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Looking for Rizal in Europe, finding a 'little bad boy'

In high school when I first learned about Rizal, his books and heroics, I could not relate. He was too talented, too good to be true. He was brown like me, but that was it. Hindi ko siya ma-reach. In the full bloom of adulthood, despairing of the state of the society I was born in, I sought to know him better. There’s a problem with trying to get to know Rizal in the Philippines: Many of the places he writes about are gone, either destroyed during World War II, like his schools in Intramuros, or changed beyond recognition by development, like the Luneta where he was executed. While I was on a working trip to Europe in 2004, Rizal finally came alive for me. Every schoolboy knows he had a world-class mind. But I also learned he had a large romantic heart and perhaps a libido to match. Unlike in the Philippines, many structures in Europe that existed during his eight years there remain, the essence of many of his old neighborhoods unchanged. Whatever changes occurred even struck me as apt, such as his old boarding house in Ghent, Belgium which now has an erotic underwear store on the ground floor, and down the street is the building where a printing press churned out the first copies of El Filibusterismo, now a store that sells tropical plants. (Rizal was of course both a lover boy and botanist.) One can actually read his exuberant letters home about Paris or Madrid and still find the same cobblestone streets where he walked or the same hotels he stayed in, and feel a similar awe exploring the same neighborhoods. Rizal had fun in Paris He first went to Paris in 1883, his first journey in Europe outside Spain, and stayed at the Hotel de Paris where my documentary team, Egay Navarro and Ella Evangelista-Martelino, and I also stayed a few days. It was popular cheap digs for Filipino students then (not so cheap now), and has a spectacular view in the distance of the Eiffel Tower. A few doors down was the home of the wealthy Pinoy expat Valentin Ventura, where Rizal and friends used to hang out. Rizal would return to Paris again and again, the fabled city of light by then the European capital of arts, liberal thought, and good times. It was here that Rizal formed the Kidlat Club, little more than a barkada of Filipino bachelors in Paris. Together they went to see the Buffalo Bill cowboy exhibit at the World Exposition of 1889. Rizal was more struck by the American Indians in the exhibit, and reminded his compatriots that they too were called Indios by their white colonizers. Henceforth they called themselves Los Indios Bravos.

The documentary team that produced "Little Bad Boy: Ang binatang Rizal sa Europa", (L-R) Executive Producer Ella Evangelista-Martelino, cameraman Egay Navarro, and Howie Severino, stand on the balcony of the Hotel de Paris, where Rizal first stayed in Paris. It has an awesome view of the Eiffel Tower, especially at night.
Rizal on succeeding trips to Paris stayed with friends like Juan Luna, occupying a bed space in his airy studio-apartment in an artists’ compound which still exists nearly unchanged. They shared a common outhouse even in the bitter cold of winter. Rizal improved on his painting techniques here under the watchful eyes of Luna the master. But on occasion Los Indios Bravos met here to practice the manly art of fencing. The Ventura home near the Hotel de Paris was a favorite meeting place. It was also walking distance to Montemarte, then the red-light district not only of Paris but much of Europe, and the home of the notorious Moulin Rouge, where sexy dancers would kick their legs and show flashes of French lingerie. (It’s still in the same place with a windmill on the roof, now lit by neon) The Ventura abode is now a doctors’ clinic with a Rizal plaque. The smiling elderly French caretaker told us proudly about how Filipino tour groups would stop and stare at the building where the national hero once enjoyed his wine and song. 'A cup of mundane pleasure' Rizal enjoyed women too, although he rarely wrote letters home about them. But we do know he had them, inspiring some urban legends that are still repeated to this day. I will not dwell here on the false rumor that Rizal had fathered Adolf Hitler via a "Viennese temptress," who was steamily described in the memoirs of his fellow expat and traveling companion Maximo Viola. (When Hitler was conceived, if you count back nine months from the future fascist's birth date, Rizal was in London doing research on pre-colonial Filipinas.) But Viola’s flowery account of Rizal’s “encounter" in May 1887 is worth quoting: “In one of our tours of that city (Vienna), he encountered the figure of a temptress in the form of a Viennese woman… of extraordinary beauty and irresistible attraction, who seemingly had been expressly invited to offer for a moment the cup of mundane pleasure to the apostle of Philippine freedom." It is the only known instance of a one-night stand – or “cup of mundane pleasure" - by our apostle of