Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!
Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.
We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.
We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.
Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!
In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!
We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!
Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.
Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.
We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!
Exploring a city isn’t necessarily about visiting a heritage site, park, entertainment hub or any other place of tourist importance. It can also be about experiencing the everyday. In my (often unsuccessful) pursuit for opportunities to get in a little bit of exercise into my routine, I ventured out onto the streets of Gurgaon for a walk. I consciously decided not to drive up to a park and walk inside it, a decision I partly regretted when I tried to navigate a heap of pig-strewn rubbish that came my way!
My adventure, which I will shortly document in pictures, did not strike me as blog-worthy until I came across this piece in Guardian on walking in the city. The article refers to French poet Louis Aragon’s book Le Paysan de Paris in which he writes about the walker’s ability to experience a ‘moment’ if “sufficiently alive to the nuances of place and atmosphere.” A bit of a philosophical conflict, but also intermingling, between surrealism and rationalism here, I agree. But it is exactly what I felt and enjoyed, the ability to experience my city the way it was, without curation or choreography.
My walk started from Shikshantar School in South City 1, where I dropped my son Udai for a football match, and ambled across a major road, then through a city park, via a small slum and default dumping ground for construction waste, through an urban village and finally back to base. I won’t dwell on the gaps in infrastructure. Broken footpaths and traffic lights that do not program for pedestrians are business-as-usual in Gurgaon, as in most Indian cities.
I do want to talk about the joy of seeing the city wake up, in a leisurely fashion, between eight and ten on a Saturday morning. I enjoyed the lack of reaction to a lone female walker in deserted parks and less populous roads of the city. I reveled in the absence of pre-meditation, in taking turns that led God knows where. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to experience my city, I thought, and I should do this more!
I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!
Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.
Just back from a week out with kids and friends and friends’ kids and I cannot sleep. The images of the week gone by and the to-do list of the week ahead clash inside my head as I toss, turn and finally sit up and start up my Mac to..what else, blog!
Our trip to Dharamsala included two couples and three kids- aged 9, 5 and 4. Quite a bit of our time and patience went into managing the kiddos and so I thought I’d pen down what worked and what didn’t. At the end of it all, I wonder whether it wasn’t the kids that had the fingers on the control buttons all along!
1- Kids are competitive, so comparisons are a no-no, even though tempting at times! Aadyaa and Maayra, the two girls aged 5 and 4, drove us up the wall with their constant competing. They wanted the same number of spoons to play with at each meal, they wanted to eat the same stuff, play the same game on the same ipad at the same time, outdo each other at getting our attention, all the time! All four of us were taking turns at getting irritated with them on Day 1 and 2. By Day 3, this was getting to be hilarious and I started noticing how much we incite them to compete.”Look at her, she is eating so well. Why can’t you?”…..”Look at her, she is siting properly in her chair. You also sit down!”
And so on and so forth. Within ourselves, perhaps, we are competitive too, I thought. And that’s why we need to super super let go if we are calm them down. As the vacation progressed and the holiday chill sobered us down, the girls seemed to calm down as well. Or our management skills improved, perhaps! Just wondering how much of our own stresses, insecurities and inner struggles we pass on to our kiddos unwittingly!
2- Never underestimate children, they are built to amaze! Rahul and me were enamored of the idea of trekking on this vacation. When we mooted the idea, Udai was super enthusiastic, but we were all a little skeptical about whether the girls could trek a lot. Aadyaa had managed a couple of hours of walking earlier this year at Ramgarh, but could we push her a bit more this time? So we set off one morning and decided to see how it goes and we were more than pleasantly surprised. The kids rose to the challenge and loved the adventure, even the youngest of them all, Maayra. Finding new paths to climb up, getting stung by nettles and recovering fast, drinking from a cold mountain stream- all these little thrills served to entice them to go further and further and we ended up successfully completing a half day trek without much fussing and with enough energy to enjoy the rest of the day as well!
3- Don’t shy away from using tech to keep kids busy, too-principled is passe! When you’re on vacation, you’re there for a break. So letting the children have a good go at the ipad once in a while is just fine, in my opinion. They do the same at home as well, or watch television, for a small bit of time everyday. I found that asking kids to share an ipad or iphone actually meant they found ways to cooperate, take turns and share. They taught each other new tricks, they exhibited patience while waiting out their turn.