Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Paris - The Palace of Versailles

For day 2, we had planned to visit the much famed Versailles palace in the morning and Mont Marte by evening. A long metro ride with multiple changes finally took us there. The sole of one of my shoes chose this time to come off and the husband went hunting for super glue. After multiple attempts at explaining verbally and with actions, he finally googled the french word and successfully bought 'Colle'.

In the meanwhile, kid and I were waiting at a bus stop with the chilly winds attacking us. Kid is a polar bear like his dad and was sitting like it was a nice sunny day but poor me was literally shivering inspite of the thermal wear and heavy jacket. Husband was back, shoe sole was attached and we walked past a beautiful boulevard to reach the Versailles.

The Boulevard en route
Kid and I had our before lunch dabba of Puliogare at the waiting area . After purchasing tickets, we joined the long line for the phased entry. Suddenly lady luck smiled and a tour group came and offered us priority passes to the palace and garden grounds for free since they had people who had not turned up. After a bit of hesitation, we took them, walked straight to the front of the snaking line and were instantly let in. Wow! So this was really happening :)

After handing in excess baggage at the security counter, we picked an audio guide each. The audio guide was the sole reason we survived through the crowded tour. Not for the details it rattled out about each area but because the kid used it as his personal phone and played with it all through. That kept him distracted from the huge mass of people moving from one ornate room to another.

The palace itself was charmingly old world and had very beautiful paintings covering the walls and ceilings too.

Post the palace tour, we stepped out into the garden.  Instead of listening to our common sense and kid who had pretty much had enough of the place, we ventured into the gardens since our pass included it anyway. The gardens of Versailles are HUGE and a small toy train took people from one stop to another. Again, the train was the saving grace as far as kid was concerned. He settled down only after we told him that we could ride it multiple times.

The Versailles palace gardens are probably one of the best maintained in the world. But their sheer size, the fact that they were manicured to milllimeter precision and the absence of people in most of the places gave it a very sad ghost town like air. The chilly dry weather added to this discomfort. Having somehow managed the kid through this, we finally stepped out of the palace and into the populated roads. Now, this looked much more beautiful, warm and welcoming! The royals might have pretty much felt the same way I guess. That one of the queens had a village replicated for her inside the humungous Versailles palace grounds stands testimony to this ! 'Poor' guys. Wealth isn't everything after all!

At one of the many 'polished to perfection' garden spots
Once out in the streets, we walked down a very quaint little road filled with restaurants, scouring menus. We finally settled into one and were soon eating steaming Pizza accompanied by hot chocolate. After that restful snack, we strolled through the neighbouring areas for a while, enjoying the boulevards and flower framed window sills.

After another long metro ride, we reached our apartment, dead tired after walking all around the Versailles, bracing the dry and chilly winds. We all took a much needed long nap. As much as I badly wanted to visit Mont Marte to walk around its lanes and watch the much famed french artists at work, I simply did not have any energy left and I convinced the husband that we call it a day. So kid sat down with his colours and we sat by the window with chai.

Our in house miniature Da Vinci :)
We then stepped out to buy a few supplies and I totally loved the relaxed walk, gazing at all the colourful shops and many bakeries wafting out enticing smells of the world famous French baked goodies. After getting back,  we cooked and ate a quick dinner. The next day was going to be our last day in Paris and we had all the important 'must see' places in our itinerary. After a little cleaning and repacking, we brought the curtains down on day 2.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Paris - A tryst with history

After a long 8 hour flight where sleep evaded us for the most part (you cannot cheat the body clock after all. We were all up at 6 am IST!), we landed in Paris. We looked up the electronic schedule board and took a metro to the station closest to our place of stay. The do it yourself started right there :)

After lugging the heavy baggage up two flights of staircases, we emerged on the streets of Paris. I was impressed by the first sight! Chilly and rainy weather, European style buildings, broad roads and a 'Cafe Metro' that beckoned our hungry souls. We had a sumptuous cheesy veg pizza and chocolate mousse for lunch. The kid instantly gave a thumbs up to this life :)

First look of Paris

Kid digging into the treat at Cafe Metro 

A misjudged distance and really long walk later, we tumbled into our apartment, set everything down and dived into bed for a much needed nap. Refreshed after sleep, shower and coffee, we set out to the Seine river. At the metro station, we had trouble figuring out what destination to give as input in the ticket machine. A sign language conversation between us and the lady at the counter ensued and ended with her throwing up her hands and storming out to print out our tickets. Nevertheless, we thanked her and a dark dingy metro ride later, we emerged into this beautiful rainy scene.

