Monday, December 05, 2005

Sinter Klaas & Zwarte Piet

In this new age of political correctness its often hard to distinguish candour from crudity, or fun from foibles. Be that as it may - its always amusing when one gets into these discussions with other expats, with most decrying what they describe as the lack of political correctness in the Netherlands.
With Sinter Klaas arriving in different towns over the last few weeks, and little Zwarte Piete running here and there, its time for heated arguments yet again!
'What dreadful characterisation, how do i explain to my 7 year old that colour doesn't define 'helpers' fumed my oh-so-correct American friend aka S. She soon found rebuttal in in J's reply - But darling , they are merely dark because they came down the chimney!
S responded with - But what about the hair!
Which actually takes me back to Oeteldonk last year - when a couple of women were walking down the street, with Afro hairdos - that supposedly being their costume. In the meantime, a South African friend who couldn't stop staring at them, and remarked to me with a wry grin - is looking like me entertaining? I responded with - "probably you'd be as entertaining in a blond wig and blue contact lenses!"
One does have to admit that once we've lived in a culture of political correctness ´- many things can seem rather odd here. Like the time my Uncle's Dutch business partner - remarked that his wife had gone on holiday to Turkey with her sister, and was probably getting robbed by all the 'black people' there! This coming from a well travelled, cosmopolitan businessman with work and social interests in many countries in Asia!
But for many expats to generalise based on a few specific instances is probably as dangerous as political incorrectness itself. After all , isn't being pc about not creating stereotypes?
On that doctrinaire note, I must rush. I am not about to miss out on my gevulde speculaas in my little friend -Amelia's school - and get a hug from the Zwarte Piets . Being a sucker for traditional fun - am happy to forget political correctness for today.
Wens je fijne kerstdagen en een gelukkig nieuwjaar ! (Merry Xmas and Happy New Year for the uninitiated!)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Depths of Despair

It's been the best of times, and the worst of times. The best of times since there's all this excitement of a little person soon to arrive in our lives. Not the best of times - thanks to all the horrible sickness and stuff that goes with having little rug rats arrive - like worshipping the porcelain goddess several times a day. That coupled with some of the idiosyncrasies of the Dutch system -make for entertaining times.

First, there was this business of finding a Huisart - (aGP or primary care physician) since a sprog was on the way. Having lived here for close to 7 months, and not having signed up with one was probably quite silly. All this lady of leisure business with holidays every other week - made me believe I was on a holiday ( albeit extended) and would soon return to my crazy, wonderful (through the hazy film of time) job back home.

After spending a couple of days trying to find a Huisart not too far from the centre of town, I found a practice and made an appointment to go see them. After the usual apologies for my rudimentary Dutch, I found the lady behind the counter rather effortlessly slid into English as well. After getting our personal details (B's and mine), I explained to her we possibly had a little rug rat on its way. After congratulating me heartily, she gave me a note to see a doctor at the Jeroen Bosch Ziekenhuis .

I was much relieved since I was used to a cultures of Doctors, for some irrational reason, midwives and home births seemed awfully frightening. Esp. after all the horror stories from the women's club about midwives (turns out even the male ones are called midwife), placentas that refuse to emerge (what's a placenta you may ask), and almost giving birth in the woods, with no pain relief (and you were wondering what that yelp two doors away was - probably a woman, not a cat in labour)! It's always interesting how no one mentions the good stuff, the Kraam care, the Verloskundigen visiting you at home and making sure all's well with you and the wee one. Anyway - I am diverting.

I was rather surprised and pleased the lady at the Huisart was sending me to the doctor. I said as much to her when she responded with - 'At your age, its best if you see the doctor instead of a midwife'. I must confess I was rather squashed and didn't feel so kindly disposed any longer. So I was 30, i know it's old, and people do feel touchy about it, but must she remind me? Also - I was concerned, I didn't realise being 30 put me in a high risk - too old to have a baby category. Ok, so 30 wasn't young, but my friend in NY city had just been told that at 31 she was amongst the younger people having a baby in New York.

Oh well - I would just cope with being an old mother, etc etc, I mumbled and stumbled to the Ziekenhuis. After crawling through the labyrinth that was the hospital, i arrived at the front desk to get a hospital card made. The lady at the desk looked at me rather quizzically, and asked if I was sure I was pregnant! Told her I was as sure as can be - needed to see the Doctor to confirm the same! She asked for id just to make sure she got my hospital card right - when she exclaimed. 'It says on the Huisart's record that you are born in 1957, but your passport says 1975!'

