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In late March, my son who lives in Manila visited San Francisco with his whole family (wife and two children), and with my other son’s family here (wife and three children) and my husband, we went down to Newport Beach, California for a week. From there, we drove to Lego Land near San Diego, to Buena Vista to watch the Knights and Pirates shows (we are with children, remember?), and to Balboa Beach for an Easter brunch. As we strolled Balboa Beach after lunch, and hankering for ice cream, I chanced upon Jani Naval and Glen Castro, busily working behind the counter of a pizza parlor. Jani has been the proud owner of Pizza Pete’s for the past five years, and Glen, Jani’s assistant, has been working for the restaurant for only a year.
Our family vacation ended in mid-April, but even after my son and his family left for Manila, there were still balikbayan boxes to be shipped!
A few weeks later, I was on my way to Budapest, Hungary to join my sister, Bella, and four other girlfriends for a river cruise along the Danube River.
As we boarded the ship (an enlarged barge, actually), we were greeted with a very big smile by Jeremy Guevarra, steward at the bar. It was Jeremy’s first time on this cruise ship. Every day, he had the same wide smile to greet not only us, but also all the passengers. Unfortunately, Jeremy had to leave the ship midway because his mother was very sick in Pampanga.
Jeremy was replaced by another Pinoy, James Mallorca from Davao, and he also had a nice smile. It was his second year with this cruise company.
The passengers, all 159 of us, were introduced to the ship’s crew. Lo and behold, the executive chef was a Pinoy named Exequiel Cruzat. Exie, as we learned to call him, is from Pasay City, Manila and it was also his first time on this ship. He led a cooking demonstration on crepes suzette one afternoon. And one lunch, he served us adobo and sinigang.
It turns out, there were two other Pinoys on the ship, both in the kitchen. Francis Delazo is from Lubao, Pampanga and had been working in cruise ships for eight years. Jonathan Hidalgo from Cebu was a new hire for this ship, although he had worked for many years on different liners.
The cruise started in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. It is a beautiful riverside city that has nine bridges that connect Buda on the hilly right bank and Pest on the flat left bank. As we toured the beautiful Matthias Church, I heard some Tagalog words being whispered. I approached the sources with, “Are you Pinoy?” (This is my standard greeting in introducing myself; it gives me the chance to take their pictures. So far, I have been 100 percent accurate in pinpointing a Pinoy.)
Gina Villanueva Weinzerl, a former investment banker in New York, has been living in Vienna now for the past 13 years. She is an adjunct lecturer and doctoral student in international marketing at WU Wien (Vienna University for Business and Economics) and she also teaches commercial business subjects at IBC Hetzendorf.
The Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic, one of the largest fortresses in the world, is where the president and the archbishop reside. Here I bumped into the Aguilar family from Calapan City, Mindoro. Albino and Coralyn Aguilar own a gasoline station and they were traveling with daughters Carina and Chloe. They were on a 28-day European vacation.
I was certain that I would see a number of Filipinos at the Church of Our Lady Victorious (Infant Jesus of Prague). This is where the Sto. Nino can be found. I discovered a few surprises.
I saw Sonia Lampa entering an ice cream store, and being an ice cream lover myself, I followed her (of course, my intuition already told me she was Filipino). It turned out she bought the ice cream so she could use the toilet. Sonia is a retired officer from Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila. Her husband, Quiel, is the president of Diamond Rent A Car in Paranaque City. As we were talking we found out we both took MBA at Ateneo at the same time – we were classmates! What a small world indeed.
The biggest surprise of all was finding this Filipino store right in front of the Church of Our Lady Victorious. The owners also knew that many Filipinos visited this church because of the Sto. Niño.
The store has been open for three years now and it is owned by Martin and Myra Nizaradze. According to Martin, there are about 500 Filipinos in the Czech Republic working as teachers, engineers and domestic workers. About 150 of them are employed by Teleplan, an electrical company. (When I mentioned this to one of my traveling companions, she said that Meralco had lost a number of their electricians because a foreign company was hiring them. Now we know where they are.)
Myra and Martin met in Qatar where they were both working. She used to be a web designer in Manila before going to Qatar to manage restaurants and do event management. They have a son, 21 months old, who has dual citizenship. Apparently, this is acquired only by birth, so Myra cannot have dual citizenship according to Czech laws.
