Reader in the grass – 5 books to try

This year again, the sunny summer has gone off my radar – and if you live in Belgium, you might have entirely missed it, too. Here, it shows up on a “now you see me, now you see me not” basis. And while I have to part with my much beloved notion of summer once more on this side of the globe, further south the sun is just settling into its other home for a while. Not fair.

However, to show you that summer has hit Belgium too at some point this year, I took my camera out (and a bunch of books) on the occasion and also got busy with some gardening. Nothing like reading a good book and pulling out of the ground one nasty nettle after the other in-between. And while last very short, timid and fugitive summer proved me beyond the shadow of a doubt that one thing I will not be when I grow up is a decent gardener, it at least gave me the opportunity to read some wonderful books, which I totally recommend. In the back of my garden, they made me travel beyond the beautiful fields and forests of the Flemish countryside.

First among my favourites is Marriage Material – an accidental discovery, as it often happens, the sort you are forever grateful for. Sathnam Sanghera has a beautifully crafted writing style and telling stories is clearly his business. The book conveys deep roots that are familiar to the author: traditional versus modern life of descendants of Punjabi families established in England. All the cliche elements are there: there is the corner shop, there is the never ending struggle to integrate and reconcile family values versus society expectations, there is a wealth of history and luggage from past lives, carried by people from a different country and passed on to the next generation. There is displacement, frustration, love, hate, rules to break from, mistakes to learn from and everything that makes the fragments of life in a Sikh Punjabi community exciting, colourful, and worth reading about. And above all, there is grace and an exceptional writer with a sense of carrying his audience right at the heart of the things he describes. A read that definitely excites all senses and leaves an exquisite after-taste.

A book by Bill Bryson is a guarantee to make me a happy gal on any kind of weather. This time Bill took me Down Under, where I have never been, but which is the place where most of my friends whom I met throughout my travels live. That is because Aussies are generally inescapable, wherever one goes. Bryson loves Australia and says it loud and clear. As always, expect a fair amount of well-researched, interesting and unique information dug out by the Master of hilarious accounts and some extra wrinkles once you’ve finished the book. Hard to put down, as any of Bryson’s works.

In Xanadu is a special kind of journey and the author, William Dalrymple, is not your ordinary travel writer. He is a historian through and through with a vivid interest in art and religion, with an eye for detail that most mortals visiting places will not see and a mind curious enough to bring hidden worlds to life. The book follows the footsteps of Marco Polo on the Silk Route from Jerusalem to inner Mongolia. It portrays a difficult undertaking of a student retracing the past -Dalrymple himself- through challenging, restless and not particularly travel-friendly places marked by political problems and complex bureaucratic systems. An eye-opener in many respects.

I bought Michael Palin’s  The Truth at a flea market somewhere in London and it was time for me to finally take it off that shelf I almost forgot it on. I was not disappointed. An engaging and accessible read in a flowing, catchy journalistic style, this work of fiction exposes some dark areas of modern-times troubles surrounding the publishing industry, for instance,  as well as environmental issues. Thanks to it, I also discovered that Mr Monty Python has a travel website where you can find out more about the man himself and his adventures around the world: http://www.themichaelpalin.com/

India has been quite present in my mind this summer, with the sad celebration of 70 years since the Partition covered by the media channels. And so I thought I would finally give a go to a book I actually bought in India two years ago:  it’s time for Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul series. A blend of history and fiction, this promises to keep me entertained for a little while. And what better to make the transition from summer to autumn than to indulge in the world of spices and warriors and great empires!

While Indian summer remains an unfulfilled dream and a rather wishful thinking where I am currently located, there is a lot of comfort, thrill and fulfillment to be found in those many books waiting for me to open. One page at a time, rain or sunshine, keep on reading.

Smile – You are in Japan

There are many things to say about Japan, and hopefully I can get my thoughts together to tell you the whole story of my two-week experience in this very peculiar country. Some things in Japan, though, leave you pretty much speechless, and so I decided to let the pictures lead the way in this blog post. From ludicrous advice on how to stay away from bears to the uncountable number of bows that the population performs to say thanks, Japan is a head-spinning, crazy world that gives one plenty of reasons to smile.

