The last day at Antwerp

The Sunday dawned bright and sunny. We were scheduled to leave only later in the afternoon.  The half day sightseeing plan that our hosts had chalked out (for the wedding guests who stayed back) suited us and seemed like a good way to spend the morning.  We also wanted to go over to meet our hosts, Corinne and John, before we left for the train. Through the windows of the hotel, I saw a few dog walkers with their mutts. The dogs looked happy in the cold weather. I missed Maxx much then.  He loves the air con in our room and I imagined how happy he would be in Antwerp, in Winter.

The magnificent Museum on the River

The magnificent Museum on the River

After a light breakfast at the hotel, we walked up to the Museum Aan de Stoorm – a gigantic spiral sixty meter high museum tower – for a panoramic view of the docks and the old town of Antwerp. It seemed like anyone who was awake and about at Antwerp was at the MAS that morning!  Except for the people at the museum, the roads wore a deserted look. I soon realized that none of the locals stepped out on a Sunday!

The MAS – built in the form of stone containers- had ten levels. Found out later from Wiki that the red sandstone that appears on the cladding were from Agra in India. No wonder we felt a special connection!

A collage of the wall murals at MAS

A collage of the wall murals at MAS

 

Each level of the ten level tower had exhibits and people were busy setting up for the day, expecting delegates and visitors to interact with them.  We however, only wanted to click pictures of Antwerp from the top level of the MAS. On our way to the top level on the escalator, we saw the walls painted with colorful murals, stories depicting the history and cultural heritage of Antwerp. Maybe the next time back on a longer trip, we would stop by for a detailed viewing of this magnificent building and its contents.

The misshapen giants I saw there

The misshapen giants I saw there

On several floors, there were huge, misshapen, sleepy looking giant dolls that were propped against the glass walls in a mass of tangled arms and legs. I later found out that they were created by  a French artist Mehdi Hercberg, aka Shoboshobo.

There were also several medallions, embedded in the floor of the building. Every one of them had the same design and some words written around it. We found out that it was the design of an ideal town as envisaged by a graphic designer and the words around it were actually a poem that talks about the water, city, people and heritage of Antwerp.

Where water watch and what was worth the later was kept - read it over and over again!

Where water watch and what was worth the later was kept – read it over and over again!

When we reached Level 9, the escalators stopped and the last level had to be climbed using stairs. On the landing between the 9th and the 10th floors, was a signage proclaiming that we had reached level 9 ½. Reminded  me of Harry Potter and his friends who left for Hogwarts from platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.

The skies were blue; the wind was chilly and forceful. My camera would have flown out of my grip if I had not been careful. Antwerp looked grey, red and brown mostly because of the water, the docks and the stone buildings.

The Loodswezen, Antwerp

The Loodswezen, Antwerp

 

 

One such was a Gothic style building right on River Schelde which I later found out to be Loodswezen, a maritime organization that handles shipping traffic that enters the ports of Antwerp.

We walked to John and Corinne’s home which was not too far off from the MAS.  The wind  chill was biting cold and the only sounds I heard was that of the wind and seagulls. Eerie! We spent close to an hour at the house, over a warm cup of tea, said our goodbyes and wished the newlyweds at the beginning of their new lives together.  We brought back a specially bottled French wine from the wedding to take home with us.

The wine bottle we brought home from the wedding

The wine bottle we brought home from the wedding

We still had time before our taxi met us at the hotel to drive us up to the station. We decided to lurk outside to enjoy the last few hours of the chilly weather. Back home it would be 32 degrees! We walked up the street and found a coffee shop open.  The shop had a unique name – Tante Lies! Brought to mind the ‘shop’ that Akank drew in her art book when she was younger. She would draw several colored contact lenses and called the shop Hip-not-Eyes. Tante Lies had the ambience of a bar. There were a few retired folks enjoying their morning beer and the bar woman /owner was delivering a loud monologue in Flemish. The hot chocolate and coffee we had there, warmed us from the inside.

