I Have a Dream…

October 29, 2010

…And I put that dream into an envelope and sent it off with hope and a prayer.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve done this.

My dream, as you all know by now, is to be a published author. Not just any published author, but one whom a large number of people have read. I want to have my books in your living room, taking pride of place in your bookshelf. More than that – I want my words, my thoughts, my story to reach out and touch someone. I want to be a shadow in someone’s mind that stays with them for a long, long time. I want to make a difference in someone’s life. I want to be an author that at least a few readers wish they could talk to or meet.

I don’t know if my other two works have that kind of potential, but I think my adoption story certainly does.

But, for any part of my dream to become even remotely possible, I first have to get my work published. Any of it, or, preferrably, all of it.

So far, I’ve got three completed manuscripts that I’ve been submitting to publishers all over the country. This last one has been out to only one publisher so far, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve put the other two in an envelope and sent them out with a hope and a prayer. Most often, my dream goes nowhere. True, I got a nod from one publisher for one manuscript, but it’s still going to take a very long time to get the work from concept to print-and-paper reality. And for the other two works? Nothing.

It’s not as if you have a long list of publishers to try with either – in India, there are very, very few significant publishing houses. And an extraordinary large number of aspiring authors.

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done is to keep believing in myself and keep going. It is terribly wearying when your dream goes out in an envelope and nothing comes back – month after month after month, nothing comes back. Sometimes you get a brief, polite rejection; sometimes just silence. It empties you out and tears you down to know that the best you have ever done, the best you have in you to do, means so little when it goes out there – just another envelope on a busy editor’s desk.

But there’s nothing to do but to keep trying, and keep hoping, that, against the odds, someone, somewhere, will read your work, and pause, and sit up, and read it again, and smile… and then set about turning your dream into reality.


Achievement of a Lifetime

October 28, 2010

I’ve been learning tennis for five years now. I suppose, after five years, one could just as easily say “playing” tennis, rather than “learning” tennis. But I’m still learning.

To be honest, I’m struggling. When I started learning, I picked up surprisingly quickly. I earned much praise from both Amit and my tennis coach. I even surprised myself.

Since then, it’s been largely downhill. I improve for a while, then, suddenly, I completely lose it. I work and struggle and despair as my game unravels, and I slowly claw my way back up to an acceptable level; then, suddenly, I lose it again. A bit like Roger, actually.

I’ve been in the “struggle-despair-claw-my-way-back-up” phase for several months. No doubt part of my difficulty was due to the Chronic Fatiuge Syndrome; retrospectively, I’m beginning to see just how great an impact it had on my physical ability and my state of mind. In the past few week, Tennis Sir has been making a real effort to put my game back on track.

Sir normally either doesn’t play at all, or plays only with the weaker members of each batch; the more accomplished players can play well against other players or against the markers. But in the past three or four weeks, Sir has been playing exclusively with me and it’s done wonders for my game. He has allowed me to slow my game down to snail’s pace while I work on fixing all that was wrong with my stroke. Of all the people on our courts, including Amit (who is a superb player), nobody can control the game as well as Sir can, especially when it comes to playing really gently, against beginners or erratic players.

And my game had become so bad, it was worse than that of many of the beginners or more erratic players I have seen. Only a few weeks ago, I watched a beginner rallying against Sir and envied her slow, regular stroke that allowed the rally to run on uninterrupted for a very long time. I felt extremely despondent – I used to be able to play like that when I was a beginner, too. Where did it go?

But it’s improving. Playing exclusively with Sir, at a slow pace, focusing on my stroke, my game has slowly become more consistent and better controlled.

The proof of the pudding is in the rally. At my worst, I couldn’t sustain a rally beyond five or six shots. My shots were too wild for even a fit and enthusiastic opponent to retrieve. Plus, of course, I didn’t always manage to get the ball past the net.

Now, at last, I’ve managed to bring that under control. Last time I played, I managed a single rally of 49 shots, and several other rallies of 20+ shots.

Today? My first rally lasted 85 shots! And close to the end of the session, another rally went to 58 shots. In between was at least one rally of 30+ shots and two or three of around 20 shots.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small victory. I haven’t won a tournament; I haven’t even played a match. But 85 shots is a personal record. It’s a testament to the power of sheer, dogged determination. And it means a lot to me.


It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

October 27, 2010

I’ve ranted about various customer service scenarios here on this blog. If you’ve been reading along for a while, you might remember the Honda service center that lost my job card and the Nokia “care” (don’t care) experience; the Handyman plumber saga; the Tata water purification fiasco; and, of course, the Hyundai car servicing episode.

