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 maybe.rugby-ticket

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.

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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.

My tryst with greeting cards

I was waiting impatiently for the birthday boy. I am too punctual even for birthday parties. My friends consider this to be my fondness for free lunches. I could not disagree more. Walking through the branded shops, contemplating on the revenue and fate of the sprawling new mall, my gaze caught sight of the white in the red background displaying Archies.

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The calm, the sweet chime at the entrances and the neat stacked display of emotions had always attracted me towards a card shop. Cards themselves never fascinated me. Since childhood, I had seen cards as ‘stuff’ handed out during birthdays and anniversaries. Our school even held a card-making competition. With every art and craft competition, it was time to get sick.

The interior of the showroom was similar to the other franchisees I had visited. Wooden boards decked with cards with little plaques over them. The middle row consisting another of those stands and the corners of the rectangular shop adorned by shining glass showcases. My childhood memories came alive as I walked through the aisles. When was the last time I walked through these rows, adoring the neatly displayed cards? The arrangement evoked the last memory I had of walking in Archies. It was with my brother. We were looking for a card on our father’s birthday. It was then when I stumbled upon the Farewell section that I changed my perspective about cards and art. A card depicted a group of penguins waving goodbye to their leader, who with wide moist eyes waves back, floating away into the ocean on another ice block. I still remember delicately holding the card, scanning the picture to secure a place for it in the special album at the back of my head. I had never seen such a simple picture represent such strong emotions. I exclaimed to my brother, “Here “. He too was moved by the picture and explained with great pride, “See Shubhu, do you know who creates these greeting cards. You see it is not easy making them. Archies hires only highly creative and imaginative people of the industry. They brainstorm every day to bring out different cards on the same topic, no two cards being the same.” The image of creative young men and women on circular desks working in teams of four and five, perfecting the exact mix of art and words, floated through my mind. It was my first tryst with these soothing, silent, little works of art around me. Walking out of the shop, I felt I had unlocked another key to understanding the world. I had learnt to appreciate the work of a professional card designer.

From that day onwards cards have carried a special meaning to me. My notion of cards being just another formal routine to wish had been swept away. Admiration for designers and creative artists had taken its place. Today at the card shop I relived that experience with my brother and all those ‘other’ experiences which I had taken for granted while scanning for my friends’ birthdays.

The stream of thoughts abated as I felt the card in my hands. ‘What is so significant about the sensation of touch? Why is a hug more peaceful than words?’ I asked myself. As I write this, I feel cards exemplify the importance of touch. They serve as something in this abstract nothingness of human emotions.  They serve as the medium of communicating emotions, a conveyor of assurance that we are not alone. The adorned cardboard is worth a hundred digital template wishes.

Where did I learn History ?

I had always wished to write this article as an engineering student, and not as a student of history. An engineering undergraduate student who his passionate about social sciences courses.

Yet, it was only after reading Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning book,’ All the light we cannot see‘ that I was compelled to write this article. The book provides a detailed account on how the rigours of WW2 impacted the daily life of the common citizen in France and Germany. The drive to express myself on this topic was the culmination of the various pictures painted in my mind through my various readings about the Indian Independence movement and World War 2. Caught up in a retrospective mode after having read the above-mentioned novel, thinking about the Indian scenario during the 1940’s,I asked myself, “Where had I learnt more? In my eighth grade, spending a year learning the Indian independence or during the three months which I spent reading the greatest novel on Indian Independence- Freedom at Midnight. What was more responsible for the sense and understanding of Indian Independence which I now possessed?”

The book viewed the independence movement as something more than a chapter in history. To me, the freedom movement became the reason for our existence, in ways more than the history course book taught.

Having studied history all the way from the 6th grade to the 10th grade, I could never really appreciate how significant the subject was. During my post analysis of historical novels, I was asking myself, “Were we really taught history? Do we really appreciate the value of our freedom? Why, in our quest for future growth, do we forget the basic qualities which had defined us; which had united us? ”

I could see that the biggest problem lay in the manner history was taught to us and the way in which it is still being taught. We have condemned history to a subject of rote learning, full of dates and timelines and weird names of dynasties, but in this muddle, we have undermined its basic importance. History is a work of art. To actually study the subject requires imagining earlier times, not through logic but through emotions. It requires feeling the sweat of resistors amidst the stench of burning rubble in Yugoslavia. It requires feeling the blind nationalistic fervour of the teenage soldier of the Hitlerjugend. It requires appreciating our present. It requires paying tribute to our previous generations who came through mammoth ordeals to leave behind a peaceful world.

To really feel and appreciate history, we are not required to remember dates and the names of our rulers; instead we need to read the poignant letter of the young soldier, in his dying moments, to his mother. We need to read the biographies of men who survived the concentration camps. We need to read the accounts of the atrocities at Gulag in Russia. We need to understand how India would have been, had Gandhi never been the idiosyncratic freedom fighter he was. These stories, these accounts is what is missing from the subject of history in today’s middle school. My ‘formal’ classroom history course had created a void about which I never knew. An understanding of this void only came through after I started filling it, by reading and watching the literary accounts of the survivors of the 20th century.

