Monday, May 31, 2010


I write on Europe with a sense of fulfillment - the kind a pilgrim feels when he/she ends his/her journey. I remember my grand-uncle describing Europe to me as 'very clean, with no dirt whatsoever'. For a six-year-old in Delhi, the concept of a dirt-free continent, country, city or even a neighbourhood, was enough to create an impression that she would carry on to her adulthood.

Then there were stories - of white men and women who'd discard their old clothes once the new season came in, of people who at with only forks and knives without leaving any breadcrumbs on their plates, of trains that were never late, of large unfenced gardens and esplanades, of monuments that were so very clean and of people who chose to mind their own businesses instead of poking their noses into others' affairs - that me wonder, and dream.

I journeyed through the streets of Cologne, Paris and Luzern (Lucernne) to check for myself if those descriptions of Europeans were true. Had I told my husband that this was my purpose, he'd have laughed his head off and asked me to relax and have a good time. To my surprise, everything I'd heard of the continent, was true (except for the hats, though). The cities were clean (except for the graffiti on the walls of Paris's metro stations, Zurich's underpasses and Cologne's cathedral) the trains almost never late (the driver of our Basel-Cologne Intercity Express was extremely apologetic when the train arrived 10 minutes late at the Cologne main station), gardens that would never be encroached upon and people who did eat with forks at knives.

In Switzerland, I sat at a dinner with girls from eight different countries in Europe discussing Bollywood, fashion, arranged marriages, weddings in India and Mumbai. I found them to be curious about India and Indians... about our habits and day-to-day activities. Some wondered why Bollywood directors like shooting at their college campus, others wanted to join in the shoots. It was a relaxed evening... one of conversation and food (and lots of alcohol). Many thought India was unsafe for them to travel alone. Some wanted to holiday in Goa and Mumbai.

We look at foreigners in India as some kind of rare breed. If they're white, we'll either ogle at them (especially if they're women) or treat them with deference and offer them a drink for free at a pub. If they're black, we simply, mindlessly label them as drug-addicts.

It's hard to find where we stand when we go abroad. For, we too are foreigners then. If you're in Britain, you'll know your place soon. But in the middle of Paris that is overrun with tourists from all over the world, it's difficult to find out where you stand. If you eat with your hands at a posh, upmarket French restaurant in India, you're more likely to be looked down upon by the hotel's staff and guests than if you'd do the same at a fancy restaurant at Champs Elysees, the poshest street in Paris. Ditto with Cologne that sees few black tourists and even fewer browns.

If you speak English, they'll nod in response. If you don't, they'll smile understandingly. And they most certainly know that you couldn't possibly speak their language like them, eat like them or behave like them. And they don't want it either. They want to see how you eat, talk and sleep. They don't want to see how well a brown-skinned foreigner can mimic their habits. They just want to meet you, dine with you and see yourself being you. You'd probably be made to feel more like a foreigner in certain places in India than abroad!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Calling on Cologne

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on May 31, 2010 at 03:52:19 PM

"There isn't much to see in Cologne, except the cathedral. You must climb up to its top," our Swiss friends tell us when we disclose that our next stop in Europe after Zurich would be Germany's fourth-largest city. "We have friends there," we speak in our defence. A few smiles in response and then the conversation veers onto the strength of the Swiss economy.

Cologne Rodenkirchen Bridge

We take the Intercity train from Zurich to Basel on the Switzerland-Germany border and then another to Cologne. We haven't reserved our seats in the first class (the Eurail pass allows first-class travel) but are lucky to find a couple with reservations from Cologne to Amsterdam. We take them.

Kölner Dom
Our host awaits us at the station. The train's late by 10 minutes, monumental by German-Swiss standards. I tell her this, she smiles in response. "German trains can be up to 10 minutes late." We step out of the station only to be dwarfed by the massive Hohe Domkirche St Peter und Maria aka the Kölner Dom. We marvel at the intricately carved spires of the cathedral that were at one point in time were the tallest structures in the world until the completion of the Washington Monument. "We'll have a closer look later. Let's go home now," our host suggests.

We take the underground to Ebertplatz station. Like most of the locals around us, we don't buy tickets. "No one's going to check and it's just one station," we are assured.

Neusser Strasse where our host's apartment is located is a quiet street full of shops of supermarkets. Our host points out to the numerous bakeries, the Donor Kebab (the Turkish version of MacDonalds), video parlours, etc.