 

If you have read any or all of these, or if you know me even slightly, you know that it doesn’t take much to make me lose my temper and start shouting. And once I start shouting, even strong men will normally take whatever action is required to get me to shut up and go away. I wish there were a simpler way to get things done, but usually there isn’t.

 

My car turned a year old in July. I sent it off to the workshop for the last of its free services. I’m generally quite happy with my car, it has mostly the features I wanted and it’s a sweet little thing – but I’m not blind to its faults. One fault that I was warned about before I bought it, is its relatively low mileage. The other, which nobody mentioned but I found out soon enough, is its brake. Initially, whenever I started the car in the morning, the brake would squeal loudly for the first couple of minutes. After that, it would simmer down and do its work without further complaint.

 

The service center didn’t do anything to fix the problem – they didn’t, in fact, even acknowledge that it was a problem – but somehow over time the problem went away. But it was replaced by a different problem. Now, the first time I use the brake after what is called a cold start (usually after the car has been resting overnight or longer), the car stops dead. The braking action is much sharper than it should be. After that first time, the break works ok.

 

When I mentioned this to the service center guys in July, they said, “ok, we’ll look into it.” When they brought the car back to me, all they’d done was to loosen the brake. This didn’t solve the first-brake-after-cold-start problem at all, but it meant that for the first couple of days I had several near misses because the brake didn’t act the way it used to before I sent the car for servicing.

 

About two months after the servicing, Hyundai called me to get my feedback about the servicing experience. It wasn’t a “hope your car is doing fine and give us a call if you have any problems” kind of call (which I’ve had way too many of already) . It was a “I need 20 minutes of your time because there is a questionnaire that has 40-odd questions on it” kind of a call. I agreed to give them 20 minutes of my time and patiently worked my way through the 40 questions. I didn’t think too much about it after that – I expected my answers would get compiled into some set of statistics, and the less favourable aspects might even be glossed over, depending on the objectivity of the organization collecting the feedback.

 

I was wrong. A couple of days later, I got a call from the service center wanting to know why, exactly, I’d given them a 4.

 

!!!

 

I was surprised and explained my grievance (calmly) at length. I was even more surprised when they proposed sending someone over to collect the car so they could check and fix the problem. I agreed to have the car picked up on Saturday.

 

I wanted the picker-upper to experience the braking problem, so I made Amit and the kids come with me to the tennis court (waking them up at the ungodly hour of 5.30 a.m. on a Saturday morning) so that we could go in Amit’s car (Honda Civic) and leave my car parked. After we got back, right on time, the picker-upper came and picked it up and promised to report the problem to the service technician.

 

So far, so good.

 

I was not so impressed when the service technician called me later that morning to say that my car’s brake was behaving as expected. The “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature,” line of defense is impossible to counter. My best response was, “Well, then, you should have told me so back in July, instead of just loosening the brake and sending it back.”

 

But, well. At least they took the trouble to look at my car and at no cost to me.

 

If this is, in fact, the way the brake is designed to work… it’s a strange design, is all I can say. I don’t think very highly of the level of technical service even now. In fact, I don’t think very highly of their technology, if they design their brake to squeal and behave erratically early in the morning. Besides, I don’t know what exactly the service technician did, but the brake seems to be quite a bit less abrupt in the morning now. But whatever brownie points that might have earned them, they lost it all and more when I found that the front cover of my reverse parking sensor has come off and been lost during servicing. Damn!

 

So on the whole, I’m still not very happy with the technical service, but, as far as customer service goes… wow! To go seeking feedback and then to actually listen to the customer and act on the feedback at an individual level? Wow. All those other companies have a lot to learn.

 

As for Hyundai – they really need to take as much care with their technical servicing as they do with their customer service.


Managing the Differences

October 25, 2010

One of the amazing things about twins is how they demonstrate differences in children, differences that are very evident in spite of having identical genes (as far as science has been able to discover) and very very similar upbringing and circumstances.

 

Mrini and Tara, as I’ve mentioned before, have different personalities and they periodically switch. The quiet one becomes voluble, the submissive one becomes aggressive, the still(er) one becomes a perpetual motion machine, the eager-to-please one starts pushing the limits…

 

But there is at least one facet of their personalities that they haven’t swapped for a very long time – almost never: their ability to focus and work on something they want to accomplish.

 

I still remember how Mrini learnt to walk. They were 13 months old when they came to us and neither of them was walking. Remember they were in the bottom fifth percentile for weight and height and – more worryingly – hadn’t increased in weight at the normal rate in the first year. But nobody had said anything about any developmental delays, so I wasn’t worrying about when they would walk. As I said often, by the time they go to college, I’m sure they’ll have mastered it. In a way, I was a little bit relieved that they weren’t walking yet – at least it was one significant milestone that we wouldn’t have missed out on.

