Saturday, February 06, 2016

Rich me. Poor me.

I did not know the day I became rich. And I did not know the day I became poor either. Simply because I don’t understand German.

Let me get to the poor bit first.

My German bank gives me pretty poor service. I say this because they do not fulfill the basic expectation of an international customer- communicating in a language the customer understands. By language, I do not mean Swahili or Igbo. I mean English, a language spoken by many in the western world. I have often gotten the “deer in the headlights” look whenever I request to be spoken to in English- in person, on the phone, or in emails. Last December, I started getting a series of emails from the bank. Every time, I replied, asking to tell me in English instead of German. No one replied. Then one day, just like that, they deducted €5 from my account. Just like that. Since my bank statements are also in German, I had no idea what I had done.

In Hindi, we have a saying about the iron cutting the iron. I let the German cut the German.

I asked a German friend to look into this. She called the bank. Apparently the emails were about asking me to confirm my home address. Since I had replied in English, instead of replying to their query, they assumed that I had changed addresses without letting them know, and they deducted €5 as penalty. €5 is not a lot of money, but it was wrongfully taken. I have been promised that the money will be deposited back since the confusion was cleared. Time will tell.

Banking in Germany is funny. In India, you get interest when you put money in the bank. In the USA, you do not get interest, but you do not have your money taken away either. Germany is a different beast. Here, I pay money annually to own a credit card. And with every transaction I make (when I spend money, and even when someone puts money in my bank, like my salary), the bank deducts some money as transaction fees. It will take me a long time to understand this country.

Now about the rich part.

Last December again, I had applied to the German government to give me some travel money to go to the USA. They said that they will let me know by March. I assumed that let me know in this age means sending an email.

I never check my mailbox (letterbox) simply because no one writes me letters. So when the German government sent me a letter two months before their March timeline, it lay in my mailbox for two weeks, unattended. One night, I was bored and could not fall asleep, and decided to kill time by checking my mailbox. I took the stairs, went up, and opened my mailbox, expecting an empty one. There lay a big fat envelope. With shaking hands and bated breath, I opened it. Five pages of German text. Not a single word I could decipher. Not even a keyword like “Herzliche Glückwünsche” (congratulations) or apologies. Just five pages of plain German text. Imagine my plight, holding the result of my application and not knowing what it said. I waited the entire night.

The next morning, the same German friend came to my rescue. My application had made it, and it was five pages of rules about what I should do or not do to be able to claim the money after the conference. I wonder why they didn’t send an email instead. Imagine, the letter lying there for two weeks. I could have been a happy person half a month earlier. 

On a different note, I recently got an award from the university for being "an impulse driver for innovative, trend-setting teaching" at the university. Two eminent people from the university even signed it. I haven't received an award like this since the sixth grade, but some kind of validation is always nice. These days, I've taken validation-whoring to a whole new level. Any award, any publication, anything CV-worthy happens, and I get busy updating the CV. Traits of someone on the job prowl, you know!

Always a fan of the German way of doing things, I love how they even framed the certificate and directly put it in my mailbox. No drama, no ceremonies, no blowing kisses in the air and hugging people and fake tears and making false promises of changing the education system on my part. The funny thing is, I don't really know what exactly the certificate said, since it is once again in German. Colleagues kept coming in and out of my office, congratulating me and admiring it, but I had no idea what exactly was written. It was later that a kind co-worker nicely translated it for me in a word document, formatting it exactly the way it looked, but in English. It's an interesting experience for me, being a part of a system and navigating mostly out of instinct, fulfilling the expectations and achieving the benchmarks, but not really getting it.

I emailed the award-issuing person, thanking them, and asking if they could send me a translated version of this award in English. I still haven't heard back. I'm sure they rarely get an email from an awardee, not happy with what they have and asking them to issue another award.

So that is the summary of my life in Germany. A part of a heterogeneous mixture, and not necessarily a homogeneous solution. I am a part of the society, but I don’t blend in. I stand out. And while I struggle with the language, life happens. I get money. I lose money. I get awards. But I still don’t get the language. The analogy I love to tell people is, living in Germany is like living in with a very good looking man who does not speak to you. I am enamored by this place, and how beautiful it is. But the place doesn’t speak to me. We live like two separate entities, like two strangers in the same house. Together, but not gelling in.


Monday, February 01, 2016

A strangulating mass of nothing

I have some stuff inside a few suitcases hiding away in a friend’s garage in a different country. Things I did not want to throw, and things I did not want to keep. Things I did not know what to do about. This time, I decided to go through them, and cull through the clutter.

And so I did, in the dark and damp garage. Going through stuff, and mostly throwing them. If I did not need them this long, I was not likely to need them.

Then, I opened a particular suitcase. Inside it lay a tangled assortment of cords, cables, and wires of every kind. Laptop chargers. Extension cords. Internet cables. Router cables. In blacks and blues and whites. I could have sorted through them and separated them. But something was so off-putting about the sight that I stared at it for a few minutes, shut the suitcase, and put it back. I did not have the mental bandwidth to sort through a tangled bunch of wires.

