Thursday, December 24, 2015

My dog's getting ready for Noche Buena

Lougee is trying on what she will be wearing for Noche Buena! 

Made sure she has her treats (Checken Jerky her favorite) and drinks (Goat's Milk)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Simbang Gabi 2015 with my kids

Simbang Gabi 2015 at Mary the Queen Parish in Greenhills. This is where I went to Mass as a kid and it feels like a 360 degree turn now that my kids too go to Mass here. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rockwell night lights from the Makati-Mandaluyong Bridge

Snapped this on the way home late one night. Had to stop of course.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

I didn't survive the Zombie Apocalypse

Attacked I was at the Fort.

Surrounded I was by a herd of walkers.

Made a meal I was and now hunger for brains I am.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Jill, our Jack Russell Terrier passed away and we all feel sad.

Jill was our Jack Russell Terrier. She passed away today, Wednesday, October 28 around 7:30 in the evening. In dog years, she was 84 years old. 

I felt a wave of sadness envelope me. She was our long-time family pet who provided us endless laughs with her playfulness and her being hyper-active. She was always a bundle of energy who bounded around and up and down the house. The pitter patter of her steps was most welcome when she'd enter the room to look to play or cuddle up. 

No house mouse was safe with Jill (or Lougee, my Dalmatian/Labrador who is my personal pet) around. It turns out even thieves. Yes, thieves.

One time after we arrived home from lunch outside, we found the gate to the house open. We closed the gate and now it was ajar. The door to the Mercedes Benz was also open. We all got down from the car expecting the worst as the front door was open as well. When we got inside, there was no one. No soul. Nothing was lost or stolen.

Jill was there with her tongue out and looking very much excited to see all of us. We never did find out what happened. We kind of figured Jill and whatever poltergeists we had at home scared off whoever intended to rob us.

In the past two years, Jill, older now, lost sight in her right eye. She also had some cysts. My brother, Robin, who was closest to Jill, had her operated on. She got better but age got the better of her. 

A few weeks ago, after Rob took her out for her customary walk, Jill lay down on the side of the road. This was the first time that ever happened that she got tired and couldn't walk any further. Rob carried her home.

Today, Jill, at 84 years of age, passed away while at the vet.

And well, we all feel really bad. She was more than an animal to us. She was a part of our family.

She will be greatly missed.

Thanks for all the laughs and good times, Jill. You were a cool pet. 

Hope to see you in the happyeverafter.




My brother will have Jill cremated tomorrow, Thursday. So that way, Jill will still be at home with us.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Those commemorative Pope Francis coins!

Was gifted with the commemorative P500 and P50 coins of Pope Francis' historic visit to the Philippines. I didn't even know this was available so I am so thankful that I have these. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Reflection on the brilliant Heneral Luna film

A Reflection on the brilliant Heneral Luna film
by rick olivares

Right before the Irish band U2 performed “Helter Skelter” during their live concert recording for their “Rattle and Hum” album, lead singer Bono told the audience, “This is the song (murderer) Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. Well, we’re stealing it back.”

I am glad that Jerrold Tarog’s film, “Heneral Luna” was made because it “steals" back something precious from the way history is written by the victorious Americans.

You see, the Philippine-American War has always been viewed as an insurrection by the American government than a genuine war. If we follow that train of thought then theirs too is an insurrection against British rule during their own war of independence. They formed their own Continental Congress and declared themselves free and independent states in July of 1776 (although the war ended in 1783). How different is the Philippines' Declaration of Independence made in Kawit, Cavite?

From the jaws of victory, independence was cruelly snatched away from the Filipinos who fought so hard for independence from Spain. And for $20 million, the country was sold by Spain to America. It wasn’t an insurrection. It was a war of independence from two colonial masters and this film pays honor and respect to Antonio Luna, one of the men who boldly stood against imperialism.

Tarog’s film has generated a firestorm of interest and admiration, and it not only puts Luna on the pedestal he deserves but venerates him (and short of vilifies Emilio Aguinaldo who was indirectly or directly involved in the deaths of two strong-willed military leaders of that era — Luna and Andres Bonifacio).

Having said that, “Heneral Luna" is a masterpiece and here is why.

First and foremost, it is a historical biopic done the right way. It is as accurate as it can be. There are embellishes here and there but never to the point where it spins the story into something altogether different. The casting is spot on, the production design a marvel to behold, and the cinematography, a pleasure to watch.

A wonderful script that flows
The script is clever and it flows. Scenes do not drag especially in the long exchange between Luna and Tomas Mascardo. 

