Where i want to go


An Asian-American Family of One

There was a time when my parents would savor the news of my having gone on a date. I guess, the news was a pleasant reminder of the kind of values they hoped were instilled in me. Values? Ah…yes. A flutter of a hope, or perhaps, the not-too-distant possibility of their son starting a family of his own may be a reality, after all. This so-called picture of life (as they believed it always happened) was supposed to have been fulfilled by number one son. Much to their chagrin, number one son has remained a bachelor at 37. (Still) I will always remember the “When is she coming over for dinner? One day? Soon?” remarks that laced our informal manner of dining. Dad was more pragmatic about his reasons. “Sooner or later that drive to mate will take over.” he would say between mouthfuls of rice and stewed fish. Mom was a little more unsure about how to characterize my reasons for remaining single. “Don’t you want to raise a family?” she would ask.

Afterwards I would go home to a peaceful, empty apartment and ponder those questions privately. They do have a point. But of course they will always make a point. For as long as I can remember, parents were always the most adamant facilitators of familial life. They were meant to be a constant reminder of what we hope to have, when we finally, or slowly realize, we may not have it. I can only imagine what it would be like to raise a family. And sometimes I actually enjoy flashing Kodak images of me running after an imaginary daughter who developed an even more astute way of dealing with her dad. And sometimes, the imaginary photographs remain frozen in my family album of one.

I sleep well enough with the thought that I have all the proper ingredients to make one hell of a father. With that in mind there really is no need to prove to myself I could be a great father. I have a family already. And I carry those same basic and wholesome attitudes that could melt a woman’s heart at the first sign of spring. I care about those things. After all, I’m Asian. We all believe in the extended family. Asians just seem to add more of a mystical element to the subject of lineage. Ancestry. But then again, I’m just as American (for lack of a better antithesis to my being Asian) in my selfish agenda for success. As an American, my notion of life is really a more personal matter. The creation of an immediate family becomes more a component of life that could either prove to be mind-expanding, or, simply nerve-wracking. True, as a man, there are no “biological clocks” to tinker with, nor are there any dowries to build from my hand to mouth existence. There, that solves the problem. Wrong.

I look at my parents and wonder where I made that detour early on. It isn’t easy being an artist and still remain true to one’s concept of having a fruitful life, if not, a meaningful existence. I applaud those people who are content being content. I deplore those people who are content about their own fictions of family life. True, I’ve always been a cynic. But, then again, this society breeds either one of two evils — fallacy and fantasy. And in between, I’m stuck believing what I cannot always prove — my formula towards happiness. At times, I almost believe that I missed the signpost to enlightenment. Like a traveler hypnotized by the road ahead, I scout the billboards along the highway, hoping that the potential exit to this ennui is still ahead. Once in a while I feel compelled to play the courtship game with the most unlikely of candidates. It becomes a biased reassurance that I still haven’t met her, whomever she is. Practice makes perfect, and I have to continually hone those skills that make me a desirable catch. (By whose standards, I am never quite sure.) I can only implore the indulgence of some unsuspecting woman who doesn’t mind being entertained for a few hours over sushi or steak. I peer over my glass humming inside my head “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me…” As always I pursue the conversation with as much whimsy as an otter in springtime. I manage to make a lot of them laugh with my inane humor and seemingly innocent sexuality. And as their tales of dating and relationships are spun with wry indifference, I wonder about my date’s statistical contribution to our ever growing reluctance in the age of AIDS.

It is quite unfair to think of them first as a potential contributor of a deadly societal malady. I am just as suspect, even though I care more about my half-hearted fantasy of being a father one day. I wonder whether I’m experiencing the “dark night” of the soul, or that what I’m really going through is nothing more than dark introspection. There was a time when judgment day was still a soul-searching affair brought upon by a congress of wrathful and benevolent deities in some mental never neverland. Nowadays, they tell you safe sex is an affair between two people reciting poetry behind closed doors. I’m sure the next woman I meet is just as desirable unto herself without having to downplay the potential stigma of being a plague-carrier. I did miss the boat to the sexual revolution of the 70’s. (Whew!) In some ways, I would  never really have known what it was like since I was too preoccupied with my pubescent curiosity to “get laid.”

My father understood the mating drive, after all, he sired me. He never understood, though, the meaning of a career. From his point of view, parenthood is the only career. For a majority of people on this planet, it may be the only rewarding career. And while those of us that congregate at our weekly or monthly dates continue to challenge our careers by complaining about the lack of eligible partners, we still haven’t learned  the art of finding alternate currencies. What is the difference between being great and being a great parent? None. It all depends on who is on the receiving end of that greatness. A child can become your worst critic without even acknowledging your drive towards greatness. While a patron who purchased your work will only improve your ability to name-drop, or provide some ascension towards becoming a name. Why not give a child a name? Whoa! Time-out. I have often succeeded in side-stepping a snare in the game of infatuation. Why? Because underneath it all. I’d like to believe I found another currency. And as I continue being career-minded and complacent, I realize that my desirability could be a little inflated in a depressed age of connubial conservatism.