So many relationships around me are lying around, just like that. Unsorted. Not important enough to spend time or analyze them, yet just sitting around. People on Facebook I have never met. People I have met, but do not communicate with. Never said hi in years. Don’t really care about their status updates that have got nothing to do with my life. Never wish them on their birthdays. Couldn't care less about their annual trips to India, posting pictures of everything they do or eat. I have no idea what they are doing in my virtual world other than taking up space. Maybe someday, just someday, I would need them. Someone might just come in handy. Just like perhaps someday, I might be in need of one of these cords, cables, or ropes. That day, I will be happy that I did not throw them all away. Or maybe, I will never need them. But they will be sitting there in the garage, in a place where I don’t have to see them every day, taking up space. Because sorting through the mess is going to take time and effort. And I do not have the enthusiasm to do that. I don’t think I have more than ten close friends, and maybe a hundred good enough friends. I haven't spoken to more than fifty in the past year. But all eight hundred of them will be lying there dormant, witnessing every milestone in my life they do not care about, and sharing every milestone of their lives that I do not care about.

Just because sorting takes time and effort. And sometimes, it is easier to just let go and let things be.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Summarizing January

The last working day in January is over. It seems like just yesterday when people were posting new year resolutions on Facebook that they are not likely to honor. And now, just like that, January is over.

I spent half of January in Seattle, a city I consider my home (although I no longer live there). One day, I was taking a walk when I had this crazy idea of grabbing a fistful of Seattle soil and bringing it back with me to Germany. I did not. Seattle is the only place that has this kind of effect on me.

This year, I resolved to write more. So far, I have honored it. I have buried myself in work these days. I once watched a movie called The Human Stain. It has a powerful line that stayed with me. “Action is the enemy of thought.” I go crazy when I think about life, living mine by yearlong contracts, trying to desperately find a faculty position and not knowing when this postdoc spell would end. My friends who started graduate school with me, both in 2006 an 2010, mostly have faculty positions by now. And I am floundering, from one Skype interview to the next, unable to understand why I am not making it.

So I decided to drown myself in work. I unfollowed a bunch of people on FB to steer clear of their uninspiring lives, generally cut down on the time that I waste on FB, and started working more. This month, I submitted two papers as first author. I just finished working on another paper as secondary author. Wrote a little grant. Got another paper published this morning. Started a new project in Asia. Won a scholarship, a little pot of money that will partially fund my trip to Baltimore this spring. I even moved offices.

Eager to welcome February now, more as a workaholic and a recluse. We often assume this divide between work and play. I think that when you enjoy what you do for a living, work becomes play. It doesn’t seem like a chore anymore. Whenever I work on interesting papers, I stop needing the alarm clock to wake up, and I am usually at work by 8 am. It is only when I do something that does not interest me that life starts to drag on. Like I said, work becomes play when you enjoy work. And play becomes work as well. I will start my country hopping in Europe starting February. Traveling is relaxing and all, but it is hardly play for me. I do a thorough research about where to go, what to see, where and what to eat, and so on. Like I said, the divide between work and play is not so pronounced for me. My work is my play, and my play involves a lot of work.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Food-Medicine Theory

I think for a living. Which means that I continue to think sometimes even when I am not making a living. In this complex web of thought processes, I came up with a gem of a theory one day that answered many unexplained questions I have had in the past about relationships. Not just intimate relationships or romantic relationships, but relationships. Friends, neighbors, colleagues, basically any human interaction I have had. I call this the “food-medicine theory”.

Relationships are based on need. The need to get, and sometimes, the need to give. Most relationships are either like food, or like medicine. Let’s see how.  

Some people are like food in your life. You need food everyday for sustenance. That’s a universal truth. Nutritive, life-giving food, hopefully in moderation. But routine is the key. Sure, you could fast for a day or two. But barring that, you need food. Every day.

Now once in a while, you eat bad food, and have food poisoning. You stay away from that food. What comes in handy is a medicine. Something strong, that has a more localized effect to cure you off the ill effects of food. You may continue to take it for a while. But eventually, when you are cured, you stop taking it, and go back to eating normally. 

Human relationships are just like that. Some people are food. They are just a part of your being. You do not question their need or their existence. You just need them to stay strong, healthy, and functioning. You can perform the most mundane of things as long as you have them around. And they are here, to stay in your life.

But then, other human relationships are like medicines. They have a role, and a very important and specific one to play. They come in handy only when there is a crisis. A medicine is not something you open your eyes and look forward to having on a normal day. It is effective for sure. But it is temporary. Evanescent.

Both food and medicine are important. Neither one nor the other is superior, and there is no judgment on the value one brings to the table. One can be food to some, and medicine to others. That is totally okay.

However, confusion and heartbreaks happen when you mistake one for the other. I have been medicine to many, and many have been medicine to me. Yet mistaking myself as food has caused heartbreaks so many times. In any given relationship, it is so important to know whether one is the food or the medicine, and own up to that. Whether one is serving a temporary need, or is here to stay. That helps you to step away at the right time. You do not want to be hanging around when you are no longer needed.

