On Zermatt and its quaint, snow covered charm

18 Feb

On Zermatt and its quaint, snow covered charm

Zermatt

We arrive at the tiny Zermatt station and the person at the ticket window there refunds my money and issues me a family pass without any hesitation. In return all I have to do is to fill up a small little form. I am so impressed that I am tempted to take his picture and Tweet it to my followers in India, but I let the feeling pass on account of no free wifi. I danke the man gratefully and step outside, luggage and kids in tow. The sun in Zermatt is strong and the air piercingly fresh, so fresh that my Indian lungs are feeling overwhelmed. Only electric cars and horse carriages are allowed to ply in this village since 1947 and Hotel Zermatterhoff has sent one such horse carriage for us. The kids are ravenous and spotting a Coop supermarket, begin to make their demands. “I am hungry,” wails the younger one. “Please buy me chocolate my tummy is hurting with hunger mamma.” Melodrama runs high in my side of the family and the younger one has inherited these genes in plenty. I leave them waiting by th2014-03-22 17.57.14

2014-03-23 11.12.46e horse carriage and dash in and out of Coop in record five minutes with a bag full of healthy options, much to my children’s dismay.

We are driven down Bahnostrasse (main street), a narrow strip of tiny shops and restaurants and we arrive at Hotel Zermatterhoff. I realize that this distance could have been covered on foot in the same amount of time but then I would have deprived two little girls a chance to feel like Cinderellas, in their own words. Going by the number of ski gear and luxury watch shops along this tiny strip, one could decidedly come to the conclusion that the people of this quintessential Alpine village only need skis and expensive watches in order to survive. St Moritz, from what I can remember, was no different in this regard. There are more watch stores in Switzerland than supermarkets. There’s got to be a limit to obsession with time.

The Swiss clearly thrive on their great outdoors, their peculiar tasting cheese and being on time with the help of branded watches. Of course this leaves them with no time to be effusive or interesting.

I can almost picture a Swiss mother telling her son in German, “Hermann, Bitte bringen US Brot und Käse nach dem Skifahren. Vergessen Sie nicht, Papa und mir eine Hublot und Audemars Piguet bringen.”

“Das letzte Mal, dass du mich Rolex Oyster Perpetual, und ich musste es tragen zu stoppen, weil Maria, unsere Putzfrau trägt es auch.”

I agree with you, it sounds like the mother is planning to viciously murder her husband with her son’s help, but then that is German for you. What she is trying to say instead goes something like this, “Hermann, on your way back from the ski slopes can you please bring us some bread and cheese for dinner. Oh and don’t forget to pick up a Hublot and a jewelled Audemars Piguet for dad and me while you are at it.

Last time you got me that Rolex Oyster Perpetual and I had to stop wearing it because Maria, our cleaning lady wears it too.”

I am pleased to note that the staff at the Zermatterhoff hotel is exceptionally accommodating and courteous and when they fuss over you, they do not give you the impression that they are doing this for gratuity. We are led to our spacious (by European standards) rooms on the top most floor of the hotel. It is only when we walk into the attached balcony that we truly absorb the beauty of this Alpine paradise.

There are tumbledown wooden Valais homes smattered all the way upto the far away slopes and behind them the legendary Matterhorn at 4478 m above sea level.

Towering over the entire landscape in all its snow-covered splendour the Matterhorn commands awe. In days to come, I realize that the Matterhorn glacier changes its hue through the day, stark white in the afternoon, golden yellow in the evening, red at sunset and a frosty blue at night. This explains the obsession of the people of Zermatt with painting and clicking pictures of this peak. Almost everywhere you go in the town you spot a framed picture or a painting of the Matterhorn. As you walk around the cobbled lanes of Zermatt, you will often hear the words, “Look, that is the Matterhorn.”

I too am so inspired by this glacier that I am contemplating putting together a book called 20,000 different ways to look at the Matterhorn and still work up the excitement.

As the sun begins to set, these chalets glow like lanterns against the snow making the vista take on a dreamlike quality.  the chalets at varied heights stacked up in between our hotel and the mountains behind and after dark this scene takes on a magical quality against the midnights skies. There is something about the view that makes my nerves quiver with admiration.

The clamour of the church bells from the church next door from our hotel can be heard on the hour, every hour. My older one begins to complain about it and for the first time in the day, I lose my cool. “You have no appreciation for history. You just want shopping malls!!” I say making a conscious effort to sound condescending. “Why do you have to lecture me about everything. Just because you like these old old cities and churches that cannot stop ringing does not mean that we have to like it,” she challenges me.

I put this back talk to pre-teen behaviour.

Zermatt has two other famous excursion mountains apart from the Matterhorn, Gornegrat and Rothorn.

We find a sunlit table in one of the restaurants in Bahnostrasse and sate our ravenous selves with fondue followed by glace (ice cream).

This village of Zermatt may be tiny but it is not lacking in charm or elderly couples, evidently. That’s right, this place is an extension of my train as there are no young people in sight, only pet dogs and their advanced-in-age owners in expensive furs. So where are all the young people, I wonder. Perhaps they’re all doing their compulsory military service in the Swiss army. Or they could be on the ski slopes.

The next morning, for the price of a human kidney, we buy our passes to take the ski lifts along with the kids and their instructor Luca. Unlike last year, this year I am not going to be able to attempt skiing on account of a terrible leg spasm which I have had since a week now, because I am eighty years old apparently.