A short stroll took us to the Seine river and breathtaking would be an understatement to describe the long watery strip crisscrossed by bridges and surrounded by historic architecture.

After strolling up and down the riverside to our hearts content, we hunted down the starting point to the sunset cruise. Tickets bought, hot chocolate in hand, we sat on the deck of a cruise boat and a chirpy guide started her monologue to educate all of us on all the sites that we would pass by.
The weather was perfect and we took our first sight of Eiffel tower, Notre Dame and several other magnificent historic buildings, as we sailed past them. It was like a trailer to what all we were going to see later on and a perfectly picturesque one at that!

Cruising by history :)

When we passed the Eiffel tower

Kid and I look up to catch a view of Notre Dame

After an hour of floating by history, we jumped off at the dock and tried our hand at some local cuisine at this quaint little crepe stall. Tasted like a very eggy dosa :)

The crepe stall by the seine river bank

Our Cheesey crepe being prepared 

Night fell and Paris lit up to give a very surreal feel to all its inhabitants.

We took a bus ride back to the apartment and drank in all the sights that we passed by. This was totally new scenery after all. The day ended with hot upma that we made in the kitchenette and we settled down to escape into dreamland from dreamland :)

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Europe Travel Diaries - A trip to remember!

A trip to Europe had been in the cards for years together for us. We kept thinking about it, looking it up and mulling it over, questions zooming in our heads - Should we plan it ourselves or safely go with a tour operator? Is our kid old enough for us to do such a big trip? What about food? Which all countries should we visit? How many days would we need? Will we face language problems? Is it safe? .... I could list 10 more but this clarifies our train of thoughts.

Finally, sometime in June 2019, we decided to take the plunge! The first choice to make was between the tour operator and self planning. While my husband was more for going with the former, I was adamant that I did not want to tick to a schedule drawn up by someone else - stay here, assemble here at so and so time, get into the charter bus, get down here now and you have half an hour to look around. Aaaaargh!

What if I wanted to just aimlessly walk by the Seine river in Paris and take in the sight of the imposing historic buildings, artists doing amazing water colour paintings amidst a display of their work and all the flower embedded french windows, instead of marching to the Eiffel tower and take must have photos?  What if I was not interested in standing in a killer line just to see a small frame of Mona Lisa but rather walk around the Louvre pyramid and marvel at the structures around it? 
More than all that, what if I wanted a break NOW and not see anything? What If my kid could do with a nap NOW? 

On the downside, we were going to have to do a crazy amount of research to decide on which all countries to visit, read a million reviews for places to stay, figure out commute between countries and within cities. Not to mention the paper work for Visas and reservations. It is indeed a Himalayan task and the husband was worried precisely about this. 

The tour operator, on the other hand had some advantages too - Negligible amount of paper work,a set of ready made itineraries to choose from, all bookings taken care of, Indian food provided.

After a lot of thinking and debates, we settled for doing it all by ourselves! Husband came around with some trepidation and thus started our two months of research - talking to friends who have done it before, scouring forums and travelogues in the internet, maps for best routes, Air BNB,, a gazillion reviews. Whew!! Considering that this was all for a holiday, it was ironically super stressful!

Initially, when the trip was still a month away, we were enjoying the research. It was intriguing to read about each country and a treat to the eyes to see the lovely pictures of places we could go to. Finally, having chosen the list of countries, as we neared our Visa appointment date (the data and forms that husband put together for this had already left him pretty cranky :)), we ran a race to route out the trip and have all our bookings in place (by the end of which I became cranky too !)

That done, Visas arrived after sometime and stage 1 was all done! With about two weeks to go for D day, I spent a very enjoyable weekend shopping for the trip with my sister :) Post that, lists were drawn up and clothes packed including a lot of cold weather gear. We had booked apartment style accommodation with kitchenette in all the places we were to go to. So along came a suitcase of  provisions - Rice Cooker, Sambar and rasam powder, Bru Instant coffee, tea bags, Paruppu Podi, Puliogare mix, Pickles :) You see, Europe is no food haven for vegetarians and in our defense, what if we hated the trip just because we had to eat bread and pizzas all through?!