One is Hello Kitty, designed by Sanrio. Thanks to some exceptional Marketing efforts, it is impossible to cross Japan without being greeted by Hello Kitty in her various forms. Purses, books, laptops, pencils, umbrellas, huggable larger-then-human-size dolls – one could spend days going through the list of branded items available (apparently, there would be some 12.000 different products recorded yearly). Innocent though this cute cat character may look, she is an absolute killer business machine. There is, I was puzzled to find out, a Hello Kitty TV series, passenger aircrafts, MasterCard Hello Kitty debit cards, a very own production of wine, fine jewellery, restaurants and even (hang on) a Hello-kitty maternity hospital! Considering that it started out as a cartoon on rubber sandals, our Kitty has come a long way, giving birth to yet another category of fanatics. So we joyfully surrendered to the Hello Kitty moment too. When in Japan…

Interestingly mixed with the Japanese popular culture, the Japanese formality and uniformity comes as no surprise. Take the metro on a regular working day and you will inevitably experience that movie-like sensation of the Smith multiplying himself in Matrix Reloaded: everyone around looks the same and seems to be dressed the same way too. Until you spot the teenage girls, that is, wearing those short skirts in combination with kawaii stripped stockings and high heels that seem almost impossible to walk on that you previously only saw in manga. Japan is not short of paradoxes, which make it so difficult to pin down (let alone understand).

Leaders in advanced technology, they are some of the most conservative and traditional people on the planet. And they do like to queue. Traffic lights, metro, bus, train stations – Japanese people amaze me with their incredible, unique ability to wait in line patiently, weather conditions notwithstanding.

Umbrellas waiting to cross in Tokyo

But their ads in English alone make a trip to Japan worthwhile. Japanese people seem to be rather confident that what they say in English is also what they mean. Most of the times, it isn’t and the results are often funny. Do they deliberately refuse to work with English natives? I don’t know. But this country has a very rich collection of such advertisements and not once have we found ourselves puzzled by the riddles of the implied meaning which we sometimes took a long time to guess, only to burst out into laughter when the penny suddenly dropped. It’s a brain game. Here are just a few examples (though my pictures are of doubtful quality), of Japanese-English random communication that made us giggle time and time again.

In the lobby of a capsule hotel in Kyoto. I refused to be available and even less so for free.

We made a coffee break in Tokyo on a rainy day and like a proper Alice in Wonderland that I am, I was tempted by the cake. All the more so since I hadn’t tried one that gave me the Quality of Confidence before, something I very much need. Japanese also seem to be inventors of the “hand made taste” – intriguing, to say the least. It tasted nice, if you wonder.

When they are not open, they are close. They were also sorry, and so were we, because we were desperately hungry. Try feed yourself on tiny samples of miso soup, yakitori, soba, udon or rice for one week when you’ve been travelling with a heavy backpack and you are a voracious steak eater by nature

Toilets are highly entertaining in Japan –and I was happy to see how much room was granted to the ladies (Women, if you do not feel empowered in Japan…). Passed the door, you are confronted with a variety of buttons worthy of a space ship. It is always a guess and fortunately, you do not need sophisticated buttons to open the door, so you can get out at any time. To make things even more complicated, not one toilet has the same buttons as the other. Have fun and take your time.

In a cable car on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route to see the famous Snow Corridor which for some reason attracts an impressive number of Asian tourists (only?). People travel far and wide to admire a heap of snow. And there is no such thing as too much cautiousness for the Japanese.

Too many things to do and too little time? The Japanese came up with an ingenious solution –the 25-hour-day. Only in Kyoto.

A touch of mystery hovers over what exact evil snow can do to us.

It’s a strange, but nice place, no doubt.

Japanese precision. It isn’t mentioned where you have to wait if you only want one ticket. Or if you simply have a question. But I suspect you have to queue up for anything anyway.

Japanese are extremely kind, friendly and helpful people who smile a lot. They are pleasantly inquisitive and always eager to talk to you for a long time (in their language) even when you cannot make it any clearer that you have no clue what they are saying. They are always happy to attend tourists, so count on them to put a big smile on your face.

And if a bottle of sake does not make you smile, then several will!

Needless to say, we were very happy with our discoveries and encounters. Japan is a wealth of unique experiences, and although it didn’t feel like it stole my heart then and there, looking back, it is now that I realise just how special and dream-like it all was.

Squinting our eyes to look Japanese – or the effect of sleeping on a tatami mat one too many

I take a bow myself and sing: Arigatou gozaimasuuuuu, Japan! I’m sure our paths will cross again.

Once upon a time, a migrant in Belgium: Interview with InterNations

“Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Belgium, etc.”

