Friday, August 21, 2009

SWIMMING in the Rain, a.k.a, A Haircut in Calcutta and What It Feels Like to Be "High-Class"

As I sit at home waiting for it to rain after several days of almost monsoon-like heat and humidity, and following my last post about ice-skating on the Eiffel Tower, I am reminded of a two-part tale that may, upon reflection, be quite trivial but also somewhat instructive. Anyway it is the summer of '06. As an American teacher, I was privileged (thank you, fellow taxpayers and Uncle Sam), along with 14 peers drawn from across the U.S. to spend 6 weeks in India. Our last week was spent partly in Kolkata (Calcutta), by which time my beard was out of control (but alas, not so much the hair on my head). I had heard it said while in China '01 that India Fulbright awardees are put up mainly in five-star hotels (true, and in one case, even a six-star!), which just knock the socks out of we middle-class Americans who think it perfectly fine to stay at a budget local hotel or motel chain, thank you very much. We awardees were also given, to my complete surprise, an extremely generous stipend for books and whatever. I suspect that one colleague gave most of it away to the needy, randomly, in appropriate acts of selflessness. Think "Slumdog". Part I: In any case, by the time we were in Calcutta I needed a beard trim and haircut badly, but was informed by reception that the ladies who work in the "saloon" were incapable of dealing with a man's beard (yes, saloon, not the American-French pronounced "salon", and it is not incorrect) . "We will find you a proper shop and arrange for a taxicab" (of course, I wasn't expected to just go find some "untouchable" dalit somewhere and sit on the curb while he gave me a haircut, was I?) OK. Well, I was given the address, the cab ride was not far at all, but the shop (which I would in fact not have found on my own) was about a block away from the mildly intimidating sandbags, Indian sharpshooter units, watchtower, high security walls, and anti-bomb structures of various kinds designed to protect both the British and America consulates, both located, as it turns out, on the pedestrian-only Ho Chi Minh St. Ah, leave it to Bengalis to make "Gogol" a "Namesake" (even if only in fiction) and, deliberately or not, to require American government officials to be daily reminded of Ho Chi Minh. Is there an "Adolf Hitler Street" in Ahmdavad? Not yet, I don't think. But I digress. The point is, vehicle traffic was not allowed so that I could be taken directly to the barbershop, and the taxi driver offered, after parking the cab in a no-parking zone (of course, and why not? it is a legitimate form of resistance to the powers that be), to walk me to the shop and wait for nearly an hour back in the cab until I was done. When I walked into the shop and noticed about a dozen people crowded into a small space, I assumed I would have to wait my turn, but no, they were mostly employees. For me, there was: one person to cut the meager hair on my head, another to cut my beard, another to trim my eyebrows and nose hairs, and a fourth to provide a head massage. I paid for everything and tipped everyone generously, walked back to the cab waiting for the explosion that happily did not occur, and was driven back to the hotel. The cost for this entire "operation" was less than what I spend for a haircut and beard trim at home! When I gave the cab driver the amount shown on the meter plus a tip (a total of about $5), the look of joy on his face was one that I will never forget. I suspected that his family would eat better than usual that evening, and returned to my hotel room. Part II: Well, if you're a male like me you may also know how irritating it is to have all the scratchy little hairs left on your neck and back after a haircut: no matter how few or microscopic, I feel them! I have been swimming almost daily since 1982, and after a quick shower, I headed straight to the courtyard pool of our exclusive hotel. It was about 5 or 6 pm. and I was the only guest present in the area. I am reclining comfortably in the second chair from the left, in the photo, and after a decent interval following my poolside sandwich, Kingfisher beer, and Cuban cigar, it was time to swim my 30 laps. Or, I should say, swim my laps as well I could in a kidney-shaped pool. After about lap 10 or so, the skies opened. It is the monsoon. Torrential rain, thunder, and lightning --- the kind I would like right now to break the heat and allow Mother Nature, rather than myself, to water the lawn and shrubbery. Now, where I come from, they close even indoor pools when that happens, in strict observance of Red Cross rules. A hotel staff person came rushing out, thick and fluffy Turkish towel, bathrobe, and umbrella-ready, to escort me out. "Sir, sir, don't you wish to leave the pool?" Well, I'm thinking (yes, maybe I am crazy): "Wow, this is the greatest swim I have ever had, in torrential rain." The last thing I want is to get out of the pool! As it turned out, it wasn't a question of hotel policy or safety rules, it was simply assumed that I would want to leave. Well, I didn't. And I like to think that to this day, perhaps partly because I actually conversed with this guy about his life and also gave him a good tip, the man whose job it was to "serve" me remembers the crazy American who wanted to swim in the rain. So what are the lessons here? It was very awkward being treated with such deference by a serving class, as I am not a Prime Minister, Indian VVIP (yes, that's two "V's", as in Shahrukh Khan at Newark Airport last week), jet-setter, or descendant of British artistocracy. God forbid you should walk out of the hotel elevator rolling your own suitcase. In New Delhi, we didn't even have to tell the elevator operator what floor we wanted. It was his job to know, so that we had to do as little as possible. But you can pee on your own in the toilet. Didn't Gandhiji try to put an end to all this? Yes, but he didn't get the India he wanted. And neither did most Indians. And indeed, there is the Hindu custom of treating the guest "like God" which is a lot different from the new China's resurrection of Confucius' "how wonderful it is to have guests from afar." I, on the other hand, flew back from India to my little piece of the American dream, toting these and many other memories of teacherly "compare and contrast" that will stay with me always.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ice Skating ON the Eiffel Tower: A Decisive Family Moment

