Dated: Some time end of June! Sorry that the editing took so long.
This post is dedicated to Shammi Kapoor, since he was the first person to have introduced me to Paris (and hence) France by
A whirlwind 5 month tour (I was in US, Canada and France) comes to an end; I am tired and need some rest from travelling. France having been the last leg is the most fresh in memory; sorry US and Canada. I need to stop travelling so much; only then can I write properly about it. Well, writing was not the most well planned part of the trip. I did not have a camera for most of US and Canada travels while in France my travel diary had already been exhausted. Now you know what you can gift me on my birthday!
No, please do not give me Superdupont comics, I can’t understand French. This is just to tell you about the image of France that I have in my head thanks to my friend Benjamin.
France has a sense of humour; you have to have it too if you want to stay there. For instance, it kept reminding me of Bengal throughout the month.
What? Bengal! Yes, Bengal. As soon as I got to Kolkata, er! Paris, I saw that political unrest was brewing and strikes were announced due to recent changes in labour laws. Trains were cancelled, flights were cancelled and people were stranded mid-journey.
The French love politics and philosophy; they will argue throughout the dinner as if they are about to kill each other but forget everything by the time for wine.
Every evening when I passed a house, there was a good chance that there was someone sitting on that verandah looking at people, acting smug and smoking away to glory.
Also, once they are excited the language of conversation suddenly becomes Bengali, Er! French.
There are so many other idiosyncrasies which I do not have time for! Enough! The French are as nice people as are the Bengalis; I had a fantastic time.
I arrived late in May in France after a complicated convoluted flight sequence (Vancouver, Boston, Tel Aviv, Paris… things people do for money) and was warmly welcomed by an old friend Arindam who gave me a place to stay.
I was most taken aback by the general ambience, aura and architecture in and around the city. I didn’t have the time to visit the museums but upon Prateek’s (a friend) recommendation I did visit La Sainte-Chapelle for a wonderful performance of the 4 Seasons.
Late in the night I was walking by the Louvre and I saw some men selling their wares outside a fancy restaurant. I couldn’t help but note in my diary:
At the Louvre
The lady fumed at her soup;
She tasted parsley among the radishes!
The mirth was eclipsed by a frown
She had been let down
And the bowl was left aside.
Though ebony isn’t the colour of a fanciful night;
Yet they kept the street alive
Right across the Louvre,
Just so that
The evening meal wouldn’t be cold
Or stolen from another’s bowl.
From none of the many who passed me by
Did I hear any utterances or as much as a sigh,
It must indeed be a common sight
Beside the Louvre in the night,
That there are many tales the colours tell,
But nobody listens.
As a side note, I have often wondered what must be the psyche of the people who can display loot and theft with such pride!
From here I made my way to La Rochelle, a coastal town by the Atlantic. I must say that the trains here are nothing like that in Bengal; despite the strike I had a comfortable ride. La Rochelle has historically been an important port for France and hence been well fortified over the ages.
It was a pretty town to walk around and spend an afternoon in. I took the boat in the evening to the beautiful island of Oléron where I was to stay for a math conference for the next four weeks. What are you thinking about? The picturesque setting for the following four weeks: Sandy beaches lined with shells and smooth pebbles bouncing on the grey sea extending to the blue blue sky; the occasional sea gull hanging on the cool balmy wind warmed by the sweet summer sun and pecking on my food when it could. So did I! But then I slowly discovered the promise of sand, surf and warm sunshine was a lie and the temperature remained below 15 degree Celcius for most of my trip.
I did have a very good time. Every evening it would be me and my bicycle on the lovely island as hours slipped by while visiting quaint corners hailing back a few centuries or maybe just ogling at the spectacles of natural beauty. The conference, by itself, was very busy: for 5 days a week we would start at 9 in the morning and often continue until 11 in the night. Friends and family complained that I was not being very responsive but what could I have done. The internet was very flaky and would turn up or turn down according to its wishes. For most of the time I couldn’t even check my email. What a relief!
Maybe not completely! I wanted to go around various places in France and the lack of internet made it extremely difficult to plan. Surprisingly there was a cafe a couple of kilometers away which had decent internet and the best hot chocolate that I have ever had; I would go there in times of need. Hot chocolate (is claimed to have originated in France in its present form) was certainly one of the best things that I have had while I was there; not far behind is the Canelé (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canel%C3%A9). Needless to say that I am a vegetarian sweet-tooth.
Lunches were provided to me at the venue; the dinner and breakfast, I had to take take care of myself. It is always a pain for me to travel given my diet. Most places don’t have much for vegetarians and spending a month on some nondescript corner of the world kills me; this time I was smarter. I had lunged all the spices from the infamous Gare du Nord area of Paris to the island and killed all my roommates with the sharp smell the first night I was there. Slowly they got used to it and later joined me on certain occasions. Cooking my own dinners saved me because most people were sick of the food at the venue by the end of the month. The lunches by themselves were splendid 5-course spreads which lasted for ever but wasn’t particularly delicious especially for a vegetarian; my friends described it as bad French food! Elsewhere I did enjoy Plat d’Jour despite its blandness. Thank god for laal mirchi and haldi.
During one of these lunches I was told by Fabien Durand about Bla Bla car (https://www.blablacar.fr/) and gave me many suggestions on where I should go. For those who do not know about this, Bla Bla car is an internet portal which allows people to hitch a ride. Having hitchhiked all my life this did not seem too much out of the ordinary and along with Airbnb enabled my travels cheaply.
I selected Angoulême and Bordeaux for the first weekend. Bordeaux was selected because it was Bordeaux, and because of having heard so much about it from my seniors who had stayed there and Angoulême was selected because of its history with comic strips and my love for Tintin and Asterix. I found a blablacar which would take me to Angoulême at 7 in the morning but left 2 kilometers from where I was staying. The lady (from the blablacar) called me at 7 in the morning; I don’t remember much from the conversation except that she was not very happy. I had overslept and she left without me.
