Thursday, March 31, 2016

Traveling is educational

I met some amazing strangers during a recent Scandinavian-Baltic trip, the kind of people who inspire me to travel more. An English teacher from Lincoln (England) who has been teaching in Korea and Poland, and has even been to Varanasi and the Kalighat temple in Kolkata (where he refused to get coerced into paying anything to the priest). We joked about having lived in the same city in two different countries, and he even suggested me some really nice hiking destinations around Latvia (which I did). A woman who gave me this amazing idea of making a day trip to Lithuania, because she did the same last night. A German student starting his masters, and an English teacher from Plymouth, England, who spent a day with me taking the train and going to a nearby town to hike. I spent a good eight hours with them, hiked, talked for hours, but cannot even remember their names right now. One of them asked me about the difference between Karma and Korma. I said, Korma is instant gratification, while the effects of Karma can take a while to kick in. And more travelers from Korea, China, Australia, and Lithuania, who are touring the world. I always make it a point to stay in hostels, because of the lively ambiance and the different kinds of people you can meet. Here, we have a living room where we cook together, play board games, eat breakfast, and share interesting information about what all we should see. We even take off our shoes and walk barefoot in the hostel. Interestingly, I have never seen a fellow Indian living in a hostel.

Of particular note is a quiet woman I met today, who is from Taiwan. I often watched her stick tickets and maps in her diary. Every day she went some place, she nicely used a pair of scissors and tape, and glued her memorabilia in her diary. We started talking, and she told me that she is on a 3-month long trip around the world, all the way from Taiwan to Iceland, mainland Europe, and ending in New Zealand. And just when you would assume that she is a millionaire to be able to afford this kind of a vacation, she told me two profound things. She is a nanny, who helps parents take care of children, one family at a time. So she works with a family until the kid turns three, travels in between, and then switches to the next family. To the person who recently wrote a caustic post about how traveling around the world is American privilege (because an American passport offers visa-free travel to many countries), I say that people who love to travel do so, without finding excuses in their passport. I don't know how much this Taiwanese lady earns, but I would not think that nannies are minting money in Taiwan. She travels with a teeny-tiny carry-on bag that has everything she needs for three months, because she does not want to spend money checking in bags. Back to the two profound things she told me,

Me: How do you save so much money to afford a three-month long trip around the world every year?

Taiwanese lady: I save all my money for the one thing I love. I have no other expensive interests like makeup, designer clothes, buying cars, and so on. 

And true to her words, she seemed very simple, and amicable to talk to.

Me: And how are you able to take off three months?

Taiwanese lady: It's my life. I get to decide how much time I need off, not my employer.

You know, it's okay if you are not a traveler, and like to stay at home and watch television. Your choice. But for someone like me who loves traveling, these people are my inspiration. A few days out of home, and I am already thinking of the long list of chores that await me when I get home. Grant writing, reviewing proposals, laundry, grocery, and other random assortments. I am already feeling a little homesick, missing the familiarity of my bed. I truly admire these people who are able to travel alone for months, and not necessarily tied to the idea of a job that offers little flexibility with traveling. They plan their jobs around their travels and personal life, and not the other way around.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Schcolada and marmalada

I met the funniest 3 year old German dude recently. He didn't understand or speak any English. At first, he was very shy, but he gradually warmed up. When I said chocolate and marmalade, he burst out laughing (Google "English to German", and type "chocolate" and "marmalade" to listen to how these words sound in German).

When he was done laughing, he slowly enunciated every syllable of these words, the German way, as if he was teaching me to say it correctly. He wouldn't accept that I said it right too, just because he understood no English. And I totally humored him. His mom told him that I understood no German, but how does that matter? For the rest of the evening, he continued to chat with me non-stop in German, reading me stories from his storybooks, while I said those occasional "ja" and "nein" and "genau" (yes, no, exactly) as conversation fillers, with no idea about what he was telling me. He tried teaching me the names of animals and fruits. But the best part was a guy 1/11th my age laughing at me first, then teaching me how to say sho-co-la-da and mar-ma-la-da.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Finding my Titanic

Life happens when you are busy looking for your ship. I land in Helsinki, and make a dash for the ferry terminal. I take a cab at some point, and meet the first Finnish guy. People often complain about cab drivers striking up conversations, but it is the other way around for me. I am infamous for chatting up with cab drivers (a trait I have inherited from my father), and why not? It is weird to sit inside a confined space with someone and pretend that they do not exist. Also, I take cabs usually when I am in new, unknown cities, and it is nice to get the perspective of a local person. 

So this nice guy takes me to my terminal, and even takes my suitcase up the stairs, which he needn't have. I go up to the counter to be told that the ferry has been cancelled due to bad weather (although the weather looked perfectly fine to me). The lady gives me the name of a few other companies, but none of those terminals are walking distance. I am thinking about the money I just spent on a seemingly wasted cab ride (Finland is very expensive by the way, and the meter starts from €9.20 and rises very quickly) when I see that my cab man has walked up the ticket counter. He was driving away when he heard that the ferry got cancelled, and came back to fetch me.

The guy puts my suitcase back (I stress on the suitcase again because it is a heavy one), and zooms to the new ferry terminal. He tells me that he will not charge me the base fare this time, but just charge me for the distance traveled. So my money problem is also resolved. No bargaining, no asking for tips (although I did give him one), no asking about nationality and all that. I do a mental happy dance. He drops me off and wishes me luck. I run to the ticket counter and luckily get a ticket for a 6:30 pm ferry (my earlier one was for 8 pm). Only this time, this is not a ferry. Holy cow, I just walk into the belly of a huge cruise ship that reminds me of the Titanic, one of the hugest I have seen (Type "Baltic Queen" and go to Google Images). I find myself a sunny spot by the deck, some free internet, and I am all set. I kick off my shoes, and finally put my feet up. 

