Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Watterson Principle, or a Note on Ambition

Dicasalarin Cove, Baler, Aurora province

I’ve been thinking a lot about ambition these past few months. It started late last year during a conversation with a good friend, let’s call him M. He’s been working for years at a big company (I won’t mention his real name or the company because it’d be too obvious). He got a job offer from another big company that’s sort of related to what he’s doing now, although in this new one he’d be senior management and would be heading an entire team.

M passed on the offer, partly because the pay wasn’t that much better than the one he has now, but mostly because he was too attached to his current job and he couldn’t see himself building up his career again in a relatively new industry and environment. 

In subsequent conversations with M, I gathered that his future plans involved retiring with a piece of land outside the city where he could build a modest-size house with a garden and to go on the occasional trip out of the country with friends. He’s not exactly close to retirement age yet but he’s already got things figured out and that’s what he’s working towards now. 

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Compare that with M’s colleague, let’s call him N. For years, M and N worked alongside each other. But this year, N abruptly left his cushy job because he was looking for something more. I can’t say anything else because the personalities and institutions involved are fairly well-known, even for those not in our shared circles of acquaintances, but let’s just say this new endeavor is vastly different from his current occupation and involves actual power and a much wider sphere of influence. 

I know people want different things out of life, but I had to wonder about the circumstances in each of M and N’s lives that led them to pursue wildly different tracks. Why is one content to coast through with just the bare minimum, while the other feels like he wants the sky and the stars? Inevitably, these thoughts led to an internal dialogue about what I want to happen in my own life. 

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as far back as I can remember. I still have my old journals from when I was nine or ten years old where I would write stuff that happened to me throughout the day. There was even the occasional short story there (or what passes for a short story for a fifth or sixth-grader).

A view of Prague Castle from Charles Bridge

I was lucky enough to get into one of the best universities in the country and graduate from a course that I actually liked. It took me a few years to get into my groove, so to speak. I went through a few other jobs, most of which were only tangentially related to what I studied in college (and one that wasn’t—hey, I needed to eat). But eventually, I settled into a job that was the Holy Grail for most working professionals—one that I liked and one I thought I was actually good at. 

It’s been about 12 years and I’m still at it. Writing was all I ever wanted to do and how lucky am I that I get to do it for a living. It’s not perfect, and I have to make professional compromises from time to time, but generally, I wake up in the morning still looking forward to go to work. How many of us can get to say that?

The fulfillment of an ambition, even one as simple as getting to do a job you actually love—that, to me, is the definition of success. Yet somehow, society has led us to believe that there are other, loftier goals we should aspire to. A house or three, a new car, annual trips abroad, overflowing money in the bank—those are all benchmarks of success, and most of us toil in hopes of getting one or all of those and more one day. They’re not bad, of course, but are they really the best, most foolproof ways of telling us how far we’ve come? Who says we can’t live and work towards our own definition of success? Why can’t we set our own targets and live our lives in pursuit of our own goals?

Burano, Italy

I’ve never heard anyone express all of this quite as eloquently and as succinctly as Bill Watterson. In a speech in front of the graduating class of 1990 of Kenyon College, Ohio, the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes said: 

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential—as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

“You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.

“To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.”

Dusk in Vienna, Austria

That last sentence basically sums it all up and has become a mantra of sorts for me, and I suspect, for many other people. Don’t get me wrong—the fact that I’m finding fulfillment in my current profession doesn’t mean I’ve stopped setting other goals for myself. I’d love to interview my writer heroes, work on an intensive journalistic piece, and even write and publish a book someday. Contentment shouldn’t be confused with complacency.

But for now, as I celebrate another turn around the sun, I’m happy to say that things are going great. There’s room for improvement, as always, but I choose to be grateful for what I have right now that makes life worth living. I’m inventing my own life’s meaning, and, just as Mr. Watterson surmised, I’m happier for the trouble.  

Thursday, November 8, 2018

PPF in Europe - Part Fourteen: This is Goodbye

26 October 2018
11:35 a.m.
Onboard SQ345 from Zurich to Singapore

It's not every day you get to see a view like this

The climb up Mount Titlis was unforgettable, for sure, but when I look back at our time in Switzerland, the memory that sticks out the most is our last night in Lucerne.

We wanted to find a nice restaurant or coffee shop where we could say goodbye to Europe properly. I think it was Alex or Love who suggested that we just buy drinks and snacks from the local Billa (or whatever supermarket was still open) and find a spot by the river. We rode the No. 4 bus from our hotel to the main train station, walked up to the Old Town and managed to buy what we needed from a grocery store just minutes before it closed.