I woke up with a start and started trying to find out how I could get there but the dammit internet was not working. Finally Fabien arrived for breakfast and gave me a ride until Dolus, where I would get a bus for La Rochelle; there I would get another bus to Angoulême. So far so good! As soon as I sat in the bus the driver announced (in French): Because of the strike we are not going to Angoulême, we shall go to Saintes and stop there! Did I say that France had a sense of humour? I didn’t find this very funny back then!
A co-passenger did find this funny. We started talking and he told me how terribly boring Saintes is (still funny?). But then I prodded him a bit more and came to realise that he had stayed in Saintes most of his life and there were plenty of things to see; there was not much of a night-life but who cares about that.
A scene which stood out on that visit is one at Abbaye aux Dames (or the Abbey church)While I was obsessing over my camera I heard a sob and I realised that it wasn’t right to be a tourist there.
The Lady at the Church
Old grey stones raise splendid walls
The ornament of the town
And gaudy pagans from the conquered past
Line the sloping roof,
They are aloof
Of my inquisitiveness.
The tall towers rise above,
The bell atop sounds,
The organ sings holy tunes
Reverberating among the runes
Which line the pillars and the hall.
Is it a doorway or a tunnel infinite?
The nave is long, the ribs divide,
The ceiling extends towards the sky,
Fragile glass windows softly tell
The story of thy Lord
While the sun streams across silently.
My vision does not meet the horizon of my faith.
I watch enamoured and my camera clicks
When suddenly I freeze
Tears falling to the floor;
I try to pick them up
But they disperse
With the largesse of the church
And I see
His body hung by the crossed mast
Where the sails of Forgiveness
Had cruelty borne
And my naivety whimpers to a stop.
I tuck the camera in the bag,
And in silence
Find her sobs melt my heart away.
I have a natural affinity to religion (as ill-defined as it is) and find churches, synagogues, temples extremely interesting. I would love to learn more about them in greater depth but this knowledge doesn’t really come from books; it has taken me years to realise this. Back in Providence again, I was invited by a professor for a Purim (Jewish festival) related ceremony to a synagogue. I wrote right after:
In the Temple of God
Among the mellifluous chants
And the fragrance of flowers
Sat there wheezing the old man,
His cough is all I heard
In the temple of god!
Overpowering was the stench of urine
Repugnant was the phlegm on his jacket
My thoughts were filled with disgust
And a lack of trust
In the temple of god!
I couldn’t bear to imagine
The pile of dirt from where he had come,
The lice infested body that had brushed my side,
And my prayers began to falter
In the temple of god!
I got up to the leave the dome,
And turned around,
Only to find his smile
Outliving my ignorance,
In the temple of god.
I kept thinking of the Gauls and imagined them bashing up the romans with some magic potion in hand.
Given that I reached this place mostly by accident I later wrote:
The Road Builders Song
On my back rides a mountain of tiles,
My eyes are set on a distant tower,
Over the dust-laden path I lay them down,
Tiles, one by one,
The road follows my desires.
Whether it be the shivering mountain tops
Or the scorching desert sand
I withstand all pains to lay down my tiles,
But not all weathers can by bones survive
And to preserve my cause I abdicate my steps
Choosing often valleys and pastures instead.
There are fellows I meet of an independent fate,
Sometimes there is not much to say,
And our paths lead us away,
But there are times we follow together a distant gaze
Some roads meander and loose their way
Others intertwine in a wilful maze.
I spend the nights of rest
Watching the stars make their way across the sky,
And I ask-
Do they too chase distant towers?
Do they too spend many long hours
Laying down tiles cautiously
Only to find
Wide awake as they dream
Setting the soil where the tiles shall later be?
Finally the evening fell and I realised that I have to make my way to Bordeaux. The trains were off and with many tears and struggle I finally found a ride to take me there. It was a nice French lady who didn’t speak much English but still kept up a great conversation; as I have always said, the art of communication isn’t solely incumbent on the knowledge of language. None of this would have been if I would have woken up in time. Being a student of dynamics I am well aware of sensitivity to initial conditions and chaos. While in the United States I learnt this in a very hard way.
I was taking a 6 o’clock morning flight to Kansas via Newark. I woke up in time and reached the airport and everything was going well. But then the lady at the security found that I had water in my bottle and I had to go through everything once again. I asked her whether I had enough time for my flight… “But of course! You have plenty of time.” I decided to invest it in a cookie at Starbucks. By the time I had finished my cookie I had missed my flight!
I pleaded with the lady at the counter to which she asked what had I been doing? I said um um um to which she replied “Fine! You can go on the next flight!” While I was extremely happy that everything was going to be fine despite my folly, it soon transpired that the next flight was delayed and the lady at the counter realised that I was going to be late for my connecting flight and decided to transfer me to evening flight from Newark to Kansas. Well! When I reached Newark, it turned out that the connecting flight was delayed as well and one of the attendants suggested that I should run to it and so I ran with my bag and baggage but by the time I got to it my seat had already been taken. I spent the rest of the afternoon crying on my broken fate and eating the terrible airport pizza. In this much time, I could have easily flown to Kolkata.All of this because of a single cookie! Thankfully I was coming home to an awesome friend and a great host, Terry (my good friend) who took care of me for the next few days.
This wasn’t the worst of such cases, I remember the first time I was in Mexico: I was flying to Oaxaca via Mexico city when I realised that I had forgotten slippers at home so I bought new ones at the Vancouver airport. I reached Mexico city early in the morning and conveniently forgot them on my seat. The slippers were extremely important and I had several hours before the next flight. So I ran hither and thither so that someone could give me my slippers. At some point I looked at the watch and realised that I had only one hour till the next flight. It turned out that it left from another (but adjoining) airport; by the time I reached it, it was already too late. My Spanish was rudimentary and informing the facilities that my baggage was on board and that I was poor foreigner in this foreign land who is going to die if he doesn’t get to Oaxaca by the next flight was extremely difficult; but it worked. All because of slippers that I forgot at home (and maybe a bit of stupidity.)
