Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bonne Annee!

After all the crazy travelling for the last 8 months, the last 2 weeks have been fairly peaceful and quiet. Waking up under the same roof everyday and having a semblance of a routine feels a bit weird, but not too unwelcome. It's taken a while but I've gotten used to now going to the same grocery stores, laundromat and checking email from home and not a cybercafe. Not using a French keyboard makes life much easier.

From next week, I'll start going to the university and start showing my face. I'm not required to do much while I'm there for 2 months - no teaching, no administrative duties, no seminars. Just one lecture sometime in February so I should be able to get back to doing research which I haven't gotten around to for a long time. Working from home and cafes is ok, but doesn't have any of the intensity which one has when sitting in an office.

Hmmmm, that's about it. Nothing too interesting has been happening for the last 2 weeks. The weather's been fairly gloomy for the last 2 weeks. But it does make taking pictures at night fun.

Happy new year to anyone who's reading this blog.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A quiet week

It's been a fairly quiet week since coming back from Barcelona. Since it's Xmas, it feels as if all of Paris has left town or is indoors and the only people one sees are tourists or homeless people. Most of the cafes and bars are closed or empty and it feels like a ghost town right now, especially as the area I live in isn't a very touristy area. Being the only one in a cafe which is normally quite busy, feels eery. I stocked up on food, drinks and movies almost like one did just before a big snowstorm was supposed to hit Boston.

Finally got an internet connection a few days ago and for a while it didn't work. I had to spend a day trying to call but got no response. Was dreading the prospect of spending this whole Xmas week with no internet access at home. Spent an hour the next day trying out various combinations of the login and password and had given up hope. Turned out that the cable guy scribbled the password in a hurry so a "v" looked like a "u". It took me a while to figure it out and when it worked it was quite a eureka moment. Almost felt like I'd cracked the password for a high security website and hacked through all their layers of security. Being able to surf under the same roof that I sleep in feels like the ultimate luxury.

I'm putting up some pictures from Barcelona. Have uploaded all the pictures to the pictures link on the right, plus a few pics of my studio. Here's the link if you're too lazy.


And, here are some pictures.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Barcelona Diary

After the eventful train ride, I decided the next day I´d just walk around and explore it without a map or a guidebook. Unlike most of my other trips, I hadn´t read up much on Barcelona and I wasn´t carrying a guidebook. After the first day I realised the city was too spread out and too big to explore on foot. There are parts of the city which are like a traditional European city - compact and easy to explore on foot. That´s the Gothic Quarter and it´s a bit gentrified and touristy now. It´s not far from the beach so I can imagine it must be one of the most sought after neighbourhoods to live in. But after more than half a day of walking around I felt I´d had enough of walking.

The next day I decided to get a metro pass. Turns out that one can buy a city pass which includes unlimited rides on the metro as well as discounts at most of the major museums. That turned out to be a great way to explore the city. There are too many neighbourhoods spread out over the city to miss out on. The hostel I was staying in was right in the centre and next to a major intersection on the metro so getting around was very easy. A lot of the main attractions I was interested in are spread out over the city so walking and exploring would have been too tiring.

In terms of museums, there were a lot of fairly unique but touristy museums that I went to. The contemporary art museum was in a great location with a nice spacious building and a very minimal collection. Located in the cultural and University district it really stands out with its big white facade. That´s the kind of museum I enjoy. Also went to the Picasso and Gaudi museums which were a bit too crowded with tourists - like me. They weren´t too exciting but I liked the buildings.

Architecturally, I think Barcelona is one of the most beautiful cities I´ve ever seen. The old city with its traditional buildings, Gaudi´s modernist works spread out over the city and some crazy contemporary architecture have been meshed together in a very visually appealing way. Nothing seems to be out of place. The urban planners and architects spent about 20 years replanning the city and they´ve done a masterful job. The location is nice as well with the Mediterranean coast on one side and the mountains on the other side.

After a day of getting used to the scale and the sights of the city, I kept discovering small buildings, sculptures and installations all over the city. It was a bit like staring at a 3D hologram and being able to see through the facade after staring for a long time. Once you get the hang of the city almost any neighbourhood seems interesting.

