When in Paris,

sacre-cour

Going upstairs to Sacré-Cœur, I see a man selling bracelets and keychains. I look at him, he looks at me, he is already holding my arm.

What…is happening?

I am clueless but fortunately, S knows better, she shouts and pulls my hand away. I can still feel his grip on my wrists. ‘That was close,’ she says. ‘Yeah, what was that?’ I ask. ‘They will tie the bracelet to your wrist and ask you to pay for it,’ she replies and continues, ‘Absurd amounts – 10, 20 Euros. And they just won’t let you go.’

Isn’t that a form of attempted robbery? 

I am reminded of the time I was in London. A middle aged man approached me, smiled and gave me a rose, ‘This is for you, pretty lady.’ I took the rose, blood pumping to my cheeks.Wow, London is nice. Meanwhile, the man asked my friend to pay for it. Okay, maybe not. I tried returning the rose to the man. ‘No, just give me 10 pounds!’ He demanded. ‘No,’ we said. Ultimately, the man had to take the rose back. My friend is from Delhi after all. 

Enjoying the view from Sacré-Cœur, S and I are talking about things. We always do, it can range anything from woman centric porn to democracy. Most of the times, our discussion don’t have any conclusions. I think the answer to most abstract questions is the same – Moderation. 

Picture of Sacre Coeur

Sun is shining and Paris has treated us well, mostly. We have enjoyed eating macaroons, and also talking to the guy who sold those macaroons, had the best cheese sandwich, worst Beef Bourguignon , enjoyed the theatrics of crème brûlée, fell in love with soufflé, saw the Eiffel Tower sparkling at night, witnessed a boy proposing to his girlfriend at the Montparnasse Tower and experienced jealousy like never before and photobombed a random family at Notre Dame – S pretended she didn’t know me while I continued making faces. People actually laughed it off. Later, S took to photography and I took to modelling. Paris had inspired me to dress well and put on a face. 

‘You look nice with makeup. You should do it more often,’S told me.

Thanks but no thanks. I want people to be used to my ugliness so that whenever I look nice, they will appreciate it more.

We need to leave now. We are searching for the nearest metro station. Google maps is fucking with us. According to it, we are already AT the station. Station for wizards, google? There’s a young man sitting at the stairs smoking a cigarette. S says, ‘Go, ask him.’

Neurons in my head are running with their arms in the air, screaming, ‘WE NEED TO SPEAK FRENCH! WE WILL HAVE TO SPEAK FRENCH! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! M’AIDEZ!’

I try to calm myself, ‘This is our moment to shine.’ All those hours I had spent practicing (which aren’t many), it’s time they are used, it’s time I carpediem the fuck out of this.

Tentatively, I approach him. ‘Excusez moi!’ I say, incredibly conscious of my accent.

He looks at me, it seems that he understood and is willing to listen to me further.

In my head, I am forming sentences, ‘Ou est..Tu connais?…’

And then it strikes me. I knew what to say. 

S is standing a bit far away. I return to her smiling, ‘So we need to go straight and then turn left.’

‘Nice! What did you say?’ she asks me. 

‘Oh well, you know, stuff in French.’

‘Yeah, what stuff? I want to learn too!’

I smile, look around thinking of a way to change the topic but I know she will bring it back.

‘Okay…you really want to know?’

‘Yes, tell me!’

‘Parlez vous l’anglais?’

‘And what does that mean?’ she asks. 

‘You speak English?’

 

*

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When in Rome,

“To the girl sitting at the stairs,
You are a fucking goddess.”
~Anonymous


Gatwick Airport, London. A woman dressed in black was yelling at someone on her phone in Italian. I could filter out the swear words. And it appeared so could the little Spanish girl standing behind me in the check-in queue. ‘She just swore again!’ we told each other and giggled in our collective imagination. Yes, I am still eight that way.

The woman in black turned to me suddenly and said, ‘My flight got cancelled.’

‘The flight is cancelled’ is what I heard and I was jolted with a horrible flashback. No, not again, please.