I know that you need me, and I am happy to be around. But you did not always need me. You started needing me to get over a bad past. A trauma. An accident. An illness. I know that the day you heal and recover, you will not need me anymore. I might still be around, like a vial tucked away in some corner of the medicine cabinet for future use. But I will not be needed all the time.

The day I realized this, so many inexplicable things started making sense to me. Why did someone get so close so soon? And why someone took off and never reported? Why was everyone being treated differently at work? I have seen people completely fall out of love, and the same has happened to me (I am not talking of just romantic love). Perhaps they were, or I was the medicine. I had an important, but only temporary role to play. Once things went back to being normal, the medicine was no longer needed.

Of course every theory has its flaws, no theory is perfect. Sure, you can refute it and find many loopholes in what I just said. But if you can look beyond the flaws, you might see some value in what I just said. I hope that you have read one of these famous quotes in statistics, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” My theory might be wrong. But I hope that it is useful.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Knocked Up

I was browsing through movies during a recent Zurich-Newark flight when a particular scene from a particular Bollywood movie caught my attention.

A woman is in the peak of her pregnancy, about to deliver any moment. No doctor could be there on time since one needs to cross a narrow bridge made of wooden planks and ropes to be able to get to the village. So the confident female protagonist in the movie decides to do the child delivery.

"Have you ever delivered a baby before?" someone had the presence of mind to ask.

"Yes," she said confidently. "I have delivered a baby goat before."

That is exactly when I switched movies.

But this ridiculous scene made me think of all the ridiculous ideas Bollywood has fed us about pregnancy. I have never been pregnant, and the only person I had closely seen being pregnant is my mom, when I was little. Naturally, I do not remember much. So back to Bollywood and the bullshit it feeds us about pregnancy.

1.     Ever noticed how when the newly-wed starts to throw up, everyone is worried, except the old matriarch in the family, who has an all-knowing smile? She does not even have a degree in medicine. I used to throw up a lot when I had ulcer. No one had smiled at me knowingly then.

2.     Ever noticed how the background music of Ravi Shankar's sitar (symbolizing love and happiness) changes to the sinister music of drums and trumpets when the woman throwing up is not married?

3.     Ever noticed how a male doctor examines a woman lying unconscious in bed with his stethoscope, checks her pulse, and declares her pregnant? I thought you only declared someone dead that way. Whatever happened to pregnancy kits? How can a stethoscope and a quick pulse check can detect pregnancy?

4.     A woman craving pickles is supposed to be pregnant. I have loved pickles all my life. What does that make me?

5.     Ever noticed the theory where if you hang someone's life size picture on the wall (usually that of the husband), and make a pregnant woman look at that picture every day, the baby will be born looking like that man?

6.     Does drinking milk infused with saffron really help Indian babies be born fair-skinned? Even long after the British left India, the desire to look like one of them didn't leave many of us. Or is this a pre-British fetish?

7.     And this is my biggest mystery question. When a baby is to be delivered, why does the village matriarch always, always ask for a big vessel of boiling water, before shutting the door on everyone? What is the role of boiling water? I hope you don't throw it on someone to induce labor. Do you make tea with the boiling water for the mother? Coffee maybe? Give her a sponge bath? I can't think of any other creative uses of boiling water.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016


A few months ago, I got hooked to watching air crash investigation videos on YouTube. Almost an hour-long each, these are fascinating videos recreated of airplane crashes, explaining what went wrong. It isn't a morbid fantasy, I am not into the emotional or social or economic aspect of a disaster of this magnitude. I am just fascinated by the science and technology of flying. I want to know how airplanes remain suspended in air, and what all could possibly go wrong. I have watched so many videos that I can theoretically fly planes now. Or write a book about flying planes. Cockpit voice recorder. Flight data recorder. Holding pattern. Pitot tubes. Lift. Stalling. The three components of an autopilot. TCAS. I know it all.

An Ethiopian airplane was hijacked and had to crash-land in the sea. A Helios flight had a sudden lack of oxygen due to which everyone went in a coma and the plane crashed after eventually running out of fuel. The Air France crash of 2008 when there were false pitot tube readings due to cold weather, and the pilots intuitively made nose-up inputs rather than puling the nose down, which led to a sea crash. The flight that crashed in the swamps of Everglades, and how it led to infections and gangrenes. A mid-air collision at right angle between a passenger and a cargo plane because one of the pilots was listening to the air traffic controller, and the other one to the airplane alerts, causing them both to change altitude simultaneously.

As a result, I am petrified of flying now. My heart just wouldn't calm down when I am in air. My fear has reached crazy proportions, because usually seated by the window side, I keep looking outside for signs of disaster. I try to distract myself with food, pointless movies, or a Mills & Boon kept handy with the interesting pages dog-eared. But neither good food, nor reading about sex can keep me distracted for long, and I go back to gluing my nose to the freezing double-pane windows, watching out for imminent signs of disaster.