I could continue being the odd man out in a gathering of couples. I enjoy looking at friends (both men and women) as their mental gears grind locating a distant girl friend for some future tete-a-tete. Nothing terribly risky I hope, but just the same, I feel my stock rise and fall with the predictability of a mood swing. I can sleep alone without having to worry about the dark exposing my yearnings. For the time being, lets say such yearnings are still originating from my loins and not from loneliness. It is much easier to relieve the former. I often toy with the idea of simply remaining single. I will visit my brother and play with my nephew, my interest piqued. After a few hours with the kid, my attention span becomes predictably unfocused. Then, I get a little disappointed with myself realizing that the novelty of my presence has worn thin. I refuse to be a bore even to my nephew. Sometimes, I just don’t have the emotional stamina to surprise even myself. Still, it doesn’t make me any less worthy of being a family man.

If I had never left Manila, I probably would be as homogenized as the average Filipino with a college education. I could be as complacent with a family as I am today with my career. However, I’m here now caught between the expansive horizon of liberalized thinking, and the centuries-old expectation of a culture built upon the family unit. (But what culture isn’t?) My own personal link to my parent’s culture is manifested in folk dancing, the language and the martial arts. Dad chuckles at my seeming likeness to a prancing chicken whenever I dance around the ancestral home. My nephew gleefully mimics my movements and steps because he, like me, enjoys having a good time (which he refers to as “big fun!”). And when I look at his delight in contorting his body with the grace of a hyperactive water buffalo, I think about teaching him the right way to do such movements. It’s as if I am responsible since he will become either the guardian of the family, or a misguided ape. I don’t have a direct descendant to inherit the knowledge and training I’ve amassed over the years. But I have a legacy to pass on.

It would have been easier if I had just as well assumed that the world is not a cruel place to live in. I started painting “again” not too long ago, but sadly, the ideas were meant more for a word processor and not the canvas. I paint not for painting’s sake (even though someone said it could help in times of drought), but because I’m afraid I have nothing to leave behind. I think about death because my father talks about it as if he were discussing yesterday’s lunch. I think about death because I had an artist friend who was killed while on his way towards greatness. I think about death and wonder if what I have accomplished so far is something I could be content with should it really happen. And when I realize that I do have a family who will inherit my life’s work, I don’t feel so alone and empty as people seem to think my life has been. True, I can never truly escape the prying questions about my love life, nor the unwarranted doubts about my sexual predisposition. A family of one, is by far one of the most intriguing and demanding positions to justify in a society of couples.

It may seem a little easier for males to adapt a non-committal role in discussing our reasons for being. Why? Because the politics of sexuality is a more difficult topic to tackle than unraveling the foibles of the human condition. (Of which I seem to have a list) We measure the milestones or chapters of our lives with an alarm masked with feigned self-assurance. At least, I try to be dignified in remembering the bad times. I think about the women in my life, and smile because they taught me how to communicate through the lexicon of trust and respect. And while both sexes understand each other through such words, I wonder at the tangential points that end with the phrase “It’s a male/female thing,” when we find each other in disagreement. Everybody hates to be “dissed.”

I am a man of the 90’s — an accolade I wear with great trepidation. Though I feel qualified to pin it on my persona like a hippie button, I don’t. It simply is hard to accept that it all boils down to an emotional algebraic equation of the chromosomal x and y. I understand my end of the bargain when it comes to dealing with womankind. (At least, while I still understand the contextuality of the 90’s title.) Having said that, I continue to pipe the dream that right whales are born to know. And I look to the stars, not because I’m searching for some esoteric configuration that will explain my plight. But because they sparkle with hope, however minutely, as I traverse a nighttime of endless sea. I continue like some endangered species singing his eternal love song to a nonexistent lifetime partner; hunting the other before we are both extinct.

I am grateful that I remembered the nights that made me feel this way. In some of them a woman was involved. In most, the absence of one was a revelation. That I could take things with the pride of an Asian. (Whatever the hell that means.) In the American vernacular, it means “sucking it up.” There is a literati-scholar inside eager to drive his four-wheeler on to a tightrope of cultural role-playing. While I fantasize about wielding my three-sectioned staff in a placid future retreat, I enjoy seeing the world with the brashness of an enlightened artist. While there is no prototypical Asian-American, I am forced to experiment with the wonderful things that either bent provides. In the eyes of someone truly aware, such a duality is the simplest and most precious gift given to us by our progenitors. The key is found in the way our parents deal with their environment. Everything else that we do afterwards is either a corollary action, or reaction.

