Beer Gardens

A lot of “local” pubs in London advertise that they have a “beer garden”, which is usually a grassy backyard that has a few outdoor tables. Having been to Munich, though, I would claim that these guys (in London) don’t know what they are doing, or at least that they can’t do it at scale.

On Friday evening we met a friend from IIT who has recently moved to Munich. Considering that there would be “a lot of kids” (three of his, along with Berry), he suggested that we meet at this particular “beer garden“, which was on the outskirts of town, a small distance away from the Isar river.

We got there following a ride in the metro followed by a tram ride and then a ten minute walk. And what a place it was. It was a massive ground in what appeared to be the middle of a forest, with one massive screen set up in one corner to show the Football World Cup. The entire ground was filled with long tables (eight of us (four adults and four kids) could easily fit in on one of the smaller tables), and on the edges there were play area for the kids.

The highlight of the place for us was that on a rare occasion of dining out, we didn’t need to worry that much about the kids. There were no high chairs for them to sit on, but we didn’t need to bother keeping them in one place, given the play areas and the gravel-lined ground that made it conducive for them to run around.

There was no table service for food and drink – there were a number of stalls at one end of the garden, where you could buy food and drink and get them to your table. After eating, it was your responsibility to clear your table and deposit used dishes at a central area (this was similar to other “self-service” restaurants in Munich). Food was mostly typical Bavarian fare, and it was pretty good. Once again, I overate.

In one sense, the upside of the lack of table service is that it eliminates the problem of how to split bills. Each person/ family can go get what they want, and eat and drink comfortably without the fear or under or over-ordering, and what others would think of them. And freed from both keeping kids in check and wondering about dynamics, and fueled by beer, you can focus on the conversation!

After dinner, we went down to the Isar river. It was already getting dark on our way down the wooded path to the river, but when we reached the river, it was suddenly bright again! Unfortunately it was getting dark, so we couldn’t spend too much time there, but it was a fantastic experience being there. It was already dark by the time we were walking back to the beer garden, and our path was lit up by fireflies!

We were wondering why this concept hasn’t travelled, not even till Britain. I mean, we have beer gardens here, but none at this scale. And most restaurants here rely on keeping kids tied in to their high chairs, colouring into the restaurant’s advertising material, rather than giving them a run about (which can potentially make them more hungry and make them eat more!).

One reason why beer gardens don’t travel is that they work well at scale, and that kind of real estate is hard to come by in most cities. Another is cultural – in India, for example, a lot of people don’t like drinking with their families, so places that combine drinking with kids’ play areas may be taboo. I can’t think of any more! Can you?

That said, when you visit Munich, don’t forget to go to one of the beer gardens (there are two massive ones in the middle of the city itself, in the middle of the English Gardens). It’s quite an experience!

Flaneuring once again

So I wrote my Day Two report too early. A few minutes after I filed it, the daughter woke up and refused to eat the lunch I had got packed earlier. The prospect of feeding her and keeping her entertained meant that we decided to go out again. And we decided to revisit the historic city of Munich (Marienplatz and surrounding areas once again).

And what a difference some sun makes! Streets that were largely empty yesterday morning were full of people (most likely tourists) today. Restaurants and cafes had set up lots of tables right in the middle of the road (a bit like Les Rambles or Rambla de Catalunya in Barcelona). The street musicians seemed better. And the whole place seemed more welcoming.

After some walking with Berry in her baby carrier, I decided to set her down and let her lead the way. The bigger squares in the area (Marienplatz and Odeonplatz) seemed to be gearing up for some festival that will happen this weekend. Stages and temporary stalls had come up for that purpose. We walked past them when Berry said something to the effect that she wanted to eat.

We walked into a bakery, and when I wasn’t sure of what to buy, we walked out. Soon, Berry said more vehemently that she wanted to eat. I found a nice looking restaurant, and we went in.

