Saturday, October 30, 2010

Presenting Indian Culture

The first slide of my powerpoint presentation :)
Finally something constructive to do! A well known Business School in the North of France has invited me to make a presentation on Indian culture. I had worked on a similar project with one of the business schools in Normandy. This time the theme is "Beyond Cultural Barriers: Business in Modern India". I love the idea of taking down cultural boundaries and I jumped at the offer when it came my way! But as always something exciting in France, will come with tons of paperwork. The seminar is taking place for three days only and I'm supposed to submit a
  1. Curriculum Vitae  
  2. a RIB (bank identification) 
  3. copy of passport 
  4. copy of "carte de séjour" (legal staying permit) 
  5. copy of social security card 
  6. copy of "authorisation de travail" delivered by the Prefect of Police 
  7. Salary slip (if working elsewhere) 
  8. Diplomas and school certificates translated in French ?
  9. "Authorization to undertake extra work" from current employer ?
  10. And finally the most confusing/entertaining of the lot, "un extrait de casier judiciaire" which is basically a background police check done after you put in your application for the document online. The confusing thing though is that the document is given only to people born on French soil. How does one work around this ???
Et voilà the documents required to make a powerpoint presentation in France! oui, c'est la vie!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Venice, I will return for my heart!

“This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty - this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.”

Venice was my first stop on the "in search of myself" tour in May. Soon after my dad's passing, I realized life was too short and I didn't want to end up like him with so many dreams in the pipeline and never getting down to fulfilling any of them. Confucius said "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". Dreams are in fact easy to fulfill. If you think like me, all you have to do is pack your entire life into a sturdy bag and bring yourself to the starting point of your journey. Travelling has always made me happy and my dreams can be fulfilled with every new place I visit, every new person I meet. I have never travelled alone before and I thought maybe that was what I needed to change about myself. So I decided to travel by alone through Italy, Switzerland, Hungary (and I landed up in Prague unexpectedly after Volcano ecjkeuiuhdizebfuczpolus* exploded which is a story I will tell another day) armed only with my journal and that sturdy bag. You know what? It turned out to be the best decision I ever made!
Of course I was really apprehensive at first. I remember the day of my flight, the weather was terrible in Normandy and my roommate (who thought this was a crazy idea! and I was a crazy person!) was being really supportive of my "mission" that day. I recall telling her "Look at my face, this could be the last time you see me!". She brushed it off as nonsense talk, but seriously that was how scared I was. I get to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, on time for my early morning flight and guess what? Easyjet cancelled the flight! The next flight was at 19.30 which would get me into Venice at 21.00 ish. Not the best time to land in a foreign country especially when you're a 22 year old girl, foreigner and can't make out the head or tail of the language. But I played along.
I land in Venice when it's pitch dark and during stormy weather. If you've been to Venice before, you will know the uneasy feeling you get when it rains. Because the water level rises and all transport towards the island comes to a grounding halt. FactFlooding regularly occurs between November and April with the worst floods recorded on 4th November 1966 when tides rose more than 6ft in 24 hours flooding low lying areas of the city such as Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). My head was spinning with various questions. Will I ever find the vaporetto (Venice's complex system of water taxis) to my destination, will I even find my hostel in the dark, what are Italians like? Should I spend the night at Marco Polo airport and head to Venice in the morning? That couldn't be done because Marco Polo is not like Charles de Gaulle airport or any other international airport. The airport closes after midnight! 

