Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Its raining boost cake !

For perplexed readers, boost cake is a sweet made with milk, flour, sugar, ghee and our very own bournvita aka boost. I was reading another recipe when I came across the boost cake recipe in one of the blogs and it brought back all my memories of amma’s boost cake since she used to make it for every Diwali and I was always the taster. Like the blog says - Pop a piece into your mouth while its still warm, and melt away in ecstasy, as it melts in your mouth!.....just thinking of it makes my mouth water (actually have a lot of jollu in my mouth right now !!)

Ever since I read it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and so mentioned it to amma on the phone. Without delay, amma prepared it, boxed it up and have my brother drop it off at my cousin’s place since my cousin was headed to Amsterdam in a couple of days. Amma had made 2 boxes – one for my cousins and one for me. Inga dhan kadaila oru twist – when my brother delivered it, he failed to mention that one of the boxes is for me. Afterwards I hear on the phone from some other cousins that the sweet was great and they all had it during the get-together and I am thinking ‘appo enakku?!’…then I learnt about the ‘twist’ and thought ‘ahaa...' and I discussed my sogam with my best friend, who is incidentally married to one of my cousins (yeah, yeah, I have many of them :D) and then forgot about the whole thing.

Last weekend when Ashok came home he says ‘I have a surprise for you, a surprise that will make your eyes pop’ and he hands me a bubble-wrapped-over-an-aluminum-foil-inside-a-plastic-cover package (this would have really been one long word in German :D) and even when I feel it, I know what it is...I rip the package, microwave the boost cake and the first bite sends me to seventh heaven (whatever that means !)...then I learn that my dear cousin not only brought it with him to Amsterdam but decided to courier it to Ashok asap to make sure I get it while its still fresh…..Sowmya cousina kokka ?!

Today I learn that another courier is on its way. My best friend (who has a 10 month old baby), on hearing my soga kadai, immediately called amma, got the recipe, made the boost cake and sent it by courier to Germany…Sowmya friendna chummava !?

It was a whim that was brought about by me being vetti and reading some recipe...to think that there are so many people to take it seriously and fulfill it for me...now you know why I love them all to bits, now you know why there are no easy goodbyes...

Monday, January 25, 2010

No Easy Goodbyes.....

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.

If I were able to think or even understand this quote from Mother Teresa correctly, then saying Goodbye shouldn't hurt....it should only bring me fond memories and make me wonder with the same fondness about when I am going to see the person next.....and irrespective of how much I try to grow up, Goodbyes are never easy.....true, with days going by, they hurt less and less and I replace tears with happy tears and a grin but it still remains that Goodbyes are never easy......

When 3 of my really close friends had to leave the school since their parents got transferred, I remember how fervently we promised each other that we would regularly write to each other (those were the days of inland letters and greeting cards by post) and how much we tried to spend the last day together and how dull and upset I remained the whole week after they left....but I think at that age (I was 12), it is easier to replace one friend with another and I got through that phase.

The next time I had trouble saying Goodbye was during the school farewell...lots of tears, hugs, autographs, candles (with the Mustafa song in the background)

kalvi payilum kalam varayil thulli thiriyum engal vizhiyil
kaneerai kandadhillai thendral satchi.....
Nanban pirindhu ooru thirumbum nalil mattum dhan neer arumbum
kanneril dhane engal farewell party.....

But the consolation was that most of my friends lived in my neighborhood and so I knew I would always know where to find them if I wanted to. Thanks to yahoogroups, I am in touch with almost all of them.

I assumed then that my college farewell would be as hard too but surprisingly it wasn't. I think there were 2 reasons - technology for one (since we had email addresses of everyone) and age for another; at that age, you make only close friends and you know in your heart that you would somehow stay in touch with them.

Then came my trip to Germany and the excitement of going to another country kept me going until amma said ''ippove unna kalyanam panni kuduthutenu nenachukaren'' (non-tamil readers: my amma said that she was going to assume that I was married and was going away) but the hardest part came when I returned to India for a 6 week vacation after nearly 3 years. I couldn't imagine going back to Germany and all along the way to the airport I was foolishly thinking of ways to get out of it. I was holding up well until my gang of cousins came to see me off and one of them hugged me tightly and said ''take care'', then rose a huge lump in my throat and try as I might, I couldn't stop those tears from appearing at the corner of my eyes and I had to swallow many times before I could stop making a fool of myself (by shedding tears in public) !

On the third day of the wedding (yeah, yeah, I had a 3 day wedding), while we were leaving to Ashok's place, I was feeling queer....I shouldn't have given that my parents live less than 10 km away (and I have lived alone for quite a few years in Germany) and I knew Ashok and his family for a long time before we got married...but I did and finally when appa gave me a hug and I waved ''Goodbye'' from the car (much like in the movies), I burst out sobbing much to everyone's surprise and if I may add, discomfort !

I still cannot make my peace with some airport send-offs (Is that the plural, by the way?!) and some train station send-offs and although I am telling and training myself to remember the happy times and the times to come and the fact that absence makes the heart grow fonder, I cannot let go, I simply cannot......

Oh...well, I am thankful that there are certain people who will always remain in my life, irrespective of the send-offs, the goodbyes...yes, the goodbyes are not easy but I know I don't have to let them go.....and that keeps me going :)

PS: For worried readers, I am not going crazy....am just in one of those moods....I blame ARR and Thamarai for that......melum melum urugi urugi unai enni engum idhayathai enna seiven, unai enni engum idhayathai enna seiven....tugs at my heart everytime.....

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Lose Weight Gain Health

3 people have asked me in the last 2 days for tips on losing weight. So I decided to write about what I know and do. Before anything I want to etch into the reader's brain that the losing-weight concept should never make you lose focus of the motive - HEALTHY LIVING albeit there are many factors that tempt people to look at it purely from the point of having a good (or skinny) figure. It is akin to choosing fashion over comfort, yes, you can do that occasionally but in the long run only comfort pays off !

Warning: No weird losing 1 Kg-per-day tips. It is all plain and straightforward, right food, right eating habits and exercise.

Eating habits

- Eating 3 meals a day is important: Many working people skip breakfast, a very easy way to gain weight because the body assumes you are in ‘starvation’ mode and most of what you eat for lunch will be stored as fat instead of being used up as energy. Breakfast or breaking fast (since you have not had any food in nearly 10-12 hours) is the most important meal of the day and should NEVER be skipped.

- Snacking: The digestive system is active every 2-2.5 hours, so eating something between meals is a really good way to keep your metabolic rate high and a long gap between meals (lunch at 1 and dinner at 8 for example) would lead to hunger with the result that many people end up stuffing themselves at dinner !

- Avoid going to bed immediately after eating: There should be at least 2 hours gap between dinner and when you go to bed. According to me, even siesta is a bad idea but Spaniards manage to do it, no idea how !

Food

It is indeed true that what tastes good is not what is healthy but thankfully not all the time – eg: fruits, vegetables (well-cooked of course) etc.

- Drink water: 2-2.5 litres of water a day is a must – not necessarily plain water but can be in the form of buttermilk, teas and juices, but I would recommend only water because of the calorie content in other drinks. Water is extremely essential for absorption of all nutrients.

- Eat fruits instead of juices: Having an apple is better than apple juice because the former gives you fiber while the latter gives you mostly just sugar. Preserved juices have almost no nutritional value, so avoid them.

- Eat salads instead of stew (kootu): Cooking for a long time or frying or boiling almost always reduces the nutritional value of food. So replace cooked meals with salads at least once or twice a week. For example, shredded carrots with tomatoes and lemon (garnished with coriander and spices like mustard) is a tasty and healthy dish.

- Cut down on beverages: Remember the milk and sugar that goes into Coffee and tea have a lot of calories in them!

- Cut down on sweets and fried foods: obviously one need not completely give them up (Appa often says that he would rather enjoy life than do nothing and live until 80)! Switching to olive oil or some oil with omega-3 fatty acids will be a good choice (These are the unsaturated fatty acids that are good for the body).

