Thursday, November 30, 2006

Leaving Regensburg

I'm leaving Regensburg in a few hours and cannot to wait to get out of here. Never in my life have I been exposed to a culture and a group of people who were so inhospitable and unfriendly.

I came here under an exchange program between Brandeis and Regensburg. Earlier this year, 2 other people from Brandeis came here - an Australian and an American, both white. One of them was a student and put up in a great dorm in the heart of the old town, and the other one was a visiting lecturer (like me) and put up in a very nice flat. They were invited to people's homes in the countryside, taken out by the math dept and generally treated in a warm and friendly manner. They didn't speak German before they came here and language wasn't a barrier.

Before I came, I knew at least 10 people in the University because of the exchange program. They all visited Brandeis for a year each (spread out over the 5 years I was there) and I regularly went out with them, invited them to my house and told them about things to do in Boston. I kept in touch with some of them and generally considered them to be friends.

It's been 2 months since I came here and not once was I invited to somebody's house for a drink, a meal or even a get-together. There were a couple of drinking binges with M and a couple of raucous football matches with D. I was put up in an awful dorm, far from the university and the old town, with no phone and no internet access. There were occasions when I asked some of the people I knew from earlier, about plans for the weekend but got no response. They all go home for the weekend and a couple of times I asked (or hinted) about coming along. Some vague excuses were given - a fragile aunt, a paranoid mother, my parents don't speak English or maybe next week. I thought I knew them well enough to say I had nothing to do, was feeling lonely and bored, but it didn't help.

I tried to fit in out here. I spent a couple of months learning German, got a bike to be able to get around and didn't complain about the food - bread and sausages. I tried to make my lectures accessible to students and faculty and put in a lot of work into each lecture by trying to keep them at the same standard or style as the average lecture in the math dept. Heck, I even attended math seminars in German. I explored the countryside on my bike, went to soccer matches and travelled to places in and around Bavaria. Somehow, it didn't make any difference to how I was treated. The cops assumed I was an illegal alien on a stolen bike, bouncers didn't want to let me in to clubs, the faculty couldn't be bothered to treat me like they treated other visitors and most of the students I knew from earlier acted as if they hardly knew me. Had it not been for M (who's half American) and D (who's East German), my time here would have been even worse.

This wasn't my first time in Europe nor was it the first time I'd spent more than a few days in one place. Vienna was one of the best times I've had (and Germans claim Austria is racist) and in 2 weeks there, I was welcomed by people I had never met earlier. I didn't expect the kind of hospitality I'd get in India or other places in the third world but the unfriendliness was something I wasn't prepared for.

Germans take strong exception to being called racist. It's associated with mass murders and riots. Treating people of different races in an unequal manner probably has some German equivalent. I don't care to know what it is.

Anyway, Paris beckons and I hope never to come back to this part of the world. And this time, I'm disabling comments.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Woke up at 5 on Thursday to get ready and head out to the train station. The French consulate was open only from 9 to 12, so I had to get there as early as possible. By train, Frankfurt is about 3 hours from R'burg and the earliest I could get there was 930 or so, which included a very tight 5 minute window to change trains at Nuremberg. I took a train at 620 and narrowly missed a connecting train at Nuremberg. Had to sprint across the station and followed a co-passenger who was also heading to Frankfurt. Managed to get on the 735 departure to Frankfurt literally 30 seconds before it was leaving. Since I'm not under 26 the only railpass I could buy (bought it last month at Munich) was a first class train pass. Compared to my current living conditions travelling first class seemed like a huge extravagance. In hindsight, it was a great thing to buy as it gave me the flexibility to stop at Frankfurt on my way to Amsterdam, and avoiding the hassle of booking tickets 2-3 weeks in advance.

Reached Frankfurt around 930 and the French consulate didn't look too far on the map I'd printed out. Frankfurt's a weird city. It's the financial capital of Europe and it feels a lot like the downtown area of an American city. It took me a while to get to the consulate and had to walk along roads which were almost like a freeway. Anyway, walked into the visa section around 10 and was soon joined by a Romanian couple. I'd decided to stay quiet about my residency status and had a plan B in case she kicked up a fuss. I also realised that my health insurance is only valid till January (it was a 6 month travel insurance) but decided to write on the form that it was valid till July, hoping she wouldn't ask for the papers. That was the first lie.

