Friday, July 28, 2006

London - You colonial bloodsuckers here we come!!

I have crossed the Channel from mainland Europe into London. This is where we infact began our Eurotrip...and this is also where we ended it three months later. And it undoubtedly was the most exhilarating city of all...absolutely certain about that. Cant really explain why. But loved every bit of the ten (plus one) days we spent there.

Apart from Nice it was the longest time we were in any one European city. Every day filled with memorable moments. Here's a sample of them.

This is Jayendra Thobani, my dad's friend and with whom we stayed in London. Jayant uncle went out of his way to make us feel comfortable, and to help us enjoy our stay. It was a pleasure to stay with him, Charu aunty and their daughter Shweta. Some of the highlights of our trip were the dinnertime chats we had with Jayant uncle.

Our first indication that London was ridiculously expensive: the price for this 'On Sale' China dining set is a mind blowing 9,999 pounds - that is a cool 800,000 rupees at the exchange rate at that time. And this was the cheaper set. Another one was priced at 15,000 pounds!!!

Under the wisdom tree. Well not really, this is just one of hundreds of trees in Hyde Park, the amazing verdant sprawling parkland right in the heart of London.

The bright lights at Picadilly Circus

The Beefeaters at the Tower of London (thats where the Kohinoor is)...This guy gave easily the best guided trip I have ever had.

Yeah, it does look beautiful from down here. But getting on top was a total waste of time and lots of money

Our first experience of wine on the trip, and probably the best! From fine wine served by knowledgable experienced people at the Vinopolis (museum dedicated to wine), we steadily progressed(?) to off the shelf supermarket variety, and then reached the very depths when we had wine from a carton in Naples!! LOL :-)))) (to our defence we bought it thinking it is grape juice)

One of the two sporting pilgrimages that I had to do - Wimbledon and Lord's. Now have to be there for the real thing sometime...sometime someday

The Tower Bridge (no this is not the London Bridge which was falling down) seen while on a cruise on the River Thames

St. Paul's Cathedral, viewed across the river. This beautfiful domed church has in its basement the creepy commercial monstrosity called the 'Crypt Cafe'. Hearing sounds of casual conversation, tinkling of cutlery and occasional bursts of laughter within what is essentially a burial place was really really unnerving

Stonehenge: It is much smaller than you think. But the surroundings are straight from the original Windows XP rolling hillside wallpaper!! And we had a gorgeous sunny day to enjoy the trip to Stonehenge and the town of Bath

This is a ground in the city of Oxford. 'Oxford University' does not exist as a physical entity anywhere. It is a collection of colleges in Oxford collectively known as Oxford University. The walking tour given by an old old oh-so-propah Britisher, an alumni of Oxford was too good. His enthusiasm and pride while guiding us around his beloved Oxford was so evident, one could be sure this was pure pleasure and not work for him. Ok now why this ground is posted here is coz this is where Harry Potter learns to fly on his broom stick!!

On the way back, another stop over in London. Caught up with Herin and had a great time going around London for the second time. Its amazing to catch up with friends whom you have known since you were small kids, in a totally new and foreign location!!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Visas and other stories - Part 3

This is the 3rd and final part of visas and other stories. The French visa was now safely in our hands. The words which gave our visa the status of a Short Stay Schengen were so nice to look at!

But a lot of other thing needed to be sorted out. An apartment to stay in Nice, our plane tickets, Eurail passes and of course the British visa. A totally unexpected obstacle to our trip turned out to be IIM Calcutta!!!

Firstly the apartment. Nice is the capital of the French Riviera and hence the place is almost as expensive as Paris. Hence we were fairly scared about finding a good apartment. We were expecting some help from the EDHEC authorities, but the help was minimal. Their suggested list of places either turned out to be fully booked or too expensive. As it was this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Since we were not getting any official help we decided to search on the internet. It was a tedious affair...check dozens of sites, a hundred apartments, post notices on boards, reply to posts, haggle (whatever little you can over mail) come to naught most of the time. It was then Chirag (I think it was he who came up with the link and I did most of the correspondence) who brought out a gem of a house. The rent was very steep, but the off season rates were reasonable and we hoped to get the off season rates which actually began in mid-October (for a very good reason as we realized later). As it turned out the landlady Kathy offered the apartment for the a rate lesser than the off season one for the whole of the stay!!! The rent was 700 euro per month (as against 700 euro for one week which was the regular rate). The electricity and gas charges and a 500 euro deposit were to be paid by us. There was also a one month advance. Therein lay the sting in the tail, but on the whole it was a reasonable offer especially if the apartment turned out anywhere like the pictures posted on the net.

We paid the one month advance thru wire transfer and got an email as proof (all this was done before the French visa). Just as we were getting relaxed, bad news started pelting us left right and centre. First the travel agent dropped a bomb on us saying that we failed to make our provisional booking permanent and hence it had lapsed. This meant we had to hunt for another booking and that too definitely more expensive. All this while I was co-ordinating with Jayant Uncle trying to get all the necessary documents in place for the British visa. This included a sponsorship letter from him. He assured that it would be enough to get a visa though he reiterated that we should be very careful when it came to applying for visas as a cancelled visa could prove very harmful. He later explained why we were so paranoid about this when we met him in London. Things were irksome, but nothing that seemed to derail our trip.

