Rear Window

Posted August 24th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Personal
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Do you remember Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Rear Window? The protagonist in the movie is an adventure photographer who is forced to stay cooped up in his apartment due to a fractured leg. His only source of entertainment is the view from his rear window, as he observes the personal and at times private life of his neighbors in the opposite apartment complex. The inhabitants of the apartments range from a pretty young dancer who has to fight a bunch of pawing admirers, a lonely woman, a murderous husband, a couple of newlyweds, a nagging wife and a struggling musician. . Through his passive surveillance of the daily life of the residents of the opposite apartments, the director looks into the various relationships amongst people, especially man-woman relationships.

Nowadays I am in a similar situation. For 8 hours each day I am cooped up in an office room, forced to pass time by observing the various people passing outside my office and in the office complex outside us. My room is towards the rear of my office complex and it faces the back door of another office complex. One wall of my room– the one that I face while working–  is made of huge glass panes from the ceiling to the floor, perfect for window watching.  My room also has a door which opens out to the back of my office complex and there is a similar backdoor for the opposite complex in front of ours.   The backdoor is the easy access door to the cafeteria for both the office complexes and so has a steady stream of visitors passing through it, especially around the lunch hour.

Early morning is not a busy time. But I am kept busy at such times watching the antics of a bunch of lively squirrels who scramble across the ground and climb up and down the huge tree outside by window . They come without fail every morning, almost as if to wish me good morning and give a short display of their jumping skills and vanish discreetly amongst the trees, come early afternoon.

At around 11 am, the two young men in the office next to mine take a smoke break. They are almost always dressed in white shirts and grey or beige trousers. They stand under the tree, chatting for about 10 minutes and then I see one guy reluctantly drag the other away. The shorter guy appears several times more during the course of the day, puffing away at his cancer stick.. He paces up and down the little pathway puffing away, the length of his stride indicating his mood.

In the afternoon, 4 Indian guys from the opposite complex, come down for lunch. Their usual haunt is the wooden table and bench at the far left side of the path. From where I sit I can’t see the bench but I can see them walking briskly with colorful lunch boxes hanging on the shoulder, (one of them has a purple box) to the table. They are a quiet crowd ,not unruly, no boisterous laughter, but quietly sharing their food for exactly 45 minutes, after which they will get up and move back to the door, walking briskly again.

At 1: 30 a young lady, with black curly hair steps drives home for lunch. She is a young mother , I decide looking at her tote bag. It is one of those things you see young mothers carry, overstuffed and colorful. (Why does it need to be colorful…it’s the parents who carry it not the children??)

At around 3 pm, a big bosomed lady, stands outside the door of the opposite complex smoking away. Everyone in my office knows her, although only by sight. As one of my colleagues mentioned, she is one of the reasons our breast detector cannot be used optimally.

In the room right opposite mine, a young man stares at is computer screen. He is a restless personality I can tell by the way he wanders around his room after every 15 minutes. His supervisor sits in the adjacent room, with his desk facing me. He has a beautiful office and a lovely picture hangs behind his chair. He is hardly in the office though. When he is , he stops by at the desk of the young man , whence the young man starts furiously working. In the room above him, in the corner there is a huge board. Meetings take place in that room. On those days I see well dressed people standing near the board and talking earnestly. I can’t see the rest of the people, but I hope they are listening as earnestly. A sliver haired man steps out a couple of times to talk on his cell phone. He always seems to talk fast with one eye constantly looking at his watch as though each conversation has to end within 30 seconds.

The two large windows on the opposite bldg to my right are always obstinately shut. I spend some time imagining the people who might be working behind those windows. They are big windows, probably big office rooms with big officers sitting in plush desk with a plush carpet on the floor.

At around 4.30 pm, the janitor exits the building opposite to me and enters our office. He carries a huge trash can, a bunch of cleaning liquids , mops of various sizes and a vacuum cleaner. He positions all of this outside my door and then walks around to the main door and rings the bell. Once admitted into the office he walks across to my room, opens the backdoor and gathers all the tools of his trade and starts his job.

He is a stocky Mexican with almost no knowledge of English. I smile at him once he enters and thank him when he clears the trash can. That’s the sum total of our conversation. Although once I needed to ask him to clean my table because there were lot of ants there. It took me 10 minutes to explain this to him. It involved elaborate hand waving, which failed and then I thought the best way was to show him the creature and tell him “finito finito”. But ants , intelligent creatures that they are ,seemed oddly elusive at that moment. Till that time, they were merrily roaming across my table and even my keyboard but then they all decided to hide and watch my gestures. The explanation ended in a game of pictionary. I drew an insect and saw the man’s face light up. I don’t know what insect he thought it was, bees, bugs or roaches but …the ants were really gone

Just around the time the janitor leaves, there is an exodus from the opposite building, People hurrying to their cars, carrying car keys and bunches of files rushing homewards. It reminds me that it is time for me to go home too. I wait a little more till my boss leaves and then draw the blinds of my windows. Its time to go home.

Wide Angle View

Posted August 21st, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Like all self respecting newly married couples, Seejo and I went off on our honeymoon, full of high spirits and dreams. Ok, I confess, I was dreaming about the wonderful cuisines we would taste and Seejo…well Seejo was not dreaming. He was in a blissful state worrying about all the zillion things that could go wrong with this trip. Our passports could get stolen, we could miss our buses/trains/planes, we could get arrested and deported, and oh horror of horrors….even our camera could get stolen.

We returned from our exciting tour of Italy to the mundane excitement of deadlines and dead bills and the monumental task of sorting out the 1500 odd photographs that we took in 10 days. Aparna asked me to send a few pictures of Seejo and me together from our trip. I blithely promised her that I would do that as soon as I can. But after looking through the 1376 photos that we took during the trip, I was forced to conclude that there were less than 10 photographs of both of us.