- Avoid empty calories (a 2000 calorie pizza has very little nutritional content) – icecreams, sodas, soft drinks, chips and most preserved foods fall in this category.

Of course you can starve and lose weight like models do, but what is the point in looking like Aishwarya Rai, if you can't even run a km when rogues chase you ?!

Exercise:

While reducing food intake will definitely reduce weight, it will not help you maintain weight. For that there is no choice but to exercise since building muscle (no, no, am not taking about Arnold or Venus Williams, just increasing the muscle mass in the body) will automatically start burning fat.

- Any exercise as soon one gets up, on an empty stomach, is the most effective. You will have to spend 4 times the effort to burn the same number of calories when you do the exercise at any other time of the day. Yes, it is difficult to do it on weekdays, do so during weekends.

- Any exercise (walking or jogging) for less than 1 hour accomplishes very little. So if you cannot jog, walk for an hour everyday (when you come back from work or visit a temple closeby or go around your block, anywhere). Joining a fitness centre is a good idea too but only if you will go there at least 3 times a week! I wrote another post on the same topic, and there are a few more tips in it, towards the end of the post, that I do not want to reiterate here.

- Doing simple stretching exercises for 15 min after jogging or walking will help. It will keep your muscles flexible and will avoid any strain caused by exercise that your body is hitherto not used to.

- Some other tips that you can incorporate in your routine (remember doing it a few times will make it a habit)
1.Walk short distances, Avoid cars or taxis or autos
2. Avoid elevators, take the stairs
3. Avoid a remote, walk to the TV every time you want to change a channel
and above all, doing everything with a friend or someone with the same objectives always helps. This way there is someone with whom you can share your progress as well as compete with.

One of my friends lost 12 kilos in 3 months. All she did was have a healthy diet and walk for an hour a day. This is how her diet plan looked like
- 3 idlis for breakfast
- 2 chapathis, vegetables and a cup of rice rice for lunch
- 3 chapathis for dinner
- fruits between meals as snacks

According to your basal metabolic rate (BMR), you can increase the quantity of food (one should never feel hungry since the body will then go into ‘starvation’ mode) but the gist remains the same - right food, right eating habits and exercise. Of course it does not mean you should not have a party or attend a wedding and have rich food once in a while, only just make a note that you should work out another 30 min the next day.

It is also important to track your weight. So have a weighing scale at home and check your weight at the SAME time every day (or week or any time period you prefer) and preferably as soon as you get up. The body weight will vary by 1-2 kilos throughout the day depending on what you do. Weight will drop after vigorous exercise due to dehydration and will increase after food intake.

Trust me, habits die hard, once you start doing it, you will keep doing it. For motivation, look in the mirror and keep a pair of pants that you have not been able to fit into for the last couple of years and the day you fit into it, you will be in the seventh heaven (I know this works for girls, wonder what works for guys - the girlfriend or wife :D ?!)

Note for pregnant and/or lactating women: Being pregnant or having a baby is not an excuse to bloat ! Even for these stages, doctors recommend a certain weight gain, a certain diet and certain exercises. Please follow those because while gaining weight is 3 times easier, losing weight is 4 times slower.

Note for All: In spite of eating the right food and exercising, if there is still no change, perhaps it is time to check your thyroid levels and/or if you have other hormonal imbalances.

Update as on 25th Jan:

Thanks to Musingal for bringing up a valid point, Protein intake. When you watch your eating habits, it is not enough to just reduce food intake but it is important to reduce fat, carbohydrates while still keeping protein. Most vegetarians assume it is not possible with their diet (and some use it as an excuse to eat meat) but nothing could be farther from the truth. Right from milk and yoghurt to lentils and beans, there is protein everywhere. In fact plant protein is easily digestible and hence is more effective than animal protein. Unfortunately, even doctors are not aware of this fact since most of them hardly have enough knowledge and experience with Nutrition itself.

I usually check nutritiondata.com or wikipedia for protein content. If you cannot watch your protein take with natural foods, you can try the protein drinks available in the market. But care should be taken that you do not overdo it. Too much protein is again not good (both for sports and general health) since it interferes with calcium absorption and can also cause undue stress on kidneys and Vitamin b6 deficiency.

Copyright for exercise picture

Thursday, January 21, 2010

España - muy bien !

I never understood why any trip to Spain was considered ''off-the-beaten-track'', given that it is as close, as colorful, as sunny, as tourist-friendly, as non-English-speaking as Italy is. But I also never understood how I never planned a vacation in Spain in all these years....I once planned a weekend trip to Barcelona that had to be cancelled due to work but besides that Spain was never on the Radar for a proper vacation and why - I cannot think of a single reason ! The feeblest excuse I have is that I was busy with other places.

We had booked our flights, hotels, online reservations for tourist spots, brushed up on our Spanish lessons (that we had taken a while ago, Ashok more recently than I and hence the pro), picked up suggestions from friends and were all set for our trip. Our itinerary comprised of 2 days in Granada, a day in Cordoba, a day in Barcelona and a week in Madrid, from where we had planned one-day trips to Toledo, Salamanca and El Escorial - quite ambitious considering that there are people who spend a week in almost each of these places ! But we had no plans of just seeing everything from the outside and coming back home with sore feet and tired minds....it was meant to be a true vacation, so we made a few picks in every place and stuck to them.

The top 6 highlights of the trip were
1. Alhambra, Granada: Remember the Amber fort in Jaipur ? It looks imposing perched atop a hill and as you go closer, you widen your eyes and once you are inside, your jaws drop at the exquisite carvings and rich architecture - I almost experienced that for the second time when we visited the Alhambra. Eerily enough, Al hambra (like amber) means the ''red one''. We spent nearly 6 hours there and I have so much to say that I decided to make that a separate post.

2. Mezquita, Cordoba: There is a Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, yeah that's right, two-in-one - a result of the end of the Islamic era by Christian invasion. The first photo shows the Mosque and the one below it the Cathedral.

I found the pamphlet circulated there very partial claiming that the Islamic Invasion borrowed ideas from the already existing Christian architecture but the pictures will tell you that this is quite a lame attempt to rob the Moorish people of their glory.

3. Salamanca: One of the most beautiful cities that I have seen, so much so that it made me dream of what I had not dreamt about in a long time - moving to a place (albeit temporarily) that is not India. I have already written about how I fell in love with the place. Toledo was beautiful too in its own way but Salamanca took the prize away !

4. Flamenco show: Tap dancing has always impressed me (although it is classified as geeky in many sitcoms in the US, no idea why) and when that combines with the passion and fervour that accompanies the flamenco guitar, music and beats, it just leaves one mesmerized. Photos and videos are here.

5. Segrada Familie (Church of the Holy Family), Barcelona: Although it did not appeal to me for its beauty, the sheer geometry of the Segrada Familie had overcome any qualms I had about it. The entrance to the Cathedral itself is eerie, reminded me of Dracula's Castle and while I was wondering why, the audio guide went on to explain that facade was devised to reflect the suffering of the Passion of Christ (and hence the representation of death) by Antoni Gaudi.

The inside of the Church gives one the feeling of walking into a thick forest where if you look up you will see the sunlight through small gaps between the trees and apparently this is exactly what Gaudi had in mind (shown in the photo below - while the one on the left is the real one, the right one is a miniature model used for design)


If one had a contest, it should to be to spot all the animals engraved in various parts of the Cathedral - I saw everything from snails to snakes, from squirrels to chameleons. The tour was well worth the 3 hours we spent and the ride to the top to get a view of the city and see the towers upclose, even more. Since the Church is still under construction (it began in 1882) one can see the engineering drawings, models etc. and all the nuances involved in such a huge project - that part was fascinating, the effort is quite unfathomable !

The picture shows a miniature model of how it will look when its complete - 18 towers in all representing the 12 Apostles, 4 Evangelists, Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ (the tallest one, 170m high). Ashok and I have made a resolution that we should come back and see the grand opening 16 years from now (Lets see what the good God has in store for us!)

