France, Life experience, Travel

Holiday from hell — journal of a misadventure

I seldom write about travel, and when I do, it’s only about spectacular experiences. I have never written about misadventures that caused so much anxiety and grief that I wonder why we carried on when things started to go wrong. But when you have such an experience that lasted from the time of beginning the journey to the very end, and beyond, I thought on the hindsight, it was an adventure worth remembering, even though we were not that amused when it all happened.

It began when we started our journey to France on a mid-June Monday. We had already moved from our Kent home, so we stayed overnight in Ramsgate. In the morning, as we left for the ferry from Dover, it was a last minute dash because of the roadworks along the way. As we were waiting for the ferry, I realised we forgot to book the European breakdown cover. I made a last minute frantic call to the breakdown provider (I had three covers those days, don’t ask me why and how!) and selected an option that was slightly high priced but provided more cover. To be honest, that was the best last minute call I’ve ever made; if I hadn’t done that, we probably had had to come back without the car. So with the breakdown sorted, we set sail on the way to our destination, Normandy. We planned what we’d do each day, and had a busy schedule ahead but we were sure that we were going to have a great time. Only if we knew what lay ahead of us.

Here, I’d flashback to the week before we started our journey. I was on M25 on my way home and I suddenly felt the car lost all its power. As if it went into a limp mode. The car was only over a year old, so you don’t expect a major fault to develop. The breakdown mechanic couldn’t fix it, but he reset the warning light and asked to start and see if the traction is back. It worked. So I thought it was a freak incident and I must have done something to cause that. The dealer could not have a look in such a short notice, so we decided to carry on with the plans and get the car fixed later.

Coming back to 20th of June, we did the usual. On reaching Calais, a trip to Adinkerke to buy cheap tobacco and Speculoos, a quick trip to Carrefour Mivoix and late lunch at the McDonalds there. With all that done and a cranky terrible two, we headed for belle Normandie. Except that we were running a bit late and looked like we wouldn’t get to the campsite before 8:30 pm. It was a long drive but that never bothered us. Not until the things started to go wrong very quickly. We were approaching Boulogne-sur-mer on A16 where the road goes on an incline. It’s not steep by any means, but the car generally needs to work harder. Whilst on that section, the car lost power again! Second time within a week. I exactly knew what went wrong when the engine warning flashed on the dashboard. It made me panic a bit. A breakdown on a foreign country is a terrifying prospect, let alone that happening on the autoroute meant we’d have to pay highway authority the fees to be towed away from the autoroute. So I decided to carry on driving at 50mph until we reached the next exit. Thankfully it was a country road and I carried on driving for a while before we stopped on the verge. My satnav said it’s a place called Beuvrequin. I remember the place we stopped, with houses on the right and the other side of the road, had vast fields.

Beuvrequin, verge/footpath where we stopped

Beuvrequin, view on the other side of the road

After we calmed down our crying daughter, upset that the holiday might not go ahead, I called the breakdown agency. I reported the breakdown and was told that the wait time is about 45 mins. Being parked on the pavement by a country road was not the best of the places, especially getting stares from people who had to go on the grass. A few minutes later, I received a call from the French contact from the breakdown company, telling me that they cannot send assistance because during my application I said we’ll be going to Belgium and then France. So, tow away will have to come from Belgium, and they don’t to towing across borders. Infuriated and anxious, I called the UK number, and after explaining the situation, they said we should get assistance and they will arrange with the French colleagues. Another 15 min later, which is almost an hour since I was told that the assistance is 45 min away, I received another call from the French number saying they are sending breakdown van and it’ll be coming around 5:45 pm. By then, I doubted any garage will be open.

