Pitting K-Stew’s Snow Warrior against Tarsem‘s Snow Lite. A Snow White & the Huntman vs. Mirror Mirror grudge match

We Talk About Movies

Snow White & the Huntsman afforded me a truly rare cinematic experience – never before had I been at the cinema where there was spontaneous communal guffawing and stifling of giggles by the audience during the film’s supposedly rousing, dramatic high point. Filipino audiences are generally forgiving, but I guess I lucked into a snarkier crowd that wasn’t mostly made up of Twilight fans. I didn’t expect much of Kristen Stewart, I never particularly disliked her nor admired her. But as she tried to summon every ounce of her movie star mystique and post-millennial warrior-princess pseudo-swagger, I wondered why nobody seemed to have thought of giving her a screen test just to check if she could pull this scene off.

I’m not altogether surprised that the movie ended up being commercially well-received, since it mashed together feminism and fantasy layered with the “dark” angsty tone that seems to connect well…

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On Fathers

Today’s dad is supposed to be cool, smart, tough, and sensitive, a tall order even for a superhero. There’s so much material out there that’s supposed to show us what a perfect dad is supposed to be like, our own fathers couldn’t possibly measure up. How could one ever stop comparing the real with the ideal?

In this day and age it has become easier to start discounting the role of the father. More and more, it has become easier to accept that dad no longer has the final say, or is not the sole breadwinner anymore, or that he has lost the exclusive rights to sitting at the head of the table. And some folks would say that that’s progress. Now that the modern world is no longer supposed to discriminate against age, gender, or civil status, being a man who has fathered children may not be something that is as celebrated or honored as before. Dads just don’t get as many breaks as they used to.

But in this brave new world, with its level playing fields and broken glass ceilings, dad still manages to get by. Despite the change in rules, dads still come fortified with the same equipment. Compared to bachelors, fathers arguably posses a deeper reserve of what we might call “man-strength”. This is the strength that comes from being prepared to risk everything for the safety of his wife and children. Even if it takes him away from his home or his comfort zone, and makes him a slave or a fool, there’s an urgency, a driving force within every man that makes him strive to provide for his family. It’s what urges him to fix the car or deal with the plumbing, what makes him want a better life for you than what he had for himself. For sure, the world has its fair share of deadbeats, but as far as most families are concerned, their dad will always try to be a guiding hand, a solid pillar to lean on, the man who is always thinking of their comfort, but also keeps trying to push their limits.

Regarding fathers, there seems to be an imbalance in the entertainment world. On TV, there’s an overload of sitcoms focusing on wacky dads, single dads, or wacky single dads. In animated films, whether produced by Disney or others, the protagonists generally have a bumbling but doting father figure present. The wealthy and attractive widower or divorcee has been a staple character from “The Sound of Music” to “Who Wants To Marry My Dad?”. Moms aren’t quite as well represented. Which is maybe why Mother’s Day is an exponentially bigger deal, commerce-wise. It’s the world’s way of making up to mom. Father’s day is almost like an afterthought.

So what should we do to honor 21st century dad? Stereotypes aside, most dads prefer being really low-key about and wouldn’t mind having Father’s day as a completely understated affair. So they’d expect less flowers and more socks, less cake and more scotch, less kisses and more handshakes. But it doesn’t really matter what you give, but what you share. It doesn’t take a card or a present, words and touch work just as well. Just this once, you should forgive and forget his silly and embarrassing moments. He’s your father, the guy who had to court your mom and confront your grandparents, so he has a right to be sappy and corny, and for at least one day you should be too. Every man could use a hug and a compliment – your brother, your friend, and maybe even the Pope. As long as you put in a lot of warmth, and a lot of love, just a hug will make your dad feel like the most important man in the world.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in 2005

Finn to a Tee: Ambassador Riita Resch of Finland

Like a brisk and bracing breath of fresh Finnish air, Her Excellency Riitta Resch of Finland has a take-charge, no-nonsense mien which is just as effective at the diplomatic roundtable as it is on the driving range.

