Monday, December 31, 2012

The Great Whatsit

The MacGuffin. Never more brilliantly explained than in this bit of dialogue from the thriller of tomorrow: Kiss Me Deadly.

The thing in question is a box that glows from the inside, that has been the quest of henchmen from the height of the Cold War right down to Pulp Fiction. When Velda Wickman utters these lines, the movie's already an hour gone and The Box has not yet made its appearance; our private-eye hero and his secretary are still unaware even of its existence.

"They." A wonderful word. And who are "they"? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the Great Whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares? Everyone everywhere is so involved in a fruitless search for what?

Did I forget to include a spoiler alert? Nah, you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Catch a cannon ball now, t'take me down the line

My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she's the only one
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone. - The Band

I know it's been a while since I left your shores, but as the ancient saying goes, you've never really left a place until you've updated the blog.

Hasta luego, españa.

You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?

It's the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it's's just, there it's a little different. - Vincent Vega

1) The Pedestrian is King (or Queen)! The pavements (sidewalks, I suppose, for Americans?) are in many places wider than what the vehicles have to play with. And they are strictly for pedestrians. No driver looks upon that vast acreage of unoccupied space and thinks, "Gosh, wouldn't that be a nice place to leave my car while I pop in for just 5 minutes to take care of this grocery list here?" And for the most part, you can walk on them without worrying too much about disappearing into a manhole or tripping over a pipe. This is a huge reason for why I enjoyed the place so much. If you can't walk around a city unencumbered, how on earth are you going to get to know it?

2) Half the time I spent in Francesc's car was with him driving around in circles looking for a parking spot. And then there's their obsession with the letter of the law, contrasted with our bohemian, enlightened attitude that regards traffic rules not as dogma but as open-ended suggestions that mean different things to different people:

"Where are you going? That's the hotel there on the left!"
"What?! Is unbroken white line! Can't you see? No cutting across them here. This is not India. We go to jail for that. I think there's a roundabout in the next town - we should be back here in half an hour."

3) Zebra crossings. These there are not merely decorative patterns thrown in for the sake of visual variety, but the holy grail of all Indian pedestrians: a spot where you can cross the road without worrying about being spread out on it like jam on bread. I still remember the time in Granada when this girl stepped on one, blithely ignoring a bus coming toward us. In India, we would be picking pieces of her off the tarmac for days afterward, but the bus merely slowed gracefully down and even waited for me to recover from my open-mouthed shock and cross the road myself, before it went on its way.

4) Breakfasts. I always thought the awesome "continental breakfasts" we get to order here in the pricier restaurants - the ones with ham and eggs and bacon and toast and orange juice and what not - were European. Well, if it is, it's not from the part of Europe that Spain occupies. They just grab a croissant and a coffee (sometimes even a beer: how the hell can anyone have beer for breakfast?) and push off to work.

5) Bidets. Rarely seen in India but common enough in Spain in the higher-priced hotels. I spent many a week wondering what on earth it was. I was fairly sure it wasn't to pee in. Maybe it's to wash the face in, I then ventured... but it did seem altogether the wrong height for that. Despite much puzzlement, I had a sneaking suspicion that it wouldn't do to take a picture and ask the receptionist. So I finally asked Francesc and he told me all about them. Only, I now wish I hadn't. He meant well and was only trying to make me understand - but English isn't his first language or even his second and it takes him a great deal of effort to talk in it. So his explanations were vivider and got down to brass tacks rather more than I would've preferred.

6) A sense of history. Take the museums I was dragged to as a child. Most of them amounted to nothing more than a collection of pots, spears and sarees, all probably put together by a chap with a beard who hadn't laughed in 8 years: of course the best way to inculcate inquisitiveness in a child regarding his history and his culture. In Spain, though, there are museums about bandits, about chocolates, about toys, about cinema, and all of them blessed with a sense of fun and pride at what they house.

7) The other thing I really liked is, you can't just purchase any old house and go, "This pile is over two hundred years old. How cool would it be to bring it down and build a proper four-storey monstrosity in its place?" You may own the house, but its appearance belongs to everyone. (Technically, I suppose this is true here, too.) Almost every city I went to had neighbourhoods that seemed untouched by the centuries. Not only is it illegal to modify the buildings but in some places you actually get money to tastefully do up the balconies and stuff. And no, I have no links to prove this last. This was told me during a walking tour of the Albayzín. Refer disclaimer.