The problem with there just being two people on a honeymoon is that there was nobody to take photographs of us as a couple. We did manage to take some self pictures of both of us, but as Seejo’s hands are not the law (kanoon ke haath bahut lambe hain!…oops), all we could manage was shots of our heads. So we have a few photos of our enlarged heads and wide teeth grinning away looking cross-eyed at a camera thrust a few centimeters away from our face. When we saw the final pictures we calculated that my teeth covered 12% of one photograph.

Nobody can say we are not quick learners….We soon realized that we need an extra pair of hands to take photographs of us. And since in all our wisdom we realized that we could not grow another pair so soon, it was decided that we would ask a fellow tourist to oblige us by taking a picture of us while we cuddled for his benefit. Since most of the places we went to were swarming with tourists, it would have posed us no trouble to find another tourist. But well, that was without considering Seejo. With cautiousness bordering on paranoia, Seejo rejected every potential photographer. He sneered when I pointed out the first person that came our way with a. “How can you just entrust your camera to the first person who comes along….you never know he might waiting to run off with our camera”. Chastened, I quietly pointed out the second person, a lady in designer shorts with two young kids. Seejo was not satisfied, nah….could be a gypsy in disguise, was his answer.. I then suggested a small group of American teenagers, all with cameras. We could ask them, couldn’t we?. Seejo looked at me scornfully. “Look at their cameras…..It is the point and shoot type of camera….they wouldn’t know how to focus getting a good photograph. After a careful screening procedure, the only people who were declared “safe” were an elderly Japanese couple. We followed them about the Forum, pausing when they paused and smiling brightly when we caught their attention. Understandably they were spooked and rushed off…murmuring something….it sounded like ‘gypsy’ or something

The next “would be photographers” we spotted were honeymooners like ourselves. We thought people in the same boat with us could emphathise and so we politely offered to take their photograph. Funnily they did not accept….but hell nobody said persistence pays without reason. Finally, they agreed. I think it was pleasure of solitude that did it rather than our nice offer. Anyway before they could even relax their smiling muscles we whipped out our camera and asked if they could reciprocate.

They probably were not good at photography. I can’t think of any other reason that the photograph had our heads chopped off.

Then there was this other person who offered to take our photograph after watching our numerous attempts at self photography with increasing amusement. Our new friend was a British gentleman and a budding photography enthusiast. Armed with tripods and assorted equipment, he spent the better part of fifteen minutes, adjusting the various settings on his camera and tinkering with his tripod. It seemed like he knew the job. We got a beautiful picture of the St. Mark’s basilica in the evening lights. And if you look very carefully amongst the people in St. Mark’s square you can even spot both of us.

The only other method was to take photograph with the camera self timer. After all which honeymooners couldn’t return without even one photo that they need to hide from the world. We finally selected a beautiful background for this “secret” photo. I arranged myself as gracefully as possible, made sure that my dress hid my paunch and smoothed my hair. Seejo balanced the camera on a ledge in front of us and ran back to put his arms around me. It was difficult to smile watching a 500 dollar camera balancing precariously on a tiny ledge. I had to resist the impulse of rushing forward, to catch the camera in case in fell. The final photograph seemed like I was trying to escape the embraces of a monster and Seejo was trying his best to pin me down to his side. Anyway it was still a “don’t show anybody this photo” photo.

Some photographers in India have seen this void and rushed to fill in. A friend got this interesting offer from her wedding photographer. After the wedding he said he would throw in a little extra. For the same (and exorbitant) price of the wedding photos, he would tag along on their honeymoon to Ooty and take some more pictures. Pity the region they covered did not stretch as far as Italy !

Teething Trouble

Posted August 20th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Personal
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I finally had my first visit to a dentist in US. Everybody writes of visits to the dentist. It almost seems that writing about the long wait, perusal of outdated magazines and the whirring drill is a cathartic experience. My experience was quite contrary. I was called in within 5 minutes of my arrival, the national geographic I was reading was just a month old and the dentist did not even start his drill. He took one look at my teeth and pronounced the final verdict…Actually he didn’t even glance inside my mouth…he just looked at the x-ray and yelled “that one will have to go”. He magnanimously also gave me three minutes to decide when and where.

The story started a couple of months ago, when, I set to clean my teeth in great enthusiasm. Apparently the vigorous brushing was not something my poor tooth was used to…Under that great pressure, it succumbed and crumbled. Literally…half of the tooth lay in my hand in crumbled white pieces. Since it did not give me any pain, I let it be. After all the motto in my line of work is “If it works, don’t disturb it”.

A few months later, on a trip to Florida , the tooth decided to have some fun too. It gave me a reminder of its broken existence, just as I stepped foot into the plane. Throughout the airplane ride, with each bump, it viciously proved to me the different kind of aches that a mere tooth can subject its owner too. First there was the shooting pain, which would sort of travel up to my head and then spend a few minutes pounding my head. Then there was the dull ache, which was not bad enough to sit on the floor and scream yet gnawed at my mouth with its constant presence. There was also a burning pain, as though someone has placed a red hot poker up my teeth. And sudden movements or a jerk brought on a combination of all three. Of course then the other teeth had to join the melee and my lower tooth started its own case of referred pain. By this time, I was not exactly sure what was paining, my upper broken wisdom, the lower molar, my jaw or my head.

Just as the plane landed in Florida , the tooth got tired of playing its tricks and took a break. But it had done its deed. I chewed my food on the other side, brushed my teeth carefully. That was when I decided I needed to find a dentist. But of course procrastination is my nature and that good deed kept being pushed back due to school reunions, visiting guests, shopping pursuits and office deadlines. Finally the tooth decided to remind me again ….in red. A tiny spot of blood each morning while washing my mouth. It reached a stage where I could out it off no longer.