I wonder at the possibilities of a moment. Life is the on-going tension between polarities. After all, what have I been talking about. Art/Science, Asian/American, Ideal/Material, Then/Now, Sacred/Profane, Karma/Predestination, Man/Woman, Hot/Cold. I know, I’m getting carried away. This essay is supposed to enlighten, if not entertain, those whose sensibilities are highlighted in their personal culture. I could profess to be some icon of progressive acculturation. What nerve… Or I could be the most misunderstood iconoclast of what is Asian or American. Or I could come up with some clichéd line about embracing everything and nothing. The truth is I do embrace everything. (Individualism, Socialism, pets, women,…etc.) How could one not be immune to the forces of pluralism? It is so easy to hide under its “psycho-babble” when one cannot provide a reason for being. And through it all, I admire both sexes for their tenacity to believe in each other (because and in spite of their respective cultures). I feel sorry for men when they fall short of themselves. (Meaning when they behave like “dogs” and “pigs.”) As for women, I cannot even begin to arrive at a more conciliating answer for them. (Meaning we all have our “issues.”) I ponder the equation several more times, and then settle down to a more pragmatic conclusion. I’ve enjoyed being a Man. Because it is my lot, and I was given a lifetime to find and embrace a love affair of the mind. Oh how we thank the gods when we find ourselves a kindred soul! But what if we didn’t?

Erving Del Pilar
January 25, 1995

Published in New Observations, Issue #107, pp. 4-5, 1995

Manila Misses Erving I: A Homecoming

I arrived in Manila with only a minor hitch—my other luggage arrived on the next Cathay Pacific flight. I wasn’t worried since most of my stuff was in the luggage that arrived with me. I had one minor anxiety when the plane left Hong Kong for Manila. Would the immigration or customs officers fleece me for a “pasalubong” (a coming home present)? To my surprise, I was ushered through as quickly as possible. It was a beautiful sunny day when the plane touched down on NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport). The locals said it was a rare dry day considering we where in the midst of the “rainy season.” It was also a public holiday on August 18th. The country was commemorating the assassination of former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino—once the staunch opponent of former President Ferdinand Marcos. It was an auspiciously pleasant homecoming for a “balikbayan.” News of my wayward luggage came a few hours later that afternoon—prompting a return visit to the airport. I was surprised by the efficient manner the search and retrieval process went. I tipped the equally surprised clerk a few dollars for conducting the retrieval so professionally. I liked what has become of this part of coming to the Philippines.

I was driven later that afternoon to my cousin’s house by the company driver of his wife’s office. Bai, his wife, is a bigwig in the UN AIDS Foundation office. I had fallen asleep earlier by the conference table from jetlag. Alan, the driver, was a pleasant enough fellow. We talked a great deal along the way. I was always asking about the districts and towns within the Metro-Manila area as we made our way to my cousin’s custom-built home in one of Quezon City’s gated communities. The last time I was here was 12 years ago. Manila looked cleaner than before, I noted to Alan, who cynically responded by saying that’s because we’re passing through the main thoroughfares. Otherwise, it was still a dirty and choke-up city in the inner streets of the marginalized neighborhoods. We talked a great deal about some of the apparent improvements visible to the casual observer or the uninformed tourist. We talked about the crime rate in the city. We specially enjoyed comparing examples we’ve witnessed of petty crimes like pickpocketing, snatchings and muggings in our respective cities—sort of like two chefs comparing recipes in their favorite cookbooks. I liked Alan. We conversed in as pure Tagalog as each one could muster. I was glad he didn’t resort to Taglish (a Tagalog/English form of speaking) which I greatly abhor. Filipinos who like to sound like they’re above the average Joe (or Juan), or who are really inept at completing sentences in either language use this form of conversational Tagalog. A purist and a natural linguist like me laments at this tendency among city folks. I was pleasantly surprised at how I was able to revert back to speaking Tagalog like a local with Alan. We went back and forth like natives from pure Tagalog-speaking provinces—trading observations and commentaries about the economy and politics—replete with the appropriate expletives—our dismay and cynicism nuanced with half-spoken invectives.

I came to Manila because I was asked to be a sponsor in my cousin’s eldest daughter’s wedding on August 22nd. I had dinner that night with Bai and the starry-eyed couple—Jay and Gabbie. The two come from well-to-do families, and are, coincidentally, both in the advertising industry. It was a pleasant enough dinner as I got a chance to acquaint myself with the prospective groom. They both looked younger than their ages. We all traded stories and opinions about weddings we’ve attended in very fluent Taglish.

Erving Del Pilar
August 25, 2008

Manila Misses Erving II: The Wedding

I was in a car on Thursday afternoon, August 21st, with Bai, the bride’s mother; a nun, Bai’s sister Em; an actress-singer, Bai’s niece and emcee for the wedding reception. Behind us, Gabbie, the bride, was driving her car with the maid-of-honor and one of the bridesmaids. The third car had two more bridesmaids—one of them pregnant. I suppose if anything untoward happened along the way, the “knight-in-shining-armor” (less the armor)/bodyguard/assassin in me would have gone into action with very little prodding.

