Friday, July 2, 2010

Food & The City

I am not a self proclaimed foodie. It is a title which has been bestowed upon me by my friends and colleagues and is seldom used as that one attribute that makes me different and interesting, but moreso for the lack of anything else that makes me different and interesting. With a potbelly which puts matters to rest and an appetite which are a source of entertainment for many, I can only humbly accept this sobriquet. The fact is I love food. All kinds of food. From everywhere. Opulent diners, specialty restaurants, snack shacks, roadside wagons, the ubiquitous udipis and even our very own home sweet homes. Encouraged by my confidantes, and the fact that I do get calls and an odd SMS from friends old and new asking for my advice on where to go and what to eat when looking to get adventurous with food on a warm Sunday afternoon or when a visiting client needs to be impressed, I have decided to document my recommendations on must-have-cannot-miss-food in Mumbai city for all kinds of occasions with a variety of budgets, locations and cuisines. The list below is a compilation of places and food items which I have been fortunate enough to savour, either by design or by default. It is aimed to provide my friends across Mumbai and those visiting a ready reckoner on not just where to go but also what to eat once you go there, because all items on the menu may not necessarily impress your tastebuds as much as the ones I have fingered on.
Disclaimer – I am not a food critic or a proficient writer. I only attempt to share my experiences and make interesting prose in the Queen’s language. Hence you will find most descriptors and qualifiers being repeated for lack of expert jargon and minimal references to smell, taste, ingredients, recipes and heritage which are typical of food shows and food guides. And this list is not comprehensive and in no way undermines any item from any restaurant or eatery which is absent here. This list is limited by my inability to travel more and eat more and discover more such delicacies even within Mumbai let alone India and the world! I can however assure you, even an untrained palate will simply savour the dishes listed here and take delight in the culinary experiences. It is also a testament to the fact that how simple, rich and opulent can all be a source of great joy and contentment for the starved soul. This list is also skewed slightly towards Bengali cuisine, which is what I am, little known restaurants in Chembur, which is where I live, non-vegetarian food which is what I live to eat and greasy, oily and not so healthy food which is what I love to eat. I have however worked in Cuffe Parade, Nariman Point, Worli and Andheri in my career spanning 10 years and given my refusal to take the trademark ‘dabba’ from home (only because I hate carrying stuff when traveling in the overcrowded local trains), I have had the opportunity to order in and eat out almost everyday for many years giving me a reason to try different items and different restaurants across town. I have also been brought up in a very food friendly family, who rejoice in the midst of good food, my younger sister who is in the lounge and fine dine phase of life and finds enough occasions to experience the newest and most fashionable eateries around town keeping me updated, my dad who has always endorsed lavish food outings even celebrating our birthdays in nothing less than 5-star hotels since when we were old enough to stop having birthday parties at home and not old enough to start birthday bashes at pubs and my mom, who is a marvelous cook herself and has tried and experimented with various preparations spanning various cuisines over the years mostly to keep me entertained and happy. From the traditional Bengali, to continental, Chinese, Mughlai and Punjabi, she has cooked it all, and cooked them exceptionally well. Which is where I developed my culinary cravings, I guess. Gatherings with our Bengali brethren begin and end with food, not just eating a lot of it but discussing it at length as well. It is important for us, as a community, with due respect to all other communities, to feed and feast well, in excess, with passion and with love, ‘cause, we really live to eat!
So here is an account of my experiences with good food starting with Vashi, travelling through the suburbs and ending with town, a culinary trip through Bombay city with a humble foodie…
1. Butter garlic crabs and Singapore Chilly crabs - Something Fishy, Tunga, Vashi. Order the 1kg+ crabs with the shells. Don’t take the easy way out by ordering just crabmeat. Probably the most expensive crabs in Mumbai, they were once very affordable considering the generous chunks of meat one managed to bite into. This is largely owing to the brilliant cooking which boils the meat just enough to keep it tender and easy to scoop out. For those who love eating crabs the way they should be…with the shell, using the clamps and scalpel to break them open and yet not sweat too much before you get to the meat, these crabs are beautifully done, and you can enjoy chunks of divine crabmeat with minimum effort and yet pride over performing the ritual of eating crabs.
2. GCBC – the codeword that binds all carnivore Chemburites. We have grown up on the legendary Butter Chicken from Grand Central, in Chembur station, which is the flagship dish of this very fine family and one of the oldest restaurants in Chembur. Arguably the best Butter Chicken in Asia or maybe even the world, with chunky shredded chicken pieces mixed well with the patented tomato based red gravy to present a rich and delicious concoction which never ever fails to satisfy. If you had it once, you cannot not have it again. Friends who visit Chembur from other suburbs or have stayed here and now live overseas always ensure they have booked a date with GCBC next time they are in town, no matter how busy their schedules. You can also order the Paneer Butter Masala (mashed) alongside which is the best Paneer Butter I have ever had and butter naan to go with both. And don’t miss the chilled meetha paan from the old timer paanwala outside just to finish it off on a high.
3. Fish stewed rice with chilly fish (preferably pomfret and with dry gravy) at Star’s Parade, Chembur. If rich masala spicy food is not your calling on any given day, then head straight to this family restaurant just right off Chembur Naka. The bland yet delicious stewed rice with a rich helping of stewed veggies and fish slightly salted, slightly peppered but with the right amount of oil to make you feel good about yourself. With chilly fish on the side to add flavor this is a healthy and light meal which you will find under the Chinese menu in this otherwise very Punjabi restaurant. Also try the chicken kalimiri and pahadi kababs for starters. The butter chicken is rich with butter and boasts of a thick subtle and creamy texture which just delights your palate and is excellent with some rotis or naans.
4. Chicken 96 and Mutton Dum Biryani at Raj, Chembur Camp. An unusual name for this very delicious and unique preparation, Chicken 96 comes in two options – full and half. So beware when you order ‘cause a half is like a full in any other restaurant. Though a starter item on the menu, the delicious dry green gravy on the nicely fried chicken pieces makes for an excellent combination with a thin butter naan ending up being a whole meal in itself. This is of course if you do not have an apetite large enough to have the main course, where you must opt for the mutton dum biryani, served in typical dum phukht style, brass patela covered and sealed with atta, but purists pardon me for saying this, this tastes much better than the dum phukht biryani I had last at ITC, Mumbai, which had no taste at all. The Raj Biryani comes with tender mutton pieces and wholesome aromatic spices which you can smell and taste clearly in premium rice making it a biryani as a biryani should be – dry. Dal khichdi for the veggies is highly recommended and does form a great meal to sober up on a binging nite which is what this joint is infamous for. It’s a typical Sardarji owned bar n restaurant in a busy camp area which does not come across as very hygienic and has now also provided for a family room, but not really there. An evening with the boys where drinking till late is the main agenda allows for a good occasion to visit Raj. Else you can always have it delivered home, but the biryani is best had steaming hot at the restaurant instead of cold at home.
5. Butter Kulcha with Aloo Gobi at Geeta Bhavan, Chembur. This one’s for the vegans. An udipi famous for its idli, dosas, curd rice and full plate rice thali with extra plate rice, the item I enjoy most is the butter kulcha with aloo gobi and maybe a paneer makhani as well. The speciality of the butter kulcha is that its loaded with butter. One whole cube of butter (Amul or Vijaya) which you would typically be served with a meal on a flight or a train, smeared on the piping hot kulcha melting the butter into puddles of greasy liquid flowing all over the kulcha. And to prove their generosity with the butter helping, they actually leave the silver foil of the butter pack on the kulcha proving that its one cube per kulcha and no compromises here. You either die to eat it or die eating it. You have gotta see it to believe it!
