The Return

I do love my blog, just as one loves ones home. I feel bad about having neglected it for over a month. I have run my fingers along dusty surfaces and visited all the places I like to visit…the blogs I link to the sites I like. I found it weirdly comforting to see that I wasn’t the only one who was showing signs of unshakable lethargy. Some others hadn’t updated their blogs in weeks!

Perhaps we all got sucked into a vacuum; maybe we were all just floating around like space debris. For the last two months I had no insights and no blips of inspiration. I was lifting the state of feeling uninspired to high art.

I am still not inspired, still not able to come up with a coherent bit of writing that might engage my sparse audience for a few moments but I do sense some of the greyness lifting. It is a new year after all, time to shake off whatever it was that kept me running in slow motion and getting nowhere.

The missing time has been eventful. We suddenly decided that a trip to San Francisco was what we needed. The tickets were purchased the day after the impulse became reality and we flew west the next day.

Our very gracious host was a schoolmate who I met on Facebook after 26 years. He picked us up at the airport and we spent the next six days at his very impressive home and his wonderful wife, kids and dogs. This was the first time that a vacation felt like a real vacation; no worries plaguing us, good company, great food and lots of warmth and hospitality. We also met my friend’s neighbors whose warmth and friendliness so pleasantly surprised our frozen east coast hearts. They all treated us as if they had known us for the longest time.

Here are some pictures:

We’re waiting to get off the plane after a long flight, ready for sunny California after a cold and dreary New York winter.

Pensive as I wonder what makes a Hello Kitty camera work …or not!

We tried to be hardy New Yorkers, unaffected by the San Francisco winter, fifty-two degrees, c’mon, that’s like a sauna, no? But really it was quite cold, we should have layered up better on this trip to the famous Muir Woods.

Sometimes teenagers don’t pick up their phones when their Mom and Dad (our worried hosts calling the teen who preferred staying home to a millionth trip to Muir Woods) but a stranger they’ve just met (me) has better luck!

This was a trip to the Robert Mondavi winery at Napa Valley. You see no pictures inside the winery because short, under 13 people aren’t allowed inside! What if their parents made them taste the wine, God forbid! So no, we just walked around outside even though I have always been curious to see what happens to grapes en route to the fancy bottles.

See the grapevines in the back?

Apparently an itsy-bitsy spider went up Telegraph Hill!

The lovely Anoushka!

New Year’s Eve was an exciting reunion of four FAPSians (people who went to the Frank Anthony Public School in New Delhi and graduated in an Orwellian year). The joy one gets from being reunited with people with a shared history and shared memories is immense, I feel. From the left we see Roshni and Sunit, Mohit and Priya (our wonderful hosts), Raj and Rita and Anil and me.

Here’s Raj taking over Priya’s kitchen and dazzling us with his incredible masala chai making skills.

Here are the two pink Anoushkas, the same age, the same favorite colors, both with parents who attended FAPS!

Anoushka with Mohit’s labs – Sam and Frodo. She fell in love with them.

And here I am leaning and hanging at the mysteriously leaning shack at the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, CA

The Mystery Spot was our last stop of the California vacation. We plane hopped our way back to New York and New Jersey last night. The weather is supposed to be cold but sunny for the next three days and then they are calling for another cold front and another ice storm. Wish I was anywhere but here.

But I feel energized, some of the gloom has lifted. A big thanks to Mohit and Priya for making it possible.

Grand Canyon Report – Long Overdue

I never wrote anything about my October trip to the Grand Canyon and Sedona. What can one say that hasn’t been said before? It is all true, whatever they’ve said about that part of the country and the trance like effect it can induce. It is hard to tear ones eyes away from the beauty, to try to stop oneself from walking as far up to an edge as one would dare and then to look down, unable to drag oneself away from the moment, watching eagles’ nests or other birds circling in the canyon below and the Colorado River winding its way through the canyons so far away in the distance. One seeks saturation in that unspoiled beauty, a compelling desire to be absorbed into something that is bigger than oneself: the force of nature in action.

I wanted to pen a few words to preserve the memory but my words are inadequate. Which is perhaps the reason why what is even more memorable to me than the surroundings and the effect it had on me is an almost life like rendition of the canyon – oil on canvas – that graced the walls of the gift shop at one of the scenic stations. It was large; the canvas was perhaps 200 square feet in dimension. I had to inquire about it; it was the most striking landscape I had ever seen captured in paint, on canvas.

The cashier told me that the painting had taken years to complete. I asked about the artist and how he managed such an accurate perspective and such realistic coloration. She told me that he had been living deep within the canyons for several years now, that he had felt no qualms about abandoning the stresses, strains and tedium of the lives that are only too familiar to most of us. He had walked away from it all, without a second look back. That was fascinating for me, almost as fascinating as the canyons themselves. A concept that doesn’t cease to amaze no matter how clichéd it gets: walking away. So many real and fictional men have simply walked away to do what they want, to meditate, ruminate, and seek answers or oneness with a larger entity. Leaves me wondering why one hasn’t heard of too many women taking such action; some have tried, no doubt, and have in all likelihood earned vilification for being irresponsible mothers or wives or just plain insane. The idea is fascinating all the same: living in the bottom of the canyon to paint and live and live and paint.

