Monday, August 24, 2009

LBJ's epochal moment and Obama's lowpoint

Seeing her supposed coronation vanish into thin air courtesy a freshman Senator with more supposedly silver tongue, Hillary railed "you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose". She then cited LBJ's achievement of enacting the Civil Rights bill in '64 and voting rights bill in'65. LBJ succeeded the uber-charismatic JFK under a very tragic circumstance. The country was a sheer cauldron of seething emotions tearing at the seams. A peaceful march was torn asunder by police dogs and water cannon as a nation watched in horror on live national TV. A president was killed. The country which won two world wars was being challenged by bicycle-riders in a hitherto unknown patch of land. LBJ was very unlike JFK, no charisma, avuncular looks, no soaring oratory, no Pulitzer prize. What did LBJ bring to the table other than the fact that he could deliver the 'south' in the election? [Many think Bush V Gore was a nail biter, check out JFK V Nixon and the allegations of rigging that swirl even today].

LBJ, as his biographer Robert Caro brings out in 3 volumes, brought to the table invaluable expertise in negotiating with the Congress. One volume of Caro's biography is aptly titled "Master of the Senate". The long years of forging relationships in the US Senate helped LBJ hone his negotiating skills. Harvard Business Review (HBR) once interviewed Caro to glean management techniques of LBJ that could be applied to corporate world.

The shock and trauma of Kennedy's death, the crescendo of Civil Rights movement both did provide an invaluable impetus in shepherding the landmark Civil Rights bills. However one should appreciate how an almost entirely White congress voted to overcome one of humanity's worst prejudices, that too ingrained over centuries of bias. Signing the bill LBJ is supposed to have said "we have signed away the south for a generation". That signing marked the end of democratic party's hold on southern states. LBJ was a democrat, he moved a bill that virtually killed his and his party chances in the South for generations to come.

When Hillary cited the above the Kennedy clan was peeved. They excoriated her for not mentioning JFK, whose brother RFK had MLK Jr taped by the FBI. Carrying their petulance forward they endorsed Obama in a much publicised event. For her share Maria Shriver Kennedy came straight from her 'daughters horse riding class' to ask the common Californian to vote for 'change' and for 'Barack Obama'. Hillary trounced Obama in the MA and CA primaries.

When Obama got elected duly, his enablers in the press (masquerading as journalists) predicted a new era of bipartisanship unlike the days of Bill Clinton and George Bush. Obama had ripped apart Hillary and Bill (by then they were pejoratively called 'Billary') as having failed to deliver health care reform because of their secretive ways and of course their having 'created' enemies. Bill Clinton retorted "yes we made enemies because we fought the fights that had to be fought like health care, Children's health insurance, FMLA etc". A populace swooning under Utopian ideas floated as virtues bought into Obama and he sailed into the presidency.

Obama came into office with unprecedented love and admiration. Clinton came into office despite 'bimbo eruptions', Bush came into office under a cloud, to put it mildly. Obama came into office riding on the cusp of history, a 'dream' come true, America's moment of redemption, America's repent for its original sin. His approval rating was in the stratosphere.

Then came reality. Unlike Bill Clinton in 92, all Presidential candidates in 2008 campaigned on the promise of reforming health care, cut health care costs, provide insurance for all etc. In 2008 America pleaded for health care to be tackled unlike in 1992. This was his moment to lose. Obama looks all ready to lose this. His legion of internet worshippers are nowhere to be seen. Opinionators predicted Obama redefining the Presidency with his netroots, they thought his legion would be his army of volunteers compelling every congressman to oblige the President for his bills. All of this came crashing down. The biggest let down was seeing the supposedly eloquent candidate hold prime time news conferences on health care only to confuse the viewer further.

All those who shrieked that Hillary will bring back old style politics, too many recriminations, too much politicking are now aghast at seeing Obama being hijacked by his own party. The man who was, conveniently, everything to everybody on the stump, now has his reckoning. He cannot satisfy the fiscal conservative because the reforms he supports are wrecking US deficit (projected at 9 trillion dollars), his liberal supporters are livid at the compromises made.

What is worse, for a candidate whose organizational skills, fund raising abilities, on-message discipline, ad-war abilities, none of that was in display as the health care debate unravelled. Scaremongers had a field day with rumors of 'death panels', 'rationed care' etc. The vaunted Obama operation team just watched. My guess is they were simply shocked that the sheen came off of "the One". I suspect that the shock of seeing their idol questioned put them in a comatose state.

Obama's approval rating continues to plummet and is now on par with G.W.Bush at this point in Bush's presidency. What a fall my countrymen.

If only we had had an LBJ...oops Hillary.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cow Bells on Titlis and Airport troubles

When I read Naipaul's "Among Believers" based on his travels in Iran/Pakistan etc what struck me most was his detailed descriptions of people, their faces, the dresses, intricate descriptions of places, even the soil, graphic descriptions of rooms, the setting etc. Remember this was before the age of digital cameras, IPhone, voice recorders etc. He probably took notes but reading some passages it made me wonder how did he capture so much detail. I've not read much of real good authors in the 'travelogue' genre. Paul Theroux, Naipaul's one time friend, is famous for that. The other guy who many Tamilians would recommend is Manian, editor of now defunct "Idhayam Pesugiradhu". Manian's travelogues had two persistent features, telling where we can find Idli+Sambar in some foreign country and the next was to get himself photographed with girls in swimsuits. The latter was god send in a starved 70's Tamil Nadu. The info on idlis, which I used to ridicule once, I find quite essential if vegetarians are in the entourage.

Coming to the women. New York, in summer time, is famous for skimpily clad women. I could see some of it in Zurich but Zurich women, especially the ones I saw at Bahnhofstrasse, were classier, the New York kind of 'in your face' skimpiness was not there. Of course I am comparing plebeian Times Square with ultra rich Bahnhofstrasse. I did not see the proverbial American obesity in Zurich or Paris.

I did not maintain notes and wrote from memory mostly, also not in very focused manner. I had forgotten to mention a very wonderful experience en-route to Titlis. As we were ascending towards Titlis in our cable car, with sliding window, over lush green pastures, we saw well fed cows grazing by. "Pastoral" is the one word to describe it. We were hearing nicely tinkling bells and I looked for a church in the horizon. Only after few minutes later did I realise that the cows had bells tied to them. After finishing our trip I sauntered into a souvenir shop I found cow bells at different prices and sizes. Its their national symbol. I bought two very small ones for our curio case.

