Gap year

US Street

My wife’s friend G visited us last weekend. She’s Flemish, and she lives in Brussels with her husband and two daughters. The younger one, 19 now, had just returned from the U.S. following a gap year spent at a private school in the South. On Saturday, over dinner, she spoke of the daughter L’s experiences.

L found her classmates racist, G said. Their awareness and worldview were limited to their country. The notion of Europe as a place with different cultures and languages was beyond them. Once L was asked if she liked the freedom she now had in the U.S., in contrast to her home country.

Her classmates were relaxed inside the campus, but when they drove downtown they all carried guns: for protection against the blacks, they said. At meals they dug into their meat with their forks alone, and made fun of L when she used both fork and knife. On hearing that both L’s parents worked, they decided she must be poor — why else should both work? At her foster home the practice of sitting together for meals was alien, which L found hard to understand.

They really don’t have a culture, G said.  

Among the courses at school was one L called “Speech”. At the year’s end she’d turned into a confident speaker: name a subject and I can give a speech on it, L said to her parents.

For her daughter’s graduation ceremony G visited the U.S. with her husband. In the graduation roll, L’s place of origin was listed not as Brussels, but Ghent. This was strange, G said; it must have been due to the recent blasts in Brussels: perhaps they wanted no connection with the city. During the visit, the school advised them to avoid talking politics or religion with others.  Outside the school, most parked cars wore ‘I support Trump’ stickers.

It was a good year for my daughter, G said. She now knows what she doesn’t want. And she has changed. A shy person once, L is now more assertive and confident: not easy for me as a mother.

The Greece experience


Dear B,

Some months ago, during the Easter break, my wife and I traveled to Greece. The first three days we spent in Athens, following which we took a bus to Delphi, two and a half hours away, and spent half a day among the ruins and in a museum. Athens turned out to be yet another Western European city flaunting its historical sights to tourists, most of whom were white, and amidst those scores of tourists I found it hard to summon the interest and enthusiasm that grips me when I read about the ancient civilisation that began in this region. We skipped the Acropolis; the queues were too long. Instead we spent time walking the old part of town, absorbing the atmosphere, taking photographs and, on one morning we visited the Acropolis museum. It was a sunny day, ideal for an outdoor trek, and indeed the hordes were at the site on the Acropolis hill, but we walked inside the beautifully designed museum looking at stones culled from that site. I found moments of inspiration here, looking at the pieces that formed the Parthenon frieze and also other sculptures in a large hall bathed in light streaming from one side through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The beauty of the building (I can’t remember another one as astonishing as this one) lies in its setting and in the way this setting is exposed to someone inside the museum. Through those windows one can view the Acropolis hill and also the low-rise houses of Athens that hug the foot of the hill. On the hill a section of the Parthenon is visible too. Nowhere have I seen this proximity — spatial and visual — between an object in a museum and the place it was recovered from. In between pieces of stone in the museum and stones on the hill were stones that formed the structures of modern houses, separated from each other by three thousand years. This juxtaposition created a strange effect I was unable to shake off, and I walked around the floors in a daze, wondering, at times, how this hill and its surroundings would look three thousand years from now, how humanity itself would look like, and how that race would view this museum, or whatever remained of it, gathering, through the fact of this museum’s existence, clues about our own civilisation and the way we looked at antiquity. My reflections did not lift my spirits. Given where we are now and how we are progressing, I cannot conceive of a future in positive terms; but three thousand years is a long time.

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Along the Neckarwiese


Last Sunday, late in the afternoon, P & I crossed the Theodor-Heuss bridge and climbed down to the riverside, for a walk along the Neckarwiese. This stretch of green between the Neckar and Neuenheim is a popular spot, and on this day people were basking in the afternoon sun, enjoying the first signs of summer after a cold April.

The tall poplar at the beginning of the stretch had just begun to bloom, and this state, where the tree’s inner structure shone through the thin foliage of leaves, gave it a mysteriously beautiful character, not unlike a bride’s face seen through a veil of silk gauze. We walked to the tree and sat under it. A blonde woman stood by the river ringed by four children, their attention centred on a swan with her tiny cygnets. Nearby, a gang of students sat with their speakers and musical instruments — drums, guitars, and a keyboard — while another was picnicking with a spread of snacks and beer laid out on a mat. There were families with children running about in orbits, and one Turkish group had set up a table with chairs, where they sat drinking tea and laughing. Couples lounged on the grass, and here and there we spotted a solitary man or woman, sitting or lying prone, reading or simply staring ahead.

