Saturday, August 19, 2017

So Long England, 'til we meet again

     Two weeks ago, I packed up the last of my clothes, threw away half finished bottles of ketchup, mustard, chipotle sauce and drove away from the house that had been my home for the past year. It was bittersweet;  I was sad to leave Weybridge but I was looking forward to spending the next two weeks as a resident tourist in London; a farewell tour of sorts, a re-run of the greatest hits  and experiences of the year. 
    Now, at the airpot, as my husband checks in the last of our 9 suitcases (total weight 175 kilos!), I realize that this is it. My year of living in this country - a country with almost 2000 years of recorded history, a country that has a nasty historical relationship with my native land, India yet today counts people of the Indian sub-continent as its largest immigrant community - has come to an end. It was time to recapture how I spent 378 days on this island. I have gained a different perspective on my life in the US by living in a similar yet different culture. I have seen the role of government in taking care of its vulnerable citizens and read about the bureaucratic challenges of a big government. I have watched people foster communities without compromising their personal space, cherish history and natural resources with great pride while adapting technology to make everyday life simple and I have:
  • toured magnificent castles at Windsor, Edinburgh, and Hever and  gilded palaces - Buckingham,  Kensington, Hampton Court and Osborne palace and tried, in vain to keep track of English history and numerous families that have made up the English royalty since 1066
  • reveled in landscaped gardens and  grand manor houses at  National Trust properties like Polesdon Lacey, Claremont gardens, Gatton Park, Box Hill and  Painshill Park
  • participated in the Royal Regatta at Henley-on-Thames, driven through picture perfect villages of warm yellow colored houses in Oxfordshire and marked off filming locations from the Midsomer Murders and Inspector Morse series
  • walked in the countryside straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel with hills colored in different shades of green dotted with white puffs of the sheep kept in check by straight drystone walls in the North country and tall hedges everywhere else
  • punted on the Cam along the backs in Cambridge, walked in the shadow of the towering spires in Oxford and felt a twinge of envy at the well-dressed scholars of Eton College

  • driven my car onto the ferry at Portsmouth and onto a train to go through the Eurotunnel at Folkestone, driven almost 8700 miles in all from the gorgeous Isle of Wight, to the pebbled beaches of Brighton and along the gorgeous West coast of Scotland
  • driven on narrow village roads with cars parked on either side, only  to see the oncoming driver pause to let me pass, through roundabouts as small as a painted circle in the middle of the road to a large stretched polygon with five exits, feeling the collective movement of cars flowing through the circle in harmony, and struggled with extremely tight parking spots in parking garages at Windsor and Weybridge
  • felt my heart soar with Beethoven’s Fifth played by the Surrey Mozart Players at the ancient Trinity church in Guildford, felt goosebumps listening to Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass’s composition played on India’s Independence day at the Royal Albert Hall and stared in amazement at the glorious mosaics on the ceilings of the St Paul’s cathedral while attending evensong 
  • minded the gap on the Tube platforms, walked endless steps through the tunnels and rode up and down deep escalator wells to get onto the streets of London and tried in vain to keep up with the fast walking, extremely fit men and women dressed in their usual  stylish best, no matter what the weather
  • experienced theatre in the West end and shopping on Regent Street, ogled at high fashion with unapproachable prices at Carnaby and Mayfair, watched a game of cricket in Hyde park and strolled  in St James’s Park shielding myself from the feral pigeons
  • eaten the best Indian food in my life, ever. Period. 
  • felt the joys of ordering groceries online to be delivered at home the day after we returned from a trip, and the ease of buying fresh, ready to cook meals, small packaging sizes of produce and single servings of wine in bottles at the grocery stores
  • enjoyed many a pints at quaint village pubs and sophisticated gastropubs, indulged in fish pie, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, roasted lamb, Yorkshire pudding, dainty crustless sandwiches of egg mayonnaise and watercress or cucumber and dill with cream cheese, sticky toffee pudding, Victoria sponge, exceedingly flavorful ales and Gin and the occasional Pimms 
  • lived in the art form that is the English garden; whether outside a tiny cottage in Shere, walled gardens at Hampton Court or the profusely flowering and scented RHS Wisely, Savill Garden, Isabella Plantation and Queen Mary’s garden

