French chapter

French chapter is all about my 7-month European sojourn (Merci, French education Ministry) and I have attempted to recount some of the wonderful experiences encountered.

Strasbourg gets it’s due

maison de tanneursThis blog took off when I was in Strasbourg however little credit has been given to the picturesque city that I very briefly wrote about in one of my first few posts. I’m making those amends now.

While filling up the form for the ‘teaching programme’ in early 2011, I had 3 cities (in France) to choose from a complex list of 3 columns. Paris wasn’t an option simply because I wanted to to be in a less ‘touristy’ and less expensive city (I was a teacher but living on a student stipend, mind you), Sapin du Noelcommute less and more importantly attempt my terrible french on a few poor souls and not get away with English. But which city? After short-listing a few closest to Germany and Switzerland (cold over warm any day, baby!) Strasbourg was ranked No. 1, also thanks to a friend who’d stayed there earlier and raved about it.

Et voilà, Strasbourg it was! I fell in love with it the minute I ‘googled‘ it. And within a month of living there, I felt like a local, complete with beret in the head, nose in the air (cold one, that!) and baguette in the hand. Along with a bottle of vin rosé that was bought every Tuesday for the most-awaited weekly soirées!

Tarte flambée or FlammkuchenThat said, Strasbourg really isn’t that city you’d include in your to-do list if you visit Europe considering there are more popular and raved-about cities.  But here is why I think you must absolutely visit it should you ever be fortunate enough to smuggle a bank and go to that side of the world.

  • skiYou can be in France and Germany at the same time! Having been a German city for ages, the city alternated between both countries eventually staying put in France. The German city of Kehl is just a 10-minute bus ride away!
  • Alsatian architecture that’s oh-so-pretty with flowers dotting every household. Don’t buy any of those postcards – just take a photo and you’ll see they are just as good. (Trivia: Strasbourg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
  • Tarte flambée or Flammkuchen. The Alsatian version of pizza, cheese replaced with crème fraîche. And choucroute ofcourse, of which I have nothing to say except that it looks scary!
  • ChristkindlmarktThe usual tourist haunts worth seeing:  ‘La Petite France’ and ‘Notre Dame’ – try climbing the spiral for a breathtaking (literally) view of the city. A batorama or guided boat ride if you are not upto walking or cycling (which by the way, is a fun way to cover the city in a couple of days) is also a decent alternative.
  • If you are here around winter, Christkindlmarkt or Christmas markets (and consequentially gluhwein) are definitely a must.Parliament
  • Riquewihr & Ribeauville- an hour away from Strasbourg and villages that appear to have sprung out of fairy tale books. In fact, Riquewihr is classified as ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France’ and along the famed Alsatian wine route.
  • Finally, if politics is your your cup of mulled wine, visit the European parliament (which by the way is a ‘modern’ building standing out sore) in session and entertain yourself listening to various country representatives put forth their case in native languages.
The strasbourgeios' love for the animal is omnipresent!

The strasbourgeios’ love for the animal is omnipresent. In more ways than one.

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Categories: France, French chapter, Strasbourg, Travelogue | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Sleeping with the locals

Aha, got your naughty brain working there, didn’t I?

To set matters straight, this post is all about why it really pays to make a few friends from another country/culture and if possible – get to know them better even before you make the trip.

Esther who took me around Alsace's Xmas markets

Esther who took me around Alsace’s Xmas markets

Couchsurfing, ofcourse, has become a somewhat generic term now thanks to the popular website. I’ve had just 3 experiences so far but each one of them unique and totally worth the experience. The first one was at Amsterdam with an elderly English lady (a lovely room to myself and a hair-raising but commendable narration of her life), the next in Copenhagen with an intelligent & chatty Polish girl and the last one (that happened in very couchsurfing-like fashion at the 11th hour) in Berlin with a young German girl well on her way to find love and marriage in Columbia!

