Friday, September 30, 2005

Paris - It's just magic!!

Paris – It’s just magic!!

Well, I wont leave you’ll in suspense any longer about the trip to Paris. We thought it was almost going to be called off because there was some problem with the credit card credit limit when renting the car but we just took a car from a more expensive company and headed out to Paris from Brussels. We made the drive of about 300kms in a little over 4 hours, including 2 pitstops for fuel for ourselves. At a minimum speed of 80 and a maximum of 120, we were in the slowest lane most of the time.

The roads and the highway was, as expected, excellent. The drive was very smooth and the instructions on the boards very clearly given. There are pitstops every few kilometers. And just one toll gate. And the countryside was quite scenic – so all in all it was a good drive to the Charles de Gaulle airport.

We parked the car at the airport and took a train into the city. Sunil was staying with his friends and I had to call up my Mom because she was trying to arrange accommodation for us. We got of at the Nord station and our travails started. It took us more than 20mins to find a phone booth which accepted coins and not just cards. Then our money got stuck in the phone and none of the staff at the station were helpful about it. We gave up on the phones in the train and came out of the station to look for some other pay phone outside - and the first thing that struck me about Paris was that it was like a white Calcutta – very crowded, bustling with people and vehicles, motorcycles driving crazily about, cars approaching various roads from all side, pedestrians stopping cars and crossing roads, people everywhere – it was just crazy.

In all the havoc, it took us close to half an hour to find a place from where we could call. Then we got the number of a family friend who could arrange for our stay in a guest house in Paris and even take us around the city. At that, my hopes soared and my imagination ran away. But the man was in Nigeria and we couldn’t connect to his phone and after a very frustrating hour, we ended up at a rather expensive youth hostel, dumped our bags and headed for the Eiffel Tower.

Now Paris has a very efficient and initially very confusing public transportation system. Apart from the buses, they have trams (which we haven’t seen at all), metros and a subway line called the RER. While I shall not get into the intricacies and details, the problem with this is that the metros, RER as well as the Thalys and TGV trains between cities and countries all leave from the same station, though on different levels. So we spent quite a lot of our time in Paris getting lost in the stations and trying to figure out how to get from one level to another and finally on how to exit. Luckily, we took a pass which allows unlimited travel during the day so we could afford to get lost.

Well, the Eiffel Tower is much much better than I even expected it to be. We took a lift to the top floor and I was left gasping at the view. It is truly an amazing experience and worth every single cent spent on it. I strongly recommend to everyone who reads this to make a special effort to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower – it is an experience that cannot be missed. You actually catch your breath at the view in front of you. Neither photos nor words can describe how amazing and awesome and truly magical the experience at the Eiffel Tower was.

After we came down, I just wanted to sit down by the lawn in front of the tower and keep looking at it for a while. Mind you, I think the tower per se is a very ugly structure – it is the view and the way the tower is lit up that makes it so breathtakingly beautiful. I loved Paris by night. There is something about the way the city just pulsates with life in the night – it is completely different from the way the city is in the morning and it can charm the most hardened traveler. And yes, it is every bit as romantic as it is claimed to be, and then some.

After a good nights rest and a measly breakfast at the youth hostel, we set out for a long, hard day in Paris again. But I’m sleepy now so more about Paris in my next post.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

To Paris!!!

Well, we went to the party on Thursday night at around 11pm and the music was quite bad and the people around had no enthusiasm either. Incidentally, during the party, there were some people passing out invites to another party the next week and a condom each (again). Well, by 1:30 we were heartily sick of the party and decided to go home but a couple of people were planning to go to a Salsa club and so Anuj, Ravi, Surbhi and I joined 6 other exchange students.

After we reached the tram stop, we realized that there were no night trams. We were told it wasn’t too far and we decided to walk. We walked for an hour and a half and it was past 3 by the time we reached the Salsa Club. The music was awesome and the place was quite nice but we were all so sleepy and tired after walking in the cold for so long that we didn’t stay on the dance floor for longer than 30 minutes. We came back to the bar and dozed off but the bartender woke me up and told me we weren’t allowed to sleep – and since we couldn’t go out till 5 (since that is when the public transport starts again), we danced desultorily till 5 and then fled to the metro station and it was well past 6am by the time I got to my bed.