DUH. Now that explained everything. Despite having gone through this several times at stores etc, I forgot to check! The Dutch system of repeating numbers is different from English - where the units number is mentioned 1st , and then the tens no. For e.g.- the time I thought I had spent 'negen(9) and veertig'(4) , so 94 euros at the body shop on 3 little jars, and was thinking, hmmn, the products are sort of expensive in the Netherlands. Turns out the shop assistant meant 49 euros, they merely say the 2nd no. 1st!

One would think they would apply the English no. logic when conversing in English , but not quite. So the girl at the Huisart's assumed I was born in 1957 when I told her I was born in Nineteen Seventy Five! No wonder she thought I needed to see a doctor! At the age of 48 it would need to be pretty close to a medical miracle.

English - Dutch - Semantics apart, the hardest blow was the fact that she thought I looked like I was born in 1957. Hmmn. So you are 30, unemployed currently since you decide to follow the lord and master on yet another expat assignment, find yourself in yet another foreign country, and the lady at the Doctor's thinks you look 48 years old.

Find me a corner quick, I need to curl up and perish! Just like Anne (of the Green Gables, one of my favourite books), I have finally reached the depths of my despair.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

One post @ the risk of sounding like the fox

"A hungry fox passed below a fine bunch of grapes hanging high from a vine. After trying in vain to jump and reach for them he gave up, saying to himself as he walked off, 'the grapes looked ripe, but i see now they are quite sour."

This morning my sister sent me the link to a review for a 'popular' author's new Bestseller. She unfortunately received a copy of this 'best seller' from a well- meaning relative who knows she likes to 'read'. Ha. Did i say
unfortunately, her expression, not mine, i would like to hastily clarify.

Another book by the same
popular author was published sometime ago. Yet another well-meaning relative bought the book and gave it to B as a birthday present. The hapless soul thought he was giving B a relevant book, after all it featured his engineering school!

I have to confess i was excited when i heard about the 1st book. Seemed like the desi answer to Snapshots from Hell was finally here. Needless to say, i was getting a bit carried away. About 50 pages on, i was convinced, what's good sauce for goose is not always good sauce for the gander. Or vice versa. Bad editing not withstanding, I did attempt to labour on, but work and all that got in the way, so the book remained unfinished.

Once I attempted to discuss the pros and cons of the book with a friend, she responded with ' My husband who doesn't like to read, says this is a great book'! My point exactly!

Many months followed, as did a brilliant pr job by the author/his publishers. Suddenly this was the stuff dreams are made of! Not literary dreams, but marketing dreams certainly. Every now and then i heard people discuss this book, the intellectuals from their high horse, peeved with the quality of his writing. A former class of the author's, sorely referred to him as 'Vernie' (snobbish public school speak for those who don't speak English quite correctly, with plenty of unforced grammatical errors etc.
) Who would read this, he agonised.

But someone obviously did! Also, no matter how critical the reader / non-reader, everyone, just everyone, grudgingly admitting that the marketing plan was immaculate.

I have to admit though, for some time now i have been grappling with a basic dilemma. It probably started bothering me 5 years ago, when after attending a book reading with VS Naipaul at the Boston Public Library. In the q&a, he said that 'The study of English was becoming common and bastardized' A strong remark there, he was referring to the 'dumbing down' of literary courses in the UK, even in the hallowed portals of Oxbridge to make them more inclusive. Or relevant perhaps?

The reviewer echoes this in her article in Business Standard, 'He (the popular author) writes for a generation that sees very few reflections of its aims, heartbreaks and language in contemporary literature.'

So lower the bar, let others in, and stop being pretentious. Or does it mean, stop attempting to understand things that are difficult, let's play to the lowest common denominator? Let's sell instant novels - ' Bas, Do minute, aur chatpata swadisht kitab ' ? Another take - be more egalitarian, move over Hoi Oligoi, the Polloi are here!

As one fan of the popular author delightfully proclaims on yet another website (appropriately named!) about his latest book, ON@TCC , ' His language is not heavy duty, story is filmy, and i read in 5 hours flat , man'.

See what i mean? Is it fair that my sister, larger groups of highbrow friends, and caustic, cerebral critics clip the poor popular author's wings in this manner?

I mean, that last comment there, isn't it just the stuff your literary dreams are made of?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Great Indian Kadhai or Dutch Oven ?

Ok. So am almost borrowing the title of A’s TV show. But there really is no better way to describe this.

It probably all started many moons ago when i took the plunge. Went one early june night to meet the Cookie Baking company. Or Bon Bon Babes Inc. Or the Desperate Housewives, always desperate, not necessarily House wives. Took my friend M's advice, ignored the highbrow intellectual advise from well meaning Men-tors, dementors whatever.