I found a dentist, took an x-ray and that led to the aforementioned war cry by the enthusiastic dentist. He was quick, I grant you. Injected three shots on either side of my tooth, yanked it off without mercy. I took the rest of the day off and spent it working from home. By night it reached the unbearable limit. Today I am back at work, the broken tooth still reminds me of its absence by flooding by mouth with a bloody taste occasionally and a searing pain , almost like a last goodbye, when I turn my head too fast or when I plonk into my chair , or when I lean to get something off a top shelf. Ah fun fun fun!!

But the good doctor eventually did have to look in my mouth to extract the tooth and that was when he found two more cavities that needed to be fixed. Of course ASAP

Castles of Bavaria

Posted August 17th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Long long ago, in the beautiful country of Bavaria there lived a young Prince named Ludwig. He lived with his parents King Maximillian II and Queen Marie in his wonderful castle –home called Castle Hohenschwangau. He had a very happy childhood. He loved the beautiful nature around him and his favourite pastime was feeding the swans in the Swan Lake . He also loved music, especially the opera. He had a good friend, a musician named Richard Wagner, who used to compose beautiful tunes and operas. When he was nineteen, his father died , and the Prince became the next king of Bavaria. As a King he had to go away to the capital, Munich , to rule his kingdom. But he did not like being away from his home in the Alps and the music that his friend composed. He tried to build castles in several places but no place seemed as beautiful as his childhood home. So he decided to build another castle very near Castle Hohenschwangau. He also built two other castles, The Castle Linderhof and the Palace of Herrenchiemsee . But the Neuschwanstein castle was intended to be his dream house, a private retreat, where he could relax from his Kingly duties. He had a good eye for beauty and so he ordered that he castle be built on top of the mountain commanding a beautiful view of the nearby Alps . He wanted it to be a beautiful castle, like a building out of a fairy tale. Building all these castles took a lot of money. The ministers did not like it, the people did not like it. Kind Ludwig spent more and more time building castles and staying away from the people. People thought he was going insane. Then one night, when he was in his room in the Castle Neuschwanstein, his governors came with a doctor and declared that Kind Ludwig was insane. He was taken from Neuschwanstein castle. A few days later the King and and his physician were found mysteriously dead. Was it suicide? Was it murder? Who killed whom? Who knows? Today, both castles Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein stand as witness to the rise and fall of the Mad King Ludwig, the Fairy tale King.

We reached Schwangau, a small village situated in the Bavarian Alps near the Austrian border, by early afternoon on Friday. We drove there on the Romantic Road or the RomanticStrasse so called because of the charming mountainous landscape with rolling hills and vast green meadows and the several castles and churches, on the way, that inspire romance. The castles are the ones I have told you about above with the the most famous castle out of these being the Neuschwanstein castle, the inspiring model of the famous Disney castle. The village of Schwangau has two of these famous castles, The Hohenschwangau, built in the 12 century and restored by Kind Maximilian, in the early nineteenth century and the Neuschwanstein which Ludwig started building in 1869

We had already pre-booked tours to see both the castles and we were just in time to check into our hotel and drop our luggage, grab the camera and make our way to the foothills of the mountain from where one could chose either horse carriages or buses for a ride to the castles. We decided to go up in royal style to the castle of Hohenschwangau , in a carriage pulled by two horses. The way to the castle was along a narrow track that wound its way up the mountains with a scenic view of the valley below . There was a beautiful lake in the center of the valley surrounded by mountains with the Neuschwanstein castle towering over one mountainous precipice. The Hohenschwangau is less imposing than Neuschwanstein but has a more lived in look, well as much as a castle could possibly have.

The natural beauty of Bavaria

The audio-guided tour of the Hohenschwangau took us to the room of Prince Maximilian, his wife Queen Marie and the heavily ornamented chapel. The castle is completely furnished with most of its original furniture and tapestries and several original paintings. There are several pictures, knickknacks and wood carvings of swans, the symbol of the Swan country that they were in. The riches within the castle are beyond words. From the windows of the Hohenschwangau we got a beautiful view of Neuschwanstein. We walked down towards the village, pausing every now and then and exclaiming at the wonderful panaroma in front of us.

As we walked down the hill, it began drizzling and so we took the bus to Neuschwanstein. The bus took us to nearly the top of the mountain near the Marienbrucke. The Marienbrucke is a suspension bridge crossing the 300 feet deep Pollat gorge offering the best view of Neuschwanstein. When we reached there it was drizzling, the tiny bridge seemed very flimsy as compared to the deep rocky ravine below us. We tentatively took a few steps on the bridge, clutching the railings tight trying to look down so as not to miss our footing and at the same time not notice the deep gorge below. Finally when we did look up at the castle, the view made us forget everything. With the slight mist in the air, the castle appeared as though it rose from the clouds on top of a mountain just as a fairy tale castle should. There was a steep 10 minute uphill trek to reach the entrance of the castle from the bridge.

Castle of Hohenschwangau

Castle Neuschwanstein

and below the Marienbrucke

We walked down the hill, it was drizzling and so we took the bus to Neuschwanstein. The bus took us to nearly the top of the mountain near the Marienbrucke. The Marienbrucke is a suspension bridge crossing the 300 feet deep Pollat gorge offering the best view of Neuschwanstein. When we reached there it was drizzling, the tiny bridge seemed very flimsy as compared to the deep rocky ravine below us. We tentatively took a few steps on the bridge, clutching the railings tight trying to look down so as not to miss our footing and at the same time not notice the deep gorge below. Finally when we did look up at the castle, the view made us forget everything. With the slight mist in the air, the castle appeared as though it rose from the clouds on top of a mountain just as a fairy tale castle should. There was a steep 10 minute uphill trek to reach the entrance of the castle from the bridge.