(Top) Children's paintings at a Roman Catholic Church,
(Above) Ducks and flowers at the botanical gardens

We walk through the Neusser Strasse to a majestic old Roman Catholic church at the end of the road. We come across a plant with ribbons tied on it by young bachelors looking for suitable girlfriends or wives that reminds us of the 'wishing trees' in Indian shrines.

The Wishing Plant

We walk through Cologne's botanical gardens, a destination more for morning walkers, joggers and birds than for tourists. We take in the view of the the curves of the famed Cologne Rodenkirchen Bridge, the suspension rail bridge that was bombed in January 1945 (a picture of the bombing and reconstruction is displayed at the German History Museum at Bonn) from the Hohenzollern bridge.

The Hohenzollern bride over the Rhine itself is a monument of love, not because of its architecture, but because of the thousands of 'love locks' on its fence. The locks bear the names of the couples in love and the date their relationships were sealed forever. The tokens of love have become an attraction for tourists, who stop to take a closer look at the messages inscribed on them. Though some of the locks put there were manufactured in pre-War Germany, the dates they bear are not older than 1972.

A tribute to Jews

We walk down the bridge to an exhibition that pays tribute to Jews who were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Some of the photographs are still missing. It's a poignant reminder of Germany's past. The exhibition notes that Germany can never forget its Nazi history. In Germany, you can't say that you're proud to be German.

We walk down to Hohe Strasse which literally means the high street. This is the shopping district of Cologne where you'll find some of the biggest international brands. It is also the busiest street in Cologne with lots of German and Scandinavian tourists. We stop over to buy some souvenirs. We learn that in spite of all the modernisation, German shopkeepers here still prefer cash to credit cards. We discuss this over a lunch of sausages, bretzels, muffins and coffee.

The break gives us enough energy to climb the to the top of the cathedral. Construction of cathedral began in 1248 and took, with interruptions, until 1880 to complete. It is 144.5 metres long, 86.5 m wide and its towers are approximately 157 m tall. The cathedral is beautiful but is always in the process of renovation. Though it miraculously survived the WWII bombings, it still has had to deal with corrosion and graffiti. We spend a few moments inside the church before our trek. It's a 533-step spiral staircase. It's cold and steep and we have to climb in single file. We trudge on, with a few breaks. It takes half-hour to the top. And from there, we see the whole of Cologne.

At a German restaurant, we drink our first beer from Cologne, Kölsch. Germans love their beers and have great pride in their local brews. Don't make the mistake of telling a Cologne resident that you like Dusseldorf's Alt more than Kölsch. We did, regrettably. As for the food, it's basically meat with potatoes. The menus are always in German and you can't always be sure if you've got the translation right. Chicken is a little difficult to come by, vegetarian grub even more. But have no fear, the Germans love potatoes and you'll find them aplenty. If you're still not convinced, head to one of the hundreds of Ristorante Pizzerias for pasta.

                                Archive of chocolate boxes and wrappers

While there are over 30 museums in Cologne, what makes for a very interesting tourist attraction is the chocolate museum. Built by Lindt (a Swiss chocolate brand), this museum showcases the entire process of chocolate-making, from the cocoa plant to chocolate bars. The tantalising smell of chocolate wafts through the museum and you can also try out freshly made chocolate at the chocolate fountain. There is also a floor dedicated to chocolate moulds and wrappers too!

                              Chocolate Fountain!

Besides the cathedral and its museums, Cologne also hosts the famous Cologne Carnival, one of the biggest street festivals in Europe, in November, and the Cologne Gay Pride on July 4. It is also the city that has given the world Eau de Cologne!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Swiss Surprises - Things I did not know about Switzerland until now

1. That chocolates have nationalities too. You will never, never find German chocolates in Switzerland. I searched for a box of Ritter Sport at two different supermarkets but was told, "We Swiss are very proud of our chocolates. You will not get German chocolates anywhere in Switzerland."

2. That it can rain in Switzerland in the middle of May. There have been a few summers of snow too in the past. And when it does rain and fog, you may not get to see the Alps. That means, your pictures will look more like they've been taken in Gangtok or Mahabaleshwar than from the banks of Lake Lucernne.

