Category Archives: travel


For millions of years
Mankind lived
Just like the animals

And then something happened
That unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk

(from Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking from Division Bell)

And then we moved to a place where no one speaks any of the languages you speak. And we became animals again.

This trip to Barcelona is the first time I’ve spent a reasonable length of time I’ve spent in a place where no one speaks any of the languages that I speak. And I’ve been literally feeling like an animal again, absolutely incapable of communicating, pointing at things and using sign language. It seems like my experience here has been significantly diminished given my inability to speak any of the languages spoken here.

I learnt to talk Kannada when I was perhaps one, or max two. I learnt English in a year or two after that. And then my language learning stopped. I had Hindi as my second language in school, and somehow struggled through it despite scoring 90 out of 100 in my board exam (shows how pointless board exams are). I can understand Hindi, and watch Hindi movies, but I still can’t speak fluently. When I have to speak Hindi, I construct a sentence in Kannada and then translate it. And I speak it with a heavy Kannada accent, much to the mirth of people around.

I have a Bihari cook in Bangalore. He claims to know Kannada  but I’ve never tried testing that. And I try speaking to him in Hindi. It is almost like we use sign language. I point to a set of ingredients and tell him the name of what I want to eat. He cooks, and buzzes off. At least talking face to face is fine. There are occasions when I have to call him and give him instructions (“come early tomorrow” or “come late today” or “don’t come today” or some such). It is a nightmare.

It’s not like I’m absolutely bad at languages – I can pick up words  quite easily. Thanks to football watching I’ve learnt a fair bit of European history and geography and culture, and through the process I’ve learnt a fair number of words (they’re of the kind of trequartistaregistatornante, etc but European words nevertheless). I know words in several languages. Just that I have this inability to learn grammar, or how words are put together to form sentences and communicate thoughts (except of course in English and Kannada).

Fourteen years back I went to IIT Madras, and half the people in my class were Gult. That meant I had the opportunity to pick up a fair bit of both Telugu and Tamil. I did neither. I can understand both languages a fair bit, but my understanding of the languages can be described as “assembly language”. I know words and what they mean. I listen for such keywords in what people are saying and interpret based on that. And when I speak these languages, it is based on keywords – I just say out the noun and the root form of the verb and expect the other person to interpret. I’ve never managed to get beyond this!

So there are these bakeries near where I live which might have already marked me off as a weird animal who just walks in and out o them. I go in, survey what they have and if something looks interesting point to that. They pack it for me, and then tell a number. I ask for the bill – so that I can read the number, or just give them a large enough note and trust them to return me the exact change. When nothing looks interesting to me in the display I can’t talk and ask them for what I want. I just look around (perhaps like a bakery dog) and just walk away. I don’t know how to say “Sorry I don’t know what I want”, or “Thank you, but I don’t find anything interesting here”. And I’ve been visiting some of these places multiple times, doing the same thing!

The level of discourse we are reduced to when we are unable to communicate is rather remarkable! It’s like we can simply not unleash the power of imagination, it is like going back to living like animals. I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to remedy it – I simply can’t pick up new languages!



This picture was taken at a restaurant called metric, where we went for dinner tonight. It’s located on the diagonal, an arterial road in Barcelona.

So we were walking, trying to find a place to have dinner. Pinky had a few options in her head but wouldn’t tell me. We passed a number of restaurants, all of which looked decent but not particularly spectacular, and I would wonder if she would take me into one of those. She didn’t.

And then we passed in front of metric. Even before she had indicated that this was part of her shortlist, i was walking inside. I couldn’t do much more though, since I don’t speak the language here

Some restaurants beckon to you just by the way they look. This one was brightly lit, done up in quirky furniture (we sat at an ordinary table but there were others where you has swings instead of chairs!!), with a great looking bar and the place was full. I didn’t care what kind of food they served, all the Tyler Cowen-esque economic reasoning I’ve been invoking before every single meal on this trip went out of the window, and I just walked in.

