Morning encounters with noisy goblins

There are times when you are stuck between the devil and the deep sea. On a hot summer day this choice is easy to make. I would take the sea over the devil any day. Sipping a cool drink on beach while the waves of the sea gently lap at your heels,  is a much pleasant alternative to the red skinned, two horned devil pricking you with a pitchfork.

But the choice between pink goblins or noisy ones is a slightly more tricky one…sometimes even a non-choice, as you cannot really avoid any of them. You see, both of them invade into your early morning slumber. The slumber tastes especially sweet on a cold winter morning when it’s -10 degrees outside and just the thought of stepping down from the bed sends a chill down your bones. If you have a daughter, you are bound to run into the pink goblins sooner or later (famously elaborated in my last post). And if you live in Switzerland, then on every last school day of the year before the christmas holidays there is no escape from the noisy ones. Try what you may, they will track you down faster and more accurately than a heat seeking missile.

Switzerland and noise are like chalk and cheese … hardly to be spoken about in the same breath. Yet once a year at precisely 6 AM in the morning, the streets of practically every town in Switzerland turn into a cacophonous orgy of noise, clang and din. Rumor has it that Martians and other funny looking bug-eyed aliens routinely bypass earth on this day for the fear of their delicate spaceship controls being fried off by the high-pitched noises emerging from an otherwise calm alpine nation.

Some of you must be wondering what could the possible source of this noise be? Fret not, as you are not alone. Many theories have been put forward to explain this phenomena over the last few years. Some of the common misconceptions that typically do the rounds are as follows :

  • All the Swiss cows fart in unison on that day
  • The millions of cheese factories have their annual cheese cauldron cleaning day
  • A secret chip implanted in all the cuckoo clocks gets activated and they go off simultaneously
  • The funkily named subatomic particles have a head on colliding party inside the Large Hadron Collider
  • All the swiss watchmakers throwing down their delicate tools with a relief that over the upcoming holidays they will not have to work on those darned minuscule watch parts
  • All the bankers count their gold coins together trying to prove off that ‘My pile is higher than yours’

But as you have guessed by now, these theories as interesting as they may sound, are nowhere near the truth. The real reason that yours truly has discovered is as follows. On the last school day of the year before christmas holidays, the swiss school kids get a license to shock the hell out of poor souls peacefully slumbering in their beds. A typical street scene on that morning looks like this.

All the kids dress up in their warmest clothes, bring out the noisiest substance in their home (which is often themselves) and run to their school in the wee hours in the morning when all is still dark. There they are greeted by the teachers who wait for this day eagerly every year. On this day the teachers, who have suffered all year round at the hands of the kids, have the possibility to give it back to their parents, using their own kids as a means. Carl Jung called this syndrome ‘You oughtta know!‘. Alanis Morissette then famously plagiarized the words of his theory and conjured up a smash hit.

And smash and hit is what the kids have a license for that morning. The otherwise docile kids walk around all the streets banging away at their metallic instruments and screaming at the top of their voices. The louder they clang, the more appreciation they get from their teachers and other kids. The wackier the instruments they use the produce the sounds, the higher up the kids move up on the ‘Cool wall’. If you want to make it big on that day and be a star, old pots and pans banged together will not do. If your dad happens to be a heavy beer drinker or your mom an obsessive tomato sauce freak, the byproducts of their passion can come in very handy that morning as well.

Drunk on the motley sounds gleefully produced by their noisy orchestra, they march on. The procession continues till the time the kids either grow ravenously hungry or their instruments break or every single person in town is woken up and comes out begging and pleading for some peace and quiet. The kids are then rounded up by the teachers and led back to the schools for a hearty breakfast before they are unleashed on their parents for the rest of the vacation.

This tradition has been apparently going on for a few hundred years is lovingly called ‘Schulsilvester’. The intent being to welcome the new year and drive away the old one.  How far that is true is anyone’s guess, but the streets are surely a lively place to be on that morning.

Here’s to a smashing 2012 !

Age old Indian traditions to be observed when spending time on a Swiss mountaintop

The Indian penchant for following traditions is universally recognized. To the uninitiated or the clichéd mind, these traditions may relate to mundane stuff like family values, cultural dabbling in exotic sounding dances, music etc.

Then there are some lesser known, but equally widely followed set of traditional practices that are repeated by us Indians given the first opportunity. Any of us who have had a chance to travel to a swiss mountain top for a ‘sightseeing tour’ belong to this subset and are duty bound by our genes to follow these traditions. Not surprisingly, these practices get amplified in a group larger than 2.

