Monday, September 27, 2010

Mom Knows Best!!!

Everytime I travel through England by train, there are always interesting people to observe and eavesdrop on...Remember the last time I wrote about people I met on the train to London?

My trip back to Brighton from Leicester gave me new characters for a new post. A mother and son - who got in from Leicester (like me) on route St.Pancras in London.

So when did I first notice her- On the Leicester railway platform. She had a voice few could ignore...grating,harsh and loud enough not to require a microphone. A faux animal print jacket in a sickening colour that would make a leopard blush out its spots and eye make-up loud enough to put her loud voice to shame.

The little one standing next to her had mischief written all over his face! The number of scratches and nicks on his little blonde face gave out his favourite past times. He stood next to his MooooM and the couple of suitcases strewn around them. There were some hiccups with the train I was scheduled to take, so I put my 'spy-eavesing' expedition on the mental backburner. Getting to St.Pancras to catch the underground to Victoria to make it to my Brighton connection was more important.

But once the train rolled on to the platform and I was safely inside and baggage stowed away, the moooom and son were forgotten as I switched on my music and dived back into the book I was reading. Not for long, though...

The grating voice made herself heard over the din made by my music. Mama had chosen the seats just after mine, so I couldn't see her, but that wasn't necessary was it..Her voice did the trick. So there she was, trying to tell her distracted 4-ish year old that they had to be thankful to generous Sue, who had packed them a snack and some napkins and some plastic cutlery and a drink for little Rhys ( atleast thats what the brat's name sounded like). The little one immediately parroted, "Thank you, Sue". I wondered if it was for the benefit of the rest of us in the coach, and as I craned my neck to check if I can glimpse the exchange, I spied a couple of other necks stretching out of their seats in similar states of curiosity.

Now Rhys is your average little 4 year old charming monkey, climbing over seats, trying to get an upside down view of the coach aisle and every time he'd manage to get himself into a weird pose, a leopard skin hand would come snaking out and go "WHACCCK"...the next ten minutes would inevitably be howling and screaming. Imagine that spread out in 10 minute intervals! A "bully sermon" from the Mom set to the cacophony of Rhys' lung powered wails had many others reaching for their headsets, while I tried raising the volume of the music already set to blaring.

Now there was one constant routine that caught my attention - One sharp slap across his arms, followed by a howl of pain from the little one, followed by what I figure is an angry punch from him. To this the Mom remarks " You hit me and I punch you back, I'm your mother!" Sounded strange and petty coming from an adult, especially so in a country where beating a child isn't really encouraged.

Now the brat seemed to have been habituated to the constant whacks from moooom. In no time, he was back to his monkey ways, the streaks of tears still on his face forgotten. When the ticket checker came by, he asked if he could have a ticket. The lady asked him where he wanted to go and he said where daddy is. Rhys insisted he wanted a ticket so that he could travel by himself and leave his mom back on the train. The ticket checker laughed again and left and the Mom began loudly berating Rhys - just how could he have told her that he wants to leave her back? Hear that in that tone of hers and you'd want to personally help the boy shove her off the train. I dug my nose right back into my book and tried to drown their voices..

It took only two minutes before the entire coach was standing up and trying to check if the child was being murdered. He was wailing at the top of his lungs, claiming he was being choked, while the mother continued to wrestle him into a bulky scarf, that he kept pulling off his neck. And then came the punch line, "Stay still, Rhys, or I might just end up choking you. Trust me, you need the scarf, I'm the Mom, I know best!". She couldn't be bothered that she was being watched by the whole coach! As we sat down, the bald guy sitting next to me muttered,"You can't fight that logic, can you?". The so-far expressionless face of the Chinese girl sitting opposite me showed some signs of irritation and discomfort at the overtly public show between the mom and son.

As I got down at St. Pancras, I saw the Mooooom roughly shoving him into his pram and buckle him up despite his wails, before jerkily walking away. 

Wonder what made me post this exchange. I guess the incident lingers because I have come to expect a different variety of parenting during this year in England. Children are usually treated as young adults here, asked their preferences, allowed to take their own decisions.But then again,I wonder if I judged the mom too harshly because she had a grating voice and a sense of dressing that revolted me? It can't be easy to handle a mischievous brat all by herself, can it? 

