By just being a Filipino, finding the unexpected at every turn in Rome

‘DI ba ang Vatican eh ’yung Basilica lang? Saan kayo tumira?” My sister asked on Facetime, catching me still awake from jet lag. “True, Citta del Vaticano, with its 800 inhabitants all working for the Holy See, has no place for pilgrims,” I replied, and stuttered through details that would take me days to smoothen.

Eleanor and I landed in Eternal Rome, so like a dream that at the Prati B&B of Alessandra Bounaccorsi on Via degli Scipioni, the grinding of a dumpster bolted us out of bed. Later walking toward Citta del Vaticano nine minutes away, we had seemed afloat on streets perfumed by wisteria streaming from balconies like in a movie, through fashion boutiques, trattoria and garden shops. And suddenly, in a mercato, bunches of musot (bulaklak ng kalabasa), apparently used with mozzarella in a panini, transported me to my grandmother’s table.

With driving à la Manila, we had dodged zooming cars as we crossed wide boulevards and, soon, waving off hustlers who offer “no lineup for a fee” to Vatican Square, spotting in us a kababayan they could perhaps inveigle. More of the unexpected in our Roman dream began; shortly, we bumped into a huddle of nuns. “Filipino?” asked one, and all three lit up as we nodded, “Oo!!” But “pilgrims all aren’t we?” chirped the youngest. They belong to a convent of the Sacred Heart Order in Sicily.

Rome’s goldish sun ushered us finally into Vatican Square by then packed with hundreds of herded tourists and pilgrims. So awed with our necks craned to heights scaled to eternity as in those childhood estampitas, we fell into a hush. We had to whirl around to take it all in, the basilica with its balcony from where the Pope emerges at Christmas and Easter on television to greet us in his urbi et orbi, its dome and the colonnade, the marble figures of Christ, the apostles and saints we know by heart poised in the wind—where we stood, a Roman necropolis in Nero’s time, early Christians had been executed by him, Saint Peter among those crucified.

Inside the basilica, overwhelmed by the magnificence but especially a touching-distance to the Cathedra Petri, Saint Peter’s papal chair, behind the baldachin, I resisted blinking. “Filipino? Yes, a Holy Mass will begin in a few minutes,” the usher let us into a girded area facing the high altar, pulling us away from the thick flow of just-gawking crowds. “Dominus vobiscum” reverberated through the sung Mass concelebrated by about a dozen cardinals; Eleanor and I responded from memory, “Et cum espiritu tuo,” even singing, “Pater Noster” and “Agnus Dei,” transported to the dawn Masses in the dark brick churches of our youth.

Brought back to the square by a gushing stream after Holy Mass, we plunged unknowingly into an expectant wave, crying out for “Papa Francesco!” Soon, from a window high above the colonnade, he addressed us, straining body-to-body to catch him, thumb-size from the ground, but suffused with his discernible smile, his warmth, reliving in me how I felt on first seeing Pope John Paul II, long ago it seems, as his open carriage wheeled through Magsaysay Boulevard in Manila.

A daunting line to Musei Vaticani almost crumbled our resolve next day. But we persevered from a tail that snaked uphill along the wall behind the basilica to papal palaces once, now museums of relics from Greco-Roman civilizations, through halls of ecclesiastical and classical art—the utmost being Michelangelo’s stunning ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel so configured as the tour’s climax. Amid such magnitude, suddenly I understood what perfection in art means decades after Humanities courses at the University of Santo Tomas—why shouldn’t Art be the Church’s legacy?

Still a palpable sense of vulnerability, yet impregnability pervade not only in the museums’ telling of Church history but also in preserved structures, as in the massive Castel Sant’Angelo, first a mausoleum of pope-kings then a fort, that till now looms over the Tiber just outside Vatican walls. Saint Michael the Archangel’s fierce vigilance from a tower still pierces peering eyes—he, whom Catholics invoke as shield from ruinous enemies and who Josie Darang calls when fear overtakes her, like in a cab hurtling through Manila’s streets.

