Travel: Rome and Florence 2012


Outside the B&B, on Via Collina

It was a cold day in February when my husband of 6 days and I landed in Rome. There was still slushy snow on the ground and a tantalizing nip in the air. The driver of our airport shuttle — a sleek black Italian-made vehicle — whose name was Fabiano (spoken with a sing-song accent on the third syllable [Fab-ee-AHN-o]) efficiently conveyed us to our cozy bed and breakfast in an imposing building with large doors on a quiet street near Via Settembre on the north east side of the city. It was late in the evening when we arrived, and the roads were largely free of the clutter of rush-hour traffic. Rome looked shiny and elegant in the artificial light of the street lamps.

Inside La Baita


Dinner was simple fare — bruschetta followed by thin crust pizza with wild mushrooms washed down with some wine at a small but tasteful pizzeria (La Baita) down the street from where we were staying. The decor and ambiance were a far cry from Pizza Hut’s. There were candles and wine glasses on the tables, and wine bottles decorated the delightfully old-world brick walls. The waiter threw in a free and deliciously lemony digestif at the end of the meal — a distinctly European touch that I was experiencing for the first time.

A decorated ceiling inside the Vatican Museum.

Day 1 in “Roma” was spent largely at the Vatican Museum, where we were spellbound by ornately decorated ceilings, all manner of sculptures, and of course, the piece de resistance, the Sistine Chapel. (A testament  to the efficiency of the Vatican Museum is surely to be found in the fact that we were able to retrieve, with minimal fuss, an iPad we had “lost” near the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. Once we discovered it was missing, we reported the loss to one of the security guards, who with one short call on his walkie-talkie was able to ascertain that someone had indeed turned in an iPad with a black cover at the lost-and-found counter near the museum’s entrance. I couldn’t help thinking that if this had happened in India, we would never have seen our iPad again.) Inside  the Sistine Chapel, an audio guide to the frescoes on the walls and ceilings brought Michelangelo’s genius alive for us. In general, I found that the audio guides to be  had in a number of Italian museums, including the Borghese, were really useful in helping one to navigate the rich repositories of  sculptures and paintings.

St Peter's Square

Michelangelo's Pieta

After we had feasted on the visual delights inside the Vatican,we took a short stroll to the famed St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. Unfortunately it was too late in the day to go to the top of the cupola, but we walked through the magnificent piazza and looked at the art and sculpture in the main hall, where  Michelangelo’s Pieta reposes, dimly lit. An evening mass was about to commence, and we saw some priests and choir boys make their way to the altar and begin the prayers while a sacred hush settled over the interiors.

On our way back to Via Collina from the Vatican, we experienced something closer to home when we encountered a man from Bangladesh selling woolen caps and gloves on the street outside the Vatican walls! It was truly astonishing to see how many immigrants there are from the Indian subcontinent in Italy. A few days later, in a restaurant near the Pantheon, we had a waiter who was originally from Calcutta.

We spent days 2 and 3 in Rome visiting more museums (notably the National Museum and the Borghese Gallery, which is home to some fabulous Bernini sculptures) and also touching on the archeological hotspots like the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Forum and the Pantheon. Mode of transportation: mostly metro, bus, and our own two feet. The 3-day Roma Pass we had purchased gave us unlimited travel on public transport, and we made the best use of it. Rome is a very walkable city; in fact, if you don’t walk everywhere, you are likely to miss a lot.

The Florence "skyline"


We spent days 4 and 5 in Florence, soaking in more art and history, and ending it all with a long walk by the river Arno, past the Ponte Vecchio. We took a high-speed train from Rome to Florence that took us about an hour and a half. We travelled second-class, which was still comfortable and quite roomy.  In Florence we sampled gelato (I had one that was Tiramisu flavored — a case of overkill?), some Tuscan cuisine, the sculptures of Michelangelo (most notably his David), all the art the Uffizi could hold, and some delightful river views. The spirit of the Renaissance  is still alive there, amid the cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and medieval architecture, despite the slick and touristy facade. In contrast to ultra-modern skylines made up of chrome and steel skyscrapers, the sight of the distinctive reddish Duomo rising above a teeming vista of old buildings and towers reassures one that in some parts of the world, the forces of modernity have not completely leveled the glory of the past.


Creative Writing for Kids

Today was my second time as a creative writing facilitator  with Chillibreeze in Bangalore, at the Doodles and Scribbles Creative Writing Workshop, 2011. The theme of my workshop was using music to stimulate creative writing. The workshop was aimed at children in the 10-15 year age bracket. I selected a variety of musical pieces — Mozart, Vivaldi, Jazz, Hindi film song, and pop — and asked the kids to write in response to the music. What did the music make them feel and see? What words did they associate with each particular piece? Could they craft a story line based on the music and with the help of some topic-prompts? This  idea was totally experimental — I hadn’t tried anything like this before and approached the workshop with some fear and trepidation. What if the workshop totally bombed and no one could think of anything to write after listening to the music? What  if the children just stared at me in confusion? Was the concept too abstract for a 10-year-old to grasp?