The breakdown truck arrived slightly earlier than we were told. As expected, the mechanic didn’t know a word of English. I thought that would be ideal to practice my French. I probably would have, if I knew all technical terms. I didn’t even know what brakes are called. Anyway, the guy picked the car on his truck and asked us to go in the truck to the garage. I think that was the highlight of the day and my daughter loved travelling in a truck. We went to a garage in Boulogne-sur-mer. He met another colleague who had a computer to connect to the engine management system. They decided that it’s beyond their knowledge and learning that the car was under warranty, they said the work can only be done in an Opel garage. By that time we gave up our hope to get the car fixed that day because it was already nearly 6 pm. The mechanic said he’ll take us to their garage to keep the car overnight and we can arrange the taxi pick-up from the garage. We were offered a replacement car or stay in a hotel and get the car looked at the next morning. I was confident that it’ll just be resetting the alarm and we’ll be able to drive on. So we chose the hotel and waited at the garage. The taxi came around 6:30 pm to take us to the hotel in Boulogne.

Hardy Maurice garage

Hotel ALexandra in Boulogne

The hotel was pleasant and it was located close to Boulogne city centre. We walked down to a square called Place Dalton and had a nice dinner, trying to forget the headache we’re about to have the following day. The following day we had nothing to do but wait for the updates from the breakdown company. So we were just cooped up in the room. About 9 am we received a call saying that the breakdown garage will take the car to the nearest Opel garage. I thought it would be done in minutes, so our hopes of having our holiday soared high again. But that state of euphoria didn’t last long as a follow up at 11 am confirmed that the car was still in the garage. The agent said she’ll call me back shortly. When she did, it was even worse news. Opel garage was fully booked and they wouldn’t be able to fix it before Wednesday or even Thursday. At that point, we thought we’d had enough and started thinking of cancelling the holiday and go back home. As a last ditch attempt, we demanded a replacement car. After waiting another 10 minutes for a callback, we were told that our only chance was if we left the hotel immediately because the car hire place they use will be shut from 12 pm. It was already getting towards 11:30 am. So we picked all our tonnes of luggage, waiting for the taxi. Then the taxi dropped us at the wrong place, which meant we had to drag all our luggage and a toddler across a busy junction without crossings. When we arrived at the Enterprise Cars office, there was only one employee, waiting for us. It took another half an hour to get sorted. But in the end, we had our car.

I wish our story could end here, but it wasn’t unfortunately. Our understanding of the breakdown cover was that we get the hire car until the time we are ready to return to Boulogne on our way back. On Wednesday afternoon, as we’re exploring the American war memorial in Colleville-sur-mer, I received a call from the breakdown company that our car was fixed and they want the hire car back. Shouting or swearing is normally my cup of tea, but if I lost my temper that day, I’d expect people would have sympathised with me. I kept my calm but said that they are expecting me to make a 600 km journey because they screwed up a breakdown repair. It also seemed like the day of our return, Saturday, is only for the Car buyers at the Opel garage and the repairs department is shut. I was told very sternly to go back on Friday to which I refused, agreeing to pay the difference for an additional day of car hire. Half an hour later, I received another call that the garage had been very understanding and made a very rare exception of opening the repair garage on Saturday.

With the good news that the car was fixed and that we can get on with rest of the holiday, we felt relaxed then and enjoyed the rest of the days. Except the fact that Normandy is where it rains most in France and it rained really bad the week we went there. Unlike previous caravan holidays, we opted for tent that time, and the floor was filled with water because of the leaks in the floor sheet. We spent most of our stay in the tents mopping the floor, wet feet, soaked trainers and a damp tent. Despite this little inconvenience, I felt the time in Normandy was much more enriching than in Paris. Just when we were about to enjoy the holiday, having lost nearly two days, it was over and it was time to come home.

We started with plenty of time in hand, thinking of collecting the car early so we could go to the cheap wine store in Calais. We got to the Enterprise Car place at about 12. But then we realised that they are shut in Saturdays and we needed to drop the keys at a hotel opposite the car hire place, past the big junction. Les Gens de Mer — the hotel looked quite nice as we browsed the lobby and menu while we waited for the taxi. The taxi arrived late, and we were on our way to the Opel garage near Outreau where our car was getting repaired. When we got there, the manager said everything was done and they are getting the car ready. It did surprise me a bit because the car was ready on Thursday. We waited nearly 45 minutes before we were given the keys. We were at the last minute rush again, trying to get cheap fuel from Carrefour and head for the ferry. That was the beginning of another nightmare journey.

