New Wanderings. Castles And Cathedrals. Strasbourg 3.


And a bit of Deutschland.

It is kind of weird I started to write this while on my trip to India in April because the obsessive compulsive kind of person that I am, it was necessary to finish stories and impressions from my trip to Strasbourg first. Then I was meant to talk about my India trip but by the time I’ve completed this post I have also been to Chile and Bolivia. Strasbourg is like, so last year. :-)

Alsace is full of medieval castles and Gothic cathedrals. The Strasbourg cathedral is a case in point. The first time I saw it, bang in the middle of the town square, dark, imposing, intimidating, sharp angles and jutting bits, I was not impressed. I mean as a structure itself, it is quite an achievement. Must have taken a lot of labour and time to complete it. The fear of God perhaps being the biggest driver. Who wants to face the wrath of the Almighty, and then the monks/clergy/whatever the church dwelling types are called. But as a religious building it is unwelcoming. Of course I wandered through as did so many tourists. The stained glass windows are quite amazing, so is the imagery, tea lights and candles adding to the atmosphere.  I climbed to the top of the spires, got a super view of Strasbourg. But imposing does not mean invitational and inclusive. I don’t have a single photo of the cathedral. They disappeared from my memory card; some sort of conspiracy of the universe. I can’t prove what I said, this ugly cathedral that is the main attraction in town.

My friend S and her friend took me on the Route des Vin D’Alsace. Little villages, medieval castles, an interesting fairyland Christmas shop, vineyards, poppies growing wild, cherry orchards, liberty monuments, the French countryside in the summer.

My trip to Alsase was memorable. I loved Strasbourg, loved the Black Forest, loved Baden Baden. S and her parents were such lovely hosts. I will go again. To Strasbourg.

Check out my photos here

The French Approach to “Anti-Racism” — Pretty Words and Magical Thinking


drsapna:

This is just me procrastinating some more and avoiding completing my travel stories from my trip to Strasbourg last year (this time last year I was house-sitting, cat-sitting, cruising around through Alsace with the mad Alsatian.) I have been to India and back and that is another post but being the OCD person I am, I have to finish telling my stories according to the timeline. Non-linearity is for my fiction. So I came across this post which I had to reblog. Just this afternoon I had a discussion (more like me putting across my points vehemently) about increasing the refugee quota to New Zealand. My argument being that I am tired of white bleeding hearts who want to save lives but don’t have a plan to support refugees once they are here. Resettlement is not integration, where are the resources, what about the racism, health, jobs, education etc. All on Twitter. The ‘pretty words and magical thinking’ in this title made me want to read it and I was transported to France, the people of colour I saw, who were so visible yet not included in mainstream discourses…I have mentioned this before… Anyway, this is an interesting piece.

Originally posted on Aware of Awareness:

I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.

As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had…

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New Wanderings. Musée et musing, sort of. Strasbourg-2


I love museums. To go to a new city means to visit at least one museum there. Strasbourg has so many museums like every city in Europe.

I took the tram to Museé d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

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I can live in a museum. Nah actually I can live in a library ;-) I would be dead and preserved if I lived in a museum eh. :-D The Louvre can tire you, there is so much to see and absorb but this museum in Strasbourg is compact and just right.

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Then I discovered Gustave Doré. This here is one of his most famous paintings-Le Christ quittant le prétoire.

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He illustrated Danté’s Inferno, he was cartoonist and sculptor as well. He was modern and contemporary and a pioneer whose influence is especially obvious on almost all graphic novels I have read until now.

There is a reason why I love museums. Because I learn new things all the time. How does Doré’s work affect my life? I now I have a reference for the ‘comics and cartoons’ I see AND work I look at in creative moments.

Next time I am in Strasbourg I will visit this museum again.

New Wanderings. Strasbourg-1


I must have told this story so many times, once more does not matter.

