The Fullness of a Bare Winter Scene

The past few weeks in California have been a pluviophile’s heaven. The atmospheric rivers bringing moisture to a state hardened by drought is very welcome.

I spent hours listening to the music of the rain, enjoying the gurgle of the water-butts, and the suction-like sound of the rain waters receding into the drains. We made paper boats and watched them gently sway along with the waters, we released driftwood stuck near drains, we empathized with fauna and realized what fragile creatures we are. These are the images of a happy childhood, and they warmed my soul as I shared these pleasures with the son.

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Out on a walk in the pouring rain one day, I felt at peace with the Earth around me. There were scarcely any humans about, and this in itself was refreshing. Without the banter of words, the language of Earth was so soothing. 

The river near our home has a name that invites teasing given the amount of water that usually flows in there. It is called the Niles river.

When one nears its banks, there is a sign warning folks against swimming, diving and fishing in the river. Only for almost the entire time we have been acquainted with the river, it has hardly boasted a flow enough to sustain more than a few paddling ducks and geese. Mostly the deer graze inside the riverbed, and its bed is home to many creatures: foxes, raccoons, deer, cats, water rats, squirrels and of course a whole multitude of birds: geese, avocets, gulls, grebes, ducks, herons, egrets. The trees nearby are home to California bluejays, thrushes, blackbirds, woodpeckers, hawks, owls and turkey vultures. 

I love our gentle stream that calls itself a river. But the past few weeks thanks to an uncharacteristic atmospheric river that bears moisture into the dry state of California, it had swollen into a respectable river and I found myself standing and gazing longingly at the waters moving towards the bay. The ducks seem to be enjoying themselves getting in with the drifts and floating along swiftly and then flying back several feet just to be able to do it all over again.

The deer seemed to be having a tougher time of it all. They are the ones who enjoyed the river-bed the most, and the swollen waters meant that their natural feeding grounds were no longer available for them. That afternoon in the pouring rain, the deer were on the trail since the riverbed they usually take refuge in was filled with water, and my heart went out to them. Luckily for them, the trail that is usually filed with humans was near empty. Like the children say, not everyone is kook-enough to walk in this storm. Slowly, but purposefully, I gave them the space on the trail so they may go towards a patch of greens nearby. The pouring rains did not seem to bother the creatures as much as it bothered us humans. 

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All this musing brought back into sharp focus what nitpicking creatures we are. We are scared to step out without umbrellas, raincoats, shoes and socks. We need our body temperatures just within this particular narrow range (97 F (36.1 C) and 99 F (37.2 C) ). We need our food prepared just so, and our lives orchestrated just so, and in spite of it all, have managed to create lives that are just so-so. (It has been so long since I used this term) 

The trees around us with their bare branches (abscission as shedding leaves is known) still remind us that the wintering season is not over. This is still the time to rejuvenate ourselves and trim down our commitments so we may sprout forth in glory during spring. But human beings seem to march to a different rhythm – a rhythm driven by financial earnings reports, calendars, the vague baying drum of stock market indices that demand more, a sadistic and almost schadenfeudic clamoring for layoffs, incessant profits etc. 

A month into the new year, the world has marched on from one grim news to another.

My mind harked back to the statue in Athens. The busy man statue in Athens, created by artist Costas Varotsos , it is a fitting statue for our times.

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Our lives have become more like the running man depicted in Athens. Despite all the world philosophers practically giving the secret to happy living away for free (Buddha, Plato, Socrates) , we manage to avoid the difficult work of being at peace with ourselves and choose the easy world of busy work(including yours truly).

A rain droplet trickled on to my nose. I came back to the fullness of a bare winter surrounding me and I took in a deep gasp of air to savor these moments. 

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Omafeit – Amsterdam Fietsen (Bikes)

After that hectic trip to Europe, we came back happy and content with all the marvelous experiences we had the opportunity to take in, and also intensely happy to be back to our suburban heaven in California. It was a beautiful rainy day when we landed and the day after, an even more beautiful sunny day. So, off the son & I went on a bike ride through the beautiful trails by the swollen creek that we can now call a river. It was as we were happily talking to each other and biking that we took to discussing the bikes of Amsterdam. The beautiful, haphazard bikes by the canal.

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There are images, and there are special ones. The ones that you have no time to take, but remain imprinted on your brain. The whizzing fleeting ones that sear themselves in some cozy part of the brain, associating with some feeling or aroma or words. The mystical ones.

“Remember that man with his kid on his shoulders riding the bike?”

“Oh- and that lady who had a cabin baggage sized suitcase hanging from her handlebar as she biked off to catch her train or plane!”

“Oh – that grandpa with his suit and lovely grand-daughter sitting in a basket seat in the front dressed like a princess tootling off for a Christmas service or lunch somewhere!”