I had briefly mentioned how Terminal 5 in Heathrow and Zurich airport are ages ahead of JFK and Newark airports (both arterial airports in NY). However what I found in common in all airports is that they have to do lot more for the aged and disabled. Many terminals are far flung and transportation is not seamless. Help is not readily available. Wheel chairs are not easily accessible and when the chairs are around no one is there to push them. We often tell our parents to just hop on a flight and come over. "Its just a flight, its a breeze, its air travel, easier than traveling by train etc etc". Walking from Virgin Atlantic vestibule to baggage collection was quite a hike, luckily our 4 year old was happy to walk. While we wait for immigration clearance baggage are often strewn about. The amenities around immigration clearance is pathetic irrespective of how swanky an airport is. The queues are long and one cannot go to toilets while waiting for clearance.

Airlines are on a league of their own when providing food. Their schedule has no relation to timing for dinner or breakfast. A flight taking off at 9 PM in Newark gives dinner at 12:00 AM. Given that taking food past security etc is prohibited such things pose serious hazards for patients with diabetes or kids. Newark departure terminal is really bad. There was no restaurant to get anything worthwhile to eat. I had had a harrowing experience at Philadelphia airport where , after dumping our food stuff at security check, we had to go without food for 5 hours as the flight was delayed.

Its amazing that in this age of technology airlines screw up on advising if a flight is on time or in giving info on gates. At Heathrow some gates need 20 minutes walk time and gates are announced 40 before boarding. Imagine the plight of aged and those with children or just sick themselves. Once South west royally screwed me in Philly. At check in counter we were told flight was delayed by 5 hours but right above the person checking us in TV display showed that flight was on schedule. I disregarded the attendant and checked in. On reaching the gate we were told of the 5 hour delay again, yet again the overhead TV showed flight was on schedule. When I asked about that the answer amazed me. The TV display is by airport and airline cannot control it. Apparently the airport had wrong info while the airline which had the info did not do anything to correct it.

Travels are good, they expand our understanding, help us get some perspective, we appreciate some comforts we enjoy better seeing others, we also compare and yearn if something could be made better back home. Its an art to go with the flow on travel especially to international destination where we have almost no control. Going to North Carolina in an Acura SUV fitted with GPS is any day much easier than landing in Zurich and wondering if your child can eat something that does not contain nuts or if your parents can have something that's ok. Not being frequent travelers is a problem too one does not know what to expect or one is to scared of not being able to meet ones needs. Traveling light is another art form. No use lugging 5 books, choose one or two good books. No need to take a camcorder, an SLR and a point-and-shoot. If photography is your hubby learn to smile lugging the various lenses. We have decided to make the next trip with as little paraphernalia as possible. Until then Adios!!!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Shahrukh and the 'racism' bogie

Once a cousin of mine asked me "is there no racism is America, do you know how many Indians were fired during the recession, could there be no racism in all that". I then told him quietly, "no it could not be racism, at least for most part". Here is why. Most Indians, during 2001 bubble, were consultants meaning temporary workers who, by definition, can be let go when the quantum of work dips or no new business prerogative exists. Most Indians also preferred to be hourly paid consultants than become employees. Billing rate was an obsessive "mine is larger than yours" type of talk amongst Indians in the 90's. Come Aug 15th an infamous mail would circulate about how Indians as an ethnic group have the most college educated, the highest tax payers, the most number of doctors etc etc. The tech sector in Financial industry in New York is virtually captured by Indians and Asians. There are teams where whites are not just in minority but practically absent too. When the going is good nobody questions any of these. But the moment we pay a price for being free market we raise the "racism" bogie.

Without digressing too much into wider racial issues let me restrict this discussion to Indians in US. A cousin tells me that being an Indian actually enhances your chance to be selected at a Med School because Indians are 'presumed' to be hard working. Have I personally faced racist treatment at office or in stores. At office, zero. Probably I faced more difficulties with North Indian colleagues than with Americans. At stores I can remember only once or twice over 11 years have I experienced rough treatment. It could have been racism yes but equally possible that the store guy was just what he is a rude fellow. Often times minority ethnic groups readily interpret any slight as "racially motivated". Indians above all have no business acting holier than thou on this. A tamil inKarnataka or a South Indian in Mumbai are prone to much more racism than they ever would experience in US. Look at how Tamil Nadu and Karnataka tip toe around opening statues like they are some warring Baltic states.

Come summer hundreds of aged parents visit families in US. Every apartment complex swarms with visitors, visitors who get 10 year visas without paying an extra penny (unlike UK which charges a princely $500 for 10 year visa), children get admitted to schools as a "right" no recommendations needed, they go to school in 100% safe buses that come right to the door step, libraries buy hindi books to show "diversity", parks host Indian festivals, temples are constructed, Empire state building lights up in tri-color for Aug 15th, White house celebrates Diwali, our children are much respected for high SAT scores (not for the caste), team meetings feature Indian food, Indians yell across the hallway in Hindi/Tamil/Telugu, entire streets feature Indian shops, Indians are elected as councilman etc, America named a satellite after Chandrasekar, honors were heaped on Kalpana Chawla, Indian communities are courted by politicians in Northern Virginia, high earning Indians have changed entire demographics in many communities buying out the locals. Sivaji Ganesan was honored by the mayor of Columbus (a city in Ohio) and was given the keys to the city in 1995. Sivaji had to wait for a long time to get Dadasaheb Phalke award compared to Bollywood actors. Lets no go on a tangent comparing Sivaji with Marlan Brando etc or his demerits on over acting etc. As an Indian actor he stood tall.

Nothing riles me up like hearing an Indian accuse US of racism. Indians, amongst the recent immigrants, have had it best.

Coming to the visa shambles. Visa, is a gratuitous permission given by a country nobody can claim it as right. The US consultate has been the most sensitive to public relations. Compared to early 90's Indians are now so much more well treated by consulates. Indian consulates in US treat Indian "citizens" much worse than US consulates treat Indian applicants. I've seen first hand how US consulate in chennai went to great lengths to address inconvenience to visa applicants and I've seen first hand the Indian consulate at NY too. Could the visa process be more transparent and simpler. Everyone wishes but its just impossible. An officer gets a few minutes to judge whether the guy sitting opposite him/her would a possible "immigrant" or will the applicant truly return back. So much of human element is in all this.