So I’ve carried the memories of this painting back with me along with the image of an artist at the bottom of the most incredible natural phenomenon in this country. An anchored image that serves as a launching pad for a wistfulness that is complemented by the strains of R. Carlos Nakai’s flute music that we played in our top down convertible as we descended into Sedona, watching the sun set over the burnt umber mesa. The trip felt so much more like being wrapped in waves of silken caresses, like being alive and receptive to every sensation, than a mere tourist experience. If time had stopped at this juncture there wouldn’t have been any complaints.

Last Day in London

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We started the day at the British Museum on Russell Street. Once again, we used the Bakerloo Line from Paddington to Oxford Circus where we hopped into the Central Line train to Holborn Station. We saw signs here that said, “British Museum 6 min”. We walked in the direction the sign indicated while keeping an eye out for more signs that might tell us to turn this way or that, but none were forthcoming. Pretty soon we realized we had been walking for over 6 minutes and had probably overshot our target. We then started asking people who looked like locals, for directions, but locals I often find, are always surprisingly unaware of the points of interest in their cities. We received many an embarrassed shrugs and shakes of heads from people telling us they hadn’t a clue. So then we asked a parking attendant who told us to walk back toward Holborn Station and then turn left. We were finally there.
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It was quite an amazing museum. It is ranked amongst the top 10 in the world. And surprisingly, it was free. It had been free to the public since 1753. The museum building is phenomenal, the wide-open ground floor with light streaming in from the glass ceiling above and a plan that was intuitive and easily navigable. We walked straight up to the European prehistory and a money exhibit (sponsored by HSBC). The exhibit was fascinating, the things people tried to use for currency! King Gustav (?) of Denmark had tried using a copper tablet, its dimensions similar to present day legal size paper, causing a famous visitor to remark on how a cart was needed to transport Danish money when the rest of the world preferred carrying their money on a rope worn around the neck! I am sketchy on the details of which king, which visitor etc. because my attention was divided in scanning the crowded museum floor for Anoushka and Anil, who tend to disappear on me, and reading what was written about each exhibit. There was the jewelry room, the gold and silver ornaments, cooking utensils, prehistoric tools, all quite fascinating. But Alas! Museums are not ideal places for four-year-old kids or even husband. I have made a note to myself that I must indulge this interest in solitude whenever the opportunity presents itself again. The more memorable aspects of this particular visit can be summarized in the following lines:

“Can I pleaaaaaaaase get a drink, Mommy? I want juice, mommy!”
“Can we please go back to the hotel?”
“Can we please go to the kids’ section?”
“I’ll be over there, how long you gonna be?”

Needless to say, this fine museum could not be viewed in its entirety.

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Museum visit concluded it was time now for us to head over to the London Bridge Station where we had planned to meet our friends Anjali and Kishore. We had decided to meet outside the station, so we walked back to Holborn and took the Central Line train to Bank Street where we changed for the southbound Northern Line train that took us to our destination. Anjali and Kishore were waiting for us right outside and we had no trouble recognizing them even though we had never met each other in person.

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Anjali looked gorgeous in her lavender dress and a lovely crinkled silk shirt of the same color that she stylishly wore over it. This was my last day in London and at the end of my tether in wardrobe choices out of the suitcase I felt the usual female green-eyed monster of not quite matching up in attire. Kishore also looked as dapper in person as he did in his pictures. We had been looking forward to this meeting. My previous acquaintance with Anjali had only been through Shakespeare & Company and our frequent online chats. One is often surprised when meeting a virtual acquaintance in person; they often appear quite different from their online persona. Not so with Anjali, she was as wonderful, gregarious, intelligent and as sparkling a conversationalist as she was online. Kishore was also very easy to like and converse with. We sat down for a cup of coffee at the Starbucks and chatted awhile as it was still too early for dinner. Our pleasant conversation was soon interrupted by Anoushka’s desperate need for a restroom break.

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I suppose it would be unfair to state that public restrooms are hard to come by in London, but the fact remains that when we so desperately needed it, we couldn’t find one. We did see a coin operated one that kept returning our 20 p back to us and refused to open up. Anil finally walked inside a Thai restaurant and pleaded with the owner who relented and said he would allow just the kid to use the facilities.

After that we tried to figure out where we wanted to eat. I suggested Thai, only because when the option is left to me I always suggest Thai. But it was still too early to eat, so we walked toward the Tower Bridge. A beautiful sight! We saw more of the cobble-stoned streets and alleys, quaint looking old apartments connected to each other by bridges, flower beds on window sills; a very pleasant English sight. I commented on how visually appealing everything was and Anjali told me how architecturally conscious the British really were. We emerged on the side of the City Hall – the mayoral offices – in a modernistic tilted helmet like glass structure, supposedly a metaphoric representation of the ushering in of an era of openness.

We had just finished talking about the architectural beauty of the city and in that context the glass structure and the building known as the Gherkin – also made of glass – were quite an aberration, to my eyes. I am usually all for modern structures but only when all they blend in well with existing structures, in London they don’t.

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We kept walking until we came to what looked like restaurant row by the riverside. Anjali and Kishore pointed to one they said they frequented. I gave up on Thai and suggested we eat somewhere around there. Kishore went in to check if we could be seated outside at this place but they were already full and it was too nice an evening to spend inside. We walked on and noticed that several other restaurants were off limits to us because children weren’t allowed. We finally saw one that looked fine, allowed children and was going to find us seating outside – Brown’s. We got a pleasant enough table after a short wait.

