Roman Holiday

How do you experience a place as rich and ancient as Rome in less than 8 hours?

That was my dilemma back in December last year, when I was sent to Italy to cover the president’s state visit. We were there for nearly a week, but our days were filled with work so I only got into tourist mode hours before we had to fly back to Manila.

The plan, basically, was to explore the city by myself. I never thought I would be able to go around a European city in my 20s, and the excitement was overwhelming. It was always just a fantasy, and even in my fantasies I only got to go because there was a special occasion I had prepared for months before, like a honeymoon.

I’m not a fan of following a strict plan when traveling, so generally I was just going to wing it. But there was one non-negotiable: I had to get inside the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

My cameraman had a Filipino friend whose husband owned a restaurant near the Colosseum, so he told me to contact her in case I wanted to grab breakfast before getting into the Colosseum. Unfortunately I got tied up in the morning with work-related things, so I got there late and we didn’t have time for breakfast. She told me she had only been inside the Colosseum once or twice and haven’t explored the Roman Forum despite living in Rome for years, so as a way to make up for the trouble I caused her, I offered to buy her ticket inside (a ticket costs 20 euro, in case you want to know).

The Mother of All Ruins 

The Colosseo, as it is called there, is the grandest, most spectacular structure I have ever seen. As the largest ampitheater ever built, it is one of Rome’s most popular tourist destinations. As soon as I entered I felt transported back in time. The ancient brick walls! The dark passageways! As I gawked at the tunnels, I imagined what it must’ve been like for the gladiators who once passed through them, knowing that they were about to walk to their deaths.

Inside the Colosseo. So majestic.

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There weren’t that many people, so going around was pretty easy. Most of them traveled in groups, often with a tour guide who, I suppose, probably explained the historical significance of every pillar in the place. I felt slightly envious, but I took comfort in the fact that I…had the internet. Every now and then I’d google something I’d see–and that, my friends, is how I learned the word “hypogeum” (a series of underground dens and passageways, which, in theColosseum’s case, can now be seen because the arena no longer covers it).

From the Colosseum we walked to the nearby Roman Forum, or Foro Romano. Now, I’ve always found ruins of historical structures fascinating, but the Foro Romano ruined all other ruins for me. Once the city center with the most important temples and government buildings, it is now a vast, sprawling display of pillars and brick walls that withstood the test of time.

And it was all breathtaking.

What made it so exciting for me was the history that surrounded the place. Here was where leaders of ancient Rome delivered their famous speeches. Where they condemned their criminals, and worshipped their gods. As someone who grew up reading Greek and Romanmythology, seeing what remains of the statues of the twins Castor and Pollux sent shivers down my spine.

These ruins have ruined all other ruins for me

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Authentic~ Italian 

After exploring the ruins and taking more pictures than necessary, my new friend Jasmine invited me to her apartment, which was only a few blocks away. There she introduced me to her Italian husband Leonello, the restaurateur.

He asked me why I was there, and I told him I came from Paris, where I covered part of the climate change summit.

He asked me what I thought of Paris, and I said I found everything in it beautiful. I may have raved a little bit; I may have said that Paris chose no angle, that everywhere you looked there was beauty, even in the trees, even in the graffiti.

He smiled. It is beautiful, he said…and it was once part of Rome.

Nearly of Europe, after all, was once part of Rome.

I was still reeling from the beauty of that statement and thinking about the great Roman empire when he uttered magical words that completely took my mind off European history: Have. You. Ever. Had. Homemade. Italian. Pasta.

Once I said ohIwouldlovethathankyouverymuch, he and Jasmine took turns making fettucine con funghi porcini e bottarga (fettucine with porcini mushrooms and cured fish roe). I was so in awe of my luck — “I am inside an Italian home and an Italian restaurateur and his wife are making me pasta from scratch!“, my mind screamed — that the preparation process was kind of a blur to me. At some point pasta was taken out of the refrigerator. It was softened in boiling water. Mushrooms were chopped. Bottarga, which looked like dark cheddar cheese to my untrained eyes, was shredded, and as they tossed it with the pasta they tried to explain what it tasted like.