 

They both enjoyed being held by the hand and made to walk, and we, of course, loved to do that as well.

 

One morning, Mrini decided it was the day she was going to walk. She practiced for a straight 15 minutes. For a 13- or 14-month old, that’s a lifetime. She stood up, shakily, and sat down with a bump; stood up, sat down; stood up, sat down. After this went on for a long time, she stood up and walked – a good 12 or 15 steps, from the living room of our former apartment all the way to near the fridge in the dining room.

 

This determination of hers to “practice” or to determinedly work at something till she gets it is still very much a part of her. A few weeks ago, she told me she wanted to write. I wrote out a letter of the alphabet for her in a random blank-sheet notebook and gave it to her. I expected her to copy the letter in the line below, but to my surprise, she traced over it. After that, she has filled up several pages of the blank notebook and shown considerable enthusiasm in buying a four-line notebook to continue her writing work. We bought her a four-line notebook and she’s used up several pages of that too, already. I never ask her to write – she’s always the one who suggests it and persists till I give in. (“Give in” because I have to stop whatever I’m doing and get up to get the notebook off from the highest level of the bookshelf.) She’s thrilled to do her writing work and tells me which letter she wants and works diligently at tracing over it until she has filled up one page. Then she puts it away until next time.

 

Some time ago, she started recognizing letters in newspaper headlines. “Mmmmm for Mini” is her favourite, I think. At any rate, it was the first she learnt to spot and the one she still asks for most often when she’s practicing writing. Yesterday, she was trying to read the letters in the logo on my T-shirt. I think she’s going to be stringing sounds together to make words, soon. Wow – she’s almost learning to read and spell. It is an exciting development to watch!

 

There are other things that Mrini works hard at too. She’s diligent at following Amit’s instructions at sport – tennis, football, and catch. The fact that she’s eager for approval and praise makes her an easy child to coach (and a difficult one to scold – she is apt to break into the most heart-rending sobs if she feels she is being wrongly chided; she also gets very seriously scared if she accidentally manages to do some serious damage which hurts someone or breaks something).

 

Tara, on the other hand. She used to be able to focus, albeit sporadically. Once in a way, she would set out to do something and work at it very sincerely for ten minutes. But not any more. She shows no interest in writing, like Mrini does, but doesn’t make up for it by being very interested in anything else. She won’t focus on any of the games that Amit tries to get them to play, so she doesn’t show any sign of promise. She doesn’t take well to being instructed, and seems to have not much desire to earn approval. She doesn’t give a hoot if we scold her, either. As far as I can tell the only activity she really likes is listening to and telling stories, and the only form of attention she wants is to sit in my lap (not something that I encourage a lot of).

 

Sometimes, when I praise Mrini for something she’s working seriously on, I have to simultaneously scold Tara for either being disruptive, or for being disobedient, insolent, or otherwise difficult. I do realize that when Mrini is getting attention for all the things she’s doing well, Tara might feel the only way she can compete for attention is by being naughty. But I wish she wouldn’t. I know that the best way to discourage negative attention-getting behavior is to ignore it, but often that is very difficult to do. Also, it can lead to an escalation of negative behavior till it becomes impossible to ignore. And not reacting to mildly irritating behavior then getting provoked by seriously irritating behavior is counter-productive because it teaches kids that if you push the right buttons long enough and hard enough, you’ll get the attention you were aiming for.

 

I don’t want to create any kind of dichotomy between the kids, of the sort that this one is such a good girl, that one is such a bad girl. I don’t want Tara to feel that she can never be “better” than Mrini so it’s not even worth trying.

 

And yet… to not praise Mrini for her work is not right; and to not discourage Tara’s disruptive/disobedient behavior is not right either.

 

Strangely enough, at school there doesn’t seem to be a problem. We went to pick up their report cards on Saturday and got equally glowing reports for both girls. If there were any kind of deficit in focus on Tara’s part, their teacher would surely have mentioned it. So it looks like it is a problem that is specific to home.

 

Here is one of the challenges of having twins. With siblings, the differences in abilities and attitudes of the two are less evident precisely because of the age difference, which offers an all-too-evident explanation of their differences – an explanation that is probably quite evident to the kids themselves. With twins, their own perception of their comparative abilities is much clearer. Even if we were to ignore Mrini’s efforts and hard work, Tara can see for herself how well Mrini does something that she, herself, can’t do. Even without any special praise for Mrini from Amit and me, she might still think, Oh, I can’t do better than that, why even bother trying?