That was until the last day of the term. On this day we were given a final day 'pep' talk by our celebrated Chairman of the PGP Program. He had a special love for the STEP program. He took it as an integral part of his job description to make the lives of the 'STEP' children as miserable as possible. His pep talk included such gems as "I know some of you will go abroad and win Best Student awards from the institutes there. But I dont think that is anything great" Then realizing that it sounded ridiculous, even by his standards, he changed tack and said "After all you are all brilliant students, you have to win such awards. It will only be a competition between IIMCians". Anyway all this is was just the appetizer for the heartburn that he was soon to give us. Us, here meaing the three EDHEC students in particular.

Now, there is this rule in the STEProgram that we must not take courses in the partner institutes that we have already coeverd in IIMC. Perfectly reasonable I would say. But the problem is that if rigorously applied nobody would ever be able to go on exchange. And all the partner are after all approved by IIMC. But the biggest issue was in implementing this rule. In their supreme disdain for the STEP program the IIMC STEP committee decided that they could not be bothered with approving courses as early as possible, preferably before the courses actually started. So you would have people enrolling for courses and then finding out that their course was infact rejected by the committee. Which meant not only taking your name off that course but also to hunt for another one in the middle of the term. How they expected the partner intitutes to accomodate such demands only they know, especially as they didnt budge an inch when it came to academic issues at IIMC.

Now this was of course an issue which affected all the STEP students. What we had to do was take the axe and hit it on our own leg (yeah i know the Hindi original sounds much better :-) )
What we did was we told him (our PGp chairman) that we thought one or two of our courses might have some clashes, and it was impossible for us to change them later so could he please authorize them earlier. To our shock, his straight faced response to our request was "If you think that there might be a clash and you cannot change courses later, you shouldnt take any risk, it would be better if you dont go". After being struck dumb for a couple of seconds, we recovered our voice and said that it wasnt that serious and it wasnt necessary to get approval immediately. We thought if we didnt push it, we could try and handle the situation as and when it came up. But we had not considered our little (yeah, little) friend's sadistic capabilities. Instead of allowing us to peacefully apply for the UK visa as we wanted to and just go home, he called us up on our cell phones and asked to come and meet him. TT did that while I went and applied for the UK visa. The UK visa also gave some problems but nothing compared to what this guy had in store for us. TT's meeting with chmn, PGP happened entirely in Bengali for good effect. Not that it helped. He asked us to get the subjects approved from a competent faculty. The faculty in question was Ashok Banerjee, a hard but a fair man was the opinion about him. Just when we had begun evaluating our chances of meeting up with Ash Ban and softening him up for our cause, the little guy dropped his next sadistic masterpiece. He said that we were absolutely forbidden from talkling to Ash Ban privately. We could if we wanted accompany when he himself met Ash Ban!!! A twisted genius!!

That was not the lowest he could drop to though. He did the worst thing he could do - tried to get us to squeal on other people who were going thru course trouble. Anyway, as it happened one of our courses was rejected by Ash Ban, accompanied by obvious undisguised gloating by our friend. At that point we had only two options. One was fight for another course from the EDHEC people or in a worst case scenario do another course in the 6th term. It was not entirely clear whether it was allowed by the rules, but we didnt want to test them at tht point.

In between all this, other things happened all of which combined were enough to fry my brains. After our course was rejected and left us fairly sad (only TT and I were there, CHirag was happily oblivious in the Himalayas!!) and when even TT had gone back home (he lives in Cal) I wrote a mail to Kathy, the landlady. After some time I got a mail saying that she was very sorry but the owners of the apartment had acted without informing her and some other people had taken the apartment. After emitting a scream which kind of mixed all my feelings in one outburst, i started writing back. what about our 700 euro advance??? what about the confirmatory mail??? what the @%^$@^$%# everything???? And as i sent that mail the network also pulled a fast one on me by breaking down at that very moment. mail server not working. Aaaaarggghghgahgahgahgahgah. how i spent a night filled with rage, anguish and an utter hopelessness only i would know. In the morning i didnt call up TT to tell him the good news as it wouldnt have made any difference. I was already evaluating various alternatives at that point and i am happy to say that even in that zappped state of mind I could think of many viable options. I had to collect the visas from the visa centre and i was going to meet him there. I waited till we had the visa stamped passports in our hands and in that happier state of mind pricked his bubble. He, like me was absolutely shell shocked for some time and then recovered and we both started laughing. Somebody up there was going out his way to make things difficult for us!!

Back in campus we were relieved to find that the network was working again and hurried to the room to check what Kathy had replied to my caustic mail. There were multiple mails from her. The first one at the top was asking whether I had the contact information for my other friends. I was confused to say the least. Reading down i saw some words to the effect, it was mistake, the mail was meant for other people. Hopes rising i checked the last mail, and there it said sorry, the mail was meant for other people (MDI people infact) and our apartment was safely waiting for us!!!! maaaannnn, the relief that swept all over was unbelievable. 2 things going right in a row hadnt happened for a long long time! It was as if the tide had turned !! The tide brought more good cheer in some time - EDHEC had agreed to give us a research paper in lieu of the cancelled subject. This was after a really soppy, pleading, crying, emotional blackmail filled mail sent by me to Caroline, the coordinator. I am really proud of it. :-)

The Visas and Other stories - Part 2

Anyway we managed to plan the trip to the embassy in Delhi. We went by the Rajdhani and reached Delhi the next day at a convenient time in the morning. The immediate requirement was to find a hotel. Just outside the station a Sardar rickshaw wallah agreed to take us to a good and cheap hotel. We decided to accept his offer though we were vary he would just take us round and round and charge one hell of a lot at the end. Thankfully he didnt do anything of that sort and took us to a good and cheap hotel as he had promised. Of course the definition of cheap and good both can differ widely, but it was OK for our requirements.