Coming to airport screening and stamping at airports. This same pompous King Khan has been to US many times and has visited without a problem. One time somebody questions and King Khan thinking he is truly King takes umbrage. Priyanka Chopra twitters that he is a "global icon get real". Yes he is a global icon for Indians across the globe how many Americans (white or black) see his film? Almost zero. Just because a bunch of film crazed Indians swoon at him across the globe they cannot assume he is a global icon. Actually her twitter post smacks of a different racism. Bollywood thinks Hindi cinema is Indian cinema. I can bet there are corners in Arunachal Pradesh where Shahrukh is unknown. Dont we know how Bollywood treated Tamil stars, especially in the 60's and 70's. Bollywood goes gaga over flesh baring Aishwarya Rai at Cannes while an unassuming Nedumudi Venu in dhoti goes unnoticed despite the fact that only his movie was selected for the competitive section. Once veteran Malayalam actor Sathyan was humiliated on stage at a Bollywood awards function. Damn guys could not even get a name of their own and have to steal it from Hollywood. Bollywood. Kollywood. Tollywood.

Then there is the reality side. TSA (Transportation Security Administration) screeners are underpaid contractors. The guy who pulled up Shahrukh did not wake up that day swearing to humiliate a Indian superstar. He just played by the book. Now, the false alert, the screening process etc may have stupidities in it, loop holes in it but why shout "racism". That too Khan was not harassed or any derogotary remark made, he was not unduly delayed etc. Khan, now imperiously declares he will not step foot on US soil. Who cares. Let him take it one step further. Stop screening his movies in what he thinks of as a racist country. That would be something aint it?

The security screening is painful. But what can we do, its a sign of the times. Better technology could help do it more sensibly and with better results. I've seen experiments carried out for new kind of whole body detectors at train stations in Jersey city. Improvements are happening.

The Kalam frisking incident is another PR disaster. Any flight to USA has two stage screening process. The second stage is done prior to boarding at the gate. What is not known is if Mr Kalam, an unassuming person, declared who he was and if he was frisked despite the attendant knowing his diplomatic clearance. From subsequent events it appears that the attendant was totally unaware of who he is and was just going by the book. Kalam, the person he is, probably did not throw a tantrum and just went through.

Again I remind that so many parents, so many tourists come to US everyday without a hassle. My parents and in-laws have been coming for 7 years. Parents of my friends, cousins all have been coming and experienced zero harassment despite the fact they come loaded with Indian spices, goodies from sweet shops etc.

US is a country where a Mel Gibson, when drove drunk, was shackled. Bill Clinton, as President, was asked to pay for books when his card did not pass through, Bush's daughter was caught for under age drinking, Ted Kennedy was on a "no fly list" (that was really hilarious).

I'd be naive or incorrigbly blind to say there is zero racism in US. US, like other countries, has human beings, some harbor hatred, some show it too. But those instances are rare and mostly they are addressed.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Swiss Economy and shopping

I always wanted to shop in Europe because the toys, children clothing and chocolates are so much better there. We set aside Aug 7th for just shopping.

Switzerland is plain expensive. For a group of 3+ traveling by cab is definitely cheaper than travel by train. A 24 hour train ticket costs 8CHF. The automated ticket vending machine is a complex maze even for a tech savvy guy like me. That a ticket has to be validated in a machine after buying from a person at the counter is perplexing. Traveling on NJ transit I often wonder as to why we still have conductors on trains, an anachronism in the electronic age. Zurich is excellently networked with trams and buses. All public transport is ultra swanky, punctual to a second, very eco-friendly. The route is displayed on a LCD screen with the time to reach the stations displayed and its an accurate prediction. If it says 1 min to "Radiostudio" it is 1 min.

Food is very expensive in Zurich. A Jack Daniels burger at TGIF near my home is $8 the same burger at a TGI-Friday near Grand Central Station NY is $14. Zurich takes a NY price and multiplies it. Americans used to ordering off "dollar menu" at McD beware. Indian restaurants are in a class by themselves, any dinner at their restaurants would rip you off by $100 minimum for 2 people. I am talking regular janata Indian restaurants.

I inquired the hotel about shopping and as helpful ever they gave a nice brochure giving the store layout on Bahnhofstrasse the primary shopping street. One half of the street was supposedly affordable shopping the other half well if you can afford it congratulate yourself. My dad needed a pair of slippers badly and we were glad to find a....BATA. Yes Bata it is. So we bought a pair of slippers, pretty OK at 30CHF. The toy shop was cool but we could not find anything suitable to pack or bring over. That was a disappointment. However we found a good toy at the airport later, never seen such nice faux fur on toys in US. Our dress shopping was very unsuccessful. When you see a Tommy Hilfiger knitted T-shirt at 80CHF, after 50% discount what can you do but just keep it back. The same T-shirt costs $30 at a nearby factory outlet. Ag well in US we have factory outlet for LIndt chocolates too, where 'irregular shaped' chocolates are sold at disccount. I was very surprised to see the Tommy shop located close to Salvatore Ferragamo, Hugo Boss and Zegna. The latter 3 are uber luxury brands. Having been used to buying Boss shirts in Nordstrom during Men's half yearly sale at $50-70 I coud not fathom the prices there.

We stopped by a perfume shop. We saw the usual brands of Chanel, Bulgari etc. We got a ladies perfume of a brand not sold in US. I saw a piggy bank like bottle with a tap and inquired. Its a refil bottle with 1 liter perfume costing $3500. I found the idea of refilling a perfume to be unique. Make up sets from Shiseido were there. Shiseido factory is just 2 minutes from my home in NJ and they hold a mega annual sale at throwaway prices.

Finally we decided only one thing could be genuinely bought in Zurich. Chocolates. We spotted Sprungli. Sprungli is the producer of Lindt chocolates and is famous for chocolates and ice cream served at their cafe. The ice-cream was truly delicious. Lindt sells only a fraction of the flavors in US. The "luxemburgerlies" macaroons were just too good. We were advised by the cashier to eat them ASAP. They are delicate. Check out the Lindt history at . I bought some champagne filled chocolates and few other varieties.
By the way Swiss watches are certainly more expensive in Zurich than in NY.

