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.

The great cultural sponge

This is a definite entry for the next Guinness book of world records. The biggest sponge in the world – India.

No, the reason is not the ubiquitous pot belly or layers of fat a typical Indian middle-aged man or woman proudly sports, the ‘softness’ that Indian government displays in dealing with it’s ‘friendly’ neighbors or the way most Indian sportsmen wilt away when faced with slightest amount of aggression shown by the opposing team. It  is the way we Indians have the ability to absorb any cultural influence thrown our way, and make it our own.

A perfect example of the above was a dinner that we attended yesterday. Here we were, 3 Indian couples sitting around a table in a pretty little town in Switzerland,  and some of us were talking in varying levels of American and British accented English, without a word of Hindi in sight for miles around. While the lack of Hindi is not a commendable characteristic, but it certainly epitomizes the urban India so precisely and spectacularly. But why the hell were we talking in accented English anyway. Since we are in Switzerland, shouldn’t all of us have developed the peculiar guttural throaty way of speaking most Swiss have. Well my kids are getting there, especially when conversing with their local friends, where their vocal chords suddenly turn into massive grinding gears and which utter all kinds of guttural sounds whenever encountered with a word containing ‘k’ , ‘ch’ or ‘kh’. Thankfully they have the ability to switch back to a more ear friendly normal Hindi or English while conversing with us.

So coming back to the American accent – the culprit (if one may make such a strong reference) was the couple we met for the first time, who have spent the best part of their life in good old united states of America. But what led them to develop this accent, they were not raised there, it was only the last 20-25 odd years they spent there. Was it a need to blend in, prove that they belong? No – It was just the natural thing to do, they inadvertently and unconsciously started to adapt their accent to the local scene. What was even more interesting was the other couple who we know very well, have no discernible trace of a foreign accent, would start to roll their R’s a hundred times over while talking to them, and would revert to their ‘normal’ accent when they would turn to us. Now they are very dear friends, but this small change was very interesting to observe. But hang on a minute, I know many Germans, Swiss, French who lived in America and England for many years (as kids as well as adults) and have come back without a trace of an accent.

The question that immediately popped into my mind then was – if they were now to move back to India and live there, will they lose all of that accent? Or will the great Indian cultural sponge play it’s tricks, and some of the people around them will start to adapt themselves and pick up the drawl? And why is it that it is only Indians, who seem to display this characteristic the most? Does it have something to do the ‘Linguistic neutrality’ of the Indian tongue, which lends itself to this behavior? Or are we just super eager to abandon our cultural influences and adopt anything around us that appears or sounds umore posh & upscale?

Memories or a few dollars ?

So what would you rather have – Memories or a few dollars more ? … Here’s what i mean

Pick up a book to read. The touch of the book’s cover sends electrical impulses rushing through your nerves, which excites neurons in the brains and an image springs to your mind. A crisp day in October, you are standing in one of the most beautiful places on this earth. A quaint shop located at the edge of a mystical village, set on sun-kissed plateau high in the mountains, where time stands still. Houses are made of massive stone blocks and mortar, beautifully hand decorated with local motifs, carved wooden doors more than 300 yrs old. Streets are paved with cobblestones. To get to the next town, you either trek down a winding mountain path for 45 minutes or wait for a bus that runs every hour. Just round the corner is a cafe, you can smell a freshly baked chocolate cake – which on this cold day, will be heavenly with a frothy cappuccino while you excitedly leaf through your new book.

Or does the book conjures up memories of you sitting huddled in front of your GRS, late at night. Searching frantically through multiple websites or comparing prices from a hundred sellers on amazon, and then waiting for days or weeks for the book to arrive? Or worse … none at all.

I don’t know about you, i unabashedly prefer the first memory.

That was exactly what i experienced a couple of evenings back when i picked up a book for a bed time story for my son. The book in question is a simple but beautiful children’s book called ‘The Snowstorm’ by Selina Chönz & Alois Carigiet. Coincidently the book is set and was bought in the same village described above – Guarda, in the Engadine region of Switzerland, where the hero of the book, a boy called Ursli, supposedly lived.