Amb. Resch 2nd from right, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

When asked about her favourite pastimes, the inveterate golfer unabashedly admits to spending most of her time off at golf courses. “I travel with my golf bag, it is my ‘family’,” confesses the ambassador. “I play golf around Manila and that takes all day so I really don’t have to worry about my free time very much. I would love to go to movies much more than I do and attend some cultural events, but I’m a little bit lazy in that respect. Golf is really what I do. It’s my priority number two. The first one is work.”

Passion for her profession is just par for the course for Ambassador Resch. “I really like my job and it makes a tremendous difference,” she shares. “I think if you are interested in the job you have then you will be successful, and I’ve been lucky enough in my postings. I’ve always had something to do that means a lot to me, something that I feel is important. Being abroad and representing your own country particularly as an ambassador is such a highlight. This is my first ambassador’s posting so it is the best so far. We’ll see what happens next.”

Envoy Par Excellence

Ambassador Resch began her career climb in business school where she studied foreign trade and marketing. Back then, she just thought of the Foreign Service as a job opportunity that included languages and travelling. But the years in foreign service have opened up many other things too. She has now been very happy in her profession for the past 25 years. “I really haven’t thought of other options than my present profession. I know that there isn’t anything that I’d like to do more than this and that’s why I’m still here,” she declares. “Is is important to make your choices and then live accordingly. It is a waste of life to think that something else is always better. Enjoy what you have!”

Her affection for her posting is in no small part due to the warm reception she has received. “As an ambassador in this country, we feel greatly appreciated. We have access to everybody and everything,” explains the envoy. “Finland had the presidency of the European Union for 6 months last year and then, in particular, I noticed how easy it is to approach the Filipino authorities, senators, politicians, even the President. And when you invite them they usually come. Otherwise our tenure of four years is very short to have any sort of major accomplishments or tangible results. But we try our best.”

At this juncture, the ambassador has been swinging far but true. “I think that the relationship between our two countries is very good but it’s also very remote,” she ponders. “I don’t think that Finland is very well-known in the Philippines and vice versa. It is one of the basic jobs of ambassadors to make our countries better known in our postings. In the case of Finland in the Philippines everybody seems to know about Nokia cell phones and Armi Kuusela, the Ms. Universe winner who married a Filipino businessman and lived here. They have made my job relatively easier. There are only about 100 Finns living here, and there are less than 1,000 Filipinos, most of them married to Finns, living in Finland.”As a small country we are not as well-known as some of the bigger ones, so we try to do a lot of work through the European Union, which is a union of 27 countries and the European Commission. It gives us a much bigger avenue than what we could have individually.”

Ambassador Resch points out the areas in our relationship that could always improve. “More trade between our countries and more investment and more Finnish companies in the Filipino markets would always be welcome,” she shares. “There are a lot of opportunities in this country. The Filipino market is huge, you can sell almost anything and everything here. We are good at planting forests and in the paper and pulp industries. So those are good possibilities for our companies to invest in. Politically I think that President Arroyo’s visit to Finland last September was very important and really helped improve relations and increase awareness.”

Most of the envoy’s previous experience has been related to international organizations like the United Nations. “I love the atmosphere of international negotiations, where you have several countries working together and trying to have some consensus,” she shares. Her first posting consisted of one year in Paris as a trainee at the embassy and also studying French at Le Sorbonne. Then she went to Geneva where she dealt with refugees, human rights, and humanitarian assistance. “I had a really great job in Geneva. Living in Geneva, in a small and very safe town in the middle of Europe, was also very nice. It was easy and very comfortable there. But then at some point I desperately wanted a posting in New York, the cradle of the United Nations. When I got there it  was a dream come true. I still love it,” gushes the ambassador.

New Delhi was her first Asian posting, affording her perspective on this part of the world. “India was very interesting. It’s so huge and so different. It’s not a typically Asian country,” she muses. “The Philippines is even farther away from home but in very many respects it’s like a Western country. We don’t have major problems of getting used to living and adapting to normal life here.” She still has to get the hang of dealing with Manila’s crowds however. “We have a big country with a small number of people, while you have a big country with a lot of people. So what is still a little bit difficult for me is always being surrounded by people.”