Luca tells me the weather forecast for the rest of the week is sunny. This bit of information dampens my mood right away because when you pay for snow you should get fresh snow.

Up on the slopes, I sit like a mountain goat, watching the world ski past me while all I do to entertain myself is to eat potato rosti and take selfies. When I go to the Sunnegga cafe to buy us some water, I discover that wine and water cost about the same. Under such circumstances, it would be sacrilegious to buy water. More importantly, one cannot overlook the fact that fruit provides more vitamins to the body than water and I need vitamins to survive the dry air, the harsh sun and my general joblessness 8000 Ft above sea level.

The cafe where I sat all day waiting for an epiphany

Given that water is selling for 6 Francs a bottle up here, if I decide to give it all up one day and move to the mountains to find my inner self, I could move to the Swiss Alps and look at working part time as a water bearer.

Even though it is only their first day on the skis after a gap of a year, my children are doing well with their lessons and have moved to the higher slopes with Luca in no time. This means I am left behind to listen to profoundly moving lyrics of songs blaring on the speakers at the first level.

“Who do you think you are?

Running around leaving scars?

You’ll catch a cold

From the ice inside your soul.”

My own soul is catching a cold from listening to these words. I decide to bring my laptop along the next day to occupy myself more usefully.

The next morning, I feel like a nerd when I realize that I am the only person boarding the ski lifts with a laptop instead of skis. But if Hemingway were here, wouldn’t he do the same, I console myself.

Up on the summit, I make friends with an immensely likeable girl from New York who was raised in Bombay and now lives in Manhattan with her husband and kids. The world is small indeed for we realize that we dislike the same people in Bombay. She also loves Adele. This in itself is reason enough to take to each other and we decide to meet with our respective families for dinner. The husband has finally reached Zermatt and much as I am looking forward to his company, I am stressing because I will have to plan itineraries for three children now.

Two monkeys on the slopes

The slopes are ideal for skiing but the heat is unbearable for the sun only gets harsher. I check the weather forecast a dozen times a day in the hope that snow conditions will show up, but to no avail. I feel cheated because if I wanted so much sun, day after day, I would have stayed back in Bombay or gone to Dubai. Luca does not get our fascination with cold weather and snow. He is planning to go to Kerala later this year to soak in the sun. “Imagine if you go to Kerala but it is raining all the time and you cannot go to the beaches. This is the same for us. It is just too sunny here. I want my money back,” I tell him.

Evert night we meet up with our new friends at a restaurant or their chalet while our kids play with theirs. It is working out really well really except that we are all having to wake up at 7.00 am daily to be able to make it to the slopes before it gets too hot. This holiday is feeling like a boot camp and I am getting just a bit tired of getting my children ready in several layers each morning and tending to their dry and sun burnt skin through the day. Every time I see them on the slopes after they have finished a round, like an orderly, I run to hydrate them with water and apply more sun block and lip balm on their chapping lips. The husband is also taking ski lessons, he seems to have a natural flair for it. This means I will have to continue to be miserable all by myself. But misery loves food and I am making so many quick trips to the self service cafe that I am on the verge of sending a friend request on Facebook to the girl behind the till who flashes her familiar smile at me now every time I show up with a tray.

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Our instructor is an erudite man and wonderful company. Being Italian, he is also very patient with my children. The older one is committed to following instructions from Luca but I am told that my younger one stops mid slope to dig out gummy bears from her pocket to mix them up with the fresh snow before throwing them back into her mouth. “It’s okay, she is cute, I don’t mind at all” he reassures me.

Since the milk of humanity is flowing so generously in his veins, I am tempted to ask him to keep the children with him for the entire week, till we reach the end of their lessons and his patience. Or he could keep them for longer and I could collect them in Kerela in a few months.

We are headed to Gonnorhea Gornergrat the next day, which is 12200 ft above sea level, to try out new pistes for the kids and new cafes for me. The train that takes us to the top chugs along the most picturesque landscape that I have ever seen, but it fails to inspire my children who are begging for my phone to play games on!

Luca takes the kids for their ski lessons right away and I carry on in the Gornegrat Bahn till the very last stop. When I step out of the train I see an incomparable, indescribable view that makes me want to fall on my knees to thank the universe for keeping me alive to show me such a sight and the Swiss for making provisions to arrive at such a destination without having to physically scale those mountains. Nothing can beat the feeling of standing on top of Europe with a panoramic view of  29 spellbinding Alpine peaks and Japanese tourists around you.

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When I am done taking selfies and sipping hot chocolate I join the kids who are all set to go sledging with me.

Since the husband is busy with his ski lessons, we hire only two sledges. My younger one, who has found her soul mate in Luca, chooses to go sit on his sledge with him and my older one reluctantly sits on the sledge with me.

The slope is steep and bumpy with sharp turns. Luca and my younger one race ahead of us while the older one and I barely manage to keep ourselves from falling off the mountain. We have to adjust our body weight while turning along the curves and my constant instructions manage to confuse and scare the poor child. “Turn to the left or we are going to fall off the edge, turn to the right now, or we are going to bang into the sides……” I go on. The frail creature is bobbing her head from right to left and doing her best to follow my instructions.

The child is sitting in the front and I put both my legs up to go full throttle and before we know it, our sledge has gone off kilter and crashed into the metal pole along the sledging slope. Crash, bang and two bodies go flying off the track and land in piles of snow.