Departure day arrived and after playing tetris with two huge suitcases, two duffel bags and a back pack until 9 PM, we hurriedly bundled ourselves into a cab only to be welcomed into the roads with a downpour and the traffic snarl that accompanies it. With pranayama and namasmarana keeping us sane as we snailed through, we reached a nail biting finish after a special traffic jam just outside the airport (during which I told the husband with a halo around my head - 'Even if we do miss the flight, its only some money we lose, don't worry'. And received a gigantic scowl from him in return :))

Post the bang on time check in, as we waited for boarding the flight to Paris, coffee in hand at 1 AM, we both nervously smiled at each other for what lay ahead. It was a mixed feeling of thrill for an impending adventure, expectations for all the lovely places we were going to see and experience and a good deal of concern as we watched our excited 5 year old hopping around. We ought to come back in one piece and bring him back safely too, without any illness bouts and ensure he does not get travel fatigued at any point of time.

Boarding was called over the PA and with fingers crossed, back pack and stroller hurled across shoulder, kid in tow we boarded the Air France Flight, warrior style!

Spoiler Alert : We had a wonderful three week trip which will remain to be one of our best memories ever :)

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Book Review : The Bookish Life of Nina Hill - By Abbi Waxman

Books about bookworms, book stores, books and reading is a favourite genre of mine. I really marvel at the skill that writers have, in spinning a story centered around this theme.The main character is usually a bookworm and the storyline is about how his/her world revolves around books and reading, how they tend to gravitate towards similar people or how they manage to get along with the other tribe.

The cover page and title itself half won me over, when I happened to read a review of 'The Boookish Life of Nina Hill' by Abbi Waxman. I immediately looked it up and downloaded a sample on my kindle. The language, light tone and most importantly, Nina herself won me over! Here was a girl who lived with a cat in a small apartment that had bookshelves dominating the walls, worked in a bookstore where she ran book clubs for kids, spent her spare time between reading, being part of a trivia team and movie nights. Her carefree stage of life had me wistfully looking back and slightly longing:).

Lets get to the story now. The protagonist Nina, the daughter of a single mother, is a complete introvert like every reader worth his/her salt is supposed to be. (Don't ask me who made that rule. I just know that it seems to be universal with very few exceptions.)
The first few chapters gives the reader a good look into Nina's everyday life, her past and how it has made her into what she is today. The story then goes on to unfold an unexpected event that leads her to discover the existence of a hitherto unknown huge family. While she is still grappling with that discovery, she is attracted to a man from another trivia team. The story from that point is about how she reconciles to the sudden presence of  so many relationships in her life which was until then very simple, uncluttered and populated only with people whom she really liked and connected to. Happenings at her workplace (a local bookstore) and the book readings and book club events that happen there weave in and out of the narrative, keeping up her 'bookish life',

There were many things that I could relate to in this book - Nina's reading evenings when she would curl up with her book and a cup of tea, her craze for books and reading and how she looks forward to and totally savours her 'alone time' . Best amongst it all was how she looked at relationships in life. That they literally translated into a bunch of other people's expectations to be met, completely resonated with me. Personally, this is a reason why I meticulously prune the number of people in my life and I was so glad to see someone else think the same way :)

What did not strike a chord was the fact that the author had slightly stereotyped voracious readers as people who had trouble connecting to others during childhood, a trait which according to the book, develops and continues well in adulthood too. There seemed to be a suggestion that books were an escape route to hide this disability. She had spun a kind of 'weirdo' halo around book lovers.

From my experience of being a reader and knowing several others who are, I feel this is not entirely true. I loved books since childhood but still had a lot of friends all through. Am now an adult who reads much more than I did as a child and I still have a friends circle. And the reading bug has rubbed off on some of my friends too!

Also, the book's ending was extremely predictable. All loose ends tied in the expected way and they lived happily ever after! :)

In spite of the above points, I still enjoyed the book and my love for the genre only grew with reading it. So if you are looking for your next read, do pick this up for the laid back life that it portrays, the central theme and most of all, the lucid writing (even though it was peppered with a lot of slang and informal English). Go, delve into your bookish life by picking this one up :)

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Wanderlust and the mid path

As a family bitten by the travel bug, we have always needed a trip every now and then, to keep us going. Sometimes, all we need is a nature fix - lush green hills, pristine water bodies and total quiet with only the sounds of birds for company.Many other times,we feel like we want to see some part of this diverse country that is totally different from where we live, in terms of language, cuisine, sights, sounds and smells.

