San Miniato al Monte

22 March 2017 —
The Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte stands on top of a hill overlooking Florence, just a short walk above the Piazzale Michelangelo. Both are popular points from which to catch panoramic views of the city, but while the latter is sometimes described with affectionate derision (or derisive affection) as little more than a glorified car park, San Miniato is a sight to see in its own right.

I visited the abbey on my very first day in Florence — I literally just set my bags down at the hostel then quickly caught a bus up — hoping to hear the monks’ Gregorian chanting. I’d read from travel sites that the monks celebrated Mass every day, followed by Vespers, and there was Gregorian chanting involved in one or the other. But for some reason there was no chanting when I was there: perhaps it was just bad timing or perhaps, I thought, the monks had simply grown tired of their prayers being treated like a mere attraction by tourists.*

But no matter. The abbey is worth a contemplative visit, with or without the chanting.

It’s beautiful, first of all. San Miniato is said to be one of the finest examples of Florentine Romanesque architecture, with a charming green-and-white geometrically patterned marble façade. There’s a cluster of graves out front and a larger cemetery inside the fortress-like walls, accessible through a door beside the church. The interiors are kept dark but whatever light available reveals art and design made even more striking by their juxtaposition with rough walls and unadorned bare benches.

There were quite a few people out there that day; at one point, there even seemed to be a small art class sketching the Florentine skyline from the front steps. But it was at twilight — just when I’d finally given up hope of hearing Gregorian chants and had actually started walking down the hill before some instinct made me go back — that a large group of people came in. It turned out they were French pilgrims (or at least they were from France, and on a pilgrimage, I would guess, judging from the presence of a tour leader and a disproportionately greater number of priests than might ordinarily be present in a regular tour group). It turned out, too, that the monks at the abbey were about to start their Mass at the crypt below the church, and after a short conference with the visiting priests, the latter were invited to concelebrate, while their flock cheerfully took their seats at the wooden benches.

I had also decided to attend the Mass and sat down beside a French nun. She noticed I was keeping to the edge of the bench and with a smile and a beckon, she urged me to come closer to her, sit more comfortably, and squeezed my hand when I did.

Most of the monks at the abbey were advanced in years — one sat hunched, head bowed, in his chair and kept so still I wasn’t sure he could move — but the main celebrant at the Mass was quite young. Before starting the ceremony, he addressed the pilgrims, speaking in French at first. I could just make out some of the words: he said his French was nonexistent and he asked the congregation’s leave to use Italian thereafter, with one of the French priests translating. His French actually was not non-existent, and as he gave a brief history of the abbey, he sometimes spoke in French, prompting his translator to joke if he would like that bit translated to Italian instead.

At one point, they asked for a show of hands. Who were French? Who were Italian? Most were one or the other. They didn’t ask who were Filipino — nor did I expect it — but I found out later I was not my country’s sole representative. During Peace, I saw that one of the nuns from the French group was actually Filipino, and we gave each other that smile of mutual recognition. I tried to find her after the Mass — I had a pack of Cebu dried mangoes in my bag that I wanted to give her to remind her of home — but she had disappeared.

And so I had my sought-after dose of singing, after all. The lead priest’s voice was soaring, beautiful, as he sung his parts of the Mass; heavenly, too, was the voice of the lady who did the readings and led us through the songs. And as I sat there in the dark crypt with strangers I could barely understand, I thought that indeed this was the way of the world: some things were meant to be, and some things were not, and some things unexpectedly prove to be just as good or better.

* Subsequent visitors have reported that the chanting continues — during Vespers after Mass — so perhaps I just left too early.



Just Dance

14 March 2017 —
Dance like no one’s watching, they say.

But of course that’s kind of difficult if you’re in front of one of the most famous churches in the world, in the middle of one of the most visited cities of the world, and you know for a fact that despite it being low season, dozens of people are going to be watching you.

But then you think…

Who cares?

Who cares if they’ll be watching? Who cares if dancing isn’t your strong suit? Who cares that the only other people to respond to the musician’s invitation is a group of seven friends who look like they’ve known each other all their lives?

