MANILA, Philippines – The European Union is one of the most active delegations in the Philippines promoting education. The face behind their campaign is often that of Political Counsellor Julian Vassallo who usually speaks in press conferences about the available scholarships and opportunities for Filipinos in Europe that will let them learn both in school and through their experiences abroad.
Getting to know Julian, his wife Celine, and their 3 boys, will surely make a person realize how constantly learning about life through people and places can keep you young and fulfilled.
Filpino positive vibes
Julian’s job as a diplomat often entails changing location every 3 or so years. Celine who worked for the United Nations before is no stranger to such a life. When they found themselves in Manila two years ago, the couple found a society that was quite unfamiliar but became endearing to them right away.
Julian notes how since they got here, they have learned a lot about parenting from Filipinos who, he observed, have the natural ability to take care of children. “[Filipinos are] very loving and patient which must be a better way of approaching children.”
Celine adds how in Europe, parents tend to be more strict, preferring to stick by the rules. But here in the Philippines, “It’s more play. When there is a disagreement, the children are made to understand why they cannot do this or that, and adults engage with them though sometimes silly play. Here, it’s a bit lenient but more fun. I learned a lot. I think it’s better for the family.”
Adjusting in a new place is really easier if the locals are welcoming. Julian, who enjoys golf, plays with the friends he made in a golf club in Cavite, while Celine enjoys shopping at the Cubao Market, where she has met fellow shoppers who often help her become more familiar with the local produce.
“There are so many local fruits and vegetables that I don’t know how to cook,” Celine said. “But older people, mostly Filipina women there in the market would explain to me how to cook the banana flower or the coconut. They are so happy to share. They happily explain to you what they do.”
Julian said that during a recent holiday in another Asian country, they realized how unique the Filipino hospitality and postitive attitude is. On the last few days of their vacation, he found himself looking forward to coming back to Manila just to be around happy and positive people.
“You can see it everywhere, this positive vibe. When you ask somebody for directions in the street. Some people in other places will be helpful but they might be in a hurry so they just give you the directions and leave. Here, you see that Filipinos take pleasure in helping you. They will explain to you, smiling and you see that they are happy to have helped you.”
“Even the kids really love it here,” Julian added. He narrated how at the end of their last vacation in his home country Malta and Celine’s — which is France — the kids ended up telling their parents that they wanted to go home. “And by home, they meant Manila,” Julian said, laughing.
Julian and Celine have 3 boys — Lucas, Tobias, and little Harry. Celine admitted that the 3 can be quite a handful so she has been focusing on motherhood for quite some time now.
Both Lucas and Tobias are now studying in one of the international schools in Manila where they have made friends with Filipino kids and those of different nationalities.
Julian said he likes how his kids are exposed to different cultures as this helps them keep an open mind and become well-rounded as they grow up.
At the tender age of 9 and 5, both boys are seen playing board and number games such as Diplomacy and Rummikub. They also spend a lot of their time in a tree house or the pool in their backyard, getting some outdoor time.
Harry, the youngest of the 3, can be mistaken for a cherub in a Michelangelo painting. With his curly locks, wide-eyed stare, and infectious smile, it will be hard for anyone to resist him.
“On weekends, we love to go to the sea,” Celine narrated, confirming how much their family also loves the outdoors. “We can spend hours and hours in the sea, just looking at marine life. The children love it.”
They have been to Coron and El Nido. Though they are huge fans of snorkeling and diving, they are also looking into exploring the Philippines through hiking. Celine has already been to Mt Pinatubo for a hike and is looking forward to seeing more Filipino mountains. But this time, with her adventurous and nature-loving family.
“We make it a point to go on weekend trips together with the kids whenever we can,” Julian added. “To explore the country and bond with the children. I think it’s pretty important.”
Thousands of miles away from home
Julian hails from Malta, a country that is the southern most point of Europe. He said it is also rather similar to the Philippines because it is still a very Catholic nation.
“Malta only introduced divorce recently,” Julian said. Back in 2011, the Philippines and Malta were the only two countries that did not have divorce. But in May of that year, their country introduced the referendum and now, the Philippines is the only country in the world that does not have divorce.
“I remember that when divorce was introduced in Malta, it was also the day of our arrival in Manila,” Julian said, joking that it was as if they were running away from divorce.
Malta is 1,000 times smaller than the Philippines but it is abundant in historical sites. One of the most famous works of Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is on display inside a cathedral in their walled capital city, Valletta.
Julian shared how back in Malta, one of the things they were taught comprehensively about in law school is the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which — unknown to many — was actually an initiative of Malta.
“I remember thinking to myself while I was studying: where would I actually use this knowledge of UNCLOS?” Julian said. “And with a very nice turn of events, I find myself assigned to the Philippines where it is a very important issue.”
The Philippines recently filed a case against China at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) after being engaged in a standoff in a disputed area of the West Philippine Sea called Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc). A series of diplomatic solutions were tried by both parties but no agreement has been reached. This prompted the Philippines to bring the case unilaterally to ITLOS.
Julian said that with his knowledge of UNCLOS, the diplomatic issues in his current posting have become more interesting.
The EU delegation earlier said they support the use of UNCLOS and the international rule of law to iron out the territorial disputes in the area.
As a diplomat, one of Julian’s duties is to promote trade and exchanges between the EU and the Philippines. Though the relationship is at an excellent state, he said there is always room for improvement. “Considering that the Philippines has about a hundred million people and europe is the largest economy in the world, there is definitely more room for trade,” he said.
The Delegation is also working on bringing in more European businesses into the Philippines and vice versa. With the recent opening of direct flights to Europe by a Philippine air carrier, Julian said he is hopeful for more business exchanges.
The EU helps in promoting education and alleviate poverty all over the world. Such programs of the EU are brought to the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries which keep Julian busy.
Recently, they were able to send 26 Filipino students to Europe to study for free through the Erasmus Mundus scholarship. The same program has benefitted over 200 Filipino scholars since 2004. The program covers air fare, tuition, and living expenses during the course.
With booming economies in Southeast Asia, Julian is also hopeful for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in their 2015 ASEAN Economic Community initiative. This is a goal set by ASEAN to attain regional economic integration, a bit similar to the EU.
However, with the differences among ASEAN nations when it comes to wealth and political systems, full integration like the EU’s might take a bit more time for ASEAN nations.
Keeping up with change
Having to start all over again in a different country every few years, one might think that certain changes can be exhausting. But for the Vassallos, it’s actually the other way around.
“It makes you feel young. It’s always a new start. You make acquaintances who later on become friends and then you really start to enjoy it,” Julian said, likening their constant moving experiences to being in college — moving away from your comfort zone for learning.
Celine said she also loves the changes of getting to know the norms of a new country.
“Honestly, before coming to the Philippines, I didn’t think it was possible to laugh at 5:30 in the morning,” Celine said. – Rappler.com