Monday, December 25, 2006

Paris Trip - Day 3

We started using the museum pass from Day 3 and so we wanted to see as many as possible. We seem to be always leaving the hotel later than planned but still we make up for it during the day. We first went to Musee d'Orsay which has a lot of impressionist paintings and covers the period from 1848 - 1914 (Louvre covers the period before this). While I am not an art connoisseur by any means, I can appreciate the beauty and creativity in art well. Since I like impressionist painters like Van Gogh and Monet, I was quite excited to see this museum.

There is a clock in the main museum lobby which is supposed to be the one of the oldest clocks and it was still working fine. This museum used to be a train station and the clock is from that time.

We saw a lot of impressionist paintings by some known and lot of unknown painters. It was good that they let everybody take photos as long as we don't use flash. I unknowingly used flash once and was chastised by one of the museum employees. There were lot of people in groups and their guide was explaining the paintings in different languages. There were some student groups as well, like the one shown below. It was amazing to see young kids being exposed to such images. I can't imagine such a thing happening in the US or in India. These kids were looking at the painting just like any other painting and were not making any crude jokes or comments. It seems like the culture is more open and kids are exposed to various themes when they are young.

There were a lot of painters trying to paint a famous drawing in the museum and it was interesting to compare their paintings with the original. The original is in a museum because the painter has paid so much attention to detail and the color combinations are so good. It was fascinating to see how difficult these paintings are to reproduce even when one has the original in front of them.

We spent about three hours at Musee d'Orsay and then went to Notredame cathedral. Because I thought it was nearer than it really was, we ended up walking a long distance before we reached Notredame. The architecture of this cathedral was very impressive. It is called Gothic architecture and the place had a calming spiritual effect even though there were lot of people. There was a mass scheduled in a short while but we didn't stick around for that.

Our next stop was Arc de Triomphe via Champs de Elysses. Champs de Elysses is the most famous street in Paris where there are lot of fancy stores and restaurants. We walked by there and it didn't appeal much to me, except for the nice car showrooms. Champs de Elysses seemed like Pondy Bazaar in Chennai or Times Square in New York City. So we walked down the street just window-shopping and made our way towards the Arc de Triomphe. This is the arc that Napoleon built to commemorate his victory.

As we were walking towards the Arc, it was getting dark. We could see the Arc but could not figure out how to get there as there were cars all over the road and there was nowhere to cross the road. Someone told us that we had to go through an underpass but we couldn't find it. So we were walking around the Arc in a somewhat dark alley, when a guy came and asked us for directions to go to Eiffel Tower. That felt weird as you could see the Eiffel from where we were and all he had to do is either walk over there or catch a metro. But anyway, we were giving him directions when another guy showed up and started saying French Police and flashing his badge. Even though he was showing us his badge, there was no way for us to know whether it was a genuine one. Now I am all anxious even though I've not done anything wrong or have anything to hide. I just don't like to be in such situations. The cop wanted us to show our passports. He didn't seem to care about me but more about the other guy and my husband. We all showed our passports and then he wanted us to show the money we had and tell him if we had US dollars. Now this was getting very fishy. My husband asked why and got the answer that some people were trying to buy drugs with US dollars. None of us had any dollars with us and we showed the euros we had and then he let the two of us go. He was still talking to the third guy but we got out of there. I am not sure what to make of this incident, as both the guy asking for directions to Eiffel and the guy claiming to be a cop seemed very suspicious. But regardless, I was very relieved to get out of there.
Finally, we figured out how to get to the Arc and made our way there. I was so hoping for an elevator but did not see one till we climbed the stairs all the way to the top. My legs were hurting real bad after all the walking in the museum, but still I didn't want to miss the sights from the top of the Arc. Below are pictures of the Arc de Triomphe and Champs de Elysses (from top of the Arc) on a busy friday evening.

We were ready to head back to the hotel after the Arc de Triomphe. I made sure we got the elevator to come down. We took the metro to go to our station (Nation). While our ticket worked in the turnstile to go inside, it wouldn't work in the one to get out. And the only way to buy new tickets was after we got out. So we went from one turnstile to another as there were several exits, but our tickets didn't work anywhere. While we were explaining our predicament to a store employee, a passerby (Pascal) with flowers was generous enough to take the time to help us. He took us to a turnstile and this time one of our tickets worked and the other one still didn't. Since we couldn't find any metro agent nearby, he said that our only option was to jump and that is what we had to do to get out of there.
Day 3 turned out to be an interesting one and we got to see both the good (Pascal) and bad (the guy who called himself French police) of Paris. We were quite exhausted and so turned in to get refreshed for another day of museums (we had a two day museum pass) after getting some take-out Chinese food.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Paris Trip - Day 2