 

A question that’s been on my mind lately: How can I help Tara find things that she likes to work on and motivate her to work on them for long enough so that I can give her attention and praise and work with her without having to discipline her every few minutes and without having her feel threatened by Mrini?

 

Another question I have often asked myself: How can “identical” twins be so different???


All That Remains

October 22, 2010

For those of you who think I’m still footloose in Florence, let me inform you that I’m not. I’m back in Bangalore and have been since Sunday. Sad, but true. Coming home was better than it ever has been before. The kids were so absolutely thrilled and delighted to see me, I must confess that it rather took me by surprise. They get over it much more quickly when Amit comes back from out of town, even when he’s away for much longer, like he was for Ladakh. With me, they were engulfing me with kisses and hugs the whole day long and would have carried on where they left off on Monday, except that school, office and other mundane things like that got in the way. I was delighted to see them too, of course, but that didn’t surprise me. Their enthusiasm about me certainly did! It definitely made going away for a few days all that much rosier!

Now that I’ve been back a few days, lots of jumbled thoughts and memories of Italy are jostling around in my head. Here’s a rather unsuccessful attempt at straightening them out.

  • How can so many women be so thin all at the same time? Now I understand what happened to women’s clothes in India. Apparently there are parts of the world where it is quite normal for 80% of women to be size zero. And look good at it. Thank god I don’t live in one of those parts of the world!
  • What’s with the hair? Granted my mousy thin hair is not the most fantastic thing that ever happened to me (it used to be sleek and thick, I assure you, until I got married), but what is with the colouring, twisting, ironing, tweaking, curling, and generally fiddling with? Doesn’t anyone have the hair they were born with, with just a regular shampooing once a week or so?
  • Eyes. Specifically, upper eyelids. As with hair, nobody has the eyelids they were born with. Black, purple, green, yellow, blue… whatever, but not natural skin colour. I mean, most women in India do their eyes, but it’s not as bad as it is out there.
  • Bras. Whatever happened to bras? There used to be a garment called a bra, but I think it went out of style in the last millennium. Oh, wait, that was just ten years ago. Bras were already out of sight before that! And I mean, even the over-the-hill women with substantial top storey don’t wear these outdated bits of innerwear. Oh I am so out of it!
  • Boots. Mid-calf length, over the jeans or with short skirts, shiny leather or suede or anything in-between, boots are as much in as bras are out. I glanced at the price tags in shop windows. Around 150 euros and upwards, that’s all. Sigh.
  • Seriously stylish overcoats. This one was no surprise, even on our previous two visits I have seen seriously stylish overcoats. Also, given the weather there, it’s not surprise. Unlike boots, overcoats are functional and they’ve had generations (and arguably some of the best designers in the world) to get their overcoat designs in shape. So it was no surprise, but it did make me green with envy. I was clad in a bulky Timberland jacket, which I love dearly, but it was completely un-sexy compared to all the classy, shapely overcoats that the women wore. And the men? Oooooh, it’s so easy to look sexy if you’re wearing a stylish blazer and/or overcoat. (It also helps to have the genes of David in your bloodline.)
  • Hippie tourists. Where are they? I was the hippiest of the tourists around, with my un-coloured hair and baggy cargo pants and non-figure-hugging T-shirts. Even backpackers are being slowly phased out by the stroller-suitcase tourists. Where were the hippies with nose, tongue, and belly-button rings, matted dreadlocks, and unintentionally torn clothes (as opposed to designer torn clothes)? When did Rome become an upper-class tourist destination???

On a completely different note, I am full of admiration for the way Rome caters to tourists. The tourist maps are wonderful, every street corner is marked both on the street and in the map, so it’s really quite difficult to get lost. (I only managed it because I’m an expert with many years of practice.) Every possible building that could be of the slightest significance to anyone is labeled. The major tourist sites have loads of information printed on boards. Audio guides and tour guides are available in plenty, albeit at a cost.

Public transport is great. It is clean, frequent, punctual, and gets you mostly everywhere. The bus routes are not so easy to understand, but the metro is so well mapped at each metro station that, again, it’s impossible to get lost or get onto a train going the wrong way (as long as you can read English). You’d really have to be blind.And if you do manage it… your ticket is valid for 70 minutes! It gives you time to get back to somewhere, get onto the other side or line and get to where you thought you were going in the first place, without having to hunt for another ticket machine or shell out another buck. Likewise for bus – ticket is valid long enough to correct most errors.