Hotel Les Gens de Mer

As we headed back to Calais, I noticed that the tyre pressure warning sign came on. I was not too worried at the beginning, because sometimes if one tyre had less pressure than the others, the sign came on. But as we went closer to Calais, I started to get more and more worried as the pressure kept on dropping. When the other tyres read 38 psi, the fourth tyre was at 25 psi. There must have been a leak, I thought. But where would that have happened? The car has always been at the breakdown garage or at the Opel garage. Did they just find out and handed me a car with a leak? Surely they can’t be that unscrupulous! But everything signed that way.

So we went back to Carrefour, filled the tank and put some air in the faulty tyre thinking it might have some problem that’s going to fix itself. When we boarded the ferry, I left the car with 35 psi on the tyre and hoping that it should stay like that when we reached the UK. 90 minutes later when we came down to the deck, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The tyre was completely flat. And we had landed as well, so we didn’t have any time to change the tyre. It was a Saturday afternoon and most of the garages would have been shut by 4 pm.

Now I made a faux pas at that moment. I had the option to come off the ferry and get the tyre changed with the spare tyre. We could have then driven home because our spare tyre is a full spec one and there is no speed restriction. Silly me, I didn’t remember that at the moment of madness when I thought if I take too long changing the tyre, and something else is wrong, I might lose the last chance to get home that night. So I decided to drive on to the next open garage, which was Kwik-fit. As I drove on the alloy wheel, the sharp and annoying screeching deafened our ears despite the windows were up. I was worried that there will be damage to the wheel as well but it was a relief that there wasn’t.

Kwik-fit changed the tyre straight away and we also got another tyre which was getting towards the legal limit. After that, we hit the road, hoping to get some dinner at Bluewater or Lakeside, places that we used to visit often but missed a lot when we moved. After a filling dinner, with our daughter falling asleep in the car, we finally felt that after all this, the holiday is coming to an end. But there are more twist in the tale that one can imagine. Just because everything had to go wrong on that trip, as we were on M6 nearing Coventry, my daughter woke up and started crying. We didn’t want to stop, being so close at home, and as I tried to accelerate harder, BANG! The engine warning light came back on and the car won’t speed beyond 50 mph. The sting in the tail that was waiting for us before we reached home. So all that fuss at the Opel garage, did they do sod all apart from puncture the tyre? Nevertheless, my daughter’s incessant crying made me carry on rather than stop and ask for another breakdown. I just pushed the pedal down and used the downward slopes on the road to speed up and use the momentum to drive the car at a higher speed as the road became flat or went up. Without much difficulty, we reached home, bringing a close to the worst travel experiences we ever had.

Like many stories have an epilogue to the end, the tale of our misfortunes does not end there. I had to take many days off as I was unable to commute to work while getting the car fixed. Back then, I was doing a commute of 300 miles! During next few days, the car was repaired, and the fault reappeared almost immediately at times. In the end, it took a call to their grievance line to report the issue to get the technical team involved, who sorted the problem. One of those days when the car was broken down, I had to hire a car to go to a meeting in London. There, as I was trying to get on the Hammersmith bridge, I was caught at the box junction and was fined £70. Now the car belonging to the hire company, they received the fine notice first. By the time I received it, I couldn’t appeal online, so I had to send it over email. I then got the email address wrong and was then facing a court action since the first notice was received much earlier and the normal 2 weeks response window had gone. This dragged on until November. So nearly 5 months after that week in June, we put an end to the dreadful journey, but before that end, I had to pay out the final amount which had since doubled.

So, there we are, our story ends here. Terrible experience to sum it up. And I believe we won’t forget it very soon. Yet, the good memories will last longer. Visit to Utah, Omaha and Juno beaches, our daughter’s excited walk in the sand, the American war memorial and its deafening silence at Colleville-Sur-mer, the Bayeux tapestry, Caen, beautiful village of Beauvron-en-auge, riviera of the north Deauville and Trouville-Sur-mer, surreal grace of Lisieux abbey, sunrise over the trees at our site in the middle of nowhere at Château Le Brévedent, the quaint villages Le Pin and Blangy-le-château near our campsite, the bridge at Le Havre — the memories are countless and one day, if not already, they will outweigh the dreadful experience about the journey.