  • hiked the rolling Surrey Hills in the North Downs, stark white chalk cliffs of the South Downs, and the rainy peaks of Catbells Fell in Lake District; looked in wonder at the countless white, brown and black stockinged sheep as well as the Galloways and hairy cows grazing everywhere on this island 
  • experienced glorious sunsets, sweet birdsongs of robins, magpies, and finches every evening right outside my bedroom window, and brilliant blooms of labernums, magnolias, peonies, rhododendrons and  horse chestnut blossoms all through spring
  • walked on miles of public footpaths through kissing gates and over stiles in meadows, heaths and ancient woods of oak, beech fern and bluebell carpets in spring or buttercups, poppies, cowparsley, foxglove and daisies in summer
  • played miniature golf, got scared at Chessington and was transported to a bygone world on the Bluebell railway
  • watched proudly as my daughter learnt to canter on a horse and finally conquer her fear of water, and my son sing old English songs and Latin hymns with his school Choir 
  • enjoyed the Queens language spoken in its best form, making up my mind to use whilst, reckon, row ( instead of argument), and give you a ring in my vocabulary
  • perused innumerable antique stands at the Alexandra palace fair, Sunbury market and Portobello road along with my husband, appreciating the British knack for re-using things till they break, and bought many more used books than I donated at various Hospice and Charity shops
  • felt frustrated with the tiny washer-dryer at my flat, rudimentary telephone coverage and unsatisfactory customer service on the phone but experienced excellent personal service in stores in London 
  • seen more ducks, swans, dogs and horses in everyday life than I have ever seen before,
  • almost drained my credit card buying English pottery at Stoke on Trent
  • walked the birthplaces of Wordsworth and Jane Austen and stomping grounds of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and Dickens 
  • mastered (well, tried to) the Essentials of Cuisine techniques at Le Cordon Bleu in London 
  • marveled at treasures from all over the world at the National Gallery, Victoria & Albert and British Museums, learnt about the personal horrors of the Great war at the Imperial War Museum, vintage cars and airplanes at the Brookland Museum, got my fill of old Jaguars and MGs, and brand new Bentleys, Aston Martins and Maserattis on the streets of Weybridge, Cobham and Esher
  • participated in a Medieval fair, International fair, flag hoisting and concerts along with the  wonderful ACS Cobham International school community 

And cliched though it may seem, I have made friends with people from all over the world and memories that will last me a lifetime. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

My personal Odyssey - Winter in Greece

      Oscar Wilde once said, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.” Throughout the past year, I have made regular entries into this diary, most of them from my experiences traveling in Europe. Today, I am looking back to our trip to Greece in the winter of 2016, to what I remember of this highly anticipated trip which had a couple of surprises in store for us.
     I remember landing at the Athens airport, feeling goosebumps seeing signs in “ancient Greek”, trying to decipher the lambda, omega, chi and alpha to read out words and names like I would in a ‘normal’ language, not in the language I have always associated with scientific nomenclature.

     I remember walking up to the ground level at the  Syntagma Square metro station and feeling a blast of cold wind hit me.The sky was gray, and a large construction crane was right in the middle of Athens’ central square. Chaotic traffic, rushing people and tall leafy trees braved the cold wind. I was hoping for a sunnier welcome in this Mediterranean city.

     I remember dragging suitcases along Mitropoleos Avenue to our hotel and passing cafes and bakeries lined with custard pies and pastries in phyllo dough, gyro and souvlaki stalls and stores selling ouzo and Tsipouro and smiling to myself, thinking, ‘Now this feels like I am in Greece!”

   I remember walking through the Monastiraki neighborhood, on narrow, winding cobblestoned lanes lined with souvenir shops, climbing steadily uphill when the Acropolis came into view. I remember marveling at the scale of the Parthenon even from a distance, though it was covered in  scaffolding and construction equipment. As the twilight spread across the sky, the large columns lit up in a creamy halo from the lights and the entire scene just felt magical.

     I remember walking past the Agora, through the Arch of Hadrian and the Monument to the winds, thinking of the mythology associated with the city state of Athens, appreciating the fact that the Western civilization as we know it started and flourished here. It is quite remarkable how the modern-day citizens of this country have preserved and protected what they could find of their ancient heritage so that the rest of the world may appreciate it.