8) The people are friendlier. And very much live and let live. There isn't so much of judgmental staring at strangers, if you know what I mean.

And get a load of this. I had to go to the bus depot to buy a ticket. The line to the counter was rather long, so I opted to use the machines they'd placed for the purpose. You type in the from and the to and it displays the amount you'd have to pay, and then you nod your head (it checks that you do this) and insert your credit card into the slot with the green light. And out pops the ticket. Rather a simple thing to use. Except the bloody thing wouldn't take my card. I tried and I tried and in the meanwhile the line behind me grew. The last time I did this, I got so flustered that I inserted the card into the ticket slot. Yes that's right, I inserted it into a slot from which stuff was supposed to come out of. The sort of thing that, if attempted in the bedroom, would've got me a stiff prison sentence (well, up till a couple years back).

And I didn't just put the tip in, mind you. I noted, with mild annoyance, that there was quite a lot of resistance, so I gave it an almighty shove. And in it went. And in it stayed. A switch flipped somewhere and my brain started functioning again. I cupped my face in my hands and let loose a cry of anguish, "What the fuck did I just do?!"

But here's the thing. The people behind me didn't tut-tut or waggle their fingers at me. The atmosphere, if anything, was one of sympathy. But they all had places to be and loved ones to be with, so they just quietly moved over to the lines for the other two machines. One or two stayed behind to help me. Help me, you understand; not to point and laugh, or to take their cellphones out so they could click a picture of the dumb-ass who got his card stuck in the ticket machine. They didn't call their friends over to take a gander at me or ask me to move over a little so that they could get both me and the machine in the shot. Instead, a woman rooted about in her purse for something that could be used to pull the card out. There wasn't anything. So, she instead went and found a security guard for me - and muscular chap twice my size - who opened the machine and got my card out. And not a word of reproach had he to offer, either.

Can you imagine what would've happened to me if I'd done this in the local RTO? (Not that they'd have anything as convenient as an automatic machine.) My head would now be stuck outside the main gate on a pike - and that would've been considered an easy let-off, too.

9) A sense of society. I don't know whether this phrase makes any sense, but it's a combination of #6, #7 and #8 and a whole lot more than I cannot really express in words. It's the opposite of "anything goes." It's do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We talk disparagingly here of the individualistic Western lifestyle, but as far as I could see, they are less "me, me, me" than us and have a much stronger code of respecting the strangers they share their public spaces with. Every time I ask myself what I dislike most about what's around me, the picture that comes into my head is traffic. Not because I spend a lot of time driving, which I don't, but because it puts our attitudes in a nutshell. That no rule is sacrosanct, that small courtesies are ridiculed and met with impatience, and that saving 30 seconds of our time justifies any amount of rudeness.

10) All that said, let me dive into cliche land to acknowledge that familiarity breeds contempt and that the grass is greener on the other side and yadda yadda yadda. It can't be just coincidence that, if feasible, Francesc and I would swap places in a heartbeat.

11) My friends who've been to the US tell me in hushed, awed tones of a land where it's all vehicles and no people and how the city lights, taken in by way of a stroll, can be a lonely and occasionally scary experience. And I'd wonder, "How's that any different from here for nocturnal creatures like me?" After, say, 11-ish, no sane man would head out for a stroll... not unless he wanted to get into tiffs with dogs. And the women would hear that and snort, "Hah! If only a rabies shot were the worst that we had to worry about..." During my holiday, I don't think I ever had dinner before 11 and many times, I found myself walking back to my hotel well after 1 in the morning. Apart from the fact that there is nothing particularly intimidating about Spaniards, there was always someone up and about, no matter how late I ventured out: a couple canoodling on a bench or friends gathered underneath a lamppost. The only time I remember seeing the place completely dead was when I had to catch a 6:40 AM train out of Valencia. Didn't see a soul about then.

12) The churches. Cavernous and intimidating and generally unsettling enough that I only went inside three: twice to accompany a friend and once because I was tired.

13) The cinemas. Rather a mixed experience, this one.