When I went to Europe in 2009, I mixed my Schengen visa dates (I had an Indian passport) so I had to cancel the Strasbourg leg. I don’t know why I chose to go to Strasbourg that time. It just seemed like an attractive city that no one I knew had travelled to or had even heard about. Which is strange because the European Parliament, the International Institute of Human Rights, Arté and the University Of Strasbourg are some of the institutions in this city. I was gutted I could not visit but let it go. I had been to Europe, my very own OE, and we all make planning mistakes. (Ha, wait till I write again about how I missed my flight back to NZ from Berlin because I forgot the date :-))

There I was, in Strasbourg. Through the last week of May and the first week of June 2014.

We drove from Surbourg into Strasbourg. We were flat and cat sitting.

We stayed for three days then moved to another part of town, again, flat sitting. This time for S’s cousin and her partner.

Moving gear at night, searching for a place to park, I almost did not notice the three young sex workers at the entrance of the building. Very young and one very pregnant, all of African origin. Before that, as we stopped at a set of lights, there stood a beautiful, slender woman. Only in her shirt it seemed. I looked closer. Was this a new French fashion? No she wore nude stockings under her shirt, appearing nonchalant on the street. Seeking business. My middle class bleeding heart cannot fathom what compels a woman to be in this industry. A very difficult life with no light, no love, and … I can imagine as I wish but it is not so simple is it?

The third time we moved to flat sit was to Gershteim, a village an hour by bus from Strasbourg. I thought the flat was ultra modern, S just laughed. She did not think so. And although the view was not great it was peaceful and quiet, not far from Strasbourg, with a good bus connection. Gershteim was lovely. 

So although I was a tourist I got to see Strasbourg from the inside which I would have never managed if I’d visited in 2009. I loved wandering the streets, I cycled, very afraid to crash into a person or car, I almost walked into a tram forgetting that in Europe they drive on the other side of the road, I really liked Strasbourg. I could live there. I see myself working with the Institute Of Human Rights with relation to refugee health/medicine, and telling stories for Arté.

 

New Wanderings. Part 6. Alsace.


Alsatians are from Alsace. And no I am not talking about dogs but a French-German human subtype from a region that was in Germany, then France, then Germany and finally in France at the conclusion of WWII. My friend S is a native of the Alsace region. Her grandfather cared for the forest on the French side bordering the Rhine. He even planted trees there. S told me stories of her ancestors who grew up speaking German then had to learn French when Alsace became part of France and then their children who had to learn German when it was taken over by Das Vaterland. So on and so forth. But they all spoke Alsatian, the language and so does S. Her parents live on a farm in a village and they were curious to meet me, They had never seen an Indian in real life before! So many questions they had. The dot on the forehead, poverty, dirt, chaos, food, Bollywood film songs…I was exotic, from another world, and S getting more and more embarrassed of her parents. :-) Then they took me out for lunch. Real French local food in a restaurant in a neighbouring village.

Bouchées à la reine

Monsieur M drove me to see oil in the middle of the French forest. Oil in France! There used to be a budding oil industry in France. What would have happened if it had burgeoned and France became an oil supplier for the rest of the world? Language barriers meant I could have have proper discourse with Monsieur M but it did make me wonder. Oil producing countries have a ‘special’ place in our world. Whether as bullies or cultural and religiously rigid. Or just as hotbeds of conflict. Maybe France would have wielded more imperial power?

The little villages in the region were so interesting.

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Alsace pottery is a speciality so of course I went into the local studios and bought myself souvenirs.

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If I were to compare the rural Alsace region to say, Samoa, then the disparity, the idea of rural idyll and subsistence within are so vastly apart that the inequality could not be imaginable to anyone in Alsace. France tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific not so long ago. I mentioned the Rainbow Warrior only once, no one knew anything about it. That world does not exist for the French, for most Europeans. Except in an exotic sense perhaps.

I travelled a lot through the Alsace region, through wine country, wandering through medieval castles, eating organic local food, being a tourist but with an inside view. My main hub though was Strasbourg and one of the museums I visited was the Alsace museum.

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New Wanderings. Part 5. Baden Baden


What it is called when, at almost 10.30 pm you are somewhere along the Western German border, driving around in a rickety car, peering through the windows at (and admiring) the German architecture but you really don’t know where you are because your stubborn friend does not possess a smart phone, refuses to use a GPS but refers to a hand drawn map that is mainly squiggles? It is called an adventure! Like being in a dream from which you cannot get out because it is not a dream. So there we were, creeping along the streets in ‘rural’ Germany wondering if we had reached Baden Baden, searching for an abbey that was to be our abode for the weekend. We almost went towards the Black Forest, then back again because we could not find the Lichtentaller Allee wherein was the Lichtental Abbey. It was almost midnight when we scrambled for the key in the cubbyhole outside the massive gates and finally found our room.