Surpassing Handicaps and Hazards

Regardless of differences and challenges, it has been smooth putting for the envoy so far. “Since I don’t have a family to take with me, making decisions is easy. I’m very quick to move around,” she asserts.

The ambassador posits: “Maybe women bring a little bit more passion to our profession. I am sometimes asked how it works in our embassy because all of us are women. I really don’t understand that question because for us it really doesn’t make any difference. We are gender-blind to the extent that my staff, particularly the Finns, don’t pay any attention to whether I’m a woman or a man. My predecessors have all been men and I think that my local staff may have been a little bit surprised about a female ambassador because they were not used to that. Now they are and we are a great team my small Filipino and Finnish staff. I really owe them a lot ” “Sometimes, even in my own country where there is equality of genders, being a woman in this or almost any other profession means you have to work a little bit harder to prove yourself.  That’s probably something we’re demanding of ourselves, too.” “I would not like to think that women and men bring different things. I think that we are still all individuals and bring what we individually can into the profession.”

Finland has, however, been always in the forefront of gender equality.  Finland was the first country in the world to allow universal and equal suffrage a hundred years ago, and the envoy easily upholds that noble legacy. However, even Finland still has work to do to attain full gender equality.

“Diplomacy might not be for everybody though”, the envoy attests. “If you don’t like travelling abroad, moving from one country to another, this is not the right profession for you. I think that in some respects what you maybe have to sacrifice are long term friendships. Because if you are four years in a country you might not even make friends because you know you’ll have to leave them at some point. But again now that we’re so globalized and it’s so easy to move around and be connected, even that’s not such a problem anymore.”

Ambassador Resch only hopes that at the end of her career and at the end of her life she can say that she has had a good life and that if she has regrets it’s for something that she has done and not for something that she hasn’t done. On the envoy’s pending agenda is to be able to do more travelling to different parts of the Philippines. “I’ve been around a little bit. I have now decided to go to Boracay so I don’t have to answer to people that I haven’t been there yet,” she teases. “I just went for a couple of days to Tawi-Tawi and then I’m going to Vigan. So I’m trying to catch up with my travelling a little.”

As a parting shot, Ambassador Resch would like to thank everyone, Filipinos in particular, for making their expat life so pleasant in the Philippines. “I think it’s a great place to live. There are some obstacles and problems like pollution and overpopulation. And at some point rather sooner than later Filipinos have to do something about them too” she contends “I think that if people would do a little bit more to keep their own environment clean it would help the whole country. Environment is not about beautification but leaving the cleanest possible environment to our children.”

Salamat and Mabuhay. They’re unfortunately the only two Filipino words I know.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

Far From The Madding Crowd

…continued from Post-modern Pilgrim

the road to the village of Epineux-le-Seguin

I took a cross-country TGV (high speed train) from Aquitaine up to the Loire Valley, connecting through the cities of Tours and Angers then getting off in Sable-Sur-Sarthe from which I would be fetched by motorcar before finally arriving at the tiny commune of Epineux-le-Seguin (population 170) and Le Domaine, my final French haven on this extended excursion.

the masters of Le Domaine

When I first introduced myself to my hosts Edward and David, they nodded, “Ah, Jude, like the Thomas Hardy novel.” It was an oddly appropriate welcome, not because it seemed like a series of unjust tragedies were to befall me, but because I felt like I was transplanted to Wessex, the “partly real, partly dream-country” imagined land in which Thomas Hardy set his stories of rural life.

Like Hardy, the two Brits have apparently set out to create a mythic territory of their very own. With the daftness worthy of mad dogs and Englishmen, they both decided to spend their semi-retirement revamping a centuries-old country estate into a domain fit for royalty, or at least two respected academics. The compound has undergone a major overhaul, from the roofing to the grounds. But a lot of work remains to be done to bring it up to snuff and the renovation has been far from smooth or cheap. The pair sometimes admits to asking themselves whether it’s all worth it. I can assure them that it is.