There are a few walking tours of different parts of the city but I picked one neigbourhood at a time and decided to explore it at a leisurely pace. Sometimes I would be the only one walking down a wide boulevard, staring open-mouthed at an apartment building, which in any other city would be a work of art. I must have looked quite weird crossing streets and standing on top of benches to get a good angle for a library, a housing project or just a park. I took tonnes of pictures and will upload them soon.

Apart from the architecture, exploring Barcelona at night was fun. Though I went alone and didn´t know anyone there it was easy to hook up with people from the hostel and go out at night. In terms of food, Barcelona is a great bargain for cheap tourists like me. There are lots of places with a set menu for lunch and dinner which includes 2-3 courses plus wine for a reasonable price. Went out once to the University area to eat Tapas at a student cafe, a sports bar to watch a football game and to a raucous club on a Saturday night which stretched well into Sunday morning.

On the last night, I joined 5 people from my dorm room - 3 Irish nurses and 2 Aussie bartenders - to go to a Flamenco performance. Oz1 was pretty drunk before we got there and just before the performance started asked loudly "Is audience participation allowed?". It looked unlikely and we managed to restrain him. I could see Oz1 and Oz2 waiting for an amazingly hot woman in a short skirt to walk in. Oddly enough, a guy in a red shirt stepped in and kept dancing and touching himself all over. Shoulders drooped all over and Oz1 went for a leak and Oz2 decided to buy everyone a round of beers. By the time they both came back, there was a hot woman in a sexy skirt dancing. They missed out on a great performance and watching the singers and dancer was quite mesmirising. Ended up going out to a boring Irish bar later followed by a Jazz club. Got back to the hostel sometime at sunrise. It´s really easy to be out late at night in this city.

Woke up late the next day, headed to the beach and just sat in an empty beachfront cafe and read a book and enjoyed the sunny weather. Took a flight back to Paris which was uneventful except for the beginning where I forgot to take some toilet stuff out of my bag and got redflagged while checking in. Anyway, I'm back in Paris now.....back home.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Update from Barcelona

Reaching Barcelona didn't turn out to be as easy as I'd expected. I'd booked myself on the superfast TGV from Paris to Montpellier and then on another fast train from Montpellier to Barcelona. I was supposed to reach Barcelona around 9pm and had booked myself into a hostel in the centre of the city.

The train left Paris right on time and travelling first class, sipping a nice glass of wine, listening to my ipod and watching the French countryside unfold was fun. The train reached the Alps area within 2 hours and I was thinking of what to eat on the train from Montpellier to Barcelona and which book to read. Unfortunately, the train reached Montpellier 10 minutes late and the connecting train was leaving at any minute. There was also no other direct train to Barcelona for the rest of the day. That meant I had to do something again which I'd done twice over the last 3 weeks - sprint across the platforms and hope to make the connection. At least this time I was just carrying my small backpack and I wouldn't knock people over like last time.

I asked the conductor just before the train reached which platform to look for. He didn't know so I jumped off as soon as I could and looked for the first panel I could find. It said platform E and I ran down the steps and made a blind left turn hoping that would be the correct side. It was, but unfortunately by the time I reached the platform I could see the train pulling away. I guess making it 3 in a row was pushing my luck.

Went back to the information counter and tried to protest and ask for some compensation. One of them said go to Port Beau and change from there to Barcelona on the local train. Port Beau sounded a lot like Bordeaux, which was in the other direction. It didn't make sense to me and I kept saying - No, I want to go to Barcelona. Finally he printed out the ticket and I understood what he meant. The train to Port Beau was leaving in 3 minutes, so again I had to sprint. 2 in a day was enough, I thought, and I managed to get onto the train in time. It left within a couple of minutes of me boarding but stopped after 10 minutes. There was an announcement that there was work on the tracks and there would be an indefinite delay. I had a 20 minute wait in Port Beau to catch the Barcelona train, and the wait was about 40 minutes. That meant I would reach Port Beau around 9 at night and I wasn't sure if there was another train to Barcelona at that time of the night.

I asked the person in the next cubicle and she didn't sound too optimistic. She also said that Port Beau was a very remote small town on the border and it might not be too easy to find a cheap place to sleep. Anyway, the train started and I decided there was no point thinking too much about it till I reached. Since it was a local train, a lot of people got off within the next hour and after a while I was the only one in my coach. It felt a bit spooky as it was pitch dark outside and I had to strain my eyes to make sure I hadn't missed my stop. Walked across two empty coaches to find some other people.