Here’s where Tarog hits it out of the park — the humor in the dialogue, although used sparingly like a well-laid ambush, isn’t contrived and is priceless. Its usage is so totally unexpected like how it was so the Guardians of the Galaxy film that makes it more memorable or even quotable.

And it brings something so Filipino to the film — finding humor in the bleakest of situations. For example, the train station scene was absolutely hilarious! But it never gets out of hand, never trivializes the incident or the story and it quickly veers back on course. They were in the middle of a war after all.

And John Arcilla, in the titular role of Antonio Luna, delivers his lines with aplomb and never in that overacting manner that seems to come with Filipino films. 

The manner of how Luna dissects the problems of the nascent republic resonate and touch a chord because they hold true even to this day. Remember that famous quote by Spanish philosopher George Santayana — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A lot of the problems that plagued those early patriots still face us today. Whether it is a message or a sermon, it doesn’t come across as preaching. In fact, it is an incredible comparison that should leave you thinking that we have learned nothing. 

Now we all know what befell Luna. And throughout, there are subtle reminders. However, the impending doom as imparted by his mother, Laureana (and not his brother, Joaquin, in real life) makes it even more tragic. What parent wants to bury their child? And it was made all the more poignant as Luna’s family life is briefly told in a beautifully executed flashback.

A deadshot of a cast
Remember the scene where Luna asks for a volunteer and a certain “Garcia” stands up and makes his way close to the American lines where he takes some shots just to send a message that they aren’t as safe as they’d like to think? Well, that Lieutenant Garcia in real life commanded Luna’s Black Guard and like the deadshot that he was so is the cast of Heneral Luna. 

It’s a large cast and most everyone is given proper time to flesh out their personalities.   

Based on all the historical reports about Luna, John Arcilla captures the fiery officer’s personality perfectly.  When he shifts from that gruff exterior to a gentler person when around the ladies, he does it so well. 

As a child who keenly devoured anything and everything related to our Revolutionary War of Independence, I have strong feelings against Aguinaldo. Yet I like how Tarog doesn’t exactly make out Mon Confiado’s Aguinaldo to be the power hungry leader many believe him to be following the deaths of Bonifacio and Luna at the hands of his men. He leaves that to the audience to decide. 

I thought that Epi Quizon was magnificent as Apolinario Mabini. Like Confiado’s Aguinaldo, he is pensive but he is quick to make his thoughts known. In spite of Mabini being rendered immobile due to the ravages of polio, Quizon brought a regal bearing and sage-like aura to the Prime Minister.

Although not much is know about Luna’s two aides, Colonel Paco Roman and Captain Eduardo Rusca, I love how Tarog depicted them like the ying and yang of Luna’s personality.

Joem Bascon’s Roman was the more serious and pensive one while Archie Alemania’s Rusca brought a light-heartedness to an otherwise grim situation. Sort of reminds me of Ron Livingston’s portrayal of the fun-loving alcoholic Captain Lewis Nixon in "Band of Brothers" as an opposite to Damian Lewis’ serious Captain Richard Winters. 

Mylene Dizon who brought in a fictional love interest for Luna showed as Isabel was strong in her few minutes of screen time. 

Oh those delicious homages
I love how Tarog borrows from scenes from “Saving Private Ryan” where Luna is momentarily shellshocked before he regains his wits and wades right back into battle. There’s that “Braveheart” scene where Luna sits atop the mountain lost in his thoughts with Celtic-like music playing.

When I saw the part where the bodies of Luna and Roman are dragged in the Churchyard, I thought it was a great geek moment, “Hey, that’s a neat way of paying homage to Juan Luna’s 'Spoliarium.’” 

An excellent bookend framing sequence
The fictional biographer/journalist of Joven (as played by Arron Villaflor) provides an excellent framing sequence as does the Revolutionary Flag that seems to grow darker and dirtier as time passes. I figure it also signifies the assassination as a dark time in our nation’s history. And Luna was proven correct all throughout his short life — from the duplicity of the Americans, to the need to conduct guerrilla warfare and to build that fortress up in the north. 

Tarog freely admits during the film’s introduction that he took some liberties to heighten the story. I am fine with that. One of these incidents was Luna’s famous charge atop his horse. In the film, that takes place early in the war against the Americans. In reality, it happened three months after his first battles with the Americans in La Loma.

However, I wish though that Tarog gave more screen time to the death of Jose Torres Bugallon who dies in that battle in the trench. Bugallon led a charge on the American lines and though fatally shot, continued to advance. Luna rescued Bugallon and before he passed away, promoted him to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. 