6. Galouti Kebab with ulta paratha and mutton biryani at The great Kebab Factory, Hiranandani, Powai. Good things come at a good price. The Kabab factory has a great concept. You pay per head, and you pay well. You get 6 types of kababs served on your plate at your table in turns. If you like any or all you can request the waiter to serve it again. Its unlimited. But even the healthiest of apetities would not be able to consume more than 2 pieces of each kabab. So the best thing to do is to taste the first round of all the kababs and then focus on the one or two you liked best. For me it was the galouti kabab served with ulta paratha which is the first kabab they put on your plate. The kabab and paratha makes for an awesome combo and both melt into your mouth leaving you with a subtle and yet a wonderful flavour. They end it with their own brand of mutton biryani which is surprisingly, one the best biryanis I have ever had. It’s mildly flavoured, non greasy, dry, and makes you have more and more. The only hitch is that it is served after all the kababs so you have little space to accommodate a generous helping of the biryani. Now that you have been warned you can calibrate your helpings accordingly…
7. Sparkling spinach, betki fish in oyster sauce at Mainland China, Saki Naka. The sprinkling spinach is unique to Mainland China and very popular with the regular patrons. Its something to start off the meal with and does not dent your apetite one bit. This one is really for the senses, crackling crispy spinach between your teeth is just fun. The food at Mainland China is excellent. Any item you order is great and makes for a Chinese evening well spent. But this one item they make is fantastic. Seasonal and if I remember last, off the menu, order for a betki (bekti) fish in oyster or black bean sauce. This is a whole fish which should serve the whole table and is excellent with some chicken or egg fried rice. If available and a fresh catch, its fish and Chinese haven.
8. Lamb Shanks at Le Meridien, Andheri near International Airport – only nallis or nallahs or as we Bengalis call it ‘noli’, it’s actually the bone marrow which you suck out of a otherwise hollow drumstick. These are a delicacy and you will not find more than one or max two pieces of it in any mutton preparation at home or in your biryani as with chicken legs or spare ribs, but like the latter two have now graduated to becoming full dishes by itself, so has this. And the shanks are well cooked, with just a simple suck pulling in all the tender delicious marrow into your mouth leaving the shank clean as a whistle. I am not sure if this is offered on the menu since it was part of a dinner buffet at a friend’s wedding at this hotel. But I am sure if it was served at a wedding, it would be served on your table.
9. Sikandari Raan at Peshawari, ITC Grand Maratha – opulent ambience to only compliment an opulent preparation. Tender lamb leg cooked with exotic spices which only the chefs at the famed Peshawari and Dum Phukht are privy to, the Sikandari Raan at Peshawari is the undisputed king of all meat dishes. Served with tawa paranthas, the combination just melts into your mouth. One cannot feel more content in life after you walk out of Peshawari and suddenly everything in life seems beautiful. This one’s for the bucket list.
10. Nimbu chicken and tawa jhinga at Urban Tadka, Andheri West. Yes, you can have this at any Urban Tadka outlet in the city, but they don’t make the tawa jhinga like they make in the Andheri outlet as well anywhere else. A friend who is no more would always make it a point to order this item specially for me whenever we had dinner at her place no matter what else was being served for dinner. They don’t taste the same anymore, and I have stopped having it since. May her soul rest in peace. The nimbu chicken though is the same in all UT outlets. You can have it as a starter or order a roti on the side and wrap it up as a main course. It’s an unique preparation unlike anything else you would have had anywhere else, whereas the rest of the items are good but similar to any other preparation in any other restaurant. Finish it off with a plate of jalebi and the cold rabdi on the side and you will be a happy soul for the rest of the day!
11. Double chicken egg roll at Hangla, Lokhandwala. Andheri West. A Bengali fast food joint at the mouth of Lokhandwala market, it attempts to relive the glorious Calcutta rolls available at every nook and corner in Calcutta. Though not there in terms of the taste, it is probably the best you would get in Bombay. The kosha mangsho and mutton or chicken biryani are good as well.
12. Dal Khichdi at On Toes, Vile Parle. Done with your draft beer and innumerable starters, masala papad and cheese chilly toast recommended among them, end it with a satisfying main course boasting of a modest dal khichdi. It goes down smoothly, the lack of oil making you comfortable and very weirdly making you feel good about all that beer you downed while singing along those U2 and Beatles numbers.
13. Cheese Fondue at Out of the blue, Hill Road. I have tried fondue at various places. I like the one here the best. Mix it with jalapenos, mushrooms, shallots and even some fruits, Out Of The Blue makes for the perfect ambience for wine and fondue with the rare sight of an old timer stringing and singing ‘500 miles’ by “The brother’s four” in the background.
14. Chicken in wire mesh at Toto’s Garage, Pali hill. The all-time popular Toto’s Garage pub with its brand of classic rock music and regular patrons singing ‘…eyes on the road and hands upon the wheeeel’ in chorus glugging away their draft beers and applauding the driver (DJ) in his modest maruti van console above your heads has stood the test of time and has become the default watering hole for any and all occasions for years and years together! Unpretentious, casual, friendly and fun, it is where you go without thinking about what you are wearing or how much cash you got in your wallet. You also don’t put too much thinking into what you gotta drink or eat, since it comes almost as second nature when you enter Toto’s. And I am sure all those who been there done that have seen and eaten the bird’s nest being served on several tables. Called ‘chicken in wire mesh’ on the menu it contains piping hot morsels of chunky chicken in generous quantities in a moderately spicy garlic/ginger sauce served on a base of a crispy potato mesh resembling a bird’s nest, the perfect finger food to complement draft beer, Doors and Dire Straits!
15. Mashed potatoes at Da Vinci, Hill Road. An Italian bistro attracting a very well-to-do yet elite crowd of mostly youngsters, it has all the makings of a quiet dinner date if you looking to make an impression. The wine list is complete, though I stick to Sula Satori Merlot on most occasions, which goes down smooth on the buds, I would also recommend the dry martini which, if you keep refilling can burn a hole in your wallet. The standard Italian fare of pasta, lasagna or risotto with some garlic bread is what you would typically order, and they are all splendid. But one item which you should order on the side, if it is not on the plate already are the mashed potatoes. Not sure what they put into it, but it is heavenly. Goes with anything you order and leaves you wanting for more.
16. Egg mayonnaise @ Salad buffet at Just Around The Corner, Hill Road. If you love eggs and mayo, then you know what I am talking about. But what I like about the preparation at JATC, is that the proportion of Mayo is just right and the eggs are boiled to perfection. Yes, its just one helping and you have to maximize the 240 odd bucks with helpings of the other salads on the spread, but this one just makes your day, which I why I invariably start and end with egg mayonnaise on my modest sized plate.
17. Sushi and prawns tempura at Global Fusion, Linking Road, Bandra. A wonderful ambience, great service, awesome food and an unique concept, if you are looking to overeat on a Sunday lunch buffet, look no further. The best of Chinese, Thai and Japanese cuisines all under one roof at one fixed cost with unlimited helpings, this is one buffet which will blow you out of your mind. Start with the prawns tempura…chances are you will finish with it as well, cause you simply cant stop munching into these delicious tiger sized prawns with a crispy coating made probably with egg batter. Move on to the sushi bar and pick up two of everything, there are several types of sushi to impress you. You will also find the seafood salad, prawns generously mixed with mayo served off a coconut shell. Divine. Order for the prawns and chicken dimsums which will be served hot at your table and place your clips on any and most of the fish, chicken, lamb and prawn starters on display. You will be exhausted by the spread and surprised by your sudden increase in appetite. And now that you have stuffed yourself up with every meat possible in generous helpings repeatedly, you are ready for the main course which offers crab, prawn, chicken and veg curries with rice and noodles. And if that’s not all, there are 16 items on the desert buffet.
18. Chicken n cheese croissant at Croissants, etc. a quick snack couldn’t be better satisfied than a chicken n cheese croissants served hot and with mayo on the side. My staple evening meal if I am passing by any Croissants, etc. outlet at the time. They would make the most amazing chicken burgers as well when it started around 15 years or so back, but have stopped eventually. The chicken croissant, ham n cheese croissant and the chocolate croissant are wonderful as well.