6. Cathedral, Granada: I do not know if I liked the cathedral for its magnificent ceilings or the huge pillars or the exquisite altar or because we were the first ones there and we got to enjoy the Cathedral with a good audio guide at peace but the Cathedral in Granada is certainly worth a visit and getting up early (coming from someone like me that is saying a lot) !

Things you must know before going to Spain
- No one and that means absolutely no one speaks English. Knowing basic Spanish will make your vacation a lot more easier, especially if you are not in Madrid or Barcelona. Otherwise, be ready for ''interesting'' experiences. Even then you might have a few in store for you, like we did :D !

- Spaniards are very friendly, hospitable and they love to TALK, TALK and TALK. You will find people going out of the way to help you. On the other hand, if you are in a hurry, don't stop and ask for directions. For a simple question like ''where is the train station?'', you will get a 2 minute reply...seriously, especially if the question is in Spanish ! In spite of your accent and the sort of ''retarded'' look you have, they somehow assume you know Spanish and they go on with a fervour and there is absolutely no pause when you can excuse yourself !

- If you are a vegetarian and not a model that lives on grapefruit, you are in big trouble. Forget hot vegetarian meals and learn to live on pastries and fruit juices especially if you are not in big cities. Tapas sin carne sin pescados (snacks/appetizers without meat, without fish) was the watchword rather phrase for us that was consistently followed by a surprised look and helpless shrug everywhere we went ! This is probably the one factor where Italy scored big in comparison to Spain

- Spaniards have a simple breakfast, a really heavy lunch (around 2pm or later) and a very light dinner. So don't be surprised if shops and places are closed between 1:30 and 4:30. Funnily enough, the only people you will see outside at this time in peak summer (when its around 45 deg C) are sweaty tourists and their cameras. Do not expect great service in a crowded restaurant, if you just order a sandwich for lunch. You would be better off if you switched your routine to theirs as well - have a 3 course lunch, take a 1 hr nap, a salad for dinner and party all night !

- Breakfast is usually just a croissant and Cafe con Leche (Coffee with milk) - very similar to what we have at home. Freshly brewed coffee fills one quarter of the cup and the rest is filled with milk (depending on if you like it) and finally sugar is added. This kind of preparation reminded me of our very own filter coffee. Another popular dish for breakfast is the Churros con Chocolate (dunking bread sticks in thick and rich chocolate)

In spite of seeing all these places, I still cannot say I have had enough of Spain - I still have Valencia, Seville, Avila, Alicante and others on my list....oh..well....some day :D !

Copyright only for the first Sagrada Familie Picture
dortmund-airport.de

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Look out UK, here I come !

I was applying for a UK business visitor visa. The website claimed that I had to submit an online application, pay the fee and then appear in person at the Worldbridge service centre (WSC - is in charge for forwarding applications to the UK embassy) in Munich for biometrics (fingerprints and photo) and for submitting my application, passport and other supporting documents....sounded simple enough.

The hilarious:
I started with the online application and laughed out loud when I saw some of the questions

Have you ever been involved in, supported or encouraged terrorist activities in any country? – will ANYONE even Osama bin Laden say ‘yes’ to this question?? I understand that they can hold this against you in a court of law but if I am a terrorist, why would I care about something like that? If you think this question is funny, wait till you read the next one...

Have you engaged in any other activities that might indicate that you may not be considered a person of good character? – ROFL...ROFL...I was sooo tempted to answer ‘ask my friends and family’, but then I really needed the visa :D !

Give details of all your trips abroad in the last 10 years – As much as I would like to write my autobiography, I would rather not give it away for free :D! Will anyone, especially living in Europe (where a wrong turn in the highway can take you abroad) answer this question comprehensively? I understand that they use this information in their database too but this should probably only include those countries that are considered as ‘Sponsors of terrorism’ or be restricted to just a list (well, I did just that)

As always, there is a photo with a weird dimension requirement. I would assume that it would be a lot easier if all countries (or at least developed countries) stuck to one format and pool their database as well as face recognition resources (isn’t that the easiest way to identify someone ?). It would save applicants time and money. I think I have a dozen passport size photographs now all with different aspect ratios and there is no way I can use them for a resume or a job application or any other id since I am not smiling in fact I look like downright angry and I blame Ashok for it – he said to me once ‘idhu visa photo, nee eppodhum fotoku pose kudukara madhri eeenu sirikadha, konjam kovama vechuko’...my only bet is pawning them off when I open bank accounts or something of that sort where the angry photos will simply sit in a file and do nothing.

The good:

The Online application system is very robust. It allows you to save the application so that you can come back and complete it later if some part of the information is missing. The ‘help’ is also informative and there are additional columns to explain if you cannot answer some question with the choices they provide.

You can choose a convenient slot for the appointment at the WSC and you do not have to be early, go through security checks or wonder where to leave your mobile phone while you are inside! The whole process takes half an hour.

I submitted my documents at the WSC and got a tracking number on Thursday. Here is a status update on what I saw everyday

Thurs: At the Munich Worldbridge Centre
Fri: At the Dusseldorf Worldbridge Centre
Mon: Arrived at Visa Section – now is the time to keep my fingers crossed
Tue: With Courier, attempting delivery – this completely shocked me, I was wondering if my visa was rejected or if they needed more documents since the application being processed in one day and being back on its way was just too quick to be true !
Wed: Delivered – I got the passport with my visa!

The ‘could/should be improved’

If you change one answer in the online application, then all following answers will have to be entered again since the system claims that changing an answer will change the follow-up questions. When this is understandable, one also realizes that this is not applicable to ALL changes (like entering gross salary when the question asks for net salary etc.)

You get an acknowledgement from the WSC that your passport is with them. But there is no mention of the UK consulate or embassy on this acknowledgement, so if you have to show your passport somewhere and have only an attested copy and claim that your passport is at the UK consulate, you have no way of proving it (and the cops need not necessarily know what WSC is)

The WSC person is not supposed to provide any visa related information. So he/she will remain strictly impassive when you submit documents. This is not ideal because you really have no clue what additional documents you want to submit. Any questions like ‘Is this document needed?’ or ‘Do you need the original or will a copy suffice’ would be answered by ‘It’s up to you’ or ‘I cannot answer that’ and that is not what you expect from a Visa centre that forwards your applications to the embassy !

I am wondering now if I was too hasty in writing this post and if this will become a part of my file in the UK embassy and if they will hold it against me the next time I apply for a visa...hmmm...

Oh..well..let me conclude with some tips:
- Provide a good and neatly labeled application package: I usually list the documents I have submitted in a covering letter and split them into sections. In this case:
1. Details of visit – Business details, Letter from the company (that they will bear travel expenses), Flight, Hotel etc. If you intend to combine business with pleasure, then provide details of who you are visiting along with their proof of address
2. Personal Details – Resume (with visiting card), Job, Marital status (These prove that you will leave the UK as stated)
3. Finances – Salary slips, Bank account details, any other savings (it’s a bit complicated if you are a dependent)

- If you are sending everything by post, send only copies of documents (except the invitation letter)

- If there are things you want to explain, write a letter to the Consulate General explaining them (This especially helps avoiding an interview when you send applications by post)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PR in Germany

I was at the Munich Ausländerbehörde (ABH – International office or however you want to translate it) this month for my Daueraufenthalt EG (PR for EU). I had submitted the documents before and the lady who took them had asked me to come and collect the PR in 2 weeks unless she contacts me for additional documents and so there I was. She was on vacation but there was another person who asked me to wait for a few minutes and he gave me some reading material for the waiting time! While I was already surprised by his courtesy, he adds ‘This broschure tells you all about how you can apply for citizenship’ and I was literally open-mouthed. I have never seen someone at an international office voluntarily asking some foreigner to consider the citizenship option ever! He came out in a few minutes and asked me to pay the fee and collect my PR – no interview, no questions, nothing at all!! Either I should flatter myself that my application was so impressive or this ABH is really one of a kind! Truthfully though, in all my time in Munich, I have only seen friendly people and I have absolutely had no issues with any of my permits here. Even when I was there for the Niederlassungserlaubnis (PR for Germany), the whole process was over in less than half an hour.