I wish that they had placed a date to the assassination that would have showed that there was indeed a conspiracy to murder the general. For on the very day of the assassination, Felipe Buencamino, the Secretary of Development in Aguinaldo’s cabinet and a Luna foe, says that the President had left Cabanatuan for Tarlac. Yet around the same time Luna is murdered, Aguinaldo shows up at Angeles to disarm General Venacio Concepcion and his troops who were loyal to the former. Luna’s other aides, the Bernal brothers are also brutally murdered.

The scene between Aguinaldo and his mother and the subsequent slaying where Trinidad, the President’s mother, asks from the window if Luna is still moving has me thinking, “Oh, there’s a Cersei Lannister and Joffrey Baratheon!"

They say that history is written by the victors. But if my recollection is correct, those Philippine history books weren’t exactly written by Americans. The murder of Bonifacio and then Luna leaves everyone hanging as if it refuses to bring down a so-called venerated hero of the revolution.  As a kid (and I still feel the same way now), I felt that these historians did someone a great disservice. 

Thanks to Jerrold Tarog, Heneral Antonio Luna, is given his due.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Art pieces to see at the National Museum

Art pieces to see at the National Museum
by rick olivares

My interest in art was rekindled by a recent trip to Western Europe where I spent hours and hours at the world famous Louvre and Vatican Museums. As a youngster, I regularly went to art school learning to paint and draw. I soon gave this up for football and later on, writing and of course, girls.

But you do go back to your first love, and I have started illustrating again. It’s like learning to ride a bike all over again, although I must say my artistic skills have atrophied.

The Louvre was certainly overwhelming. As one of the Walking Tour Guides of Paris informed us, if you were to take a minute to take stock of every single piece of art inside the Louvre, you’d be there for 25 days! At the Sistine Chapel, I spent 40 minutes gazing at Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling. And I still felt it wasn’t enough.

While the collections at the National Museum pale in comparison to its Western European cousins, there is still sufficient greatness to warrant going there and spending hours of viewing splendor.

And here, in my opinion, are the 10 art pieces that you must see at the National Museum.

Juan N. Luna’s Spoliarium. This is the second piece of art that greets you when you enter the National Museum (the first is Guillermo E. Tolentino’s Diwata). Who doesn’t know Juan Luna and his Spoliarium? It is a powerful image of death. I have never seen anything on Roman Gladiators before or since. And the painting said volumes about life for the subject as well as Filipinos under colonial rule. Along with Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho is power depiction of pain and cruelty. I must have spent an hour gazing at the Spoliarium this time I went. Yes, it is that powerful.

Juan N. Luna’s La BulaqueƱa. This is one of the few works by Luna that depicted Filipino culture. There are theories on the identity of the woman. I really couldn’t care less. I am more transfixed by the subtle elegance of the Maria Clara-type of clothing and the sadness of the subject’s face.
Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante. Not quite Las Virgenes or even La barca de Aqueronte but no less powerful. The assassination of Spanish Governor-General Bustamante and his son by clerics and a mob is like a Molotov cocktail to the clergy’s excesses during that era.
Guillermo E. Tolentino’s Diwata. This is the first work of art that you come across when you enter the National Museum. Diwata isn’t as iconic as his Oblation at the University of the Philippines, but it is still a fine work of art. In some ways, it reminds me of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.  
Carlos V. Francisco’s The First Mass at Limasawa. Oh, to actually witness this historical event. The mural depicts the first ever Holy Mass in the Philippines upon the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan. Am not sure if this is by intent but when I went there, the light from the ceiling above cast this “aura” around Magellan adding to the surreal feeling when I viewed it last Sunday. Absolutely amazing. 
Guillermo E. Tolentino’s Venus. I love the fact the Filipinos have contributed to European art and culture through the works of Luna and Hidalgo. Tolentino’s work may not be know across the ocean but that doesn’t stop me from celebrating his take on noted Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Boticcelli’s "The Birth of Venus.” I love it. 
Cesar Amorsolo’s Painted Window of Christ the King. This will not look out of place in the Vatican Museum! 
Carlos V. Francisco’s four-part Pag-unlad ng Panggagamot sa Pilipinas. I have always been a fan of Botong Francisco’s work. Visiting his home in Angono, Rizal was a thrill for me as a youngster. Seeing his work all over again has me planning on making another trip.
Guillermo E. Tolentino’s Filipino Ilustres lithograph. A class picture of the national heroes of yesteryear. One of Tolentino’s early works. 
Isabelo L. Tampinco’s plaster cast Portrait of Dr. Jose Rizal. Sculptor Tampinco lived through the Philippine Revolution and the subsequent war with the Americans. That he lived during the life and times of Dr. Jose Rizal and sculpted this bust is amazing. At the heart of a national hero is a man and I believe that Tampinco captured him perfectly.
You might note that all the favorites I listed are from decades if not a century past. Are there modern works worth viewing?
Of course. From the 1980s to the present day, there are works from Ramon Orlina to Federico Alcuaz to Ibarra dela Rosa and Symfronio Mendoza to name a very few. Proof positive the Filipino art is alive and well today.
All in all, it’s a day well spent at the National Museum of the Philippines.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Two t-shirts that I bought in Venice