No wonder the bar owner sounded harassed!

No wonder the bar owner sounded harassed!

 

We marched back to the hotel in time for our taxi pick up. At the Antwerp central station, we had a customary Belgian Waffle and boarded the Thalys to take us back to Schipol from where we were flying back home.

 

The Thalys was already full of people coming from Paris. A bulky Parisian was sitting on what I thought was my seat and when I claimed it, he gruffly responded with a  ‘I don’t think so!’  Thankfully Ramesh stopped me from pushing my foot further into my mouth than I had already, by pointing out to me, two empty seats just next to him.

We had an unexpected power outage 15 minutes into the journey and we lost half an hour arriving into Schipol.  Thankfully, we were in no hurry to reach since our flight back was much later in the evening.  When the announcements in the train were made about the delay, I was amazed at how calm and unruffled people were. The entire coach was quiet except for soft murmurs that were conversations, unlike what would have typically happened on a Shatabdi (the closest train service I can think of to compare it with the Thalys) in India. People would have been anxious and restless on their feet, looked for the TTE or some railway authority to question them – as though they had all the answers.  We would have had people jump off the train onto the tracks to stretch and enjoy a smoke. There would have been loud banter, the food service employees would have sold more cups of watered down sweet ‘kaapi’ or ‘chai ‘. Oh, how I miss home!

When we got to Schipol, we still had plenty of time before our boarding was announced.  So we wisely spent both time and money, on some gifts for people back home.  I was looking forward to catching up on more movies on my way back and I was not disappointed. Robert De Niro was superb in Red Light  as a blind psychotic and Johnny Depp played a vampire to the hilt in Dark Shadows.  The flip side being, KLM  did an encore of what they did on our way to Amsterdam – forgot our vegetarian meal choices …again!

But even that could not spoil the mood of our short vacation, the wedding and a lot of lovely memories of our trip!

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To Antwerp,to the wedding!

We were going to Antwerp to attend an English wedding  – our first!

The Thalys high speed train took less than an hour and 15 minutes to take us the 140 odd kilometers into Antwerp. When the train went past Rotterdam, the song from The Beautiful South kept playing back in my mind!  The countryside looked beautiful but the train moved too fast for me to click any pictures through the glass windows.

After the biting cold of almost zero degrees at Amsterdam, Antwerp was ‘warmer’ at 8 degrees, though I still needed the coat to keep me warm. The Antwerp Central station is housed in a fine stone clad historical building from the 19th Century.

The Antwerp Central Station

The Antwerp Central Station

I found out from Wiki that Antwerpen-Centraal was judged the world’s fourth greatest train station in the year 2009.  The platform we arrived at was at two levels underground and it took as a while to figure how to exit. Our attempt at asking for the exit received a shrug from a local as if to say, ‘go figure’ and that is exactly what we did.

KP and Mamy, our friends

KP and Mamy, our friends

Just as we were about to ask another person for help, we saw two people waving at us. Ah, the joy of seeing friends in a foreign land.  Mamy and KP, our friends, were almost like locals, having lived there for three years before they moved back to India.

Consider this. The father of the bride was also there to receive us at the station. That character in Indian wedding settings is the busiest on the day of his daughter’s wedding. And here he was, his usual cheerful self, meeting us and driving us to our hotel. I knew at that moment, that I was going to experience a wedding that is so different from what I have seen up until then.

The Holiday Inn Express turned out to be another travelers hotel with basic amenities. No restaurants at the hotel but there was a kiosk that stocked cold sandwiches and drinks. The room was much bigger than the Ibis at Amsterdam. The hosts had left an envelope with instructions, addresses and maps for the Wedding guests. From that we found out that we were due to meet the wedding party a few hours later.  It gave us enough time to rest and freshen up. The venue of the wedding was a few hundred meters away and so the hotel was at a great location.

The event!

That is us.

That is us.

