When I first heard about Van Gogh is Bipolar, and that its owner really was bipolar, I felt a tad nervous about choosing it as the place where I’d be doing ethnographic work. I’d imagined that the owner would be the crazy genius who didn’t care about what he did as long as he enjoyed doing it. I wondered how people could tolerate a dining at a restaurant owned by someone who could refuse to cook for you; turn you down as soon as you entered. I didn’t know how wrong my presumptions were.
It took a while before we could find the place. It did not have any fancy signs, billboards, or posters advertising it. After asking other people for directions, we finally found it, hidden among the other culinary establishments in Maginhawa Street.
On the Facebook page of Van Gogh is Bipolar, words on the cover photo say,
i am Van Gogh is Bipolar.
i was born out of life’s imperfections,
and so here
we embrace our flaws and weaknesses.
welcome to my home.
He was serious about the restaurant being his home. When we entered, there was still a tiny voice in my head telling me to think about whether I really wanted to enter the place. It told me that I could still turn back, head to the car, and drive home; saving myself, and my family from possible outbursts of the bipolar owner. As we entered, we were greeted by darkness, and the soft sound of a jazzy, relaxed French song. Only a few, dimly lit lamps were sources of light. We saw groups of people seated on tables, engaged in seemingly intimate conversations. A wave of relief washed over me. There were people in the restaurant. We were in the right place. The darkness of the restaurant made me feel unusually relaxed. I paid closer attention to the decorations, and the furniture, and saw that they were all quirky, congenial things. Teapots of the kind that a grandmother would use for preparing her herbal teas, racks of test tubes, and other materials a chemist would use, old-fashioned mirrors, hats, photography books, an exhibit of leaf art–items which were oddly endearing filled the nooks and crannies of the room. They made the restaurant feel more personal; they allowed people to feel both amused, and at ease.
A man, whom I guessed was in his mid-thirties, or late twenties, suddenly peers out of a cleverly hidden window in the middle of the room, as we were looking at the restaurant’s features. He then asks us if we were the ones who had reservations for the night. He seemed like the kind of man who got up in the morning to do yoga. When he introduced himself as Jetro, the owner, he seemed like such a calm individual, that all of my anxiety about being attacked by a bipolar, crazy chef were immediately replaced with feelings of odd, familial fondness. He introduced himself as a travel photographer, said he would be leaving for Mongolia after twenty days, and told us not to enter “The Asylum”, a.k.a. his bedroom. Seeing the owner in person; seeing him treat his customers like family members, hearing him talk about how his goal was to lessen or eliminate the depression his customers felt, amalgamated with the quaint decorations, the dimly lit, cozy environment, made us feel safe, and at home.
What I observed with the customers was that they seemed to be relaxed; talking in hushed tones, eating slowly, savoring the flavors of the food. This is probably because the whole feel of the restaurant was mellow, and placid; contrary to people’s initial expectations of the restaurant being a madhouse. This means that the place affects people’s behavior; that conformity, or “changing one’s own behavior to match that of other people” (Ciccarelli & White, 2009) as well as that of the environment, was also present.
Usually, eavesdropping is considered as something bad, but since I was in the restaurant to do ethnography, I think I can be forgiven for listening to what people were talking about, for the sake of anthropological analysis. From what I gathered, people talked mostly about the restaurant; its owner, how interesting the cuisine was, and the amusing quirkiness of the whole place. I also heard people talking about the UAAP basketball games, though in hushed tones so as to maintain the relaxed environment; to adapt to the dominant mood in the restaurant. I did not really hear anyone talking about dilemmas, or pending problems. This could be because the cuisine–which I shall discuss later–, coupled with the presence of a relaxed owner, made the people happy, and worry-free.
The kind of humor in the place, based on what I’ve gathered from my so-called eavesdropping, was smart humor; humor which involved psychological terms, literary characters, as well as political, and showbiz personalities. The owner would tell his customers about how his dishes were designed specifically to generate happiness. He mentions that his cuisine is made to release, and increase the levels of some of the happiness-inducing neurotransmitters in the body, such as dopamine, and serotonin. Dopamine is responsible for movement, and sensations of pleasure, while serotonin is responsible for mood, sleep, and appetite. (Ciccarelli & White, 2009). The owner would also ask his customers if they were depressed, and ask them why they were depressed, in a mildly mocking way. With the food triggering the release of the said neurotransmitters, it explains why the people had a feeling of happiness, and contentment, and why the dominant mood in the restaurant was pleasant. The owner would also give advice about gulping honey, and eating lettuce during times of depression. People would usually reply by saying that they’d be able to finish a whole bottle of honey, or a whole head of lettuce. Humor was also present in the names of the dishes being served. Names such as Virginia Woolf’s tears, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Luxurious Mouth, President Theodore Roosevelt’s Salmon Black Rice Pilaf, and Mel Gibson’s Greatest Sin allowed people to have something amusing to talk about; acted as the starting points for people to forget, albeit temporarily, about their troubles. The names grabbed, and shifted the people’s attention from whatever they might have been cogitating about, to the quirkiness and wittiness of the names.
Again though my eavesdropping skills, I heard that upon being asked by the owner to choose between the adventurous, and the wholesome kind of dishes, people usually reacted by asking, “Adventurous? Do I have to eat bugs?” People’s reactions were based on their idea of “adventurous” as something dangerous or risky. It was interesting that people had the same kind of worried reaction when the question about having the “adventurous” was asked. This shows how people are still somehow anxious about leaving their comfort zones; about getting a taste of the uncertain. There was also a system which allowed people to pay for their own bills, and get their own change, without the supervision of the owner. This, I believe, brings out the honesty in people. People would be aware that the people present could be judging them, which leads them to choose right over wrong, with the desire to keep their reputation intact.
From my ethnography, I’ve learned that the behavior of an individual is greatly influenced by the environment in which he or she is situated in, that certain kinds of food could affect personality, that biased assumptions are usually wrong, that people are amused by quirks and oddities, and that dilemmas can be forgotten for a while in a dark and happy place.
- Ciccarelli, S. K., & White , J. N. (2009). Psychology . (2nd ed.). Jurong, Singapore : Pearson Education South Asia Pte Ltd.
QUIMNO, Anna Francesca S.
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