Saw this shirt in a store and just had to buy it. Next to me is lady minding the store. She got a kick out of the pic.

Had to buy this! Love the shirt.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Street art in Venezia: Of gondola summers & seagulls

Of gondola summers and seagulls
By Rick Olivares

“I remember my first painting, I was five or six years old. Venice is a place that inspires you to paint — the houses, the streets, the atmosphere, the light. This has been my job for the last 25 years to paint.”

His paintings aren’t your typical Venetian fare. If you travel around Venice, you will find street painters almost everywhere. From professional to novice artists all depict the scenery that is closely identified with this city that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site — the gondolas, the basilicas, the houses along the river, and the various bridges that connect all the 180 islands that comprise this most unique city.

Walter Berton has been painting about his native Venice for the past 25 years. You’ll find him in the same spot just outside the Chiesa di San Vidal where he has a small booth for his paintings that provide a glimpse — a humorous one — of life in this city.

His chief subject is the gondoleri — the driver of the world renowned gondolas — and that other famous denizen of the capital of the Veneto region — the seagull. Yes, the seagull.

Walter Breton and Manolo!
His gondoleris are based on two real people — his friends Manolo and Vittorio who have a gondola service nearby. Through Berton’s oil and water colors, they interact in a most humorous way. In one painting, it is a seagull tugging a large boat made of paper with a gondoleri as the passenger. Another shows Vittorio whistling with the seagulls picking up the notes as if they were food. Still another shows a seagull playfully trying to push off Vittorio from the river banks as he tries to help a couple (that is actually Walter and his wife) to shore.

You get the gist.

There’s a Norman Rockwell-esque feel to his work — slice of life with a humorous bent. That is how the famous 20th century American painter made a name for himself by depicting everyday life of a particular era of American life.

Berton claims the Rockwell approach is more incidental than deliberate. “The works of (French impressionistic painter) Monet and (Vincent) Van Gogh move me. I cannot find the proper words in English so I will just say I like them.”

His gondoleri series (numbering a couple of dozen now) were inspired by watching Vittorio take a nap one hot afternoon. “Vittorio was sleeping on a chair with his legs stretched out,” recounts Berton. “This seagull landed close to him then slowly began to approach him. Then it started to pull at the laces of his shoes. Maybe it was thinking it was a worm. Maybe it was something for a nest. Whatever it is I found it funny.”

And so began the series of paintings that has become popular with locals as well as frequent tourists.

“I like color, life, people when they smile,” added the painter. “I hope through my work people can see that.”

Berton hopes to publish a book featuring his works within the next two years. “I hope to paint about 35 more pictures before I can publish a book.”

Berton tries to paint everyday. “It is easy to find inspiration here in Venice,” he claims. “Everyday I meet different kinds of people and from different countries. I feel good when they buy my work. That inspires me more.”

“And oh, yes. The seagulls too.”

Monday, June 1, 2015

Happily lost in Venezia

Happily lost in Venezia
By Rick Olivares

Ronald McDonald. Kurt Cobain. The Simpsons. 

They’d be the last “attractions” you’d expect to see in an ancient city like Venice.

Only they are. And the unexpected is what you should expect when navigating the streets of Venice that in case you do not know has been named by UNESCO as a “World Heritage Site."

Like any other tourist, I was on my way to Piazzale San Marco when I took an unexpected turn and found myself along Calle dello Spezier. Instead of working my way to the former that is a celebrated square that houses several of Venice’s attractions, I stayed for a good 20 minute in the calle for by happenstance along that short stretch of cobblestone,I chanced upon the Contini Gallerie D’Arte. 