Are you going to spend all your life thinking: “Dammit, I should have danced”?

What are you really going to regret more?

When are you going to get another chance to prance and clap and stomp your feet, to move to music that makes you laugh, to whirl in bliss under the bright winter sun among the crowd gathered at the Notre Dame?

You want to dance so dance.

Do it: step forward, don’t give it another thought.

Move and immerse yourself in a experience you know you’ll never forget.

“Once upon a time, I danced in front of the Notre Dame…”

Die of mortification if you have to, then live to tell the tale.

For the record, I didn’t need that much of a pep talk to step forward when the leader of a group of musicians playing in front of the Notre Dame asked for volunteer dancers. I had just spent the last couple of hours feeding birds with a complete stranger so by then I was in “what the heck, why not” mode. 🙂 Unfortunately, I was traveling alone and there was no one to take a photo or a video of me dancing. But it happened, I swear. 🙂

Where We All Go

Four weeks ago, as I was walking towards the Tuileries Garden, I fell in step and into conversation with a retired French schoolteacher. It actually started with him asking me if I was Japanese and when I said I was from the Philippines, he exclaimed that he had been.

Christian — that was his name — had traveled quite a lot in his youth. In fact, he said, that was why he chose teaching as a profession: the long vacations meant he could travel to more countries, for a greater period of time. In the Philippines, he told me, he was able to visit Manila and Baguio, and Boracay long before the hordes “discovered” it. I asked him what his favorite country or city was; he answered it was impossible to say. “It’s not this place or that place that I love,” he said. “It’s the whole thing. Traveling.”

Our conversation was in English, of course, as despite my best intentions, my French still hadn’t progressed beyond courtesies and a prepared apology for not being able to speak the language. Christian, on the other hand, had been an English teacher. I told him I regretted not being conversant in French, to which he replied, “Oh, Gaya, it doesn’t matter. Don’t waste your time. You know English, you can explore the world. You don’t have enough time to learn the language of every country you visit.” (A surprising sentiment, that was, given, erm, certain French reputations, but one I’d actually heard before, from two French men in Marseille…who both knew Tagalog. Expect the unexpected, indeed, when you travel the world.)

Christian had kept records of his own travels. By the time he retired, he had filled dozens of notebooks with thoughts about the world he’d seen with his own eyes. Unfortunately, a shipping accident caused many of the notebooks to be lost or damaged; only a few now remained. I could tell this saddened him but not overly so. He still had his memories, after all, and that was more important.

Nowadays, Christian lives in the suburbs of Paris with a friend — a frenemy, he said in a tone both tart and fond — whom he met on a stint teaching English abroad. His wife is gone; his daughter has her own family. He travels much less frequently now but he does, at least twice a week, make the journey from his home to central Paris, armed with hard staling baguettes, to feed the birds and ducks at the basins of the Tuileries. Afterwards, he drops by the library and reads the papers. He takes notes to help him remember what he’s learned, constantly challenging his mind to keep dementia at bay.

I wondered, at some point, if he was lonely — if he found his life now a far cry from the wandering days of his past — but if he was, he seemed to have made his peace with it.

I wondered too, at some point, if I would end up like him, and decided it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

“If I lived around here,” I told him as he handed me pieces of bread to toss to his eager beneficiaries, “I’d come every day and feed the birds too.”

Afterwards, he asked me if I had any plans for lunch because he wanted to treat me to McDonald’s. I was then quite hungry and, spotting a cafe among the bare trees of the Tuileries, I proposed I buy him lunch there instead. He said, dismissively, they probably only had French food. I murmured it might be nice to eat French food in France but he seemed (or pretended?) not to have heard.

Okay then: McDonald’s.

Over lunch, he said that in many of the places he’d visited, there were no McDonald’s branches because the people there couldn’t afford it. I told him that it used to be — and probably still is, for many — a status symbol in the Philippines to be able to eat at McDonald’s. However, I added, we had a homegrown fast food chain that we loved even more, so much so that there were branches of it in countries that had a significant Filipino population.

The thought delighted him. “What’s it called?” He asked and proceeded to write down “Jollibee” in one of the folded sheets of paper he was carrying. “I’ll look it up,” he said with satisfaction.