The ever polite British travelling crowd didn't make a noise about the intense discomfort to the other travellers from the loud conversations, accompanying wails and the abuse on display. That's British politeness, I guess!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Europe - Point and Shoot - Paris Je T'aime and I AMsterdaaaaam

Given a choice between Paris and Amsterdam, I think I'd be happier to revisit Amsterdam. It is less pretentious, people are more fun and more importantly - they ALL speak English and don't turn up their snooty French noses at you because you can't say more than Merci Beaucoup! Also Amsterdam is cosier, tinier, less dirtier...I could go on and on.

These are however not reason enough to not enjoy Paris for what it is worth. There are definitely smaller, cosier and less expensive cities to holiday in than Paris, but never make the mistake of not including Paris atleast once in your European journey. The bistros, the monuments, the museums - history lives and rests here - much like London. Though between London and Paris, I'd still choose London and bear a bad sandwich than eat well amidst French snootiness.

So in the last of my three part series, I'm going to put together some of my favourite pictures which is meant to serve as memory cards of must-visit places if you are going with just a couple of days to spend in these places..

Call it touristy, call it "Ohhh, that's just soo predictable", but you can't go to Paris and not watch Eiffel Tower lit up. It beckons you from far, though it must also be said that by day, it looks like any other microwave tower across the world!
Don't forget to walk down the Champs-Elysees that takes you from the Arc de Triomphe down...I have a dumb touristy shot of the Arc, so instead I thought I'd guide you with this picture..:)

Don't forget the stroll down the Seine. Paris is prettiest by the banks of the Seine, go further in and the dirt and filth and the grime of cosmopolitan life will assault you like any other city, I guess!

The Louvre - must go atleast to assuage your curiosity about Mona Lisa. As many would have told you before there are far many more impressive paintings and displays to see at the Louvre. However, its a very impressive complex, if you have any interest in architecture or museums or even if you don't have interest in any of this, don't miss one darshan.

Did you know that Notre Dame was the official landmark for Paris till the Eiffel Tower came along and stole its thunder? But I think I prefer the Sacre Couer to Notre Dame, although must say, entry is FREE...:)

That's Sacre Coeur atop the Montmartre. The view of Paris, once you have climbed all those steps is glorious. As beautiful as seeing it from the top of Eiffel Tower and less expensive...And if you have actually made your way to the top, go around the side towards the Artists Corner in Montmartre.

I was so in awe of the work displayed there that I asked someone who did a lot of Degas-esque work to take me as an intern and pay me with a painting of his..I promised to clean his brushes and prime his canvasses - he laughed like a Frenchman and said '
I don't understand you' in English!!!

On the climb downhill, don't miss some of the most amazing grafitti art along Montmartre...This is when I met the Tramp...

At the base of Montmartre is Moulin Rouge - the windmill made so famous by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman starrer film of the same name..

If you have any interest in art whatsoever, even if you skip Louvre ( by the way, when the French say it, the 'r' is silent) DON'T MISS Musee D'Orsay...I spent about 5 hours with two audio guides ( coz the battery of the first one died on me!!) alone in there rediscovering Monet and Seurat and Courbet and Degas

Also remember, when you are crossing over across the Seine, don't miss this sight...These are locks which is supposed to 'LOCK IN YOUR LOVE'..You write your names and seal the lock and throw the keys into the Seine..Now no one in the City of Lovers cared to answer my question as to whether there was a professional industry of divers around to retrieve keys if anyone wanted to 'Unlock' the Love.

Oh...and I think by now, I have shown you all the best parts of Amsterdam that we explored. Couldn't make it to the Van Gogh or Rembrandt museum though Musee D'Orsay soothed a lot of my disappointment..However, we girls didn't miss the Sex Museum. What's the point of visiting Amsterdam if you didn't pay a visit to one of their biggest tourist draws?

Also, don't miss a Canal Cruise...This I think is the best way to discover Amsterdam. While we were in Amsterdam, it poured and how..this is a view of the St.Nicholas church from the glass-ceiling of our boat by dusk.

That's me...signing off...Well, not exactly me..but the image I'd like to leave you with..:)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Europe - Point and Shoot - Food Gyan

While at the University of Sussex, I had the chance to meet a number of Europeans. Mostly, the discussions would veer towards food. Need I say, Brit bashing, then becomes the norm? Well Brit bashing, I must roughly define, is a game of one up-manship where you come up with the lousiest examples of British cuisines. Using vile adjectives don’t win you any points, but if you manage to elicit a shudder in remembrance from one or more members of the group, then your example was successful.
 So there, I have set the context...We started our two city Europe adventure with little expectations...When you race to Gatwick at 4.30 in the morning to catch a flight, food isn’t foremost on the mind. 