Given the cost of living, standards of living I was curious about Switzerland's taxation. I thought it must be much higher than US, but its actually lower than US. By every economic criterion other than GDP Switzerland is a better place to be. But US remains the super power with a 12 trillion dollar economy. It may be as easy to start a business in Zurich as in NY but it is certainly easier to hire immigrants and access a much wider talent pool in NY than Zurich. Walking through NYC one can sense that it is a cauldron of ethnicities, Zurich is more homogenously caucasian. NYC, especially Times Square, throbs with life, its a city that never sleeps. Zurich goes to sleep at 8 PM. Well that's true of entire Europe including UK. Switzerland has a Germanic influence mostly, the Eastern part comprising Geneva is distinctly French. Military service is compulsory in Switzerland. They claim it is to defend their neutrality.

We finally wound up on Aug 8th. Zurich airport is sprawling and would put to shame JFK in NY. Terminal 5, the new terminal, at Heathrow and Zurich airport are ages ahead of any US airport.

When I flew out of Heathrow to US I chose Virgin Atlantic. I experienced first hand why Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic rails against British Airways being treated favorably since it is government owned. BA has monopoly over the multi-billion new terminal 5. Virgin Atlantic shares a terminal,3, that would make central station Madras look more organized.

As we boarded the flight from Zurich to Heathrow I saw an in-flight magazine with a cover story titled "Surviving the family vacation". I survived mine but hey its family after all.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Zurich 2: Hindi at Mt.Titlis

My rationale for choosing Zurich than Lucerne or Interlaken is because it was the most easily accessible by train from Paris. However from the outset the idea was to take some day tour to Alps region. The best one to see is Jungfraujoch but its a 12 hour trip, with a kid it was impossible. The next choice was to go to Mt.Titlis. Its a 8 hour trip from Zurich. The group tours, by bus, depart from Sihlquai near the main train station. Our bus tour was to include a stop in the famously picturesque city of Lucerne en route to Titlis. Only when I reached the departure point did I see another tour operator going straight to Titlis, ah well one can only do so much from so far. I shall tell later as to why that would have been a better choice.

It's an hour and half drive to Lucerne from Zurich. The route reminded me a lot about Kodai. Ooty is ugly while Kodai is cleaner, at least in 90's. The Blue ridge skyway trail in the Smoky mountain bordering Tennessee and N.Carolina is famous for its scenic trail but it was a huge disappointment for me, typical American marketing hype. This drive though was really beautiful.

Once we reached the city the tour guide pointed out the famous Chapel Bridge decked with flowers. Window sills in homes were usually decked with flower pots. Lucerne is really exotically beautiful, one has to really experience it. We stopped for 40 minutes, supposedly to eat and shop. But time was not sufficient for neither activity. The bus actually stopped in an upscale shopping area that had lakeside restuarants. I don't know if they get some commission, I bet they do. The guide told us to be punctual because any delays at Lucerne would shorten the time at Titlis. One raucous family promptly disregarded it and delayed the bus for 15 minutes. We proceeded further to a rest area over looking Lucerne lake. Here we dropped off those going to Mt.Pilatus, also part of lower Alps, no snow. Another 20 minutes goes by. By now I regretted not going directly to Titlis or doing it on my own like I did at Versailles.

From Lucerne it was another hour's drive to Engelberg from where we ascended to Titlis via multi-stage cable cars. Our guide cautioned us that the cable car would stop at a junction but not to get off since we were to go to the very top. At the junction he warned about I was surprised to see a notice in Hindi saying "Do not get out please sit to to go Titlis". The final leg of the journey was the much advertised "rotair - 360 deg rotating cable car ride". We disembarked from our six seater car and lned up for Rotair. Suddenly a bottleneck. Guess what, a large family stood at the entrance for a picture, the one who took the picture took his sweet time. Indians. The Rotair ride was cool. The floor rotates 360 deg giving a good view of the mountainous range.

Having seen Hindi on the way up I must have expected Indian food at the restaurant. My parents were happy to see rice and curry served atop Titlis. The climate was balmy, our jackets lugged from NJ were a bother. A small chair ride called "Ice Flyer" took us atop a small hilly stretch. A little scary when there is a kid who has to sit to without a seat belt. I found the safety standards a tad lax compared to US. I guess not much of suing or ambulance chasing trial lawyers in Switzerland. I'd rather do snow tubing in Pennsylvania than at Titlis. The snow capped mountains were a sight to see. Jungfrau or Rigi would be more scenic. In fact Rigi is a popular ski resort.

Our trip down to Engelberg had a surpise. A sort of dhaaba was set up selling idli/vadai etc. For once the prices were OK. But we had to argue that vadai needs chutney not another bhajji. The masala chai was great.

That evening we went in search of Indian food for my mom. We went to that "Kerala" restaurant. They had only dinner buffet at 39CHF (almost 38 USD) per head. My head spinned a Indian buffet in US costs $15 max. At $38 per person for 3 adults it was too expensive. We got out. Not wanting to disappoint my mom I inquired 2 Indians standing at the station if there was another restaurant. Thanks to a Sri Lankan tamilian we found aSouth Indian restaurant close by. I really had to budget out and plan the dinner at a Tamil restaurant!!! Idli was 25CHF, Masala dosai 18CHF, Thali meals 30CHF, note Swiss Franc CHF was almost on parity with USD so each price is almost the same in USD. If I can get chicken pizza for 15CHF why not chicken curry too. Its the same bloody question as in US. Indian hoteliers think they are cooking something very exotic with ingredients rare to get and with chefs rare to procure. Neither are true. If an Italian can give affordable pizza in Switzerland why not Indian? In both Indian restaurants I was not surprised to see a single Indian eating, only whites who probably thought they are paying for ethnic cuisine. Swiss restaurants are expensive to eat and Indians true to form take it several notches higher.

The only jarring experience was at an Italian restaurant. We ordered 2 medium sized pizzas for 4 adults like we always do at PIzza Hut or any pizzeria. The server refused to give additional plates and in fact snatched the appetiser plate Preeth already had. Well if he can show his Swiss temper I had to show my American temper. We practically took the pizzas on napkins and ate it off cleanly. I later inquired and found that it is indeed true that no additional plates are given. Charging for water, no extra plates...boy the Europeans are truly snobbish. God bless TGI Friday next to my home which gives free water, any number of plates and crayons with paper to draw for kids, oh the kids get a kiddie cup with lid lest they spill.

The next day after shopping we did go back to "Kerala", since we decided to forego a trip a Lucerne I thought I have monetary leeway to do this. It was horribly overpriced but the food was just fantastic. The biryani was just out of the world. We ordered a second helping. The bill was a whopping 200CHF but at least we ate well.

About Zurich transport, shopping, Swiss economy in the next blog.

