Vive la France!

There’s a certain romanticism synonymous to France- Paris in particular. I would watch Marion Cotillard talk about Paris in that Woody Allen movie and only wonder how I couldn’t identify with anything she said. With the excessive photographs of a myriad coloured sky behind the Eiffel Tower, my hatred towards baguettes balanced by my equally measured love for the idea of an espresso-at-the-street-corner and lavender from Provence, France seemed like a crochet of a few things familiar and those I’m not naturally drawn towards. I was reading this book called Glory Road the other day and was reminded of my time there.

With popular places for tourism in the world, it almost feels like you’ve already been there vicariously through your favourite travel blog/show. I believe that sometimes, there is an advantage to that. Borrowed memories push you to make your own better, and there are a few overlaps that words can describe. My mother would underscore that a week for Paris alone is just too less to experience any of it and I disagreed until I got there. Seeing the Eiffel Tower blink on a casual stroll at night, hearing ‘Viens sur le trampoline’ by a duo in a subway in a completely bizarre arrangement after thirteen years (my French teacher at Alliance Française used to sing it to us in class when I was a child) and stumbling upon the first edition of my favourite book at Shakespeare and Company were the first few moments I was sure I had to extend my time in Paris.

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I don’t know what it is. I was looking for a particular dessert shop (eternal search for real choux pastry would come to an end) and stumbled upon this gem of a store that had an excellent compilation featuring a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young live show that I’ve never heard before (The owner of a record store in Amsterdam told me about it but I didn’t end up buying it there). Following me, but ended up buying a rare recommended French Blues record instead. Apart from the little things, there are pockets of enormous inspiration everywhere you go. I love how the city is water-centric. Acitivities become water-centric, making it so ideal. Watching ripples on the Siene with vin dans la matineé , spending an afternoon by Canal Saint Martin because of a missed train, walking through a cemetery that is the least bit banal- everything seems like it’s part of a grand, beautiful Parisian plan.

I extended my trip by almost a whole week. I enjoyed staying at Montmartre more than the 7th arrondissement which is close to the major attractions, firstly because the Airbnb was way more comfortable than the hostel I tried and also because if Paris is a walking city, Montmartre is a walker’s dream. Quaint alleys, stairways that lead you to independent art markets and really great crepes while you’re walking are a deadly combination.

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You know some musicians are legendary. You grow up listening to them and see their sound evolve into something outstanding if you’re lucky. I watched Thom Yorke at the Pitchfork Music Festival the same night I watched Rhye, whose performance videos I watch everyday. Thom Yorke was someone I wanted to watch with company and as strange as it is, meetup.com worked for me. What are the odds of going to a music festival with an architect your age you spoke to only an hour ago online? Only in Paris.

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In Paris, it’s better to skip the metro and walk. Sing, walk, stop for a crepe/beer/ magic cup of espresso, read a book and walk on. I walked to the 12th arondissement from Cimetière du Père Lachaise with multiple stops to see an abandoned rail road I read about. 79 years since it last functioned, this rail road is now shrouded with overgrown weeds. You can see empty spray paint bottles strewn around and if you look down, even the iron rails have art on them. Three kids smoking marijuana was all I saw sadly, but this place has such potential to turn itself into an artists’ paradise, currently being used only by a certain few as an open canvas.

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To take a break from the city life I decided to go on a day trip. Here’s some advice: Skip your usual chateau visit, take a detour and visit Provins an hour from Paris. Charming medieval town with unique French food, unlike anywhere else in France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site- has castles, caves and a grand church, known primarily for it’s medieval champagne fairs. Stop by at Little Cafe on your way back. Warm, delightful, cosy with great coffee and a reinvented bruschetta recipe you won’t regret trying.

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Provins, France

As hard as it was to leave Paris, I got myself on a train to Nice. The smell of lavender and the blue sea reflecting the undeniable, very welcome sunshine for a tropical being and scaled down intimacy sum up Côte d’Azur. Nice, Èze and Menton were my destinations of choice. It helps that it wasn’t tourist season so I had to share the beach while the sun set  in Nice with two other people. I heard someone read out from a magazine that in France, cooking is an art form and is treated like a national sport. Niçoise seafood has flavours that I crave for every now and then accompanied by musicians playing on the streets long after dusk, complimenting the salt and a slight chill in the air. If only. Magnificent colours and too much beauty to take in in just a week. While I was on a hike in Èze, there was not a single cloud in the sky and the ocean was so blue-almost blurring the horizon. I love when the sun commands everything else to be a mere silhouette. There’s a quote from Glory Road that’s relevant here. He says, “Yes, sir, there are things to see and do on the French Riviera without spending money.”