Reached Port Beau around 9 at night and as I got off there was a train attendant shouting - Espania, Espania - and making a running gesture. I started running and assumed there was still one more train for Barcelona. I couldn't understand what she was saying but I noticed one other guy running with me. I just asked him Barcelona and he nodded and we sprinted across the bridge and I just followed him. Managed to get onto the train in the nick of time. I wasn't even sure where it was headed till they made an announcement that it was an overnight train headed to the northern coast of Spain via Barcelona. Anyway, I breathed a sigh of relief and closed my eyes and dozed off.

Reached Barcelona around midnight and realised that I'd left the printout with the address, directions and confirmation code of the hostel on one of the trains. I remembered the metro station so I got off at Passaeig de Gracia and wandered around hoping to find it. Since it was Friday night the place was alive with people going in and out of bars and clubs. After almost 20 minutes of aimless wandering I walked into a hotel and asked for directions to the hostel. I was looking for Hostel Centric Point and he told me the directions for Hostel Centric which seemed much further away.

Since I didn't have a map with me I just followed his directions and reached Hostel Centric which looked very shady compared to the description and pictures. The attendant didn't speak a word of English and was asleep. So much for the great location and 24 hour reception I thought. He checked a piece of paper with names handwritten and said I didn't have a reservation. I felt there was something wrong so I managed to convince him to let me use the internet and check my email. Realised I was in the wrong hostel but managed to the find the address of the correct hostel. Reached there around 1 at night, instead of 9pm.

Spent most of today walking around central Barcelona. Walked a lot and my feet are aching so I decided to head back to the hostel, take a nap and then head out later tonight to explore some of the nightlife with some of the people in my dorm.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A holiday within a holiday

I'm off to Barcelona tomorrow for 4 days. Can't really say it's a holiday as Paris has been mainly a holiday so far. I have one last trip left on my railpass which expires next week so I've decided to go down to Barcelona. The weather in Paris is a bit cold and wet so the sun and beach in Barcelona will be a nice change. Initially I'd toyed with the idea of heading all the way down to Morocco by ferry but the Moroccan Consulate was being very tough about giving me a visa. Somehow, after dealing with the US, UK and Schengen visa people I thought the Moroccan visa would be a breeze. I ran out of steam to deal with one more visa and after seeing my studio decided to chill out in Paris instead.

It's been 2 weeks in Paris now and after a long time I've started to feel like I live somewhere rather than feeling like a visitor. I spend most of the morning and afternoon at home trying to reawaken brain cells which haven't been used in a long time - after Amsterdam, a lot of them were killed. Working with no pressure to graduate or apply for jobs (sent off a huge bunch 2 weeks ago), no studio to hunt for and no more visas to worry about is fun. Post lunch I head off for a long, aimless walk to explore the city and then settle down at a cafe and try to waste more time.

Rather than join a language course, I realised it's faster and cheaper to get a tutor so in the evening I meet my tutor at some cafe. We've been picking out different neighbourhoods every 3-4 days so I've been seeing Paris in a very relaxed way. It amazes me how many people actually sit in these cafes just reading, smoking or talking. Some just sit and stare at the people walking by. What do they do for a living, I keep thinking?

Anyway, will be back in 4-5 days so will post after getting back.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Notes from Paris

1) The area I live in has a large number of cybercafes. Since I don't have a net connection at home yet I've been going to the one opposite my building. Interestingly enough, it's always busy and full of people of African origin. Each cyber cafe also has phone booths. Yes, the kind one had in India till recently. There are lots of posters advertising cheap calls to Africa but none for the US. I had to call my brother recently and ended up using one of the phone booths. Felt odd speaking from inside a wooden enclosure and a guy sitting outside with a meter saying how much the call was going to cost.

2) Maybe after so many years of living in the US I got used to American style kitchens and grocery stores - basically big shops and kitchens. The kitchen in my studio is tiny and can barely fit one person. But after a week of living here it seems the right size. There are no huge supermarkets in the neighbourhood. Only small shops individually selling cheese, vegetables and bread. But the quality and choice is quite amazing. One of the cliched images of Parisians I've always had is of them walking back home with a piece of bread in their hands. I do that everyday now and it seems almost natural.