The last time I had travelled internationally, I was stranded at the airport for three days. When I finally arrived at my destination, after a long struggle, the airline had misplaced my baggage and I had reached my university stinking quite literally and metaphorically with the world’s worst travel experience, the tale I would tell everyone I would meet and still do.

‘I understand sister. I understand’, I thought as I feared how I might be swearing soon too. She turned and started speaking on the phone again. Her frustration was palpable. When she finally hung up, I tried to console, ‘I got stranded in the airport once. I know how you feel.’
‘Oh, thank you. It’s horrible…My flight was yesterday and it got cancelled. This airline is the worst! The hotel room they gave me was in Brighton!’ she replied in thick Italian accent.
‘Brighton?’
‘Yes! Do you know how far it is! I have been here since yesterday.’
‘But today’s flight isn’t cancelled, right?’
‘Yes, hopefully.’
I was relieved. Her phone rang and our conversation ended.

What began as a casual remark about a book, soon became a discussion about reading, writing, parenting, politics, trade unions, love, grief and depression with a middle-aged man from Dublin named Patrick, who sat beside me waiting for the boarding gate to open, silently reading until I interrupted, ‘Kane and Abel, I love that book.’  Soon we parted ways and I found myself sitting in the plane. I had a window seat and when the plane approached Rome about an hour later I got to enjoy the aerial view of the city. The turquoise ocean, the islands, the beach, the boats, white trails behind them and the colourful small little buildings, all kissed by the sun that was caressing my face too. It was breathtaking.

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The immigration line was long. I was listening to a techno playlist and watching people around me. Most of them were Asians. I am an Asian too, I reminded myself. An hour passed slugging through the queue. The immigration officer looked at me, looked at my passport, scanned it, stamped it, I offered a weak smile, he offered none and I was in Rome. I found my way to the metro station. A friendly woman, blonde and pretty, who was also the ticket checker, guided me to the correct train. Half an hour later, I reached in the middle of nowhere.

It wasn’t supposed to be nowhere, it was supposed to be the city center. I stepped outside the station and all I could see were old, plastered, slightly vandalised Roman buildings. And they scared me back into the station.
I checked my phone, restarted it, restarted it again and still it caught no signal. I had thought UK SIM worked in all of Europe. But apparently, not in Rome.

I waited for my friend hoping that he would miraculously appear through the gates I sat facing. I knew he wouldn’t. That place just didn’t seem a right place to be and my instinct told me that he must be looking for me somewhere else.

I got hopeful when I found the station’s wifi signal. But sadly that was a hoax.
‘Ye ceiling dekho na, kitni sundar hai,’ a lady walked by admiring the interior design along with her husband. Definitely Indian. I thought and wondered asking them for help but settled for asking the man at the info point instead. After all, guys at the info points are helpful, right?
Apparently, not in Rome.

‘Excuse me, umm…I can’t connect to the wifi and..’
‘Yeah, there’s no wifi.’ he said.
‘Oh, okay. So I have a problem. I can’t find any signal on my phone. And I need to call a friend. It’s very important-’
‘I can’t help you.’
I stared at him, unable to believe what he had just said.

I braved to step outside again. I was sure I was at the wrong end of the station. I turned right and stepped further into oblivion. I expected Rome to be crowded but I couldn’t find a single soul – just distant traffics sounds, abandoned scooter under the bridge and bright yellow street lights.

‘I don’t want to be mugged. I don’t want to be raped. I don’t want to be murdered.’

Fortunately, I found a person who looked like the kind who wouldn’t commit any of the above.
‘Excuse me what’s the way to the central station?’ I asked him. I wasn’t surprised to find that I was heading in the exact opposite direction. I made a U-turn, passed the exit I had stepped out of half an hour ago, continued walking ahead. More and more people came into sight. I felt more and more relieved. And there it was, my destination – the Central station, in all its grandness and glory, holding my joyous and grateful heart. But it wasn’t to last long.

I looked around for my friend for a while. Several minutes passed by. I was panicking again. Suddenly, I caught his glimpse. ‘He trimmed his hair’ I wondered. And in a flash, he was gone. I ran to the place where he stood but he was nowhere to be seen. Did I just dream him?