“Filipino kayo, Ate?” A salesgirl had caught us in a shop outside the walls, browsing for souvenirs that could extend our precious euros. She filled a basket with refrigerator magnets, and spangled her breast with nylon scarves for us to choose; the whole stretch had a Filipino vying to pull in a fellow Filipino, reminding me of Central Market’s turo-turo aisles—a poignant note to an uplifting day.

After two days of pasta, Eleanor and I began to crave rice served only in a Pakistani restaurant as per tourist guides. But sauntering along Via Giulio Cesare, we had brushed by a hole-in-the-wall named Sarap. “Filipino kayo?” we asked the obvious; not only did we get a serving of rice but the all-male restaurant of young Pinoys also paired it with sarciadong salmon. The answer to my sister’s question by then had taken a twist: Indeed, by just being Filipinos, we found unexpected parts of us at every turn in Citta del Vaticano and Rome outside of its walls.

Published in Peregrine Notes, Alegria Imperial, Business Mirror Philippines, April 19, 2014

Could a father shape his child’s destiny?
Serafin Albano, my father taken when he was in the seminary in Vigan

Serafin Albano, my father taken when he was in the seminary in Vigan

Often, intensely quiet in insulated spaces is how days unfold here, undistracted spaces that let roam vibrant memories like this week. As I write this piece midway through selecting my poems for a Poetry Reading event at the Chapters Bookstore downtown, my first ever, sponsored by Vancouver Haiku Group to which I belong, the late Serafin Albano, my father—a central figure in my writing life—looms largely.

If he did not impose his will on my choice of what I’d be, I could be languishing now in a dark even dank office somewhere in a turn-of-the century old building in Avenida where notaries get signed and sealed for a small fee if I didn’t get a teaching job, that is. He lugged me instead led by the youngest of my mother’s brothers, then in his junior year at UST’s Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, to the office of the dean. I had waffled but in a quick turn of mind, I plunged into a future of writing. But I ended up neither a journalist nor a poet not until decades after graduation and long after he had died. Instead, I sneaked into a writing career via public relations, ghost-writing for years.

From a back glance this morning in a continent way across the Pacific, I feel that I had glossed over how my father felt through those years I got stalled in what he couldn’t understand as tossing out words and images in anonymity. Picking through hints, I remember how he must have had great dreams of my name spangled on printed pages, as in his first wrapped gift on my eighth birthday, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper that he dedicated with a noble quote beyond a child’s grasp: “Education supplants intelligence but does not supply it.” Telling me a book was easier to find, he had hoped this gift would inspire me to write more—I had a year before then, sent him, where he lived and worked in Manila, a four-line poem scrawled on grade two paper, a ruse to ask for a doll.

Yes, I did write but not feeling particularly inspired only fed with words, perhaps, from books he and my mother piled on me. Early in college, I wrote a hilarious narrative on how giggly, overacting, mostly spoiled girls in a dormitory run by nuns from across UST, my first published article in Philippine Graphic magazine, in its ‘Student’s Page’ with my picture and a note on the author. It had so elated my father, he carried the issue opened on that page and showed it to everyone including waitresses. Some months later, I followed it up with an essay on fishes, which I used as a metaphor for the kinds of people we get to know in this “ocean of life”. I made him so happy he treated me out, and my friends at the dorm to dinner almost weekly. But none came long after that.

In a sudden spurt, probably stimulated by my travels in my job at the then National Media Production Center, I began weaving words into lyrical pieces for Dick Pascual’s travel page at the defunct Daily Express. My father brought each piece to Magallanes Drive, trudging his way through grime-textured air. Among the stash I dug out when clearing out stuff to immigrate to here, was a rough album he sewed on the side of those published pieces. And then again, I skidded into anonymity.

Still, we argued furiously about writing. Our last word-spars focused on my defunct Newsday lifestyle page, my first ever newspaper job. More critical and cutting than the late Teddy Berbano, then managing editor, my father devastated me by his correctness those evenings I dropped by to see him and my mother on my way to my own home—I had married by then. He had died by the time my page started shaping up and later when I wrote weekly full-page feature stories for Sunday lifestyle at Inquirer.