The other day, they made us deplane after boarding, causing a 3 hour delay. One of the engines was giving funny test readings, and although the other engines were fine, the airline did not want to risk anything. While all the passengers cursed about the inconvenience of getting on and off and then on another plane, children shrieking and pillows flying and all, I was perhaps the only one who did a mental balle-balle, thanking God that the airplane did not take off. I was more than happy to wait for 3 hours to be able to get home safely. People tell me that the chances of dying in a road accident is far more than dying in a plane crash. I don't know what is it that bothers me about flying, that does not have the same effect on me about driving.

I will be flying in a few days, and it is needless to say that I have been hyperventilating and getting sleepless nights. It does not help much that I am also re-reading a great book by Mary Roach called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I realize that as I am ageing, I am turning out to be a pretty weird and eccentric person. In a few decades, I will turn out to be one of those irritable grannies like Maxine.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Connecting More by Connecting Less

Living without a cell phone has been one of the more liberating experiences of my stay in Germany. It’s been close to sixteen months now.

I did not do it on purpose. Having used a cell phone for over a decade, I had every intention of getting a new connection in Germany. It seemed like the natural thing to do.

However, cutting ties with my ex-phone-provider in the US turned out to be messier than a breakup. I had to pay a heavy price for terminating my two-year contract at the end of year one. A series of events led to long and futile conversations with their rather tardy customer service, hundreds of dollars and hours of lost sleep, a string of international calls, and loss of faith in their service. My cross-continental move had exhausted me, and I needed temporary respite from a telephone provider. Ironically, owning a phone in Germany is an easier process. You do not need to show your credentials, have a credit history, or have a contract to own a phone. You can just buy a pre-paid card, a phone, and use it on a need basis. However, my harrowing experience with Verizon had left me scarred, and I did not want to go through the same battle again in German, a language I do not speak or understand.

My bad experience turned out to be serendipitous. I never got that phone. I do not intend to anymore.

Using a phone, just like using anything, is a habit. And the thing with habits is that they change. Living without a cell phone is really easy in this age of technology. I am usually always online and checking emails at work or at home. Friends who need to talk write me emails or send me Facebook messages. On weekends I religiously Skype and video chat for hours with my close friends, all of who happen to live in the US. Ironically, I never talked to them as much when I actually had a phone.

I call my family in India using Google voice. 2 cents/minute is cheap enough, but not so cheap that I would engage in long, meaningless conversations. My mother could not figure out for a long time why I renounced the comforts of a phone. She came up with a string of theories (I was depressed, going through midlife crisis, trying to be stingy, etc.), and offered to buy me a phone, demanding to know how she might get in touch with me if there was a family emergency. I explained to her that in this age, trying to shut out someone might be a more difficult endeavor than trying to get in touch with someone. I stood my ground, and she eventually gave up.

So now that I have no phone, do I travel less? Not really. On the contrary, 2015 has been my most extensively travelled year, covering 22 cities in 13 countries. So the notion that one cannot travel without a phone is entirely wrong.

And how do I travel without a phone? Just like people traveled, and even invaded and conquered empires before the era of cell phones. I do my homework beforehand, meticulously reading maps and memorizing them. I had made free-hand drawings of the way to the hostel from the train station in Frankfurt (I knew that I was reaching pretty late at night, and my hostel was a good 15 minute away). Additionally, I use this amazing resource called human beings, asking for help, and learning to say please and thank you in the local language. Rather than seeking help from technology, I ask help from human beings.

And what if I am waiting and am bored? I don’t get bored actually. Far from it. Rather than succumbing to this compulsive habit of looking at a phone, I look around me. I watch people. I carry reading and writing material. I recently had a 5-hour layover at the Helsinki airport and a 7-hour layover at the Dubai airport. I chatted up with a few random people, enjoyed a nice hot bowl of salmon soup in Helsinki, and time flew while I did nothing in particular.

What if I get an important email while traveling? Really, what could be so important? Sure, there was a time I had a compulsive habit of browsing work emails, staying abreast of everything posted on Facebook, every news that had gone viral, a disaster, a tragedy, a malady, perhaps even some joyous news. Now, I am no longer attached to the idea of staying on top of things all the time. I couldn’t care less about what people are eating, what they are arguing and fighting about, what the activists are up to, and who is leading the baseball season. It is a selfish existence you might say, but it suits me fine. I do not chase news anymore. If news is important, it chases me.

Is it hard? Not at all. It is strangely liberating actually. It is one less thing to worry about (not worrying where you left your phone, not worrying about paying the phone bill or exhausting your talk time, no peer pressure to upgrade, among a few). I am not accountable for calling people or staying in touch with them every day. Nor do I feel bad if people do not call me every day. Yes, there are websites for booking flights and buses that need you to have a phone number. I just make up a random number, and tell them that email is the best way to reach me. Calcutta, Bombay, and many airports need you to give them a cell phone number to be able to access their internet (they send you a code on your cell phone). I just choose to read/write/snooze/reminisce/plan/fantasize [insert any verb of your choice] rather than browse the internet.