Oh, an art gallery in Italy… but there must be thousands. Indeed. However, this gallery houses some of the most important modern and contemporary art in the world today. On this day, the works of controversial Italian painter Guiseppe Veneziano are on display at the Contini Galleria D’Arte. Veneziano’s pop art depicts the late Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung as Ronald McDonald, the Madonna of the Third Reich (a remake of Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna) where in a baby Adolf Hitler is cradled by the Madonna, and a naked painting of Patty and Selma Bouvier (characters from the animated television show, The Simpsons) to name a few. A crowd gathered with expressions ranging from the hilarious to the mildly bemused to the this-is-the-greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread-hence-the-mad-clicking-of-cameras.

That’s Venice for you.

Any online check will automatically list its top attractions — Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, Casino Veniere, Scala Contarini del Bovolo, I Gesuiti, Scala Contarini del Bovolo, and the Basilica di San Marco to name but a few. And they are rightfully so for their grandeur, agelessness, and historical importance.

In order to get around, one oft asks for maps that seek to make sense of the labyrinthian maze of streets that lead to here, there, everywhere, and seemingly nowhere. Truthfully, the top site attractions are easy to find. They all appear on the map and all one needs to figure out the major piazzales they are located. One simply follows the street signs that indicate say, the direction going to Piazzale del Roma or San Marco. And if you are directionally challenged, then just know where the Grand Canal is then work your way alongside the river. If it works for Paris (the Bastille, Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre, Tuileries Gardens, and Eiffel Tower are in a line next to the River Seine), then it must surely work for Venice.

The streets can seem confusing at first and you will inevitably make some wrong turns. But don’t fret. Getting lost in Venice means an unexpected turn into off-track art galleries ala Contini, curio shops, picture perfect views that you simply have to capture on camera, impromptu street performers and painters, and well, Venice’s citizens who seem oblivious to the tourist horde but realize they are vital to the city’s economy.

If Calle dello Spezier is any indication then it’s fun getting lost. By the Chiesa San Vidal, I came across the works of Venetian street painter Walter Berton. Sure there are lots of them. By Berton has a style unto his own. Instead of the usual gondolas by the canal or picturesque and scenic illustrations, Berton prefers to inject his paintings with a Norman Rockwell-esque sense of humor. Depicting real life gondoleris Manolo and Vittorio, he shows then humorously interacting with that other denizen of Venice — the seagull. 

Near another chapel, Hungarian-Israeli trio, Matana, gave a free performance to a crowd of over 50. In another alley, a man played Strauss, Brahms and other classic music greats using glasses of water!

There was a shop that sold “magic wands” while another boasted that it sold the widest array of Venetian masks on account of its modern versions of Star-Lord of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, Iron Man, and Zorro to name a few.

Some streets are more than simply residential. Whether for their quaintness with a raft or boat moored in front of a doorstep or for their solitude that finds lovers in one another’s arms or on bended knee with someone making a proposal, the streets make for great photo essays. Or selfies that are all the rage today.

And there’s the ubiquitous gondola. 

“I don’t have a car,” pooh poohed one local merchant. “But I do have a gondola.” The price for a gondola ride might be steep (80 Euros for 40 minutes per person) but what a ride for a memory that could last forever. And what a stark difference it is from Manila with the four-wheeled vehicle a status symbol in a class system! 

“In Venice,” boasted that local merchant who makes his living selling vegetables and fruits from his boat, “our status symbol is our being a premier tourist spot.”

True enough, for a city of 180 islands and a population of 60,000 people, Venice accommodates millions of tourists every year. Last 2012, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation released data that showed that Venice saw 62.4 million people book hotel room for at least an overnight stay. 

Said street painter Walter Berton, “Venice… is like romance. You will not know what you will find in its streets and canals but when you do, you will fall in love."

Once upon a time, Italian-American singer Connie Francis once celebrated the capital of the Veneto region of Italy in song:
"I dream of the summertime.
Of Venice and the summertime.
I see the cafes, the sunlit days with you, my love.
The antique shop where we’d stop for a souvenir.
The bridge, the boats below, the blue above."

Save for the unrequited love, I too, now dream of Venice in the summertime after a wonderful four days in the city of 118 islands that are separated by canals and yet linked by bridges make for an alluring, charming, and unlikely romantic setting that has been celebrated in literature, song, and the arts. 

Had a photo with members of the Hell's Angels chapters of Argentina and Chile! 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Visiting Stadio San Paolo in Napoli, Italia

Went to Naples and a visit to the Stadio San Paolo had to happen so I could pay my respects to Diego Maradona and Napoli.