freedom. But we do know he had short-term affairs and near-engagements, and left a trail of broken hearts in Europe, while carrying a torch for his first real love, Leonor Rivera, who was pining for him in the Philippines. She would eventually marry an Englishman. It was the revelations about his love life as a lonely overseas Filipino that first made me feel for our hero, and convinced me that such a da Vincian character truly existed in our history. Crush ng bayan Perhaps Rizal’s most serious affair in Europe was with the tisay Nelly Boustead, the lovely daughter of a wealthy Frenchman married to a Pinay from Manila. Dashing Pepe and affable Nelly had fallen madly in love while the former was visiting the Boustead vacation home in the French seaside resort town of Biarritz in 1891. Her father was a supporter of the Filipino exile community and an admirer of Rizal’s talents. Nelly then enjoyed “crush ng bayan" status in the competitive world of Filipino male exiles, and eventually grew enamored with the alpha male, Rizal. Aside from Josephine Bracken in Dapitan and perhaps his long-distance sweetheart Leonor, Nelly was the only woman Rizal ever considered settling down with, if one is to judge from existing correspondence. The famously pacifist Rizal became so protective of Nelly that he nearly dueled with the future Katipunero Antonio Luna after hearing Luna make what have been described as “unsavory remarks" about the French-Filipina. Rizal and Nelly met in Paris in the summer of 1889, and became part of a barkada along with the Luna brothers Antonio and Juan, the Pardo de Tavera brothers Trinidad and Felix, and Nelly’s younger sister Adelina. They used to meet for fencing lessons every Sunday in the courtyard of Juan’s studio in a Parisian artists' community on Boulevard Arago. She turned up in a famous photograph of Rizal fencing with Juan Luna on one of those Sundays. Zoom in on the feminine face of the sitting figure in the corner and it is Nelly's lovestruck visage. In one of the photographs in Paris that show Rizal’s playful side, supposedly after posing for a Luna painting, he appears amused at himself wearing the disheveled turban mounted on his head. He smirks and looks away from the camera; an arm’s reach away is Nelly Boustead, wearing a veil and a more bashful expression as she too looks away from the camera.
Rizal wears a mischievous smile in this group photo in Paris in the late 1880s, with his pretty girlfriend Nelly Boustead, fourth from left. They may have just posed for a Juan Luna painting, hence the absurd-looking head gear. Photo from the Pardo de Tavera Collection
She’s pretty, with soft, mixed-race features, and could easily pass for one of those colegialas I danced with in high school. In between the two was their mutual friend Paz Pardo de Tavera, Juan Luna’s wife, who looked stern by contrast. One can easily imagine Rizal and Nelly making flirtatious eye contact right before the picture was snapped and they had to suddenly look away. As so often happens with barkadas that include attractive single ladies and randy bachelors, this little group was nearly torn apart by a love triangle that featured Rizal and Antonio’s rivalry for Nelly’s charms. But at first, the besotted Antonio confided in Rizal, even writing an anguished letter to his friend shortly after Christmas of 1889: “Does she still love me? Since 16 November I have not heard from her although I wrote her a letter some twenty days ago… I should like to know if I am making myself ridiculous by candidly believing in a love that no longer exists. This is really ridiculous." Little did he know then that Nelly had the hots for Rizal, who himself had a famed eye for young beauty. When it was becoming clear that he was part of a love triangle, Antonio wrote Rizal again, this time about Nelly’s chilling effect on his friendship with his compatriot, strongly implying a betrayal, even dishonesty on Rizal’s part: “We have no reason to be cold to each other, for many times I asked you if you felt love for Nelly and you told me no. Consequently I was already sure of you, certain you are my friend… Therefore chico, we ought to continue as friends as I thought we never ceased to be." The rivalry over Nelly nearly destroyed the political movement growing around Rizal, who had by then published Noli Me Tangere to great acclaim. At a reunion of Filipino exiles in Madrid in the summer of 1890, Antonio got drunk and his bitterness about being rejected by Nelly came out in a stream of insulting words about the comely lass. Rizal overheard Antonio, an argument ensued, ending in a challenge to a duel. It’s not clear who made the challenge, but lucky for the future republic, cooler heads reigned and Antonio apologized once he sobered up. After Rizal, then 29, visited the Boustead villa in the French seaside town of Biarritz in the winter of 1891, Antonio knew that he had lost in the contest for Nelly’s heart. He wrote Rizal once more about Nelly: “With respect to Nelly, frankly, I think there is nothing between us more than one of