And how do people respond to this? My colleague, like my mother, got concerned and gave me an extra phone and a charger to use. It is still sitting unused in my office. My mom gave me a phone too, and I have no idea where it is. Obeying Lamarck’s theory of use and disuse, I have lost my instinct to jump and respond to a ringing phone. Most of the time, I ignore ringing phones.

At the end of the day, a cell phone is just one of the many methods of staying in touch. It is just a tool, and not the cause for strong friendships. This compulsive habit of being available at everyone’s beck and call or being reachable all the time doesn’t suit me anymore. This is not a Germany-specific malady. I was in the US for 2.5 months and in India for a month, and did great without a phone. While meeting someone, I look at the bus/train timetable (I have been without a car for 16 months too) and send them an email about my expected time of arrival. My life is not a continuous job where I have to be on-call all the time. Even without a phone, I have traveled more, made more friends, forged active research collaborations, and been able to stay in touch with everyone I want to. People wanting to meet me have taken international flights and found their way to Germany. I have connected with people even more, relearned to observe and reflect more, and channelized the extra time in pursuing newer interests like learning German and understanding the technology behind how airplanes fly.

Lastly, this write-up is not really about the vices of a phone. It is about learning to give up something familiar, rewiring my habits around it, and pushing myself to do something uncomfortable. It didn’t have to be a phone, it could be anything (well, I learned to give up driving too, and I used to be an avid driver). The good news is, meet me for a meal, and you will have all my attention. I will not be compulsively checking emails and texting out of habit.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

2015: Looking Back

Certain years in our lives pose questions, and other years provide answers. Looking back at the year that 2015 was, there are so many expected things that did not, and things unexpected that happened out of the blue. Most things that happened fall into predictable categories of academic achievements, expansion of writing interests, forging new friendships, and some extensive networking. There were some interesting first times too. Doing pot in Amsterdam. Taking the Amtrak from Chicago to Seattle. Getting my first internal grant. Seeing the largest sailing event in the world. First travel grant. Going back to the UW after 7 years. 

However, the one thing that stands out more than anything is travel. 2015 has been undoubtedly the most extensively traveled year of my life. Conferences, collaborations, family trips, personal travel, everything that was meant to happen happened. Every month, I visited at least one different country. That's a total of 22 different cities in 13 different countries, including six new countries. There were three discrete trips to India and two discrete trips to the US. There were two aborted trips to Luxembourg and Italy as well, but no complaints. At one point, I was wondering why I am even paying rent.

India: Kolkata is Kolkata. Most of my time there goes in meeting and eating. The interesting bit was visiting during Durga Puja for the first time ever since I left India. My last Durga Puja in Kolkata was in 2005. I was in Mumbai too, very briefly, and the only thing I remember of it was dining at Mahesh Lunch Home. Unarguably the best seafood restaurant I have dined at, do not miss ordering Solkadhi, the strawberry-milkshake-lookalike drink that is anything but strawberries and sugar. It blew me away. Talking of being blown away, Sikkim had pretty much that kind of effect on me. Clean air, plastic-free, the majestic snow-capped mountains, simple people, delicious Tibetian food, and pretty homes stacked up. That is how I will always remember the capital city, Gangtok. After viewing the Kanchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world) for two consecutive dawns from Gangtok, we went to Pelling to be able to get a better and much closer view of the mountains. However, the rain and bad weather ensured that the entire mountain is shrouded, and we saw nothing, despite excitedly waking up before dawn and waiting in the cold with camera gear. Forget seeing the mountains, even our sightseeing plans had to be cancelled. It rehashed an important life lesson. That moving physically closer to your destination doesn't necessarily mean that you will reach your destination. If something is meant to happen, it will. Most importantly, it might be good to have alternate plans in life, and move on. 

Canada, France, and UAE were short trips, mostly for meeting old friends or exploring a city during long layovers. Visiting the Scandinavian countries for the first time made me realize how short, and how poor I am. Malmö (Sweden) was nice, and so was Helsinki (Finland). Grey, exorbitant, but thankfully, English speaking. The interesting surprise was an unexpected cruise ship ride (my first time) from Helsinki to Tallinn (Estonia), when the smaller boats were cancelled due to bad weather. Try traveling in a cruise ship at least once. It is an amazing experience. The Baltic countries (Estonia, and Riga in Latvia) were very pretty, inexpensive, laidback, and replete with their eastern European charm.

In Germany, visiting the Berlin wall was a humbling experience. Even with everything I had read and the number of movies I watched over the years, nothing had prepared me for how I felt visiting it. For an onlooker who does not know, this would have seemed an ordinary park, a rather dilapidated one, with children playing, people running, and tourists taking pictures. Yet this place is full of history, full of stories that are not quite that old. Stories of pain and separation and letting go. And stories of courage and bravery and resilience of the human spirit. I was engulfed with a sense of sadness, a sense of shared grief for human suffering. But what I witnessed was also the victory of hope over suffering, of good over bad. May no wall be strong enough to confine and restrict the spirit, our dreams, love, and the sense of goodness. There are people who build walls, and there are also people who break those walls. Being here reaffirmed my faith in the resilience of the human spirit.

