Monday, September 12, 2016

One month Anniversary

‘Congratulations!” I chirped, as my husband was getting dressed.
"Congrats to you, too", he replied. But as he turned to me, I saw him thinking.. What date is it? Congrats for what? Anniversary? Something about the kids?
"It is our one month anniversary today. One month in UK,"I chuckled.
"That's right! It has been a month already, hasn't it?"

Day 31 of our Year in UK. The month flew by fast. Moving into the flat in Surrey, settling in with school schedules and exploring the country on weekends had left us in a whirlwind. As I sit down to think about the bygone month, there is so much that comes to mind that I will split this post into two parts. Here is Part One.

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name United Kingdom is its greatest import - the English language. A year spent immersed in the Queen's English, to hear what has become my de-facto mother tongue being spoken in its 'native' form, by the people who claim to have invented it, was a dream come true. And I am enjoying every moment of it. How can you not swoon when you hear the morning news anchors say churlish or peripatetic, when you are asked very politely to wait whilst your order is being processed and your Amazon Prime order is dispatched within a few hours to be delivered by the Royal Mail. The cable TV technician waves a cheery Cheers just as the well meaning neighbor asks, "How are you getting on, then?", the pitch of her voice climbing melodically with every word and the question mark, just breaking off to float silently down to the ground?

And it is not just the way they speak. The British have a penchant for naming things. My personal favorite, the inimitable Bill Bryson wrote,"At a minimum the name should puzzle foreigners-this is a basic requirement of most British institutions-and ideally it should excite long and inconclusive debate, defy all logical explanation, and evoke images that border on the surreal.” The naming skills apply to all walks of British life. For example, at the local pub, you can order black pudding, Hog pudding or kippers; pasty, steak and kidney pie or plain old Victoria sponge.  Welsh rabbit, Toad in the hole or Spotted Dick are nothing like you would imagine them to be. However, you will not go wrong with the ubiquitous fish and chips - the freshest fish fried in the lightest batter and thick cut chips slathered with malt vinegar or the generous Sunday roast -with its roast lamb and Yorkshire pudding (which is not a pudding by a long stretch) with Sticky toffee pudding and Devonshire Cream. An afternoon delight - fragrant warm black tea, served in a cup and saucer with a small scone, biscuit or a slice of cake. And then there is the beer. Unlike its Belgian cousins, the English brew is lighter in taste and calories so you end up drinking a lot more than you should. And it is not your fault, really. Inviting building claiming to be 'free houses' are open day and (most of) night at every corner. With names like The Bricklayers Arms, The Waterman's Arms, The Queen's Head, The Pyrotechnist's Arms, The Hung, Drawn and Quartered, The Drunken Duck, The Fighting Cocks, The Pig and The Goose or Ye Olde Cheshire cheese, there is always a place to throw back a pint or two.

As you drive out of London on the notorious M25, the landscape changes from stone, glass and concrete to rolling hills and grasslands. The green you see through the window is fresher, deeper,and crisper than anywhere else. The ever-present cool island breeze carries with it a damp freshness that sustains Mother Nature at her very best. The citizens of this nation take their role as care-takers of their surroundings very seriously. The National Trust, The Wildlife Trust and National Nature Reserves are just some of the organizations that work to conserve, protect and promote the 94,00 odd square miles of mountains, meadows and water bodies on this island.  Buildings of limestone, Portland stone and sandstone adorned with slate roof or tiles stand in harmony with miles of heathland sprouting heather and gorse, grounded by beech, silver birch, oaks and rowan trees laden with cheery red clusters. Rivers, streams, lakes and shallow ponds store the plentiful rainwater and nourish the vegetation all around. Modern  buidlings made of glass, stone, stucco or red bricks are spoilt for choice as they draw on inspiration from centuries of different styles of architecture.

Though nature is allowed to run wild, the British gardens are anything but. Symmetrical flower beds, with plants arranged in order of height or varying shades of foliage are encircled by tight stone walls. Hedges are pruned with surgical precision whether they are inside the garden or lining the narrow winding streets that pass through lush rolling hills where sheep and cows graze all day. Perhaps, this is what he was describing when Shakespeare wrote :

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea.” 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Moving Day...again.