I came back in my original ferry the next day, and that is when I felt the difference. No sunny deck, no free internet, much smaller, and we were crammed inside it like cattle. However, yesterday, they charged me €6.20 less for a journey that took an hour longer. The ship was so huge that we had trouble finding the exit. I saw an amazing sunset, an even better full moon, and after looking at luxury cruise ships from my home for a year, I finally got to take one, totally out of the blue.

By the way, a taxi is a taksi in Finland, and a takso in Estonia. Still looking for the country some people in my greater family visited. Because they call it teski. 


Monday, March 28, 2016

Initial impressions of Riga

I came to Riga because I wanted to go somewhere I had never heard of before. After seeing Tallinn (capital of Estonia), I had somehow underestimated the size of the Latvian capital. My bad. It is huge, and buzzing with people (although I was told that it is pretty dead in winter). Tallinn, I had seen in a day. I am glad that I have more time for Riga.

Since I was too tired to explore anything on day 0 (no idea why, all I did was take a 1.5 hour flight; old age is surely catching up), I decided to walk around my hostel. This place is right by a six-point crossing, and blaring loudness. Traffic, live music, and what not. There is also a casino I can see from my room, its lights dazzling me, reminding me of Manhattan. Five minutes into coming here, I heard the familiar beats of the dholak playing outside. A big group of White Hare Krishna fans were singing, dancing, and chanting. Who would have thought this is the first thing I see in Latvia.

During prior travel research, I had seen a Pakistani restaurant, whose website was not updated after 2013. When I asked the receptionist, she gave me a dirty look, and handed me a list of the nearby Latvian buffets. Point accepted. When in Latvia, don't sniff around for biryani. Whenever I look up a new city, I look for "(name of city) famous biryani resraurant". Oh, well!

So I just walked around, went to a nice coffee place, chatted up with the young lady there, had some pina colada flavored Frappuccino, and looked at the shops. Tomorrow, I shall explore the city, although the weather says severe thunderstorms. If the weather is umbrella-worthy, though shall hear more of Riga. If not, though shall hear me whine here, right from the top deck of my bunk bed.

P.S.: This place is almost desi-free. Two hours of walking, and I saw only one desi (who is surely not a tourist, since most desis travel in large, rambunctious groups). Just saying.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Stone-faced and pot-bellied

The bus from Germany reached Netherlands without the slightest hiccup. Still getting used to good things in life like unrestricted border movements, I was surprised once again when no one stopped us for passport and visa checks. However, the way back was a different story. 

About six hours (and two cities) into crossing the German border, somewhere close to the northern fringes, the bus pulled over at a desolate place. Soon, every piece of luggage was taken out of the belly of the bus and laid on the floor. A bunch of armed, uniformed men and sniffer dogs started checking every piece of luggage. Next, we were asked to get off the bus, five people at a time, and go through another round of thorough searches. Every bag went through an X-ray machine. A couple of people had their passports checked. The uniformed men, all tall and well-built, walked around with grim expressions. Ten minutes later, we were given the clearance and allowed to board the bus again. 

And I, still feeling giggly from last night's shenanigans, got on the bus with a little bit of an unsteady gait, thankful that whatever happened in Amsterdam stayed in Amsterdam, and I had the sense not to bring a souvenir back home.


Friday, March 25, 2016

Mystery Chemistry

One of the things you will instantly notice about grandma is the energy, and the desire to live. When I went to meet her recently, she was nicely decked up in a white and pink sari and wore nail polish because I was visiting (grandma loves nail polish). She cooked some great lunch, and took a lot of pleasure in feeding me. And she told me a story that left me amused, rolling on the floor laughing, and appreciating her even more. She is a great storyteller, and is full of stories. 

Grandma was very sick a few months ago. Her systems were failing, and things did not look good. Once she recovered, she fully went on a diet, lost some 30 kilos, and got stronger and fitter. All her readings became normal. She was bedridden for a while but these days, she wakes up very early, climbs down the stairs from the fifth floor, and goes to the nearby lake to walk. This story is her account of what happened there one day, written in first person.

Grandma: Everyday I go walking, I meet so many people my age out for a walk. One day, I saw a gentleman out of the corner of my eyes. Tall, good looking, wearing nice intellectual glasses and smart walking shoes. I wondered who he is. As if reading my thoughts, he intercepted me and smiled. "Do you come here every day? I have seen you often", he asked. I nodded and smiled. "Do you have trouble with your knees?" he asked again. We struck up a conversation, and he said that he has sustained knee injuries too. Then, he asked if he can show me some knee exercises that has worked wonders for him. He did that, and after smiling and nodding, he took his own trail to walk some more. When he was done, he intercepted me again, bid me adieu, and said, "Bhalo thakben didibhai" (Take care, elder sister).

Grandma said this and burst out rolling on the floor laughing. And so did we.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

The traveler auntie

G’s mom us really cool. Smart, independent, vocal, no-nonsense. The kind who will love her family to death, but not be a doormat. 

We were once traveling in a crowded bus when a guy started to get naughty with me. She sensed it even without me telling her anything, and literally stared him down, coming and standing between us. She didn't say a word, just used her height to her advantage (she is a good few inches taller than I am), and scared that guy away with her overpowering presence. I have been calling her Chachi 420 ever since. When I had planned my first cross-country road trip from WA to VA, everyone asked me not to, alone woman and all that. She was the only one who said that she wants to come with me. She is as likely to go on a road trip with you as spend hours cooking up a storm for you, or even pick a stick and beat the crap out of people who might try to trouble you. 

