The Swiss Sound of Music

MathiasMatthias Ammann puts his hands into his pockets, smiles at us, and yodels effortlessly. Of course he would. He has been yodeling since the age other children learn to gurgle and crawl. He then looks at our stricken faces and sings one note at a time, making us repeat it.

It is all very pleasant, in a ‘Maria deconstructs Do-Re-Mi for the clueless Von Trapp kids’ manner. The trouble begins when he again sings the whole string together and expects us to sing after him. Nobody seems willing to move. Oh, well. I close my eyes, channel my inner Kishore Kumar and let go. Easy peasy.

Yodelers
(Image courtesy Switzerland Tourism)

TalerschwingenHe follows this up with a session on the traditional Talerschwingen, rolling a coin around the inner rim of an earthenware bowl. I hold one of the heavy bowls on my palm, rotating it slowly. Matthias takes his cue from this resonant rhythm and yodels along with it. I may be an ace multi-tasker otherwise, but right now, all my energies are focused on keeping the bowl from falling off.

At the Klangwelt Sound Forge in Toggenburg, just a couple of hours by train from Zurich, yodeling lessons are just one of the attractions. On the upper floor, there is always some exhibition on; that month, it is of cowbells from around the region. In the next room, there are sound experiments for curious children and adults. Then there is a Sound Wellness room where my aching back cries out for a relaxing massage based on musical vibrations (before I am dragged away by the rest of the unsympathetic group).

In what must be another unwritten Murphy’s Law, it is sunny throughout the time we are indoors. Cut to early morning. We wake up to rain, which follows us during our hike through the picturesque Klangweg at the base of the Churfirsten mountain. This popular hike among the über-fit Swiss has 26 sound installations along the way. Each of them has been created by local artists, based on the music of the region.

The Klangweg (Sound Trail) started with the idea of making the hike more interesting for children. Now, says my guide, parents find it difficult to drag them away from each of the sound stations. Maximum fun with maximum noise. What is not to love?

Hansheiri Haas – “my teacher used to call me Ha Ha Ha” – is the perfect guide, long trained in music and passionate about the subject. It is a beautiful trail, with views of mountain peaks, lulling sounds of cowbells and crisp Swiss air. Using the annoying, insistent rain as an excuse, we walk only a small section of the trail. Here, we stop to blow into steel pipes; there, Hansheiri hits with his flat palms on a rock with large holes. There are suspended bells, quirky string instruments, large cups of water, all designed to make music.

Sound pipes

Music from rocks

My favourite is the Klangmühle, or the Soundmill, perhaps the only indoor installation in the entire trail. An instrument based on the Buddhist prayer wheel in a remote Swiss village. I am trying to wrap my head around the idea hours later at lunch when Hansheiri casually mentions that they recently found at an international music festival that the music tones of pygmies from Central Africa and people of Central Switzerland were identical. The music of world is indeed contained in a handful of notes.

Prayer wheel

With this in mind, a couple of days later, I venture forth to further the cause of Indo-Swiss musical ties by trying my hand at the alphorn. And Werner Erb, of the Crazy Alphorngruppe Arcas, is the perfect teacher. He keeps a straight face and urges us to purse our lips and blow, blow harder into the mouth pipe. All kinds of sounds emerge, most of which are like mating calls of wild animals. But Erb is kind and even manages to identify one of my notes as a C Flat.

Erb often works with alcoholics and drug addicts, so he plays the alphorn to unwind. But if you ask me, blowing into a thirteen feet long pipe is not relaxing; it is hard work. Not for him though. “I close my eyes and play, it feels like meditation,” he says. If I am finding it close to impossible to get a single clear note out of the alphorn, Erb travels the world playing jazz and world music on what someone remarked is the original Swiss mobile phone. Indeed, the alphorn was once used to signal danger, including imminent war (doubling up as, I suppose a weapon of mass destruction, given its size).

Crazy Alphorners

Werner Erb

I went to Switzerland and returned without seeing a single snow-covered peak. I did not pose for photographs at Interlaken. I did not undertake a “Yash Chopra shot here” pilgrimage. Instead, I carved my own Swiss Sound of Music tour. Again, what is not to love?

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This was published in The Hindu Sunday magazine on November 24, 2013 as Notes on a mountain

Bohemian Rhapsody

Dwau MaryiAs we walk through the small Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov in search of the Laibon, my husband and I discover the Two Marys (U Dwau Maryi) right next to it. Like many restaurants in the west, the menu is posted outside.