That day we had to report to the french cultural centre at 3 in the afternoon and submit our applications. The actual visa issuance would only be on Wednesday i.e. 2 days thence. We reached the embassy well before the appointed time and found to our surprise a huge crowd of students already there. They were all evidently from MDI Gurgaon. I started looking for Archana who soon came out and handed over forms to be filled. Tirthankar (who I havent yet mentioned, but had a scholarship from the French embassy) presented his special case. She asked him to fill out the forms anyway and wait. Then we all waited so that Archana could verify all the documents. During this time we chatted with the MDI people some of whom were coming to EDHEC. The document verification with Archana went smoothly since I had all the documents perfectly in order. Then followed another long period of wait in various rooms of the embassy as there was supposed to be some interview by French officials. This happened almost at the very end for me but went fairly smoothly, with them joking about concentrating on my studies and not ogling at the babes on the French Riviera beaches. I thought that was it, we neednt worry anymore. All we had to do was collect the visas on Wednesday. I couldnt have been more wrong.

In the evening I met up with Nisha's cousin Indra and her husband KP who lived in Delhi. They came to pick me up at the hotel and we went out for dinner. They took me to this great Italian place which I think was called Flavors. The food was amazing and their company even more so. They invited me to stay over at their place. I just had one objection which was that i didnt have any night clothes with me. This problem being solved by KP offering his clothes i readily accepted. That is where i made the mistake. No, no, I really liked their company, so it wasnt that I regretted going with them. The problem was that I didnt have my asthma medicine with me at that time. And as is prone to happen to me in a new city, I had a mild asthma attack in the middle of the night. Now the thing with these mild attacks is that they stay mild if treated with medicines nice and early. Since I didnt have my medicine with me, it soon became unbearable. I had to wake up KP in the middle of the night so that we could go out and get a medicine. I felt really bad doing that, but there was nothing that I could do.

In the morning, KP dropped me to a place close to the hotel and I proceeded to spend the day holed up in the room. Tirthankar had not returned from his night out with an old friend and it was too hot to venture roam outside.

The next day was going to be packed. We had the embassy appointment in the morning and then had to catch a plane back to Cal at 5:15 in the evening. In the morning we got up nice and early and landed up in front of the embassy well in time. The cultural centre where we had been to the earlier day was on Aurangzeb road while the embassy itself was on Shantipath, Chanakyapuri. Both were very elite localities, but the embassy location as well as premises were definitely more initimidating. As at the other place there was a big crowd of MDI people at the embassy. In addition there were many other people also waiting for the embassy to open its gates. The embassy on its part was taking its own sweet time to open the gates.
Finally the gates of heaven opened to let St. Peter do the security check and finally let us in. When we reached the waiting room we were amazed to see the number of people packed in> Really, there was no place to sit and what with about 20-25 young students (MDI-IIMC) it was not the diginified embassy waiting room I had imagined. We thought the embassy has its work cut out today with so many people piled in together. The embassy as we soon found out had no such notions.

After a short while a man came in and asked how many people were from Delhi and who were from outside. We immediately raised our hands and said we had come all the way from Calcutta.
He took our names along with a few other people and said that given the heavy rush of people, the embassy would not be able to process so many applications in one day. And hence some people would be asked to come back the next week!! Just like that he was asking people to leave if they could, otherwise anyway he would have the unpleasant task of asking them to leave. We waited for him to come back and announce that we could stay since we had come all the way from Cal. He came back in some time and annouced a list of people who could stay back. The list did not have our names!! We were absolutely shell-shocked. How could they just ask us to go back after we had spent tonnes of time in planning this trip and after we had been given an appointment by the cultural centre!! Of course it was no use discussing the shittiness of the French embassy management between ourselves. One good thing was they had not yet kicked us out of the place. We sat hoping to work this out somehow, pleading, begging or doing whatever we could to get a visa today. Along with us sat all the MDI people, and I remember thinking why the hell couldnt they leave, they were in Delhi itself. Obviously if the place emptied we would have a better chance of pleading our case. We tried reasoning with the man who had come in earlier, but he said there was nothing he could do.

We were getting increasingly desperate as the time ticked by. Tirthankar had a secret ace up his sleeve - his french embassy scholarship. That was enough to get the man in the counter to listen to him. And amazingly he came back and said that he didnt neednt bother for a visa. He will get it straighth just like that!! He neednt even pay the visa processing fees. He then told the counter guy that he needed the visa very quick since we were leaving back the same day. He replied that the normal procedure is that the visas are collected on Friday - i.e day after tomo!! We couldnt have he said as a special case we it could be collected today at 4. There was nothing more he could do. I asked TT to immediately thrust my papers in front of him and say that we are together.

I managed to explain our problem and he agreed to take in the papers for submission. (an aside - he thought that even I had the scholarship and hence didnt take any fees from me too...which i later went and clarified and paid up). l. I was expecting a long wait for the interview call (yes, there was another interview) but it surprisingly happened very quickly. So there I was sitting in front of another Frenchman speaking poor English. It was a fairly standard interview and at the end he asked me if I had any questions. I told him my particular problem and he gave the line about normal procedure again. I made a pleading face, so he said that he will give the visa on the same day and we could collect it at 4. He said is that alright or is there any other problem. I said infact there was. He gave me a look of 'now what??' I told him that we had a plane to catch at 5 and obviously 4 was running it a bit to close. He gave me a look of exasperation but said he will ask the printing department to keep the visas ready so that we could collect them as soon as they returned from lunch, which was around 3. I thanked him for the help and then TT and I sat down for the long wait. We were just chatting up with the MDI people recounting the whole story when the embassy official suddenyl came out looking for me and TT. He then handed over both the passports with the required visas stamped on them!!