Behind me stood a bored looking janitor. ‘Excuse me, I-’ He flicked his hands indicating that I go away. At least the guy at the info point SAID he couldn’t help.

Janitor’s rudeness paralyzed me. Did that just happen? Did he actually do that? I took a few deep breaths. ‘I am asking wrong people,’ I concluded. I looked around. There were many people but none of them seemed to be the right one.

Sitting in the middle of the stairs, her rucksack to her left, was this young woman with long black hair smiling at her phone.

It was love at first sight.

I went and as politely as I could, explained my situation and asked her for help.
‘I don’t have enough balance to make a call. But I can call through WhatsApp,’ she replied.
‘That would work, yes! Thank you!’
I sat beside her, told her the number, watched her saving it the wrong way – without inserting the country code. I knew what she was going to tell me in a while – ‘I am sorry. He is not on WhatsApp.’
‘Umm…can I..can I take your phone and try to call him, just once? I am sorry I am bothering you but this is really important.’

‘No’, I had once told a little boy when I was waiting for a friend at Dadar station, back in Mumbai an year ago. He had come to me and asked, ‘Didi, mujhe meri behen nahi mil rahi. Aap phone doge call karne ke liye?’ I looked at the child wondering if he wanted to steal my phone.‘Vo police mein hai. Ye hai uski photo.’ The child showed me a photograph of a girl in a police uniform claiming that she was his elder sister. Definitely a scam.‘Jaao, jaao.’ I had asked him to leave.

She took a second but she said yes.
I took her phone. I saved his number the correct way. I called him praying he would pick up. He did. I told him where I was. I saw him holding the phone, talking to me, a couple of seconds later. ‘I can see you. Just stay right there!’ I said and hung up. I gave the phone back to the girl, thanked her profusely, hugged her, thanked her again and ran towards him.

Welcome to Rome.

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*


“May you ask bored looking people for help.”
~A Chinese Curse

The Accident

Liverpool

Our bus halts. There isn’t any bus stop in the immediate vicinity. I don’t notice it at first, still enjoying Dorayaki. We had dropped these Japanese pancakes on the bus floor while trying to open the packet. That hadn’t stopped us from eating them. We had picked them immediately and stuffed them into our mouths. There’s always that three seconds rule.

“Sorry, you’ll have to get off here. The road is closed ahead,” the driver tells us. Abruptly brought back into reality, we stare at him, puzzled.

“Don’t worry. Your stop is just 2 minutes walk away.”

We thank him and get off the bus. A few seconds pass by deciding which way we should head to. Which nothingness are we willing to pursue tonight? The right one or the left? Our London plans are always nothing. We end up going to the same places, every time – Soho, Piccadilly, Camden, Shoreditch. London is too big to be explored on spontaneous weekend plans. We walk anyway, to the left or maybe to the right, hoping to find an interesting place and probably meet interesting people. My hopes are dim. The night has progressed too deep and it’s Sunday – nothing’s going to be open. But I am enjoying shivering in the cold and unsuccessfully trying to find the top of the buildings around me. It’s the first time I have been to Liverpool. With fancy buildings and offices splashed all over the man-made scenery I am walking through, I am too amazed to know where to look and fix my gaze at.

“So, that’s why the road was closed…” Lee nudges me.

I look at the ambulance as well.

Accidents are not unknown to me. I have seen plenty on Indian roads – the overturned trucks, cars with shattered windshields and their engines bleeding green, two-wheelers lying in the middle of a road – the victims engaged in a verbal fight, curious people gathering around them and traffic growing rapidly behind.

Lee and I continue walking past the accident scene.

“I..I..” a man is sobbing before us, trying to speak but failing horribly.

“There’s a woman on the road..” I tell Lee as cold shiver traverses through my backbone. She nods and we both look at her, immediately turn away afraid of what we might end up seeing. I can’t help it though. I turn to look again. There are three paramedics around her. She’s lying motionless, head covered in blood.