 

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Part III of the series ‘Chasing Lights and Parallel Stories’.

 

 

Chasing Lights and other Parallel Stories

I was having a conversation with a friend about how music is so influential in everybody’s lives, more so in mine, to the point where I planned a sequential exit from my job and decided to start my own architecture firm because of one band. That’s almost trivializing the conclusion of my five years of architectural education and two years working at a firm in Bombay that helped me develop and figure out my unique design quotient. That being said, its almost strange to separate my love for the two because music and architecture cannot be seen as two very different entities in my life. Both stem out of passion, both involve human interaction without which they have no emotional value. Both are influenced by such varied ideas from the past and the future- history, psychology, science, culture or social contexts, which is why I probably have a liking towards both equally. Speaking of common ground, while reading an article about the history of recording studios and the evolution of sound recording, I learnt that people would use large rooms meant for public gatherings so they could play in their usual arrangement or form and record through a large acoustical horn. Eventually, spaces started catering to music production and mastering techniques became more sophisticated. Music changed (evolved is too linear to use here), and popular music changed genres as fast as every five years. I appreciate electronic music as much as I like listening to an acoustic guitar by the sea, but the craving I have to listen to ‘true sound’ and my preference of a simpler mastering process made me choose my research subject during my final year studying architecture.

Recording music is an art to create something eternal, like a building or technology or space- and to be able to attribute the quality of a record to the space it was recorded in is something I’d strive to achieve then. Music has varying depths and techniques with contrasting trebles and tones coming together to create a beautiful sound. This makes it challenging, and to have one sole space to record varied instruments was an impossible task. Designing efficient spaces to record the true sound of these individual instruments to achieve what could be the best reproduction was my aim. This would mean listening to old records, newer ones, understanding what I could about production techniques and even questioning some. I met A. R. Rahman’s chief sound engineer as part of my research process, who taught me the basics of production and made me understand the importance of material used for creating an efficient space. Form is never secondary, but the material used to bring that to life  would mean years of producing close to true sound each time. Aversion to these developments in material technology and going back to earlier forms for recording true sound is what set me back during my design process before this valuable interaction. Meeting people, discussing ideas even if they’re premature, experimenting with words while doing that lead you on to something you never thought of earlier. This reminds me of a discussion I had with a Landscape Architect in Akershus in Norway which was probably one of the highlights of my year. Relevance- whether limited by climate, culture or history is of prime importance. I casually spoke out loud  about how my experience with tropical architecture would set me back if I had to analyse Nordic architecture and my points would be invalid, considering my lack of local knowledge. But then I realised that good design is a response to a problem, issues created by situations everyday. How you hold a cup of tea determines the shape and handle of the cup. Problems sometimes governed by local issues couldn’t be addressed universally, but once your mind is trained to address or analyse a user-based issue in a certain way, the possibilities are endless. I was travelling for a while last month and at so many points during my time abroad, I would try and understand the local context of design form prevalent there, and this would lead me onto reading or learning about influences I would’ve overlooked otherwise. Maybe that made my experience richer.

In an earlier post I mentioned how rhythm, form, space and time define both music and architecture. Sometimes, they define travel too. “What’s your travel style?” A quick two day break to a new city might not be ideal for me. A slower rhythm with maybe varied forms of activity is what I aim for. There would be restaurants I must eat at and museums I definitely have to visit, but there’s also going to be the time when I find a spectacular record store on the way to that restaurant, spend too much time there and realise the lunch session at that restaurant ended an hour ago. It is then that I discover a quaint eatery, have the best grilled fish, followed by an espresso and sit around reading the first edition of my treasured ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ that I scored at a bookstore in Paris. The space and time will always be perfect.