A quick glance and we decide to go in for the vegetarian special meal, served on wooden tables right by the Vltava river. This space merges seamlessly into the Laibon next door, from where the waiter walks over and suggests that we try his restaurant for dinner. Everything in this town is just as casual and laidback.

The Vltava

At lunch, we have a chance meeting with a British expat who made Cesky Krumlov home after his first visit there on work. He now spends half the year in Krumlov, in his little house by the river and talks endlessly about the good life there. He knows the best restaurants and pubs and generously shares his secret discoveries with us. That is how we end up thumping tables with locals at a pub, as a boisterous gypsy band plays on, that evening .

Night music

I remember laughing in a superior manner when I read some blogs in which writers declared that they were “In Love with Krumlov.” Now I know what they mean; it is so easy to fall in love with this town. Cesky Krumlov is the kind of place where, ten minutes after you begin exploring, your thoughts wander to that retirement home you have always been dreaming about.

Beer!This UNESCO heritage town is so picturesque that it often takes on fairytale qualities in my mind. Any minute I expect the wicked witch to whiz past on her broom. But there are no witches here; only friendly locals who have taken the sudden interest their town has evoked in their stride. They give us warm smiles and leave us alone, as they chug down their cold beer — remember this country is the original home of Pilsner and Budweiser.

It is ironic that Prague survived World War II almost without any damage. And Cesky Krumlov, once an important trading post and home to the most prominent Czech noble families, fell into decay during the Communist regime. But it has bounced back with seeming ease. Today, as we walk through the narrow cobblestone lanes, there is nothing but beauty all around us — in the gabled houses, in the shops displaying quirky things for sale, in the trdelnik (a tongue-twistingly delicious Czech dessert) stalls on the street and above all, in the views of the Vltava and the distant blue hills.

Quirky town

Trdelnik

Exploring Cesky

The 13th century castle complex is the second largest in the Czech Republic, after the one in Prague, and dominates the town. Unless you take a guided tour, there is nothing much to see inside the main castle itself but for some excellent Renaissance paintings and artefacts from the days of royalty. We huff and puff our way up a flight of narrow and winding steps to the top of the castle tower. And are rewarded with more spectacular views of the Vltava snaking through the town (I cannot get enough of it) and the red tile-roofed buildings scattered as if by a careless hand.

From the castle

After an evening of aimless wandering, we return to Laibon for dinner. It may have an international vegetarian menu but we resolutely refuse to have pakoras and instead order an assorted platter and wait for the castle to be lit up. It is still early evening and David, who owns and manages the restaurant, stops by to chat. It turns out that David has travelled all around the world and has spent several months in India — ah, that explains the pakoras . He even manages a cheeky vanakkam when he discovers I am from Chennai. As we eat, the castle lights come on, casting warm reflections on the river. At that moment, I cannot think of a better way to spend a spring evening.

The castle at night

Krumlov is an all-weather destination. Springtime means pleasant weather, lesser crowds, better hotel rates and bright flowers everywhere. In winter, I am told, the entire town is blanketed by powdery snow, raising the fairytale aura several notches. Come summer and the streets buzz constantly with music performances, street theatre and even costumed processions. The best time to be in Cesky Krumlov is during one of the major cultural festivals “Magical Krumlov” heralding the arrival of Spring, (this year) on April 30 and May 1 or the “Five-petalled Rose Festival” in June, which celebrates its Renaissance past.

Most people treat this town as a day trip out of Prague but I recommend at least a couple of days there. Cesky Krumlov is actually Prague in miniature; it has all the charm and the attractions of the larger city, without the crowd and tricksters. At least not yet. So I suggest you head there before the tour groups and Bollywood location scouts do.

Another vista

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Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on August 25…

It’s tulips time in Amsterdam

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In writing about Amsterdam as one of the top 10 cities for 2013, Lonely Planet says “Golden Age charmer prepares to party.” There are anniversaries and more anniversaries this year, including 400 years of the canal ring that marks Amsterdam out as one of the prettiest cities in the world and 40 years of the Van Gogh Museum. It’s not as if Amsterdam needs any of these reasons to party; the high heels and the disco music are on all the time.

