Postcards from Amsterdam

A November day in the atmospheric Jordaan district of Amsterdam. The city that tells you to free yourself of all inhibitions.

So, I decided to wear my dunce cap ūüėČ

What are your thoughts of Amsterdam? And your own dunce cap, if you have any?

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Profile of a dunce cap

Victoria

In the summer of 2015 we were in Victoria with my husband’s sister and her family. The sun shone with less fury than it did in Seattle, from where we had driven across the border to Canada. Oh, the charm of Victoria. She was pretty as vintage jewellery that you look at with awe and refuse to be parted with at any cost. We doused the not-so-awful heat there with ice cream cones laden with dollops of maple syrup and pecan goodness and I thrilled at the sight of buttery maple and pecan flavoured popcorn that were sizeable enough to melt in the mouth with moreish grace.

The jewel in Victoria’s crown is¬†The Empress,¬†the hotel that¬†sits like a grand dame in front of the inner harbour.¬†Should she have been torn down to make way for a modern hotel? The 1965 dilemma was set to rest by a local newspaper which declared that ‘without this splendid relic of the Edwardian era, literally tens of thousands of tourists’ would never return.’ It also bestowed upon it the title of ‘the Mecca, …. the heart and soul of the city.’ I wonder the kind of high tea it must offer to guests. I bet it is mouthwatering and a boggling sight for the eyes.

While we browsed in shops, I was besotted by the beauty of a First Nations boy with a swathe of silk-spun hair that reached his knees. He was a work of art. I was even hopelessly tongue-tied, a teenager with a schoolgirl crush. Adi was amused.

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Oak Bay, Greater Victoria
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Glacially eroded headlands in the suburb of Oak Bay, east of Victoria, and off the Pacific Ocean. Before European settlers arrived, it was the stomping grounds of the Coast Salish tribes.
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Locally hand-painted pianos wait by the waters for travellers 
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In the Uplands Park area along rocky bluffs we came upon this signage which read Cattle Point Boat Point. It announced: “ONE BOAT IN/ONE BOAT OUT”. Cattle Point near Cadboro Bay gets its name from the fact that cattle were brought ashore to avoid taxes. The story goes back to the time when the Hudson’s Bay Company had established its fur trading post of Fort Victoria in the inner harbour in the mid-1800s. It was a testament to the 17th-century Europeans’ penchant for hats made from beaver fur.
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The heavily glaciated cone of Mount Baker looms above the horizon of Greater Victoria
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The Empress
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The chateau-style Edwardian Empress¬†was built as a terminus hotel for the Canadian Pacific’s Steamship Line. ¬†It hosted many famous names, but in the year 1919 Edward, Prince of Wales, danced in its ballroom. Fifty years later when old ladies died, their obituaries carried a note that they had been singled out by the Prince of Wales for dances.
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The old and the new
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British Columbia Parliament Buildings
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Dolphin topiary 
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The inner harbour bustled with buskers, entertainers and local craftspeople selling handiwork 
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Lunch in a soda shop
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Choosing flavours is¬†the best kind of dilemma, don’t you think? Especially when you have something like this at the end of the queue…
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… a cone topped up with maple and pecan cream
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To carry him away, or not. The niece and I with the hapless bear.
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Bastion Square where farmers hold an open market and where once stood Fort Victoria named after Queen Victoria. The pale pink building was once the seat of Hudson’s Bay and today is a Canadian retail chain.
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For the emotional well-being of all, they play on.
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Pubs on Bastion Square
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Shopping in Victoria
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Who else would we meet in Canada, right?
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Grand old bookstores
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Bard & Banker. A Scottish pub that is housed in old building that in 1885 opened as the Bank of British Columbia. The other half of the pub‚Äôs name is derived from one of the bank‚Äôs most famous employees, an Englishman named Robert Service.¬† He was transferred to the Yukon branch of the bank where he was mistaken for a robber by a bank teller and almost shot. It led to his penning a narrative poem called The Shooting of Dan McGrew. He became so popular with his poems that he was dubbed ‘Bard of the Yukon’.
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The poem takes place in a Yukon saloon during the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s.
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The tee that got Adi but he did not get it. He remembers it ruefully.
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Fort Victoria in the old days
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Hip n’ cool Victoria

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The alley which houses one-of-a-kind stores recalls a pioneer called Thomas Trounce. Those gaslights are about 125 years old.
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W&J Wilson Clothiers is a family outfit that has been there at this present location on the corner of Trounce Alley since 1862 (the same year Victoria was incorporated as a city). 
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The moon peeks at us from the behind the shapely ankles of Captain James Cook. He overlooks the harbour in Victoria, he who discovered it in 1778.
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Prince of Whales
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Inner harbour when dusk gathers
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The British Columbia Parliament Buildings and Royal London Wax Museum lit up
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And I leave you with the grand beauty of The Empress

Dear Tintinologist…

You possibly know him. Georges Prosper Remi. He turned around his initials. R.G (pronounced Hergé in French) was born and and there you have one of our beloved cartoonists.

