2017, a good year for travel

Cities Visited: Stuttgart, Brussels, Zurich, Lauterbrunnen, Lyon

Timeframe: September to December 2017

This was originally supposed to be an end of the year post, but no matter. Here’s wishing everyone who is reading this a very happy new year, filled with success and good health.

I usually write about a country in every post, but the second half of 2017 went by in a whirlwind. I didn’t have time to explore a new place, so I tried to fulfill long time visit commitments made to my friends. The year started pretty good, especially with Ireland in April. September saw me embark on my first trip for work to Stuttgart, where I decided to extend the one-day client visit into a weekend opportunity.

When I asked around about the things to do/see/eat, everyone gave me a mellow response. “Stuttgart? Why?”, “It’s just an old manufacturing city” and the like. When I arrived, the first thing that struck me was how it was (relatively) difficult to ask for directions in English. Being a German city, I assumed everybody, more or less, would speak a bit of English, but I was slightly frustrated at the train and metro stations. I even tried to find a French speaker, which is improving daily, but to no avail. After finally figuring out which platform and train to take, I reached my destination. I stayed near the main university campus, on the outskirts of town. The area was really peaceful and had an unmatched view (behind the student residences). My AirBnB host was kind enough to wait for me even though I reached late.

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I had already marked all the sights to visit on my map. However, upon reaching the city centre, a pleasant surprise awaited me. That weekend was the first of the Cannstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart’s answer to Munich’s beer festival, and the second largest. I had been planning to visit Munich during Oktoberfest, but something or the other always kept coming up, so this was quite the lucky stroke. The area was not as crowded as you’d expect, and had plenty of options to do, eat and drink, alcohol or otherwise. It was originally meant to be for families. However, with the popularity of Oktoberfest, they installed beer tents to attract part of that crowd. The atmosphere was vibrant, with people singing and dancing all around. There are, of course, no empty places or tables to sit at, unless reserved in advance.

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Being a car enthusiast, and being in the cradle of the automobile industry, and being in the city to meet an automotive client, my next stop was surely the car museums: Porsche and Mercedes Benz. Both would satisfy any car fan’s ultimate dream. Exclusive models, vintage cars, and new age technologies were merged into perfect symphony. The Mercedes Benz museum was quite well designed. The lobby had an elevator which takes people to the top floor to start the tour. The elevator looked like something straight out of a futuristic spaceship, and made zero noise, even with tons of people inside.

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After Stuttgart, I decided to hop off to Brussels for a weekend. I had been to city previously, but had always been with family and on a strict itinerary. So when my friend from Lyon asked me to come over, I took the bus from Paris after work and reached on Friday night. We spent the next two days just casually walking around with no plan. Brussels is as walkable as Paris, but being smaller, it is highly convenient as well. We ran into a shop that sells holiday and party-themed trinkets, where we all bought fake hair for Halloween parties. We discovered a great Irish pub, where we kept coming back. We, evidently, ran into a museum-cum-gift shop dedicated entirely to Tin Tin. To top it all, my AirBnB was one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. The host was a chef and an artist. The entire house reminded me of those quirky but deceptively intriguing and fascinating apartments artists own in movies based in Europe.

In November, my best friend from school, who now lives in Switzerland, reminded me of my commitment to him as well. And so I was off again. Since the place where he lives, a nice, tiny village called Lauterbrunnen, was not directly accessible (from anywhere), I had to arrive in Zurich first. I again took this opportunity and kept one day extra at hand to explore the city. Keeping aside the fact that it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, the place is wonderful. The people are wonderful. The atmosphere is great. And the best part was, I could check out the entire city within 2-3 hours, on foot!

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On my second day, I checked out of my hostel early in the morning and took the guided tour to Jungfrau(joch). This has, arguably, been the highlight of my 2017. I remember studying about Europe and Jungfrau in our geography lessons in school, back in the late 90s. Ever since then, Jungfrau has been on my bucket list. The price of the tour (around 200 Euros) was a bit steep, but I can assure you, as have many others in their reviews on their website, that the tour is definitely worth it. It is a comfortably paced tour with ample time at each destination, and is a must visit if you are visiting Eastern Switzerland. It also helped that our group was very open, friendly, chatty, and our guide, Valerie, was great. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to so many people in a month in France, as I did on that day in Zurich.

