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.
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Do you speak English?

Q: “Do you speak English?”

Probable Answer : “Yes i do, but I rather not”

How often have you heard or asked this now ubiquitous question? So many times that you do not raise an eyebrow when you are asked this question, you just come out with a pre-programmed, polite ‘Yes, of course’ and shoot away. I have been living in Switzerland for more than 5 years, and during the first couple of years (thanks to my non-existent German knowledge) unabashedly used this question thousands of times. But after two years, the Swiss took out a referendum with the topic ‘Brijesh should learn German’. All the supermarket & railway employees working in my hometown (whom i had tormented with this question) approved it in a blink of an eyelid. Thus I was went down the path of taking a crash course in German, after which my propensity to ask this question has reduced by the same factor that the Indian cricket teams ability to play well in overseas matches has increased (which, given our respective past ineptness in both these situations is quite an achievement)

But today, I was asked this question (almost like a celestial plotted revenge) and it literally stopped me in my tracks. It came from such an unexpected source that irony of the situation was staggering. I had the pleasure of calling up the Indian embassy in Switzerland to clarify some details about a passport renewal question. Now, they have copious amounts of information on their sometimes quite helpful, sometimes infuriating website. So whether i really needed to call them to clarify is opens up a debate about the web designer’s ability to present all the information logically or my inability to comprehend that information. Anyway … so I call them, after navigating through a million options, i manage to convince the recorded voice on the telephone that she cannot answer my queries and I really need to talk to a human being. The phone rings (for what seems like an eternity to me), and a lady picks up the phone with a polite, slightly Indian accented “Good afternoon Indian Embassy”.

On hearing these words, a sudden wave of nationalism floods over me, and i break out in Hindi trying to explain what i want to know. As I finish my sentence, there is silence on the phone. Puzzled, I say “Hello” … the same voice answers back “Hello sir, Do you speak English?” I instinctively start to repeat my question in English, but something tells me to stop. Hang on a minute … I am calling the Indian Embassy here. They represent India in this country. The least that I can expect is to be able to talk in my national language … is that asking for too much? The critics among you will immediately retort back that there are close to 16 officially recognized languages in India. But for crying out loud, you expect to be able to converse in the official language of your country when dealing with your country’s embassy. A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to deal with the Turkish embassy to apply for a visa. You will be damned to find any other language spoken or written there except Turkish.

But of course, as I noted in a post a few days back, we Indians are different and (i think) almost take pride in not communicating in Hindi. Ok, maybe I am being too hard here, that lady could have been from anywhere in Eastern or Southern India, where Hindi is not that prevalent. But for god’s sake, as the first contact point for anyone calling the embassy … is this acceptable?

Thanks to experiences like this, i can completely empathize with people in India, who bemoan the passing away of out national image & culture. Do we show our nationalism only by observing the national holidays as a day off, dressing up in an Indian dress for a phot opp on a festival or by getting worked up over the India-Pakistan issue? Isn’t the ability to communicate in a common official language the lowest common denominator of nationalism?

Maybe I am just plain wrong or brewing up a storm in a chai-cup. Though I hope I can make my case again on Saturday after India has won the Cricket world cup. At that time, when a wave of euphoria and nationalism is sweeping over the nation, the time might be right to take up this issue again. But chances are no-one will be listening then, as everyone will be busy celebrating . (…… by drinking Aussie beer???)