Neuschwanstein took about 17 years to construct and still was not complete when King Ludwig was declared insane and taken away. He had lived for just three weeks in the castle. However the beauty of elegance of the rooms endorses the fact that this was to be a dream castle. No expense or effort was spared in the rooms that were completed. Ludwig’s bedroom, which took 4.5 years to complete, is a classic example. The intricate woodwork on his bed canop, the giant murals as well as a then modern washstand is a sight to behold. The room also has one of the best views from the castle …We can see the Marienbrucke straddling the Pollat gorge in the distance.

The Tyrolian Alps with Lake Swansea and Castle Hohenschwangau: seen from the windows of Neuschwanstein

Actually building on such a beautiful location has the advantage that there are really no bad views. Each room has gorgeous view of the Bavarian landscape. Mountains, valleys, lakes , meadows and of course the yellow towers of Hohenschwangau in the distance. The Tyrolian Alps can be seen beyond the crystal blue waters of the Lake . Between the Lake Alpsee and the Smaller Swan Lake the yellow walls of Castle Hohenschwangau can ben seen.Ludwig did have a few idiosyncrasies . He had one room built as though it was a cave in the jungle, complete with artificial stalactites and stalagmites and waterfalls. He was also a huge patron of music and a friend of Richard Wagner. There were several rooms dedicated to the characters of Wagnerian operas . His love for music led to the construction huge Singers hall with exceptional acoustics.The castle was indeed a fairy tale place abounding with rich furnishings, tapestries, beautiful paintings and elaborate gilded ceilings and wall murals. The tour ended as all good tours do in the gift shop. We spent some time and money there and walked back to the village to have dinner. We ate dinner at one of the popular restaurants in that area. With the beautiful castle in the background and moonlight streaming through the windows, we had a nice atmosphere for dinner. Now only if they would have cooked the meat a little more!!!

Seejo’s fairy tale came true on our drive back from Schwangau to Frankfurt . Just as we merged into the autobahn, the smile on Seejo’s face was a mile long. Here is the story in pictures.

The car : A BMW

The speedometer inching towards 210 km/hr

Now closer to the top speed of 240 km/hr!!

Seejo is thrilled!!

Deepa isn’t too thrilled


17 Aug 2004

Happy Birthday, Munich

Posted August 16th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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We had a six hour halt in the city of Munich on our way to the Bavarian Alps. We reached Munich at about 6 am on the morning of Saturday June 19. Munchen is the capital city of the state of Bavaria, Germany. We decided to start our Munich sightseeing at the very heart of the city and made our way to the Marienplatz, the popular and always crowded central public square of Munich. In the center of the Marienplatz is a tall marble St. Mary’s column in whose honor the square gets its name (Marian=St. Mary, Platz= Square). The neo-gothic Neues Rathaus or the New Town Hall, forms one edge of Marienplatz. The central tower of the Rathaus is home to the famous GlockenSpiel, a musical clock which plays thrice times a day. From one end of the square we can see the old Town house, painted in bright red and blue looking like a tower from a fairy tale. We reached Marienplatz at the early hour of 7 am, expecting to find the square empty and deserted. However when we reached there we found it teeming with activity with a horde of people bustling about the place. It turned out that the birthday celebrations for the city of Munich was to kick off in a couple of hours from the Marienplatz that very day.

The Old Town Hall at Munich
The new Townhall Neus Rathaus

St. Mary’s column at the Marienplatz in the backdrop of the cathedral
The famous Glockenspiel at the Neus Rathaus

While waiting for the celebrations to begin, Seejo and I decided to take an early morning stroll in the famous Englischer gardens. These gardens, (in)famous for the its nude sunbathers, is in fact the largest city park in the world, right in the heart of Munich . We strolled along a scenic walking trail around the beautiful park along with early morning bikers and joggers and other fresh air enthusiasts. The landscape design of the Englischer garten seemed to have encompassed it all…a tiny stream running through the park, huge grassy meadows on either side, a Greek Parthenon like structure on the small hillock, a beautiful lake on one end as well as a Chinese Pagoda with a nearby beer-garten. We walked for a couple of hours through the garden, admiring the greenery and the sheer vast area that made up the park.

Photographs of the Englicher Garten

The Pagoda at the Englishcher Gartens

We made our way back to the Marienplatz where by this time the birthday celebrations of Munich were in full swing. There were several locals dressed in traditional costumes, men in the uniform of the Bavarian soldiers and women in the traditional outfits complete with embroidered aprons. At the center of the square with its back to the Rathaus, there was a makeshift stage with a few musicians and entertainers playing folk and jazz music. Opposite the Town hall , there were tiny makeshift shops where the vendors sold bratwurst and weisswurst, the traditional German sausage best eaten with mustard. From the center of Marienplatz, slowly spreading out in all directions, street vendors and shopkeepers had displayed their wares, setting up a huge marketplace. Tourists catching huge mugs of beer, sampling bratwursts and clicking photographs were all over the square. To complete the carnival atmosphere, dancers on stilts with their bodies painted green and clothed in outlandish costumes were dancing around the stage.

The famous bratwurst at Marienplatz
Dancers and Entertainers performing at Marienplatz

People in the native dresses of Bavaria

The crowd was reaching its peak, and was craning their necks looking at the Glockenspiel for the musical routine to start. The street musicians obediently lowered their volume allowing the music of the carillon to dominate. The tiny enamel plated copper figures of the carillon perform a slow mechanical dance called the Dance of the Coopers whirling and swaying to the music for about 10 minutes. When the mechanism is activated, as it is thrice daily, the brightly colored figures in the lower half of the Glockenspiel also perform a mock jousting duel.