19. Salami pizza at Taj Land’s End, Bandra. They make the dough fresh. In front of you which is quite entertaining. But the Pizza is simply brilliant. A thin crust, but not that thin, right quantity of the cheese on the base and the salami merged within the cheese served fresh and hot is a great and satisfying meal. Since this is in the 24 hr. coffee shop, you can drop in anytime, in the night after a late nite discotheque outing in the suburbs or just to satisfy a midnight snack craving.
20. Shrimp cocktail and Chicken Satellite sizzler at Yoko’s, Khar. The only destination for sizzlers I would recommend considering the pioneers Kobe at Tardeo or Bandra do not whip up the same sizzler they used to 15 years back. The version at Yoko’s is excellent. Though the quantity has reduced and the prices increased over the years, it still makes for a wholesome meal for one with a decent appetite. The chicken pepper sizzler is my favourite, but the steak sizzler, or the chicken satellite or shashlik (served with rice or noodles) are great as well. And while you are waiting for the sizzling plate to be served at your table, cool your palate with some shrimp cocktail. Served chilled, shrimp and mayonnaise blended together with some tangy sauce for the zing fling, makes for a good entrée before you dig into the meat and veggies of your chosen sizzler.
21. Dal Bukhara at Sheesha, Shopper’s Stop, Linking Road, Bandra. The best dal makhani urf kaali dal urf black dal in Mumbai. They don’t make them better than Sheesha, a must order with all the kababs and curries you order at this rooftop open air Persian ambience restaurant.
22. Bombil fry and prawns pulao at Fresh Catch, Mahim. Owned by Mili’s family, the celebrity hair stylist I had the good fortune of working with on many hair shoots invariably at studios in and around Mahim where the food was always ordered from Fresh Catch. Fantastic bombil fry which melts into your mouth and an exotic prawn pulao preparation with a flavor which you would never taste anywhere else.
23. Chicken schewarma at Hotel Pritam, Dadar and at Mahroosh, Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel. If you are passing by Lower Parel or Dadar during lunch or in the evening, take a pit stop at these joints and grab a chicken shwerama to go. Always filling and a fantastic meal anytime of the day.
24. Mutton sukka at Café Royal, Worli. A typical Shetty restaurant attracting the regular office going crowd who drop in for their lunch and maybe a beer in the evening from in and around the Mahindra Towers side of Worli, before you get to Shiro/ HRC. The mutton sukka (and request the waiter for less bones) is out of the world. 3 tandoori rotis and the dry mutton sukka is a dainty meal. You may not even need to touch the rassa served alongside if you like it dry. Its been my meal of the day everyday for over a year!
25. Fish hariyali at Banjara, Worli. Bang opposite Café Royal is Banjara, they serve an awesome concoction of fish in a green pudina based gravy. A generous helping for two to be best had with tandoori roti.
26. Pork ribs, crabcakes and galoti kebab at Blue Frog, Lower Parel – yummy pork ribs served with a sour cream sauce with the right amount of flavouring to add that zing with the juices from the tenderly cooked meat. Equally royal galouti kebabs served with a wrap and the most exquisite crabcakes bordering on delicious and exotic. We were fortunate to have eaten these three preparations in the early days of Blue Frog, thanks to a friend who knew the owner. As I found out to my plight, that the menu has been changed and except for the crabcakes these don’t figure in the new menu anymore. Pray why?
27. Oh Calcutta, Tardeo – One visit may not be enough. And two visits too many. The problem is, that for a bong, it’s the hunger in the eyes when you read the menu and not really the hunger in the tummy that make you go overboard with the ordering. And invariably you are treating some friends or clients to some exotic bong food and you are their host and guide with blind faith in your call as to what to order right from the starter to the desert. So here’s what you should have…and I have tried to sort this dilemma out for you…Visit 1: roshun bhapa maach for starters, kodaishutir kochuri with chollar dal, yellow pulao with chingri maacher malai curry, for desert -rosogollar payesh and goja. Visit 2: mochar chop, luchi with begun bhaja and jhaal mangsho, steamed rice with eelish macher paturi, for deserts - kheer kodom and chitrakut
28. Butter garlic crabs and cheese jumbo prawns at Trishna, Fountain. The crab craving on this side of town is easily satiated by Trishna’s famous butter garlic crabs, which are as delicious as they are legendary. Order them with the shells and eat them with the clamps. That is the best way to savour the delicious crab meat in this exqusitie butter garlic sauce preparation patented by Trishna’s. And if you like something more on the side, check out the jumbo prawns with cheese melted all over it making for a sumptuous bite.
29. Chilly garlic potatoes at Fountain Sizzlers, Fountain. Made famous over the years, the chilly garlic potato finger chips are a must eat before you dig into your sizzlers.
30. Mutton Sukka and Keralai Paratha at Deluxe Lunch Home, Fort. I have been here once, and can’t wait to go back. The taste of the mutton sukka and the soft layered and crispy kerala parathas continues to linger on for many months after having it. A modest thali joint in the bylanes of fort behind Citibank, with shared seating, this place attracts the average mallu working in the fort or fountain area looking for a quick non-veg lunch at modest prices. But for a foodie like me who might visit here once, it’s a culinary treat and one that is memorable even.
31. Chicken baida roti at Bade Miya, Colaba. What is it about Bade miya that no matter where in Mumbai you are partying, whether you are drinking in Chembur or partying in Bandra everyone’s always willing to head to bade miya for the post party meal no matter how sloshed or tired or late in the night it might be, a show of hands always confirms this modest roadside joint where you usually end up eating off the bonnet of your car in a busy Colaba causeway bylane the unanimous choice. Everyone’s has their favourites at bade miya, the chicken or mutton rolls, keema and paratha, kiri, kaleji, gurda and pota, even paneer rolls are a big hit with the vegans. My pick is the chicken baida roti. A stuffed paratha with chunky chicken filling and coated with egg, some pudina chutney and onion slices on the side and you cannot not overeat.
32. Delhi darbar, Colaba - Dabba ghosht, paneer makhani and reshmi parantha, mutton biryani. One of the oldest and finest establishments in town, Delhi Darbar is famous for its legendary dabba ghosht. Soft succulent pieces of mutton prepared in a light semi-oily gravy mixed with boiled eggs and garnished with salli (thin crispy potato fries) best had with the reshmi paratha, is heaven revisited. Panner makhani for the vegans who are not calorie conscious and mutton biryani if you have the appetite is a splendid, rich and royal meal recommended for special occasions.
33. Ling’s Pavilion, Colaba – Non-veg barbeque, prawns barbeque, fish wrapped in bacon, hailstone soup, crabmeat in sharkfin soup, Ling’s mixed meat pot rice. End it with the honey noodles and vanilla ice cream. Ling’s is the most authentic and genuine Chinese restaurant left in town after Nanking shut down, and Kamling and Chopstix have fallen out of favour. Ling’s is a treat for the Chinese food connoisseur. The manager and waiters both reek of authenticity and are prompt with their recommendations basis the sketchy brief you might hand out. The service is great and the ambience is nice. But the best part is the food. Items on the menu which you will not find elsewhere and preparations which completely blow you mind. If you had Chinese here once, and if your tastebuds are evolved, you will never prefer Chinese anywhere else in Mumbai.
34. Piggy Feast burger at Café Churchhill. Salami, sausages and ham. No wonder it’s a pig fest with this burger. Flanked with some cole slaw and varities of bland cold cuts makes for a fine burger from this very cozy and yet hugely popular café which has been around for years on Colaba Causeway.
35. Fish thali at Konkan Café, Taj President, Cuffe Parade. The beautifully done jumbo prawns, surmai or pomfret fry and the fish curry with neer dosa followed by steamed rice are delicious, different and delightful. A fish thali that never fails to satisfy for occasions when you want to treat or celebrate among posh environs, Konkan Café is your calling. And just when you think you can’t eat anymore, you are served the desert – a large jalebi with rabdi which is delicious and you wish you could do it all over again considering the servings are unlimited.
36. From my Mom’s kitchen – kumro chingri, pudina patar chingri pulao, chicken khara masala, jheengey posto, doi maach and yellow pulao, luchi and jeera aloo and begun bhaja, masala dal, anda curry, dhokar dalna, begun shoshe, kosha mangsho, French toast and betki fish fry. Nothing compares to the delicious and magnificient food I am treated to everyday at home courtesy my very patient, loving and enthusiastic mother. The preparations are rich, most of them oily, majority of them to be consumed with steamed rice which is a staple bong item on the lunch and dinner table and each of them delicious. It’s like being treated to great food everyday and after 30 years still very relishing and more than satisfying. Can’t wait to go home everyday after work to hog and if its any one of the above dishes, then it’s a feast. Thanks mom for creating, nurturing and then unleashing the foodie in me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

