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Mamma mia, this gotta be Italia! – Part 1

Italy was the first big solo 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)

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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Italy

 

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Around France in 10 days

I kicked off my first European travel with a mini tour of France. Knowing that I’d have only a temporary visa initially (that confined me to stay within borders till I got the ‘visa de sejour long’) I planned my first trip 3 months in advance – the only vacation done with so much foresight!

French school kids are wonderfully lucky – they have 2 months of summer vacation in July & August, 10 days of Toussaint starting end October, 2 weeks for Christmas, 2 more for winter (which is in February!) and yet another 2 weeks for spring end of April. Needless to say, as an English teacher, I am not complaining!

Having commenced work on October 1st, I had just 3 weeks before Toussaint (All saints) started. As the trip was planned in advance, I got some super cheap fares on the TGV, the speed-rail network. Moreover, my cousin sis was making a small trip during the same time so we were all set to have a blast together.

 

 

 

 

 

2 days in Paris

We did everything a tourist would do in Paris. Pored over the metro maps and filled our stomach at local crêperies.

We visited the Louvre (Bless the french education ministry for little benefits like free entry), the Sacré-Cœur and the colourful and bustling Montmartre market (note to self: repeat visit next time). We walked down Champs-Élysée treating ourselves to a Häagen-Dazs just for the Parisian effect while we posed stylishly in front of Louis Vuitton and the likes. We saw the Eiffel Tower shimmering on a full moon night – magnificient and overwhelming, in short. AND, we also saw Paris from an Audi – thanks to Remy, brother of Lucie and gracious host who kindly chauffered us around for a day.

But are 2 measly touristy days enough for Paris? Ofcourse not!         Soon, very soon….

5 days in and around Bordeaux

What better way to travel than stay with a french family and have them take you around? And what a better way to start the Euro experience!

Château Pichon-Baron

I admit that I got super lucky. Lucie was one of my first french forum‘ friends whom I got in touch with to write emails, improve my french and in turn let her know that there was more to India than snake charmers, slumdogs and cows. She was 60, retired in profession but not in her quest to travel more (and she had already traveled half the world). So we got mailing till I told her of my proposed 7-month stay in France and my first vacation. The next thing I know, I was booking tickets to go to her little town, south-west of France close to the famed city of Bordeaux to the for the holidays. And there she was, excited and preparing my itinerary and making plans on what we could do and see in those few days.

Lucie and Christian’s (her husband) enthusiasm for the road clearly showcased a few truths:

  • Ya never too old to travel
  • Ya always should be eager to visit the same place like ya visiting it for the first time bcos ya see it from a different perspective each time
  • Ya always maintain a travel photo book with select ones from every trip – yes, a hard copy, not one of those e-books

For 4 days we woke up at 8, got ready and hit the road by 9. Christian did all the driving – the good ol’ fella! We passed through towns, stopped in little villages for lunch and returned home for dinner. We did the château-visits and the red-wine tasting. Got invited to a ‘grand’ lunch by Thierry, a meat-eating friend who had spend hours fretting on what to cook and ended up with a varied spread of chopped vegetables! We visited Lucie’s sisters house and greedily pocketed fallen walnuts off a tree (yes, we behaved like citizens of a third-world country). We gorged on sugar-crepes made by Lucie’s charming cousin and charmed her into giving us more by highly appreciating her culinary skills. We stared awestruck at some of the most exquisite houses along Pays Basque (Basque Country) and even made an illegal (for me) drive into San Sebastian in Spain.

In short, this is what our road trip looked like (with Cestas being the home base)

  • Day 1: Cestas – Bordeaux – Cestas
  • Day 2: Cestas – Archachon – Lanton – La Teste de Buch – Cestas
  • Day 3: Cestas – Saint Sebastian – Saint Jean de Luz – Bayonne/Biarritz – Cestas
  • Day 4: Cestas – Saint Emilion – Sarlat – Perigueux – Cestas
  • Day 5: Cestas – Pauillac – Andernos les bains – Cap ferret – Cestas

Merci encore Lucie & Christian et votre famille. You gave us the first positive glimpse of french hospitality and an interesting insight into french family life!

