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.

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!

Missing our laptops

So we made a policy decision to not carry our laptops on our current vacation to central Europe. Basically we just decided that we didn’t really need them. And we’ve been missing them like crazy.

As the more perceptive of you might have figured out the wife has also become a regular blogger nowadays (http://priyankabharadwaj.wordpress.com), with the result that both of us seem to be facing significant blogging withdrawal symptoms.

Every day we see stuff that we find interesting, which we want to share with the world, but no avenues for doing so. I mean we have our phone and our iPad but typing is a bitch on all of them with the result that there exists a pipeline of blog posts in both our heads.

We’ve been discussing this of course, so the ideas are not going completely un-propagated. Yet the fear is that by the time we finally access our laptops tomorrow night, and finally get down to writing the unwritten blogposts, the flow of thoughts will be lost and all the fundaes will go unwritten about.

For this post here is the evening snack I’m having, at this nice cafe opposite St Stephens church in Budapest.

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Thats potato bhaji with sausages, picked vegetables and beer. The interesting thing about the beer is that I’ve only has a sip so far. There was much head, and with ten minutes if waiting (for the wife’s drink to appear, which finally didn’t and she cancelled her order) all the head disappeared!

This is paulaner hefe Weiss bier btw.

Anyway here are some of the things I’ve wanted to blog about during the trip. This list is in no way exhaustive. And it is unlikely I’ll write about everything here

1. Why coffee is so expensive in Vienna
2. On buying tourist mementoes (like shot glasses, magnets, etc)
3. More on “free” walking tours like Sandeman’s
4. On thinking in other currencies (like Czech krona or Hungarian forint)
5. Seat reservation dynamics in trains
6. Local transport pricing mechanisms
7. On how pilsner urquell has taken over Czech republic
8. On social capital and staying in Airbnb
9. On the use of L and R as consonants in the Czech language, and if it has anything to do with Sanskrit

Etc

Travelling on a budget

It is not hard to travel on a budget. There is exactly one thing you need to do – leave your credit and debit cards behind. And that’s what I did (almost) during my recently 3-day trip to Florence. I must admit first up that I cheated – that I had in my wallet my India debit card (fairly well funded). However, thanks to currency change charges and all that, I had resolved that I would use the card only in the case of emergencies. And that I would otherwise fund my trip on the cash I was carrying on me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Travelling on a budget doesn’t necessarily mean travelling cheap. All it means is that you define how much you are willing to spend during the trip, and then optimising the decisions during the trip so that your expenses are within that limit.

The way I went about my budget was some kind of a “bang bang control”. For the first two days of the trip, I simply ignored my budget and spent on merit. So each time I had to spend money I would evaluate the expense based on a general understanding of whether it was worth it. So four Euros for a gelato (in one of the touristy places) was deemed unreasonable. Three Euros for a larger gelato across the river was deemed okay and I spent. And so on.

In hindsight this is not a very valid strategy. The value of the money you have is a function of its scarcity, and the fact that I was travelling on a budget (carrying limited cash) meant that money on my was scarce (irrespective of the quantum of money that I had). From that perspective, the rational strategy to have followed was to do an initial budget of how much I would spend on what, and then evaluate each spending decision based on the opportunity cost vis-a-vis this particular budget.

So for example, I would have prepared an estimate of how I would spend each cent that I had initially carried. And then every time an expense came up (say three euros for a gelato) I would evaluate what I would have to give up on on my initial budget in order to eat the gelato. And then I would spend accordingly (FWIW, this is how airlines price cargo, at least if they follow the algo I did back when I was working in that sector in 2007). The problem there, however, is that calculations can be complex and you don’t want to be burdening yourself with that when you’re a tourist. Nevertheless, my strategy on the first couple of days (of spending on merit) was clearly wrong.

On the last day of the trip, I suddenly panicked since I now realised I probably didn’t have enough money to last the trip (I had set up “the game” such that if I had to use my debit card I would have “lost”). So I had to change strategy. First of all, I set aside money for the bus ride to the Florence airport and the taxi ride home from Barcelona airport (when there’s a wife waiting for you, you simply take the quickest means of transport available!).

Next, I looked at other mandatory expenses (I had decided to do a day trip to Siena that day so the bus far to go there was one of them; then I had to eat), and set aside money for those. And finally I was left with what I termed as “discretionary spend”, which is what I had to spend on things I had not already budgeted for.

And in order to make sure that I played within these rules, I “locked in” the moneys for the mandatory spends. I put aside thirty Euros in a separate compartment of my wallet (for the taxi fare home). I bought all the bus tickets for the day in the morning itself (Florence-Siena; Siena-Florence; Florence-Airport). And then I was left with twenty odd Euros, and this became my “discretionary spend” (my meals had to be funded from this one).

And so each expense was evaluated based on what I had in this discretionary expense budget. There were two pricing options at the Siena Cathedral (aka Duomo) – four Euros to see inside, and fifteen Euros to both see inside and climb the dome. My budgetary constraints made it a no-brainer (and I’m glad I saw the inside of the cathedral. The sheer diversity of art that hits you from all sides made it a brilliant experience). There were some chocolate shops all over the main square in Siena. Budget meant that I didn’t indulge in any of them.

Budget dictated where I ate (I was glad to bump into this really nice looking l’Aquila Trattoria and Pizzeria, and had excellent ravioli there) and drank (two Euros house wine, and not anything else). And a little left over allowed me to indulge on a second canoli for the day back when I was in Florence!