There I was, breaking bread in Den Bosch. Be it souped up dinners, pretentious picnics, wild pub nights, I had a life again! It was fun to be the new flavour in this melting pot. To amuse and entertain, and change perceptions about the little Indian girl! Not so much fun trying to clarify for the nth time, no my partner is not Dutch, not American, not English, and definitely not Norwegian. And agreeing heartily, oh yes, he has an unpronounceable name; you know what they say about for bet...or worse and for worse. Just call him U Haul!

In this newfound vacuous existence i actually found myself living, and letting others too! I used the V word because one afternoon as i chattered away excitedly to my sister about a particularly insane, inane girl’s night out, she reminded me ' who has a vacuous existence now? ' I'll bet revenge was sweet. For not so long ago I had dismissed her evening coffee meetings with her numerous friends as 'such a vacuous existence, what trite conversations', while i laboured on in endless and such meaningful meetings!

Yeah. Whatever. There have been weeks when my most pressing concern has been ' oh dear, what shall i wear to J's cocktail do'. Or times when i have have found myself concocting exotic Indian recipes - as a food ambassador. Imagine my delight when in this crowd of English, American, Danish, Dutch, Russian, Swiss etc. girls - i found someone not very different from me! An Indian girl from South Africa, who incidentally has never been to India, but looks, breathes, cooks and eats Indian!

There was the beginning of a Grand Diwali Dinner. No efforts spared. Everything imaginable was on the table. While the Brits claimed to be stakeholders for the Saag Aloo, the Americans insisted with great fervour - Josh Rogan, Rogan Josh was theirs (It even sounds like the son of an ex President!).

But if you think dinner is all this melting pot is about - you are absolutely wrong. There are wheels within wheels. There is the Book club (with plenty of intellectual pretensions) featuring the Smarties. The Fashionistas. The mums’ n tots. The Hate mums n tots. Most importantly - the Critici van het Nederlandse. Aka - what you don't like about the Dutch!

And so it goes. Every time you are at a party, and have stopped tearing to tatters a pretty girl's green disaster (a short, shiny green dress the men are eyeing), and are running short of conversation, it's pretty easy. Just switch to the topic of typical Dutch toilets. Why they are designed the way they are. Know what i mean? If not, you will have to visit!

Yep, this is the new life. The pot. Melting pot. The women's club. The house elf's hermitage. Aha, yes, also the Vacuous Life. A good life?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Pros and Cons of being a House Elf

Me Dobbie. I became attached to my master 5.5 years ago. And enslaved sometime ago, around the time that me completed 3 elf decades. My entry to the house - elf world was not necessarily the best one. Master enslaved me, brought me to an alien country far far away, filled with mutants, giants and other creepy kreachers. My office elf days vanished, to be replaced by a new timid house elf.

I bet i already told you the event that finally signified the beginning of house elf days. When master filled his oft repeated promise of a dog biscuit and glass of water for me, only to replace it with 2 carrot stubs and a half chewed stroop waffel. (i do know how to spell, the mutants however, don't). There i sat at home , locked in, with the fabulous feast i just mentioned.

Such is the story of the house elf. Once Master had 15 of his evil hobbit friends over, and me cooked and cleaned as a house elf should. Before i could say - Master, what are those drum rolls? I found them to be Master's snores instead!

At times master forgets to call home, so i make tons of dinner and eat by myself (am quite a well fed house elf, thank you). Master says am not really a house elf. the one who comes tuesdays to clean is. Well, anyone who must stay at home and follow master's orders, must be one.

I have other house elves i am friendly with. Some of them like me follow their master's bidding. Sometimes we elves go shopping to spend our Masters' money. If it's a very nice pair of party elf boots, we get them quietly, on a Master card, invisible to most. The we drink some elfacinno, or earl fey tea, or at times, just whine.

Sometimes Master looks like he might not need such a tiny house elf after all. I have caught him fancying a rather large, hippograffe in disguise as house elf. Though Master very smart, and doesn't reveal his thoughts.

Today i discovered from a former house elf that our story with Harry is being shown right here, in what the mutants call the 'bioscopen'. Master said it wasn't of any importance. Perhaps he is right, being a house elf and all , one must know one's place.

Did i say something about the pros of being an elf? tgfg vjijg ... drfgag g...
Master says too much time on the laptop. Must go now before master erase this.

May the force (of the House Elf) be with you!

Friday, October 07, 2005

And you're still the same

It's been an incredible summer, the icing on the cake probably being the icy glaciers of Norway. But more about the summer later - this is about the end of the summer. Fall. And a visit to my most favourite city in the world- Boston.

