Doing it the French way

I know it is unfair to write down a 4 months adventure in 1 post. Yet this post serves to remind myself of the most extraordinary experiences I had and to share my insights about the French culture. I had the most memorable time in Toulouse for I was eager to make the best of my time abroad by blending myself into the Toulousian lifestyle. I hold no regret of not having ‘experienced’ or ‘learned’ enough from this trip, unlike my previous trips abroad.

My time in Toulouse was not “relaxed, chilled ” as I had imagined it to be. There were periods of frustration and loneliness. It was the challenge of adapting myself to the place that kept me inspired. To get out of the rut and try different things, even when I didn’t feel like it, say ‘yes’ to every outrageous experience was something I could never have tried had I stayed in my comfort zone.dsc_0780

The Jolimont observatory across the Garonne in Toulouse

I still remember the very first description of Toulouse on my first day from a Marseille student I stumbled across. I still remember his words “tres joli et tres vivant” (very beautiful and very lively). The troubles of the first day certainly did not make it feel lively. Yet the excitement in his voice; made me hopeful that there was more to this city. This made the day end on a happier note, especially after I found that even Cambodians in Toulouse were more comfortable with French rather than English.

Things got no easier the first month as every day there arose a new problem. No doubt, change is fun and adventurous but prolonged change can be frustrating and energy sapping. Cooking, listening to lectures in French was difficult as it is. Desperate to get out of the routine, I found a Table Tennis club in Toulouse and was surprised to find their email reply in perfect English. Gradually I had enrolled myself for more things than I could handle. Thanks to my classmates and some English speaking friends who organized get-togethers almost every week, I was having difficulty keeping up with the various events that took place. It felt good to be productively busy.  dsc_0752

A view from my room

The first month and a half ended with a feel-good factor. One of the main reasons was also that I had started understanding French and even began speaking. The Toussaint vacations were around the corner and so was the much anticipated Swiss-Italy trip.

My time at Geneva was perhaps the best. My first achievement- asking for help at the Red Cross Museum in perfect French, no hems and haws. The museum seemed all the more better after that. To end my day, I had a lively chat over drinks(non-alcoholic!) by the Lake Geneva with a Nepalese man. Thanks to him, I have some excellent photos of the sunset at Lake Geneva with the Alps in the background. I completed Geneva on my return trip by visiting the UN Headquarters within a 5-hour window.dsc_1113

Italy gave me the first chance to solo travel and I messed up at a lot of places(expected !). One of them was getting lost in Venice after I started following a German group. I bade them the most polite goodbye possible and went out looking for my own way. Thanks to an Italian family(who spoke only Italian) I was out of the maze in a jiffy. They dropped me to the exact point I wanted to reach even though they were headed in a different direction. Help needs no language.

Coming back to Toulouse was a battle of sorts. Apart from exams( which happened every week), I realized I had totally lost my grasp over French and the confidence to speak. I was no longer charmed by the language nor any more determined to learn it. Yet I felt that I had become more observant about the surroundings around me. A metro ride in a town always gives away a lot about the people of the place. I was pleased to see that the French promote reading and practice it. Moreover, they prefer in-hand hard copies rather than digital versions, which I believe is the truest form of reading. The preference of seats for survivors of World War 2 caught my eye. I could never have seen it in India, for India has been fortunate to never experience a destructive war of such sort. It was in Europe that I felt even the present generation is deeply connected to  World War 2. It was surprising that the Europeans respected their martyrs and the brave through such subtleness.

The French love classical music and as a part of appreciating and understanding the culture, I was ready to try that as well. This came in the form of watching my first over orchestra by the Toulouse Philharmonic. I no longer felt obliged to visit Vienna, the home of classical music in Europe. I had a chance of experiencing the French “fierté nationale” as well when French astronaut Thomas Pesquet left for ISS, with the public braving the cold to watch his take-off on the giant screen.