Once the ordering was out of the way, we settled down for an evening of flowing conversation in a pleasant setting, watching dusk settle in over the Thames. We talked about several things – among them certain propensities that scientists attributed to the youngest male child in a family, a certain genetic predisposition. It was good for some laughs, since Kishore mentioned he was the youngest of all his siblings. We finally decided scientists were full of it and moved on to talk about our homes, our lives in the UK and the US, our future plans, Shakespeare and Company, monstrous egos, opinionated and arrogant behavior of certain ethnic groups, hypocrisy when it came to all matters related to sex etc.

The food arrived and was consumed, more drinks were ordered and the evening went on in an easy, unrushed fashion. Anoushka was quite enchanted by both Anjali and Kishore. She kept hugging Anjali for the longest time, ultimately deciding that they were her new parents. She told us we were still her parents but insisted that now she had two sets of parents, two mommies and two daddies, much to our hosts’ amusement.

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We were sad to see the evening end as we parted company. We thanked Anjali and Kishore for a delightful evening and ever since then have been trying to address Anoushka’s repeated inquiries about when she’ll see her new mommy and daddy again!!

Day 6 – London

The weather was nicer in London today. It even rained a bit. Our plan today was to see London in a very random fashion. We picked the brown Bakerloo line again, it appeared to be the line that hit many of the famous points of interest. Anil agreed I should lead the way today.

So I decided to start at Trafalgar Square. We alighted at the Charing Cross station. Anil, who unlike most men who get cursed for never asking for directions, can’t resist asking. He stopped at a newsstand and asked the lady where Trafalgar Square was. She pointed and said, “Right there!” In a way it was like Anil trying to find his wallet or watch or socks which are usually right in front of his nose but lost to him.

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It was raining now and we didn’t sport a raincoat or fancy galoshes like most Londoners around us, we didn’t have umbrellas either, so it was a good thing that The National Gallery of Art was right there. We headed straight in. It was free, or rather, asked only for donations. It was quite an impressive museum displaying the art of Rubens, Rembrandt, Seurat, Van Dyck. I could have spent several hours admiring the works, the colors, the different effects that ‘Oil on Oak’ achieved from ‘Oil on Canvas’, I wanted to read each description and write things down, but a museum is quite a passive place for a child, perhaps even for husbands. The only thing that held Anoushka rapt for several minutes was an artist who was trying to reproduce one of the Rembrandts. She watched with great interest as he looked at the original from various perspectives, placing a small ruler in front of his eyes as a visual aid, as he replicated the exact angles and placements of objects. There were many artists with their easels parked in front of various paintings, trying their hand at some famous original work.

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After ‘shopping and exiting’ we headed next to Regent’s Street. Anoushka had heard the tour guide on the first day talk about the largest toy store here – Hamley’s. So she had been asking us when she would be taken to the biggest toy store. So we were looking for Hamley’s on Regent’s Street and finally found it after a pleasant walk admiring all the ritzy stores and businesses that pay rent to the queen. Finally found Hamley’s and Anoushka went crazy right away, even though it wasn’t much different from our very own Toys ‘R’ Us.

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It was large enough that I experienced several panic stricken moments there after Anil and Anoushka got separated from me. I couldn’t find them for several minutes. And I am not silly enough to panic about being lost but my fears stemmed from not knowing whether Anil and Anoushka were together and thinking what if she was wandering around in the store lost, would she hear and understand what she was being asked to do if she was paged, what if she walked out of the store looking for us, I was breaking out in a cold sweat when I heard myself being paged and asked to report to the customer service desk. Amazingly they didn’t even mangle my name. I was on the same floor as the customer service desk when I heard the page and was greeted by cheers not just from Anil and Anoushka and the staff at the desk but the other customers who had been told, “My wife is lost!”

After that little bit of excitement we decided to stop for lunch somewhere. There was a guy holding a sign for a Thai Buffet £4.40 only. So we headed in that direction. It was a small place that offered rice + four toppings for the very low price. The plate was heaped up, the food was good. This was better food, in a larger quantity than the meager offerings at the Indian restaurant on the first day that cost us £80.

Our feet were quite sore by now and after lunch we decided to head back to the hotel to rest for a couple of hours. We decided to do the rest of our rambling in the evening. I pored over the maps to plan our next move as we rested. I wanted to see Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre so that was where we were going to start the night.

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We took the Circle Line train to Cannon Street; on the map I had it looked like all we’d have to do is cross the Southwark Bridge and we’d be right there. However, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Cannon Street station was also closing even though it was only 9:00 PM. This alarmed Anil and he started getting very anxious as the guy closing the gates kept trying to tell him that it wasn’t the end of the world and that there were several other stations nearby, “Not to worry, sir.” We walked on Cannon Street toward Upper Thames Street. It seemed to dead end at a famous looking restaurant – The Banker. There was a side alley that got us out of the dead end and we saw the London Bridge ahead. However, we didn’t see any steps that would take us up to the bridge. We asked someone again and they helpfully pointed to stairs that were once again, “Right there!” We were then on our way, headed toward City of London.

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It was a beautiful evening, a very slight but welcome chill in the air after the unbearable heat of the last few days. The sun was setting and the occasion was quite memorable. The silver dragon at the end of the bridge marked the city limits. We were now in the City of London. I guess this would be like Old London if they called it that, but they don’t. There were some gruesome things to see this side of the bridge – the Dungeons of London, the Clink Prison but this is where we started feeling the real flavor of London. We walked to the right of the London Bridge Underground, following the signs for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The path took us to impressive Southwark Cathedral, Clink Prison (1151-1780 – the most notorious medieval prison) and an infinite number of pubs and drinkers lined up outside waiting for tables, several beers already consumed. There was an interesting place called the Vinopolis Wine Wharf, a large wine mall, I suppose, and we kept asking about the Globe Theatre and walking. We finally saw it – Shakespeare’s Globe, built where the first Globe theatre once stood. The shows these days are booked well in advance and the Thakurs being such spur of the moment travelers are never able to enjoy anything that requires advance booking and elaborate planning. But it was interesting to see the inside of the theatre. There was a miniature model of the original displayed inside and the new theatre was an exact modern replica of the first one. I picked up as many pamphlets and brochures as I could and shopped for some Shakespearean merchandise.