Although this link is outdated, I really like the gist, the list of documents needed and especially the table at the end that enumerates the differences between the Niederlassungserlaubnis and Daueraufenthalt EG. Here is more information from the ABH itself.

The only extra document I provided was the ‘Rentenversicherungsvorlauf’ – this basically lists the time periods during which I have paid to the PF (Pension Fund) and this should add up to 60 months (Even a Hiwi or RA counts towards this). Depending on if you have public or private insurance and your DOB, your contact person will vary (It took me 5 phone calls to find mine) and with your ‘Sozialversicherungsnummer’, you can get this document posted to you. The whole process takes 2-3 working days. You can also request for this online but the phone call works faster.

Please be aware that the list of documents needed, processing time etc. changes from state to state. I know of a friend whose Daueraufenthalt application was processed for 6 weeks and he was asked to submit a letter from the Finanzamt (Tax office) that all his taxes were paid.

I think, for someone working at the ABH, there is nothing more annoying than someone who just walks in with an incomplete application, no supporting documents (irrespective of the details being explained in the website) and with absolutely no ability to speak German in spite of having lived here for years! As long as one doesn’t belong to this category, there shouldn’t be much friction in the process of getting any permits.

Note: I don't think anyone would wonder but for the one exception that does - PR implies Permanent Residency :)

Monday, January 18, 2010

The ''red'' one

Anyone who goes to Granada always stops here first. Anyone who has seen it cannot stop recommending it to others or stop talking about it - The Alhambra.......edhuku ivalo build up na, ippa naanum adhe dhan panna poren....(click on the pics to see it clearly - I know there are too many in this post but they are few compared to the 500 pics I have !)

Like someone famous (forgot his name....) said - It is actually more than a palace. Its a city in itself with dwellings, offices, mosques, schools, gardens, baths and cemetries. Although the fortifications are strong, the buildings inside are not and people are surprised that it stands to this day !

Now for some history and facts (Remember, Ashok is the historian, I am just writing what I think is right :D): Al-hamra means the ''red'' one and it gets his name from the reddish hills it is situated on. It is a product of three centuries - 13th to 15th century - of construction during the Muslim rule in Al-Andalus (Andalucia today although the extent of the region referred to as Andalucia has changed now), although the first references to the construction date back to even earlier times. The end of the 15th century was marked by a decline in the Islamic era and then started the Christian period (This can be seen in numerous places in Spain where Arabic and Gothic architecture co-exist).

Getting to the visit itself, there are 3 parts to it - Alcazaba, the Royal Palaces (or the Nasrid palaces) and the Generalife. Since it is a city in itself, you can see a number of beautiful gates and walk along the woods to get to different parts of the Alhambra.

Alcazaba (The Old citadel): Numerous watch towers, gates and squares make up the Alcazaba. It was a form of military fortification and one can understand that from the approach to the Alcazaba. There is a narrow path, just wide enough for one person to comfortably pass through and even during this time, he would be watched by the soldiers up in the towers, who can easily summon the whole army, if needed, by throwing a few rocks down into the passageway below then.

Los Palacios Nazaries: This was the part that I really loved - there were 3 portions - Mexuar, Comares, Leones - all equally breathtaking and amazing. Every portion had a beautiful facade, intrically carved horse-shoes arches (check out the one above and the first photo), beautiful ceilings with exquisite patterns made from wood (shown in the second photo) and absolutely delightful courtyards and there were many little details that reminded me of....oh...well.....you will figure that out yourself.

The Hall of the Mexuar is the oldest surviving part of the Royal Palaces (from 1314). This was where the royal court of justice convened. The shape of the room was changed after the conquest by the Christians.

Today, this is one of the favorite spots for brides taking pre-nuptial pictures. Not only do they get a good historical place for their pictures but they also provide some excitement to people like me who can't take their eyes off a white bridal dress with a beautiful veil....rolling eyes !

The facade of the Comares (shown above) with its marble fountain in the middle was another place where people remain transfixed. To me it added an another interesing experience. I was wearing a very desi flowy skirt that matched with the surroundings that Ashok asked me to sit in front of the facade and spread my skirt on my floor (yeah, yeah, like in the movies - no close-up pic here in this post, asai dosai appalam vadai :D) and while I was posing for him, there was this Chinese guy who was also busily clicking and I begin to stare at him and he just says ''very pretty'' and walks off. I was thinking, was that a compliment or an incredible violation of privacy ?! Well, I can't really complain, I did the same to the bride, only I got her back !! Anyway, if you see such a picture of me anytime in Facebook in a Chinese profile, let me know !

When I walked through the facade and entered the courtyard of Myrtles and saw the vast mirror of water that was reflecting the Comares Tower I was travelling through time and space to when I had visited the......oh...come-on....guess.....the Taj Mahal !

Words simply cannot describe the hall of the Ambassadors or the Hall of the boat. By this time, I was really tired of taking pictures and the audio guide had my entire attention.

Another aspect I loved was the ceramic tiling in the Alhambra. There were 2 kinds - One was the mosaics with one or more elements repeated over and over again and the other was called Alicatado tiling where there is no general pattern and the perception depends on the angle and depth of the pattern.

I got a set of minature tiles as a souvenir and they are a pair from each type and matching them is simply a really nice way to play a memory game (or rather a mathematical game since it is all about spotting patterns).

Patio de los Leones (Palace and courtyard of the lions shown below) are the Sultan's private dwellings. We missed the lions, that had gone for restoration but there was enough already to hold our attention. In Islamic tradition, a walled garden is considered an image of Paradise and that is exactly what the courtyard reminds one of.

Using stalactites as a decorative element (referred to as a Mocarabes) was also common in the Alhambra and this was what caught one's eye in the Hall of the Abencerrages. Visitors with necks craned upwards are a very common sight here !

Baño (The Bath house) of the Comares Palace was our next stop. Immersion in water (what we call a bath today) is not a practice observed by Muslims. Water ran through a small central channel while heat circulated from the furnace through underground conduits. On contact with the marble, heated from below, water turned into steam and while this caused softening of the skin and opening of pores, the bathers were rubbed down by bath attendants, who were highly regarded for their skills.

Torres de Las Damas (Tower of the ladies) was our last stop before moving on to the General Life. From here one can see the orchards of the Generalife and the gardens. The structure is based on the idea that this remains a secluded place and yet open to winds and the intimacy is protected more by landscape than by walls.

Generalife: The Generalife comprises of the upper and lower gardens, the water garden (shown above), the cypress courtyard and the water stairway. Although it was not so well landscaped like Japanese gardens, it was beautiful in its own way.

We concluded our visit by visiting the palace of Charles V (and I am not going to describe it, am tired !). We had spent 6 hours at the Alhambra and the only reason we brought our visit to a close was because we were starving (if only we had had the foresight of taking some snack with us !), otherwise I am sure we would have gladly been there for a couple of more hours. A day for the Alhambra is very less.....really......need I say more ?

If you are in Granada or even in the vicinity of Granada, you simply must visit the Alhambra and here are a few tips:
- Make online reservations from www.alhambra-tickets.es
- Pick an early slot like 9 am to enjoy the place with as few visitors as possible. Crowds (group tours, school excursions) get in after 11 or 11:30
- Remember that the Nasrid palaces can be visited only at the time mentioned on the ticket, so plan your time around it.
- Choose a guided tour or rent yourself an audio guide. I prefer the latter option since you can move at your own pace and stop for pictures or have a break.
- Wear good shoes, you will walk the whole day and take a water bottle and some snacks for the same reason. There is a coffee shop inside but like all tourist places its quite expensive and not a lot to choose from.

Salam Alekum!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Facebook Users - Help !

I got an email request from Indiblogger to help GiveIndia, win a competition on Facebook for a US $1 million grant. The winner will be the NGO that gets the highest number of votes from Facebook users.