When G and the kids (Baby Kalyani and Baby D) were visiting her in India, I was expecting that she might be slaving away all day, cooking their favorite things and giving them the same celebrity status my mom gives me. When I visit home, I literally do not move a finger. Things just keep coming to me. I know that it is not right, but I still do it. However, I was informed otherwise.

Looks like G is in charge of the household now, while aunt has gone on a trip. Not some family trip, or a visit to the family deity or a day trip. She has taken off to explore a part of India for a few days with her school buddies. 

I'd love to be like her when I am her age. 


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The ultimate death knell of friendship

My mommy updates have been missing because I haven't had time to talk to Ma as much of late. Both of us have been busy with our own pursuits. When we finally had some time to catch up, Ma asks me in Bangla about this person, an ex-friend I am no longer in touch with.

Ma: Do you speak to them?

Me: Na. It's been a year.

Ma: Good for you. Still, how are they?

Me: No idea. I deleted them from FB.

Ma: What? Why did you need to delete them from FB? No harm in keeping them around on FB, right?

So it looks like according to Ma, the harshest thing to do is delete someone from FB. It doesn't matter that they were no longer active in my life and I hadn't spoken to them in a long time. Unfriending someone on FB is the ultimate death knell of friendship, for her at least.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Deutsch doesn’t go Dutch

If you grew up in India in the seventies or eighties and watched Doordarshan, you would remember the song, "Padhna likhna seekho, o mehnat karne waalo, padhna likhna seekho, o bhookh se marne waalo." (Be literate o hard workers, be literate o hungry people). I have been looking for the song, and last I remember, it was a song with a social message. Yet my efforts were unsuccessful and all I got were hits to webpages asking me to download hot and sexy wallpapers, or look for other singles in town. Safdar Hashmi, the writer of the song, would die once again if he saw that.

Anyway, this song plays in a loop in my head sometimes, especially on days when I check my mail (letterbox). I get plenty of mails, but none from friends or family. All of them are official mails, in German. Letters from the bank, from the immigration office, from the health insurance. Bills I have to pay and money I have to deposit, official invitation letters for events, and so on. I open the letters, and understand nothing. So I fold them back neatly, and take them to my departmental secretary.

When she is free, we sit down together, and she reads out and translates those mails for me (sometimes, she uses her translation websites as well). And inevitably, she expresses frustration over how Germany is rude to foreigners because people do not type mails in English. And I sit with a pen and jot down the important things I need to do, the amount I need to pay, the documents I need to take to the visa office, and the time and place and dates when I need to show up somewhere. I neatly write down the information I need to know in English in those German letters. Nothing important or fancy, just information like debit card pins and security passwords and my health insurance clauses. 

And while I do that, this song always plays in my head. I remember the movies I grew up watching, where poor people who did not know how to read and write would take their letters to the post office, where a Samaritan would read out those letters for them. Sometimes, the bad guys would get their thumb imprints on documents and steal all their money. I am not illiterate, I know that. But never in all these years had I imagined that I would get important, official letters in a language I do not understand, and sit down with a translator while I write down the information I need. Something like, "Hey, this is your social security number. Write it down. And by the way, this is your bank pin number, and this is your password, don't share it with anyone. And this is where you need to take your passport, and show up at this time. And by the way, this letter from your health insurance says that they do not cover cosmetic surgeries, so don't get a nose job."

Sometimes, learning something new requires some degree of unlearning. So I am unlearning the sense of comfort and security that comes from something as basic as being able to read, write and follow a language, and instead, learning to be okay about that momentary "eff! What will I do now?" panicky feeling I get every time I open a mail, and then trust others to tell me correctly what I need to know to navigate my way around. You might be reading
this and nodding as if you know what I mean, but you will not understand it until you live this experience. I live in a country where I witness strong linguistic identities every day. From good news to bad news, scholarship letters to grant rejection letters, bank statements to invitation letters, rental contracts, etc., everything comes to me in German. It is my responsibility to translate it. My house lease is in German (that I signed), the English version being a mere translation for my benefit and not necessarily a legal document or contract (which means I signed something assuming that the translation of it that I read was correct; there is no way to know).

However, I am not complaining. Far from it. It is my choice, whether or not I want to live in Germany, whether or not I want to learn the language, whether or not I want to live as an outsider, insulating myself from the more local experiences. Some people might talk to you in English (mostly in the academia and out of kindness, but not outside it), some signs might be vaguely written in English.

So as always, I continue to experience something new every day.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Television and my friend’s vision

Sometime soon after my move to Germany, I received a € 27.00 monthly bill from Deutschlandradio and freaked out. This is a monthly bill for using a TV and radio connection. The thing is I do not even have a TV or radio at home. I took it to the departmental secretary for translation (remember, all important mails are in German), and she had that knowing look on her face. Seems like this is a bill that everyone in the country has to pay, whether they have a TV/radio or not. These channels have no ads and hence there is no other way for them to make money. Since I did not believe it, I asked around a bit. Seems like it is true. It is like paying tax, it is compulsory.

The good news is this bill is included in my rent, so I do not need to pay anything extra.

When I went to my Korean friend for venting out, she looked at me all surprised. Then, she retrieved her crumpled bill from the trash can. When I asked why she trashed the bill, she shrugged and told me that since it was in German, she threw it away. She assumed that it is some company asking for a donation. She said, "Since I did not understand what is written, I assumed that it is not important. If they want my money, they should tell me in English."

I love her carefree attitude, and the basic difference in the way we see life. I, on one hand, get hyper every time I see a letter in German, and show it to at least three different people to make sure I got all the information right. I even meticulously translate all the useful information in English and write it down. And my friend simply assumes that if she cannot read something, it is not meant for her to know.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Indecent proposals

Just like we say hi, hello, how are you doing? when we meet someone after a long time, the typical Bengali has four varieties of greetings when they meet me-

Roga hoye giyechish. You've become thin.