B & I went back together to the States after nearly 3 plus years. I say together because B has done his fair share of traveling without me the last 3 years, as i have done mine! It was nice to be back in New York, as always the city and its electricity tends to get me a little dazed. But it felt good nevertheless. Staying with old friends. Meeting others. Catching up. So much to talk about. So little time. The generica that is America suddenly had it's own charm. It was nice to be able to walk into a Starbucks, order a pumpkin latte, share a joke with the girl getting my coffee and feel the cinnamon like warmth of fall again. Nice to be able to get to stores, know my size, explain i didn't live in the states when offered a store card. When asked where i live, the sheer delight on the salesperson's face, "Ohhh my Gaawhd!" - which probably translated to " You eat Hash Brownies every morning? And its legal!"

Met a friend from work, i hadn't seen in 3 years, reminisced about the good days, old days. Wandering around in Soho, i found myself rummaging racks with an attractive girl. Assuming she was yet another ABCD (the figure didn't show traces of a greasy curry & rice diet), i suddenly realised it was a famous bollywood actress, sadly when at the checkout counter. Which was funny - given that my bro in law had spent the last weekend cozying up with her (hopefully not literally) in the Himalayas!

It was nice getting in a cab, and have the driver understand what i am saying & vice versa, even nicer when i recognised one such accent as that of a Pushtu speaker! The delighted driver insisted on not taking any money from me!

When i told R later that people in NY seemed really friendly, including her 6 year old neighbour, Taylor, she said it must be me! Not sure if she meant my delighted expression at understanding the language people spoke or my mental age, but i will assume the former!

But more about NY later. If its fall, it must be Boston. At times i wondered if i was biased in thinking Boston was 'it'. It was the 1st city of the western world i had ever lived in. B & I spent the early years of our marriage here, the years when I was trying to make sense of an aunt's famous quote,' the wedding is over and the marriage has begun!'

But 3 years later, having travelled and lived in other parts of the world, i don't think i was predisposed without reason. Well, at least this is how i feel in the fall. Ask me about February in Boston, i might have different ideas!

But it was the fall. The Pru (now ever special, as an ex employer!) , John Hancock, the River Charles, the Atlantic - could anything be more blue? For all those who complain about lack of charm in America, i think Brattle street in Cambridge, compares more favourably to European towns than most places! If you want to get away from generica, all you have to do is enter LA Burdick, get your large mug of chocolate, find little chocolate mice and penguins (acc. to me, strictly not for eating). Of course, i had forgotten about large American portions, so the 'usual' at Legal seafood, turned out to be way larger than usual. By the time i was done with the steamers and mussels, i couldn't get to my lobster. What a shame!

A drive along route 2 to the country, with me hopelessly painting partially red trees into pure crimson in my mind's eye! M in helpless giggles, watching me roll along with the pumpkins in the patches. Dunkin' Donuts and the special spiced pumpkin doughnut! B navigating around the inner streets like he had never left! M & I vanishing inside Jasmine Sola. A ride into Downtown on the T - to familiar haunts. Most of all - so many friends. Dinner here, breakfast there, interspersed with lunch, brunch, tea, high tea and drinks! All our time was divided into BM & AM - before & after meals!

Of course - all wasn't the same. Outside Boston, on the Mass Pike was a sign that read " Boston Red Sox - Home of the 2004 World Champions". That was new! Also, B developed diaper rash. Not to diapers, but to diaper talk. He proclaimed one night, suddenly - 'Finished. That's what people become with kids.' While i agreed mostly, i think this phenomenon seemed to apply more to the US Indian parents. Obsessive is a good description perhaps.

One particularly torturous evening, i found myself seated between 2 mothers discussing the pros and cons of potty training & its psychological impact. Did it strike them - that perhaps it wasn't appropriate dinner conversation? Also - that maybe there was the slightest chance i wasn't interested in anyone's bowel movements? Unfortunately my polite, always smiley self didn't want to look like a cruel apathetic witch, so i feigned interest like a constipated jack o lantern, that wasn't lit any more! Any recommendations to B that we might as well join 'em if we couldn't beat 'em, is greeted with dire threats ' do you want to be finished? '. Probably not!

Diaper rash not withstanding, it was great to be back. To see all things familiar. Meet all faces familiar. One evening B took a particularly circuitous route to Newton via Lexington. Red sugar maples, 100.7 WZLX, the smell of cinnamon laced coffee, it was good to see our 1st home again!