Since the prize of $1 million will help put or keep 40,000 children across India in school for one year, as a Facebook user you can vote for it and help it win ! Given the population of India and the number of Indians on Facebook (although a fair share has been taken by Orkut), this should not be a difficult task.

So, take some time to look at the NGO's website, if you want to and vote for it - after all, educating children and helping them make their lives better is more important than just feeding them for a day or two, right ?

Remember, Voting in the competition is for one week only, from January 15 – January 22, 2010. I am already 2 days late (rolling eyes....), but let us look at the positive side that we have 5 more days.

If you are also interested in helping out in other ways, check this out.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Life Vs Money Vs Death

Just a note before you begin - the information completely pertains to Life Insurance in India. It may or may not be similar to the system in other countries.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert and neither am I an exceptionally good investor. I just do what I can and I have jotted down what I know in terms I am familiar with. So, take it with a pinch of salt. And any suggestions/corrections/criticism welcome :)

Who needs Life Insurance and why?
Anyone with a regular income needs Life Insurance. Here is why:
- To make up for liabilities (could be anything from a housing loan to taking care of dependents)
- To get a tax rebate
- To have a form of investment for the future.
However it should be kept in mind that the primary purpose of Life Insurance is to make up for the financial deficit that could be caused by one's sudden demise and it is not intended to purely be an investment.

What terms are often used?
SA - Sum assured: This is the sum paid by the Insurance Provider on the demise of the policy holder.
PA or PLA - Principal Life Assured: The policy holder or the person whose life is insured
SLA - Spouse Life Assured: Spouse of the policy holder or the person whose life is insured
Guaranteed Return: The SA is usually guaranteed (usually known as Guaranteed Death Benefit). Some schemes may also offer a percentage of the SA as a guaranteed return i.e. irrespective of how your premium is invested, you will get this amount (usually known as Guaranteed Survival Benefit).

You can also see this in the picture (there are pseudo numbers generated for the sake of clarity). Green indicates the Guaranteed Return while the red indicates the non-guaranteed return for two cases (6% and 10% ROI) based on how the investments perform. This policy starts when the PLA is 28 years old and shows that the premiums are to be paid for 16 years. The death benefit is valid until the age of 85.

What are the two common forms of Life Insurance (LI)?
1. Term Life Insurance
2. Permanent Life Insurance

What is Term Insurance (TI)?
Term Insurance or Term Life Insurance is purely a death benefit scheme i.e the policy pays out if and only it the policy holder expires during the coverage period. The payments are at fixed rate and coverage period is limited. The major difference between this and Permanent Life Insurance is that the latter pays out a sum (with accrued bonus, as applicable) after a period of time, even if the policy holder is alive i.e besides the SA there is also a return on Investment(ROI). For this reason, the premiums in case of Permanent Life Insurance are considerably higher than in case of the Term Insurance.

Insurance agents generally will not recommend TI because the commission they get out of it is negligible.

What is Permanent Life Insurance (PLI)?
As explained before, the policy accrues cash value and there is a payout at the end of the policy term besides the SA.

When is a good time to get Life Insurance?
As soon as one starts paying taxes (aka having a regular income). Exception: If one is a student and one takes a bank loan of 10 Lakhs for one’s studies, then one should have a Life Insurance to cover this liability. This means one should have a policy with a SA of a minimum of 10 lakhs (ideally, 12-15 lakhs to account for interest accrued on one’s educational loan during the period of one’s studies). In this case, since the insurance is purely to cover liability, one opts for what is known as term insurance. There are no returns but the premium for such a high SA is very less (roughly Rs.1000 per annum assuming the policy holder is 21 years old). This is necessary because in case of an unfortunate accident, the family, already going through a trauma due to the loss, need not have to deal with the repayment of the educational loan as well.

What is the minimum amount of Life Insurance needed?
There are 4 basic rules of thumb (from what I have seen/heard/learnt):
1. Income plus expenses rule: This rule suggests that an individual needs insurance equal to five times your gross annual income, plus the total of basic expenses like housing or car loans, personal debt, child's education, etc. This is only in the case of the person being the sole bread winner with no other form of income or property. Ideally, the amount should be sufficient to cover one’s financial responsibilities (care of dependents) and should be at least twice the annual income

2. Premiums as percentage of income: By this rule, payment of insurance premium depends on disposable income. Remember, only a portion of your savings can go towards this since you should have other forms of investment. At the same time, commit an appropriate percentage of your income for paying the life insurance premium. Care should be taken here because non-payment of even one of the premiums can result in the policy becoming invalid.

3. Capital fund rule: This rule suggests that if you need 2 lakhs p.a. for your family needs, and assuming you do not have any other income-generating assets, you may like to create a capital fund of 25 lakhs which can yield 2 lakhs annual income @ 8% p.a. Therefore a life insurance policy of 25 lakhs.

4. Liability rule: The SA should be at least equal to an individual’s liability. For example, If you have a housing loan of 20 Lakhs and if you are the only borrower then the SA should be at least 20 lakhs.

Is medical check-up needed for Life Insurance?
This depends obviously on the amount insured, the age of the person and the type of insurance. A medical check-up is mandatory for TI (Exceptions being children or youngsters). In case of PLI, normally SA of less than 10 Lakhs will not required a medical check-up.

Is Life Insurance an investment?
Yes and No

No because it is principally intended to reduce financial pressure on the dependents on the person’s demise i.e to counter liability, as explained before.
Yes because by choosing a good scheme, there can be a ROI of 10-15%

What kind of risk-return ratio is advisable?
Since LI is more of a protection than an investment, high risk is not preferable. However, one should keep in mind that these policies run for 15-20 years and over this period, the risk-return ratio will stabilize (irrespective of momentary fluctuations)

What other features are included or should be taken care of?

- Check if the Insurance is International, i.e. if benefits change depending on the location of the PLA’s demise
- Check if there are premium waiver benefits in case of dismemberment and/or accident. For example, if the PLA meets with an accident and cannot take on employment, is there an option for premium waiver? This is generally not offered to NRIs and is restricted to the accidents taking place in India but when the PLA moves back to India he/she can add this option.
- Check if the premium allocation and fund management charges (a fee is charge for processing your policy as well for premiums paid) are reasonable
- Check your eligibility for tax rebate
- Check if partial withdrawal option is available – A portion of the amount + accrued bonus will be paid to the PLA (This will be inevitably mean some loss in the ROI but can help in case of emergencies).

Are Life Insurance and Pension Plan the same?
Not necessarily

In case of LI, depending on the scheme and its life period, one can get a lumpsum amount when one retires but this is not the intention behind a LI. In case of a pension plan, one can either opt for a 'lumpsum amount' (I think this term is of desi origin :D) or a monthly pension and these schemes will usually also have death and dismemberment benefits.

Are nominations enough to claim money?
No, Nominations just indicate a person who is responsible for receiving the policy sum (or benefits) and is not necessarily the owner of it, according to the Insurance act of 1938 (I went crazy trying to read this document !) i.e. if a father's policy lists one of the sons as a nominee, he does not necessarily have claim to the policy sum on his father's demise. The other son can contest this in court unless there is a will that clearly explains that the nominee's claim. So if you have enough investments and want to avoid a family feud, make a will !

Other tips?
- Do some homework about the company– look at the history and reliability of the company, their financial record, where they invest in, stability of investments (you would be amazed at how much information google can generate on this topic !)
- Do some homework about the scheme – Many schemes are withdrawn from time to time even by companies long standing in the Insurance industry. So check what financial experts have to say about a scheme.
- Do not look at the ROI alone – Just because the policy ‘predicts’ that the amount in your account along with the bonus accrued will result in 20 lakhs at the end of 15 years is not enough to choose the scheme. Remember the inflation! Assuming an inflation rate of 4%, this would probably be worth only 10 lakhs (or even less) at the end of policy period !!
- Diversify your portfolio – When thinking about ROI, consider multiple options (Fixed deposits, Mutual Funds, Shares, Real Estate etc.). Do not use just insurance. Even too much Insurance can be fatal (pun unintended) !
- Above all, inform the nominee about your policy and make them aware of the benefits. There is no point in doing anything when no one can use the policy or is even aware that one exists. Also review the policies from time to time. For example, Marriage may call for a change of nominee - from parents to spouse or your liabilities may increase.

