.

We were listening to music , mostly tunes from the 90’s, the time when we were in college.

I started feeling wave of sadness and melancholy for some reason. Odd, since the music, Weeezer, Liz Phair, and all, weren’t normally the songs to bring such feelings on.

Then it got to me. 3 of us in the car, Philip, Martin, and I, used to play basketball, a game of 5 per side, together quite a bit when we were at the university. And we played so often with 1 particular person, Albert.

Albert was really into what was classed then as alternative music. I remember sharing tapes with him. He was the only guy amongh my friends who could identify each particular band I’d listen to, and he knew of lots more besides. He was with me in the car once and heard the song Pretty D. In the ensuing conversation, I learned that Tanya Donelly was formerly the lead singer of Belly, and that I'd be doign myself a disservice not to watch her play the guitar.

Albert passed away in 2004, years prior to that trip back to Manila. Martin, Philip, and high went to high school together, and even when we went to separate universities or even after, we moved on to work or, in his case, medical school, we always got together. To drink, to play ball, or just to hang out.

He was one of the smartest among us, Albert was. And quite well rounded. A fairly decent athlete, he could’ve gotten into a varsity team back in high school, only he forgot his gear at home the day of the try outs.

And he was a musician as well. He was the lead for a band, back in our college years. They played ska, guitars, drums and brass, literally a trumpet. A good enough band that they managed to cut an album. He complained at the time they should’ve gotten more airplay only their manager didn’t give enough into the required payola. Oh well.

I remember hanging out at Club Dredd, a couple of times, at its old location in Timog and the later one on Edsa, with him and to watch him and his band perform. The place was the venue for serious local rock and alternative music, the t-shirt and jeans variety. A tribute to true artistic endeavor, named for something only a genuine comic geek would know. The place that played cuts from Chicago and Kalapana, with lovelorn groups of college girls and the singer in black leather pants, was way across town.

He went on to medical school. We all expected him to get through the boards and be a fine doctor, though that wasn’t how things turned out.

When met up once where he related that he got his girlfriend pregnant and that her family didn’t want anything to do with him, and didn’t want him to have anything do to with her or his coming baby. I remember thinking and maybe saying at the time that things could change and even work out in time.

He failed to pass the boards and decided to go to the US to get some room while studying for the next scheduled exam. It was quite a surprise, him not passing. He was sure to get it the next time around.

He passed away in the US. Encephalitis, I heard. Some complication related to hepatitis he caught while we were in high school. I remembered visiting him at home then, about 10 years before that car trip. Hepatitis is contagious enough that we couldn’t actually see him then. We had to dial into the phone in the room he was confined in. He was a bit put off that I only visited him then, weeks after he came down with it. Well, what can you do?

I remembered all that then, in that car on the way to Manila. I just smiled and waited for Martin to play the next song. I really wished he wouldn’t sing along to it. I mean, I got those albums because I liked the way the artists sang it.

A year later, it occurred to me that out there is a child who knows nothing of the father. I like to think that the child would wonder and seek to know. I like to think that all of us would be there to then tell of Albert, one of the smartest of us, who played good basketball, led a good band, and was quite all right with the ladies.

I would like to have told him that Jenny Lewis is as cute a redhead as Tori Amos, and that Katie O isn’t bad at all on stage.

The Other End

April 2008 - I’m into my first weekend in my new job posting, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin Island, Russia. It just occurred to me that in less than a year, I’ve managed to get assigned from one end of the Eurasian continental mass, Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom, to the other. Well, there are at least a couple of things in common - the temperature and people who can’t really speak English.

Like one of my colleagues from the UK described, any if he traveled and farther from home he’d be on his way back.

This is quite the frontier boom town.

The local population is a real mix. There are Caucasian Russians, North Asian Russians, and Japanese and Koreans. Part of Sakhalin Island was held by Japan from the Russo- Japanese war around the start of the 20th century to end of the 2nd World War, when Russian troops successfully captured the island. Korean men were brought over to build infrastructure, and women to entertain the troops. It’s not uncommon to see couples or groups of obviously different ethnic backgrounds, but who all speak Russian.

Then there are the oil industry workers and their families. As one New York Times articles said, the English accents one could hear span the globe from Alaska to Western Australia. I’d certainly add the Philippines to that list, as I noticed on my flight over that most of the Asians were Filipinos.

The buildings are mostly square low rise concrete blocks. No real marvel of architecture, but with less than 9 months in a year available for shipment or construction, it’s a feat to have any multi-storey buildings at all.

The cafĂ© fare - battered fried fish, battered fried chicken breasts, beef goulash or beef stroganoff, which I can’t tell the differences. All are served with mushrooms or pickled vegetable sides. There’s rice, mashed potatoes, and grechka, steamed barley with slices of meat and onions.

Tea time can be with slices of bread with various cheeses, from creamy cheddars to smoky polish varieties.

The soups are really varied and flavorful. There is borsht, which they describe as the best soup in the world. Beef with herbs and sliced vegetables in a tomato base, topped with a dollop of cream. There’s rusolnik, gorokhavi, and korcho, taken with a couple of slices of fresh, dark grain bread.

There are also meat pies, minced beef, or mushrooms and onions, stuffed inside a chiffon cake and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Their sweet cakes, chiffon topped with slices of fresh fruits and sprinkled with finely powdered sugar.

It’s certainly a big country, as one of my colleagues remarked. A local replied with a straight face, “You think so?” He went on to explain that with Kalinigrad on the Baltic Sea and Chukotka by the Barents Straight, Russia spans 10 time zones. Technically, Chukotka should be on the same time zone as Alaska, GMT-12, but to keep themselves sane, they sensibly opted to keep it at GMT+12.

Their media is quite varied. There’s MTV Sakhalin, with dubbed versions of Scrubs (Klinika), Pimp My Ride, and Cribs. There are local reality shows, like Dom (House), on it’s third season. There are your formula sitcoms and dramas like Papa Doshkii (Daddy’s Girls) and Ranielka. Unfortunately for me, with my extremely basic skills, the dialogue is lost on me. The girls are cute though. What I admire about the shows is that the bright and humorous lives are just behind the walls of the dark grey apartment blocks.

While on the street the people can seem so dour, in a comfortable group, their sense of humor does come out to shine.

“The weather’s usually good on a weekday, when you’re stuck at work and can’t do anything to enjoy it. Then it turns bad Friday night to early Monday,” a local colleague said. He added “Though that may be so you don’t feel to bad when you come in to work on the weekend.”