Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Sprouts and Waffle Ex-pee-rience

Enroute to Brussels on Eurail, my friend was mighty disappointed that the view outside the train wasn’t as pretty as they showed in DDLJ. For the uninitiated, DDLJ is a Bollywood blockbuster starring Shahrukh, Kajol and a cow. After much deliberation, the blog name for my friend will be Simran. So when I realized Simran was actually in Europe for the DDLJ experience, (people have weird reasons to travel…some travel to buy magnets and some to sing ‘Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana sanam’) I knew for a fact that I had better recreate Amrish Puri quickly or deal with huge sighs of disappointment through out the trip.

‘What yaa, the stations don’t look like the ones in the movie,’ she sulked.

If I could get my hands on that Chopra fella, I’m demanding a freaking explanation. Why Europe? Why Eurail? Why make such movies available to all and sundry? Can't wait to get my Sound of Music revenge in Salzburg.

Anyway, Brussels was very tiny. If we had actually moved from the two blocks we kept wandering in and out of for the fear of getting lost, we might have felt the city was enormous. The Grand Place square was incredible. Since we just stumbled into it, we were struck by its beautiful cathedral and gothic buildings. Many roads just end in such open squares all through Europe. But none compared to the grandiose of this particular one. It’s lovelier by the night. Coffee shops and restaurants line this square. A local artist painting, kids playing, a concert in progress, a tourist taking the 56th picture (not me, I stopped at 52) didn’t mar the beauty of this place. Waded through the tourists to check out this little peeing kid, Manneken Pis (name doesn't leave much for imagination) and that's exactly what we saw..a bronze kid peeing away to glory. I am sure tourists avoid buying his statue as we saw loads of them in the stores. We also saw a bronze dog peeing on the road. Belgians must surely come to India and see the real thing!

Brussels is also known for its cartoonists like Herge of the Tintin fame. So there are many murals/cartoons throughout the city giving the historic city an element of fun.

And like every cool traveler, we did a very cool thing. Ate at an Indian restaurant that sent magnetic forces towards us the first day. We decided to eat in a local joint and got cheese and more cheese into our blood stream. How much chocolates and waffles can a man eat…same as a woman. By the second day, we succumbed to the smell of aaloo baingan. Those restaurant people did have some sense of humor. The samosas had brussel sprouts as filling. Try this at home by all means, but not when I am invited. Thank you very much.

Big Ben in Belgium (not as big)

We took a train to Mini Europe. Now this place had always caught my fancy in pictures. Whenever someone showed me photos of walking among tiny scaled models of the Big Ben and Eiffel tower, I was quite enthralled. I didn’t mention to Simran and her hubby (chalo, let’s call him Narsim, who was a kabab-mein-haddi during our initial travel..so much for Shahrukh Khan bouncing towards us) that I had seen these pictures when I was a kid. So they played along and accompanied my excited self to this theme park called Mini Europe. I can’t tell you how I escaped strangalization by this suddenly turned violent couple. The park was at its cheesy best. I could have strangled myself…but put a brave front to ward off any more disgusted stares. ‘Wow, look at this…miniature Grand Palace Sqaure.’ I think that was when all of us developed allergic reactions towards the Grand Palace Square and decided to stay away from it for the rest of the day.

‘Let’s buy lace.’ Simran declared out of sudden fascination for procuring items that a certain place was famous for.

‘What?! That granny stuff? No way are we buying lace.’ Narsim simmered.

‘Why not’, I asked. ’They’d look lovely as head rests on your couch so that when I come to your house with my head full of Parachute oil, it wont stain the backrest of the aforementioned sofa. Also you could use lace to cover your telephone and TV when they are not in use.’

‘If you are buying lace, then I am buying a pipe and placing it over the TV.’ Narsim protested.

‘Pipe? Like PVC pipe?’

‘No, a smoking pipe.’

‘That might actually go with our d├ęcor. Forget the lace. Let’s buy a pipe. Is it famous here?’