“Paramedics are already there, she should be alright,” I think.

I recall the face of the of the man we had just walked past. So, it was his car…

“Do you think…” I try asking something, immediately forgetting, feeling colder, falling numb. I want to get out of here. We both walk as briskly as we can.

“That woman was-”

“Dead” Lee completes the sentence for me.

I look at her, blink for a couple of seconds, wondering if there was a question mark or a full stop at the end of what she had just said.

*

The Movie Premier

We were walking through the streets of London again, still thinking about Mochi. Our tongues craved for more but we were determined not to succumb to our perverse insatiable greed for this Japanese dessert.

“Is today 12th?” Lee asked.

“Yes,” I said checking my phone.

“I am not sure, I need to check, but if I think what’s tonight is really happening tonight, it might just turn out to be the best night of our lives.”

“Oh, nice!” I said pretending I understood what she said.

“Yes! I know where we need to go!”

I followed Lee blindly. Wherever she would take me, I would happily go. No, I wasn’t in love, we just didn’t have any other plan.

We talked, walking on the pavements, crossing the roads, watching people around us.

“Look at that lady,” I mumbled to Lee. “Yes, I saw,” she nodded.

“I want to be like her when I am old.”

“Me too,” I thought. Who wouldn’t? How could one care to be so well dressed even at eighty? I didn’t intend to be offensive if that thought is offensive in any way. I was just shocked because I am twenty-four and I have given up on life already. I don’t even bother to comb my hair sometimes. I wear the same canvas every day. I wear the same jumper. I wear the same jacket. I don’t bother wearing contact lens, I prefer saving two minutes over doing nothing and looking weird in specs instead. This lady, on the other hand, was a model. How does she have so much life? Bottle green stylish hat, velvet dress, shiny pearls, red but not too loud lipstick, white gloves – Posh and graceful – this is what I would like to be. How do I end up being messy and loud instead?

Later, we started coming across even more fashionably dressed people. Silk gowns and gloves. Crisp and handsome tuxedos. The shiny sparkly queue of glamorous rich people was boisterous and long. Everyone seemed happy. Why wouldn’t they be? They were going to watch Star Wars with people who had starred in that movie themselves.

Lee was brimming with excitement. We walked till the very end of the queue, at the entrance of the Royal Theater. Actors were stepping out of the Limousine, posing in front of the camera, stopping by to say a word or few to the anchor, waving to the crowd, signing some autographs, smiling at the camera again and then going inside the theater.

We could have tried asking for an autograph or a selfie too, but we were on the sadder side of the barricade. The free side. I stared at the huge LED screen while Lee tried clicking some photos by going closer to the barricade hoping for better angles and views.

Star War premier, who would have thought?

A part of me was excited. I wanted to post photos on facebook, send snaps to my friends in India. “STAR WAR PREMIER! WOW!” #London #IloveLondon #RoyalTheater #soexcited #unbelievable #likereallyunbelievable #Pleasetellmeyouarejealous

But I didn’t.

Wish I had watched even a single Star War movie. Wish I had given a fuck.

*

How not to book your International Flight Tickets – The End or is it?

Part – I

Part – II

Part-III

Part-IV

It was my first International flight. And everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Having gone through this entire struggle, perhaps I should have been happy but I was indifferent instead. The Air India flight attendants were middle aged, friendly, but also and busy. I greeted them with a weak smile which was never returned and I walked down the aisle straight to the last row of Economy class and to my surprise discovered that I was going to spend the next nine hours in a company of a young English man.

Pause. Let me digest this.