'And you'’re still the same, I caught up with you yesterday' - Bob Seger, "Stranger in Town"

Monday, September 05, 2005

Finding Tyler

I fell in love with a tall, dark, obese and adorable creature in the summer of 2000. The year i got married. No, am not referring to B. But Tyler, in fact. He weighs 775 pounds. Has bright beady eyes and cute little flapping ears. And by the time I spent 15 minutes with him - my heart was falling off my sleeve.

I spent the rest of the summer pleading with B to imitate Tyler's opinion of litterbugs. On rare days B obliged, only to curry favour. Or spaghetti flavours as the case may be.

More about Tyler: He lived at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He is a sea lion. When i 1st met him he was 6 years old. He was incredibly smart, good looking and odd! He stuck his tongue out at strangers he didn't like. Kissed little girls and didn't make them cry. Sigh. And for the rest of my life, whenever i hear "ymca" - am tempted to dance to his tune, like the summer of 2000.

The love affair continued. Every visitor i had in Boston must see the aquarium. How else was i to explain this odd fascination? When my parents visited, my mother had already been referring to me as Tyler in deference to my obsession. When we went to watch him, unfortunately Zuma was on show that day. Did i use the adjective unfortunate? Not very accurate, but Tyler he was not. Probably more agile, but not quite as obese.

Time sped by. In the rush of all things modern, and coping with the chaos that is Delhi, and the workplace that resembled an eddy, Tyler was relegated to the back burners of my memory. Other than an occasional sad glimpse into the life of a seal on Discovery, such as Gomez who was sent back to sea after living with a family for a year.

Till one winter morning in Delhi i woke up, switched on the telly, and there it was again. Ok, so not Tyler, But Andre. A film based on a true story, starring one of Tyler's cousins possibly, named Tory. As i became increasingly absorbed in the film, DG (the Rosario in my life) suddenly brought me photo albums with pictures of Tyler and Zuma, and thought they resembled "Handy" in the film. Handy = Her version of "Andre".

A bit of a sad commentary on my life, and the sea lions I had almost forgotten. A few months followed, as did my move to the Netherlands. On vacation in Norway, the much hyped Bergen aquarium didn't yield too many of Tyler's cousins, unless you count the baby seals. They incidentally get clubbed to death often - by fisherman who consider them greedy. The next time you attack that slab of pink salmon, look over your shoulder!

A couple of weeks ago, one Sunday, B decided it was time to find my sea lions again. It was a cold summer's day at the Dolfinarium in Harderwijk. The weather was disappointing but the day was not. There were walruses. (No carpenters, before you ask me, like my mother). And Seals, called Zee Honds (dogs of the sea, just like dachshunds). Dolphins, lots of them.
And Tyler's Dutch cousins, the Sea Lions. Fairly fit and lean. Sort of like the Dutch girls in contrast to their American counterparts. Perhaps, Dutch sea lions can cycle!

But still no Tyler. A recent visit to the New England aquarium site informed me that Tyler & Zuma are currently in the Chicago aquarium, till their new home in Boston gets fixed. Looks as though my pending visit to Boston will be short one trip to the aquarium.

Well as the song goes, Sweet dreams are made of this,Who am I to disagree? Travel the world and the seven seas, Everybody's looking for something. Tyler perhaps?

PS - if you were always curious about differences between Sealions & Seals - and were too lazy to look it up, here's the url for a brief list of differences!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Long and Winding Road

Isn't it ironic that the only time we think of making an effort to look up an old friend, teacher, colleague is usually when it's too late? Ok, so am exaggerating. But unfortunately, in my case this is more true than not. What was that about the road to hell, intentions etc.

Yesterday, i broke my long silence on my business school e-groups after a long time, when someone emailed the news that the one time Principal of the school had passed away after a brief illness. A very decent gentleman, a teacher who taught us much, and one of the many who had mentored me along the way, i was sad. More so, because so many of my classmates sounded just like me - filled with regret, for not having taken the time to thank him.

I suddenly realised that this is beginning to sound all too much like the soppy chain mails i often receive, about seizing the day etc. But i guess if so many of us are sending and receiving them, and sometimes relegating them to the trash can, there must be something to it.

One the happier side of things, thanks to the flood of emails that followed, i heard from a one time classmate, and a dear friend, who like me, had been silent forever. She reminded me of happier times. As well as a candid conversation with our erstwhile professor, who claimed he had selected us to be part of the class because of our inherent "mad streaks".

Hopefully mad streaks that were not getting tarnished. With time.

"Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines" - Roger Waters

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Sunflower is mine in a way

"You may know that the peony is Jeannin's, the hollyhock belongs to Quost, but the sunflower is mine in a way."
Vincent van Gogh (to Theo)Letter 573, 22 or 23 January 1889

It's easy to see what captured Vincent's imagination. It's definitely captured mine - these huge, bright yellow blobs of delight.