We were headed for Tagaytay City—a famous tourist spot overlooking a huge picturesque lake. In the middle of the lake are several craters that belong to one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines (if not the world). This magnificent geologic feature is listed in a book called “The 1000 Places You Must See Before You Die.” This will be the third time in my life that I’ll be seeing Taal Volcano. And with each visit, I’m left awed, humbled and speechless. To think that when this beautifully contoured landmass decides to rear its ugly head, it is capable of killing innocent lives in so many different ways. Our convoy continued leisurely away from the main thoroughfare, going through very narrow but well-paved routes, passing small towns where the local dogs lounge in the middle of the roads, moving only when you’re right on top of them. I love going through the provinces in the Philippines. It reminds me of my childhood. I’m given the opportunity to peel back layers and layers of time in my memories. And very often I discover aspects of myself that would not otherwise come to fore because of the thick urbane and cosmopolitan veneer I’ve acquired from being a New Yorker. Places like these remind me of my father. And just like the expression “the mango (amended to suit the locale) doesn’t fall far from the tree” I’ve discovered I really am a country boy. By the time we reached our destination—Hacienda Isabella—I was ready to have a San Miguel beer over fried pork tripe, garlic-fried peanuts, unripe mangoes accented with anchovy paste, with the locals.

Hacienda Isabella is a fascinating venue in its own right. A locally famous pop singer owns the property. Essentially an enclosed villa with a manicured central lawn, it is known as a romantic getaway and the “the place” locally to house banquets, balls, and yes, lavish weddings. All the guesthouses are capable of housing entire families (if not clans). They’re separated from each other by lush gardens and pathways, exotic trees and indigenous flora that the houses practically disappear from sight the farther you walk away from them. All the interiors and architectural details hark back to a time when Spanish-Filipino landowners ruled tracts of land that equaled Roman latifundiae. I marveled at the eye and mind that put all these historic elements together. One minute I’m in a great 19th century Spanish Colonial hall and banquet room, the next I’m in living rooms and dens filled with antiques and farm implements that were once used by the hacienda workers, and are now inventively fused into interiors, walls, stairwells, balustrades and ceiling vaults. Wow! I wanna marry Kuh Ledesma. Hell, I’ll even bear her children!

The term “en grande” was a term I used to hear when I was young. It means, more or less, extravagant, grand, lavish, “over the top,” you get the picture. On the day that the preparations took place, to the actual day of the wedding and reception itself, August 22nd, I knew in my heart and mind, this affair was going to be “en grande.” The church music alone was provided by a string quartet and a choral group who sang in three and four-part harmonies. The sponsors where from a cross-section of the advertising and TV industry glitterati. One sponsor, the president of the Filipino equivalent of either NBC or CBS networks in the U.S., flew in by helicopter to a nearby airfield and left the same way. Being a sponsor, I unfortunately, was flanked on my left and right by two media executives who had the attention spans of five-year olds waiting for mom’s dinner. I so wanted to wrench the cellulars from their hands, apply the “rear-naked choke” hold on their necks and put them to sleep, simply because they couldn’t stay still during the most solemn and sacred moments of the wedding. God, what has become of us in this day and age? Anyway, the reception went on as I had expected. There must have been close to two hundred fifty guests. Unfortunately, I couldn’t comment on the food as I had lost my sense of taste while suffering from a three-day old cold. Alas. Entertainment was provided by two bands, numerous non-professional and professional singers. A number of my cousins played guitar, drums and keyboards during a jam session after the feast. Members of the audience came up on stage to dedicate songs to the bride and groom. I’m so amazed with Filipinos when it comes to singing. If I didn’t know this was a wedding reception, I’d swear they were auditioning for American Idol. And me, after imbibing copious amounts of beer and Spumanti had to turn in early even before the band had stopped playing. As I lay in bed waiting for sleep to claim my exhausted body, I couldn’t help but say to myself, this truly was an unforgettable day of love, family, friendships, mirth and lasting memories.

Erving Del Pilar
August 27, 2008

Biarritz, Bordeaux and Erving’s 50th Birthday

The trip from Bilbao to Biarritz is one of the most picturesque bus rides I’ve ever taken in my life. With Biarritz as the final destination, it is hard to ignore the easy-going, seductive air of the coastal towns of San Sebastian, Irun, Hendaye, St. Jean de Luz along the way. Aside from the fact they’re all what one would consider as a surfer’s paradise, ther’s nothing wrong about enjoying them as chic resort towns that make you want to take off one’s clothes and bask in the summerlike weather. Coincidentally, Biarritz was celebrating it’s 50th Anniversary as the Surfer’s Capital of France. And for the most part, when I’ve had enough of the requisite sightseeing expected of a tourist, I would sit on a bench, on a designated rocky promontary, admiring the surfers as they indulge themselves as late as the sunset would allow, for a dash at the Grand Plage. I love small French towns. And Biarritz has a way of making an inveterate traveler like me feel at home. (Quite unlike experiences I’ve had in Colmar or Aix-En-Provence.) I even went to the neighboring town of Bayonne—home of the most expensive ham in France and instrumental in the development of the chocolate industry in the continent. And for those of you who remember Bayonne as nothing more than a rough town in New Jersey, the name does have some reknown. And its reknown began even before there was an America. I remembered packing in two of the noted local museums, some sightseeing and a long bus ride, all within a span of five hours. Whew!