This post is my tribute to Hergé. The extent of his talent was revealed only when I took a train from Brussels one cold January day in 2014 to Louvain-la-Neuve.

You see, Hergé started me off on an intense affair with books.

My first book ‚Äď post a series of Lady bird books involving titles such as Beaky the Greedy Duck and Tiptoes the Mischievous Kitten‚Äď was a Tintin. I used to shut myself in my library room in Calcutta, that in course of time became my haven whenever I wanted to escape the world (which was too often). Then I would look at tomes that lined the dark ebony shelves. The rows of Tell Me Why and The Encyclop√¶dia Britannica were positively daunting. Names such as Frederick Forsyth, Harold Robbins, Alistair Maclean and dark red bound volumes of Sarat Chandra amongst others seemed too much for an 8-year-old (just before I discovered the wondrous world of Enid Blyton).

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Foxed Ladybird copies of mine

But there was one file-size, hardbound book. The cover showed a young boy with a quiff, tied up to a pole, a mutt peering from behind him, while a grumpy Native American with a massive headdress and poleaxe pointed at the boy. In the background stood a couple of tipis and Native Americans sitting as onlookers, waiting for a show to begin.

Tintin in America.

I was caught in a world that thereafter became my refuge from everything and a bane for my mother who bemoaned the fate of a child who read only story books to the exception of all school textbooks.

Till I grew up and went to college, the years were spent playing hide and seek. An extremely odd game.

My mother went about hiding my books with great regularity. I went hunting for them as ¬†regularly, telling myself, ‚ÄúIf you were her, where would it¬†be?‚ÄĚ Invariably, I found every book she hid, except for the first Mills & Boon that was gifted my a¬†best friend on one of my teenage birthdays.

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Carnival at Louvain-la-Neuve
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Hergé Museum

Thirty kilometre off Brussels, is the small city of Louvain-la-Neuve in the French-speaking province of Walloon Brabant. Its raison d’√™tre is a university which emerged out of the ‚Äô60s linguistic quarrels between the French-speaking people and the Dutch-speaking people in Belgium.

The Catholic University, in a beautiful town in Flanders called Leuven, was split into the Dutch Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Leuven and the Université Catholique de Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve.

Louvain-la-Neuve is a quiet and young city where I had to warm myself up on a grey winter’s day in its big shopping mall. In its main square, I found myself in the midst of a carnival, flanked by giant carnival figures. I never found out what it was about. Everyone in Louvain-la-Neuve strictly spoke French. But away from the centre, at the edge of a green park stood my reason for travel. A futurist building that is the Hergé Museum.

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Print of¬†Herg√©’s sketch

The leisurely couple of hours spent inside the museum was an eye-opening experience and made me appreciate Hergé markedly.

‚ÄúTintin (pronounced ‚Äėtahn-tahng‚Äô, with n quite nasal) saw the light of day in 1929, and 1929 was the year of the great globe-trotting reporters that criss-crossed all over the place, with their travelling bags boarding the Trans-Siberian express, getting aboard ships‚Ķ To me, my ideal was the reporter, a veritable hero in my eyes‚ĶI had great admiration for the real-life journalists, and, amongst them, those that were true reporters.‚ÄĚ Those are Herg√©‚Äôs words describing the birth of his footloose, young reporter.

Born in the Etterbeek district of Brussels, the cartoonist had a lower middle-class upbringing that was unobstrusive. But his career was anything but.

Tintin was preceded by Totor, a chubby boy-scout, who¬†Herg√© drew into being for scouting journals. In the ‚Äô20s he started working for a daily, Le Vingti√®me Si√®cle (‚ÄėThe Twentieth Century‚Äô), which described itself as a Catholic and National Newspaper of Doctrine and Information. That itself tells you much about the thought process of the times and what¬†fits in is the right-wing clergyman who was the editor of the daily. One who kept a photograph of Mussolini on his desk.

The literature of Tintin is cause for much discussion and debate probably because Herg√© was a man of his times. He was in-charge of editing Le Petit Vingti√®me in 1928 and a year later it carried an announcement which proclaimed that ‚Äúalways keen to satisfy its readers and to keep them abreast of what is happening abroad‚ÄĚ Le Petit Vingti√®me ‚Äúhas just sent into Soviet Russia one of its best reporters: Tintin!”