When my turn came, the visa officer looked at all my papers and then pointed out that my German visa was expiring in a few weeks. She spoke only French or German so it was again hard to communicate. Earlier in the week I'd talked to her colleage (in English) about an appointment and she'd mentioned she wouldn't be around as she was going on holiday, so I'd better be prepared for her colleage who didn't speak English. She got a bit agitated about the residency factor, so I decided to pull out plan B.

I lied (for the second time).

I told her I'd spoken to her colleage (remembered her name) on Monday, and talked to her about the situation. She'd said it was fine and should be able to apply for it from Frankfurt. The visa officer looked a bit confused, then remembered I'd called earlier and tried speaking to her in broken German, and then went out. She came back with a document and started to highlight it. Uh-Oh, I thought. She's going to show me the rule book in English and say, I'm not eligible to apply. Couldn't think of a plan C. Suddenly, she turned and went out again.

The Romanian couple was getting curious and asked me what was up. When I told them the situation, they shook their heads and said this was their third visit to the French consulate over a trivial issue. They didn't seem too optimistic about my chances and I was trying to figure out what to do.

The door opened and she came back with all my papers, smiled and said "It's OK". I was a bit shocked and very relieved she didn't call my bluff. Managed to get my visa in another 10 minutes, gave the Romanian couple a wink, and walked out to catch the train to Amsterdam. Had a couple of hours to kill so walked around downtown Frankfurt taking pictures.

Caught the Amsterdam bound train around 1 and turned out M was on the same train (obviously in second class). Met him for a beer but stayed in first class and just felt happy at getting a big headache out of the way. Reached Amsterdam around 5 pm and headed straight to the hostel to meet D, who was severely jetlagged after his flight from New York. His childhood friend from Istanbul, S, showed up soon and we all headed out straight to a coffeeshop.

Amsterdam passed by in a (purple) haze. The four of us had no agenda, no plans and no major sights to see. We walked from a coffee shop to a bar to a cafe to a coffeeshop to another bar. Walked around a lot in Amsterdam and since we were staying in the heart of the city it was easy to get around. I'd visted Amsterdam 4 years ago, and felt comfortable walking around. It's an easy to city to get oriented with because it's small and has canals running all over the city. It's particularly pretty at night.

Went to the Rijks museum once to catch an exhibition. Since it was under renovation, it was a small exhibition. They had a very simple but powerful memorial for Theo van gogh, called Scream. Apparently, as his killers were attacking him, he screamed loudly.

Got back today around 6 after a long journey. The train got delayed and this time I travelled in second class as M insisted on it. I kept bugging him about how this was a big sacrifice, thought second class wasn't too different. For someone my size, legroom doesn't make any difference. Feels weird to be back, especially as I know I'm moving to Paris in 4 days. Now that the visa's been sorted out I'm heading directly from here on Thursday.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Some more notes from Regensburg

1) A couple of weeks when I'd gone to Munich to watch a football game, one of the subway lines got delayed. I couldn't understand the message being flashed. My friend told me it was because they'd found an unexploded bomb along one of the tracks. This was a bomb from WW-II. Apparently, it's not uncommon for them to be found and last year a couple of people died on the Autobahn because their car drove over a bomb. Scary, isn't it?

2) On a bike ride through the countryside last month, I was passing through a small village and noticed something weird. There were two kids playing basketball in their backyard. It wasn't just basketball. They were dressed like American teenagers and had some loud hip-hop in the background. Somehow, I'd expected to see soccer playing kids in the heartland. I wonder if they talk like them as well, ending every sentence like a question.

3) For my morning shot of espresso, there's a nice coffeeshop between the maths and physics dept. It's fairly common to see people from either dept sitting around and talking. Because it occupies an important point in the space between math and physics, it's called ...... Einstein.

4) Leaving for Frankfurt at 6 in the morning tomorrow to apply for my French visa. Hopefully, it'll work out. Heading off to Amsterdam from there for 4 days to meet up with D who's flying in from New York and will be joined by his childhood friend from Istanbul. I know it's Thanksgiving, so instead of eating a Turkey, I'll hang out with a couple of Turks (and M from R'burg who's also coming).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The power of Youtube

George Allen finished his career and lost the Senate for the Republicans.