Bordeaux, on the other hand, is a totally different dish. Just like me, it has it’s pretty and ugly side. Thanks to a gal the world has come to know as Eleanor of Aquitaine, it’s history is as intriguing and bloody as the pathways of her ascendancy to the courts of England and France had been during the Middle Ages. I admire this woman. She lived to a ripe old age of eighty something years (unheard of during the years that spanned the Hundred Years War and the War of The Roses), while producing offsprings whose loyalties and influence were as murky as the Plantagenet bloodlines that shaped the history of the tweltfth and thirteenth centuries in France.

I came to Bordeaux, as most people had guessed, because of the wine and cuisine. Southwest French cooking has nothing to do with haute cuisine or the innovatively, transformed local interpretations that come out of Paris or Lyon. The food here is rustic, traditional and unabashed in its portions. I celebrated my fiftieeth birthday dinner in a well-known establishment (highly plugged in Wine Spectator and numerous travel guides and blogs) called La Tupinia. For my peasant payscale it was a tad pricey. But “what the Hell.” I was sampling the finest this part of the world has to offer. As always, with me as the lone diner, I was surrounded by couples who were celebrating landmark moments in their relationships, or elder men who regarded me with a curiosity, that made me feel superior, uneasy or disdainfully respectable at different stages of my meal. I would stare back, letting them know that they’re being intrusive. I look around some more, noting high-powered businessmen, a rich Japanese couple and two African suits who reeked of UNESCO or diplomats out on a furlough. I am pleased with my meal. Starting of with a house-style paté with foie gras, black pork ham (which seemed uneventful at the time), and then the highlight, which is the local Southwest Black Pig pork chop grilled to perfection. Dessert is Prunes cooked in Armagnac. I go out into the brisk October night eager to light a cigar which I believe is either Honduran or Salvadoran. (I couldn’t tell after finishing an entire bottle of Bordeaux wine.) I take a leisurely walk to my overly-priced three-star hotel thinking that, as it stands, I’ve had a wonderful life, if not a truly memorable twelve days. Bonne Anniversaire Erving!

Erving Del Pilar
October 25, 2007

Basquing in Bilbao with Erving

Upon arriving in Bilbao, I was greeted by the impressive structure we’ve come to know as Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Strategically placed, as the bus from the airport wove it’s way down the surrounding hills bordering the city, it is hard to discount the effect of this magnificent architecture as it welcomes you to a city of contradictions. Established as a villa in the early 1300s under the jurisdiction of a Count Diego Lopez de Haro, who was also fondly known as The Intruder, it has since then gone from a backwater fishing and shipping village into a major commercially bustling, artsy town. After a day of hard walking on the streets and in the museums, it is apparent that the Bilbainos are willing to embrace the old and the new. Everywhere I go there is a comfortable comingling of the Belle Epoque with “El Modernismo;” the classic and the contemporary. This aspect of the present-day Basque mentality conforms with my temperament. Let’s face it, had the locals not thought of bringing in the Guggenheim Foundation into the mix, there isn’t enough to keep one’s interest here, or for that matter, to revive a once deterriorating industrial town. The Museum is one Hell of a structure—replete with family-friendly mini parks, playgrounds, promenades and outdoor cafes. No expense was spared as the saying goes. And the art in the collection, albeit mostly contemporary American, is first-class. It has more than changed the complexion of the city. Construction is everywhere. Boutique shops proliferate and are busy with young and old buyers—all wanting to look the part of a chic and artsy city.

Now, about food. By the third day in Bilbao I’ve learned to be judicious in the day and ready for the onslaught at night. I’ve refrained from having formal lunches and had come to eat, drink and smoke like a typical Spaniard. I roamed Bilbao every day, content to eat small portions of pintxos (Basque for Tapas) washed down by cava, txakoli, beer, cider or red wine. The most common fare being that of Serrano ham, cheese and seafood (mostly octopus, cod, shrimp and anchovies). They are often prepared with a variety of olive oils, saffron, paprika, spiced mayonaise and white wine vinegar. At night, dining is like having sex with a woman who wants to give you everything, and then some. (Meaning they don’t trim the fat, cartilage or bones of a typical steak. But will offer a prix fixe menu with wine and coffee included. Hell, they probably would include a cigarette and smoke it for you if you let them. Unlike the French who would tag you for everything.) My most memorable meal was a tasting lunch of six filling courses in this restaurant called Guria (along, you guessed it, Avenida de Don Diego Lopez de Haro. Their equivalent of New York’s Fifth Ave.) Since then I could think of nothing else but their impressive menu. But of course I had to come down to earth the following days and settle for the myriad Spanish “Dim Sum” that abound the bars of fast-talking, loud, smoking Spanish men and women. I feel sorry for vegetarians who come to these quaint watering holes and mesones. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing they can look forward to is getting drunk in these places. Vale!