I started exploring some of the random college events going around Toulouse. I was surprised to find various English quizzing and debating events taking place. As far as my table tennis was concerned, I saw no benefit in continuing after I was told that the minimum fees was 250 euros to take part in tournaments !!! This was no surprise because the rankings worked in a systematic way. Once I am inducted into the rankings after paying the money, I shall be ranked on the points I earn through each tournament I play. I felt that it was a fair and result-oriented ranking system, perhaps one of the reasons why France consistently produces top-10 rank players in TT, despite the sport being less popular than in India.

To increase my French learning, I finally managed to find a speaking partner, Anthony. It was good to have someone appreciating my French. Further, my classmates egged on to continue speaking in French and not revert back to English, as they (somehow) perfectly understood me. But I am sure they had their own interests as well. So I was finally able to do small talk in French. This also reminds me when I asked for directions in Spanish in Barcelona(more of forced to speak in Spanish), “Donde está la estación de metro Barceloneta?”. Following some incredulous looks, I was answered in English (I had first asked the question in English to which the bunch of guys kindly refused). I also experienced my first rugby match in Toulouse. Toulousains say that a visit to Toulouse is incomplete if you do not watch rugby here; however ‘ungentlemanly’ the game might

Getting ready for the rugby match

I experienced the true beauty of Toulouse besides the Canal du Midi. Strange to say but the UNESCO World Heritage was just a 200 meters walk from my room. It was a coincidence that as I was returning to my place from one of the ‘events’ that I had to take up the route besides the Canal. Walking along it and watching joggers, runners, cyclists go by, I felt I had been missing to enjoy the peace and the charm alongside the canal. It was so beautiful that I took up jogging to savor its charm. dsc_0476

The Canal in all its grandeur

I consider myself fortunate to have experienced both the ‘tres joli’ and the ‘tres vivant’ sides of Toulouse. Sure enough, it was not easy getting through had it not been for the people I met. It takes some time to understand people, but acceptance eases the process. I noticed that I had stopped judging people based on right and wrong. Judging people closes your mind to accepting new norms and traditions. Coming back to India, I realize that I can view the Indian culture with a different perspective now. I feel that perhaps with the knowledge and wisdom I have gained, I can better understand my own culture without being judgmental.


Why the wind?

There are certain instances when one is taken away from the present and is made to dive into the past and dwell into the future.  With this reverie of thoughts, one prefers to have a peaceful mind to focus on the present and to live each scene as it slides through the kaleidoscope of our lives.

As I sit at the window sill and watch the orange glow of the evening sun scattered by the thin clouds over the green hills, I feel more than delight for the eyes. The scene completes itslef with the gusts of wind blowing away the clouds as if transcending into a peaceful state. The mix of brown and green reminds me of autumn as leaves free themselves for the only time. Wind and the causal movement of the natural- reflecting the liveliness of nature.

It is not perhaps with everyone that wind can hold a special connection. I believe that memories make connections. My memories of living in windy places makes the breeze so endearing to me. With my life being always near to water bodies, wind came as an inevitable force. It is something now which I feel is necessary.

Simple things are always liked and appreciated. Wind gives you a strong feeling of nature at work. As for me I find it impossible to control my flow of thoughts as I find myself amidst the currents of air.

I feel wind is nothing but a reminder of change and necessity of balance. Nature manifests the need of balance through wind. It speaks of the constant change we must be part of to live life. The need to constantly move so as to make the best of what we have.

Just as the wind leaves behinds scents and the faint hustle behind it, a life in motion also leaves traces for the rest of the world to be seen and marvelled at.


via Daily Prompt: Moon

The moon specified in this essay is our very own Moon of Earth and not any other satellite of some far-flung imaginary planet.

I still remember the moon stalking me as my father drove through on a deserted lane. An eerie presence otherwise, the only assurance being that it was pretty far away. I was rather touched when it dropped me home, untroubled. From then on, I have always been assured of a partner beside me during my nightly walks.