After a long evening/night's sleep, the second day in Paris began. We decided to get a museum pass to make sure we make the most of the various museums in Paris. Most of the museums in Paris charge a fee to visit but the museum pass lets you visit them (not all though) at a very economical price. There are 2-day, 4-day etc. museum passes. We thought that we could get the museum pass in the metro station, but then our hotel front desk lady told us that is not so. She suggested that we go to a store called FNAC (which is like a Borders or Barnes & Noble) and so we made our way to the store. This store is in a mall called Chatelet de Halles and the corresponding metro station is right next to the mall. I thought it was a neat idea to have the mall and the metro station so close. So anyway, we go to this store and then find out that they have stopped selling the museum tickets now. So the lady at that store suggested we go to the nearby museum of modern arts called Pompidou Center to get the museum pass. We made our way to that museum (we unintentionally took a detour ...... read we got lost) and got our tickets finally. They let you use the museum pass whenever you want and so we decided to start using it from the next day as we had already blown half of the day. We had got a 2-day pass and so we could use it for any two consecutive days.

It was close to lunch time and we decided to eat at a small creperie (a place where they make all kinds of crepes). They had more then twenty different kinds of crepes. The word "oeuf" was in lots of the crepes and I did not know what it was. So I was making signs with my hands asking the guy what oeuf was and then he bends down and brings an egg and flamboyantly says "oeuf". It was quite funny. And then I thought jambon meant jam but then when I learnt it really meant ham, I didn't get that one. A crepe is like a thin pancake or dosa and can be stuffed any ingredient from simple sugar to Grand Marnier. The most popular crepe is with Nutella, which is a chocolaty jam. Crepe and cafe au lait made for a hearty lunch that day. I was getting anxious that we had spent day and a half in Paris and had not seen anything other than Bastille and oeuf!

We made our way to Eiffel Tower. The whole area by the Eiffel is very nice. There are lots of beautiful places and restaurants and shops to see and they are all by the Seine river. Anything by a river seems extra beautiful to me. It was surprising that we could not see the Eiffel till we were somewhat close to it. It was raining when we got to Eiffel, and I took a look at it and didn't think it was anything special. It just seemed like a metal tower, even a bit less impressive than the St.Louis arch. The rain and gloomy day might have got something to do with it but still I expected Eiffel to woo me and it didn't. At least, not then.

We walked around some and then took a boat ride on the Seine river. It was getting dark and so it was a good time as the lights were coming on everywhere. The tour was multilingual and so we had to listen carefully not to miss the english part, as otherwise we wouldn't know what we are seeing! During the boat ride, Eiffel Tower came into view and this time it was magnifient and romantic. The only difference is that all the lights on the tower was on now. The difference in the tower is like night and day! I couldn't take my eyes of the Eiffel this time and couldn't get enough of it. Just wonderful. We did not take the picture below but this coveys the difference, I think.

Later, when we were standing on top of the Arc de Triomphe, we saw that the lights on Eiffel Tower were twinkling (called champagne fireworks) and that made it more beautiful. This twinkling only happens for a few minutes on the hour.
After the boat ride, we decided to call it a day as it was raining and getting cold. So we had a nice quiet meal at an Italian restaurant where nobody spoke any english. After dinner, we headed back to the hotel with tired legs but hearty spirit after having seen some fantastic sights.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Paris Trip - Day 1

How could anyone pass an opportunity to go see Paris? It all happened quite suddenly as my husband was going to Africa on a business trip and we decided to hook up in Paris on his way back and spend a few days there. I was in Paris for a total of five days but the first day is mostly a blur. My flight got to Paris around 9am local time but since I did not sleep during the flight, I had missed a night’s sleep and was feeling like a zombie. Due to some airport construction work, our flight landed somewhere (that seemed like as far away as Africa!) and there was a bus to take us to the terminal. There was only one bus there at a time and if that bus is full, the passengers will have to stand on the flight steps till the next one arrives. There was no announcement about what we had to do and so there was quite a frenzy while getting off the plane. I followed what the rest of the group was doing and got on a bus and it turned out to be a wild ride. I think that the bus driver thought that he was a driving a race car and made fast turns and even hit and broke the side-view mirror of a parked car near the terminal. Several passengers gasped at this but there was no apology or anything from the unknown driver. I was meeting my husband at the airport and he had landed in Paris a few hours earlier and so I was anxious to connect with him as soon as possible. So I went through the immigration and customs stuff and saw my husband through the glass doors and all my jet lag vanished (for some time at least). We had to have croissant and cafĂ© au lait at the airport (this is one of the many times we had them) and then took the train to get into town. While I was waiting with the luggage when hubby dear was getting our train tickets, I saw people of all cultures in that area and that was heartening. However, everything seemed to take longer. We waited in line to get the tickets from the automatic vending machine but then realized after some time that it is only for metro train tickets. So then we had to go stand in line in a different place and get the tickets.