John Kerry finished his chances as a Presidential candidate.

Now, Kramer (Michael Richards) of Seinfeld finished his standing as the most lovable, eccentric TV character I'd ever seen. To all Seinfeld fans - remember the episode where Seinfeld gets heckled at a comedy club, and then he returns to heckle her back?

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Went to Nuremberg yesterday to watch another Bundesliga soccer game. The Bayern match was a bit disappointing, especially the intensity of the game and the passion of the fans. Apparently, Bayern wins almost every year and it's expensive to watch games in Munich so the fans aren't the loudest ones around. Nuremberg was going to be different according to D, the postdoc who went with me yesterday.

D's from East Germany and on the train to Nuremberg, it was quite fascinating listening to his stories about what it was like to grow up in East Germany at the height of the cold war. Apparently, before the wall came down, food was so heavily rationed that he'd never eaten an orange in his life, bananas once in two weeks. Travelling was forbidden and the eastern part of Berlin was dominated by the wall. After the wall came down, some of his school teachers vanished, some were apparently spies on the run and some just ran to West Germany as soon as they could. Nobody knew what was happening. Two days after the historic day, he and his friends (who were about 80 km from the border) decided to drive across to the western side and apparently there was a traffic jam which started right outside their house.

Anyway, we reached Nuremberg around 1030, and the game was at 330, so we had time to walk around and explore the old town. Unlike Regensburg, Nuremberg was heavily bombed and then rebuilt, so it's an interesting place to explore. Most of the architecture is similar to the old buildings, but it has some houses which resemble gingerbread houses - because Nuremberg is famous for its gingerbread.

The stadium isn't too far from the main town centre, and the fans had already congregated near the station. 3 hours before the match it was packed with loud groups with beer (I still find it hard to get over how it's legal to walk around with an open bottle of beer) and rival fan groups chanting at each other. Reached the stadium an hour or so before the match and it filled up quickly.

Nuremberg is in the middle of the table, and so was the opposing team. Neither of them had a hope of winning the title, but the fans were amazingly passionate. The game was intense and it went back and forth. For the entire second half everyone was on their feet, chanting away and singing loudly. The game was tied at 2-2 and when Nuremberg scored the winner with 5 mins to go, the place went wild.

The partying continued after the match got over, in the train, all the way to the old town where every bar and pub got filled up with hysterical fans. It amazed me how much a simple win meant to the fans.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

French Bureaucracy

I haven't yet reached Paris but somehow the French bureaucracy has pissed me off a lot already. I wasted a whole day yesterday because of their ineptness.

I have a bit of a problem regarding my residency status - basically, I'm not a resident anywhere (homeless). Being a student in the US meant visas were easy to get. Having an Indian passport, no money, no real job and no base makes getting visas very hard. But I've learnt to deal with lots of different types of visa officers over the last year by being, let's say, creative.

In May, I applied for a UK visa, 2 days after my graduation. I was flying back to Delhi on a oneway ticket (at that time I didn't know about the Germany position I'm on) but had decided to stop in London on the way back. Since my advisor had moved to London and I didn't have much of an idea about where I was moving to after Boston, I thought it would be good to get at least a tourist visa to the UK and hang out there and stay with some friends. This was my third UK visa, so I was hoping the visa officer wouldn't notice anything wrong. I went to the New York consulate (a day after a harrowing experience where I got a parking ticket, had to go to a towing garage and then banged into a car while driving a rented car) for my appointment. Being a bit bold I'd decided to apply for a 5 year multiple entry visa, even though my flight back to Delhi was in about 10 days. My I-20 (the most important document for every foreign student) said clearly I was supposed to graduate by May 31, 2006 (that I did was a minor miracle). Somehow, he didn't notice that. Roughly a year ago, I'd travelled outside the country and had a signature valid till July, 2006. That's what he saw. Then, he asked if I was just going to India for the summer holidays and then coming back, just stopping in London for a few days. I just nodded, and decided not to be too honest. Since it was my third visa, he just stamped it and gave a me 5 year multiple entry visa. I let out a deep sigh of relief. Had he noticed I had graduated, he could have denied me a visa on the grounds that I don't live in the US anymore. Anyway, it worked out.