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While walking by the canal in Amsterdam on Christmas Eve can be an experience in itself, it doesn’t quite prepare you for the chaotic beauty that is Amsterdam. I’ve heard folks talk about Amsterdam not being like other European cities. I’ve seen pictures of bikes by the canal on social media. But I was truly taken aback by the sheer joy and the haphazard manner in which the bikes were strewn against the canal as folks went about their business. There was a hustle and bustle, a gaiety, a chaotic joy to the whole atmosphere that was wholly unique to Amsterdam. It seemed like everything was possible with a bike. What an empowering sensation that must be! 

We were besotted by the warmth and quirks of the locals, and fellow gawkers such as ourselves alike.

The markets! The open air market near LinderGracht was a charm. Nowhere had I seen such a jolly throng of folks.About the only orderly thing is the statue of Dutch writer and educator Theo Thijssen, teaching one of his pupils.  The son & I chuckled as we made our way on a cold morning walk the next day and saw a bike propped against the statue as if the student was in a rush to get to his master, and had to get there on bike and dash it by the statue.

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This was Christmas morning, and many folks seemed to be making their way to church or for a meal with friends and family on their bikes, and we wished them all a merry Christmas as they biked past. The fact that they all waved back, returned the greeting or said something clever and witty tickled us to no end.

“You know I understand now what my colleagues meant when they said they missed the biking of Amsterdam when they moved to the US!”, said the husband as he watched a father and son whiz past us to somewhere. The baby sat safe and content in the front basket, while the father biked him to where he needed to be, while the wind whipped their faces with holiday cheer. “This is a whole different level of mobility and swift action.” 

A dozen geese squawking overhead flicked me back from Christmas time in Amsterdam to a cold January day in California in a jiffy. Who said we haven’t invented time travel and wormholes?

“Isn’t it so much easier to bike here on the trail though?” said the son as another biker courteously informed us that he was approaching us on the left, and sped past us with a wave of his hand as moved out of his way.

I agreed. 

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While it was enchanting to watch all these bikers wiggle their way through the crowds, it takes a certain debonair attitude I think to be able to bike suavely in Amsterdam, and for that they had our admiration. We amateurs were safer on a biking trail for now. 

Pluvial Pleasures

It had been one of those week-ends that started off with a weather report that issued a Hydrological warning.

The son & I exchanged looks. In the wake of a spelling bee at the son’s school, the word gave us no amount of pleasure. It must be exciting being a lexicologist.

Water bodies could swell? A torrent of moisture could swoop in? What magical things could a hydrological warning bring in its wake? Atmospheric rivers? Our own stream-like river could swell into a proper river?

river

“Hmm – maybe we should check out the riverbed nearby. And for good measure, I think I also shall take a bike ride and check out the dried out lake beds from a few weeks ago”, I said. 

The children shook their heads. 

“This! This is why people call you a nature kook, amma!” , said the son.

The daughter took a stronger stance:“No going biking in the rain Mother!”

“If you are going biking, try to be back by 3 p.m. – that’s when the rains are supposed to start. So, don’t go off all over the place, and forget the time. Watch the clock and get back!”, said the husband. 

Now there was a man who knew a lost cause when he saw one.

Accordingly, off I went. I whistled as I biked along the sparkling Earth. The birds stopped their squabbling and looked to see how an asthmathic milk-cooker took to biking (in my mind, I was whistling ‘These are a few of my favorite things’ song), and I smiled back at them. Wasted of course. Hydrological warning or not, geese do not smile, the wrens are joyous but don’t care much about you, the pelicans are barely curious. The wood ducks – they stop enough to see where you are going.This musing got me thinking about one little curious bird that we had seen on an off-roading adventure with the brother. I’d like to name the little thing, Birdingger Coothwart.

He (the brother I mean, not the bird) had jaunted us off to a hilltop somewhere south of Bangalore, and the world was soaking in freshly squeezed north-east monsoons. 

Now, there was a hydrological warning if ever there was one. Lakes overflowed, rivers leaped, streams gurgled, rivulets flowed, and the rains lashed down.

This little bird, no bigger than a wren, with a bright green and beige plumage followed the car. We had first noticed it as it swooped joyously over the tree-tops while his x cylinder, 4 tyre all-wheel drive terrain vehicle with XD pumps or whatever-it-is the nephew tells me about slowly muddled its way down the steep muddy grade. 

“Going down is harder than going up see?” , said the brother, and we nodded. None of us could drive that thing down that hill anyway, so what was the point in knowing how fast it could go, and long as it went?

The little birdie, however, wanted to know. It dived alongside the car peeking to see what kind of animal it was, and how it rumbled along on the road. Was it because this little one, whose flight range was probably far from the bustling city of Bangalore did not get many combustion engine visitors or was it because it craved the company of its occupants? Seeing that rhinoceroses were scant in this part of India, and there were no elephants in the vicinity the car must’ve been one of the largest moving things it had seen. 