Some of the more prominent ones that I have noticed are as follows:

  1. Drink ‘masala chai’ : A normal cup of tea when pimped with a mysterious combination of spices, whose real recipe is even a more heavily guarded secret than the recipe for Coca-cola becomes the mythical ‘masala chai’. It is rumoured to be the most widely drunk beverage on earth. Statistics compiled by the ICC (International Chai Confederation), estimate that 639.51 million litres of masala chai are consumed every day. Out of this nearly 40% is consumed at the Jungfarojoch train station by thousands of Indian chartered groups who take the treacherous and arduous journey of travelling in the comforts of the impeccable swiss trains over a 5 hour one way trip to reach the one of the highest point in Europe. Upon reaching there, rather than take in the views, the first thing that the groups do is make a beeline for the chai stall. This stall is usually manned by a flustered little swiss girl who stands there wide eyed, amazed by the ability of the horde to polish off multiple cups of this strange beverage. Now-a-days, thanks to technological advances, this privilege can be enjoyed by going to a nice restaurant & asking for just a cup of hot water. Then surreptitiously pouring a powder from a small sachet into the cup and enjoying the Chai for free. All this, while observing the apathy of the steward who is flabbergasted by the sudden conversion of the plain hot water to a steaming brown liquid.
  2. Search desperately for Indian food : A good indian meal and masala chai is a match made in culinary heaven. But this combination can be quite elusive when you leave the fragrant soil of India. But that does not deter the battle hardened Indian tourist from the quest of finding an Indian restaurant in the remotest of the swiss alpine valleys. Research has shown that the median time elapsed between finishing breakfast and starting the search for Indian food for lunch ranges between 7 to 63 mins. All efforts are made by tourist guides to ensure that the itineraries do not take the group more than 2 kms away from an Indian restaurant. The moment this distance increases, withdrawal symptoms appear in forms of nausea or loud grumblings from the stomach that sound like samosas being fried. The tourist guides are trained to immediately recognize these and lead their herds back into the protective circle, lest they should lose their business.
  3. Compare the food to the real thing back home : Now that the elusive restaurant is located and the seats with best views to the mountains are hastily occupied, it is time to get down to business. The best path to an Indian man’s heart is through his stomach. The man’s mom has a perennial lease on that path and no restaurant or chef cooking Indian food in Switzerland can ever hope to better mums’ cooking.  The moment the food arrives at the table, it is polished off in record time. Then it is time to burp and criticize how watery that Dal makhani was, how that Chicken tikka masala really was nothing but boiled chicken pieces thrown in a tomato puree. The conversation does not stop till every dish is compared to how it is made back home or at one’s favorite restaurant down the road from their house. The food just eaten at that Swiss Indian restaurant is emphatically declared to be the worst Indian food ever eaten. But while leaving the restaurant, the various inevitable factions that have been formed in the groups, make secretive plans to return to this restaurant at the first opportunity to escape from the drab swiss food that might be served elsewhere on the trip.
  4. Grumble about the prices – Ofcourse, no trip to switzerland is complete without grumbling about the prices. A few things like Rolex Daytona at 7000 francs or a pair of Bally loafers at 1500 francs are indeed good value. But hours are spent in the Sprungli cafe at Paradeplatz grumbling about the 12 franc sandwich, 7 franc tram ticket or the 5 francs for a bottle of water. Of course after all this grumbling, hundreds of francs are happily spent at the airport souvenir shop stocking up on Swiss farmer bells, all the time gushing about the quality of their craftsmanship (while ignoring the small Made in China tag stuck on them.)
  5. Look for a place to fill up that water bottle – Talking about water, no self-respecting Indian tourist (officially certified as the thirstiest tourists in the world) may be seen in public without a bottle of mineral water . But of-course this is no ordinary bottle of water. This bottle has to be Evian, no other brand. Typically it was bought in a fit of desperation at the Interlaken main station for 5 francs where no free water tap was in sight for miles around. Now that a fortune has been spent on what is essentially a hollow tube of plastic filled with melted snow from the french alps, it needs to be guarded fiercely and full paisa vasooli (derive maximum value for the money spent) needs to be ensured. This bottle will be carried to the remotest and the highest of the alpine peaks, washed & refilled at the first possible opportunity. When the label on the bottle starts to come off after multiple washings, it will be repaired with pieces of tape borrowed from the hotel reception. When it gets left behind at a café, the whole bus or the train will be kept waiting, while an army of kids will be dispatched to find the precious bottle. In the end it will be bid a tearful farewell at the security gate at the airport, where only the most persistent security guard will be able to convince the owner to part with it. But not before all the water is glugged down in a show of proud defiance.
  6. Let screaming kids run riot in a restaurant – This is one tradition which is sadly dying. The good old days of hordes of kids running about in a restaurant, dodging the stewards and bumping into the harrowed old swiss couples sitting there in an unsuccessful search of some peace and quiet  are slowly disappearing. Now-a-days one is most likely to find kids screaming in whoops of delight in crossing the million points mark in Angry birds being played on their personal iPad or fighting over the  earphones. Sigh … another example of tradition falling prey to technology.
  7. Ask for a fondue with less cheese – Now this is as good as it gets. Just because one is on vacation, does not mean that all the money spent in Sharmaji’s weight loss clinic should be wasted. Following the diet plan set by overweight nutrition expert back in Kanpur is a must to ensure that one still fits into the ‘I love Switzerland’ T-shirt bought in Luzern. If that means asking for the bewildered restaurant owner for a fondue with a little less cheese, so be it. After all the customer is king.
While these are the most important and universally practiced traditions listed here, it is possible that some other popular ones may been omitted. Pls be reassured that the omission was purely unintentional. If you have experienced or practiced any others, pls drop me a line and they will be promtly listed here.

