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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Capital Letter

European Odyssey: Paris Journal

C’est si bon…

It grows and envelopes you, this city. You feel like you belong here. You understand, mostly, the language. Give me a month here and I will speak the language fluently. Whenever I come here, I feel the language on the tip of my tongue but somehow can never get myself to speaking it. One way is to talk in English the way my friend Cedric Labourdette taught me. I have learned to do the inflections and the expressions so my English is French enough that people can understand.

We must to continue. We came in the old Orly airport and take some taxi to Rue de Fondary, where lives our friend, the family Labourdette, in the 15th, close to metro station, Emile Zola. Though our ticket-plane said it would arrive at five pm, the flight was late and it took forever to get our baggage. We reach in time for dinner.

“Not so late, like in India,” says Cedric as I suggest an aperitif; the flight was a nightmare and the traffic on the Peripherique was bad. “I don’t really care,” I told Cedric, “You must to give me some wine.”

Cedric is the only French person I know who does not drink wine. He points me to the bar and says, “I must to watch Dominique Strauss Kahn interview on TV.” DSK admits he had consensual sex with his accuser. “Much difference from Indian TV, n’est ce pas?” Cedric was referring to Claire Chazal, the businesslike anchor, who did the interview. He has spent a lot of time in India since 2001; he knows that Indian television journalism is infantile.

We sit in his garden and savor his Dad’s Beaujolais from the “Cru” village of Morgon, made from the famed Gamay grapes of the region.

That is how starts our Paris trip. We are old Paris hands. The joy of walking and hassle-free public transport is a bigger highlight for me than the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre or Montmartre. We walked everywhere, nipping into neighborhoods, darting into churches, sitting by the Seine, listening to church bells heralding the eventide Angelus.

Braving tourist hordes, we wended our way into Notre Dame Cathedral to hear the mass and the soaring “Kyrie.” We walked around Le Marais, the old aristocratic quarter on the Right Bank, marvelling at the renewal that kept the grace of the old and infused it with the excitement of the new.

Paris seems to me to be beyond liveability; it is about an innate sense of lifestyle. From mere shop attendants to artists and writers and intellectuals and politicians and executives and businessmen, they casually exude a “je ne sais quoi” sensibility that is difficult to explain. Old and young, men and women and children, good-looking or not, they make a statement with their personality. 

The scarf is a classic example. From elaborate wraps to a casual throw-it-around- your-neck insouciance, Parisians walk the street as though they are walking the ramp at a fashion show. Except that they appear not to be dressed by a fashion designer; it’s just the fiendishly stylish way they wear their clothes. The overall impression is not of narcissism but of immense self-esteem drawn from good food, good wine, good clothes and a cradle-to-grave social security blanket.

But we were not in Paris as mere tourists. Cedric and his folks are our extended family. Whenever we go in Paris, his brothers must to come and say hello and various nephews and nieces and family friends. It is a warm and wonderful feeling that I treasure. That is why Paris is so special.

We visited Cedric’s grandmother, a regal woman in her nineties, perfectly coiffed and attired, with great social skills. Sitting in the drawing room of her majestic apartment that offers vistas of the Eiffel Tower, Michelin Faure talks to us about Algeria, where she was born. There was in her conversation, even nearly 50 years after Algeria won its independence from France, a sense of betrayal that Charles de Gaulle called the election in which the Algerians voted for independence. She was part of a million-strong community, the “pied noir,” evacuated to France following the election.

The same day, we went to dinner at the apartment of Dominique Charnay. A well-known Tahiti-born French journalist, Dominique has just authored a widely acclaimed book called “Cher Monsieur Queneau.” The book reprises letters from aspiring authors to the renowned French novelist and poet Raymond Queneau. To hear Dominique talk about it, the book sounds hilarious. In addition, he showed us letters from the American essayist and playwright, Arthur Miller, to his (Dominique’s) mother, who had sculpted a bust of the playwright.

Another evening, we met Jean-Claude Barbier for dinner at an old Paris restaurant. I had met him on my last trip and enjoyed an evening talking about politics, economics, sociology and international affairs. An academic, who believes the European Union is doomed, Jean-Claude blames the crisis on weak leaders and ruthless financiers. He has a special interest in China and visits often; here too he paints a gloomy picture, saying the rise of China signals the death of aesthetics. Apparently, he is miffed at the hordes of Chinese tourists, who descend on Paris and show no affinity for the great cultural offerings of the City of Light.

Like all good things, our carefree and interesting time in Paris ended all too soon. I always feel a tinge of regret leaving this exquisitely stylish and intoxicating city.  As we head to the airport, I think to myself: we will always come back to visit with our extended family. And that eases the withdrawal symptoms.