Anyways coming back to my story the lady dropped me to an adjoining suburb called Bègles. Interestingly there was a festival going on and I greatly enjoyed a play outside lampooning the British, despite the fact that I could hardly understand anything. Later at an Airbnb in Toulouse I really enjoyed shitting.
Some urinals from Carcassonne are really full of piss…
One of the things which I found most surprising in France was that despite the general disdain for everything British and American I found France in general very Americanised. Even though they are not conversant in English, the cars, the bars, the fancy diners, all played terrible pop-American music. I wonder why. Second world war? Tourists? Money divides but somehow also brings together at times; I guess.
I loved the play and the festival. Later in the evening, I was eating falafal at a nice Turkish bakery when I suddenly saw an old and close friend Felipe walking by. It wasn’t a complete coincidence given that he was coming to the conference via Bordeaux and I was sitting outside on one of the main walkways of Bordeaux; yet I was surprised. The artsy city served as a great setting for recollection, nostalgia and catching up. (It has wonderful museums supposedly which I did not have time for.)
City lights flickered as the city flowed beside the Garonne from the ancient Romans ages to being a jewel in Napoleon’s crown and now an impressive mosaic of the new and the old. Bordeaux, in my opinion, is the most beautiful (man-made) city that I have been to.
We saw quite a few churches and having stayed in Israel I asked Felipe (the know all) how did Christianity become a “white” religion. He replied that it was probably because of the Romans. Didn’t the Romans butcher Christ? And then it dawned upon me how it is beneficial for the state machinery to destroy you, make you a saint and then slowly take over completely. The following pictures are from the Cathédrale St-Andre the next day. We were too busy talking to think about pictures.
I returned to Oléron next evening getting a nice ride all the way home. It turns out that the strike delayed Felipe’s trip till 12 in the night and cost him quite a bit!
The next couple of weeks were busy but very nice. It was great to have Felipe around and we cycled around, talked a lot and took many nightly walks. It was wonderful lying in the sand lost in wonder among the stars
and then realising that there was a spider crawling into your pants!
There were at least a couple of occasions when a bat brushed by my ear and scared the wits out of me. Probably the most memorable to me is the sound of nature. As the nightly silence would set in the island would explode with the million frogs, crickets and birds rising to chatter. There can be no greater music. I am a city person; I need the amenities of a city. But a regular visit to such a place has now become an imperative for the rest of my life.
But then Felipe left. The following weekend I decided to visit Toulouse and Carcasonne. Toulouse, because I had a friend there and it was a very interesting town and Carcasonne because it was Carcasonne.
France is divided into two parts: Paris and not Paris (or the Province). Toulouse is one of the most vibrant towns of the province and rightly so; this is not surprising since it has a very large student population. If you are a aerospace junkie this might be a good place for it is home to Aérospatiale (responsible for many planes/ jets that fly around). There is also a great Aerospace museum called Aeroscopia which I had to give a miss. Talking of planes, a few months back I was visiting Dalton, Ohio visiting the Wright university. Every had been warning me that Ohio is the most boring place to be in the world and I should do my best not to go there. Someone went to the extent of saying that I have to very wrong to be visiting Wright. Well! I was visiting a wonderful and very knowledgeable host. Consequently I did not plan any roaming around. On my way from the airport I asked the driver: Is there anything worthwhile in this city? He replied with a question: What is the name of the university that you are visiting. I blankly replied: The Wright University. He asked me: Does that remind of something?
Of course it did. So this was the home of the Wright brothers and currently was the home of one of the best Aerospace museums in United States. I felt sad at my non-existent camera, that I only had a couple of hours and could not visit their bicycle shop up in the town. I had a very busy schedule.
Let us head back to the La ville rose (the pink city): Tolouse. My first impressions were those of the clichéd yet romantic European narrow alleyways, cobblestones and serenading musicians. Well! One shouldn’t forget the disgusting overarching smell of urine, filth, alcohol and people rolling all over them. I don’t think that my personal experience was a part of just the Euro cup experience: https://youtu.be/ZYbhwu9J-Xg
What do you find more interesting: beautiful, brocaded walls who don’t have a voice or layers of contradictions spiralling you down into the abyss of contempt, up into the zenith of joy and then back. I guess everyone has their own desires from life!
Next morning I was greeted by my friend Jaya who showed me around the town and its sights.
From here on I went on to Carcasonne. The person who was driving me there had a caravan and I was curious to hear what he was upto. It turned out that he was an iron man https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ironman_Triathlon. A very interesting conversation ended as we reached the fringes of the town of Carcasonne. Long car journeys are great for conversations. Even the French speaking people that I met on my trip spoke so much despite their lack of English. But probably the most interesting car conversations were the ones I had in the US.
I travelled almost constantly when I was there and had to take many long taxi rides. Almost every taxi driver that drove me was an immigrant from Africa. Immigration is a very sticky topic around the world right now thanks to the Syrian crisis and ISIS. African immigrants, in general have been ill-treated all over. Even Israel does not quite respect its African Jewish population. It was very heartwarming to hear the tales from the taxi drivers how the wars which we don’t fight, the terrorism by which we aren’t terrorised by and the food scarcity which does not feed on us, led them to move. These immigrants were often people at respected positions in their society. For some reason they had to flee into scantily prepared shanties and restart their life from zero in the US. Their degrees were not recognised, their property was lost and now they were on the street somehow making a living. One of the best moment of these journeys were Hindi songs which I sang with each and every African driver; they had seen many more Hindi movies from the 70s than I had and knew the lyrics of each and every song completely. Surprisingly (or not) they failed to connect with the modern Indian cinema despite the better quality of acting and camerawork. As one of them mentioned “The smell of the soil is sorely missing.”