However, much before I registered on Couchsurfing and much before the French chapter, someone mentioned a little-known website going by the name Frenchspeakingpeople. Of course you did have to know a bit of French or at least be a francophile to begin. I started out filtering profiles (based on my own set of FBI parameters) and sent badly-grammared french e-letters to them stating how much I loved cheese & wine and how I’d love to give them interesting insights into the colourful chaos that is India.

I got a success ratio of 10% which turned out to be a small bunch of folks mainly from France and one from Belgium & Czech respectively – I can’t emphasis enough how beautiful and large-hearted they all proved to

Corinne's Cottage!

Corinne’s Cottage!

be. It was an email relationship for roughly 5-6 months where I debunked some typical myths they had about India and learned a lot more about specific regions in France and how different each of them were. Once I was there, I met/stayed with most of them – overwhelmed with their generosity and kindness till this day. And yes, I continue to keep in touch with them regularly, if not as often as I’d like to.

A quick overview of the Couchsurfing map shows that the concept is most popular in the Americas and in Europe, but the good news is that it is catching up in Asia and more specifically India as well. With the little but great experience I’ve had, I’d like to (*clears throat*) impart my own set of do’s and dont’s:

– I’ve had family/friends look shocked when I said I stayed with a stranger. I can empathise with that because I felt the same way not too long ago. But you have to do it once to be convinced. If you are single, I can’t find one reason why you musn’t couchsurf. If you’re married

The coolest travellers I've come across!

One of the coolest travellers I’ve come across!

with/without kids, all the more reason to do it because you can actually see how families function in another culture.

– If you are a bit investigative like I am, use Google search to the fullest and you’d be reassured and/or amazed with some of the long-lost links it can throw up. Yes, it may not be the best or fool-proof method but having heard of some bad experiences from others, it’s prudent to be aware.

– Be precisely what your emails and your detailed description claims yourself to be. I know of a friend who stayed with someone who turned out to be exactly the opposite of what the profile stated. While there was nothing to worry home about, the experience was dull and boring, to say the least.

The host's balcony that made me fall in love with Berlin!

The host’s balcony that made me fall all the more in love with Berlin!

– Try and stay over a weekend or when the host has a holiday – not only can they take you around and show you the less-touristy spots but also spend time with you. Nope, you aint going there just for the free couch.

– Always take something for the host. Always. Ideally something from your country that is unique and not-too-heavy but if you don’t have the time, take them out or even better – cook them a traditional meal if possible. Yes mom, the pav-bhaji masala came handy 🙂

 – Remember the “Sex-in-English-means-Six-in-Swedish” stories you have read or heard? Do read up a little about the other culture. For the record, however unrelated, I will still continue to freak out about lack of latches/bolts in French toilets.

– Lastly, be prepared to host. Yeah okay, I have not done it as yet <shamefaced> but hey, our home is now set and ready. Bienvenue!

Categories: French chapter | Tags: , | 6 Comments

La Nostalgie

Nostalgia comes to all of us in various forms. A place visited, something you ate years back, a school reunion, a song. And then, something as cringe-worthy as hearing someone blow her nose.

When I set foot in France, the weather was just transitioning from autumn to winter. Could it be the climate change or could it just be that the French (or westerners to generalize) use a lot more tissues in their daily lives than Indians? Right from cleaning a food stain to wiping sweat to more intimate (t)issues that may not be worth detailing. All said, tissues are finding increased usage in India too – however, growing up (the 80’s generation and before) we have seen a lot more hankies, towels and water being used for all of the above mentioned!

So my initial reaction to hearing tram passengers in Strasbourg blow their nose vigorously for a good 2 minutes was one of horror. I mean, yes I know something is bothering you, nice pretty woman – but why be so loud and open about it? And before I knew, the elderly gentleman next to me was also blowing his nose. And another one. In a few days, horror gave way to amusement, and among other things, I self-entertained my daily commute by listening to different tones, rhythms & intensities.

