Here goes nothing
One morning in June last year I woke up and found out that the side table outside our house along Elgin Street was gone. Being outside our house, it was most probably mistaken as a giveaway by a passerby. In Melbourne, when you want to give out stuff – hand-me-downs, half-broken appliances or things that take up space, you leave them outside the house for anyone to take. There was nothing particular about how the side table looked – it had four varnished legs, a cushion to sit on and a drawer filled with Christmas balls and lighters. And yet finding out that it was gone upset me.
I messaged my housemate-turned-best friend Andrea, who was at that time doing his trip around Australia before leaving for good. It was our chair, he told me. There we sat for more than a hundred nights during our ritual pre-bedtime cigarette sessions, when we would talk about how our day went – mine at school and his at work, which party to go to on the weekend, or what we think about our housemates and people we know. It knew about what we thought of our small world – it was the spot of our smoke-filled Australian meditations. I take pride in telling my friends that I never get attached to things, so when it went missing I asked myself why I was grieving for a piece of furniture. When Andrea left for Switzerland in August, there were nights when I would still go outside and smoke on the spot where it used to be, until one day I decided to smoke in the backyard instead.
I left Australia last December, and I’ve shifted from furniture grief to missing the entire brick house on Elgin Street. I think about the people I cooked food for, the boring nights spent watching forgettable movies, the songs sung in a spell of drunken confidence and the quick friendships forged in the shortest of infinities. I wonder when I’ll be able to move on from this, but then I remind myself that the house and all the things it stood for are still where they’re supposed to be. No reason to grieve for things that stay.
It’s been almost two months since I’ve received my master’s degree and because I’m still choosy about my job applications, I’m still unemployed. Woot. While this is something I don’t thoroughly enjoy, I welcome the fact that I got a break from the panic-inducing responsibilities of work and university. I’ve started playing my ukulele, learning Spanish, taking care of the dog, reading books and, most importantly, binge-watching shows from the farthest corners of the earth.
And this led me to Skam, a four-season Norwegian series that ended last year. Norway’s answer to Skins gives the British hit a run for its money. I love Skins, I really do, but Skam is så jævla bra! I actually learned about the show last year when a classmate of mine posted about it on Facebook, but I never got around to watching it until this year. It’s set in a Norwegian high school and each season, a character becomes the main focus of the entire storyline. Season 1 is about a girl and her search for identity after being dumped by her best friend; Season 2 is about another girl whose convictions get tested when the school jock sets his eyes on her; Season 3 is about an erstwhile straight guy who falls in love with another man and Season 4 is about a Muslim girl and forbidden love. The show reached its peak in 2016 when it won Best TV Drama and when a particular scene in the third season won TV Moment of the Year in Gullruten, one of Norway’s biggest awards shows for television.
It’s safe to say that Skam is like Skins, if Skins were less dark and angsty, the characters are more straightforward and seem to have a high level of emotional maturity for their age. A central element in the series is the Norwegian high school tradition called russefeiring, where students in their final spring semester buy (because Norwegians are fucking rich) their own party bus and drink from April 20 until May 17, Norway’s Constitution Day. Despite tackling hot-button issues like body dysmorphia, homosexuality, mental illness and religion, the show’s strength lies in understated moments where the characters unpack the issues with such finesse and maturity. Skam’s characters go beyond stereotypes – they often say and do things not expected of them, and yet they still make themselves relatable. I can blabber some more but this article gives a pretty good take on the show.
Dance, dance, dance, cry, dance again.
Early this week my housemate convinced me to see Shameless (US version) on Netflix, and I’m glad I did. I’ve been meaning to start it last year, but I was deep in Fresh Meat, Stranger Things, You’re the Worst, Fargo, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (lol), Bojack Horseman and other shows that make me feel human, like Chef’s Table.
There’s something about shows set in a house that gets me. Maybe because I’ve started living with strangers since I was sixteen, and now I’m living in a sharehouse in a foreign land with sitcom characters from different parts of the world. There’s currently eight of us in the house – five Filipinos with only two speaking Tagalog (that includes me), an Italian, a German and a Pole. For the most part, we’re a pretty normal, fun-loving bunch – drinking and smoking together in the garage, watching movies together, going to the beach together, talking about sex and consoling each other afterwards. But there’s also the occasional shouting matches in the kitchen snowballing into a confrontation extravaganza with at least one person crying, leading to a grand assembly where we take note of our realizations and promise to move forward as better people. I love those idiots.