My fears flew out of the room as soon as we embarked on the first exercise: listening and responding to “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Most of the participants associated it with bright colors, like orange, gold and green/yellow; with celebration; and with a formal setting, like a ballroom. They all got the basic idea  that music can correspond with moods and emotions, and were able to connect with the emotion behind a piece such as the Four Seasons. I had similar results when I played a Hindi film song (“Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire), Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic,” and “Taare Jameen Par,” from the film of the same name. Some were even creative enough to associate Mozart’s lively piece with a green salad and a Latin Jazz piece with road-side festivals. When asked to create stories, they produced imaginative pieces about Irish castles shrouded in mist, Kings and Queens in royal gardens, imaginary “time shifters,” metaphorical kidnappings, chasing after thieves, stolen birds, talking dolphins, and Tom and Jerry in outer space.

The final activity was a group activity asking the children to listen to Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” and write about a character with superhuman powers who had the power to make the world a better place. They invented imaginary supermen and women such as Captain Triple R, Ecogirl, Dr. Bandage Mesmer, and Plumbogreeno, who is  a plumber with magical powers to to save water, bring dead plants back to life, and end global warming. Their imaginations were on fire as some of them even drew pictures of their invented superhero to illustrate their narratives. This is the part of the workshop I personally liked because it gave them an opportunity to interact with others in their groups and collaborate on a piece of writing. Although the individual writing activity was popular with the kids, there’s nothing like group work to make a room come live with the sounds of many voices in animated conversation with one another. There was a spirit of freedom and abandon in the air that allowed their creative sides untrammeled access to the world of the imagination, all inspired by the sounds of music.

The Death of Reading?

I am one of those people who daily mourns what I  call “the death of reading”. I know that this is a dramatic statement, perhaps even melodramatic. But as someone who has slowly drifted towards “web surfing,” I feel qualified to testify to the death of reading as we once knew it. Indeed, I am nothing more than a mute witness to the end of a once revered activity.  Unresistingly, I have allowed myself to be pulled by the tide, and now I must swim with the tide.

But let me rail against this fate. Let me rail against the end of long, silent summer afternoons interrupted by nothing other than the slow turning of pages as one moved steadily through an old classic; let me rail against the end of overstuffed armchairs, the soft light of a reading lamp, a steaming cup of Earl Grey, and a Somerset Maugham novel to get through; let me remember with nostalgia a time when sitting on green college lawns and reading W.B. Yeats was an experience of beauty and truth.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Internet. I appreciate it greatly.  It’s a great way to pass the time and a great source of information. I can read any poem I want any time I want thanks to the Internet. I can know when Paul Theroux’s new book is out and can read an excerpt from it without stirring out of my apartment. I can listen to authors speak about their works through podcasts that I download from the Internet. If anything, the Internet has brought distant worlds closer to me and has made them more accessible.

And there’s the rub. In bringing some things closer, it has pushed other things farther away. In making knowledge more accessible, it has also made it easier to get away with thinking, feeling, and doing less: When I know that I can command a poem by W.B. Yeats to appear on my screen at the click of a button, I have saved myself the trouble of experiencing that ache of longing, the ache to find a poem in a book, that specific poem in that specific book; I have spared myself the flustered, clumsy flipping of pages back and forth until – lo! — there it is again, with my undergraduate notations in the margins; there it is, after so long, like an old friend I haven’t seen in years but whom I have never forgotten.

To hold a book in one’s hands is to experience an author in a special way. It is to experience the labour that brought forth those pages. It is to hold a piece of another person’s life in your hands. It is to be faced with the incontrovertible truth that a person has, successfully or unsuccessfully, dedicated some years of his or her life to creating a body of work that could not have come into being without some suffering. It is to hold an ‘artifice of eternity’.

There is an eternity in which literature dwells, and there is this instantaneous instant of cyberspace. Have we traded one in for the other?


On The Road

The subject of this post is driving in Bangalore, and WHAT THE HELL DO PEOPLE THINK THEY’RE DOING ON THE ROADS THESE DAYS!

Enough said about potholes and the state of Bangalore’s roads, the fact  we’re driving not only on the left of the road but also on what’s left of the road. Enough said about all that, about bumper to bumper traffic that moves an inch an hour during peak traffic. There’s been plenty of venting about those themes. To add to these already existing woes you have all varieties of aberrant behavior on the roads.  Of aberrant varieties of pedestrian behaviour, the type I find most maddening is when people amble in the middle of the road, right in front of your approaching vehicle, with absolutely no intention of getting out of your way. It’s a silent war on the road, between your car and their legs. You can see it in their eyes, the way they walk more slowly than usual even though you are approaching at a speed of 40 kmph, staring blankly at your windscreen as if you aren’t there at all, as if even they aren’t there at all. You panic, but are hopeful that they will pick up the pace and leave the way clear for you, but your hope is in vain — their steps get slower just as you begin to accelerate. There’s something vaguely insolent about the whole encounter, cheeky even, dare-devil-like.