3. That the Swiss love Italian food. There will be a Ristorante Pizzeria on every street.

4. That the Swiss are very proud of their democracy and believe a lot in people's power.

5. That you may find a slum on the outskirts of Lucernne. It's hardly comparable with Dharavi but there are tin-and-wood sheds alright!

6. That you will find dilapidated houses, bus shelters and graffiti on the walls in parts of Zurich.

7. That the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich is possibly the world's poshest street and quietest for its stature too.

8. That the Swiss believe in teaching their kids about technology when they are really very young. The transport museum at Lucernne is an example. There are four and five-year-olds who come there to learn about magnetism, trains and geography through interactive games and toys.

9. That you may not see a single cow throughout your trip in Switzerland. DDLJ was shot over 15 years back. Things have moved on since then... and so have the cows.

10. That the Swiss live in villages and travel to cities such as Zurich, Bern and Geneva for work. They'd prefer a commute instead of living in the city.

11. That the Swiss are very rooted and have strong ties with their native villages.

12. That on Sundays and public holidays all, and I mean all, shops in Switzerland are closed.

13. That you may find Indian restaurants with menus in German. We checked out the menu at Kanchi restaurant in Lucernne.

14. That the Swiss enjoy Bollywood song-and-dance sequences.

15. That the trains in Switzerland are always on time... to the minute. After all, the railway clock was designed in Switzerland.

16. That though Switzerland is part of the Schengen, the currency is still the Swiss Franc (CHF). We made the mistake of thinking that the Euro will work. It does, but in very few places and the exchange rate offered to you by the locals is not that good. So if you're travelling to Europe, keep some CHFs with you. Unlike in Germany, people are more willing to take credit cards here at larger stores.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Mohrs

Posing with the Mohrs at the chocolate museum in Cologne. Mohr is the German word for Moor (African slaves in Medieval ), and it is readily understood in everyday German to denote black. Sarotti, a German chocolate brand, made the little Mohr boy as its brand logo.
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Showcasing Paris: A museum tour

"The whole city is a museum, it is so old," Pierre tells us when we tell him that the tourist guides list some 100-odd museums in Paris. "But if you're going to see even five of them, I suggest you buy the museum pass to dodge the long queues at the museums' gates," he recommends. Since Pierre's a good guide and a very warm host, we take his suggestions seriously. It's 48 euros for a four-day pass. We pay for two.

Justify FullArt with a difference at Centre Pompidou

At Centre Pompidou's National Museum for Modern Art the pass helps us get through the gates with ease. We take the escalator to the fourth floor of the giant glass-and-tube building that resembles more a children's theme park than a museum that hosts over 60,000 works of modern and contemporary art. At the entrance of the museum are two giant doll-like structures made from PoP and wires. We know what to expect. It's modern art after all. Since neither of us know anything about modern art or artists we choose to present ourselves as mere tourists instead of admirers of a white line cutting across a black canvas who wait for the painting to 'speak to them'.

We move through the paintings quickly and head towards the installations and sculptures that we find more exciting - shadow play with ropes, statues made of toothpaste tubes and glasstop tables with bicycle wheels for legs. We marvel at the eccentricity and the creativity till we reach a tent-like structure that asks you to step inside. We watch a man, standing under a lazer-beam sweeping the floor. Like the Japanese tourists, we stand in rapt attention, trying to figure what the installation is telling us. Labour or discrimination, we think. Then the man steps out and we see his badge. Damn! He was actually sweeping the floor!

The theme of most of the artworks revolves around sex and women. There's a whole section devoted just to the female reproductive system that evokes giggles from schoolkids on tour. A giant poster talks of discrimination between the sexes in fields of art. "Only 3 per cent of the artists are women while 80 per cent of nudes are all women," it says.

Mona Lisa and Egyptian Sphinx at Louvre

The Louvre's a different experience altogether. In the courtyard, we find people of every race, religion and colour. French Africans selling Eiffel Tower key chains, Indian and Pakistani immigrants selling bottles of water, Spanish and Mexican tourists herding their kids towards the entrance to the museum. The pass allows us to skip the serpetine queue straight into the entrance where we go for the baggage checks. They allow us the camera, but we're told not to use the flash. We comply. We decide to go straight in without the multimedia hand-guides. The Louvre boasts of many tourists, the displays will have English titles, we think. A few moments into the section that displays remnants of the Louvre fort, and we're proved wrong. It's all French. We need our guides. We head back with a map. It's impossible to see the whole museum in a day. We opt for sections of intest to us - Egyptian relics, paintings and Greco-Roman sculptures.