I brave myself for the worst and head for Venice. But the honestly, the great transportation system, the kind bus driver, the smooth roads, the happy tourists (most of them French people. Oh yes French people love speaking to other French speaking people while they travel and speaking to these French people made me feel really at ease!) all made me be more prepared for my Venetian journey!
I did find the vaporetto to head to my hostel and sure enough when I got off at my stop, it was pitch dark but there was music playing everywhere. And it was the sound of live violins! My favourite kind of music! There were the old and young and lovers in the street and I knew this was the start of something special. I stayed at a hostel called A Venice Fish. It was all I could afford on my budget and rule no.1. Don't be a skinflint when it comes to your hotel! Because the place was disgusting! Thank God I was there for minimum amounts of time during the day because I would have been physically ill. 
My first day in Venice was mesmerizing. I have to confess that it began really badly because I couldn't stand the fact that there was romance everywhere! Just look at this couple above who came to Venice for their wedding shoot, they look liked they stepped out of a bridal magazine! Venice is like a fairytale. And I wanted to kick myself for not starting with Rome or Florence first. I recall going into the church of San Zaccaria just behind the Bridge of Sighs (Il cielo di Sospiri) and crying my eyes out! I hated being alone right then and I hated the idea of travelling alone for the next 20 days. Should I just turn back? I stayed nearly an hour in the church and the incense slowly calmed my nerves. I did get many curios looks from tourists and the sacristian! I began to think rationally again. Then I realized, had I been travelling with someone else, could I have stayed one hour in a church? Could I have walked across the Accademia bridge six time just because I couldn't get enough of the facades on the houses? The answer is no! Travelling with someone always means respecting two itineraries. And here I was. In Venice! Alone. Free to do whatever the hell I want in this magnificent kingdom of the Doges!! ting ting ting ting <---- That was the bell of revelation that went off in my head and heart. I was actually going to be OKAY.
After that it was smooth sailing all the way to the end of the journey. Ever since then, I have tried my level best to travel alone because it's the best kind of freedom anyone especially women can ask for! Venice has a special place in my heart because it made me stronger. That is why I will keep going back to find my peace, my courage, my beautiful church of San Zaccaria. Except this time, I will stay at a decent hotel! 
The best thing to do in Venice is throw away your map, your guidebook and immerse yourself entirely in it's splendour. The island is a labyrinth. "Uno labyrinto glorioso", were the exact words of the Italian woman who helped me find the famous Piazza San Marco. This was an Italian lady who was also visiting the area. Venetians? Not a really helpful bunch. You know, it's understandable. Imagine hundreds of people pestering you in English for directions to Piazza San Marco every single day and in a summer every hour! I can sympathize with the Parisians now! Poor snobbish things!
Venice is an architecture lover's delight. Don't even get me started on what it can do for photographers! At every new corner there is something new awaiting to surprise you or maybe there is another beautiful canal littered with exquisite gondolas. Venice has a lot of street theater and the artists are very talented and survive only on tips! I <3 the Opera and I wanted to see an Opera in one of the city's fine theaters but the prices were astonishing! Plus I was there in May and that's not even the tourist season. I wonder if only millionaires go to the opera in Venice!
So I took great pleasure in wandering around Venice's (free) theatre of charming bridges, intricate windows with lace blinds, gondolas and boats alike. It's a stunner this place! as if every part of the city was used as a prop in a theater play of some sort!
A great way to save money over food here or in other city in Italy is to go to the trattorias (cheap delis/diners). The locals go here as well and the food is way more reasonable than the restaurants aka tourist traps.
The island is quite big and if your feet get tired, take off your shoes and plonk on the side of a canal, lie back and enjoy view. No one will care if you're wearing ugly grey socks with a strange yellow stripe on top.
I usually hate to get lost in a new place but that actually worked in my favour in this enchanting city. I saw the many splendours of Venezia! If there's a crowd in front of you, just turn right or left. Whatever you want. I just walked anywhere, in some sort of stupour snapping photos of windows, grilles, boats, ripples on the green canals, etc. 
Fact: Venice has 150 canals connected by 409 bridges, and over 3000 alleyways on the 117 islands :) Still want to keep up with that map?
No I did NOT buy a Venetian mask, take a ride on a gondola with the gondolier singing to me. Because those are cliché things to do. I love clichés :) The only reason I couldn't buy a mask because I had a tiny bag to fit my entire life and the mask would be squashed as it passed through the destinations to follow. And the gondola? le sigh! I am saving that for another occasion ;)
The Gondola is a masterpiece in it's own right. Each one has some story to tell. Just floating on the water and yet it exudes a brilliance I cannot put down in words! Fact: Gondolas are hand made using 8 different types of wood (fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime) and are composed of 280 pieces. The oars are made of beech wood and the left side of the gondola is made longer than the right side to counterbalance the weight of the gondolier!

If chess is your thing, there are plenty professional chess players you can play against all over the city. Play fair my friend. Foul play can land you in a serious tiff with the usually friendly Italians! 
Religion is still is strong part of Italian society and you find God represented in various mosaics, little statues and statuettes all over the city.
Most of these photos have been taken with a camera which broke down in Venice. I decided foolishly to purchase one here itself. And when I got to Rome, I found out the sales man had charged me 50 euros more than the actual cost. ha! Rule: Never purchase electronic goods on an island. I was quite sad to lose my old camera because it was the last gift from my dad. My dad always swore by Sony and I couldn't figure out what was the problem with this item! One day it just began vibrating in my hand and then it died! sniff :'(
The new camera is also a Sony and it takes some lovely pictures. I guess it's not the camera but rather the photographer that makes the magic huh!
While loitering around the city, I could help but remember Cassanova. This was his territory wasn't it? The story is so romantic and every girl must have thought about him at least once in her lifetime! The movie with Heath Ledger was a decent representation of the story. And as darkness fell over the city, I couldn't help but imagine how nice is would be to see a charming hooded figure running across the high roofs and stopping to say Buona Sera to the girl happily lost in one of the lanes! :) Maybe the next time :)
The facade of Basilica San Marco was under construction while I was there alone. However it was back to it's grand self when I visited it two months later with mom. The church is worth the visit but be prepared for really loooong queues. I still have to visit the Campanile (bell tower of the church which is the highest point in Venice). Voilà already another reason to go back!
Piazza San Marco is the most beautiful square in the world it's filled with as many pigeons as tourists! Do NOT feed the pigeons as you will be fined by the authorities. The pigeon droppings are costly to clean up and they damage the facade of the marvellous buildings in immediate proximity of the square!
Ok I have to burst your mesmerizing bubble with this fact which I learnt at the end of my stay in Venice.
Fact: Venice has no sewer system; household waste flows into the canals and is washed out into the ocean twice a day with the tides! hmm.