So while this couple sorted out their differences over pipes and lace, I bought knives. It might come handy to slit throats in case it became necessary.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A souvenir for every road checked

Towards the end of the trip, while we were sinking our tired legs in Latha's Indonesian couch, our good hostess in Netherlands was showing off some photos from her recent trip to Egypt with her family. Their house full of odd souvenirs testified that the family was well traveled and hence proved that souvenir collectors do not make good interior decorators. A cuckoo clock from Switzerland, papyrus from Egypt, a photo frame from Greece, and a huge Chinese rosewood dining table made the home look like a spread at a potluck dinner.

‘My dad in India thinks that we always have fun because we travel a lot.’, Latha said as suddenly as the cuckoo appeared from the clock.

‘You don’t?’ I asked, quite taken aback considering they seemed to be dishing a lot of cash in this activity.

‘You travel, you should know. You know how much you have to walk and eat all kinds of shit. When Dad came here, we took him to Paris and make him walk all over the city till he collapsed. After that he has agreed that travel is not all that fun.’

I didn’t ask Latha the obvious question because I knew where she was coming from. Checking off places and buying souvenirs as trophies for all that hard work done, she epitomizes majority of us tourists. Though my idea of seeing places might be slightly different, in some bizarre level, we are all varying degrees of Latha. But when my relatives ask me how many states in the United States have I checked off, I simply say I am not sure if I want to go to Idaho even if that is the 50th state I have to tick off. It is impossible to fully savour any place by merely walking over its surface and taking pictures. Landing in a place while you are in transit is not considered visiting a new country. Three years are not enough to know a place, let alone three days. You have got to imbibe the smells, taste the flavors, meet with locals, connect with travellers, share a part of yourself to even scratch its surface. I can safely say that I have just been introduced to these wonderful cities in Europe; I am still waiting to shake hands. I regret not spending that kind of quality time to even give you a decent account, but here are the samplers. I'll go back for the main course some day, unless of course South America beckons with its unchecked countries.

Amsterdam- Cycling the Canals

Don’t let the Dutch fool you with their collecting-phlegm-from-the-inner-cavities-of-the throat-ready-to-spit kinda language. They all know English. They speak that way to ward off tourists so that they can drink all that beer in peace. First thing that strikes you about this place are the bicyclists. They can run you over if you are not watching them from the second floor of your hotel room. A mom riding her bike with three toddlers thrown in a beer barrel like contraption attached to the font of the bike. A businessman in Armani carrying a briefcase in one hand and a talking on the cell phone with the other. Nothing extraordinary about that if he wasn’t maneuvering his bike at the same time through the crowded canal streets. The bikes are not even fancy owing to the number of bikes that get stolen or thrown into the canals. I really didn’t spend enough time in Netherlands to understand why anyone would want to hurl vehicles of transportation into bodies of water. Maybe during their equivalent of Ganesh Chaturti.

Amsterdam, being below sea level, is a city of canals that look very romantic by the night. Canals bordered by narrow roads that are lined by cute row houses. Cute from the outside and pigeonholes from the inside. The houses are quite tiny and it’s quite a feat to climb those narrow steep staircases. Which is why every house has a slab like protrusion from the roof with a hook attached to it. This helps in moving furniture with the help of a pulley through windows. Some of the houses actually are built leaning towards the ground for the same purpose. Being a Civil Engineer and all, I almost went ecstatic thinking I discovered an engineering flaw in construction. Felt disappointed to learn that people living in these houses are actually safe.

People must set aside at least 4 hours for dining here (actually most of Europe). They have no concept of hurrying up. For harried Americans or for people from countries with large population and less seating, it is difficult to comprehend. The waiters take their own sweet time to take your order and a light year to bring the food. To obtain the check, you must perform three mujras to get the attention of the waiter who is merrily smoking pot in the next table.