We left the embassy feeling really high. So high that we spent the next 2 hours roaming around Humayun's tomb and almost missed the flight back home :-)

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Visas and other Stories - Part 1

The time before we actually went to Europe was so troublesome that it will take me three parts to recount it.

Here is how it worked. We were going to the EDHEC Business School in Nice, France for a 3 month exchange program. As it happened there was a one month break between end of term at IIM Calcutta and the start at EDHEC. Such a providential gift of free time could not possibly be wasted sitting at home!!

Hence formed the plan of using that time to wander a bit more around Europe. That was easier said than done. One of my dad's friends, Jayendra Thobani, had always been very enthusiastic about me coming to visit them in London. So I asked my dad to talk to him and ask him if he would agree to us staying at his place for some time. He also needed to agree to Tirthankar staying at his place. He agreed to both.

But that was just the start of the complications. Most of the complications were introduced due to visa issues. Visa issues continue to be spooky even in this age of globalisation. Things like the country of origin, country of stay, country of first entry and the well meant but not entirely accurate advise of travel agents can drive you nuts when applying for a visa.

Since we were going to live in France we needed to apply for a visa to France first. But we wanted to visit London on the way so we needed a ticket which took us from Mumbai to London and then to some city in France (not decided at that point). According to the travel agent if we landed in London first the French embassy would ask us to take a UK visa first. Similiarly since our ultimate destination was France the UK embassy would ask us take a French visa first. Hence the travel agent came up with a good suggestion that we book both kinds of tickets, show the one going directly to France to the French embassy, cancel it, and then show the other one to the UK consulate. The UK consulate was there in Kolkata. But the French one was in Delhi. On top of that the travel agent didnt know much about how to get French visas, and even lesser how to get a French student visa. The French embassy website wasnt very helpful and gave instructions contrary to what the embassy gave on calling up. We were absolutely unsure about what to do. The travel agent added his bit by forgeting to tell us that only the iternary of the flight and not the flight ticket itself is required for the the visa. If we wanted some level of certainty about our trip we needed to apply for a French visa early so that we could apply for a UK one well in time as well as book our tickets with some surity. Obviously the more we delayed the more expensive the tickets became.

Managing the trip to Delhi (for French visas) wasnt proving to be easy, forget doing an Euro trip! The 4th term at IIM Calcutta is the most hectic and the French embassy would entertain us on only Wednesday and that too only within a short window of time. I had spoken to a female called Archana at the French embassy and she had clearly and authoritatively outlined the procedure. I was really thankfully to find a person who spoke with some assurance.
(All this was connected to London because if we didnt have to do the visas so early, for fitting in London, I could have peacefully got the visa in Mumbai itself, after end of term)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Belgium: Brussels and Leuven

Belgium is a very strange country. Maybe strange is not the word. But somehow it left me scratching my head. Firstly it is very small. Though i have never verified i dont think it is bigger than Goa. Over that they are now debating about whether to divide it into two!! Trapped between its more famous neighbours (France, Germany, Netherlands) it seems confused. Influenced from all sides it dosent seem to have a consistent identity of its own. India for all its diversity has a very easily identifiable 'Indianness' about it, probably aided by geography.

Our first inkling that there was something wrong came when people spoke English at the train station where we went for enquiries. Of course this was perfectly right for us. It was our ignorance that led us to believe that Belgians spoke French. In reality the country is divided linguistically. The northern part speaks Dutch and the French speaking Southerners are a minority. To communicate with each other they employ English!!! What amazing luck for us! After the formation of the EU, the concept of the nation is fast coming under threat in Europe and this movement towards regional powers has led to calls for dividing Belgium. I will write more about the whole regional funda in the EU in some other post. I read a lot about this in a book on the EU. The European Union's parliament is btw located near Brussels.

Ok rewind. We took a morning Eurolines bus from Paris to Brussels and reached by noon time. Our plan was to spend 4-5 hours roaming around Brussels and then take a train to Leuven, where IIMC people were staying. First we made our way to the train station so that we could get some tourist info. We collected our free city maps and proceeded towards the centre of the city where all the maal-masala was. Brussels is a small city, and we easily crossed half the city in just about half an hour on foot. The centre of Brussels has the Grand Place and the Royal Palace.
The Grand Place is a big square surrounded by many important buildings including the Royal Palace.

I think thats the royal palace behind. This is the most famous square in Brussels.

Another view of the square

Castle Grayskull anyone?

Another reason why I think Belgium is a strange place - their national icon, the Mannekin Pis. This small statue of a little peeing boy is the most famous monument in Belgium!! It is just a small distance away from the Grand Place. On the way there is supposedly a TinTin shop (which i totally missed somehow).

The Mannekin Pis

The Belgian waffle once again...waffles, strawberry, banana, cream and chocolate sauce

Belgium is famous for its chocolates. This fountain of chocolate is guaranteed to make you drool

A beauftifully decorated seafood display

There were many things which we liked in Brussels, but none interesting enough to keep us busy for more than half an hour. One thing we noticed was that the entire city seemed to be under renovation. Everywhere we could see there were dug-up roads and squares, half built buildings, scaffoldings, yellow protective markers and what not.

From Brussels we made our way to Leuven. A bit about Leuven now. Leuven is a small town about half an hour away (by train) from Brussels. Not to be confused with Louvain which is also nearby. Leuven is reputed to have many beautiful buildings and other places of interest but no doubt its claim to fame (atleast for us) was that it was an university town. Meaning that there are 30000 students (1/3 of the population) holed up there in one of its many colleges. K U Leuven is the university which sprawls across the entire city and where our guys were studying. The presence of so many young folk in such a small area is guaranteed to be exciting, and that is how we found Leuven! With bars, pubs, discs open all night and party hungry students ever ready to fill them up the night life was rocking to say the least.