I guess my love affair with the sunflower began in childhood, somewhere in remote parts of Assam, where they grew wild, and untamed. My mother snobbishly dismissed them as large, unkempt and weed like. Soon more genteel flowers such as gladioli, orchids and cutesy little pansy beds replaced the sunflowers in our garden.

Then the years went by, and i definitely had no time to stop and smell the rosebuds, or see sunflowers. Till one christmas after i was married, and santa appeared with a little blue vw bug, with a bright yellow sunflower in the bud vase. This was the start of my love affair with the sunflowers again - sometimes it aggravated my sensitive nose and eyes, but there was no replacing the flower! When i said goodbye to Buggie, i left a large flower there for him in the bud vase. The dealer asked if I wanted to take the flower, but my expression stopped him hastily in his tracks, and he looked at my friends, as if to rescue him.

Turns out, Sunflowers get their name because they always face the sun - turning their flowers to track the sun's movement across the sky- a phenomenon known as heliotropis. Just like so many of us, constantly searching for light.

But i think my obsession truly started, three summers ago, when i first saw the Dutch sunflowers. Like everything in this mutant land, they were absolutely gigantic! Way taller than me, the flowers are larger than my well-rounded face! I stared in shock, felt like i was in 'Honey, i shrunk the kids'! I implored B to take lots of pictures, the result? Back in Delhi, i had curious people ask me , 'Didn't you go to Holland, where are the tulips?'.

This year, i patiently waited from spring through to summer. The hyacinths came and went, as did the easter lilies, azaleas, freesia, crocuses, and tulips. Plenty of tulips. Including an unattractive one called Aishwarya. Followed by roses. Here they were at last. My bit of sunshine.

Suddenly i didn't feel daylight deprived on rainy days. There were sunflowers everywhere. In the market. The shop windows. On my deck. In vases around the house. On my coffee mugs. Aprons. Everywhere. From Den Bosch to Brugge. We had friends and family visit, who insisted on touching and feeling them to make sure they were in fact, real!

I have been convincing myself they are real as well. Not a figment of magic mushroom induced fantasy. They are so shiny, so happy, so yellow, and people like. Ok, so i sound a trifle obsessed. But recently on yet another visit to the Van Gogh museum, it struck me; i wasn't the only one with a touch of the sun (flowers).

Meet me in Noord Brabant, and you'll see what inspired the master. Pieces of incandescent light, disguised as the rustic, simple sunflower.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Point of View - Topsy Turvy

6th & 9th August. As if to commemorate 6o years of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were not enough, two of my friends decided to turn 30 on 6th & 9th respectively. Though - bombs they are not, bombshell may be a good description ( I am their friend, therefore possibly kinder to them than the years).

Sitting here in Den Bosch it was difficult to partake of the 30th birthday festivities in New York and Stoke respectively, hopefully I will get to meet them both in person in the next month or so to make good for the missed merriment.

As i grow older, and i do unfortunately, something that always strikes me as odd is my world view. As an adult, i think one of the most terrible human tragedies ever- has to be the US bombing of H&N. Watching some of the survivors and their maimed progeny on television, is enough to offer a brief glimpse into the catastrophic event.

It's funny though, how most of the text books in school and college completely obliterate this fact. They merely announce it as the end of the war in the Pacific and the death of Japanese imperialism. Americans = Good, and Japanese = Bad. In later years, as a student of political science, one of the different insights i had to this was not through the eyes of my jaded professors, but in fact Gar Alperovitz's then new book - 'The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb'. Over time many conspiracy theories have emerged as to the "real reasons" for the bombing such as an attempt by the US to limit Soviet expansion in Asia. But Harry Truman & his cronies were not war criminals, oh no. Well you may argue, hindsight is 20 20 , and Truman was justified.

Onto some more flip flop history. Recently I was watching King Fahd's funeral on CNN. (Don't ask me why, probably just curious about the middle east equations, and the Saudis). Expecting to find a resplendent funeral for the King, given a flamboyant royal family, I was sorely disappointed. It was an ugly, hideously overcrowded, ill managed and most importantly, ordinary funeral i had ever seen. I guess simplicity has its virtues, but this ceremony called to mind the origin of the term Barbaric, ascribed to the Arabs(Berber) by the Greeks.

Of course, the most amusing thing about the telecast had to be Octavia Nasr, CNN' s senior editor for Arab affairs. It was quite fascinating to watch her defending the non inclusion of foreigners (read - non islamic foreigners), and more importantly women, in the entire proceedings. Unless you count the footage of Dubya hugging the now king , Abdullah, a few months ago in the US, which was quite entertaining as well. Bet some of the warmth in that hug was lit by Saudi oil. Anybody interested in women's rights and public beheadings?

