London is an interesting blend of old and new. It is a city that has so much to offer in terms of history, culture and entertainment. But among the things that never fail to amaze tourists who come to London are its pubs.
| ...we may have failed to cut our colonial ties for our zest for life is more Latin than Asian. We party until dawn.
Pubs open as early as four in the afternoon and most of them close before midnight. The schedule may seem strange to Filipinos who are used to a nightlife that starts at eleven or midnight and ends at four in the morning. We are not different from the Spanish. In this aspect, like Manila, Madrid is very much alive at two in the morning, and, in that sense, we may have failed to cut our colonial ties for our zest for life is more Latin than Asian. We party until dawn. And only after the last drops of wine are poured out from the bottle do we think of going home. But not in the land famous for its sense of decorum.
Pubs are as much a part of English life as fish and chips. For foreign students, pubs are an integral part of their learning experience. It is where they get to see the English people as they really are. Without their coat of propriety carefully wrapped around them, Englishmen seem more human.
For some students, pubs are an excellent place to meet other students and interesting people from other countries. A day is not complete without a drink or two with some guys in class who love to expound on the intellectual abilities (or the lack of it) of their professors.
After a few glasses of beer, one smart guy would talk about Keynes, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and discuss a host of political and economic theories. In between examinations and research work, pub-crawls are organized by classmates as a way of knowing each other on a deeper level and cementing friendships.
Each pub has a distinct character although at the outset it would seem that they are all alike. But there is something in pubs that lure people to come back again and again. Perhaps, because one can get lost in the crowd and still hold on to his sanity? Or, perhaps, because you can pretend to be somebody you only hope you can be?
It was in an English pub where I saw them. And it was very easy to tell that they were Filipinos. It was not so much how they looked but more in the way they looked at me. Friendly. Knowing. Inviting. We Filipinos, always have this feeling of instant connection when we see our own kind in a foreign land. And, in most cases, it is much easier to establish friendships because we share the same predicament. We are lonely and we all want to fit in.
In her late thirties, Ellen was working in an international bank. She used to be based in New York. With her was Carla, a graduate student at a prestigious university. In her mid-twenties, Carla had a winsome smile and delicate features. But what disturbed me was the sad look in her eyes. Then there was Hector, a good-looking guy with an easy smile. There was something mysterious in his countenance. But that made him more attractive.
It was this descendant of Adam who first caught my eye. Although he was seated between Ellen and Carla, he appeared oblivious to the ongoing conversation. There was a faraway look in his eyes. It seemed to me then that he was absorbed in his own world. And that fueled my curiosity.
| I must have appeared so bored and weary with these intellectual exchanges, for she waved at me. Her eyes beckoned me to join them.
Ellen was the first one who smiled when she saw me at a corner table with some classmates who were deeply engrossed in a discussion on the East Asian financial crisis and the political economy of the world trading system in the next millennium. I must have appeared so bored and weary with these intellectual exchanges, for she waved at me. Her eyes beckoned me to join them.
After a few moments of hesitation, I stood up, pretending to buy a drink. Before I could reach their table, they had already pulled a chair for me.
"Are you a student?" Ellen asked. Her friendly smile was still pasted on her face.
I nodded. I must have looked young and innocent for my age because every time I met Filipinos, it was easy for them to guess what I was doing in England.
She introduced me to her two companions. Both were very amiable. The conversation started with the usual formalities. An exchange of basic information, like names and addresses, ensued. What are you doing here? How long have you been here? When are you going home?
And then the financial crisis being experienced by East Asian countries and the trade disputes that characterized the new global trade arena flew out of my mind as they invited me to take a peek into their world. While downing glasses of cider, English beer and whiskey, they talked about their lives. It is pretty amazing why strangers have to resort to getting into a state of inebriation in order to talk about themselves.
The conversation drifted from one life to another. It did not take me long to realize what had brought the three of them together that night.
Friendly, bright and oozing with confidence, Carla spoke Tagalog with a twang. From her demeanor and her stories, it was easy to tell that her family was quite well off in Manila. Certainly, with the high cost of education in the United Kingdom, only the financially endowed Filipino families could send their children to British schools.
Ellen was a typical modern Filipino woman. Very smart, highly independent, successful, single and loaded with confidence, she was someone who was not afraid to move in uncharted waters.
"Have you found a boyfriend?" Ellen asked, her eyes twinkling with unconcealed interest.
