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.

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