Zurich:Very expensive and very beautiful.

On Aug 5th we left Paris for Zurich aboard TGV. A very comfortable 5 hour ride to Zurich. Only when we reached Basel did immigration officers get on board and asked for passports/visa. Having a US passport makes a difference. No questions asked. When we got off at Hauptbahnhof, Zurich's main station, just as at Paris, no immigration check in. Again we were stuck not able to take a trolley just because we lacked 2CHF in coins. Have they not heard of credit cards???

As a westerner we do take it for granted to find an "information booth" that is manned to answer questions. With their help we found our way to the taxi stand. Yet again the same problem of 5 passengers. A cabbie was polite enough to use his cell phone to call in a mini-van cab. Such mini-van cabs do not charge much more than a car. Off we went to Marriott at Max Bill Platz. We crossed by a drab looking Indian restaurant called "Kerala" on our way, our cabbie said it was close to the hotel we were staying.

After checking in at the hotel I inquired about booking a trip to Mt Titlis, part of Alps. The hotel receptionist helped us with the booking. It cost 140 CHF per person. Then off we went shopping at a mall opposite the hotel.

Coop is Zurich's grocery store. I was irritated that we could not get a shopping cart, again for lack of coins. At the grocery store next to my home we grab shopping carts at will and drop them off close to our car when we leave. Thanks to low-priced immigrant labor some guy would then collect all of them. No such thing in Switzerland. We grabbed a shopping basket instead, luckily being a basket they cannot latch them together like carts. Even at one look we could realise that the quality of food, the cartons, the packaging etc were a shade superior. Especially when it came to dairy products and fruits they were a cut above US grocery stores, well its Switzerland after all. The strawberries were the luscious best. We finished some quick grocery shopping picking up some lassi (yes lassi and it was much better than what I was used to in Madras and Tanjore), milk, fruits, bread, chocolates etc.

That mall had a "One franc store" akin to the dollar stores we see in US. It had the same pungent smell. I did not venture in.

A small pizzeria was our best introduction to how the Swiss love artistic settings. I had a wonderfully seasoned gnocchi served in nice polished wooden tray. Zurich was all about cleanliness. Even the small deli is clean and serving wares are pretty classy. That said when I came to know McD opens at 10 AM, no breakfast, I just wished for the American type. Just today morning I was at NYC McD and a Spanish speaking girl took my order for pancakes at 7:00 AM. I shall save more comparisons for later. When a McD server tells you "please take your seat, I shall bring the burger to your seat" and you get it 10 mins later you know you are in a different culture. This from McD that in US measures its serving time for drive-through in milli-seconds.

On Thursday, Aug 6th, we had "American Breakfast" at the hotel, the only difference between "American" and "Continental" is that "American" includes the hot omlettes, cereals etc. A kind of cereal made up like cole slaw was just delicious. Off we went to join the bus tour to Mt Titlis.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

French Interlude: Michael Jackson and Learning in English

I started typing out a blog for the Zurich part of our trip but decided to write some more on Paris and somethings I observed.

My professor once said that I am, like him, "an incorrigible bibliophile". Owing to my compressed schedule I could do no shopping in Paris nor could I really savor the city. I consoled myself with a visit to a "librairie" (you guessed it, its French for 'book store', isn't English a great language?) at Gare de Est while waiting for the train to Zurich.

I was really surprised to see Michael Jackson related books and CD's. My surprise was foremost about the fact that the supposedly artsy snotty French would partake in the commercial benefits of selling Michael Jackson memorabilia. Or maybe the French truly love the self-styled King of Pop. What we think of the French based on media filters maybe as much true as what they think of America thanks to "Le Monde". Also contrary to what I heard I was never snubbed for asking in English, probably my Indian skin does not elicit the same derision as a white American might elicit if he spoke in English.

The Blu-ray DVD section had almost exclusively Hollywood movies, in French though. Not sure of the quality of dubbing. Hollywood is pretty pervasive in Paris (I dare not say entire France, don't know about that). Seeing the cinema posters on walls I was reminded of Mount Road in Madras, never seen the likes of it in US.

By hindsight it is surprising there is no famous museum for the French Revolution. The Smithsonian museum of history in Washington DC does justice to the American revolution. South Carolina and Virginia have a smattering of museums dedicated to Civil War. Also given the failure of French revolution I do not understand why, in popular imagination, it is more revered than the American one. The latter yielded a true republic, flawed yes, but a republic nevertheless. Even the Bastille is not a popular stop on the hop-on hop-off tours. Coming to think of it the world knows about French revolution through Dickens, an English writer, than through Carlyle. Who can forget the beginning of 'A tale of 2 cities', "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times". I studied it in my 7th grade as non-detailed text.

I saw Robert Ludlum books, Malcolm Gladwell's latest bestseller etc in French. It would be pertinent to point out that French bestsellers translated in English sell at bookstores in US. Its this traffic of ideas that is important. This is what is absent for vernacular languages in India. For a Tamilian with no knowledge of English or any other languages is totally bereft of such reading and wallows in linguistic philistinism.

I was much more surprised by several ads by a company that wanted to teach English to the French in order to get "Wall street type jobs". Who would have thought that French would love to learn English? Well money talks.

The state of Paris underground trains, the pathetic state of an arterial terminus, the stark poverty in the outskirts, the palpable racial tension were all sad blemishes in a beautiful city. I never understood why train doors have to be manually opened at a station. Also I found most places to be unfriendly to seniors/disabled people. US is clearly a leader in friendliness to the physically challenged.

2 days of lightning tourism is no justification to form any considered opinion of a great city or a country's culture but we nevertheless form opinions and do comparisons.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Paris Day 2: Versailles and Eiffel Tower

I wanted to visit either Chartres or Versailles outside Paris, those destinations are not popular with Indians. I balked at joining a group bus tours because I had a child and aging parents who cannot keep up with the tempo of such group tours. I called Marriott ahead and checked out the options. Also thanks to the net, West Windsor library and Barnes & Noble I could plan it out in detail complete with which trains to take etc. Most commentators on the net suggested buying tickets to the palace ahead of time because that alone would take several hours. Also thankfully I checked the musem timings. Internet is a great blessing. Travel agents are an anachronism these days for the motivated traveller. We were scheduled to be in Paris on Monday and Tuesday. Louvre is closed on Tuesdays and Versailles is closed on Mondays. So my agenda was cut out.