Afterwards, we walked over to a bridge by the lake, with a view of Chapel Bridge and a bright full moon. There, while some of us guzzled the local beer (Eichhof!), some had iced coffee, and all of us munched on peanuts and potato chips, we started reminiscing about the trip--all the cities we visited, the food that we ate and the people we met. Almost everybody said Switzerland was their number one country, if only for the Mount Titlis experience, when we got to spend a few hours playing in the snow and in freezing weather.

Hello from 10,000 feet up

Cecille said she likes Lucerne because it's soulful. Branden was torn between Prague and Venice. Mark said Prague was his number one, until we got to Venice and met the Almariegos and he fell in love with Burano. I think Toni will always remember Bled. The others argued about how to rank the places we've been to--is it by country? By city? By place? Or by experience? That went on for almost two hours, I think.

All the while, I kept thinking about the genuinely unique experience we all shared. Most people travel to places with their families or maybe one or two friends, but hardly anybody gets to go on a massive Europe tour with eight other people they consider as friends. Even rarer is the fact that somehow, miraculously, we all got along, with hardly any major conflict or even petty bickering.

It's been said that one of the best ways to get to know people is to travel with them; you'll end up either hating them or loving them even more. I think it's the latter for me. It was a chance to reinforce some of the things that I adore about the members of this little group:

With Portia, it was her always-prepared attitude and her propensity to offer help to anyone, anywhere and at anytime. I've traveled with her before and I already knew this about her. She's always ready to lend a hand whether it's reminding everybody about what documents to bring or offering to split a sandwich with somebody. She also probably gets the award for most photographs taken during the whole trip.

Portia hanging out at her villa in Salzburg

With Alex, it was his effortless humor and how he can almost always lift everybody's spirits, even when our tongues were hanging out of our mouths from sheer exhaustion at having to lug our heavy suitcases from one city to the next. He's probably one of the funniest people I know and it's amazing to me that he doesn't even have to try hard at it. (I'll still always blame him, though, for giving me stomach cramps from laughing way too hard at his "songs").

Alex poses in the cobblestoned streets of Salzburg

With Susan, it was her gung-ho attitude and motherly instincts. Traveling is hard, especially in a multi-city, multi-country trip, but I barely heard any complaints from her throughout our time together. She very kindly cooked for us during the times when we chose to stay in our apartment instead of eating out. She can always sniff out a bargain and she also never runs out of stories to tell, all of which are always fascinating.

Susan says Prague is all hers

With Cecille, it was her wide-eyed explorer spirit, caring ways and witty banter. Cecille was always game with a funny comment, usually in tandem with Alex, which always cracked me up. She's a romantic at heart, and it was through her eyes that I felt a newfound appreciation for all the places I've visited before. She also took on tasks for the group that hardly anyone else likely wanted to do. I liked also that she shared her best moments on the trip with her family back home, first and foremost.

Cecille feels her cheeks on Mt Titlis, Switzerland

With Branden, it was his state of near-constant excitement and incredibly chill demeanor throughout our trip. He reminded me of a little kid the way he expressed eagerness for each new place that we visited. He's incredibly self-aware and was probably the best at getting along with everybody else in the group. If Portia wins at taking the most pictures, Branden probably gets the medal for most pictures of himself taken during our trip (which isn't a bad thing, especially when people think you look better than Alden Richards!)

Branden looks away from the camera in Germany

With Love, it was her free spirit, honesty and lack of pretensions. Everybody knows her as being funny, loud and always exuding a sunny personality. In Europe, I got to know her emotional side (both of us became teary-eyed as we walked inside the old concentration camp in Dachau), as well as her loving, empathetic side (she constantly spoke with her husband and daughter throughout our trip). She's also a great listener and follower; you didn't need to tell her twice about things like what time to get up or where we'll all meet at a certain time. Thanks to her, we all have video reminders of all of the places we've visited.

Love's happy on the way up Mt. Titlis

With Toni, it was her relentlessly good mood and unshakeable disposition. Everybody loves Toni. She gets teased a lot, but I think that's because she makes everyone around her feel comfortable and valuable. She chatted with our hosts Evan and Jasmin in Salzburg and was always ready with her pack of Chinese medicines for everything from migraines and upset stomach to itchy skin and a bad back. We all supported her quest to collect Starbucks tumblers from all the countries we visited. She deserves to be happy.