Moon led me to my interest for sciences. Even at the age of 6, I was not deterred from understanding what parallax was. Moon just gave me the feeling of being on the cusp of a serious scientific breakthrough. “I won’t give up to this sombre-looking big round lump of rock”, I said to myself.*

I basked in the moonlight trying to gauge its milkiness which the poets rhymed about. It was neither milky nor cool. It was just reassuring. The invisible aura which hung in the air; waiting to be felt.

For whom the moonlight is not reassuring, the phases and shapes cannot fail to capture attention. I feel the moon being a perfect example of ‘captivation in imperfection’. It is not always your round ball. It is evolutionary. Another event which humans could feel and notice. Another instance when ancient man felt that it could understand nature.

A step on the moon might have been a giant leap for mankind. But we should not allow ourselves too large a leap. The ordeals and the wait for the first footprint on the moon is a testament to the mystery which abounds it, albeit enveloped in the nothingness of space. The spirit of the Moon is not felt through scientists and engineers but by poets and naturalists.

The poetic fascinations of the literary world are seedlings that shall continue to inspire generations of engineers and scientists to come.

*It is said that even Fermat succumbed to this thought when he found it unnecessary to state the proof of xn+yn=zn before it eventually became the famed Fermat’s last theorem. His vanity left the best mathematicians scratching their heads for more than 300 years.

Drive vs. Flight

I listen to the sound of the plane passing above me. I look up. I am itching to get on it or for that matter any of the many planes that fly past. Alas, I have a busy schedule to follow. Yet it is tolerant enough to allow the construction of imaginary far-flung spaces I take up, along with my magical reading-writing duo.

As I soak the scene in, I realize that I am more concerned about seeing the different places where I ‘reach’. The journey vaporizes into the fabric of space-time.

I picked up Nicolas Bouvier’s ‘Way of the World’ courtesy of my trusted guide ‘Goodreads’. It stood out thanks to the narrator’s distinctive destination in Khyber Pass. The author narrates his journey from Geneva to Khyber Pass in a car along with his friend Thierry Vernet.

Our sense of drive is deluded by our basic perspective towards life. We undertake a journey to reach a place, undermining the journey’s very essence. What pleasure would it gain on reaching an uncharted route,a  journey undertaken only for the joy of travelling? This is something Nicolas Bouvier answers to in his book.

As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The greatest affair is to move”. Journey which allows for the confluence of mind and sight is the precursor to vision. Only when I apply my mind and heart to the society’s problems I see before me, can I develop solutions. It is not surprising that many social entrepreneurs are people who possess the lust, not to travel, but to undertake the journey.

The stereotypical image of ‘driving’ is the difficulty of this process. Smooth seas do not make skilful sailors. I, too chip in, “Bumpy roads make the best explorer”. A sense of motion along with the accumulation of various sensory stimuli is the basic ingredient for concocting the untasted and untested. Hitting the road fulfils the pre-requisite to truly enjoying travelling. A journey, however short, if digested slowly has more to offer than the exotic destination alone.

The magnitude of enjoyment can never be fathomed. Yet I believe I have given convincing evidence to show that a 100km drive is better than a holiday to the destination (however utopian it might be) 1000km away.

Citation :

The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

The pain and bliss of nostalgia

Spending your childhood in Mumbai has a charm of its own. Where people complained of traffic and rush, I was too young to understand any of it. For me, that was the only way of living.

Places changed, people changed, situations changed through my stay of nine years, but one thing which never changed for me were the monsoons of Mumbai. It is of the monsoons which I hold the fondest recollections.

Today, I stand on the balcony and watch the young Ronaldo’s in the rain. I look up to the clouds, which celebrate the happiness below with their applause of incessant rain. It is as if the majestic black clouds notice only the vast fields, sprinkled with merry children, turning a blind eye to the narrow alley of the slum, which fills like the bucket under a tap. I watch the raindrops under the orange light of the lamp-post- my personal rain gauge and anemometer. I mockingly advise the scampering walker-by huddling under the umbrella to enjoy the rain while I stand under the shed. “Oh! This is Delhi”, I think, “People here can never enjoy the rain as us Mumbaikars.”