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This part of London was exciting. We felt we could have spent several hours here if we had found a babysitter for Anoushka. There was a ritzy looking Pizza restaurant there – Pizza Express. I would have preferred another restaurant but Anoushka loves pizza, so does Anil, so we were Pizza Express bound. The name does sound like a fast food place but it was a rather nice restaurant, people were more dressed up than they would be at a pizza joint in the US. Anoushka closed her eyes as she relished her pizza, declaring it the best pizza she had ever had. Then she rubbed her tummy and said, “Ummmmmmmmm, that was yummy in my tummy!” Anil enjoyed his Pizza Diavolo as well. I had ordered Tortellini which was also quite delicious. Our drinks were the most interesting – Sicilian Blood Orange Juice and Sicilian Lemonade for Anoushka.

By the time the check got paid it was 11:15 PM. Anil was convinced that the last train to Paddington was at 11:53 PM. So we rushed out and walked to the London Bridge Station. We took the Jubilee Line to Waterloo, changed to the Bakerloo Line there and were at Paddington by midnight, before our coach turned into a pumpkin again.

I feel like a local here now and it’s a shame that pumpkin hour will hit for sure day after tomorrow when we head back to New Jersey. But we still have tomorrow, let’s see what tomorrow brings!

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Day 5 – Back in London

There isn’t much to write about on Day 5. We spent the day traveling back to London aboard the Eurostar and touring Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. We didn’t have the energy to do much more than that.

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Madame Tussaud’s was quite an intriguing place. The latest exhibit – Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from the movie The Pirates of the Caribbean – was amazingly life like.

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I enjoyed the older sections as well. But first I had to tell myself to stop feeling silly and start doing what the other tourists were doing, that is, standing in line to get their pictures taken with wax images of popular persons.

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I chose Alfred Hitchcock, Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin as the dead people with whom I wanted to be seen. I also took a long, good look at Alfred Hitchcock and Queen Victoria, these two wax images could have very well been fashioned from the very same mold! The facial features, the height, the physical proportions were exactly identical! That was my discovery of the day.

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We also got a brief glimpse of the Chamber of Horrors. I would have liked to see it, its gruesome promise was compelling but Anoushka’s screams were as daunting as the Chamber itself, so we rushed out of there after managing a cursory look. The last part of the experience was fun as well – a ride within the museum in miniature London taxicabs that takes you on a tour of London over the centuries. It was a delightful experience.

Then we left the museum, walked around Baker Street, saw the famous Sherlock Holmes statue, got ourselves photographed next to it and settled down for dinner at Bizzarro – Ristorante Italiano. And thus ended Day 5.

Tomorrow we plan to take the Bakerloo line to various points of interest – The National Gallery of Art, Charing Cross, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Regent’s Park. Then stroll through Hyde Park and see Kensington Palace. We’ll leave the British Museum for Saturday. That’s the plan, let’s see how it goes.

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Paris – Day 4 – Let’s Start with How We Ended the Day

We ended the day at Café de Capucine on Avenue de L’Opera. Our feet were blistered from ten to twelve hours of walking. Anil’s shoulders were probably blistered from serving as Anoushka’s palanquin du jour.

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It had been an eventful day, one that ended with resounding loud cheers going up at our restaurant and on the streets as France emerged victorious against worthy opponent Portugal in a 1-0 nail-biting finish that sent France to the World Cup finals. I had never before observed a football mad nation in the event of a favorable outcome. The car horns were being sounded non-stop as the sidewalks started crowding with people dancing in the streets or hugging and kissing total strangers. They were all draped in the French red, blue and white and cheers were going up non-stop. It was hard not to get caught up in the jubilation and the celebrations. It was fun to watch one of the waiters at our restaurant take off his tie with a flourish and walk off duty to join the crowds on the sidewalk as we savored our delicious lamb and rice and watched. Anil was watching the French celebrate. He had seen the Italians in France take to the streets the night before. He was placing bets with our waitress on how long it would be before the Italians joined the French on the streets, once again, to taunt each other about the upcoming finals. The waitress said, “Oh no m’sieu, zey not come out, zey know zis ees France!” But sure enough, pretty soon we were seeing young Italian people hanging out of their car windows and matching the French honk for honk, breaking beer bottles along the way.

The city had been dead all evening as people sat hunched together in sports bars and pubs, glued to the television. Then France had scored and we’d heard loud whoops of joy that lasted a couple of seconds before they settled back to watch; tense once again. We were near our hotel but not near enough when France scored and were sort of confused about the general direction in which we needed to proceed. So we started looking for cabs. The streets looked quite deserted and shops dark, the only sound was the muted, crackling of TVs coming from restaurants and bars. We finally found a taxi driver about to end his shift and settle himself in front of a screen. Hotel Scribe must have been on his way back so he agreed to take us there.

This is the scene and this is the sense of sporty excitement that Anil was afraid of missing as we were traversing the Seine in a Bateau Parisiens.