3) The shop I got my cellphone from is run by 2 Pakistanis. They were both speaking in Punjabi to each other while I was browsing. Their assistant (looked like he was fresh off the boat) messed up something and the owner let forth a torrent of abuses in crude Punjabi. To his next customer he switched to fluent French impressing on him the virtues of the latest Nokia model. As languages go, Punjabi and French are as far apart as I can imagine. Listening to the shop owner switch from abusive and colloquial Punjabi to smooth talking French was quite amusing.

4) When I was staying at B and M's place, they asked me what I wanted for breakfast. They described something to which I said "Oh, French toast". They looked puzzled but it turns out there is no specific name for it. Nor is a French press called a French press. It's just a coffee machine.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Montmartre Diary

It's now been more than 7 months of constantly moving around and living out of a backpack. Last night I counted about 35 different places that I'd slept in over the 7 months. After staying in other people's houses and hostels, having a place of my own feels great. I plan to stay here for 3 months but after travelling constantly it's a welcome break.

The owner of my studio is an architect who's spending a year travelling in Chile. As a result the place is completely furnished with everything that I could need. It's in great condition and the space is perfect for one person. My backpacks occupy a small corner in the closet and I feel like I just returned to civilisation. The neighbourhood is great and I love wandering around aimlessly. Montmartre was famous for it's history as an artists' enclave and also for the movie Amelie. I live in the less chic part of Montmartre and though it's less than 10 minutes to Sacre Couer there's a big difference in the areas. There are tonnes of African and Asian restaurants and grocery stores and after the whiteness of Bavaria it's nice to not get stared at and fit in with the very diverse group of people here.

Started taking French lessons from yesterday and I'm determined to not feel out of place here. I visited Paris 5 years ago for about a week and stayed with a friend of my parents in a very upscale area. After being overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of Paris for the first few days, I have to admit I got a bit bored. I didn't speak French, didn't have any friends or friends of friends to call or meet, very little money and not much of an idea of Paris beyond the main tourist attractions. It's been barely a week here but completely different from the previous trip.

And if anyone of you is interested in visiting Paris between now and March 1st, just let me know and show up. It's my turn to be the host.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Update from Paris

I literally ran away from Germany. At Cologne, I had to change trains and in 2 minutes I had to sprint across the platforms to get on to the Paris train. With one backpack in front and another one in the back, I pushed a lot of people on the way but managed to hop on the train just in time. The French travel in style - at least in first class. Great food was served throughout along with some nice wine and nibbling on some cheese and sipping wine, watching the countryside and dreaming about Paris was a nice feeling.

B was at the station to meet me and it felt funny to meet after more than 3 years. His girlfriend, M, had cooked a great meal and we were up for a while chatting and catching up. My backpacks occupied a prominent part of their living room but they have guests all the time and they didn't care much. I've been here for 4 days now and in that period they've had 4 other guests stay over. It's been fun, sitting up till late eating, drinking and talking. Their house is in a chaotic state because of all the guests and we've all gone out a lot but nothing seems to faze them.

Woke up early on Friday and had lined up 5 appointments to see studios in different parts of the city. I'd visited Paris about 5 years ago but saw it like a tourist. This time, I explored a lot of neighbourhoods I hadn't seen earlier and it was fun to walk around and see how close the grocery store, the subway station, etc were from the flat. A couple of them were too far, one a bit shady (the girl who was subletting it was doing it because she couldn't pay the rent) and another one was too smelly.

The maths dept had put me in touch with an agent who was German. Went to his office and he looked like a hippy with long hair, an unkempt beard and colourful clothes. It was a remarkably old fashioned office, with paper cards, a typewriter, post-its and old maps lying around. He told me he didn't like Germany because it was too white and he loved Paris for its diversity. Almost wondered if he'd read my blog. When I said I'm from India, he smiled and said he visited it in the 60s as a flower-power teenager and spent a year living with other hippies. Said he can't imagine how much it must have changed since then. He took me to the studio and along the way pointed out things about the city and the neighbourhood. It was in the Montmartre area and it was easily the nicest, cheapest and cleanest place I'd seen. Decided to take it the next day and will be moving in on Monday.