We walked next to the water and soon reached the children’s recreation area, a space of creative confusion with a troop of boys and girls running and jumping and shouting and playing on the slides, swings, and other equipment installed there. P pointed to a seesaw, which turned out to be three seesaws connected serially, so that the upward movement of one node affected not just another but two more nodes in that chain. We stood watching this strange contraption for a minute or two, trying to decipher the logic of the ups and downs.

Beyond this section were two beach volleyball courts, both occupied by a pair of players on each side. Following the courts was again a long stretch of green, but here we saw fewer people lounging on the grass. Instead, following the pattern set by the play area and the volleyball courts, there were more instances of people playing: two red-haired girls tossing a yellow frisbee, a German boy with a Müller soccer shirt running after a dog, and a bunch of teenagers with Middle-Eastern features passing around a football. The din we had passed through earlier, in the children’s area, was replaced here by isolated shrieks and calls of players in a game.

We sat at the water’s edge, not far from a weeping willow, staring at the Neckar’s gentle flow and following the path of geese flying a foot above water and then landing, feet first, head and body angled backwards, wings spread out, and beak sticking out, all reminiscent of the Concorde.

On the walk back we chose the path that runs on the other side of the green, next to the grand mansions that stand facing the river. The benches here were occupied by people who sat looking at the Neckarwiese, and some of them were black — probably refugees, given how these young men were dressed in clothes that seemed out of character here, and how they sat in groups, or alone, watching the riparian crowd with a mixture of curiosity, awe, and perhaps longing. On the grass, a young blond-haired father sat reading to his daughter from a brightly illustrated storybook. A covey of burkha-clad women sat in a circle, like stones at a prehistoric site. Nearby, three middle-aged men with beards were playing cards. A young man in dreadlocks was strumming his guitar, watched by his swaying friends. There was a woman playing with a dog, patting and poking it with glee, and it emerged that the dog belonged to a girl passing by, who watched this scene with amusement before calling the dog back to her. A middle-aged couple walked past us speaking in Arabic, followed by a teenage girl with freckles jogging at a leisurely pace, wearing fluorescent pink shoes. Next to some groups a bicycle or a pram was parked, and in the middle of the green, almost invisible in all this visual noise, were two green garbage bins.

Back on the bridge, we stood at the edge taking in the long view of the riverine scene. From this height the Neckarwiese appeared small, merely a patch of green sandwiched between the muddy river and the tall mansions of Neuenheim, and the people gathered on it seemed like strange creatures, sitting in groups or in pairs, scurrying about with purpose or wandering aimlessly. The specifics we had seen earlier blurred into indistinguishable dots, which led, momentarily, to an illusion of timelessness: the scene had not changed in a hundred years, and would not change for a hundred more.

All those books



On the flight to Athens a blonde-haired girl of about seven or eight sat beside me, on the aisle seat, separated from her twin brother and her parents on the other side of the aisle. My first response, upon seeing this little companion, was a mixture of surprise and delight: children usually stay close to their parents in flights, and a girl sitting apart is rare. She sat reading a storybook in English, and below her feet was a pink-coloured school bag filled with more books, a collection she explored through the two and half hour flight, replacing one and pulling out another with care. The bag, I discovered, held comics and storybooks in English and German, and reading them she displayed the none of the distractedness children usually do, flitting from one interest to another.

She sat absorbed in her books through the duration of the flight. Not once did she turn and seek her parents. She managed the in-flight meal experience by herself, asking for a drink (Cola), nibbling the sandwich like a grown-up, and returning the empty tray when the stewardess came by. And when her brother began to tease her and poke her, playfully trying to distract her from reading, she dealt with it by elbowing his hand away or snapping at him. She was not the playful type, or perhaps she wasn’t in a mood to be playful. I do not recall seeing her smile.    

The parents, for their part, left the girl alone. Father and mother did not turn to look if the girl was doing fine; they seemed to know she was. The brother also carried a bag of books (his was brown), and while he sought his sister’s company occasionally, trying to attract attention across the aisle, she ignored him. They both did not bring out any electronic devices, and I did not spot their parents using a smarphone either.

In the beginning, I considered starting a conversation with the girl, but her reserve kept me from trying. I also wasn’t sure if it was appropriate, but since her parents were in the picture I discarded my doubts and, at a moment she looked up from her book, I asked if she was travelling to Greece on a vacation. She nodded, before returning to her book. There was no eye contact. Later, when her dinner tray slipped as she returned it to the stewardess, I offered help but she refused, turning away silently.

During the landing, she remained focussed on her book. After we docked at the gate, she picked up her bag and followed her parents and brother down the aisle, the bag on her back bobbing with the weight of all those books.