. “Are you alright?” I yell. “Is your nose broken?” Fortunately, the child is wearing a helmet and has survived the fall without any major casualty but she is awfully mad at me. “I can’t believe that my own mother tried to kill me today,” she says hysterically. I am the kind of person who tends to laugh when I am in a state of shock. This of course, does not go down too well with those expecting sympathy. So I continue to lie there, submerged in the snow, my leg is hurting and my arm is numb but I am laughing much to my daughter’s annoyance.

When I finally manage extricating my body from the snow and drag myself to the sledge, the child refuses to sit on it and insists on walking all the way down instead. But the slope is too steep to walk and while we are negotiating, I let go of our sledge because I am a sophisticated person who cannot talk without moving both her hands. Now the sledge is speeding down on its own and the two of us running behind it in what could only be a scene from Mr Bean. The only way to get down now is to slide on our derrieres and that is exactly what we do. Two perfect fools, chasing a sledge on their asses.

As I go to bed that night, I come to the following conclusions:

1.I am less than average at skiing (based on my past experience).

2.I am terrible at sledging (based on my present experience).

3. I am going to stick to walking. That should keep me and other people around me out of harms way.

I realize that walking around in my carefully co-coordinated ski clothes might boost my self-esteem, which, unlike my physical body, is at a very low altitude right now, from watching eighty somethings ski and trek while I sit around like an invalid all day.

The next day, the husband and I hire walking poles to walk around and it has finally begun to snow. The train takes us all the way up to Gornegrat and we walk down snow laden inclines to the Igloo Dorf.

Igloo Dorf

The most amazing sight awaits us at the Igloo where eighties music is playing, skiers are sipping beers outside with snow falling all around them. We sit on stools covered with sheepskin and sip hot wine. The igloo also has bedrooms with a bed, an armchair and side tables carved of ice. I cannot imagine spending a night in such a place under any circumstances but after returning to the oppressive heat of Bombay, I have often fantasized about owning such a bed.

On our way back we stop by for crepes at a roadside stall where for the price of Beluga caviar we buy ourselves apple cinnamon crepes. This is Zermatt for you, where street food costs almost as much as a meal at The Ritz!

It is snowing heavily and the children want to make a snowman. Their father wants to make the most of this romantic weather and finish off some work on his laptop and  I have to do the one thing I dread most – PACK. Later that night, I find the younger one silently crying herself to sleep. “Are you missing Luca,” I ask her. She is too embarrassed to admit. “We will come again and you can meet him then,” I reassure her. “But why are you telling me all this when I am not even crying or missing him” she says with a forced smile.

“If you like, I can ask Luca to meet us for lunch tomorrow before we catch the train to Zurich,” I offer.

“I don’t mind,” she says coyly.

Next day over breakfast she tells me, “Remember I told you I don’t mind last night.”

I nod.

“So is he coming to see us for lunch?”

“He cannot baby as today is his day off,” I tell her.

With a sigh, she digs into her bowl of cereal and continues to eat but her mind is in other places.

The older one and I exchange a smile.

Back in India, Luca and the little one are exchanging voice messages on whatsapp. God bless their founders, for she is too young to be heartbroken.

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Two bored kids and one beautiful train journey through Switzerland

18 Feb

Two bored kids and one beautiful train journey through Switzerland

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St Niklaus

The children and I are on our way to the airport to catch a flight to Zurich. We have decided to be there at least three hours before departure to be able to take a tour of the newly inaugurated GVK (Mumbai International Airport).

We walk to the Swissair counter, which is fairly deserted at the moment, and we are possibly the first ones to check-in. “You need to hurry up and get to your departure gate as the flight is closing,” the gentleman at the counter warns me. “Whaaaa…t?” I say incredulously. “We are early, what do you mean the flight is closing?”

“Ma’am you are really late. The flight departs in 45 minutes, I only let you check-in because you are traveling with young kids,” he informs me generously.

This should give you an idea that I am a foggy brained person, who gets by in life purely by chance and because of consideration or pity shown towards me because of my “young children”. God bless them.

On the plane, I can hear the conversations between parents and children in on the seats across from me and I am pleased to bits with the realization that there are other politically incorrect parents like me on this planet. I used to think my own style of parenting had glaring flaws in it but the other parents on the plane are threatening to lock up their children or leave them behind on the plane. I am realizing that I am not the psychopathic tyrant my kids make me out to be but an all loving, all forgiving Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music type of mum. I am hoping the mother on the seat behind us continues to admonish her daughter audibly enough for my kids to hear it but she disappoints me by passing out on her seat even before the seatbelt sign is off. It is late in the night and before I know it I am the only dingbat fighting sleep just so I can lose myself vicariously to Downton Abbey on the monitor in front of me.

I stay up all night watching Season 4 of the British drama and by the time our flight lands at Zurich airport the next morning, I find that I have developed a British accent, clipped tones and all. I am also peppering my sentences with old Scottish expressions almost involuntarily along with “Oh golly” and “Dear me!”

Incidentally, the husband is supposed to fly in from Singapore and receive me at Zurich airport, mostly because he thinks I will lose his kids somewhere between Zurich airport and Zurich railway station, both of which are across the road from each other.