As one can imagine, I had taken a dozen useless photographs with little luck. Ornithologists and bird photographers have my immense respect – for I got a great many pictures of boughs, (zoomed in, not zoomed in), tree trunks, branches, and even bushes, but not one of the little bird. I am not even aware of the kind of bird it is. Usually, I rely on Google’s image recognition software to help me with bird names (Those ML/AI engineers have no idea how much joy their little model brings me). But even Google draws a blank if you don’t have a picture. Maybe wildlife photographers in Bannerghetta region could help me out. At one point, seeing how persistent I was, the brother stopped the car and tumbled out himself to try to get a picture, but the bird had had enough. It was one thing to see a great big animal rumbling along peacefully, quite another to see other animals come out from this one, and it flew off. However, we caught sight of the little thing just a few hundred meters later. I swear there was a laughter in its flight, and I would like to be a bird like Birdingger Coothwart one day: joyous, free-spirited, curious, and prudent within limits.

These beautiful musings bought me to the dried lake beds on the opposite side of the Earth, and I was happy to see that the rains had at least filled one of the lake beds. 

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I cycled back home, keeping a sharp eye on the clock, and I must say, had I not stopped to take that brilliant photograph of that tree, I might’ve made it before the rains started. As it was, I made it to the neighborhood and the sharp, pelting droplets as they plopped all over me really made admire those who predict the weather. I mean they said 3 p.m. the rains would come and one could’ve set their clock by their predictions. 

Hmm. In one bike ride, I’d wanted to be a bird, a whistler, an ornithologist, a wildlife photographer, a botanist, and a climatologist (or whoever predicts the weather). A day’s work done, I piled into the house. Birdingger Coothwart may not have craved tea, but I did after those vigorous musings, and the fresh, cold air against my face. 

Αεροδρόμιο / Luchthaven / Airport

Though I do not remember much of the book now, I do remember having a revelation of sorts while reading the book Airport by Arthur Hailey decades ago. The book itself was written in the 1960’s, and I read it in the 1990’s probably. As a child I had never been to an airport. The rare times that we got to see a flight overhead, we all craned our necks with wonder. There was an awe to it all. I grew up in a place so small that it is hardly ever depicted in maps, nestled in the forests and hills – the nearest airport was a tiny functional but not busy one (then) over a 100 miles away) . So, we hardly saw flights overhead.  Even after all these years, there still is an awe when I see a flight overhead. Every now and then, when I have finished up the day’s work and I am able to sit outside gazing at the stars, I watch fascinated if a flight flies overhead. 

flight

I seem to have meandered into flights when I wanted to talk about airports. Anyway.

The past few months saw us lounging around airports more than we usually do. Strange as it is, airports are also the places of packed emotions, evoking longing and belonging in equal measure. Even 200 years ago, mankind could never have imagined a future in which air travel was not just possible, but also affordable for many. It is no wonder then that airports have always enthralled me. 

Every time, I peered out at the folks working behind the scenes so we could arrive and leave the places we were supposed to, when we were supposed to, I felt like sending them a little salute. The baggage tags, the runways, the meal preferences, the entertainment options while onboard, the staff ensuring that all that baggage is sent on its way, the technicians and airlines who ensure that the flights are properly staffed and functional, the immigration staff, the janitors, the software and machinery ensuring all of this works.

Looking around at the passengers, I noticed many who looked askance at the baggage carousel. But the whooshing sound when the carousel starts to spin and magically spewing passengers checked-in baggage is like an applause. For all the things that must’ve happened to make sure your baggage comes out where it supposed to. 

Where this sense of awe around airports flagged a bit was at the security check lines. The process seems to be getting lengthier, lengthier :This time, we had to take out all cosmetics and creams, and send then through separate security checks, apart from shoes, jackets, belts and all the regular paraphernalia. 

Which brings me to the topic of cosmetics.

As we walked past the brightly lit duty free shopping areas, I found myself having pedestrian thoughts, more than philosophical ones. I often feel that way in  commercial shopping areas. Why do this many companies seem to think that cosmetics are absolute essentials to buy before boarding that 16-hour flight?  Invariably by the time you land in your airport and are ready to face the immigration officer who points a golf ball sized camera at your face, I feel sorry for the officer who has to interact with us – grumpy frumpy curled up masses stretching their limbs while plodding in a line, trying to straightening their hair before heading to the immigration officer’s booth.

As I flew past the shops, my eyes often scoured for the one luxury that has become increasingly hard to find in our digital world – bookstores. Why do we dedicate so many shops and products to non-intellectual aspects of our personality, and so few to books? I reveled in the bookstores – taking pictures of books in all the different European languages and buying a book or two as my baggage could accommodate.

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I am not sure how airports evolved over the past 50 years, but the larger airports have made indoor marvels of these hubs of activity. The Amsterdam Schipol Airport had a clock that had us all looking at it open jawed as the man behind the mechanical marvel worked his way through the day showing us the time. We sat there wondering how they managed to do this. We came up with programmatic techniques, and other possibilities. We completely missed out the simplest one of somebody performing this 24 hour video that played on loop. 