We had decided to attend the event in traditional Indian attire. The silk sari I chose to wear also had an added benefit of keeping me warm in the cold winter.  Other than Mamy and us, everyone else was in western wedding finery.  Women with stylish hats and black cocktail dresses and gowns, men in suits, ties and tuxedos. Even though I saw many black dresses, I was glad that I had checked with the hosts if wearing black to the wedding was allowed. Corinne, the bride’s mom, wore a beautiful silk hat that was sitting at an angle to the crown of her head. The hat worn by mother of the bride is a feature at an English wedding. 

The hat Corinne wore

The hat Corinne wore

The venue was an enchanted Old Norwegian Seamen’s church.  Even though it did not look imposing from the outside, it was warm, cozy and just right for the gathering of a select group of family and friends.  It was my first English wedding even though it seemed like I knew the format from the many movies I have watched and the books I have read! The bride’s maids and flower girls wore cheerful dresses in purple with large white floral prints.

The couple

The couple

The bride was herself in a longish crème silk- chiffon- satin dress and the groom in a smartly tailored suit.

The bride and groom looked blissfully happy and eager to be married. The bridal march played and watching the bride with her father was surreal. Something about the tune makes my eyes fill with tears! I missed Akank so much then since she loves the tune and plays it on her piano. When the groom and bride exchanged rings, I could almost hear the catch of breath in everyone’s throats waiting for them to kiss (or maybe it was just my imagination)!

The ceremony was short, peaceful and personal compared to the noisy, gregarious, long weddings back home in India.

Old friends- Mamy, Corinne and I

Old friends- Mamy, Corinne and I

The best part of the wedding (for the guests at least ) was just beginning! The guests were chauffeured to The Ark, a banquet hall, which is attached to a classy restaurant, which was once a pump house to the Antwerp fire station! The ride was in two vintage London Ceremony buses.

The London Ceremony Bus

The London Ceremony Bus

The toasts were the highlight of the evening. The father of the bride was on a roll! He managed to find a few pauses between laughter bouts to keep the mood of the gathering, upbeat and cheerful.

The number of wine glasses should tell you the dinner was more drnk than eat!

The number of wine glasses should tell you the dinner was more drink than eat!

It was a beautiful seated dinner. The staff, the ambience, the company, the wine and food (I had the world’s best pumpkin soup with orange zest that evening!) competed with each other vying to be the best.

 

We signed the guest book and along with our picture taken with a Polaroid camera, expressed how delighted we were to be there.

Our day came to an end on such a cheerful note and while the rest of the gathering stayed back for the dance, we left for the hotel, late in the evening.

Day 2- van Gogh,diamonds,Jews and more!

the gloomy morning

This is how gloomy the morning was.

It was winter and the weather reports that I kept tracking did not show any sign of the Sun for the next few days and predictably, the next morning was cloudy and dark. Since we  were done with the walking tours, we decided to take a ride on the Hop on-off sightseeing bus to be able to make the most of our time here.

Hop On-Off Bus

Our ride for the day

We braved through the drizzle and chill and walked with newly bought umbrellas (The Hop On-Off ticket office stocked them) and tickets to where the bus would pick us.  Our first stop was going to be at the van Gogh museum. Akank was learning van Gogh style of painting at school in art and she had educated me on what to expect.  We were informed that the van Gogh paintings had been temporarily relocated to The Hermitage museum and that is where we headed first.

van Gogh

His paintings have been used to sell commercial products like these at the Museum shop

Armed with some knowledge of what to expect, we joined the rest of the museum goers. The walls neatly displayed the masterpieces of the great man.  Knowing a little about Vincent and his brother Theo helped to make sense of what I read.  We spent almost three hours there, reflecting on the wonder of life in Vincent’s times. He prided in calling himself a peasant painter. Most of his paintings were of peasants in their wheat fields. Some of the letters he wrote his brother Theo were displayed- profound thoughts in them. We spent time studying every painting closely like art lovers do and learnt so much about the man. His favorite color was definitely yellow and he had a typical style – thick layers of paint in short strokes, almost like tick marks. We viewed the famous – The Potato eaters – which van Gogh himself thought was his best painting. Now I will be able to recognize a van Gogh painting without breaking into a sweat.