Shameless is about a dysfunctional Chicago family, and that’s about all you need to know to give it a try. The dad is an absolute scum of the earth; Fiona, played by Emmy Rossum looks like an adult Nancy from Stranger Things; Steve the boyfriend is played by that actor from the spectacularly problematic Dragonball live action movie where he played white Goku; and Veronica is that girl whose face became the basis for Rochelle’s character from Left 4 Dead. I’m only on the eighth episode of the first season, and I’m glad I still have a long way to go because it’s already on its seventh season.
The characters themselves were conjured from a fiction writer’s wet dream. There’s the genius kid who loves to fuck around, the gay kid doing ROTC, the little girl who acts like a fifty-year-old mom and a sadistic boy who loves to destroy things and put live animals in the microwave. Even the supporting characters were thought-out: an agoraphobic, high-strung but well-meaning neighbor, a charming interracial couple and perpetually horny white girls. The show gives a pretty interesting nuance to the lengths poor people go to get by (hence the title), and it is equal parts eye-opening, disturbing and heartwarming. It touches on sensitive topics like race, inequality and homosexuality, but it’s more of an exposition rather than an attempt to evangelize. Watch it!
PS. The soundtrack is amazing.
I knew I was going to be a journalist when I was eleven. One clear day in January, sixteen years ago, I was sitting at the back of the classroom, reading three different broadsheets, ignoring whatever the lesson was for the day. I was preparing for a national news writing competition, and it was in between reading reports and staring blankly at the quadrangle outside that I realized what I was going to be after school: a reporter. I like writing in general, so I started writing articles about inter-school competitions, people who held Guinness World Records, made-up stories about young love and horror stories where I killed classmates I didn’t like. My father encouraged me to take engineering in college, or something that would lead me to law or medicine. When I was doing my college application, however, he was abroad, so I made the decision to take journalism instead. My mother did not disagree, but she encouraged me to do well enough so they could all see me on television, maybe delivering a news report in the middle of a storm, trying my best to look professional and magnificent.
Sixteen years have passed since then – I went to university in the big city, moved away from home and started paying my own bills. After graduation, I took a job as a business reporter, trying my hardest to meet daily story quotas while learning about finance and economics as quickly as I could. I worked six days a week, and a huge chunk of my modest salary went to buying medicines for my father, who was slowly dying from cancer. I wasn’t earning enough, and I’ve never felt so defeated. I thought I made a mistake choosing what I wanted to do, and I felt ashamed being a victim of my own choices. I went out partying with friends on some nights to take my mind off things, and I would go to sleep thinking about people, the enormity of their problems, and how they manage to go on with life everyday pretending they’re not dying inside. One of my favorite authors once said that “we are all the walking wounded, your pain is no worse than everyone else’s.” I hated this line because it’s true, but just the same, I lick my own wounds and I feel my own pain.
Whenever I go into deep conversations with my friends about the story of my life, I’d tell them that those were my darkest years, sounding like a twentysomething trapped inside an old, jaded man. I started doing horribly in my work, got shouted at by my bosses and had to quit and change jobs because I couldn’t take it all in. Back at home, my brother got someone accidentally pregnant, my sister was separating from her husband, I got rejected from a scholarship application and I lost my best friend. My annus horribilis was in plural form. I started having the most horrendous pimple breakouts and I hated how I look. I started picking my face until it bled. Friends would ask me what happened to my face, and I was torn between narrating my life story and telling them to mind their own faces. I had cigarettes for meals and started binge-watching tv shows about funny people with fucked-up lives, and I thought about how long it would take for my own personal dramas to end. My horror stories reached their climax in February 2014, when my father died. I lost it.
I still have a lot of stories to write about in the future, but I’m grateful this chapter’s denouement is already unfolding. My brother is now married and a father to a wonderful, lovely boy, my sister is starting anew with her boyfriend and my mother, well, I’d like to think she’s always been strong. I sent her money last month to get a new set of dentures – my Christmas gift. I’m still in touch with old friends I love, and I’m making unforgettable, meaningful memories with new ones. A few weeks ago I read an article about happiness, and it said something about not forcing every day to be a happy day, but by making every waking moment a struggle to weather through every pimple-inducing shitstorm. “There is no love of life without despair of life,” Albert Camus once said. Happiness is in the daily fight to be happy despite everything. Happiness is a battle.