Mota hoye giyechish. You've become fat.

Kalo hoye giyechish. You've turned darker.

Ekhane firbina? Won't you move back to India?

"Dada chepey ....... Dada bedhey"- The two must-know mantras to navigate the busy public transport system in Calcutta. An apt translation is- Please squeeze in to make space for me and please stop the vehicle. A word-to-word and inappropriate translation is- O brother, ride me. O brother, tie me.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Partition thoughts

I had a strange realization today. Whenever I think of partition, I think of Pakistan. West Pakistan specifically. But never Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). It is all the more strange, because I am much closer to Bangladesh ethnically, culturally, linguistically (we speak the same language), food-wise, etc. I have always wanted to visit Pakistan (the desire being borne out of separation stories from 1947 shown in movies), but never Bangladesh. When I think of Bangladesh, I think of the Sundarbans. I think of tourism, and increasing my country count. When I think of Pakistan, my heart melts with longing, wanting to visit every city and walk on its soil because we used to be one country (although much before I was born, so I haven't really experienced the consequences of partition first-hand).

I've been thinking why, and only one explanation makes sense to me. That we are more a product of what we consume compared to who we are born as. Although I am Bengali, I grew up (still growing) on a steady diet of mainstream Bollywood (that has many India-Pakistan movies, but none of India-Bangladesh that I know of) and Hindi literature. Just like whenever I wrote stories as a kid, all my characters had English names. John, Jane, Julia. Whenever I wrote formal and informal letters during English I exams, it was always to some Frank or Mr. Smith. Why was I, a Bengali girl living in a little town in eastern India, writing letters to John and Frank? I don't think I had ever met an Englishman//Westerner until I moved to the US. So when I heard a Ted talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called "The danger of a single story", I exactly knew what she was talking about. I was thrilled, knowing that there is someone else who has faced the same confusion. The talk is highly recommended.

So that is my reflection for today, that we are merely a product of what we consume much more than who we are born as.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Of food and dish cleaning liquids

Everything that happened to be today you need not have known about-

A new neighbor arrived from Korea today. He did not have much with him, so I gave him a few food items, including a packet of seaweed and a pair of chopsticks. He was thrilled. That's the most culturally sensitive thing I have done as a neighbor, offer a Korean Korean food and Korean cutlery. I also realized that anything in my kitchen that is not Bengali or Indian is Korean (not German). My first friend in Germany was Korean (she still is, just that she is not in Germany anymore). My firsthand exposure to the Korean culture started from there. I was already into watching Korean movies much before that, but now, I picked up basic Korean words too. For the first few months in Germany, my Korean friend was learning German while I was learning Korean.

My first night in Germany brings back depressing memories. I was dog-tired, did not have any money with me (my US bank cards refused to work), and I went to sleep with a growling stomach, eating just an apple and a few leftover crackers from the flight. Ever since, whenever a new neighbor arrives, I not only draw them a map to the nearby grocery store, but also unlock my fridge for them. We have locks in fridges here. I have developed some strange anxiety about going to bed hungry since that day. Whenever I return to Germany from Kolkata or Seattle, I make sure that I have plenty of food with me. A few weeks back, I got enough cooked food from Seattle to last me four days, thanks to G. My mom does the same.

On an unrelated note, the highlight of my happening life is that someone stole the dish cleaning liquid from the kitchen last night. We have a common kitchen, and the apartment manager provides cleaning stuff for our floor. The other floors have their own kitchen and buy their own stuff. Someone must have run out of dish cleaning liquid upstairs, and instead of using some of ours, stole the entire bottle. Now how harmful can stealing a bottle be, you'd think, right? Harmful enough that I could not do any of the dishes, and thus could not leave home until 9 am, when the apartment manager arrived and I informed her and she put a new bottle. Why would someone steal dish cleaning liquid and get me delayed in going to work by two hours, I kept wondering on my way back when I went to the grocery store to buy dish cleaning liquid for me. How expensive could it be, I thought? I don't know, since I have never had to buy one in Germany. Well, I discovered that the brand they provide us here is a mere 1.09 euros for a 500 ml bottle. Even better, I bought the store brand for much cheaper, all of 89 cents for a liter. And still, someone decided to steal dish cleaning liquid, of all the things.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016


I am sick today. Nothing earth shattering, just a bad cold and fever. I realized that no matter how much fun living alone is, living alone when sick is not fun. It's good to have someone around, even if for purely selfish reasons like fetching food and water and hearing me whine in pain.

Sickness led to morbid thoughts as I lay in bed, too weak to get up. One thought led to another, and I thought, "Shit, what if I die and no one realizes it?" Then I thought, not my problem. I am dead anyway. Why do I care? And I started laughing hysterically. I started thinking more about death, and wondered why people mourn death? Tears. Funeral, followed by a two-week long mourning ceremony when no one eats meat. Why does death have to be so ....... morbid, for lack of a better word?

So I refurbished my funeral, in my head of course. I want all my friends to be there, but more for celebrating my life. No one is going to cry. My brightest picture from some backpacking trip would be up there, and not some sad and sorry looking picture with incense sticks suffocating me! I am a foodie, so there will be my favorite things, goat biryani and Chipotle on the "shraadhho menu" (Funeral ceremony menu). You can remove the meat if you are vegetarian. No weepy shehnai music in the background please, I want Bollywood music, the dancing-type, especially from the 90s. You can all organize a movie night too and watch my favorite movies too.