Now comes the embarrassing part, but it becomes imperative that I am honest here. You know that saying “When in rome….” – well, a few weeks down the line and I was one of them. Painting a not-so-pretty rouge picture of my round nose like just every one of ’em. Blame it on the icy weather, I say!

Anyway that runny-nose phase has gone past. Two days ago, the newly-joined French intern at work blows her nose. Just like the way they all do. And I once did. And strangely enough, I stopped what I was doing, looked at her and smiled, a sense of déjà vu totally enveloping me.

Strange, this nostalgia.

Categories: French chapter, India | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Melting Pot Mardi

Raclette – simple yet complex French dinner

Allow me to explain the title right away. Mardi is Tuesday in French (oh yeah, Mardi Gras!) and Melting Pot is a reference to the sought-after dinners that I went to, every Tuesday, during my brief stay in Strasbourg.

What – The Dinner Club

Who – An always-present group of 8 teaching assistants comprising 1 American, 2 Canadians, 2 Italians, 2 Germans and of course the Indian. The youngest being all of 21 and the oldest …well, lets not get there. And every once in a while, a few other invitees gracing their presence.

Why – A random but brilliant suggestion from Rach, the Canadian in the first week we met. We got so taken by the concept that it became a weekly ritual thereon.

Why Tuesday– Because none of us had to teach on Wednesdays!!! (One drink was always reserved

Mexican!

Mexican!

for the French Education Ministry, bless them.)

Where: Mostly at the humble but comfy abodes of Mr/Ms Canadian or Miss. American and occasionally at others.

When: Starting around 1930 / 2000 . Typically ending at midnight when some of us rushed to catch the last tram of 0030.

Now for the interesting part – what ensued every Tuesday?

1) Food! The idea was that one person would cook and bring the food of his/her respective country. Repetition wasn’t allowed. So once we were done with pancakes, pastas and rice we moved on to exploring other cuisines – notably Cuban and Japanese among others. At this point, it is only apt that the rest of the group express their gratitude to me – how else would they have known that such amazing vegetarian options existed in their countries if not for me? *evil grin*

Games

Some serious work there o’er wine & games!

2) Wine! Some secret clubs have passwords. Ours was a bottle of wine (Champagne if you may, but no one ever got that generous barring once). The sane exception to this was the insane German boy who religiously got a carton of jus d’orange (we suspect he bought them wholesale). Must admit though that it was a wise decision, especially when other bottles had dried up. On that note, here’s some trivia: A bottle of wine from the supermarket can be bought for as little as 1 Euro. Les français, they sure have their priorities right.

3) Games. I’ve learnt some whacky and absolutely rip-roaring games over those dinners!

4) French. Being in the country that gave us an opportunity to come together, we kept it as the medium of communication. Occasionally cheating every now and then with English. I’d safely say that my French improved from 5% to 25% thanks to these dinners.

Santé!

Santé!

5) Swear words! In French, German  Spanish  Italian, Polish, you-name-what. Some in Hindi were promptly imparted. (All my hindi speaking friends, I can see y’all smirking at the girl from south. @#$!)

6) Melting pot. Of different nationalities. The serious fun part. Being the lone Indian who went to Strasbourg (there were more than 5 who went to Paris and other regions likewise) turned out to be such a blessing – it ensured that I dint roam around in ‘clans’ and consciously got out of my comfort zone to meet and make new friends.

All in all, a cultural/gastronomic enlightenment! So many new things observed, eaten, learned, experienced. Now I know that referring to USA as America can annoy the life out of a Canadian, that nothing could be more scandalous to an Italian than eating vegetarian bolognaise (no, not even Berlusconi), and my changed perception of Germans who have already got due mention in my earlier post! And finally an inference from this group that Indians seem to be the only ones who cant sip their drink patiently with dinner.