Ha! Simple and elegant – the best designs always are.

The Doha airport in Qatar was spruced up for the World Cup no doubt, but still having an interior looking like an orchard in the middle of the dessert.

The Santorini airport in Greece was small and befitting a tiny island tucked away in the Aegean Sea. The Athens airport had some of the best books on Greek mythology (or maybe I had the most time in this airport to browse). 

As I descended in the San Francisco airport, I felt the flutter of welcome in my bones – welcome home! The baggage carousel whirred and our bags came tumbling out after traveling halfway around the world. I am glad we are able to feel  the gratitude of coming home.

I shall miss the bookstores, but relish home.

Perspectives in Art

We were on a long-ish hike from Fira to Oia in the island of Thera (now known as Santorini) 

It was not a very long one – a 7 mile hike spotted with fantastic views of the surrounding islands, sweeping views of the calm Aegean Sea and vista points of the island of Santorini itself. When done after a full continental breakfast, (the kind given by Santorini hotels), and with an interesting conversation on the side, it is easily done. Around the 3 mile mark, when we had left the busy white buildings on Santorini behind us and were walking gingerly up the slopes towards the narrow cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea, I asked the daughter her thoughts on art. I continue to be amazed by her artistic abilities, seeing …well how her parents draw. The previous evening, while we had all taken a hundred pictures of a gorgeous sunset, she had sat sketching the area while enjoying the sunset. 

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“So can you really identify the artist based on the stroke of the paintbrush or something like that?” I asked.

“I can identify a few of them – definitely not all of them obviously. “

“Well – yeah! People study art for years and entire lifetimes. “

“The thing is, with art, everybody starts off with learning the techniques of realism, but as they keep growing as artists, they also develop a unique style. That’s what I am working on – developing a style. I don’t yet know mine, but I am trying.” , she said.

I looked at her with a new perspective. This child always doodling in her room was working on developing a style. It humbled me to see that I had not even appreciated or seen most of her work. Sometimes, she showed us. Most times, she did not, for as she claims, she wasn’t proud if it. 

I could understand this, but did want to see more of her work and said so.

She shrugged with her brand of nonchalance , and I recognized the style. She laughed at this.

“See? With writing or language, almost everybody comes with a style. That’s why it is easy to spot plagiarism. Everyone’s perspective is unique. The way we see the world, the way we use our words, the way we laugh, almost all of that has a unique perspective, but it isn’t that easy to develop your unique style in art.” , said she.

I made some agreeable noises at this, but demurred. Was language really that easy to find a style to? “I felt like I had spent years trying to ‘develop my voice’ as famous writers say, and it is still evolving, which is why it is interesting too. For it makes the development of the craft enjoyable. But I don’t think we are each ‘born’ with a style.”

 “True True – Writing does get better with practice and work. “ she said. 

“But okay – let’s try this: we were in Delphi yesterday. If you were to write about your trip to Delphi, what would you write about?”

I thought about the glorious day at Delphi. Nestled in the Parnassus mountains, the home of the muses, this was where the Temple of Apollo was built. Apollo was the Greek God for light, poetry, and the patron of the arts. It was also the place the ancient Greeks went to, in order to have their futures prophesied to them. The Oracles of Delphi spotted literature the world over (Sybil Trelawny of Harry Potter Divination fame was named after a Pythia of Delphi called Sybill). Almost every story from the ancient times had a prophesy to run the show. As our bus left the city of Athens behind and ascended the Parnassus mountains, I wondered whether I would like to know my future. What if I did not like what was foretold in my future? Many did not. But their destinies were met even as they tried hard to fight it. Would I like to be guided by some vague prophesy even if I’d like to know how everything will turn out alright in the end? And what if it didn’t turn out alright? I don’t think I’d want to be miserable about it all. 

“Hmm…many many ways in which I could write it. But I think I would like to go at it from the perspective of how we got to visit the Temple of the God of Light on the winter solstice, on the shortest day of the year. Think about it: It was forecasted to be an intensely cold and rainy day high up in the mountains with limited visibility. I was worried we would not be able to able to enjoy the place as much it is was that cold and rainy. Indoor museums are alright, but high up in the mountains? And yet, it turned out to be a glorious day with ample sunshine. We got to enjoy the Parnassus mountains where the Oracles of Delphi gave out predictions and prophesies in directly opposite conditions from what was predicted. I loved the irony of that. So may be we are lucky and the trip to Delphi itself was a blessing in a way. “

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“Okay see – that’s what I mean.We went to the same place, had the same tour guide explain stuff to us, and enjoyed the same day. But if I write about it, I would write from the perspective of seeing the cats at Delphi. How they roamed among the tourists, came to some of us, and how it all felt magical. There was that woman who made me mad – because she shoo-ed away the cat from me, and then ordered me to take a picture of her. If it were unto me, I would have taken the picture of the cat instead! “ 

I laughed. “Did you take a picture of the cat?” She is entirely capable of that. 

