Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Few Days In Boston

We're spending a few days in Boston, well, Cambridge actually.  Entering the US after several years felt a little strange especially during immigration (which is always strange, no matter how pleasant the officials try to be).  Standing in line after exhausting flights, watching the US 'welcome show' on television sets that are hung everywhere.  These programmes show how happy everyone is, living in this country, and how welcoming they all are, smiling and saying "Welcome" in different languages.  All very well but they seemed to overlook that Sanskrit is not a language that is spoken in any part of India (a bit like welcoming people in Latin).  Nonetheless, in the absence of anything better to do, we all stood there and watched it many times over.

The immigration official asked us how long we would stay in Boston.  "Until the 23rd," we replied, "And then we will be in the US for another ten days."  The man appeared puzzled and definitely unhappy.  He leaned back, scratched his head and said,"Yeah, that's like sayin' 'the sky is purple but we'll paint it blue today.'"  He glared.  We could think of no answer to this and offered none.  "I know it's been a long flight," he continued, "But do you have a problem with this system?"  "No," we replied.  I believe that was the correct answer but I am not sure for there seemed to be some glitch.  I was whisked away with some burly Russian to another room for another round of fingerprinting, but when I reached the people didn't seem to want to do it again.  I was able to leave after answering the same questions, repeated a few times for effect.  I don't know how the Russians fared.  As I was leaving, I could see that the officials were having trouble with Vladimir whose papers they had mixed up with another Russian's (whose name seemed to be harder to pronounce than Vladimir's).

We managed to walk down the corridor without anything eventful happening.  Reached the baggage claim to discover that Lufthansa had forgotten to load one of our bags (despite the five hour transit).  Oh! Oh!  German efficiency had broken down and the Americans were not going to answer for it.  The lady behind the counter wanted to continue her prolonged romantic talk with the guy who was going off duty and eventually came to the point at hand.  No bag.  No compensation.  No number available to contact the head office.  There was a local number (but when we called the next day, it turned out to be wrong).

Anyway, we walked out of the airport into the free American air, reached Cambridge and just slept out our exhaustion.  It's certainly nice to be here, close to Harvard and MIT, and to meet our friends and family once more.  To be with old friends, talk about ups and downs, meet new scientists and watch them working their minds and hearts out, to sit down after dinner and watch a Celtics match with my uncle and aunt and their golden retriever, Pumpkin.  (Apparently the Celtics, the Boston basketball team, has players mostly from Kentucky.  One of the mysterious ways in which this country moves!)

These are hard days for academia and it is heartbreaking to see top of the line people having to cut back on their work or sometimes to quit altogether because most of the time is taken up in writing for money.  Only 10 to 15% of grants in science are funded (the figure may be even lower for the arts) and the process is arbitrary.  So it ends up being a number crunching, networking game, very different from the serious job of running a lab and focussing on good science.  This naturally affects students as well as they are pushed harder to generate results and crack deadlines.

Fortunately we live not through work alone, but through personal interactions and through the physical environment around us.  And this drizzly morning, I get ready to stroll down to Harvard bookstore with my nephew.  I have just finished my breakfast - a large plate of summer fruit and a warm croissant from the market next door.  I will walk down, past the rose and iris filled gardens, cross the large green Harvard yard and breathe in the cool, moist, delicious pre-summer air.  And have crab cakes for lunch (which are of course, nothing like cakes).  Walk along the river and soak in the Boston/Cambridge atmosphere for a few days.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Suitcase From Frankfurt

The European stretch of my travel was enjoyable; this was my first visit to Germany and a reminder not to indulge in generalizations based on fleeting interactions and on things one reads.  I had always assumed Germany to be intrinsically cold and excessively efficient as a nation.  Frankfurt, with its large airport and industrial outlook, seemed perhaps not the best place to begin a vacation.  But it was!  Frankfurt is not a gigantic city and is broken into small sections, interspersed with clumps and stretches of trees and grass (much like the entire country itself).

As soon as we strolled out (within half an our of landing), checked into our cheerful, light and airy hotel, I began to settle down.  People were friendly, almost all made a sincere attempt to communicate in English and most places appeared clean, safe and cordial.  This too is based on fleeting impressions, but of a different kind- the kind you get by walking around, stopping awhile in tiny shops and restaurants and gauging the air and feel of a place.

The food was very different from anything I have eaten elsewhere, it seemed a bit like what I had imagined Austrian food to be (but I didn't have enough time to delve into this).  There was no meal without pork (it is fortunate that pork is one of my favourite meats) - and it was served in mind boggling ways, for instance, instead of butter, pork lard was served with bread.  I didn't mind though this is one version my body could probably have done without!  And the breads! Remarkable shapes and sizes and consistencies that left us too full to try any kind of dessert (except once- when we had a delicious concoction of stewed sour cherries, cherry brandy and ice cream).  I began to feel at the end of it that I should have climbed a mountain or two, just to do justice to all I ate and drank in such a short span of time.

German efficiency was apparent in the trains, the streamlined airport checkins and the arrangements made for us by our friends and host.  Nine in the morning meant nine and not a second later!  It was interesting to see how easy and accessible modern 'borderless' travel has become in Europe.  Not everyone agrees, but I found this to be quite a nice concept. Of course, all the efficiency (so unlike what one faces in India) left me with plenty of time on my hands at the airport to dream - to wonder how I would manage if I found myself caught in webs of intrigue and espionage as Agatha Christie described in 'Passenger to Frankfurt'.  An interesting book because it suggested situations that anyone might encounter at an airport.  Of course, in real life, things were all very uneventful.

The only thing of note during our last flight was that Lufthansa didn't transfer one of our bags and we had to trudge down to their luggage section in Boston where we found ourselves trying to describe our 'grey green' bag to a lady who wanted to know if it was actually grey or green.