While strolling around the property, I kept hearing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in my head, and was reminded of the novel by André Gide it had inspired. The two ardent gardeners vow that the flowerbeds turn gaudily vulgar with color in the spring and summer when the buds bloom. Yet even with most vegetation hibernating for the winter, their grounds and views effortlessly charm despite the chill. On a tour around the compound accompanied by my hosts’ earnest commentary, every room and rock was determined to posses both an historical past and a higher purpose for the future. In the main house, the room I occupied (which had been christened the “Princess Margaret Suite” after an eccentrically deluded friend) was discovered to have served as a chapel centuries ago.

the lake at Le Domaine

David, a keen historian, related how the region had always been a bastion of the church and aristocracy, even after the French Revolution had rendered both unfashionable. More recently however, the arrondissement has been undergoing a subtler invasion by well-heeled transplants. Drawn by the pleasant weather and scenery so pretty it makes you wish your eyes were cameras that took snapshots with every blink, high ticket real estate has been booming, and with it a surge in such genteel pursuits as equestrianism, river cruising, antiquing and horticulture.

coffee/cocktail nook by the lake

The English expats do bemoan the gradual encroachment of suburbia, with cookie-cutter housing developments, strip malls and chain stores sprouting unchecked in the margins. As much as possible, these idealists prefer to patronize traditional public markets and shops in old town centers. Exploring their environs for delicacies, design ideas, fixtures, furniture and vestiges of history is another activity they enjoy and for which I literally came along for the ride. The vicinity is still bucolic enough that they don’t even lock their doors when leaving the house. The post office is still the commune’s buzz central and everyone knows the neighborhood cat. Le Domaine is truly a model retreat for modern romantics, which I hope to return to when in its full glory.

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Post-modern Pilgrim

…continued from Border Break

the shrine at the Sanctuary

I went to Lourdes for the water. But when I got there it was falling from the sky. Like a blessing from heaven, the rains had come to Lourdes, washing most (except for the staunch faithful) of the tourists away. With grand plans set for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions this year, I was glad to have visited in the dead of winter. The hush and haze that shrouded the town set a contemplative, pious mood. Walking in the crisp air through the quiet streets made me realize how Lourdes was really just a small, simple town, but one that had been completely transformed by a momentous event. At peak pilgrimage time in warmer weather, millions of tourists saturate the hamlet, a veritable frenzy of the faithful. Whatever form your faith may take, there is no escaping the Madonna’s presence.

the grotto at night

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes covers 51 hectares, this includes the grotto where the apparitions occurred, the taps and baths of Lourdes water, and 22 places of worship of differing designs and dimensions ranging from neo-gothic to 20th century modern. Catching a few minutes of the mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, again I was reminded of the ever-shrinking scale of the world). It’s like Benneton meets Bernadette. Here I was, a Philippine pilgrim, at a church in the Pyrenees, at a mass celebrated by an African priest. Both my French companions were suffering from a bad case of the sniffles though, prompting me to ask, since they lived around Lourdes with easy access to the healing water, shouldn’t they be fortified from the flu? They could only shrug and smile. I guess even with miracles, one’s mileage may vary.

foie gras plate at Le Magret

views of Lourdes town from the castle

But there’s more to Lourdes than religion. Its fortress has borne witness to a millennium of conquest and control by the Moors, the Bigorre counts, and the British, and now houses a museum dedicated to the region’s fascinating history and culture. And surrounding the town like an inescapable embrace is the spectacular beauty of the Pyrenees mountains. Pretty little villages speckle the landscape, with mountain and winter sports among the many activities attracting tourists. The warmly welcoming and obliging Lourdes tourism board had put me up at the cozy Beausejour hotel, supposedly the best hotel in Lourdes operating in the off-peak winter season. I was also treated to a superb dinner of delicious French Pyreneean cuisine complemented by a fine Bordeaux at Le Magret, one of Lourdes’ top restaurants.

skating rink at Pau, before a statue of Henri IV

Pau’s 100-year-old funicular railway climbs up to the Boulevard des Pyrenees

the Pyrenees between Spain and France

Moving westwards to the Atlantic stands Pau, a charming city that boasts of the Château de Pau, birthplace of King Henry IV of France and Navarre, and a favorite summer home of both Napoleon and Marie Antoinette. The century old Funiculaire de Pau is free to ride and links the Chateau and the famous Boulevard des Pyrenées to the Pau railway station in the valley below. Pau’s Belle Époque streets sparkle with smartly dressed students and shoppers ducking in and out of fashionable boutiques and restaurants. A relaxed evening at the chic Brasserie Des Pyrénées just by the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) was the perfect endpoint to my jaunt through the region.