Picture Amitabh Bachchan in a white sweater and Rekha in a tight white churidhar kameez floating in a cloud of dazzling colours, the whisper of a windmill in the backdrop. Remember? “Dekha ek khwab toh yeh silsile hue.” Yes, those tulips. A far prettier scene than heroines in yellow chiffons against lush fields of sarson, don’t you agree? But I digress. I won’t go so far as to claim that I always wanted my first visit to Amsterdam to coincide with the tulip season ever since I saw that song (especially since I must have been 8 or 9 then). But I do hum it under my breath as I walk out of the tourist office clutching a bunch of brochures about Keukenhof gardens, tulip shaped dreams in my eyes.

After what seems like a dozen transfers by bus and train, we finally reach Keukenhof the next morning. Thoroughly enchanting: no idea tulips came in such colours and shapes. I walk around in a daze, mouth slightly hanging open. Reverie is punctuated briefly and frequently at the sight of Japanese tourists posing for cameras in front of particularly bright tulips, fingers in the quintessential V sign. Husband is meanwhile entertained by the sight of me crouching under a tulip with my camera, trying to capture the play of light through the translucent petals (as I told him sheepishly). Just goes to show that thing about doing not unto others and so on.

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Later that day, we head to Haarlem to catch the end of the flower parade (this year on April 20). Typically European pretty town by the river. Medieval churches, over a dozen museums, buzzing city center, pedestrian only lanes, al fresco cafés. We grab a pizza and coffee at one of the latter and settle down in the evening chill to wait for the parade. This annual parade begins in the morning and travels 40 km from Noordwijk, through Keukenhof, finally stopping at Haarlem at 9 in the night. The theme for the year is ‘Musicals’ and after a long wait, the floats begin to stream in; tableaux from Lion King, West Side Story, the Sound of Music and all the usual suspects, created entirely with flowers.

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Another day, another trip. This time, a half day whirlwind tour of North Holland (really, the country is that small). It is a fine spring day and the entire tour is like being inside a ‘Visit The Netherlands’ poster. First stop, the Zaanse Schans village. I could swear there was a Hollywood set designer at work there: windmills, gabled houses, pretty wooden bridges over narrow canals, more tulips. Even a cheese factory specializing in the round cheese that nearby Edam is famous for. And inside, a milkmaid straight from central casting, explaining the cheese making process and handing out generous samples.

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Then an hour at the fishing village of Volendam, with lots of activities suggested by the tour guide. But we spend it watching the sailboats bob up and down the slightly choppy water. And finally Marken, a short boat ride away, also scattered with picture postcard scenes (I have become blasé about Holland’s breathtaking beauty by then) and a stop at a traditional clog-maker’s shop to see how these wooden shoes are made.

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Meanwhile Amsterdam has been on a roll as usual, the streets crowded with locals and tourists. People are playing chess on giant chessboards painted on street corners, buskers are doing brisk business at Dam Square, the canal-side cafes are full of people chatting over a beer and happy couples are stretched out on the grass at the sprawling Vondelpark. On the main roads, trams, buses, cycles and horse mounted policemen all travel together in perfect harmony. One morning, we browse idly through the open-air Albert Cuyp market and then we take a late evening canal cruise. We walk aimlessly for hours by the canals and narrow side streets, giving Amsterdam’s famous brown cafés and red light district a miss.

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And we end it all on a sad note with a visit to Anne Frank’s House. As I step out, I am so thankful for Amsterdam’s sunny friendliness that manages to lift that cloak of gloom that has settled on me.

Tip: Keukenhof Gardens is open this year from March 21 to May 20.

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A slightly edited version was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine – Tulips from Amsterdam

The two faces of Tokyo

On the quiet streets of Tokyo one morning, I see a parade of penguins with a quick and purposeful gait. I am to see the penguins in other places at other times of the day too — at supermarkets at lunchtime buying boxes of sushi, at Pachinko gaming parlours late afternoon and in the evening again on the roads. They are the famed salarymen of Japan, in their black suits and crisp white shirts, working loyally and tirelessly for giant companies all their lives.