Anyways the iron man (for I don’t remember his name) left me on the outskirts of the town from where I walked along the highway for several kilometres before reaching my Airbnb host. This was probably the strangest Airbnb house which I stayed in. The place was not exactly clean and comfortable. I was hungry for the night but it turned out that there wasn’t a restaurant in sight and the lady didn’t seem to have food to offer. Well I ate from my bag of nuts and went to sleep; I had to leave early in the morning. I woke up at 5 and headed to the bathroom for my morning ablutions. There sat the owner’s cat guarding the narrow path. I tried to cross but the cat was in no mood to budge. Not wanting to hurt her, I went back to my room and came back after a few minutes. I saw it circling beside the bathroom door and angrily meowing at me. I scampered back inside. Now I was scared and every five minutes I would try it again, in vain; I did not want to wake up the owner either because it was very early in the morning. Giving up ultimately I googled “What to do with an angry cat?” I remember reading this: http://www.wikihow.com/Calm-Your-Angry-Cat I decided to follow suggestion 2 and left the cat alone for about 20 minutes. Woaw! The cat was gone. I opened the bathroom door and the cat rushed in. Arghhhhhh!!!!!
It rushed in and started trying to lap up water from the shit pot failing which it tried to lick water from the walls of the washroom, failing which it tried to attack the faucets. I brought out my water bottle and poured some water on the floor. It understood that I meant well and approached me. I poured water into my hand it lapped it up slowly. It was a great lesson in patience and I was very happy with my morning (and very angry with the owner). Because of her I had missed the beautiful lights of Carcasonne fort in the night and now she had also ruined my morning. Well, so is so! This also reminds me an old poem from San Pedro de Atacama. I don’t really hate cats; please do not unfriend me!
I hate cats!
If they were to hate me back
It would have been perfect,
Instead they utter such an inviting purr
That I forget my hatred
And it seats itself on my lap,
The sweet little cat.
This love lasts till you were to fall into it,
For then she runs away,
Disinterested in your play.
The woolen yarn, the falling leaves,
The singing birds of the tall trees,
She counts her prey
For the coming end of the day.
She rubs her fur about your leg,
This ain’t her affection, the soft brown fur,
She wants to scratch her back
And you hairy leg is much better than the thorny tree.
If you do not believe me,
Walk behind surreptitiously
A friendly neighbourhood cat
And witness the cruelty the evil one perpetrates.
That perfection of feet,
The rounded, chiseled face,
Brings about your admiration
And horror on the dark nights,
The burning lights
Do reflect the truth!
So I suggest caution,
Next time your were to seat a cat
On your lap;
With its falling hair
It expands its lair
Till all is hers!
Well the nasty episode had a lovely ending. After an hour’s walk I was among the tall facades of an ancient fortification.
The citadel within a citadel; the grand towers loomed well above the city of Carcassonne and its psyche. Every shop seemed to revolve around the town’s cynosure and all the specialised fancy cameras seemed to point only at one destination. After an arduous climb, I placed my luggage in a hostel (Auberge de Jeunesse or Youth Hostel which is where you should stay if you are visiting) I went around sight seeing.
One may now ask, how is it, that something going back to the early parts of this millennium, be in such perfect shape. It was rescued by an architect Viollet-le-Duc by some extravagant rebuilding and reconstruction. There on, the Cité has been part of many debates, whether or not, reconstruction and thereby the ‘fabrication’ of history is justified.
Very well! The castle was very nice but there was work to be done and I had a conference to attend the next day. In the middle of my wonder and amazement I received a call from Bla Bla driver saying that he will leave an hour earlier from a non-descript city corner. At first there was disbelief which was followed by panic. It was lucky that I was carrying my cell phone from Israel with free international roaming on it (Golan has some hard to believe deals) and quickly tried to book another one. Somehow nothing was working out. The tourism office suggested that I should try the train. There was only one leaving at the right time so that I can get to my ride from Toulouse to Oléron. For that, I would only have to get to the train station in 40 minutes. Not too bad. Sadly because of some ceremony (I don’t remember what) the roads were clogged. The taxi got there in 30 minutes and using some James Bond style driving got me to the train in time. I ran and got into the train; the doors closed behind me. I didn’t have a ticket but that is usually not a problem; the trick is to find the ticket checker before he find you. The rest was comfortable and without incident.
I will not complain too much about Bla bla car and Airbnb; I used them for the first time on this trip and have mixed opinions about them. I will not say that everything was wrinkle-free but it did make a lot of trips plausible which weren’t possible otherwise.
This led me to my last week in France. As mathematics proceeded in full force, the world continued to churn. I remember that when I had come into France, everyone was joking about the UK European Union referendum; with the Brexit there was a sudden disquiet. On the other hand Trump was on with his vociferous bawls; he was hardly considered seriously in US when I had reached it. In no time he took up cancerous proportions leading to depressing discussions with my roommate many a evenings. You can never know the way politics swings. I remember Amartya Sen reading the 2004 Indian elections (in which BJP was routed) as a rejection of the so-called Hindutva philosophy; I wonder if he reads 2014 Indian elections as an embrace. Neither is true; any political pundit of some stature realises that the electorate is extremely complex and laying a single label or the other leads to dilution of conversation. Maybe the intent is merely political or possibly, the preconceived notions cloud their intellect.
It was interesting to be in the politically-informed France at that point right before the refugee crisis, the spike in racism, Brexit, labour law reforms and Trump. Lunch was always interesting as was the mathematics. But all good things must come to an end. The week was over and I had to head back to Paris. One of the organisers, Prof. Thomas Fernique, quite amazingly, kindly gave me the keys to his apartment.
Thanks to a gracious lift by one of the speakers (Alexander Holroyd) that week I got to the train station well in time in La Rochelle. I looked at the chart and went to the right platform. For a long time, there was no train. I drank some orange juice, no train . I ate a wonderful chocolate croissant, still no train. By the time I had my sandwich I got a bit worried. There was some strange blinking announcement on the boards and decided to translate on google. “Train will not be stopping here.” I panicked and asked the lady beside me; she said that my train is about to leave from the opposite platform. I can’t do without drama, can I? With my heavy suitcase I ran over several kids and old folks to the other platform. In the nick of time
a lady pulled both me and my suitcase into the train; the doors closed behind me and the train left. Before I could look deeply in her eyes, travel through Europe and fall in love among some mustard fields of Punjab she said “Welcome” and left. Ahh! So is life.