The reason we planned this holiday was to be able to spend quality time with each other, far from the sweating crowd of Bombay and the reason we chose Switzerland, in spite of the cold, is because of my love for the mountains. It is the month of March when my children get ten days off from school and after being seduced by the compelling charms of the Alpine slopes the previous year, we have decided to head to the Swiss mountains yet again.

We are to change two trains to get to Zermatt over a five-hour journey. Mr Perfectly Organized aka the husband has already bought online tickets for our onward journey. Not that buying tickets in advance was even required given that the population of this country is only 7.9 million. But we like to err on the side of caution and so we have purchased full fare, non-refundable tickets for the whole family in a single swipe.

The only fly in the ointment is that he has made all these arrangements for two days later than my actual flight arrival schedule, due to some mix-up for which I am partly responsible. Now I have to cover this daunting distance between Zurich and Zermatt with two large bags and kids in tow all by myself. I know, I make it sound like I am a participating cyclist in the Tour de France but I call this situation daunting, not on account of the distance between the two cities but because of my physical proximity to my two unbridled children during this journey. Add to that my inability to multitask and the occasional attention deficit disorder symptoms and you can comprehend the reason the husband is nervous about me chaperoning our children all by myself.

Be that as it may, here I am, buying all of us tickets for a small fortune that can see a family of six through school in a third world country, the exact kind from where Brad and Angelina adopt their children.

Minutes later we are dashing off to look for our platform, which is at the far end and I am concerned that we might miss the train. One crazy lady with two large suitcases and frenzied kids  is seen running up and down Zurich Hauptbhanhofs, Europe’s busiest railway station and then, after identifying the train, finally flinging her kids and luggage into it with Olympic zeal.

The train leaves Zurich almost reluctantly while I sit there catching my breath, congratulating myself on crossing the first hurdle without any visible casualties. The kids are digging into a bag of crisps and I turn my attention to the landscape outside. Everything that I can see feels uninspiring at first. Factory units and industrial looking landscape, pass us by for a few miles and then the train chugs slowly into beautiful Bern.  I greedily take in whatever I can see of Bern from my window…the stunning lakes, cathedrals with gothic spires and unusually narrow and quaint cobbled lanes. It is a picture postcard city all right. I feel a pastoral delight as I look out of the window, nose to glass, and observe the tiny villages with their miniature chalets and churches that appear every now and then on the landscape. I wonder about the simple lives of the inhabitants of these villages comprising of no more than six to eight families. I think about just how awfully healthy yet dull I might have been had fate allotted me such a life.

I take a break from gasping in awe at the sights that are quickly passing us by to look at the faces of my two uninspired children. Rarely will you have seen such bored expressions on a human face. “Don’t look so bored girls, look outside,” I suggest. My suggestion is met with a request for the ipad from the younger one. Thankfully I am not of a highly introspective disposition or the fact that I have spawned kids who are so epically disinterested in nature might’ve bothered me a great deal.

I take a short walk towards the cafe on the train and cannot help but notice that most passengers on this journey are senior citizens. My being there with my children has probably brought the average age down to 75, but other than us, there are no young people in sight. We could have been shooting a Swiss version of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on that train, for all one knew. Except that elderly British women tend to be haughty and rude apart from being plump and/or buxom while the Swiss ones look lean, fit, benevolent and a trifle bored.

stalden

Leaving Bern and Brig behind, we change our train at Visp where quite a few ski enthusiasts and snow boarders board the next train with us. Z and R are exhausted from boredom and bickering now. The train chugs along, towards steeper inclines.

The journey upwards is awe-inspiring even though it is incomplete without chloroform, which I wish I had with me to temporarily sedate the girls, to afford my elderly co-passengers and myself some peace. But in spite of the high decibel conversations followed by disagreements between them, I am getting by on account of the white wonderland scenery around me.

babies2

Ticket inspectors appear quite frequently on Swiss trains and spotting one approach in our direction, I dive into my oversized hobo to dig my carnet to show to the portly man. The gentleman punches our tickets tells me in an concerned manner that I might have been better off had I made the annual Swiss Rail family card instead. “You would have saved a lot of money and also got discount for your family on the ski lifts,” he informs me in a thick German accent. This is because we are in the German speaking part of this country. I tell the kind man in tragic tones, that the gentleman at the ticket window in Zurich did not inform me about any such pass thereby depriving some little boy in Cambodia of education. He empathizes with me and then as a token of his kindness and commiseration he scribbles all over my tickets in German. “I haf ritten here to refunt your money and make you das family pass zat is only half price. Show zis at  Zermatt station, I cannot promise zey vill agree but you must try,” he suggests sincerely. I am so moved by the gesture and his overall avuncular impression that I want to give him a tight hug. I cannot imagine this happening to me anywhere else in the world other than Switzerland and yes, Japan.

Imagine doing that when breathtaking views are passing you by

Like a lazy caterpillar our red train is negotiating around white snow capped slopes dotted with lonesome snow covered chalets and winter-withered trees. An inexplicable feeling of bien-etre’ surges through me. I begin to feel healthier and more cheerful merely by looking at the mountains and can hardly wait for the train to arrive at our destination just so I can step outside and inhale the crisp mountain air.

Winter in London and other happy things

28 Dec

london5

My love affair with London continues. We are in the thick of winter, cold winds beat against the window of our room at night and it rains intermittently during the day adding a piercing chill to the air. Still my love for this city, if one can call it that, only grows. I hesitate from referring to London as a city because calling it a city somewhat diminishes its greatness, for London is a lot more than a city. You could say it is a confluence of many cities. Historically speaking too London is made up of two cities, the City of Westminster and City of London so I am not that off the mark.