So, Be smart and let your spouse/parents/dependents know that you are :)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Are you Wazing ?

I saw this extremely interesting video on youtube and then checked out some of the companies. One of them that caught my attention was Waze.

Waze is a social mobile application to provide live traffic updates, map generation/updates from driver generated reports and other information (like a hazard or a road construction etc.). It is 100% user generated content and relies on drivers who download this application to their phones and run it while driving. By tracking GPS points from multiple drivers, the basic road network can be constructed. Although most information is provided by the ‘passive’ drivers, users can also take an active role by, say, reporting map errors or recording new roads (all by simple clicks in the application) and those who want to participate even more can then go to the waze website and fix map errors as well (yup, power of user-generated content strikes again !)

What is different in Waze is that it is not a turn-by-turn navigation application (many attributes like street names, traffic lights, speed limits may be absent) but it is for those who commute everyday to work or drive the same route often and helps them get there faster since the keyword here is ‘live updates’. For now the Waze community, especially in Europe, is very small but like all user communities, this one will grow too – people will do anything to avoid traffic (except using public transport, ofcourse), won’t they ?

If you want to know more, check out the guided tour - It is less than 10 minutes and provides a good overview. Waze has been nominated for both the ‘Best GPS Navigation App’ and ‘Best Use of Location Services’, we should wait and see if they are going to win.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

From Handshake to Hugs

I got a request from SK, a fellow blogger, that I should write about the cultural shock that Indians get when coming to Germany. I think this post is a lot less relevant these days with westernization moving at an exponential pace in India. Since this is confined mostly to the cities and there are others who come to Germany, I think some of this probably still makes sense (or it simply makes for an interesting read :D). Of course the culture shock can take varying forms, depending on the sex, background, personality and the overall mindset of a person.

I am going to begin by listing some of my experiences, and I am going to be as frank as I can (as is permissible in a public forum). It should be noted that I came here in Feb 2003 and that was the time when MNCs had not ventured into India in full force, take-away pizzas were rare, dating was unheard of (and those who did date did it like the CIA and guarded their secret like the FBI) and there were no ‘educational’ movies like Dhoom 2 or Race or Kandhasamy to learn from.

It was my second day in Germany. As I was sitting with a bunch of my classmates, 2 Spanish students joined us. They introduced themselves as newcomers and began by shaking hands with everyone. As the first one approached me, I put out my hand (a little reluctantly, albeit with a big smile) and before I knew it, he gave me a hug!! I was still in shock when the second guy gave me a hug too! To me it was completely unexpectant and in fact, quite bewildering. Then they sat down and began merrily chatting with all of us.

Physical contact: The first thing that bothered me was the hitherto-unused-to physical contact – handshakes, hugs and sometimes even a kiss on the cheek or on the hand. Although I have been born and brought up in Chennai with a number of male friends (some of them really close that they meet my parents now and then even when I am not in town), both from school and college, there was somehow no physical contact in the friendship. I have lots of cousins and I am close with them and excepting those, physical contact with guys was completely foreign to me.

It was my first month in Germany. I was in the S-Bahn (local train) and the only one in a 4-seater, with 2 seats facing 2 others. In one of the stops, a young couple boarded the train and sat in the seats exactly opposite to me. As soon as they sat down, they began kissing vehemently. I was completely embarrassed and didn’t know where I should look since they were in my line of sight, I looked outside the window for a while and stared at the train ceiling for a while and all along, I had this creepy sensation of two people being tongue-tied next to me. At one point, I could take it no longer and so I moved away to a different part of the train. When I mentioned this to one of my friends, he said, ‘Nee james bond movies parthadhu illaya??’ and I retorted ‘sure, but ivalo close-upla, ivalo livea naan edhuvum parthadhe illa’!!!

Public displays: It is very common to see couples here holding hands, hugging, kissing etc. in public places (right from a shopping mall to an elevator – no exceptions!). This has embarrassed me quite a few times but I slowly learnt to live with it or rather ignore it. Over time, I have grown up to an extent that public displays of love sometimes make me smile. What bothers me most is when there is a public display of lust. I saw a lady step down from a train, and nearly run to hug her husband and kids on the platform – this falls in the former category and is heart-warming while seeing 2 teenagers lip-locked in front of my building is not!

I was waiting to withdraw cash from an ATM and in the queue, there was a desi guy and ahead of him was a German. When the German got his turn and was at the machine, the desi guy stood very close behind him (like we do in queues in India fearing that if we left a gap, someone would come and fill it !) and the German turned and stared at him a couple of times and finally said “Könnten Sie bitte Abstand halten” i.e. “Can you please maintain some distance?”

Personal space: People need their space be it a queue or public transport. I have noticed people standing even when there are seats left in a 4-seater since they prefer standing to sitting in close quarters with strangers. In general, no one breaks a queue anywhere, so people maintain a good distance from each other.

I was in Amsterdam for a weekend and as I turned around a corner, I almost ran into two people kissing. I was flustered and looked up to apologize, but the two blonde men (yes, men) hadn’t even noticed me !

I was on a work trip to Canada and although I was traveling alone, I had a spacious suite with a living room, dining room and a huge bedroom with twin beds. One of my colleagues who was leaving Canada that night missed her flight and had to spend the night. While she was thinking of hotel rooms, I suggested that she stay with me instead of spending money. She happily agreed and when she came to spend the night, she had brought her own sleeping bag and slept in the living room although I told her more than once that she can sleep in one of the beds
.

Same sex interaction: Interaction between similar sexes is pushed to extremes here. When on the one side, there are same-sex couples, on the other side men are totally against any physical contact with other men like hugging or having one’s arm over the other’s shoulder and they are completely shocked when they see desis do all this (I had a couple of people, who have seen guys sharing a bicycle – doubles – ask me if they are homosexual). In case of women, there are some who would hug and kiss (or rub cheeks, I really do not know the right way!) when they greet and some who shy away from it.

I was in the University when one of the guys who worked with me under the same professor as a RA (research assistant) asked me if I would have coffee with him. I was under the impression that coffee meant ‘just coffee’ until he had this sheepish grin on his face.

I was coming home after a b’day party and as I was waiting in the train station, an unknown guy approached me and asked if I was interested to have some drinks with him and some “fun”. I pointed to the ring in my finger and I said that I am married (although I wasn’t then, the ring is sure helpful!) and not interested. He walked away.


Accosting people and dating: Men accosting women either for dates or ‘otherwise’ is quite common. The key is to assess the situation and react accordingly without going into panic mode. Being accosted by a drunken gang in a station at night is obviously much different than being asked out by a guy at work. In one way, I feel this is better than being gawked at all the time. People generally take ‘no’ well too.

It was my first summer here and it was extremely hot (touched 40 deg C on one day). My apartment in the university was just behind the woods and also had considerable stretches of greenery on the front. Women in bikins and men in trunks (Irrespective of their figures, all people who sun-bathed would be clad in similar costume) sun bathing was something that happened everyday. I did get used to seeing it pretty quickly but what always bothered me was some desis and people from other countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, staring open-mouthed at these people.

It was my first time to the University swimming pool. When I went to the women’s bathroom, to take a shower, I was in for a shock. There were no curtains, no partitions – it was just a huge room with a number of showers and everyone in there was naked. I was the only one showering with a swim suit on and excepting a couple who gave me a weird look, no one else cared.

‘Freedom’ w.r.t clothing: I need not elaborate on this. What one must understand is that everyone has his/her own opinion as to what and what not to wear. This is almost akin to vegetarianism for me. While I do not eat meat, I do not make faces when someone next to me does. So be yourself and let others do what they do. People here are used to seeing women in skimpy clothes, so someone wearing a swim suit does not attract as much attention as it would in India. While this works to the advantage of desi girls, guys get in trouble ! For guys (and sometimes, even girls), sight adichufying is different from gaping at someone. Alavodu jolli valamaga vazhga !