While I cheer for Juventus in the Italian Serie A, I've had this fascination for Napoli both the city and the club. The city I first read about during my world and military history lessons. Napoli was bombed some 200 times by the Allies during World War II as its ports were used by the Germans for their U-Boats and the oil facilities nearby. And the second reason is one Diego Armando Maradona. 

Up to the arrival of Maradona in Napoli, Serie A football was dominated by the teams from the north, No southern squad ever won the Scudetto. 

As for his impact, a Napoli newspaper wrote of the arrival of the Argentinean from FC Barcelona, “the lack of a mayor, housing, sanitation, buses, schools, employment, and sanitation makes it bearable now that Maradona has arrived.” Imagine that? And over 70,000 people showed up during his presentation at the Stadio San Paolo!

The "saviour" did arrive and he led I ciucciarelli to the Serie A championship of 1986-87 and 1989-90. They also finished second in the league in 1987-88 and 1988-89. He also led them to the Coppa Italia in 1987, the UEFA Cup in 1989, and the Italian Super Cup in 1990. His success with the team has catapulted Maradona to mythic and quasi-religious status. "Santo Diego" as one of several Napoletanos I spoke with at the Yacht Club. 

"Maradona in my heart and in my head and in my mind," enthused another while pointing to his heart several times. And every football store I saw had a scarf, jersey, or a t-shirt dedicated to Maradona.

Some restaurants still have his pictures of jerseys of Gonzalo Higuain and Vincenzo Guardiglio hanging on the wall to name a few.

I didn't stay long in Napoli but I promise to return. And who knows? Maybe I can catch a game as well.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Scammed in Europe!

Scammed in Europe
By Rick Olivares

I’ve just become a statistic. I have the police report from Rome, Italy to prove it that one day, I will be a part of the numbers about people who were scammed. Not once. But twice so far in this trip to Western Europe. 

You might exclaim, “What kind of dunce gets scammed twice in one trip?”

Before you react any further, read on.

In writing this hopefully, it will make your trip a little more enjoyable when you decide to visit the Old Continent.

When the tourist season sets in, prices soar and there’s practically chaos everywhere as airlines look to service as many passengers as they can ferry across the world. Hotels also hope for favorable reviews on Trip Advisor so more people can book with them. Restaurants don’t have a problem seating people. And well, the predators are out for your dollars and Euros. 

Normandy Trip
Technically, this isn’t a scam. It’s a legit tour. However, this should teach people to ask questions before booking a trip.

I booked the trip via France Tourisme from our hotel in Paris. France Tourisme has legitimate offices in Paris but one has to be careful in reading the brochure entry that goes like this: “The trip will take you back into the most important historical events which occurred in the Normandy region. Discovery of the Pointe Du Hoc, the American Cemetery and the famous landing Omaha Beach before reaching the city of Arrowmanches for a lunch break. Free time in the afternoon at Bayeux to stroll through the streets, visit the Museum of the Tapestry or the Museum of the Battle of Normandy (ticket not included).”

I cross-checked this with the website and it said: "Then, you will go to Omaha Beach, Normandy landing beach which caused important human losses. You will also visit the famous American Cemetery, a wide necropolis which overlooks the beach, and the brand new visitor centre. It is a place of memory where personal stories, photos, movies, interactive presentations and objects from that period are collected."

The trip from Paris takes about a long three hours and 3 minutes. And we weren’t in a comfortable coach but a small minivan that was rather uncomfortable. There were other tours using bigger buses so I figure the other tours were better. And how better? It didn’t occur to us until we left Pointe Du Hoc.

The one quirk here is WE DID NOT GO DOWN AT OMAHA BEACH. More than any other location in Normandy, Omaha Beach is the most famous or infamous and celebrated for the battles that were fought as well as the lives lost there. We merely drove right through. Instead we went to the American cemetery that while nice isn’t part of the battle. Arrowmanches or Bayeux are largely unimportant. I asked the guide rather loudly i we could go down Omaha even for five minutes but she ignored me and the other people on tour.   

When we passed by the British cemetery, we hardly even slowed down for a pic. Ditto for the numerous museums in the area. Quite frankly this is disappointing.

Arrowmanches and Bayeux are boring. I figured that Pointe Du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the America Cemetery would trump the other poor choices (that I figure is a deal with these communities in exchange for some Euros and dollars) but no such chance. The three misfires - not going down to Omaha Beach and going to Arrowmanches and Beyeux — do not make taking this particular tour by France Tourism worth your money.