Diamonds on display

These were fake diamonds- displayed to show the different cuts in magnified sizes.

By that time, the weather had cleared up and we felt a little more adventurous about making more stops. A trip to a diamond workshop piqued our curiosity. We were taken around the workshop, by an employee, who was only too pleased to show us around and the different cuts and clarity of the expensive stone, hoping to evoke some buying interest in the group that stopped for the tour. At the end of the tour, even though we did not buy one, my respect for the stone went up a few notches.

The instruments

Imagine using these on a tender 8 day old infant

Jewish MuseumThe hop on–off bus took the scenic route around town. The audio options in the bus let us choose the language we preferred to listen in and that helped. We decided to stop at the Jewish Historic Museum, next.  The audio tour we opted for, gave us a lot of information on Jewish history and culture. On display were paintings by the Dutch painter Sal Meijer who was Jewish, artifacts and photographs from the 16th Century Netherlands. We saw videos of some Jewish practices and ceremonies.

The instruments they used for circumcision of eight day old babies were scary! There were even videos of the circumcision ceremony – The Brit Milah – to watch. As the Jews await their Messiah’s imminent arrival, there have been a few false claimants who have called themselves the Messiah. One such interesting person to read about was Sabbatai Zevi. After initial claims of being the messiah he embraced Islam! It was possible to empathize with the Jews of the earlier days in the Netherlands and Spain and other parts of the World. There was so much to learn and appreciate and we had so little time. The lady who collected back the audio equipment at the end of our visit, was pleasantly surprised we had stayed that long.

After a quick bite at the museum cafe, we hopped back on the bus, to be dropped  where we began our tour. We were back in the vicinity of the hotel and we still had a few hours to use well before we went back to our room.  Amsterdam has museums for everything– over 50 museums on the last count! We couldn’t do justice to more museums but we went into one more that we spotted. The Erotica museum.

You heard it here first!

You heard it here first!

Did you know John Lennon, of the Beatles fame, was first an artist before he picked a guitar?  Some of his lithographs were displayed. So were some miniature soapstone sculptures from Kajuraho, some collectible bone ivory Shunga Netsuke from China, some works based on Milo Menara comics, some of Paul Blanca’s artistic photographs and Jeff Wack’s works.  There was even a metal sculpture of Lord Buddha.  We also saw on display a Tintin comic, an illegal adaptation of course, with Tintin and Captain Haddock in dubious situations!

The Buddha

The Buddha

We also walked to the famous Red Light District, right in the middle of town. Women are legally permitted to be sex workers and unlike in other countries, they have police protection. I saw both young and older women dressed in their best work attire, waiting at lit glass showcases called the ‘window brothels’. Some of them actually looked really pretty.

Well, we had seen enough. We stopped at a middle eastern restaurant that served Mexican falafels and freshly squeezed orange juice for dinner and called it a night.

Day three was in Antwerp and for a beautiful occasion!

 

End of year trip to Amsterdam

When we heard the news of the wedding of Ramesh’s colleague’s daughter, we wondered if we should go. A trip to Europe is not something you take every year- it needed a lot of planning..  When the invite arrived a few weeks later, our minds were made up. Even if it meant that we will be able to take only a few days off, we decided to make that trip!  We decided to spend two days in Amsterdam and thereafter attend the wedding at Antwerp.

I knew that it was going to be cold when we arrived at Schipol. I had been tracking the weather for a week before my trip.  I had absolutely no winter clothes to beat any form of cold, let alone bone chilling cold of less than 4 degrees.  Having lived in tropical weather all my life, I have never experienced harsh winters and Ramesh was excited for me that I would finally get to experience the cold that I have only heard from his travels.  This meant that I had to go on a quick shopping spree for winter wear which finally saw me owning heat technology tee shirts, a proper woolen coat, cashmere pullover and muffler.