The Frankfurt Book Fair


LADY 1: “…So, you know, he’s going to be free, he’s going to go back to his home town, a village in the mountains, close to nature, to sort of rebuild himself and reunite with his childhood friends. And one of his childhood friends is a woman who becomes a lawyer in the Hague, and she works with with women who have been… you know… raped or…”

LADY 2: “Tortured.”

LADY 1: “Tortured, in those wars too. So basically the book is all about, you know, being able to overcome all these feelings, with words, and all that, and also the fact that we are all hostages of things in ourselves. We are not necessarily prisoners…”

LADY 2: “Yeah”

LADY 1: “…but we have to free ourselves…”

LADY 2: “Thematically it is perfect. It depends on how artistic it is — “

LADY 1: “So it is also a novel of ideas.”

LADY 2: “Yes, absolutely. But you know, that when people say why is war a theme that you treat in your press — ”

LADY 1: “It depends on how you treat it.”

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The U.S. Album

Dusseldorf airport. My wife is travelling business class (hers is part business trip, part vacation) and I have an economy class ticket. At the Lufthansa business lounge the lady offers me a free upgrade. I‘m curious  — fifteen years have passed since I last flew business  —  but I also think the experience overrated. A reclining seat with a bigger screen is what it is.

On this flight the wide seats recline a full 180 degrees, no hurried movements are needed to stow our bags, the Bose headphones are divine, the three-course lunch is excellent, but it is the service, exclusive and personalised, that clinches it. At few other times do we receive this close attention to our demands as we do in an airplane. It turns us into children again. Press a button and someone is by your side, ready to meet your request. Why, they come to you even if you don’t press a button. Hot towels, refreshments, magazines, medicines, dinner, dessert: these may be offered in economy too, but the business class service is more relaxed, more personal. They slow things down, and make each moment more pleasurable.

The service in business class is better because we pay for it (a sum four to five times higher than economy), but do those flight attendants treat me with so much courtesy and kindness only because I’ve paid more? Although hard to accept, it is the truth: money can buy kindness too. And that doesn’t seem right. But all this luxury is so pleasing, so relaxing in its smoothness, that I find myself asking what could be wrong in coveting an experience that makes me feel so good. I can get used to it, I think, then recoil at the thought.

This consumerist trap is hard to escape. Once used to a certain level of comfort, to let go of it, to reduce your consumption, seems like a sacrifice, even if life was just fine at the previous level of consumption. It reminds me of the concept of ‘hedonic normalization’, put forward by Nicholas Agar in his book The Sceptical Optimist, an idea that suggests that at each point in history humans adjust to the level of comfort available in their environment. But thinking back to a previous era we conclude that life then — lacking the comforts we now have — must have been unbearable. In truth, those people were normalized to their surroundings, had adjusted well to what they had. They did not experience the level of discomfort we imagine for them now, as we project ourselves to their times.

In less than an hour I am normalized to my business class environment. It is the notion of exclusivity that appeals most to me, drawing on the same instinct that makes me avoid touristy places. Less crowded, more space, more quiet. This isn’t really important on an eight hour journey, but if I get it at no cost, why not?

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In the company of familiar strangers


“What a rage of life flows around us all the time, invisible, inaudible, but intense and ever present.”
— TEJU COLE, The sense in turning away

The new car arrived last Wednesday, two-weeks late. We’d returned the old one in July, before our US vacation, so for three weeks in between I rode on trams and buses and trains to work and back. The Deutsche Bahn app laid out my morning plan:

8:00 am: Walk 4 minutes to Bismarkplatz
8:05 am: Bus 34 to Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof. Reach at 8:12 am
8:18 am: S4 to Wiesloch-Walldorf. Reach at 8:28 am
8:32 am: Bus 707 to Walldorf. Reach at 8:41 am

You could call this rush hour, but while there was briskness — people streaming in and out of platforms with an energy seldom seen in this small city — there was no rush. I always got a seat. And often there were people nearby willing to talk openly, if not loudly, amongst themselves or on the phone. I could not get myself to do this in such closed public spaces, but I was glad — for once — the others were not like me. One morning, not long after I boarded the S4 in Heidelberg, a dark-skinned young man facing me began to speak on the phone in Kannada.

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At the Frauenbad


A middle-aged woman sits on a sofa, flipping through a book. A large photograph of a decaying indoor pool hangs behind her. It is a simple picture, but I cannot take my eyes off it. Why?

The photograph was taken during the launch event of Sabine Arndt’s new book, ‘Das Alte Hallenbad Heidelberg. Ein Tempel des Volkes’ at the Frauenbad. The Frauenbad, a public swimming pool for women until 1981, is now a party arena with a bar and a dance floor. We stood there on a Sunday afternoon in May, listening to speeches in German describing the building’s history and the making of the book. Later the crowd milled around the hall looking at the exhibition of Sabine’s photographs. Many stood drinking and talking. A few sat on sofas lining the walls. I was on my way out when I noticed this woman.