When traveling abroad, especially when in a country where they don’t normally speak English, it really helps to have someone around who speaks the local language and who can help you get around. Most times when I’ve been out by myself, apart from the time when I’ve been around touristy areas , I’ve been rather lost. I have no clue of Spanish, except for the odd word, and I’ve struggled.

I once had to go to the post office and get my mobile sim registered ( someone told me that was the procedure). I get there, approach the counter gingerly and before I know the lady assumes I’m there to receive a package from lycamobile!! After a few more minutes of futile attempt at conversation I moved on, defeated.

Given how awful I am at getting languages – I’m usually not bad with words but can never get grammar (and even today get confused between Telugu and Tamil because I learnt to understand the two languages simultaneously) – it’s a marvel how Pinky has picked up enough Spanish to get around, and even get complimented (by the waitress at metric) as to how good her Spanish is. She negotiated with the waitress about the menu, got the drinks menu “orally delivered” and translated it to enable me to make my choice (the passion fruit mojito was wonderful, btw) and even carried out some gossip with the waitress, as I looked on clueless, wondering how one can even learn a new language (I haven’t learnt one fluently ever since I was three).

Coming back to the restaurant, there’s something about places that have a very limited menu. It is generally an indicator that there are a few things they are good at, and that they like to stick to their area of core competency rather than experimenting around. A limited menu also means easier inventory management and the restaurant is likely to have fresh ingredients. While a large menu night be useful in terms of offering variety it more often than not comes at the cost is quality and reliability.

What you see in the front of the picture above us my burger. That’s how it arrived, and delicious though it was, I had no clue as to how to eat it. The lack of a covering bun meant I couldn’t pick it up and bite it. The side of bread at the bottom meant I couldn’t cut it with my knife! After a few minutes of fumbling (which included dropping a part of the patty on my jeans), I gave up and just separated the patty from the bread, eating the former with knife and fork and latter with my hands! It’s anyway not like I’m the types who cares what people think about me!!

Though I can’t rule out a stray thought in Pinky’s head on how she’s getting herself an international MBA and learning Spanish and becoming pseud and I’m still the same guy living in Bangalore!!

Tail piece: these Europeans take the metric system when beyond where Indians use. Nutritional information on food packages is in kilo joules, for example!!

Simple arbitrages

Yesterday I visited the Sagrada Familia, the still work-in-progress grand basilica in Barcelona. As I got off the metro station, I saw a long line, perhaps longer than Hanuman’s tail at its longest. It was wrapped all round the massive basilica, on two sides. And to consider that it was a weekday morning at a time of year that is not peak tourist season!

Undeterred, I walked on. Walked on beyond the back of the line and round the other side of the basilica. There was a much smaller line here. This was for people who had already booked their tickets – online or elsewhere. I stood at this line for two minutes and then decided to check at the gate. There were multiple gates and this line (the shorter one I stood at briefly) led into only one of them. There was hardly a line at any other gate. I showed my ticket on my mobile at one such gate and was let in!

A few pertinent observations:

  • It is fairly well known that lines at the Sagrada Familia can be really long and every online forum recommends you to book tickets online. Why, then, do so many people still turn up there to just stand in line for tickets? I thought a lot of people read online fora nowadays!
  • The whole myth of their being no shortest line at supermarkets? It is a myth only at supermarkets where most shoppers are regular customers and know how many counters there are and what the queue structure of each is. When you go to visit the Sagrada Familia, which unless you are extremely religious or interested in architecture you will do only once in your lifetime, you don’t know how many counters there are for entry. So you just take your place in whatever line you find first. And that leads to queues of unequal length!
  • I’m surprised at the number of people who had printed out their tickets. I was among the few who showed it on my phone and faced no problems whatsoever – my ticket had a QR code and the reader just read it off my phone! It was a similar experience at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last week.

    As a tourist, printing is not an easy job – you will need to find places where you can get printouts and they usually charge exorbitant rates. Yet, I see so many other tourists actually printing out their tickets!