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The tour passes via Sachlen Tunnel, one of the longest in Switzerland and Lungern, the geographical centre of Europe. It was November so the weather was not exactly kind, but I’ve always found such settings more alluring. One of the stretches on the road was particularly memorable. Imagine a route packed with fog and laden with snow from the previous night. Then, all of a sudden, the sun comes out and pierces through the fog, while reflecting on the half melted snow. It was truly magical, and yes, I know I did not do a very good job of describing it. It was one of those “you had to be there to see it” moments.

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On our way down, I got off at Lauterbrunnen and did not head back to Zurich with the others. My friend and his wife picked me up from the station. My first impression was of a cosy, ski village nestled in a valley. The nearest main station is Interlaken, where most of the jobs are located as well. This brings all the dwellers from above down the valley to work, and back up in the evening. A deal filled with stunning scenery I wouldn’t mind having someday.

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On our first day, we went tobogganing down from Wengen. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on snow (I don’t ski). While it took some time to get a hang of the steering and the braking, I emerged out as quite the professional! The path starts from the top where you have the entire North Face, including Eiger and Jungfrau, in your background.

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As with every ski station, there are always a few local bars where everyone from the community meets in the evening. The bar was right next to my friend’s place, AND it had a waterfall in the backyard. I mean, can you imagine a more perfect setting than having a waterfall right in your backyard?

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This just makes me want to pack up everything and head over there!

Finally, in December, I headed back to my second-home, Lyon, for a weekend. While in Brussels, my friend and I had decided to organise a small networking session amongst different MBA cohorts. We were expecting a small turnout, but received an overwhelming response. This involved a lot of planning from a distance, as neither of us stays in Lyon anymore. All in all, the event went without hiccups, and gave me another chance to drop by in Lyon before saying goodbye to 2017.

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I hope this year brings the same spirit of adventure, opportunities and ambience for me, and I wish you all the same as well.

Thank you for stopping by.

Adi

France

Country Counter: 4               Cities Visited: Lyon, Paris          Timeframe: From Aug 2015

My love for France started to develop when I was around 10 years old. I had just finished listening to my first French song on a CD player (yes those old things). I honestly don’t remember how I got hold of the CD, but I do remember it was at my aunt’s place and the song was called Inch ‘Allah by M. C. Solaar, the Senegalese rap artist. Most of you reading this might not have heard about it or him, unless you grew up in France in that period. I know this because no one is able to recognise the song when I mention it here. To this day, when I listen to it, it brings back fond memories of my first tryst with the French language. And it has a catchy tune to it.

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View of Eiffel Tower from Tour Montparnasse

By the time I reached the sixth grade, foreign languages were starting to be introduced in the curriculum. Most schools introduced French, including mine, and some of them went with German. However, our teachers told us that since everyone wants to be enrolled in foreign language classes, the seats were kept limited. They wanted to do a trial run first before inducting entire cohorts. The condition to be enrolled in French class was to get above ninety percent in your final exams. I don’t think I’ve ever studied so much for my exams as I did back then. Starting from sixth grade, we were instructed to use books by G. Mauger (cours de langue et de civilisation francaises, le francais et la vie etc.) While others lost interest as time went by, I was really fascinated by the language and motivated to learn it. I think the main reason was that these books did not just teach the language, but also gave a glimpse on the French way of living. In tenth grade, only 15 of us remained from the original 40 something and I was part of the first batch of my school to have passed out with French as a foreign language.

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Notre Dame cathedral

School paved way for college and although I didn’t have any more French classes, I was determined to be in touch with what I had learnt. So I started giving private lessons to sixth-and-above graders from different schools. The demand for French home tutors was really high at that time as more and more schools had started introducing foreign languages and not every kid was motivated to put an effort in learning a new language they might never use again. After two years of tutoring, I next came in contact with the language when I was in enrolled for my Masters program.