Once coming home from New York much later, I found the fiction writing paperback he kept sliding before me that I left unread, and cried and cried. The author, R. V. Cassill, also authored the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction from which my instructor in a writing course I took at NYU’s Continuing Education program selected our readings. Leafing through the pages he dog-eared and underlined, I had realized it’s exactly what I was learning. I’ve grappled with challenges he couldn’t have imagined like writing in NY alongside native speakers of English. But each step of the way, I would find his imprint.

Could a father shape a child’s destiny, carving a path like mine that I had long wavered to follow straight on? On the podium to read my published and award-winning poems here in Vancouver, a crowd their blond, blue, hazel, gray, maybe some black even green Irish eyes on me, I’m sure my father though invisible to all would be seated in the front row.

 Published in Peregrine Notes by Alegria Imperial, Business Mirror, Manila, June 24, 2013

Guia’s Way

The Ordinary in Celebrated Lives, The Heroic in Ordinary Lives

Points in Time: National Artists, prominent personalities, and even lesser known folk are put on the spotlight in this book

Points in Time book launch: from left, former treasurer of the Philippines and Univ. of the East president Rosalina Cajucom, jewelry design artist Celia Molano, the author, and then UST Publishing House director

FOR someone who studied to be a journalist, Alegria “Guia” Albano-Imperial certainly took a long time and a circuitous route before landing her first newspaper job. All of two decades, in fact, and only after handling media relations posts in a university and two key national institutions.


It didn’t mean, however, that during that extended period, Guia had deserted her much cherished dream to become a writer. Rather, without her being conscious of it, the years proved to be an extensive preparation for what lay ahead — akin to an unhurried simmer needed to come up with a delicious pot of stew.

That “stew” can now be savored in the form of a book entitled “Points in Time”, part of the UST Publishing House’s harvest of 400 books leading up to the University of Santo Tomas’ quadri-centennial in 2011. For Guia, it is a full-circle achievement, being a proud Bachelor of Literature in Journalism graduate of that school. She reflects, “Forty-four years ago when I enrolled in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters wanting to be a writer and a journalist was when, I now realize, this book was conceived.”

The feat is particularly sweet because Guia didn’t set out to make a book. Not really. It was, unassumingly enough, the result of a cousin’s casual request for copies of articles that she had written. Guia was all set to have her “frayed pieces of newspaper clippings my mother had kept in a brown envelop” photocopied but ultimately thought that would be too cumbersome to do. She instead had them encoded at a press; to her pleasant surprise, the output looked like pages of a book and that’s when the seeds to do an actual one were sown.

But just like any seedling, the budding book had to fight for survival — with Guia sometimes proving to be its own worst enemy. As she writes in her introduction, her heart sank when she began proofreading. “I found out that furiously pounding on a computer to meet a deadline was hardly the right way to write a book. I couldn’t read them (her articles) again without wanting to rewrite every sentence.”

Fortunately, she persisted. With the encouragement of her friend and former editor Llita Logarta who re-edited and her newsman uncle Roy Acosta who re-read, Guia now encapsulates the best of her output in five national dailies into “Points in Time”. Subtitled “The Ordinary in Celebrated Lives, The Heroic in Ordinary Lives”, the book brims with discerning profiles of a range of interesting individuals.

From four National Artists (Lucrecia Kasilag, Lucio San Pedro, Lucrecia Urtula, Jose Joya) and prominent personalities in different fields (designer Inno Sotto, businesswoman Elena Tanyu Coyiuto, advertising exec Emily Abrera) to lesser known folk like the reflexologist Nenette Dazo and the diabetic “Acheng Auring” who came up with her own healing brew, Guia puts them all in the spotlight — giving us readers a peek into their lives and their ideals, no matter their stature in life.