Now, the optimisation problem wasn’t so bad since I had already eaten and I only had to optimise for Berry. But this was a large place with lots of variety in food so I couldn’t decide. Thankfully Berry bailed  me out when she screamed “thothage! Thothage!!” (sausage). I duly ordered a Bratwurst with ketchup, which she then demolished. I felt truly happy that she had bailed me out of my decision fatigue.

Through this afternoon’s “beat”, I was thinking about how having a limited vocabulary and communication skills, Berry is not yet very demanding. The only things she’s demanded in the last two days were yesterday’s bike ride and today’s sausage. And when she demanded specific things I was able to fulfil what she asked for rather than having to second guess.

i realise that soon enough she’ll become more demanding, and while for a while it will be good in that I can simply focus on execution, it will also mean that she might take more control of my life then! I don’t know if the last two days’ training will help in that case.

Oh, and this wasn’t the last time we went out today. Later in the evening all three of us went to the outskirts of the city to meet a friend of mine from undergrad (and his family) who has recently moved to Munich. That experience deserves a blogpost on its own. Hopefully I’ll write!

A day at the museum

I still haven’t learnt on the food front – in my effort to optimise for both the daughter and myself this morning, I got her excellent breakfast and myself a terrible one. Actually I blame decision fatigue – there were so many stalls at the Munich Hauptbahnhof (central railway station, which is across the road from our hotel) selling what we wanted that I got confused on where to buy.

I wanted to buy croissant for her, and pretzel with Bavarian cheese for myself. After going round a zillion stalls, I bought them from the same stall I had bought croissant at last night (which the wife had for breakfast today and said was good). The croissant turned out to be excellent and was duly polished off by the daughter. I threw 3/4th of my pretzel in a dustbin on our way to the museum.

So our agenda for today was to visit the Deutsches Museum, reputed to be the largest science museums in the world. Now, science museums are the best museums in my opinion, since you generally have “something to do”.

The first museum I ever went to was the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum in Bangalore, where there are lots of fun activities, such as the chair on which you can rotate (and change speed by pulling in some discs). So the second museum I went to (the adjacent Government Museum in Bangalore) was a massive disappointment, as I tried pressing on the labels on the displays, imagining something might happen.

And despite not being the best maintained museum in Europe (it seemed rather “sarkari” to me), the Deutsches Museum didn’t disappoint. There were plenty of buttons to be pressed and pulleys to be pulled, especially in the physics section (I wished then that I had taken my daughter there when she was older, when I could have actually explained some of the science to her).

There were massive rooms full of boats and aeroplanes (the latter being Berry’s favourite room at the museum. She kept screaming “airplane” “airplane” there several times, and had great fun “navigating” a toy plane (see picture above). I tried hard to explain to her that some of the early aeroplanes (one of the Wright Brothers’s planes is on display at the museum, along with a few World War I planes) were actually aeroplanes. She recognised the Zeppelins as “airplane”, though!

We  saw stars and planets, and telescopes and yachts of different kinds. In the middle, we went to the museum cafe (which looked and felt like a sarkari canteen) and had excellent cheesecake. And I took her to the kinderreich (kids’ kingdom), a play area for kids.

As we were going through the last rooms of the museums, she started getting cranky. I took her once again to the aeroplane room, and she said goodbye to her airplanes. By the time we had walked to the metro station she had fallen asleep.

So there wasn’t so much of flaneuring on this second day, but I managed to see everything I wanted to see. For the most part, I had put her on her “leash” (to make sure she doesn’t run away too far), but then in the last part when she started tiring I put her in the baby carrier.

The first part of the “training” in travelling with me ends today. And I’m hopeful that I’ll have a proper flaneuring partner soon!

Flaneuring with a baby

Soon after we got married, the wife and I figured out that we like to travel differently. She likes to go and hang out in hotels, getting room service and maybe even watching TV, and not doing much. I’m much more of an active traveller, wanting to explore places, walk around, eat in random places, etc.

