Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Young People of Ghent (#YPOGs)

Close to the student dorms of Ghent lies an outlet of the magical store of Albert Heijn, serving to fill the stomachs of students, or to cater to their more hipster sensibilities (or both). Often I saw the young students of Ghent emerge from Albert Heijn with crates of 24 bottles of beer. Once I saw one gent (pun unintended) manage one of these on his bike with one hand while managing to pedal his bike and ride comfortably. If the crate had slipped it would have been a damage of about fifteen Euro and just under 8 litres of beer in one single shot.

Aspiring to be like the Young People of Ghent (YPOGs), and under the influence of some strong beers (also typical of this region), one Saturday evening, my friends and I purchased a 24 pack of Heineken. It was just a two hundred metre walk from the store to the dorm room, but loaded with the twelve or more kilos of beer and glass, each metre felt like a mile. Adrenalin charging our bodies, Trappist beer coursing through our veins, and a moderate degree of strong determination (to emulate the YPOGs) saw us through that short expedition.

These beers were consumed at leisure, to say the least. Some bottles we carried in our hands one freezing winter night during the Ghent Light Festival, where the town's populace moved about like orderly zombies to see light installations, undeterred by the gently falling snow. We lugged between six and nine pints in bags slung across our shoulders (the weather conditions ensured that the beers becoming warm wouldn't be one of our concerns that night). In contrast, some pints were consumed in the comfortable t-shirt weather inside my dorm room. Some beers formed the accompaniments to pasta that I (over)cooked one evening. Some others were drunk almost as sobering antidotes (5% alcohol content) after heavier beers one night (9-13%) during a meal of Mussels in Brussels that left me inebriated and speaking exclusively in bad German.

Our dorms were located on a quirky street called Overpoortstraat, the "Vegas strip of Ghent". Seemingly, the Las Vegas of Ghent shut down for business on Friday and became a ghost town over the weekend. But Wednesday nights were a sight to behold. YPOGs swarmed this street in large numbers, drunkenly shouting and hooting, and partying till 7 a.m. the next day.

The full and true impact of the Wednesday night revelry could be felt only on Thursday morning. The streets were punctuated with YPOG puke (YPOGP?). Those freezing winter temperatures and the existence of urinals that lacked any real sewage mechanism (unless urine freely making its way to the road counts as one) ensured that puke and piss became ice on Ghent streets. Men in special neon jackets deployed just for cleaning up the glass and debris of the past night's revelries could be seen diligently at work before the sun rose on Overpoortstraat each Thursday morning. Large trucks could be seen moving down the length of the narrow Vegas strip, clearing up the party residue with some kind of mechanised broomy apparatus. On these mornings, a small town's entire municipal administration became complicit in purging the legitimate mess of the YPOGs. Because apparently a student town must condone or even encourage this behaviour.

On one Thursday morning, I do the walk of shame with my empty 24 bottle crate of Heineken to Albert Heijn. All around me, I see the YPOG mess from the previous night being cleaned up. The crate is lighter today, but the burden of ignominy that results merely from those around me probably deeming me complicit in the destruction that they are now being forced to clear, feels heavier than the twelve or so kilos of beer that have now been consumed. Each bottle in the crate is intact. None of them have been smashed into green crystals and found their way to the surface of Overpoortstraat.

Sidestepping the vomit lining the street (seemingly still fresh, and not yet frozen - perhaps giving rise to new Ghentian the phrase: "the paint puke is still wet"), I walk with my gaze lowered, and the evidence of consumption conspicuously in my hands. I fervently wish that those cleaning up the streets knew that I did not contribute to the mess they are being made to clean up as their first task on a Thursday morning.
Little do they know the more embarrassing detail associated with these empty bottles: my friends and I consumed this entire crate over two and a half weeks. We are not the Young People of Ghent.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Heart of Warsaw

Chopin Concert, Łazienki Park
Date: May 27, 2018
Time: 12 noon

Twice every Sunday of the summer, the City of Warsaw hosts Chopin concerts, at 1200 and 1600 hours. The concerts are free and take place in the beautiful Łazienki Park, which luckily happens to be a few hundred metres from my house.