Food Funda(FF) 1: If you choose wisely, then each meal can make you feel like you died and went to heaven..Even before we caught the train to Amsterdam Centraal from Schipol Airport, we had our first taste of heaven – Stropwaffels..So what are they? Tiny, crispy discs of waffles with loads of sugar and butter in it – with or without chocolate and other fillings. Felt like a taste of heaven( a view that I kept amending every half a day as we had a new meal, till by the end, I wasn’t even inspired to get a packet of stropwaffels back home to UK with me!)

F F2: It is better if you aren’t a vegetarian in Europe, for it limits your food-orgasms drastically. But if you travel with friends who eat anything that does not talk back or bite them, then you will be able to at least report on how good the food is! In Amsterdam, the check-in times are usually around 2PM, which meant that we had to while quite some time away in other places.

FF3: I wouldn’t suggest you walk into a ‘coffeeshop’ the first thing in the morning. If you do, you might not walk out for the rest of the day. Plan your trips to the coffeeshop, would be my wise advice. So after chucking a couple of ‘wholesome breakfast’ options at coffeeshops, we finally walked into a cafe that served us some wholesome food indeed...I twisted my tongue over ordering a chicken schnitzel sandwich( try it, try it casually and see if it does not go schnizhhhul, snitszhul and stuff..or maybe I was in sleep-deprived semi-coma!) but the world righted itself, after the first cup of a great cappuccino and the sandwich. 

FF 4: Amsterdam is great for food. Especially when you arrive here from the UK, the food feels delicious and under-priced. Never thought I’d say that about any place in Europe. But then, Paris began punching massive holes into my Euro wallet. The only consolation was, I was paying good money for some great food!

FF 5: We followed our brunch with a hearty snooze and then began planning our food stops even as we tried to find our way across Amsterdam. We ended up at a Bagel chain ( I forgot the name – it was a clever one) that we girls thought was a Quaint Cafe discovered by us. We hadn’t gone two streets down after having some yummy bagels with exotic cream cheese and one sweet one ( apple and cinnamon bagel with butter and chocolate sprinkles) when we noticed just another similarly ‘quaint cafe’. The realisation hurt, but what the heck, the stomachs were singing with pleasure. The hot chocolate with cream (seen here along with a fruit explosion) also helped ease the hurt!

FF 6: Travelling to Spain didn’t materialise, but we had some gorgeous Spanish Tapas. Tapas is typical Spanish fare which is served in small portion. So you might need about 6 dishes to feel kind of close to satiating your hunger. If you ever get to do it right, don’t miss the chance. And boy, did we do our meal right or not...A jug of Sangria –that is red wine with orange and apple rinds and a dash of orange juice to make it cocktailly – set the mood. Some of this yummy bread dunked in olive oil, with the tapas – ahhh...another slice of heaven. And between the three of us, the meal was about 42 euros only!!! In the UK, you’d easily shell out that amount for a meal for two without the wine and I’d not take wagers on the food.
FF 7: If you are ever in Amsterdam, don’t say no to their breads or stuffed pastries. The Dutch bake like a dream and when you pay under 1 Euro for most of these concoctions, you feel like you are getting great value for money. However, a Europe trip straight out of India’s cheap food prices might bring on a mini heart attack at the cost of everything in this part of the world!

FF 8: On one of our padayatras through the myriad –straats along the canal, we had seen a tiny shop called the Pancake Factory. A little searching online revealed that it was the most popular destination for all kinds of pancakes, crepes and what not. So we kept aside a considerable amount of time on the last day in Amsterdam for sampling their fare. Travelling with good friends make your food journeys cheaper. Between the three of us, we ordered up all the house specialities – pommefritjes (remember I told you about that in the last post?) with chocolate and cream and honey and mandarins and a savoury pancake with chicken and cheese. We had to wait for our seats and for our orders to be taken. But it was worth the wait, I say!

FF 9 : The stereotype about Parisienne food was created because there were enough people who endorsed it. We joined that rapidly increasing group. The Indian girl who travelled with me – a hardcore carnivore said she’d died and gone to heaven after her first encounter with a French steak. So much so that she willingly offered herself for a high cholesterol death by ordering different versions of the steak at the various meals in Paris. Must I say much about the wine and cheese? Though I must admit here, that we had by then started going cheap with our selections as the wallet began getting lighter faster than we anticipated.