It tasted divine.

At first my taste buds adjusted to the foreign flavor, but once I had two bites, I couldn’t stop. How could mixing together so few ingredients result in a dish as precious as this? My favorite adventurer Anthony Bourdain had said something about it, I was certain, but I couldn’t really think of much as I wolfed down the food.

More to Explore  

So my plan to explore Rome by myself didn’t exactly happen. That’s okay; I gained a friend who told me more about the city than I would’ve known from the Internet. And having a companion meant not all of my pictures were selfies, so that’s another plus.

Ancient ruins = my happy place

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There’s still so much of Rome I didn’t get to see. The Trevi Fountain, for one, which was featured so prominently in “When In Rome” that I felt ashamed that I didn’t get to go there when I was in Rome. I wish I had the time to get into actual buildings too, and not just ruins.

The good thing about missing a few things, though, is that it gives me more reason to go back. My gracious hosts and new friends certainly give me more reason to go back. I’m not sure how I’m going to go back to that beautiful city without selling a kidney, but I’ll find a way. After all, all roads, as they say, lead to Rome.

Missing Saigon

It was a moment that will forever be embedded in my memory: a swarm of countless motorcycles rushing towards our lonely little cab, all coming from the opposite direction. Any one of those motorcycles could have collided with our vehicle. I should’ve been terrified.

But all I felt was excitement.

See, I had been warned about this, about the supposedly chaotic streets of Saigon. Anthony Bourdain described this in great detail in “A Cook’s Tour”; he thought he was going to die from the onslaught of vehicles.  A lot of websites and travel blogs say mostly the same thing. Everyone I know who has been to Saigon told me about the traffic.

To prepare myself, I kept in mind a friend’s words about surviving Saigon: I am the rock, and they are the stream. Sure enough, I witnessed that firsthand when the sea of motorcycles parted around our cab without leaving so much as a scratch.

With that mantra in mind, I felt confident enough to cross the streets of Saigon. With a couple of companions and a map, we walked around the city in search of Bourdain’s Lunch Lady, who supposedly serves the best beef noodle soup (pho) in the city.

It was not easy to find. The thought “this better be fuckin’ worth it!” crossed my mind a few times, especially after that first hour of walking. We had to ask some (thankfully very helpful) policemen for directions. Finally, after nearly two hours–we found it. I swear I could hear the faint sound of angels singing hallelujah in the background.

I had never been so happy to see a noodle stall in my entire life

I had never been so happy to see a noodle stall in my entire life

The place was packed, mostly with Caucasian tourists. We overheard a guy in one table actually talking about how much Bourdain raved about the food.

Was the pho worth the long and tiring walk? Lemme put it this way: I couldn’t and didn’t want to talk to my companions for what must’ve been a good half hour after the noodles were served.

Heaven in a bowl

Heaven in a bowl

 

"Lunch Lady" Nguyen Thi Thanh with her happy customer

“Lunch Lady” Nguyen Thi Thanh with her sweaty, dirty, but happy customer

I miss Saigon and its old-world charm. I miss its cheap, delicious food and its friendly people. I want to explore it again, and other parts of Vietnam as well.

World War…Z?

“World War Z” is not a horror movie.

It will not scare you, despite the multitude of zombies you see chomping down on humans. “Chomping down” is an exaggeration, actually, because these zombies don’t eat people. They just bite–and they seem to prefer biting…arms. Maybe these zombies are averse to offal, because I certainly didn’t see anyone going for brains or intestines. Come to think of it, you see very little biting, too, because the zombies just mostly fall  over each other as they chase their prey. Man, do the zombies run a lot in this movie.

That said, “World War Z” is an action blockbuster. And it’s a great one.

