A couple of months ago I found myself out late, hungry, and in a self-indulgent mood in Midtown East. Conditions were ripe to finally go to Aquavit, the two-Michelin-star Swedish restaurant on 55th Street that I had been wanting to try for years but had never gotten around to because the last neighborhood I’d choose for an occasion is Midtown East.

So I grabbed the chance to pop in without a reservation at 9:30pm on a Tuesday and sidled up to the bar to order the tasting menu.

I love Swedish food to such a degree that even Ikea’s meatballs taste gourmet to me. So, actual gourmet Swedish food was sort of mind blowing. But the best thing about the meal was the cultural fusion that took place when I realized the man behind the bar was from Manila and I told him about my trip to the Philippines last year.


Because Joey is the classic bartender/storyteller hybrid, this led to him sharing a crazy tale about crushing on his older brother’s friend’s girlfriend as teenagers hanging out in Marcos’ abandoned office in the presidential palace on the night of the revolution (since both of their fathers worked for the opposition leader). Joey moved to America as a young man and didn’t see the girl again until a serendipitous encounter many years later. He picked right up where he left off with his crush, and after a long-distance romance, she moved to New York and they got married.

This incredible story, with too many plot twists to count, unfolded over eight courses of the tasting menu, all of which were presented like works of art.

smoked salmon

crazy good dessert

They were almost as amazing to look at as to eat. The chef took traditional Nordic dishes and spun them in totally inventive and delightful ways. It was a (very) expensive meal but well worth it, once in a lifetime, for the experience of being transported from the everyday to the extraordinary – by way of Sweden, the Philippines, and – most surprisingly of all – Midtown East. More and more lately I’ve been reminded that even in one’s decade-plus home, it’s always possible to see the world with a foreigner’s fresh eyes.

(get over the) hump day inspiration: Mary Oliver edition

Mary Oliver quote

Mary Oliver’s poem is particularly meaningful to me since I visited Cebu, where Magellan died, while myself far from home, and way outside my comfort zone both personally and professionally.

I went to the Philippines for work almost exactly one year ago. During some free time in Cebu city before heading to the remote outer reaches of the island for a shoot, we hired a tour guide to show us the sights.

I learned that Magellan landed on Cebu in the 1500s, planted a huge cross, converted some important people to Christianity, and proceeded to be killed three weeks later while attempting to forcefully convert some others. (Which is why I wish Mary Oliver had chosen someone less objectionable to illustrate her message. But I digress.)

We visited the cross, which is considered the most important relic in the Philippines. Not being Catholic, I was interested in its historic rather than religious value, and I was disappointed that it is completely encased in a protective covering, so you can’t actually see the 500 year-old timber. Magellan's Cross

Anyway… point is, the tiny villages I spent time in while in the Philippines were the furthest I’ve ever wandered from home, geographically or experience-wise, and Mary Oliver’s metaphor is actually quite on-the-nose and literal in my case. Especially because there were several instances in which I believed (delusionally) that I was going to die in the Philippines.

Thankfully that did not come to pass, the trip was an amazing exercise in stretching myself, and I am now free to find another far-off island to die in.

[Top photo is from Iloilo, two islands west of Cebu.]

the best of words, the worst of words: Philippines edition

Ruth in front of her village welcome sign

Two of the people I got to know on my Philippines trip were Ruth, with whom we filmed, and Juan, with whom we worked. They come from two different islands (Iloilo and Cebu) with two different dialects (Ilonggo and Cebuano). I thought it would be interesting to learn their favorite and least favorite words in their native tongues. And it was:

Ruth Celestial Cachuela is the captain (sort of like mayor) of her barangay (village), a community of 200-something households that sits on the northeastern shores of Iloilo. She has six children and six grandchildren, and she cares deeply about them and the wellbeing of her community. A very good person with whom to share a name! Her favorite word in Ilonggo: ruth's favorite word

Palanga means love, and Ruth chose it because, “I was loved by my parents, I was loved by my friends, I was loved by my husband, I was loved by the community, and even people who do not know me love me, because of what I have done. I also love them.” Her least favorite word:

Ruth's least favorite word

Baghak is an insult that means, according to Ruth, “You are downward, you don’t have knowledge for everything, like a monkey.” Ruth finds the word disrespectful and doesn’t like when people use it. She is a sower of love, not hate!