So as I was saying there is no season in London that can reduce my love and admiration for it. This season, with all its festive atmosphere and spectacular Christmas decorations is no exception.  If anything, London is even more charming in winter what with its Christmas markets, ice skating rinks and poetically bare trees.

Winter in London

Winter in London

Hyde Park is freezing this time of the year, but it is not without cheer. One corner of the Park is hosting the annual winter wonderland. The Christmas market inside the wonderland has chalet style stalls that serve hot chocolate with marshmallows, chips with vinegar, bratwurst and crepes. There are shops selling handmade jewelry, jams and other Christmas fare and bars selling beer and mulled wine. Outside of the park, the  Christmas lights on Oxford Street, Regents Street and Bond Street would bedazzle even the most jaded among us.  What’s not to love about winter if it can be like this?

London1

I have never understood why people make a fuss about the English weather. I find their weather enticing. What an exciting past time it is to go to the weather app and look up the weather for the following day and then discuss it with your family to chalk out plans accordingly. You might argue that winter is winter is winter. But there is a 5 degree Celsius that feels like 5 degrees and there is one that feels like a minus 3 degrees. Then there is 2 degrees with sleet and there is 2 degrees with sunshine. But the best part is that none of them feel the same in England.

Much as I like winter, generally speaking, the one disadvantage it has over other seasons is that it takes me an hour to dress up the kids and myself and then another hour to find myself beneath all those clothes. Putting on and removing so many layers, several times a day is a cardiovascular exercise in itself. These dressing up rituals are routine for a person from Delhi but to a person from Bombay, it remains a challenge. What is even more inconvenient is that in many parts of the world, say Mongolia, one would get away with dressing in frumpy clothes underneath, but in London one feels the need to look presentable in the very least, if not fashionable when one is done removing the outer layers once inside a café, shop or restaurant. I can finally say that not having central heating in most parts of North India might not have been such a bad idea after all. You could be in your jammies under all those layers and nobody would have to know.

In spite of our best efforts to appear presentable, we have had our fashion police worthy moments during this trip. Just this evening the husband and I walked towards a restaurant at Notting Hill looking fairly ridiculous. Him in his Russian cossack hat looking like an oligarch and me looking like a Hamas recruit with my head and face covered up to my eyes in black.

On another note, you know what they say about weather doing strange things to people? I have realized that it is indeed true. While this cold December weather has turned me into a homebody of sorts, it has transmogrified the husband into a bonafide shopaholic. Over the past week that I have spent with him, he has amassed such an extensive winter wardrobe that one would think he is embarking on an Arctic expedition with Kate Moss no less.

Yesterday the kids and I watched him in action at Ellis Brigham, a specialized store that deals in ski and outdoor clothing. He wasn’t content with merely shopping a bag full of clothes at the store, I caught him browsing their website later in the night as well as a form of bedside reading.

Today he took the girls for an outing on the condition that they would be patient while he shopped at Barbour, another winter store. I excused myself and spent several hours browsing books at Waterstones thankfully because in my opinion, waiting while the woman shops is a man’s privilege and vice versa does not apply. The girls cribbed a great deal about how long their father took to pick his jackets at the store and how awfully bored they were sitting there waiting for him to find the right colour and the right fit.

Over the last two days some gloves have also been procured when there are already some pairs lying around in his suitcase.

I sincerely hope the man will be able to put his various Merino, Cashmere, leather and microfiber inners and outerwear to good use during his expedition with Kate Moss because god knows I do not have room for unnecessary things in our house in Bombay.

As for me, I am keeping my spirits high in spite of the ebb in my desire to shop with help from mulled wine. I love the concoction and cannot get enough of it. I start my day with coffee and a pain au raisin or scones, throw in some cheese in between the next coffee followed by some more cheese and then mulled wine. Who knows if fat is piling up beneath all those coats and puffer jackets  but it does not matter because tomorrow is another day. What kind of a day will it be, however, remains a question. Maybe I should consult the weather app for that.

London

Christmas Market, Hyde Park

On meeting Fareed Zakaria and surreal dreams of feral cats

15 Dec

Fareed Zakaria

My tryst with that brave cheetah that graced the roof of my jeep in Masai Mara two months ago has earned me some kind of undeserved fame in certain circles.

In more than a few dinner parties since my return from Kenya, I have been introduced at “that girl who was bold enough to eyeball a cheetah and chill in its company instead of ducking into the jeep like the rest of them….”

While my ‘sang froid’ is being spoken of in exalted terms, I shift from one foot to another and wonder if the intensity of that moment has failed to penetrate me. Since this kind of a conversation has taken place more than once in my presence, I have decided to take credit for both my bravado and good fortune in being within caressing distance of the cheetah, even though I feel the praise is largely undeserved.

Indeed it was a welcome although unanticipated event of my life, but I am fearless by nature and as such did not feel that I had made any significant contribution towards the overall drama of the moment. Which is the reason when a friend introduced me to eminent journalist and author Fareed Zakaria as the girl who was daring enough to be in close proximity with a cheetah in the Mara, I felt little embarrassed. Here was the much seen, much heard and much quoted Mr. Zakaria who the Esquire magazine called “the most influential foreign policy advisor of his generation” and here was I, an intrepid tourist who was on the receiving end of a nonchalant cheetah’s time, presence and benevolence.