Chopin was born in Warsaw in 1810, when Warsaw was still part of the Duchy of Warsaw, a state established by Napoleon. As part of the Polish Great Emigration, Chopin left Poland for France as a twenty-one year old. Although most of his career was spent in Paris (where he also died at the young age of 39, and is buried alongside Jim Morisson and Édith Piaf in in Père Lachaise Cemetery), Chopin always identified with his Polish roots, and is credited with giving prominence to Polish themes in his music, even while exiled in France. In any conversation recounting the greats of Poland, Chopin's name always features alongside the others, like Nicolaus Copernicus, Marie Curie and Pope John Paul II.

Łazienki Park is Warsaw's largest park, home to lakes and museums. The concerts take place at the 'Chopin Monument' which occupies a small part of the park. The monument is a large statue of Chopin with a small pond in front of it, and several permanent benches designed to seat the patrons of the concert. But the turnout is huge, and since the benches can accommodate only a fraction of the concert-goers, there are people occupying the grass and sitting around the fountain in front of the statue of Chopin.

I arrive half an hour early, and find that the park is already quite full, with people continuing to pour in every second. I proceed to look for a spot in the grass. Others seem better prepared than me to sit in the grass, for they have come equipped with towels and rugs to seat themselves. I risk a muddy butt and plonk myself in the grass, but decide to move a few minutes later to the boundary of the pond, for a closer view of the performance.

It is nice to see an entire city come out in large numbers to hear the music composed by a pianist who is clearly a huge cultural icon in this country. The demographic of the listeners is very varied. There are young couples on an outdoor date, old couples who have probably been doing this date for years, entire families out to enjoy their Sunday together, and also topless men of different ages trying to sunbathe. Right next to me, a grandmother tries to coax her hyperactive toddler grandson to pose for a selfie (but he is restless, and she has little success). Behind me, a young girl is making notes in her diary before the concert starts, much like myself. People have arrived here by tram, by bus, on foot, and by bike. A number of cycles are seen strewn here and there.

There is a short announcement introducing the concert and thanking the sponsors. This is the 59th year of Chopin concerts in the city, which are organized every year by the City of Warsaw.

For a country that has been through immense trauma and tremendous political upheaval, it is heart-warming to see this tradition having continued uninterrupted for all these past decades. That it commenced during the Communist regime comes to me as a bit of a surprise. Today, of course, the concert has big corporations sponsoring the event. But it is the simplicity of the affair that makes it so special. There is only one musician here, and only one musical instrument.

The concerts take place by the Chopin Monument, a statue where Chopin appears to be playing an invisible piano with one hand, while looking over his shoulder at exactly the spot where the pianist of the day pays his/her homage to the man in the giant statute looming large. Visually, it seems as though the performing pianists have the blessings of the man whose compositions are being immortalized by them here every summer Sunday.

The monument itself has an interesting history. It almost feels like this concert is a symbol of all the odds the city has defied to be able to unite for a weekly offering of one of its icons. The statue was originally commissioned to be installed on the centenary of Chopin's birth, in 1910. But it could not be erected till 1926, after Poland had regained independence. But in 1940, the Nazis occupying Warsaw completely destroyed the monument and send the pieces to be melted in the foundries. The Nazis also put an end to all Chopin performances. The Nazis were very aware of the symbolic importance of this musical giant, and did not want the Poles unified by any nationalist sentiment. The monument could then be re-constructed and installed only after the war, in 1958, shortly before the tradition of the Sunday concerts began in 1959.