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The trail

It’s humbling to see and experience things of such great scale, and when it’s a part of the built environment, I still feel old Indian architecture’s probably up there. There was rarely a time when I walked into a building and felt taken aback by the sheer scale of it. Intricacy, technology and technique- is something that was obviously incomparable during my time there. Whether it’s modern architecture’s structural wonders I saw in a Renzo Piano building or the buttresses in Notre Dame, techniques that rose because of requirement, or a response to an architectural problem- stayed and evolved over centuries. Walkable cities are Europe’s biggest strength and things you don’t see when you take a metro to the next stop, you experience on the streets. It was sort of magical- I saw three boys and a girl reharsing for their school play audition on a street in Republique and the boy said proudly, “You know I’m the only one in my class who could choose which part of the choir I wanted to be in?” and then for a full fifteen minutes sang the soprano, alto, tenor and bass vocal parts of a French song. He was 12. Humbling experience, one out of so many.

I made the plan for my trip based on the tour date of Dave Matthews Band live in London. What followed was multiple checks on tour dates of other bands and musicians I love and a close watch on the Northern Lights activity in October. I would spend a good part of my day reading articles and statistics on the activity and phenomenon and how to increase my chances of seeing them and where to go to do that. I zeroed in on Tromso because Norway has a landscape that’s hard to experience anywhere else in the world. The fjords and the Norwegian sea seemed so different from anything my tropical being is used to. The food, culture and Arctic history seemed too interesting to not explore, making the diversion to Scandinavia well worth it. I convinced myself that Tromso was an apt choice and Abisko in Sweden or Iceland should be done another time.

Food and music are memories, so every place I went would mean taking suggestions to eat the best local food as much as I can (I wouldn’t get too adventurous with sea food sometimes so I lost out) and listen to music at renowned local venues. I was lucky enough to do that because some bands that I liked and are relatively not as popular played in some beautiful venues, large and small. Also, here’s the thing about a big city. There could never be just one London or Paris. After this trip, my London could very well be different from yours.

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Of Horizons and Home

Comparison makes you quantify an experience. Happy, happier, ecstatic. I don’t like that too much. Being here makes me feel the happiest I could be, no doubt, but it would be hard to pick a superlative to describe what being in Goa feels like to me. The time I lived there, all the times I visit, it feels the same. Floating on. I don’t know it all. It’s a tiny state you think, but it’s so rich geographically, you’ll need much more than a short trip to even skim over the place. I keep going back, solo or with friends/ family, each time to a different part, unless I long for the same. It’s best to get past the sun, sand and sea cliche, though I feel like I was born to walk on granular comfort. These are my most favourite- restaurants, places to stay and the best views, in no particular order.

1. A monsoon afternoon at Reis Magos Fort

My country has a piece of history on every street, so it isn’t surprising for another fort to pop up, restored and glorious. You can spend half a day here. There’s not much ground to cover, but the 15th Century structure, the moss covered laterite and listening to the stories of the prisoners who escaped will make you want to sit in the galleries and admire the beautiful panorama. I’ve had too many good memories here, from the opening after restoration to spending the best time with my parents and closest friends. If you like watching the sun go down over the limitless ocean not far away from the center of Goa, here is best.

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2. Butterfly Beach

A little piece of my idea of paradise. Sit on a rock that seems like it’s the middle of the ocean, watch dolphins or sunbathe on glittery white sand, it’s a happy time. You can hike for approximately an hour from Agonda beach or take a boat from Palolem to get to this tiny beach. The slope isn’t gradual and the tide is rougher than usual here, so it’s better to be a confident swimmer if you want to swim in the clear water. The best time to be here is post monsoon, in October for the perfect contrast of the blue sea and lush forest behind.

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3. Enjoy serenity at Avanilaya, Aldona

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Think quiet- quiet enough to hear birds chirp and the river flow and warm tropical earthen colours. Avanilaya is everything I love about Goa in a home. People definitely make the place and Avanilaya has the most hospitable staff. Charmaine is the most helpful manager and Milagre, the chef is extremely talented and made the food effortlessly gourmet. The place is the perfect scale complimented by a great material palette. Well designed rooms with a central courtyard and partially covered dining made for my favourite kind of luxury. It’s not an impersonal hotel, but a private abode. I love a good bathroom and the one in my room was perfect with an in situ bathtub and a door on the same axis to the gorgeous coconut grove right outside. The sweet smell of benzoin complimented the lush green Goan monsoon, leaving my family and me with memories to treasure.

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4. My favourite pizza in the country at Magic Italy, Palolem

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Gorgeous. You can pick which vegetables or meat go on your pizza. The crust is perfect. Good ‘foldable’ authentic pizza that goes best with the amazing fresh fruit cocktails they serve.