A gentle breeze is playing with the leaves of the ash tree while somewhere above, a pigeon is cooing contently. It is 3 o'clock in the afternoon and I'm sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of Twinings Tea.  If you walked into the house right now, you would think we had lived here for years. The truth is, we moved in just three days ago.

Having enjoyed our intial days as tourists in hotels in Central London, we were getting restless for space. The novelty of living out of suitcases and searching for new restaurants for every meal was wearing off. Since we had already received the keys to the flat, we decided to move in one day ahead of schedule. We had opted for a fully furnished flat instead of a bigger house considering the temporary nature of our stay here. In many ways, this move was not the same as all of the earlier ones. And there have ben quiet a few of those.

Moving has become a recurring event in our family. When we meet new people and talk about our past, the seven towns we have lived in and stories about our moves become engaging topics of conversation. Since the first move from India to the US, with only the proverbial suitcases in hand,  we found ourselves packing and moving every 2-3 years. We have lived on the western and eastern coasts of US and also the mid-west.  We moved across continents for a two year stint in India, before coming back to the US and now, we are here in the United Kingdom. When we bought our first house, we moved all our possessions with the help of some well meaning friends and Subway sandwiches. As the years went by, things started adding up. We have moved our belongings on an 18 wheeler truck across the country, in a giant container on a ship to India and this time in sturdy cardboard boxes for air cargo.

This move feels different; temporary and liberating. We have a timeline here and all decisions are based on that. We are not looking to settle down in the best house we can buy and decorate it with our style of furniture and appliances. We need the essentials to cook, clean and live comfortably for one year and plan all the trips we can possibly take. So, we brought pillows and comforters and toys with us so that we would have some familiar things from 'home' and ordered the rest on Amazon. This feels like an extended sleep-over. Settling in did not take more than a weekend.

My family moved a lot when I was a child. I did not grow up in the town I was born in. In fact, I did not live there till I turned 16. Living in different states with different cultures and languages made me appreciate the diversity in Indians. I became fluent in 5 languages. I don't have trouble talking to strangers or making friends. A life like this makes you a constant traveler and that helps you take risks, give people more leeway than you normally would and hence be less judgmental. Great for forming relationships!

However, I miss the feeling of belonging to a place. I am jealous of people who can call themselves native Punekars, or New Yorkers. I have roots but they are aerial, branching out in search of light and water and thriving wherever they find it.  I am from nowhere yet I belong everywhere. Maybe that is why I try to live each day the best I can because I don't know when and where I will move to next.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Day 2

The narrative of the history of London as a metropolis has three bold points: the Great Fire of 1666, the Great war (World War I) and World War II. These were events when not only was the city rebuilt  but it was also redefined. There is evidence of that grit in the architecture of this city throughout. Sir Christopher Wren was the principal architect in the rebuilding of the city after the Fire.  A permanent monument that he designed stands close to where the Great Fire started and devoured the entire city in 4 short days.  The Monument is a fluted Doric column built of Portland stone, topped by a gilded flaming urn. It stands at 202 feet, the exact distance between this site and Pudding Lane where the fire began. You can climb the 311 steps on the narrow winding staircase to the top but we decided to pass and move on to next line in our itinerary.

Walking over from the Monument, we made our way to the Tower. The famed Tower of London is an imposing castle built by William the Conqueror around the end of 1066 on the banks of the majestic Thames. Most people recognize this landmark as the infamous prison where Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas Moore and Oliver Cromwell were held captive and later executed. We took an hour long guided tour led by Andy, one of the 38 Yeoman Warders who lives in the Tower. He was loud, brash, funny and very informative. He helped us get oriented to the layout as well as to the history of the Tower. After getting a lot of information which included the definition of what exactly it meant to be “hanged, drawn and quartered" or what your days would entail if you were imprisoned in the Tower, we were left to explore the rest of the complex on our own. The White Tower, an imposing medieval palace built in the 11th century is still used as an Archive and storage for the Royal Armory. It has permanent exhibitions featuring arms and ammunitions used by the monarchs over the years. I found this to be an ingenious use of historic buildings, not common in other parts of Europe. Instead of locking up buildings as historic in the interest of conservation, the old  buildings in London are retro-fitted and used, thereby ensuring their regular upkeep and maintenance. 