Just as I finished this with a positive spin, I remembered to add one last note about our holiday from hell. The year this happened was 2016, and I guess we all know what happened that year between 20th and 25th June. Yes, Brexit. That happened while we were on this holiday as well. Before we left, we were all confident that it was just a paper exercise to finish off UKIP, and in fact felt smug to see the smiles disappear from the leavers’ faces. On 24th when the results came out, we were going to Trouville-sur-mer. The entire day was spent in disbelief, then frustration and then anger, as all the lies started to surface. Brexit was the pinnacle of the catastrophes that week and I believe it was symbolised by everything that went wrong with the car. It was a nightmare, getting a simple thing done took forever, service on both sides of the border was equally appalling, and above all, since it happened, things were never the same. You live in fear that things will go wrong again, and so it did. The car proved my premonitions, and Brexit will go the same way. I think there will be a time in future where all good and terrible memories will fade away, and we will remember the journey just as our own Brexit disaster. I think that should say it all.
Bengali culture, calcutta, France, religion, Travel

Bong Connection 2.0 : Rediscovering Calcutta in Lisieux

As the summertime approached, we were engaged in another holiday search; the destination was as usual France, so it wasn’t too far to drive, and we could enjoy the freedom of going anywhere we wanted, and anytime. We booked a camping site in a small village in Normandy called Le Brévedent. Normandy evokes a lot of familiarities, the most significant of them is, of course, the D-day landing sites. So our choice was made, that D-day beaches will definitely be the place not to miss. The first item sorted on the list, we were gazing through TripAdvisor and Visit Normandy websites to look for other attractions. There were many places to choose from — historic Caen and its patrimony related to William the conqueror, the famous Bayeux tapestry and other museums, the Riviera of Normandy Deauville-Trouville and Honfleur, picturesque small villages in Pays d’Auge region. Amongst all these difficult choices, almost by chance, I came across Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, one of the most important places in France for Catholic pilgrimage. Our penchant for religious architecture made me tentatively put it on our list, although apart from looking at an elegant edifice almost reminiscent of Basilique de sacré-cœur in Montmartre, I had no idea about the place, its significance in Catholicism or what I’ll soon be discovering — an arcane connection between a remote Catholic monastery in rural Normandy and me!

Spending most of my youth in Calcutta, the city is in my veins. A place I still call home, the city I’d not replace with any other place. In a world rapidly transforming at a lightning speed, it still didn’t bother me how Calcutta dug its heels in and held on to the character it portrayed for over the last 300 years. The rickety facades along the bylanes of north Calcutta leading to an ocherous swathe we call Ganga, the fish markets of Gariahat where you desperately want to look closely at the fish but don’t want the mud splatter on your new sandals, the central Calcutta with its confluence of nationalities and religions living in harmony and camaraderie, and to the swank South City shopping mall or affluent Alipore mansions — Calcutta has a vibe about it that I seldom found anywhere else. A perfect example of adopting a multilingual and multicultural personality without banishing its own inherent cultural roots and character, Calcutta is indeed a fatal attraction. And that attraction, or familiarity, is not just limited to India, but across the world. Apart from being known as the pearl of the British Empire in its heydays, and the perceived cultural capital of India, there is one person whose reputation has made the City of joy known to people from far corners of the world, not just amongst the intellectual circles, where most of the renowned Calcuttans belonged. That person is Mother Teresa, who’d soon be canonised as the Saint of the gutters. I don’t believe she cured the unknown Brazilian man long after her death, but she had nevertheless made miracles happen while standing by the poor and distressed population of Calcutta, who we never thought of while pontificating about the cultural richesse of our beloved city. The shadow under the lamp was a term we often used during our school years; Mother Teresa was the light to that darkness in a city where, despite old money from the Raj reigned, there were more and more people in poverty and destitution, especially during the war and after the partition.