Love doesn’t quite seem to be the thing for me. Travelling around contiguously and having such a good time by myself, I had never considered love and relationships important in life. A few infatuations here and there came and vanished without a mark but lately society has managed to convince me that I don’t really understand my 10 years older self. Hearing the experiences of similar-minded people scares me out of my skin; I guess bad experiences make a greater mark. Nevertheless I have started making attempts at establishing sparks of creation via friends, marriage websites etc. But then, somehow online contact is not really contact while my vagrancy does not help. I am not going to bore you with the myriad of complicated thoughts ruining my psyche but I wrote at some point
Love in the time of Internet
The old parchment, full of tears, desiccates in the sun.
Letters, that I had long waited for, arrive with their resonant bling;
And my apprehension meets the words,
Ostentatious yet expressionless.
The edges are seamless;
No thoughts seem to have waited by the parchment walls
For the folding and crumpling to bring them in;
The letters encircle no hesitation in their clear articulation
And the words don’t backtrack
To express dismay, for how ineffectual
They are in the wake of her emotions.
Is it the person, the parchment or the age,
Can someone say?
So the written word turns to voice
And long minutes are spent lying on the grass
For leagues away are not easy to connect
Even in the time of the internet.
The awkwardness drifts away in a few days
And every count springs a new surprise;
While the clock ticks meaninglessly anyways.
But what about the stark silence that it brings in the end?
No echoes seem to travel across the seas.
Slowly we drift apart
As abruptly as we were drawn;
Though the words can bring us close
Can the words contain
The warmth of a deep embrace?
Love in the time of the internet
As it was ages ago,
And so I return to the empty pages, yet again!
Somewhere else a spark fails to prosper, but who knows…
The End of the Night
Some night lay forlorn under the canopy of stars.
For sure I saw her trudging away,
But did she realise
That every step that she took
Only drew her closer to the day.
One may conclude how uncaring
Was the confidence of her steps,
That too, in the clarity of the night;
But can those steps forget
The afterglow of the loving embrace,
The silvery reflections across the lake
And the soft melancholic dew
That the birds rued,
And hearing the quiet longing of the night
Called out for the morning rays.
The swooping owl stopped to gaze
The mountain tops being set ablaze;
In his soft affectionate light
Slowly came the end of the night.
The night knew that she would dissolve
But that did not waver her stolid resolve,
Far away on the horizon they lay
Promulgating the colours of the day.
The reader may have now begun to grieve
The gaudy colours they had come to see,
But how can one know?
Maybe the separation that my heart had felt
Was a sequence in waltz unknown to me.
I don’t know. The train got back a bit late; I was sharing the apartment with a wonderful Irani couple (Sina and Anna) who introduced me to the world of Bollywood in Iran. I was quite wonderful to hear of some extremely interesting editing which movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam went through to pass through the censors.
I had a wonderful day in Paris which I spent roaming around more or less aimlessly. I met with one of my roommates from Oléron, Nicholas Mace who showed me the sights and sounds of his student life.
In the evening I whiled away my time in a long queue leading up to the catacombs. Do you know about the Catacombs?
Underneath Paris is another Paris, which is well-hidden, guarded and dangerous; off-limits to most who are faint hearted and urbanite. These grotesque narrow alleyways, often falling on each other, have a long slithering history throughout the history of Paris. Nicholas had introduced this to me and we were planning for a secret tour of the area led by his friend. His friend could not join, we could not go and hence I decided to go for the official and uninteresting version. Sadly my camera battery died before I reached the mound of skulls under the ground.
The importance of preservation of history is a questionable practice; the question is beyond many of us. I, for sure, do not have the intellect to wrap my head around it. Certain tribes of native Americans for instance believed that things must fall back to ground to where they came from. In most urban synthetic architecture, this is not really an option. But nothing can last for ever and there will be decay. Does it remain historic after the reconstruction?
Thanks to an archaeologist Tom Helmer, I along with friends Krishna, Srivatsan and Roland did manage to visit an ancient native American archaeological site close to Rhode Island in the United States.
Even the smallest stone carving from the ‘western’ civilisation is placed in the fancy museums and displayed in glass casings with the soft spotlight shining on them, incessantly. If the glass casing is offered to the deceased civilisation would it be out of respect, guilt or some deceitful political motivation. I put down my pen, for my fingers are tired and I can clearly see the horizon of my understanding.
“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you’ll dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it to the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”- Ernest Hemingway
Okay! Maybe it was not Mossad. Maybe it was Shin Bet. I really wanted to ask them but I was not brave (read, stupid) enough.
It all started when I had the bright idea of going to Apollonia National park with friends, Slash (name modified) and Xiaolin Zeng for Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish new year. In Israel, a holiday means a holiday for (almost) everyone; there is no public transport. Hence we had to cycle to the spot to start with. I was too lazy to follow the map and Slash was enthusiastic about it; hence he was our leader. A beautiful cycle ride along the Mediterranean sea lead us to the park. It was beautiful but not very pleasant. The sun was pelting us with hot coals and the slopes continued to drive us up and down. Also part of the trail was sandy and made it impossible to cycle on. We decided to take another path on the way back; Slash mentioned that there seemed to be another way.
The park draws its name from the Greek god Apollo; the town surrounding this area was named so by the Phoenicians (an ancient civilisation) in the 6th century BC. But that is not what it is known for. Apollonia national park holds the remenants of the crusader castle located on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. Wait what are the crusades? Long before Islamic terrorism was in vogue, people had eyes to recognise other forms of terrorism. The crusaders were Christian war mongers who ravaged large tracts of land for (not really) unknown reasons (consider news articles like http://www.christianheadlines.com/blog/afghanistan-growing-number-christians-unease-muslim.html
and ask yourself how is it that there a growing number of Christians in the first place?). Anyways, I am losing track. They chose a nice tract of land in Apollonia (now Arsour) and fortified it. And then a lot more history which I do not have time to get into.