Scientists say Venice is sinking! Apparently the land level has lowered (by almost 24 centimetres in the past century alone!)  and the sea level has risen drastically! Global warming is to blame and should be taken seriously! It would be a shame to see such a magical kingdom disappear. But I can see the ocean's point of view. If I were the ocean, I would want Venice for myself. Well I'm getting carried away. Venezia should live on. The city gave me refuge and comfort. I was safe in this little lagoon which keeps washin away it's own grime and my fears. A constant process that is taking place right now. I have to go back and ask Venice in which safe nook it has tucked away a part of me. My heart! :)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cupcake in the sea? Le Mont Saint-Michel

My two weeks of All Saints Holidays have begun and I don't think my holiday plans for Marseille will ever see the light of day, thanks to the on going pension strike in France. Le sigh. My school has shut down for the holidays and hence no possibility for wi-fi. But my neighbour has been kind enough to share his wi-fi code with me and now I actually have internet! I spoke to my mom and aunt a while ago and showed them the massive house that I have for myself and I tried my level best to not burst into tears especially after they described the lovely meal they had just gobbled down. My family is utterly nuts but I love them to bits! My aunt is an amazing cook and the jar of pork sorpotel she packed is still kept safely in my refrigerator :'(  Ah well.
Today's post is about a weekend spent at Mont Saint Michel in July with my mum and my French friend Amélie. I haven't had the time to upload these lovely pictures so I thought might as well do it today. Generally people do a day trip when they come to see this stunning monument but Amélie is a hiking pro and she signed us up for a 16 km trek in the bay (Rando-baie) and so we had to spend a night in a gite (bed & breakfast à la française style).
The Mont Saint Michel has existed for more than a thousand years and it is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world. It can get really hot and crowded here during the summer. We went in June, so it was already filled with tourists and the lanes leading up to the abbey are so narrow, you have to wait a long while for the queues to advance! To make things worse, these narrow streets are lined with so many souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants, so you could get stuck for ages!
Hermit monks came to this island in the 6th century in search of solitude. Archangel Gabriel convinced the Archbishop of the neighbouring town of Avranches (by burning a hole through his skull according to legend) to construct a church that could reach heaven and this would surely bring the worshippers back to God. And voilà! You have an intricately designed church and an even more exquisite spire on top of it. There is gold statue of the Archangel atop the spire and when you look up, you feel as if it's piercing the heavens!
The Mont has a very mystique quality to it and the abbey (which you have to pay to enter has employed a prissy woman who refused to accept my International Student Identity Card (ISIC) as proof of my age and demanded for my passport with my Carte de Séjour in order to give me a discount. I obviously was not going to bring my passport to this island in the middle of nowhere and it struck me as very odd that this famous monument in France didn't accept the ISIC! so if you're below 25, you might want to take your passport with you!) is made up of many peaceful cloisters where the monks conducted various activities such as carpentry, gardening, bible study, etc.
The bay of the Mont is today converted into farmland and you find a gazillion sheep grazing here. Their salty meat is a local speciality. It contains so much salt because the sheep graze on plants that thrive only on the salty waters of the bay. Restaurants are quite expensive on the island (and they are run by some of the 41 permanent residents who live here only to cater to tourists). The villages around the bay like Avranches, etc boast of some quaint areas that serve reasonable food! I enjoyed the cool cider that was served with our meal in Avranches!
French people and French royalty have loved the Mont Saint Michel very passionately throughout the ages. The entire island is fortified by strong walls. During the hundred year's war, the British conquered all of Normandy but never managed to conquer this well protected island! Hence it remains the proud symbol of French nationalism even today! For a few hundred years during the Revolution, the abbey was used as a prison by the Atheist government and there are still various reminders of the torture prisoners underwent here. For example there is a giant wooden wheel high up in the abbey wherein prisoners had to enter two by two and walk like hamsters to draw up a wheel barrow down below which contained nearly two tonnes of food and building material!