Baden Baden is famous for its spas. British royals would go there during dreary English winters to bathe in the hot water pools and enjoy the atmosphere. Feeling much like that, we decided to go to the oldest spa in town. The Freidrichsbad is tucked away in a corner and one cannot imagine the grandeur within from the external Neo-Classical structure. These baths are supposed to be 300 years old and, in keeping with glorious German tradition, one can enjoy the various hot pools only in the altogether. There are separate areas for men and women and there are spaces for both. The main pool in the centre of the building, as if from the Arabian Nights perhaps, is where, if you are brave, you can dip in the warm waters, hoping not to catch a glimpse of male bits. For all my bravado I chose the female only bathing areas and then, when I went into the central pool I averted my eyes from the few masculine dangling parts hanging around. (EEK!) Although I must declare that it is on my bucket list to swim naked in the river Spree during a Berlin winter. Freidrichsbad is an amazingly luxurious experience that is seemingly unchanged since it started three centuries ago, and that plebeians can also enjoy.

These days it is the oligarchs and the not-as-rich Russians who apparently own half the town. My friend could spot the Roossies from afar even when they spoke fluent German. There are signs of Russian favoured consumption almost everywhere. Have a look at these pictures, there is nothing more to say. And also listen to S’s running commentary in the background as I try to film a video display in the shop window. :-)

The unpopularity of Russians in Europe is historical. I have not been able to figure it out and since the only Russian I know is a sweet, mad woman who is a wanderer like me there is not much of a sample to extrapolate from a reason why.

On our last day we went for a hike up to Badener Hohe, the highest peak in that area in Schwarzwald, the Black Forest. Every tree in every forest has its own energy that gives out a collective aura that, if you let it (and you should let it) engulf you. Schwarzwald has a unique force. Inviting and calming, with centuries of history and evolution oozing from every stone and leaf. It was surreal. In den Schwarzwald zu Fuss und I hugged a tree and two. ‘Coz I love forests.

(You can see more photos on my Flickr stream.)

 

 

New Wanderings. Part 4. Crossing Borders And A Vegan Dinner


Entzheim Airport, even though it is an international airport, is a one shack affair compared to Schiphol. My friend S was waiting for me and we were both pinching ourselves, like, did we not just have a long conversation on the phone about me booking my next holiday to France? And I am here, I am bloody here! :-)

It was almost 6 pm. Her rickety car’s left side view mirror was missing and we were on the highway. First stop was a vegan restaurant where she had booked us a table for a meal cooked by Timo Franke. I’d never had a vegan meal before so I was curious. But more on that later. We were on the highway, one minute in France and nek minnit on the autobahn im Deutschland across the Rhine. The mountains of the Black Forest misting over as the sun set. It was surreal. As dusk fell we drove through German villages chocker with mansions and Mercedes. The last time I was in Europe the recession was just setting in but maybe these villagers always lived like that? The restaurant was in the middle of a paddock; ponies cantering about; pollen floating in the twilight. I had travelled from the bottom of the world, spent a night in Tokyo and was about to have a vegan meal in a paddock on the border of Germany and France. Totally how I visualise my life.

Veganism is new to me. I have yet to understand the philosophy of eating food in order to reject the commodity status of animals. I know Mahatma Gandhi advocated against drinking cow’s and goat’s milk because he did not want animals to be exploited but then that was part of his lifelong experiments with himself and his life; his experiments with truth. And he did care about the starving millions in India. I am not sure what modern vegans think about that. Many a discussion have I had with Western vegans and vegetarians about what such eating habits mean in a larger context and why they potentially spawn commercial exploitation of land, labour and human behaviour; whether animal rights more important than or equal to human rights etc. This topic is a post in itself and likely contentious. I have seen too many hungry, malnourished people to live by this philosophy alone.