I would be the last person to defend some of the perpetrators of violence. I too was terrorised by 9/11, the Mumbai bombings of '93 and the recent 7/7 attacks, just like you. Yes, Hitler was an inhumane demon, the Japanese army savage and Saddam, not the most likeable of dictators. Ask the Kurds. But every now and then , there is the story of the odd German who shielded their Jewish friends. The Japanese boy who was born without ear lobes, and a nose but bears no ill will towards those that did this. I can personally vouch for a secular and westernised Iraq, one where we celebrated Durga Puja, diwali and christmas.Where attractive women roamed the streets, sans head scarves, in short skirts just like their counterparts in civilised parts of the westernised world, unlike their ilk in neighbouring Iran, or Saudi.What I am trying to say is - evil leaders don't necessarily equate evil citizens.

But what does that render Truman, Dubya and his dad? Defenders of the ark against terrible terrorists or greedy, self important mercenaries? If you really must fight terrorists, Messrs Bush, try Niger.
For a change - you may actually save some lives.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Day 10 | Copenhagen - Den Bosch | Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes

Woke up this morning feeling fuzzy and confused. Then little M's dolls appeared to be staring at me - and Copenhagen it was. We had finally reached late last night after driving about 1600 kms in a single day. Might explain why the ancient B was snoring gently this morning instead of hounding me.

I played hound instead, and we hurriedly put all our stuff together, and rushed out. Suddenly I wanted to slow down - but B insisted we had a long way to go. But it's only 7 hours i protested, not if you want to see Mons Klint, B reminded me.

Aha. Mons Klint. In all the excitement of the last few days i had clearly ignored my initial enthusiasm when i had discovered Mons Klint. In the pictures it looked like a piece of the world that existed only in Pajero ads or exotic holiday brochures.

So we set out - the Danish roads as boring as can be. I suddenly was missing the 'husk bilbelte'(buckle up) signs from the Norwegian highways. Some fresh Bagels from a nearby bageri and a special Dansk garlic flavoured cream Havarti was a perfect beginning to the day. Better still, we had managed to dispense with some of the endless change that seemed to be piling up. The euro had spoilt us - currency exchanges were clearly a thing of the past in our heads. These Kroners had frusted us no end, as had the toll gates across Scandinavia.
Fortunately the Danish countryside soon looked up as we crossed over from Zealand to Mon and Falster, south-east of Copenhagen.

The island of Mon turned out to be a surprise, with little villages and quaint towns such as Stege, with perfect little churches, houses and plenty of strawberry shacks. The weather, and the landscape had an almost Provencal air. Van Gogh would be inspired.

Mons Klint, the 5,000-year-old chalk cliffs whose dramatic and striking drop 128 metres into the sea has proved to be a popular tourist attraction for Danes for many years, was in fact real! It was just like the pictures promised, if anything was much more spectacular. In addition, the nearby Klinteskoven woodland is perfect for hiking, picnics and horse riding excursions. Plenty of trailers were parked nearby for long-term campers perhaps.

Of course the climb up the cliff to get a bird's eye view, and some photos was very tiring, but worth it. Though this meant that the climb down 400 stairs to the beach was double the effort! But we were suitably rewarded; the sunny, cloudless day reflected varied colours of the sea - emerald, turquoise and azure. A nearby sign suggested that the East Sea, the Kategatt and the Baltic sea were all visible on a clear day. Sometimes the Russian coast line as well.

The time had come to head home. A drive across Mon and Falster, across quiet unhurried villages and bright red poppies, we arrived in Lolland, yet another island. The town of Rødby, a ferry port appeared, as did a large Scandlines Ferry to take us to Puttgarden, in Germany. 45 minutes, some very blue skies and entertaining seagulls, we were now in Germany. In a few hours flat lands and chubby cows would greet us, back home in 's-hertogenbosch.

But for now, needless to say - B turned into HarryP., the car into a broomstick, and me, the petrified house elf.

All good things must come to an end, as had this fortuitous adventure of fairy tales, a first home, fjords, family and friends.

As Longfellow said, "Skoal! To the Northland ! Skoal! Thus the tale ended.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Day 9 | Bergen - Copenhagen | Somewhere over the Rainbow

Day 8 | Bergen - Copenhagen | Silent Lucidity

For everyone that knows me - it isn't often that i am at a loss for words. But here I was, at the edge of the world. Stupefied. Dumbfounded.Awestruck. And speechless.