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Throughout the ride he was giving me a hard time about what a big day this was for our host nation. Everytime he said this I disdainfully replied, “So?” He was quite annoyed with me for having subject him to a boat ride when he could have been watching the game. So I spent the ride pointing out various points of interest to Anoushka, until he couldn’t resist the fun and joined in.

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The left and the right banks by the Seine are always rife with romance, with people holding each other close, women sitting in the laps of their significant others while roving hands explored various points of interest on their bodies and kisses that never seemed to end. They would straighten up and fix themselves to wave at the passing boats and then resume where they left off. The areas right underneath the various bridges showed some signs of improvement in that the vagrants and the homeless looked better off this time. They had tents. The last time we took this ride they were quite exposed to the elements. There were 5 to 6 colorful tents on either bank underneath each bridge.

Before getting on the boat we had spent some time at the Eiffel Tower. We had approached it from the Rive Gauche for the first time in four visits, realizing that the left bank side offers the best vantage points for getting a photograph that shows the entire tower.

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I had tried from the opposite side on previous occasions but just couldn’t step far enough back to fit the entire tower in the frame. Which is probably why the post-wedding photographs of a Japanese couple were being shot exactly at that point. The photographer was running around with the mile long trail of the bride’s dress, rearranging it in the most appealing ways, the groom was trying to lift the bride up in a photograph, nearly dropping her once. This indeed was the most amusing Eiffel Tower experience ever.

There isn’t a better way to see a city than on foot, walking through the narrow alleys, observing the locals and this makes even more sense in a city like Paris that never fails to enchant. Most pleasures are short-lived, lasting only as long as the mystery does, but Paris guards her mysteries well. It was my fifth visit to the city and this was the first time that I had a chance to walk through one of these famous outdoor markets, reading signs that said floriste, boulangerie, patisserie, fromagerie etc. Fresh fruits and vegetables were displayed most appealingly and people were lined up for their yard long French breads. This was all on Rue Cler.

We had found Rue Cler quite by accident as we tried to find the Eiffel Tower by line of sight since we weren’t in a hurry, didn’t mind getting lost and were too lazy to consult a map de Paris again. The tower however always was further away than it appeared and we ended up taking several smaller cobble-stoned roads crowded with people, their poodles and their poodles dirty deeds (always amazed at the side-stepping required on Paris streets, especially on the left bank).

That brings us to the start of the day which was spent determining our coordinates, making a decision to walk toward the Jardin de Tuileries and the Louvre.

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We reached the edge of the Louvre, several melted ice creams, bottled water and Diet Coke bottles later, only to find that the area of the Jardin immediately preceding the premises of the Louvre, adjacent to the Rue de Rivoli, has been converted to a mini-amusement park. There was a large ferris wheel – Le Roue de Paris – that neither Anoushka nor I could resist (I simply love ferris wheels). It was 3:00 PM by the time we reached this amusement park. But Anoushka was in love with the place. She needed to get on the carousel, jump on the trampolines, win contests and buy candy. She refused to leave! I kept saying, “Anoushka, Mommy wants to see a museum!” But my pleas fell on unhearing ears. By the time we managed to separate her from the trampolines it was 4:30 PM.

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I have been coming to Paris since 1997 and have yet to finish seeing all the museums and other points of interest here. There is never enough time to do everything there is to be done. I have visited different sections of the Louvre during other visits to Paris. This time I wasn’t keen on repeating the experience, especially in a post Da Vinci Code world, which can effectively be called the rediscovery of this famous point of interest. Everyone wants to pay a visit. There are guided walking tours on the bestseller’s theme. I was in favor of skipping it this time and since I always miss out on the Musee D’Orsay, was quite determined to get there this time. Impressionist art was calling out to me. I studied the map and figured out that we needed to cross the Seine at Pont Royale and turn right. So we headed that way. Once again, we underestimated how long it would take to cross the bridge with a four year old and how much of a walk it really was. By the time we reached the museum, the security guard delivered the crushing blow that the museum was about to close in fifteen minutes and that they weren’t allowing any more visitors.

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I was saddened beyond belief. I sulked and pretended not to talk to Anoushka for a few minutes telling her that her rides had made me miss my museum visits. She took me very seriously and cried for hours, telling her father that this mommy was mean and that she wanted a new mommy ASAP. We made up after enjoying this prelude to the kinds of fights that might be more real and may happen for sure when little Miss Anoushka is in her teens!

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Troisième Jour de Vacances

The third day in London was the 15th anniversary of our wedding. Where have all the years gone? We were headed for Paris today. We had heard how convenient it now was to cross the English Channel by simply hopping into a train in London and emerging in Paris. We had talked about it for days. We had booked a hotel in Paris. Anil’s luck at priceline.com had held steady and we were looking forward to Hotel Scribe, a famous five star hotel on Rue Scribe in the deuxieme arrondissement on the Rive Droite (right bank).

So we took the Circle Line train to the Waterloo Station and followed the signs right up to Waterloo International and Eurostar. There was a long line for “Immediate Ticket Sales”. Someone had looked at us in amazement the night before as if we were the dumbest travelers ever when we said we hadn’t booked our tickets yet. In several minutes we were going to find out we were. We had been told exactly what the ticket sales agent said when we reached the front of the line, “You want to buy teecket now?”. We said yes. He looked at his screen and said that the round trip ticket to Paris was going to be £298 per adult and £149 for the child. After doing our mental math for conversion to dollars we felt the earth slipping from under our feet. I am sure we looked as though we needed resuscitation. This was a $1,400 shock that we hadn’t anticipated.