Anyway, we got the tickets and made it to the area we were staying in. We stayed near Bastille but took one of the farther exits out of the metro station and so had to roam around with our luggage before we found the right street for our hotel. We went and asked a cab driver to take us there but he refused as it was too close. You have to admire him for his honesty. We finally went to our hotel which was in a very old neighborhood and so it was laid back and relaxing. The hotel corridors and rooms are much smaller than what we have in America but that is not a problem, once you are used to it. I slept for a few hours and then we decided to venture out around 4 pm. Since we had not eaten anything since the croissant in the morning, we wanted to eat first. But since it was 4 pm, most of the restaurants were either closed or not serving food at that time. We saw a sign that said Ganesh Indian Restaurant and decided to try it. I’ve to admit that I was surprised to see an Indian restaurant in Paris but then we saw two or three more during our trip. And there were a lot of Indians around as well…and quite a few people were talking in Tamizh as well.

So we walk into Ganesh and were looking at the menu, and then we hear Tamizh. How about that? The guy at the restaurant was playing some movie dialogue (we later found out that it was from a movie called thenkaasip pattinam which I’ve never heard of) and I was delighted. So we started talking to him and learnt that he was from Sri Lanka and then ate our food (which was only so-so) and left. We walked around the neighborhood some and went and saw the Bastille (which is nothing more than a tall tower with some sculpture on top) and walked back to the hotel. On the way, we stopped to buy some fruits at a fruit and vegetable stand (just like in India) and managed to give him the right amount of money after some effort. I’ve to say that I don’t know much French and even the words I know, I’ve difficulty pronouncing them right as I believe all the letters in a word will have to be spelled out (otherwise why are they there?). But my able companion knows some French (more than I had expected) and so we managed well (most of the times). We went to a grocery store and saw that wine is one of the cheapest items there (you can get a Bordeaux for less than 2 euros). There were several people at the grocery store that seemed to be returning from work. Unlike in the US, people there like to buy groceries everyday. We walked around a bit even though it was raining to see boulangerie (bakery) and fromagerie (cheese shop) and just to take in the spirit of a new city. After that, we returned to the hotel and I just crashed even though it was early in the evening. I remember waking up once in a while but nothing more and ended up sleeping till the next day morning. And then our real Paris trip started.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Down Memory Lane

I should really be writing about our Paris trip while it is still remembered amidst the crazy work days but today was a trip down memory lane that I don't want to miss. My mom was a working mom and so the weekdays were quite busy with the cooking in the morning (never understood why we spent so much time in the mornings in the kitchen when we have to get ready to go to work and school in India). I had to go to school and my parents had to go to work on saturdays (half a days) too. So sundays were our relaxing being together days. Sunday memories are still fondly thought of by me. I would typically wake up late in the morning and much to my dislike and my mom's liking, would take an "oil bath". While I did not like taking it, I liked the feeling afterwards. My mom usually prepared a big meal on sundays. We used to eat something light as breakfast and have a meal that was kind of like brunch but we just called it "eating late". One of the combinations that my mom used to make on sundays is mor kuzhambu (buttermilk stew) and paruppu usili (which I can't translate). I like this combination so much that my mom used to prepare it often and this is something I crave for frequently. So usually after this heavy meal, myself and my parents would be incapable of doing much. My dad would lie down with the latest kumudam (a weekly magazine) and fall asleep before finishing the first page (interestingly, I seem to do this now a days). My mom would go off to talk to the neighbor and I would go watch TV and fall asleep. We would all wake up one after the other around 3 pm or so and then my mom would make tea. The excuse for an early tea is that it helps with the digestion. And then we would go around doing our regular things to get ready for the following week.