After all, every place has a very distinct atmosphere, don't you think? I love the clean roads and slow pace of Mysore, the red soil and lush green of any place in Kerala, the sizzling heat and home air in Tamil Nadu and the hazy, chilly air and colours of Bengaluru.

 In several trips, we do a combination of both kinds- like Dharamshala and Amritsar - a shot of greenery and a vibrant city. My husband has a modus operandi to planning these trips. Once we zero in on a city we want to see, he'd look up the nearest hill station or vice versa. He is the kind who usually wants a slice of everything. If they ever made a pizza with each of the slices being of different flavours, that would be his regular!

I, on the other hand, like to dive deep into everything, wallow in it for a good while and slowly retreat out of it. I want my holidays to have a slow pace. One full day just at the resort, savouring the fact that everything is being done for us and I can completely relax without a to do list in my mind. Another one or two days to look around a few places - water body, view point, temple, bazaar and a little local cuisine and I am totally satisfied. I do not require every minute of the day to be squeezed into an itinerary or see every one of the 'must see' spots.

When we had just gotten married, we both had travel as a common liking but how we wanted it done was poles apart. While I wanted to just take in and experience the all round flavour of any place we visited, the husband would look up a list of things to do and consider every moment spent indoors as a waste of time that could have otherwise been spent visiting somewhere.

Here is an anecdote that puts it all in a nutshell. At Munnar, we had just done an early morning scenic trek up a tea estate and come back spent and hungry. After a heavy and yummy breakfast, all I wanted to do was to go back and rest a bit, while gazing at the imposing mountain view from our cottage door with a cup of tea. While I was settling down with chai, he was buzzing over the phone talking to the people at the reception and a while later, came up to me and asked 'Are you not going to come for the jeep ride to top point'? All I could do was roll my eyes :) My take was, the view from this door is amazing and am happy right now to just take it in rather than rushing to the next place in the list.

Over the years, both of us toned down a bit from the two extremes. While I saw the merit in going out and doing stuff, he also began to appreciate the concept of leisure in a holiday and the idea of 'just being' somewhere. So having managed to almost reach the mid point even if not exactly, things have become lot more smoother now.

Back in those days, when we had not settled in for this win-win, I would always throw up my hands at some point and say that I was totally done for the day or he would sit and sulk because we weren't doing enough activities. This happens even now but very occasionally.  The perfect balance is and always will be elusive but what is life without a few outliers?! :)

Saturday, 28 March 2020

A memorable short story from childhood

The reading bug had caught me quite early during my childhood. It started somewhere with seeing dad read voraciously and the bi-monthly trips to the library with him. Sis had started reading too, so I naturally followed suit.

While I still remember all the Enid Blytons that I devoured for the fanciful English world that it portrayed and Nancy Drews that I enjoyed for the thrilling mystery elements, the first short story that I appreciated for its literary value stands out in my mind. And I think of it as something like having watched a caterpillar metamorphosize into a butterfly - that my mind had suddenly began appreciating the art of story telling apart from enjoying the story itself

The story that brought about this landmark change is 'Games at Twilight' by Anitha Desai. It featured in our English Literature Reader in middle school and is the story of how a little boy (Ravi)takes a game of hide and seek a bit too seriously and hides in a very unlikely and hard to discover place, his heart racing with excitement with the surety of a win. However, once everyone else has been 'found' , the other kids move on to other games, completely forgetting about Ravi. After a good deal of time elapse, Ravi finally emerges from his hiding place, loudly demanding his victory, only to see that the other kids have moved on from the game and can barely comprehend his demands. The story ends with how Ravi and others around him react to this debacle.

I still remember being fascinated by how the author had captured the typical summer afternoon games of a boisterous group of little children, followed by the evening setting and activities of the community. The best part was the author's poignant description of what goes through Ravi's mind, how he behaves and feels at the end. Rage, disappointment, the unfairness meted out to him - the reader can completely feel and empathize with it all!