Many universities like the University of Stuttgart, offer integration programs that discuss various aspects of the Cultural shock, not only to arriving desis but also to Germans who have to interact with them.

It all comes down to living and learning and giving people the benefit of doubt. Do some research on dos and donts and exercise discretion and you should be fine. At the end of it all, you would definitely have some interesting stuff to share like I do :). But, please, please, bear in mind that while in Germany, you are an Indian ambassador and anything/everything you do will go into a German's definition of an Indian. So do your bit to make this definition better and not the other way around.

For more information about ''what is typical in Germany'', read this post.

SK, let me know if there is anything else you want me to elaborate on.

PS: Finally, the cultural shock I had in Nov 2005 when I came to India after 2.75 years was much bigger than the shock I had when I first came to Germany ! Maybe I should write about that too...

Christmas Shopping in Jan ?!

Today I got an email that said ''Nur noch 347 Tage bis Weihnachten'' i.e. ''Just 347 Days left until Christmas'' and it urged me to buy something and use their 5 euro gift certificate - enna kodumai saravanan ?! When people are still wishing each other ''Happy New Year'', urging them to shop for the upcoming Christmas is just marketing tactics at its preposterousest (another contribution to the English language :D) !! Well...it did catch my attention, so they score, but since its absurd, I won't buy anything, so effectively the marketing team should come up with something better.

Its sad that Christmas is being exploited so much. Most Christians would tell you that Easter is important than Christmas from a religious perspective and its only the gifts that's making Christmas score over it and businesses are taking undue advantage of it.

I saw a news piece in the CNN about how Christmas has gained popularity in Turkey. There is this journalist going around asking everyone what they like about Christmas and its almost inevitably the same reply ''Santa Claus'' and then when you see ''Santa Claus'' he is either advertising a coffee machine or a vacation.....paavam Santa ! Commercialization simply is gobbling up everything...why cant they at least leave Santa in peace for a while ?!

Monday, January 11, 2010

I fell in love....

with Salamanca....

I envy the students in Salamanca. Not only do they get to study in one of the oldest Universities in Europe but they get to have a coffee in the Plaza Mayor, the most beautiful city square in Europe. They can stroll through the Plaza Anaya while discussing lectures and exams, they have the Casa la Conches as their library, they can walk up to the top of the Cathedral of Santa Maria on a summer afternoon to enjoy a view of the city or have a drink with their friends on the Roman Bridge.......its true that one always cherishes student life but student life in Salamanca, I guess, would be unbelievable for a lot of other reasons too !

It was drizzling when we were in Salamanca and even with that rain, I was awestruck seeing the Plaza Mayor (completed in 1755). It was one of those times I regretted not having the expertise to take a panoramic photo. I did use the ''stitch'' option in my camera to create one but it didn't come out as well as I expected. Still, I kept walking to and fro, trying to take in all the beauty.

This is where all the life of the city can be seen. If you look at the map, all roads lead to the Plaza Mayor. We walked into a cafe for some regular Spanish breakfast - churros con chocolate (you dunk bread sticks in thick rich chocolate) and coffee, while I ordered hot water for my green tea :D (Ashok said un thollai thangala, everytime I did that :D) !

I loved the Cathedral (from the 12th century) not only for its architecture but also for the tourist-friendly design that allowed visitors to explore every part of it, something I have never before seen in any other Cathedral in Europe. There are steps that give access not only to the top but also allows visitors to view the inside of the church in great detail. The altarpiece, from the 15th century, was magnificent and is considered one of the most important art works in Spain. It has 53 panels depicting the life of Christ.

The monastery of San Esteban was the next on our list and I really liked the courtyard with its orange trees and walkway of arches.

Then we walked around the University of Salamanca (its everywhere by the way) and finally concluded our visit by walking across the Roman bridge (is supposed to be from 1st century AD). The best way to explore the whole place is on foot and the visit should last until the night where all these monuments under the dark blue moonlight sky, look even more astounding.

There are many more places to see, one can probably spend a whole week here, looking at each one of them, understanding the history and walking through time to see all these things take shape and form.

It made us feel that we should move to Salamanca, take Spanish lessons and while Ashok nourished his love for history, I could take up flamenco lessons. And then, reality hit us....families, responsibilities and all the rest of it.....oh..well...it was nice for as long as it lasted......

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Flaming Flamenco

There is almost nothing more Spanish than watching Flamenco in the most authentic region, Granada. Flamenco, music and dance, traces its origins to Gypsy, Arabic and Spanish music. The Gypsies of Granada are considered the true practitioners of this art. My surprise at how some of the Gypsies looked almost desi was answered by Ashok - they apparently migrated from India to Europe almost a thousand years ago.

Sacremonte, in Granada, is where all the famous flamenco shows are held. The hotel in Granada itself will have suggestions but we had friends who recommended a few shows for us, one of them being Las Cueves de Los Tarantos. A flamenco show typically starts around 11 pm and lasts for an hour.

Our tour started at 9 where we were picked up from the hotel, taken for a small tour in the Albayzin area which provides a perfect view to the Alhambra and houses the largest Mosque in Granada (the Alhambra deserves a separate post)! As we walked through the extremely narrow streets, our guide in what she called the ''Gypsy english'' explained about hammams, the arabic baths (Hamam soap has its origin in this arabic word) and showed us the path in the streets where the spent water from the baths was allowed to flow.

After enjoying the view of the Alhambra and the city itself, we proceeded to the cave, where the show was to be held. The traditional drink served would be Sangria, a kind of wine with fruit pieces in it (another reason why these shows have a pick-up service; no drunken driving) but there are obviously other non alcoholic choices one can opt for.

As we were waiting, we saw a middle aged stout man, a younger man, a guitarist and 2 dancers walk to the stage in the frilly falmenco skirts. The guitarist began with a very familiar gypsy track and suddenly there was a really high pitched voice through the air and I was totally surprised by how much breath control the stout man had (reminded me of SPB) and as he went on with something like an alapanai, one of the girls began tapping. Slowly both the music and dance gained momentum until they reached a fiery pace and when the girl finally finished, the applause reverberated in that small cave and this was just a beginning....

This was followed by a very passionate and slow number by another girl that completely moved me and then the 2 girls joined together for another feverish number. All along, the young man, completely dressed in black, did nothing but clap and while I was thinking that he had the easiest job, he started tapping. Now is the time to confess that I have taken a few tap dancing lessons and I know how difficult it can be to tap and turn and do everything at a fast pace. He did it all and by the time he was done, he was red and completely drenched in sweat and everyone was left open mouthed. The three of them finally did a peppy number highlighting the flamenco guitar - its exciting and extremely accurate rhythm, before they took a bow and had a standing ovation.

I was now confused, the show was for 1 hr and only 30 min had gone by and then it dawned on me that there was going to be another group. I was a little disappointed when I saw 5 elderly people walking towards the stage. I assumed that they were probably founders of this establishment and still insisted on performing but their age would definitely not cooperate with the energy the dance required. I was right about the former but bang wrong about the latter! If anything, there were leaps and bounds (literally!) better than the first group. The highlight of the show was the eldest lady of the group (she looked frail and would be atleast 60), who not only tapped with her feet but also with her hands using finger cymbals (something like the jalrah we use)...muy bien !!

The second time I got a chance to see the flamenco was in Madrid. Google search or the hotel you stay in will tell you the top places in the city that boasts of a flamenco show in every corner. We went to the ''Cafe de Chinitas'' and were glad we went there. While the show in Granada was simple and raw, the one in Madrid was grand and polished (I would compare the former to carnatic music and the latter to light music).Similar to the group in Granada, this one had both young and old dancers. While the younger ones danced with passion, the older ones sang and clapped with equal enthusiasm. The act was also funny at times and they included a ''Happy B'day'' for one of our little guests who had his b'day that night. There were 2 female dancers (one reminded me of Actress Sukanya) who tapped with such fervour that it was impossible to take one's eyes off it and another man, dressed as a matador who did equally well !