We had a nice time with the IIMC people - Arpit, Khandu, Aviral, Vaas and Pushanda.
They were staying at the American Hostel and their rooms and other facilities were really very good. A random allocation of rooms amongst people of all countries and a common area for cooking and eating aided socializing. We had a great time preparing dinner together (0r rather they prepared, I chatted with a firang girl) , eating and then hanging out in their common room. Aviral, Tirthankar and I then headed out for a bit of pub hopping. Aviral took us to all the hot spots he knew about and we had a great time with him. Finally late sometime we headed back in the foggy night .

Aviral and Tirthankar, leaving for the pub hop

Heading back into the foggy night after the pub hop

The next morning we returned to Brussels to catch our Eurolines bus to Amsterdam. On the way to Leuven station from the hostel we realised that Leuven did indeed have some really good looking architecture but we unfortunately didnt have any time to stop and admire!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Paris - Last Day: Montmartre

The last day in Paris dawned very reluctantly. The sun simply refused to join the party. But thankfully it didnt rain the whole day while threatening to any time! First we had to decide a place to go next, and then to go ahead and book tickets for the same. Our plans included Brussels, Amsterdam, Austria and Germany. Obviously all of this couldnt be achieved in the 4 days we had to ourselves. After considering a dozen different combinations we decided to go to Brussels via Eurolines (bus) then to Amsterdam (again by Eurolines) and then from Amsterdam to Frankfurt via train. Frankfurt figured in our plans because our guys at Oesterich Winkel were close by. The Eurolines booking was duly done at its office which we had already seen the previous day. From there we made our way to Montmartre.

We reached the station listed as the closest for Montmartre (pronounced as mu-makhth). The surroundings didnt look very appetizing. Looked like a seedy part of the city, but hardly 15 mins away though was the tourist haven of Montmartre. We first approached the area from the side of the Sacre Couer church. This church is set on a hill and this means that its a long tiring climb up to the top. The top of the hill offers a wide view of Paris, which I am sure would have been quite enchanting had it not been such a dull dark day. Once inside the church we decided to give our souls some rest by sitting silently on the pews (thats the word right?). I guess we got a bit too tranquil coz i ended up forgeting our precious shoulder bag where we were sitting. Luckily a stern church official had taken the bag for safe keeping and handed it over to us with friendly admonishments, which unfortunately made no sense to us since they were in French!

The white stone Sacre Couer atop the hill

Barely two minutes away from the Sacre Couer is the painter's hill. This is a bustling area full of street side artists, performers and tourists. Montmartre is supposedly last remaining village of Paris and the authorirites have made sure that its unique character is preserved. It is truly picturesque and many famous artists such as Renoir and Van Gogh lived a bohemian life here. Now of course the place bears unmistakable signs of being a tourist spot.

The painter's hill at Montmartre

A young girl getting her portrait done from one of the numerous street side artists

A musician entertains the crowd

We wandered around the quaint lanes and old houses on the hill for some time before making our way down from the other side. This area houses a world famous Paris attraction and whose windmill has no doubt been imitated all over world. Kolkata has one of it own. The Moulin Rouge. We satisfied ourselves with taking pictures from the outisde. The area all around the Moulin Rouge is the notorious red light district of Pigalle which beckons you with its many pleasures.

Moulin Rouge. The original one

We spent three whole days in Paris. One of the regrets we always had was that we couldnt cover the Chateau Versailles, probably due to poor planning. In spite of our wishes that people would tell us that it is an overhyped place, nobody did. Everybody praised the place as a must-see, which made us feel even worse. Anyway. Hota hai...something has to be left for the next trip :-)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Paris : Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and Quartier Latin

The second day in Paris is a bit hazier to remember than the first one. A lot more places were covered and not all of them very famous. Amongst the famous places we did were the Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower and the Quartier Latin. Believe it or not we did almost the entire stretch on foot. Covering places on foot of course has its merits. Apart from the fact that you definitely save a lot of money you also experience a bit of the non-touristy side of a city. Walking along big avenues, occasionally taking the odd small lane (and more often than not getting lost) and stopping whenever you see something interesting is good in that sense. On the downside you can do all this only if you have a lot of time at your leisure. We were somewhere in the middle on that parameter. We didn’t have time to lazily stroll along everywhere, but three days were enough for covering the essential Paris (most other people who went on STEP gave only 1-2 days for Paris)

According to our Paris guide book we could easily go to a very good building called Hotel De Ville. We thought that for an hotel to become a tourist attraction it must be really beautiful and exclusive. As it turned out, Hotel in French dosent really mean a Hotel (??) This particular place was infact the City Town Hall !! Cool city! It was good looking no doubt, but the heavily guarded entrance dissuaded us from taking a look inside. I Wanted to see if the innards of their municipal buildings also resemble a 'raddi khana'.

The Hotel De Ville. The city town hall!!

From the Hotel De Ville we made our way towards the Notre Dame. On the way we saw many many beautiful structures all around us. Its amazing...finding a statue at any random corner, a fountain on any arbit circle, a spectacular domed building just out of nowhere...these are everyday things here!! We soon got numbed by the abundance of beauty around us (not just the stone and brick kind :-) )

We couldnt exactly figure out what this building was that time. Now I know it is the Institute De France. Thats me trying to find the place on the map!