Perhaps out of politeness, Mr. Zakaria asked to be shown my photograph with the animal, which the husband hastened to produce from his phone with the same enthusiasm and pride that he would have showed off a picture of say Malala Yousafzai taking a shot in her head, had he witnessed the incident first hand with his camera. Mr. Zakaria marvels at the probability of something like this taking place etc before moving on to oblige me with a picture with him.

This encounter with the feral animal has penetrated into my subconscious to such an extent that I have even started to dream about cheetahs. Take for example, last night when I slept with my children on a mattress on the floor of their room, which is undergoing renovation. Having disposed off their old furniture only yesterday morning I decided to sleep with them to prove to them that sleeping on a mattress for a few days never killed anybody.

It was towards daybreak when I had a vivid dream in which I am napping in the green grass of Masai Mara for some crazy reason while the rest of my friends are perched comfortably on top of their jeeps. I am in deep sleep when a cheetah lands from nowhere and decides it wants to tousle my hair with its paws. Cheetah then proceeds not only to mess-up my blow dried hair but also starts to lick my arm. Even in my dream, I remember clearly the cheetah did not possess bad breath just as well as I remember feeling scared to death. My friends, instead of rescuing me, are taking my pictures because lately our lives are all about photo-ops.

cheetahpix

I ask the husband to save me because the cheetah’s nails are scratching my arm and my back as he continues to give me a shiatsu massage, but the man assures me of the animal’s honourable intentions. Next the cheetah is licking my face fondly and I am not sure what to make of it. Is it sampling its next meal or caressing it? I know my end is near when it plasters one big kiss on my lips. I am feeling gross and also terribly afraid when all of a sudden the cheetah retreats. I am too afraid to move but I slowly open my eyes, as if waking up from anesthesia, and what do I find but our nine-month-old ShihTzu pup Tiffany coming back towards me to have a go at my face. The dog has decided that since her masters have downgraded themselves to her level, she is free to romp around on their bed.

I am paralyzed with relief because the adrenalin in my blood is taking time to settle but through it all, I am laughing at the ridiculousness of my dream! Then I reach for my cheeks, yes they will need a lot of scrubbing today for I have been kissed by a cheetah that was a dog.

Tiffany

On taking selfies with a cheetah and Narendra Modi

20 Oct

Feel awful that am resuming my blog after such a long and deplorable interlude. A lot has happened over the past month ranging between the surreal, the bizarre and the predictably normal. But a packed schedule and a writer’s block the size of T-Rex have prevented me from looking my laptop in the eye.

Let me take you through the highlights of my month in the next few blogs anyhow, under the overarching presumption that you are “that” interested in my life.

I took a few days off to go on a safari at the Masai Mara, Kenya with the husband and some friends and returned with not just packets of Kenyan coffee but also a bunch of selfies with a cheetah who decided to spring himself over the roof of our jeep. It was truly a blood-of-the-Punjab moment with the cheetah spread languorously in the backdrop and me posing away for the camera, throwing caution to the wind.

Cheetah Selfie

My friend sitting next to me in the jeep too joined me in this endeavour and touching up her lip gloss made herself sufficiently presentable for the camera. Half a dozen selfies later realization dawned upon me that I must look unrecognizable with my aviators and hat in the photos. This was promptly rectified by way of me removing the accoutrements and adjusting my hair etc for a fresh set of pictures while the spotted chap waited around patiently in the backdrop. (P.s: The Cheetah will make for a very good husband one day.) Friends in the other jeep, parked not far from ours, congratulated me later for my courage and my overall intrepid stance concerning the cheetah. Truth be told, the Masai assisting our jeep had assured me that the slinky chap wasn’t particularly hungry for human flesh with so many zebras and wilder beasts around and it was unlikely that he would make a meal of me.

I returned from the trip only to find that my mother had gone and tattooed herself in my absence. This discovery shocked me more than the cheetah materializing on the jeep perhaps. If you knew my mother, you would logically conclude that a tattoo was the furthest thing from her mind. All I can say after seeing her tattooed butterflies is that you can spend nine months growing inside of somebody and another eighteen years growing around them and still not know them. (P.s: This isn’t to imply that I am 18.)

Anyhow, my daughters think that their nani is really cool to be inking herself at her age. The siblings have been found discussing in hushed tones that their own mother lacks spunk and a youthful spirit.

Little do they know that I save my spunk for more meaningful occasions such as the one that presented itself to me this very afternoon.  It so turned out that my friends received a call today informing her that PM Narendra Modi was rallying in our neighbourhood and in a moment of incredible idiocy I agreed to accompany them to the rally. They wanted pictures with him but I could not see that happening with ease.

We spotted the vehicle on top of which NaMo was perched and waving away at the crowd on the streets. In spite of his bhakts and the police bandobast, he could not help but notice three Ray Ban donning groupies wave at him and smiling uncertainly he waved back at us. When my friend requested him for a picture he considered the matter for a few seconds and finally consented, telling the cops to let us climb into his truck. “Do you want to take a selfie?” he asked me as he saw me flip the camera around. “Yes Mr. Modi, that would be nice,” I said beaming back at the Prime Minister of India. I had already taken a selfie with a cheetah and now I was taking one with a lion. This was a moment to be remembered.