14) The national sport. I don't really love any particular sport anymore - just the occasional sportsman. And that definitely applies to my new-found interest in football, too. I can say this, though, that it's a sport a world away from the sane and civilized one I was brought up on (and its storm-in-a-teacup controversies). You want Controversy? How about the coach of the most successful team in history sneaking up behind his opposite number's assistant and poking him in the eye? How about pigs' heads thrown at turncoats? The drama! The hate! The passion! The delirium! It's a delicious cocktail to sip from - definitely war minus the shooting. But maybe Orwell meant that in a good way.

The Trip

Monday, December 24, 2012

Begur & Miscellaneous Costa Brava

Ever seen those movies in which rich chaps race down European hillsides in swanky cars? There's the sea on one side, they have the roaring wind tousling their hair, and there's usually a dame or two in the other car. The Costa Brava (the wild coast) is exactly that sort of locale. Unfortunately, neither Francesc nor I are rich, he doesn't own a convertible, and the few dames we met were on solid ground. Plus, I get motion sick when going down winding roads at speed, so I spent not a little time staggering out of the car and arranging myself flat on my back on the roadside asphalt, and feeling very sorry for myself. Not something you see James Bond doing very often.

But apart from that, it was exactly like in the movies.

The hotels I'd stayed in weren't too much on the expensive side up till then. But for these, the last 4 days of my holiday, I splurged a little. Picked a Parador, no less. Paradors are state-run luxury hotels that are located mostly in buildings of historical significance. The Parador de Aiguablava doesn't seem to be a particularly old building, but the location is fantastic. It's set on a hill, with steep falls to the waters on three sides. From the balcony of the room we had, you could spend endless hours gazing at the blue-green waters, and listen all night to the sea lapping the shores. A pity, then, that we didn't spend much time in the hotel...

Begur is a beautiful town (the pictures of the town, below, are Begur's streets) with several coves near it - Aiguablava being but one. But we spent very little time there, preferring to use it more as a base for drives around the Costa Brava. I have a thing for lighthouses, so I saw quite a few: apart from the one at Cap de Creus, we also made time for Sant Sebastià and the one at Tossa de Mar. Plus, because Francesc hadn't updated the maps in his GPS device in a while, we took time out of our busy schedules getting lost quite a bit. One memorable night, returning from Cadaqués, we spent hours and hours circling the whole of the Costa Brava at least thrice (and, I suspect, large swathes of France and Italy, too), with frequent merdas punctuating the night air from the direction of the driver's seat.

Still, it means I can boast of having seen more of the Costa Brava than most other tourists - even if on many occasions my visit comprised solely of seeing boards with a town's name on it whizzing by at speed.

This last week in Catalonia was my favourite. Francesc's hospitality meant that I got to see much more of this lovely region than I would've if I'd stuck to public transport, and his friendliness meant that I got to meet more people - and get to know a little of them - than at any other time during my holiday.

If only I could afford more trips like this - and for longer... Fernweh's a terrible thing, I tell you, and from my little experience of it so far, it's one of those afflictions that get worse with time. Is there no cure?

El Far de Sant Sebastià




Tuesday, December 18, 2012

She's been lookin' like a queen in a sailor's dream

And she don't always say what she really means. - Gordon Lightfoot (Sundown)

Cap de Creus. Even the name has a sinister ring to it.

It's the easternmost point on the Iberian peninsula, and therefore, should really be the beginning of the world (to Fisterra's end of the world). But what it really is, is an unearthly place of very little life, save for the odd shrub. It's acres and acres of the strangest landscape I've ever experienced. You could shoot one of the more psychedelic sci-fi films here and have the audience believe they really are on a dying alien planet. Ideal location for parts of Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth and the like.

The road up to it is narrow and winding and gets the stranger as you approach the lighthouse at the end. Trees, flowers and all signs of life vanish bit by bit the further you drive. And the rocks begin to look more and more as if Dalí had been unleashed on them from his nearby house for hours on end. The thing that got to me the most was its absolute calm. The place wasn't so much hostile to life as totally indifferent. The Mediterranean showed as much interest in throwing its weight about as Boycott ever did in the 36-run over; and yet, stories of Mediterranean gales are etched in the rocks and echoed ever-so-ominously in the distant rumblings of thunder from beyond the pale-blue horizon.