This awesome whatever is where you will find the toll booth on most bridges

Moving on to the Notre Dame. The Notre Dame is on an island in the middle of the Seine. Thats the Ile de La Cite, shaped like a ship cutting thru the river. One of the amazing things about the Notre Dame church is that every few metres its facade seems to undergo a change. We were taking a stroll around its perimeter, and after every few steps we would go "hey this looks different, lets take a snap here" Following are three of the many snaps taken outside the Notre Dame

A pic of the inside of Notre Dame. We never missed churches. They are always free to enter. The high domes, hundreds of candles, scents, stained glass windows, frescoes, mosaics and other decorations always make it worth the while to go in. and the And the hush hush atmosphere immediately makes you speak in whispers.

After the Notre Dame we had our lunch sitting at the tip of the island , the prow of the ship. There was a nice garden there so the setting was good. But our food wasnt. We had learnt our lesson and taken food from the local supermarket. So our meal consisted of buns, chocolate flavoured bread rolls and milk to wash it down with. There is a finite number of bread rolls and buns that you can eat, even if they are chocolate flavoured. As we traveled more we got progressively better at eating tastier and healthier stuff while keeping the costs down. I will write separetely about that. The thing to remember is to not let urself get carried away by impulse and splurge on a 5 euro sandwich. You will just find yourself wondering how you ate Rs. 275 in 3 bites. (No, dont tell me not to convert, when you are paying with an SBI Card you are bloody well paying in rupees!!)

In the post-lunch session we wandered around the same area since there were some other interesting things to see according to the guide book. Out of those actually i remember only the following:

This is the Palais De Justice. You may not be able to see it, but there are three words above the entrance: 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite'. The slogan of the French revolution. Somebody has sarcastically said that what it actually meant was that everybody was equally likely to be beheaded. But very important words nonetheless.

Then we finally decided to pay homage to that giant erection of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. We went walking all the way instead of taking a bus or metro like other saner people did. A considerable part of the distance the river was our companion. The famous museum of Musee De Orsay was also on the way. But somehow we completely missed it though we thought we followed the map to the smallest turn and corner!

The Seine River

The Eiffel tower can be seen from almost anywhere in Paris I would think. But in spite of this the sight of the colossal structure from close quarters is awe inspiring. According to a small diagram at the site, we learnt that the height of the tower is about 325 mts. To think that this is about 2.5 times that of the London Eye is amazing. And to think we paid 12.5 pounds for the London Eye is even more amazing! :-)

Amongst the options of walking up and taking a lift, we decided to give our legs a bit of relief and took the lift. There are three levels of the Eiffel tower. You can go upto the 2nd level by taking the stairs. 3rd floor you can go only by the lift. If you want to save money, you can walk upto the 2nd level and then take the lift. If you really want to save money, you can entirely skip the 3rd level. To be honest nobody will miss the opportunity of a view from the top of the Eiffel tower. But once you go there you feel its too much of a good thing. You are really really high up no doubt, and you can see really really far. But its so high that it makes the surroundings dissolve into a homegenous mass. From the second level on the other hand you are high enough to see very far, but low enough to appreciate whetever you see around you. Anyway, everyone will go to the 3rd level. I would also say that the Eiffel tower should be last on your iternary in Paris. If you know a lot of the monuments and buildings and have visited them already it adds to the charm of spotting them.

The huge arches under the four pillars of the Eiffel give an idea of the massive size!

Really makes you crane your neck

A view of the Seine River and one of its many bridges. Taken from the second level of the Eiffel Tower

Its really cold and windy up there

The area under the shadow is Montmartre, and the white building atop the small hill there is the Cathedral of Sacre Couer

We had fun spotting some of the places we already knew. I almost missed the Arc De Triomphe, it seemed so tiny from the Eiffel tower!! As one can expect there are huge crowds everywhere at the Eiffel tower. One needs to stand in line to get a ticket and again to get into the lift, push and shove (as politely as you can) so that you can get close to the railing, patiently allow hordes of people to pass before your picture can be taken or wait to pass people whose picture is being taken, stand in line again to go between the levels and finally to go down. But its all worth it.

After drinking up as much as we could of the Eiffel tower we had to decide the next stop on the iternary. The guide book threw up Quartiere Latin and that is where we went. I dont remember too much about the Quartiere Latin. It is a very old area of Paris and one can find Roman ruins from the time when the city was called Lutetia (Asterix fans would immediately recognize Lutetia as the fashion capital of the Roman empire :-) ). There is also the Sorbonne University, one of the oldest universities in the world. We met an Indian newspaper seller in front of the Sorbonne. He claimed he couldnt speak French or English but had managed to stay there for 40 years. He had also supposedly sold newspapers to prominent French men and women, many of whom studied at Sorbonne. I also remember a film and comic book memorabilia shop, the first one of its kind I had seen. Small toy models of numerous comic and film characters, huge life sized replicas of Batman and Superman, artifacts like 'The Ring' from LOTR etc could be found there.

The other impressive structure in the Quartiere Latin is the Pantheon. The bigger and more famous one is of course in Rome. This one in Paris also looked very beautiful in the golden hues of the setting sun.