Erving Del Pilar
October 23, 2007

Erving Explores Nova Scotia

The province of Nova Scotia has proved to be a most pleasant surprise in terms of expectations for me. When my friend and fellow trekker Jim pointed out if I could see the grass next to the tarmac when our plane was landing, I thought he was being facetious. It was a foggy, rainy afternoon as the wheels touched down after a flight of barely two hours. I was told that I was about to see, from the air, one of the most beautiful landscapes in North America. Sadly, I had to wait until after a cool rainy weekend before this breathtaking and majestic land would reveal itself. I had spent the weekend with relatives who had only been in Halifax for about a year. Already, they had enough anecdotes of places in and out of the city to whet my appetite for the upcoming four days of sightseeing. In addition, Jim had prepared me with his own set of stories that encompassed previous visits during the last seventeen years. This trip was another pilgrimage for him.

Since we had only Monday through Thursday to explore as much of the province as was possible, we concentrated on the picturesque coastline northeast of Halifax and the magnificent Highlands of Cape Breton National Park. He said to consider this vacation as a “recon” assignment that should determine a more in-depth exploration in the future. An hour into the trip I experienced a slight letdown as I realized my digital camera was left behind. As we made progress towards our loose itinerary, it soon became apparent that this was truly a special place. And while Jim went through with his own mission of photographing every nook and cranny of every bay, cove, inlet, lake or pond that caught our attention, I was slowly being seduced by the pristine beauty and splendor of Mother Nature. Nova Scotia is about the compelling display and interplay of land, water and sky. I was completely moved by the power, simplicity and sublime beauty of the rugged coastline that changed with the tides and moods of that day’s weather. This place was a kayaker’s paradise! The more I saw of the coastline, the more enamored I became with the thought of returning with my own kayak. My friend would only offer a knowing smile when I remarked about this flight of fancy.

With Jim at the helm of our rented SUV, my role as navigator brought to mind the numerous landmark events that helped shape the identity of the peoples and history of Nova Scotia. At one point in our itinerary, I came to learn that the “official” discovery of he New World did not belong to Amerigo Vespucci or Columbus. Sir Henry Sinclair of Scotland antedated their efforts as early as 1398. With a retinue of twelve ships and nearly three hundred men he appeared off Chedabucto Bay and eventually went on to map a good portion of the peninsula before the opportunistic Italians had even known of its existence. But since Sinclair did not have the ear of the Pope, nor the influential in Rome at the time of his expedition, he did not gain this historic distinction. To date, scholars have studied enough empirical evidence (on both sides of the Atlantic) to support a claim that favors the Scotsman.

Mornings in Nova Scotia, particularly along the waters is shrouded by the ubiquitous fog. Moored along the shoreline, lobster and fishing boats lie still, waiting for the sun to burn off an ephemeral mist, heralding a new day for the hardworking men who proudly maintain the identity of their Scot, Irish, English, Basque, Portuguese or French Acadian bloodlines. As I learned more about the land we were traversing with the aid of a recalcitrant GPS (dubbed “Gramps”) I became more intrigued as we got closer and closer to our main objective—the Highlands of Cape Breton. There is a romantic melancholy that overtakes one’s soul in the awe-inspiring admiration of a mountain range and the secret valleys that lie quietly unseen. I could imagine good ’ole Henry Sinclair pining for his ancestral home as he explored this majestic land. And once discovering the Highlands, believed that he had found a second home for him and his Gaelic and Anglo cousins.

Inside the Ford Escape, rented from Hertz, I’m riding shotgun and taking my role as navigator to heart. And as I read off some of the places in my head—Northumberland, Bras D’Or, Tatamagouche, Chedabucto, Prince Edward Island—I smile for I am reminded of the succulent bivalves that I gulp down with gusto at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. I see myself in a kayak in some undetermined episode of my life in the future. As I come close to a hidden cove or inlet to explore a sandbar or slightly submerged jetty, I imagine some primeval Loch Ness monster lying in wait next to a lobster boat in the morning mist. But I know this is just the effect of a land whose very mass and topography was forged for hundreds of millions of years from plate tectonics, colliding fault lines, glacial rivers and the patient chiseling of plunging bluffs and cliffs by the cold Atlantic waters. I pray that my insignificance and relative short life, next to these breathtaking vistas, would be long enough to fulfill a flight of fancy.