The dark of the day, the smell of earth and the waving glistening leaves leave me at the gates of childhood. The yarn of childhood reminiscences then unfolds itself as I look through the windows of past. Playing football with my brother under the rain, taking a dip in the pond by the house, waiting for the school to flood and the announcement of a day’s holiday….I feel happy to have lived those moments. I feel fortunate to have been a part of nature’s bounty and beauty. Sitting by the window and watching memories unroll. The bliss of nostalgia.

The pain sets in as the rain dies down. The dismay at my inability to recreate those moments in reality. The dismay that life shall continue as it is. My refuge of memories cast away.

I am happy to surrender my emotions over to nature. Whom else can you? The surrender, devoid of anger and vengeance.  The surrender is a reminder of my place in the grand scheme of things. It sows the seeds of humility and gratitude. Humility, which I must subject myself to, shall allow me to behold the beauty of the natural around me.

Almighty Google-The Smartest Of All

I still remember myself innocently typing “Who is the Tree man of India?” into the Google search engine in response to a questionnaire handed out at school. Like many of my time, I too have become the smart teen who asks from the Smartest himself.

The productivity and widespread publicity of Internet created a wave of delight and relief for millions of school-going children. Where our parents would bend over thick encyclopaedias in the stuffy library, we had Google at our disposal. Wikipedia became my best friend during my homework hour.

My brother, who had been studying in Singapore at that time, brought the winds of modern technology to our house. I was chided for not using the internet ‘sufficiently’. I strived harder and dug deeper. To be able to find something on Google all by yourself had become ‘trendy’ at school.

As I came to high school, I missed my virtual friend. With no social sciences and core sciences being the sole subjects, I felt nostalgic on remembering the good old easy times. With complex algebra and Euler’s postulates surrounding me, I was already messed up enough to venture into deeper depths. Google could not solve the complex questions for me. Those two years were a hell of a ride.

College became the eye opener for me. We were drummed by our seniors from the very first day “Internet is your best friend here”. My mistake was that I felt I had extracted all I could from Google. But, lo and behold, I saw my fellow peers deftly tapping “College life learning” into Google, through the calculus class, just a week into college. They had taken their seniors’ advice all too seriously. Googling life’s complexities became the new cool. I too joined this festival of Googling. I too learned the feted skill of Googling to keep up. You guessed it. I even tried searching ‘Life keeping up’.

Now that I have mastered this skill too I intend to move on. But no. This time, I won’t google ‘ambitions college life’. I have reached tipping point and I am fortunate enough to halt my race with the world.

It is worth pondering over that in an age where everyone wishes to be self-reliant and independent, one likes doing work solo. For solo work carries more recognition. This is one step towards compartmentalization and retreating into the shell of greed.

Our interaction with the world has become minimal and fellow humans have simply been reduced to tools for access to fun and happiness. We think twice before asking any question. What if my question is trivial? We are told to be independent but also work smartly. These two ideas are notoriously at odds with one another. I won’t ask the guy next room (problem solved in 2 minutes) but search for the needle in the haystack on Google to be independent (problem solved in 30 minutes). In an attempt to produce a know-it-all image we have shirked human feelings.

The surreal beauty of an intellectual discussion has been lost. Emotions are slashed out as detractors from truth. We fail to understand our elders’ struggles for we have not heard them. How can we feel the bitterness of war raging in the eyes of the stoic survivor? How can we learn from the experiences of our parents expressed through the highs and lows of their voice? We cannot. The solution is not Herculean. We need only to have patience to listen. The emotion ensconced in truth completes the solution.

Let us not become repositories of information. Let us shower the respect Google deserves and leave it at that. There is no harm in acknowledging Google as the GOAT in IQ and the WOAT in EQ (for those unaware of GOAT/WOAT –you can either discuss it over lunch or as always; Google it.)

My Reflections on Unbroken

Wise people say “Don’t make promises that you can’t keep “, but perhaps the very purpose of promises lies in the will to fulfil them.

Seeing myself lose gratitude for the life I was living, I decided to pick up a book which could sprout in me the feeling of being fortunate. Thanks to my trusted gauge Goodreads, I picked up Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand as my guide.