We know these moments. A real world scene jumps out as a photograph. It demands to be framed. Would the iPhone capture what I saw?

It did. The photograph works, although I’m not sure why. Colour gives it character and the seated woman appears striking. But there is something else: the inner photograph.

The woman stood out that afternoon among all the Germans, and she seems an odd figure in the photograph too, more a part of the inner photograph than the outer one. The colour of her skin, her dress, her hat, her handbag: they blend into the interiors of the old Frauenbad. There is an understated elegance there, in her dress, the tilt of her head, her leisurely manner of leafing through the book. She belongs to a different time, the era of the Frauenbad bathers perhaps. And I cannot help wondering if the page she is looking at holds the same photograph that hangs behind her.

There are other intriguing symmetries. The woman’s hat and the lamp, similarly shaped and positioned at the diagonal edges of the inner photograph. The large rectangle of the inner photo, the small white rectangle below it to the right, and the (partially obscured) dark rectangle above it. The semi-circle of the table and the semi-circle of the exposed pool in the photograph. The inverted dome of the lamp, and the similar arc we see in the upper portion of the photograph. The shaft of light that angles down towards the woman’s face.

I’m still not certain what makes it work, but I now understand the photograph better.

The spell of heat


The screen displays a ‘Sunny 40’. Switching to Fahrenheit, it says 104. There is no air-conditioning at home. The scorching heat seeps inside, its force inescapable.

The body senses this before the mind grasps it. Skin turns sticky, breathing is a labour, eyes squint in the white heat, thirst is hard to slake, flies pester the ears. A lethargy sets in. Sleep descends, like a drug promising relief.

The spell of heat turns the neighbourhood foreign, like someplace distant and unfamiliar. Women walk hugging the church wall, following its sliver of shade. Men lick their ice cones like babies. Decent girls tread the streets in swimwear. Buildings wear an unfriendly, shuttered look. Their shadows seem darker, sharper. Shops lure passersby with air-conditioned drafts. Temperature figures in every second conversation. The drowsy librarian blames the soporific heat. The erratic barber cannot deal with the stickiness of hair.

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The other morning, there was an incident on the tram. A hundred meters from the Hauptbahnhof stop, where streams of passengers bound for another city pour out each day, the tram stopped. Through the driver’s cabin I saw a bus blocking our way. We waited for the bus to move. It didn’t. Minutes passed. A tram went by in the other direction, then a bus. Our driver, a woman with short golden hair, spoke with the driver of this passing bus. Then she left her cabin and walked through the tram’s length, passing word that the bus ahead had stalled due to a problem. We had to return to the previous stop. Some passengers sighed, looked at their watches. A woman standing near me said, in a distressed voice: Lass mich aussteigen! — Let me get down! I have a train to catch! But the driver had moved on. She entered the cabin at the other end, and the tram began its journey to Stadtwerke, the stop we had passed a while ago.

The woman’s agitation grew. Where is this going! Why can’t they let me out? The others sat unmoving, unmoved. No one commiserated with her, nobody vented their own frustration. The woman, middle-aged, in a yellow overcoat, clutching a black suitcase, remained the sole campaigner.

It was a rainy morning. On the street umbrellas glided past, sprinkling much-needed colour to this unseasonal grey summer day. The tram windows framed blurry outlines of stately old buildings and misty hills in the distance.

Some minutes later the driver trotted back across the tram, toward the original cabin. The woman asked again to be let out.

I can’t do that, the driver replied firmly. I’m not allowed to!

I’m going to miss my train! the woman cried. Can’t you see that? She followed the driver to her cabin, wheeling the suitcase.

We are in between two stops — I can’t let you out! The driver stepped into her cabin and shut the door.

I’m going to miss the train! I have an important business meeting! Who’s going to pay for the damages? You? Why can’t you simply let me out? You have no right to hold me in here!

The rest of us looked on, like members of an audience watching a drama unfold on stage. No one shared this woman’s urgency, but her persistence got the driver to yield. She asked the woman to get off the tram from the small door inside her cabin.

And this is at your own risk! It’s not my fault if you get injured!

Yes, yes — I do it at my own risk.

The woman hopped across the track onto the road, with her suitcase in tow. Then the tram lurched forward, swiftly gaining speed, and half a minute later we were at the Hauptbahnhof. A man sitting nearby clicked his tongue: If she had waited, she’d probably have reached the station earlier.

We carried home a story that day, the woman, the driver, and the rest of us. Each a different story.