Looking Back

Treasures from old handwritten notes

/ 05:07 AM November 08, 2017

Note taking is a skill you learn in school and in my day, term papers were written from notes copied on 3 x 5 index cards. Nobody uses these anymore because we can take photos with our phones. Sometimes I type out notes on my laptop that no matter how jumbled is way better than hurriedly scribbling and being unable to decipher the note later. I hardly write on a classroom blackboard or whiteboard these days because my lectures are outlined on Keynote; my students rarely write on notebooks and many prefer to just take a shot of the screen on their phones. I once told them that while a photo may be accurate, physically copying down something on a piece of paper means that aside from simple motor action of the wrist, the data is more indelibly etched somewhere in the mind. Of course, I have no scientific basis to say this and my students think I’m as Jurassic as a dinosaur for even requiring them to visit the library and handle a physical book.

I am torn between throwing my old notebooks away someday or donating these to a library because they may hold something useful for another researcher by way of a bibliographic reference, an insight, text copied from some hard-to-find source, sometimes even the rude doodles I do when idle or bored. While sorting out papers recently, I came across notes I took down from the letters Marcelo H. del Pilar wrote from Europe addressed to his wife “Tsanay” in Bulacan. These are very moving personal letters so unlike the cold and impersonal letters of Apolinario Mabini, the awkwardly written ones by Emilio Aguinaldo, and the self-conscious ones written by Rizal who knew they would be read long after he was dead. Del Pilar’s letters describe what he saw and experienced in Spain and, in the self-referencing, give vent to the homesickness that overseas Filipino workers from the 19th century to our day feel when communicating with family.


On June 27, 1889, Del Pilar began with a narration of a religious procession and ended up with sinigang: “On the 24th of this month I watched the procession for the Corpus in Barcelona from the home of Ramon Imperial who hails from Camarines. He married a woman from Valencia and has a daughter who is the same age as our [daughter] Sofia. I had dinner there with Naning [Mariano Ponce], Damaso, Tiago, and others. We had sinigang na alumahan and rice, and it made us feel good. If you have sinigang everyday in the Philippines you don’t mind it, but only when you are abroad do you realize how good it is. For expatriates, one of their dreams is to have a taste of sinigang.”

Reading the letters of our heroes from abroad, one could say that they learned to love the Philippines more because they were outside of it. In another letter, Del Pilar wrote about how they celebrated Christmas in 1890: “It’s Christmas and I can imagine the happiness over there […]Last night, Rizal and [the] other expatriates had noche buena [Christmas Eve dinner] here and the table we used to eat our food from was our left palm while we used the right hand to put food in our mouth. We had rice, duck, lechon with a sauce which was like the sauce there [parang salsa rian] because the cook was Filipino. We parted ways at 5 a.m. and I’m very tired.”


Aside from trying to imagine what Del Pilar or Rizal was like with a hangover, I can imagine our heroes eating “kamayan” but with a plate, saucer, or a substitute for banana leaf. I find it odd that they used their left hand as a plate and their right as spoon and fork. And speaking of the food of our Founding Fathers, there is the handwritten cookbook of Juliana Gorricho, ill-fated mother-in-law of Juan Luna, who cooked Pinoy dishes for homesick expatriates visiting and living in Paris. Her recipes are of comfort foods like lumpia and pancit as well as sauces and dippings like patis and “quetchap” (ketchup?). On the margins of some recipes, she noted down the date when she cooked them and included a guest list with the names of Jose Rizal, M.H. del Pilar, Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo and other stellar names in our pantheon of heroes. So much history preserved, so much history waiting to be read from old notebooks that were preserved rather than discarded.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, marcelo h. del pilar, Note-taking, Notebooks
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