Never. Never, I repeat, in the history of my air or any travels have I ever had the opportunity to be in a company of a young stranger I could actually converse with. And after all the ways my luck had lashed out on me in the last three days, this guy was such a pleasant surprise. The guy who happened to share the same name as that of a famous Christian priest, was a psychology student who had been travelling to India to learn Vipassana and experience the beauty of Himachal (among other things). We discussed movies, books, psychology, England and how we both were stuck at the Mumbai airport for different reasons but during the same period of time and how it was such a horrible experience. I spoke about my new University. He spoke about his. And then he spoke about mine because he knew about it better. I hadn’t spoken to anyone except the inhumane creatures at customer care for past two days. I confess I was a bit charmed by this person. And I was glad that he was there. The next couple of hours that passed by as I flew from one time zone to another were good ones. I watched a movie. I watched the sky from the window. I let the guy sleep on my shoulder. I tried reading the book he gave me that was about Vipassana meditation. I ate breakfast. I ate lunch. I had seen food after such a long time. When the Air hostess came to me asking if I would like a glass of whiskey, I wildly nodded a yes inside but asked for a fruit juice instead. Finally, my wrist watch no longer showed me the correct time. Finally, we had reached London. I looked at the city from above. It was unlike any aerial view I had ever seen. This was London, of course. It had to be this way. “Oh! This is your first time here!”the English guy exclaimed, “This city is going to shock you.” Well, I think I have been well trained for that. We got off the flight together and parted our ways at the Immigration. He lived in Oxford and he said that I could ping him if I was ever there. I sent him a friend request on Facebook. He never accepted.

Heathrow Airport is gigantic. It has to be. After spending an hour or so at the Immigration queue, my next mission was to find the correct Baggage claim section. Despite my poor navigation skills, I found it relatively quickly. Everything wrong that I could have imagined happening to me had already happened, right? Wrong. There was still one thing that could go wrong. Back in Ahmedabad, the lady at the counter had told me not to worry about my bag. Well, as it turned out that was the only thing I should have been worried about.

They had lost my baggage.

The guy whom I had met in the plane had told me about how he had lost his baggage when he came to India and how he was rendered cloth-less for the next four days. I had smiled and nodded in sympathy. But little did I know that anecdote was actually a prediction for my own near future. My usual reaction to this situation would have been anger and a bit of panic. My actual reaction was indifference. I guess there is a saturation level even for frustration. I filled the form and got the tracking number, left the airport, paid five times higher bus fare to Norwich (Since I was originally supposed to get to Norwich directly, I hadn’t pre-booked any bus from London), saw a bit of that humongous city through my window and got mesmerized by it in the process and finally reached my University. I was going to spend next four days sans any fresh clothes. This wasn’t a very happy situation to deal with, given the fact that I had already been in the same clothes for the past three days. How did I manage? Well to begin with, I got drunk as fuck at the very first night I arrived in England.

When finally I did get my luggage I found sugar, that my mother had asked me to keep in my bag at the last minute, sprinkled all over my clothes. Thanks for the icing at the top. I guess they thought I was carrying drugs or something. After four days (actually seven including those three at airport) of waiting to wear some fresh clean clothes, this was exactly what I was looking forward to.

But hey, at least I was here. At least my bag was here too.

So to sum it all, here is the list of things that I think you should keep in mind;

  1. If you are travelling in between the months of July to September, don’t book your flight from Mumbai.
  2. Pay attention to Airport announcements.
  3. Check your visa requirements carefully. Don’t assume. Don’t be lazy. Your answer is just a google search away anyway.
  4. Avoid booking an Air France ticket. Their customer care sucks.
  5. Like really.
  6. Don’t carry sugar in your bag. They mistake it for Heroin.
  7. Always pack an extra pair of clothes in your hand baggage.
  8. Don’t send friend request to someone you just met.
  9. Or do, whatever. Go live your life.
  10. In case of adversity, remember – This too shall pass.

 

“Laugh at thy own misfortune.” ~ Plato

***

How not to book your International Flight Tickets – A ray of hope

Part – I

Part – II

Part – III

The gloomiest day ever. I tried to divert my attention by watching people, reading a bit, writing a bit, eating little and mostly weeping my heart out in a way that nobody noticed. Morning, Noon, Evening. I wish time had passed as quickly as these three words. But they hadn’t. They had been spent imagining number of ways things could go further wrong. Because that’s how you cheer yourself up, don’t you? I was standing in the Check in queue again. Deja Vu? Yes. But this time, I didn’t have to abandon it. Slowly but steadily, I finally made it to the check in counter only to be told that my flight had been delayed and I might miss the connecting flight to London.