On Friday, the 23rd, I got my white card – all of us except Surbhi have got our white cards so we are planning to drive down to Paris this Sunday morning and stay put there for about 3-4 days. But today has been quite boring – the net was down, there were no Express activities and we declined a party invitation because we thought we had a class and realized we didn’t after we went to the University. To top it all, Ravi is rather ill and there has been nothing to do all day except sleep and read and we were all quite low and bored.

But the guys cheered us up immensely by cooking a literal feast – aloo paratha, 2 kinds of raitha, 2 kinds of pickle. We gorged, then rented a Jude Law movie ‘Alfie’, which was quite arbit and thus, the day ended well. Today, Saturday, I had class from 9 to 3, then I washed clothes and had a bath and we are now planning to drive down to Paris tomorrow morning and return on Tuesday.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Lazy days are here again

20th September

I had an appointment at the Ixelles commune today morning. The lady at the commune made me part with 20 precious Euros but promised that I would get my white card in three days, on the 23rd. With this good news, I went back to the guys apartment where I helped with cooking our lunch, then surfed the internet for a while.

Today, the exchange students were invited for drinks with the faculty and so Surbhi and I dressed up for the place. But by the time we got ready and found the place, the Dean had already finished making his speech in both the English and French versions. So we just ate and drank and were standing around talking to each other for a while.

Then Ravi and I went with a couple of exchange students to a conference hosted by the university to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the birth of the Polish solidarity movement. It was a prestigious movement – the former President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Poland, the former President of Lithuania and some Belgian minister sat on the dias and discussed Poland’s history and present. The discussion was mostly in Polish but the audience were all given headphones, which gave us all both French and English transalations.

I was quite lost in all the history they were discussing but luckily, the guy sitting next to me was a Polish student who had finished a degree in International Relations and was pursuing another in Political Science. He was amazingly well informed and passed onto me a lot of information on European history. It was a very interesting evening.

21st September

Like in the past couple of days, I got up late and went over to the guys apartment after a bath, helped with the cooking, surfed the internet and chatted and then went to International Trade class from 6pm to 9pm. The class was very interesting – the Prof cold called me (he probably noticed that I was daydreaming) but I managed to redeem myself well.

An Indian woman who is in my MBA class drove us around the city later in the night, after dinner. She took us to Brussels North, which was quite a shady area. We saw prostitutes posing like mannequins by each and every single window in that street, wearing hardly anything. They would smile every time a man passed by them and then get bored the minute he walked past them. It wasn’t really shocking because I knew what to expect – but it was really sad and depressing to think about how their lives must be. We then went to a pub, where some of the junta got drunk and entertained the rest of us. We went back home quite left and slept.

The same story today also – bathe, help with the cooking, chat, read - that’s what I did all day. Will be off to the weekly exchange party in a couple of mins. I’m expecting my white card tomorrow – my days will hopefully be more exciting from next week but as of now, I’m perfectly content with this lazy and laidback lifestyle.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I loved Antwerp!!

18th September

Today was Car Free day in Brussels. It is not a rule or a law but the denizens of the city are encouraged to not use their cars today. So all public transport for the day is completely free within the city. I thought it was a nice concept and since this is done only once a year, it isn’t very inconvenient either.

We went to Antwerp today, by train. The train we went on today was just like the Ratnachal Express, and not very clean either. It was just a 35 minute journey but we had to get off 2 stations before Antwerp and take another train on the other side of the platform. Now this train was going to Amsterdam and since we could not understand the French and Dutch announcements in the train and were anxious that we might end up going to Holland without our passports or papers, we got down one station before Antwerp, in one of its suburbs, called Antwerp Berchem.

The good thing was that Antwerp is a small city and we could walk from Berchem to Antwerp Central in 20 minutes. We jokingly call Antwerp Belgium’s 2nd largest village, the largest being Brussels. The walk from Berchem to Antwerp Central was very interesting. For a 5min stretch we couldn’t see a soul on the road – we were grateful it was broad daylight and we had company because it was quite eerie. Then people started appearing straight out of a storybook – it was a Hebrew dominated area and the people must have just been coming out from the synagogue because everyone was very traditionally dressed – the women wore long black/grey skirts, long coats with white blouse inside and a skullcap, the men wore long top hats, ankle length black coats over a white vest and black trousers, the kids wore regular clothes but they all wore a skullcap.