The flight by KLM was very comfortable if you ignored the fact that they goofed up on our food choice. Thankfully they gave us alternate non meat food, even though I would never opt for apple strudel as breakfast food in any life. I watched Kahani, a movie that people had been raving about in the past year. I finally got uninterrupted time to watch and get done with it. It was a long haul flight, most of which I spent sleeping. It turned out to be a good idea since we arrived in The Netherlands in the wee hours of the morning the next day and I was feeling fresh after the rest.

Of Canal Cruises and Wax models at Amsterdam

We landed at Schipol the next morning, after flying nonstop for 13 hours. Thankfully the seats that turned into restful inclined beds in the flight helped set the mood of the morning, despite the wind chill I felt. We quickly grabbed our favorite Cappuccino from Starbucks to warm our insides and tickets to Amsterdam Central which is where our hotel bookings were confirmed. The train ride which began right from the inside of the airport was barely ten minutes to our destination.  That seemed to be the preferred way of transport by most people arriving in the country. I could say that for sure since I saw many people with huge suitcases and luggage getting into the train ahead of us. The train was a double deck but we stayed on at first level since we knew that we did not have long to travel.

The Ibis hotel was close to the central station. We chose a location that was convenient for our sightseeing plans for the next two days. We wheeled our luggage and walked up to the hotel that was barely any distance from the station.  Around me I saw people wrapped up in woollies, marching briskly to keep themselves warm, smoking through their noses and mouths like dragons.

The room at the Ibis met our needs.  We needed a place to keep our stuff, to shower and rest for the night.  The hotel had dining facilities for breakfast alone. We did not plan on being in the hotel during the day since we intended to spend most of our time outdoors. We washed, changed and stepped out with a map and a brochure that the helpful front office assistant had given us. She suggested that we do the canal cruise and Ramesh agreed that would be a good place to start our tour.

Houseboat02The cruise on the canal was an hour long. The audio tour during the cruise dished out information on what we were seeing around us. The audio tour was in three languages. Dutch, French and last in English.  If you understood only English, then the chances are that you missed the detail that you had to see since the boat had already crossed the place of interest! However, we were alert and glanced in the general direction of where everyone was looking when the audio was in Dutch and French.

The beautiful houses lining the canal were just like those miniatures that we have been collecting since 1995, when Ramesh was a frequent flier with the KLM. Except these were larger and colourful. Canalboats03There were boats anchored along the canal. I learnt that there were over 3000 house boats with modern facilities like water and electricity and families actually lived in them.  Imagine having a cool address of a house boat – 35, The big blue houseboat, Swaying  close to the 375thbridge, The Prince’s canal, Amsterdam.  The audio tour pointed to a floating Pagoda style Chinese restaurant,  the cycle parking at Fietsflat near Central Station, the different canals along which the princely houses were built many centuries back and some monumental buildings.

DSC_2433Our next stop was at the wax museum, Madam Tussauds. It was my first ever visit and I have some very special memories in pictures! I saw life size models of historical greats, musical geniuses and Hollywood celebrities. There was even one of the actual size Fiona from the Shrek movies! What was incredible was the height of some of the celebrity wax figures. To someone who has always been considered taller than average, I felt dwarfed standing next to a few celebrities!

DSC_2449

There was Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig, Lady Diana, Mahatma Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, The Pope  and more.