All for the Best!

How interesting can a trip from the hotel to the airport really get? Well Add some drama. Some hysteria. Some surprises. Some raised tempers. Some skipped heartbeats. Some panic. Some mystery. Some hope. Some disappointment and loads of luck. And you get a sensational novel which can later get adapted to a thriller movie and a message at the end of it thrown in for good measure.

It was the 26th of July ’09. We were checking out from the Le Meridian in Paris located North of the Champs Elysses at Etoile. This was the last day of our 8 day Eurotrip which would be entirely spent flying from Paris to Mumbai, with a few pit stops for duty free shopping of course. We were 6 of us…3 guys and 3 gals. The KLM flight was at 8:00 am from Charles de Gaulle for Amsterdam, one hour stopover and then 11:15 am flight from Amsterdam to Mumbai. KLM has a tie up with Delta for these sectors, which sucks ‘cause Delta’s aircrafts are worse than our local trains, but they are the cheapest. We hired a cab for 4 since we couldn’t get one for 6 and loaded all the bags in it. Kaushal and wife Jigna, my wife Pooja and her sister, Kinjal were the chosen passengers for the cab, since Kaushal wasn’t feeling too well and one man had to play caretaker of the 3 women. Me and my bro-in-law, Marmik ditched the idea of hiring another cab at 50 euros and decided to take the train. When we arrived in Paris, 3 days back we had taken 3 day passes. This should see us through all train and bus travel within Paris for the 3 days of our stay which it did. So no point spending those precious euros for a cab ride when we could max out the pass with the metro to the airport. We checked our pockets for the train passes, even took Jigna’s which was purchased the day earlier and had a one day validity which should technically expire at 11:00 am.

So with our haversacks on our back, Marmik and me headed towards the Porte Maillot metro station, a 5 minute walk from the hotel. It was a Sunday morning, still dark at 5:00 a.m. While loading our baggages in the cab earlier, we noticed some commotion opposite the hotel. The valet informed us that the sat nite discotheques were closing and the French party animals were retiring for the night. We were impressed with the idea of all nite sat niters.