I have almost forgotten I gave an interview about my beginnings in Belgium – it was such a long time ago after all. But it is a nice way for me to travel back in time while sipping a coffee. I also forgot that this person travelling to a new country which was to become her home is me. A younger version of myself, restless, curious, ambitious and eager to take in everything that this new universe had to put on offer.

Things have changed in the meantime; 15 years have gone by. Now I am a full-time Belgian citizen, enjoying the privileges of free, border-less travel within Europe, for however long it lasts, and accessing many countries of the world without a visa. I never introduce myself upfront as Belgian, though, because here is the thing: somehow I will always be “stuck” in my immigrant condition, because I like it. “Neither here, nor there” suits me well but I realise that this country gives me this option. I have a choice here, to belong or not quite entirely. It is an open place for me to evolve whichever way I chose to and one that accepts me. And today more than ever, I think I might show some gratitude for this. Belgium left it up to me to become as Belgian as I desired. If anything, immigration is a fascinating thing, don’t you agree?

These were quite possibly my very first thoughts about how I felt about this place back in the days. Read the interview here:

Silvia: Explorer of the Everyday | InterNations

Travelling soul – Remember Maggie

maggieI lost a traveller-friend whom I had recently met, Maggie – an exceptional woman who inspired me. She left this world. But I shall remember her.

We met in India in December 2015. You were one of the liveliest people in the group, the kind of restless creatures that catch the eye immediately. I remember your words in the coffee place in Varanasi where you told me we must always reinvent ourselves for the ones we love. I remember you starting to dance with your husband, Kerry, on New Year’s Eve and setting the example for those of us who were too shy to stand up and hit the dance floor. I remember you celebrating your 39th marriage anniversary, so discreetly and it was wonderful. I remember your complicity, it was an amazing thing to witness and I think that secretly, we were all watching you.

I remember you sleeping underneath my “bed” on the night train journey, always poking fun, always chatting. And who doesn’t remember you sitting on the floor in the lady’s section at the train station in Agra, teaching us yoga movements to the cheeky smiles of the locals who thought that us whiteys were a bit mad in the head?

I remember you convincing me to buy my scarves (not one as I intended to) and those wonderful oils that I didn’t really need either, telling me that us, women, we have to treat ourselves to life’s simple pleasures. The green scarf, by far my favourite, I have thanks to you. And I remember I dragged you 2 times out and into the Red Fort and through the security checks  so that you can get the money from Kerry and buy that “ruby” ring you negotiated for so much, because I knew you would have regretted otherwise. It was impossible to do shopping with you as you always found the words to convince me to spend my money! Such a nightmare, much worse than the Indian shop sellers themselves. Also, I don’t think anyone could say “no” to you.

Graceful Maggie! Your gestures, your attitude towards us all, such elegance in your choice of words and clothing items. Refinement, simplicity and taste have always sprung to mind when I looked at you, and I admired you for all this. I shall always remember your rapid, sudden head movement, springing like a little bird, always alert, always curious, so alive. I don’t think I remember you ever showing sadness or tiredness, but maybe these were carefully locked somewhere behind that generous smile.

Your face is engraved in my memories of an extraordinary far-away place. One brimming with never-ending energy and colour, the perfect backdrop for your sparkling personality. I was privileged to spend a full day in your company when everyone else had gone. We had a laugh somewhere in a park in Delhi when Kerry was taking pictures of a massive pile of garbage on top of which a dog had found comfort. And later, when we were having what became probably the most expensive coffee and cake during the whole journey, which outraged me – India does teach you the value of money so well. It’s also the place where you are sure to get comfort out of your system, at least temporarily. Because I couldn’t disconnect from the sadness and the reality of the streets of India and found it hard to be in a luxury hotel, you calmed me down gently and reminded me that everything is to be enjoyed and taken on board as experience. And that we were lucky to see both sides. How was it possible to always be so positive and wise? I looked at you like one the world’s mysteries.

Lakshmi! Here is a name I remember, because it came from you. I bought that little wooden souvenir and you explained to me who the gods and goddesses in the carvings were – you knew a lot about them and talked with passion. I can only imagine that Kerry and your daughters never really got bored around you. You were fun, Maggie, such a blast of optimism and an example to us all. Of how to treat and live life. How to take things as they come. How to enjoy while you can. How to be unique and happy with it. How to hold the head up high and laugh. How to be yourself.

I don’t intend to forget you or the things that our short encounter have brought to me. India wouldn’t be such a great story without you in it. You’re travelling again. Where to, no one knows. But I’m sure you’ll find someone to teach yoga to again. I’m glad we met.