It was during searching for her early life that I came across the name of Lisieux. Agnes wanted to be named after St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of the missionaries; and through her life she followed the footsteps of Thérèse, devoting her life to the service of thousands, and inspire millions. So as the opportunity came to visit Lisieux drew closer, it was no longer a tourist destination – marvelling at the awe-inspiring architecture of Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, but it was a pilgrimage for me as well, of a different kind, of witnessing the place where the journey began for Thérèse, and therefore for Teresa, one of the greatest ambassadors of the city I always call home.

The surprise didn’t end there. Lisieux highlighted another connection to Calcutta that I never thought existed. Carmel school for girls in Jadavpur is one of many high echelon missionary schools in Calcutta that boasts of excellent educational standards and alumnae. My friends, ex-colleagues, relatives — I knew many Carmelites. In fact, my cousin is a teacher there, the familiarity is that close. I often heard their alumnae be referred to as Carmelites but the term never made me delve further into its origin. Not until I learned that Thérèse joined the Carmelite order in Lisieux, a thirteenth-century order originated from monasteries in Mount Carmel near Haifa. Voilà! It was the Carmelite missionaries who were inspired by the success of the order in Lisieux, and travelled the world and opened new convents. Carmel in Calcutta is one of them. Now, there were two reasons that Lisieux became a must-see place, as a place that popularised the Carmel convents across the world, and above all, pay visit to the Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux and the shrine of Thérèse, and understand who this young lady was, who made a profound inspiration on young Agnes, beckoning her to come to Bengal. I almost felt a sense of belonging to Lisieux without even being there, through the connections it has with Calcutta.

Our travel to Normandy was a nightmare involving a broken down car, rain, lost day stranded in a hotel with the entire week in jeopardy…so on the second day when we were told that the car won’t be looked at until another day, our decision was made. With a replacement car, when we crossed the Seine on the bridge of Normandy, our holiday had suddenly become a reality again! The closest resemblance I could think of is when you wait for a cricket match and it rains, the pitch and outfield were all wet and you keep hoping that the match doesn’t get cancelled and after a long wait the sun suddenly makes an appearance, and although curtailed, it’s all ready to go ahead again. We had to shorten out plans to fit all the things we wanted to see in three days rather than four, but Lisieux was only 16km away, and en route the nearest McDonald’s; hence, our plan to visit Lisieux didn’t change.

After our trip to the nearest shopping our first day in Le Brévedent, on our way back to the camping site that I first noticed the Basilica. It was getting dark and the sky was overcast as it only stopped raining a while ago, and I had no clue where we were. But just as I looked around our car, the silhouette suddenly jumped out into our view. In that dim background, on the hill on our left situated the structure I already felt familiar, yet it looked like a surreal dream. There are moments when you see something remarkable and wished you had a camera in hand, and all I had in my hand then was the steering wheel. Yet, that view will be stored in my mind for a long time, if not forever.

Basilique St Therese de Lisieux

Two days later, on our way back from historic Caen, we decided to come to Lisieux. The eerie silhouette finally gained its shape, a familiar shape yet the size and grandeur were out of proportions from what was seen on a TripAdvisor page. The off white neo-Byzantine edifice was awe-inspiring, just as were the breathtaking intricate designs at the interiors and the crypt. The description of the building stops here as this is not a travelogue, and the rest can be found in any travel guide. On the contrary, it was my attempt to connect the dots in my mind, with a young Albanian nun starting her life of sacrifice and charity, her becoming an inseparable part of the persona of Calcutta, and therefore my existence and identity, and me standing there in the suburbs of a quaint town in Calvados country looking at the shrine of Thérèse, where this all began about 125 years ago. And another set of dots following the footsteps of the Carmelite monks, which would throw me much further back in history, at least 900 years and up to the genesis of Abrahamic faiths thousands of years ago.