'Snowstorm' by Selina Chönz & Alois Carigiet

So the original question again – the memories of having acquired an object or an experience in a special place  are exactly that – special. Rather than saving 7 dollars (or Swiss francs) by ordering this book over the internet. Then in a giant warehouse someone unceremoniously lumps the book into a cardboard packet, ticks a box on a checklist, pastes a barcode with your customer code printed across it and moves on to the next ‘special delivery’. Surely a cheaper way, but so much more dull. And saving 7 dollars, won’t exactly make you a millionaire, will it?

Just thinking of the fantastic time that we had over there, makes me want to go back there. Maybe we go back there in Spring. Till then, a taste of that beautiful place.

A typical house in Guarda, Engadine Switzerland. Behind it is the shop where the book was bought

local motifs painted on house, Guarda, Engadine Switzerland

local motifs painted on house

Guarda, in the distance set on the edge of a mountain

Many thanks to our wonderful swiss-greek couple friend who introduced our kids to the other Ursli book. If you have kids, buy this book for them. And while you are at it, encourage them to gather some experiences that they will remember for times to come.

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 …..

There are strange rivers

It is truly one of life’s great mysteries how things pop out of the blue and connect with each other. Call it serendipity, randomness, luck, fortune .. whatever, but there are forces that are continuously at work, unknown to you. Joan Baez, the great folk singer of 60’s, put it so well in her song ‘Strange rivers’

“Have You Ever Turned the Corner and wondered Why You Did?
You Haven’t Been That Way Since You Were Just a Kid

Oh, There Are Strange Rivers, Rivers That We Cannot See
There Are Strange Rivers Who Know Our Destiny”

I am sitting here in Switzerland tapping away. 5 yrs ago, it started with one call from a friend on an autumn evening in Budapest – while we were getting ready to move back to India after a brief stint of 1.5 yrs –  mentioning an opening here, another follow-up call, and bang one lands up in Switzerland!

I just finished the mercurial Kafka on the shore by Murakami, and it

Kafka on the shore Haruki Murakami. Image courtesy Amazon.com

captures the essence of how things/people are connected by invisible strings. The central character in that book is a Mr Nakata, a shy old man, short statured, short cropped graying hair, always wears a gray coat and carries a black umbrella in his hand. He avoids talking to people as he finds it too complicated, cannot read and is always lost in his own world. A few days back coming back home on the train at around 9 in the evening, i see this man standing in the middle of the almost empty train compartment and i could have sworn he is Mr Nakata who has materialized out that book. As i got up from my seat and started towards the door, you could see the same  spaced out feeling on his face that Murakami describes, clutching his black umbrella tightly and wrapping his gray overcoat even more snugly around him, he starts to move back, his eyes scanning the scene around him, moving into a corner where he can be alone. He quickly crossed over into the other compartment, but still all the time watching me and the other people with a questioning, shy look on his face through the mirrored partition. Was he really the Mr Nakata (Or the Swiss version of him?), one will never know.

Today afternoon, while stacking that book back on the bookshelf, I remembered that i have a book written by the original Franz Kafka somewhere, but had no recollection of when or where i had bought it. A quick search and the book is unearthed. As i open the first page, a handwritten note stares back at me. It was a gift from 13 yrs back by a friend. Whom I have not been in touch with ever since we parted ways back in Chennai India, where we had spent a fantastic 3 months, getting to terms with a (then) strange city that seemed to fight back resolutely for the first couple of weeks to let us in. It started from the first day where we were mobbed by the taxi driver, the house where we were staying in was almost broken into, struggling to find a decent place to eat where we could get something recognizable and edible …. the list is endless. But suddenly one day it all snapped in together, perhaps thanks to that steward at the restaurant next door, whom we used to tip generously everyday as he served us copious amounts of our favorite curries. The city seemed to have dropped it’s guard, welcomed us in and we got to know it  like the back of our hands. So this friend – we recently got in touch again this year, thanks to a mis-spelt Google search that led me to his blog. And there it was today afternoon again, his writing starting back to me on the inner cover from a book that I haven’t touched in nearly 13 yrs.

Maybe there’s a message in here somewhere that I cannot decipher yet. The inimitable Joan did put it correctly … there are strange rivers.