After a nice ice-cream break we began heading back. Our new route took us through surprising terrain; we passed farmlands, weird bridges, shopping malls and then suddenly there was a “Restricted Area” sign followed by a post stopping us. Cars were coming by, beeping some card and then passing by. There was a button for the speaker and Slash began to speak.
Speaker: Something in Hebrew
Slash: Something else in Hebrew
Speaker: More Hebrew
Slash: (Gives up.) Can you let us pass?
Speaker: More Hebrew.
Slash: We want to go to Tel Aviv. Can we pass?
Speaker: Who are you?
Slash: We are from Tel Aviv university…
And so the conversation continued for a few minutes. I think among the three of us (Slash, Xiaolin and me), I was the only one who had seen the restricted area sign earlier. It was all becoming too weird when suddenly two fancy looking cars came by and a man rolled down his windows pointing us to a sunny area. Slash was still struggling with the speaker phone and I informed him that we had real company.
We walked to the said location and keeping our hands clearly visible; the car door opened and I saw large guns straddle out along with rather suave-looking men. My first reaction was instant admiration. I have always wanted to be a secret agent all my life; some one who works on super secret stuff which is super important and can help nab super bad guys. It was like my meeting with superstars.
They asked us to leave our bicycles on the side and follow them. We were separated and then started the interrogation. We were each questioned by different people several times. They would ask the same question again and again in different forms.
Question 1: What did you eat in the morning?
A few question later: What was your breakfast?
Question 39: How did you get here?
Question 2830: What led you here?
Question 281388e^9: What did you eat before leaving home?
Each person who interviewed me took down detailed notes and there was someone who cross verified them with some more interrogation. This was all in the hot sun with no respite. I noticed that my friends were getting slightly irritated but what could be done. As an honest mathematician I tried to distract them with some mathematics but that did not work so well. Well!
One thing that must be added is that they were extremely well-behaved and in the end offered us some cool water (I wished that they had offered us some food as well; the ice-cream had long disappeared). This was remarkably different from my experience in India (with the police):
As an undergraduate in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) I would often go with friends for movies in the city. It would be late in the night and my institute was in the outskirts; we were too cheap for the autos and too late for the buses; hence we would walk all the way. A number of times, we encountered unpleasant drunk stick-wielding policeman (so called highway control); I will spare you the details
In another instance, not so long ago I applied for a fresh passport having exhausted my previous one. This was a tatkaal application and had to be followed by police verification; I called policeman up since I was leaving for Israel and he replied irritatingly “No no no no! Don’t worry.” The policeman came to my place 4 months later and my mother was extremely happy: “The man did not even take a bribe.” Now I have a negative report against me in India and the Ministry of External Affairs is threatening to impound my passport. In contrast, once when I was stuck on some Canadian street with my friend with more than we could dream to carry a couple of policemen gave us a lift in their car!
You can now guess what I was thinking: https://youtu.be/07AP_BcB0ng?t=36s
“Don ka intezaar 11 mulkon ki police kar rahi hai…” (“The police force of 11 countries is waiting for Don.”
After about a couple of hours of interrogation; we were in turn asked to sign some document which said that we were arrested but not harmed. Suddenly I became scared:
My doubts were cleared and we were shown the correct way back to Tel Aviv. There is so much I wanted to ask in return for the interrogation but muffled my voice down.
After I got back home, my advisor gave me a call.
Advisor: “Hello Nishant. I heard that you, Slash and Xiaolin were trying to break into some military facilities today…”
I am glad that they were so rigorous; this only helped instil a feeling of security in me. I am happy to be safe, secure, back in one piece awaiting with abated breath yet another adventure.
There is a game which I played as a young kid: Two players would place their fingers at a neutral position between each other and a judge (or it could be the players alternatively as well) would start saying “Tota udd, kao udd, cycle udd” (parrot fly, crow fly, cycle fly). The idea was that you are supposed to lift your finger high if the object, bird or animal did fly but not otherwise. I hate that game.
With the lack of my previous roommate (Sharing is caring) I have been having a fairly pleasant stay in Israel. Each weekend has been an absolute treat but still I have been itching for a challenge in the beautiful outdoors. In came Finjan!
Finjan is an excellent hiking group in Israel. Mmm! Sorry, sorry, sorry! It is originally just a pan used for preparing coffee by (spoilt) Israelis while they hike but the group appropriately appropriated the brand. Hiking here is not easy as it was in Vancouver. In Vancouver you could take buses to many wonderful hiking spots very easily. Here, especially if you want to go out during the holidays, buses do not ply due to shabbat and you need a good friend or some complicated sherut and hitchhiking maneuvers. Finjan goes to some fantastic places and lets you come along if you are quick enough with the booking; this I was for a wonderful trip this weekend.
But wait Nishant! Weren’t you supposed to finish your Europe trip writing and what about that short story? Well well! They are much bigger projects. Let me distract myself momentarily.
So this was essentially my first hike in Israel. I arrived early in the morning with half-open eyes to bus stop and was welcomed by the smell of Israeli Finjan coffee and minuscule cookies; I had been taught quite correctly, “The cake is a lie!” After a brief breakfast stop we made our way to the Golan! The Golan, a region captured from Syria in the 6 day war of 1967 is rich in water (a rather important commodity in Israel) and greenery. Now it forms an important strategic territory for Israel. As the bus journey extended longer into the morning I started missing a book to read or a piece of paper to write on; suddenly the lady in front of me started discussing India. It turned out that she was from the German embassy who had spent quite some time in Mumbai. There wasn’t another boring moment in the bus journey. Slowly the harsh desert environment slowly transformed into (essentially) lush greenery around the Sea of Galilee; the fishes multiplied, the loaves multiplied and souls walked on the water (Miracles). At least one of them did happen but let us get back to that in a minute.
We started with a short walk to Umm el Kanatir or the Mother of the Arches; it is an archaelogical site dating back to the sixth to the eighth century.
Whatever I say or write here will fall flat before this magical piece: Rebuilding Jewish History. Supposedly devastated by a great earthquake from the 741 AD and yet it stands again today in parts; is it short of a miracle?
