The Weight of a Life in Wonder

personal life, reflections, travel

At certain moments of your life, the question comes, during a pause:

Selfie with “Untitled (Donkey)” by Jeff Koons, at the Moco Museum (October 2019)

What am I doing here?

What the hell am I doing here?

The question came to me thrice during my recent trip to Europe, where my friend Gretchen and I toured around Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris. We had originally planned to go to Stuttgart together, but I had to skip that part because of an unfortunate event, which involved the two of us ending up sitting in the police office in Gare du Nord, which was the train station we got off at from Brussels.

It happened quickly: I remember we were purchasing tickets on the way to Michel-Ange Molitor, where our Airbnb was located. Two women approached us, asking us to sign a petition for some cause to help immigrants. I had read about this before, and I knew it was most likely a scam: signing the document would mean that we needed to give a donation, so I firmly fended the women off with a resolute “No.”

They hounded Gretchen instead, who had now finished buying her ticket from the ticket vending machine. Two more women surrounded her, pressuring her to sign. Pulling my luggage with one hand (where my tote bag carrying my laptop, passport, and wallet had been carefully secured on the handle), I signaled the women with my free hand, trying to ward them off from us.

Just as we were about to enter the ticket gate, a man said to us: “Check your things–those people are pickpockets.”

It felt like this heavy stone had sunk into the bottom of a river: my tote bag and Gretchen’s wallet were gone. We rushed to the police station a floor away as fast as we could, unimaginably faster than what you would expect with two people carrying a total of almost 70 kilos of luggage. (All those workout sessions had now made sense: we had been prepared for this.)

***

The question came to me as I sat in front of the policeman, a tall, black Frenchman, who was struggling to communicate with us with his broken English. He had asked me what my nationality was (Je suis philippin, I answered, trying to remember the elementary French I learned during a three-month basic French course in UP Diliman earlier this year) and what I did for work (un entrepreneur.) Over the course of this exchange that lasted almost three hours, it hit me:

What the hell was I doing here?

Passport photos and travel document requirements

And I didn’t mean that to come across as a complaint, while the situation was something less to be desired. I found the whole situation bordering on the tragicomic. I was certain that it wasn’t one of the typical things a tourist would experience during their travel, and neither was it something anyone looked forward to.

But there we were, in that police station at Gare du Nord, Gretchen and I, laughing-crying. We were alive, we were unharmed, a few thousand euros poorer yes, but wasn’t this a story to tell?

Gretchen, by the river Seine
Da Vinci’s “La Gioconda”, of course

After all, one could always say they’ve seen the sights: the Eiffel Tower, Musee d’Orsay, the Seine…those were the stuff you’d see shared from Facebook memories by quite a lot of people.

But to actually say that they’ve been robbed in broad daylight, like wide-eyed tourists? How many could say that, laughing?

Eiffel Tower, at night

It was genuinely absurd.

It reeks of privilege, of course. When we had finally settled in our room, we talked about how distressing the experience might’ve been had we traveled on a very tight budget. Imagine being a penny-pinching tourist counting every single euro, and losing a couple of hundred! We were lucky we had friends who were all too willing to rescue us from our plight, ready to transfer money to us and help us see the trip through.

Expensive and unappetizing vegan avocado toast at Ladurée at Champs-Élysées

Some of them had said: don’t let the incident ruin your trip. And we agreed that it wouldn’t. People could steal our things, but to let them steal our time and enjoyment as well was something else. So we went on with the adventure: window-shopping at Champs-Élysées, where Gretchen ended up buying a coat which she justified as a much-needed happy purchase; having coffee at an unremarkable café along rue de Seine, across our hotel; waiting for the tourists and cars to thin out so we can take the perfect shot with the Arc de Triomphe as background.

Arc de Triomphe, at night

Paris was wonderful in the evening, but there was that constant feeling of danger, of distrust. The theft might have triggered a latent xenophobia: we now looked upon immigrants with caution. I thought that this might be how systemic racism begins: a single incident colors your view of other people, and you make sweeping generalizations of their values and beliefs. These stories become canon and they become laws.

I remember our tour of the Anne Frank House along Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, where Anne Frank and her family lived for two years before the Germans captured and sent the family to a concentration camp in Auschwitz. I was drawn (absorbed?) to a particular image of Anne on display–passport photos of her stitched together, creating a moving image: here was a girl, who had lived years ago, who dreamed to become someone, and had died. A life cut short, because at some point, someone decided that her kind was lesser, worser.

Suddenly, death was all too real, too random, too tangible and true, like an apple you had thoughtlessly handplucked from a tree in an orchard. That is what it felt at that moment.

At the Anne Frank Huis

Something beautiful, and fleeting. She was there. And I was there as well, time being the distance that separated us. At some point I would be forgotten. She likewise experienced a great anxiety over that idea, as well.

We could romanticize all we want about the transient nature of beauty, of how something is made even beautiful by its very impermanence, but I would like to believe that that is the human mind trying to come to terms with finiteness. After all: can true beauty really be diminished by its longevity?