At the entrance we see the giant Sphinx. The Japanese tourists get into a frenzied photo-clicking activity. There are a couple of flashes. But not many seem to mind.

We make our way through the relics of the pharaohs and Greco-Roman sculptures, including a headless Athena (the guide doesn't tell us how the head came apart though there's a picture of the head alongside the statue) to the paintings of Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Verrocchio and Michelangelo. We look forward to the signages for La Joconde or the Mona Lisa.

Finally we find her, surrounded by tourists from all over the world who look as happy as pilgrims who've found their God. She looks small. The painting's the size of an ordinary portrait, dwarfed by the huge canvasses that adorn the walls of the hall. For a few Bengali tourists, the tour of Louvre stops at this masterpiece. Their tour bus is waiting. We take our pictures and move to the French Renaissance. After four hours, there are two more sections left - the Mesopotamian and European history. It's impossible to finish in a day. We hope for a next time.

Winding through the Musée des égouts de Paris

In a city that boasts of art and history, sewers make for unlikely display. Not so, think the French.

Sewers have been draining wastewater in Paris since the beginning of the 13th Century, when the city's streets were paved and drains were built on orders from Philippe Auguste, the king of France from 1180 to 1223. Covered sewers were introduced during the reign of Napoléon Bonaparte, and today's network of more than 2,100 km of sewer tunnels was begun in 1850. The sandstone tunnels carry drainwater from the streets, sanitary sewers (now in separate pipes), mains for drinking water and the water used for streetcleaning, telecommunications cables, pneumatic tubes between post offices, and (or so one assumes) the occasional rat.

A fresco on the sewer wall!

Until recent times, the Paris sewers also carried tourists: initially by carts that were suspended from the walkways along the tunnel walls, later by carriages drawn by a small locomotive, and--until the 1970s--in boats.

Today, the carts and boats are gone, having been replaced by an even better attraction: the Musée des égouts de Paris, or Paris Sewers Museum. This museum of the Mairie de Paris is located in the sewers beneath the Quai d'Orsay on the Left Bank, and it's a "must see" destination for any visitor who's interested in engineering, public works, or unusual tourist attractions -- and for fans of Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables.

For those used to the smell of the Mahim Creek, this one's an easy walk. And if you think you just pictures are not good enough to treasure, you can pick up some rat memorabilia too!

Gowns, lace and pearls at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile

That the world's fashion capital will have a museum for textiles doesn't come as a surprise. That it would be tucked into one corner of the Louvre, does. Had Pierre not been around, it would have been difficult for us to figure this one. Luckily we reached just before it closed for the day at 6pm (most monuments and museums close at 5pm in Paris).

The museum houses over 16,000 costumes going from the 16th century to modern times. In addition, it has some 35,000 fashion accessories and 30,000 pieces of fabric – in all, 81,000 items illustrating the evolution of clothing from the Régence period in France to the present day, along with the development of the textile industry since the 14th century.

The museum shows theme collections which change each year - costumes, accessories from the 17th century to the 21st century, textiles, important works by grand couturiers of the 20th century, silk, cloth, lace, braid, and embroidery.

The gowns and the jewellery are beautiful but what really brings out their colours and richness is the way they've been displayed and the lighting that brings a sparkle to the diamonds. Wish Indian museums would take note.

Travel tips
  • The museum pass allows you access to 60 national monuments and museums so it's good that you buy one especially if you don't want to spend hours in queues. Besides, the information guide with the pass also tells you which museums are closed for repairs.
  • Paris' museums and monuments are huge. That means you have to walk. Heels aren't the best bet. Take a look at the locals who choose sneakers and boots instead of fashionable stilettos.
  • Don't use the flash on your camera unless it is allowed.

Locked in Cologne

Couples who are engaged to each other or have decided to marry put locks engraved with either their wedding or engagement dates on this fence at the bridge over the Rhine in Cologne. They are locked in love forever. Some of the locks out here are pretty old... manufactured in 1940s... though the first locks put on this fence were somewhere in the early 1970s.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mom's the Word!!!

It came as a surprise to me when I got a courier package from Chennai. Opened it and I saw this book, My Mother. I'd written a piece on my mom last year for the My Mother website. That essay now forms part of this book! Check page 51!

To read the piece, click here
Click here for a review of the book