continued in Far From the Madding Crowd

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Border Break

…continued from previous entry, Gad About Gaul

Bordeaux from the Pont de Pierre

Driving down the Autoroute to Bayonne one gets to see everything else that France is about beyond Paris – farmlands alternate with high-tech campuses and industrial complexes, forest plantations, vineyards and the occasional quaint town or fair city. Then the further southwest we go and the sea slowly starts to reveal herself. We make a pit stop at the picturesque and progressive city of Bordeaux, where it’s de rigueur to sip a glass of their eponymous wine while looking over the stunning waterfront.

the tramway de Bordeaux

With some of its streets enslaved to a spiffy new cable-less train system, motorists are compelled to get down from their cars and wander on foot. No big bother considering the lovely weather and architecture on view, although the byzantine street plan makes it rather easy to get disoriented here.

Donostia – San Sebastian


Past the wine country lies the land of the Basques, a fiercely proud people with a rich, ancient culture whose territory extends from the western Pyrenees mountains down to the coast of the Bay of Biscay, spanning the border between France and Spain.

Bay of La Concha

I had been invited by a Basque friend to attend the Fair of St. Thomas so we sped down to Donostia-San Sebastian, the Basque city famous for its bay, Tamborrada procession, and International Film Festival. From there it was a quick jaunt through verdant country dotted with sheep-strewn hills and duck-filled streams to the town of Azpeitia, birthplace of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The Fair of St. Tomas, regarded as the harbinger of the Christmas season, is when the best products of the season are exhibited. According to tradition, every year on the 21st of December the farmers of Azpeitia would venture to Donostia-San Sebastian to pay the rent of their hamlets to their landlords. As a present, they would offer a pair of capons, and in exchange, the landlords would invite them to lunch.

txistorra wrapped in talo

To celebrate the fair, people from all over the region, some garbed in customary Basque attire, descend upon the town to watch traditional Basque rural sports such as aizkolaritza (wood cutting), drink sidra (cider) and eat txistorra, the Basque version of chorizo, which is served wrapped in talo, a thick pancake of maize. The txistorra was the freshest, yummiest chorizo I’ve ever eaten, made from pigs that had been slaughtered that very morning, and the puffy, hearty talo was the perfect foil to its greasy goodness

Basque kids in costume for the Fair of St. Tomas

Another remarkable note to the revelries however, was that the town plaza were adorned not just by festive decorations, but also with banners and posters espousing Basque solidarity. Amidst all the merrymaking was a conspicuous police presence and a certain tension. It’s a real conundrum how in this era of the European Union, separatist groups like ETA continue to cast a shadow over the Basque country, undeservedly tainting its reputation as a hotbed for unrest.

But then this fertile and scenic land almost seems fated to be fought over for ever, the enduring conflict further strengthening its people and spawning more legends.

stream through Azpeitia

continued in Post-modern Pilgrim

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Gad About Gaul

Tucked into my comfy seat on a Lufthansa Airbus (plying their now dearly departed Manila to Europe route), an Audrey Tautou movie on the personal video screen, Pimsleur’s French course in my MP3 player, and Michelin’s Green Guide in my carry-on bag, I was literally flying by the seat of my pants. I had no fixed plans and no clear agenda, just an entire country to explore and a whole month to do it.

Prowling Through Paris

Champs Elysees a-sparkle for Christmas

Upon exiting the Charles De Gaulle airport terminal, the winter wind hits you like a slap in the face, but then you step out into the open and finally get hit by the light. The same pale yellow light of Paris that inspired the Impressionists to pointillize with their paintbrushes and billions of shutterbugs to point-and-shoot with their cameras. Alive and active, dangerous and decadent like only a big bad city can be, the City of Lights may be full of museums and monuments, but it never feels like a theme-gineered showcase or a dormant relic. I’d read stories about some naive tourists having nervous breakdowns after having gone to Paris and not getting the storybook experience that they may have originally imagined. Emerging into the streets or submerging into the Metro, the city swallows you, enveloping you with Parisians of all shapes, sizes and temperaments, clustering about in a diversity of cosmopolitan configurations sure to unnerve the xenophobic. Bearing in mind that you aren’t exactly in Eurodisney (that’s 32 kilometers to the east), one just has to take the sordid with the sublime.