Our hero was born with his forelock which was blown into the stiffest-of-all-possible quiffs that neither hail nor wind could break. With his faithful companion, Snowy. The venture into the Soviet was supposed to be a message from the clergyman editor to young Catholic readers, of the dangers of falling for Bolshevism. Tintin in Congo smacked of racism, asserting the superiority of white man over fellow men.

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Herg√©’s artwork for the daily in 1934
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Tintin in the Indies: The Mystery of the Blue Diamond was played for the first time at Theatre Royal des Galeries Saint-Hubert I in Brussels in April, 1941. The crime drama in three acts was written by Hergé with Jacques Van Melkebeke.
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A¬†young Roland Ravez played the second¬†Tintin in theatre history. The first was a girl called Jane Rubens. Ravez recalled her as “a tiny brunette, Tohama-style. She was charming ‚Äď and older than me. She could have been 14 or 15 years old. Why did they hire a girl? For a simple reason: in the children‚Äôs troupe there were no boys. I was the only one. And perhaps for the first time I was considered too young.”
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Sketches from The Shooting Star (1942)
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Tintin in the Land of Soviets in Indian ink, gouache and pencil (1929)
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The Exploits of Quick and Flupke. A Serious Affair (1933). A comic strip on two street urchins from Brussels, published in the pages of Le Petit Vingtième by Hergé starting 1930.
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The Adventures of Jo, Zette and Jocko (1936-57)
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Pencil sketch of Tintin and the Picaros¬†(’70s)
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The man was a great traveller – something that is reflected in the travels of his young reporter.
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Pencil sketches from Tintin and Alph-art (1978-82). The unfinished work which was published posthumously.
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“I seek above all to tell a story‚Ķand to tell it clearly.” Herg√©. Herg√© had a small advertising company – Atelier Herg√©.
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Herg√© and his friend Zhang Chongren, a Catholic Chinese student studying at Brussels’ Acad√©mie Royale des Beaux-Arts.¬†Herg√© lost contact with him for a long time during the invasion of China by Japan and the Chinese Civil War. It was only¬†four decades later that the two friends were re-united.

A turning point for Herg√© was meeting a Chinese student at the Brussel Academy of Fine Arts in 1934. ‚ÄúI believe that Tchang, unknowingly, figured as one of the main orientations in my life. He was a young Chinese student whom I had happened to meet when, with his assistance, I was composing the adventure of The Blue Lotus. It is he who made me conscious of the need to get the true facts on a country and to lay out a coherent story. He remained in Belgium for a number of years and then returned to Shanghai.‚ÄĚ

When WWII broke out on September 1, 1939, Herg√© had to turn up as a reserve lieutenant, thus interrupting Tintin’s adventures in the Land of Black Gold. Forced by the Nazis, Le Petit Vingti√®me had to shut down and Herg√© started making new Tintin strips for Le Soir, a leading French daily in Brussels which had been turned into a mouthpiece for the occupation forces. He did fine-tune his next few Tintin in an escapist mode (and thus you have The Shooting Star and The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun) to veer away from current affairs. Herg√© was accused of being a collaborator after the war because of the Nazi control of the paper, and was interrogated. But he firmly maintained that he was simply doing a job as any other professional under the occupation.

Post the Second World War, Herg√© said: “I recognize that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order. For many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope. In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error to have believed for an instant in the New Order.”

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In front of the snow-enveloped Botanical Gardens in Brussels.

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Herg√©, France Ferrari, Fanny Vlamynck and Alexis Remi (the cartoonist’s father).¬†His marriage with his first wife, Germaine, broke¬†apart after 25¬†years. He had fallen in with Fanny Vlamynck, a young artist who worked at Herg√© Studios. Divorcing Germaine in 1977, he married Vlamynck that same year.
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“Blue blistering bell-bottomed balderdash!”
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The comic from which Haddock was born.
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A pair of bumbling, beloved idiots.

Apart from the cursing captain and his colourful vocabulary, I was always immensely fond of the bumbling detective brothers. The black bowler hat, the mustache, the dark suit, and the cane apparently stemmed from a subconscious reference to their creator‚Äôs own background. Herg√©‚Äôs father had a twin brother who copied him in everything. He had remarked about it: ‚ÄúMy father had a cane, my uncle went and bought the same one. Yet he says he never thought about it when he created Thomson and Thompson. ‚ÄúBut the coincidence is strange, all the same,‚ÄĚ he accepted.