     I remember thinking the same throughout our visit to the Museum of the Acropolis. Wandering the halls, admiring the incredible statues of Athena, Dionysus and countless other gods, excavated ruins of the Parthenon reliefs as well as everyday objects, the reproductions of the magnificent Caryatids, learning about the pottery and painting techniques of the ancient Greeks, I couldn't help but wonder how much of this information I would be able to recall in a few months!

     I remember climbing innumerable stone steps through the neighborhood of Anafiotika in the shadow of the Acropolis, scaring sedate alley cats while walking along tiny white washed houses with green shutters and red tile roofs, family tabernas, and little cafes selling strong greek coffee in copper brikis, listening to accordions and bouzouki playing timeless tunes in the weak afternoon sun.

     I remember walking the campus of ruins under the Acropolis - the immaculately preserved Theatre of Dionysus wondering how it must have looked when the citizens gathered here for debates and theatre and feeling small under the the remains of the sprawling Odeon.

     I remember turning a corner and seeing the massive gate, the Propylea and large marble steps leading on to the campus of the temple of Athena Nike, the Parthenon and the Erechthion. I remember how grand the Parthenon looked up close even with the scaffolding and the construction equipment marring its facade. I tried to imagine it brightly painted with the iconic Doric columns and the triangular pediments which once were decorated with massive sculptures depicting the birth of Athena. On the other side, the Erecthion stood proud with the Caryatids - the six women carved into columns - holding up its porch. Seeing these buildings that I had learnt about in school and later on watched on screen was an incredibly humbling experience.

     I remember the food and drinks! Whether main meals or snacks, I did not eat anything in Greece that I did not like. Borek, souvlaki, gyro, olives, tzatziki, a cucumber, onion and tomato salad drizzled with the freshest olive oil, moussaka, pita, pastitsio, baklava and heavenly galactoboureko - every meal was an ode to the taste and smell of olives, lemons, seawater and sunshine. I read this quote  by the Nobel laureate Odysseas Elytis, on a menu card about what he thinks Greece is made out of - “If you deconstruct Greece, you will in the end see, an olive tree, a grapevine and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you reconstruct her.”


     I remember my wallet being stolen from the pocket of my coat, exactly on the street where every tour guide book warned of pickpockets and in spite of all my efforts to be a wise traveler! This and the historically cold winter that Greece experienced around the time we were there were  two big black marks against an otherwise wonderful trip.

     I remember driving almost 3 hours out of Athens on highways, through mountain passes, and along narrow cliffside roads in search of Delphi. I had not anticipated the stony hills, cold winds and eventual snow(!) and wondered a few times if the trip was worth the effort. Past the ski resort of Parnassus, the signs for UNESCO heritage site of Delphi, Temple of Apollo and museum started to appear. By the time we reached the temple complex, it was an hour before closing time on a cloudy and cold evening. As I walked through the ruins, it was easy to see why this tiny village on Mount Parnassus was chosen as the seat of the Oracle of Delphi in the Temple of Apollo. If one walked all the way from the city of Athens and climbed the impossibly rocky mountain peaks, the Oracle would surely be satisfied with his piety and peek into his future! Here, too, the ruins are preserved in remarkably good condition and the footprint of the temple gives the visitor an idea of how grand the structure must have been. The artifacts found during excavations and restorations are showcased in the fine museum next door and display the wealth that the citizens of the various city states must have possessed and what they offered to their Oracles.

     I remember waking up really early one morning to get to the port of Piraeus and boarding the sleek high speed catamaran - the Flying Dolphin. Whizzing past lush islands in the Sarconic Gulf, in a very quick hour, we reached Hydra.

Pulling into the harbor, the view was breathtaking. It felt as if someone had painted a picture and proceeded to build it out. Small fishing boats and sailboats bobbed in the blue-green water, houses, buildings, and church steeples painted in pastel hues of yellow, blue and peach topped with orange tiles climbed the hills, holding on to struggling greenery between them, while the rocky mountains of the Zogeri range rose behind it all, into the clear blue sky. This tiny island has been protected as a heritage site and no vehicles are allowed into town; that work being done by donkeys and horses, that wait patiently at the harbor. Being out of the peak season, we were worried we wouldn't find any open restaurants but ended up eating a meal of the freshest seafood served by a very courteous staff. An obligatory touristy ride on the donkeys for kids through the deserted town ended our day on this picturesque Aegean island.