And there I was, teleported to the daily life of Thérèse in Alençon, to her life in the monastery in Lisieux…walking along the sections in the crypt detailing Thérèse’s life, it started to cast more light on the early life of Agnes, and a striking similarity between the aspirations of the two women, to serve the most deprived and forlorn strata of the population…

“If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of “darkness.” I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

I love the night as much as the day…I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth. Yes, if God answers my desires, my Heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world.”

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

That was the revelation for me. My circle was complete. It became evident that these two extraordinary women took the same trajectory of life, making small changes to people’s lives that led to phenomenal transformations. I felt like Robert Langdon standing in front of the inverted pyramid in Louvre. I was standing at the place that spiritually inspired Agnes to come to Calcutta, the city she gave all her life to, and in turn transfused the traits of her self into the character of Calcutta that I imbibed. My pilgrimage was complete — the answer to “why of all saints, Thérèse de Lisieux?” had been found, as was the answer for who the Carmelite missionaries were.

I think the natural curiosity would set me on the course for the Carmelites monks all the way to Mount Carmel in Israel. But let’s not go that far yet…let’s first, wait for a discussion on Palestine!


I thought that this post would need a few disclaimers on my motivation for writing this, and here they are…

1. Is this a religious post?
No, it is about nostalgia with me searching for the influences on Calcutta and its image outside West Bengal.

2. Does this make me feel more religious?
I’m as raving an atheist as I ever was. I have a hate-hate relationship with religion where I don’t know religion thinks of me but I’m all in to send it away to somewhere like Azkaban, banished forever from human contact.

3. Less religious then?
No, I never was religious to become any LESS religious.

4. Why then I still visit religious sites?
Because despite their religious origin, I see them as brilliant examples of architecture and craftsmanship, erected by ordinary men for the extraordinary greed and hunger for power for their rulers. The same applies to my interests in religious texts as well.

5. So, do I support the Sainthood of Mother Teresa?
Yes and No. No, because her deed didn’t need a convoluted story to establish her miracles. She made miracles happen to the lives she transformed. Perhaps the Vatican needs to reassess its policy what they treat as a miracle. Yes, because if she did this for her religion, she deserved the highest acclaim the church could proffer. And her contribution meant actually life-changing transformations through care and humility, not phoney cures with lights passing through a photo or any such trash.


Viva España: collage of imageries on Spain before first encounter

The idea of Spain did not invoke many imageries when I was a child. Apart from of course the country of the bullfight, the Matadors and Spanish Armada. However, my earliest recollection of Spain is a funny fact that came from a general knowledge book – a common sight in eighties’ Calcutta, mainly sold by hawkers on footpaths and public transports. There was a Spanish village, where all the people are born with seven fingers in their hands. In those books, written in Bengali, the name if the village was shown as ফের ভোরা ডিবুই ট্রাগো or “Fer Vora Dibui Trago”. I could not check the veracity of this information then, as our mind worked as a darkroom putting the information away but later in its hard to find them, although they are always there. About thirty years later, searching for this fact showed two references, one in Ripley’s believe it or not and another from Berkeley Times in 1929, claiming that there is a Madrid suburb, where people have six or more fingers as the norm with five fingers a rarity. Cervera de Buitrago, the township was misinterpreted by the Bengali compiler, but it’s amazing how news about a township around Madrid landing up in a general knowledge book in Calcutta many decades later.

Coming back to the reference to Spain, as I grew up, with the penchant to know about the world we live in, I soaked up all the information in the geography books about Europe, from industrial regions in Ruhr to Steppes in Russia and then about Sevilla steel. In 1992, when I watched my first Olympics I was stunned by Barcelona and how in grandeur and culture it only rivalled Paris. Starting to learn a bit more about sports and especially the fact that football teams show the name of the cities, made me aware of some other cities — Valencia, Bilbao, Zaragoza. Other than football, with time I came across names of famous Spaniards from a diverse background and time ranging Cervantes to Pablo Picasso to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. However, I did not have a complete image of Spain as a country and its culture for a long time, all such previous snippets formed a jumble of jigsaw pieces that needed putting together.