Being an Indian I have always felt that our nation has downplayed the value of our freedom. We know the price of freedom in terms of the number of martyrs, but have not yet understood the value of their sacrifice. This is a feeling which India will have to develop as one nation. We do pride on our peaceful existence among the multi-cultural ethnicities but only if we could remember the people who made it possible in times of savage racial abuse and bloodshed.

The solution to understanding history needs to start from the bottom up. It begins in the middle schools teaching history. The course should not be just numbers and dates. Schools and teachers will have to make efforts to screen documentaries and include historical accounts into history books.

Only when we understand our country’s history do we begin to appreciate our nation’s existence. 15th August and 26th January remain no more than holidays if we cannot remember the martyrs who sacrificed their lives at the altar of freedom. Only then do we keep up the spirit of the Amar Jawan Jyoti.

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Why playful?

The word was catchy .In a life where everything seems just not enough, to see play suffixed with something so complete in its meaning was very appealing. The word conjures many images in my head but at the background of the screen of pictures lies my playful childhood image.

Marching forward to conquer our dreams and living with the maxim of making the best of our future ,we inevitably lose track of our beloved past.The word playful was enough to take me back in time, where I still remember  showing my milk teeth to the photographer who requested us to “cheese” for the family photo beside the waterfall.

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I feel blessed to have lived a happy childhood and to have availed all the luxuries a normal child could ask for. Unfortunately, not every one of us has a playful childhood written into their destinies. The burdens of supplementing their parents’ income or an unhealthy family environment are just some instances of a child losing the golden braid of childhood which is meant to adore a person’s life.

Being playful demands us to get rid of the hypocrisy we entangle ourselves with. Being playful is fulsome with no restrictions. Nothing can define playful,it is too good to be expressed in words. Neither can it be captured through a lens and rested on the living room mantelpiece.

The word playful is distinguished from happiness by the inherent social connotation involved. I can be happy for having achieved my business goal but I will be playful when I live up to my New Year Resolution, something which I had been drumming into my friend’s head every day to garner appreciation. Playful has the ability to delight not only ourselves but all those involved with us. These are moments of extreme happiness and moreover, they are pure as they are devoid of ill-feeling towards our peers. This purity is what frequently leads us to associate playfulness with childhood.

My 20 years of life has already shown me enough reasons of not letting, let go of my playfulness.I am sure my ‘adult’ life shall offer me,even more ,lessons and reasons to fill every moment of my life with pure happiness.

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FEDERER’S RETURN TO TENNIS

The much awaited ATP 1000 Monte Carlo Masters marked the beginning of the clay court season leading into the Roland Garros but for Federer fans, the tournament would stage the return of the former World No 1. The cameras focused on the Swiss, after his 2-month long break due to a knee surgery which saw him miss out on many of his favorite hunting grounds on hard courts.

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He eased past the first 2 rounds beating G. Garcia-Lopez (6-3, 6-4) and R. Bautista Agut (6-2, 6-4) with the precision of a Swiss watch. The hopes of a Federer-Djokovic semifinal clash dashed to the ground when World No. 55, Jiri Vesley sent Novak Djokovic packing in the second round of the Tournament.

Federer was now pitted with the heavy-built Jo-Wilfred Tsonga who had quietly made his way to the quarterfinals through his powerful trademark tennis.

The Swiss took the early advantage by sending an exquisite backhand down the line to take go up 2-1 in the first set. The French came back later for the equalizer. The 7th game at 3-3 proved to be the deciding point in the first set with a well-timed approach shot giving Federer the break, who later took the first set 6-3.

The second set saw Tsonga play with much dominance and authority .Federer did try to lengthen the set by breaking him in the sixth game, but could not quell the Frenchman’s fire as he took the second set 6-2.

The finesse of Federer against the hard-hitting Tsonga got the crowds going as they cheered every point in the third set. With the rallies getting longer, no player was ready to heave the first sigh. At 4-4, Federer leading 15-0, passed a majestic return to pave the way for a break to lead 5-4 and serve for the match. 2 points away from victory at 30-15, Roger lost his way to concede a break to Tsonga to make it 5-5. Poor selection of shots and a predictable approach-to-the-net play saw Federer losing the break to Tsonga to go down 6-5.The Frenchman calmly served out to win 3-6 6-2 7-5 and record his sixth win over Federer to make it 11-6 head-to-head.

Tsonga now goes on to play fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils in the semifinals.

Federer, ever optimistic, had only positives to speak of his game, “It was a good match. It was nice to play an intense match. I’m happy [with] how the body reacted. So many good things this week. It’s all positive for me.

“Number one, it’s good to play a tournament after having had surgery. Number two, it was good to play one match. It was good to have a match with a rest, then to play again. Now it was good to play back-to-back, yesterday and today. Then it was good to play 2 hours 10 [minutes] today.”

The third set proved to be a reminder that even for a consummate pro like Federer, pressure situations can prove too much handle unless one has some games behind him.

It would not be long though before we see Roger playing his best tennis, presenting the innumerable tricks up his sleeve (the much awaited Sneak Attack By Roger – SABR on clay courts), that earn him the title of the Swiss Maestro.