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‚ÄúHooray! Hooray! The end of the world has been postponed! ‚Ä̬†Herg√©, The Shooting Star.

My hands itch to buy each and every title when I spot them, e’en though I have them stacked away in Calcutta. I become that child all over again, putting together my pocket money carefully to buy my stash of Tintins. Isn’t it a beautiful feeling? Not outgrowing some things in life.

 

 

Girona

Girona was mine when I walked its medieval ramparts. It was in the early half of February of this year, a grey day when the drab skies above my head seemed to intensify the cold in the ancient town that is located in Spain’s Catalonia region. The bitterness¬† of the day meant that I beheld a deserted town, but I was not going to bemoan the lack of day-trippers for the desolation compounded the aura of antiquity that hung around its terracotta roofs.

I took the train from Barcelona Sants to Girona, early one morning. Forty minutes later I was transported to another world when I started climbing a certain Capuchin Hill upon which the old quarters of Girona perch themselves strategically. The hill was named after the Capuchin friars who arrived there some time in the late 16th century.

Amidst the bleakness of the day, a meek sun struggled to part the clouds, and beneath its watery sunlight, I walked aimlessly. There is such joy in pottering around without an agenda – it affords one the thrill of discovery and is doubly pleasurable to the incurable romantic.¬†Steep stone stairs and cobble-stoned alleys took me into the heart of Girona. Girona which was once Gerunda, when it was once home to the Iberians. Its¬†coveted position as a highly wealthy town invited the attention of marauders. So they all came — the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, followed by the Romans again led by Charlemagne, the stalwart emperor who constructed a defensive wall around Girona. A canny move, I suppose, because the city was¬†prey to many sackings.

In its old quarters, Barri Vell, I came upon a garden that read (bizarrely) ‘Jardins de John Lennon’. One of the mayors, it turns out, was a fan of Lennon. This garden was an oasis of solitude that guided me to some narrow winding stairs in a tower and soon I found myself walking old Charlemagne’s walls. Before me lay the panoramic view of Girona‚Äôs terracotta roofs, cathedrals and spires, stitched seamlessly with tall cypresses offering a dark green contrast to the dull ochre of the medieval buildings. The Pyrenees were its charming backdrop, a chain of smoky blue undulations on the horizon. One end of that wall seemed to dip into a sea of modern apartments, so I decided to turn back towards the old quarter.

In the Call, the Jewish quarter, I walked through such narrow alleys that if I stretched my hands out, they would touch the walls on both sides. It was moody, that neighbourhood with its huddle of decrepit houses and dark corners, cobbled lanes and gently ascending stairs. In the museum and bookshops, old Jews sat behind tills, adding to the atmosphere of the Call. Just as in other European cities, Jews were expelled from Girona in 1492 by the Catholic Kings, and it is said that while some families sold their properties to Christians before leaving, others blocked their houses in the hope that they would return some day. Encroachment over the years meant that these old houses were buried away till in the 19th century they were re-discovered during the construction of a railway line in town.

But a whole bunch of those abandoned medieval houses still seem to be waiting for their former residents to return. The La Judería turned out to be one of the most haunting Jewish quarters I have come across in all my travels in Europe because it seemed to centre around that singular feeling called hope, yet there remains that disquieting thought. What happens when hope does not get you anywhere?

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Trudging up Capuchin Hill to the Basilica of Sant Feliu
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Ancient walls that stand formidably tall

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The Pyrenees form the backdrop to Girona

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Moorish ba√Īos¬†dating back to the late 12th century. In the 15th century, these Arab baths were privately owned. But in the 17th century, they were transformed to serve as laundry rooms for the Order of the Capuchin nuns.

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In Sant Feliu are buried the remains of martyrs and saints
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On the left are Emperor Charlemagne’s walls

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Cathedral of Saint Mary 

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Sant Pere de Galligants is a 12th-century monastery and one of the most important Catalan Romanesque legacies in Girona
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Gardens of Sant Pere de Galligants
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Plaça de la Independència where once stood an old convent. Today, restaurants are tucked into the porticoes of these beautiful neoclassical buildings. In its centre is a monument dedicated to the 1809 War of Spanish Independence against Napoleon Bonaparte.
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I had to nibble on something and what better than a Roquefort quiche in a French bakery
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¬†Les Cases de l’Onyar (The Houses on the Onyar)

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The Eiffel Bridge of Gustave Eiffel
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River Onyar from Eiffel Bridge

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The Call

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It would be uncommon not to chance upon a muttering old man climbing the steps in the Call 

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