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Remembering the Cold Seasons in the City

The scent of apple and the cold weather were two signs, for my generation at least, that Christmas and the cold days were fast approaching.

Our apples I remember had a distinct aroma that could not be kept from us, children. They permeated the walls of the built-in cabinets, and woe to an aunt who hid them inside a box for they would be discovered soon. The fruit was special for it summoned long journeys from orchards we only saw in our grandmother’s magazines. We thought of them – and thick chocolate bars – as being kept in special crates as they made their way from the cold parts of the world to ours. The cold weather was our welcoming embrace for these fruits of the special season.

December should be cold; Christmas should be chilly. We believed in those dictums. The early- morning masses, when the proper time for the Misa de Gallo or the Mass for the Rooster was still observed, were meant to make us shiver, cozy in our thick long-sleeved shirts and sweater. Half-asleep and shuddering shoulder-to-shoulder, those who vowed to complete the nine Masses were there for the devotion and, later, the delectation of the hottest of salabat outside the patio. When the Misa de Aguinaldo or the Mass of Gift-giving came, it was meant to be celebrated near midnight when the temperature had dipped to an unusual low, either by imagination or weather persuasion.

Clime and culture conspired to make the days leading to Christmas be moments of comfort and contentment. The walk to the church was easy and luxurious; at homes, the living rooms granted warmth to kin rushing in to tell everyone how cold the world was outside. The cups of coffee, a gift from the gods in the morning, became the go-to drink at any time of the day.

I recall in high school when there was still a semester break, November would see us back in class with our new sweater. In the same month, the wind became stronger and it was declared a rule for those on the second- and third-floor rooms of our Jesuit school that doors be permanently locked. It was scary when the wind blew and the open doors came crashing with a thud against the wall.

My family used to live in this tall and rambling house that had old wooden walls. One December, the wind became so chilly my father, ever the great innovator, thought of using the wide mats made of pandan leaves to serve as double wall around our bedrooms. It satisfied my grandparents so much the invention stayed on till February, when the Amihan, the northeast trade wind still prevailed.

For me and my brothers, however, cold weather did not mean we had to stay inside the house. We relished the strong wind and what we treasured to be freezing drizzles on our faces. When thick fog descended upon the old city for we used to have foggy mornings, our adventure with climate and Nature was complete.

One day, a relative gave us (or was it left by him?) a trench coat. It was thick and the length reached below the knees. The three of us –brothers – (our sister being small then was not interested in that winter artefact) fought over the use of it. We somehow reached an agreement as we took turns in using the coat when we stepped out in style against the memorable “winter” of our youth.

We must had been a sight – little Humphrey Bogart walking as if the streets of the city were the setting of a bleak film noir.

I was already in college when I had the privilege to have the coat all to myself. I was leaving for an exchange program in Japan, a place where I could try the costume against the first true winter. It was the early years of Martial Law and travelling outside the Philippines made everyone a suspect. It was difficult to process papers. The requirements of the local government complicated matters because you needed to show proofs you had planted twelve trees up on some mountains. The only authority needed to issue this certification was the barangay captain. The dictator, of course, by that time, had rehabilitated the concept of the barangay. The capitan del barrio or teniente del barrio, even if Naga had no barrios, was now a proud descendant of the Datus who sailed using the biniray or barangay boats. Literate or not, the barangay captain had become the little, officious boss.

Scheduled to leave in September, which was moved to April of 1975, I finally left for Tokyo in February of 1976. In my mind, winter took place only around December when snow dappled distant chapels and the stars looked bright in the stillest of the coldest night. Wasn’t that the clear image on Christmas cards? What people forgot to tell me was how February was still in the depth of winter.

My port of entry was Haneda, Narita Airport then still a huge tract of land contested by farmers. That night, when the airport doors automatically swung to welcome me abroad, my thick and knee-length cover, I discovered, was no match to the cruel, frigid wind of the metropolis. I was wearing, after all, a coat meant for the friendlier season of Spring.


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