Lübeck turned out to be a very pretty northern German town, reminding me how pretty Germany is. The cobbled streets, the architecture, the pretty little cafes that serve amazing food and coffee in classy china, the churches and pretty homes, the waterfront, and the iconic Holsten Gate, Lübeck had to offer a lot. I spent the entire day walking, watching, reading, then walking some more, and taking in the pretty sights. Two of the many things about it- This is the home to the marzipan industry, and the home of Nobel laureate Günter Grass. Although a small place, Lübeck is actually home to three Nobel laureates.

Denmark was beautiful, and so was Switzerland. Amsterdam (Netherlands) turned out to be a city of canals, museums, and pot. I had the most amazing Indonesian food in Amsterdam. I was not aware of Netherland’s colonial history, and how Indonesian cuisine became a part of Dutch food. Seriously, when in Amsterdam, do not miss eating Indonesian.

USA: The other interesting experience was taking the Empire Builder train (Amtrak) from Chicago to Seattle ($140 one way). It leaves Chicago Union Station at 2:15 pm CST, and 46 hours later, reaches Seattle at 10:30 am PST. The scenery for more than half the trip was uneventful (unless you are like me, who loves watching any kind of landscape). I saw a lot of fields, birds, and arid lands in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. However, the real change started on the evening of day 2, while we were crossing Glacier National Park in Montana. The sunset was amazing. The mountains were huge. After that, it was really pretty for the rest of the trip.

The seats were much better and more comfortable than the ones in an airplane. They recline very well, and given that only half the train was full, I had two seats to myself. So I actually managed to get into a fetal position and sleep well for two nights. However, if you do not fall asleep easily, I would not recommend it.

The dining car and the observation deck had an amazing 270 degree view. YouTube has some nice videos of how it looks inside the train and the observation deck. The food was quite pricey, and nothing to die for (the menu is available online). I had anticipated this. So I carried my own food to last me for the trip, including biryani from Ghareeb Nawaz in Chicago. But then, that's me. I can sleep well, and eat biryani under any circumstances.

There is no internet, unless you have your own. I don't know about cell phone connectivity, since I did not have one. Not anymore. I was surprised at how many people boarded the train with me, and went all the way to Seattle. At some point, the train bifurcated. Half of it went to Seattle, and the other half to Portland.

Dress in layers. It was freezing at night. The restrooms were clean and big. No complaints. Also, you can check in a lot of luggage, much more than airplanes allow you. Overall, it was a great experience, and I would do it again. But then, I love trains, watching landscapes, and I was not in a hurry. If you don't have the time and are more into "tick mark tourism", this is not for you.

This is a short summary of some of the places I visited in 2015. I am not sure what 2016 has in store. As weird as it sounds, I think that I might be ready to be home, be rooted for a change, and develop different hobbies that does not require as much travel.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Signs of an NRI (and RI) Socialite

Disclaimer: The author shuns responsibility for any feelings of hurt this “Honesty 12.0 on a scale of 10” post may cause. All characters that have inspired this post are certainly not fictitious, although not all of them are known to the author personally. Any resemblance to anyone living or throwing Hangover-themed parties on their fiftieth birthday is purely so not coincidental. The author has documented her observations based on years of harrowing experience of living in the US and failing miserably to blend in with the nouveau riche NRI crowd. The entertainment their over-documented, cookie-cutter celebrity lives have provided the author so much inspiration that the author has renounced any contact whatsoever with the NRI community in Europe. Love them, hate them, unfollow them, but you cannot delete them. Although primarily meant for the NRI, the average Resident Indian (RI) has also started to show such symptoms, thanks to globalization. Here are some sure shot signs of an NRI/RI-socialite, documented without any prejudice or judgment (written in first person for special effects).

1. The more pregnant we are, the filmier our lives get. By the time it gets to the pregnancy photo shoot, replete with Surf-Excel-washed flowing white clothes, pink/blue props (how innovative!), sugary-gooey loving expressions, and close up shots of sixteen different positions of the man kissing the baby bump (that is more of a hillock by now) and making heart signs with jointed fingers, you will be wallowing in self-pity, looking at your own not-so-colorful life and frantically Googling, “How to look amazing despite greying hair, hormonal earthquakes, and PMS”.

2. For someone who attends five weekend parties on an average, you will never see us wearing the same designer clothes or accessories twice. The 90-day return policies of the stores certainly help.

3. We call our close friends "girlfriend", "babe", and "bestie" on Facebook. And a bitch behind their Faceback.

Corollary: Behind every happy groupfie taken with or without a stick is a bunch of dysfunctional friendship stories gone awry due to petty jealousy.

4. The man we are standing next to, and most of the time intimately, or even being lifted up in their arms, is not our husband. In fact most of the time, the husband is the photographer, or a distant spectator.

5. We might originally hail from Kochi, Ernakulum, or Muzaffarnagar. But our children have the names of Roman Gods and Greek Goddesses. A far cry from the Hemlata, Indumati, Agniveena, or even the Nisha, Pooja, and Neha.

Nama Sutra: The art of giving our children never-heard-before names. Take a mixer. Pour plenty of Hindi alphabets you learnt in the first grade. Blend well, until they mix thoroughly. Pick up two or three alphabets at random, and combine them in any random order, creating names like Napa, Resa, Saga, Roti, Kapda. Remember, if the name makes people go scratching their heads because they have never heard it before, it is Roman and Greek enough.

6. You have never seen us without makeup. Even our family has never seen us without makeup. Go check out the makeup groups where we dedicatedly post too-close-for-comfort close-ups of our faces, giving detailed step-by-step accounts of the makeup products we used in different quadrants of our face. Talking of effort, your entire effort of writing that goddamn dissertation that you mistakenly thought would pull you out of your pitiful existence would be put to shame.

7. Our predictable display of affection for other friends is very entertaining. Most of the time, we Like and comment on the same set of people’s updates. We root for brand names, not (writing) products. The comments typically look like this:

We: “Love your dress. Your nail polish. Your shoes. Your sense of style. Your blah blah blah.”
Them: “Thank you. You inspire me. XOXOXOXO.”
We: “You inspire me too. Muaaah.” 

Did you know that the number of Likes and comments are a direct function of a person’s popularity, and hence, should not be underestimated? We sometimes ask people offline how our Facebook picture is, and nudge them to Like or leave a comment, or paste their personal email/chat messages on our cake-cutting birthday pictures. We often ask people to "show some love”, because it is not love if it does not show.

8. Akhaade-Mein-Pehelwaan, or AMP alert: We will diligently tell you about every effort we made to get a finely chiseled and sculpted body, making you look at your six pack of (fl)abs and want to die out of shame.

"My breakfast was 50 push ups, 50 pull ups, 50 deadlifts, and 50 Surya Namaskars. For main course, did yoga and Zumba. For dessert, held a buffalo for five minutes to build bicep strength. Loved getting hot and sweaty. Now, time for chocolate pastries." (Hashtag: Loveyourbody, hardcorehotness). To which, rain comments like, "Love your dedication. What an inspiration!"

N.B.: We never ate that chocolate pastry. That was just to distract you, and make you crave for desserts.

9. Our moms and dads are also on Facebook, and usually comment on our funnily scandalous pictures with Alok-Nathish-sanskaari comments like, "God bless you beta.", or, “You are our baby doll.” (Parents, do you know what a baby doll really means?). In case of pictures from trips to exotic islands, our parents mostly write Tagore quotes in pure Bangla in the comments section that no one else understands.

10. We usually comment on other friends' pictures, writing things like, "hawwt momma", and "yummy momma" (although they are neither our mom, nor hot; far from it). Imagine your average Mashima from Midnapore, calling your Mom “Garam Ma” or “Swadisht Ma”. Yeah, I know. When said in English, even the most inappropriate of terms sound sassy and cool.

11. For your birthdays, you visit the local deity and the restaurant to celebrate with friends and family. If the birthday is the 50th one, you hide in your basement. When we turn 50, we fly to Vegas with a bunch of friends, ride limousines, drink champagne, gamble, throw themed costume parties, and wear identical tee-shirts with identical slogans to show solidarity.

12. Chin up. Hands on hips. Turn body to a 45 degree slant. These are not confidence-boosting mantras, but posing tricks that can effectively take care of the double chin, the hanging biceps, and the sagging tummy, respectively. And talking about pictures, if there aren’t any close up pictures of every food item, including the chips and the soda, the party was as good as having never happened at all.

13. Date nights occur more frequently than trips to the grocery store, post office, or bank in our household.  

14. One of the epic lines in my favorite movie When Harry Met Sally is when Harry tells Sally, “It is so nice when you can sit with someone and not have to talk.” That’s why every vital conversation with the partner, from when we will be home to how much we love one another, and even wishing each other Happy Birthday and Happy Anniversary is made on Facebook.

15. Significant, coolness-enhancing, once-in-a-lifetime events like road trips need special, live updates. Crossed a field. Saw a tree. Stopped by the gas station and took a selfie. Ate roti and achaar while watching the sunset. You get the picture.

16. If a new child arrives without preamble, a maternity photo shoot, an elaborate baby shower, periodic documentation of every emotional crest and trough mapped on the pregnancy curve, or live updates from the hospital, the new child is probably a puppy, kitty, or a new car.

Lastly, you see our pictures from five years ago, and we look like totally normal people.


Saturday, August 08, 2015

Frankfurt Diaries

Truth is stranger than fiction. On a Saturday night at 11 pm, I sat in a bar right in the heart of a red-light district, sipping on orange juice, and working. I had a bus to take back home in two hours, and it made more sense to be indoors than outdoors. This area is right by the Hauptbahnhoff, the central station. I had a few more hours to kill, and it made sense to work, and watch guys pick up girls, amid glasses of beer and other alcoholic beverages.

Europe is amazingly open-minded this way. In India, I wouldn’t even dare walk close to the red-light districts, even during the day. Even in the US, these areas always had a bunch of cop cars flashing their blue lights, letting you know that these areas are not trouble-free. In Europe, no one cares. No one bothers you. There are no cops. People, families, pets, and kids walk around without any hesitation, even as late as after midnight. No one will do anything to you (unless you want something to be done to you). This area I was staying at is infested with sex shops, strip clubs, blue film theaters, and what not. And right next to those were ice cream shops, the Indian grocery store, an all-vegetarian South Indian restaurant, a Starbucks, and what not. It seemed like the pimps, prostitutes, strippers, call girls, drug addicts, devout vegetarians, traffic police, beggars, restaurant owners, and tourists, all co-existed together in the same neighborhood. That is so remarkable, and truly the mark of a progressive society.

Traveling is always enlightening. It shows me things that are unimaginable. And Frankfurt is by no means anything like the tiny city I live in, where I get to see mostly Germans. Ever since I left the US, I have missed seeing demographic diversity. Never before have I been in a country that is a melting pot of so many people, so many cultures across everywhere in the world. Living where I live now, Germany looks very German, very White. But Frankfurt is more cosmopolitan. This is the only city I have seen in Germany that looks closest to the US.

Transportation in Frankfurt is also something to be admired (true in most big European cities). The neighborhoods of Frankfurt are extremely well-connected. There is a thick network of lines for the trains, buses, metros, and trams. One could reach any corner of the city in no time. The metro is marked U with numbers (U1, U2, etc.), and runs every five minutes. A daily pass costs €6.80, giving one access to any train, bus, or tram (basically, anything that moves). People compare Berlin to Washington DC (country’s capital), and Frankfurt to New York City (the financial capital, also known as the “Main”hattan, because the river Main flows by Frankfurt). I can totally see why.

Picture: The Frankfurt Skyline.

I spent some time walking around the city, by the river Main, touring the Goethe University campus, riding the trains, climbing churches, and generally taking in the sights and sounds of a new city. I have been flying via Frankfurt for the last nine years now, but never before did I visit the city. There was a visible skyline of tall concrete buildings in the downtown area. Although much smaller compared to the major US cities like New York City and San Francisco, this is the most American looking set of concrete buildings I have seen in Germany.

I stayed in a hostel (as always) on Kaisserstrasse. The neighborhood is very red-light, like I said, but nothing that makes you feel unsafe. The plus points: It’s a five minute walk from the central station, the neighborhood is full of restaurants and stores, and this place is within walking distance from any major tourist attraction. In short, you cannot go wrong with the location. The neighborhood was alive and throbbing with activity even at midnight.

The hostel was clean, functional, and promised what it offered for the amount it charged. I love to travel on budget and live in hostels, so this was great. If you like to travel in luxury, this is not the place for you. If you do not want to spend extra money, carry everything with you. What you pay for is a bed in the hostel, and access to showers and bathrooms. Beyond that, they charge you for everything: Towels, soap, shampoo, breakfast (€4.50 for all you can eat), and padlocks for your locker. The strange thing is, they charged me €5 extra because it was Friday night, although eight out of the ten beds in the room were empty that night. My bus was 13 hours after the checkout time, and the good thing is that they let me wait in the common room, and then at the bar for that long. The internet is free, although the connection is not superb, and you have to refresh your connection every three hours. I was there for three nights, and there was a constant inflow of traffic in my room. The interesting thing is that I shared a ten-bed female dorm, and every single person other than me was Asian. Well, technically, I am from Asia too, but not Asian.

Do not miss eating at Saravanaa Bhavan on Kaisserstrasse (no free internet, the staff is really friendly and gave me extra helpings of sambar and chutney all the time, desi kids are a pain and made a mess at the table) and the Hyderabadi Biryani in Ruchi (Ludwigstrasse; internet is free, kids continue to make a mess, making the table look like a war-zone). The ice cream shops along the area (€1/scoop) were pretty good too. The other nice thing was huffing and puffing while climbing up the Frankfurt Cathedral (€3-4). My biggest advice is, travel Europe while you are physically fit. Because Europe means a lot of churches. And that involves climbing on top of them to get panoramic views. Many of these churches are old, do not have elevators, and involve climbing up hundreds of flights of steps in roundabout stairways. Sometimes, all you have are railings and ropes to hold on to. And when someone is descending the same way, all you can do is tuck in your tummy, stop breathing, and hope that you do not trip and fall.

I am beginning to realize that most big European cities are structured similarly. There will be rivers and canals, with many bridges to walk by. Some of those bridges will be weighed down by locks the lovers leave after inscribing their names. There will be a few churches you can get on top of to get nice panoramic views. There will be food districts, and red-light districts. Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, Dresden, Copenhagen, Malmoe, Paris, Geneva, Luebeck, Prague, the cities look similar. Perhaps Lisbon and Sintra (both in Portugal) are the only two cities that looked a little different.

My next trip will be a tri-capital trip. Helsinki-Tallinn-Riga. The capital cities for Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, respectively.