“No! “ she said with some regret, “But, just imagine how it must be from a cat’s point of view seeing so many people.”

“What about you truffle bumps? How would you write about Delphi?” She said pulling her brother into conversation. He was trudging along ahead of us in the mountain path.

I’d write a story about how I was fighting some bad guys who were coming at me. They were there: hidden in the ruins of Delphi, and how I defeated them with the myths of Apollo to help me.”, said the son flexing his arm where there were supposed to be muscles. 

“He and his super villains. Huh Hmm. But do you see what I mean? We already have a unique perspective with our almost identical experiences. So, yes, writing is unique to most people. But since art starts off with classical realism as the basis, we need to work harder at developing that style and perspective I suppose.” 

We were 2/3rd of the way done and we turned around to see the distance covered. This hike is unique that way – it shows us the meandering coastline and the beautiful buildings we passed on the way – all in one panoramic view. We took a few pictures here and the daughter peered out to see how much farther we had to go.

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“Gosh – this is so far away, I left this piece of the jutting island out when I was sketching yesterday!”

“Lighten up! We can have a good coffee and a wonderful meal once we get back.” 

“I wonder what the myths of Santorini are.” I said to break them out of brooding over the remaining distance, and we passed the time discussing myths instead. 

santorini

Philhellenism – the love of Greek culture

After the freezing days of Paris, as we were bundling ourselves up in layers (yet again) , I said somewhat severely to the husband. “I think I’ve had enough of European vacations. After a few museums, a half a dozen cathedrals, and a few hundred pieces of art, I am done.”

The husband smiled one of his crafty smiles and agreed, for he knew that I will be the one craving a European vacation first. He just had to sit by, observe, and make bets with the children on the timing.

So, it was that we boarded our flight to Athens. Athens, the weather app promised us ,would be warmer, but still cold. It was expected to be between 40F & 65F (a difference of almost 15 degrees).

It was like every mile added not just warmth, but a different tinge to the culture. We had no idea on what to expect in Greece. It was our first time. A destination chosen by popular vote since the children are great fans of greek myths and have devoured all the books by Rick Riordan multiple times over. The husband had even booked a mythological tour to surprise them. But apart from this, our idea of Greece was based on A Big Fat Greek Wedding, Greek Myths by DeLaurailes, Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy: My Family and Other Animals, Farther Afield by Miss Read, and all the different tidbits we knew about Greek philosophers, and mathematicians through the ages. 

As you can see, we had no idea, which was marvelous, for we were thoroughly unprepared for what happened next. We fell in love! In love with the city of Athens, the country of Greece, and the Greeks themselves.

After the professional intellectualism of Paris, Athens was like walking into a theme park – here you can have philosophy, art, literature and all the little marvels of the mind, but only if you agree to lighten up, have fun, and stay curious. The gentle humor and warmth with which the Greeks speak to each other and to the tourists is to be seen to be believed. They are a fun-loving, smart, and kind people. It is no wonder that this small country tucked away in the Mediterranean Sea gave us so much of the foundations of Western philosophy and culture. If Democracy had not been chanced upon here, I doubt it would’ve survived or chanced upon at all. As it is, it has so many assaults on it, it is fragile enough that we protect it. Greece is like the Disneyland of Europe. It reminds you of life as it should be: ambitious and lofty in our goals, but reminding us at every turn with their jolly, vivacious myths, of our humanity, our sense of community, and the importance of humility. 

I hung out of the window in the chill morning peering at the Acropolis. Those buildings were from the 5th century BC. Athens (the Greek call their beloved city, Athina after the goddess Athena) has been continuously populated over the past 6000 years. This showed up in little things such as drainage systems, rebuilding efforts and such (we found to our surprise that toilet paper cannot be flushed in Greece, and water bidets are not installed everywhere either).

It is hard to not get up in the morning and think that you are but a butterfly in the passage of time. On the mythological tour, Denai (our mythological tour guide) was informative and thoroughly impressed with the son’s knowledge of the Greek myths. I strutted along ( a proud parent) and learning so much of the mythologies that helped shape our way of the world, that I must say the cold forgot to bother me.

Who cannot be awed by the story of the Temple of Zeus being destroyed multiple times in history and the latest one by lightning? If that was not a sign from Zeus – the god of lightning himself, the Greeks did not know what was.

Or that wonderful story about how the city of Athens got its name. Apparently, it was such a popular place that even the Gods fought for the place. So Zeus tired of this bickering asked Poseidon & Athena to decide via a popular vote. Each had to give a gift to the populace and the people could decide.

  1. Poseidon – the god of the oceans, gave them water, signifying naval power and thus prosperity as a port city. This gift appealed to the men of the land.
  • Athena – the goddess of wisdom and strategy, gave them the olive tree, signifying the change from hunter-gatherer mode to prosperity from the land. The women liked all the different uses from the olive tree (olives, light from the lamps lit using olive oil, the wood etc).