What triggered these memories today (sunday) is the fact that I made cauliflower/broccoli mor kuzhambu and beans paruppu usili. My cooking can't be classified as authentic Indian but there are a few dishes that could be. These two are like that and fortunately, they came out very close to how my mom used to make. I don't do many things Indian these days but when it comes to mor kuzhambu and paruppu usili, I can't get any closer to being in India. So we had the same things for lunch and dinner today. I had to take a nap after that meal (just for old times' sake, you know?) but it was a short one as our dear Kutti had to sleep touching my legs and I can't sleep like that. Anyway, for a rainy gloomy sunday, mor kuzhambu and usili brought cheer and nostalgic memories.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Global Citizenship

I recently became an American citizen by choice as it provides lot of convenience in traveling around the world and that is something I'd like to do. But during this process, I've been wondering about my nationality. I'll have a very hard time identifying myself as an American even though technically that is what I'm. I am a born Indian and that is how I identify myself most of the time. Just because my citizenship status has changed, I can't stop thinking of myself as Indian and start thinking of myself as American (maybe it will happen with time, but I don't know that now). I guess I can eventually start thinking of myself as Indian-American, if that is the right use of that terminology.

But regardless of what passport I hold, it is hard for me to think of myself as belonging to one country these days. I've been able to experience and/or get familiar with different cultures since coming to the US and can see the good and bad in all of them. So when I eat idli or listen to SPB's songs, I feel very very Indian. But then, when I see Jon Stewart or Bill Maher on TV or cheer whole-heartedly in a sports game, I feel very American. When I drink a good beer, I feel German. When I listen to Chieftains or any other good Irish music group, I feel like an Irish. When I read Kundera or Klima or Skvorecky, I feel as Czech as I could possibly do. When I eat pizza or tiramisu, I am an Italian. When I see a good mambo or salsa dance, I feel like a Latin American. When I see or read about any Holocaust related stuff, I empathize with the Jews so much that I could be a Jew. So I feel like I'm a mixture of all these nationalities and cultures, that it has become impossible to identify with one culture these days.

Needless to say, I can't understand why one sub-caste or caste or religion or state or country would think they are better than some other. The only upside I can think of with completely identifying with one group (be it a religion or country) is the sense of camaradarie. Which, people like me, will have to do without. I'm sure several people who have left one country to live in another would feel this way. Most of the times, it is good not to be blindly part of a group. Sometimes, it feels like being in a limbo. But then, people like me don't go hurting (both physically and emotionally) people that are different. That in itself is gratifying enough. Here's to feeling global!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Move and other things

I'm back from a short break ... well, sort of, as I'm not sure how frequently I'll be able to blog. Lots of things have happened in the past few months...the big move to Houston and becoming an American citizen. This post is partly about the former and the next post might be about the latter. Having come from a city as big as Chennai, we never wanted to stay in the small town in Oklahoma for very long. So we ended up staying there for only seven years! While it has its good qualities such as it would never take one to get anywhere more than 30 minutes and one never gets stuck in traffic, there wasn't that much to do even when one drives more than an hour. But this is where one makes lifelong friends and has wonderful barn parties. So after some time spent in rustic peace, it was time to pack the bags (the number of bags seem to keep increasing with each move, not sure if that is good or bad) and move to busier terrains. While the new place and experiences were exciting (Madras Pavilion in Houston was one big factor!), it was sad to leave a familiar place and good friends. There is something to be said about known surroundings.

Anyway, we drove to Houston (about a 10-hour drive) twice in two weeks and the second one was harder (on the dog than us). But we made it one piece (or three pieces to be precise) and got settled in our new house. I love our new house as it has lots of features I have always wanted and there are miles and miles of walking trails that one could (and has) get lost in. However, I was not prepared for the hectic week days. Now I have to wake up at 5 am (which means I have to be in bed by 10 pm to have a restful night's sleep and that means I have to miss Jon Stewart and that is just not fair) and still I don't get home till after 5 pm. There are several restaurants and stores nearby now but I either don't have the time or energy to go to them as often as I thought I would go. There is some activity of interest every weekend but we have become more choosy now as the weekend is only two days long and I need to catch up on my week's worth of sleep. But still it is all good. We go to work in a vanpool that is quite a fun group, where for some reason, I get teased quite a bit. I try to experiment different cuisines at restaurants and that means I don't have to cook quite as much. While I stil miss some things about the small town we lived in, this is the right p(l)ace and choice for us now. The winter weather is good and it will be quite hot in summer but that is not now.

There is a dog park (called bark park) nearby that we try to take Kutti to as often as we can. I think that we love it more than she does. The first few times, she was not sure what to do and so just stood there or loitered on her own. But the last time, she actually played with a couple of dogs. This dog park feels like heaven as you see dogs of all kinds and sizes running around and playing in the water. Some dogs absolutely go crazy here and don't want to leave at all. It has been fun to go there and hopefully will be for Kutti also pretty soon.

