I did not think I had it in me to party for five hours straight. But I also haven’t experienced being away from my friends, family, and everything familiar for more than a decade.
Dragging my tired body from the Stuttgart Central Station–after a birthday party in Baden-Baden that meant taking a morning train to Mannheim which then connected to Karlsruhe, and then back again–I texted Wiam about our own little potluck at the Schloss. “Is the dinner still happening? I have four kinds of pudding from my Filipino aunties.”
It was cancelled, she said, on account of “collective Sunday lethargy…but four kinds of pudding from my Filipino Aunties sounds like it should be the title of a story or a memoir.”
I had been a little shy about taking food home from the party, not wanting to be fussed over by strangers. But this is what it is, or what it is becoming, to be working with Filipina women who have developed a reputation across the diaspora for providing this specific type of labor – that of care. Eventuallly, Madencia, 71 years old, born and raised in Tondo before coming to Germany as a domestic helper in 1982, noticed me and introduced herself.
“Do you have any food to take back with you?” came after the usual opening of, “What’s your name?” and “Where in the Philippines are you from?”
“You can’t not take something home,” she said, gesturing to a table piled high with desserts, before ambling back to the kitchen to find me a container. I follow her there and stop her as she’s asking for a massive aluminum baking tray. “That’s too much!” I tell her in Filipino, and take a paper bowl from a stack in the corner of the room. Madencia gets two more and insists there is no need to be shy before leading me back to the dessert table and filling the bowls with not four as I had thought, but actually five kinds of pudding: cassava cake, maja blanca, kalamay, something sweet potato or yucca based, and biko.
Two weeks earlier, I met with the women from LuViMin e.V. after contacting their president, Lourdes Pfisterer. They had their annual meeting at the Burgersaal Rathaus in Herbolzheim, Neudenau, a small town of 600 about an hour away from Stuttgart, which is one of the Baden Wurttemberg region’s largest cities. Expecting to find my way to the meeting on my own, I began walking from the station in search of something to keep me occupied for the next hour, when I saw a woman waving to me from a parked car. “Alice?” she asked, before giving me a hug and telling me to get in the car.
“We’ll go home first to leave your things,” she said in Filipino, “and then we’ll eat.”
Even if we are living in one of Germany’s wealthiest regions, Lourdes and her family live in a modest home. It has a one car garage, service areas where laundry and housekeeping materials are kept, a kitchen, a small dining and living area where family and friends gather, and the bedrooms. She shows me where I will be staying for the night before I come down for what could be merienda or lunch.
“Is it okay if I take a photo?” I ask her, about the first Filipino meal I would be having in close to two months. She laughs and offers me more of the ginataang kalabasa and rice. “Magkamatis ka na lang,” she says, taking a roma tomato from a package and slicing it into wedges for me to have on the side. I want to ask for fish sauce, but am overwhelmed and my shyness has gotten the better of me again.
Like Madencia, Lourdes came to live in Germany in the 1980s, before the country became part of the EU and before any of the Draconian measures designed to fortify borders came into place. “All you needed was a passport,” she told me the next day, when I asked about how she first came to Germany.
On that afternoon though, within an hour of meeting me, she tells me to feel at home, finds me a pair of slippers, and offers me a seat at the kitchen table. A few more women arrive: Alice Z, Divina S, and her sister, Christina C. They don’t eat, but they sit with me. And that is how it usually begins, I am told. This is how we find each other.
Earlier this week, in Pforzheim, with Chuchi and Regina of the Philippinisch-Deutscher Verein Nordschwarzwald, I ask how they began to organize as a group, and later, a community. Chuchi laughed, “Oh you know, sometimes we do this,” she says, miming a hand taking a needle and thread through fabric, “Sometime someone needs a siopao recipe.”
It is Chuchi who tells me about the party in Baden-Baden where I meet Madencia and the rest of the women from the Phil-Deutscher Verein. Chuchi is after all the first one I reached out to and one of a few to reply. She picks me up from the station in Karlsruhe that Sunday morning, and we go and pick up two more of her friends before picking up a lechon and heading to the party. The car is filled with chatter in both German and Bisaya, as Chuchi and her friends are all from the south of the Philippines where Tagalog is rarely if ever spoken. This changes at the party, where women from all regions show up to greet Klaus a happy birthday. His wife, Lita, is from Capas, Tarlac, and for that day she was our host.
Aside from the dessert table, Lita has prepared a massive spread in the kitchen. There is kare-kare, curried ox tripe with steamed vegetables, sitting on the stove; several kinds of noodle dishes, salads made with ampalaya (bitter melon) and pickled mangoes, an assortment of grilled meats and fish, and huge bowl full of shrimp. The women are lively–and they are all women, as very few husbands are present. At Pforzheim, Chuchi had told me about how the wives took these moments of togetherness very seriously. Their husbands just had to support them.
On the way back to the station, relying on the Navi app, Chuchi and her friends notice we’ve gone in what seems like a massive circle. She laughs. “There are many ways to get to Rome,” she says while smiling at me. Thanks to her, I make it to the station in time to catch another train to Mannheim, from where I catch another connection back to Stuttgart, where I can dwell in the comfort that I will soon return to the Philippines and its familiar tastes. For them though, home is a meal shared with each other. I put my five kinds of pudding away, and go to sleep, exhausted but with a heart full of hope and stomach full of carbs.