crossing the bridge from the Ile de la Cite to the left bank

Most relatively modern train systems (including Manila’s) seem like a straightforward cakewalk compared to the menagerie-in-a-maze configuration of the Paris Metro. It may be crowded and not all that clean in parts, but if you want to feel Paris you have to take the Metro at least once and jostle with the locals. But if you want to seeParis, you have to move aboveground, take a bus, cab or carriage, or bundle up and walk tall. Go down an unfamiliar street and try to get lost. If you’ve got even the feeblest sense of direction, it’s not easy. At worst the River Seine, a Metro station or a major landmark is usually just a few blocks’ walk away. The closest I got to losing myself was while student-watching around the Sorbonne. After blithely loitering about the many schools and libraries of the labyrinthine Latin Quarter, I ran smack into the Pantheon before I could even start to panic.

snaking up to the Sacre-Couer

Each arrondissement or district of the city has its charms, and devoted residents and fans will promote their favorites with typical French fervor. I thought it best to take their word for it, and with my Parisian posse plumbed the rabbit hole of Le Marais, a storied district on the Right Bank of the River Seine where alchemists, Knights Templar, royal mistresses and Victor Hugo himself once walked, and where the city’s Jewish and gay communities currently keep an avant-garde peace (the neighbourhood has been receiving special attention from the current mayor of Paris, who happens to be both openly gay and Jew-friendly). From the red lights and red windmills of Pigalle, we clambered up the hill of Montmartre, its steep streets filled with art and music, clowns and cats, culminating in the Basilica du Sacré-Cœur and one of the best views of the city.

The usual sightseeing suspects are still going gangbusters. The Louvre teems with gawking art appreciators, the Champs Elysees bustles with harried shoppers, the Eiffel Tower stands as the scene for many a photo-op. But the chill of winter acts as a crowd-controlling force that thins the yielding herd. Spring is for sissies. Summer is for slackers. At temperatures barely above freezing, it takes a fierce fire in one’s belly to brave the cold, get out, paint the town, and take snapshots while your fingers go numb. But all you need to do is just down a few glasses of French wine, a crepe or two, and a bowl of hot onion soup and you’re set. In my shivering wanderings I stumbled upon countless stories, most of which I’ve resolved to keep to myself (particularly the ones involving gypsies and laundromats), but then secrets always make for the best souvenirs.

Strange Things in a Strange Land

Rusty-red iron plates and rambling patches of rough foliage spread out from under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, marking the unconventional structure that houses Paris’ controversial new museum, the Musée Quai Branly (or MQB). A showcase of indigenous artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, much debate has been provoked by the museum, from its conception and content, to its arrangement and architecture, made more contentious by the current heightened awareness of issues regarding race and migration. But then the French do love stimulating tete-à-tetes, which is probably why the MQB has been a smash, drawing in crowds of both jaded museophiles and virgins to the museum scene, and in a reversal of the usual situation, more French than foreign tourists.

Constance Monbrison, curator of the Insulinde collections, in La Rive (the riverbank) at the Musee Quai Branly

A meander through the MQB’s dramatically lit and sculpted halls is like drowning in a French fever dream of all they consider to be the world’s darkly unfamiliar, enigmatic beauty. I may not exactly share the sentiments of the museum’s critics that the savannah /jungle ambiance yet again stereotypes non-European art as primitive and unsophisticated, although granted that the imposed atmosphere does play up the exoticism (by conventional Western sensibilities) of the pieces, some of which take on a rather ominous appearance in the half-dark. There’s a studied savagery to the tightly controlled lighting, curving organic surfaces and twisty pathways that makes you feel as if you’re walking through an eerie twilight-scape far removed from the urban sprawl just outside. This effect encourages one to move away from the shadows and huddle close to the glow of each display, like explorers drawn to a fire in the wilderness at night. It almost forces you to pay attention to pieces that you could easily walk past in a more conventionally arranged and illuminated space.