The breakfast at the Hotel
Our booking at the Hotel Moderne at the Latin Quarter is nice. And it is situated in a very nice neighbourhood. The Paris Pantheon is around the corner.  The Notre Dame Cathedral is a five-minute walk away. So is the Bastille and Place St. Michel. The River Seine is as well and walking to your left, you will hit the Louvre in no time at all. 

So what’s the big deal? The breakfast isn’t part of our package. Now that is fine. Eating at the hotel “restaurant” you are charged 12 Euros. We only ate downstairs 14 times and that should amount to 168 Euros. Instead we were billed a whopping 220 Euros! We argued to no avail. But with the hotel transfer to Orly Airport waiting and the receptionist unreceptive we had no choice but to fork over the cash!

Even worse, the hotel transfer charged us 65 Euros (when everything was pre-paid). We showed the voucher but like the receptionist, it was to no avail. 

The Roman Centurions outside the Colosseum, Rome, Italy.
These men dressed up as Roman Centurions are no different from the street musicians. They try to earn money off pictures with tourists. 

I was watching a pair of them pose for pictures with some Asian tourists. One of them tried to grab the breasts of one of the women who expressed shock and helplessness. The “centurion” laughed and said it was a joke.

The other centurion saw me with my iPad, he came over and posed with me. My youngest son snapped a few pictures. After I slipped him a five Euro bill, he said later. The other centurion now joined us. He placed his helmet on my son and I took pictures. My youngest brother was also taking pictures when the “second centurion” placed his helmet on him.

When we were done (in about 30 seconds), he demanded 40 Euros! I said, for what? And I protested that we had no agreement and that it was highway robbery. He then hiked his price to 120 Euros each. One for him and another 120 for his partner. When we refused he got aggressive and began to reach for my pocket. He then backed me up against some horses (attached to a cart and manned by gypsies). Three gypsies stood behind me. The centurion motioned as if he was reaching for something behind him. My first thought was it was a knife. Fearing for our lives, I handed over the 100 Euros (my brother gave 50). He asked for more but I said I was going to the police. He then backed off.

As soon as he backed off, my brother and I went to some soldiers stationed nearby to tell them of the incident. One of them spoke English and he brought us over to the police none of who spoke English. They drove us down to the other side of the Colosseum to some other centurions. Since we had pictures, they recognized the other man as “Louis” or “Luis” or some name like that. We spotted the two centurions who jobbed us at the nearby souvenir shop. The man who forced the money from us pulled out a cellphone and made a call. The top policeman in the area went over to talk to him but nothing happened.

When my brother and I were pointing to the centurions the soldiers didn’t even turn to look at them. I found this suspicious. One of them even got angry at us. The English-speaking soldier told us not to make gestures or say anything.

From the road overlooking that side of the coliseum, there was a centurion looking at us. A civilian dressed in a red shirt then made the slit throat gesture to me.

I mentioned this to the soldiers who still refused to turn around and look at the centurions atop the road. The cops in the meantime were discussing something with other cops and a couple of centurions. “This is being fixed,” said the English-speaking soldier. “Don’t worry.”

They asked us to go down to the station to make a statement. We complied but now I regret going to them. I filed my complaint but do not imagine anything happening such as getting our 150 Euros back. If anything, it shook my faith further in the police. They are no different from the cops back home in Manila. 

At first, I was upset and didn’t want to go out anymore. But why let some people ruin what has been a great trip so far? My siblings, children, and I went back to the Colosseum the next day. I didn’t see the men who accosted us and my brother and I made sure to survey them closely. 

I have been to about two dozen countries and never lost luggage, never got pickpocketed or scammed. In this trip there have been several incidents already. My son even witnessed a pickpocket filch a man of something on his shirt in the Paris metro. Is the situation really bad everywhere? I have no idea.

All I can hope for is to be smarter and more vigilant and hopefully, you readers will have learned something as well. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My pilgrimage to Rouen and that Joan of Arc fascination

My pilgrimage to Rouen and that Joan of Arc fascination
by rick olivares

The train ride from Paris St. Lazare station to Rouen is at most 1 hour and 24 minutes (and costs 50 Euros two-way). While going through the five stops in between stations (Mantes-La-Jolie, picturesque Vernon, Gaillon-Aubevoye, Val-de-Reuil, and Oissel — the train ends at Dieppe), I thought back to my younger days when my mother gave me this book of saints. 
There were about 10 saints featured in that children's book and one of them was Joan of Arc or Jeanne d’Arc (as she is called locally), the patron saint of France. 