Crash like a Swissgyptian

3 days to go from an Skiing novice to effortlessly gliding down the slopes and crashing into any conceivable object in sight is quite an achievement .. or not, depends on how you look at it. But before we get too far ahead with passing judgement let me share with you some revelations i have had in the last 3 days, since i started my skiing lessons.

1. Those Skis aren’t evil : While they may look so to a novice with all those sharp edges, dangerously curved sides, scary inscriptions like ‘Speed demon’, ‘Race carving’ complete with fiery and devilish motifs etc…. i can assure you in this case looks are deceptive. The scary clicking sound the bindings make as they clamp onto your ski boots – which sound very close to the devil smacking his lips as he waits for his prey to slide into his open mouth is purely a coincidence. The way they will automatically start to move towards a direction unintended by you as you stand on a slope with an incline greater than 0.5 degrees is completely down to your lack of control rather than them answering to their master’s call and pulling you into the dungeons lurking below the pretty alpine slopes.

2. The T-bars on the Ski lifts are not fishing hooks laid down by the devil: Yes at first glance the ski-lift, with its never-ending rows of contraptions that look like two-sided fishing hooks tied to a giant fishing line laid down by the devil himself, can be a bit intimidating. The slight smirk given to you by the man handing you the T-bar at the beginning of the ski-lift is not a sign that you are done for – It’s just that the poor man stands there everyday for 6-8 hours every day in sub-zero temperatures, and his features have permanently frozen into that look. The huge tug that the T-bar will give occasionally as it pulls you upward is not the devil yanking his catch off the snow – it’s to keep you focussed on the job at hand, rather than you drifting off and enjoying the views of the pretty alpine vistas or the swiss beauties gliding down the slopes in their bright ensembles.

the devilish ski lift T-bars

3. The ski instructors are not devil’s assistants : Again the classic case of looks being deceptive. They do dress up in red from head to toe – but that’s just their uniform as ordained by the ski school. The helmets they wear is not to hide the horns on their head – it’s just for safety. Their eyes look every shade of orange, purple and blue – it’s only because of your and their ski goggles playing tricks on your vision (being partially colour blind like me doesn’t make it easier). When they encourage you to slide down a slope that looks gentle to them but like deathly hallows to you – they are not trying to cripple you. They are trying to get you to grips with the concept that skiing means gliding down slopes, not just standing there on top of the slope and shivering with a mixture of cold and fear. (BTW .. Don’t tell my wife I even had these unkind thoughts about them, she finds all of them very cool and good-looking)

4. The orange cones placed on the slope are not targets to be knocked over : This is difficult one to grasp, but worth a shot anyway. Those bright little orange cones placed on the slope are meant for little kids to do a slalom run around them. It is great fun and very tempting to whizz over the snow at full speed straight like an arrow and watching every single one of them fly in different directions. But think of the hapless kids who are now standing there confused not knowing what to do and the poor and heartbroken ski instructor who painstakingly placed them with unerring swiss precision watching his hard work being destroyed.

5. It is more fun to be standing-up rather than lying face down on the snow: While this may conjure up all kinds of unwarranted images and ideas in your head, the point is simple – You paid a fortune for the skis, boots, lessons etc.  Now show some courage and ability to master a new skill. Learn to stay upright on the snow for a few seconds, make use of all the technology gone into your gear and enjoy the sensation of being able to gracefully glide over the perfectly frozen snow, leaving tracks that the whole world will follow …. before a sharp turn beckons, gravity and panic take over, you forget all the techniques and land face down on the snow, only to watch 4 yr olds speed past you while grinning and waving at you!