The piece de resistance of the day was of course the Crown Jewels, housed in the Jewel house. The exhibition features the jewels and ceremonial pieces like sword, scepter and orb used by different English monarchs. The one we wanted to see was at the end of the tour. The Kohinoor diamond, that sits atop the Crown used by the current monarch EIIR - Elizabeth II Regina (the official Latin name for Queen Elizabeth II). Even as school children, all Indians are told that among all the treasures looted by the British during the Raj,  the Kohinoor diamond was the most precious. Seeing it in real-life, however  in a bombproof glass case, studded in a velvet purple crown, along with other precious stones, it feels underwhelming.This is a piece of rock, shinier than others lying next to it in the bowels of the Earth, found and given a high value by men. Sure, this has come from the Kakatiya dynasty in Hyderabad by way of Babur and countless other hands, but what exactly gives it any value? Wars were fought over these and other shiny baubles? What a waste!

Our day of discovery of the system of the English Monarchy ended at the Tower Bridge or the London  Bridge. It was day spent in reflection and deep appreciation for the respect that modern-day Britons have for their monarch and tradition which allows the monarchy to exist in this modern Republic. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Day 1

London is a blur of grand Victorian buildings next to towering facades of glass and steel. People are always walking here-walking fast and with a purpose. Smartly dressed women who can rock culottes or red canvas shoes and confident men wearing sharp blue suits or pink shorts walk on narrow pavements - some on their phones, some chatting with friends and a lot of them, smoking. Tourists stop every now and then to marvel at the sights and take selfies. The red double decker buses make impossible turns through narrow streets that make taxis and cars envious. Every few blocks the Roundel announces the entrance to the lifeline of London, the Underground or the Tube as it is fondly called, to stations like Charing Cross Road, Piccadilly Circus, Marylebone, Embankment and Westminster. Restaurants, boutiques, brand name stores from all over the world, bespoke tailors and robe makers, hat stores and off-licenses all buzz with activity. 

As we make our way through the tourist highlights and learn how to eventually become residents, I invite you to come along on this adventure with me. Through these posts, you will experience the thrill and trials of an ex-pat family making their life in a new land, as well as learn some tips and tricks that you can use as travelers anywhere in the world. Check out the pages Tips for Travelers, London Checklist and Restaurant Reviews for practical information you can use and other stuff that will just convey my excitement and awe.

First, we start the tourist phase of our year in the United Kingdom. It took us two days of sleeping until 10 am to get rid of the jet lag. Arming ourselves with the Tube maps and Oyster Cards, we set out to explore this gem of a city. We joined the Londoners and tourists on their streets, walking on roads marked ‘look right’ or ‘look left’ right on the road at every intersection.  We took the Tube, ‘minding the gap’ and got off at Bond street station. This exits out to the fashionable Bond and Oxford Streets, throbbing with hundreds of  shoppers. The smaller streets off these two streets house some of London’s most expensive real estate. Red plaster buildings established in 1869, Victorian brick buildings adorned with iron-work on balconies sporting blue plaques  saying “ Man of Science Thomas Young lived here 1773-1829” and posh modern buildings of glass all stand side by side. With a little shopping out of the way, we were out of this area and on to see the most touristy of all London sights - the London eye. The London Eye is a mechanical marvel and it certainly looks like it. At an impressive 443 feet, it stands as Europe’s tallest Ferris wheel and awe-struck tourists sit in glass capsules as the wheel moves at 0.6 miles per hour. One rotation of the wheel takes about 30 minutes and it is good way to see the city’s crowded landscape from a different vantage point. We had bought standard tickets online but that did not save us much time as we still had to go through security. 
On the day we visited, true to London weather, the skies were cloudy and gray but we got a really good view. It is a fun activity to do with the kids. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The story so far, Part II