But. They drive on the wrong side of the road! Ok, I mean the “right” side of the road. Whatever. For someone who’s spent 35+ years with traffic zipping by (mostly) on the left-ish side of the road, nine days is not enough to get used to the other side. Even if you’re not driving. Especially if you’re not driving.

Toilets. Well, my one complaint was that in Florence, they were tough to find. I only saw two public toilets though I walked around all the tourist centers of the city. Probably it explains why running water (for drinking) was hard to find too. In Rome, both water and toilets were easy to find. And of course, if you paid an entry fee to get in somewhere, you were guaranteed to find toilets. What I could hardly believe was how clean the toilets were. Occasionally you found toilets where someone had used it badly – not flushed or left the floor wet or the toilet bowl dirty or strewn vast quantities of toilet paper around. But the infrastructure was always in place. The toilet area was sparkling clean, plumbing worked even when put to the test by frequent use, there was sufficient toilet paper and a good number of stalls, sinks, and soap dispensers with soap. For readers from more advanced societies, this might be altogether unremarkable. Readers who have any experience of India will know what the reality here is with public conveniences. They are either non-existent, dysfunctional, or, in the best case, un-usable.

As I mentioned in a recent post, Europe is just so breathtakingly easy to travel through alone, especially when you’re coming from India, where it’s so frustratingly difficult. Finding information easily and using public bathrooms is the least of your problems in India, it’s the social and safety aspects that are so wearying.

Then there was the dorm experience. I’ve never stayed in a hostel of any kind – not in school, not in college, not as a paying guest. I went straight from staying at home with my parents, to staying at home with Amit. Very boring, in terms of diversity of living arrangement. The closest I’ve been to living with a host of other people is when I go to Calcutta to visit the in-laws. So I’ve grown up a kind of private person who’s not very comfortable sharing bedroom or bathroom with friends or family, however close they may be. If I could have, I would have preferred a guest house where I could get a room and attached bath to myself. The reason I didn’t was not entirely monetary. Travelling alone, a dorm at the youth hostel just seemed like the known devil – safe and companionable enough for both Amit and me to feel comfortable about it. In the end, I didn’t mind it at all. Sometimes I didn’t want company and I went to my room hoping I’d be alone. Often I was – youth hostellers are mostly out partying late into the night, it seems, while sedate old women like me go home when the sun goes down and stay home. When I fell asleep, happily alone (or almost alone) at 10 p.m. I was not disturbed by the lights being on and the noise of other people coming in and settling down. I usually did not even know when that happened. When I woke up before first light, I crept around in the darkness, dressed, and left without disturbing anyone (too much). But a few evenings I did spend chatting with my room-mates and even met up with some Thai women for dinner one night. It was quite nice. And in Florence, when I wanted to not talk to anyone I just went and sat out in the driveway under the beautiful poplar trees. It was cold and windy and nobody else wanted to sit outside but for me it was just beautiful.

Which brings me to the Florence youth hostel and its beautiful environs. The youth hostel is a 250-odd year old villa (I’m not joking!) set on the lower slopes of a low hill. You enter the driveway and there’s this long, curving, sloping driveway winding up, vast open countryside covered with trees on both sides, which reminds you, if you have read your PG Wodehouse, of the driveway of Blandings Castle. It’s a good 10-15 minute walk up, which is tiring if you have your luggage with you, but it’s so extremely scenic that you can’t help falling in love with it, even if you are heavily burdened. On my first day in Florence, the weather was grey and it finally started raining in the early afternoon. I hung around the train station waiting for it to stop, but when I had completely exhausted every opportunity to waste time at the station, I sadly got on to a bus to go home. By the time I reached the gate of the youth hostel, it had (of course) stopped raining. I walked up slowly, frustrated at the miserable weather and the wasted day… and by the time I’d reached the top, I couldn’t help smiling out loud. With the wind in the trees whispering sweet nothings to me and the stodgy old villa standing placidly in its fields of rolling green… you couldn’t feel grey or blue for long! That evening I sat under the trees for two hours, blogging on my phone till my fingers turned to ice and my phone’s battery died. It was sheer bliss.

All in all, it was a great trip. If only I didn’t have to be surrounded by size zero figures all the time…

Travelling alone is not something I ever thought I would like to do, but now that I’ve done it, I must say… I do!


Hadrian’s Villa

October 21, 2010

Fiesole was my unplanned day-trip out of Tivoli. Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa, in English) was my planned day trip out of Rome. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the major inspirations behind this entire holiday.

The word ‘villa’ today means something fairly modest. In Bangalore, it means a four-bedroom home with a pocket-handkerchief sized lawn which costs a king’s ransom even when located outside the outskirts of the city. Even if you expand your horizons a little, it only means something like a manor house – 15-20 rooms and a few acres of grounds.