Everywhere I turn in this city, there is a visible dichotomy between the old and new. I get off the Metro and walk through a shopping area inside the station, larger than many malls in India. And at a short distance from the exit, I enter a Japanese home to witness a traditional tea ceremony. It is a different world here. The lady of the house is in her kimono and the students, here to (re)learn their traditions, are men in business suits.

tea ceremony

On my first day in Tokyo, I mostly walk around the city, heading first to the Asakusa Kannon temple. There are dozens of locals tying wish cards and lighting incense sticks to appease their gods, even as tourists gawk at them.

temple

prayer

My next destination is the famous Akihabara district with its dazzling displays of the latest and the best electronic items. Shops here have a bewildering array of gizmos and I find myself unable to make a decision on an iPod I had planned to buy. But more importantly, it is all business — nothing ritualistic or traditional about this area. And in the evening, I head to the Roppongi Hills Mori tower to see night slowly descend upon the city. The elevator takes me up 52 floors with a whoosh, before I can say skyscraper. Such varied experiences on the same day — it should have given me a hint of the shape of things to come.

roppongi

In Tokyo, everything is organised: from entertainment — cat cafés (Hello Kitty hangover?) where people unable to manage a pet at home can, for a largish sum of money, play with their favourite cat — to excretion, in the form of temperature-controlled intelligent toilets (and oh, they are addictive).

There is a lot of talk about Japan’s, in particular Tokyo’s, global identity and modern ways but to my uninformed eyes, they seem as conformist as ever. While the style on the street is definitely avant-garde (think of Tokyo as an Asian Milan), people with tattoos are viewed with suspicion. Even tattooed teenagers trying out their newfound coolness are not allowed in several places including city buses and trains.

And they take their rules very seriously. My guide almost weeps in embarrassment when her cellphone suddenly rings in the middle of a Metro ride. There is no written law; it is just impolite and therefore not acceptable to disturb other passengers. That kind of discipline is ingrained and imparts them with a great dignity, even while noisily slurping noodles from a bowl.

I have read a lot about the Japanese love for all things aesthetic and sensual. Their preference seems to be for straight lines rather than curves, perhaps an extension of their need for tidiness. On my way into the city from the airport, I see building after building, a Legoland of little square boxes balanced delicately on top of each other. Even their kimonos, graceful as they are, fall straight and feel somewhat restrictive compared to the sari, which is all about enhancing the curve.

kimonos

The Japanese sometimes come across as gruff but I find that it is mostly due to their inhibitions about language. And they try hard: they gesticulate, smile, point and somehow manage to help when needed. In my case, the girl leaves her shop unattended to walk me to the exit (I manage to get lost inside a train station — don’t ask). And the minute I point my camera at someone, they stop what they are doing and pose for me with that quintessential V sign. Even little children.

I am fine with the fact that many Japanese cannot speak English. The only time I have a ‘lost in translation’ experience is when, after a long day of sightseeing, I flop on my hotel bed and switch on the TV. All the programmes on all the channels, some twenty of them, are in Japanese. You would think the BBC or CNN or anything to do with the outside world would creep in. No. Even the Telebrands shopping channels are in Japanese. I cannot complain, because I watch in fascination, trying to imagine what the voiceover is saying. And anyway, how different can advertising for tummy fat reduction miracles be in another language?

This is the most fascinating culture I have seen, even if for a short time and from a distance. Japan is a country torn between the allure of a shiny modern persona and the strength of its strong traditional heritage. And nowhere is this struggle more evident than in Tokyo.

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Must-dos in Tokyo: Visit the Asakusa Kannon temple and Roppongi Hills tower, make a day trip to Mount Fuji, watch a kabuki performance, attend a baseball match, buy a kimono, shop at Shibuya district and eat sushi.

This was originally published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, January 06, 2013.

Angel in disguise

Shakespeare and Company is a bookstore in Paris where one feels like being in one’s own apartment, just exactly how founder George Whitman wanted it to be, says Charukesi Ramadurai

George Whitman liked to call himself the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter. His windmills were the faceless bookstore chains and one-size-fits-all websites that threatened the existence of a bookshop like his, and even the famous bouquinistes (sellers of used and rare books) with their green boxes across the Seine.

Sylvia Whitman, his daughter and present owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop says, “He would also say that his biography had already been written in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot . I truly think he imagined he was living in a novel himself… he was certainly more eccentric than any character I’ve read in books.”

I know it is fashionable to call it “the end of an era” when someone famous or important dies but in George Whitman’s case, it was definitely so. With him went an age where people loved to read and in his case, lived to read (he once said that he was in the book business since it was the business of life). Sylvia Whitman has been shouldering his legacy since her return from the UK over 10 years ago. “It has been very difficult adjusting to life at the bookshop without this eccentric, witty, wild character at the centre of it… I am still trying to find my way in,” she admits candidly.

Read my story on the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris and a tribute to its eccentric and brilliant owner George Whitman: 12 DECEMBER, 1913 – 14 DECEMBER 2011

Also read: The other Shakespeare bookshops

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