Rizal the traveler

By Ambeth Ocampo via Inquirer
PARIS, France—Despite the wintry cold and occasional drizzle, the French like to speak their mind publicly. What we thought to be a parade on our first day out turned out to be a demonstration for Ingrid Betancourt, a French citizen who was kidnapped and has been held captive in Colombia since 2002. Unlike protest rallies in Manila, the French version is noisy but somber, better organized, and definitely serious because nobody smiles nor waves at TV cameras.

Next day, we encountered people bent on disrupting the progress of the Olympic torch to protest human rights violations in China and the Chinese occupation of Tibet. There were other rallies along the way not covered by the media, like those of drivers outside a branch of the defense ministry and students protesting yet another issue. Strikes and rallies are as common to the French as breathing in second-hand smoke or drinking those tiny cups of espresso.

One would wonder what Jose Rizal would make of all this if he were around today. Would he join a rally for human rights since he translated the “Rights of Man” from the original French into Tagalog? Maybe the better question would be, were the French as politically involved then as they are now?

Reading Rizal’s letters and journals that relate his visit to Paris in 1883, one can find some similarities between the past and the present. That Paris and its environs are beautiful and picturesque needs no validation, that’s what makes this city one of the prime tourist destinations in the world. That Paris is excessively clean remains true; Rizal mentioned places to relieve the bladder and they came complete with running water and soap. There is no need for the iconic “Bawal umihi dito” in the City of Light. Yet there was something Rizal found that some of today’s tourists, particularly Americans, do not see—excessive politeness and urbanity.

I read once that Paris would be a wonderful place to visit if not for the French. Contrary to popular belief we have been received quite well everywhere, and the only time we had a bad experience while asking for directions was with an ignorant American who waved her hands in the air and blurted out, “I have no time for this!”

This reminded me of Rizal who wrote: “The politeness and urbanity of the people are noticeable; if you address anyone, he replies amiably and takes off his hat, and when you pay or give them anything, they don’t fail to thank you, just as for the slightest collision or stumbling, they ask you for pardon or excuse. What Grant says that the English in comparison with the French are barbarians, I can apply to myself. Having been accustomed to a certain kind of treatment for many months, now that I’m in Paris I find myself, and consider myself almost rude.”

You greet shopkeepers and people you have to do business with. You even greet strangers in an elevator and bid them goodbye. In Manila, sales clerks are not trained to thank customers when they receive payment. Only in Rockwell and the Ayala Malls will you be greeted when you get a parking ticket, and will get thanks when you pay at the exit. We may not mean what we say but going through the motions of being polite does improve the quality of life.

Paris in Rizal’s time was expensive, and forced him to camp out in the apartments of friends like the painters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. He moved from one hotel to another in search of a better deal. A Filipino in Paris today will feel the same because of the steep exchange rate between the peso and the euro. Despite this, some things have definitely improved. Rizal wrote to his family about his fastest trip by train from Madrid to Paris in 36 hours. You can get from Manila to Madrid and Paris in a third of that time today if you travel by air and avoid Heathrow airport in London, where people lose flights or baggage or both. Rizal knew the sights, sounds and smell of Paris even before he arrived because of the illustrated magazines his family had in Calamba, Laguna, south of Manila.

Today young people have cable TV and the Internet to fill in the gap though they are more distracted by other sites and channels. Rizal also felt like he knew Paris and France from the novels he read, like “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” When he visited Notre Dame Cathedral, he went up the tower and commented on the gargoyles, remembering “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” My nieces had the same experience in the cathedral, also knowing Quasimodo and Esmeralda from the Disney cartoon version rather than plodding through hundreds of pages of Victor Hugo’s long-winded prose.

More importantly, Rizal was firmly rooted in the Philippines. He always made reference to home when traveling in a new country. Great rivers are compared to the Pasig, and size and scale are always based on home: “Fill with magnificent houses the entire area of Calamba, Cabuyao, and Santa Rosa and you’ll have Paris more or less. That is the way I figure it out because to traverse it by coach from one end to the other takes more than an hour and a half; you cannot see the ends of streets, nevertheless they are straight, wide and very well laid out, there are 25,000 coaches for hire; there are hotels on every street even the small ones and all these are filled with tourists from all over the world; trunks and suitcases everywhere.”

Rizal was definitely a traveler, not a tourist.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu
Photo: The Portrait of Rizal, Painted in Oil by Juan Luna in Paris.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *