Monday, May 30, 2016

Game Changers

Thank you all those who filled out the survey. If you haven't done so, consider filling out the survey. It not only tells me more about my readers, but also builds sample size for me to be able to understand some trends. Also, if you  didn't write your email id, there is no way for me to contact you. Now back to the post. 
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The life of a postdoc is fraught with anxieties. It’s like having a full-time job where you work double-time and get paid less than half of what you should be making. You are working on other’s projects, fulfilling other’s dreams. It’s only a temporary situation for someone who has not yet found the real job. Just that finding the real job could take a long time, and there are no guarantees.

For me, a postdoc even involved an extra layer of moving to a new continent. I am not complaining, since it gave me a great opportunity to travel all over Europe. However, finding a faculty position always remained priority. I often spent my evenings and weekends applying for jobs rather than chugging beer or drinking coffee in the nice cafes of Germany or attending potlucks with the fellow Indians. And as I looked for a position, I got advice from all kinds of people. Close friends, random people, strangers, everyone felt that they had an opinion they needed to share and they knew exactly what I should do next. I was applying for jobs everywhere- in Germany, USA, India, South America, Singapore. However, I ideally wanted to live and work in the USA.

People mostly gave me two kinds of advice. And both these kinds had nothing to do with actually finding the job that I wanted. They seemed more like shortcuts, ugly patchwork to hide something unsightly.

One. Get married. Find a guy who lives in the USA. This will mark an end of your singlehood, take care of the visa situation, allow unrestricted reentry into the USA, get you a green card and what not. This advice came in all different variations. Set up a matrimonial profile. Don’t shy away from marrying for convenience. So what if the man is old or bald? Security comes first. Maybe get into an arrangement of sorts with a gay man. Marry for convenience and get a divorce later on. Or simply marry, because having a family would take the mind off finding a job for a while. I am too old and it is too late anyway.

Two. Learn some software skills. Change fields. Get into computer programming, a totally different field where apparently there is more money and there are more jobs. Learn a new computer programming language. Talk to consultants to see if they would do an H1-B for money. If the bachelor degree holders from random unheard of colleges can do it, you can do it too. You chose a wrong field. You should have done your homework about the job situation. This PhD was a waste. Yada yada yada.

To the women of the world who married for convenience or the software people, I am sure you consciously made your choices and excel at whatever you do. Although both these kinds of advice came absolutely for free, they did not do anything to help my situation. Neither of them was related to my actual job search.  These were merely the perceptions of people who thought that they have figured it all out in life. I imagined living a sorry life, married out of convenience, desperately trying to fit in a new (software) field I had no desire to be in. How is it that I made such wrong choices in life? Based on what people were saying, it looked like married women and people in the software industry were having a ball. So now, almost in my mid-thirties, I would have to forego my old skills and acquire new skills. Skills of the conjugal or software kind. Looks like my life were a complete failure.

So I continued to ignore these advices and kept working on my goals. People had no clue that this was not just a job for me. It was my career. It was my life. I am a lifelong academic, I am the happiest doing research. I did not want to marry out of convenience, neither to a man, nor to a software job. It was not about doing odd jobs to kill time. It was about finding a vocation I am passionate about.

Almost a year and half into living in Germany, I was offered a position in my field in the US. In the exact position and department I wanted. With full dignity.

In 2006, I had moved to the US as a graduate student.

In 2016, I will be moving to the US as a tenure-track faculty at a research university. I am going to start as a kick-ass(istant) professor.

I did not need to marry for a green card. I did not need to learn new coding languages. However, this experience taught me a few things.

Your friends may be your friends, but they do not know what is best for you.

It’s not just about finding a job. It is about building a career.

Self-respect and hard work never go out of fashion.

And most importantly…never give up. Your instincts are always right. You might not find results right away. But persistence will eventually get you where you want to be.



sunshine

Friday, May 27, 2016

A stitch in time

I was made to strip in the dean's office. Not once, but twice. This story is eyebrow raising, riveting, and sadly, true. My adventure-packed life is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Earlier that morning, I vaguely remember hitting a sharp corner and momentarily wincing in pain, but brushing it away. I was in a hurry. It was a big day.

I was interviewing with the dean. My talk was about to start in less than 30 minutes. It was not until I was sitting in the dean's office that I looked down, and to my utmost horror and an intense sinking feeling in my stomach, saw a rip on the right leg of my trousers. A good chunk of cream-colored flesh from my outer thigh was showing. I don't know how long it had been that way.

My world instantly started to feel dizzy, my head spinning. God, tell me this is not happening to me, this has to be some cruel, cosmic joke. I had given a lot to be there that day. I had taken an international flight in 48 hours notice, put up through grueling airport security and showed up on time. I had taken every measure to make sure nothing went wrong and there were no surprises. I had saved my presentation in three different places and emailed it to myself. I had woken up at four, set my hair, worn my most expensive clothes, and checked everything thrice to make sure nothing went wrong. 

That pair of trousers was new. I had bought them a few weeks ago from Macy's for an important occasion like this. The price tag had burnt a hole through my pocket. Now, there was a larger hole in the thighs.

I told the dean. I had to, and it's good I did, for she called her secretary and a sewing kit magically appeared in five minutes. I do not know why I had the crazy idea that someone will sew the gaping hole for me. I was clearly not thinking straight anymore. The dean smiled kindly, told me not to worry, closed the door and left the room.

I was faced with a new dilemma now. I don't think I know how to sew. The last time I did this was 22 years ago, in the eighth grade when we had compulsory sewing classes for a year. My mom did most of my assignments at home, but in order to kill time in school, I had picked the basics of back stitch and chain stitch. Now, just like it happens in most emergency situations, my mom's voice was looming over, "See, I told you to learn basic sewing over the years and you ignored me. You deserve it!"

Screw prior knowledge, it was time to act purely on instincts now. With shaking hands, I somehow managed to put the thread in the eye of the needle after many failed attempts. I double-threaded the needle and put a knot at the end. I had a talk to give, probably the most important talk of my life starting very soon. And here I was at the dean's office, stripped waist down, trying to put a thread in a needle and hold on to the rest of my dignity (both metaphorically and non-metaphorically). I tried remembering from eighth grade experience, pricked myself a couple of times, and after what seemed like a lifetime, managed to close the rip. The stitches were so unsightly, they looked like squiggles. Thankfully, the fabric was not torn. It's only the stitches that had come off. I had not even worn those trousers three times. 

Once done, I could not find a pair of scissors handy. I tried using teeth like mom does, but did not succeed. So I gave up. A rip, I could close, but lost dentition would be irreparable damage to my career. Using every inch of muscle power I had, I tore the thread, making a deep red gash on my hands. Once I came out of the office, visibly shaken, the dean handed me some black duct tape. Once again, I went inside, stripped, and put duct tape both on the inside and outside of the tear.

Those 15-20 minutes that seemed longer than eternity felt much harder than the actual interview. What are the odds that you hit something sharp and rip your clothes on one of the most important days of your life? I am not even prone to accidents. Amid this panic, I had forgotten to panic about the actual talk. Huffing and puffing, black duct tape on my trousers all the way down my knees, I entered the auditorium just in time to be quickly strapped to the microphone. In this commotion, I had forgotten to use the restroom. So I rushed outside, forgetting to remove the microphone strapped on me. A miracle saved me from embarrassing myself the second time that day when I quickly remembered to switch off the microphone before getting inside the restroom.

The talk went well. A hundred people had shown up. The duct tape fell off during the talk at some point, but the stitches saw me through. My good fortune saw me through. I had everything I might have needed in my bag that day- a snack, water, mouth freshener, comb. I never thought of putting in an extra pair of trousers. Once I was over the shock, I started laughing hysterically. Look at God's cruel sense of humor. Such a freak accident this was.

Lesson learnt- Mom would say, learn to sew and stitch now. And I would say, just keep your calm even when the world is falling apart and learn to laugh at things. And yes, if needed, don't hesitate to strip anywhere. Not even in the dean's office.


sunshine

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Reading the reader

I have never looked at my email more eagerly, waiting for the readers to speak up. And they did. Not as many as I would have hoped, my hope being hundreds. But many spoke out their hearts, making me go “awwwww”. Here are some highlights.

1. Most of you have been reading my writings for more than five years, some close to ten years. I can see how just like reading, reading someone can become a habit.

2. My only disappoint is, so many of you blatantly admitted that you read but never share my writings. Do share. Writing becomes a lot more fun when there are more readers.

3.  A heart-melting moment.

“[I was] worried when you didn’t write for 6 months or so. I secretly prayed that you are alright wherever you are.”

I never knew I had well-wishers I never knew about. J In 2016, I made a resolution to write more regularly. My blog was slowly dying, and I was constantly forgetting the little things that inspired me. So now, I trying to write at least a few times every week.

4. What do you not like about this blog?

“Chappals on the header!” someone said. 

I laughed and laughed and died laughing. I left them there because those are my favorite pair of shoes. I still wear them. It also gave me a feeling akin to taking your shoes off when you enter someone’s house, the blog metaphorically being my home.

5. Looks like my grandma stories are a hit!

6. Someone asked me a question which was very thoughtful.

“In a world without work visa issues, what would you be doing and where?”

I absolutely love this question. I have often contemplated about this myself. I’d love to write a post about it very soon. Thank you for asking me such a nice question.

7. “If we end up at same city some day, I would like to meet you.”

Me too. And given how much I travel, that could be sooner than you anticipate. J

8. “How do you manage writing this frequently with all the work and travel you do!!”

I even write in Bangla. Just not here. Maybe I should start posting some of those here. I have actually started enjoying writing in Bangla even more than English.

9. “Don't you miss companionship (like a romantic partner/husband/boyfriend)?” 

I have plenty of companionship. I know more people than I can comfortably handle. Not everything gets posted on the blog, so it is easier to develop a uni-dimensional view about the writer.

10. “Real name?”

sunshine, with a lower case s.

I’d really love it if you shared my writings more, especially because I am going to transition very soon and start writing more career-related posts. And do fill out the form if you haven’t. The link will always be on the right hand side. I have even included a “follow by email” and “contact form” option recently, so that it is easier to stay in touch.

Regarding the chappal/shoes, let me think some more. J


sunshine

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Knowing my readers

My life is an open blog. However, I do not know most of my readers. I often check my blog stats that show interesting trends. Let me share some:

1. I have the highest number of readers from the US, followed by India and Germany. Given the huge population of India, I would have suspected India.

2. My most popular article is a one-paragraph review I wrote about the book: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. 

3. This month, I had audiences from Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, and Japan. I have no idea who they are.

4. One of the topmost things people are looking for when they land up on my blog is, "green vein on legs."

I would love to know more about who you are. So please take some time to fill out this form (link also on the right hand side of this page). All responses are optional, confidential, and anonymous. You also get to ask me one question in the survey, although I do not promise to reply. :) 

Thank you,

sunshine

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Grocery Shopping in Germany

The first time I went grocery shopping in Germany, I came home and cried. That I could not do something as basic as buying food because of language barrier was a concept so foreign to me. At the stores, which are smaller and way crowded than your average American grocery stores, I felt lost and disoriented, as if people were randomly bumping into me because I did not exist. The truth is, I was overwhelmed because I saw hundreds of words around me and understood nothing.

You will never understand this feeling unless you have been in a similar situation. The arrangement of food and the way food is packed is not very intuitive, even for someone of my age and basic intelligence. Too often, we rely on understanding key words, but when you do not understand words, pictures and color is not enough. I identified some fruits and vegetables alright. But milk and cheese and meat and laundry detergent and other things came in hundreds of varieties. That day, I was not able to identify something as basic as a packet of salt and sugar. Navigating the workplace was easy, because everyone speaks to me in English, papers are written in English, etc. But the world outside the workplace seemed like a battlefield. 

The second time, I wrote down some keywords using Google translator, and stopped unsuspecting customers to ask them for help. I ended up buying a dozen carrots, something I do not even like, because I could at least identify it. For example, if you want to buy mushroom soup, you would expect to see a packet with the picture of mushrooms on it. Instead, what I saw was a sexy, half-naked woman smiling promiscuously and holding a steaming bowl. Who would know what magic potion the steaming bowl contained, unless you could read it? 

Then, my friend suggested downloading the German to English version of the app called Word Lens, and it changed my life. When I went grocery stopping next, I once again spent a long time browsing the aisles, but this time, for a different reason. You download the app, hold your camera in front of German text, and it translates things for you in English. It doesn't even need wi-fi. The translations are not 100% accurate, but that only added to the fun experience. I suddenly felt like I had secret powers. I could understand almost everything. Flat beans. Snow peas. Celery. Lemon grass. Mildly flavored garlic cheese. Onion soup. Baking section. I went aisle after aisle, just holding my phone and translating things for fun and giggling away, even things I did not need to buy. I felt the excitement of a child inside a toy store, and ended up spending even more time than I usually do inside a grocery store. The app is free, but I would happily pay a price for its value. 

On a different note, I think that I have finally figured out why you need to insert a 1 euro coin to unlock the grocery carts (which you get back once you place back the cart in the right place). It could not be for making money, since you get back the coin when you lock your cart with the previous cart. I think that it is to make sure that you put back the cart in the right place, and only then you can get your coin back.


sunshine

Monday, May 23, 2016

Death by a donkey

In Greece, I met 24-year old Sara, a Singaporean who has traveled many times more than I have. Despite our age difference, we instantly bonded and could not stop chatting. She was heading to Santorini after spending a few days in Athens. In Athens, I was willing to play it by the ear. One night right before falling asleep, she was perched on the bunk bed above mine.

"Where are you headed tomorrow?" she asked.

"Hydra", I lied, not sure if I was going to Hydra after all. "And you?"

"Acropolis."

"Good night Sara."

"Good night sunshine."

I woke up to the creaking sound of the bunk bed above me, seeing her perched the same way again.

"Do you want to go to Hydra together?" she asked me enthusiastically. It was past 8 am and the ferry left at 10. If we were to make it to the ferry, we had to leave in 5 minutes. So we did, both jumping out of our beds. The hostel had arrangements for an elaborate Greek breakfast. Fruits, milk, cereals, feta cheese, sausages, salads, bread, eggs, juice, Greek yogurt, and what not. Being the religious breakfast eater that I am, I was not going to miss this feast for anything. The good thing about like-minded travelers like us is, none of us cared for preening and makeup. We had our priorities right. Food. Metro. Ferry. Hydra. So we ate in hurry, each grabbing an apple, and took the green line to the Piraeus port. Thankfully, we got a seat.

We arrived at the Piraeus port and ran like crazy, arriving four minutes prior to the ferry departing. It was an expensive 58 € round trip ride, an hour and half each way. We had no idea why Hellenic Seaways (Flying Cat) was charging us an arm and a leg and a few kidneys for this trip. Oh, well!

The ride was beautiful and the ferry stopped at several islands. Ours was the second. I fell in love with Hydra (enunciated as ee-dra) at first sight. The best thing about this island is that it is completely free of cars, bikes, and any mode of transportation other than walking or riding horses. This place is completely pollution free. The air was so fresh, and the water crystal clear. We walked around the island for a while. Most of the houses and streets were painted white. On a sunny day like this, the white reflected sunlight and caused a lot of glare. We were kind of done with touristy things. So we decided to follow the signs of a trail and go hiking up a lighthouse that was supposed to have amazing views of the sea.

Huffing and puffing, we set off after getting a map. It wasn't that bad, maybe an hour and half each way. We passed by beautiful homes with painted doors leading up to farms with roosters and orange and lemon trees in people's backyards. I wonder how expensive buying property in this place would be. Occasionally, horses and mules carrying passengers and their luggage went past us. The sun was rising higher, and we were beginning to feel the heat. Panting with our tongues hanging out, we hiked for an hour, sweating like pigs and looking forward to a promising view of the sea. The sea was just beginning to show amid a mesh of electrical wires from the poles. I did not want to pull out my camera yet. We could go a little higher and then take pictures.

The dirt road forked like a "Y" at one point. On the left seemed like a possibility to get to the lighthouse. On the right stood a donkey, a bell around its neck, on a leash in front of the only house. We paused. The donkey raised its head. Sara was behind me. As a leader, I decided to ignore the donkey and take the left fork. Maybe this was a sign that we do indeed need to go left. I don't know.

As we started to inch forward, the donkey started to walk towards us, the bell making a sound. It was still tied on a leash, so it could only go so far, stupid donkey. My job was to make my team avoid the donkey and take the left road. As the donkey walked towards us some more, I realized with a sinking feeling in my stomach (like the ones I get during airplane rides, especially during turbulent weather) that the donkey was not tied to the leash after all. The rope hung loose round its neck. And now, it started walking towards us quite fast.

Fight or flight? Fight or flight?

Lighthouse or death house? Lighthouse or death house?

"Shit! Run Sara, run!" I screamed.

We turned back and scrambled downhill. I was hoping that the donkey would stop in a little bit. But it charged us full on, the bell a warning that it is moving fast now, perhaps a death knell and not a bell. I am running, and I am thinking. Do I need to run faster than the donkey? Or do I just need to run faster than Sara? Or do I just need to think fast for an alternate strategy to outsmart a donkey?

Involuntarily, I stopped and picked a stone.

"No don't threaten the donkey" Sara screamed. "Don't make it angry."

She made sense.

Sara was getting out of breath. But I had no time to catch my breath. The worst that could happen to me is death by a donkey. If it kicked me, I'd be rolling down the hills. I'd die instantly. What if it was a friendly donkey and just wanted to be petted? What's wrong with you sunshine, it's a donkey, not a dog. It was making weird sounds from its nostrils. Even if my theory was true, I'd die of trauma anyway if the donkey came and licked me. If it bit me, would I get rabies? Kick, lick, bite. I did not want to choose anyone. I did not rise up to the highest position in the evolutionary tree to be trampled over by an equine. For all the hullabaloo I make about not liking running, I have never run faster in my life, my sympathetic nervous system on full throttle.

We ran for a lifetime, billowing white dirt on the dusty trail. We could still hear the bell which means it was still running after us. What took us the last 20 minutes to climb, we were back there in less than five minutes. I mentally thanked God that we were running downhill and not uphill. I mentally also made a note of losing 50 pounds, in case I had to run for my life uphill in the future.

We stopped at one point when I was convinced that the donkey was far enough. Terrified, we looked behind us. The donkey was standing there, right at the entrance of the road, guarding it and daring us to cross the entrance again. I had no desire to test my luck again.

I was really angry by this time. Look at Shrek's donkey, it was anything but lethal. There was no way I was going back that way again. We met a few fellow hikers coming down a different direction. We asked them how far they hiked.

"Two hours from here."

"Did you get a good view?" I asked, still hopeful.

"Yeah, lots of ruins."

There was no way I was hiking 2 more hours in the scorching heat to see some ruins instead of a breathtaking view of the sea. We decided to head back. We were supposed to finish our hike and eat the apples from the breakfast. Instead, we went down to the foothill where all the shops were and ended up binging on the not so healthy ice creams and yogurt with fruits and nuts. My heart was somehow beating normally again. I was not going to risk being killed by a stupid donkey.
Instead, we sat by the water like two retired people, waiting for the ferry. We settled for looking at the birds and the bees and the half-naked Greek Gods with sculpted bodies jumping into the nearby pools. The sight of those rippling muscles and toned abs managed to transform me to the days of reading Mills & Boon. Perhaps there was no lighthouse for me that day, but there was definitely some light at the end of the tunnel.

We took the ferry and came back to Athens. Sara got off to see the Acropolis. I had no more energy to see the ruins. So I came back to the hostel for a power nap.


sunshine

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Day in Ghent, Belgium

Ghent is an easy-peasy day trip from Brussels. So after seeing a little more of Brussels this morning, I hopped on a train to Ghent. In Germany, I am used to people not understanding me, which is not the case here since most people speak good English. To show a round-trip ticket, I motioned with my hand to show going-coming, and made the mistake of pointing two fingers to signify the two legs of the trip. He gave me two round trip tickets for two people!

This, I did not realize until I boarded the train and looked at my ticket. The train fares were half price, which is great (10€ round trip/person). When I showed it to the person checking tickets on the train and explained what happened, she gave me a refund stub that I could show at the Ghent station and get my 10 € back.. The amicable, well-dressed and quite good-looking lady clearly showed her disapproval at being issued two tickets.

"What was he? Drunk? Who does that?"

"It must have been a misunderstanding. I showed him two fingers." I said.

"That's not done. Anyway, I am really happy you are going to Ghent. Everyone goes to Bruges. Ghent is relatively lesser known. Actually I am from Ghent."

That explained why she got so upset that I was charged twice. I did not tell her that I was in Bruges yesterday.

I got off at Ghent, got my refund, got hold of a city map, took the tram number 1, and ended up at the Historic Central. The area was extremely crowded for a city this small. The touristy area is a little far from the train station (about 4-5 kms), and needs a tram ride (3€). The trams are quite frequent though.

So I spent the next few hours walking around, going atop the belfry to get panoramic views of the city (8 €), and soaking in some sun myself before taking a train back to the Gare Centrale in Brussels and another metro back to my hostel.

Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, there are plenty of good things about these cities. Everyone understand English, which is a huge relief. I do not end up exhausted trying to ask for something as simple as directions. English, and then, food. This place perpetually smells of waffles and frites all the time. There is something very nice about watching people sit outside in promenades and enjoying their food and drinks. Summer in Europe is a lovely place that reminds me that there is more to life than work, and more to one's wardrobe than jeans. Everyone is so well dressed here all the time. These cities are also very well-connected. Brussels alone has three train stations (more than a thousand trains pass by these stations daily to other parts of Belgium and other countries like France, Netherlands, and the UK) and an intricate mesh of the metro (2.10 € for a single ride or about 7 € for a daily ticket). There is art, architecture, panoramic views, murals, churches, museums, and some very nice food. However, and this can be wrongly interpreted as travel-snobbery, I am getting a little tired of pretty European cities. Traveling as frequently as I do, everything is slowly starting to look the same. A friend's parent who was visiting from India, on being shown the Grand Canyon from the different vista points, had gotten bored soon and remarked, "सब गड्ढा ही है, अब वापस चलो" (It's all one big ditch, looks the same from everywhere. Let's go home.) As sacrilegious as this sounds, most European cities have started to look the same to me. Ornate buildings. Museums. Churches. Good food in nice restaurants. Good chocolate. Nice cafes. You know what I mean?

sunshine

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Day in Bruges, Belgium

I see so many people older than me running marathons, biking competitively and what not (power to you guys!) and wonder, "Why? Why would you not sleep extra on a weekend and do this to yourself?" Enduring this level of physical stress will never be my thing. You can find me sitting in a corner drinking coffee and doing reading marathons, and that's about it. However, the only physically stressful thing I challenge myself to do is climb churches. I know that a few years down the line, the knee will go bad, the breath will become shorter, and I will not be able to do it anymore.

So in Bruges this morning, I found myself waiting in a long line to climb the Belfort. The interesting thing, and this I have seen nowhere else, is that they only allow a constant number of people to be up at the church at any given point of time. So when a person finishes climbing and viewing and comes down and goes out of the automated door, the other automated door opens, allowing one person in. One person goes out, one person gets in. Five people get out, five people get in.

Standing in line for an hour and half gave me a lot of time to think about things. The people in front of me spoke Korean and the ones behind me, Spanish. So I had no one to talk to. I wondered, why are they charging 10 € if there is no elevator and I have to do the climbing myself? 81 meters. 366 steps. Our home in Calcutta has about 80 steps that I am used to climbing in one go since childhood. This is more than 4.5 times of that. Usually when there are rest areas, I stop and pretend to take pictures, asking people behind me to go ahead while I catch my breath. This church looked bad ass. What if there are no rest areas?

Climbing 366 steps squeezed the life out of me. When they say getting on top of a church feels like a step closer to heaven, I exactly know what they mean. I was wondering whether my friends will laugh at me if I died climbing a church. This was made worse by a spiral staircase. The higher I rose, the narrower the staircase got. A steady stream of people were getting down and at one point, I was literally holding tight to a rope, my feet biggerr than the stairs.

I made it. Huffing and puffing, panting, cursing and feeling like Aunty Acid, I made it with one 30-second break in between. All of 366 steps. What I did not realize is climbing down a narrow stairway is way harder than climbing up. You don't need as much lung power, but you need balance and concentration. The good news is, I made it up and down in one piece without a ruptured lung or a herniated uterus.

All this labor made me crave sugar. I was having the best pineapple gelato at The Markt when a young man came running towards me, very politely asking if he can take a picture with me (which I misunderstood and thought that he wanted me to take a picture of him). Was I suddenly looking rock star material that a young man wanted a picture with me? Apparently, these four guys who are close friends are out in Bruges celebrating someone's bachelor party (although I swear, the guy didn't look one day older than eighteen). They were playing a competitive game. Four friends dispersed in the busy square trying to take pictures with as many girls of different nationalities as they could. The person who comes back with the most number of pictures of different nationalities wins. So I was his Indian girl. He was so well-mannered and he asked me so nicely that it was kinda endearing.

So that was it, a day well-spent in Bruges.

sunshine

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A phone-tastic conversation

Conversations with Ma on Skype, where she tries to figure out what ails me in life that I don’t use acell phone anymore. Note that she uses the word smart phone for cell phone, because anything that isn't a smart phone doesn't count as a phone anymore. I think she is doing deductive reasoning, but could be inductive too.

Ma: It's been 19 months. Still no smart phone?
Me: Nope.

Ma: How are you surviving without a phone?
Me: I have a phone at work. And internet. Skype. Email. Facebook. And an address too, where people can write letters. 

Ma: But how will you Whatsapp?
Me: I don't need to Whatsapp.

Pause.

Ma: Are you depressed?
Me: No.

Ma: Is it about money?
Me: No.

Ma: I could send you some.
Me: INR will not work here. 

Ma: But all of us in the family have a smart phone.
Me: That's really smart. 

Ma: But how can you not have something when you have used it for so long?
Me: By that logic, I should miss my car more than my smart phone. 

Ma: Don’t you feel lonely?
Me: I watch movies, write, study, travel, and sleep, without the phone constantly dinging, or without me having to compulsively check messages. 

Pause. I know that she is getting really exasperated now.

Ma: I think that you have become really uncool. Like a "khitkhite buri" (grumpy grandma). You are ageing faster than I am. 

And so said the person who doesn't understand how the world revolves without a smart phone. Last heard, she told Baba recently that she understands what it feels like to have your smart phone die on you. It is like losing a best friend or a family member.


sunshine

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Train, no, bus of thoughts

It gets me a while to start my engines in the morning. I wake up early and all, but I have never understood how so many people work out in the morning. Between my home and the bus stop is some stretch of water, a bridge (like the foot bridge between Lake Town and Salt Lake), and a garden. When I am still walking (and waking) to catch the bus, I see so many people running and always wonder how they manage to have so much energy in the morning. 

I was thinking the same today, rubbing my eyes on my way to work. I had just started going up the bridge when I saw my bus at a distance. Being at a height gave me a vantage point to see the bus stopped at a red light. I thought no more. I sprinted at electrifying speed, running the length of the bridge and the garden, and not stopping until the driver had seen me and I was inside the bus. I got on the bus to see the entire bus staring at me. People involuntarily do that when they see someone run to catch the bus. At least I do, thinking in my head, "Will they make it? Will they make it?" So I did, and the bus started. I had no reason to run all the distance like a crazy woman. I could have taken the next one. But when you see a bus, you instinctively run. I think something is wrong if you are fit but do not feel the urge to run. My probability of getting my bus was 1/2 (since two out of four buses go to my workplace and I could not see the number from a distance). But it would have sucked to not take that chance.

I do not remember the last time I had chased a bus. The last few years in the US, I always drove to work, and never looked at bus timings or waited at bus stops. Now I do. Now, I know that buses run only once every thirty minutes after peak hours, so I organize my time accordingly. Newer habits have replaced old habits. I haven't driven in 20 months. I haven't useda cell phone in 19 months. I don’t get to eat at Chipotle unless I am in the US. A few years ago, I couldn't have imagined a life without car and cell phone, or not looking for wifi networks frantically wherever I went. Now, I am doing just fine. I am not making a judgment about "that" life versus "this" life. That life was great, and this life is great too. All I am saying is it is perfectly possible to break old habits, and transition from "that" life to "this" life without missing it much. 


sunshine

Monday, May 16, 2016

Homegrown wisdom

When my cousin was about two years old, she had said some words of wisdom beyond her age. She had probably gone to see the Durga Puja festivities with her parents, and came home exhausted beyond her limits. When they opened the front door, she, all of two, heaved a sigh of relief and said, "Uff, bari firei shanti!" (Translation: Sighs! Nothing as peaceful as returning home at the end of the day!)
Everyone had laughed out loud, since she was too little to be sharing such pearls of wisdom. But that became like a family mantra for us to repeat whenever we got home all exhausted.

