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A few minutes on terra French is enough to make a desi discover her inner Frenchwoman. From tongue-clicking to shoulder-shrugging, Gallic is the way to go.
Wherever I traveled I've been an Indian visiting on a visa. Jetlagged, I moved about self-consciously in the new country with a 'tourist' tag sticking out the back of my head. Nobody could mistake me for a native;I had the slightly lost, anxious, missing-my-curdrice look all travelers have. And, truth to tell, I had not the slightest desire to transform into a local. Worn sneakers, bags and camera proclaimed my temporary presence in alien locales. Wanderlust propelled me, not nesting instinct.
So I have stared at crystal-clear Scottish skies, been driven in fancy cars through scenic masterpieces, watched a play put up most professionally or fed cuisine to die for and felt the delight more acutely for their pure transience. For, I would soon be back in my Bangalore balcony shooing pigeons. Not once did I have to pinch myself to luxuriate in a landscape;I was a pop-up.
Till I wandered into France. One minute I was stumbling through immigration, the next my feet were on terra French and firma. Found, one gypsy gene.
To begin with I was Alice in Paris, nodding my head way too much, fitting in, figuring out. I like to be met halfway on any spot on earth. In most countries people speak English, especially those who want to sell you something. But France makes no pretence of glorifying your euro. Really, every time you pay it is you who feels privileged and special.
At the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral or Eiffel Tower, where babbling outsiders queue up, movement, and if necessary payment, are clockwork. In the new business district of La Defense when you skip the Hindi version of the inscribed concept at the Grand Arche you know you are beginning to settle down here.
The Seine is like your own family river, running through every place you go. To its sides the city is neatly laid out like a peeled orange. You go here for this and there for that;turn left for topless cabaret, right for public library. You can jump in and out a barge/ boat for a few euros through the day. You pack away your camera, forgetting posterity in the here and now. Already you miss graffiti that says 'Rajesh loves Anu'.
Like romance, the economy here operates differently. The laid off get 70 per cent of their previous pay for three straight years, which means spending without having to save. So they are in bistros, twirling salad on to forks, animatedly chatting, exhaling little curls of smoke or just shopping. Of course there is a small section of rich Parisians scowling into their soups for being so taxed in turn. The last I heard they were looking for a small country to shift to and leave Paris to tourists like me.
Transport is fine-tuned with trains and buses punctual and plenty. Traffic signals actually work. You don't have to look left or right for looming lorries - astonishing for all those who crossed a road in India and lived to talk about it. And there is road after rue to be crossed here.
For exercise there is all that striding. This is a city of furious walkers. To the left, to the right, straight ahead and behind you, they are all going somewhere. Stop a moment and you cause a human jam;they unsnarl with a brisk excusemoi and step out again. Except along the Seine where joggers jog and on the roads where a few drive or cycle, people walk everywhere. Out of the metro, into the metro, on sidewalks, on the road, in ankle boots, in knee-high boots and boots that almost touch the hips, in heels, flats and spiky points, the Parisian is all about leg-work. And then they collapse into bistros and bars, their chairs still among other walkers, to sip wine and wave their fingers and spread their palms. As their legs rest, their hands take over.
When the weather is iffy and the day could be sunny, cool or rainy, there is a uniform to change into. The mandatory boots, skinny jeans, scarf, beret and jackets, jackets, jackets in all shapes and sizes, hues and fabrics.
It took me precisely one minute of standing on this soil to realize I was actually French. There has been some cross-country mix-up at birth, not to mention cunning plastic surgery, the kind that alters height, weight and eye color (like SRK in Don 2 when he tangoed with Priyanka Chopra as Hrithik). Because every time someone asks me something in French, the reply is on the tip of my tongue. Already I roll my eyes and click my tongue in French. And if I could pick English over a mother tongue back in motherland, perhaps linguistic defections come easy to me, n'est-ce pas? My diary jottings are now a mix of consonants and vowels not quite English, not yet French. But I suspect being French goes beyond grammar and garments;it doesn't stop with bonjour and merci but goes all the way into your soul.
I want to live on the sixth floor in one of those lift-less 19th-century apartments in the heart of Paris, with wooden floors and doors without doorbells.
I want to look through the beautiful old buildings around me, having seen them all my life. I want to compare idlis and vadas to nougats and macaroons;they look alike, oui, they do. I want to watch How I Met Your Mother on French TV and laugh at the right places. And never have a bad-hair day. Imagine that! I can cross roads without having to go back and get my hair.
Most of all, I want to grow old here and die here, chin high and cigarette low. It feels so... safe. I can cross the road blind as a bat at 80, dressed the way I did in my teens, shrugging Frenchly, meeting friends in street corners. I will be this dangerously thin, ageless Frenchwoman, legs muscular from all that walking, a scarf knotted at the neck, with a touch of Marie Antoinette, saying 'pardonnez-moi ' for stepping on the toes of a man about to behead her.
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