The Mont Saint Michel is surrounded by lovely towns, so if you have a car, you can escape the hordes of tourists by driving to these villages. But no matter how far you drive, the Mont will still be there in the distance :) Plus when it's summer time, the entire countryside is come to life and I've seen some of the best shades of yellow in this region!
On our second day in Mont Saint-Michel we trekked for 16 km around the bay. I was worried whether my mom would be able to complete the trek because it was so hot that day and moreover the bay is filled with water and depending on the tide, the water can rise up to the height of a bus! But of course we had a professional guide who knew exactly the timing of the tides and my mum is such a sport, she completed the entire trek without a single complaint! Our guide was such fun and he spoke perfect English as well. In the picture above, he is showing us how the quick sand in the bay is a real hurdle to trekkers and imagine how it must have been in the middle ages when there was no road leading up to the Mont. The pilgrims would have to walk, always at the risk of quick sand, disorienting fog and monstrous tides!
I was so proud of my mom because she was the eldest member of our trekking group and made me realize that age has nothing to do with your goals! "Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don't mind, it doesn't matter".  ~Mark Twain :) The trek in the bay was a strenuous but unforgettable adventure. I highly recommend the trek organized during the summer by the Tourism office and its called Rando-Baie. Our guides were brilliant and we learnt so much about the history of Mont Saint Michel and the surrounding islands! The trek ends at the point you started and there is plenty of entertainment, refreshments waiting for you!

The sunsets at Mont Saint Michel add to the character of the place. Every moment you feel as if an invisible painter somewhere keeps brushing new strokes on to the landscape. Every second the canvas has morphed into newer, more striking shades of peach, mauve, grey, blue, etc. This has to be the work of divinity because I find no suitable explanation for the peace I felt when I witnessed the sun going down at Mont Saint Michel.

Personally, I feel looking from a distance, the the Mont ressembles a cupcake with a long candle on top. No? :)
At least once in your lifetime you should visit the magnificent Mont Saint Michel, which has stood the test of time (as old as a millenium!). My visit was extra special because my mother was with me and this journey was part of a holiday we took together after many years. When I was younger, she always said sunsets are for making wishes. That day I wished for many more sunsets with my darling mother. We both deserved this happiness and the trip to a destination like this which didn't fail to impress!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Religiously speaking.

Cathedrale de Notre Dame, Rouen, Normandy

Religious participation is decreasing the world over. People have chosen various past times over their religious obligations. I myself am no exception! I could never imagine going back to a catechism class and learning the verses of the bible by heart. I don't go to church anymore on sundays and now that I think of it, I don't think I will be hearing mass for a long time (unless my mom suddenly shows up in France and drags me to church because that's what "good catholic girls do"). I'm not sure if my children would be obliged to be catholic, only because one of their parents was born into the religion. But I will from time to time convince them and others to go an sit a while in church, not to recite the prayers that you learnt by heart, not to kiss the statues that represent God, but to just sit. I have no idea what aspect about religious monuments appeals to me why it cannot be recaptured in our homes. I love incense and candles and I tried to recreate the same composed ambience of a church in my own house but it doesn't work! Actually going into church and sitting on one of the hundreds of wooden benches helps in many ways I feel. It gives more perspective to your being, your sadness, your joys or sometimes you can go there and just be free of your thoughts. Just stop thinking and be. Try it sometimes! This helps me a lot because I'm always thinking. Not like the greater thinker or anything but what I mean is, I always over work my brain with random thoughts and when I sit in church, I feel as if I'm there by myself and not with thoughts about where I go next, where I've come from, etc. I'm just present with myself. Me. 
Candles attract me immensely. They come in all shapes and sizes and the ones sold in churches are inexpensive so that anybody can light one without burning a hole in their pocket. I think it's this act of offering a little gift to some superior power makes the church experience so beautiful. I've never entered a church that has never had candles lit, I guess it's part and parcel of the age old traditions. For me personally, I love looking into the flames, they are so tiny and yet so bright. I wonder sometimes who must have offered them and what were their thoughts. I have tried on numerous occasions to capture the flames of the candles on my camera but I never get it spot on. These were the best photos out of the dozens I took and even these aren't satisfactory!
Living in a little town in France is a beautiful experience. I have the countryside all to myself and all the little churches and chapels scattered around as well. But the only unfortunate thing is that most of them are closed either because most are privately owned or the Mairie (the mayor's office cannot afford to keep them open to the public all the time, owing to the high cost of electricity, repair work, etc. So here's where living in Rouen (the capital) comes in handy. The churches are always kept open in Rouen and I could go in there as and when I please. But a true architecture fan will still find ways to admire the architecture whether it is present inside the monument or out. The little church in my village is open on certain days and I need to out the timings because if the exterior is so beautiful, the interiors must be lovelier.
It's a medieval church and a few metres away from the Franco-British cemetery. There is a peculiar monument in front of the church, exactly the kind I used to see in Bretagne. It's a tall pillar with strange little impressions on it and right on the top stands a cross. I presume this was one of the medieval architectural styles!

Thursday, October 21, 2010


If you want to find the noble image of yourself, look into nature's mirrors :)
- me.