Once I was back in Delhi, I went and applied for a German visa. After a 5 hour wait in horrible July heat (inspite of an online appointment), I went in with all my documents. Since I hadn't closed my bank account in Boston, the visa officer assumed I still lived in the US and said I couldn't apply for it from Delhi. I had to show her what I didn't show the UK visa officer - my degree and a letter of graduation. Finally, after a bit of a debate she let me apply for it from Delhi though I had to spend a week or two getting some other documents to get the visa.

A few days after that, I applied for a US visa, since I was going back to the US for a workshop and some talks. For occupation, I wrote visiting lecturer at Regensburg. The visa officer first said I should apply for it from Germany but I told him I was moving there after the US trip. He didn't notice that it was just a month long position which I was stretching out for 2 months (and had no clear plans after that). He was more curious about why I left Boston for a place like Regensburg. The next day I had a 10 yr multiple entry visa.

For the French visa, I've been thinking about how to overcome the residency factor. They have a consulate in Munich and on their website it said Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 to 12 were the times to apply. I first called up the consulate but the guy spoke only French or German. Our conversation went like this,

(Me in bad German) "I am from India. I want visa. I go to France for mathematics research. I come next week to Munich."

(Him) "Yes, Yes. Good."

I decided it was best to just show up and see if I could somehow get another visa, without being too honest. Munich is a little less than 2 hours by train from Regensburg. So I woke up early and just managed to jump onto the 7 am train. Reached the consulate around 9 am armed with all kinds of documents and possible scenarios to deal with. The first thing I noticed was that public hours on Wednesday were from 1:30 to 3:30. That's not what the website said (which again was in either French or German). I rang a bell, but the guy said (I think it was the same guy) "No public now. Come 1:30".

I had about 4 hours to kill so I decided to head over to J's flat, which wasn't too far away. He knew I was coming at some point so I had breakfast at his place, pottered around in his neighbourhood, had lunch and then headed back to the consulate. Walked in at 1:35 and said "Visa" to the guy behind the window. He said "No visa". I asked why and he said, recent policy change meant, I have to go all the way to Frankfurt. I felt like punching him.

I said "Internet says yes visa in Munich".

He shouted back "Only in Frankfurt. Go to Frankfurt."

I just turned and left. Missed the 1:44 train back R'burg by 1 minute. I could see the train leaving just as I reached the platform. Not my day.

Got back and checked out the website for the Frankfurt consulate. It said appointments are compulsory so I sent an email. No reply for a whole day. So I asked the guy next to my office to call up the consulate to make sure there's no communication break this time. The phone number from their website didn't work. Did a google search and found a different website with numbers of all kinds of consulates. Called up one of those numbers and the guy said their visa office is closed for the next two days (I couldn't figure out why) and I should call back on Monday.

French bureaucracy will require more creativity and effort than I imagined.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Some videos from the match last week.


Just missed.

Hannover fans.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

FC Bayern

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a postdoc about German football and he turned out to be a huge football fan. A considerable part of his student days were spent following a couple of football teams all over Germany and he still goes to watch football games. I told him I'd love to watch a Bundesliga match sometime and he said getting tickets for a Bayern Munich match were impossible. Every game of theirs is sold out and they have a huge fan following out here in Bavaria. Anyway, after lunch he suddenly popped into my office and said he checked on the web and they were a few tickets available for a match in November. Obviously, I jumped at the chance and they weren't too expensive considering it's Bayern Munich.

We went yesterday to watch it and the stadium itself is stunning. From the outside, it looks like a spaceship. The outer skeleton is made of some weird material which can be lit up in different colours depending on the colour of the team playing on the day. Because of the world cup all the stadia were modernised but I wasn't prepared to see something like this.

Since it's a very modern stadium, the walk from the subway to the entrance to the seat were all very well planned. It was sold out (about 65 thousand people) but there was no rush, no pushing and it didn't feel like one was going to watch a soccer game. The seats weren't too bad and one feels incredibly close to the field as there's no running track in between. I walked all around the stadium and from every angle one felt close to the action.