The villas I studied about, of which Villa Quintili was representative, were much bigger and more productive. They employed hundreds of people and produced more than they consumed.

Hadrian’s villa took the term villa to another plane altogether. It was more of a town than a villa. In India, it would be comparable to Mandu or Hampi, but it predates those by more than a thousand years. It might have been more ornate than those monuments, but was thoroughly and systematically stripped both by humans and by the ravages of time.

Getting to Hadrian’s Villa was not as easy as getting to Fiesole. Even with my passion for walking everywhere, I didn’t intend to attempt the 27 km from Rome to Tivoli by foot. So I followed the instructions in Lonely Planet ant took a metro to some place called Ponte Mammolo, then a bus to Tivoli. This took about 75 minutes, starting at 7.45 a.m. I was pleased. I thought I’d get on the local bus from Tivoli to Hadrian’s Villa by 9.30, and be there by 9.45. The nearby cafe told me where I could catch the bus, just across the street, but neglected to mention that I needed to buy a ticket for that bus. When the CAT 4 bus finally rolled in around 9.30, he took one look at my ticket and threw me off the bus. The ticket I’d bought in Rome, which I’d understood would work in Tivoli, apparently did not work on this bus.

Great. Now I’d waste another half hour waiting for the next bus.

The bus driver, however, informed me that another bus would come along in ten minutes.

Ok, that was better, just enough time to zip across the road, get a ticket, and zip back.

Except, when I got in to the shop across the road, and waited an interminable couple of minutes while the person behind the counter dealt with another customer in a leisurely manner, I was told, bus ticket? Yeah, sure. Oh, sorry, we’ve jyst run out of them. Try the shop down the road.

I tried three shops down two different roads, but people kept pointing me back to this shop. One gentleman went so far as to take me by the arm and actually point out the exact shop to me, so I couldn’t miss it.

As I stumbled further down the street, I passed a grubby man doing some grubby repair working in front of a pizzeria that appeared to be closed. Without any real hope, I asked him for bus tickets. He didn’t understand me. He asked me if I wanted to go to Villa Adriana. I didn’t understand him. Somehow, a line of communication was established, money exchanged hands, and I became the proud owner of not one, but two bus tickets for the CAT 4. After all, I’d have to come back soon, and I didn’t want to face this same run-around for tickets at the other end again.

I charged back to the bus stop and waited impatiently. It took another half hour to get into the bus, get off ten minutes later, and march 15 minutes down a lonely little road to the ticket office. After I’d got my ticket, there was another 10-minute hike uphill to reach the actual entry to the ruins. It was 10.15 – two-and-a-half hours after I’d left home. And budgeting a similar time to get back meant I’d have to leave by 4.30; anyway, the site closed at 5. I didn’t have much time.

For the first time in my life, I took the audio guide. I hate taking guides, either live or recorded. They put me under pressure to go where they tell me to, when they tell me to. Besides, I don’t want to be talked at, not even by a recording. Give me written information, which is easier to absorb, retain, and carry away in the form of printed brochures. It seems I’m hopelessly old-fashioned.

I whizzed around trying to identify all the points on the audio guide’s itinerary and ingest all the audio-guide’s information. At 1 p.m., I marched all the way down to the main gate, returned the audio guide with a huge sense of relief, regained possession of my passport (which was kept as collateral against the audio guide) with relief, and headed back up to wander around the site at leisure.

There are way too many structures in Hadrian’s Villa to be worth describing at length here – I’d have to write a book to do it justice. But it was lovely because there was just enough of the structures left to imagine what might have been, and few enough tourists. My only regret was that I didn’t have more time. Still, by wandering around busily and happily, at the end of three hours I was satisfied that I had seen all there was to see of Hadrian’s fantastic villa, and by 4.30 I was on my way home. It had been a good day and the weather gods had smiled on me. It was the perfect end to my trip. On Saturday morning, I made an early morning (well, early-ish) excursion to the Pantheon to beat the crowds, ate one last gelato, and then I packed my bags and left.

Will I ever go back? I don’t know. There are, of course, things left undone. And I did throw a coin or two into Fontana di Trevi, so maybe, maybe…


Florence: A Few Photos

October 20, 2010

If you haven’t been to the Flickr photo album yet (or even if you have) here’s a visual feast (or at least I think so).

A panoramic view from the top of the Duomo, the heart of Florence.