the musee’s green wall, designed by Jean Nouvel

In a struggle between style and substance, the museum highlights the artistry inherent in relics which may not have been meant to have ever been admired as “art” (or the Western concept of art) to begin with. Museums are spooky spaces in general but the MQB can really get under your skin and play tricks with your head. I couldn’t help but ponder how ironic it was for me to have traveled to a whole other continent to see and appreciate artifacts that come from my own. I found myself marvelling at a collection of silver jewelry from the royalty of Mindanao, their history and significance explained to me by the curators, two French ladies who shared more passion for my country’s ethnographic treasures than I could muster at that moment. Coming full circle was disorienting, and succumbing to the Stendhal Syndrome seemed imminent. Fortuitously, the MQB’s roughly textured gardens, lush even in winter, are just what one needs to clear your head of thematic overload.

continued in next entry, Border Break

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Spotlight 1978: Beauty Bukkake

The We Talk About Movies blog goes back to 1978, a year filled with film classics. The series starts with my thoughts on Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick‘s aesthetic triumph

We Talk About Movies

This entry is part of  Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.

In Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick just literally fucks your eyeballs with visual gorgeousness. I’d only previously seen his later work, starting with The Thin Red Line, on to The New World, and most recently The Tree of Life. But even the aesthetic heights reached by that eye-gasmic trifecta left me unprepared for this… this diabolically beautiful film! I wasn’t really surprised at all the pretty pictures though, this IS Malick we’re talking about, and working with legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who’d cut his teeth on the great Rohmer and Truffaut’s films, no less. What shocked me was it’s length. At 94 minutes, it’s SHORT, even shorter than most Hollywood blockbusters these days. And yet despite this modest runtime and a rather simple plot, it effortlessly gives off this epic feel. There’s something…

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Standing Tall for Sweden: Ambassador Annika Markovic

Her Excellency Annika Markovic’s imposing blonde presence reminds one of no less than the Valkyries of Scandinavian legend. But her warm smile and gentle manner quickly melted through any feelings of intimidation during our conversation. And it was an enchanting process indeed to see past the dignified diplomat’s statuesque form and discover the idealist’s heart and adventurer’s soul that beats and stirs within.

Amb. Markovic 3rd from left, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

Unlike the abovementioned battle-maidens however, Ambassador Markovic is a passionate pacifist, which is appropriate considering her role as the representative of the country which gave birth to the Nobel Peace Prize. “One thing I’ve been most interested in here is to help with the peace process,” she shares. “I think there is no other singular issue that could affect the Philippines and its development more. If there will be peace in Mindanao, the whole picture will change. In Europe, the general perception of the Philippines is that it’s a dangerous place and you should go somewhere else to invest. I wish the different parties realize that they have a golden opportunity now and that they should really work hard to try to achieve something sustainable. I just hope to see some progress before I leave the Philippines.”

A Passion for Mediation

The envoy readily divulges that her heart is deeply into doing multilateral work. “I find it very rewarding to be working with different countries, facilitating negotiations to agree on something difficult, working to find a common solution that is acceptable to all so we can move ahead and establish something that is a good basis for the future.”

Despite her lofty position, the ambassador remains very humble about the role she plays and the influence she wields. “You try to see what you can do to prevent war from breaking out and supporting peaceful development, to assist in alleviating poverty and to really try to help, make this a better world,” imparts the envoy. “These are big words and I know that what I can do as a human being and as part of the Swedish diplomatic corps is very limited. But at least I can feel like I can make my small contribution to achieve something better for all.”

Ambassador Markovic initially determined and developed her knack for diplomacy during her stints in the Swedish foreign ministry and when she was posted to the Swedish mission to the UN in New York. But she admits to have always been very interested in other cultures and other people. “This job gives me the opportunity to travel around the world, to learn and see things for myself,” states the ambassador. “I’m very interested in foreign policy, how countries relate to one another. What you realize very quickly is we can have so much in common even if we come from different corners in the world. The Philippines and Sweden are very far from each other, but we are very much alike because we have the same basic values. It’s easy for me to relate to what is going on because there is a common ground,” she affirms. “I think my most interesting discovery during my almost 4 years in the country is that our contacts are so broad and extensive: from the grassroots level to political parties and business. It’s been very rewarding to be part of that and to help establish a closer relationship.”