However that does not take away from the lovely Timo’s passionate cooking. My first five course vegan meal was an unforgettable experience.

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Then it was on to Baden Baden in the rickety car. :-)

 

 

 

 

 

Always About Identity.


This is from one of the blogs I love to read. I have shared posts from here before because I believe in disseminating interesting ideas and stories that generate discourse. The eternal search for identity, not based on the singular concept of a nation and yet many times tied to it fascinates me endlessly. That it is not a fixed constant, anywhere in the world, contradicts concepts fed to us by politicians and media.

In this post about the documentary Beats Of The Antonov, which won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at tje Toronto International Film Festival, Dylan Valley writes:

“The Antonov of the title comes from the Russian planes that are used by Omar Al-Bashir’s regime to bomb villages in Sudan. Instead of a dry journalistic account of the ongoing Sudanese conflict however, the film is a deep exploration of a nation in an identity crisis, with its ruling elite pushing an Arab nationalist identity onto a diverse African citizenry. The title of the film makes a correlation between the bombs of oppression and the resilience of culture, the music of a people and the suffering they endure.”

Here is the trailer

Read on for more and listen to the music. :-)

http://africasacountry.com/new-film-beats-of-the-antonov-unlike-anything-i-have-ever-seen/

 

 

 

New Wanderings. Part 3, Tracing Backwards. Last Stop Paris.


Actually last stop Hong Kong but that was only in transit and does not count. Except that I bought a bottle of booze and Tiger Balm, as you do. It is important for travellers transiting through HK not to buy their duty free alcohol from their starting point. HK customs will confiscate it. I almost bought some at CDG airport when the salesman advised me not to. There was this corporate/bureaucratic looking guy who had three bottles of very expensive Chivas etc taken off him while I sailed through customs. Small travel tip from moi.

So. I took the train from Strasbourg station to Charles De Gaulle airport. The last time I went to Paris I traversed the city on the metro but my dream of doing cross country via Eurail just did not materialise. This time it happened via the itinerary and there was not much time to think or take photos. We drove from Gerstheim and just about managed to get to the station on time with an irate steward waiting for me. (He gave me a mini lecture in ze marvellous French accented l’Anglais ;-) about almost missing the train.)  The Alsace trains are an entity of their own with painted carriages that trundle along the French countryside, quite majestic. I dozed off.

Two hours later I was inside Charles De Gaulle airport, an absolute behemoth.

The train station at Charles De Gaulle airport, like, two levels down.

The train station at Charles De Gaulle airport, like, two levels down.

I checked in and took the RER metro straight to Saint Michel. With five hours to spend on my own I thought it might be worth revisiting Paris. Had I missed the romance in this so called romantic city the last time I was there or is it just a myth like I thought?

The train ride was fascinating, just as I remembered it. Dingy little trains squeaking over the tracks, regurgitating commuters on to dark stations. If a cross section of train commuters can be a representation of a local populace then Paree is nowhere as haute and white as projected by and emphasised by global lore. Predominantly African peoples packed the train and the stations. The poverty obvious. None of the European countries have a comprehensive programme for refugees and migrants, especially poor, illiterate migrants, all of whom are left to fend for themselves and become French/German/Italian/whatever. Consequently ghettoised, ostracised and blamed for all evils. Integration is a two way street.  As I observed through the train, the housing dregs (how some buildings remained standing was a mystery), graffiti and the urban deterioration seemed like a symbol of the inability of the Western world to deal with post colonial globalisation.

Paris was hot that day. It had been a very warm fortnight late spring. After the lush, laid back surroundings of Alsace the heat and grime of Paris wore me down. I was carrying my merino jacket and a backpack full of winter layering for when I got back to New Zealand. Apart from the laptop and camera. (Ah first world tourist issues!) And Notre Dame was chocker with tourists. As if the whole world, mostly Americans, had turned up at the same time. I hung around, took photos, observing this congregation. There were the local Arabs, handsome boys dancing for an appreciative audience, charming the Americans with their French (I seriously doubt if even one American might have thought these boys were Ay-raabs, not that I am assuming it is from ignorance.) Then, as I went for a walk along the Seine, a couple behind me started having a lover’s tiff. They went on and on, I tried not to listen but they were quarrelling in English! C’est romantique oui? They should have tied a lock on one of the overbridges and thrown the key into the Seine. Only 5 Euros to end the row et je t’aime mon amour.

