Extra! Extra!

‘There and back again’ refers to a crucial point in a journey in which we may find ourselves looking at where we have been to make sense of where we are and where we are going

“There and back again,” the underlying theme of this special holiday issue, is the subtitle to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, published in 1937. The phrase has also appeared in a much older text, the nursery rhyme How Many Miles to Babylon, which is said to have originated in 1801. It goes “How many miles to Babylon? / Three-score and ten. / Can I get there by candle-light? / Yes, there and back again.”

“There and back again” refers to a crucial point in a journey in which, if I understood it right, we may find ourselves looking at where we have been to make sense of where we are and where we are going. It may also mean going the extra mile only to find ourselves back where we began. Or it may mean we must go there and back, over and over, until we have learned what we must. Or, in the context of this special issue in your hands, it’s another phrase for “We’ve been somewhere nervewracking, earthshaking, groundbreaking, lifechanging and now we’re back!”

Back with a vengeance.

In the course of the last four weeks, I’ve been to three proper balls, where everyone showed up in extra long gowns and extra dapper suits, dripping in diamonds, rubies and Cartiers and Rolexes. The tuxedo shoes and the killer heels are back on the dance floor, such as at Shangri-La at the Fort grand ballroom where—like the two other balls, the Estée Lauder charity gala The Pink Ball and the Philippine Cancer Society’s Best Dressed Ball—held was the Tatler Ball, whose guest list had been dramatically reduced by more than half, from 480 three years ago to 280 late last month.

And yet, less crowded, less frenzied, I personally thought this year’s Tatler Ball was extra, with the reduced number of guests carrying with them the ever most important bling—their checkbooks—for the main purpose of the balls, which was to raise funds for certain important causes. The Tatler Ball, for instance, aimed at a whopping target of ₱8 million, raised over ₱40 million for its partner charity U-Go and the education of at least 1,000 deserving Filipinas.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a new normal, a phrase I’ve grown to hate, first introduced by a Time Magazine cover blurb in early 2020 that said, “Get It Into Your Heads that Life Will Never Be the Same Again.” Almost three years later, here we are, still the same, but maybe—and with hope—better, stronger, bolder, extra!

Live theater is back, and a major production, the Puccini opera Turandot, premiered last night at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) main theater with a flourish, replete with an international cast and crew, mostly Italian, but also Filipino talents, like Rachel Gerodias, playing choice roles. There’s a matinee show left tomorrow, if you want catch what Italian ambassador to the Philippines, Marco Clemente, describes as an all-important “streetcar,” to borrow from an American play, “that may never pass again.”

Rep. Toff de Venecia’s debut directorial masterwork for the Repertory Philippines, the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 1945 classic Carousel is being staged at the CCP Blackbox Theater, Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez, until Dec. 18. Toff’s reinterpretation speaks volume about our post-pandemic fortitude. The musical had to be canceled weeks into rehearsal in 2020 because of the lockdowns and, after nearly three years on the shelf, it’s now a reality, albeit with a cast reduced from 35 down to 14, a stage adjusted to fit a smaller venue, and an orchestration shrunk from a 30-piece ensemble to a two-piano concerto accompaniment. But what makes it masterful is how, without changing any of the Rodgers and Hammerstein lyrics, without adding a note or two, without meddling with the plot, the Repertory production has managed to bring a story set in late 1800s Maine into the 21st century, resonating on issues concerning marital abuse or women empowerment with an audience young enough to be considered part of today’s “woke” culture.

‘There and back again’ is another phrase for ‘We’ve been somewhere nervewracking, earthshaking, groundbreaking, lifechanging and now we’re back!’

On the dining front, Manila is on fire. Just check out the wait list on private dining restaurants, run by independent, experimental, forward-looking chefs like Don Baldosano (Linamnam), Tina Legarda (Bamba Bistro), Jorge Mendez (Mōdan), Thirdy and Nav (Hapag), Josh Boutwood (Helm), and Charles Montañéz (Alegria), and you know how busy Manila’s kitchens are catering to palates hungrier now than ever not so much for new flavors, aromas, textures, and sustenance as for meaningful, memorable experiences at the table. Chef Chele Gonzalez, the Catalan chef who has made the Philippines his home, has had to be a million people all at once opening restaurants here and there, from Tagaytay to Boracay, and coming up with all manner of new iterations for the food products he is best known for.

Yes, we’re back, not quite as new people. We’re picking up where we left off in 2019 when on the up and up, all set to fly off to new altitudes in 2020, we were rudely interrupted by an infinitesimal, insidious, invisible virus. We’re no different now, but with hope we know better and we can keep in mind that in this world one person left to his own devices to battle the forces of life and nature is all it takes to bring us all down to our knees.