What is a trip without a few bumps on the way? Reaching Logan airport with enough time on hand, we checked in at the Virgin counter. We got three boarding passes but there was something wrong with the fourth ticket - our son’s. Somewhere along the reservation pathway, the last name was spelled wrong on his booking. A simple slip to fix, you would think. Well, it took four employees, two phone calls and 30 restless minutes to sort it out. Then, except for a flight delay of 30 minutes, the rest of the evening was smooth sailing. The airline food and staff were extremely courteous and we had a good nap before it was time to descend into Heathrow airport. As we were gliding into town, a very wide Thames came into view. Then the London eye came out of nowhere and next to it, the Big Ben.In between the turns that the pilot was making because five other flights were lined up to land around the same time, I could see the greater London area laid out under me; a lot of green broken by twisting and turning roads and magnificent buildings- old and new. It took all of my self control to not scream in glee.

En route to the hotel, the jet lag hit all of us, except the ever-energetic 8 year old girl. We could not sit straight through the 45 minute drive to our hotel in Central London. One of the few times I forced myself to stay awake, we were driving on a leafy cobble-stone street lined on one side by a lush green park and on the other by a serious looking brick wall with fencing and security cameras on top. While we were trying to figure out what lay beyond the fence, we came upon a mass of people looking towards an imposing building. In between the sea of humans, I saw a row of red shirts and black hats and it hit me- this was the Changing of the Guard which meant we were outside the Buckingham palace!!! What an incredible sight. Though the traffic and tourists were all around, it was an amazing first look at the iconic building that is on the top of every tourist’s list. 

Driving up to the Threadneedles Hotel it was a kick to see familiar names like State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank, next to Lloyds, RBS and HSBC. This area is known as Bank for a very obvious reason. We managed to marvel at the hand-painted Victorian stained glass dome of the hotel lobby before tumbling into the room for a much needed nap.

Rested, refreshed and feeling human again, we set out for dinner in one of the typical London taxis to...

 ...Dishoom, an Indian restaurant in the Shoreditch area.

This popular and highly rated eatery is not just a nod to the Iranian cafes of a bygone Bombay but hugs the essence of nostalgia while comforting you. From the instructions written in Hindi, to stained mirrors lining the wall next to dark wood paneling, the entire place has a down to earth charm that feels like sitting down on your friend’s sofa for a lazy afternoon chai and snack. Settle into one of the booths with a Rexine sofa, pour some water from a wobbly steel jug into a steel glass and imagine what the food might taste like. Whatever you can imagine, it tastes way, way better. The menu is a listing of popular snacks like bhel, samosas, chillies cheese toast along with tried and true favorites like lamb raan, biryani and black daal. The flavor of the dishes is unabashedly Indian, the freshness of the ingredients and the skill of the chefs shines through.

This is the food you wish you made in your home and is served with a smile by a friendly and efficient staff. Dishoom deserves all the accolades it is getting and much, much  more.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

London calling

The story so far, Part I

April 2016 was the two year anniversary for my husband at his work. As the challenge of learning and working in a new environment was wearing off, I sensed he was getting restless for the next thing. When we moved to the greater Boston area, we had decided that we would try to stay put till the kids went off to college. So he did the next best thing. He pursued an opportunity to work with the same company, in a different city, which turned out to be London, England! When we discussed this, another move albeit a temporary one, it took me two days to go from "Are you sure we should do this now? The kids are just settling in. It is going to be hard to come back to 8th grade for our son." to "Oh man, I cannot wait!"  

Our 8 year old daughter mirrored her brother's shocked reaction but changed it to a a hesitant "I want to go, but I will miss my friends. That is why I want to stay". However, my son was inconsolable. Given our history of moving every two years, he refused to believe that this was a short term assignment, a one year 'sabbatical'. We explained, cajoled, consoled threatened and ignored him for the next  48 hours. In the middle of the morning on the third day, my sweet 11 year old, texted me from his school bus, "I am ok to go to London, Mom".  And that was it. All four of us were going to be spending a whole year - July 2016 to July 2017 - in London! The possibilities, as they say, were endless.