We picked up some stuff at a traditional Hebrew bakery to keep us going, passed through the lane of diamond stores and finally reached Antwerp Central. After lunch at an Italian joint, we met Mihir, Navya and ID (my classmates at IIMB) and went about exploring the city.

Antwerp was surprisingly crowded and colourful. We went to a Cathedral, Belgium’s largest and finest. We then decided to visit Rubenshuis, the house of the famous Baroque artist Rueben. But we stopped to watch a road show and then what with the asking for directions as well as looking at a map, by the time we reached the place, it was closed.

So we walked to the Zuiderterras, which is like a pier or a promenade, along the sea. It was a lovely place and I sat along with Mihir, ID and Navya there for over an hour, eating chocolate biscuits and chatting, while the other guys left to explore town. The Belgium exchange junta let early but I stayed back to wander around the city with my 3 classmates and then went back to Brussels. I loved Antwerp, for its promenade, for its old buildings, for its quaint Hebrew area and generally the feel and atmosphere of the city.


19th September

I must say today was quite uneventful. We cooked dal, cabbage curry and rice for lunch, accompanied by yoghurt and pickle. We then went to a 3 hour class on International Trade. The best part of the class was the snack break where all of us had coffee, juice, water and coke and ate the chocolates and biscuits and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Otherwise also, the class was good. We came back to the apartment, cooked some ready to eat meals for dinner, spent a couple of hours arguing whether or not to take a Eurail pass and then went to sleep.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Its festival time


17th September

We learnt today that it was 5 degrees yesterday. No wonder even the exchange students at the Crepe party yesterday said they felt cold! Anyways, I made my first trip to the Laundromat today. They charged me 3.3 euros for using a machine with 7kg volume. There was no one else at the Laundromat and I felt quite lost.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to open the damn door of the machine and finally put my clothes into the machine and then couldn’t figure out where the washing powder would go in. I then tried inserting the coins into the slot but they wouldn’t be accepted. Finally, a man walked in and I thought ‘Ah!! my saviour’, but he had never used the machines before either. He had atleast seen them being used before and so he told me that I had to put the money into another machine, which would give me tokens, which I would have to put in the washing machine.

I finally got the thing running and the clothes took about 20mins to wash. They were rather damp but I didn’t want to pay separately for a dryer so I just got them back to my room and dried them there!! We then went to the guys apartment and together cooked a sumptuous lunch of ready to eat pav bhaji, dal and pickle.

We then went to the station, determined to spend the rest of the day out of Brussels. We met some ULB students there who were going to a town called Namur for the festival there. Namur is in the Wallonia region of Belgium and it was celebrating its 175th anniversary with a 3 day festival.

We went by train. The stations here are just like the Indian stations, only a lot cleaner. The trains are also a lot like the short distance Jan Shatabdi Express or the A/C chair car in Ratnachal Express, though again, a lot cleaner and with wider seats and larger windows. We looked out at the Belgian countryside through the 1 hour journey and marveled at how it was not very different from an Indian train ride…..

Namur is a small place, but yesterday, it was full of people, sounds, smells and sights. It was just like the typical European festival we see in movies and pictures. There were people all over the streets, everyone singing and dancing, with faces painted, and wearing weird hats and masks. The streets were filled with stalls on either side selling food, drink, clothes, soft toys, jewellery and everything else under the sun. There were three different concerts taking place at the same time – rock, rap and blues (I think) so as you moved from one lane to the other, the crowd and music changed accordingly – the whole thing was a truly heady experience.

We went to the centuries old citadel of Namur. It is a lot like the Golconda Fort, with less of history – you walk a lot and there isn’t much to see except for a magnificent view. Well, we walked and waked and it got s cold as we walked further up that some of us took out our gloves. And there isn’t really much to see in the citadel – it is just like any other fort in India, only it has European architecture and grey stone. However, the view was truly magnificent – you could see the tiny, narrow river of Meuse running right in the middle of the town and the sloping red roofs of all the houses of the town and large green lands – it was very very scenic and very European.

