Published: July 4th 2008July 2nd 2008
I watched a movie called “European Vacation”, when I was a kid in India. It is the comedy of a fat American family with boisterous kids who do their best to catch the flavor of Europe, but just don't know how to be good tourists. They have difficulty adapting to new cultures and cannot drive small European cars nor speak local language. After a number of encounters and adventures, they manage to successfully complete their trip. That movie showed Europe in its entirety and made such a mark on me that I vowed to visit Europe when I was older.
I have always dreamt of the perfect European vacation. To spend considerable time in each place and get soaked in the history, art, literature, architechture and culture that most of the great European cities offer; as well as tour around their beautiful, picturesque countryside. The right time came when the kids were in India for the summer and Air India offered us cheap tickets from Newark to Paris in June, the perfect season. We seized the opportunity and decided to visit France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland by taking the Euro rail to travel between these countries.
Rajesh and I
truly believe in the apt saying, “Be a Roman, while in Rome”. We always talked about experiencing Europe by walking in the shoes of the locals. Tour groups don't work for us! We like to take subways and buses mingling with the locals; watching life go by and learning native dialects. Best of all, we love to stroll through the local streets, lingering to explore whatever catches our whim. Both of us share the love for ethnic food and looked forward to try European cuisine and sample local nightlife.
We would wander to the travel section in Guilderland library and pick videos of European travels by Samantha Brown, Rick Steeves and our favorite, Rudy Maxa to educate ourselves for the trip. We decided to travel light; no frills and fancies. Each of us had a cabin size pull-man and we packed sensibly. Equipped with comfortable walking shoes and feeling like a couple of students backpacking and roughing it across Europe, we were all set to go. Our trip to London and Scotland, a couple of years ago was like an appetizer, and we were now looking forward to savor a full meal!
The day of our trip dawned. My entertainment started right at the waiting area, by the boarding gate in Newark airport. A Gujju girl along with a guy, who I assumed was her husband, sat across from me. She seemed a bit crazy to me and involved me in petty conversation in Hindi, giving me a lot of information that I didn’t need. She tried to make calls on the pay phone, but the phone swallowed her $3 and the call didn’t go through. I did the decent thing and lent her my cell phone. The guy with her smiled in thanks and offered me chewing gum.
Meanwhile a few other Gujratis opened boxes of “rotis, subzi, kakhras” they had brought and started passing it around to their family and began eating dinner. I was amazed at how they managed to smuggle all that food across security, while Rajesh’s one small Poland Spring water bottle got seized and thrown away. A few Gujrati kids were traveling with elderly grandparents in wheelchairs. The grandparents wanted to use the rest rooms and the kids sat around on the floor playing Nintendo DS, totally indifferent, taking their own sweet time to assist the old people to the loo. Seeing so many Gujjus, I realized that Air India was flying to Ahmedabad.
While I was people watching, Rajesh made himself useful by talking to an American gentleman from St. Louis, named Jack. Jack had a house in Paris very close to Pont Neuf and he gave us few tips about Parisian culture, to beware of pickpockets and not to talk to gypsies on the bridge. He also went a step ahead and gave us his visiting card to call him if we needed any help in Paris. Seeing his card, I figured out that the man was loaded. He even had a beachside place in Florida. Jack spoke about his visit to India, the beautiful palaces of Rajasthan and the pathetic, filthy Indian trains. He said that since Indians ate 3 fulfilling meals each day, there were no snack kiosks in the star hotels for Americans to buy munchies and suggested Rajesh to open a chain of ‘Pizza Raj’ in those hotels. Quite the innovative business man, he told me that he had bought silk scarves in India for $7, sold them to Saks for $70 and Saks in turn sold them for $250. I then understood where the money for his Paris and Florida homes came from!
‘Crazy girl’ who had borrowed my cell phone approached me and asked to borrow my cell phone again. This time, she appeared flustered and nearly in tears. She took me aside and told me in Hindi that she had marital problems with her husband, who had asked her to leave him. But her in-laws were asking her to come back for a compromise. The guy with her was her friend. She wanted my help to talk to the officials to get her baggage out, because she wanted to go back. She ran with my cell phone in her hand as I ran behind her and her ‘guy friend’ came running behind us. Finally, I left her with her ‘guy friend’ to deal with their situation, rescued my cell phone and came back to hear Jack telling Rajesh that Air India was the cheapest as well as the dirtiest aircraft he had ever flown in. And the look that Rajesh gave me meant - “I said so!”
Rajesh has an aversion to Air India. I’ve never flown the airline before, but he had, once in Singapore and claimed that a cockroach had fallen on him from the cabin baggage area. Since that novel experience, he never flew that airline. I somehow convinced him to be prudent this time and bite his lips for the 7 hour flight, because we could splurge our money in Europe instead. I had earlier scoffed at him, but upon seeing the aircraft, I totally believed him.
Entering the aircraft, there was an overbearing stench of piss and the dirty, stained seats had absorbed the smell of spicy masalas. The over made-up, sari-clad airhostesses with a plastic smile on their lips for Indians and butt-licking attitude with Americans were a sight for sore eyes. The in-flight TV’s volume did not work in the entire aircraft and I watched “Life in a Metro” with the subtitles. We had no flight map showing us where we were, local time, weather in our destination etc and they didn’t even bother to announce the same to us. ‘Crazy girl’ had somehow managed to convince the officials that she needed to leave and by law, they had to unload her luggage and this process delayed our flight by one hour. All because I had lent her my cell phone!
A Gujju lad, working for Google was seated next to us and he was annoyed that they took $30 from him because he had just 2 pounds of overweight baggage. He also said that ‘laipe was dipprent’ here and he would certainly go back to India after few years of probably making some money. I instantly recalled a Gujju girl in a Los Angeles Indian super market, whom Rajesh had approached and asked if she had Manikchand and she told him to check out ‘Palm Press’. We went around looking for ‘Palm Press’, unable to locate it, until we saw a grocery store called ‘Farm Fresh’, and figured out that was what she was referring to.
The flight steward, whom Rajesh nick-named “Baghara Baingan”, came around asking if we wanted “Vizitarian” or “Non Vizitarian” food. Somewhere in between he “Achooed” on someone’s food. Later on he came back with plastic cups stacked in one hand and a jug of lukewarm tea in the other hand chiming - “Tea, Tea Tea”, like the tea boys in the train stations of India. The Gujju lad asked for tea and “Baghara Baingan” said, "Catch the tumbler!”. I wanted to guffaw, while my husband looked at me with a mean streak in his eyes that said - “I could kill you!”