Vacation Shopping

This is yet another of those questions whose answer seems rather obvious to everyone, and to me in full hindsight, but which has taken me a long time to appreciate

For a long time I never understood why people shop during vacations, when both time and luggage space are precious commodities. With global trade, I reasoned that most clothes should be available at reasonably comparable prices worldwide, and barring some special needs (such as a certain kind of shoes, for example), there was no real need to shop on vacations.

The last day of our trip to Munich in June convinced me otherwise. That was the only day on the trip that the wife was free from work, and we could go out together before our afternoon flight. The only place we ended up going out to turned out to be a clothing store, where the wife freaked out shopping.

It didn’t make sense to me – she was shopping at a chain store which I was pretty certain that I had seen in London as well. So why did she shop while travelling? And she shopped far more than she does in a normal shopping trip in London.

In hindsight, the answer is rather simple – diversity. While the same stores might exist in various countries or cities, each is adapted to local tastes and prevailing fashions. And while everyone watches the same “runways” in Milan and Los Angeles, there is always a subtle difference in prevailing styles in different places. And clothes in the stores in the respective places are tailored (no pun intended) to these styles.

And it can happen that the local prevailing styles are not something that you particularly agree with. For example, for years together in Bangalore I struggled to find plain “non-faded” jeans – most people there seemed to demand faced or torn jeans, and stores responded to serve that demand (interestingly, jeans shopping in my last Bangalore trip was brilliantly simple, so I guess things have changed).

Similarly, the wife finds it hard to appreciate most dresses in the shops in London (and I appreciate why she doesn’t appreciate them – most of the dresses are a bit weird to put it mildly), and as a result hasn’t been able to shop as much in recent times. She had taken to claim that “they don’t seem to be making normal clothes any more”.

But the styles in London aren’t correlated with the styles in Munich (or elsewhere), with the result that in that one chain store in Munich, she found more nice dresses than she had in some 20 shopping trips over a year in London.

Fashion suffers from the “tyranny of the majority“. It makes eminent sense for retailers to only stock those styles and models that have a reasonably high demand (or be compensated for stocking low-demand items with a high enough margin – I have a chapter on this in my book). So if your styles don’t match with those of people around you, you are out of luck.  But when you travel, you have the chance to align yourself to another majority. And if that alignment happens, you’re in luck!

PS: On a separate note, I’m quite disappointed with the quality of clothes in London. Across brands, they seem to wear much faster than those bought in continental Europe or even in India.

Notes from Scandinavia

Two weeks back (1st to 4th August), we visited Scandinavia – primarily Copenhagen, but also a day trip to Malmö, to give ourselves the satisfaction of having visited Sweden. A few pertinent observations (check the wife’s pertinent observations from the trip here).

  • True to reputation, we concluded our visit to Sweden without having seen a single Swedish Krona. Admittedly, our only expenses there were in places that you would normally expect to take plastic money – a restaurant, a coffee shop and a memento shop at the railway station, but this fact deserves mention given Sweden’s reputation
  • The same cannot be said of Denmark, though. A friend who used to live there had told us that we don’t need cash there, but on the first afternoon itself we found out otherwise. We hadn’t bothered drawing cash on the way to our apartment, and when the wife started craving Thai food, I found two takeaways close to the apartment but neither accepted Mastercard – they only accepted “Dankort“. The widespread use of Dankort in Copenhagen means that there aren’t too many ATMs around either. And so that day the wife was forced to make do with Cup Noodles.
  • In that sense, payment in Denmark is like the proverbial washerman’s dog . Widespread use of Dankort means few ATMs. And foreigners’ cards don’t work in a lot of places. Oh – when we did find an ATM and withdraw money, the bank (Danske Bank) had the temerity to charge us an ATM withdrawal fee
  • Relative to London at least, Copenhagen is a dense city. Based on my limited data set (from a few random walks around our apartment in the Amager suburb), the dominant form of housing is the short (3-4 storeyed) apartment building. Some of them are pretty old – the one we stayed in was built in the 1930s, and there was no lift
  • The apartment buildings are also pretty close to each other, and given that this summer in Scandinavia has been especially hot, most people kept windows open, which meant that we could see into each other’s houses. People also didn’t seem to be that concerned about privacy – in the building opposite ours (which is a kind of college hostel, I think) we saw a naked couple making out. Also – I kinda don’t write this kind of stuff on my blog nowadays, but that also told us why people like to sunbathe topless. Contact me directly if you want to know more 😛
  • This liberal attitude doesn’t preclude creeps, though. On the other side of our apartment, we saw an old man sitting in the balcony (yes, a lot of houses in Copenhagen actually have balconies, unlike in London; also windows easily open out wide. Again unlike London) with a pair of binoculars, looking towards the hostel. Go figure!
  • Thanks to the heat, we didn’t walk that much. In a way, we did the trip “in reverse”, looking for comfort food on the day we landed and walking around the old town just before heading to the airport on the last day. All the while, we kept wondering how the city would be in winter
  • Berry absolutely hated the Copenhagen metro (she would start screaming as soon as we got into a train), and for good reason. Despite being built only in the last decade, the thing lacks air conditioning, and with  a part of the line overground, there is a massive greenhouse effect. And unlike the ancient London Metro, there are no windows on the trains either
  • The metro is strange otherwise as well. The structure of the stations means the lift takes far far lesser time than the escalators, which are rather complex. The size of the lifts, however, means that most people have to take the elevator. Also I never figured out where to tap in and out at the metro (didn’t affect us since we had taken a 72 hour tourist pass)
  • We went to the beach on the day we went there. And I did my usual “beach thing” – walked into the water until it was up to my knees. Surprisingly there was no one else doing that – they were all either sunbathing (the sun was pretty intense) or swimming. The city authorities had set up “ghats” on one section of the beach from where people could dive in and swim.

There were plenty more pertinent observations i made through the trip, but the delay in documentation means that I’ve forgotten the rest. Overall, it was an interesting place, though I think we would’ve enjoyed the trip better if not for the heat.

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!