The Pantheon in Paris bathed in golden sunlight

Thus ended the sightseeing this second day in Paris. But the day was by no means over. We still had to buy some food for taking home. This was our small contribution to Chiru and gang for their help during our stay in Paris.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Paris: Louvre, Champs Elysees and the Arc De Triomphe

Obviously (for reasons given before :-) ) the day began fairly late. The apartment was fairly close to a host of Parisian attractions. The Seine river, the Louvre, the Notre Dame were all within walking distance. For anybody who came visiting, this apartment was a godsend. Our IIMC guys who lived there, didn’t have it quite so good though (we felt). Rawal, Chiru, Paritosh and Harsh had to travel about 1.5 hours one way every day to reach their college and spent 100 euro a month on traveling. In addition they also paid the monstrous rent of 1300 euro for a fairly small space. Maybe it looked small when Rawal and Chiru were both inside :-) But as I said, it was a great place for us to stay! And the six of spent some fun times there - chatting, cooking, eating and drinking :-)

We planned to cover 2-3 places that day itself. We had done a bit of homework before coming and we knew what places we wanted to see. A guide book and instructions from Celia (a Parisian from our class – the same one who told us about Reaumur Sebastopol) formed the basis of our iternary. The Louvre, Notredame, Arc De Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower were most certainly on the list. We also wanted to see a couple of other famous Parisian areas which were otherwise glossed over by Indian visitors. The Montmartre area (pronounced as mu-makhth, no kidding), a bustling beehive of artists, street performers and tourists was one of them. The elegant church of Sacre Coeur could also be found in Montmartre. Another charming area was the Quartiere Latin, a warren of old structures and small picturesque lanes. Since the apartment was so central, we could walk it up today. Little did we know that we would end up covering half of Paris on foot!!

The corner of Rue Reaumur and Rue Sebastopole. This is where our walking tour started

We decided to cover the Louvre first and then go to the Notredame. It was a cold, windy and gloomy day. The Louvre we knew would take us a while and that too if we really really curtailed our explorations. People take weeks and months to cover the Louvre. We of course didn’t have that kind of luxury. But I really wish we could have spent at least one whole day to ‘do’ the Louvre.

We reached a bit late, since we managed to get lost on the way. But once we reached it, the long façade of the majestic former royal palace was unmistakable. Also unmistakable was the controversial tall glass pyramid that graces the centre of the vast main courtyard. I still haven’t made up my mind about this pyramid. It looks fairly good when you see it in isolation, even spectacular when you see it against the backdrop of the Louvre courtyard, especially at night. Nevertheless I don’t know whether it fits into the whole image of the Louvre. Of course who gives a damn what I think.

The Louvre main courtyard with the glass pyramid. The entrance is through the pyramid.

The outer courtyard with the long snaking queue clearly visible. Thousands come everyday to visit the largest and most famous museum in the world, and that day entry was free!!

Another thing that we couldn’t have possibly missed was the long serpentine queue inching its way forward. It was then that we realized that the day (1st Sunday of the month) had free entry to the Louvre. The entrance to the museum is under the glass pyramid, via a vast underground hall. Since the Mona Lisa is in the Denon wing (Richelieu and Sully being the other two), we made our way there. We also knew that some other famous artistic treasures were in the vicinity. Other than the Mona Lisa the two most famous works in the Louvre are the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus De Milo.

The 'Winged Victory of Samothrace' or the 'Nike of Samothrace' depicting the Greek goddess of victory, spreading her arms (missing, along with her head) with the sea wind and spray whipping her garments across her body

Your first reaction on seeing all three of them could well be just a ‘Hmmm’. Not to say that they don’t look good (actually in the case of the Mona Lisa even that is not true) but you wonder if you would have looked at them again had you not known that they were famous. In order to get a better perspective you need to know that the two sculptures in question were made over 2000 years ago. Against that back drop they are indeed big accomplishments. I remember seeing the Winged Victory of Samothrace or the Nike of Samothrace (honestly we couldnt miss it as it stood at the top of the massive staircase) The sculpture does have that amazing quality of being alive. The same delicate features and stationary yet moving form we would again see in the Pieta by Michelangelo. Enough has already been said about the Mona Lisa and all I can say is that it is small and can't be clearly seen through the thick glass and the thicker crowd around it!

We followed the directions given in the museum and using the free layout map we made our way to the Italian masters paintings section. As we made our way across the never ending hallway it was but natural to be overwhelmed. Partly because there is so much to see and partly because we felt grossly under equipped to appreciate anything! Our sense for art was rustic to the hilt.

The Italian masters section or the 'salle de something' :-) Overwhelming to say the least!

We used Tirthankar’s Louvre guide book to find some of the famous paintings. Some of them were fabulous and probably we would have spotted them without the guide book to help us. Many others left us with mixed feelings of our own deficiencies regarding art or bewilderment as to how such a work could ever become famous. But nevertheless we could still make out a gradual evolution in the style of the paintings and their subjects. Most of the earlier paintings had only one theme – Jesus Christ. And more often than not the subject would be crucifixion. Moreover the paintings seemed amateurish, with block like figures and 2-D scenes. Paintings which did not depict Christ, would be about the royalty. The latter era paintings also borrowed heavily on themes from the Bible but the paintings were increasingly sophisticated. There were some paintings depicting scenes from common everyday life, or uncommon moments of common people. One superb painting (‘Raft of the Medusa’) shows a raft full of shipwrecked sailors at the moment when they have sighted a saviour ship. Another amazing painting is the ‘Wedding Feast at Cana’ which occupies one whole wall of a room. The amount of detail put into it makes it truly spectacular. The event is that of Jesus’s first miracle when he turned water into wine.