We had no one to blame for our lack of information in this information age. The ticket agent told us that Eurostar tickets needed to be booked three months in advance if one wanted to pay no more than £60 for an adult round trip Eurostar ticket. In our defense, we didn’t even know this trip was going to happen three months ago. When we recovered from our initial shock we started talking about canceling our hotel reservation in Paris. That didn’t seem to be an option however, since it was quite expensive and non-refundable. We were trying to work out the least expensive way out of the mess, and just beginning the blame game, “Why didn’t you find out? Why didn’t you!!?? Why do I have to do everything? Mommy, Daddy, don’t fight…for the last time, if you fight one more time I’ll look for new parents! That’s it!” It certainly wasn’t ideal anniversary dialogue!

The ticket agent took pity on us. He sensed our genuine plight and just as Anil was handing him the credit card to go ahead and hit us with the full charge, he told us to hang on. He played with his computer for what seemed like an eternity and finally turned to us and said that he had an option for us to consider. He told us that the best he could do was sell us two sets of tickets, one set to be used now and the next set sometime in the future, three months from now but within the year. Buying the two sets of round trip tickets, one of which can only be used in October and November of 2006 helped us knock $700 from what we would have had to pay otherwise. Still not ideal but certainly something the mind could rationalize more easily. I doubt there are any impetuous or rather, dumb, travelers like us out there, but if there are they will know what not to do when contemplating a trip from London to Paris aboard the Eurostar.

The train ride itself is quite pleasant.

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It is underneath the channel for only about twenty minutes, otherwise we get to see quite a bit of the English and French countryside in passing. The trip lasted two hours and forty minutes and we alighted at Gare du Nord in Paris.

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I am always impressed with the majestic train stations in Europe and the number of train users. One hardly mentions trains in the US unless one lives in New York or Washington DC. Grand Central in NYC and Union Square Station in DC are also extremely impressive but trains and train stations are so much more a part of life everywhere else.

I have been to Paris before and have had the wonderful experience of lining up for taxis outside the airport or train stations. The line at Gare du Nord was at least a mile long. Anil was getting quite impatient wondering why he just couldn’t break out of the line and hail a cab like we could in Manhattan. I just asked him to chill out and enjoy the experience.

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The line didn’t seem to bother anyone else there. We stood there for about an hour and a half as the taxis kept coming and picking up passengers from the front of the line. As we got closer to the end we were able to witness the source of the delay. It was a 300 lbs woman and her friend with several pieces of luggage who the taxi dispatcher was trying to bundle up into the taxi. If the people got in all the luggage couldn’t and if the luggage was packed into the tiny Peugeot taxis then there was no room for our rather weighty passengers. They tried on several taxis for size until they were forced to give up and the friends and their luggage was split up into two cabs before the line finally moved again. It was 8:00 PM by the time we checked in at Hotel Scribe.

Hotel Scribe is quite impressive. It appears to be a landmark hotel frequented by writers. Pictures of Marcel Proust grace the hallways and the walls are papered with blown up lines of handwritten text.

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I am determined to learn more about it tomorrow, our first full day in Paris. We got settled into our beautiful room which has a balcony overlooking a courtyard and windows with flowerbeds, very French, trés elegante. We left again for a nighttime walk around the Galeries Lafayette and L’Opera, followed by dinner. More tomorrow!

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Second Day in London

Second Day in London

We felt stronger today. We were all well rested and seemed to have forced the mysterious twenty-four hour bug out of systems. We were ready to take on London again, a London that was even hotter than the natives remembered it ever being. I logged into the Internet to check email and got a message from Stan saying the sun was fierce. He asked me what my plans were for the day and he picked the Yahoo icon that displays worry when I said we were going to be on the London Eye. His, “I wish you luck dear lady”, sounded rather ominous to me. But the intrepid travelers that we are we set out. We weren’t even bothered by the newspaper headlines that faced us and said “36° Deathtraps: London Underground”. Besides David Beckham’s tears signaling the end of his dream that was the only other headline to be seen.

Our hotel is very conveniently located above the Paddington Station so all we had to do was hop into a Circle Line train. We wanted to see the Buckingham Palace and determined that the closest stop would be St James Park. The underground is, as I’d heard many times before, quite impressive. The announcements are clear, unlike the New York subway where the public announcement sounds something like this, “Ooga Chaka, Ooga Booga”. The people are also very helpful, they give you clear directions and lots of helpful pointers. They are actually quite helpful in NYC as well, but they wear perpetual frowns that probably intimidate tourists. If you scratch the surface however, chances are you’ll find them bursting with sweetness as well.

Buckingham Palace wasn’t open to the public until July 26th, which was quite disappointing, so we stopped at the Royal Mews instead and took in a fairly interesting guided tour of the stagecoaches that Her Majesty likes to use. They were fascinating, accessorized with intricate carvings, coats of arms proudly displayed by the side. We saw the horses being trained and harnessed. The most fascinating carriage however was the one that was used during the reigning monarch’s wedding; Gold plated and drawn by four horses.

We did get to see Buckingham Palace from outside and took a few pictures. Facing the palace was St James Park and beyond the park the enchanting London Eye called out to Anoushka. “Daddy, Mommy…the London of Eye… let’s go there, c’mon!”

“It’s the London Eye Anoushka, yes, that’s where we’re going!”

