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Rizal and the waitress named Mina

JUNE 12 for the past decade always began with me in Luneta or Kawit early in the morning. I thought this year would be different because I was in Berlin. But I was requested to attend the flag ceremony in our embassy in the morning and a Filipino community affair in the afternoon.

The Independence Day treat was the monologue “Pepe” read by Malou Jacob. It’s a short but moving piece that begins when the central figure in the Rizal Monument in Luneta comes to life and sees the Marines standing guard below. He asks, “Are they a guard of honor, or am I, over a century after my execution, still a prisoner?”

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Drawn from Rizal’s letters and diaries, the monologue should be better known during Rizal’s 150th birthday.

In the Philippine Embassy, I saw a heavy bronze plaque that once marked the place where Rizal stayed in Berlin. The abandoned building is located in what was once East Germany. When we passed by, tourists were reading the historical marker installed in the 1990s by the late Salvador Laurel of the Centennial Commission. Nobody seems to know the place where “Noli me tangere” was published in 1887. With more time, I would have traced Rizal’s footsteps in Berlin since I have recently re-read all of his letters and diaries and discovered that, contrary to popular belief, the Rizals were well-off enough to send Jose to Europe for his medical studies but his allowance was sometimes delayed by bad harvest or the complicated remittance and currency exchange system at the time. Rizal was rightfully upset when he had to borrow money from friends to tide him over. He needed new underwear, he told his family one time, because those he brought from home were already mended.

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In October 1885, he told his family that the cost of living in Germany was cheaper than in London and the same as in Madrid, adding:

“German will be of the greatest usefulness to me in the future when German commerce and preponderance shall prevail over there in the neighboring regions. It is moreover a language few Filipinos possess. I know a little, but as all that I know I have learned by myself, it turns out that though I have facility in translating written German, on the other hand, I can’t understand a single word when they speak to me, for my ears are not accustomed to the sound of the words. If I receive P200, I leave immediately for Germany; if I receive P600, I shall finish the doctorate, and if not, come what may. I already owe three and a half months board. Since July 1, when I should have received money, I have been without any and without letters.

“I don’t know how the Caroline question will end. It seems Bismark will get away with his pretensions. It is necessary that we prepare for what may happen so that we shall not be more exploited than we are now. Whenever they ask me here for our opinion I reply: ‘I believe that all Filipinos only want either to be Spanish or be independent.’ I don’t know if I have interpreted correctly the wish of our countrymen, but if not, I suppose I haven’t hurt them.

“When I was asked if we would fight in defense of the Spanish flag against the German, I answered that we would always fight in fulfillment of our duty and in obedience to our conscience. ‘What then is your duty and what does your conscience dictate?’ ‘Our duty,’ I replied, ‘is to love our country and our conscience dictates that we do everything that our duty implies.’ As I haven’t heard any news from there, it is difficult for me to speak of persons who are dead or have disappeared.”

Rizal would not recognize Berlin today. Many of its cathedrals of steel and glass built after the city were destroyed during World War II. He would also be surprised to see many immigrants, some of them Pinoys, walking around. There are many Asian restaurants in Berlin, but I found only one that serves Filipino food. While in Germany, Rizal wrote: “German food is not disagreeable, only it is full of potatoes. Day and night potatoes are served with everything. At night they serve tea with potatoes and cold meat.”

When he moved to Germany he recounted:

“Now I lead an entirely different life from what I had lately. I eat outside. The house with service costs me 28 marks—this is P7, each mark being worth 2 reales fuertes. Breakfast served at the house costs me 40 pfennigs. I have lunch at the restaurant; for 2 reales 18 cuartos they give me soup, three dishes, dessert, and wine, besides potatoes, salad, cabbage and other vegetables, for it must be noted that German cooking is all full of vegetables and many things mixed together. At night, I buy two small rolls that cost three cuartos, cheese, fruits, and a piece of sausage or butter. All in all, the heating, light, laundry, room and food cost me about P30 a month or a little less. Add to these expenses the cleaning, etc. so that for P40 one can live well in Germany, if one doesn’t have to buy clothes and to travel from time to time.”

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Rizal learned German quickly because he lived in Germany and knew Latin and Greek during his Ateneo days. German students welcomed him to their drinking bouts, and in a beer hall he befriended a waitress named Mina who showed him the Latin and German way of writing their language. In time he was able to translate Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” into Tagalog as “Guillermo Tell.”

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