     I remember spending two restful days in an Agrotopista (farmhouse) in the tiny village of New Tiryntha, outside the port of Nafplion. Surrounded by citrus orchards and groves of olive trees, waking up to crowing roosters and friendly dogs, shopping in the local market for succulent lamb and cheese, it was a break from the history overload and big city experience of Athens. However, we did stumble upon the magnificent stadium of Epidaurus, at the site of the ruins of the ancient healing center dedicated to Esklepion and tested out the acoustics of this ancient amphitheatre. One can actually hear even whispers spoken on the central ‘stage’ on top of the 50th row of seats, carved into the mountainside!

     I remember praying that the weather plays nice as we boarded the plane for Santorini. We had planned the second leg of the Greece trip as a quiet, non-sight seeing stay on one of the most famous of the Greeks Isles. Winter in Greece was said to be mild but unpredictable and we were hoping to get at least couple of days of sunny weather. 

     I remember feeling a foreboding sense of quashed plans as I got out of the plane at the Thira International airport in Santorini to grey clouds and very strong, cold winds. Driving up to the hotel along the hillside, the extreme geography of this volcanic island was on full display. 

My memories of the five days on this island are of fantastic sunsets, crystal clear azure water on powdery black sand beaches, extreme winds, gorgeous views of the caldera and the blue-roofed soft white houses, deserted towns and eating Chinese food from the same family-run restaurant for lunch everyday.


This was a trip that did not turn out as planned and Santorini  is first on my list of places I hope to return to, most certainly in summer!

Greece as I experienced it was thrilling, majestic and unpredictable. With a famously glorious past, this nation struggling to find its identity in the present, still has a lot to offer to the world -   in food, music, nature, art, and most of all, really friendly people. This eventful trip to Athens and Santorini has given me memories and taught me lessons to last a lifetime. Efcharisto kai antio, Greece!

Monday, June 5, 2017

"A Turkish Delight on a moonlit night"- the song is right!

     As Constantinople, Byzantium and eventually Istanbul, for almost 16 centuries, this city has beamed as the Imperial capital of mighty empires. Today, Istanbul is the cultural heart of Turkey, a vibrant bridge across the physical and philosophical landmasses of Europe and Asia, located on the Sea of Marmara and straddling the powerful Bosphorus Strait. Beckoning tourists and traders alike, it has utilized its strategic position at the crossorads of two continents to grow into a fast-paced modern economy while preserving its glorious past.

     Arriving at the Attaturk airport and driving on the wide, well maintained highway to the old town, the modern metropolis is on display through high-rise buildings of steel and glass, shopping malls, nightclubs, and restaurants boasting local and international cuisine alike, while cruise ships docked in the port on the Bosphorus Strait, wait for their travelers who seek to soak up the magic of this ancient sprawling city in just a few hours. However, as you start climbing one of the seven hills that the city of Istanbul is built on, it's famed past and rich culture starts to make its presence felt. Slender minarets with golden crescents on top, wide domes of mosques and squat buildings of white and beige topped with red tiles or flat terraces squeeze together in the same space. The excited chatter of hundreds of tourists mingle with the laughter of pretty young women wearing colorful headscarves and brightly colored robes, insistent salesmen calling you to their carpet stores while the sleek Tramway whizzes past  Roman ruins of the Hippodrome and the grand residence of the Ottoman emperors. You are in Istanbul!

Along with mosques and their minarets, kebab cafes and koftecisi, flowers are a constant presence in Istanbul. Flowers and fruits have held a high regard since the Ottoman times and it has been carried on into the present. It is said that when  Mehmet the Conqueror invaded Constantinople in 1453, he was so impressed with the love of flowers of the locals that he commissioned a portrait of himself, sitting with a rose, not his sword.  Seemingly impromptu flower beds appear along main streets and street corners, most of them with vibrant tulips- the symbol of the Ottoman empire - and welcome visitors and locals alike. The love of flowers is on grand display in the expansive urban park in the Erminou district, the Gulhane Parki. Originally a part of the gardens of the Topkapi palace, entering this public garden through the stone archways on Alemdar Caddessi one is greeted with a pleasing colorful sight that is sure to soothe the soul. Carefully crafted flowerbeds of tulips, pansies and other brightly colored flowers thrive alongside playful fountains, leafy Erguvan or Judas trees that sprout pink clusters and old plane and cypress trees  that provide a haven in the middle of the bustling city outside.