Chopin's body lies in Paris, but his heart rests in Warsaw. Holy Cross Church in Warsaw is home to the heart of this legend, which is kept in a hermetically sealed crystal jar. On his deathbed, Chopin made a request that his heart be taken back to his motherland. This heart had a tumultuous journey and exchanged many hands during the Second World War, and could have suffered the same fate as the Chopin Monument. But miraculously, it survived and continues to be in Poland, as per Chopin's wish.

This concert seems to be a big part of the culture of the city. Parents and grandparents appear to want to introduce their children to Chopin from a young age. This love, once  instilled, seems to continue through the years and across generations. Chopin brings this city together. This is a chance to meet friends on a Sunday, by design or even accidentally, and enjoy some sunshine and music together. This is an opportunity to enjoy music with loved ones.

These Chopin concerts could well have been a preserve of the elite. This could easily have been a stuffy affair where only the well-dressed and well-paying are granted entry. (In fact, there are paid Chopin concerts in the Old Town everyday.) But in this setting, all possible barriers between the music and the music lover have been removed. It is clear that the government has made all efforts to keep the concert free and accessible for its residents. And for its part, the city reciprocates with its whole-hearted enthusiasm, by coming out in large numbers. Here you find everybody in relaxed attire - shorts and t-shirts, sleeveless summer dresses, and even some men without shirts.

Though there is an informal air to the affair, there is also a sense of deep solemnity. When the pianist starts, everybody just shuts up. There are perhaps some crying babies to be heard on the periphery, but there is an unwritten understanding that everybody present is here to enjoy the melody of the piano notes without distraction.

The performance consists of one solo pianist playing Chopin's compositions for a period of one hour. The artiste today is a young prodigy, Jacek Kortus. Smiling, he takes the stage and bows to his audience. His fingers fly expertly over the piano. The crowd is always eager for more. Over the span of an hour, he plays a number of compositions, with varying tempo. Although I do not have a nuanced understanding of Chopin's music, I feel motivated to discover more after this performance. I find that I like the relatively fast-paced pieces more, and those with the more dramatic bass notes.

I am a guest of this city for only a few weeks, but I find that many of its cultural offerings are out of bounds for me because I cannot cross the barrier posed by the Polish language (a difficult tongue whose mastery in a few short weeks is near impossible, so I desist to try). This is another reason the Chopin concert is so special to me. I feel I have been given the chance to be an intimate part of an experience that lies at the very heart of the city's culture. This concert is uplifting to all those present here, because each of us can understand the universal language of music.

Chopin's heart and Chopin's melodies will never leave Warsaw.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Hamburg: First Impressions (Erste Endrücke)

Some observations from my first 5 days in Hamburg:

1.     Sprechen Sie Deutsche? Before I got here, I was given the general impression that it is breezy to get by in Germany knowing just English because the Germans speak excellent English. This may not be entirely true because from time to time you will be faced with situations where you encounter a person who does not speak English, and this may pose challenges. At a grocery store in a train station, I ended up buying sparkling water instead of still water because I didn’t understand the German word for gas, when the shopkeeper told me I was buying “wasser mit gasse”. While this may seem like a first world problem (particularly because this particular misunderstanding would never arise in the third world), it may – for example - become challenging to go grocery shopping without the aide of Google Translate.

2.     Cash is king. If you don’t have cash or a German-issued card, be prepared to face problems.

3.     Doors on the metro trains do not open automatically – you must press a button! At times, I found myself waiting for the button to open as a train halted at a station – usually intercepted by some kindly German person who sensed my ignorance and pressed the button for me.

4.     It does not appear at any point that you need to show a valid ticket to use the metro/underground. The risk of being checked and fined for travelling ticketless exists, however. Buses are different because you need to show your ticket to the driver immediately upon entry.

5.     Sunday is rest day. Everything can be expected to be shut, and you may be hard pressed to find food. The exception to this is an infrequent phenomenon known as Verkaufstsonntag, when shops remain open to do business. I was lucky that my first Sunday in the city was a Verkaufstsonntag.