The painting 'Wedding feast of Cana', showing the event of a nobleman's wedding feast when Christ performed his first miracle turning water to wine. To appreciate the size see the East Asian (or chinky, to be politically incorrect) girl posing in front of the painting

True art aficionados could spend a lifetime in the Louvre. We on our part just stopped and looked at whatever appealed to us and of course made the ritual darshan of Mona Lisa. I also checked out the Madonna on the Rocks, also by Leonardo Da Vinci. Unfortunately we could hardly take any pics as it was officially not allowed. Knowing that we had to be super selective we decided to set specific things to see before we would just boot out of the place. One of them was Napoleon’s chambers. These former residences of the French dictator are worth a visit all for themselves. All that you can possibly imagine of grandeur is spread out for you to walk through. The dining room in particular typifies the royal excesses on display.

One of the rooms in Napoleon's royal residence at the Louvre

Napoleon's dining room. Mind your table manners!!

Meandering through the labyrinthine galleries of the Louvre was turning out to be very tiring. Somehow museums are very tiring. It was not as if I didn’t enjoy what I was seeing, but at that point all I wanted to do was sit. Added to that was a gnawing hunger inside the tummy, which prevented sitting. We needed to find food, and find it quick. But one of the disadvantages of a whirlwind tour is that you have to do maximum when you reach one place. So we needed to check out as much as we could of the surroundings of the Louvre. That over, we left to find some grub. That’s when we started disliking some of attitude that this city showed. All affordable eateries were closed on Sunday!! Given out meager budget we couldn’t afford to eat at any of the inviting road side cafes. In hind sight we probably should have. So we wandered around the streets of Paris, searching for food.

We finally did find it at one small bakery, where we ate a ham baguette. The setting for our meal couldn’t have been more European. We were sitting under a tree on one of the beautiful wrought iron benches that you will find lazily strewn across all of Europe. Yellow brown autumn leaves blew around in the breeze. Beside us sat an artist sketching a wrought iron gate and lamppost. On the other side a young couple was getting cozy. In front of us was a stall dishing out stuffed crepes. Next to it was a musical group playing on the sidewalk and a small crowd cheering it on. Behind the group was an old stone building covered with creepers. And light drops of rain had just started.

The musical group performing on the pavement

The creeper covered stone building, the gate of which the artist was busy sketching

Much as we wanted to sit and enjoy, getting wet on a cold October evening in Paris is not desirable. We were not sure what to do next. During our hunger struck wanderings we were supposedly very close to the Notre Dame, but we couldnt find it. So we decided to chuck the Notre Dame for the day, instead voting to check out the famous Champs Elysees and the Arc De Triomphe. The beginning of the Champs Elysees was very close to the Louvre, so we went back to the Louvre.

There we had a mini-disappointment. At the end of a small garden outside the Louvre there is a small arch built and which according to the map was Arc De Triomphe. We couldn’t quite understand how such a small insignificant thing could be the famous Arc De triomphe. Tirthankar was especially adamant that this couldn’t be the real one. Nevertheless we did click snaps with it.

The small fake Arc De Triomphe :-)

We then proceeded to the magnificent Champs Elysees, the massive road that runs through the heart of the city and which is the venue for many a popular gathering. And then it was confirmed that the arc we had seen earlier was a tiny fake arc. The real Arc De Triomphe stands proudly at the end of the Champs Elysees and cannot possiblybe missed from there!

The magnificient Champs Elysees with the Arc De Triomphe visible right at the end

The tree lined footpath on both sides of the Champs Elysees is bigger than many Indian roads. Some distance ahead their appeared fancy shops on the sides. We checked out the showroom of one French car maker, Renault or Peugeot. We took the customary shots of us sitting inside a very fancy car. Also wandered through one or two upscale departmental stores, doing loads of window shopping.

The tree lined walking area by the side of Champs Elysees

Sitting in a fancy car in a fancy car showroom (Renault or Peugeot, dont remember which one), one among the many fancy shops along the Champs Elysees

When we did reach the Arc we realized that there was no way in the world that we should have ever got confused. This arch was in the middle of a huge circular road with 12 avenues leading into it. The arch itself stands more than 150 feet in height and seems massive, which ever way you look at it. It had been a very long walk down the Champs Elysees, but it had been worth the effort.

The real Arc De Triomphe! Maybe its not clear here, but this monument is massive

We subjected our poor feet to another round of torture by climbing up the stairs to the top of the Arc, just to save a few euros. Euros nevertheless were a commodity in short supply, and if we didn’t watch out we would end up splurging like crazy.

Climbing up the long winding staircase of the Arc De Triomphe

Going to the top of the Arc De Triomphe has two benefits. One is the amazing view, second is the museum dedicated to the Arc. Well, it’s actually a Napoleon museum since the Arc is a monument dedicated to his military victory. The view as I said is amazing. You can see the different roads leading into the central circular one. On one side you can see the Eiffel Tower towering into the sky.

Two of the twelve avenues converging towards the Arc De Triomphe with the Eiffel Tower in the background

The lighted Eiffel tower sending a huge floodlight across the rain soaked gray sky

At that time the lights on the Eiffel tower were just turning on and a giant floodlight atop it was making giant arcs into the gray sky. What the view from top of the Eiffel would be, we could just imagine. The sky was turning a menacing gray now, and black clouds loomed out over the horizon. It was funny, we could actually see the clouds progressing through the sky, and more amazingly we could also see the rain as it progressed! In a short while it was extremely windy up there and it started pelting down raindrops. It was very chilly and after braving some moments of it, we quickly made our way for the warmth of the museum below. The museum was instructive, more so because it was not a unilateral dedication to the virtues of Napoleon. It highlighted his foibles and failures as well. It was an attitude we don’t often see in Indian official stands on historical figures and events. Here it is either good or bad most of the time. From there it was straight home for us, by the underground metro this time.

That basically ended our first day of sight seeing in mainland Europe. It was tiring but very very satisfying.