Our disagreements on how to travel have reached such a level that on a couple of trips, we actually split up, with her staying at the hotel and me roaming alone. However, roaming a city alone is not so much fun, so I’m trying to recruit a partner for that. And rather than “searching all over town while holding a baby in my arms” (a Kannada proverb), I want to train the (not so proverbial) baby!

Today was the first such day of “training”, and we are in Munich. The wife had some work here today and tomorrow, and this was a great opportunity for the daughter and I to flaneur by ourselves (ok she doesn’t have a say in this!).

So day one went off quite well, though I sometimes think I gave in a bit too much to her interests. The walk through the old town of Munich (around Marienplatz) lasted not more than an hour before we were in the gardens – first briefly at the Hofgarten and then later at the Englischer Garten (English Garden, which is larger than both Hyde Park and Central Park) where we went cycling.

To be honest, the walk around Marienplatz was a bit of a bore even for me. The place is full of fashion outlets, and there isn’t much to “do”. It also didn’t help matters that we were walking around on full stomachs – we had eaten massive dinners last night, and even though we woke up late and had a small breakfast, we weren’t hungry (I made the mistake of going to a chain coffee shop for breakfast. The coffee was atrocious and the food also unspectacular).

One of the keys to effective flaneuring (to borrow a word from Nassim Taleb) is the willingness to try out interesting food and drink you come across on the way. This means travelling on a light enough stomach, so that you can eat whatever you want without constraint. The full stomach thanks to the bad breakfast this morning meant that we couldn’t partake in any of the interesting looking foods on offer, thus significantly diminishing our experience.

Another necessary condition for good flaneuring is the availability of good public transport – sometimes you can just get bored of the place you are in and want a change of scenery. At other times, you’ll want to be at a specific place that is too far away to walk to. In both situations, availability of dense public transport network (and low marginal cost of travel – such as a day travel card) can really help.

Through the morning, though, whenever Berry saw a bicycle, she would scream “bike-u bike-u” (she’s got this very Kannada habit of ending every noun in “u”. So car-u, pant-u, dog-u etc) and demand to sit on it. So when we got near the English Gardens (where I’d heard it’s good to bike), I had the problem of trying to find a bike rental store.

We walked around till we encountered a public WiFi hotspot (Munich has lots of those!), where I found the addresses of a few cycle rental shops. And one was right at the edge of the English Gardens, and I had to take the U-bahn (underground metro) to get there. It was an extremely peaceful ride (I pride myself on adjusting myself easily to public transport in new cities), though we had to change trains.

We borrowed an electric bike with a child seat from MUC Bike. It’s like a normal cycle except there’s a Lithium ion battery backup, to give you that extra power in case you’re tired. And we went round the park, watching ducks in several places, and playing on the swing (Berry only). The cycle returned, and a quick beer and pretzel later, we were on our way back to the hotel!

Overall I think it went well. There is one noticeable area of improvement- food. I need to optimise for both of us, and we sometimes have different food preferences, and I end up making poor choices. Like I asked for rice with today’s lunch even though there were already potatoes in the dish (since Berry likes rice). As it happened, she wasn’t so hungry and we ended throwing the rice!

The plan for tomorrow is to go see the Deutsches Museum. Let’s see how that goes!

Hill Climbing in real life

Fifteen years back, I enrolled for a course on Artificial Intelligence as part of my B.Tech. programme at IIT Madras. It was well before stuff like “machine learning” and “data science” became big, and the course was mostly devoted to heuristics. Incidentally, that term, we had to pick between this course and one on Artificial Neural Networks (I guess nowadays that one is more popular given the hype about Deep Learning?), which meant that I didn’t learn about neural networks until last year or so.

A little googling tells me that Deepak Khemani, who taught us AI in 2002, has put up his lectures online, as part of the NPTEL programme. The first one is here:

In fact, the whole course is available here.