The citizens chose Athena’s gifts – for  according to myth, women outnumbered men at the time of the vote and Athena won. This made Poseidon angry and to mollify him, the temple of Poseidon overlooks the city of Athens, while Athena’s temple overlooks the oceans. It was also why women were not allowed to vote from then on (again a myth, since it was never obvious that women had the vote in Greece. According to wikipedia – women gained the vote in Greece as late as 1952. But it was a crafty way to deny women their voting rights and have a story around it.

In the parliament square, the temple of Athena stood alongside that of Hephaestus, signifying that intellectual work was just as important as physical work. This was the place the philosophers gathered alongside the farmers to decide, debate and vote on the important matters of the day. Both types of people had to be in harmony for a prosperous society.

Thus it went in Greece. Wherever you went, there was a little story, involving the mighty gods, and their follies, all narrated by the populace with gentle humor.

And yet. While the myths are everywhere, there is a surprising and thoroughly lovable lack of reverence to these gods. They are gods – sure. But they have flaws – big ones. Much bigger than our own flaws since they are so much more popular and powerful.

I think it has to do with the complete dissociation of religion from the mythology. Indian mythology is just as broad, diverse and intricate – but since it is intertwined with Hinduism, good luck trying to be flippant about any aspect of it no matter how justified.

“Next time we come to Europe, we must stay longer in Greece, so we can go to the countryside and visit the little villages that dot Greece, maybe visit the island of Crete and Corfu.”, I said at the end of the glorious day in which we had eaten far too much delicious food, enjoyed far too many myths, and been far too enamored by the music and language of the greeks.

“Twenty-four hours!”, said the husband exchanging knowing winks with the children. They all guffawed.

“Amma – you said – No more Europe! Africa calls, and Australia sings and all that, 24 hours ago!”

What was there to say?  That’s how people fall in love with a country. It is no wonder they have a word for it. Philhellenism – a love of Greek culture!

Froide a Paris avec Gezellig

The husband planned a meticulous trip to 3 different countries in Europe for the nourish—n-cherish household. Left with all the rest of the work, I stood in front of my bookshelf dilly-dallying on the reading material. Finally, I chose Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, which was an excellent read.

Neither here nor there: Travels in Europe by [Bill Bryson]

Bill Bryson started off his travels with catching the Northern lights in Norway. We chose France. But believe me, by the time we landed and made our way to the Airbnb , I felt like I was at the North Pole. The high temperatures of the day were 32F or OC. One night while standing by the Seine river watching the Eiffel Tower from a distance, I was so cold, I may have seen the aurora borealis over Jupiter. The daughter’s eyelashes froze, the son with no extra fat reserves froze too. The Seine miraculously flowed on.

Luckily, T’was the most wonderful time of the year!

This feels the time when overuse of the word , “T’was” is a requirement. Europe in Christmas time is a joy. The store fronts in tourist locations have marvelous decorations put up for Christmas and we couldn’t stop admiring the many ways in which people think to spread cheer. It was irresistible to stop and take a few pictures, very well knowing that I may never look at them again.

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Cities in Europe have a charm to Christmas time that is hard to capture. There is music in the air, there are musicians in subway stations, lights strung up everywhere in artistic and beautiful garlands like little bubbles of joy through the cold winter scene outside. Finally, there is a purposeful stride to people as they walk swiftly in their heavy coats looking sprightly, even though we seemed to feel lumberous with all the layers of thermal wear.

Our warm flight attendant on the KLM flight told us that the Dutch have a word similar to Hygge for this particular feeling:

It is called Gezellig.

She said the word was not easily translated, as it encompasses all warm feelings associated with the yuletide spirit (but is not restricted to Christmas or winter imagery) – just read the link above, will ya?

Every now and then, we would encounter a quiet fascinating residential street with plenty of trees. On one such charming street that windy day, the last few leaves from the trees above floated down and I went chasing after them in glee. No surer way to lift one’s spirits or body temperatures in my books!

The ones who impressed us the most though , were the relentless joggers of Paris. In case, any of you missed the gist thus far – Paris – beautiful but biting cold in winter. Yet, here they were, zipping through the streets in shorts and light jackets. I ain’t going to lie : that takes a special sort of determination and dedication and I would’ve taken my hat off to them if I didn’t think my brain would freeze.

Walking past a little pond that had frozen over, we stopped to watch the ducks standing on the frozen waters. Had their other duck friends flown onto warmer climes in Africa or Argentina, while these poor ducks were stuck here? I thought of that passage by Bill Bryson on his winter trip to Oslo to see the aurora borealis: I suppose this was one of those times when I truly felt grateful to be a visitor and not have to live there. I could already feel my feet freeze through the thick boots, and woollen socks, and couldn’t wait to get back to the room to take a warm shower. How were these poor birds standing on frozen water without socks, coats or caps? Yet, they seemed peaceful enough. They did not seem to be anticipating the World Cup Football Finals match later that evening, they did not seem to think anything of the rain forecast later that night.