Versailles is easily accessible by train. From Carrefour Pleyel, near hotel, we took a train to 'Invalides', changed to another train towards 'Versailles Rive Gauche'. The palace is walkable distance from the station. Bus tours typically take you close to the gates. Travelling by train, for 5, saved 100 euros. More importantly no tour operator to keep pushing us. I shall not dwell on the history of Versailles which can be found at . If Windsor Castle was grand Versailles was opulent. Each room had benches to rest our feet. The biggest draw was the 'hall of mirrors'. A very large room with its walls lined with mirrors facing the sun with grand chandeliers, gilded statues is a sight to behold. Whether its Versailles or Windsor Castle or Eiffel tower photos are no substitute to savoring in person. Photos are impersonal. What you feel when you stand looking at such spectacular sights is irreplaceable. You take back a memory that is a confluence of your own personal tastes, idiosyncrasies etc. While its easy to be awed by such palaces we should bear in mind the squalid state of the populace and the wars behind such expenses. The 'Versailles treaty' which ended world War I was signed in the hall of mirrors, that treaty sowed the seeds for Hitler and World War II.

Napoleon's presence looms at Versailles. A wall long portrait capturing his coronation, crowning Josephine is popular. Napoleon crowned himself 'emperor' disgusting Beethoven who was about to dedicate his 3rd symphony tore out the title page and later called it 'Eroica'.

The gardens of Versailles spans several hundred acres dotted by rest areas and good speakers that play classical music. Better to hire a battery car if one wants to see the gardens in full. I just took a small stroll. Feeling hungry we stepped into a cafe on our way out. We had the best fruit tart and creme brulee. The yogurt was its creamy best, delicious. We then headed to the hotel for a much needed rest.

In the evening I, Preeth and Rowena went out to go to the top of Eiffel tower. I wanted to have dinner Paris style in a bistro. So off we went to Champs Elysees and found a bistro serving Italian cuisine. Pizzerias and Italian cuisine dominates Paris. After dinner we headed to Eiffel tower.

The queue at one of the pillars was short enough. Engraved on the Eiffel tower are names of Mathematicians and scientists. Nice to see science being honored. Many have seen photos of Eiffel but it is indeed an experience to such a geometrical structure. The cable cars, 2 storied, climbing on a curve inside the pillars counterweighed with massive pistons is amazing design. We went right up to the top. On a clear night it was fantastic. Having been on the top of Empire state building it was kind of anti climactic. We spent barely 10 mins atop the tower. Totally it took 2.5 hours but it looked like 5 hours thanks to the many queues we had to stand in.
I learnt an important lesson. Better book a hotel in the heart of the city. The money spent extra is worthwhile. Its better to stay, say near Champs Elysees. What we saved on the hotel room by staying on the outskirts I had to instead spend on transport, eating much expensive hotel breakfast to save time when we left early for Versailles. Food is expensive in Europe. Even water, tap water at that, is charged almost close to a glass of wine. But almost every place, non-Indian restaurants, use nice silver ware, coffee is served with a dark chocolate. Yet again Mc Donalds was pretty swanky and pricey. McD has a more ubiquitous presence than its competitors.
We did not stay long enough or venture outside Paris too much we could not really savor France. Paris city is truly fashionable and much cleaner than the slum lined way to St.Denis. English was more than enough to get along. It does not take a genius to figure out 'office de tourismus' is 'office of tourism'. People were pretty helpful. Cabbies do not cheat. I think, cabbies cheating, is a disease unique to Tamil Nadu, not even in Mumbai or Delhi its as bad. Anyone whom I inquired answered pretty easily in English. Not sure if that would be the case outside Paris city.
On August 5th we had to leave for Zurich by train from Paris. I missed many a sight in Paris. The Musee D' Orsay, Invalides (Napoleon's tomb), the Pantheon (houses Foucoult's Pendulum), Notre Dame inside, watch a show at Lido etc.
We left for Zurich about France's high speed TGV from Gare De Est. Gare De Est unlike Gare Du Nord was squeky clean. Though we were crossing from one country to another (Zurich) there was no immigration check. Pretty scary in a post 9/11 world. Unlike Eurostar food was not free aboard TGV. Having been used to styrofoam cups for coffee in US it was nice being served in designer quality dishes, nice solid clean spoons. The Europeans do love leisure and the US is, after all home to Dewey's Pragmatism. Au Revoir France.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Europe Vacation 2: Paris

We arrived in Paris on Aug 2nd evening 4 PM. I did not factor in the local time of Paris being an hour ahead of UK so we had to scramble at Gare du Nord to get out. Du Nord was very much like central station, Madras. As an Indian who has lived in US for 11 years my prism of reference was a juxtaposed frame including India (to lesser extent) and US (mostly). The vehicle trolleys were interlocked and required 2 euros to unlock. No credit card facility unlike US. A kind woman seeing us with a child lent 2 euros. I paid her $5, more than what was the rate but we needed the coins.

Trying to get a cab was more chaotic for 5 passengers. We finally decided to split up. Two cabbies, ours a woman, drove us to Marriott at St.Denis, just outside Paris city. The route was just ugly, imagine Renganathan Street, Madras and multiply it 100 times, take away even the little cleanliness on R.Street. It was Paris' seedy underbelly. The French disdain for Hollywood is well known but Hollywood reigns. I saw many a poster for movies. We checked into the hotel, freshened up and hired a cab for Eiffel tower. Being the first day I was not comfy with trains.

Seeing Eiffel tower was anti-climactic for my dad, Preeth felt elated. The area around Eiffel tower had souvenir vendors hawking ugly cheap replicas of Eiffel tower "3 for one Euro". Most vendors were Blacks, mostly from Morocco. France's colonisation of Northern Africa is a much bloody one. Even today France's colonial interests hold sway in Africa (that is why American's foam at their mouth when France lectures US). The hawkers were frequently chased by the cops, all white cops. Every now and then tens of these Afro-American hawkers would run helter skelter across the esplanade near the tower, the white cops would chase them grinning like cheshire cats. One cannot miss the racial element there. France recently had an outburst of racial violence. Unemployment amongst blacks is in double digits. Just last month Sarkozy stirred the hornets nest saying "burqas are not welcome in France". Sikhs had to fight to keep their turbans on. France 'prohibits' showing off the religion in order to be secular. Undoubtedly method like these are self defeating.