Not exactly a Henri Cartier-Bresson decisive moment, but a family story: in January of 1970, as a young man full of wanderlust and slowly wending my way from the Scottish highlands through England and into France, I spent several near-penniless days in Paris. I took the elevator to the "second floor" of the Eiffel Tower, and as the old iron gate opened, there was the utterly unexpected sight of schoolchildren, perhaps 6-8 of them, ice-skating. I took a photograph of the scene. In 1985, as my wife and I were walking toward the Eiffel Tower, I told her about this remarkable event. She refused to believe it. Her French is good, so I asked the lady selling entrance tickets "is there still an ice-skating rink on the second floor?" She looked up haughtily, her eyeglasses at the tip of her nose, and replied: "yes, sir, indeed, and on the third floor there is a swimming pool." Of course, she thought I was nuts. Needless to say, this didn't help my case. When we got home I tore the house apart looking for the black and white negatives from 1970, and I found them! I sent them off to have a print made, and showed it to my wife. Over the years she forgot that I showed her the photographic proof, and I can no longer find the negative or the print! So for years the "truth" in the family has been that I could not possibly have ever seen kids ice-skating on the Eiffel Tower. Fast forward to a few years ago, when I mentioned to French teachers in my school about the ice-skating rink on the Eiffel tower, and that's when I learned how to say "ice-skating rink" in French, and I told them that no one believes that I saw what I saw. They suggested "googling" for info, and lo and behold, the result was a newspaper article from about 2004 stating that "for the first time ever, authorities will allow ice-skaing on the Eiffel tower." Well, of course they are mistaken, very mistaken. While cleaning the basement recently, I found the contact sheet of the photo (though the negative and print remain elusive), so I scanned the tiny image at high resolution, improved it as best as I could in Photoshop, and submit it here for anyone who cares! You may click to enlarge; in any case the iron structure of the tower is visible upper-right. Now, if that wasn't in the photo...UPDATE 1/17-11 I have found the original negative! Will scan it when I get a chance, to replace the existing poor image.

Patin à glace sur la Tour Eiffel: Une famille "moment decisive"

Pas exactement un Henri Cartier-Bresson moment décisif, mais une histoire (blague) de famille: en Janvier de 1970, comme un jeune homme plein de nostalgie du voyage et lentement, se frayant mon chemin de la Scottish Highlands à travers l'Angleterre et en France, j'ai passé plusieurs jours à proximité sans le sou en Paris. J'ai pris l'ascenseur à l'étage "deuxième" de la Tour Eiffel, et comme la vieille porte de fer a ouvert, il y avait la vue tout à fait inattendue d'écoliers, peut-être 6-8 sur eux, patin à glace. J'ai pris une photographie de la scène. En 1985, comme ma femme et moi marchions vers la Tour Eiffel, je lui ai parlé de cet événement remarquable. Elle a refusé de le croire. Son français est bon, alors j'ai demandé à la dame de vente de billets d'entrée "est là encore une patinoire au deuxième étage? Elle leva les yeux avec hauteur, ses lunettes au bout de son nez, et a répondu: "oui, monsieur, en effet, et au troisième étage, il ya une piscine." Bien sûr, elle pensait que j'étais fou. Inutile de dire que cela ne vous aide pas mon cas. Lorsque nous sommes rentrés, j'ai déchiré la maison regardant de côté pour les négatifs noir et blanc à partir de 1970, et je les ai trouvés! Je leur ai envoyé pour avoir une impression faite, et l'a montré à ma femme. Au fil des ans, elle a oublié que je lui ai montré la preuve photographique, et je ne trouve plus le négatif ou l'imprimer! Aussi pendant la «vérité» dans la famille a été que je ne pouvait pas avoir jamais vu des enfants patiner sur la Tour Eiffel. Fast Forward à il ya quelques années, lorsque j'ai dit au personnel enseignant le français dans mon école sur la patinoire sur la tour Eiffel, et c'est là que j'ai appris à dire «patinoire», en français, et je leur ai dit que Personne ne croit que j'ai vu ce que j'ai vu. Ils ont suggéré "googler" pour info, et voilà, le résultat fut un article de journal d'environ 2004 indiquant que «pour la première fois, les autorités permettra de glace skaing sur la Tour Eiffel." Eh bien, bien sûr, ils se trompent, très erronée. Pendant le nettoyage du sous-sol récemment, j'ai trouvé la planche contact de la photo (bien que le négatif et imprimer demeurent hors de portée), alors j'ai scanné la petite image à haute résolution, elle a amélioré du mieux que je pouvais dans Photoshop, et de le soumettre ici pour quiconque who cares! Vous mai click to enlarge, en tout cas, la structure de fer de la tour est visible en haut à droite. Alors, si ce n'était pas dans la photo ...