     Built between 1460 and 1478 AD under the rule of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, Topkapi Palace served as the seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years. It is now a museum housing weapons and armaments of the Turkish military, porcelains and calligraphy as well as sacred relics of the Ottoman empire. The palace complex is arranged in a series of four courtyards with the buildings surrounding them in an example of  classical Ottoman architecture. Brilliant tile work in the Iznik style along with intricate plaster work in the Rococco style architecture adorns walls and ceilings of every building, the most dazzling display being in the Imperial Council (Diwan-i-Humayun) and the Harem. Exquisitely carved niches, fireplaces and ornate decorations on ceilings using wood and tile immerses the visitor into  a world bygone when the Ottoman empire, at its peak ruled the land from South east Europe all the way through North Africa. 



     The iconic building most often associated with Istanbul's glorious history is the imposing Hagia Sofia. It came into existence as a Byzantine church built under the orders of the emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537 AD. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman empire in 1453, it became the Imperial mosque until 1935 when the founder of the republic of Turkey and its first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk secularized it and turned it into a museum. However, when you enter the large space that exists under the all encompassing dome, you do not think of its glorious history but gaze up in amazement at the incredible Byzantine architecture of soaring columns and grand arches supporting the massive dome, every inch of wall and ceiling space adorned with intricate mosaics in gold leaf and bright hues of blue, green and red that illuminate the space underneath. A series of windows on the upper gallery filter out sunlight through sheer alabaster screens, which falls on the intentionally unadorned minbar, where the imam would lead the faithful in prayer. There is a subtle yellow glow all around you  and in spite of the hordes of awestruck visitors whispering around you, one is are transported to a quiet, peaceful place where you can only marvel at man's extraordinary creativity and the passion with which successive generations have managed to keep this masterpiece intact. 


     Across the Sultanhemt square sits the magnificent Sultanahemt Mosque with its characteristic six minarets instead of the usual four. The pencil thin minarets with three balconies adorned with intricate muqarnas - stalactite decorations on the corbels - encircle a magnificent building complex topped by five main domes. The interior is awash in light reflecting off the brilliant blue Iznik tiles bordered by intricate designs in red, green and gold. More than 20,000 tiles display exquisite designs of tulips, cypresses and fruits. The soaring arches made in the Ablaq style with alternating tiles of dark and light stone, banisters carved in stone, and over 200 stained glass windows take one’s eyes up to the heavens, apropos to this place of worship.


This was also the place for a spirited discussion between the kids and the adults about how does covering one's head  show respect to God, and why do women have to follow a dress code to enter the mosque while all men have to do is not wear shorts. 

     One cannot visit Istanbul and not talk about two essential experiences - the food and the hamam. Whether it was drinking freshly squeezed nar suyu(pomegrante juice) inside the Topkapi palace gardens, or the tangy Ayran that accompanied the succulent kofte at the famed Sultanahmet Koftecisi, savoring braised lamb served over silken eggplant puree with bulgur pilaf and a side of piyaz, or the intriguing Testi kebab - a dish of meat and vegetables slow cooked in a sealed clay pot which is brought to the table or heavenly rose-scented baklava, one can only say “Sherefe!” with a glass of Raki in honor of this satisfying and soulful ancient cuisine. 

     The communal experience of a Turkish bathhouse is as unique in its ancient roots as in the unassuming, un-selfconsious manner in which it is handled. Cemberlitas hamami, designed by the famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1584, is a good example of this. The cavernous bath of pink stone with hot marble slabs to lie on, niches along the walls to bathe after a satisfying scrub with a traditional kese, followed by a relaxing massage is cleansing and rejuvenating like no other bath you have ever had! 

     Istanbul is a city like no other. A city of pretty girls in head scarves enjoying hookahs on the sidewalks of nargile cafes at midnight, of the sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day, of the modern trams chugging through the age old neighborhood of Sulemaniya, crossing the Galata bridge to Taksim Square, of the underground Basilica Cistern built in the 6th century to provide water to the great palaces of Constantinople, of strong coffee and fragrant teas, of spices and carpets sold by insistent traders in the Grand Bazaar, of military vehicles standing guard at the Annual Tulip festival as a testament to the modern troubling times, and of tulips, pomegranates and whirling dervishes. When Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk says “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too”, I cannot help but agree.