Although I had a lot of fun in my almost 2-week long stay in the US (good conferences, great food, catching up with old friends and meeting new friends, etc.), I started to feel homesick by the end of the trip. I couldn't wait to get home. However, the travel back home took forever. The ride from Baltimore to the Dulles airport involved a car, two metros, and a bus. A 7-hour wait at the airport was followed by a 9-hour long red-eye flight to Turkey followed by a 3-hour wait, another 3-hour flight from Istanbul to Germany, and then another long car ride home. I picked the flu from someone on my way back, and every now and then felt that I was going to collapse. As I put my keys in the front door, the door seemed familiar. The smell of the carpet seemed familiar. The light switch felt familiar. I entered home and said out loud, "Uff, bari firei shanti!"

It's like the comfortable king bed, the huge rooms I stayed in, and the nice food I ate outside paled in comparison to this tiny room, tiny bed, and the comfort of some home cooked food. I woke up still exhausted and feverish, to this familiar view of the water from home. Nothing has ever felt better than coming home at the end of the day and watching the ships go by.


sunshine

Friday, May 13, 2016

“Maatri”-monial wisdom

Ma and I are on the phone. I have no need to be politically correct while talking to her. As usual, we are talking Bollywood. I'm telling her about the recent surge of female actors in their forties or approaching forties getting married this year. Urmila Matondkar. Preity Zinta. Bipasha Basu.

"Shobai ekhon buro boyeshey biye korchey." I say. (Everyone is getting married in old age)

Now this is Bollywood gossip. So Ma is clearly offended. And defensive too.

"Buro boyeshey na, mature boyeshey." she sternly corrects me. (Not old age, but mature age) "They are not immature like me, fell in love with the first guy I met and married him. They are just taking their time."

Now what do I say to that?


sunshine

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Saying no cheese

I never travel without my camera. A big bag with the camera gear, the camera, three different kinds of lenses, two batteries, a charger, a dozen SD cards, etc., my camera bag was always overflowing. When I drove, it sat in the passenger's seat. When I flew, it became the carry-on bag. When I walked, it made my shoulders bend on one side. And I took pictures too. Big time. Of the nature. Of people and monuments. Portraits of friends eating at restaurants. Close-up of the food I ordered. I took an average of a hundred pictures a day during every trip.

And then, I decided to take a break. I decided to sometimes take my camera, but sometimes leave it behind too. Earlier this year when I visited Washington, I walked by the river and enjoyed this beautiful city without a camera. Next, I went to Florida. The city with breathtaking ocean views, ships, sunrise by the Atlantic, and picturesque beaches. Without a camera. During another trip, I walked around Washington DC, visited the monuments, and ate dinner with a lot of friends. Then in Baltimore, we walked by the Inner Harbor in the evening. The weather was fantastic, the crowd energized on a Friday night. Since I did not have a camera, I did not feel the need to take pictures.

It has been strangely liberating. Once in a while, I saw something beautiful and instinctively reached out for my camera, which was not there. It made me want to pause and spend a few extra minutes taking things in, etching it all in my memory since there will never be documentation of it. Meeting old and new friends and eating at some great restaurants, walking in the city, but not leaving behind a trail of documentation has been a freeing experience. If I could just cut down my camera expeditions by 50%, and this will free up gigabytes of online storage for me.
Perhaps attachment minus bondage is what gives an ultimate freeing experience.


sunshine

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A lone breakfast

A lone breakfast it was, my first breakfast in Baltimore 
After a social 5 days in DC that had made my spirits soar

The china was disposable, the eggs were cold 
The milk was 2%, the bread smelled old

Woke early and showered and looked my best
Without any electronic gadgets, I left the nest (hotel room)

Found a corner spot overlooking downtown, all nice and sunny
Watching sharply dressed office-goers heading to make some money

It was a gorgeous day
Warm and springy, inching towards May

Yet alone, I sat and ate and ruminated in a room full of people
To make small talk, big talk, some talk, none at my table did join
Heads bowed to technology, checking emails and browsing Facebook
Everyone was simply busy staring at their groin

So the pretty lady ate on her own
Lost in her thoughts, not lonely, but alone

Wishing herself away, to some rambunctious crowd in Europe, Latin America
Sharing travel tales with random globe-trotting penurious dudes and chica

And that's why I prefer busy hostels with swarming backpackers sharing world travel tale
Choosing the comforts of companionship to the comforts of a swanky but lonely hotel


sunshine

Monday, May 09, 2016

Life of a visitor

In this unbearable summer heat where people are falling sick, my grandma, who is in her seventies now, goes down five flights of stairs without an elevator, gets out of the house with a folding chair, a paper fan, and some water, stands in line, and casts her vote. Whereas I spend a freezing weekend at my home in Germany reflecting on my life choices. Where I live, I cannot vote and where I can vote, I do not live anymore. It seems like I have voluntarily chosen the life of a visitor. I travel to the US on a visitor visa, I live in Germany as a visitor, and every time I visit Calcutta, I feel like a visitor as well. Sure, I can wake up in the morning, hop on a train, and I will be in Switzerland by evening. But my way of living comes with the condition of never belonging anywhere. Jhumpa Lahiri might have even written a novel or two out of it and won prizes. I don't even know how to do that.