…. Now having read a fascinating discourse about the secrets of skiing, I am sure a question must have popped into some of your inquisitive brains – Why am I not utilizing my newly acquired knowledge and skills and enjoying wafting down the sun-kissed slopes rather than typing into this GRS? Well the answer is quite simple …. I did master the mythical art in a short span of two days, made numerous practice runs, turns, stops, traverses etc (don’t believe me? ask my wife). But on my first run down a real blue ski slope, having negotiated the most difficult parts, a pole standing in the middle of the slope wanted to make an acquaintance with me. I obliged and met it head on, and resulted with a sprained/mild hairline fracture on the little finger on my right hand :-( So here i am sitting at home listening to Buddy Guy belting out his blues on my Cadence Amayas.

But fret not, in a week i shall be back on the slopes… till then, a happy new year to all.

Walk like a Skigyptian

Having come back from a day of ‘Skiing acclimatization trip’, i truly feel like a skigyptian … that is to say an egyptian mummy being thrown onto a ski slope and being asked to do the walk made famous by ‘The Bangles’ song (I wonder if this new word is worthy of an entry in the Modern Cambridge English dictionary)

My feet still feel like they are bound by the huge ski boots that easily weigh the best part of a 100 kg each. I must make a very funny figure clad in infinite layers of wind/snow/water proof clothing (all in black – topped by a white beanie cap making my face looking like the famous Mr Potato head), trying to guide myself down a prior-to-beginner-level-and-fit-for-only-4yr-olds slope of a gigantic length 10 m. Those some german made ‘liquidmetal’ engineering marvels fitted under my shoes (normally referred as skis)  have a mind of their own, as at any given moment they are pointing at an angle of 45 degrees to the general direction where i want to go. Judging by the numerous times i ended up in positions on the snow that could have made any Yoga instructor proud, i am convinced they are designed by der Teufel (the devil) himself. Now whoever said skiing was fun?

But i have only got myself to blame. Having been here 5 years and procastrinating as a typical Indian proudly does, i haven’t bothered to acquaint myself with the mythical art of gracefully gliding down the pristine alpine slopes. The feeling isn’t helped by a snow-sledging accident resulting in a broken collar bone earlier this year and the fact that my lovely wife and kids waft down the slopes looking every bit like born skiers.

Hmm … things better change. So starting tomorrow, i have enrolled myself for a full week of skiing lessons and practice. If I live to tell the tale, I’ll be back with more updates and hopefully triumphant news of your’s truly having conquered the pistes (german for ski slopes) in a few days time.

Till that time wish me luck …..

… then why are they telling us?

why

“But dad … then why are they telling us?” said the 4 yr. old boy. An innocent remark, but a profoundly important one.

So let’s put this into context and start again. This remark was in a small story narrated by our very good Swiss/Greek couple friend over a cup of cappuccino, home-made plum schnapps and Greek candied fruit mixed with yoghurt.

Here is the setting: Last night, my friend and his 4 yr. old son are watching TV in their fantastic little house overlooking the best part of the Swiss Alps, and a news report about some extremely heavy snow in China comes on the TV.

Son – “Dad, Where is China?”

Dad – “Son, It is very, very far away from Switzerland – halfway around the world”

Son – “If it so far away, then why are they telling us about snowfall there?”

Dad – “mmmm…….” (No answer that will make sense to a 4 yr. old)

Now… think about this for a moment, for a 4 yr. old, it makes no difference whatsoever what happens in a place called China (at least not yet), why does he have to be told about snowfall there – there is more than enough of it in Switzerland!

And I cannot agree with him more, this is information overload of the highest order. Information is all around us today – beaming over fiber-optic cables, over satellites, TV, radio, internet, smartphones, signboards, newspapers, blogs (like this one J). Can we make sense of all this information? Does it make us any wiser? Are we just addicted to information, like an addiction to drugs? Do we have to check the online status of our friends every minute? The exact standing of our portfolio (which we convinced over selves is invested for the long run) over our iPhone while waiting at a traffic light? Do I have to watch a continuous coverage over Sky news of a ‘breaking story’ about a cat stuck in a tree in small town outside Ipswich? Nassim Nicholas Taleb said in his fantastic book Fooled by Randomness “I don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or parties. If a piece of information is important, it will find you – you don’t have to go looking for it!”

So next time you are told a galactically important piece of information that you could have lived without – put on the thinking hat of a 4 yr. old and ask the question – “Why are you telling me that?” … Say it clearly, but remember to say it nicely.