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“Are you coming or not? Freezing here – let’s get to a warm restaurant for the match!” , said the husband and I hurried along tucking away my little interlude with the ducks of France. It was time to cheer with the people of France for the football World Cup. France Vs Argentina.

After the freezing days of Paris, as we were bundling ourselves up in layers (yet again) for our small foray to find food, I said somewhat severely to the husband. “I think I’ve had enough of European vacations. Next time, we explore other places – Africa, South America, Australia: so many continents to explore! After a few museums, a half a dozen cathedrals, and a few hundred pieces of art, I am done.”

The husband smiled one of his crafty smiles and agreed, for he knew that I will be the one craving a European vacation first. He just had to sit by, observe, and make bets with the children on the timing. Much like watching a football game.

The Artists at Paris

The husband planned a meticulous trip to Europe for the nourish-n-cherish household. Trips to Europe are rarely complete without museums and so, off we went with our admiring hats on. I do not know the different periods in European art, and after several trips find that I am astounded by how much there is to learn and appreciate.

I do not know why Claude Monet spent 30 years in his garden in France painting the lily pond. I am even less capable of recognizing a Monet from a Chagall. But I am glad that Monet’s masterpiece with the lily ponds in his estate in France have a home designed specifically to appreciate the art like he intended it to be (The Orangerie Museum: Musée de l’Orangerie). How many artists get to have that particular claim to fame?

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After the Louvre, the Orangerie museum was a treat. The Orangerie museum was a beautiful little museum tucked away near the most historically magnificent palace grounds in Paris. (Fun fact: apparently,  the word orangery refers to a protected ground in large palaces in Europe :   a greenhouse for growing oranges, lemons and other citrus fruits in cool climates.)

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We each went our ways and did not have to worry about getting lost. It was a small, compact museum with works of a few artists, and it was all very done. Really – the way Europe reveres its artists and preserves its art history is admirable. In about 3 hours, we were done and ready to explore the rest of Paris by foot. As we walked on, we fell to discussing Art – the Renaissance, the rise of cubism, and all the rest of it. 

How some artists chose lighter subjects such as Auguste Renoir in these paintings of the girls bonding over music, or whispering a secret together.

Or the beautiful nature filled works of Sam Szafran where the human is but a tiny part of the intricate patterns of nature

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As we trundled away from the Orangerie museum towards the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it was irresistible to stop and take a few pictures, very well knowing that I may never look at them again.

We ended up in due course, after our glacial progress through the streets of Paris, at the foothills of the Eiffel Tower. It was there that the many perspectives of Art we’d just learned about became apparent. The son tried taking pictures using the vertical panorama technique that I had shown him.

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He showed us cubism.

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We even have a picture of me pulling off the invisibility cloak after apparating to the foot of the Eiffel Tower. I wonder why these art forms do not deserve their place in museums of modern art.

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How better for our artists to capture the true magic of a European vacation?

2022 Reading

It is that time of year when we

  1. cannot believe another year has gone by and
  2. simultaneously ponder on what a long year it was.

The quixotic nature of time – once again making a fool of us all.

It is also the time I look back fondly on the books that lit up my inner world, and take a moment or two to jot down all the notable titles, read other people’s lists, and make jolly to-read lists for the coming year, and so much more.

I thought I was scatter-brained, had a lot going on, and therefore, my reading took a hit. But it seemed to be the other way round. Reading, once again seemed to have worked its magic in helping me through 2022.

Non-Fiction

There were quite a few books in this genre. Only mentioning the ones that stood out in my mind for various reasons. (Not because of the content alone, but also time of year when it seemed to have been relevant, how much I managed to absorb of new ideas etc)

Fiction

  • The Alice Network – Kate Quinn (this one is a fictional account of real life events of female spies who used to smuggle messages across borders at considerable peril to themselves.) The daughter told me that Audrey Hepburn’s (Of Roman Holiday fame) was  also well known for her efforts during this period when she held underground ballet concerts and so on to help people during the miserable times of the Second World War, and many times risked being caught and hoping to get off easily because of her diminutive stature and size.
  • Women of Troy – Pat Barker
  • A Blizzard of Polar Bears – Alice Henderson (A good racing thriller for airport reading) 
  • Akimbo and the Elephant – Alexander McCall Smith 
  • The Blue Book of Nebo – Manon Steffan Ros (What happens after a nuclear war – I am sure many of us have pondered what the aftermath of an apolcalypse would be like. This book that does just that.)
  • Young Mozart – William Augel (hilarious! )
  • Plus my standard dose of R K Narayan, Miss Read & P G Wodehouse  whose wise and irreverent view of the world, I find refreshing and a regular tonic to life. 

Science Fiction:

  • Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir
  • Daughter of the Deep – Rick Riordan
  • Bewilderment – Richard Powers (This is one of the best books I’ve read – highly recommended. Stays with you for a long time)

Special Children’s Books:

Poetry:

How can there be no magic in the list?