I remember coming back home from school and discussing it with my sister and how she totally agreed that the story was indeed a masterpiece.

Post the unfolding of this eventful story in my life, there was no looking back. Everything I read took on a new and much more enjoyable flavor. I had learnt to appreciate the written word and get lost in the writings of various authors, not just for the story that they had to tell but for their fine craft of writing itself. It became another art form that I began to enjoy. I dabbled in it much later, in the form of this blog which led to the discovery of yet another therapeutic exercise :)

Among all the dreams and hopes that I have for my child, my fondest one is to see him curl up with a book and forget the world. He cannot read by himself as yet and we are still in the 'amma reads aloud' Pepper and Bruno series. But the day he settles down to immerse himself into a book would be a red letter day for his crazy mommy who will remember it for ever, just like she remembered the metomorphic short story from years and years ago :)

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Pursuing a passion in your 30's

While we are kids or young adults, we have the luxury of time and choice. The 'must do' chores in a day are way lesser. Of course there would be school, college or work that we must devote about 6-9 hours to. But chunks of 'free time' that is totally in our control is much more in that stage of life.

I still remember my Undergrad days. College would get over at 1:00 PM and I would be home by 1:45 PM! And the rest of the day was totally mine. Parents were there to provide for and manage the household. Barring my college work and keeping my things in order, I did not have to do much around the house. I used to read a lot, listen to music and attend concerts. How easy it was all back then!

Now, with a young child to care for, a house to keep and meals to cook, the predictable free time is near zero or pitifully small. My kid is away at school for about 5 hours a day. That usually leaves an effective 2 hours for myself. And to spend that in a productive manner, I need all the determination that I can summon! Stephen Covey's concept of  how urgent matters always take over the important ones is so so true at this stage!

In his book 'First things First', he talks about how most humans are addicted to urgency since it gives them a sense of accomplishment very easily. One can say that it is like a drug that makes you hallucinate productive use of time. My everyday chores are far easier to do than pursing my long term goals. Moreover, the daily chores pile up and threaten my peaceful existence if not done. A house not kept in order or lunch not being ready when my kid gets home will punish me then and there. Not keeping to my music practice schedule would do none of that as of now. Maybe when am old and my voice does not listen to my command, the regret would sweep all over me. But for now I can still get on.

I just digressed to a subtopic. But I have to come to the passion in question - Music.

I have had a lot of drilling in carnatic music since childhood. My grandfather was a performing violinist who used to accompany great doyens like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer in concerts. And he gave his all to train his granddaughters - my sister and I, into this divine art form. Blessed with good voices that sounded like one in unison, we have given over 50 concerts right from the age of 8 and 12. Added to that was our school which gave a lot of importance to the performing arts. Having been a part of the school music team right from class 4, it was years of profound learning, stage performances, encouragement, prizes and all round enrichment.

All this has gone a long way to make me the reasonably seasoned singer and erudite listener that I am today. But I still regret not having put more work into my music in my school and college days.

I am fortunately married to someone who is far more devoted to music and whose sincerity in pursuing it far exceeds mine. We regularly attend concerts with kid in tow and learn from the same teacher. My husband is the main reason for my continuing to toil with music, for toil is what the art demands from anyone who wants to pursue it seriously. He inspires me with his devoted efforts and regularity in practice.

Hmm .. I actually started writing this post as one of regret, where I was going to say how difficult it is to pursue a passion at this stage of life. But what poured forth through my fingers have totally changed my perspective. Yes, I should have put in a lot more effort in my childhood and single status days. But I have indeed put in quite a bit which is why I am where I am now. And with music continuing to occupy a prime place in my life, the road is pretty much still traversable!

There are deterrents of course. There is my own tardiness but that is totally in my hands to win over. There is the hugely complex nature of the art form itself but years of training has made it tangible for me. There is the humdrum of everyday life but who does not have that? People who achieve in life are not recluses who live by themselves tending to just basic needs. Majority emerge from the humdrum and still pursue what they love and achieve too!

Let's see. I still have time, a very learned teacher and an encouraging environment on my side. Say, 10 years from now, while am reading my old posts and chance upon this one, I want to smile and think 'yes, I did it'! :)

Paris - The Palace of Versailles

For day 2, we had planned to visit the much famed Versailles palace in the morning and Mont Marte by evening. A long metro ride with multip...