We were hungry and went to the nearest restaurant. It was pricey but exquisite. Service was polite. Europe is an extremely difficult place for vegetarians especially those who cannot take salads. Even for non-veggies if they abhor veal/pork/beef the options are minimal. I've heard about Europe restaurants charging for water. Its true. In many places its cheaper to buy wine or for a few cents more you can get wine. English is truly a world language. I've survived with it easily in Paris/Zurich. In fact if your vocabulary is good many words would sound familiar. Credit cards are always swiped at the table.

Having fed ourselves we headed back to the tower. We wanted to go to the top. The queues were prohibitively long. Then we chose to go on a cruise on Seine. It was full moon night as we sailed on Seine listening to "le Paris" sung with an Edith Piaf like renditiion and "oh Champs Elysees". All along the banks of Seine many small parks were there with romantic couples. Nothing untoward though. Just simple love.

On Aug 3rd we started out early and headed to Louvre. When we visited London in 2003 we felt so easy to decipher the subway maps, trace the junctions to find changing trains etc thanks to having lived near NYC and DC. The same was true for Paris. The stations were dilapidated rivalling NYC subways. The trains were clunky metal boxes, the doors had to be manually opened. Louvre has a station right underneath. We took the tickets and headed to the 'toilets' (not restrooms as in US). We had to pay 2 euros for each. It was the most posh toilet I would ever see. The toilet papers were being sold at 9 euros a roll, they were artistic, they even had sudoku puzzles on them. We are ok wih buying charmin toilet rolls from Sam club, 16 rolls for $11, wipes as well these fancy ones.

The agenda was to see Mona Lisa. Everyone cautioned us to head out there as early as possible. So off we went. Da Vinci is a great crowd puller, more so after the blockbuster novel & movie. There are signs everywhere pointing to Mona Lisa. The small picture is housed in a glass encasement embedded in a huge standalone wall. Crowds mill around it. Its funny to see people snapping away with cell phone cameras from 30 feet away at the most famous picture in the world. Not even the best SLR can duplicate the eye and here are these guy using a cell phone, well each person to their own. There are thousands of art works. Da Vinci reigns supreme. Close second is Raphael. A bit of art knowledge would help, knowledge of Christian literature would certainly help. David slaying Goliath, St Michael, Madonna and the child, Stations of the cross are popular themes.

The statues were mostly of Greek gods, Diana the hunter etc. I was surprised to find the statues of all males showing them off in un-circumcised state. Circumcision was an important Judaic ritual. Some art historian might explain. But the hall of statues was no place for a prude. Knowledge of human anatomy owed a lot to these artists.

The famous glass pyramid is loved by many and hated by purists as having spoiled the purity of Louvre. Louvre was constructed as a fortress first. We did not have much notes on how France acquired all these treasures, mostly by Italians. What Shakespeare is to Stratford, Da Vinci is to Louvre. Its amazing how these two personalities stride like colossus.

Given my very compressed schedule this entire trip is more to get a flavor of the cities than to soak in the culture etc. So we skipped Musee De Orsay that houses art from Van Gogh etc. After Louvre we headed out and got onto a hop-on-hop-off. The first stop was Notre Dame church.

The Notre Dame church is immortalised in liturature by Victor Hugo's classic "hunchback of Notre Dame". On screen Anthony Quinn played the repulsive looking hunchback Quasimodo who would rescue Phoebe and shout "sanctuary, sanctuary", the famous gargoyles atop the steeples. Its an imposing work of faith. Thanks to a baby we had to hurry to a restaurant, then came the ticklish issue of finding some restaurant that would serve some palatable veggie stuff for my mom. Culinary taste mismatch in a group during tours can really be a flash point, a lesson learnt from an earlier trip with friends.

The bus tour was interesting from another perspective. Street names were "voltaire", "anatole france", "Montaigne" etc. France honors its literary giants.

The "Place de la Concord" where the guillotine stood during the revolution is chilling. An obelisk stands today and it marks one end of the majestic mile+ long Champs Elysees, with the other end marked by "Arc de triumph". Hearing the commentator say "this was where Marie Antoinette was guillotined" I thought of Edmund Burke's lament "I thought one thousand scabbards must have leapt out of their scabbards to avenge even one look that threatened her with insult, the age of chivalry is dead". Wordsworth sang of the revolution as "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven". Unlike the American revolution, the French revoultion did not establish anything remotely democratic but only bequethed Napoleon, the Son of the revolution. Is it ironical then that Napoleon should construct an "arch of triumph" celebrating his military victories just opposite to where a queen was beheaded. Interestingly one railway line is named Robespierre after the most blood thirsty general of the revolution who himself was guillotined finally.

Champs Elysees is just like Rajpath, Pennsylvania Avenue in DC is a poor cousin of these two in imperiousness. Posh stores, typical parisian bistros, trees line the Elysees. When Paris was occupied in the War Nazis would take flag marches on this street to humiliate the French when finally America and Britain liberated Paris. Hitler's instructions was to burn Paris when his rump army retreated. He would ask "Is Paris burning". His general with the last remaining vestige of humanity in him refused to burn down worlds most beautiful city. Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins traced all this in "Is Paris Burning".

The trip to Louvre, Notre Dame visit, scurrying for restaurant, frayed tempers all tired us out and we headed for the hotel to cool down.

In the evening yet again I hunted for Indian restaurant since my mom was practically living on just soup and bread. We found one restaurant close to Notre Dame. Typical food, typical disappointments, typical frustrations. Interestingly the guy who served us was a Tamilian on a student visa. In our quick chat he expressed regret for not knowing Hindi enough. Mu.Kaa had crippled several generations with his linguistic chauvinism. We were seated near a window overlooing a very pictursque street lined with bistros. While I was eating undercooked, over priced, ill served Indian food, right outside my window people were sipping chardonnays on sitting on a rattan chair, tables with clean white linen, nice silver ware, ordering up nice pastas or desserts. Since we wanted to head out to Chateaux Versailles early next day we headed back to hotel after dinner. I was tad disappointed that we did not do little more sight seeing but then family was priority.

THe day I started dreaming up the Paris trip I was insistent on some day tour outside Paris, especially to Versailles. I shall stop for now. Versailles was the next day and I shall write about it and our trip to the top of Eiffel tower tomorrow.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Europe Vacation Part 1-- English at MacDonalds and Windsor Castle

After so much preparation for so long we arrived at Heathrow on August 1st. By a last minute arrangement Preeth's cousin who lives close by picked us up. I felt elated to enter UK with my US passport, no visa needed, no questions asked. This is my 2nd visit. Last time we had stopped en-route to India for 3 days. That time, 2003, we visited Bath, Stonehenge, Stratford, Oxford etc. This time I was just passing through. The agenda was to meet my parents and brother. Then proceed to Paris on Aug 2nd. We were put up at a very fine Marriott near Heathrow. The sing song British accent always impresses me. I was reminded of Henry Higgins singing "there are places were English completely disappears, well in America they have'nt used it for years".