While each one of us are so different, there were so many things we liked and so much we all felt strongly about. If only being together was as easy as this, the world would be so much more peaceful! I’m starting to feel a li’l preachy now so time to bring this to an end.

With our Secret Santa Gifts

With our Secret Santa Gifts

Merci mes amis – all of you in the above pic – for all of the above!

Categories: France, French chapter, Strasbourg | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Doors, limited edition!

YellowI loved sketching and more specifically, architecture during my teen years and at some point my uncle, an architect, persuaded me to take it up as a career option. Life had other plans and so flew by, the years. A bit of travel here and IMG_2222there within India brought the camera out and photos of quaint constructions, temples, and other such structures were taken. My interest in buildings ended there.

And then came along Europe where all of a sudden the atmosphere was so different from that back home and the architecture – an integral part of European history – very much preserved and oh-so-beautiful. When you are suddenly part of another culture, there is so much excitement and so much to Redsoak in that sometimes, you miss seeing the obvious.

The obvious here, being doors – such an essential component of every home. As I walked back from school one evening exploringFloral a different route, I saw this closed boulangerie (bakery) with what I thought was a very interesting looking door.  The Japanese part of me (that plays a very dominant role in my travels) immediately got the good ol’ Canon out of my bag and a couple of photos were quickly taken before I continued to stand and admire it a little longer. 

After that, everywhere I went, my mind got attuned to paying extra attention to doors. Evidently, European homes try and blend quaint with colour and some of these doors are testimony to that.

Sagrada Familia

And while we are on Europe and architecture, how can I miss mentioning Sagrada Familia, Barcelona and Gaudi’s famed structure that draws thousands of tourists each day. But to be honest, I didn’t fancy it that much – possibly having not spent as much time inside as I should have (I absolutely loved the other quirky works of Gaudi, though).  Gaudi’s life is a fascinating one and we got a brief introduction to it through our hostel tour guide. Nevertheless, back to the subject – any guesses what I loved most about the church? Yeah of course, the door.

Two massive heavy-looking entrances made of stone and metal. Dark and covered with a sculpted jumble of words adorning the outer panels. Apparently, the words are taken from the Bible representing various languages including Catalan with some highlighted in gold, notably Jesus in the centre. Divine, indeed.

Now living in a ‘concrete desert‘, door-observation has taken a break as there’s not much variety to the hotel suite-like doors here. And funnily, as I bring this post to an end I suddenly realise how I’ve rarely come across an open door. Yes, all doors that I passed by were invariably closed, what a contrast to Indian homes! Something to do with the cold weather, or perhaps it’s in the culture? What do you think?

And on that note, please do take a look at the little colourful album I put together here for more proof on closed doors! (Ps: I’m still figuring out Pinterest).

Cocktail

Categories: French chapter, Travelogue | Tags: , , , , | 13 Comments

Cycling, Couchsurfing & Copenhagen

The idea was to discover a cheap way to get to Berlin and return en route Prague or Munich if possible. But while tinkering on the Easyjet site, I stumbled upon an inexpensive fare from Basel (the airport nearest to Strasbourg) to Copenhagen and an even cheaper fare from there to Berlin! So was just that an incentive to go to Copenhagen? Nope. It also gave me an opportunity to finally meet my Danish e-friend, Bitten!

So tickets are booked and I am revelling at the amazing deal and how I’d get to see a Scandinavian country that wasn’t even on my travel plan. And then I start looking at hostels.

Mild cardiac arrest. ‘Penny wise Pound foolish’, as the saying goes.

Guilt of having done business and economic studies and not  realised that Denmark is a country with one of the highest standards of living. Which means everything is freakin’ expensive. Which simply put in monetary terms mean 1 Danish Krona = 7 Euros = 450 Indian Rupees.

Good heavenly mother of God, to borrow a wise-mans phrase.

2 days to go before the trip begins and not yet found a place to stay. But why fear when Couchsurfing’s here! And thus, I had my second experience of staying with a local, once again awesome!