  • My ticket was for entry between 9:15 and 9:30 (the Sagrada Familia asks you to intimate when you’re going to land up, so that they can distribute the crowd). I landed at 9:05 and was let in without any eyebrows raised. I’m happy it wasn’t 100% rule based
  • I took one of the lifts up one of the towers of the basilica, an experience which I think is overrated. I had to deposit my bag in a locker as I went up. It was funny that I had to drop a 20 cent (or 1 Euro) coin into the lock of the locker to complete the circuit and be allowed to lock! I picked up my 20 cent coin later on when I retrieved my bag. I have no clue what the intended use of this money dropping is!

Overall it was a very satisfying visit. I’ve written another essay on it which I hope to publish elsewhere. Will let you know when I do.


One thing that I’ve fallen in love with in my last one week in Europe is the concept of the breakfast bakery. Every few hundred metres both in Barcelona and Amsterdam you have bakeries. These bakeries offer a large variety of bread products that are to be consumed as breakfast. Apart from this, the bakeries also offer coffee and tea so that one can have a complete breakfast in some of them.

And I say “breakfast” only figuratively – I’ve had lunch on three days of my trip so far in such bakeries – again it’s with bakery products such as pizza slices or sandwiches, followed by coffee (which I must say hasn’t been bad for most of the trip). If I’ve to move to Europe, the presence of such bakeries would be one very strong reason to do so!

I was wondering why we don’t have such bakeries in India. The problem is one of liquidity – a very small portion of India’s population wants to have croissants and doughnuts for breakfast – most people in Bangalore, for example, prefer idli-vada and dosa instead. And so you still have the “fast food” places in Bangalore (lots of them) that offer such foods and coffee. And you have plenty of them – all of which are very reasonably priced and offer excellent quality!

As I try to write more and more about economic concepts, I get further drawn to this whole concept of liquidity. And each time I write about it I claim that it’s an underappreciated concept in economics outside of financial economics!

Perhaps I should make a better effort in changing that!

Pseud tick mark

As I write this post I’m ticking off one of those “to-dos” I had listed for myself a long time back – to sit at a hipster cafe in continental Europe, drink overpriced bad cappuccino and use an Apple laptop to write!

I’m writing this from this cafe whose name I don’t remember in the “nine streets” area of Amsterdam. I’ve had an interesting day today – attending a free concert at Concertgebouw, following it up with a massive and thoroughly enjoyable Indonesian lunch at this place called “Sampurna” at the flower market, and then going on a nice slow walk around the nice areas of Amsterdam city.

At the end of it my shoulder was hurting from carrying my one-shoulder messenger bag, which is all loaded up today since I’ve checked out from my hotel, and so after I “snapped” in terms of not being able to carry the bag any more, I settled down in the first cafe I encountered.

Everyone else here also seems to have a laptop, and everyone except one has an Apple laptop. I have no clue who these people are and what they’re working on, but the sense I get is that they are locals and not tourists. And so I’ve joined them, as I type on my Mac – I’m trying to restart this book I wanted to write ages back and had given up upon – perhaps being at a hipster joint might help revive the book – though the horrible cappuccino doesn’t help.

As I enter the home stretch of my holiday in Amsterdam I must mention that I have fallen in love with the bakeries of this city and haven’t for once regretted booking a hotel room that did not have breakfast included in the package. This morning I was at this bakery whose name I forget where I had absolutely splendid apple cake and cappuccino (which came out of a Lavazza machine – no clue why Barista Lavazza can’t make such cappuccino in India).

Ok I’m off now, back to my temporary hipster life, as I continue on the book!

Why Holland rocks


This is the beer menu at a small bar in the smallish Dutch town of Utrecht. And my friend who took me there assures me they have all of those in stock all the time!

What’s not to like and Holland? Oh and the bar is called “belgie” which means “Belgium” which is where most of the beer there comes from. Except the one I drank – which is brewed in Utrecht itself!

Raised seats for people on wheelchairs


I’m writing this from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris as I wait for my connection to Amsterdam. Just happened to notice this seat on front of me which is reserved for people in wheelchairs, motor disabilities, etc.

It’s extremely thoughtful that they’ve recognised that people with motor disabilities have trouble sitting on low seats and thus raised the seats reserved for such people.

Great example of truly inclusive design