So we bid “a bientot” rather “au revoir” and melted into the mass of migratory people that flits incessantly between airports in a frenzied pace from day to day.

This appeared on Capital Letter, The Times of India Blogs on October 18, 2011.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Capital Letter

European Odyssey: Barcelona Journal

How many streets must a tourist walk…

Wrong shoes. Bad mistake. Barcelona knocked the stuffing out of my back. We walked and walked and walked and walked. Mostly in celebration of the freedom to walk the streets, which you can’t do in Delhi. BCN is a wonderful city, as we all know. A bit like Paris. Indeed the French were early settlers. Nice buildings, great cafes, superb metro, the buzzing waterfront, museums, surprisingly nice beer, awesome food and drink Sangria till the sunrise. 

Thought of the word “anomie” in trying to describe a tourist’s jaunt through this comely city. All the other times I’ve been here, it’s been on a mission: a junket, a conference, and several meetings. This was the first time I came here at a loose end. A quick search of the web told me my first instinct about the word was right. Wikipedia says that “in common parlance,” the word anomie is “thought to mean something like ‘at loose ends.’” 

And you don’t get much more common than a tourist, tramping the streets of this city of creative geniuses including Picasso, Miro, Dali and Gaudi. So anomie is the word.  Gilded somewhat from the Wikipedia definition, I extended it to mean “footloose and fancy free.” 

From our apartment in the upscale Eixample district, we walked everywhere or took the Metro. We went to the Cuitat Vella (Old City) and meandered through the byzantine streets of Barri Gothic (the Roman Quarter), spilling onto the tourist-infested Las Ramblas to the Paral-lel metro station and up the funicular to the Miro museum atop Montjuic hill. We wandered the narrow street of La Ribera to the Musee Picasso. Just north of Eixample past the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s famous church into trendy Gracia and beyond that into Placa de l’Angel, considered home to the finest of the numerous urban renewal projects the city is famous for.

But how much can you walk? With my bad shoes and my spasmodic back, I was often reduced to debilitation. Had to sit and down a beer, eat some tapas. So how much tapas can you eat? How much Sangria can you drink? Judging from my own record, a lot. It became sort of addictive; every hour my back would act up and I had to sit. A beer or glass of wine, grilled meat and all was well again. Back to the trudge. This worked the first day; after that my traveling companions, my wife and my New York daughter, got wise to it. And so I had to walk hours before relief. 

At times, my daughter, clever young woman, would back my complaint of deathly pain and sit down and have a beer with me. It was all very democratic. Sometimes two-to-one against me; sometimes in my favor. Sat in more cafes, I did, than even in Paris. Ate more, drank more, walked more. The only time we didn’t sit in a cafĂ© and chose instead to look at a map to find a recommended restaurant, we stood under a tree at the entrance to a park right beside the Miro museum on the Montjuic hill, a tourist trap in the southeast part of the city. We were all three of us, sprayed with what appeared to be bird poop. 

As we reeled from the violation, a woman ran out from the park and said, “Come, water to clean.” Gratefully, we followed her. But there was no water. A man appeared with tissues to help us clean the crap; another man appeared from the bushes with a bottle of water. “Such nice people,” my wife said. And asked where they were from. “Portugal,” the woman replied.

But the poop spill was substantive, so we hopped a cab to go back to the apartment to get cleaned up. “Obrigado,” said my Goan wife in farewell to the threesome. But clearly they had no idea what it meant.

In the apartment, I discovered I had been pick-pocketed. Fast forward to when we recounted this to our friends. “Chechens,” they said. Despite my sheer despair at losing all my credit and debit cards, money, driver’s license and what have you, I could not help marveling at the slickness with which the threesome had diddled us.

As if that was not enough, thanks to my research on my phone, we chose a Basque restaurant for dinner. The street number suggested it was close to our apartment, so we walked. For miles, back to the center of town. It turned out to be an expensive retro restaurant. It was good as we ate the food and drank the Rose Merlot. But as my wife said in a conversation much later, after we were back in Delhi, “I don’t remember the food I ate.” 

Between the loss of my wallet and the fine dining experience, I could not help but feel the jabs of tetanus-shot disapproval from my wife and my daughter. Later, on the flight to Paris, as our plane bucked like a startled filly in a thunderstorm, I thought to tell my wife she should consider forgiveness. But she was fast asleep as I, the original white-knuckle flier, contemplated a fiery death, convinced the plane would crash, crippled by lightning and high winds.

Hasta la vista, Barcelona!

This appeared on Capital Letter, The Times of India Blogs on October 11, 2011.