I stayed with a Polish-Danish couple for 3 days in Copenhagen. While I slept on a make-shift bed in their living room and showered in the tiniest bathroom ever – it just about fit me in (the couple were much thinner) – it was a refreshing experience nevertheless and one I couldn’t have possibly had in a hostel or in a 5-star hotel. Agniezka (make sure you pronounce that ‘Ag-nee-edge-kah’) the Polish girl warmly welcomed me, chattered non-stop and her Danish boyfriend William who was travelling when I arrived, joined us a day later and together, they gave a complete insight on Danish & Polish culture – both of which I knew nothing about. Ag even lent me her ‘cycle’ (bike as they all call it) and what an experience it was being part of Copenhagen’s much touted eco-friendly transport system! Never in my life would I have imagined cycling in Copenhagen at 11.30 pm and returning home. Completely safe!

On the afternoon of Day 2, we set out to meet Bitten and her family. I had exchanged a few mails earlier with her and all of a sudden I was about to have lunch at her place – and what a lunch it was! She whipped up an impressive meal combining Indian and Danish cuisine. Raw banana fritters, spinach cheese pie, aubergine tomato pie, brown rice and  black lentils (dal) flavoured with mango-chutney – and all of them washed with red wine! She and her husband then took us to the city centre and showed us some of Copenhangen’s landmarks including the beautiful harbour and the next day, we went to a grand park that was later marred by a heavy bout of rainfall. Unfortunate, but gave us the opportunity to devour a nice dessert at a nearby café!

Mange tak, Bitten & Agniezka – truly loved every moment spent with you & your family!

My 2 cents:

Copenhagen may not be on top of my ‘must-travel’ list. But there’s so much about the city and its way of living that I admire. And the two wheeled wonders ofcourse. Forget Amsterdam, if you want the pleasure of cycling side-by-side with an executive head of a Danish company on his/her way to work, you are in the right place.

Categories: Denmark, French chapter, Travelogue | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Dankeschön Deutschland!

The surprise package of my travel experience has been Germany. And Germans in general.

We all grow with certain perceptions of people, places and things. And stereotype them. So one such stereotype I had was Germans being a cold and unfriendly race and German, a ‘harsh’ language – quite an extreme from French, Spanish and Italian – the romance languages I am more aware of. Another one was a Germany that had only meat and potato stalls for food!

With the germans

And then I met Christina. My first German friend who broke the first myth. Who proved that you can eat a lot and exercise, thereby keeping the stomach and the body happy. But I digress. While I still think German is not the best sounding language, she got me curious and amused. I used to love listening to her and Nils, my other german friend talk though I understood nothing. However, it is interesting to note that it has words similar to English and might not be so hard to learn, after all. Oh, and I expanded my German vocabulary, not all of them decent of course 🙂

Nils, who looked as german as a German possibly could, turned out to be a lot of fun and more importantly, a great cook. The the mouth-watering sans-meat Spätzle he made for a group of us is personally one of the highlights in our weekly Tuesday dinners.

Strasbourg is just a couple of kilometres away from Kehl – the little German town across the river Rhine. While it is almost non-existential, it means a great deal for the Strasbourgeois who do a lot of shopping (groceries and otherwise) since they are much much cheaper there! I too, saved a few precious euros there.

The potent Gluhwein (Mulled wine) to get by cold german winters

Gegenbach– a little village in which reside the ‘young’ grandparents of Chris. The first visit was a tour of the village early November, where I had some yummy wine and cake at their beautiful home. The second one was later in February to see the ‘acclaimed’ yearly carnival where all of a sudden, the quiet village suddenly sprung to life!

Then came Weisbaden, the historic spa-town close to Frankfurt. This was the base for New Year’s day for the husband and I, thanks to his hospitable (ex)boss. A home-made gourmet lunch made by Pedra, his charming wife, and later a long walk across the city centre with a free tour of the historic spots.