I shook my head and proceeded to tell them that I was more interested in getting my degree and exploring Europe. I was barely aware then that I sounded a bit defensive. Or was I trying to convince myself that it was what I wanted to achieve during my stay in this cold and expensive city?
"Don't look for love. You can't find it here," Carla pursed her lips. Her eyes appeared to be a little sadder.
"Sour grapes. Don't believe her," Hector interjected. "No two individuals share the same fate because you make your own destiny."
| But, then again, I was amazed by their ability to hide their true feelings in witty repartees. They dodged questions and references to their private miseries through anecdotes and funny remarks.
While I wholeheartedly agreed with what Hector said, I became increasingly interested in the ensuing exchange of words. And, yes, the light banter also unmasked the real persons beneath the veneer of sophistication. But, then again, I was amazed by their ability to hide their true feelings in witty repartees. They dodged questions and references to their private miseries through anecdotes and funny remarks.
But alcohol has a way of loosening the screws of our tongue although some seasoned drinkers will tell you that even if you allow alcohol to take control of your life momentarily, you still remain fully aware of what you are doing and saying.
"Look at this guy." Carla playfully nudged Hector. "He wasted everything on a relationship that was bound to fail from the very beginning."
"We're in the same boat," he immediately replied. "Except that you were the one who was dumped by your lover while I was the one who bravely cut the ties. But, still, it was not easy to let go of him."
Him! I was not sure if I had heard right. The boisterous laughter of the three young men sitting at the table next to us drowned out Hector's next words. Ellen said something but I barely heard her either. It was almost nine in the evening and the pub began to fill with young people. A cacophony of sounds filled the dimly lit room. And I seemed to be swallowed by the quagmire of noise. Voices speaking in different languages competed with the sound of glasses and bottles that exchanged hands.
I glanced over at my classmates. There were only three of them left. The other two must have either gone home or transferred to other pubs. My classmates seemed to be so engrossed in the discussion on international political economy that they barely noticed that I had slipped to another table. I was sure that my absence would not matter.
"It's good while it lasts," Carla said, her eyes downcast.
"But you become stronger after each fall. There's always a lesson to learn." Hector stood up and went to the bar counter.
I thought he would only buy a drink and come back to our table. But he lingered for a while and struck a conversation with a tall, lean and dark man standing next to a glass sculpture of a naked woman.
"I told you. I'm always amazed at his resilience. After breaking up with his lover last night, he's on the prowl again." Ellen laughed and shook her head.
What she said confirmed my suspicion. Hector was gay. But there was something in Ellen's laughter that told me there was something more.
"Where does Hector work?" I asked, noting that the two women were watching him closely.
"Investment company," Ellen answered. "A block away from my office."
With his lean and wholesome look, Hector could easily charm women. Tall, broad-shouldered, with clear skin and mestizo features, he could give Filipino actors a run for their money. Hector's refined manners spoke of his good education and genteel background.
"Hector is very bright. My boss was bowled over when he read his CV. I think he could not believe that a Filipino could be that smart," Ellen smiled proudly.
"What happened to his application in your bank?" Carla asked, obviously interested.
"He was seriously considered for the position although he was the only non-white applicant. But when Hector learned that he would be assigned to another branch, he lost his interest," Ellen grimaced.
"I was right after all. He was more interested in your boss than in the job." Carla's voice bore a trace of sarcasm.
"But I'm sure my boss would not have given him a second look. He's a certified homophobic," Ellen laughed wryly. "And, besides, you were watching him like a hawk."
I was about to conclude that there was something going on between Carla and Hector. Could it be that Hector was also attracted to this woman? Admittedly, a huge part of me wanted to believe that. But when Carla turned to me, I saw something in her big, dark and sad eyes that told me to put my premature conclusions on hold.
"That's not true. I wasn't possessive. You see, her boss and I had this understanding. Call it a relationship. And then."
"Hey, it was an affair," Ellen interrupted.
"No. It was a relationship because it lasted for almost a year."
|"An affair is an affair. No matter how long or how short it is." Ellen's voice was firm, while raising an eyebrow.
"An affair is an affair. No matter how long or how short it is." Ellen's voice was firm, while raising an eyebrow.
"Whatever you may call it. But we lived together under one roof," Carla swallowed hard, her face intense. "Like husband and wife."
"And you served him like a slave. He found not only a lover but also a maid in you."
"Shut up, Ellen. I did everything to please him because I love him so much. You know that." Carla was apparently hurt by her friend's remark.