Toni's radiant in Prague

And with Mark, it was his overall graciousness, kindness and leadership. Mark was always ready with a joke or a laugh and it was him who came up with the TWO GOLDEN RULES for this trip. I think those two rules helped set the tone for the whole time we were together. He deferred to suggestions from everybody but was also steadfast with his decisions. He wanted to "imprint" on all the places we went to, which I thought was better than simply taking a picture and checking it off a list. I think he holds this group together, even if he doesn't acknowledge or admit to it.

Mark's "wow" face in Prague

So that's our big Europe trip. It wasn't perfect, we could've gone to other places or done other things, but just as I expected, it was one laugh trip after another and about as much fun as I've ever had in any of my travels. Whether this turns out to be a more regular thing, who knows? But what I know for sure is that wherever we go, what's important is we're all there together.

Possibly the last selfie we took on our last night together in Lucerne


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

PPF in Europe 2018 - Part Thirteen: Crossing Another Border

23 October 2018
10:40 p.m.
Ibis Budget Hotel

Yeah that church in Milan, what's the name again?

A quick stop in Milan for one night--pizza and the Duomo in the afternoon, a stroll along Corso Buenos Aires with a gelato--and we soldiered on to the final stop of this trip. Lucerneis another repeat visit for me. I can still remember how much I loved it the first time I came here--the calm lake, the nearly perfectly preserved Old Town, and the chill (and chilly!) laidback air.

What I don't remember is how expensive everything is here. And because this is the last leg, everybody's feeling the pinch. The hotel we booked i also the least, er, impressive. But at least we have a trip up tp Mount Titlis to look forward to tomorrow.

Susan window shopping at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele

Gotta have my gelato 

Kapelbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, in Lucerne

We walked around for a bit after dinner at the main train station this evening. The air is only starting to get fingertips-numbing cold, but most of us like it. Sure beats armpit-waterfalls heat in Manila.

The Chapel Bridge is still there and the Old Town looks and feels familiar. Cecille said she thinks the city is soulful and I'm inclined to agree. I'm happy we decided to stay here instead of in Zurich.

A clock tower in Lucerne's Old Town

Next: This is Goodbye

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

PPF in Europe 2018 - Part Twelve: Happiness is a Vaporetto Ride Away

22 October 2018
12:25 a.m.
Venice AirBnB

I fell in love with Burano, and I was there for only a couple of hours 

I think whether people enjoy a trip or not largely depends on their personality. If everything goes according to plan and you get to see and experience some pretty amazing things, but you're a perpetually dissatisfied nitpicker and ingrate, then you're never going to be happy traveling no matter what you do. 

On the other hand, a generally joyful and optimistic person can always take away the very best from any experience, even if flights are delayed, train rides are missed or the weather is uncooperative. 

Mark taking the very best picture he can of a church bell tower and a modern glass sculpture in Murano

We paid 5 euros (I think) to watch a master glass sculptor work his magic and turn a blob of glass...

...into this. And he repeated the process several times

Murano is Venice with about 80 percent less tourists

I think that's pretty much how I feel about Venice. People who see the city as one gigantic tourist trap now worth the effort and aggravation will leave it surly and spent (in more ways than one). But those who choose to see beyond the thick mass of tourists and confusing maze of alleys, streets and transport system will be rewarded with something far more precious than the overpriced food, drinks and souvenirs--a truly unique dot on the map that will never be replicated anywhere else on earth,

Venetians must be used to the constant invasion from nosy strangers from different corners of the globe, and yet I've found that most of them are still generally cheerful and altogether lovely people. That's another reason why I'll always have a soft spot for Venezia.

Burano exuded a different kind of charm, and one that I really liked. 

Here's a picture of me taking a picture of Mark, who's taking a picture of Love, who's taking a picture of Portia

And a generic picture of the four of us

I don't know exactly what I was trying to accomplish here

I'm trying to lay off caffeine, but Italian coffee is still the best in the world for me and I couldn't hep drinking a cup or three

Mark and I twinning (our hats, at least)

Pizza and pasta dinner at the Almariegos

Grazie mille Venezia. Arrivederci!

Next: Crossing Another Border

PPF in Europe 2018 - Part Eleven: New Memories in an Old City

21 October 2018
12:19 a.m.
Venice AirBnB

Venice is pretty at almost any angle, but at golden hour, it's almost breathtaking

Venice from the top of the Campanile looks so different. The red-tiled rooftops and occasional church spires and bell towers somehow all look so neatly arranged it's not hard to imagine a city so well-planned that it has managed to survive centuries. 