Then there were the Indians. It was nice. An indicator of disposable income, of increasing confidence in the ability to travel and spend. Never mind the awkwardness that generates or the discomfort of encountering a new culture beyond the ideas propagated by Bollywood . Family groups, mummy, pappa, munna, munni, aunty, uncle, and their munnas and munnis. Hanging by Notre Dame, gaping at the cuddling couples along the embankment, calculating Euros v/s rupees. A daughter was lecturing her mother on why they travelled to Paris. Did you come to complain or to see the Eiffel Tower? In Gujarati. The beauty of it, for me, is that I am this non-specific person few can locate so they don’t know that I can understand them. There is the occasional suspicious glance from other Indians but I appear too hippie to fit into any aspirational, upwardly mobile Indian mould.

Second time around in Paris and I know the romance is imaginary, an extrapolation of the need to perpetuate the homogeneity and singularity of a French identity. Some sort of cultural crutch. A narrow notion for an incredibly diverse city; squalid outer suburbs, inner city Dior and high culture including. And the French should know that already.

Thus I took the train back to CDG airport.

PS-The Bangladeshis are still selling roses in Paris.

 

 

 

 

New Wanderings. Part 2, Amazing Things That Happen


Amazing things that happen when you travel. A golden sunset over the French countryside turns it into a dreamlike landscape. The green of the trees and the grass reflecting multiple hues of this universe. Seems unreal.

Two days ago, back in Strasbourg, I had to pass some time as I waited for my ride back to Gerstheim. I had noticed an art house theatre near Homme De Fer, the big tram station, whenever I was in that part of Strasbourg and since that day too I was browsing through the shops around I thought it might be a good idea to watch a movie. I inquired at the box office, are you showing any movies with English subtitles. Non, she said, but we have a movie in L’Anglais. (Or so I deduced from her French.) Well then, may I have a ticket please.

I had no idea what the title meant. It was time to be surprised. And that I was. I spent one of the most magical one hour and fifty minutes watching a classic in one of the most beautiful art house cinemas I have ever seen.

Cinema L’Odyssée was built in 1914. It is owned by the city of Strasbourg who outsources the operations to private enterprise. It must have been grand in the old days and still has that air about it. Red velvet seats, carvings on the wall, an old projector, old film posters hung nonchalantly, and art house films. A real hang out place for snooty French cinema geeks discussing auteur cinema. There is an underground library dedicated to cinema and you can buy film posters. To me this was paradise, one version of it anyway.

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And then the film I watched, that I came upon by chance. Who knew. Grand Prix Special du Jury and FIPRESCI Award at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Johnny Got His Gun is a brilliant watch. Donald Sutherland plays Jesus Christ and is so cool :-)

But another amazing experience awaited me. Reiterating the vast and myriad connections of humanity and culture.

As I entered the gates to the grounds of the Strasbourg mosque (see my photos here), two men and a young woman stepped out. My friend asked in French if we could go in and they welcomed us. Somehow the conversation continued in English, they asked me where I am from. I always say New Zealand but this time, I think it was their brown skin that made me do it, I said I am originally from India. One man started talking to me in Hindi. Namaste, kaise ho? The other said, ah Shammi Kapoor. I said, yeah. He died last year. The man replied that he was visiting London that time when he came to know. Then he broke into a song. Dil deke dekho, dil deke dekho, dil deke dekho jiyu to humne lakh haseen dekhe hai, (I joined in here) tumsa nahi dekha, ho tumsa nahi dekha. We all laughed, hi-fived and went our way. Strange how human beings connect. Not strange that commercial Hindi cinema, before it was exoticised by the Western world and became Bollywood, had a massive audience from North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, even old Soviet Russia. This man was from Morocco. The young girl with them was amazed at the conversation. My young friend Laura, a local and Alsace, was amused. Just before that I had been telling her that she should persuade her teachers at Strasbourg University where she is doing film studies, to include Indian cinema in the course. :-)