Once we walked down the citadel, we wandered around the festive streets, checking out every stall without really buying anything, ate a little in as many stalls as we possibly could and generally wandered around the festive streets, taking in the atmosphere. We took a train back home early coz we were all cold.


Saturday, September 17, 2005

Crepes

16th September

I ate my breakfast as I went walking to the University today. I find it really fun the way these people eat and walk all over the place and I did that too today. I attended my first class today – it was supposed to be a course consisting of three 8 hour sessions and we had already missed one session but the Prof gave us permission to attend just the remaining classes and register for the remaining sessions. Well, these guys keep shifting the classroom all the time so by the time I ran around 4 buildings and found the classroom, I was 45 mins late but the Prof was not in the least bothered by it.

The session hardly lasted for 5 hours. Firstly, he gave us a 20min coffee break, and a little later, a 1 hour lunch break. Then he ended the class 2 hours early at 3:30!! Well, the course is rather simple and straight forward but I was rather surprised to find that my classmates found some of the simple exercises also quite difficult, especially considering all of them have work experience. It was a surprisingly multicultural class with people from all over Europe, a Assamese woman whose husband was working in Brussels and so one (and they are the regular students, not the exchange students). Because it was a small class with a lot of team exercises, the small classroom had a couple of tables and students sat in groups around each of the tables.

Later in the evening, we went to a Crepe party. A crepe is the traditional Belgian pancake and that was what all of us exchange students had for dinner. It is usually had with jam, honey, marmalade or chocolate cream. It was a good dinner, after which we all planned to go to a Salsa bar but since public transport stops at midnight and it was already quite late, we chucked the plan and went to the guys apartment to watch a movie. We changed about 5-6 CD’s but it was difficult to find a movie everybody liked and so we gave up on that too and went to sleep.

Friday, September 16, 2005

None whatsoever

15th September

The day started as usual. I had a breakfast of bread and jam and fruit juice at the guys apartment and then went to mine for washing clothes and a bath. All of us exchange students then met up in front of the University for a picnic. It wasn’t much of one – we all bought some sandwiches and went to this really scenic park with a little lake and all, settled down there in groups and ate the sandwiches. I again got to meet people from around the world, and they were all fascinated by India and wanted to know more about it.

The rain brought an abrupt end to the picnic and we all walked back to the apartment. Anuj and Sunil had classes, the other 3 slept and I was on the net chatting for quite a while. After a while, I got hungry and went out and ate an expensive pastry. That didn’t do and so I went to the supermarket and bought some chocolate milk and chips. The supermarkets are no different from the ones in India, except that you put your stuff into the covers on your own here.

We then went for a traditional dinner at the University cafeteria. It was just fries and some vegetables, nothing very different. We then sat there talking for about 3 hours before the party started. There was loud music and lots of dancing. None of us enjoyed the music much so we were just standing around till the DJ suddenly started playing a Punjabi song. We all just stared shocked at each other for a split second and then broke into very enthusiastic dancing from then on till late night and then I went back and slept in my apartment.

The last two days have been amazing in terms of meeting people from all over the world and learning about their country and their culture and telling them about ours and making friends from different countries. It was a lot of fun and a great experience. I was most impressed by the Poles because they seemed very warm and friendly. It is quite pleasant to see how much the Europeans know about India and how fascinated they are by our country and its traditions.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

And today...

14th September

We again went to Panos for breakfast and it was as good as always. We also had reason to rejoice because the guys apartment got electricity today. I then went to my room to wash clothes and have a bath. Surbhi also moved in to the room today. We then went back to the guys apartment to find a lunch of rice, dal and pickle, the first 2 cooked by Ravi, waiting for us. It was well made and we had a very filling lunch. Those who didn’t help with the cooking, washed up.

We then went to this game organized by the Express Association, to which we had registered yesterday. It was some arbit treasure hunt around the city and after the initial stops, most of us stopped participating in the game and concentrated on getting to know each other. In fact, the main goal of the game was for us exchange students to get to know each other. It was very interesting and I met people from different countries – an Afghan girl from Canada who had lived in India for a couple of months as an Afghan refugee when she was a child, a refugee from Bosnia who was now living in Sweden, a Spanish girl who could sing ‘tujhe dekha to yeh…’ and understand a little hindi, a girl from Portugal who was perpetually late and many other interesting people from Polad, Finland, Germany, Italy, Scotland, Canada etc.