FF 10: Don’t eat by the eateries near the Eiffel Tower if you are the kind to feel the Euros pinch. Save your hunger for the smaller, lesser known bistros along Montmartre regions. The food is equally luscious – my personal favourites – a salad with grilled goat’s cheese on tiny squares of toasts and a divine dressing and a chicken leg with French fries dunked in a glorious mushroom sauce cooked with wine. It set us off by about 20 Euros every meal – the food and wine together, but you wouldn’t regret it!

FF 11: In France, also remember to try the chocolate ├ęclairs and the simple croissants for breakfast with a dash of butter and some jams. The French, I think say some secret chant, as they cook their food. It just refuses to turn out bad!! Ohhh..and did I mention the simple crepes at roadside eateries? They seem like our dosa stalls – they are available just about everywhere...While you are at it, order the one with the Nutella and banana..and tell me if you saw heaven too?!! J
I’m now back to English realities and sandwiches with no salt or pepper. The last baguette that I had packed from Paris before boarding my bus – I remembered how I tried to make it last longer by taking smaller nibbles. The bread alone would have been worth the 5 Euros I paid!!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Europe - Point and Shoot - Travel Fundas


Now I have already told you that this is a travellogue....Like any true heroine of their own drama, I too want a shot at 'something different' like Maggi tomato ketchup....The more I thought of a syntax..the more it appeared like a souffle gone wrong after the promise of a Michellin effort...

So then, I decided to just let be...and here's what has been decided...Till the day that I run out of anything more to say ( and that's saying something) or I'm really bored trying to eke out that last little nugget out of this fun holiday - I shall try to post a bit of something or the other about different things...

Today is Travel Fundas...

The Schengen guys at the VFS didn't like the way my teeth were set or the totally black ensemble that I had on when I went for my scheduled appointment to apply for a visa...I can't think of another reason why they privately laughed at my application for multiple entry with atleast a week's duration for each visit and sent me home a visa stamped for one entry for the duration of 4 days...Yes you heard me right, 4 MEASLY DAYS..

The truth is I have never been treated so shabbily before by any country where I applied for a visa. So since I hadn't anticipated that the EU really didn't care whether I shelled out more Euros to keep their economy afloat, I had gone the whole hog and booked my tickets and accommodation. The initial plan was a girlie trip Amsterdam-Paris and Madrid for 6.5 days. Easyjet made offers that lured, so we succumbed. Little were we to know that only the American in our gang of three ( henceforth she is Ms.GPS - had it not been for her GPS on the iPhone, we would have had some episodes of LOST to tape) made it to all three places on the itinerary. The other Indian was sent back to UK after the 3rd day, while I got 4 days!!!

In hindsight however, the holiday was a great success...How many of you can claim to have gone on a holiday where you travelled in a plane, a train, routine interactions with a cycle and a boat and then followed it up with a bus and a ship?? Well, I had all that and more in just 4 days...

We got to Amsterdam by Easyjet..and not KLM. Book in advance and you can get tickets for 20 pounds also..Ours was one of those cheap tickets that would not have been sufficient for the air hostess of our flight get home after it in a cab!  Do we care as long as we had a deal? Hell, no!! 

From the Schipol Airport to the Amsterdam Centraal Train Station is about a 20 minute train ride. That is if you can figure out whether you are on the right platform!! We nearly began our journey to Eindhoven before we had the sense to get the headphones of a young guy to confirm whether we were going to Amsterdam. He looked at us with a weird expression and went Duhhhhh, No!! 

So Travel Funda 1(TF 1): Asking for confirmations isn't bad in Dutch land, but asking for directions might land you in the hands of some over zealous samaritan who might just set you off on a merry trip to nowhere.( I say out of experience of finding my way from Harlemmerstraat to the Anne Frank museum - which happened to be just about 2 and a half streets away, but we took 3 hours to figure that) Btw, the Dutch wait for a hapless tourist to stand by a traffic light with a spread map to come forward and try to help them. A definite change from those London lads, I tell you!

Once in Amsterdam city, forget any form of transportation. That's my TF 2 - Walking is not just a way to discover this city, but great to burn off all those yummy Dutch treats like pommefritjes (tiny pancakes smothered in chocolate or cream or any other sin you can think of!!) or stropwaffels!!! If you'd rather rent a cycle, there are many. Walking only becomes a pain when you suddenly see a kamikaze biker heading straight for you as you try to cross the road...