Commuting in Paris
Paris is crowded. There is lots of traffic and lots of people everywhere. One would think that coming from Mumbai, this should feel at home. But having spent the first 3 days of our Eurotrip in Amsterdam, where you find a few or no cars and majority of people on the trot or bicycles, the contrast of Paris does surprise you. Coupled with that, the public transport specially the busses are not that efficient and there are no trams as we frequently used in Amsterdam and Zurich for the previous five days. Busses and trams lets you see the city while travelling which we hoped to do in Paris as well. But an attempt to do exactly that proved to be futile. There was no bus for the 30 mins we waited on 2 occassions. And the metro station entrance 5 feet away was sheepishly grinning at us. We therefore resigned to our fate and took the first of many metro journeys all through our stay. Since its underground, you don’t get to see a thing. Imagine passing the Eiffel Tower and the Arc De Triomphe and not getting to see it. In the city of lights you are looking at dungeons!

And the metro stations are not very impressive. Clean yes, but pretty no. They seem like any Mumbai station only underground and cleaner. And once inside the station it’s a maze. You miss one signage and you would be going round in circles. And there are 5 to6 exits, three levels, innumerable platforms and too many signages. Did take some time to get used to the system and constant checking and rechecking the route maps had become increasingly necessary. Everytime we came back to Porte Maillot, the metro stop for our hotel we would discover a different exit. But Parisians swear by the metro. It is the obvious mode of transport i.e. if you want to use public transport. Anyone we ask for directions from the concierge to the cops, would promptly point towards the metro stations or plot out the route on the metro map.

The frequency of the metro however is great and gets you to your destination in no time. All entries and exits have gates which open automatically when you punch your ticket in the slot machine. The ticket gets pulled in, gets punched making a record of your travel and slides out of the other end. Even if the ticket isn’t valid it slides out but then the gates don’t open. Sometimes when that happened even though we were carrying perfectly valid tickets, or so we thought, we passed valid tickets back so that others could enter with the same ticket. After all they should work for 3 days irrespective of the no. of entries and exits punched on it.

The first sign.
When Marmik and me arrived at the Porte Maillot on that Sunday morning we were expecting to hop into the train, catch a quick nap and probably reach the airport before the cab. But it was not to be so. First, our 3 day passes won’t go through the ticket machines. So the gates won’t open. We tried again. No luck. We tried Jigna’s ticket as well. Even that didn’t go through. Wierd. These were supposed to be valid for another 6 hrs. Several attempts and precious minutes later, we decided to let go and purchase the tickets. We hustled towards the ticket counter. The officials sitting right inside informed us that they were closed now, and we had to get our tickets from the automatic vending machine next to the counter. They were in their uniforms and their booth was open but the counter was shut. They were just finishing off with the accounts for the day or night in this case. We had tried the ticket vending machine previously and had run out of patience trying to figure it out. This was definitely not the time to figure it out. This was so not the time. After a few insignificant punches on the red and blue buttons, we decided to bail out. So we waved to a passerby to help us out and she did. It turned out that a single ticket to the airport would cost 18 euros. That’s 36 euros for both of us. The cab was 50 euros. Damn. Now was no time to negotiate with a machine. What the hell…since we are here now. We still need to get to the airport. So how bad can the train really be. Bad decision as we found out. It was Sunday morning. There were fewer trains than usual and they were running slow. So we had to spend a good 20 mins waiting for our train. This compared to the 5 min waits previously set the tone of things to come. The train was crowded with young kids who were returning from their sat nite escapades. We did not even get a seat initially. We were now hating the idea of sat nite all niters. But that was the least of our worries.

The second sign.
We had to change trains at a station called Chatelet to take the express to the airport. After 30 mins we reached Chatelet, which was unusually crowded and chaotic. Plus our train was nowhere in sight. And the rest of the crew who had cabbed it out had already reached the airport. As the first of the 100 phone calls for that morning from Kaushal on international roaming informed us. And there was apparently a long queue to even get inside the airport. Then the check-in, security checks, immigration, and the duty free shopping…damn, can’t skip that. Considering we only had a one hour stop over at Amsterdam en route to Mumbai. And there were lists made and remade and calculations done even on spreadsheets to ascertain no. of bottles and cartons and their respective costs we can manage to optimize the duty free shopping from Paris. We used the wait constructively, checking with people around if this was the train to take to the airport. There were others with baggage waiting to board this train, surely they were going to the airport as well. The train finally toggled onto the platform and we jumped in as if that would save some time. Even if it did, though it didn’t, the train had other plans. It didn’t move its butt from that platform for the next 15 minutes. That’s when the first signs of panic hit us.

And that was not the tipping point yet. This train supposedly an express was travelling at a snail’s pace. Straight out of Jules Vernes’ “around the world in 80 days” where Philius Fogg was explained by a station master at Bombay how the local reaches Kolkata faster than the express. Don’t know what we had done to deserve this? Actually don’t bother.

It trotted along for as long as it could like a 1960 steam engine inside a supersonic aerodynamic jet-train body. We checked the route map over our heads. After 8 stations there was a station called Le Bourget from where the route forked into two directions – one went to Charles De Gaulle i.e. the airport and the other…who cares?! After a painful 45 mins of the train ride, when it did get to Le Bourget, we were feeling content at finally reaching the airport just in time. How could anything go wrong now. But it did. The station after Le Bourget was to be Charles de gaulle. When we arrived at the next station and peeked out of the windows of the door that we were standing by, we saw another name on the platform signage. The train didn’t go towards Charles de gaulle. It took the other line from where it forked to a station which was somewhere on the French countryside. We realized this only when it stopped at the next station and a quick look at the route map confirmed our wildest fears. We were on the wrong train! How did we manage to goof this one up? Why did we manage to goof this one up? Why did we do whatever we did now?

We rechecked with a couple of passengers quickly and got off. The platform was empty. We looked around. Not a soul in sight. It was a peaceful French village town apparently outside Paris as we found out later. But we were anything but peaceful then. We looked at the indicator. The next train to take us back to Le Bourget would arrive 15 mins later. And we have to take another train from there, hopefully the right one this time to goto Charles de gaulle. Damn. We had to go back the same route we came from and we had to wait another 15 mins to even do that. That at a time like this when we were going to miss our flight from Paris. 2 lonely almost broke Indians stuck in Paris. We were already wondering how we would spend the day if we missed the flight which seemed inevitable now. What a terrible situation. But hey, we should be close to the airport right. We should take a cab from here now and still end up saving some pennies from the 50 Euros we saved from the cab ride?!!! Actually, even if we paid double of that we didn’t really care now. Only thing that did matter was getting to that godforsaken airport and saving the cost of the air tickets and the hassle of booking again which definitely won’t happen at the same rate we got the current air tickets! And of course the other 4 who were waiting at the airport for us would be completely perplexed at what to do.