After some freshening up we headed out. No jet lag though we really did not sleep. I had several books to read. After sparring with Jeyamohan (a literary pretender in Tamil) I picked up "Sophie's World" by Josteen Gaarder. JM had ranked it alongside my perennial favorite "Story of Philosophy". Gaarder's book is readable but its meant for probably high schoolers who need a "philosophy for dummies" kind of book. Will Durant remains a class of his own.

Preeth's cousin and her husband played excellent hosts. I always fret about people not going the "extra mile", they went two miles extra. We wanted to visit Legoland for Rowena's sake but since it was drizzling we headed to Windsor Castle, hear a Britisher pronounce "castle" and one would realise why English remains the 'queen's language'. The whole area was a quaint countryside fit enough for a picture post card. The nicely decorated shops, the grey sky, statue of the virgin queen, the floral arrangements on the window sills of the shops all conjured up just one word "picture post card". Parking was almost impossible the good hearted host stayed with the car in an hourly parking while we completed seeing the castle at his insistance despite my protestation to drop it.

Not being able to see Windsor Castle in 2003 was a sore point for me. Since time was on a premium we saw selective areas. We visited the Chapel first. It was ornate, simply ornate. Ofcourse the British pomposity manifested itself by prohibiting photos. If I can photograph Raphael, Da Vinci at Louvre why not the damn chapel (wait for my blog on Paris later). This had irritated me greatly in 2003 too. After that chapel visit we went to see Queen Mary's Doll House and the Staterooms. The Doll house was exquisite, it had dolls the queen had collected and a cut section replica of the palace.

The State Rooms is what took my breath away. Until seeing the Windsor Castle the only other palace I had seen was the Mysore Palace, which pales in comparison. I was surprised to find a bust of CHurchill in one room. I wondered why? Well after all he was the Empire's last defender. The most interesting room had artifacts of war. One whole wall is dedicated to spoils recovered from the wars with Tipu Sultan, including a gold tiger head, elaborate jackets, firearms etc. Tipu was the one who almost succeeded in uprooting the British. Well his success would only have meant French colonisation instead and the British were, by comparison, better at treating their colonies.

The castle itself is of sheer grandeur and is still used as residence for the queen. Each and every room speaks of pomposity, a sense of imposing grandeur. Each room shows that it was designed by people who appreciated the effect of theatrical display and who valued it. Even the ushers and palace officials were dressed pretty pompously, no slovenly uniforms.

The homes in nearby areas resembled the dilapidated homes around New York/Newark. In the name of maintaining tradition homes are kept with inefficient heating and cooling. One shudders at the environmental costs of such homes. But these same Europeans grumble about American consumerism and lack of environmental awareness. The streets were more like alleys. Crowded street parking makes them almost one-ways. Cars were ofcourse mostly compacts. Gas at almost $8 per gallon is killing.

The big surprise was MacD's. The ubiquitous golden arches, the grand M's stood almost everywhere. The menu was pretty much same with some variation. But the ambience was certainly much better than what I am used to in USA. The real nice thing was to hear "English" in MacD. In USA I've practically given up trying to find a English speaking McD/Burger King/Wendy's. I better learn spanish if I want to get what I need. For an Anglophile it was nice to see this in UK. The McD near my Marriott was more like Panera Bread, the cleaning lady was attired like an air-hostess. Well everything has its price the food was expensive than US.

In the evening we had a grand dinner at an Indian restuarant. Great food. Fat bill too. Like every Indian restaurant I got an irritatingly nonsensical reply for something i asked. The menu stated "papadams cost 1 GBP per head". We were served papadams without asking when I asked the waiter I was told "we are charging 1 GBP for each person hence the papadam". Basically its a cover charge and they give papadam for that. Only our guys can conjure up a cover charge, on top of gratuity, then give you something you did not ask for. Anyway we went to that restaurant to celebrate my dad's B'day and in their interest chose Indian cuisine.

The conversation churned around many topics. My brother had arranged a fund raiser for Sri Lankan Tamils, they donated to 'Doctors without Borders'. My brother, who has faced blatant racism in UK, nonchalantly called the US racist, this to a country that just elected a BLack president and in a week when Time magazine ran an article in right wing extremism in Europe. Some Sri Lankan Tamils refused to co-operate because they felt that functions like these lend a implicit acknowledgment that Prabakaran is indeed dead.

Preeth's relative lamented how lack of knowing Hindi impacts him even in UK. I totally agree to it. We both work as Unix Admins amongst Indian colleagues who converse in Hindi and quite often the cameraderie suffers due to this. This is reality though one could argue as to why the rest are not polite to converse in common language, English. One of my former bosses once quipped, while playing 50's & 60's Lata Mangeshkar songs, "Aravindan you do not know what you are missing". How I wish I could understand Pankaj Udhas or Jasjit. Recently I downloaded a Talat Mahmood song (Jalte Hai Jis ke liye) after listening to it in a Malayalam movie (Kayyoppu, starring Mammootty, Khushbu). Wow Talat Mahmood. I had a curiosity to download that Talat song since my boss's daughter a pianist once referred to him. I do have some knowledge of Hindi, wish I had learned more.

Next day we went to London St Pancras to board the Eurostar to Paris. Unlike flight checkins these train checkins were over in 20 mins. The only problem was they open boarding just 20 mins prior to departure so you have to scramble a bit. Eurostar was cool. Since we had First class tickets ($150, at the time of booking it was cheaper than 2nd class) we had really spacious seats. Food just kept coming including nice wine. All was served with good silver ware, no use and throw plastic spoons that would break even before it slices a chicken. They even had different glasses for different kind of drinks. Goblets for red wine, glasses for juice etc.

I chugged through Gaarder and was amazed at how much I remembered from Durant. Reading Gaarder assert that every question has one and only answer I was reminded of the philosophical chaos sowed by Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle and how it upturned Newtonian deterministic model. Sadly Gaarder's book does not even nod in that direction.

Within 2 hours were at Gare Du Nord in Paris. It was more like Central station Madras. The rest later in Paris blog.