Just as the last notes of the bell tower died away and the rooster on the top of the tower crowed signaling the end of the performance, the street musicians increased the volume of their music and the whole Marienplatz resembled another noisy busy bustling square. We made our way back to the railway station to retrieve our luggage and rent a car to the Bavarian Alps, feeling glad that in spite of the short time we had in Munich , we managed to be part of the city’s 845 th birthday celebrations.

A Day in Venice

Posted August 15th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Bridges over the Grand Canal

St. Peters’ Basilica

Gondolas in Venice

St. Mark’s Square

The streets of Venice

The natives of Venice

Paved in GoOld: The Ceilings of Doges Palace

The Bridge of Sighs!!

St. Peters Basilica again

Venice: Lagoon

The Rialto Bridge

Houses in Venice

Another View of the same

Masks of Venice

Venetian Glass

Wednesday,17 June 2004.

4.00 pm

Reach Venice Mestre from Florence . The “real” Venice is a small island off the mainland. There is one railway line and roadway connecting the island of Venice to the mainland on a mile long bridge. We take the local train to Venice ,Santa Lucia. The only train station in the island of Venice . The only mode of transportation further on is boats or by foot.

5.30 pm

We check in the Hotel Santa Lucia near the railway station. The rooms are decent; the yellow bedspreads give a cheerful feel to the room. We take the vaporetto or the local water “bus” from the Santa Lucia to the St. Mark’s square via the Grand Canal . Seejo is in a trigger happy mode on the vaporetto clicking pictures of all the buildings lining the canal. The Grand Canal is not as wide as I expect. It threads its way thru the centre of the city of Venice with houses, hotels and offices on either side of the canal. The construction of the buildings is slightly different from the rest of Italian structures that we had seen so far. The minarets that crown the old buildings reveal a distinct Islamic influence, which the guide book informs us is because of the close trade relationship that Venice had with the Byzantine empire in early thirteenth century when Venice was an important and wealthy trading port We pass several other boats on the canal, water taxis zooming past us, the odd police boat monitoring the waters and several gondoliers rowing their sleek black gondolas. Just as the Grand Canal reaches St. Marks square it opens up into a wide lagoon. On the far side from St. Marks square, we notice the other islands of Murano and Lido .

7.00 pm

St. Marks square is impressive. Seejo and I are mesmerized. Inspite of the huge crowd gathered there …there is romance in the air. In the fading daylight, there, groups of hungry tourists are bunched around in front of various restaurants. Musicians serenade them as they have an outdoor candlelight dinner. Some couples are dancing away oblivious of the people around. Artists have set up easels and are painting the Basilica The street vendors are trying to sell souvenirs, children are rushing around the place squealing. At the other end the cathedral is illuminated, seems more like a mosque. We stand apart taking in the surroundings.

A nice old couple offers to take a picture of both of us in front of the Basilica. We happily pose for a series of photographs. We reciprocate by taking a few of theirs.

9.00 pm

We wander around the area near the St. Mark’s square. A street musicians is creating the most wonderful sounds by tinkling with a few half filled glass bottles. We enjoy the jal tarang for sometime. Seejo gives him all the change that we had. There is another innovative salesman dressed as a marble bust, with his face painted in off white. There are tiny alleys branching out in various directions. We follow one of these till we come to a small Osteria where we have dinner. The food is excellent; risotto, pasta and a selection of appetizers selected from the bar, one of the best we have sampled in Italy . We set out after dinner to out hotel back to the Santa Lucia for some much needed sleep.

Thursday 18 June 2004

9.00 am

Breakfast is in the small garden outside hotel Lucia. Cereal, breakfast bars, toast with butter jam and honey, milk and orange juice. After breakfast, we check out of the hotel, store our bags with the concierge and then make our way to the vaporetto stop to catch the vaporetto back to the Basilica. The vaporetto stops at around 10 stops between Santa Lucia and the St. Marks square. At each stop, lots of people get in. Everybody seems to be on their way to the square.

10.00 am

We are back at St. Mark’s square. The square looks a little different in day time. The amount of people are just the same but it is possibly due to the flock of pigeons at the square. They outnumber the humans by atleast 2 to 1. Clever vendors sell bird seed for about a euro. The kids seem to be enjoying it. People were covered in those dratted birds. Put some seed on your head and you have three birds perched on your head. We make our way across the square to the Correr museum on the opposite side. The Correr museum has the best of Venetian paintings and sculptures. The museum has more than 40 rooms each one carrying some historical exhibits of the city of Venice ,including weaponry and armors ,maps and coins, and paintings that depict the glory of the once flourishing Venetian empire.

11:00 am

We make our way to the Doge’s Palace. The Doge’s Palace is the sight to see in Venice . The Doge (so our guide books told us) was an elected official of the Venetian city who had absolutely no ruling rights. However he was the ceremonial head of the city, who led the city processions and possibly cut the red ribbons whenever needed. Each Doge was installed in the palace, where he was expected to bring his own personal furniture, when he was elected to an office that was his until death. After his death , the next Doge ,elected by the Venetian nobleman , took his place at the Doge’s palace. The Doge’s palace houses both the personal living quarters as well as public offices ,like the Senate room and the council room of the Doge. Each of the rooms are splendid, we stand in each room marveling at the richness , the gold painted ceilings, the valuable old paintings that decorate each wall in the room, the ornamental fireplaces, the wood paneled walls and the sheer richness of it all

12:30 pm

The famous bridge of sighs connects the Doge Palace to the dungeons underground where political dissidents were imprisoned. The bridge of sighs, so called ,because the prisoners ,got their last glimpse of the Venetian sunshine before being carted off to the dreary dungeons. The prison was rows and rows of tiny cold cells with wooden planks for bed and a small shelf which would hold their meager possessions. Since Venice is surrounded by water, the dungeons were below the water level.