The drive from Bergen to Copenhagen, via Oslo, across the fjords of western norway proved yet again no camera could possibly collar this. Besides why waste beautiful scenery through a lens, akin to the japanese tourists. Having said that - we couldn't resist the temptation to capture a bit of this magic, and keep it forever.

So many images. So much to see. Fjords.The ferry crossiong at Gloppen. Onward towards the Jotunheim , and a glimpse of several glacial arms of the Jostedalbreen, the largest glacier in Europe. Think i did see Slartibartfast's signature in one of the branches of the glacier ! Across the barren and bizarrely beautiful Hardanger plateau. Deeply contrasting with the rich greenery fo the Flam valley, leading to yet another fjord. Trollveggen. The Voringfossen - with a double rainbow!

I will let the photos do some of the talking - it was difficult selecting a few pictures. I was humbled yet again - here's a tiny glimpse. Of Paradise regained.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Day 7 |Bergen|Little boxes all made of ticky tack

Woke up this morning in the gateway to the fjords. Or the town between the seven mountains. A possible case of snow white and the seven dwarves mildly altered.

Snow white it was not this morning, but sort of like a page from a faded fairy tale book. Bergen was much kinder to those who wished to sleep - the fog considerably ameliorated the effects of never- ending light.

There wasn't much i knew about Bergen before it was on the itinerary for this trip, except 3 little facts. One was it remained an ice free port in spite of its high latitude (60 degrees N) thanks to the Gulf Stream (i clearly had an excellent geography teacher!). Also that it was an important Hanseatic port, similar to Brugge. The third B. told me - that if it ain't raining, it ain't Bergen.

Looks as though he was wrong, and Bergen was behaving - because it wasn't raining, and the fog lifted, to reveal a glorious shiny Bergen. A short walk down the innumerable stairs along the hilly path, and here we were, right at the fish market. A visit to the tourist information office, situated in a lovely building, the Fresco Hall coupled with considerable excitement at meeting Tyler's Norwegian cousins at the aquarium, pretty much sums up the morning. Unless you count the smiling fishermen who offered me endless shrimp and oysters to sample in the fish market. It must have been my reciprocating smile - though B attributed other things to their generosity.

The Bergen aquarium turned out to be a bit of a disappointment - other than the seals and penguins. S Where had all the sea lions gone? It wasn't lunch - for that there was salmon. Took me back to a work- related gala dinner at the New England aquarium - where I ate about 3 pounds of clams thanks to the kind hearted, squeamish guests who felt guilty eating the mites in their own homes!

We hurried along - and made it to the White Lady before she set sail for the fjord cruise. The rest was magic. Other than a rather boisterous Italian gent who clearly had one too many beers for lunch. Past the Hanseatic wharf area - Bryggen, rebuilt after a great fire in 1702. Bergen it turned out - had fallen prey to conflagrations throughout its entire history. The house we were staying in currently dated back to the 18th century, and was only partly destroyed by the fire. Suddenly i appreciated it much more, though its modern interiors belied its age.

The White lady took us deep into the Sognefjord, and adjacent fjords. We saw some fascinating sights (the scenery by now was given!), such as a partially floating bridge, one of the oldest stave churches in Norway and a refueling station for boats! Unfortunately there were no seals that i spotted with my naked eye, though i was able to spot several families, sitting out in their little private jetties, outside their summerhouses. Some of the children jumping in and out of the water could have been mistaken as little monk seals, a mistake B made when he pointed to one excitedly, "look a blue mottled seal". Turned out to be a little girl in a polka dotted bathing outfit!

The fresh air had whet our appetite, and we ended up as giants refreshed in a waterfront restaurant, with a charming Thai waiter. Our sense of well being continued as we headed to the 7 minute ride to the top of Bergen,the much famed Fløibanen.

The Floibanen is a funicular railway that takes visitors to the top of MountFløyen - all in 7 minutes for a view that is truly breath taking. Atop the mountain, i found myself in the arms of a giant troll! Once B managed to extricate from the Troll's charms, we wandered around some. We had a spectacular bird's eye view of Bergen, the surrounding fjords and the mountains, of course. There are also hiking trails around the mountain, but it was getting darker, and some curious black bugs in the woodsier parts soon dissuaded me, much to B's relief.

Around us were the usual motley tourists doing the usual tourist things. There was a charming outdoor cafe where friends were meeting for a friday night drink. So far removed from life in parts I had grown up in. I could hear some English tourists on their mobile phones, considerably less obtrusive than their American counterparts, discussing yesterday's incidents.

It was something of an awakening, because reality seemed so far away atop this hill. With tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, because i felt like a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.