It starts with a few minutes of United Nations field agent Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) spending some quality time with his family before the apocalypse descends upon them. After that, the action doesn’t let up. It takes Lane all around the world as he looks for Patient Zero in an attempt to understand the phenomenon and hopefully find a cure.

I read the Max Brooks novel this movie was loosely based upon last year, and I’m pleased that the movie didn’t follow the book’s structure. See, the book is a mere collection of anecdotes that would have been hard to follow on the big screen, so the movie showed Lane as he encountered the characters with stories to tell. It’s a nice and necessary deviation from the book, although I did miss a few lovable book characters, such as the blind Tomonaga Ijiro who fought zombies with his gardening shovel and his protege Kondo Tatsumi who didn’t immediately realize the world was going up in flames because he was so glued to his computer.

I have no problem with films not following what’s written on every page of the book it was based on, but I think it’s a shame the movie only breezed through the fundamentals of anti-zombie combat that Brooks so deftly established. In his book, Brooks dissected zombie behavior so meticulously you almost feel like they’re real. Zombies are killed by shooting or hitting them in the head; they barely function during winter, so that’s the time when you can go out and collect food.

By contrast, there were so many CGI zombies in the movie that the only way to combat them is by shooting randomly from helicopters or setting them ablaze with bombs and massive flame throwers. And they move so fast you can hardly see their faces. The humans could’ve been killing any random monster.

So, is “World War Z” a good movie? I suppose so. It was a thrill to watch, and I’d probably watch it again. But is it a good zombie movie? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if the war was against zombies at all.

A Week in May

This is how a typical day of vacation in Singapore would go for me.

I’d wake up around 8 a.m., breeze through a few chapters of whatever ebook I’m reading at the time while waiting for my family prep, spend a few minutes making myself presentable, and then walk with them to the nearby hawker center to have breakfast.

A typical breakfast would consist of the following: meatball soup (S$2.50, or roughly 75 pesos) which has some pretty tasty meatballs; the always refreshing iced Milo (around S$0.90 I think); and grass jelly drink (around S$0.70) which my dad would always buy.

hawker breakfast

More often than not, he’d buy roti prata, too–those fried flat pancakes served with mild Indian curry–but I’ll only take a bite or two. They’re not bad and I’m a big curry fan myself, but I’m not too into having curry in the morning.

Instead, I’d walk a few meters to a little bakeshop around the corner that makes amazing waffles to go. Just the scent of the batter forming and bubbling up in the waffle-maker is enough to make my stomach rumble even though I’ve already downed a lot of noodles and meatballs. It’s that good.

I’d order one waffle–with kaya, please (S$1.70 if I remember correctly). There are other choices for your waffle spread–chocolate, peanut butter, hazelnut, butter, and cheese, but I always go for their kaya which has just the right amount of sweetness.

After stuffing ourselves with cheap good food, we’d walk back to the flat and prepare for the rest of the day’s agenda: most of the time it would involve going to some mall, trekking at some park or swimming at the clean Olympic-sized public pool in the sports complex (S$1 entrance fee per person). Mostly local stuff. After spending the past three summers or so in Singapore, we’re mostly done with touristy activities like going to Universal Studios in Sentosa (although if I were to be completely honest, I would be thrilled to go on that Transformers ride again).

I was still amazed at the tourist spots we went to, though. Gardens by the Bay, for one, was a sight to behold and reminded me of Pandora from Avatar.

gardens by the bayThing is, I used to dislike Singapore. The first time I went there as an adult, everything looked perfectly polished—-a stark contract to the chaos and grit of Manila. The perfectly lined trees along the roads, the beaches in Sentosa that looked perfectly thought-out—-two summers ago, all of these seemed artificial to me. Everything looked flawless, and in my view then, therefore soulless.

But I’ve come to appreciate SG, especially after this latest week-long trip. Maybe it’s because of my new perspective about traveling and eating courtesy of Anthony Bourdain. Maybe it’s because I badly needed a break from all the election stress at work. Or maybe I’m just growing up, becoming a proper adult who can appreciate a good country when she’s in one.