It is often said that journalism is literature in a hurry, and Guia’s essays exemplify this depiction. For even in her admitted rush to meet deadlines when these stories were written, the retelling of her conversations with her subjects is consistently vivid and expressive. What’s ordinary is taken to another level. A mental block, such as what the Maestro Lucio San Pedro experienced, is described as grappling with the void. The sudden starts and stops in the middle of traffic are likened to a jack-in-the-box. It is as if Guia has a whole chest of these words that add just a touch of color to her reports.

As you read each article, you wonder how she was able to take it all in in the limited time that she must have had with her interviewees. But apparently gifted with a shrewd eye and insightful perception, Guia describes things in great detail — the place she is in, her impressions of the person in front of her. It a testimony to her being present in those moments, ever so keenly aware of what was around her and what was being said.

“Points in Time” is an apt title, presenting slices of the past and taking readers on a journey back as if we had been there ourselves: The bustle of an advertising office even in the midst of a brownout (a hallmark of the 1990s) as she sought out Barbara “Tweetums” Gonzalez; the interview at dusk with Susan Calo-Medina which gives us an idea of both how she goes about her job as travel show host and how an ordinary evening runs in her Makati home; the grueling, sweaty hours in the rehearsal hall that go into the seemingly effortless performances of such ballet dancers as Cecile Sicangco and Neil Cambay.

Guia leads us all there, and more. That she loves the written word is here for all to see and appreciate. She herself has said that her articles seem to just unravel like thread in a magic spool. “No writer has ever succeeded in explaining fully the process of putting something on paper. I’m baffled no end at how the pieces in this collection have turned out beyond what I meant them to be.”

But in reading her articles again, she realized that she has gathered what for her were “treasures for a trove”. For this book, she purposely did not get an update on her subjects since she first wrote about them. Guia muses, “Certainly their lives and mine had so changed since then, but the changes have only added value to the mint quality of that point in time we shared.”


As published in the Manila Bulletin, December 6, 2006

“Points in Time” in brief 

The University of Santo Tomas Publishing House and Cultural Center of the Philippines launched “Points in Time”,  Alegria ‘Guia’ Albano-Imperial’s personal anthology on November 16, 2006, 5:30 p.m. at CCP Main Theater Lobby.

“Points in Time” is composed of published interviews in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, People’s Journal, and defunct Philippines Newsday, Manila Chronicle and Daily Globe, presenting the ordinary in celebrated lives and the heroic in ordinary lives. But “rather than essays, they are actually impressions of the most discerning kind, sensitive, intimate and often poetic . . .” writes Llita T. Logarta in her introduction of the book.

The interview subjects represent a cross-section of national life: four national artists, other performing and visual artists, fashion, jewelry, and interior designers, corporate heads, a businesswoman turned ambassador, a national treasurer turned university president, a handicapped artist, a balikbayan nurse, and a home-servicing masseuse.

They subjects grouped into themes are: Tony Adriano, Nic and Lulu Pagulayan, Baby Valencia Eala on “Defining the Home”; Jeanne Goulbourne, Inno Sotto, Cecile Sicangco, Neil Cambay on “Their World”;  Lucrecia Reyes Urtula, Lucrecia ‘King’ Roces Kasilag, Lucio D. San Pedro, Nena R. Villanueva and Reynaldo G. Reyes, Leonor Kilayko on “Legacies They Keep”;  Jose Joya, Mauro Malang Santos, Nuno ‘Tage’ Negrao Ferreira, Paco da Silva, Marivic Rufino, Araceli Limcaco Dans, Celia Molano, Gemma Cruz on “The Seeds of Their Creation”;  Susan Calo Medina, Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio, Barbara ‘Tweetums’ Gonzales on “Life’s Broad Strokes”;  Isabel Caro Wilson, Rosalina S. Cajucom, Emily A. Abrera, Liwayway Vinzons Chato, Lourdes Talag Echauz, Elena Tan Yu Coyiuto on “Balance of Things”;  Rolando Carbonell, Sally ‘Salliji’ Kung on “Spiritual Treks”;  Aurora Palermo and Ma. Anita ‘Nenette’ Daso on “Back to Earth”.

Copies are available at the UST Publishing House and selected National Bookstores.