I used to avidly collect travel magnets until two years ago (when I had a philosophical shift and stopped amassing and getting attached to materials that I cannot eat or drink or smoke or wear or immediately consume). You all are welcome to share the magnets, especially if you were with me on that particular trip. That's probably my most prized possession. I don't own any jewelry, gold or otherwise. Also, be ready to do your homework and share your most hilarious memory of me. Humor is the best thing in the world, and I'd love to watch you cracking a joke or two. If you decide to mail in your memory of me, do take care of the grammar. Don't be lazy and don't use text language. I ha8 ppl wrtng u and urs. Be sure to dress up as if you are going to a colorful party, no white clothes please. You know how much I love wearing colorful sarees.

The one thing I'd have loved though is not for the fainthearted, and will not happen. Asking someone to take me on a cross-country road trip for the final journey.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Hoping for more

The coming year(s), I hope that I find more feeds of travel, road trips, and recommendations of good books and movies. Because between books, movies, and being on the road, I could spend most of my time.

I hope for less whining and negativity, and more informative, reflective, and uplifting posts. The weather is bad. The neighbor is bad. Politicians are bad. The advisor is bad. Dilwale is bad (Okay, Dilwale WAS bad!). The roads are bad. Surely, everything cannot be bad all the time. Something good is happening somewhere, right?

I hope for more travel experiences, in newer countries and continents.

I hope for better dental health for myself. I fought tooth and nail to avoid two back-to-back root canals in one Calcutta trip. This smile you see every day comes at a huge cost.

I hope for more, and better friends. And to continue to hold on to the ones I already have. The older I am getting, the more I crave for interesting company, and interesting discussions over a cup of coffee.

I hope for discovering a new hobby, and learning a new skill. Or many new skills.

I hope for more peer-reviewed publications. I have had my fill of "I am sorry to let you know ..." emails.

I hope to get much better in German. I still struggle to understand, and be understood every day.

I hope to continue to stay away from the cellphone. 

And most importantly, my ardent wish is to get more disciplined in writing. I have so many aborted writing projects sitting at my desk right now, for lack of discipline and a person to kick my butt and get them done.


Monday, March 14, 2016

Life (and death) lessons

I heard the most poignant words from a friend who recently lost her husband of 5 years and friend of 15 years (same person). 

"How are you dealing with the loss?", I asked her.

She said that every day is different. She takes one day at a time and tries to live normally, rather than wallow in sadness or ask God why it had to be him. While most days are okay, some days are really bad. However, she celebrated Christmas with her family to retain a sense of normalcy, although he passed earlier that month.

And then came the most poignant part. "He was a good man. We had so many happy memories", she said. "While other men complained of shopping, he never complained. He took me shopping, and spent hours looking for clothes or shoes for me or the girls. He didn't like shopping as much, but he always went with me to make me happy."

"And whenever he went grocery shopping, he always brought home something especially for me. My favorite fruits, or my favorite vegetables." 

As she said this, she kept getting agitated once in a while because she could not find the right English word. Every now and then, she frantically typed a German word to find its English meaning. So she sat there pouring her heart out with Google translator open as I bawled unabashedly. She even handed me a tissue. 

They both found love for the second time when they were in their late forties. 

And as I listened to her fondest memories of him, I thought, I don't want someone who'd take me to Paris or Venice or do cross-country road trips. I've been there and done that. I'd rather have someone who brings home my favorite coconut and litchis and avocados, and takes German (or whatever language I'm learning) lessons and practices with me. I think that I'm willing to wait some more for that.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Po(o)p culture

Looks like it's not just moms who obsess about baby poop. 

All I did was ask if everything was alright, since I heard concerned voices on the phone. Although I am so glad I do not understand German.

"What is the big thing you do?", she asked, trying to explain.

"Research?", I asked proudly.

"No, big thing in the morning."

"Umm... potty?"

"Yaaa, potty!"

So looks like kitty isn't shitting right. The potty looks somewhat like, "Kuchen. Cake. Kind of flaky."

The potty sample went to the vet, who called to say that everything looked fine. But kitty started throwing up too. She suspected that the breakfast "grain" might be causing all this. So now, she is trying a different "grain" every day, collecting the potty, and describing it to the vet.

I mean, I didn't even ask for details. Friday nights, when people are busy attending kitty parties, I am writing about kitty potty. And looks like I will not be able to bring myself to eat cake for a long time now.

Bhashkor Banerjee, I can feel your spirit hovering around me!


Friday, March 11, 2016

Flying to my German home

Even after all this while, two things always stand out when I land in Germany, or my part of Germany at least. One, how fast and efficient the immigration (or everything for that matter) is, and two, how White this part of Germany is. It was past 7:30 am, and still dark by the time I landed. The airport is so familiar that it has slowly started to feel like home now. It took me a while to get there though. The immigration took a little less than three minutes, and this I know because I timed it. Sometimes, the immigration line for foreigners like me is much shorter than that for the citizens. Last month this time, I was navigating a 45-minute long and grueling immigration at the Liberty International Airport, checking forms, showing documents, and answering dozens of questions. It's amazing the amount of security checks that happen while going from Germany to the US, and the total lack of it while coming back. I love Germany that way. Not one form filled. Not one question asked. 

Everything from there was just the way it always is- timely, efficient, and hassle-free. The luggage arrived on time. The bus left on time. No bad surprises. The good surprise was, our bus driver actually spoke English for a change, and was very happy talking to me in English. When he looked at my luggage tag and said, "Welcome to Germany. Your first time?", I actually replied, "No, I live here." If language and the lack of social company was not so much of a barrier, I could actually see myself living here long-term. Germany grows on you that way. 