It was great fun. The people were extremely interested when they learnt that I was from India and they would ask a lot of questions. Luckily, I didn’t get any of the Do you travel by elephant’ type questions. They were totally fascinated by the concept of arranged marriages and asked a lot of questions regarding that. They also thought we were pulling their leg when we told them that in India, you could have as many glasses of water as you wanted in a restaurant for free!!

The game was to be followed by a marathon of visiting some of the most popular bars in the city. Ravi and I dropped out and came back to the apartment. I have been on the computer since then, chatting with my Mom and a couple of friends and typing this mail. Ravi went to the supermarket meanwhile and got us some groceries. We had another home cooked meal of soup, rice and pickle for dinner now. The others haven’t come in yet so we Ravi and I are planning to watch a movie or play cards.
And something really strange about Belgium that I forgot to mention is that international calls are cheaper than local calls!! An international call cots between 15-20 cents a minute whereas a local call costs 30 cents a min!!

So that’s all for now. My next post will come soon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Bonjour - for lack of a better title

13th September

We thought we would go to a class today morning but we got up late and by the time we had breakfast at Panos and found the classroom, the class was over! I then went to my room to have a bath and wash some clothes. The others joined in a little later and we made our first home cooked meal of maggi for lunch.

We then went to the university for an introduction meeting for all the exchange students. The meeting was extremely boring, but after the meeting we signed up for the Express Association and got a couple of freebies – 3 chocolate bars, a pack of coffee powder, a pepsi, some discount vouchers, guide books – and get this, a condom!!!

We had nothing to do so we just took our usual Bus no. 71 and got off at the last stop. We went to a restaurant which was rather expensive and ordered the cheapest stuff there – pizzas. Though the prices were high, the food was very tasty and very filling so we came out of the place as satisfies customers. We then wandered around the place till we ended up in a rather seedy area which had stores selling exclusively porn movies, sex toys etc. I must say it was a rather interesting experience.

Monday, September 12, 2005

I'm catching up

We discovered this breakfast place just down the road from the guys’ apartment. Its called Panos and has a mind-blowing range of croissant, doughnuts, √©clairs and what not. It was just awesome!! We then went to the town hall for our residence permit, then to the police station in our commune for verification and since this place has only 2 pin plugs, we went to almost a dozen stores in search of an adapter and finally found one!

We then went to meet the academic coordinator at the University. The good news is that thee is no minimum requirement of courses that needs to be taken. I can take just one course and get away with it. Moreover, there are no attendance rules at the university either.

Then Ravi and I decided we were not going to have any fries or pitas or pizzas and went to a Vietnamese restaurant. It was rather expensive but we both shared a 15 Euros menu which served us a 4 course meal of soup and salad, starter, rice and curry and dessert. We were quite full by the time we were done. We were in a major dilemma because we were not sure what the appropriate tip would be and we solved the problem by coming out of the place without tipping the lady at all.

We then shifted my baggage from the guys apartment to my room, and I settled in the stuff and had a nice, warm bath. We then took a bus to the Grand Palace. This is a square surrounded by 4 imposing buildings. While the most impressive building is now used as a tow hall or some other government building, another building has been converted into a museum. The other 2 buildings have now been let out for use by restaurants and stores. For those who can afford it, it is quite an experience dining in an old palace.

The Grand Palace is THE tourist attraction of Brussels and was teeming with students when we went there. It was extremely beautiful because it is so well lit and is quite a romantic place. In fact, there were a few couples here and there just hugging each other in the middle of the square or kissing and it wasn’t corny at all, but rather nice.

We again had a pita-fries kind of meal in one the alleys behind the Grand Palace. The waiter was quite a charming guy who spoke to us in the few Hindi words he had picked up and told us he would give us a discount the next time we came back to his snack bar with the latest Bollywood songs!!!