I was fascinated with her story - a peasant girl who was supposedly told in a series of visions of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret to drive out the English and bring the uncrowned king Dauphine Charles to Reims for his coronation. Joan led the French, who had only known one defeat after another at the hands of the English and their Burgundian allies for years, to a great victory in Orleans. The French pressed the English and their allies winning more battles at Jargeau, Meung-sur-Loire, and Beaugency. They also inflicted a huge defeat on the English at Patay after which the Burgundian-held city of Auxerre surrendered without a fight. 

It was incredible that the Dauphine hand over his army to a peasant girl who knew nothing of military strategy. If you think about it, the French were in desperate straits. They had tried everything in trying to push back the English from French soil to no avail. 

Her subsequent capture at Compiegne and burning at the stake at Rouen greatly saddened me. Since the time I first read about her, I had this enduring fascination with St. Joan and her life. I devoured every bit of literature and saw ever film and documentary that was produced about her. And obviously, it was a lifelong dream as well to visit Orleans and Rouen, the two sites most associated with her outside the village of Domremy (now called Domremy-la-Pucelle) in the Lorraine region of France that is her place of berth.

And that dream became a reality a few months ago. 

Due to a hectic schedule, Orleans wasn’t in my itinerary, but Rouen in northwest France, was part of it. A day before, I went to the World War II battlefields in Normandy. With Rouen nearby, I knew had to comeback the following day.

Instead of taking a tour from Paris, I figured I could do it on my own. I have always had a good sense of direction and never get lost. I am adept at map reading that I sometimes joke that I’d make a very good commando.

I took the train from Paris St Lazare station to Rouen in Normandy. By train, it takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes; by car, double the travel time. I actually had only six hours as I had to return to Paris to meet up with my family (we were going back for a second day to the Louvre). Cut the travel time and I had only three hours on the ground in Rouen.

I was excited to go to Rouen. If I didn't have a short time frame, I would have enjoyed it more. And I wouldn't have taken a cab. From the train station, the first landmark I came across was the old tower of Rouen Castle where Joan was imprisoned during her trial. Seeing it up close, whatever elation I felt dissipated. In its place was a profound sadness. One I had not felt in a long while.

If you look at the tower, it has slits for windows. How on earth did the air get in there? It must have been oppressively hot and left one claustrophobic. And it is said that the guards took liberties with Joan and that leaves her even in a more depressing state.

From there I walked, first to the ancient Rouen Cathedral that was built in the 12th Century and contains several tombs including Richard the Lionheart (his tomb contains only his heart  while the rest of his remains are buried in an Abbey in Chinon, France). King Richard is another of those medieval figures who I read a lot about and just being inside the Cathedral gave me goosebumps. 

You know the feeling — reading about a historical figure who made a huge impact on the world and one who is centuries dead — it gives me goosebumps.

The Gothic Church is magnificent and I went inside to pray for a while.

With the clock ticking, I made my way down to Jeanne D'Arc Museum where I went to watch a short documentary about her. The city of Rouen makes no bones about its being a famous place (aside from being the old capital of the Normandy region that was once the seat of old Anglo-Norman kings who governed England and France). From ice cream carts to stores, images of the Maid of Orleans are everywhere.

Hurriedly and excitedly, I went to the village square (Place du Vieux-Marche) where she was burned not once but thrice by the English! The area near the site is filled with restaurants and an open area for people to lounge about. I started to scratch my head — where was it?

Then I found the site that is marked with a massive iron Memorial Cross. Beside that is a garden with a sign that marks the exact spot where St. Joan was burned at the stake. 

When I got to the site, that wave of sadness I first felt at the tower? It had now enveloped me. When a flame sings my skin, I immediately retract myself, how much more when you cannot move and are burned to death? The pain must have been excruciating. It took a while before I could have pictures taken of in the area. I sat down and felt bad. I said a prayer for St. Joan then sat down for a bit.

I guess it is much like what I feel when I visit battlefields or burial sites knowing the amount of human sacrifice for an ideal. While at Normandy for the battlefield sites and cemetery, I was overcome with emotion, knowing thousands perished in the pursuit of freedom and the battle against tyranny. I felt the same way at Corregidor as it was mercilessly bombed by the Japanese during World War II.

And here at Rouen, after a near-lifelong dream to visit Joan of Arc’s death site, I found myself feeling sad.

I placed flowers at the garden then left. 

My tickets from Paris to Rouen and back.

The tomb of Richard the Lionheart

At the Jeanne d'Arc Museum