Yeshua Dray, an interior designer by day and a magician by the night with some intelligent use of technology rebuilt the structure from its ruins. It is complicated to explain why this is so important for Israel; I leave it for another another day.
After reflecting on long broken temples back in India, I trudged back to the bus; it was time for my dose of “rush”.
“This is a water hike, everything will get wet!” thundered the kind Ariel. Well, of course! Doesn’t everyone already know that? Sadly I had left my change of clothes and towel back at home. Meekly borrowing a friend’s towel I changed into my swimming trunks which I wore with my hole ridden running shoes and a dirty white t-shirt; I am quite a fashion riot, ain’t I? Comfortable nevertheless we entered the eerily muddy Zaki stream, not very far from the ISIS controlled Syria. Slip, splash, boom! This was a sequence we heard through out the trip. Many bruises and pricks! The floor was lined by slippery stones and the sides were with thorny bushes. By the way such hikes are a perfectly romantic date in my opinion; connections made while the curses run wild and the bruises are tended to are probably the strongest possible bind. Sadly I don’t really curse.
It was very interesting company and the water went very well with the heat. Suddenly I lost track of the ground beneath my feet and realised that the only way to cross the stream was to swim, that to with my shoes and my backpack on. It wasn’t that bad, at least that is what I thought; looking at the concern on my co-hikers faces for me I realised that may be it wasn’t that smooth. Well I survived. The water had made my bag very heavy. So I decided to have a look and maybe have a bite of my dry fruits. To my horror they were wet. I think I had left my bag-chain open and water had streamed into my bag as I swam. My brownie stash was now floating into the water and I could see that the fish were extremely excited. As Ariel (friend, organiser and guide) was purportedly looking the other way a few of us decided to jump from a rope hanging above. I decided to capture some excellent shots.
This is when I realised that I had left the ziplock bag guarding my camera open as well. Instead of taking out the battery I switched it on to capture:
The fellow landed right in front of me and my camera braved the moist onslaught, sadly, for the last time. I kept on trying to switch it on and now the camera is fried. Stupidity and greed are expensive, aren’t they? Possibly, I might have been smarter if we had also played the swimming game along with the flying one as a kid!
I cleared the water out of my bag, rested my grief for later and focussed on the hike which still remained fun. A lot of slipping, splashing and swimming in the cool, softly flowing waters. It was as if I was learning how to walk again; I am not very hopeful of swimming though.
The hike ended on dry land with a distance to walk. I wanted to throw out every soggy bit from my bag in the garbage and so I reached out for my sandwiches! Surprisingly they were completely dry. If only it had switched places with my camera, I would have been so much happier. “So is life”, quipped a co-hiker.
We ate and drank as I waited for my t-shirt to dry and I got to flaunt my well-chiseled body; I might be heading to the gym this morning just so that you know. The long ride back was enlivened by some wonderful conversations and newly gained knowledge of Iraqi and Yemenite mothers serving delicacies and Gat (Gat) on Friday afternoons in the Carmel Market; something that I have to try soon. There on, I went home for some massive cleaning and mourning.
I leave you with the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoYBvPeQiFQ
I haven’t watched the video and I suggest that you do not either.
How to protect your borders? How do you deal with terrorists? How do you deal with your own people who are supportive of terrorists? How far will you go to protect your ‘people’? I am posting this now because many concurrent events around the world (and not far away from home either).
These are not easy questions and people who take one side or the other are stupid!
I have been sharing rooms and apartments all my life. As a baby with my parents, as I grew up with my sisters and then as I grew up further with my brothers and my grandfather. I don’t remember much about the former but about the latter I remember a few things.
I was terrified of the dark and hence I would clasp my sister’s hand till I fell asleep. Later as I grew out of my fear, I have fond memories of having mosquito killing competitions and singing caricatured songs through the night; they were caricatured not because we were talented song-writers but more because I wouldn’t remember the lyrics of the songs I wanted to sing. Necessity is the mother of invention. Of course some other people might not have enjoyed this as much as we did.
Anyways, I eventually grew up and a day came when the erstwhile young hatchling had to fly out of the nest and so I did. I remember my roommate at ISI then welcomed me with open arms. Those were very strange times. A young 18 year old, just out of home with no clue about the world shares a room with his compatriot. What started with open arms ended with miffed ends and I eventually shifted to single room (or a double room with a single occupant). But to anyone who has stayed in an Indian hostel one should know that you are essentially sharing you room with the entire hostel. These were fun times, many ups and downs and in the end I was happy to get out. That is when I flew to Canada.
The cold lands! I spent 6 years in Vancouver. The first few months in Vancouver were not exactly fun but thanks to my nice roommates and some great friends I managed to get over those dark days. I was sharing an apartment on the 15th floor by the sea shore (the view!!) with 2 Chinese folks Xiaolei and Wei and an American fellow. The Chinese folks were students in electrical engineering department and this was essentially my first introduction to another culture (not saying that India is a huge homogeneous bob). They would often be stuck with some problems in linear algebra and that got the conversation started. In those days I learnt a lot about the Chinese culture which was essentially closed to me back in India. This was also the time when I did not even know how to boil water and my talent showed in various shades, for instance almost burning down the microwave, coating the hot plate with a layer of Indian plastic and starting my own entomological garden. My roommates were kind. This is also when I discovered the wonderful thing called pasta. Boil some pasta, put in some vegetable and add chilli powder and jeera powder and some Indian spices and woaw you have a meal. Xiaolei was truly enamoured by this and I had to invent some elaboration of intermediate steps to make it more credible. He of course took it to another level and added meat to eat. I left eating meat. Anyways we became good friends and spent a decent time hiking the following summer.
The seashore 15 floor apartment turned out too expensive to keep and hence I moved to a cheaper apartment next summer. It was again a four bedroom apartment but two vacant rooms and a friend from Iran, Javad. He was great fellow and I remember many long discussions of ethics, philosophy and such. But the most notable was the kheer incident: People who know me would know that I love cooking and I love sweets. So there was this one day when I was cooking kheer (a rice pudding). Javad often would be in the kitchen in bare minimums, singing the farsi version of Speak softly love (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQBW6G0hSrs) and cooking (of course in my absence). Anyways, so I finished preparing kheer and I asked Javad, “Would you like some kheer?” Suddenly the song stopped and big dark eyes glared at me. “Did my friends say something to you?” I was thoroughly confused and mumbled, “Kheer” pointing to the cooker. This was followed by loud guffaws; it turned out that kheer meant penis in farsi.