Belgium is very famous for its waffles and the back alleys today were filled with the smells of freshly baked waffles. I bought a waffle with banana and chocolate cream and it was truly delicious. I also did my first bit of shopping there by buying a few boxes of the famous Belgian chocolates. I promptly put them in the suitcase so that I would not be tempted to open them up now itself. And after the gifts I bought with my first salary, this was the next best feeling I got on buying gifts for someone else.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Another Day in Brussels

11th September

We went to the guys apartment in the morning by taxi. The taxis here are very expensive and very fast. I have never been driven so fast in a car before, even on a highway. We are staying in two apartments – one for the guys and a room with attached kitchen for us girls, both of which are 5 minutes apart. Both of them are a 5 minute walk from the university. The area is very nice and is filled with students. The guys’ apartment has a super market right opposite and quite a lot of snack bars, restaurants and stores while our apartment has the cheapest internet and phone booth just across the street.


We walked to the university Рit was nice, but not too great. Some of their classes are held in these big auditoriums with a few students scattered all over the seats, doing whatever they pleased. Anyways, we had lunch on our way back to the apartment and then walked down to an area called Flagey. It was a very nice walk and we passed through 2 little ponds and a big church on our way there. We then went to this place called Café Belga, which is a big place with seats on the pavement, and then went and signed our contracts for renting out our apartments.

I had my first Haagen Daaz icecream today. It was good but nothing special so it was quite a let down. We then went to a place for dinner – we had something called a pita. A pita is usually fries and some vegetables or meat which is stuffed in a roti (to make a roll) or it is stuffed in a big bun.

Well, that was how our day ended. It was interesting to note that the pedestrians are given the most importance here. People cross the street even when there is a red light, and all the vehicles stop for the pedestrian. Brussels is a small city – it is about the size of Vizag. So there are no long distance journeys and you can reach from one end to the other in a maximum of 20 minutes. And you can go from any one place to another on public transport for 1.5 Euros.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

On Exchange

10th September

My First International Flight
Alitalia from Mumbai to Brussels. After the usual baggage check in and collecting the boarding pass, we cleared the immigration counter, then the security check. I hate having to wait in the security hold area. Luckily, we didn’t have to do that this time. They sent us right in to the plane. The plane was no different from other big domestic flights. We got bad seats – the very last row, right next to the restrooms! And they gave us the middle seats, four in a row.

The flight per se wasn’t so bad. I ate some snacks (they served Indian), and then watched a movie. I was kind of sleepy but I wasn’t going to miss my first in-flight movie. It was a romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and some guy who plays the role of a Red Sox fanatic. It was a sweet movie, good time pass. Then, I slept for a little over 3 hours and was woken up for breakfast. It was a very heavy breakfast and I ate fully, deciding to make the best use of it to fill my stomach till my next in-flight meal.

Milan Airport
We landed at Milan at 6:05 Milan time (9:40 IST). The transit area had a lot of designer wear stores – Gucci, Mont Blanc, Hermes, Versace are a few that come to my mind right now. We went to the duty free store and their cosmetics section had more stuff than I had ever seen before in my life. However, I’m not a very enthusiastic window shopper when I have to carry a heavy backpack and a laptop. So I really didn’t look around much but made better use of my time by using the restroom to brush and wash.

I generally don’t like firangs much, looks wise. But here at the Milan airport, many of the women here are real head turners. They are extremely well dressed and have good figures. I noticed that many of these Italian women have strikingly red hair. And the difference between the Europeans and the Americans is stark. The Americans are inevitably dressed in jeans or shorts, a tee and sneakers and carry a backpack. The Europeans are extremely well dressed – even those wearing jeans or Capri somehow manage to look very elegant, maybe because of their accessories – they wear smart heels and carry these small little briefcases and overall, they are quite impressive.

I need to get over this habit of converting everything into Indian rupees and getting put off by the prices. I was told that the purchasing power parity factor is 5 so I should be multiplying the prices by 5 to see how much a similar product would cost in India. That makes things a lot better. But I prefer gasping at all the prices and making sure I don’t spend too much. But now I truly understand what it means to be in a developing country…J

I spent the last 15 minutes trying to figure out how to make international calls with a credit card. When I finally figured that out, Mom’s number was busy!! I decided it would be best to call her once we reach Brussels and settle into the hostel there. It is now 9:15 am at Milan and we are waiting for the call for security check for our flight to Brussels. I’ll call from Brussels, after settling into the hostel. So my next post will be from Belgium.