As I type this on the eve of my twenty-seventh birthday, I’m sitting in my room in a brick house in Melbourne, just outside the university where I’m currently taking my master’s degree in social policy. Whenever people ask me what my course is about, I tell them that I’m changing careers because I want to make world a better place for everyone. For all the walking wounded. There are times, though, when I still look back at that idealistic grade school kid at the back of the classroom who wanted to be a professional journalist. Things have gone differently since that clear January day: I did not become the television reporter my parents imagined me to be. But whatever the hell happened, I can still see myself in the middle of the storm, this time dancing.
It’s been just a little over two weeks since I’ve arrived in Melbourne, but I’ve already made some conclusions about the city because I am a presumptuous boy with a knack for drawing up sweeping generalizations. Here is a five-point list.
- Honesty is a huge part of Melburnian culture. Either the people here are just too lazy to police unscrupulous freeloaders or they are raised properly by their parents that decency isn’t such a shocking concept. In our hip neighborhood laundromat, for example, you’re asked to drop a dollar in the coin box if you want to get a scoop of detergent. No one’s out to check if you’re getting way too much laundry soap or if you’re really paying, except maybe Jesus because Jesus is always watching you. You can hop on or hop off a tram without tapping your ticket (myki card) on a reader, provided that inspectors won’t catch you. Groceries also have self-service payment counters where you can theoretically get tons of stuff and underdeclare them, only paying for items you wish to pay for. This honesty system is a wonderful thing – Melburnians assume the best in everybody and the people are aware of the importance of keeping it that way. Theirs is a culture of social engineering that appeals to the decency of people, instead of intimidating potential crooks. Maybe it’s a luxury only the first world can afford – these people don’t need to cheat and steal anyway. The people of Melbourne have been hypnotized to be fully cooperative and responsible members of society that it’s almost like North Korea but in a good way.
- A single meal’s portions can feed you for an entire day. In my first week, I’ve made the mortal sin of not finishing my souvlaki and my KFC Twister. It’s not because they tasted bad – food here goes above and beyond expectations – but the portions were just too much for a single person. When they cook their food, they have sumo wrestlers in mind as customers, no wonder most of them look always full. I’ve also observed that the food staff here serve you your money’s worth. You know those guys in food stalls who make sure they account for the tiniest milligram to ensure they don’t give you extra food? Those guys who serve you the inedible parts of the meat leaving you feeling cheated? They don’t exist here.
- White boys love their short shorts. This is still a mystery to me. It’s currently winter, people are smothered in thick layers of clothes of varying thickness, and suddenly you come across a white guy wearing a jacket and really short shorts. Doesn’t matter if it’s the cold temperature, the wind, the rain or the triple killer combo: you will most probably encounter white guys – not Asian, not African – walking around like they’re the masculine Australian version of Queen Elsa. Is there a mutant masculine Caucasian gene that renders a white guy’s crotch impervious to frostbite? Are they members of a secret society? Why are they like this?
- Australians are friendly, chirpy people. I’m not a morning person and I usually have this talking and perkiness embargo until I have eaten lunch. But since I go to school in the morning I’m forced to interact with Aussies who love small talk even in the early hours of the day. In Melbourne, it’s not unusual for a complete stranger to strike a conversation or smile at you when you’ve accidentally made eye contact. If this happened to you in the Philippines you would’ve probably squinted and scowled, whipped up your phone and sought the help of social media in cyber-assaulting an otherwise friendly person. Aussies also love greeting each other. Here’s an actual conversation between Aussies in a bank:
Customer: G’day how ya doin?
Teller: Good, thanks, how ya doin?
Customer: Yeah not so bad. I’d like to blah blah blah…
- This is me:
Teller: G’day how ya do-
Me: I don’t have my ATM PIN yet.
- The Australian national treasure Vegemite tastes like goddamn salty ballpoint pen ink. Vegemite is that dark, vitamin-rich paste made from leftover brewer’s yeast. It’s the subject of too many YouTube videos and Buzzfeed articles. It’s also one of those quintessentially Australian things Aussies are very much proud of and I have yet to fully understand why. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Vegemite jars are made in Melbourne, and the Aussies show no signs of ditching the product. There’s a small jar of Vegemite at home and one day I tried it just to see for myself what it actually tastes like. It’s definitely an acquired taste, somewhere between sadness and despair with a hint of violence, but I’m told it sure is healthy!