Erving Del Pilar
July 27, 2007

Erving’s Travels—an Epilogue

There are times when I am, unfortunately, awakened at night not so much by a deep-seated preoccupation, but by something more banal as having cardboard-thin walls or ceilings that won’t necessarily dampen the sounds made by one’s neighbors. This comes with the territory of day-to-day living in two-star hotels. Once awakened though, the mind, being free from the constraints of work, family or the routine of being in New York, traverses immeasurable spaces in the dead of night. And that is the time when questions arise. Oh, they could be anything and everything. Or the moment could simply remind one of some “thing” or historical point that is inspired by one’s journey. While I have not seen any of Giorgio Di Chirico’s paintings since New York, his vision is often in my mind’s eye. Having spent some time around the Alps, I’ve even wondered why the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, would drag thirty or so elephants across such a difficult terrain in his battle against Rome. Call it a mission or a vision, it is what drives restless people like me in finding a reason for Being.

I recall sitting by the banks of the Rhone as I thought of what I’ve seen and felt along the way. I plumb the depths of the dark, murky waters of my emotions. I come up with many, many things that are as old as the relics that have yet to be discovered underneath the ever changing riverbed. The feelings only become clearer in the mornings while in transit to yet another city or town. I’ve dreamt of such moments never truly understanding why I would feel that way. I realize days, even weeks later, that what I have unearthed is the romance of Life itself. I say Life because in it’s own right, it is a voyage of the soul. The heart goes through periods of transmutation, and yet nothing could truly move it like the pangs of departure or the melancholy of remembrance. We arrive at various destinations filled with anticipation, doubt and a comfortable triumph once we are assured a roof and a warm, clean bed. Wherever it may be, or however it is achieved, it will become home. And with each new home, a new joy and regret awaits.

I can only name the places and spaces that brought to life such powerful reminiscenses. I’m often overwhelmed by such instances that they bring a tear or two even on a sunny day. But dwell as I might do in the dark hour of regret, I always know that afterwards, I am no longer the same man. I emerge like a butterfly from my cocoon of gut-wrenching memories filled with hope and a renewed sense of belief in why I do the things I do. And while I’m often amused and perplexed by how simple the answers had been all along, I go through the motions all over again. Why? Because there is nothing more vital and complete, once we’ve understood the Romance of our existence.

Erving Del Pilar
October 25, 2001

L’Altra Toscana Con Ervino

The marvelously preserved medieval village of San Gimignano was the first stop of my planned day trips outside of Siena. Often dubbed the “Medieval Manhattan” by travel writers, only fourteen of the original seventy stone towers have survived over the centuries. I’ve always believed that my sunny disposition would prevail, in spite of the torrential rain that welcomed me that day. By lunchtime everyone’s vacation was stalled due to the amount of precipitation that came down from Heaven. Now, I used that word because by the time I was done with my grilled entrecote, the sun had miraculously appeared and driven away the drizzle and mist that would have ruined our afternoon. Our window of opportunity lasted a mere two hours. I knew that if I climbed the only tower open to the public, I would be rewarded with memorable scenes of the Tuscan countryside that not even words could paint. And I was right. Everywhere I aimed my camera, farmlands, vineyards and forests, in russet browns, pale gold and smoky greens, undulated with the rolling hills and valleys that characterized the panoramic views from the Torre Grossa. I shot a roll and a half of film by the time the sky had brought back the fog, mist and rain. Smiling to myself, I sought the sanctuary of the local museums and galleries—satisfied that my instincts had not failed me.

Like most towns around Siena, Montalcino, reknowned for its brunello and rosso wines, rests on a hilltop overlooking hectares and hectares of vineyards and farmlands. The only way to get there was by bus or car. And since I came to taste the world famous Brunello di Montalcino, driving was out of the question. The town itself is rather sleepy but quaint. Still there were enough points of interest, tourists shops and galleries to make the trip worthwhile. I had lunch at the first available trattoria, realizing there weren’t too many choices in town, period. Across from me, a group of five vineyard workers had already progressed through their meals as I waited for my secondo piatto—wild boar stew. I became alarmed when two of them had sent back their grilled pork chops after sniffing their plates like cautious dogs. (Two more plates came out and were dismissed perfunctorily like the first two.) After lunch I hurried over to the Fortezza (fort) as a little degustazione (tasting) was in order. I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with the proprietess— a friendly Dane who spoke English with an American accent. We compared and contrasted impressions as I swallowed every drop offered by this Rubenesque blonde who did not care too much for white wine. She obviously had never been to Alsace or had sampled a Corton-Charlemagne or Puligny-Montrachet from Burgundy. (…God, will he ever stop?) I was tipsy when I got out of the shop. The only thing I had in mind was to catch one of the last two buses out of town. (By the way, the wild boar stew was worth every bite.)