Anyways, one of the classes of problems we dealt with in the course was “search”. Basically, how does a computer “search” for the solution to a problem within a large “search space”?

One of the simplest heuristic is what has come to be known as “hill climbing” (too lazy to look through all of Khemani’s lectures and find where he’s spoken about this). I love computer science because a lot of computer scientists like to describe ideas in terms of intuitive metaphors. Hill climbing is definitely one such!

Let me explain it from the point of view of my weekend vacation in Edinburgh. One of my friends who had lived there a long time back recommended that I hike up this volcanic hill in the city called “Arthur’s Peak“.

On Saturday evening, I left my wife and daughter and wife’s parents (who I had travelled with) in our AirBnB and walked across town (some 3-4 km) to reach Holyrood Palace, from where Arthur’s Seat became visible. This is what I saw: 

Basically, what you see is the side of a hill, and if you see closely, there are people walking up the sides. So what you guess is that you need to make your way to the bottom of the hill and then just climb.

But then you make your way to the base of the hill and see several paths leading up. Which one do you take? You take the path that seems steepest, believing that’s the one that will take you to the top quickest. And so you take a step along that path. And then see which direction to go to climb up steepest. Take another step. Rinse. Repeat. Until you reach a point where you can no longer find a way up. Hopefully that’s the peak.

Most of the time, you are likely to end up on the top of a smaller rock. In any case, this is the hill climbing algorithm.

So back to my story. I reached the base of the hill and set off on the steepest marked path.

I puffed and panted, but I kept going. It was rather windy that day, and it was threatening to rain. I held my folded umbrella and camera tight, and went on. I got beautiful views of Edinburgh city, and captured some of them on camera. And after a while, I got tired, and decided to call my wife using Facetime.

In any case, it appeared that I had a long way to go, given the rocks that went upwards just to my left (I was using a modified version of hill climbing in that I used only marked paths. As I was to rediscover the following day, I have a fear of heights). And I told that to my wife. And then suddenly the climb got easier. And before I knew it I was descending. And soon enough I was at the bottom all over again!

And then I saw the peak. Basically what I had been climbing all along was not the main hill at all! It was a “side hill”, which I later learnt is called the “Salisbury Crags”. I got down to the middle of the two hills, and stared at the valley there. I realised that was a “saddle point”, and hungry and tired and not wanting to get soaked in rain, I made my way out, hailed a cab and went home.

I wasn’t done yet. Determined to climb the “real peak”, I returned the next morning. Again I walked all the way to the base of the hill, and started my climb at the saddle point. It was a tough climb – while there were rough steps in some places, in others there was none. I kept climbing a few steps at a time, taking short breaks.

One such break happened to be too long, though, and gave me enough time to look down and feel scared. For a long time now I’ve had a massive fear of heights. Panic hit. I was afraid of going too close to the edge and falling off the hill. I decided to play it safe and turn back.

I came down and walked across the valley you see in the last picture above. Energised, I had another go. From what was possibly a relatively easier direction. But I was too tired. And I had to get back to the apartment and check out that morning. So I gave up once again.

I still have unfinished business in Edinburgh!

 

Paris or Parrys Corner?

We arrived in Paris Gare Du Nord a couple of hours back by Izy train from Brussels (this is a new low-cost service introduced by Thalys, and that deserves its own blogpost).

I don’t know whether it’s something specific about Gare Du Nord, or if I feel this way about all Terminus railway stations, but it had this feeling of Chennai Central to it. This feeling was complete with the smell of urine just outside the station.

We walked to the left, as our online research had told us that there were some South Indian restaurants there, and we were seeking some comfort food. Saravana Bhavan first came into view. A little further was Hotel Sangeetha, and we ate there (I have better memories of Sangeetha than Saravana Bhavan from my times in Chennai. The decision today was well-founded).