This was followed by a rainy day in Heidelberg visiting its famous castle and walking through the streets filled with university students. Walking always leads to hunger and soon I was in a small Döner kebab joint that served an amazingly yummilicious falafel. The best of the many falafels I ate later on. Yes, vegetarian. That broke the second myth.

When the sun shone

Stuttgart was a bit of a disappointment, a dull city on a rainy day also hampered by a severe winter flu! And looking at tons of Mercedes Benz’ whizzing past us (like they were Maruti 800’s) only made matters worse!

Mannheim had to be visited. Arch – an old school friend I met after years, which obviously meant good moments relived and some great indian home-cooked food. A long drive along the River Rhine dotted with tons of castles and Lorelei, a place where the sun showed some mercy and gave 10 minutes of a much-appreciated panoramic view of the river and the row of sun-washed coloured houses alongside.

East side gallery

Lastly, a city I wanted to go just because it was called Berlin. Nain, I had no valid interest to go there, but how could you stay so close to Germany and return without seeing Berlin and its inglorious past. And so Berlin, I went – the last city in my European voyage. Couch-surfed with Luise, a young, hospitable and super-whacky German girl. Did I like the city? Lets just say that if I were asked to pick one big city to work and settle in Europe, it just might be Berlin. I really cant find a logic to that answer. I tried. No, please don’t blame it on the beer.

And so here’s a toast to Germany and my German friends – PROST!

Categories: French chapter, Germany, Travelogue | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

Notes from Netherlands

A 4-day Easter break provided the perfect opportunity to visit the land of tulips, canals and cannabis.

A little more than a day was spent travelling to and from Amsterdam in the low-priced but painstakingly long and uncomfortable Eurolines bus. But then, that applies for bus journeys world over for yours-truly, so we shall let that pass.

While there was no fixed itinerary, there were a couple of places I wanted to see – Anne Frank Museum and the Tulip garden at Keukenhof.

I didnt see either.

To digress a bit, this was my first Couchsurfing experience, where, as the name goes, you ‘surf’ on a couch (or a mattress) at a local’s place. After weeks of contemplation, I finally mustered the courage to stay with a ‘stranger’ who had agreed to host me through the website. (Must admit I did some background research – courtesy google – results of which made me wonder whether I’d return in one piece)

But it turned out to be an awesome experience. My host, a 50ish year old lady with a heavy Yorkshire-accent has spent a major part of her life in Amsterdam, has a small but cosy apartment tucked in a quiet locality away from all the noise and crowds of the touristy city centre. She welcomed me with a warm hug followed by a delicious ginger-carrot-parsnips soup (recipe duly noted) and further went on to share experiences about the city and to a large extent, how its ‘vices’ undid and did her life. I had a small room to myself and was completely at home. It was an enriching experience and only made me wish I had couchsurfed in my earlier travels.

We chatted on and on with me having lost track of time. When I finally left her place and reached Anne Frank’s museum, it was 4pm and suddenly it seemed as if the whole world had congregated in Amsterdam on this long holiday weekend. The queue must have been about 250-persons long. Took the alternative option of visiting the ‘Heineken Beer Experience‘, that included an hour long guide to beer-making along with simulated and interactive stuff ending rightfully with 2 complimentary beers. Anne Frank was momentarily forgotten.

A Sunday morning attempt to revisit the museum was in vain with the queue having doubled. Ditched even the one-hour drive to the famed Keukenhof to see tulips. I was content with my own little tulip corner in Strasbourg rather than seeing a field interspersed with millions of tourists posing or clicking photos. So the miserably cold and rainy day was spent loafing around canals, a quick glimpse at the red-light area (which is literally, at the heart of the city) and a small ‘dig’ of a chocolate ‘hash’ brownie at a coffee-shop (we are in legal territory, remember? :D).