I read For whom the bell tolls around the year 2000, which gave me a little more insight about Spain, but that was a long time ago and the information somehow was lost in the way. However, the mysteries of Spanish culture slowly started to unfurl through Shakira, when she shook the world with her “whenever wherever”. That was, in essence, my first taste of Spanish language and music, although by then Spanish pop was quite popular in far corners of the world through Enrique Iglesias Ricky Martin and other new talents of the nineties. The songs of Shakira created enough interest in learning about Spanish music and language that made me buy a collection of her Spanish songs. Then in 2008, when I was coming to the UK, I decided to widen my gamut of languages, adding Spanish to the repertoire. And thus began endless nights of staying up at night, chatting with people from Spain and South America, which has given me first ideas of the structures of the language and words.

Then in 2008 whilst Cranfield, my next-door neighbour Clara took up a job in the community centre as a Spanish teacher and persuaded by her, I decided to join the Spanish class. Also, while listening to Shakira around this time, I came across a band named Amaral, and Miguel Bosé. The growing interest in the language paired with the love for Spanish music gave me a perfect platform to learn more about the country. Since Cranfield, I continued following this newfound passion through listening to Spanish music and watching Spanish films.

It made me appreciate Spain as a confluence of different cultures that extended its roots all over the world. How Spain remained, like Turkey, a witness of the coexistence and conflicts of Christian and Islamic regimes, how it even stayed under a dictatorship in the twentieth century, how bullfighting is still a popular sport in Spain, and how Spanish economy is on the brink of a meltdown — it paints a grim picture sometimes, but isn’t that always the case if we keep aside our nationalistic pride? To me, Spain is a country always gleaming in Mediterranean sunshine, the land of Alhambra and Santiago de Compostela, home of tiki-taka football, the country with arid landscape and gateway to Africa. Spain is the land of Paella, of colourful food but without being spicy, it is the ritualistic tomato-throwing in La Tomatina, the ideological debate between Madrid and Barcelona. But above all, it is the home of the fiery Spanish language, which is extended from literature to music to performance arts like dance, films, theatre and form the very core of the Spanish life and existence.

I didn’t intend to write a treatise on every country I plan to visit. My travelogues will serve that purpose. This is an exception that occurred to me, while we were planning the places to see on our Spanish holiday in October. Looking at the volcanic Canary isles, their famous lunar landscape and surroundings of deep blue Atlantic ocean in the Google StreetView reminded me that there is Spain beyond the European mainland, but the spirit is still unmissable, and the sun pours out its unabashed rays of golden sun all round the year — a far cry in the UK near arctic circle. The expectations of a great holiday in the glorious sun made me reflect how well that picture blended with my imageries of Spain. From a fun fact of people having seven fingers, past thirty years have added many pieces of the conundrum, and finally setting foot on the Spanish soil will be a giant step in bringing all such snippets together. Now just looking forward to la playa y el sol…

china, international business, Travel

Visit to China: A review from 2009

This is an exact copy of the report I had written as a synopsis of the personal reflections during the International Business Experience tour to China during my MBA in 2009. Just sharing this report here as it raised some poignant questions on our view to society…

Scenario-1 Day-1 in China, at the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre, Shanghai

The Chinese guide explaining in her inept and deeply-accented English the history of Shanghai and the upcoming Expo 2010 to her entourage from Cranfield. Not many understood everything, but a number of us stated smiling derisively, some aloud. People marvelled at the miniature architecture, but not the guide for the showing us around – the mechanical way of speaking without much personal touch was considered, to the least, cold.

Scenario-2 Same Day, at McDonald’s restaurant

We had difficulty in placing an order for the vegetarian menu, as would happen anywhere in the world. The conversation between my colleague and the lady managing the till was like this:
Colleague: “Do you speak English?”…Lady: “No English”… Co: “Does anyone understand English here?”…No reply… Co: “ENGLISH! ENGLISH!”… After much toil when we are seated, my colleague commented: “Oh hell, no one speaks English here, we are far better off in India”. I’m still struggling to find the link between being an Anglophone and being better off in life.