Please share your reads with me. Would love to get started on my reading list for 2023.

Temple of the Mind?

We’d been on a short trip to catch some European magic. We started off in Paris. In order for us to experience a proper European winter, the 1st day in Paris started off with a brisk walk to the Louvre at 8 in the morning when the temperature was still 24F. As we stood there, waiting for the rest of the tour group to join us on the marvelous walking tour through the Louvre, I felt a sudden stab of pity for all those who had lived before our times. 100 BC, 500 AD, 1500 AD, 1700 AD. None of these poor folks had indoor heaters that hummed and thrummed the way the museum indoors sounded welcoming. They didn’t have access to 32°Heat products that were brilliantly designed thermal wear designs – nor were they commonly available after mass production. With three layers of clothing, if it was still this cold, how on this marvelous Earth a mere 100 hundred years ago had people endured this time of the year? The thousands who died in the cold winters in the trenches, on the war fronts, in concentration camps. I shuddered and this time not from the cold. 

As I stood there, thinking of the little history I did know, I wondered why we never learnt from them. Why did we not recoil from war, sense divisive forces and squash them? Maybe this humanity’s path – bring ourselves to the brink of annihilation with our madness multiple times over and then miraculously survive till the one time when we don’t. Who knew? Wars and enmity don’t seem to end. 

Mercifully, our rag-tag tour group assembled after about 1/2 an hour that felt like 2. We walked into the Louvre like frozen zombies hoping to thaw out with the artworks inside. How did that sculptor bring himself to work on the marble statue of Venus dated 120 BC through these cold winters?

We started off at the famous prism inside where those who read or watched the Da Vinci code. It was beautiful and really, who thought of putting up bean-bags on that pole of the prism? It started the tour of with touch of a whimsy before the academic aspects of the museum unleashed itself.

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If I were to describe the Louvre and the Vatican in one stroke of a brush, it would be: Too many artworks to properly appreciate each one.

Though, our tour guide, Maria, tried her best. There were 38,000 pieces of art in there. The Vatican (70,000 of which 20,000 are on display). With all the hundreds of artists at the time, why did only a few achieve lasting fame? Maria explained many things about art that we ought to have known, but didn’t. Things such as  the angle of the light, the imaginative aspects of landscape, the differences in perspective, the kind of face that seemed to have appealed to Leonardo Da Vinci

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Did that famous, but thoroughly over-rated face of Mona Lisa have a glint of Leonardo Da Vinci’s favorite student? (shown below?)

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I keep clicking pictures of the pieces that appealed to me as she gave us salient features. I remember standing in the museum and thinking that I must not let art escape me in the daily humdrum of life. Corporate life, especially, had no time baked in to appreciate the finer aspects of life such as literature, art & music the way schools do. So, how do we make an appreciation of art a daily ritual, so there is always a little of the artistic in us? Oh! So many lofty thoughts. If Leonardo Da Vinci were witness to my thoughts that morning, he might’ve taken me on as a student, grandly overlooking my lack of talent, just for the touching sincerity.

But a mere 48 hours later as I write this, I am distressed to say that I cannot remember why I took half of the pictures I did. 

There was something about a picture of the maternal (Maria said Leonardo Da Vinci did not have a mother or someone who set a maternal example in his life, and thus the picture was doubly important). And something appealed to me. But what? 

This one appealed to me as a writer. The early journalist who felt he had to say his truth and was murdered for it.

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Or the coronation of Napoleon. Here was promise that megalomaniacs existed, continue to exist, and will continue to wreak havoc. In the absence of social media, this was Napolean’s attempt at portraying the coronation to the masses like he wanted – the truth be damned. Hundreds journeyed to the Louvre to get a glimpse of Napoleon and his bride, at the coronation. Apparently, Napolean’s mother did not accept his choice of bride and refused to attend the ceremonies as a result (there is a nice piece of continuity through the ages), but she is there in the painting. The Pope was invited and snubbed, but he looks happy behind the king. Maria pointed out many such discrepancies which I am afraid have evaporated since. Those art aficionados who do know the details have obviously written them out in detail in hundreds of books, blogs and YouTube videos for souls like myself.

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And those statues of Venus – already promising womankind with all sorts of torment thanks to the impossible standards of beauty (the tall vertebrae, the perfect ratios between head, legs and girth, that seldom seem to bless breathing and living souls as we live out our lives on Earth.) Did the lovers of the sculptors of Venus feel the pressure, or were simply not bothered about the grandiose perfectionism as they had to tend to the business of living?

Venus de Milo on display at the Louvre

So many inspirational, marvelous wisps floated in at the Louvre. Maybe that is the vibe of museums: the wisps of imagination and insight from the millions of people over hundreds of years all hanging together illuminating the souls who dare to dip their toes into these journeys of the mind.

Our own temple of the minds.

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