I saw some authentic signs of winter during the 1.5 hour long bus ride next. What I experienced in Seattle this time was balmy weather. As our bus sped through the autobahn, it started to snow. Flurries that turned into thicker flurries floating towards me, caught in the beam of bright lights from the bus. Miles of countryside covered in white, like a pretty coconut cake, with picketed fences and horse barns decorated on the cake. I even saw a dozen handsome horses and a few deer run in the snow. The homes look different, and more European, for lack of a better word (not only prettier, smaller, and non-cookie-cutter, but something more). I saw no sun though. Everything looked grey. The bus ride was followed by a shorter cab ride where I spoke exactly half a dozen words in German- Good morning. My address. Right. Left. Thank you. Eight. Good bye. And I was home. Flying halfway across the world, from one home to another, after a car ride, two flights, a bus ride, and a cab ride. G had painstakingly packed me a lot of homemade food that will last me for many days. She kept making excuses about cooking for the upcoming Hindu festivities, which is only partially true. And of all the things that I could buy from Seattle, I got very excited during a certain Costco visit, and while lecturing G about going minimalist and consuming less, ended up buying 16 packets of weed. Seaweed actually. The green stuff that covers the rice on your sushi. 

There was a time when I would return from a trip Monday morning and show up directly at work. Not anymore. I am glad I came home Saturday morning, which gives me two whole days to recover. I soon fell into an 8-hour long, deep, dreamless, comatose kind of sleep, only to wake up in the evening and wonder where the kids are and why is it so silent. For a change, I did not wake up to the sound of something breaking, or someone shouting- "Drink your milk! Get ready soon!" Jet lag will afflict me tonight. And tomorrow night. For company, I will have the comfort of home cooked food (one of the many things she made me is Cholay, because she wrongly heard me talking about Sholay and thought that I'm craving Cholay). In fact, I even sneaked in a goat from Seattle, in the form of some goat biryani.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Little Children

With a hyperactive 7-year old, 3-year old, and 30-something year old in the G-household, I literally hide under the bed in my room between 5-8 pm everyday with my noise cancelling headphones on. Why, you may ask? Because if you sit in the living room, where all the action happens, this is what you would hear-

Don't do. Don't touch. Romba kochi! No no no! .... [With the shrill voices of the kids in their worst behavior] … Sing! Practice! G in her baritone voice scolding both the kids. The squeaking noise of screeching brakes as the elder one reluctantly plays the violin. Doors banging as the little one hides in the worship room or inside the kitchen closet. No no no, eat your dinner, you can't waste paruppu saadam! (lentils and rice) Romba kochi!

All the while when "Ma Mava Raghu Rama" and other Carnatic music plays loudly in the background. amid the noise and commotion. And the dosa/idli grinder keeps grinding noisily in the background.

And the little one hangs from the wooden ledge of the stairs like Keanu Reeves in Matrix. Or runs towards the television, a heavy bronze lamp roughly her size in her hand.

I don't think I am brave enough to witness all this!

However, in a seemingly out-of-control Cindrella moment when the clock struck 8 pm and the children in the household went all hormonal, berserk, screaming, flinging books and toys, jumping on the bed and waiting to be calmed, auntie sunshine had a rather ahaa idea. Since both parents tried in vain to get the situation in control and minimize material and emotional damage, auntie sunshine quickly started playing a police siren on YouTube from outside the room. Within minutes, there was silence in the kids' room, followed by hushed footsteps, sloppy good night kisses and hugs. The parents came out of the room, looking like victors emerging from a war zone.

This is for all those who told me, "You won't get it, you don't have children." Trust me, I do get it. You are too much into this mess to think of innovative ideas. Only an outsider like me can think differently.

Some of you may want to download a police siren app, if there is one, and if your kids are still innocent enough to be scared of the cops, that is.


Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The train named nostalgia

I took the bus to the UW campus the other day and spent a few hours alone, walking the paths of familiarity and nostalgia. Reliving bits and pieces of an era bygone. I do it every time I am in Seattle, as many times as I can.

It was a typical cloudy Seattle day, just like it was when I first arrived here almost a decade ago. I got off at the Montlake Freeway station and walked by the moss-colored Montlake bridge to the Husky Stadium where my convocation took place many years ago. The Burke Gilman Trail, U-Village, Zoka, and the University Avenue, all invoked diverse memories from the same era. Every shop and building I passed by, every street I walked has a connection with my past. I have lived in multiple places in the US, but Seattle is where all the "first times" happened. My first bank account, first time eating Thai and Japanese and Korean and American, first drivers license, first car, and so on. I was flooded with memories, and there are two random, inconsequential ones I particularly remembered.

I am a huge fan of Chipotle (A close second to biryani, I could eat it every day), and my first time was at the one on the Ave. It's still there, and I stood in front of it, reminiscing. There is a particular guy there who had taken a liking to me. I used to frequent that place, especially when I had exams, and this guy used to steal some time out of serving food to come up to my table and make small talk. I remember once he asked me very subtly if I would go out with him. I never got the hint. I was a 25-year old fresh-off-the-boat living outside home and the country for the first time. I was not really worldly wise, not used to people asking me out, and not used to seeing so many people who did not "look like me". I could never chat up random strangers like I do now. Back then, I would not know what to talk, even if I had gone out with him. Honestly, I was more uncomfortable than flattered. So I stopped visiting that place for some time. The good thing is, he used to serve me extra servings of guacamole (I love guac!), and this, some of my friends would remember too. 

Then, there was a senior PhD student who had befriended me from some common shared interest group on social media, although we had never met in person. One day, he said something like, "You don't know Seattle, so I can show you Seattle. There are many parks here. Let me take you to a park some evening after class." I am old and wise enough to now know that he was just nerdy and socially awkward. But back then, I had freaked out, mostly because I grew up being told that one should not go to parks and secluded places with strangers. I could get murdered, my body chopped up into pieces, sealed in a sack, and shipped off somewhere. I did not know that parks are safe places here where people worked out and walked their pets. G, my Seattle guide and guru back then had also freaked out and warned me not to go to parks with strangers. I never went. Sometime back, I looked up the guy out of curiosity. He is a professor now, doing very well for himself.