Anyhow, I sincerely admire SG now. They make the best of what they have. Everyone seems to work hard. They do the kind of landscapes and architecture that I can only dream of seeing in my own country. And, most of all, I can openly use my phone in public transportation without fear of getting robbed.

This trip had been good for my body, mind, and heart. Although I was a bit sad about leaving, I left a happy, enlightened girl.

jam

Bits and Pieces

My life is almost completely devoid of culinary adventures.

I’ve long been aware of the fact that I’m not very adventurous when it comes to food, and it has never really bothered me–until now. Reading the first few pages of the insider’s edition of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” which I bought after (belatedly) discovering what an interesting person Bourdain is, has truly put me to shame.

For one, he was food-tripping in France and tasting freshly-caught oysters when he was in fourth grade. What was I doing at that age? The only gastronomically risky move I can think of was trying out suspicious-looking cafeteria food. And that was because I had no choice.

Let me further illustrate just how picky I am with food.

I don’t eat anything raw. I don’t find sushi or sashimi appetizing. It’s a shame, really, because Japan is my dream destination, and–if my mother’s claim about my great (great, great?) grandparents is to be believed–I am part Japanese. Okay, maybe just, like, 1/16th Japanese, but still.

A couple of years ago, I went to Little Tokyo with some friends. It was supposed to be my first foray into Japanese food, but all I ordered was some sad chicken katsu. To stop a friend from pointing out how boring I am, I agreed to taste the salmon sashimi she had ordered. I grimaced at the raw fish for like half and hour before finally, quickly, shoving it into my mouth. The taste itself wasn’t bad, but the feel of the raw fish as it slithered down my throat almost got me barfing.

The only meat I consume on a regular basis is chicken, and I’m not even sure that counts as proper meat since chefs apparently think chicken is boring. If you count the ground beef in burgers, pizza and bolognese pasta, I guess you can say I eat beef regularly too, but that’s about it.

I am not very fond of pork. I can actually no longer count the number of incredulous looks and lectures people have given me after telling them I find lechong baboy disgusting. I find the idea of eating pig skin repulsive. I wish I can say my aversion to pork is due to health reasons, but it’s not. Maarte lang ako.

I don’t eat a lot of vegetables, much to the chagrin of my boyfriend who grew up in Baguio City and therefore subsisted on pork and veggies. I like non-green, starchy vegetables though. Especially potatoes. I swear, some of the best things in life are made from potatoes. Potato salad, baked potato, mashed potato, French fries, potato chips…

Anyway, I’m now halfway through “Kitchen Confidential” and the more I read, the more I become painfully aware of how much I’m missing.

I wish I could say that it has thoroughly changed my perspective about food, but that would be lying. It did, however, make me want to expand my food choices. I’ll probably eat–and cook–more beef and pork from now on. I’m going to try that French resto that a friend keeps talking about, and I swear I won’t order chicken.

Perhaps I’ll even give sushi or sashimi another shot. Maybe just one piece. Or two.

Warm Bodies

“Oh no, they’re going to Twilight-ize zombies,” was the horrified thought that immediately came to mind when I first heard of Warm Bodies, an upcoming film about a zombie who falls in love with a human being.

Based on the trailer, the movie does appear to make zombies likable. And they can think, to some extent.

The idea of likable thinking zombies is something I find hard to accept, since I swear by serious zombie movies like 28 Weeks Later that make me want to stock up on crowbars and crossbows. But I’m giving this movie a shot (hell, I’m actually looking forward to it) because it seems rather smart and well-made. Plus it’s hard not to like Nicholas Hoult, who plays the zombie lead R.

I just hope this movie, described as a “romantic zombie comedy,” will be the first and last of its kind. I never ever want to see zombies with rotting flesh that sparkle when exposed to sunlight.