5. Breakfast at Cafe Inn, Palolem

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Mushroom, cheese and tomato omelette with frsh sesame buns, hummus, pickled beetroot, cajun spiced potatoes, spinach, olive eggplant, carrot and cabbage salad and homemade marmalade. On the side is hazelnut cold coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. All top class. Definitely going back, every time.

6. Playing with crabs at Vagator

I like rocky beaches a lot. They have so much character because I’ve witnessed some incredible reflections of rays off the rocks, sat with my friends midst crashing waves, tiny white crabs all over the place and experienced one of the most incredible sunsets. Head to Bean Me Up or German Bakery in Anjuna after, for the best comfort food.

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7. Serradura at Maracas, Porvorim

This has to be my favourite dessert in the world. It’s simple crumbled biscuit with fresh cream and frozen. Typically Goan Portugese, the chefs at Maracas make this the best. There’s nowhere in Bombay I can find this, which makes my craving for it much worse. The mains and appetizers are to die for as well. With the cutest decor and a warm owner ready to make the most apt suggestions, this is one place I’d travel 400km for to satisfy any food craving I have.

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8. Watch a foreign film at Sunaparanta, Altinho, Panjim

It’s just one of those things. Still, cold November evening, the perfect amphitheatre and lovely cinema. They also have great photography and art exhibitions on through the year and the cafe, which is small and quaint has amazing tarts and pastries.

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9. Stay at Olaulim Backyards, Pomburpa

Truly a labour of love. A ride to get there through the Goan countryside lined with tall coconut trees by the Mapusa river and the narrow by lanes of Ucassaim and Olaulim lead you to the home of Savio and Prikko, who are the warmest people I’ve met. It’s home to three dogs, two goats Billy and Lily, a donkey Mantra and Richard Parker, the cat apart from their two kids who I unfortunately couldn’t spend much time with because they had school the next day. Time stands still here. It’s the ideal marriage between the wild landscape and the four cottages made with natural material- rammed earth, coconut leaves. The Mapusa river flowing through the property adds to the peaceful undercurrent. The dewy mist in the morning, kayaking on water watching it reflect deeper shades of orange at sunset- it’s perfect. Home-made food with organic fresh fruit grown right there served to you reminded me of my mother. You can cycle and discover run down churches, canoe, go fishing or lie down with a book or stare at swaying palm leaves while the sounds of free flowing water makes it a beautiful, tranquil experience. Mon repos for sure.

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10. Coffee at Coffee Haven, Anjuna

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11. Tilari Dam, Chandgad

Okay, not really Goa, but a 70km drive/ride from Panjim. I stumbled upon this with a friend on a rainy, August Sunday, but easily one of the best bike rides ever. It’s illegal to take your bike up onto the dam, but heck, 70km isn’t a small distance for you to sacrifice a view based on a loose rule. Go here if you have additional time on your holiday to Goa and you’re not in the mood for a beach and cocktails, but a drive/ride through bumpy roads and hills to lead you to the best surprise. It’s always better to not be aware of what awaits and I’m glad it was that for me.

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Definitely a few more that almost made it to this list. There’s so much beauty, peace, love and food this region of the country has to offer, some indescribable, but it’s best discovering some on your own, one at a time, for a wonderful, underived experience.

Solo Female Traveller

It’s strange. I took my first flight alone to a foreign land at 14, but when I took a bus to a city 500 km. away in my own country, my family panicked and worried about variables that are really out of anybody’s control- What if the bus topples? What if the man sitting beside you is indecent? What if the bus breaks down at midnight? Well, what if? I think for approximately four seconds and decide it’s too much of a loop to get into. Put my earphones back on and stare out the window.

I graduated in April last year and before I started my first job, I decided to take a trip by myself to an unfamiliar place. Regular exercises like visiting forums online, typing in keywords- “female+solo+traveller+india+safe” and beautiful image searches followed, and I zeroed in on Sikkim. Tsomgo Lake, Nathula Pass, all seemed unreal in the photographs. I had to make it to the Chinese border. My trip extended beyond Sikkim and my itinerary changed- I met with an old friend in Shillong and stayed at an army cantonment with another, a little further away from there. Quaint little town you will want to go back to for the people, food and the local beer.