After having finished our dinner at Sangeetha (food and coffee were brilliant, far better than at Saravana Bhavan in Amsterdam where we ate 3 days ago. Dinner was made better by the discovery that a couple of waiters there spoke Kannada), we decided to walk to La Chapelle metro station to catch a train to our hotel.

Having been in Europe for over 3 months now, the walk from Sangeetha to La Chapelle seemed like anything but Europe. The road was dirty in parts, with water flowing next to the pavements at some places (making us lift our rolling suitcase every few metres). That was not the only thing that reminded us of Chennai, though.

Saravana Bhavan and Sangeetha were only two in the long line of Tamilesque establishments on that road (Rue du Frauborg Saint Denis). There was an Annachi, a Muniyandi Vilas and at least two outlets that served Dindigul Thalapakattu Biryani!

And it was not just the restaurants. There was a “Thangamaligai” (jewellery) store. There were barbershops. There was Ganesha Sweets. And there were shops that went by names such as “SP Traders” that looked just like shops in India do! The resemblance was uncanny.

During the course of our walk, we even passed a couple of bars, and the smell emanating from them reminded us more of the shady bars in India (not Chennai, though, since liquor sale there is tightly controlled) than any bar we’ve seen in Europe.

I understand that there’s a significant Indian-origin (and Sri Lankan Tamil origin) population in France, but the number of Tamil-esque establishments next to the Railway Station completely astounds me. That they’re clustered together is no surprise. That this cluster is right next to the city’s main railway station is. And the fact that the station is so similar to Chennai Central doesn’t help matters!

Until we got out of our Metro at Place du Clichy (to get to our hotel), it seemed more like we were in Parrys Corner than in Paris!

PS: Put recommendations on things to do here, etc. Please leave comments.

The land above the tracks

Almost exactly a year ago, we were on our way from Vienna to Budapest and ended up reading the Vienna Hauptbahnhof Railway Station some three hours early. It had been snowing that morning in Vienna (it was April 1st, and supposed to be spring), and not wanting to go anywhere in that shit weather, we simply got to the railway station. It didn’t help matters that our train (which was coming from Munich) had been delayed by a further hour.

We were not short of options for entertainment in at the railway station, though. In fact, it hardly looked like a railway station, and looked more like a mall – for there were no tracks to be seen anywhere. We spent the four hour wait shopping at the mall (it was just before Easter, so there were some good deals) and having breakfast and lunch at what could be considered to be the mall food court. And when it was time for our train to arrive, we simply took one of the escalators that went down from the mall, which deposited us at our platform.

Each platform had its own escalator going down from the mall, which had been built on top of the railway tracks. It can be considered that the entire Vienna Hbf station was built on the “first floor”, making use of the land above the railway tracks. Land that would otherwise be wasted was being put to good use by building commercial space, which apart from generating revenues for the Austrian Railways, also made life significantly better for passengers such as us who happened to reach the station insanely early.

This is a possible source of revenues that Indian Railways would do well to consider, especially in large cities. The Railways sit on large swathes of land above and around the rail tracks, especially at stations (where such tracks diverge). Currently, the quality of experience in Indian railway stations is rather poor. If a swanky mall (and maybe other commercial space) were to come up above the tracks, it could completely transform the railway experience.

There will be considerable investment required, of course, but given the quality of real estate on which most Indian railway stations sit, it is quite likely that private developers can be found who will be willing to invest in constructing these “railway station malls” in return for a share of subsequent rent realisation. There is serious possibility for a win-win here.

As the Vienna Hbf website puts it,

The BahnhofCity Wien Hauptbahnhof features 90 shops and restaurants occupying 20,000 m² of floor space. A fresh food market, textile shops, bakeries and cafés are designed to make BahnhofCity a meeting place. During the week, it will be opened until 21:00 and many shops will also open on Sundays. Excellent public transport links and 600 parking spaces complement the offer.

An idea well worth considering for the Indian Railway Ministry.