According to the books, the fortress city of Lucca, the last of my jaunts, was best reached by rail. I, however, had the luck of taking the regional train commonly used by the locals. (Now, this is the part where speaking a little Italian goes a long way.) Unlike most railway systems I’ve used (i.e., NYCTA, Amtrak, the French SNCF, the Swiss SSB) the Italians don’t believe in announcing the stops. As my train slowed to a stop in an unidentified station, I hesitantly approached a bespectacled, collegiate-looking woman (the only other passenger in our cabin) and asked her in flawless Italian, “Excuse me, are we near Lucca?” To which she replied, “We are in Lucca. Now.” Implicit in her smirk, (Get off now, idiot!) I neglected to add that Italians also only use one (or two) nameplates of the town within the platform. (And it’s usually away from where I’m sitting.) I came out of the station and saw the city of Lucca as an endless, red brick wall, without any visible gates, stretching both to my right and left, as far as the eye could see. (Great! I forgot my grappling hooks and siege ladders.) Only by following the confident strides of a few locals did I find the “hidden” passage. Once inside the walls, I was surprised to find a genteel and elegant city, whose most alluring feature was the presence of numerous piazzas that greeted you every few blocks or so. Puccini, the great opera composer, must’ve fallen in love with Lucca for this one feature alone. (I know I did.) The streets were teeming with bicycles, whose riders (chic-looking and carefree) wove unhurriedly and with effortless grace, between each other and oblivious tourists. I wanted to stay the night, but chose to do the requisite tourists things. Later that afternoon I took the dreaded train back to Florence—dreaming of coming back just so I could ride a bicycle in Lucca.

Erving Del Pilar
November 6, 2003

Siena Seduces Erving

You have to love Italian pre-Renaissance Art, medieval towns and Tuscan gastronomy to come to Siena. Unlike its neighbor to the north, Siena offers one a more intimate and intriguing view of the Italo-Byzantine-Gothic painting tradition as it culminated into what we know as the High Renaissance in Florence. While I am one for sensory overload, I don’t think the average art lover can fully appreciate, let alone absorb, the amount of Maestas, Madonnas and Child, frescoes and entablatures on the Passion of Christ, (not to mention depictions of local history) in less than a week. Hence, it is inescapable for the aficionado to break the onslaught with extended meals, which by now would have rendered me a pauper, by the time I make it back to New York. (How does an average of $50 a meal strike you?) Damn Euro!!!
Yeah, right…

I had secured my room (through the uffizio turistico) at a third the price they’d normally charge during peak season. (I still can’t get used to being served breakfast in my chambers.) I suppose it was a good gamble not having made a reservation prior to coming here, since I came to be situated right where the action is—50 meters from Piazza del Campo. The old section has remained untouched insofar as the original city plan is concerned. I could only imagine how forbidding it was at night during the Middle-Ages—replete with labyrinthine streets, murderous alleys and circuituous paths that always seemed to lead to the majestic piazza. Situated on a hill-top, Siena was an easily defensible citadel blessed with gorges, narrow and winding approaches, and a city plan that maximized its naturally advantageous topography.

And just like Florence, it is a mecca for tourists. There was a conspicuous number of English-speaking diners (dominated by Americans) everywhere I ate. In general, Sienese cooking is hearty, sublime and unpretentious. After a week in Tuscany, I have since abandoned the meat-laden secondi piatti in favor of pasta or soup. (often accompanied by salad or a side vegetable…a far cry from the gourmand I used to be.) You might even say that my judgment has been impaired (and my liver pickled) by the amount of Sangiovese-based wine, and the insiduous Grappa, I’ve consumed. To wit I say: La vita e troppo breve, per bere vino cattivo. (Life is too short, to drink bad wine.) Ciao!

Erving Del Pilar
November 3, 2003

Florence Flirts with Erving

Getting to Florence seemed like an eternity, owing to the unsettling way JFK airport security (twice!!) profiled yours truly. I guess no matter how I remain self-effaced, I still come off as a “sleeper” operative-assassin to avid terrorist hunters.
Regardless, I arrived without a hitch and settled into an adequately furnished 2-star room just a few blocks from Florence’s magnificent Duomo (cathedral). After a few days of museums and general sight-seeing, it’s quite evident that
this city is a true treasure trove of the finest Renaissance Art (Italian or otherwise) ever collected and organized in one picturesque locale. The number of Botticellis, Giottos, Massacios, Titians, etc. (aaah Erving, that inveterate name-dropper…) housed within the Uffizi, Pitti Palace and Galleria Accademia alone was simply too impressive, if not staggering! This city is unquestionably an art historian’s and restorer’s paradise. The only sad note so far was the presence of too much scaffolding marring the facades of several historic sites. (It is hard to appreciate, let alone photograph, a pretty face with bandages around it.)

This city was made for tourists. Every continent in the world was represented just in the Piazza del Duomo alone. The Florentines are graciously fluent in English. I found it bizarre to hear the French struggle with English just to be understood. (Even the museum labels and restaurant menu translations are decidedly in English and German. No love lost between you know who…) Still, I tried to practice what little Italian I speak, knowing I could easily bail myself out of a tight situation. Nevertheless, I ended up slovenly modulating the accent’s delicate “sing-songy” rhythm, into a Spanish-sounding facsimile of one of the more musically-intoned Romance languages. A piu tardi!

Erving Del Pilar
November 2, 2003