Ellen tapped the young woman's shoulder. Her face was apologetic.
"I'm sorry, Carla." Ellen's voice was softer and calmer. "But you're drunk. You're mixing beer with whiskey. That can kill you."
"No, I'm not drunk and I don't care if I die tonight. Ellen, I know what I'm saying." Carla brought her face nearer to mine and the putrid smell of whiskey assaulted my nostrils. I could hardly believe that this frail-looking woman could drink like a fish.
"Hey, Carla, you're not yourself tonight." Ellen, obviously alarmed, held Carla's arm to restrain her.
"When it seemed that everything was going smoothly between us, his ex-wife entered the picture. And, last night, he told me without batting an eyelash, with no consideration whatsoever for my feelings, he told me that he still loves his ex-wife and he's going to marry her again," Carla swallowed hard.
I was not ready for this revelation. I could not believe that in a span of two hours I had become privy to their private lives. To think that we had only met that evening and the only thing that we had in common was our nationality.
Carla's eyes shifted to her glass of whiskey which was almost empty. Admittedly, I was apprehensive that she would break down right then and there and create a scene amidst a sea of strange faces. Anything is possible when you are with a drunk who is licking the wounds from a recent heartbreak. I held my breath and looked for my classmates. Fortunately, they were already gone.
"Some good things never last. At least, you got to taste the good things rather than stay in your comfort zone and wonder what it would have been like had you not tried it," Ellen's voice was much softer. I could barely hear her with the noise.
"Do you have a boyfriend, Ellen?" I asked, hoping that the conversation would become lighter. But I did not realize that such an innocent question would open the floodgates of Ellen's own pain.
"I used to have a string of boyfriends. All forms, shapes and sizes. Different nationalities and different professions. But one at a time. No commitments. It's a lot more stressful when you commit yourself to a relationship," she replied.
| I was taken aback by the calmness of her voice as she talked about her lovers.
I was taken aback by the calmness of her voice as she talked about her lovers. Blame it on my conservative upbringing, but I was secretly hoping that she was not telling the truth.
Theoretically, I knew about the concepts of feminism and gender equality and I had heard some friends talking about the freedom of expressing oneself sexually, as well as about reproductive rights.
But Ellen was the first person I had met who spoke about these things based on her own experiences. And what made it more shocking to me then was her seeming nonchalance when she casually mentioned the men she had slept with. It was as if she were talking about someone else's life.
But it also made me think that I must have missed out so much in life. Or maybe because I have always preferred to stay in my comfort zone.
"But there is only one person I love with all my heart at the moment." She ended her monologue with a longing look in her eyes.
"I've heard this story countless times," Carla smirked. "That's the frosting on the cake. The grand finale."
"Where is he now?" I asked, knowing that Carla's dismissive behavior must have hurt Ellen. "Let me guessis he a Filipino?"
"Right on the mark," Carla laughed aloud. "It's the first love kind of thing for her. The first man who broke her heart. The swine opted to marry somebody who's not as smart and pretty as Ellen. Hey, don't you think most Filipino men feel insecure with smart and successful women?"
I was tempted to add something to what Carla had just said. But Ellen's solemn face stopped me in my tracks. I had the feeling that there was more to come.
"I'd gotten over that man before I came to London," Ellen said, pursing her lips.
"Then who is this man you are talking about? Is there something I don't know?" Carla leaned on her friend. Alcohol must have found its way to her head.
"You know him well enough," Ellen said, looking away. "And I'm sure you will think I'm crazy for harboring these feelings despite the fact that I know his gender preference."
"Hector!" Carla blurted out.
| He was definitely a heartbreaker and a disappointment to women. Myself, included.
We all looked in the direction of Hector who was by now engaged in an animated conversation with the tall, lean and dark man.
He was definitely a heartbreaker and a disappointment to women. Myself, included.
Ellen's confession and everything I heard that evening were a bit too much for me to take. I stood up and immediately felt the effect of English beer in my body.
I lost count of how many glasses of beer and cider I had consumed. But I remembered hugging the girls and saying goodbye to them for the last time. I waved at Hector, but I knew he was too busy to notice me.
When I stepped outside the pub, a gust of cold wind slapped my face, bringing me back to my senses.
I do not remember the name of the pub. I do not even remember the exact date I met them. And although their faces have become vague in my memory, I remember their stories very well.
© Irah Borinaga
excerpted from Journey (Giraffe Books, 2001)