“Isn’t he a rockstar?” a young woman from his team asked rhetorically. If you consider it, did any other PM before Narendra Modi manage to become such a phenomenon in such a short time? I could never imagine wanting to click a selfie with Manmohan Jee. In fact, the last time I displayed this “groupie-like” behaviour was when I came across Enrique Iglesias in the ITC hotel when I was still in my twenties.

So back on the truck Mr. Modi seemed a little subdued. The charisma one reads about and witnesses on television was conspicuously dormant. This disappointed me but I blamed the oppressive heat of the afternoon for it. My friends spoke to him, lavishing compliments and much praise, but he stood there tepidly, somewhat smiling but mostly just bored.

As we walked back towards our car the three of us discussed that even though this man looked like NaMo he lacked the confidence, the personality and the unmistakable presence that the PM commanded. On our way home we Googled Modi’s pictures and compared that to this gentleman’s and realize that we have been had. This person was not our iconic PM but his body double.

I cringed and laughed simultaneously as I recalled our one sided conversation and the insipid personality of the fake Mr. Modi. I wondered if the rest of them knew any better and were just playing along… the BJP flag bearing junta, the industrialist’s wife on the truck, the cops?

This incident amused the husband no end and he smugly informed me that the PM was campaigning for the state assembly elections in Thane at the same time that we were taking selfies with his doppelganger in Khar. The girls also had a good laugh at my expense.

My friend, his hardcore supporter, justified his using a body double by saying, “I think it was an ingenious idea to find a look alike to campaign for himself instead of a poster or cut out. Narendra Modi is such a genius.”

Good logic. How could I argue with that? Besides, I like Mr Modi enough to hold something like this against him.

My friend Tina and Narendra Modi (?)

Gentlemen are an endangered species

16 Sep

gentlemen

Call me old fashioned if you will, but I am deeply concerned about a less talked about species that is on the brink of extinction. It goes by the name of ‘gentlemen’.

The number of this sub-species of men in our world is dwindling at a frightening speed and all we are obsessed with is saving the Bengal tiger? Save the tiger by all means,  but humanity also needs to spare a thought for some of us impacted by the loss of gentlemen. Before we know it, they would have become extinct and the world will be poorer for it.

The world I grew up in was a world of men in uniforms. In the army, it was naturally expected of men to be gentlemanly in behaviour, why else would the young boys graduating from the Military Academy be called Gentlemen Cadets? The men I grew around were lacking in neither charm nor chivalry and their stature as men did not diminish by offering women common courtesies, if anything, it only grew.

And so it was, that the men one met stood up and greeted you politely, got the door for you, pulled out the chair for you, spoke gracefully and offered to help you put your coat on.

You could accuse me of making facile generalizations, but I would like to mention that outside of the army, one encountered courteous and chivalrous men too, although they mostly belonged among the educated elite and rarely lived within the geographical boundaries of the UP, Punjab and Haryana.

A lot has changed since then. Lately I look around me and notice men sorely lacking in etiquette and manners. When women began to aspire for liberation, they asked to be liberated from male dominance and oppression. We did not ask to be liberated from classy, considerate behaviour and civilized men of good breeding.

Women find urbane men attractive, and we do not feel offended if a man offers to help us with our coat or our luggage. I’m not saying that women should be doted on and treated like goddesses, but I think we need to be bring some class back to men in general.

Just the other day I watched an elderly lady struggling to stow her luggage in the overhead cabin on a flight to Delhi and offered to lend her a hand even as a healthy, well built man standing right behind her decided to look the other way. I see it all around me. There is an epidemic of ungentlemanly chaps out there.

Then there is this stellar example of a man that my dear friend K in Manhattan was dating until recently. Over cold sake in a small Japanese restaurant in the East Village she told me that every time they went on a date, her boyfriend of two years made allowed her to pick the tab and made her drop him home first on the way back. I found his behaviour odious and my friend’s tolerance alarming.  I had a little chat with her about it and now he is her ex-boyfriend.

I only wish I was this effective in weeding out uncivilized men from the rest of the planet as well. I recently had to put up with one such specimen recently myself. Just last week, my friend P was visiting from Bangalore and we decided to meet for a drink at this new swanky lounge in town. P is loquacious to a degree that can only elicit admiration even from someone as voluble as myself and she has “close” friends in almost every major city of the world. I was informed that one such “close” friend was to join us at the lounge for a quick drink or two.

I am a borderline misanthrope and tried to remind her in my usual subtle ways that three was a crowd but P would not let my misgivings stand in the way of her social multitasking. Her friend AK, who is somewhat of a corporate highflier arrived even before we had ordered our first round of drinks and spent the rest of the evening telling us about his childhood and youth (both of which happened a long time ago, incidentally). Over his single malt and our vodka sodas he managed to impress upon us the fact that he owned a large estate in Kunoor, that had a pool, a mini golf course, a battery of handpicked servants and some such.

He also casually brought up the fact he was one of the highest paid corporate honchos in his peer group.

On a more modest note he recalled his days as the son of the then governor of Punjab and his father’s close ties with the Nehru-Gandhi family. The alcohol in his blood stream had perhaps created the illusion in his mind that we wanted to sacrifice an entire evening listening to tiny detail of his b&w life. (I say black and white because whenever someone who is a few generations older than me talks about their youth, for some reason my mind’s eye adopts a black and white palette.)

P had obviously heard all these stories before because AK had been availing of her husband’s generous hospitality in Bangalore ever since they became friends two years ago.