And the frantic phone calls from a worried Kaushal only added to the tension. We were in the greatest hurry and we were not even moving. There was some time till the train arrived. We decided to just walk out of the station and check ourselves. The side we came out on was deserted. Not a soul in sight. And there didn’t seem any roads to take us anywhere. And of course no cabs. We spotted a old black woman going into the station. Asked her for cabs, she said there wouldn’t be any on this side, but maybe on the other side of the station. We came back to the platform. Checked the indicator. 7 odd minutes now. We noticed a young guy who had just walked up the stairs from the other side to the platform for cabs to the airport hoping he could answer our prayers. The guy was lost. And he didn’t know English. After some miming, he shrug his shoulders pointed towards the exits and walked off. We contemplated. 6 minutes for the train now. What to do? It’s a gamble. We decided to make a run for it. Run to the exits, down the stairs, flash through the tunnels, through the ticket validating machines and thankfully the new tickets we bought got validated this time around, and then up the stairs again huffing and puffing while we reached the top. Not a soul in sight. After a few seconds which felt like ages, a car came by. We ran towards the driver, asking frantically for a cab. The driver informs us that it being really early morning on a Sunday, there wouldn’t be one for several hours. That’s all we needed to hear. Sprint back towards the entrance, down the stairs, through the ticket counters, bang. Stop. We couldn’t go through. Our tickets won’t work. Not again! We just bought them today. And the ticket counter had its shutters down. Deep breaths.

Marmik jumped on top of the machine using it for support, squeezed his thin frame through between the gates and got to the other side. I couldn’t squeeze my thin frame through obviously. But I could jump over it. Seemed manageable. I went halfway there and was struggling with the foothold for support to reach the top and jump over, when a man walked in to pass through the gates. I quickly jumped down and decided to tailgate on him giving him a uncomfortable smile and continued sprinting toward the platform. Up the stairs and onto the platform. Too much running for one day I thought. Need to do something about my diminishing stamina. Checked the indicators. 1 minute for our train! Catch up on our breath. Some more running after the break.

The train finally arrived and we jumped in. Next stop got off and waited again for the right train. The clock was ticking. Phones were ringing. The rest had already checked in. One excess bag was to be checked in by us. The check in counter was informed to expect two pax anytime. Everybody was on standby!

The train moved into the station at the airport finally. We were already at the door ready to make a run for it. We had already checked on the terminal details, figured out how to get there from the station thanks to a detailed diagram in the train. The moment the train stopped, and the doors opened, we jumped, and ran for our lives. Down the platform, up the stairs, into the airport, checked for the signages, ran again, went up the stairs and then reached the entry barriers – the ticket validating machines. We stood in the line, punched our tickets. Not valid. We just bought these today for 18 euros each. Why the hell wont they work. Is it because we punched them when we exited the previous station looking for a cab. Luckily there were many in line and no authorities around. But you really can’t demonstrate your acrobatic skills in a crowded international airport so we didn’t bother jumping over it again. So we both tailgated. The other passengers were only too happy to allow us to do that. We crossed the gates, and kept running towards the sacred check-in counter for sometime till we saw Kaushal frantically waving at us from the point we needed to reach…2 hrs. back actually.

Did we really make it? Unbelievable. The world seemed to be plotting against us.

We checked in, rushed to the security gates, who stalled us ‘cause we had to remove our belts, shoes, wallets, keys and all items from the pockets. Was quiet painful, since the duty free was just behind it and there was so much we still needed to do. Finally cleared the security when I was asked to step aside. My haversack was handed to a counter officer. I wondered what now? I was asked to open the bag and display the items, which revealed a liqueur bottle I had picked up at a supermarket opposite our hotel. Fancy bottle, tall slim, blue and contained caramel liqueur. Perfect for my bar. I had also picked up 5 wine bottles which Pooja had safely packed into the suitcases which were checked in. but this one was expensive and I did not want to take any chances. So I decided to play caretaker myself and safely packed it into my haversack. The authorities informed me that I couldn’t carry liquid on the flight. I argued that we do it all the time when we purchase alcohol from the duty free. But the rule is that duty free bottles come sealed in duty free bags and only those are allowed as hand baggage. So I had to either dump the bottle or check in my haversack. I decided to push my luck. I decided to check it in. My wife and friends were bewildered. I could see the last ounce of patience being exhausted from their gasps and frowns. No point advising me to do otherwise. I had made up my mind.
I went out through the side gate and back to the lady who had checked me in earlier, since I only wanted to check in the haversack and take another baggage tag and I thought she would do it faster having issued my boarding pass and all. But there was another person before me. And this guy had a cat in a cage which he wanted to check-in. For some reason, he was not being allowed to and then followed a long argument in French between the two. I only watched in amusement. Now I had exhausted my last ounce of patience! After the 10 minute ordeal, the man withdrew his cage and walked away. My turn. I explained the problem and she asked me to put the bag on the conveyor beside her for weight. It seemed fine. She punched some keys for the baggage tag print-out. Any moment now. She looked at the printer for the progress. Nothing. The printer was stuck. At that very moment among all the moments, the printer was to run out of paper now. Right now. When the only time I wouldn’t want it to. She pushed her chair back, came towards me, unlocked the door which to my surprise was the frontage of the counter. Removed paper rolls, went back to her desk, inserted the paper in the printer, and finally printed my baggage tag.

I went back to the security gates, removed my wares all over again, got frisked all over again. Went through the security scanner. Beep. What now? I just went through this 10 mins back. It was all fine then. What now? They asked me to remove everything and anything from my pockets which would have caused the beep. Nothing. I checked and rechecked. Nothing. I was made to turn back and go through it again. Beep. They realized that it was because of all the zippers in my cargo pants. A stern brow informed me that these are travel unfriendly pants. I acknowledged.

Finally I was through security. We were grossly delayed. Some 10 mins to take off. Hello. What about duty free shopping? I had 6 or 8 bottles and 4 cartons to still pick up. Marmik was already there and he had finished buying a Glenfiddich 12 years someone was to pay him for. I was gonna push it. I thought maybe I could flash through the duty free and finish it off. I entered the duty free when there were frantic calls for boarding. I scanned through the items. Picked up a 3 carton pack of Marlboro Gold. But there was a line at the billing counter. I didn’t have the time. So I dumped it and went straight for the flight. Resigned to the fact that I now had to do this in Amsterdam airport and quickly since we only had a one hour stopover and 30 of those precious minutes would be consumed disembarking this flight and boarding the flight to Mumbai. Considering I knew what I wanted, I always know what I want from the duty free, it seemed manageable.

