Words & Photo by Cynthia Kurleto
It was the early 70’s when my mother Faustina Verdillio, born and raised a Filipina, landed in Vienna, Austria. She had just received her diploma in nursing and through a stroke of fate had the opportunity to work abroad. The small country of Austria tried to solve their shortage in medical staff by contracting nurses from the Philippines.
Her best friend had enrolled on to the list of wishful participants for the job abroad and added Faustina’s name, too, apparently without asking. She had done so to feel less lonely, should she get picked, which she didn’t, but as fate goes, my mother did. And that is how she became one of the first thirty Filipino nurses in Vienna, for which later in life she received a plaque of appreciation from the Austrian government.
I vividly remember tales of her first experiences in this new place. Her first visit to the drug store to buy what she thought was shampoo turned out to be a bath cleaner (“it smelled of lemon”). She was amazed that one restaurant portion could feed two of her friends and herself. When they would chit chat excitedly on the public transport (“floors so clean one could sleep on”) they were reprimanded by other passengers to be more quiet. The novelty of snow, including the excitement of posing with it for pictures to send back home wore off quickly when she realized it was going to be a long winter.
The first time I remember listening to my grandfather’s voice was on cassette tape. Those were messages recorded in hour-long sessions, from one living room to another and sent along with whoever was traveling in that direction. That’s the same way I got my first taste of the best mangoes in the world - their vibrant yellow and sweet smell amazed me. When relatives brought these little treasures in their suitcases, numbers and heads were counted, often time a single fruit split between two. My mother missed her Filipino cuisine as there wasn’t a single Asian supermarket in the country, just yet. You can imagine how happy she was when she found out about this guy who came by the nurse’s boarding house once a week to sell the Asian goods he imported.
Fritz had trouble finding customers who shared his love for all things Asian and came up with the clever plan of catering his goods directly to the people he knew would appreciate them. He quickly made friends and ended up staying after work to play Mahjong - the game nurses had taught him. And that started the story of how my parents met and how my mother settled in Austria for good. My father, always having been quite the adventurer, went on to proudly show my mother the rest of Europe, which they explored by van. Something he continued to do for every Filipino travel group that was interested and whenever there was a free seat, I came along for the ride.
It might seem ironic, after the effort my mother invested to establish a new home abroad, I moved back to Manila at age twenty and then on to Peru at age thirty, before settling in Vienna. I have come to accept my love for adventure. My ancestor must’ve stood at the edge of the water on their little island, one of the 7000 islands the country is comprised of and followed their sense of adventure. That pulse still flows through my veins today. I’m very proud to be a Pinay in Europe. Mabuhay!