Scenario-3 Day-3, Yuyuan garden commercial centre, the silk factory

Our tour guide for the day, Marie, showed me around the area, and I purchased some raw-silk items. On our way back, she excused herself to register some information about visitors at the counter. Afterwards, I asked her blatantly about the amount of commission she gets. She informed that it’s something they have to do for the municipality. In that unfamiliar situation, I tried to make assumptions drawing from my Indian context.

Scenario-4 Day-7, Beijing Chaoyang theatre acrobatic centre

The entry pass to the acrobatic show mentioned that the guests must enter before the time of the show; else they’ll have to wait until the intermission. Yet, some entered the hall even after 30 minutes from the start. Most of the people in the hall were foreigners. The ticket said, “no photo or video during the show”. The trapeze artists were performing a frightening game of balancing on a 30 feet high wheel, without any safety rope. Yet, the majority of the visitors clicked their cameras indiscriminately – most of them with a flash. The temptation of capturing some memento on a foreign land contained the risk of life-threatening injury. But why bother! “The security didn’t prevent us!”

I tried to provide a few snapshots of some of the situations I encountered on the China trip, but as a whole, it reminded me of the lectures we had during OBPPD and People Management, especially about doing business with completely different national cultures. Although IBE meant to enhance the business experience, and with visits to the numerous companies from different industry sector and size, the learning was exceptional, to me, the best learning was the cultural exposure, to watch and be a part of the transactions among people with geographical, cultural and linguistic diversities.

The key learning was when realised that it is easy to fall into the trap of comparing and judging other cultures from one’s cultural mindset. It is easy and dangerous because once a false image about a person is created; it almost always gets more distorted following different form of ‘ladder of influence’. It might seem difficult to interact with people from a completely unknown cultural values and contexts, but I realised from this trip that it only takes the willingness to learn and accept the contrasts, to bridge the gap. Kudos to the MBA curriculum to have stressed on the people aspect so much – it is ABSOLUTELY important to do business internationally.

To this point, I’d try to turn to the theme of this report. The IBE experience: visits to the companies, made us captivated within the glossy façade of cityscapes, which is expectable in most of the South-East Asian places. I wanted to see, as Jeanne-Marie Gescher mentioned – ‘the Invisibles’ of China. In Shanghai, the contrast in living standards was visible, unlike in Beijing. I wanted to interact with people to have a better insight into people’s lives; our two tour guides – Marie and Matthew provided helped me a lot on this. However, in the concluding section, I’ll talk about two other experiences, that will lead to another crucial learning from this tour.

Scenario-5 Day-6, Wangfujing shopping district

I arrived at the wrong time, as most of the shops were getting closed. A young woman approached me and asked if I speak English. Then she asked that she wanted to talk, and we talked about the place I’m from, what did I see etc. After about 5 minutes she asked whether I’d accompany her for a massage. On my denial she asked me to go for a coffee; I agreed on the condition that I chose the café. We talked for about 15 minutes, and she told me how the local police, despite prostitution being illegal in China, keep silent and extort illegal sex workers by threatening prosecution. I also, learned that tens of thousands of women, from neighbouring provinces (she was from Hebei), come to Beijing willingly or by force.

Scenario-6 Same day, same area, China foreign language book shop

I wanted to buy a book on ‘learning Chinese’. The bookseller showed me an unabridged language learning pack, with speech modulation tools etc. I kept on mentioning that I’m looking for a basic book, but she wanted me to try and learn some words in Chinese, how the accented words are pronounced etc. Only after 15 minutes of the demonstration did she mention that it’s a great language pack and it will only cost Rmb 499.

The key point that emerges from these two scenarios, confirmed by Rob Hughes of Linde, that business in China is all about relationships. Establishing a workable relationship or communication is a prerequisite, before even making a business proposition.

To conclude, the China IBE added new dimensions to my lines of thought – to understand, interact and do business with people from the diverse cultural setting, which will enrich me and my values in the long-run.