While part of my reason for not blogging is the move and busier days, the other part of it is my losing interest in blogs in general. It appears to me that lately the blog world is becoming more like the real world we live in, with all its infightings and character bashing. While it is to be expected as we are all only human, the escape from reality that blogs provide seem to be in peril. So I've been introspecting as to what use are blogs when they seem to be following the same path as the regular world. Why do I have to read about whose religion is better and whether one can post gruesome pictures on their blog or not in a blog when I can read that in the mainstream media? But I am going to write for at least some more time as it feels good to write and some (even though it is one or two) people seem to wonder when I don't write.

Alright, now on to some fun stuff. Next week, I am off to Paris (yes, the one in France, ooh la la!). I'll be there for about five days and am planning to soak in as much of Paris as possible. I've talked to our hotel folks once so far and I just love the way they talk. I am so looking forward to the trip and hope it lives up to my expectations (how about that?!). If anybody that reads this is in Paris, please do drop me a line, as I believe in local folks than any tour book (even if it is Rick Steves).

And then, in January, we have our big India trip. Three of our friends who have never seen India are venturing there with us and so it is upto us to show them the Incredible India. Not a small task and so I'm planning on spending December planning for it. Again, if anybody has any ideas, shoot me an email. By the way, we will be in Chennai mostly but are planning a few trips to some nearby places.

So in addition to the busy days at work, I am planning on these two trips, and I realize that I enjoy vacation planning. Maybe I should consider becoming a travel agent, huh?! Just writing about travel has made me cheer up and that is a good sign.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Chemistry Miss

Let us see if I can write this without getting too sappy. Teacher's Day in India is celebrated on September 5. This post is a tribute to one teacher who has made all the difference in my life. I studied from kindergarten till high school in the same school, and Chemistry Miss (that is what she is still called by me and my friends and family who know her or know about her) came to our school when I was in my sixth grade. As is usual, one of my class-mates was asking me on the first day of school which Miss I liked that year, and even though I did not know anything about Chemistry Miss, I pointed to her. Needless to say, my class-mate thought I was out of my mind.

I was a mediocre unmotivated student who passed her exams but did not do much more than that till my sixth standard. During my sixth standard, when we started studying three different subjects (Physics, Chemistry and Biology) instead of one (Science), I started learning from her. I still remember the first exam we had in our chemistry class. I got something like 50 or so out of 100, and when she handed the test back to me, she said that she does not understand why I don't apply myself more as I can do much better then. That was the first time I had heard something like this and it took me by surprise. It sounds cheesy now, but at that time, I thought that if Chemistry Miss thinks I can, then I sure can. That was motivation enough for me to start doing better. It started with chemistry but gradually made a difference in other subjects as well.

I used to try and invent reasons to go talk to her and gradually our friendship grew. If she ever gave me a special assignment, I would be on Cloud 9. I used to think that if I did not do well in an exam, she got upset, but that could just be my imagination. She was a very dedicated teacher who wanted all her students to excel, and so my thinking that she wanted more marks for me felt nice then, but could not be true. When we would go on trips in school (we went to such cool places as Kutralam, Aurangabad etc.), Chemistry Miss used to tell us stories about her native town and the movies she has seen (when she wouldn't talk about movies at school at all). On one of these trips she was telling me that she would like for me to study really well and achieve all that she couldn't achieve. I was not sure exactly what she meant but decided then that I wanted to excel in my education.

When we were in our 12th standard, she had some health problem and had to have surgery and take some time off. We got a substitute teacher for chemistry, but he was no good (how could anybody be on par with Chemistry Miss?). When she found out about it, she was concerned about our final exams (12th standard is a big deal, isn't it?!) and decided to tutor us from her house. She got into trouble with our school management for that, but she was still willing to take the risk for the sake of her students. So we would all drive our bicycles to her house and study chemistry when someone from her family would make snacks for us. I have never seen anybody do such things for their students.

I finished high school and went off to college to a different city but still kept in touch with her through letters, phone calls and visits when I came home. Then I moved to the US and still kept in touch with her for a few years. Then we lost touch due to some misunderstandings and other things in life. But still, I often remember what she has taught me (hard work, sincerity and humility in addition to chemistry) and how she has helped me get to where I am. I have thought about setting up a scholarship fund or something else in my school for her, but haven’t done it as I am not sure how she will like it. Maybe it will happen one of these days. Maybe I will get in touch with her again one of these days. But for now, I am just grateful for a person like her to have come in to my life and steering me in the right direction.