6.     With a sizeable Turkish population in the city, doner kebabs exist alongside German sausages and schnitzel.

7.     Many cycles, and cyclists of all ages and with and without helmets, are to be found in Hamburg. The city does its part by providing special lights at certain traffic signals for cyclists, along with those for pedestrians.

8.     There is a heartening abundance of coffee. If you are lucky you may find it priced at one Euro or less. But there are also fancier places where you will find it priced at 10 Euros or more (a case in point is the Kopi Luwak at Spiecherstadt Kafferosterei, near the Miniatur Wunderland museum).

9.     Rain. So much rain. I remind myself everyday to buy an umbrella, but forget and remember only when I get drenched.

10.  You get what you pay for. Beer mugs often come with a marking of 300ml/500ml/1 litre. Wine glasses often come with a marking of 100ml. This is to ensure some degree of standardization, and so that you are not being cheated of the quantity you are paying for.

11.  There is often fun graffiti to be found on random walls in the city. So far, my favourites have been “Fck G20” and “Pussy Funk”. Also, a dustbin with “Godot kommt nicht” (Godot is not coming) painted over.

12.  There are some city buses where you must pay a surcharge. These premium buses cost more, without any ostensible difference in quality or comfort (but perhaps they have fewer stops).

13.  Unlike in many cities, not all the entrances to an underground station lead to all the platforms of the station. You must be conscious of the direction in which your train is going, to be able to access the correct platform – or you could end up at the wrong platform without any way to get to the correct platform without exiting the station and finding your way back into the right platform.

Musings from Ataturk Airport (September 28, 2017)

I seem to find myself in the city of Istanbul during crossroads of my life where I have just finished one phase, and am embarking on another – times heralding a changes of some note, such as uprooting myself from one city to another, and leaving behind the security of a stable law firm salary.

In May 2012, I quit my first job with a law firm in Bombay to move back to Delhi to work there. I took a five week break to travel on my own in Turkey and then to London. Istanbul formed the starting point of my wanderings, and was also the city from which I would embark on a more adventurous exploration of the “interiors of Turkey”.

In September 2017, I find myself at the brink of an entirely different adventure – to quit another job in a law firm (one in Delhi, this time) and seek higher studies at a relatively advanced age, entailing my first entry into Continental Europe (barring the tiny sliver of Istanbul, which technically qualifies as the aforesaid first entry).

On board my flight to Istanbul, I note with some amusement that I am taking the same flight I took five years ago: Turkish Airlines flight TK-717, except it used to depart at 6:05 a.m. in 2012, while the 2017 iteration takes off ten minutes later, at 6:15 a.m. I note also that my hand baggage is the same one that I carried five years ago. It is possibly heavier now, burdened as it is by the strain of an Indian student moving to study in colder latitudes, but there is symbolism in the fact that it still bears the thick red cardboard tag of Turkish Airlines (for some reason, I liked it too much to remove it all these years).

It is a strange thing but sometimes memories get embedded in smells. I realize this as I step out of Turkish Airlines flight TK-717 into the crisp 20 degree celsius air, and I am taken back to my hostel from five years ago, and to the street it was located on – the bustling Istiklal Caddesi. I can only describe this smell as a delightful amalgam of delicious Turkish food and a fabric softener that smells fresh and comforting at the same time. Somehow this strange combination does not seem unpalatable in the least.

My layover in Istanbul is a shade under five hours, not offering enough time to get out of the airport and experience first-hand how much this city has changed in the past sixty four months. But an excellent lounge at the airport provides me with a slice of Istanbul at the reasonable/unreasonable price of 30 Euros. Apart from the excellent shower and spotless bathroom facilities (for both of which I would give due credit to the Turkish sense of hospitality and hygiene), I had the chance to experience some of the incredible food and beverages of Istanbul without leaving the airport. Köfte, peynir, mozzarella balls, varied beans and salads. Beer and more beer. Çay. It felt good to be transported back to the few days in 2012 when I had these at my disposal in abundance.