Wow, just when I thought that the drama was about to end.

So consider this – You want to get to the Heathrow Airport as soon as possible. All the flights leaving from Mumbai to London are not only booked but “overbooked”. So the flight that you have booked is a funny one – It takes you to Ahmedabad International Airport ( a much much smaller airport than Mumbai’s) and then from there you catch another flight to Heathrow. You have just been told that your flight to Ahmedabad has been delayed and you might miss the other one that takes you to London.

Perfect. So what do you do? You stand dazed for a couple of minutes but then by some miracle, your brain starts functioning again.You talk to the supervisor and beg. Your voice is shaky, eyes heavy with dark clouds yearning to pour the fuck down yet again. You are there standing vulnerable, wishing that your emergency gets through to the person you are talking to.

And somehow, somehow it does.

“Yeah, your flight has been delayed but I can put you to another one which leaves earlier.” She said.

Yeah! DO that! Why didn’t you think of that before?

So there was still hope. I was shifted to another flight. My check in finally got completed and I walked to the boarding gate and waited some more. I knew I should have been calm but I couldn’t help but cry a bit now and then. Good thing nobody noticed and if they did they didn’t utter a word to me. I hadn’t slept properly in three days. I had been frustrated as fuck and this journey was turning out to be a lot longer than I expected. I fucking hated that Airport. I always will. The glamorous shops near the infinite boarding gates sparked zero interest in me. I tried watching a movie and a TV series but nothing cheered me up. I waited and prayed that my flight didn’t get delayed. But adding to my misery, it did. What could I do? Anxiously, I waited some more. Finally the boarding began. There wasn’t much margin left. That plane had to take off ASAP. Just when I had finally reached the end of the queue and handed over my boarding pass to the attendant to scan it in the system, he told me that there was something wrong with it. For some mysterious reason it wasn’t getting recognized. Everyone else who had been in the queue was already inside the plane. And I stood there at the gate waving them good bye.

You asked for some suspense in your life, didn’t you? Here. Have plenty.

I hoped it was just a small glitch. I hoped they would find some solution soon and ultimately wouldn’t bar me from boarding the flight. But I was super high on Malana frustration and even this small event was enough to trigger an outburst of tears. Now, when I look back it’s quite embarrassing to picture how I might have looked in front of those flight attendants. But they said nothing. When the system refused to comply, they manually entered my boarding pass and finally I was on-board. But all this suspense wasn’t for London. It was for Ahmedabad – a city much closer to my hometown than Mumbai, where rains generally don’t fuck you over this badly.

My phone beeped bringing a silver lining in the dark clouds. I had received a message saying that my flight to London had been delayed as well by two hours. For the first time, in what seemed like years, I breathed a sigh of relief. This delay meant better time margin and better chances of me catching that flight on time.

Soon I reached and I went to the International Check in counter. “Excuse me, do I need to check in my bag again for the London flight? I just flew from Mumbai.” I asked.

“You flew from Mumbai?” she asked back.

Yeah, I know it seems odd. It’s a fucking long story. You have no fucking idea.

“Yeah, you need not check in your bag. Don’t worry about it.” She added.

I crossed the immigration, and waited for two hours in the most boring International Airport ever built on the face of the Earth. In the end, the dreaded time margin turned out to be much longer than it should have been. But I was happy simply to be away from Mumbai. I wondered if I should call back home since my family was oblivious of all this and pretty much in assumption that I had reached England already. I should have told them that I was still here, in Gujarat itself but I didn’t call them. It was only when the boarding actually started that I told my mother the whole story but this time with a positive note – “Don’t worry, I am boarding the flight right now.”

The moment I boarded the plane was a very simple one. There was no music or applause. I just walked with my swollen eyes and stinking body, fully devoid of euphoria but brimming with relief . When I finally took my seat it wasn’t happiness that gripped me, it was an odd image of my own self consoling me, “There there, everything will be okay now.”

But everything wasn’t going to be okay just yet.

*

Part – IV