It was a 2 hour flight to Amsterdam. I was already finalizing my duty free shopping list. 15 mins is all I should take. On landing at Schipol I headed straight for the Liquor section. Scanned for any interesting items. Kaushal directed me to the Ed Hardy vodka bottles and told me to come quickly to the departure gates where he was heading. The ed hardy bottle looked fab. Another showpiece on my bar. Definitely a pick. Then there was some single malt and some Absolut flavours I needed to replenish my depleting stock. Picked those as well. And had to get one bottle for dad. Done. Enter Pooja. Frowns. 8 bottles in the bag. What are you thinking? Please return 4. Bombay customs will not allow this to go through. We already had 6 bottles in the baggage. And considering there were 6 of us, we could only carry twelve toto. Marmik had already picked up one. Kinjal had 1. Kaushal was not taking any.. so we could buy only 4. After the events of the day so far, and considering that she did have a point, I gave up. Returned 4 bottles. Billed the remaining 4. While we were doing all this we didn’t realize that the flight was already boarding. In fact now they were closing boarding. We were delayed for this flight too.

The last lap.
We sprinted towards the terminal. Up the stairs, down the stairs, down the lobby, ran on the escalators, ran, ran and ran again. The terminal was really far. We would have surely started earlier had we known. Or maybe we wouldn’t. we are quite incorrigible that way. A little too much when I think back. Luckily immigration was a short line and we went quickly through it. At the entrance of the departure terminals a lady in the KLM uniform stopped us. Asked if we were Nandi and Mehtas. We nodded. She complained that the flight was gonna take off without us if we didn’t show up for another minute. We filed behind her in embarrassment but thanking our stars. At the departure terminal, the crew was frowning. They still had to go through with their SOPs and the entire interrogation ordeal which is a 10 minute process. But, now they were taking time. So technically they were delaying the flight. Not us. We were at least assured that its not taking off without us. A sense of Eureka prevailed. I actually pulled this off. Once they were satisfied we were not terrorists and were not carrying bombs, they let us through baggage screening. One of the security guys behind the counter picked up Marmik’s duty free bag which had the Glenfiddich he had bought from the Paris Duty Free. He whispered to a colleague and turned around to inform Marmik that this will not be allowed on board. Why??? It was a duty free bag and was sealed. ‘cause its an American airline and only sealed duty free bags from the last airport of departure are allowed as hand baggage. So Schipol sealed duty free bags can go through but not any other airport’s including Paris even though this was a transit flight.
We were helpless. Can’t check this in surely. Marmik had to dump it. 25$ down the drain. He wouldn’t get paid for what he didn’t get.

My duty free bags did not meet the same fate. Fortunately.

We went to our seats and only rested after receiving some well deserved scorns from Kaushal and wife for overdoing it today, we were finally taking off for Mumbai. They didn’t seem to fathom why buying alcohol was so important that one could delay or even miss an international flight. I didn’t offer any excuses. There were none. For some reason I feel compelled to stick to the plan, that's the bare minimum. Anything we do beyond the plan is only gratis. And duty free shopping was part of the bare minimum to-do, have-to-do plan.

Slumped on my seat, exhausted and exasperated I was going over the events of the morning, it was only 11 am then. That’s when it hit me. If I had made it to Paris airport on time with enough time for Duty Free Shopping, I would have bought everything I wanted from Paris. And that wouldn’t have been allowed on board this flight. I would have to dump them. No refunds. No alcohol. And, I wouldn’t have shopped in Amsterdam. And because I would realize that I have to dump them just before entering the aircraft, it wouldn’t give me any time to even go back and buy them all over again from the Amsterdam Duty Free. And I also would have spent all my money by then anyways. So shopping at the Amsterdam Duty Free actually saved all my bottles and substantial euros! And I wouldn’t have shopped in Amsterdam if we had reached Pairs airport on time. Even 10 mins at the Paris Duty Free would have been sufficient for me to finish my shopping. Looking back, I realized that if any one event, any one of those innumerable events was not to occur, I would have got 10 mins at Paris Duty Free.

Like they say….Its all for the best!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eurotrip July 2009

Before the memory wavers, thought it ideal to pen it down for posterity.

The trip was dotted with experiences with people, places and events which were new, refreshing and surprising. To know that this is also how people live is enlightening.

Amsterdam – A whole new world I discovered. Where people drink more beer than water and smoke more marijuana than cigarettes. Where people walk and cycle more than drive. Even the police are on cycles. Where cobbled streets are outlined with innumerable coffee shops and Irish-ish pubs with tables laid outside on the streets with people sipping beer, coffee and munching fries with mayonnaise, pizza by the slice, ham sandwiches and really large yummy sausages. Where it rains one minute and gets sunshine the next and a cool uplifting breeze all the time. Where pretty women serve as waitresses in the coffee shops that they own. Where the landscape is dotted with several canals with spic clean water and ducks swimming at leisure alongside the boats and these canals are all over the city. Where the sun rises at 5:30 am and sets at 10:30pm. It is actually bright and sunny at 10:00 pm! The day never ends in Amsterdam.

Where the red light district with almost naked women on window displays is a national pride right behind the Dam square and the new church which are their national monuments. Where people from anywhere and everywhere get together and have one wild party all day and all night long.

We walked a lot, along the canals and over the canal bridges, over the cobbled streets, across the flower market with mega sized sunflowers and 20000 types of flowers in full bloom on display, with pit stops at pubs for beer and took the trams and busses when we just couldn’t walk anymore. We also hired bikes for half a day and cycled a bit. When I looked up their official tourism website while planning my itinerary I made a list of things to visit – Dam square, new church, Heineken factory, madam Tussaud’s and the red light district. When we walked out of our hotel we were already on dam square, on the right was the new church and on the left Madam Tussaud’s and the lane behind the hotel was the red light district. I had finished the list in 10 minutes. Which was cool since now we had more time to explore the city. We did visit the Heineken factory which is more like an experience zone and they teach ya how to make beer alongwith a beer tasting session and unltd. beer to drink. We spent early evenings at a small pub below our hotel which serve wine liqueurs in shotglasses. But these are not shots. You are supposed to sip them. They place the shot glasses on the bar counter…a very wooden western salon kinda look – fill it to the rim just a drop from overflowing and they do this with amazing precision, they never spill a drop while filling it up. You are then supposed to bend over and take the first sip without lifting the glass and then whisk it away for sipping it at leisure. There are all kinds of liqueurs from apple to lemon to melon to whisky sours and triple mixes called ‘walk in the woods’. They brew this locally behind the pub in their house lab and bottle it in their own labels. And to go with it there is amazing cheese with mustard sauce. Every bite of the cheese is a piece of heaven!!!