So we traversed the park diagonally, keeping the London Eye in line of sight. We strolled through the park at a leisurely pace and spent many delightful tête-à-têtes with storks, ducks and geese along the trails. Anoushka tried to feed them leaves and grass (we weren’t carrying any bread and didn’t want to get arrested for feeding Her Majesty’s birds) but they apparently weren’t interested in salad and broke Anoushka’s heart. Another little girl kept tearing off pieces of her sandwich and filling up the stork’s beak. Two police officers stopped by and impressed us with their diffidence as they told the girl, “I wouldn’t recommend feeding the birds, the park staff does take care of the feeding”. But the girl wasn’t prepared to listen and carried on.

We alighted (they like saying that here) at the front of an unnamed palace. There was a lone unsmiling guard there who was allowing people to get their pictures taken with him. I kept trying to figure out what palace this was but had no luck. We spotted the London Eye again as did Anoushka, who was now literally pulling us in that general direction.

Finally came close to it but we were at the opposite side of the Thames and were really tired of walking in this 36 degrees C weather. But we still had another bridge to cross and we did. We waited in line for tickets and finally found ourselves within a roasting capsule aboard the London Eye. It was well worth it. The London views from atop the Eye are breathtaking and spectacular.

We were completely drained though and didn’t think we could wait in another line in this heat. The heat is relentless till about 7:00 PM at night, when it finally starts getting more bearable. The sun doesn’t set till 10:30 PM, although things shut down when it still feels like early afternoon. All the museums are closed by 5:30 PM which is rather inconvenient. But I suppose we’ll just need to rise earlier and convince Anoushka that it is quite Ok to look like a bum while traveling!

We had a pleasant dinner with a relative who resides in St John’s Woods, near Regent’s Park and Abbey Road. So we got ourselves photographed as three Beatles of different shapes and sizes crossing Abbey Road. Called it a night then after a long hike to the Baker Street Station to board the Circle Line train back to London Paddington.

Tomorrow we cross the English Channel aboard Euro Star to celebrate our fifteenth anniversary in Paris.

First Day in London

The vacation actually started the weekend before with a visit to New Jersey’s coastal den of iniquity – Atlantic City. For once Lady Luck was on our side and the spouse won some shopping money at Blackjack for the upcoming trip to London and Paris.

So we whiled away an intervening week of drudgery and anticipated excitement for the upcoming trip until we left home on Friday to take the Virgin Atlantic flight to London. The lines at the airport were huge, even though we had given ourselves two hours checking in time. It was really crawling until an airline employee who was attaching tags to all the carry on luggage made us an offer we couldn’t resist. He told us that the flight had been oversold and that they were looking for volunteers to fly the next morning and in return receive round trip tickets to anywhere in the world. If Virgin Atlantic flew there we could go there. We immediately thought Australia but almost as soon as the thought crossed our heads the guy said, ‘…except Sydney, Australia.” We were crestfallen, but for a second, there was a world of exploration at our feet.

Virgin Atlantic paid for a hotel and dinner in beautiful downtown Newark, NJ. And we took the shuttle to the airport early the next morning ready to fly to London. The flight was quite uneventful except for a bout with extreme nausea with which Anil and Anoushka had battled for the two days prior. I had thought I escaped. But it caught up with me in the worst place possible, barely missing the aisle of the plane. Otherwise we had a good flight and reached Heathrow in time. For the first time in my life I got to our hotel or final destination via public transportation. The Heathrow Express got us from the airport to the London station of Paddington in a smooth forty minute ride. The train station led straight to the hotel lobby.

The night and a good part of the morning was spent resting and recuperating and we finally ventured out by 2:00 PM. We hopped on to the Big Red City Bus that gave us a good overall view of the City peppered with a commentary on the points of interest and the history. We followed it up with a City Cruise which was also fun. The captain of the ship provided a running commentary about the points of interest. He was an embodiment of British humor. We even tried to line up for the Tower of London but the lines were huge. It was 4:00 PM and we were nowhere near the end of it. Someone told us it closed at 5:30 PM so we postponed our quest for the crown jewels that day. Thought we would do it another day.

A point to note was how misplaced the moniker “ugly American” is. Americans are overall more sensitive and considerate to little children. Anoushka had to deal with several impatient and angry British “Excuse Mes” when she took her time on escalators and stairs. She never experiences that with Americans. I suppose kids are faster on stairs here!

It’s hard to leave the hotel room when you are traveling with a four year old fashionista. She takes her time in a luxurious bubble bath, changes clothes a million times until finding the absolutely perfect stylistically satisfactory combination. Then it is all about matching accessories. So despite best intentions it is 12:15 PM again. The sun is beating down and like mad dogs and Englishmen we’ll now venture out and see what we can see today.

The Difference a Year Makes

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Exactly a year has gone by since my last trip to Tampa-St Petersburg. Last year I spent Mother’s Day here alone. Attended a Mother’s Day brunch all by myself while others looked at me pityingly, wondering why my family wasn’t with me. There was no special reason for their not being with me. I was on a business trip and they hadn’t been able to accompany me. I had spent several hours walking on the beach, alone, sandals and camera in hand, waiting to capture the perfect sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. My mind was blank, I was neither happy nor sad, it wasn’t a long separation from my family, it was a few moments alone, spent in my own company. The sadness if any was about being at a complete loss at how best to spend time with myself. I walked for miles, I drove for miles, I shopped, I visited scenic spots and I kept wondering when it would start being an unforgettable experience. I like solitude, I like moments when there are no demands made on my time and no one wants to ask me any questions, but I suppose I wasn’t finding myself interesting enough to be with. To say my family was missing, would be stating the obvious, yet, I fully expect the keepers of general wisdom on health, well-being and psychological insights to say the missing thing was my family, my husband, my child and that I was feeling incomplete without them. Because of course, that’s all a married woman with child needs, to feel fulfilled!! (roll eyes here!)

