Nine months ago, we packed our bags and too many boxes, and headed out to Ninoy Aquino International Airport for the last time. It was six years and a matter of days since I had first arrived in the Philippines. During those busy years, I had incredible experiences, made wonderful friends, ate amazing food (in every sense of the word), and wrote a book about it all. In six years, though, I never did acclimatize to the tropical heat and humidity. It made me sluggish and cross, and inclined to hide away in the air-conditioning during the hottest months. So, while the farewells were tough, I was over the moon to be returning to more temperate climes, where I could indulge in a boot fetish and lots of woolly jumpers…
And I must admit, I am thriving in the cooler temperatures of Europe in general and Luxembourg in particular – although I have been surprised at how hot and humid it can get here, too, in the middle of summer. I have enjoyed watching the seasons change: the crisp and misty winter mornings; the magically emerging spring; the luxuriant summer running rampant through the woods; the glorious shades of autumn tinting the trees in carmine and coral, gold and ochre, orange and vermilion. I love, love, love the long summer evenings, that stay light till forever, and I don’t even mind that the days close up so early in winter, after the never-changing routine of 12 hours of daylight nearer the equator.
That there is more aesthetic appeal to turrets and spires and ancient castle walls then concrete overpasses and tangled ropes of electric cables looping overhead is inarguable. Or that a walk in the woods in clean air full of birdsong is irrefutably preferable to sweating along broken pavements dodging bikes and jeepneys. And yet… and yet, I find myself missing our life in Manila. And I am often taken aback at the odd things that make me homesick. Recently, I re-read two articles I wrote in the early days, in which I listed all the things I already loved about the Philippines. They were light-hearted articles, but they threw me straight back to those first impressions. And I found myself unavoidably comparing them to life in Luxembourg.
My points, ten in total, included fun things like jeepneys. In Luxembourg, buckets of euros are spent on building bridges and the most frightening efficient – and cheap – transport system in Europe, and yet nothing has the quirky charm of the jeepney. And the taxis here, while they actually have suspension, cost a fortune.
And I always loved the Filipinos unique use of the English language. Here in Luxembourg, I am sure I cause my fair share of amusement for my unique use of the French language, but that is more due to rust than imaginative creativity. (And I sometimes think the Europeans have a better grasp of English grammar than I do myself.)
In the Philippines, there was the ‘suggestion’ of road rules, as most people drive like cowboys, when the traffic is moving at all. This bears no resemblance whatsoever to a driving culture in Luxembourg that seems like a nanny state by comparison. We have already totted up a handful of minor speeding fines thanks to to the constantly changing speed limits and the constant presence of security cameras. Security can be tight in Manila, but not necessarily on the roads. And I find I miss the freedom to drive like a cowboy, too.
I loved the Manila markets, and wrote copiously about them, so I was delighted to find that we have a great food market in the middle of Luxembourg, twice a week, full of the most wonderful fresh produce, home-made jams, salamis, cheeses and flowers. There is not, however, the abundance of fascinating cooked food or wonderful Filipino crafts in evidence as there were in Legaspi. And the Luxembourgers just don’t seem to have that same passion for food that was the norm in the Philippines. Even the coffee was better in Manila.
I am not yet missing the luxury of help in the house. So far, housework retains a certain degree of novelty value that hasn’t yet worn thin, but I expect that to change at any moment. After all, there’s only so much joy you can achieve with a duster and a mop. I remember one friend returning to England and bemoaning the fact that however long she hung out at Sainsbury’s, the house elves just weren’t getting the job done.
I do miss the smiling. It sounds clichéd, I know, but people don’t smile much in Luxembourg. Luxembourg is the wealthiest country in the world, per capita than anywhere but Qatar, apparently. The Luxembourgish are well educated and fluent in at least three languages. While it is a tiny city of only 120,00 (Manila has 20 million) it punches above its weight for culture, with its entertainment centres, art galleries and ridiculous numbers of eateries.
Yet, despite such affluence, few people smile here. I am invisible at worst, unacknowledged at best. I have tried wearing them down by beaming at everyone I walk past, but mostly they pointedly look the other way. Or they stare at me fixedly, unblinking, as if I had suddenly grown an extra head. They will come around eventually, I am sure, but it is taking more time than I had expected. So I do miss those fabulous Filipino smiles, whatever the weather, whatever their own personal problems or hardships. Those smiles from strangers used to make my day, and make me feel as if I were a special part of the community.
And, of course, I miss like crazy the many special friends I made in Manila, locals and expats both. I guess that will always happen when one leads a nomadic life, but I had forgotten the emptiness of facing a new life without a single friend. (And I don’t mean to discount the One & Only, but he is a bit office bound these days, and not always available for a coffee and a gossip.) After six years in the Philippines, many of my first bunch of expatriate friends had moved on, but there were plenty still in town, and more friends to be made every day. And tManila was one of the few postings we have had where we were able to make so many local friends, and not live purely in an expat bubble. In Luxembourg, in my experience, it is not only rare to find a local, but they do tend to keep to themselves. I am slowly gathering up some friends now, but it has been a long process. Perhaps this is partly because so many people working here actually live beyond Luxembourg’s borders, commuting daily from France, Belgium and Germany. This has made it hard to find a niche, as a trailing spouse, especially with no kids in tow this time.
The strangest thing I find I miss – was not expecting to miss – is the sense of adventure that flavoured every day we spent in the Philippines. Whether it was the traffic jams or the storms, the shopping or the travelling, everything we saw, heard, smelled, touched or tasted, love it or hate it, was a daily challenge to the senses; an adrenalin fix sorely lacking in this most civilized and organized of cities. At first, such methodical, structured correctness was balm for the soul, but now I find I miss the furious urgency I used to feel when trying to achieve something quite simple in Manila, and the staggering sense of delight when I actually managed to get something done.
In Luxembourg, I am reminded almost daily of Tim Winton, who wrote in his memoir An Island Home about the total domestication of Europe that he had “never encountered places so relentlessly denatured… it seemed that every field, hedge and well was named, apportioned and accounted for.”
The same could never be said about Manila. The unpredictability, the inefficiency, the pollution and the madness can all drive you crazy, but it can also be fun. While we foreigners may rant and rave when life did not go smoothly, the Filipinos faced it all with those patient, unassuming smiles. And it certainly ensures a life less ordinary.
In Luxembourg the pollution is almost non-existent, as the country is largely rural with a high density of forest: ‘the lungs of the city’ as the tourist brochures proclaim. And I certainly don’t miss Manila’s mustard coloured skies. Here the roads are wide and rarely filled with cars: the rush hour is just that. An hour. And everywhere I want to go is no more than fifteen minutes away, except IKEA which involves crossing the border to Belgium, but it’s still only half an hour in the car. Such luxury was unheard of in Manila, unless it was a major public holiday.
So, I still don’t miss the heat, the pollution or being stuck in the traffic for days. But the joy of stepping under a cold shower, when the heat was literally rising in waves of your body, was breath-taking. In the Philippines, it was a life of extraordinary juxtapositions and violent extremes, both good and bad. It was a life lived on the edge of your seat. Here I wonder if everyone is on Valium. The atmosphere of safe, unruffled calm is something I still find a little unnerving. And on a Sunday morning you can drive across the city and see no one and nothing is moving: it’s like a ghost town.
Never, can I imagine that thrumming, smog-bound, madcap tropical city resembling a ghost town. And I miss the madness. When you are immersed in it, it can be overwhelming, sometimes even a bit frightening. But you know you are alive.