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When the movie Ratatouille was released in 2007, I was in love again. The portrayal of the typical Parisian life and their obsession with their cuisine just made me long for the country more. I started searching for more French movies I could watch just to keep up with the language and I stumbled upon L’Auberge Espagnole (released in 2002), starring Kelly Reilly and Audrey Tautou. It was about a French student who moves into an apartment in Barcelona with six other students who all speak different languages and it was apparently very popular with teenagers. Although I loved the movie, I had to use subtitles for most parts.

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In 2014, when I had finally decided to move abroad for my MBA, I was torn between the only two good offers of acceptance I had received. One was in the U.S. (D.C.) and one was in Lyon. This kept me awake for a few nights. In the end, even though I have always wanted to move to the U.S., I decided to choose France. I told myself that the U.S. might be relatively easier to survive, given the Indian diaspora and usage of English as the main language. If I really wanted to pick up a new language from where I had left it years ago, sort of a challenge, I should go with the French school. I can now happily reflect back to that time and say I made the right choice.

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The Louvre museum

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From the day I entered France, everything was new. Hardly anyone spoke English – every road sign, every food label, every person at the local market, every transport official, and even the caretaker of the residence where I stay – literally everything needed French. Thank God I paid attention all those years back in school. It’s been seven months now and I am having conversations with the girls at the checkout counter at Carrefour. I constantly keep practicing, with anyone and everyone, and I think I might be losing my English in the process. Apparently, and my French friends insist on this, women here really like people who can speak English and find them attractive (lies, I tell you!)

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View of Champs-Élysées from l’Arc de Triomphe

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When I finally travelled to Paris for the first time, I was amazed and a bit disappointed at the same time. The disappointment was only due to the weather, as I was there in December. There was no sunlight for days in a row and the clouds and the incessant rain made all the touristy places look dull. Nevertheless, I found Paris to be a beautiful, beautiful city. You can step out of any metro station and there will be something that catches your eye. On the public transport, even though I had a map and everything, I started practising my French with the locals, and surprise surprise, they replied back to me in English (I refuse to be treated like a tourist).

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Les Invalides, with the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte

I think I covered almost all the must-see places in 2-3 days and kept one full day for the Louvre museum (huge!) People told me it cannot be covered entirely in one day, but I am pretty sure my friend and I covered its entirety in around 5 hours (take that, you regular tourists). Although I was enjoying every minute in the city, all the happiness was kind of draining out by night. First, the guy who made my Subway sandwich went on to ask me whether the franchise was even present in India, with a tone that suggested that maybe it was the first time I had entered a fast food joint. Outrageous! What kind of impression do people have about India? The only reason I didn’t pick up an argument with this guy was because he was handling my food. I was also supposed to meet someone, which was something I was looking forward to for a month, and even ditched a live David Guetta concert for. She bailed out on me at the last moment and I’ve never been angrier. Mental note to self: David Guetta first, always!

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Sacre-coeur cathdral

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Lyon has been an entirely different chapter. Small and quiet when compared to Paris, the city is as beautiful and exciting as any of the other famous European ones. I have still not explored it in its entirety but every time I step out, I find something really interesting. From the famous central Bellecour square, to the old, pebbled streets of Vieux Lyon and Fourvière, to Place des Terreaux, Croix-Rousse, Confluence, Parc de la tête d’Or – every locale is so charming and full of energy. I feel Lyon has a more French feeling to it than Paris. We even have our own ‘Eiffel Tower’ next to the Fourvière basilica (in picture).

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Place Bellecour

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Place des Terreaux

Lyon is also considered to be the gastronomical capital and boasts of famous and numerous eateries, bouchons, places for apéros and cuisines from all around the world. The famous chef, Paul Bocuse, has his own restaurant-cum-training school here and high-end French dining establishments all around the city.

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View of Lyon from Fourvière church

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I recently had a few interviews in French, over the phone and in person. I think I did quite well, and whether I get the part or not, I still count being conversational in a new language as an achievement. My MBA is almost over and I would hate to have to move out of this beautiful city, or country, where I’ve met amazing people and learnt something at every step of the way. No matter what happens tomorrow, looking back, this year would always be fondly remembered.

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One of the many sites in Parc de la Tête d’Or

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Mur des Canuts

I guess I should’ve written about France first, and then went on the other countries. France is the first country I have lived in outside India, and hopefully won’t be the last.

Adi