So, as I wait for the delivery man this sunny evening, I begin to type my blog.  It has been a smooth but long stretch of travel this week, culminating with meeting rather strange U.S. immigration officials- which is a story in itself.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Winging Westward

As I get ready to travel, I am filled with a kind of inertia.  A peculiar form of inertia for I am busy with little things right through the days and well into the nights.  I am about to leave for the US (after a gap of about six years), for a few weeks.  I'll try and keep the blog going as far as possible.

As the summer sun gives way to pre-monsoon showers in Bangalore, I feel very rooted here and it is with some difficulty that I tear myself away.  The birds are calling out and the garden beckons.  Lilies and frangipani seem to bend towards me in greeting, the lotus is abuzz with insect goings on.  Vivid splashes of colour provide a cheery greeting especially against the backdrop of the clouds.

I know I will leave behind summer power cuts, water shortages, wars of attrition with maids, battles with dust and grime.  I will also leave behind mangoes - glorious deep yellow-orange, sweet and sour, of which I am eating too many.  (Perhaps my skin will finally clear up!)

This is a very people-oriented trip; I go to meet lots of old friends, colleagues and family.  I decided to break the travel inertia (for long trips to the west) that periodically seems to overcome me, and to get back into circulation.  And so, another day for the last minute clearing up, dealing with piles of laundry (which the campus ironing fellows lost and fortunately recovered!), consoling my temperamental watch which always breaks down at the thought of travel (the campus watch man has given me an extra battery, free of charge, with a sweet wave of his hand), cooking strange and tasty stuff with bits of left overs and saying hurried goodbyes.

I feel as though a part of me is ensconced at home and another part is already in the air.  I'm scattering bits of myself (rather my thoughts) and hopefully picking up a lot more, a bit like a fluffy, peaceable dandelion.  Winging my way to the west.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Buddha Purnima

Yesterday the full moon was so close to the earth, it hung low and glowed larger than the sun.  An amazing sight, made more special because of the darkness everywhere else.

Yesterday was also Buddha Purnima, a celebration of the birth and 'becoming' (for lack of a better word) of the Buddha over two thousand five hundred years ago.  Perhaps this is why the  night felt especially peaceful and compassionate, with thousands of Buddhist prayers rising up all over the world, more so in the East.  Last night we recalled the trip that we made to Myanmar some years ago.  We happened to be in Yangon, at the Shwedagon Pagoda (a beautiful, gold gilded 2500 year old Buddhist temple) quite by chance on Buddha Purnima.  The pagoda was filled with people silently meditating or praying, offering incense and flowers, lighting tiny candles.  It was serene and heart warming at the same time.

As with all else, once the Buddha began to be used to symbolize a kind of path, the path split up-- with vehement supporters and opposers and the evolution of different ways to interpret and act on his words.  His words (what we know of them) appear simple yet profound (for example: "If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete").  Yet the words are difficult to follow, the path is sometimes hazy until one steps on it.  As I think about this, a verse from Lao Tzu's writings comes to mind:

Of old he who was well versed in the way
Was minutely subtle, mysteriously comprehending,
And too profound to be known.
It is because he could not be known
That he can only be given a makeshift description:
Tentative, as if fording a river in winter,
Hesitant, as if in fear of his neighbours;
Formal like a guest;
Falling apart like thawing ice;
Thick like the uncarved block;
Vacant like a valley;
Murky like muddy water.
Who can be muddy and yet, settling, slowly become limpid?
Who can be at rest and yet, stirring, slowly come to life?
He who holds fast to this way
Desires not to be full
It is because he is not full
That he can be worn and yet newly made.

(Translated by D.C. Lau)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Artisanal Baking In Little Steps

My cooking skills grow in quantized ways - many months go by as I re-visit old recipes, then suddenly I find a book that takes hold of me and a new journey begins.  In theory, any well written or popular book should serve this purpose, but life doesn't really seem to work that way.  It is a matter of chance which book I happen to lay my hands on and it also depends on how receptive I am at the time.  I like to think of it as serendipity.

My introduction to proper baking began with a book of recipes of American master bakers that was compiled by Julia Child ('Baking with Julia').  I bought this on impulse, on my last day of a visit to the U.S. nine years ago.  On returning to India, I read it carefully and began experimenting with hand made breads, pastry and fancy cakes.  Some months later I discovered 'The Art of Viennese Pastry' (by Marcia Colman Morton) lying on a shelf, gathering dust in a second hand Bangalore bookstore.  These two books opened up a world of baking (far removed from the baking soda and bread machine days) that I didn't know existed.  A world of vigorously beaten egg whites, delicately folded batters, finely sifted vanilla sugar, perfectly whipped cream and finally, of assembling wondrous edible creations using these.

Now, a second phase has begun with my discovery of new ways of making bread. I first caught sight of the book 'Tartine Bread' (by Chad Robertson) at a book sale last year.  It made me think about traditional ways of bread making and all the flavours and textures that are no longer available to us as we transition to eating quick made breads.  It introduced me to the concept of using a dutch oven to make crusty, free formed loaves with a flavour and texture reminiscent of traditional French country loaves (not that I have tasted any, but then neither had I tasted Viennese pastries).  As I was ordering my dutch oven through Amazon, I recalled a book I had heard about - 'Artisan Breads Everyday' (by Peter Reinhart) which I decided to order as well.  This has been another wonderful pair of books that has led me down the artisanal alley of breads.  It's a nice little path - cobbled, strewn with wild herbs and strange, beautiful creations.  Shafts of sun, intriguing smells and sounds beckon me on.

It's an enjoyable, meandering walk.  Some of my attempts along the way are shown below.

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