In keeping with the spirit of the place, there is a fairly decrepit lighthouse with a restaurant by its side. Since the whole area is a natural park, the restaurant has no competition and is on the expensive side. It did have an Indian menu, though, so Francesc and I sat down to a traditional Indian meal of samosas and coke and imagined seeing glimmers of Venice and Florence (our poor grasp of geography became apparent only when I looked at the map later on...) from across the seas.

Not that any of this stopped the chills crawling up my spine...


I don't do this very often, but I've mentioned how grateful I am to Francesc; so it's only fair that I give him some space here to represent his views. He didn't quite agree with my assessment of the place and when, in addition to expressing the thoughts above, I added that I'd seen little ponds with more activity than the Mediterranean, he was livid and let loose this speech below

You know what your problem is, Rohan? You keep comparing. You compare and compare and compare! All day. And you know what? You're wrong! This Finisterre you keep talking about. What is there? Nothing but storms and cliffs and the costa da morte. You know, that sort of thing is fun for tourists, but live in that for 6 months and let me know. The mighty Romans... what did they do when they reached there? That's right, they turned back! Because it is the end. What else is there to do? But here, this place that you call the End of Life, this is a crossroads. The waters in front of you is the centre of the world; where Europe meets Asia and Africa. The word you should be using to describe it is not "boring," but "calm" or "friendly." It is not for nothing that it is called Mare Nostrum: Our Sea! This is the birthplace of Europe. First the Greeks, then the Romans and later the Persians made their way across these waters, trading and bringing livelihood and stories of distant lands and meetings of different cultures. A place of new beginnings. Just beyond those hills is France. And there, that way, so close lies the Girona that you can't stop raving about. Cross these short waters and Milan and Rome are within your reach. Do you understand? Do you?! I don't think you want to understand!

 The Trip

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Casa-Museo Salvador Dalí

The house - in Portlligat, just around the corner from Cadaqués - where Dalí lived for most of his life deserves a post of its own simply because of how normal it is. Yes, eggshells abound, as does a skeleton in the yard; then there's the Pirelli garden loveseat, not to mention this exuberant statue here. But overall, for a man who put up a careful public image of unbridled insanity, the house is surprisingly normal.

It's not particularly big, but has a rather labyrinthine feel to it. My favourite was the bedroom. The man apparently liked watching sunrises but was too lazy to get out of bed for it. And as anyone who shares my sleeping hours can attest, there is nothing more unpleasant than the early-morning sun shining directly into your eyes as you're snuggled up in your blankets. So Dalí conceived of this ingenious upward-sloping three-level room, that was really three rooms interconnected: the bedroom, at the very top, and at the lowest level a room with a window eastward and a couple of mirrors to reflect the rays of the rising sun upwards to the bedroom. A civilised sunrise for a sensitive artist.

But I didn't take any pictures inside the house, so if you can't picture in your mind the arrangement I'm talking of, tough shit.

The Trip

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Popcorn-munching in the land of Buñuel and Almodóvar

One thing I wanted to do when in Spain was to see how a country of film lovers worship at the altar of cinema. Here in India... well... it's not my place to complain, for if people want to spend an evening dragging their family of 4 (including 2-year-old who bawls through the entire movie) half-way across town to sit next to folks who'd much prefer it if the theatre turned the volume down a mite so that they could carry on their private conversations without having to shout... who am I to criticize? After all, how people want to spend their money is their business.

And, in any case, who do I complain to? To the multiplex, who respect the films they're screening so very much that they deliver popcorn and drinks to the seat (complete with cash transactions and fumbling in the dark for change), while the show goes on? No, señoras y señores, my tastes do not run along those lines. I'd much rather stay at home and enjoy my films in the peace and quiet of my drawing room.

In the end, though, what with spending no more than two or three days in one city, I never really got to see as many films as I'd like. Only three, in fact. Report follows nevertheless:-

Valencia's Filmoteca, bang in the centre of the city. My favourite of the three. I saw John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle at a midnight screening here. For a Euro-and-a-half. Just seeing MGM's Leo in black-and-white on the big screen was a kick in itself. During the show, there wasn't so much as a whisper, save for the odd chuckling in appropriate places; no mobiles were in sight; and food wasn't allowed in the halls. And then, once the end credits started rollling, polite clapping from the audience.