In hindsight, Monday was best day spent in Netherlands. A quick online research made me decide the best option was to get out of the city and its madding crowd. Reached the train station and bought a return ticket to Delft along with a currant bun and raspberry smoothie. The hour-long journey was perfect, the country-side dotted with a few windmills and acres of tulip fields that I’d missed seeing earlier. Delft, a city known for its blue-pottery making was postcard-pretty with a magnificent church at its centre. I was even party to an Easter choir, thanks to a volunteer who instantly gave me a handout in Hindi! Later, was involuntarily pulled into a cheese shop that allowed me to taste 5 flavours of cheese, all drool-worthy. Happily left the place after investing in a small jar of organic cranberry mustard!

The return journey included two more quick stops – at Leiden (a canalled city like Amsterdam but smaller and far prettier) and Haarlem (once again pretty, but eerily deserted and I almost lost my way back to the station, phew!)

I would definitely want to revisit Netherlands some day and explore the many mind-numbingly pretty towns. And finally drop into the Anne Frank museum on my way out  🙂

Categories: French chapter, Netherlands, Travelogue | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Mamma mia, this gotta be Italia! – Part 2

(contd. from earlier post)

The French Padre

And so, from the Vatican I made my way to the metro station to return to Rome and along, figured I had lost my way. And who should I ask but a young (and handsome, if He may) pastor for directions? Turned out that he was also on his way to the capital, and so we had a brief 10 minute walk where I learnt that he was actually French – a religious Frenchman, that’s a bit hard to believe – who obviously was happier answering the call of God in Italy.

To trim or not to trim

3 days in Rome passed by with a running nose, and seeing almost everything Rome had to offer – the Colosseum (stunning at night), Trevi fountain, the Spanish steps and the Pantheon. Then out of impulse, I did the weirdest thing – I went to a barber salon! Haircuts in Strasbourg are expensive, and after an enquiry, i figured that it was 75% cheaper! So, in Rome on my last evening, I communicated with the non-english speaking, Berlusconi-look alike barber in 5 italian words and a whole lot of actions and had a haircut that actually looked pretty cool 😉

Run, Vendor, run!

If you have been to Fashion Street in Mumbai where road-side vendors close shop and run at the sight of cops, this might strike a chord. Similar incidents happen in Italy, as I found out near the Vatican museum. After travelling through big cities in Europe where everything is orderly and people obey the law (in general), it was quite amusing to see vendors, selling fake Gucci’s and Rayban’s run from one end to another, and repeat the whole episode on a regular basis.

The bike ride

No guesses here! Papa G took me on a sexy bike ride across the streets of Naples and onto its posh neighbourhood as well! Sexy because it was a BMW bike. Ooh!

Papa G is the proprietor of a ‘hostel’ aptly named ‘Giovanni’s Home’ in Naples. His home was a blessing after 7 days of backpacking alone. He spent my first 30 minutes breaking some myths about Naples and its mafia and told me the places I should avoid. Thanks to him, I spent a wonderful day at the ruins of Ercolano and climbing up Mt. Vesuvius with 2 American girls who were on a short study-project. Back home for dinner and Papa G made us an excellent local specialty and we even dropped the girls to the airport. And on my final evening in Italy, not only did I get to sit on a fancy bike but was also treated to an excellent cioccolato-espresso at one of the popular cafes.

Lastly, I’d be erring on my part if I dint mention Sorbillo’s where I devoured the best pizza ever eaten. One huge Margherita in 5 minutes. Time to stop, or I’ll salivate my keyboard.

Long live Italian food! It was my constant companion through this solo backpacking adventure.

My 2 cents:

When some say Italy is all about food, they mean it. Don’t even dare return without having had a fair share of gelatos, paninis, pastas, pizzas, cappuccinos & espressos. And amidst all this gluttony, well, you can visit a few famed landmarks.