Nostalgic moments like these always remind me of a line from a Bangla song, translated as: “The train named memory and nostalgia always runs backwards.”


Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Timeless parental advice

G and I made a trip to the UW today with the little one to relive our decade-old journey. We were filled with nostalgia as we walked by the campus and the University Ave. Look, this is where we met! Look, this is where we worked! The Harborview Medical Center shuttle. Chipotle. The Thai lunch place. Starbucks. Agua Verde. Chili's. And the second hand clothes store (that closed down eventually) where I used to buy clothes during the first few years, because I was a poor student and had no money. We were glowing in nostalgia, reliving every moment of those two years we spent there.

The little one looked clueless, so I was making up a corny line or two to tell her, something like, "Look, this is how I met your mother." Before I could say anything, G gave the most profound speech to the little one-

"Look kanna (little one), auntie and amma (mother) studied here. This is where you will study, okay? Every day, I will nicely pack you thair saadham (curd rice) and maawadu (mango pickle). Appa (father) will drop you to the bus stop every day, and will hug you tightly and do total PDA (public display of affection) so that you don't do any boyfriend stuff in undergrad, but only focus on studies. You can study anything kanna, medicine, engineering, or architecture. Puriyar dha? (Do you understand?)"

"Puriyar dhu (I understand)", bleated the very clueless child meekly.

And I thought to myself, Wow! Curd rice and daily bus ride and a protective daddy and living with your folks and studying engineering. Long live Indian parenting! Ironically, I flew half the way round the world to come to the UW to escape the same Indian parenting.


Monday, March 07, 2016

My Thanksgiving Speech

I am nicely perched on the sofa, Seattle sunlight streaming through the doors as I am writing a research paper. G is finishing making lunch, occasionally humming a Carnatic note. The children are in school, there is no one to jump on my laptop. The ginger tea in the morning was so good. I just decide to feel thankful for everything in life. Aloud.

"You know," I tell her. "Life has never been better. It feels like an ideal retired life. I am in Seattle. I wake up and start working while you make tea. I say goodbye to the children as they go to school. I work some more, talk to friends, and go out to meet them while they regale me with their stories. Even the food you cook is so good. The mor kolombu (buttermilk gravy) our friend brought us was so good. This is how I would love my retired life to be. I feel so thankful."

"Okay okay, come have lunch now!" she said in a hurry.

And I kept my laptop on the floor, walked up to the kitchen counter, and opened the rice cooker. A gust of hot vapor fogged my glasses. Waiting for me was a hot meal of tasteless quinoa. 

I am a foodie-Bengali, you see. I don't do this quinoa business. 

What an anti-climactic, non-foodgasmic end to my retirement and thankfulness plans it was!


Sunday, March 06, 2016

Funny things said and heard

Five funny things said and heard during this trip:

M: Are you hiking in Seattle this time?

sunshine: Just from my room on the 2nd floor to the kitchen on the 1st floor at night, and back. This is when I stay up late and work and get very hungry. And you?

M: I am climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on my 50th birthday.


At the store, while trying out a poncho that totally hid my hands, I looked at the mirror and remarked to myself a little loudly, "Boy, I so look like Sanjeev Kumar in Sholay."

"What did you say?", screamed a familiar voice in a shrill pitch from the other aisle. It was G’s voice, "Sanjeev Kapoor is making Cholay? Where?"

Being hard of hearing is one of those things I still haven't thought would afflict me or my friends someday. It's all in the package of getting older. And it's definitely coming soon.

One evening, G complimented me on my writing. 

"You write very well. I thoroughly enjoy reading what you write. It's totally not like Jhumpa Lahiri material. It's not poetic and not like a novel. There is no language intricacy. You know, novels are written in a certain way. The story builds up. The reader anticipates about what will happen next. Your writings are so simple, about such basic events. There is nothing to anticipate. Anyone would understand it."

Me: Umm... So what part of your long speech was a compliment? 

G's "compliment" reminded me of what my mom said once. "You write so well, you should author a book. In fact, you write so well that half of the time, I do not even understand what you are writing."

Once in a while, I get into these face-palm moments where I try to say something totally smart-ass, and things backfire, leaving me with no choice but to laugh at my stupidity. 

I meet a friend in Seattle after 6 long years, and go out for dinner with him. We are having a lovely time, catching up after so many years. He asks me more about my work, and so do I.

"So where do you work now?", I ask, genuinely interested.

"Skype", he says.

"Great! Great to meet someone in Seattle who doesn't work for Microsoft!", I say, all confidently. 

His expression was priceless. And so was mine. 

Heard the weirdest mother-daughter conversation:

"Remember, Lord Vishnu is watching you. If you don't drink milk and don't practice music daily, he will go and complain to the tooth fairy."

Who knew Lord Vishnu and the tooth fairy all knew each other?


Friday, March 04, 2016

Some food (and clothes) for thought

I have never been a more curious spectator of the sartorial idiosyncrasies of mommies of a certain demography living in the west, a self-appointed, judgmental vigilante in no way though. Now if you are a mommy whose dressing doesn't stand out when you go to drop your kids to school or the school bus, good for you! Please don't go protesting and shouting, "I don't! I don't! How could you write about me?" here. Really, you are not who I am thinking about. I am merely sharing my observations about mothers of the other kind. 

A month well-spent dropping and picking up the little ones to and from school every day, G's kids actually, and I consistently watched so many come to drop their kids off in their nightclothes. Mostly nightclothes of the desi kind, with a hint of innovation thrown around. Like, a nightie with a dupatta around the neck. Or a pajama I would never wear outside home. As if a dupatta makes the nightie and the pajama more official, almost as if it was never a nightie or a pajama in the first place, but something more formal like a business suit. 