At ground level it's a different story. The streets go every which way that it will only take a second before you're hopelessly lost. Also, you almost have to fight for space against hundreds, even thousands of your fellow temporary visitors. Our group's photo stops are constantly interrupted by other wide-eyed shutterbugs that are just as awestruck by a narrow alley or a passing gondola. There's a hardly a moment of peace, especially at the major hotspots like the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto. Clearly, we're not the only ones enamored by this frenetic, romantic city.

The front door of our AirBnB apartment

A view of the Campanile from the balcony of St. Marks

The Adriatic Sea stretches beyond the confines of Venice's lagoons

Today, despite the crowds, I wasn't complaining.

We organized this trip on our own, but on this leg, we had a pair of hosts so gracious and generous they opened their homes and hearts to us. They told us stories of their time here, took us inside the Basilica and up to the view deck of the Campanile. They answered all our questions about the city and other parts of Italy and served us homecooked pasta and probably the best cappuccino I've ever tasted.  They also introduced us to their three boys who now call this place home. To visit a place is one thing, but what it must be like to constantly be surrounded by all of this beauty and history! I'm reminded of an old quote: a man who lives near a waterfall eventually fails to hear it. I wonder if it's the same with a place like Venice.

Whatever the answer, I'm sure about one thing: Venice has become all the more meaningful and memorable to me because of the Ate Tess and Kuya David.

A typical Venice "street"

A Venetian shopping mall, converted from an old post office

Gelato to end a long day of sightseeing. Even the waiter of a nearby restaurant joined us for this picture

Next: Happiness is a Vaporetto Ride Away

Saturday, November 3, 2018

PPF in Europe 2018 - Part Ten: Angels in Venice

19 October 2018
10:47 p.m.
Venice AirBnB (near Arsenale)

Basilica di San Marco at dusk

We started the day in Prague and are about to end it here in Venice. The original plan was a trip to Iceland, but when it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, Venice became the substitute city. I can't say I'm disappointed. I've been here once before, but it was a quickie--a day trip from Milan about eight years ago. I remember loving Venice despite the short hours I spent here, so I didn't mind coming back.

I think that's our vaporetto coming

It was a 45-minute vaporetto ride from the airport to Arsenale, which was the nearest stop to our apartment

View of Venice from our AirBnB's terrace

Piazza San Marco all lit up

We were in for quite a shock when we got here--15 euros for the vaporetto that would take us from the airport to the nearest stop to our AirBnB, nine euros for the city tax and 20 euros each for the cleaning fee. I don't remember the city being this expensive (although I barely did anything the first time I was here besides eat pizza and get lost wandering around the endless streets and alleys).

But God must have heard our cries for help because he sent us angels in the form of Ate Tess and Kuya David, longtime residents of the city who very kindly took us in and fed us sinigang and adobo as soon as we deposited our luggage at our apartment. They even said they were going to take us on a tour of the Basilica di San Marco and the Campanile tomorrow. I guess this incredibly expensive city is turning out to be worth every euro.

Here we all are with Ate Tess and Kuya David in front of, well, you know where

Check out my funky bed!

Next: New Memories in an Old City

PPF in Europe 2018 - Part Nine: Eating Ham and Drinking Beer in Front of a Pissing Horse

18 October 2018
9:58 p.m.
Prague AirBnB

Good King Wenceslas stands mighty and proud in the square that now bears his name

My favorite memory of Prague on this trip is this: eating Prague ham and drinking Czech beer in Old Town Square, gazing out into the gothic spires of Tynsky Chram, which is illuminated by golden lights. Again, people have given Prague a bad rap for being too tourist-y, but there's just something about this city that will always speak to me.

The spectacular architecture certainly had something to do with it. Maybe it was the great October weather--nippy but not uncomfortably so. And for sure it was the great company--Susan, Mark and Branden chose to have dinner there with me. Maybe it was all of those things, but the beer and ham never tasted better.

It was tourist-y, we know, but the Old Prague ham tasted amazing

A blacksmith demonstrates his skills in front of a souvenir shop

Some guy swiped the hardly eaten potato dish another customer left on top of the trash can. The attendant in the ham stall looked tourist-weary. And the horse in front of the carriage facing us let out a steady, steaming stream of piss. Yet somehow, all of that just added to the uniqueness and reality of the moment. There we were hanging out in one of the most beautiful squares in the world. Things could be a lot worse, but for one evening, I was happy things were just as they were.

Mark gave one street performer the rest of his Czech crowns 

We spent the day shopping at Wenceslas square

This pooch patiently waited while his owner shopped inside a department store

It was starting to get cold by the time I took this picture

Next: Angels in Venice