The atmosphere somehow wasn't as crazy as I'd expected though. It's mainly because the Bayern supporters are very used to winning. Bayern's won the league almost every year for the last 10 years. It was the Hannover fans sitting in the section above us who were very loud and added to the noise. Hannover's last in the league and everyone expected a rout by Bayern, but surprisingly Hannover held on to a slim lead and won.

What surprised me was how fast the game went. Watching a football game on TV can be a bit tedious at times but this was great to watch. It wasn't the most exciting game and I got the impression Bayern took it too lightly, but watching the players pass, run and head with such ease was interesting. The only time I watched a football match in India was around 1988, when PSV Eindhoven came to play the Indian XI. We lost 8-0 in that match even though PSV was playing their second eleven. This one was reasonably evenly matched and after Bayern conceded a goal, it picked up in intensity.

Hanover had never won in Munich and after they won the fans behind me went crazy and I managed to make a few videos while I was there. Have to figure out a way to upload videos onto blogger. Any suggestions anyone?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Math in German

For the last week, I've tried going to a few seminars in the math dept. The first one that I showed up for was in German. I didn't realise that it was not in English and after it started it was too rude to get up and leave. What struck me though was how well organized the lecture was. Not just the first one, almost all of them. Even if they're in German, they were fairly comprehensible especially as all the formulae were written very clearly. What helps a lot is the pauses in the middle of the lecture. Too often, math lectures go at a pace which is too fast for almost everyone. Since the lecturer has to take a wet mop kind of thing, then dry it with a windscreen wiper thingie, it takes up a fair amount of time. But that's the ideal point to ask questions, rather than interrupt the speaker. It's been interesting observing how clear and precise most of the lectures have been. I still have a hard time understanding them, but I seem to be getting the hang of it. Anyway, since a lot of the math terms one uses originated in German, there's quite a bit of overlap in the terminology.

And I've also learnt the German equivalent for "I don't know", "Good question" and "Let me think about it". Incredibly useful terms for any lecturer.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

No outsiders, please

I was refused entry at a club last night. It wasn't the first time it's happened out here but it's soured the whole Regensburg experience for me.

I've been partying a lot for the last week with M and his Bavarian friends. Last week, his dorm had a huge party. There were at least 1000 people there and it was a mad, mad party. Even though I felt horribly old compared to all the students there, I had a great time. I was also the only non-white person out there and I got stared at a lot, though considering how provincial and small minded this place is, it didn't affect me. I was told on many occasions by many students that I was the first Indian they'd met or seen. Considering how many places Indians have settled in, it shows how remote this place is.

On Saturday, I met up with M and some of his other friends and after a lot of bar hopping, I was very drunk by midnight. We headed out to a club and I was in a good mood, speaking bad German in a deliberate Indian accent to make everyone laugh. Maybe I was a bit too loud, but we weren't allowed in. I don't remember much of what happened that night, but I remember after being refused at a second club, I snapped, cursed the bouncer and just left. M and his friends couldn't see where I went and after walking very aimlessly through the streets of R'burg trying to not get too angry, I reached home at 5 in the morning. Woke up in the afternoon, hungover and called up M. He said we weren't allowed in because I was too drunk - something I half believed.

Last night, J from Munich showed up and 6 of us went to some other dorm party and then headed out to the old town. It's especially lively and all of them kept talking about how lively and fun Regensburg is with its high density of bars and cafes. With its very well preserved old town, cobbled streets and cosy cafes it is a fun place to walk around at night with lots of people flitting in and out of all the bars and clubs. They're very proud of Bavaria and Regensburg and I kept nodding along. Then, we went to another club and this time I was completely sober, stood quietly behind them in a big crowd. As we were getting in, the bouncer looked at me, stopped us and said something I couldn't understand. I could see everyone's face drop and they didn't even bother arguing. Apparently, he said no foreigners. It felt weird, and this time I didn't snap, curse or do anything. Just shrugged my shoulders and said let's get something to eat at the closest Lebanese Doner Kebap joint.

I've decided not to remind M and his friends, or the faculty about this. When I told the faculty about the ticket I got for riding my bike without a light, I could see them squirm, as it only happens to foreigners. It hasn't affected me much and since I know I'm here for just another month, I don't want to put a label on everyone from Bavaria because of a couple of jerks. Discrimination on the basis of race, caste, religion, etc happens everywhere I guess but somehow I'd never encountered something so blatant.