Amigos, If you are ever in Southern Spain, go watch the Flamenco, its completely worth the 20 euro you spend.

Señor/Señora, If you are ever in Spain, go watch the Flamenco, its completely worth watching it even if its not in its most authentic form.

¡que lo pases bien! Adiós!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mad...Mad...Madrid

Before I post about the various places in Spain, I think I should list the funny/interesting/bizarre experiences we had in Madrid.

- Baggage belt: We landed in Madrid and were patiently waiting at the ''From Munich'' baggage belt for our luggage and when we were getting slightly impatient we noticed some hulchul at another baggage belt. There was our luggage in the ''from Valencia'' baggage belt ! Apparently, our luggage is from Valencia even though we are from Munich :D !

- Metro numbers: Metro is the tram network in Madrid. It is a maze and neither the directions nor the train numbers help too much. Train lines are numbered 1-11. You would assume that when waiting for Line 11, there will be a train with the same number....well, you assume too much....train (numbered) 15 arrives and I am frantically looking at the signs, map everything and there is no train 15. The same thing happens when I wait for Line 4 and train 11 shows up and finally I understood that they number the trains either for the fun of it or based on its age or whatever but definitely not according to the route ! enna kodumai Saravanan ?! What I found even funnier were the maps inside the trains. I entered Line 4 and right in front of me is the route for Line 5, I am completely confused, I turn around and find maps for Lines 9 and 10 too and then it finally dawns on me that all trains have maps of all routes besides the one huge metro map that shows the whole network ! Can you spot the number in the pic ? Thats actually line 1!

- Metro temperatures: It was 9 deg C outside and as soon as we entered the metro, we realized that the heater was running at full strength and removed our jackets. It was getting hotter by the minute until we almost started sweating ! The next day, it was -4 deg C outside and we were relieved to step into the metro and lo, they chose that day to run the air conditioner at full strength....kadavule....we were literally freezing !

- ATM: Inserted the card, amount required and waited. Out came the card, the receipt that said ''cash withdrawn'' but unfortunately no cash !! Neither was there a contact number, nor was there anyone who could explain what happened. So hoping that the transaction was somehow not carried out (and that the ''non''withdrawn money was not debited from the account), we moved on to trying a different card. We later called the bank from the hotel room (since we did not have all info with us to check our account online) and were informed that if the details of transaction were given to the bank, they would ''try'' and get the money back if the amount was debited from the account...aha.....Later, after coming home, we checked the account and thankfully the amount debited had already been recredited...phew!

- Snacks Vending Machine: You know the routine right ? put in money, press the number and out pops the snack. We needed a water bottle (in counter 47). after inserting the money, everytime we pressed 47, a new number will appear - first it was 44 (I accused Ashok of pressing the wrong keys), then it was 46, then 48 and then back to 45 !! All these counters were luckily empty, otherwise God knows how many drinks we would have bought for one water bottle. You see the fateful machine in the pic !

- Green tea: Noone seems to have heard of green tea. The closest one was mint tea and that was avaliable in just one cafe. Since I was on a break from coffee, green tea was my only option. I went around ordering hot water and adding the dip green tea to it :D !

- Gym: We were in a 4-star hotel and the gym was in a dark alley away from the hotel and had one tread mill (that dint work), one rowing machine, one elliptical and 2 exercise bikes. Spaniards clearly are not fond of the Gym.

- Food: You ask for a vegetarian sandwich and you will get one with lettuce, tomatoes and lotsa egg and that is nearly the only vegetarian option you have, leaving out the pastries! And if you are a die-hard vegetarian who shys away from eggs, oh...well, you can forget about meals and live like a spartan ! Photo shows Ashok's breakfast :D ! To be fair, we did find one vegetarian place on the last day and I liked it so much (maybe because I was starved :D) that I have to dedicate a separate post for that life saviour !

Disclaimer: Those from Spain or Madrid, no offence meant. I totally loved Spain and you should wait a little longer for me to post about those experiences as well.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Respect the blizzard !

Makkale, if you haven't already seen the news, Germany is preparing for a blizzard ! There have been several warnings and instructions to prepare for it. You can find them here (in German).

Although it is not predicted to be as bad as in the UK, transport, electricity supply etc. will get affected. So take this seriously....it is nothing like getting wet in the rain in South India and coming home to change and having something hot to get better !

- If you have travel plans and if you can avoid it, do so. Most airports and railway stations are announcing delays, so chances are that you are going to be late anyway, so why not postpone the trip from the comfort of your home ? The same goes for driving ! All roads are going to be icy and the supply of salt is ''stretched''....so don't take chances.

- If you have no groceries at home, shop as soon as day breaks and don't wait until 7:30pm, chances are that shops may close early. Stock up on ready-to-eat food as well. Don't forget any medicines that you regularly need (esp. when the weather gets bad like if you have a sinus or asthma problem that worsens with the weather !)

- Cook some food for the weekend tomorrow, if there is no supply you will have no electric stove...duh ?! Fill up a couple of bottles (or more) with water or stock up on a few litres of water as well.

-Charge your mobile phones, laptops and anything that you cannot live without even for a few hours (:D) now

- Pass this info on to your friends and add any tips that I have skipped.

Don't mess with Nature, Stay warm, Stay safe !

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http://blogs.davenportlibrary.com

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Nandri, nandri, nandri

It was New Year’s Eve and among the many other wonderful things the day brought me, there was an email, an email that completely overwhelmed me! It was from a friend, let’s call him Ram and I take the liberty of quoting a part of his email here.

“I just finished reading all your 121 posts.........'t was like reading an unputdownable novel........a few chapters (chapters here akin to posts) were not as interesting albeit; as they were not within the precincts of my fathomable perspicacity.

None-the-less at the end of it, felt like Conan Doyle just killed Sherlock Holmes and he wouldn't return. It's gonna be a fanatic impatience waiting for the next post after this impasse. And that's just one of those ways it made me feel.

I Salute You my good friend........you are a humble person and a noble soul......your words enunciate wisdom, strength, resilience, conviction, agility, steadfastness, tenacity and innocence. I now wonder how can someone be as liberated while fastened by the physical, mental and emotional bonds of humankind..........I wonder??? I shall continue to awe at the mysterious and intimidating yet simple truth that you portray..........the scales of life will keep tilting no matter what, but in search of what is the question. If it is in search of balance, then you see 'what is' in everything; but conversely those who seek 'that what isn't' are looking for justifications and opinions.”

Obviously there are reasons as to why I was not simply flattered but completely overwhelmed….

- I envy Ram’s command over the English language, his wonderful style of writing and his powerful expression of thoughts (as you probably have already noticed). When he compliments me on my writing, I am speechless

- I worship Sherlock Holmes and I cannot count the number of times I have read his short stories and novels. Even mentioning Holmes (and in turn Doyle) in the context of my blog gives me goose pimples.

- I consider myself a voracious reader and I read many blogs regularly but never once have I bothered to read all the previous posts in any of my favorite blogs. So someone reading all the posts and comparing it to a book is just too much for me to take….

Weirdly, this email, instead of boosting my ego, is humbling. A few years ago, when blogging started, I checked it out and thought “This is for writers, not for someone who rambles on like me” and then suddenly one day a simple email made me start blogging. Life brings with it many surprises – from things like finding someone who would turn out to be one’s best friend to life altering decisions. My tenure in Germany (I never even knew where Stuttgart was exactly located before coming here) is one of them and today when many unknown people thank me for the information in my blog, I am surprised again since this was never a part of my plan...but then...it never has been my plan....the plan comes from above and I simply execute it, don’t I?

What can be better than beginning this year’s blogging by thanking him ?! Thanks Ram, I will keep writing and I will consciously try to improve hoping that like the perfect artist, I have the knowledge of when to stop……or let the divine plan take care of it :)
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