The Duomo, seen from the faraway Piazzale Michelangelo

The front of the Duomo. It’s too big to fit in one picture, so this is the best I could do…

The river Arno, seen from across the river

David. The most fabulous nude male I have ever seen. (Ok, I haven’t seen that many…)

Fiesole, outside Florence. It’s a beautiful walk, I just wish it weren’t quite so long.

The Roman Theatre in Fiesole. This is why I study archaeology in my non-existent free time.

Arches, Fiesole. Aren’t they just lovely? I really like arches and columns.

Tomorrow… Hadrian’s Villa.


Rome: A Few Pictures

October 19, 2010

The photo gallery has links to the complete (shortlisted) set of photos that I’ve uploaded – 30, in all. Some of them are in this post.

The first and the best… the Colosseum

The inside of the Colosseum…

The hopelessly vast and ruined Roman Forum

Just one hopelessly vast and fascinating building in the Roman Forum

Fontana Di Trevi – hopelessly crowded but beautiful nonetheless

Terme di Caracalla – “Terme” means baths. Yeah, they needed this much building just to have a bath.

Catherine Somebody’s Mausoleum – a small but grand structure and the place near the catacombs from where I started to get lost.

Villa Quintili – The one that was worth the two-hour walk…

Florence and Hadrian’s Villa pictures coming up soon. If you can’t wait, go see the photos on Flickr.


It’s Just Around the Next Corner…

October 18, 2010

The other experience of getting lost was not exactly getting lost, either. This time, I knew where I was, where I was going, and how I was going to get there. I was walking from my youth hostel, a little outside Florence, to a hill town called Fiesole, a little more outside Florence. My trusty (by now) GPS told me it was only a mere 2.7 km walk – I could do that before breakfast.

So I set off at 8.20, the morning after the night before. GPS told me that I should be able to turn right at the youth hostel door, and there was a road there that looked promising, but the person at reception said I should go down to the main road, turn right, then turn right again. That should have alerted me right there. Still, all unsuspecting, I walked out.

After half an hour, I asked two girls. They said I was on the right track and pointed me to the nearest bus stop. But can I walk it?

Sure, they said, we’re walking ourselves.

They strode of, assuring me it would take about half an hour. I sauntered off in their wake. Fifteen minutes later, a bus roared past me and rolled to a stop just ahead of me. I decided not to take it, thinking I just had another 15 minutes to walk.

In psychology, there is a theory that once you make a slightly wrong decision, you will keep making stupid decisions in an attempt to justify that first wrong decision.

As I walked on an on and on, no less than six buses shot past me and I trudged despairingly past ten bus stops, but I didn’t reverse my decision to not take a bus. The result was that I reached Fiesole at 9.50, just in time for the opening of various monuments at 10. I wasn’t particularly tired, and it was a scenic walk, albeit uphill, but it was just mentally very difficult to set out on a 40-minute, 3-km stroll and find yourself walking an endless 6 km in 90 minutes instead.

But the other time that I got lost, I really did get lost. I’d gone to see the catacombs just outside Rome. I didn’t have a map of this region, but I thought the signage was good enough to get me there. It was. I took a bus, which dropped me on a lonely country road. I walked along a quiet, scenic, curving road with no traffic and huge villa estates on either side, and no people. After 15-20 minutes, I reached the catacombs. They were closed. No matter, I walked another five minutes and came to the next enclosure of catacombs. They were open.

After I’d finished with the catacombs, I asked for directions to Villa Quintili. They were complicated, involving two unspecified buses at distant stops. In any case, I would first have to walk to the first bus stop.

I set off briskly around 10.15, but soon got dustracted by a beautiful structure that turned out to be the mausoleum of some rich old woman. As I left that enclosure around 11, I asked the woman at the ticket counter for directions. She assured me that Villa Quintili was a mere 3 km down the road. That, of course, is an eminently walkable distance, and infinitely easier than finding multiple buses in this remote area where English-speakung people were difficult to find,

So I started walking again. It was a very pleasant walk now. It was Sunday morning and people were out in large numbers, walking, jogging, and cycling. No wonder Italians are all so slim – even very elderly people were walking faster than me – and I was already walking at a fairly brisk pace, I thought. Those who were jogging and cycling looked terrifyingly fit.

Anyway, after an hour or so of this lovely walk along the cobblestone road under shady trees and with no vehicular traffic… I began to wonder about the Italian measure of kilometers. Three?

After an eternity, I came to a road that had traffic. Hallelujah! Now I could get a bus.

Not so fast. I happened to be on a one-way going the wrong way. There were some women running some kind of stall. I asked them the way to the Villa and they said something like, oh, just follow the road for a bit and when you come to the intersection, take a right. How far, I asked in a worried tone. One km, they said, and waggled their hands to indicate ‘more-or-less. I have read XXX book, I should have known then, what to expect.