1.30 pm

We escape from the cold dungeons to the hot sun and immediately move in search of shade to the interior of the Basilica. The basilica is magnificent as most of the Italian churches were. However after the churches of Rome and Vatican , the interior is not as impressive. There is also a huge mosaic of the how St. Marks remains was smuggled into Venice from Egypt ( in a pork barrel, as pork is unclean for Muslims) making Venice an important city in the Christian world. The mosaic on the dome of the church shows vignettes from the bible. The church is built in Greek cross style with the the arms of the cross having equal sizes. I am more taken by the grandeur of the external facade. People are queing up to get up to the bell tower of the Basilica. But we know an insider ti, thanks to the guide at the Correr museum. He advised us to go over to the San Giorgio Maggiore island for a better view.

3:00 pm

We make our way to the opposite island pg San Giorgio Maggiore. That was easier said than done. It took ages to figure out the right vaporetto to get there. It did nt help that they were all called # 1. After about an hour we reach the tiny island which has only a area enough for the church and its bell tower. The church was a simple church, By now I have got used to paintings. I notice that there is a Last Supper near the altar. We make our way to the back of the church for the elevator to the top of the tower.

The view was spectacular. We see a blue lagoon dotted with tiny islands. On one side we could see a tiny parking area for the waterboats . On the other side , just below were the green manicured lawns of the church. We spot the long narrow island of Lido where the best beaches are, the tiny islands of Murano and Burano where glass making and lace making flourish. We see the mainland of Mestre and island of Venice as we know it with the Grand Canal threading through it. We stand there for ages darting from one nook to the other, drinking in the view. Almost as a reminder, the bell clanged, shocking us all by the intensity of the sound. With the echoes of the bell still ringing in out ears we made our way back to the mainland.

3.30 pm

Back to the Vaporetto. We got down near the Rialto Bridge , under which bridge the Gondoliers urge you to kiss your partners for luck. From Rialto we decide to walk to Santa Lucia through the bylanes of Venice . See the real Venice . We strolled around gazing at the pink houses with bright pink flowering shrubs at the window sills. Most houses have their backdoors opening into a small canal. Cars bicycles or any other kind of vehicle other than boats being disallowed, the residents of Venice do their grocery, carry out trash, and deliver mail all in tiny boats. To connect various houses, there are hundreds of tiny bridges all around the island.

We ambled around entering a few souvenir shops, here and there. Since ages the Venice Carnevale that marks the beginning of Lent is an occasion here for people let their hair down. Masks were the means to hide all sorts of indiscretions. Mask making is a now a big cottage industry. Venetian paper mache masks of jesters with bells hanging from the jesters crown seemed to be the most popular ones. These masks were in all shapes and sizes, of jesters and queens and even a few animals. The other popular souvenir was the Murano glass. Pieces of multicolored glass blown into various shapes and curios, animals and gondola boats made for a very colorful display. In between the masks and glass, there were a few lace fans and tiny lace umbrellas, another local product. Venetian lace has always been a famous product.

6.00 pm

Back in Santa Lucia . We have dinner at the Italian chain restaurant called Café Brek. We finally get to try the famous Italian appetizer of Prosciouto with melon. Half cooked slices of Parma ham with fresh mush melon slices is not exactly my idea of delicacy but Seejo seems to enjoy it. Fresh pasta made in front of us and some sea food salad made up our dinner.

7.00 pm

We walk along the Canal side watching the sunset. Italians are watching the Euro football match on a TV placed in open air. Italy scores a goal as we pass them and the whole crowd erupts into a war dance. We smile and head off to the local gelataria for our obligatory gelato. We could not leave Italy without having one more. We sauntered along the tiny bridges savoring our triple flavored gelato and saying good bye to Venice and Italy .

Culinary Treats from Home

Posted August 14th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Food
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Just thought I would show you some the culinary treats we have been dishing up in our kitchen. Since both of us love cooking (and eating!) we try to experiment with various cuisines and dishes. I don’t have pictures of everything we cook., but here is a selection. Most of our food is North Indian, but some day we feel the need to reconnect to our Mallu roots and make some thing oh so Mallu. Here is one such day’s menu.

Mathanga (pumpin) curry

spinach sambar

vellarikka (indian cucumber) pachadi

kadachakka thoran

cherupayar (red moong) upperi

Some other days we play the American hosts and cook traditional american fare. This was our Menu this thanksgiving. We substituted the turkey with chicken for practical reasons ( we would never be able to finish the whole turkey between ourselves)

Roast Chicken

Cranberry Relish

Cold cucumber and walnut soup

Green beans almondine

Garlic mashed potatoes

Some other dishes selected at random

Baked Moroccan chicken with couscous

Tandoori chicken

My carrot dip

homemade fresh cinnamon bread

And here is something sweet to round this off with. A selection of our own desserts.

fruit compote with mango icecream

strawberry cake

banana nut bread

ras malai

Postcards from Pisa

Posted August 14th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Morning at Pisa’s Field of Miracles. We were just about the first tourists there, reaching there even before the roadside vendors had set up their stalls.

The three structures that make up the ‘Campo dei Miracoli’ or Field of Miracles: The circular Baptistry (in the front), the Duomo or the Cathedral (in the center) and the Leaning Tower which was the Bell tower for this Cathedral.

First glimpse of the Famous Leaning tower of Pisa . It really does lean!

Patel photo at Pisa . This is the back of the tower. Maintenance of the tower is an ongoing process to support the structure and to slow down the leaning process.

The construction of the tower began about 1173. Although it took about 200 years to complete the construction, since it was paused several times to try and circumvent the problem of the leaning of the tower. If you observe the tower closely you can see the various stages when the construction was stopped trying to rectify the inclination of the tower: first around the fourth floor and then while construction of the belfry.