Weeks of paperwork and trans-Atlantic calls followed. After the much-awaited assignemnt letter detailing the 'ex-pat package' was received, the priority was to enroll the children in a school. An exhaustive Google search revealed that admissions to local state schools (equivalent to public schools in the US that our kids were used to) in UK are done the fall of the previous year. I searched for schools in highly rated Local Authorities around central London as we were hoping for a city life experience for this year. I learnt about over-subscribing, wait lists, free schools and discussions on forums about families moving into cities like Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and paying exorbitant rents only to find out that their kids were bussed to schools in other areas. We did not want to take this chance and it was now clear that the kids will not be schooled in the local British system. We followed the path most expats take and decided to look through the International schools. The adage 'Seek and ye shall find' was probably coined with a divine conotation, but it is truest in the context of the modern day wonder of Internet. A few week's worth of searching and re-searching followed by telephonic conversations with always helpful directors and deans of admissions, followed by two days of intense personal meetings at the short listed schools and our children were enrolled in the school we liked, ACS in Cobham.
Now the kids were really excited. It was June and school work was getting wrapped up here and they were busy planning end of the year activities and parties. I had to answer questions like "Will I be able to learn badminton from a real teacher there?"(as opposed to mom)," Can I join the cricket team?", "Do they teach Shakespeare?",  "Will we have a big house?", "Can I take the bus?",  "Can I take the train by myself?",  "Will they have horse riding lessons? In the school?"
I was starting to wonder if they would be ready to come back after just one year.

This was going to be the year of travel and adventure for us. We had to remind ourselves that we had not won the lottery or struck gold and our travel plans would have to fit similar limitations in budget and time off  from work any other year. But the idea of being at the doorstep of an entire continent just brought out the Christoper Columbus in us and soon we had a must-visit list of countries. Using the school's holiday calendar and the work days off, we soon had weeks and weekends marked in a cheery pink with the intended destinations. Visa appointments for a UK work permit and a quick house hunting trip followed. Family was notified and the tickets were booked.  July 24 2016 was picked as the start date of our year of adventure. 

The day arrived hot and bright. The suitcases were packed and whatever did not fit in them had already been shipped. We were ready....London, here we come.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

 It is difficult to assign a title to a story in a way that it conveys the essence of the story and touches its core. Anthony Doerr has succeeded in overcoming this difficulty, brilliantly. All the Light WCannot See is a story about the physical absence of light - in case of its blind protagonist Marie-Laure LeBlanc - as well as metaphorical absence – in case of the other protagonist, an orphan German boy, Werner PfennigGrowing up on opposite sides of history, these two young people bring alive the sweeping tragedy of the Second World War and the horrible events in  Germany, Russia and France. Their lives play out independent of each other yet destiny brings them together at a crucial juncture, both of their lives and that of the War. This parable is sweeping yet intimate, panoramic yet microscopic. Told in two voices in alternating chapters, this is not an example that a novice writer might follow in terms of the theory of writing. The edicts of point of view, structure, character arc, scene-sequel etc are upended in favor of short chapters and shorter paragraphs and sentences that convey just enough information for the reader to make up his mind. Doerr appeals to all of the reader’s senses except the sighin scenes where Marie Laure's point of view is expressed and uses detailed, scientific enquiry when the story features Werner. The pace is crisp and the language, exquisite. The story gallops through the final years of the War yet finds time to languish in little alleyways and nooks and corners long enough to engulf the reader and transport them into its core. There is a surreal, almost magical nature to the entire story. If it were to be made on screen, it would be made in a sepia tone, with bright flashes of color in between to jolt the viewer out of their lassitude.  

The writer’s tone feels apologetic, at times, as if he is sad to tell you a story which may make you cry in the end. But he holds your hand the entire way and does not rush you; letting you enjoy the melancholy or ecstasy by your own timetable.  The secondary characters are  well-developedeverything and everyone is in the story for a reason. I would have liked it even more, if it was slightly shorter. The last three or four chapters felt extraneous, as if Doerr was having so much fun with his characters that he did not want to let them go. And I for one, do not blame him.