The book describes the story of former Olympic runner Louis “Louie” Zamperini and his experiences during WW2 .The initial part of the book illustrates a restless, relentless troublemaker Louie. He has a knack for getting into trouble and the gift to let himself free from any situation. Due to his headstrong brother, he lets go of his insincerity and enters professional running. The story of a Zamperini’s rise to an Olympic runner hooks one to the book. The story itself along with the crisp focus and description of the events makes his early life a thrilling and an inspiring read.

The second part describes his time as a commander in the US Air Force. The description of the wartime life of a soldier is poles apart from that by Joseph Heller in Catch 22 which sublimely presents the imagery with an undercurrent of satire and humour. Hillenbrand presents an ominous setting to the dangers to which men put their lives forward to on each mission. The army’s allegiance to the nation and men is not exaggerated. Zamperini’s refusal to announce Japanese propaganda on radio under life-threatening conditions is a testament to this fact. By not revealing Mac’s weakness for food on their first night on the raft to the public, both Louie and Captain Phillips set a precedent for camaraderie and pay homage to Mac without whom survival would have been improbable.

After some successful missions, Louie finds himself in the Green Hornet which crashes into the Pacific during a search mission. Louie, Phil and Mac survive. Hope was all that they had in the ocean. Strength of mind over body drives Louie and Phil to spare no effort in devising ways to stay alive. Mac’s continually depressive thoughts could have been infectious but the pilot and the bombardier safeguard their minds from the abyss of negativity through mental creations.

Wise people say “Don’t make promises that you can’t keep “, but perhaps the very purpose of promises lies in the will to fulfil them. One cannot fail to notice that it was his ‘promise’ to his fiancée Cecy of marrying her after the war that drove Phil through such hardships.

The two men knew what fate held for them when they were found. I would not dwell on the mistreatment and the inhumane attitude of the Japanese guards towards POW’s. My mind could only conjure a blurry image of the atrocities committed, something I shall not be and would never wish to comprehend.

As I read through Louie’s experiences at various POW camps, my mind reeled back to his circumstances on the raft. Getting out of there, alone had been a harrowing experience. Did not experiencing further hardships at the hands of ‘The Bird’ go beyond the realm of human strength to endure such torture and condemnation? Although, both Louie and Phil being alive after World War 2 was fortunate coincidence, they both had gone through utter hopelessness and despair on the raft. I believe the ordeal was the grinding stone for their mental strength. They pushed through and came off even tougher rather than depleted. Louie is, too, quoted in the book saying that time in the ocean gave him mental space that he had never been given before. Phil believed that they wouldn’t last longer than the record of 23 days. They survived 47 days. It is no doubt that their days were doubled as each one had a companion to confide his feelings in.

After returning from war, Louie faces the horrifying nightmares of his torture. The end of his running career due to a broken ankle put out the sun to which Louie would rise to after the storm of dark dreams. With nothing to cling onto, he ends up on wild drinking sprees .He retreats into the selfish cocoon of curing himself of the demon, heedless to the lives around him.

Had he not injured his ankle, he probably would have even gone into professional running and represented America post war. But the question remains: How much would he have recovered from the horrors of war?

He was shaken up through Billy Graham’s preaching when he realized that he was not being a good man in society.His conversion to evangelical Christianity was not meant to serve himself but others. That perhaps is the essence of prayer. One does not take up prayer to only alleviate one’s own suffering, but to be the support in his neighbors’ trials and tribulations.

Plucking the life out of ‘The Bird’ would never have given him the redemption he hoped for. His visit to the prison guards in Sugamo served as the beacon of redemption during times of deep distrust and hatred. The unresentful interview of Watanabe shows us how he had still not given up the war inside him. Louie served as the living example of ‘Forgiveness rises above revenge’. Reading Louie’s story made me believe that perhaps the only true way to live happily is by being grateful. His name is secured in the annals of American athletics but the World shall look up to him as an epitome of forgiveness and redemption.