One of the challenges that the ambassador admits to facing here in the Philippines is building a better understanding of the European Union, and the 13 member countries that are here working together as a group. “The individual countries are very well known, but that we form something bigger is not,” she relates. Her embassy has been trying to help explain and promote the European Union to the Filipino people by participating in the Cine Europa Film Festival and in European trade exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the ambassador acknowledges that the challenges are what keep her career interesting and fulfilling. “I’ve been really very happy in this job, so I’ve never had any regrets or thoughts if I should have done other things,” she avows. She does confess that some issues are tougher to sort out than others, particularly those that involve her personal life. “It’s always a challenge to be an ambassador, and maybe even more to be a woman and have a family, and get all the pieces together. You have to cope with your family, to make sure that they are happy, that they also have good opportunities. At the same time you have to focus on your job and do well in it, and still save some little time for yourself so you can also rest and develop. I think that it is something that all women who are in leading positions in society have to deal with.”

Family Matters

Complications aside, the envoy reports that the Markovic family is really enjoying their stay here. The ambassador also hopes that this experience of travelling to and living in different countries affords her kids a broader perspective. “In the future when they have to decide what career path to start and what to do with their lives they would think they’re not just confined to staying in their hometown,” she explains. “They know they have opportunities everywhere. They don’t need to be afraid and think it difficult to move to the other side of the world to find a good job.”

She is proud that her children already possess an advantage in learning languages. They learn English in school but at home they speak only Swedish. “We brought a Swedish nanny to the Philippines even if some people were telling us before that there was no need to,” the ambassador relates. “My youngest was only a year old when we moved to the Philippines but he speaks both fluent Swedish and English. And you cannot tell that he has not lived in Sweden. He wouldn’t have been like that if he didn’t have a Swedish nanny. So that was an important decision we made and I think a very good one.”

Ambassador Markovic would like to think that she has stood as an example for her younger colleagues that it is indeed possible to be a woman and an ambassador and still raise a family. “I think they see that and think that: ‘yeah, if she can do that then I can do it too’,” the envoy asserts, sharing more wise counsel for her fellow female diplomats. “The earlier the better I think you have to realize that you cannot be 100 percent on top of everything. You have to lower a bit your own ambitions so that you can live a healthy life. Because if you want to be the best boss, and the best mother, and the best spouse, I think you’re going to get depressed and frustrated very fast. So you just have to realize that maybe you don’t need to be the best all the time. You can just relax and achieve what’s enough.”

Beyond her dual roles as mother and ambassador, Her Excellency proves how gender should pose no impediment to both professional and personal fulfilment. “A very determined policy of the Swedish government is to promote gender equality and give equal opportunities for men and women to develop and do whatever they want in life,” the envoy contends. “So the different competencies that we bring are really utilized and put to good use. I’m not so sure that you can pinpoint specific areas where women contribute more than men. You can’t say that the either men or women are always a certain way. But it’s always good to have a mix.”

Shared Journeys

Even among this group of women ambassadors, the envoy notes that there are so many interesting personalities. “I think we all are individuals and have our own backgrounds and we are what we are right now for different reasons,” says Ambassador Markovic, who then reveals that they all try to get together once a month or two. “It’s a great opportunity to share experiences, talk about the developments of the country, and learn from each other. Sometimes we also travel together and it’s very interesting to see the Philippines from the point of view of someone you don’t normally travel with.”

This is what inspires her message to any newcomer to the country: “Don’t miss out on travelling around the Philippines,” the ambassador emphasizes. “That has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. You find fantastic people who are very instrumental in their own small communities in trying to be advocates for change. You also realize that this country is still quite poor, that there are many challenges to its development and the alleviation of poverty. It’s only by leaving Manila, travelling to the different corners of the country, meeting with the people, and trying to understand what’s going on with their lives, that you’ll see what this whole country is all about and the opportunities and possibilities that are here.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat magazine, 2007.

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