As for other drivers, forget about courtesy altogether. If there’s one inch of space between you and the next car, you can be sure that a motorcyclist will try to maneuver his way into that space; if you are at an intersection and another car is approaching from your right, you can be sure that the other car isn’t going to stop to let you pass by first. The rule is, no one give way to anyone; it’s every man for himself on these asphalt battlefields. Overtaking from the left is legion. Overtaking from any and all sides is a way of life. If you are patiently waiting for a chance to break through oncoming traffic, you can be sure that the guy next to you is going to squeeze his way past you first. There’s no such thing as “right of way”; it’s my way on the highway. People don’t so much drive as weave their way in and out of the traffic. If you can restrain the urge to remain in your lane and instead go with the flow by weaving your way through the vacant pockets in the traffic, you are sure to reach your destination sooner and prevent others from reaching theirs.

It’s the survival of the fittest and the fastest on these roads. Many dents later, I have learned some important lessons:

–don’t try to overtake the autorickshaw in front of you, because if you do, he’ll just creep up on you, accelerate,  and overtake you from the left.

–When you approach an intersection, always assume that a madly out-of-control vehicle lurks at the turning, waiting to plough right into your approaching vehicle.

Never allow make the mistake of allowing yourself to get sandwiched between two racing buses.

–If a motorcyclist has made up his mind to cross your vehicle at right angles just when you’re trying to get ahead in the traffic, nothing is going to make him change his mind. Your stasis is his advantage, even more so when there are 4 people traveling on his bike.

–Always accelerate at an intersection, otherwise you will end up waiting for all the other cars to pass you by.

Haruki Murakami/What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I don’t think that reading two Japanese writers (neither of whom I had read earlier) in close succession can be called “bingeing” on Japanese writers, but that’s what I thought I was doing when I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World, Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go as well as Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running within the span of a couple of months. They are both immensely talented writers, but in different ways. Ishiguro is deeply interior, even dark at times, extremely focussed on the streams of consciousness of his characters; Murakami, based on the one work I have read, has a more playful, teasing, light-hearted and comic style.

What does he think about when he runs, or when he thinks about running? In his typical, teasing style, he says: Nothing. Nothing at all.

“I’m often asked what I think about when I run. Usually, the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.

On cold days I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days . . . And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel. But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning.

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void” (16-17).

So what you get is about 180 pages  about this void in a spartan style that is a cross between Raymond Chandler — who inspired the title of this work — and Ernest Hemingway; Zen-like ruminations on the nothingness of everyday life through the lens of a writer and runner. It’s a book that’s as hard to describe as it is to put down.

It then struck me, the other day, that what this book is about is learning to cultivate a certain “stick-with-it-ness,” a dogged digging in of the heels in the face of faint-heartedness. The doggedness with which Murakami runs and his perseverance with running are the “glue” that keep him grounded and take him forward, past adversity and obstacles. It makes me believe that so much success in life derives from this simple lesson:  DO NOT GIVE UP.

Eat Pray Love . . . Then Marry

I am now more than halfway through Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed. I chanced upon it by accident while I was browsing at a bookstore last weekend. I have been a great fan of Eat Pray Love and have been looking around for something else to read by the same author.

Well, Committed pretty much “peels the onion” as far as marriage is concerned. Grandly renouncing the rose-tinted spectacles of romance, the author leaves no stone unturned in her quest to completely demythologize the world’s oldest and most revered institution — all in her own inimitable style. I must say that I envy her sense of humor and quick wit — both of which made Eat Pray Love such a resounding success.

The gist of Committed is that marriage is more often a curse than a blessing, especially for women. It’s something many women do because they feel that they have to. It’s a compulsion rather than a choice, a compulsion driven by thousands of years of rationalizations, injunctions, and decrees, as well as cultural stereotypes that leave no role for women other than as wives and mothers.  At the same time, there are, she acknowledges, good reasons to marry and to stay married:  children, companionship, stability, the experience of being a mother, the need for family — but these are not reasons that have ever appealed to her (and, dare I add, to me either).

On Exile

From Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender:

The exile feels that the state of exile has the structure of a dream. All at once, as in a dream, faces appear which he had forgotten, or perhaps had never met, places which he is undoubtedly seeing for the first time, but that he feels he knows from somewhere. The dream is a magnetic field which attracts images from the past, present and future. The exile suddenly sees in reality faces, events and images, drawn by the magnetic field of the dream; suddenly it seems as though his biography was written long before it was to be fulfilled, that his exile is therefore not the result of external circumstances nor his choice, but a jumble of coordinates which fate had long ago sketched out for him . . . (9).