Amsterdam has these several squares where people aggregate in herds – Dam square the most popular of the lot, the Rembrandt square and the Leids Plein. In these squares you will find enough and more pubs and coffee shops and restaurants. You will find street performers – from stunt artistes, to hip hop dancers, musicians (guitarists, violinists and bagpipers) and costumed statue-like mimics. All of them non-intrusive, doing their bit to entertain, picking up the cents dropped in their hats kept in front of their modest stages.

So we walk to one of these squares, 15-20 mins walk at most, take a table in one of the pubs outside, order some beer and you have the world to choose from – Heineken the local favourite, Amstel, Guiness, Budweiser, Stella, and several other local brews in white, dark and golden which we were more than happy to try. The beer never gets you drunk or feel full. You can keep having it till your time or money runs out. I found out that Indian beer has glycerin which they don’t. Glycerin gets you higher and fuller faster and even bloats you up.

And the cannabis. Wow. Like in India, tobacco smoke is banned inside the coffee shops/pubs in Amsterdam as well, but not pot smoke. In fact, people who like to mix tobacco with cannabis can’t smoke it inside either. You haveta smoke pure cannabis joints if you wanna smoke inside. And they have a wide variety of cannabis – Dutch, Mexican, Italian, local, etc. in various formats – various sized joints (the largest is almost like a bazooka), to hash brownies (called space cakes since it gets you spaced out), lollipops and much more. These are sold legally in all coffee shops. Put on display behind the bar counter and have a separate menu card. Each coffee shop is allowed to store only 500gms at a time which can be replenished in real time. This exists to avoid drug trafficking to other countries. But the new mayor of Amsterdam has promised to do away with this limit and make Amsterdam a better city!!! Long live the mayor. There are also cannabis shops which sell you everything to do with cannabis – the grass, rollers, food, souvenirs, etc.

There are separate lanes just for cycles, lanes for trams and buses and lanes for cars. And there are hardly any cars. Nobody honks. They wait patiently for you to cross the road. And you will find an odd biker in full biking gear vrooming his Ducati or Hyabusa into oblivion.

Zurich is like a distant cousin to Amsterdam, similar culture but still not the same thing. Only mentionable experience was the lakeside barbeque run by an Indian - ‘Baba’– steaks, liver, sausages, potato and cheese, baked potatoes, fries all served with beer and any liquor you want right by the lake in the open with wooden benches and tables laid out and buzzing with people. It’s a complete party. Could be mistaken to a seaside fancy restaurant. And this is Tuesday evening. So you retire from work at 5:00pm sharp, get to the lakeside, drink to your complete merriment and devour those heavenly sausages and feel the cool breeze in your face while enjoying the breathtaking view of the lake surrounded by small hills with pretty houses and people paddling in the lake with geese flapping alongside. And you do this everyday.

Titlis was fun. Covered with snow, we freaked out on the snow tube which glides down a slope with twists and turns. We did this 3 times and tried some other surfs and boards to glide down the snow slopes. Amazing landscape and Engelberg which is the base town for titlis is a beautiful town. From here you change 3 cable cars till you reach the top of Mt.Titlis – 10000 feet.

On the way back from Titlis we stopped over at Lucerne where there is a festival on at the moment by the lakeside. All 4 sides of the lake are lined up with flea markets, beer stalls, Smirnoff stalls, Bacardi stalls, food stalls with all types of cuisines, rock shows, jazz performances, on stages on the 4 sides of the lake and the whole town was there, drinking, smoking, eating and partying away to glory. There wasn’t even space to walk and it’s a 1 hour walk to cover the 4 sides of the lake, the place was so full of people and an amazing experience. And this was Wednesday evening.

Paris on the other hand did not keep up to the hype. The city is much bigger, crowded, lot of traffic and the French are not the friendliest of people. You have to take the metro which is the fastest mode to any place. Buses are not so frequent and the distances are too much to walk. A walk down the Champs Elysees the most famous and expensive street in the world is all we could manage – starts at the Arc de Triomphe and ends with the Louvre. Flanked by Louis Vuitton Headquarters, Lamborghini, Mercedes, Peugeot with concept cars on display and bike showrooms like Ducati, Harley, Suzuki, Piaggio, etc., fancy restaurants, coffee shops and designer brands on either side. The tour de france ends in the Champs Elysees next Sunday.

The Eiffel tower though was breathtaking at night, and the view from the top is a wonderful sight. Especially the twinkling lights which they switch on for 5 mins once every hour. The 90 min Seine river cruise the next night was beautiful with all the national monuments on either side right on the river banks - Eiffel tower, Opera house, Louvre museum, National museum, Grand Palais, Notre Dame…beautiful monuments – great works of art and sculpture. You feel you are in the 16th century. Also along the banks in the evenings you find people partying – dancing, drinking, restaurants, sitting and chilling and waving out to us on these cruises. During the day people are sunbathing by the river when it’s sunny.

The Crazy Horse show (its like the lido or Moulin rouge) which boasts of the prettiest women in Paris in the nude was disappointing and the complementary champagne and wine did not help in making up for the exorbitant ticket price. The women were pretty and the dances were nice but didn’t have enough flair to impress us. I was dozing off. We ended with a nice dinner at a fancy bistro in front of the Eiffel Tower. The waitress was friendly and loves SRK and Aishwariya.

Overall Europe is expensive. A normal breakfast with bread and cheese and omellettes and juice for 4 could cost ard. 50 euros = Rs.3500/- and this is in an ordinary café. The fancier restaurants are more expensive. But the supermarkets are reasonable. So you can grab a sandwich at 1.60 euros and a drink and finish off your breakfast in 3 euros. And you could have this at regular intervals through the day. Sandwiches are yum with ham, cheese, salmon, sausages, whatvr u want. Veggies can survive as well on salad and cheese with bread and an occasional falalal and panini. Clothes shopping is outta the question especially the designer brands and in Paris every brand is a designer brand. Though everything is on sale at this time of the year, the discounted prices are way beyond reach as well. A pair of fancy shoes post 40% discount could cost ard. 200 euros = Rs.14000/-. Barring the price you would wanna own everything you see. Clothes, shoes, bikes, cars, Football jerseys, Tour de France memorabilia, Heineken merchandise, pieces of art from Van Gogh and Louvre, wooden works from Switzerland, packaged cannabis, reefers, wine, cheese, juices, Orangina, Perrier water, liqueurs, souvenirs, all of it.

Allover the quality of life is good. The quality of food, products they use, clothes, transportation is great. The climate is wonderful and everything is easy to do. It’s a different life, a better life.