Juan Yao is a soft-spoken forester with an easy smile, born and raised in Cebu City. He is the kind of person whose presence makes you feel quiet and peaceful, which is why I was amused by his choice of favorite word:Juan's favorite word

Payter is the Filipino-ization of the English word “fighter,” and it is used as an exclamation when something is cool. I guess “baller” would be our closest approximation. As for his most hated word: Juan's least favorite word

Burikat is a crude word for “prostitute.” Juan doesn’t mind other words for prostitute, but this one he finds ugly.

So there you have it: Ruth and Juan, upstanding ambassadors of the Filipino lexicon. I now intend to integrate “fighter” into my everyday usage. As in, “I got to go to the Philippines. Fighter!”

11 things there are a lot of in the Philippines

So much to say about the Philippines but I will start with this thought: I love staying in a place long enough not only to observe the little things that are culturally different but also to discern which of those things are ubiquitous and truly significant. When you spend enough time to notice something over and over again, it makes you feel you are getting to know the culture on more than just a surface level.

For example, one day we drove past kids playing basketball on a roadside court surrounded by wilderness. I wasn’t sure if it was an anomaly or a thing. Within a few days I realized the courts are everywhere (everywhere in the middle of nowhere). Apparently Filipinos love basketball and they also love putting their courts in the most random places (including on an actual road, so that we had to drive through the court to get where we were going).

In no particular order, here are 11 things I saw everywhere during my 11 days in the Philippines:


The boys all walk home with their arms around each other’s shoulders and the girls hold hands or link elbows.

affectionate schoolgirls

affectionate schoolboys


There are so many scooters in the Philippines, and most seem like they are being used as taxis. They load them up with a death-defying number of people til they look like clown cars, with multiple people riding on the seat behind the driver, multiple people in the sidecar, and multiple people on the roof of the sidecar holding on to one measly handlebar.

tricyclestricycles loaded up with people


I kept seeing tires on the roadside advertising these shops. I realized I have no idea what vulcanizing means. Apparently it is what you do to patch holes in tires.

vulcanizing shops


I first assumed they filled Coke bottles with a homemade punch-like brew but later learned it is actually gas for all the scooters.

gas in coke bottles


I found it hilarious that most stores took a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to their names: the first word was the person’s given name, the second word was the type of store. Everywhere I looked it was Louisa’s Bakeshop or Fernanda’s Store or even just Mary Store, no apostrophe needed.

stores named after people another store named after people


These mini-busses are franchises, so the driver can decorate the vehicle to his liking. The results are amazing. (Also amazing: riders climb in the back wherever they happen to be when the bus passes by.)




jeepnie KTV BARS

KTV = karaoke

ktv bars


(Not to mention freely roaming water buffalo, and hogs, and goats, and ducks, and chickens…)

another roaming dog roaming dog


Traditional breakfast porridge that was a gluten-free god-send. Not pictured because I liked mine no frills: the tiny limes (called calamansi), fried garlic, and green onions usually sprinkled on top.

chicken porridge


basketball court

basketball court


baby bananas

baby bananas

And one more for good measure:


I noticed just a few Spanish words and culinary influences, but the most visible evidence of the former Spanish presence were the grand old cathedrals cutting a strange and imposing figure in the midst of hut villages.

remnants of spanish colonialization

A few other things I didn’t get photos of: 

A million Jollibees, the McDonalds of the Philippines (and to my chagrin, the welcome signs to villages were often printed on signs featuring the bee)

Garlic rice – i.e. rice with fried garlic chips in it – served with everything

Freestanding shrines with statues of Mary in them

Frogs hopping along the roads at night

Laundry drying on lines and over fences

Rice paddies

Rain, rain and more rain (it was rainy season)

And the more abstract things you can’t really capture on camera: 

A predilection for sweet-tasting everything

Lots of religious faith

Air fresheners that smelled like chemical lemongrass and made me nauseous

Some of the warmest people I have ever met