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Insanely talented, the most humble, makers of the best momos and oblivious to all negatives is what I inferred of the people I met there. Driving through the most scenic routes through the clouds, jamming at 6200 ft. above sea level and looking across the border into Bangladesh- it kept getting better. The living root bridge was however, the highlight. Step left and across, walking on roots of a tree? Strength and resilience.

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If it starts with a sunset, it has got to end with one.

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My first train ride alone. Girl. Overnight. Sounds worse in your head, sounded like an adventure to me. But frankly, it was prosaic. No better way to describe it. Travelling on a shoestring budget exposes you to better things than otherwise. I shared a cab ride to Gangtok from Jalpaiguri (the closest railway station) with 5 construction workers from Calcutta. It’s on a first come-first serve basis so you don’t get to pick who you travel with unless you book a cab all for yourself. The clashes we had in our conversation with the horribly different Hindi accents was definitely one for the books.

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NH 31A. Cheese maggi? Never tasted better.

Gangtok- fresh black mushrooms, the best blues musicians, the promenade with the view of the hills straight ahead and cute notes on the walkway. Seriously, step forward, look down, read and smile, look up and you have the best view of the Himalayas. Being able to watch the Kanchenjunga turn orange at dawn from my hotel room was the biggest add on.

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ImageNo trip to Sikkim is complete without smiling monks, swivelling roads, kinema and raksi– locally made rice beer which is mild and goes best with a great book and a view you wouldn’t trade for more dumplings.

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A meal at 9’ine, a restaurant featured by Ian Wright was inevitable considering my love for food. Local cuisine is the best, anywhere you travel. Made with love, of course. So good.

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My trip to Nathula Pass and the Chinese border was due and I was discussing it with the restaurant owner, who gave me a travel agent’s number. The next day, I went to the common cab area (50 tourist cabs get permission to go up to the border for security reasons) and was well on my way with two couples and some students from Assam. The couples from Amritsar and Lucknow asked me if I ran away from home while passing on the fifth pack of chips behind. (Couldn’t call shotgun because well, “ladki toh aage nahi na”) I remember a Choir of Young Believers song playing and I looked out of my window. No road. Straight drop. Long, long drive up and probably the most introspective I’ve been in my life. I made it. Teary eyed and all worth it. Tsomgo Lake, the Chinese border and Baba Mandir which is a faith temple based on a true story of a ghost soldier looking after the Indian border and the jawans there. “Jo chahe milega agar wahan pe dua maange” was what our cab driver told me.

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That’s it. I was leaving for home the next day with those stills etched in my memory for a long long time to come. There are always the pictures anyhow. It started to rain. The drive back seemed different with the half smile and side glance of the Punjabi woman turning into a proper one that seemed devoid of a negative meaning. The rain got heavier but I enjoyed seeing the canvas in shades of grey and blue. 25 kilometres from Gangtok and our cab was stopped by army men. I figured it was the regular en route checking and notched the volume one up to avoid listening to everything around me. An hour passed and it got much darker. “Aaj toh impossible hai vaapas jaana. Two landslides and they can only clear it by morning. It’s raining too hard. We have to spend the night here.” “Where?” “In the cab. No army camps close by anywhere” No network and the same “poor girl” look from the aunties in my cab. I definitely had to get back the same day because I had a flight from Bagdogra back home the next. It would be too much explaining to do if I hadn’t been able to text my family before midnight that I’m safe.

After arguing with the people in my cab about how it’s impossible that ten of us stay in the car freezing all night and paying our driver a few extra thousand, I finally unplugged my earphones and got myself prepared for the trip of my life. I had to take the route all the way up to the border, cross multiple frozen lakes and 7 hours later, crawl into bed. Easy. The Guru Granth Saheb(the holy book of the Sikhs) playing on loud on my co-passenger’s phone didn’t help calm the situation. Dark roads, passing through waterfalls and moonlight on the snow capped peaks. It was in my destiny. I wouldn’t care if it was the last journey I took, but the full moon that night almost made it symbolic. Tsomgo Lake had never looked so beautiful in any of the photos I had seen. The rain had it being selectively visible and I had to control blinking too much because I was afraid I would miss the most beautiful frame. I was the last one to get dropped to my hotel but the first thing our driver told me when it was just us was “You’ll get home and tell your family about this wonderful journey. I’m going to do that too.” I smiled in agreement because I knew it was a life changing one.