Made way to the Rijksmuseum to see the milkmaid woman the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted. Saw Vermeer’s house in Delft and the museum where his famous Girl with the Pearl Earring is housed. Thanks Gabby for that book and making me want to rediscover this beautiful place with my own eyes and compare it with what my mind had once construed through the wonderful narrative of Tracy Chevalier. It was fun trying to look for that fish market where Griet ended up and actually finding it with the help of our noses.

Anne Frank Haus was a slight let down and for people who hadn’t even read the book, it must have must have been a torturous tour. Personally, I feel it can be skipped; the tour and not the book.

Night took us to the red light district after having a piece of hash brownie. Our local friend, Mich, advised us on having ¼ of what was doled out to us in the coffee shop. Yes, a normal coffee shop. Drugs are legal and as easy to procure as...yes coffee. Last time a friend went to Amsterdam for a conference, he ate this brownie thinking it was well…a brownie. He woke up two days later missing his flight and the conference. This brownie thing was hardly hitting me. Was getting slightly frustrated after having paid six bucks for something that tasted like a brownie that would normally cost a buck. Ate another quarter piece without anyone’s knowledge. Still nothing. Got distracted by the lovely ladies in interesting negligee selling their wares by their respective windows. You could get as close as you would to a red tailed chimpanzee in Mysore zoo. But you couldn't take photos. A red light above their window meant they were ready and a purple light meant they were ready too. Just that the purple were transvestites and if you don’t notice the 5 o’clock shadow and the occasional Adam’s apple, you could mistake them for the nice ladies under the red lights. If a curtain was drawn, it meant they were busy…maybe painting their nails.

Sometime at midnight that brownie had a profound effect on me. I had a giggling attack. So much for the sinister effects of drugs. My friends got jealous that it didn’t hit them and tried to put me to sleep very unceremoniously. The world went in spirals and I felt like I was being sucked into my pillow. Like some kind of engulfing feeling. Like they show in the movies. The same purple-pink thingies going zigzag and the yellow-orange thingaboos spiraling outwards. Pulled out my dairy put a check mark next to Take a Canal Tour in Amsterdam.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sneak Preview

A regular reader (Hi Alpha) would have realized by now that I take occasional breaks from my blog to create a false aura of an exciting life. This time I have to admit life couldn’t have been more fulfilling. No accolades, no achievements, no pigs flying…just a little peek into paradise. Of traveling wide and going home. Of unseen adventure and familiar comfort. To take the heart where it has never been and to bring it back to where it belongs- clotted with saturated memories. A heart attack will be averted with compulsive exercise and Fish oil capsules- twice daily henceforth.

Europe trip was awesome. The fact that I have reached safely without any mishaps (I am discounting the time when I rummaged through a garbage can for food in the streets of Paris) has changed Pi’s life. His theory that I am incapable of taking care of myself in his absence has been tampered with and he is desperately seeking answers. While he is busy plotting, I could tell you all about the journey, the destination and every speed bump inbetween. I’ll obviously skip the happy predictable parts so that you don’t get bored. With a demanding public like you, it’s difficult to make good stories out of a perfectly orchestrated trip such as this. Surely you don’t want to hear how lovely the scenery was and how yummy the apple strudel was. You’d probably strangle me if I told you that our hosts in Germany were the best and they made our stay pleasurable. Darn you Parmanu and Hardu! Couldn’t you guys have electrocuted me? Or at least my friend?

India was great too. Family bonding at it’s best. Dad-in-law’s sixtieth birthday was celebrated in the traditional way with style. We got him married off to the woman of his dreams- the same woman he had married 36 years ago. Nobody better complain that they didn’t get a second chance. To think Pi happened after the first marriage itself, they probably will be prudent this time.

Somehow it is good to be back home in Pittsburgh. In the comfort of the pot, I realised that one’s bathroom is certainly where the heart is.

All about this and the trip in subsequent episodes. Tune in regularly or be cursed to read the archives.