However, my eye was set on this beauty!! There wasn't the owner around or I'd have charmed them into giving me a spin on this for sure!

TF 3 : Don't miss out on the canal cruises along the different canal routes of Amsterdam. And its just between 8-10 euros. The city seems like an architectural wonder precariously balanced along the waterside, there are also these houses to ogle at...And no, before you think its because they are too poor to afford homes on firm ground, here's the reality check - these houseboats can cost you anywhere from 300,000 Euros upwards..And I got my zeros right in that figure! 

TF 4: There are also trams for those lazy to walk, but I'd just say Shame on you..You miss so much!!!Ditto for Paris. Except for taking the Metro to traverse the larger distances, the thought of not walking up and down wherever reduces the charm of a holiday. Also refer to TF2 about burning the lard!

TF 5: Travelling from Amsterdam to Paris by train - Highly recommended - this way you cross through many places like Antwerp, Rotterdam and Brussels. All you see of these cities might be what you see from the train window, but then there's some fun in saying, 'Oh, I'd travelled to Paris from Amsterdam via blah blah blah cities.' Pompousness sometimes is deliciously enjoyable! If you book early by Eurostar, you can get some really cheap deals in the vicinity of 30 pounds.

TF 6: Never bother to cancel an Easyjet ticket when you find that you can't make it. For one, you will waste most of the balance on your phone trying to get through an elusive executive. And if you do, then there could be the chance that they charge you 25 pounds to cancel a ticket that cost you 20 pounds. Avoid insult on financial injury. Just zip it and bear the loss!

TF 7: Disappointment and Desperation are great travel companions if Luck is added into the mix..So when the Spain leg fell flat, I began cheaper 'Return Home' searches. One such one led me to a bus option. If you don't mind an 8 hour bus journey, then travelling by bus from Paris to London - highly recommended. For Indians, used to khataras and buses with asbestos sheets for seats, these are high luxury Volvo buses. Moreover, you get to travel by the ferry across from Calais to Dover. I don't know about you, but after reading about the Dover to Calais ferry ride in a short story back in school, this idea of travelling from one country to another by ferry was appealing. The Ferry is good fun, serves Food (English not French, so don't be too hopeful) and gets you from Calais to Dover in an hour and a bit. 

TF 8: However, ensure you have enough time to find the bus stop, because like in my case, the address was bang in the middle of Rue de Maubeuge that curved and dipped like it felt like. And even people at the Paris Gare Du Nord Railway station don't usually know that the Rue de Maubeuge is in reality the little side street that runs by the left side of the station premises!! Can you beat that? When I couldn't locate door No. 83, I remembered asking two policemen in a car in the street nearby. For one, they were stumped by my non-French question and more importantly, they had no clue where the address was..imagine seeking their help if a murder were to happen at 83??

 If travelling cheap and safe is what you are looking to do, remember to come back here for my cheap tricks to make your Euros stretch...There are many more fundas coming up - from accommodation to food to living it up! 

Merci Beaucoup!! :)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Europe - Point and Shoot!!!

It's been a pretty long while since I blogged..The last month has been traumatic...I wrote atleast about 17000 words that were whittled down to about 15000...And no, I didn't get a book contract...Nor did what I was writing give me as much satisfaction as blogging.. But then, the holy dissertation to ensure that you complete your MA ( that can conveniently also be redubbed D-shit-ations) had to be given priority..

So I was cut off from the blogosphere...hearing sad news in passing, hardly able to read much or even share the fun that I have had amidst d-shit-ation rants...

I have so much to much to here's the plan..beginning today, for the next one week or maybe less ( I'm yet to divide my stuff yet..) I shall have a travellogue series..Little snippets from here and there with of course photographs...

Amsterdam and Paris will be the two cities on the menu...and these will be short pieces, focussing on different, fun and for sure the places of interest...I don't want to sound like a 'Welcome to Amsterdam, Glad to take you around' tour guide. So primarily in the next couple of days, I'll tell you what I saw and what I observed..What I did for fun and what I 'unfortunately' didn't do! 

It's been a long time since I heard from you all...So do drop a line, if you think its a good idea for a series...Your questions and comments can make this exercise interactive and fun for both of us..:) 

This series will be called Europe - Point and Shoot...:)