At first, I discarded it as a figment of my imagination. I am sure that the nightie-wearers I see everyday are no lesser mortals; they are entrepreneurs and networkers. They are independent women who drive their Hondas and Toyotas to drop their kids. They might even be frequenting pubs and shaking a leg at night clubs. Yet early in the morning, in the freezing cold, the nightie or the pajama is omnipresent, peeking from the coats and jackets. With the dupatta of course.

Perhaps this is a strange form of liberation for the immigrant woman trying to fit in a western country, or a self-proclaimed liberation from the bondage of being forced to wear something in order to blend in. Perhaps the desire to be the 5% located around the two tails of that "Normal Distribution Curve". Perhaps a sartorial compromise between the past homeland and the current homeland, a thin thread of nostalgia connecting the two. I imagine a dozen floral-printed nighties bought from Calcutta or some place in Chennai (two randomly picked cities) making their way across the Pacific Ocean as a part of a wedding trousseau. As a curious spectator trying to read people's minds, I wonder if it is sheer nostalgia, old habits, laziness, or rebellion to stand out.


Thursday, March 03, 2016

Little Accomplishments

If little children could write their CVs, what would those look like? At age three, Baby D’s would look like this:

1. Spearheaded an independent mission of running away from home by sneaking out from a tiny crack in the yard's wooden door and ending up on the streets.

2. Recalibrated and re-standardized security measures (both indoors and outdoors) by successfully managing to open the door of a car in motion, and managing to scare the living daylights out of my parents.

3. Negotiated my way through getting awesome deals and food treats by using my voice-power and by screaming my lungs out, rightfully earning the title of Baby D Bose. 

4. Experience with single-handed leading of missions like sneaking out a sharp knife from the drawer when no one was looking, and charging people in the room with full force, running towards them, knife in hand. This alone led the family to tighten security settings overnight, recheck drawer locks, improve their baby-proofing initiatives, and reinforce their faith in God because no one was hurt.

5. Motivated mommy to upgrade her collection of cosmetics by using the current ones for artwork on their walls and mirrors, also minimizing the need to hire interior decorators or buy expensive artwork in the process. 

6. Kept mommy fit and active with the sheer amount of running around after me.

7. Managed to mesmerize everyone with my charm and cuteness and melt their hearts despite doing all these things that I was never supposed to do.


Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Shoeless in Seattle

When growing up, I never aspired for dainty feet and pretty shoes. I aspired to be a tall and well-built astronaut. The astronaut part never happened. And the rest of the dream turned into a nightmare. 

Take something as simple as shoe buying. I have friends who could vouch for how therapeutic it is, and how they could do it 5 days a week. Not me. It is a nightmare, as always. 

All I needed to buy were shoes. A pair of boots. A pair of formal shoes for the upcoming conference. And maybe, just maybe, a pair of sexy red shoes. I have a thing for red, you know!

Let's talk about the boots first. 80% of choices were eliminated right away because of heels. And 90% of the remaining, because I never get shoes my size. My feet are somewhere between 9 and 10. 9 is a tad too tight, and 10 is a tad too big. They anyway stop making shoes after size 10. The only 9.5s I saw were those that did not have a box, a price tag, a discount, a flat sole, or a second matching pair. Some of the boxes even said 9.5, but someone with a sense of humor had stuffed 7s in them. Even my hands would not fit into size 7. And then, some of them had weird designs, weird zips, and weird ornamentation not befitting my age or taste. Some that clung too tight for comfort, and some that did not want to commit totally and hung too loosely. 

All I wanted were three pairs of shoes. How complicated could that be? 

The boots happened after two hours of sole-searching and soul searching about why I am structurally built the way I am, boiling down my feasible choices to exactly two pairs. I scanned an entire shop, and found only two pairs that even made the cut. 

I never found the formal shoes. Not with my requirements of no heels, comfortable soles, pleasing color, and decent looks. I needed no lace or ornamentation. I think I will just wear jeans and my running shoes for the conference. I have seen so many people wear jeans at the conferences, although I haven't mustered enough courage to do that. Not yet. 

And the sexy pair of red shoes? Well, I realized that I was perhaps asking for too much. Maybe that could wait a couple of Seattle trips.


Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Food hunting and gathering skills

Skills practiced since childhood never go waste. I have developed some weird sleeping habit of late that has been too chronic to blame on jet lag. I doze off by 9 pm every day, as soon as G’s kids are off to sleep. As a result, I wake up by 4 am, starving and my stomach growling angrily. So I am really proud of the way I have honed my primal food hunting and food gathering instincts. The fridge is on the first floor while I sleep on the second floor, mathematically at the longest distance from the fridge. I almost feel like Catherine Zeta Jones in Entrapment while doing these stunts every day. 

1. See and walk in the dark, with only the blue little light of the thermostat mounted on the wall guiding me.

2. Tiptoe silently down the creaky wooden stairs and the wooden floors, so as not to wake up the adult humans and the tiny humans.

3. Stay away from the activated alarms, and from accidentally turning on any light, or initiating any 9-1-1-kind of disaster.

4. Not step or trip on squeaky toys on the floor.

5. Scan food quickly for stuff like dahi vada, gajar halwa, idli, and fruit cake, carefully avoiding the salads and the vegetables, and avoiding spilling, breaking, and disasters of such kinds.

6. Eat quickly, and in the dark. Also, wash my hands, opening the tap minimally to avoid any sound of water flowing.

7. Not get startled by the sounds in this home. Dish washers, the house heating furnace, and mostly, snoring human beings in the house. 

8. Tiptoe back to my room quietly, carefully avoiding the squeaky bed, or bumping into any sleeping human or humanoid.

9. Perform the entire stunt of hunting, food gathering, eating, and finding my way back in less than five minutes.

10. Not re-enter the wrong room in the dark by mistake.