I followed the road for a good half hour before finding an intersection. Fed up and literally very foot sore, I looked for a bus. If I’d found one, I’d have taken it pretty much regardless of where it was going. The best I could hope for, by then, was a bus heading home. But at 12.30 on Sunday afternoon, in a remote little part of the countryside, buses were in short supply.

I limped along a little further, found a bus stop, and stopped. The sign was uninformative – none of the places on the route were remotely familiar. Now what should I do? Despairingly, I turned on GPS and searched for Villa Quintilli. No result was found. I tried again, with a single ‘l’. And GPS promptly told me that the nearest result was 850m away on the right.

I stared at it disbelievingly. Villa Quintili had become something of a holy grail by now, not because of any known intrinsic value but only due to its elusiveness. 850m? I could walk it, I suppose.

I would have been willing to give up at that point and if a bus had come, I would have got on to it. But… When I studied the classical archaeology module at the end of last year, villas were one of the things that I’d particularly focused on and discussed in my assignment. To come this close to seeing one and yet be defeated…

Tired and almost tearful, I turned my back to the bus stop and trudged on. The road curved ahead and merged with a very busy main road, with four lanes on each side and no pavement. In Italy, traffic drives on the right of the road. The Villa, GPS informed me, was on the right. But it was suicidal, so I crossed, rather dangerously, to the left, where there was a slip road that was a lot safer to walk on. A few minutes later, I asked one gentleman, who very sweetly in fluent Italian explained to me exactly where the villa was.

Actually, by this time I could see the ruins. It was vast and surrounded by wilderness. It was lovely. And it was really far away!

But the kind gentleman and the GPS were right about the entry to the villa, it was indeed just across the road from where I was now.

From the entry point, the ruins themselves were another 5-10 minutes’ stroll uphill, but now it didn’t matter. Now I was in the villa complex and I even had a very illegible photocopy of a map. Now I wasn’t looking, any more, I had arrived. My tiredness vanished and I spent two very happy hours scrambling around the ruins in solitary splendour.

Getting back, of course, was much easier. I crossed the road, got a bus, stayed on it till the end, then got off and took the metro. Simple.

The long, tiring hunt for the villa did not make it any sweeter when I found it, but I’m glad I found it, not only because I really wanted to see it and it really was very lovely, but also because it would have been very disappointing to spend all that time and energy looking for it and then leave without seeing it. As so often in life, it was just a matter of keeping on going. But in this case, at least I had the GPS to guide me. What a (corny) metaphor.


If you know where you are…

October 14, 2010

…and where you want to go…

…but you don’t know how to get there… are you lost?

On Tuesday, my second day in Florence, at the end of my sightseeing for the day, I packed away my Lonely Planet, which has all the maps I need. Then I walked away from Santa Croce, intending to catch a bus to the station, and from there a bus back to the youth hostel.

Soon, I was lost. I was in a bus-less area. I walked and walked and finally caught sight of some buses. I reached a bus stop and studied the route map, but didn’t recognize any part of it.

By this time, I was a little worried, because I was on a very big and busy main road with signs pointing to Autostrada, Venice, Siena, and so on. There weren’t many pedestrians around.

It gets dark around 7, and I like to be ‘home’, or at least in the vicinity of home, before dark. Getting lost at 6, is not something I like to do.

So I took out my phone and turned on GPS. I hadn’t used it much so far, because on the first day in Rome, I used it for half an hour and two things happened: my prepaid card ran out of money and my phone ran out of battery.

But this was an emergency, so I turned it on and asked for directions to my youth hostel. Straight down this road, it said. 3.7 km.

I did the math: it would take me about an hour to walk. Finding out about buses and changing multiple buses? Could take longer. And the last stretch of half-km or so I’d have to walk anyway.

So I walked it.

It wouldn’t have been much of an adventure except that my phone was low on battery when I started. And it’s true that it said straight down this road, but it wasn’t entirely straight.

I trudged off, wondering if I could trust the GPS and wondering whether the battery would last till I got to some area I recognized.

It was a long, tense walk, and the battery finally gave out while I still had 1km to go. Soon after that, I asked someone and it turned out the GPS was wrong after all. It wanted me to loop around a long way, when actually the entry to the youth hostel was just around the corner!

So I was saved by a timely combination of GPS navigation and a low battery. I reached my room just after 7.30, well after dark.

So all’s well…

Oh, wait, that was only one getting-lost story. The others? Will follow, another day…


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