There was an employee at the museum who demonstrated how these models were cast in wax and how many hours of hard work goes into getting each of these models ready.  I heard him say that most of the hair needed for these statues came from some states in India! According to him, Indian hair withstands the chemical treatments that the hair is exposed to, to change its colour and texture needed for the models.DSC_2450

Next, we walked about with a printed walking map of a historical tour that I had Googled online. We managed to complete it half way, after losing our way a bit. The weather was chilly, the day was short and it was getting dark soon. My hands were feeling numb from  the exposure to the weather. We decided to track back our path and stopped at a kiosk to buy French fries and chatted up the friendly Dutchman who was selling them.  He recognized our Nationality and asked us if we were from Kerala! I found out later that he was a student of martial arts and he dreamt of going to Kerala to experience the Kalaripayattu! I was nearly 9000 kms from home (India) and there were already two references to the Country within a span of a few hours!

As we walked back to the hotel, we spotted some horse carts. We hired one to take us around central Amsterdam late in the evening before we called it a night over a pizza and wine.

Day two at Amsterdam to follow!

 

Listening to Life

It was concert time in Singapore and this time around we were at the Kalaa Utsavam and at Bombay Jayashri’s concert. My mother is a big fan and having grown up listening to her records, I enjoy her music as well.

The concert was at the beautiful Esplanade concert hall, with state of the art acoustics and reverberation chambers.  It was my first time there and a great memory to treasure.  What was unpleasant was the fact that even though people knew that the concert was scheduled to begin at 7.30 in the evening, we saw people trickling in past the given time. I wonder if we will ever have the discipline to be in time at such gatherings, as a mark of respect to the performer. Music pervades all boundaries and is such a unifying factor. The audience were a mix of Indians from the South and the other parts, people from the West and East. People like Bombay Jayashri have made Indian music so popular around the World.

Bombay Jayashree was dressed in a simple yet elegant sari and her trademark bindi. From where I sat- The foyer- I couldn’t see much of her expressions but I imagine them peaceful and serene like in the many videos of her that I have watched. She spoke in flawless English, with the learned perspective of a person who has travelled the world, experienced various influences in life and music in particular. She spoke of the oneness of music, of the similar emotions that music evokes in each one of us, of how each of us is a rasika like she is and the rest of the musicians on stage were. Her description of each piece of music she sang that evening was simple and made it feel like we were all musicians in our own ways.

When she spoke, her voice was soothing and calming, much like her music.  Despite being renowned in her field and the glory she has earned in her journey as a musician, she seemed so humble.  She was able to get down to the level of the audience, many of whom were not as informed of ragas and other nuances of music like she was. It made me wonder what makes a person that way. People are known to take pride in their achievements. They love to be told that they are good when they are still learning and have no claim to fame.  A true achiever, like Bombay Jayashri, just does what she does best, and is unaffected by fame and laurels.  Being in the mere presence of such people can be humbling. It was for me.

The other vidwans who accompanied her with their instruments were all fabulous. There was such co-ordination and understanding among them.  I wondered how many hours of practice would have gone into perfecting the final presentation. It was flawless from the beginning to the end.

Bombay Jayashri seamlessly sang various genres of music. Hindustani to Carnatic to Ghazals. Even though there were plenty of tunes from Indian movies that the musicians played on the violin and flute, she sang only one to demonstrate how movie songs are also based on ragas from Classical music.  She understood that a common man’s appreciation of classical music is only possible if she could relate it to movies. After the tunes played, she paused to ask if we sang the tune in our minds. That she said was the true power of music. Among her renditions were a poetry from Bharathiar and Mian Tan Sen’s composition other than compositions by Saint Thyagaraja and her own Gurus.  She switched from Tamil to Hindi, Telugu to Kannada, without missing a beat and took us along the journey as a united group of rasikas. The concert was two hours long but seemed shorter.

I will reflect on the evening for many days. I missed my daughter, who is away at camp, at various points during the evening. I specially wanted to point out to how a piano can be a delightful accompaniment to carnatic music. She dreams of being a musician and I think there were a lot of lessons to take away for young people like her, who want to do so much in short time!

Someday soon, I hope to be blessed with another opportunity to enjoy music of that calibre.

Here is a video I found on YouTube which gives you glimpses of the evening.