2 days in Montpellier

In hindsight, Montpellier could have been better than we made it out to be. Having had such a brilliant 5 days at Cestas coupled with all the hype of moving towards the Mediterranean Coast – the place ‘to be’ – this little town dampened our spirits in the first afternoon we were there. Lack of vegetarian food worsened it. We starved and sulked for a while and when dusk arrived, a couple of drinks followed by dining at a nice inexpensive tapas bistro with a customised menu just for us, ended the evening on a high note.

After a hectic week, two lazy sisters decided to go the lazy way out, bought a day-pass for the tram and spent most of the next day moving from Point A to B across the lines till we got tired of the city and its graffiti-laced walls. In a last desperate attempt to do something more meaningful, we took a bus to the beach (we were here to see the Mediterranean coast after all, weren’t we?) and spent a couple of hours looking at blue waters and sun-tanned women with their Chihuahuas.

Till it was time to head back, get on to the TGV and return to good ol’ Stras.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2011 in France

 

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C’est la vie francaise!

This is the french life.

Now that it has been a fortnight since I arrived, some random observations & notes from here and there:

  1. Each time I cross the road, I need to tell myself – I dont want to die, I must look LEFT and then RIGHT and not the other way round. By the time I get used to it, it will be time to go back!
  2. Who said the French are rude? Bureaucratic and standoffish – Maybe. But Rude – No! To some extent they are like the people of Madras/Chennai – if an outsider attempts to talk their language, they are extremely pleased and go out of their way to help you, if not then find your own way out!
  3. There is no end to greeting people. And I love the fact that they greet with enthusiasm, be it a shop assistant, a teacher you meet on the hallway or even the odd clochard (beggar) that I came across. Bonjour & Au revoir are possibly the most used words in a French person’s life.
  4. Difference between Indian and French schools? Yes, vast difference. And between students – Yes again. In short, Indian students are much more disciplined; at least it is imposed on them. But here, teachers cant do as much as point a finger at them. Try tapping a student on his/her shoulder and you could be behind bars. Really!
  5. A 2-hour long lunch is normal. Particularly on weekends. Wine, dinner, cheese, dessert. Interspersed with more wine. Nothing should be done in a hurry. And that extends to work and vacation. Oh and I write this since I’m waiting for the post office to open – they are on a 90 minute lunch break! C’est la vie, vraiment!
  6. Les Vacances (Vacation) The most loved french word, I suppose.Apart from the 35 hour working week, they are eligible for 5 weeks of vacation that can extend as much to 8 weeks depending on companies. Add to that, public holidays. You forgot the weekends as well, dint ya? India Inc.– are you listening?!
  7. Extension of point 6 to a rather personal observation – I think the average french homme or femme is not too ambitious. The goal in fact, is to get a job that pays you and you stick to it until you retire. You may not go higher up the ladder, but you will earn enough to live a comfortable life for yourself and your family. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? That is subjective and altogether another point of debate, if it is of any importance.
  8. WALK till you drop. For the amount of cheese, wine, meat and canned stuff consumed, the Strasbourgeois (and I’d generalise it to rest of France as well) walk a lot. A LOT, even if it a 2 km walk with a pair of stilettos. No kidding!  I might have cribbed about lugging heavy stuff around until I saw an old lady, easily on her way to the 70’s, walking with 3 heavy bags of groceries!
  9. Lots of children. By couples, married or otherwise. It doesnt matter. The government encourages people to have babies and actually funds their education and health. Its funny especially when you are from India and hear of this!

There are more, and with age I forget – so will add to this in a month or so.

Now for some wine & cheese after all that typing…. so long!

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2011 in France, Strasbourg

 

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