Everything in life comes at a price. Living the noisy, action-packed life in Calcutta where there is never a dull moment, where the smell of your neighbor's cooking suffuses the air when you wake up and there are always people visiting home unannounced, this huge social cushion comes at a price. Just like there is also a price I am paying for cleaner air, beautiful views, space, privacy, safety, and a whole lot of silence.


sunshine

Friday, May 06, 2016

Germane thoughts

One of the (not so) funny things that happens to me a lot is that when people hear that I live in Germany, they start talking to me in German. They are not the Germans. They are people who were talking to me in perfect English, Bangla, Hindi, or whatever language 2 minutes ago. It has happened to me so many times now, in person and in emails. Emails are better, I can at least go for the "German to English" dictionary. But given that I neither look, nor am German, I wonder why people do it, to get blank stares and stupid looks from me. For me, the conversation (that starts with English and ends in German) is like watching a group of graceful dancers enter the stage and dance beautifully for the first five minutes, only to slip on invisible banana peels, get derailed, and never be able to get up again.

Some of my non-German acquaintances recently wrote back to me about a professional achievement, congratulating me in German. I could only mutter a feeble danke shoen (thank you very much) in response. This is of course not the first time it has happened to me. When people hear that I grew up in Orissa and speak and understand Oriya fluently, they start talking in Oriya, which most of the times is non-sensical, gibberish words with no real Oriya meaning. Most of the time, I sit stone-faced, announcing, "This is not Oriya, this sounded more like the Azerbaijani language", only to get disapproving looks from people.


So I land in DC, and am confronted with the immigration officer. I am trying to hear him carefully, everyone speaks English with a slightly different accent even within the USA. He checks my documents and asks me something. Only that I am no longer able to understand him. I ask him thrice. I get nervous. It's never happened before that I have not been able to understand American English. I think he gets slightly irritated and asks if I speak German at all.

"nur ein bisschen" (only a little), I tell him honestly.

At which, he gets annoyed and says, "Just say nein (no)"

Okay, granted my German is not that good. But what he just spoke didn't even sound like German. It could be my unconscious bias too. When I see a non-German, I do not expect them to speak German. Or maybe I was really tired. Whatever it was, I understood not a word of what he said. These days, I know enough German to know how it sounds, even though I cannot understand the words. But the big question that still remains unanswered is, why would an American see an Indian and start speaking in German?

During a recent interview outside Germany, the interviewer started talking to me in German. Not ordinary German, but Swiss-German. Yeah, there are these classifications too. I had to request him (in jest) not to evaluate my potential for the job based on my German knowledge.

This happened at the Chicago airport too last year. The guy said something, and I started blankly. Later, my colleague told me that he was just saying goodbye.

Sometimes, things people do just don’t make any sense to me.


sunshine

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Art of Rejecting

I don't have a problem with rejections. However, I have a problem with how rejection letters are usually written. Here take a look:

"Dear Dr. sunshine,

The XYZ Committee met to review applications from applicants for the XYZ position. The meeting required to take some difficult decisions – we had many more applications than we could possibly accommodate. We were guided by the referees’ reports we had received on each applicant’s synopsis. We had to take into account the balance of nationalities, and the role of the XYZ in providing support for different contexts across Europe.

We regret that we are unable at present to offer you a position at the XYZ....."

(The letter continues for two more paragraphs).

I don't have the patience to read 120 words before I know of your decision. Rejections suck anyway, but people move on. Had this been an acceptance letter, it would have started with, "Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that ...."

This is not the only example of a poorly written rejection letter, and certainly not a European thing. I have had many job rejects under my belt the past few years, and the rejection letters all looked the same. Verbose. Babbling. Vague. Vain. Lacking depth and focus. And inconsiderate of the rejected's time and patience. Do you see how acceptance letters are all about the candidate ("Congratulations! We are so proud to have someone like you in our team.") while rejection letters are all about the person rejecting ("We had to make an extremely difficult decision, we had applicants from all over the solar system!").

Have the courage to reject gracefully and respect my time. I should be able to read the first line of your letter and know your answer. I can handle rejections well. You got the candidate you wanted, but I've still got to look for another position. Rejections sting. They will sting still the same if I have to read a paragraph of your justification about why I was not good enough. Treat them like injections/shots. Make it quick. Be brief, concise, and to the point. There is no need to ramble and justify your decision. Because the justification you provide is also vague (too many applicants, too little space). 

And if you really care, what will really help is some constructive and honest feedback ("Your language was not at par, your experience was not enough, your publications did not focus on these things, you did not take a multilevel modeling class, etc."). Not your cookie-cutter cliches of helplessness. Because when I read a poorly written letter like this, I feel like picking up a tissue and reaching out to you to wipe your tears saying, "Don't worry, I can feel your pain. You seem more stressed rejecting me than I feel taking your rejection. Don't waste your time anymore. And don't waste my time anymore."


sunshine