Categories: French chapter, Italy, Travelogue | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Mamma mia, this gotta be Italia! – Part 1

Italy was the first big solo backpacking trip – 11 days in all. Something I’d been wanting to do for long. And now that it has been accomplished, thank you very much but no, not again!

While this post (and the next) is about Italy, it’s not so much about the places I visited but rather about a few amusing observations and encounters.

I visited the 3 cities that most tourists goes to, and then went further south since my Italian friend had sung praises of how the southerners have more beauty and soul, in sharp contrast to everyone else who asked me not to venture down there alone!

And so the itinerary looked like this: Strasbourg – Venice – Florence – Rome & Vatican – Naples – Strasbourg

Pasta

Venice was rustic and commercialized but as beautiful as it is known to be, with gondolas and an array of stores selling fancy Venetian masks. After Day 1 of exploring the place with Meg, an American backpacker I met at the hostel, Day 2 was spent wandering through all those narrow alleys and waterways with an intention of getting lost and attempting conversation with locals for directions. Alongside intermittent but very essential gelato pit-stops.

Walking through one such alley, I hear a woman loudly yelling a repetitive “Pasta! Pasta!” followed by some words in Italian. I stopped and turned around, curious to know what that was all about. After a couple of minutes, from nowhere appears a brown mongrel running towards the lady. Now that was one very inedible but cute looking Pasta!

Marco Polo

Well, it’s just Marco. An old man I met at Florence. I checked into a really nice hostel and after a delicious cup of Cappuccino, hopped onto a bus that took me uphill to Piazzale Michelangelo, known not just for the statue of David, but also for a panoramic view of Florence, in particular The Duomo.

After having taken my fair share of photos, I couldn’t help but overhear an old man in conversation with a young traveller. Soon enough, our friend had a small audience, with me partly playing a translator! (since he spoke better French than English). So Marco had lived all his life in Florence and having retired, came to the square every evening and imparted a bit of knowledge of the place and its art, to those interested. Moreover, he took us to 2 quaint but different looking chapels further up the hill. As a result, I can now claim to know more about Renaissance and Gothic art than just their spellings. 😉

Mexico and Adiga over Risotto

A complimentary dinner and wine at the hostel in Florence made me return to my room by 7pm. Which was not a bad thing because:

  1. I got to taste some exquisite ‘Kirsche liquer’ from Lisa, my German roommate who came from the village which grows some of the best cherries
  2. I shared the table with a Mexican girl who asked me tons of questions on India in relation to Arvind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger‘, which she was reading before I interrupted her. In exchange, I learnt why I might have to carry a gun if I ever visited her little town close to Mexico city. One of the most interesting and intelligent people I met, and we left without sharing any contact information!! Serendipity, maybe?

Italian Mamma

I’ll try to remember Rome as positively as I can. Well, what do you expect if you are struck by a severe flu, put up in a hostel dorm where teenage something’s (okay, they were probably 20 something’s) come every hour till 4am to the room to drink, because the pub below was expensive? Add to that, 5 days of travelling alone with 5 more to go!

Anyway, Stop 1 was The Vatican. After touring the Basilica, I halted at a corner of St. Peters square, sitting next to a touring group of Italian ladies. ‘Mammas’ evidently because of their age and loud animated conversations. They seemed to be on a religious ‘picnic’ and this was their lunch break. The ‘leader’ mamma opened neatly packed foils of Paninis one by one, and distributed them to the rest. And then she saw me watching them all (in amusement, but maybe she dint think so). So gives me one glance and lets loose a string of words in Italian with a sweet smile. I’d learnt some key words, two being “Mangiare” (to eat) and “carne” (meat) so when I figured that the sandwich had meat, I declined with a visual attempt at being grateful for her offer. Only that she looked at me scandalised, threw up her hands the italian way and said – Non carne??? Mamma mia!! A curious bystander then looks at me and says “she is really upset that you don’t eat meat. So what exactly do you eat ??”

(to be contd)

Categories: French chapter, Italy, Travelogue | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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