Here is a sample of the products in the store:
The day before the cruise ended, we took a boat ride under the Charles Bridge in Prague and decided to have lunch nearby. We met three nurses from Dublin, Ireland who were on vacation. Nes Sandoval from Cainta, Rizal has been a senior staff nurse at the Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, Ireland for the past 13 years; the same for Vicky Mirador from Dasmarinas, Cavite. Roselyn Cabato from Antipolo has been a senior staff nurse too, but only for the past eight years. They told me that there were about 200 Filipino nurses in the Beaumont Hospital alone.
After 11 days, the river cruise along the Danube River ended, but the second half of my journey was only beginning. My husband joined me in Prague, and together with my sister and her daughter, we went to Kotor in Montenegro. We caught a connecting flight in Vienna and met Milagros and Luningning at the lounge.
Milagros Steigenberger has been living in Vienna for the past 32 years. She was petitioned by her sister, a nurse, to be a nanny for her children. Milagros is now an Austrian citizen and has a daughter who is 29 years old. She works as a security service guide at the Vienna airport. Luningning Sanje-Hummer has been in Vienna for 17 years, has three children aged 17, 12 and 7. She visited her sister who was working as a nurse in Vienna and met her future husband. She works in the airport business lounge. According to Milagros and Luningning, there are about 5,000 Filipinos working in the Vienna airport alone, including caterers!
Efren and Trinidad Almonte have been living in Goose Creek, South Carolina, USA since 1985. Both are retired; she as a medical technician and he from the U.S. Navy and Bayer handling quality control. They were cruising the Mediterranean, and we bumped into each other in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Split is the third largest city in Croatia. Like Dubrovnik, it is a walled city. One early morning as we were rushing to catch the ferry to go to the island of Hvar, I heard Tagalog being spoken. I turned around and met three nurses from Vienna who were on vacation. Al Manuel Fabon, from Lemery, Batangas, has been in Vienna for 31 years and works at the central sterilization department of the Speising Orthopedic Hospital. He is an Austrian citizen and has three children. Evelyn Berena is a retired nurse at the Lainz Hospital in Vienna. She has two children who are also nurses. Evelyn met her husband, Mario, in Iran where they were both working as nurses. They moved to Austria when war broke out in the area. Both of them are from Batangas.
When I was in Vienna in 2001, the Filipino bellboy in the hotel told me that his other job was managing the remittance office of BPI. I asked, “Why? How many Filipinos are there in Austria?” He replied, “About 60,000. Mostly nurses.” I was astounded. I related this story to Al, Evelyn and Mario and they said that the number is even higher now. “All the children of the Filipinos in Austria become nurses too because it’s a sure job,” they said.
Last stop, Berlin, capital of Germany. I was tired and homesick, but this place turned out to be the highlight of the trip. Our tour guide was excellent and he carefully planned the whole day. My husband and I were so moved by the Holocaust Memorial that we decided to go to Sachsenhausen concentration camp the next day. I will never forget the eerie and haunting feeling I felt going through the camp and will never understand how humans can be so cruel to other humans. Sadly, it is still happening today.
We did some last-minute shopping at the Mall of Berlin and encountered Mayflor and Ricardo Zabala from Alberta, Canada. He is a retired Pentecostal pastor in Calgary where they have lived for the past 22 years. Mayflor was from Baguio and Ricardo, was from Bacolod. They have two children. They were vacationing in the British Isles and passed by Berlin on their way home.
The trip was finally over and the next day we flew to Frankfurt to catch the plane to take us home to San Francisco. At the Lufthansa gate where we were scheduled to depart, I heard a familiar accent, and I shouted, “Pinoy!” She turned around and was just as surprised to find us. Her name is Gina Gruber. She has lived in Frankfurt for the past 15 years and works for a firm providing security for United Airlines. She hails from Marikina.
Our flight got canceled due to mechanical problems and a harrowing journey began trying to get home – overnight airport hotel stay, delayed flights, missed connections, long lines at immigration and customs, re-bookings and more delayed flights, gates changed, baggage lost – every imaginable thing that could happen, happened. We finally landed in San Francisco at 1:30 a.m. without our luggage. What should have been an 11-hour flight from Frankfurt took us two days! But that is another story.
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