Saturday, July 31, 2010

Snippets from my sojourn through Austria and Sicily

In the summer of 2007, still a graduate student, I came to CERN for a summer school. That was my first glimpse of Europe, and after the school was over, I did a solo Geneva-Zurich-Rome-Pisa-Florence-Venice-Paris-Geneva trip, walking all day, spending nights at cheap hotels or taking night trains. A lot has happened since then, I graduated and moved to this side of the Atlantic. I have visited many exciting places, but most have been in tandem with academic trips, or weekend trips someplace with or to someone I know. While these have been great fun, nothing beats the sheer excitement of multi-destination semi-backpacking trips. So when this long-lost friend, proposed this trip, I was thrilled, and we spent days and weeks planning every detail. It certainly lived upto all the expectations, and I got to relive that first Euro-trip again, with someone who has never been to Europe before.

Some of my lasting memories from the trip, in no particular order.

Cinematic connections: First part of the trip took me to two cities associated with two of my favorite movies. Salzburg was of course the setting for "Sound of Music", and Jesse and Celine walked the streets of Vienna in "Before Sunrise". We did accidentally find the bridge they so memorably crossed.

Train on a ferry: The train from Rome to Sicily crosses Strait of Messina on a ferry. At Villa San Giovanni station, the train is split into 3 parts, and each is pushed into the ferry, the lowest deck of which has 4 set of tracks. At the other end in Messina, the tracks are aligned to the ground tracks again, the coaches are retrieved by an engine coming in and joined together, and the train rolls out.

Czech obscenities:
Not their fault really, but the Czech word for exit is remarkably similar to the word for copulation in Bengali, my native language. Oh well.

Small pleasures of life:
Walking all day through the charming streets of Prague on a hot sultry day, we were thrilled when we found people enjoying the water spray from this sprinkler in a little garden. Finding our way back to it at the end of the day, it was still on, and as people passing by giggled, we literally drenched ourselves. Pure bliss.

Sushi-coma in Vienna: After having a fill of Schnitzels, we stumbled upon this place advertising running Sushi. With a double-decker conveyor belt running by the tables carrying everything from cold sushi to warm dishes to fruits in small colorful bowls, in endless loop, it certainly felt like heaven. After two hours and countably infinite number of empty bowls in front of us, we walked out of the place in a trance like state.

Horse-steak in Sicily:
for only three bucks, nonetheless. While I loved it, my friend completely freaked out and ended up having a large chunk of watermelon for dinner. For the bravehearted, the next item in the menu was lamb guts.

Freezing point is, really freezing:
We ended up visiting ice caves near Salzburg in our summer clothing. Climbing up and down 700 steps inside the cave, often with icy winds made us sweat and freeze at the same time!

Train amenities: The Czech night train from Prague to Vienna had a shower. Never before I showered on a train. And the Hungarian train taking us back the same way had an outlet for electric shavers. Evidently shaving is a big deal for some men.

Music tourism in Vienna:
In every street corner, people dressed in strange costumes would try to sell you concert tickets, and they simply would not take no for an answer, rather keep asking insisting that in the city of music, you must be at these highly acclaimed concerts in the royal palace. Incidentally, these "popular" concerts never seemed to sell out. Amusing at first, major irritant soon after.

World in black and white: It could as well have been the surface of the moon. At Mount Etna, everything has been devoured by lava, and the landscape is starkly black with white smoke coming out from live craters. A surreal feeling.

Nothing beats Florida beaches:
Heard a lot about Sicily beaches, and while they are nice, most of them are strips of gravel. Not the alluring soft sands of Florida.

Seacaves in Syracusa:
A boatride in Syracusa took us to these amazing little seacaves. Very local, very pretty.

Catastrophe in Catania:
While walking on the cobbled streets, my friend ended up with a twisted ankle, and a bizarre sequence of events followed, culminating in me pushing a wheelchair around in Munich airport. Found out that German emergency healthcare is order of magnitude cheaper than US, and I now have a new-found sympathy for the mobility impaired people.

Friday, July 09, 2010


Disclaimer: this post is about the world cup, but not really.

Its a story of before and after, and the dramatic fortnight in between.

I realized I am in a unique position before the world cup began. I grew up watching football in India, which became soccer once I moved to US, and fußball when I came to Germany. But in spite of the excitement it generated in India, and the metamorphosis of people to Brazilians or Argentinians during that particular month, we never really had any stake in the championship. It was exactly opposite in US, where few people cared about the tournament, although I get a feeling that has changed this year.

But in Germany, the involvement was real. Although before it all begun, the expectation was not very high from this very young team. The first dramatic victory over Australia was treated almost as a pleasant surprise, and the subsequent defeat against Serbia made people cynical again. Then they sneaked by Ghana, and all people wanted was to win the "war" against England.