Several rounds of drinks later I asked for the cheque because I had enough material to write his biography by now and I thought I could only handle so much information about his “amazing life” in one sitting. The cheque arrived inside a coffee mug and what ensued was a silly tug-of-war between P and myself about who would settle it. And while we fought over the cheque , Mr Highest Paid Head Honcho sat there poker faced, not making as much as a feeble attempt to reach for his wallet. Finally P and I agreed to split the bill while our friend insouciantly continued to stare at the ice cubes in his malt.

I found his behaviour odd. It wasn’t that we wanted someone else to pay for our drinks, but it was odd that a man twice our age, who wasn’t a buddy or an old pal, calmly watched us pay for his drinks instead.

If this wasn’t bad enough AK then offered to call for a cab for P, who was more or less headed in the same direction as him. He had his own car and driver but clearly this man did not want to put himself through the inconvenience of taking a little detour to drop the lady off, long after midnight.

P was feeling equally aghast and kicked me from under the table to acknowledge our mutual horror, but since she had more vodka and compassion in her veins than me, she continued to smile benevolently. I, on the other hand, was only trying to rein in my homicidal impulses.

“Did he think he was honouring us by gracing us with his presence at our table? Did he think it was our good fortune to pay for him?” she asked me over the phone later that night.

Whatever his reasons, I think the sooner we accept that chivalry is dead, the better it will be for us.

We may as well contend with living in a world where men listen to Yo Yo Honey Singh and Eminem and think that “Yo B****, whattup?” is a form of greeting. Or we can prevent gentlemen from becoming folklore like dragons and the yeti by urging the men we know to sign up for a class in civility and etiquette.

gentleman 1

Diary of Frankly Anne – The karma of greying

21 Aug

Shades of Grey

 

Dear Diary,

Spotted some stark grey hair strands today. Seriously disturbed. I am not prepared to grow old just yet. Why have these strands turned grey overnight? Is it because of bad karma?

I book at appointment with my hair stylist, ironically called Karma, in the hope that she will have a miracle fix for grey hair that did not involve dying or colouring. Karma always has a solution to my problems. I mean Karma the stylist, not the other one. She inspects my hair and is surprised that between my last visit to her and now some of it has indeed turned grey. But it isn’t premature greying, she consoles me. She tells me that at our age it was bound to start turning grey. This is not very consolatory at all.

Agreed, I will be growing another year older this year. I would tell you my age, but I think that might be a mistake. Honesty is a good policy when age is concerned only after you are eighty. Any time before that a woman should hide her age or at least keep people guessing. Besides, if I told you my age, we would develop trust issues between us because as Oscar Wilde says, ‘One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that would tell one anything.’

So there. But let me just tell you that I have always been considered older than my years. It started at school when I was around ten-years-old. I came back after the summer break only to notice that everyone in my class had shrunken in size. Unexpectedly I was asked to take the last bench, a move that I took to most despairingly.  Someone ought to have made me feel good about growing vertically back then but we live in a cruel world.

Over time I got used to being relegated to the backbench, or the last in the queue as it were. This I could deal with but the ignominy of being asked to play a boy’s part during the annual day concert only because the boy who was originally assigned the role had been taken ill with jaundice, was something that was going to stay with me for a long time. Although when I look at my picture albums and notice a faint but definitely there hair growth on my upper lip and my knit brows, I wonder now if it was naivete’ that made me believe it was my height alone that was responsible for landing me the boy’s part.

If this wasn’t a life altering event, there were more that included uncles and aunties in my parents’ circle  fondly asking me to watch over their petite daughters when we went for evening walks or picnics.

Be that as it may, I soon got over such slights because of my mother who made me believe that there was no one lovelier than me this side of the Hindukush. As time passed, these delusions that mom passed on to me found deep roots within my psyche and declared permanent residence.

If I looked older and stronger than others because of my height and frame, it was all right with me.

But now, at my age, this MATTERS. I want to finally be considered younger than my age. It is pay back time world.

I am Googling ‘Ways to reverse premature greying’ and the key remedy according to my research is the one that says ‘Don’t stress as stress causes greying’.

This bit always manages to enrage me. What do you mean don’t stress? What do you want me to do, take long eager strides across mustard fields towards my old age? Embrace it the way Bollywood heroine embraces Bollywood hero just before the end credits roll? Of course I am stressed. Have you ever met anybody who was dying of some illness or had severe health issues and on being told that stress was the main contributing factor towards their disease, decided to suddenly be happy, cheerful and optimistic about it? Probably not.

Au contraire, such a statement only makes matters worse because even if you were stressed earlier you were ignorant of what it was doing to your body. Now not only are you stressed but you are also stressed that you are stressed and that the stress is going to exacerbate your condition.

So not stressing about this matter is clearly not an option. There are some Chinese acupressure options that have shown up on my screen which are looking good. What is also looking good are some options that suggest that if I chew ginkgo biloba leaves daily, apply curry leaf oil every night for ninety nights in a row, spend the better part of my day doing head stands, do positive affirmations of the nature of ‘My hair is slowly turning black, my hair is slowly turning black’ by not merely saying them out aloud but also feeling them, there is a good chance that I will reverse the greying.

I will not be writing for a while hereafter as you can see, there is so much to be done.

Now please excuse me while I get to work.

Yours etc,

Frankly Anne

 
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