This was also the time when I realised that I would not have enough money for PhD applications next term and so I had to look for a cheaper place. Desperate, I moved into the first place I found. A one bedroom apartment where I would be in the living room and finally save some money. It was a shit hole to start with. For the past 6 years (this how long we had the records) this place had been occupied by Indians. I stayed there for about four and half years (by the way it is still occupied by Indians). Anyways, it was this shit hole. The entire place was crawling with disgusting insects and what not. Even the fridge had garbage (to prevent the odour from spreading?). I remember opening a drawer and almost loosing consciousness because of extremely pungent smell (Beat you H2S!). I will not disgust you with lurid details. There I began the arduous task of cleaning the apartment and brightening the interiors. I shared this place with someone in the education department and I don’t remember much more. He left in a years time and I decided to stay at UBC for my PhD. My friend Krishna joined in. It was great having him around and we had long conversations about a great variety of topics. Cooking sessions and commonalities of all kinds formed a basis of a great friendship. It was around then a newcomer Anujit wanted a place for a few days before moving and a good friend Aniruddha also needed some transit time. So they joined in and sadly loved it. Of course this was against the rules but who cares? Well well! They loved it so much that wanted to bunk their new places and stay with us. I realised that 4 people is going to be tough and so played the party pooper showing Aniruddha the door; Anujit was new after all.
And there in comes a time I am not proud of, it is probably the only thing in my life that I regret. I was irritable for many reasons back then and I treated Anujit very poorly, being a rigid and a beastly roommate, eventually having him leave. Krishna had already left for India, still in the doldrums regarding what to do next. I am glad that Anujit is so forgiving to be still a great friend. Anyways, he was replaced by Marc:
Marc with all his curiosities is a great friend. He went through some very difficult (academic) times and I tried to lighten things at home, introducing him to what I knew of the great Indian cuisine. He in turn introduced me to the wonders of baking and often great mathematics. Gradually he really took to Indian cooking but lacked some patience. Once he was hungry and the cooker was taking too long too open. So he took off the whistle on the top by force and oh behold! He had a halo on the top of his head. No, no don’t worry! He, the cooker and the daal were all fine but there was a circle of turmeric on the ceiling.
Marc left and I was joined in by another dear friend Ankur who stayed in till the end of my stay in Vancouver. I realised here what a difference to life a like-minded person make. Far beyond me in many respects, Ankur brought some sanity to the apartment, taught me how to cook and many other things. I felt sad as I left!
Haven’t you, o man in your 20s considered this before? I did and in the process found why Calvin’s father indeed never shared an apartment with several scantily clad female roommates. Searching for apartments in Tel Aviv wasn’t easy and by the end of things I was quite desperate and took up the first place that I could find in my budget. I was very low on money back then and had to save up enough for my trip to United states in a few months time. Well! The owner was very nice, the apartment was top-notch and I was sharing it with a pretty Israeli woman. What could be better? My friends, of course, had a field day and I, for one, thought of this as a great opportunity to learn some Hebrew if nothing else; the woman did not know any English. But instead I learnt quite quickly what happens to the best laid plans.
First day in the apartment, the lady asked for a light for her smoke. I had none and I suggested the stove. Soon the smell of weed filled the apartment and she gave me a lesson via google translate in Israeli nationalism, why people with no grasp of Hebrew had no place in Israel. Then we argued about whether or not we needed a sofa; I was there for 4 months and there was no way I was going to shell out a dime. The apartment needed professional cleaning as well and being low on money I told her that I will pay for it next month. Next day I left for Jerusalem. It was early in the morning and as soon as I entered the kitchen I was viciously attacked by a bee and had to flee immediately. Well! Too bad. Next week when I was back I hear these loud complaints and she points out a rotten banana on the top of the fridge. I apologised and then she changed tac and started asking for the money for the cleaner. I reminded her that it was supposed to be the next month but she was adamant. In came her team of translators who tried to force me. Of course I am not your run-of-the-mill-kind; sadly neither was she!
Every night she would strut in at 3 in the night with horrible music, high heels and other female friends (who stayed over for the entire period of stay). This would of course wake me up, I would walk to her room, curse (which she sadly did not understand) and get her to shut up. But by then I would have lost my sleep. There I would lie on my bed, wide awake waiting for the morning. What can you do lying in your bed? No, no, no! That is not what I meant… So I would lie there, slowly my anger would subside and I would start thinking about things in life, philosophy and eventually return to my love, mathematics. But of course, I would not switch on the lights for that would completely kill the chances of sleep. Lying there I think I arrived at some brilliant (for me) mathematical ideas which might be useful later. Unintended consequences, huh? Touché!
Lesson: All roommates have a ‘use’! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4CEk47P8-k
Well I did not have much sleep for the four months and my clothes perennially stank of weed. I tried to return the favour by my horrible flute playing, guitar works, singing and the wonderfully sharp Indian cooking (Cough all the way to hell, you *****!). I sadly did not get much work done as a consequence and learnt grudgingly the pitfalls of a desperate measure. I also learnt that despite being flexible, I just can’t live with anyone and everyone; I too have some boundaries.
Well now providence has delivered me from the lady’s clutches and I am warm and comfortable warm in the cold US town of Providence, bracing myself for the roommate to arrive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8ZrN_pizyQ
This Christmas I visiting Nazareth with a couple of friends, the place where Jesus spent his childhood. Although it is predominantly Arab town, its enthusiasm for Christmas was quite overwhelming. I enjoyed very much its food (the falafels finally taste good), the Christmas mass, the archaelogical sites nearby and the people (hitchhiking was not that hard and very pleasant). The first comment in the pictures have further details.