those friendships enlivened by being fellow countrymen. It seems to me that there is nothing more. My word of honor… I believe that she will bring happiness not only to you but to any other man who is worthy of her. I congratulate you as one congratulates a friend." The triangle collapsed, Rizal was free to pursue Nelly. He also got the endorsement from his fellow expats, such as Tomas Arejola: “See if Mademoiselle Boustead suits you, court her, and marry her, and we are here to applaud such a good act." Rizal spent more than six weeks with the Bousteads in Biarritz and proved himself again to be a world-class multi-tasker. Aside from courting the alluring Nelly, enough to distract most men from concentrating on anything else, Rizal finished his second novel El Filibusterismo during this seaside interlude. Begun in Calamba, the book had taken all of four years. As soon as he finished, he wrote his best friend Blumentritt and left for Paris the next day. Rizal’s letters to Nelly have yet to be discovered, but Nelly’s missive from the family villa in Biarritz after Rizal left reveals that he had more in mind than a French fling. But before she could respond to Rizal’s proposal, she insisted on one condition: “When they (Nelly’s parents) wanted to know what my feelings towards (you) were, I told them that I could not manifest them before knowing whether you have decided to embrace Christianity as I understand it." Nelly wanted Rizal to convert to Protestantism before she would marry him. Amid his growing skepticism about organized religion, he apparently declined and stopped entertaining the notion of a future together. During Nelly there was also Suzanne Rizal’s relationship with Nelly was his most intense in Europe, according to most accounts. But perhaps the most intriguing was his affair in Brussels, Belgium, during a low point in his overseas years. When Rizal's family lost their Calamba estate to the friars and his brother Paciano could no longer send him a regular allowance, Rizal left Paris in 1890 and moved to Brussels, Belgium which had a lower cost of living. He stayed in a boarding house in a quiet neighborhood and this is where the historical accounts get interesting. From existing letters, it has been established that Rizal had carried on an affair with a certain Suzanne, while still carrying a torch for Nelly. Most historical accounts assume that this Brussels love interest was Suzanne Jacoby, one of the middle-aged spinster sisters who managed the boarding house. This May-October relationship was asserted by historians long ago and accepted as gospel truth by many since, but it has been debunked by more recent scholars, including Rizal enthusiasts from Belgium who have researched those days in our hero's life in minute detail. Unless Rizal suddenly developed a taste for older women, it's unlikely that he would have chosen the 45-year-old Ms. Jacoby over the other Suzanne living in the same boarding house, the spinster's 18-year-old niece Suzanne Thill, who like her aunts was originally from Luxembourg. The proof of this relationship is found in pining letters to Rizal where he is called endearingly "my little bad boy" by a certain "petite Suzanne." French-speaking Belgian Jean-Paul (JP) Verstraeten, who has been championing Rizal in Europe for decades, told me that Rizal's girlfriend's signing her letters "petite Suzanne" meant there was another, older Suzanne in the same place whom Rizal knew, probably the spinster aunt. Besides, JP asks mischievously, “Do you think Rizal would fall for a woman over 40 years old?"
The author (left) with his Belgian guide and Rizal devotee JP Verstraeten in Place Jose Rizal, a small public square down the street from Rizal's first hotel in Paris, Hotel de Paris. Ella Evangelista-Martelino
No known pictures of Ms. Thill remain. But while in Brussels, our hero would create and send to his friend Valentin Ventura in Paris a bust of a Caucasian lass with exquisite young features, prompting Ventura to write him asking who his model could be. No one seems sure if Rizal ever answered his query. But it certainly did not remind Ventura of a middle-aged spinster. After Rizal moved away from Brussels in 1890 in search of a place where he could finish writing El Filibusterismo, petite Suzanne wrote him longingly: “Don’t delay too long writing us because I wear out the soles of my shoes running to the mailbox to see if there is a letter from you... There will never be any home in which you are so loved as in that in Brussels, so, you little bad boy, hurry up and come back." Her little bad boy did not come back, having gone on to Biarritz and another woman’s charms, adding to Rizal's trail of broken hearts. None of Rizal's letters to Suzanne Thill have been found, and JP is still searching. We may never know exactly why she called him a "little bad boy." But it does make our national hero come down to earth as a playful, maybe even horny, Pinoy bachelor in Europe. Perhaps many more can relate to that. - GMA News
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