May 2012 and September 2017, in my life, form important junctures – to open myself to new life experiences, and letting go a bit, including of conventional ideas of job security and a steady salary. Istanbul was a great place to start both journeys. To that I say: Şerefe!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A longish commute to work.

My commute to the office on my penultimate day of work, at my workplace of close to three and a half years in Delhi, turned out to be unexpectedly long and multi-modal.

After waking up in a bed in Lucknow:

- Drive to the airport in a car (Free, thanks to the generosity of a kind cousin who woke up early and dropped me).

- Flight to Delhi (Rs. 1905).

- Shuttle bus from Terminal 1D to Terminal 3 (Rs. 20).

- Airport Express Metro, Terminal 3 to Shivaji Stadium Metro Station (Rs. 50).

- Autorickshaw from Shivaji Stadium Metro Station to the office (Rs. 30, with some negotiation).

Total time spent on commute: 4h 15m (7:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.).

Total money spent on commute: Rs. 2005.

Number of automobiles driven during commute: 5.

Number of automobiles driven during commute by self: 0.

Carbon mileage: Unknown

[But Notes:

(1) A train from Lucknow to Delhi (instead of a flight) would have earned me more carbon credits, but set me back by an additional 3 hours (approximately).

(2) A taxi from the airport to the office (instead of taking three different types of public transport) would have earned me fewer carbon credits.]

Total number of coffees consumed: 0.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Metro Musings.

Has our addiction to smartphones made us de facto less empathetic beings?

Today I was travelling on the Delhi Metro, glued to my phone screen (frantically trying to learn a foreign language via my phone, because apparently you can do that these days), while simultaneously listening to music to drown out the excess chatter in the coach. The doors of the metro compartment opened at Patel Chowk and a visually handicapped man was helped into the coach, and seated in a spot across from me (after a lady got up to make space). I lost out the opportunity to offer my seat because by the time I sensed, from the periphery of my vision, that something was happening, and by the time I actually looked up from my phone, the gentleman was already seated.

A short while later, as I waited for the elevator at the underground metro station that fortunately opens almost right into my office building, I was steadfastly looking at my phone again (in an attempt to finish one more module of the aforementioned foreign language). As the doors of the elevator opened to deposit passengers from the overground, I failed to notice that amidst them was a handicapped man who was incapable of walking - he was sitting and dragging his body across the floor of the elevator, as he attempted to exit. Another person waiting for the lift - a middle-aged gentleman who was not glued to his phone - saw this and was cognizant enough to hold the doors of the elevator manually, to aide the disabled man's exit.

We like to multi-task and accomplish more than one thing at once (and this may be a good value to strive for: efficiency). But is this at the cost of becoming oblivious to things and people around us, which/who may require our attention as part of our obligations to being members of society?
And how much is technology to blame? I could just have been as engrossed in a book. Or sleeping. (But eight out of ten people on the metro will be found to have their phones in their hand.)

Has technology altered the way we choose to act in society? We could be surrounded by a mass of humans, squished up head-to-armpit in a metro compartment, but to seek a human connection, we will most likely still be endeavouring to balance our phone in our hands in a crowded compartment, to be able to connect virtually with somebody not present in that compartment.

Conversely: have we reached a stage where, to be sitting in a crowded place full of strangers, there may be some stigma attached to not be looking into our phone? Because we want to belie assumptions about us: assumptions that perhaps we are lonely, conclusions that are reached when we are seen without our friends at our fingertips in any given setting. Because to gaze around and make eye contact with a total stranger would be an undesirable outcome when in possession of a phone.

Chin up. Empathize.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

It's a Man(splainer)'s World.