Standard shot at Pisa . The giantess from Brobdingang

Khau gully at Pisa: A long lane filled with eatables , mainly ham and olives from different parts of Italy .

We spent 4 hours in the city of Florence enroute to Venice . Florence was the home of the very wealthy and influential Medici family, the patron of Renaissance movement in Italy . The Medici family was instrumental in encouraging the famous artists and scientists of Italy like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Boticelli, Galileo etc. Under their patronage art flourished and soon Florence was established as the cultural capital of Italy .

We made our way to the Opera Galleria where the world famous statue of David stands tall. Sculpted by Michelangelo it is a stunning masterpiece, an embodiment of perfection that stunned me by its magnificence. In the same room as David, there is a are a group of four unfinished statues, aptly called Prisoners, which were left undone by Michelangelo. The partially completed sculptures, which almost seem to be straining to escape the marble, reveal the unerring eye for detail that Michelangelo possessed to sculpt out a stunning finished statue from a block of shapeless marble.

Next stop: The famous Duomo that inspited architects all over the world to create Domes. This was without doubt the most magnificent building we saw dutring the entire Italian trip. The intricate details on the walls, the massive structure and the beauty of white marble made it an unforgettable sight.

The Baptistry with its famous bronze doors that Michalengelo once called the doorway to heaven.

But positively the best thing about Florence . Its worth a trip to Italy just to eat some more gelato.

Vatican City

Posted August 13th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Vatican city is a vast repository for untold and immeasurable riches hoarded by the Popes over the centuries. Not just in terms of valuable jewels or gold but in terms of the creativity and artistic endeavors of some of the best Renaissance sculptors and painters. For the smallest country in the world, Vatican packs a lot of “must-see” things in its 0.44 sq km total area. We spent a day in admiring the exhibits in the Vatican Museum, being awestruck by the sheer size and grandeur of St. Peters Basilica and appreciating the beauty and symmetry of Vatican Square .

It is going to be a long winded description if I attempt to describe all of the treasures of the Vatican. So for now I am going to note down the 10 most memorable sights in Vatican City, according to me. This is what I remember when I think back about Vatican City , about 2 months after my visit.

1. The Egyptian section on the Vatican Museum housed a Mummy of a woman that lived around 1000 BC. She was so well preserved that we could even see the orange tinge on her head, which we were told was henna.

2. The Vatican Museum has a collection of ancent Roman sculptures culled from the Roman ruins and other places. Years ago some prudish pope decided that certain human organs needed to be hidden from public view. Thus he ordered that all sculptures be decked with an additional “fig leaf”. That was one of the most amusing sights in the museum.

3. In 1508 Raphael painted the frescoes for the private apartments of Pope Julius. The 4 apartments are now known as Raphaels rooms. Even a completely artistically challenged person like me could instantly observe that these frescoes were somehow different from the frescoes in the other rooms, there was so much brightness emanating from the frescoes. The above picture, The School of the Athens, was instatnly my favourite. I kept looking at it till Seejo dragged me away. The picture depicts various ancient philosophers, artists, scientists and thinkers like, Aristotle, Scorates, Leonardo, Galielo, Pythagoras in one grand fresco.

4. Each room , even every corridoor had very impressive ceilings culminating in the marvelous work in the Sistine Chapel. The ceilings were gilded with real gold and the artistic work was a sight to behold. The above is a ceiling in the hall of tapestries.

5. Michelangelo was commisioned by Pope Julius II to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Primarily a sculptor, Michelangelo took this oppurtunity to learn the art of painting frescoes. Later Pope Clement asked him to paint the alatar piece in the Chapel. The Last Judgement is a large fresco painted by him between 1536 and 1541, showing the power and wrath of Christ on Judgement day.

6. These cherubs are the one thing I remeber most inside St. Peters Basilica. The cherubs were present at the base of a column in the Basilica. The column rose high and there were sculptures of saints positioned on the tower. From the other end this looked magnificnet, but I realised the enormity of the tower only when I came to its base. Those tiny cherubs were more than 6ft tall. I could only imagine the height of the sculptures and then the total height of the dome of the Basilica.

7. Michelangelo’s Pieta. There was some sort of serenity to this sculpture. May be it was the look of resignation of Mary’s young face as she holds her dead son. Another thing I remember clearly is the very realistic folds of Mary’s robe.

8. The statue of St. Peter. There is a huge crown of people that kiss the right toe of St. Peters foot. It has been touched several million times such that the toe has totally been rubbed off.

9. The Swiss Guards that guard the entrance to the Vatican. The requirements for this job are that they should be of Swiss nationality, unmarried males between 18 and 25 and have to undergo rigorous training. The costumes for these guards are supposed to be designed by Michelangelo himself. Well, with this sartorial sense its no wonder that he painted a lot of nudes!!!

10. The magnificent St. Peters Square. The Square and the colonnade were deisgned by Bernini. The colonnade had 284 columns arranged to give an impression of the arms embracing all the people. On the tip of the collonade are Bernini’s favourie characters from the bible, with each statue being 6 ft tall. At the center is St. Peters Basilica. To the right of the Basilica are the apartments of the Pope.

Roman Holiday

Posted August 12th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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Seeing Rome was like a long interactive history lesson. Even if you are not fond of history, this is one history lesson that one should not miss.

We started out at the Coliseum keeping a wary look out for the gypsy thieves that we were warned against. There were a lot of English-speaking history students from various countries who had turned into part-time guides to help with the tuition, in addition to professional guides who offered guided tours of the Coliseum. We decided the tour may be worth it, even if it was just for the fact that we could avoid the long queue for the tickets. Tickets not withstanding, the tour was an excellent idea. For people like Seejo and me, whose knowledge of Roman history was limited to Julius Caesar, our tour guide was a mine of information.