We went our separate ways near Notre Dame — me to revisit the park behind the church to paint a happier layer over an old grief, Christian to the library to resume a well-worn path. Before we parted, he told me it had been an absolute joy to spend the past few hours with me. In all sincerity though — inspired beyond words by his life, his outlook, his generosity and quiet dignity — I assured him the pleasure was mine.

The Eiffel Tower: You Never Forget Your First(s)

6 March 2017 — 
It can’t possibly be cool, to still be gushing about my first sight of the Eiffel Tower six years and two return trips after my first first-sight, but the truth remains it’s one of my most vivid memories of my trip last month: looking out the window of the DIRECT2 bus from CDG and catching sight of the Eiffel Tower through the golden haze-bathed terrace of the Palais de Chaillot.

Valentine’s Day Tickets to Paris for Only $480! (Yep, round-trip!)

SGMT | Valentine’s Day Tickets to Paris for Only $480!
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How does Paris for Valentine’s Day next year sound? ^_^

EVA Air, one of the top 10 airlines in the world, is currently offering round-trip tickets to Paris for only $480, for flights departing January, February or March 2017. That’s just a little over PHP 23,000 for tickets that usually cost PHP 50,000 or more! Take note these flights to Paris depart from Hong Kong but you can nearly always get cheap tickets to Hong Kong from the Philippines, so that’s not going to be a problem.

Here’s how to book:


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How to Get a Schengen Visa at the German Embassy

How to Get a Schengen Visa at the German Embassy in Manila, Philippines | SGMT
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When I visited Munich two years ago, I was on a trip through several European cities and had gotten my Schengen visa from the Dutch embassy. For that reason, when last week my mum’s friend asked me to help her get a visa to visit her sister in Germany, I told her I would still have to look up the specific procedure at the German embassy. (You see, procedures can vary among different embassies: some use third-party visa application centers, some handle it themselves; some require cover letters, some don’t; and so on.)

The website of the German embassy in Manila was very helpful but with the wealth of information there, it took several clicks to tease out just the information that I needed. So…I figured it might be useful if I gathered all the information for tourists/family visits and put them all here in one page.

Please note that this guide is for Filipinos who want to go to Germany either (1) for tourism, or (2) to visit family and friends there. The website of the German embassy in Manila can guide you if you want to go to Germany for other purposes:

  • Au pairs (see requirements HERE)
  • Business (see requirements HERE)
  • Employment (get more info HERE)
  • Fairs (see requirements HERE)
  • Family reunion and subsequent permanent stay (see requirements HERE)
  • Jobseekers – highly skilled professionals who want to look for a job in Germany (see requirements HERE)
  • Language course less than 3 months (see requirements HERE)
  • Language course longer than 3 months (see requirements HERE)
  • Marriage and subsequent permanent stay (see requirements HERE)
  • Nurses seeking employment in Germany (get more info HERE)
  • Seafarers joining their ship in a German harbour (get more info HERE)
  • Studying in Germany (see requirements HERE)

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*Applying for a Schengen Visa at the German Embassy: The Basics
Applying for a Schengen visa at the German embassy_1_The Basics

Basically, there are 5 things you need to do to get a Schengen visa from the German embassy:

  1. Prepare your travel itinerary.
  2. Fill up the online application form.
  3. Gather all your requirements.
  4. Set an appointment at the Germany embassy.
  5. Go to the embassy at the appointed date and time and submit your requirements.

Personal appearance is necessary.

The earliest time you can apply for a visa is 3 months before you intend to enter the Schengen area. For example, if your flight from the Philippines to Germany is on the first week of November, the earliest you can apply for a visa is on the first week of August.

According to the embassy website, processing will take one week — and it is NOT possible to expedite the visa processing.

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Step 1: Prepare your itinerary
Applying for a Schengen visa at the German embassy_2_Step 1 Prepare your itinerary

The first thing you need to do is to prepare your travel itinerary because you will need to write the details of your trip when you fill up your application form online (in Step 2).

The information and documents you need to have on hand are as follows:
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