Seville's Avenida 5 Cines (I think). This hall was just as quiet as the Filmoteca, but given that there were just three of us for the show, it would've taken a miracle for it to be anything else. The film itself - The Guard (El irlandés, The Irish, in Spanish) - was wonderful. A quiet and funny meditation on loneliness and unlikely friendships. And with enough politically incorrect jokes to make it truly memorable.

“There were gays in the IRA?”
“One or two. It was the only way we could successfully infiltrate MI5”.

Barcelona's I-don't-remember-where. Just a run-of-the-mill multiplex, in any case. It's like this. It was the one night I decided to turn in early (morning engagement) and I couldn't get to sleep. So a little after midnight, I padded down to the reception and enquired where the nearest cinema was. The receptionist seemed shocked. There's a TV in your room, she said. No, no, I replied, I want the full popcorn-and-reclining-seat experience. Well... she hesitated, there's one about a kilometre down the road. But, still trying to dissuade me, the movie'll be in Spanish. Quite all right, I said.

On my way to the hall, I moodily reflected on how just one thoughtless receptionist could reduce to rubble a tourist's palace of fantasy about a world-famous city. Why the goggle eyes and the slow, careful tone of one speaking to an unreasonable child? Is it so abnormal to want to go for a movie dubbed into a language you don't understand, in the middle of the night in one's pyjamas and slippers? Isn't that just what folks in Barcelona do all the time? Because if it isn't, I wasn't sure I wanted to be spending so much money to be there.

Anyway, the film was Taken 2. (Titled in Spanish much more impressively as Venganza: Conexión Estambul.) I hadn't seen Taken 1, but I gathered from the poster that in this second film they're coming for him (Liam Neeson), having spent much of the first film coming for his daughter. How did they manage to fill an entire movie on the topic of them coming for his daughter, though? Did they come from very far? Questions, questions.

In any case, given the overall dumbness of the movie, I don't think I missed anything by not understanding the dialogue. A couple of scenes, in fact, were so cringe-inducingly bad that they spoke to me through the language barrier. Like the one where there's Neeson, his wife, and three or four bad guys. Guns everywhere pointed at each other's heads. Classic Mexican standoff. So what does Neeson do? He takes his phone out from inside his coat, dials his daughter's number dexterously with one hand (the other hand is pointing a gun at three villains, remember?) and asks her who she'd like to see live: her dad or her mom? Just the sort of philosophical question every child likes to ponder over in the middle of the afternoon, while she's trying to get her boyfriend on the phone. The gun-wielding bad guys were extraordinarily well behaved too, and waited politely for him to finish his conversation. No unsporting potshots while he was engaged with his mobile...

Anyway, it doesn't matter. It's not about the movie. The important thing is, I got to feel really cool getting out of bed in the middle of the night, going out for a movie on a whim and then walking back to my hotel at three in the morning. There were still people around. Friends gathered under lampposts. A boy and girl canoodling on a park bench. It was lovely.


So, my verdict on cinema-going in the land of legendary filmmakers? Underwhelming, I must admit. I dislike very much this business of dubbing films. The proper way of showing foreign-language films is by subtitling them and keeping the original language track. Watching a dubbed film is like... I dunno... it's just very bad. And most cinemas there dub all non-Spanish films. To find a film in English, you have to carefully go through page after page of listings for what they call Version Original films - which are very few in number. I expected more from a country which has produced so many fantastic films.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Really, I should just have one big page titled "The Costa Brava," forget about writing anything, and simply upload all the pics of the last 4 days of my vacation. I'm rapidly approaching the "out of words" stage anyway.

But Cadaqués deserves special mention because once I become a multi-millionaire, with the world at my feet and everything, this is where I'll be settling down. I've even earmarked a couple of houses for purchase. It was by no means easy to settle on Cadaqués. Francesc says the people here are half crazy because of the wild winds from the Mediterranean (Salvador Dalí lived not too far from here - Francesc rests his case), plus Granada, Ronda, Fisterra and Girona all have their claims. It tends to get a mite cold here in winter, too.

But somehow, this beach town of blue-and-white houses and nearby hills and resident artists and the prettiest town hall I've ever seen has my heart. If any of you ever decide to visit, don't forget to look me up.

The town hall

The Trip