I contrast last year’s lonesome visit with the visit this year. Anil and Anoushka are with me this year and there’s fun and laughter that bubbles up deep inside and makes the world seem like…well heaven. Things have taken on a new texture. Anoushka grasps my little finger, as we both roll up our pants and take off our shoes. We feel the sands shifting under us and scream every time a large wave threatens to knock us of off our feet. Anil is running ahead of us, camera in hand as he tries to take the candid pictures that are just never candid enough, since we’re both aware of his clicking. Anoushka is having the time of her life as she picks up shells. She is looking for something she calls a “wedding shell”, a magical, rainbow shell. Every now and then she wants to stop and bury her father’s or my toes in sand or make sand castles. The weather is perfect, the sunset glorious, we couldn’t have asked for a better time.

Did I have a better time this year, yes I did. It goes without saying. I love the company of the two A’s. But, amazingly enough, this time I enjoyed my own company as well.

There are things that they like doing together at which I am not very good, like swimming all day or baking by the side of the pool. So I let them do that without me, while I walked around the palatial hotel, a historic hotel of America – The DonCeSar Resort. I took in a leisurely afternoon at the spa, pampering my tired hands and feet and shopped at an exotic boutique. There were two beach weddings scheduled for the day. I ran into one of the grooms’ mother in the elevator. I had just finished shampooing and drying my hair and the groom’s mother told me how pretty my hair looked. The ice thus melted, we talked about her son’s wedding, how stressed she was and how she had just got herself a relaxing massage at the spa to get some of the stress worked out. She showed me the dress she was going to wear, a beautiful pink gown. There were dressed up people everywhere, at the bars, the lounge areas, bouffant hairstyles on bridesmaids and best men and groomsmen. It was fun to watch. I stared my fill, trying to find points of comparison between desi affairs and these displays of grandeur.

I then found a corner of the lobby that looked out to the sea, the view was spectacular and all I wanted to do was sit there and look out. There were no distractions, I wasn’t wishing I had a book, or that I was writing. I wasn’t missing my iPod, or reaching out for a magazine. I was just sitting in one place and not worrying about anything at all. It was quite a pleasant feeling. I was not in the least bit bored with my company, what had changed between this and the last visit?

The sun was finally setting as I watched and I decided to walk out to the balcony. The balcony also looked out to the swimming pool where Anil and Anoushka were hanging out. I wanted to try and attract their attention but they were busy. Anoushka was surrounded by 4 or five other friends in the pool and Anil was stretched out on a beach chair. They didn’t notice me, so I quietly observed. Anil was engrossed in a conversation with some blonde woman on the adjacent chair, who was drying out after a swim. They seemed to be in the middle of a very amusing and interesting conversation. Then I saw him reach for his pant pockets and get out a pack of Marlboros. He took out a cigarette, cupped his hands around it and lit it. After a slow drag on the cigarette he turned his attention back to the woman he was talking to and burst out laughing at something she said. I smiled as well and walked away.

I thought back to the time 14 years ago, the first year of our marriage. He was a heavy smoker then and every time he lit a cigarette I used to snatch it away from him in a maniacal way, destroying it in seconds. I used to search his jacket pockets, his pant pockets, his nightstand and when he stopped keeping his cigarettes in these very obvious places, I had found the other not-so-obvious places – the hollow space in the trunk of the car where the spare tire generally resides, underneath couches, behind flush tanks, on top of closets, there wasn’t a secret space in any corner of the house that wasn’t immune to my searches. He couldn’t hide a pack of cigarettes anywhere. I have broken and flushed more packs of cigarettes than I care to remember. I even followed him, surreptitiously, to a sports bar that was within walking distance to our apartment. I spied on him while he sat down and ordered a drink and then I stormed in as soon as he lit up, tearing the cigarette away from him and yelling in front of everyone at the top of my voice.

I look back on my behavior and I am appalled at the type of person I was! I was like all these other women who I now despise, who think they can marry someone and then make it their life’s mission to change the men they’ve married. Marriage never works that way, I have known this for several years now. My shenanigans never succeeded in getting him to quit smoking. He still smokes, never in front of me, although he continues to tell me he doesn’t smoke. Smokers never realize that a smoker’s smell is something they can never disguise. And like I did this time in Tampa, I have seen him smoking enough times now, but my reaction fourteen years ago was so different from what it was yesterday. There wasn’t a trace of anger, sadness perhaps at his disregard for his health, but no anger. It really is his life, how he wants to live it, whether it’s about smoking, or what he spends his time watching or his pastimes, his friends, the people he chooses to talk to, he needs to be free to do all those things. Relationships should never be about smothering.

People do change with time, I wouldn’t call it mellowing. Mellowing implies a softening or dulling of every sharp, jagged edge. I like the idea of certain edges getting sharper with time and the others blunted, curved, so that in the end, rather, before the end, one gets to being a finely chiseled version of ones former self.

So this time I was happy to have had their company, I was at peace with myself, I relished every idyllic moment, enjoyed the moments I spent alone and feel refreshed, raring to go again.

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