As they say, one game changes everything. That emphatic win, albeit with the English "no-goal", made people believers, and the systematic destruction of Argentina started the discussion about winning it all. The often dull, workman like German style was gone, and the fluent attacking game, complemented by the usual accurate finishing became a delight to watch. Even I found myself subconsciously rooting for "Die Mannschaft".

Rooting for a sports team (and getting disappointing) is nothing new for me. That Javed Miandad six off Chetan Sharma shaped our psyche, and every meek Indian capitualtion in cricket brought about national mourning. It turned more personal after I became a "Gator", and we were royally pampered with a pair of national championships each in football and basketball during my stay there. For all my non-American friends out there, that is a big deal. Wild celebration after all those championships at university avenue till wee hours of morning remain one of my fondest memories from my Gainesville days

So I was secretly hoping for an encore. Too bad, it did not happen. But what really surprised me was the sheer classiness of the people here. In Florida, we hated losing. We were fiercely partisan. Opposition players and coaches were ridiculed, called by profanity-ridden-names. Even when we were thoroughly outplayed, the crowd honestly believed we are one big play away from turning it around. People were not merely upset after the loss, but they were intensely angry. We would never acknowledge that the other team can play better. The Monday after, campus would be in mourning.

I was expecting something similar when it looked inevitable that Spain would score. I was watching the game with an enthusiastic, flag waving, vuvezela playing, obviously patriotic crowd by the river in a giant screen. Everything that moved was decked in German colors. Spain scored, and the crowd just went quiet. And they remained quiet, with occasional desperate "Go Deutschland" cries. And then it was all over. The crowd dispersed methodically, strangely emotionless. To all fairness, if before the start of the tournament, they were told Germany will reach the semi-final after crushing England and Argentina, most would have gladly taken it. But still, it felt eerily calm, considering the magnitude of the occasion.

Hell, when LeBron James ditched Cleveland three days later, more people seemed more upset.

Just when you start to think you have seen it all, you realize you have not.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Freedom from the mob!

It was roughly a year ago I got into it. A world of violence and crime, robbing and killing. I made new friends, who helped me to expand my activities, but a lost few, who could not tolerate it. It was fun while it lasted. Like all good things, it had to come to an end. So today, I obliterated my criminal associates, and claimed back my life.

Rather my facebook page, from complete strangers I added to play Mafia Wars. But facebook is life, right?

I never liked virtual games much. In the early MS-DOS days, I liked playing this game called paratrooper, where you had to protect your anti aircraft gun from a continuous flow of air dropped enemy fighters, wonder how many of us remember it? Games came and games went, but most were either too involved, or needed extremely quick reflexes, and I sorely lacked the patience. And at a deeper level, I realized losing against faceless machines made me depressed, while winning did not bring any great joy. Wins count only when someone right here is actually humiliated and bloodied, not when a little popup on screen says you won. No wonder I never developed a taste for online gaming too.

Racing games were slightly better, where I competed with myself. I actually liked them for a while, trying not to finish at the dead last position was surely a challenge. I gained a firsthand idea about how hard it is to drive around a F1 circuit. And I first got introduced to the gorgeous pacific coast highway via Need For Speed, and the curves did seem that treacherous when I first did the drive years later.

So, I was skeptical when I signed up for Mafia Wars. Make no mistakes, it is not a role playing game, no matter what the name and the actions suggest. It is purely a strategy game, where you have to optimally use your resources. That is the aspect which got me hooked, although the part where I had to add hundreds of strangers in my facebook profile was a bit disconcerting, But, as the popular saying goes - there is no such thing as a free game, and the developers simply wanted to expand their business. I can not really fault them for doing that.

It did not really require fast reflex, well not much anyway. But it needed one to login often, as time was effectively the currency in the game. So for almost a year, no matter where ever I were, I would go online and keep up with the game. I tried to time my gameplay so that I do not lose much when I slept, or took a train or flew. I had to turn on my laptop sitting in workshops and meetings, to makes sure I do not l miss anything, and then I would see the guy sitting in front of me is doing the same. Mafia Wars did become a phenomenon, with every other person you know on facebook seemed to be playing it, and spamming your wall with meaningless posts. There were online forums, with veterans and newbies discussing strategies and rumor, I made sure I did not miss any discussion. I liked the social aspect of the game, knowing that you are dealing with real imperfect human beings made the game not just a game, but more part of a lifestyle. If I played it anymore, I could almost have claimed it to be my profession.

Well, eventually the inevitable happened. Work caught up, and my continuous traveling meant the game had to take a backseat. And to "popularize" it even more, the developers introduced new features, which made the gameplay more and more dependent on others. And just like that, I grew out of it.

Being part of the imaginary mafia was fun though. Certainly more fun than growing virtual crop in virtual farms.