The Coliseum is the most famous symbol of ancient Rome . It was a huge amphitheatre about 201 m long,171 m wide and 49 m high The construction of this massive structure took only 8 years and it was opened to the public built in AD 80

The Colloseum had a seating capacity of 50,000 people. The seats were allotted on the basis of social standing, gender and position. The Emperor, the Vestal Virgins and foreign visitors got the best seats in the house. The men sat in the lower seats closer to the arena while the women and the poor occupied the seats higher up around the ring. The Colosseum was witness to several duels between professional gladiators and fights between men and wild animals. Events at the Coliseum were a whole day affair begining with animal shows and comedy relief before moving on to the event of the day. Professional gladiators then fought against each other or wild half starved animals or trained slaves or condemned prisoners in front of a bloodthirsty crowd. The slaves and prisoners were not just randomly chosen. If a prisoner showed some talent or strength, he was chosen to duel against a gladiator. He would be trained and given the best of food to build up his strength, for a quick killing did not excite the public who were looking for a long and exciting fight. After the fight, it was the Emperor who would decide whether the loser would be killed or not. A good fighter, inspite of a lost fight was not always condemned to death. After all training a gladiator was an expensive investment. Sports, even back then, was a money making proposition. Reports also said that the Colisseum was the stage for several terrible injustices such as public rape of slave women, torture of Christians and a brutal treatment for prisoners.

Roman Forum: A Birds Eye View

From the Coliseum, we went on another guided tour, a free one this time, of the Roman Forum. The Forum is located over a large area and is strewn with the tombs and ruins of various structures from different Roman eras. If the Coliseum built in 80 AD seemed an ancient structure, then what could I say about the Roman Forum which was a thriving market place in 500 BC. It was the “downtown” for the ancient Romans. The Roman Forum though has structures from various centuries as Romans loved to build over existing structures. There are a lot of old buildings like the tomb of Julius Caesar, the temple of the Vestal Virgins, the Arch of Constantine, the Senate and so on. After an interesting recap of Roman History, we went up the Capitoline hill to get a breathtaking birds-eye view of the Forum. The museum on the hill houses a lot of objects and artifacts that were discovered from the ruins. These include household items, marble and bronze statues, and ancient tools and implements. We spent a short time looking at the vast collection and then made our way down to the main street.

The Victor Emmanuel Monument

We walked on towards the Piazza Venezia where we paused a moment to admire the huge white marble monument to King Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of unified Italy. This also serves as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On the other side was Trajan’s column, a huge white marble column to commemorate Roman King Trajan. We stopped a few minutes to look around, . then proceeded again.

The Trevi Fountain

With guide maps in hand, we made our way to the Trevi Fountain. This was one of the several fountains that Bernini constructed across the city of Rome . But this one is supposed to bet he most magnificent of them all. It was certainly the most crowded place in Rome. Bangladeshi and Chinese street vendors were running all over the place trying to sell souvenirs. Seejo and I sat a little away, trying to appreciate the beautiful and the large sculptures that made up the fountain. There is a superstition that if you throw a coin into the Fountain and make a wish you will be able to come back to Rome .

The Spanish Steps

The next day we visited Vatican City . On our way back we relaxed a bit near the very crowded Spanish Steps. The Spanish steps are actually a series of steps leading to a church. They were so crowded that we could hardly see any steps. In front of the steps is another of Bernini’s fountains. Two buildings away was the lodge of Lord Byron when he was in Rome .

The Pantheon

The next day we were up bright and early and made our way to the Pantheon. The Pantheon was a pagan Roman temple devoted to the worship of all gods (pan: all, theon: Gods). When Romans adopted Christianity, it was used as a church for some time, but the practice did not continue. The Pantheon has a very symmetrical construction. The Dome of the Pantheon was an architectural marvel in those days, a perfect hemisphere with the same radius at each point. At the center of the dome is a round skylight, the only source of light inside the Pantheon, in ancient times. There was a lot of effort and thought put into the construction of the then largest dome atop a structure. Pantheon is also the final resting place of one of the most famous Renaissance painters, Raphael. There were shrines in the walls of the Pantheon, some still having statues of saints. From the outside the Pantheon is not very impressive, its almost a shabby looking structure. But then the realization dawns that this building is almost 2000 years old and still very well preserved.

The Four Rivers Fountain

Next, we visited another famous fountain by Bernini at the Piazza Navona in the afternoon. This is the fountain of the 4 rivers. This is an almost bizarre architecture with 4 different old men representing 4 ancient rivers (The Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Plata each one representing the four different continents.) But apart from that , there is a plethora of animals and birds and trees around the base of the structure, even an armadillo! This grand structure forms the base of an obelisk , a Roman copy of an ancient Egyptian obelisk. Out of all the fountains of Bernini that we saw, this is the one that stays in my mind even now. Interestingly all the fountains have a common aqueduct system that runs throughout the city of Rome . The water is recycled between all the fountains. Also it is potable enough to drink!!!

Michelangelo’s Moses

Our final stop in Rome was the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore, near the coliseum. We spent some time admiring the Coliseum again from another angle and climbed the hill to enter the basilica. The highlight of the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore was Michelangelo’s last work as a sculptor, the marble statue of Moses. This was originally intended as one of the side figures for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Seeing the height and the magnificence of this statue, I could only imagine how the tomb, if finished would have looked like. However, the tomb could not be completed and the statue found its final resting place in the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore. The wrath in Moses’ face is palpable. He seems as though he is just about to rise from his marble chair. It was another example of Michelangelo’s skill as a sculptor. Every church in Rome has beautiful paintings, and magnificent ancient art. We spent a few moments admiring a few other paintings and then turned back to the station.

That was our last day in Rome. We were off to Pisa in a few hours.