Each generation defines beauty subtly differently. Maybe the familiar becomes disgusting at some point, despite how strongly it was loved in the past. Maybe, for something to be beautiful, we have to collectively agree that it remains beautiful, that it is something worth preserving. Maybe it had to speak to a broader human experience, with just enough specificity and detail so as not to be a hindrance to more people relating to it, but not to be vague and too general.

***

The question came again during an evening performance by pianist Charlotte Coulaud of some compositions by Beethoven and Chopin in Eglise Saint-Ephrem along rue de Carnes, near the Panthéon. Gretchen had seen the poster while we were walking around the area. Excitedly, we bought the tickets and took the front-row seats, where we listened to piano music being played in a centuries-old, candle-lit church.

Charlotte Coulaud’s concert poster
Eglise Saint-Ephrem

The feeling of listening to piano music reverberating in the small, packed room was intoxicating, even for someone like me who had no technical appreciation of classical music nor the inclination to listen to Beethoven or Chopin. (I have to admit though that I used to tape-record the ones being played at 98.7 FM, which broadcast classical music. I suppose I felt more “cultured” as a young boy, as pretentious as that sounded.)

I was there, but I couldn’t quite explain why. Of course if you ask me how we ended up there, I could give you the chain of events that led me to that very moment: a seat away from the aisle, watching Claudette deftly play the piano, as if her fingers were both flesh and water, both particle and wave, fluidly pressing each key with the conviction and confidence of someone who had prepared all her life.

Why was I there? I wanted to believe that it wasn’t an accident, but that would be a lie, much like how we serendipitously found out that there was an exhibition of Dali and Magritte’s works at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. (We saw an ad after getting off at the Bruxelles-Midi station from Amsterdam, with no prior idea that the art from the two surrealist icons would even be there at all.)

“La Clef des champs”, René Magritte
Looking at Dali’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

Headily, I tried to take everything in. One could scoff that it was the stuff of chi-chi art films, with someone drinking champagne at some point in that story (Gretchen though tried to open a bottle of wine at our room in the Hotel La Louisiane with a balcony overlooking rue de Buci, giving us a full view of the drunk Parisians from Au Chai de l’Abbaye, the bar across the street–cliché as clichés go.) But it was charming and romantic, and tears had slowly formed on my eyes during the concert, which I tried to blink away, because my contact lenses might fall out.

A view from our balcony at Hotel la Louisiane

You are where you are supposed to be, as they often say, as horribly as it is used to justify so many injustices in human history. Someone who had tried to console us after finding out that we had lost our valuables said: “There is a reason for everything.” Yes, there is a reason, but not one that necessarily leads to refinement, nor beauty, nor these lofty human ideals that we enshrine in our stories, in our songs, in our art. There is no magic hand nor will that leads us to greater heights. Some people are shitty and can be tremendously unkind. It is what it is.

But what is kindness, when you think about it? On one hand, of course, I would argue that to be a victim of that crime is the result of unkindness. But let us assume that the money stolen was used to feed a starving family of four. Maybe the thieves were what we think are the dregs of society, forgotten and unnoticed, never to truly benefit from whatever progress their communities experience. Perhaps they are illegal immigrants. They could have escaped from one horrible city, only to end up in another wretched place. Is it still unkind, then?

Maybe it is both true at the same time, two truths that do not cancel each other out, two sides of the same coin. Kindness and unkindness, depends on who you ask.

What is the gravity of a crime for it to be declared so heinous, to be such a tremendous one? Is it determined by how many victims it claims? Or the potential each life it claims holds? Is there an objective way to assess the value of a life? Is a person’s life more valuable than five others, if that said person invents a cure for cancer, or for HIV, or kills a genocidal dictator?

“The Gates of Hell”, Auguste Rodin

Perhaps the reason why I want to live forever is that I believe that the only thing that has objective value is life. Maybe it’s a selfish thing to want. (But of course one doesn’t stop at wanting life, because we wish for a life that is transcendent, and meaningful, and both novel and familiar–how confusing and convoluted the human experience is, frankly speaking!)

Rodin, “Ugolino and His Sons”

Back in Amsterdam, the night before my flight to Manila, I went to a Albert Heijn supermarket near Joordan. I had bought my dinner for the night, and had mulled over a tub of Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice cream, deciding against it just before I paid.

A cold breeze came as I stepped out, and I remembered that precise moment a week ago, somewhere in Noordwijk, as I stared at the clock tower outside our hotel that night, like a presence that watched over me.

For a few minutes, I felt like my soul was being ripped out of my body, like I had turned into a box of melting crayons and the wax had melted over one another, layers upon layers being peeled, revealing a truth with every layer removed. I was laughing after that.

Towering stained glass windows, inside Sainte-Chapelle

I was there, but the why remained to be a mystery, and considering the probabilities that I shouldn’t be alive, that only survivors can celebrate the victory of existence, to be alive was a truly funny, weird, amazing thing. In the face of the absurd, you cannot help but laugh with amusement.