A few weeks ago, Dutch cyclist, Anniemik van Vleuten suffered a terrible crash while competing in the Olympics Road Race, after being in the lead for much of the long distance race. As she lay in hospital being treated for multiple fractures, she was also administered a dose of Mansplaining by a gentlemen on Twitter. This gentleman tweeted to AvV: "first lesson in bicycling, keep your bike steady...whether fast or slow". Subsequent outrage by the Twitterati ultimately forced him to flee Twitter altogether.

Far be it from me to compare myself to AvV - an amazing cyclist with droolworthy Strava updates, who made a quick recovery after the horrific accident, going on to win the Belgium Tour 2016 in spectacular fashion - I discovered recently that the menace of Mansplaining is much more pervasive, and also exists in the realm of sphere of lesser cyclists such as I.

A few days after AvV got mansplained, I was out on my customary Sunday ride. Although less frequent than they used to be and than I would like, my Sunday rides are my happy place, my escape from the rest of the week. On this particular Sunday, I was so desperate for some solitude after a hectic week that I even declined a friend of mine who wanted to ride with me - she was perfectly understanding about my craving for "alone time". Little did I know there was some uninvited riding company coming my way.

As I was enjoying my me time, a cyclist passed me by, and bound as I am by bicycling niceties, I wished him a good morning and he returned the greeting. But it did not end there. This gentleman continued to cycle alongside me, and began a torrent of unsolicited advice:

"You should switch to clip-less pedals."

"Your seat is too low."

"You should do hill repeats."

"You should ride 3 times every week."

"You should drink water every 15 minutes."

"It's good that you already have a watch. Are you tracking everything?"

"How many kilometres are you riding today?"

"How many kilometres have you ridden so far?"

"Switch to a higher gear."

"Now switch to a lower gear."

Each of these pieces of advice and instruction was followed by this broad overarching piece of advice: "you need to do this if you want to make it big." This man insisted on cycling next to me for the next couple of kilometres where, after telling him repeatedly that I was, in fact, not interested in "making it big", I tried valiantly to de-couple myself from a riding partner that I had not signed up for. I would slow down so that he would just go ahead but he would linger back to continue the mansplaining. I would go faster, but he would catch up to continue the mansplaining. I was extremely relieved when, upon asking me which turn I was taking next (a u-turn) he finally informed me that we would be parting ways.

Mansplainers and mansplainer sympathists may argue that this gentleman was, in fact, doing me a favour by giving me so much free guidance. But that would be missing the point. Here was a man, who found a woman cycling alone and started dishing out tips and information from the seemingly entitled position of being a male cyclist, with the underlying assumption that he was a more superior cyclist.

Did this man bother to ask me anything about me first? Such as my cycling goals, past cycling experience, what I was trying to get out of my ride, whether there were any other demands on my time that would prevent me from meeting the magic number of three rides per week, whether I was even inclined to be a high mileage cyclist, whether I actually felt comfortable on my seat or in my gear of choice, whether I was thirsty enough to reach out for water every fifteenth minute. 

No, he did not. 

Would he have subjected a lone male cyclist to a similar tirade? I have my doubts.

My multiple protests of "but I do not want to make it big" were simply ignored. And when I asked him why he was cycling without a helmet, I was dismissed. Here it is: the arrogance of a man who could not concern himself with trifles such as the most basic rules of riding safely (Rule Number 1: wear a helmet), yet thought it acceptable to dish out a series of generic (and as it seemed, unending) recommendations to a female cyclist he did not know from Eve.

I always welcome advice and help from cyclist friends, we are all learning here after all. But does someone really have the right to impose advice on a perfect stranger in a complete vacuum, not knowing the first thing about them, not inclined to actually engage with them? This could have potentially been a fruitful exchange, perhaps if it had been a dialogue, perhaps one which did not commence from the assumption that I, as a female cyclist, needed to be told how to do things. Where it did not appear that the person giving me a monologue was just shooting his mouth off. 

Who knows, though, what if I followed this mansplainer's advice to every last word and "made it big" - would I be freed from the scourge of mansplaining? Probably not, as Anniemik van Vleuten's experience demonstrates.