Overall it was an interesting experience. How would you do it if you were to travel on a budget?

And the trip ended with a scare. I had EUR 32.40 in my pocket when I got into the taxi at Barcelona airport. My three earlier taxi rides on that route had cost EUR 32, 31 and 27, so I couldn’t be entirely confident that I would manage it with what I had. I decided to get off early if the fare went beyond my budget, but that would be embarrassing. So I asked the wife to come down with some money, in case I needed a bailout.

As it transpired, I didn’t need the bailout. The fare was EUR 29.75.

A mistimed trip to Ayutthaya

This day (5th December) last year I went to Ayutthaya, near Bangkok in Thailand. It wasn’t meant to be that way. When we booked a vacation in Bangkok between the 4th and 8th of December, the assumption was that we would go to Ayutthaya, the “Ayodhya of Thailand” on the 6th of December. And for sheer troll value, I would pose in front of one of the temples there giving the RSS salute and upload it on social media. Just for kicks.

But then it didn’t happen that way. On the 5th of December last year, we reached the “victory monument” in Bangkok from where private minibuses are available to nearby locations. Our plan for the day was to go to Kanchanaburi, where we could see the Bridge on the River Kwai and the related museum. But then we reached the Victory Monument at a time when the previous bus to Kanchanaburi had just left and the next one wouldn’t leave for another 45 minutes. The bus to Ayutthaya was going to leave in another 10 minutes and we gladly hopped on!

We got dropped off somewhere in the middle of Ayutthaya town and we seemed to be the only tourists on the minibus. There wasn’t much of a choice for us in terms of tuk-tuks to take us sightseeing, and we tried to strike a bargain with the one tuk-tuk that was there where the bus dropped us. I remember it being a particularly hot day (it was December but Bangkok is close to the tropics). The tuk-tuk driver knew no English. Instead he had a laminated sheet of A4 paper on which pictures of monuments had been printed. He pointed us to some three or four of these and said he would take us there. We settled at THB 150 per hour (if I’m not wrong).

And you read that right – we engaged the tuk-tuk by the hour. In a place like Ayutthaya, where there is little traffic, roads are good and you can go as fast as the tuk-tuk takes you; and where the monuments are all located close enough to each other that distance is not too much, the biggest cost for the driver of the tuk-tuk is his time. Thus, hourly engagement means that tourists are likely to hurry up and not take too much time in seeing the monuments. And this results in faster “turnover” for the driver and he can hope to take around more batches of tourists each day. And considering that he spoke no English, there was little “guide role” that he could play.

As we got on to the back of the tuk-tuk, we saw a woman and baby climb into the front with the driver – he was bringing along his entire family to take us around! So at each monument we would get off and take a look around and they would just hang around the tuk-tuk. As soon as we returned, the three of them would squeeze into the front of the tuktuk and we would get into the back (this tuktuk was like a Piaggio Ape), and off we would go! Each time we reached a monument, the driver’s wife would hold up that printed sheet of A4 paper and point us to a picture which corresponded to the monument!

The monuments were themselves nothing too special to write about – especially since we had spent the earlier three days at Siem Reap. But the overall process itself was interesting. Some monuments were really crowded, though, for it was also King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX)’s birthday, and people had got together in all places that seemed marginally religious to celebrate his birthday. Monuments attached to such places were crowded. Others had no people at all.

I remember spending three hours seeing all of Ayutthaya thus. We then went to a restaurant close to the bus stand. I remember the football fan in me facing a dilemma as to what beer to drink. Obviously there was no Carlsberg available there, and Chang was out thanks to it being Everton’s sponsor. I settled for the other Thai beer Singha. It was only later I was to find that Singha was Chelsea’s official beer!

Later that evening we went out for dinner and got caught in a monumental traffic jam thanks to the King’s birthday celebrations. We got off the tuk-tuk and started walking, using the maps on my dying phone to find out the directions. My sense of direction held good, but sense of sight didn’t as I hit myself quite badly against a parked car, badly injuring my shin as I later found out. And later in the night we had trouble finding transport back to the hotel. Now that Uber has started operations in Bangkok, next time it shouldn’t be as hard!

What a vegetarian missed out on

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This is the menu card that I was given on my flight from Paris to Bangalore on Thursday. Lets look at what all a vegetarian would have missed out on:

1. Mashed potatoes with vegetables
2. Camembert cheese
3. Pineapple
4. Chocolate Tartlet

I ate all of the above and can attest that they were all most excellent – even if I were to judge them by standards not normally applied to airline food.

But someone who asked got a vegetarian platter (or had a vegetarian meal pre-booked) would have had none of the above. They would’ve instead had to make do with a sealed cup of yogurt, and a saffron semolina cake with almonds. Sounds rather sad, even if it were part of a special menu created by the oberoi group.

The problem is that the number of travelers who are vegetarian and foodies is quite small – so small that it makes no sense for the airline to career specifically to them.

Serving food on board is expensive business for airlines, and the less the number of choices they offer the better it is for them in terms of slack they have to build into their system. Hence they offer only what they believe are popular choices and hope that people’s preferences are within one of the choices they offer.

There are special meals on offer though for people with special dietary requirements but they are on offer only for those who have specifically pre booked them – this restriction means airlines don’t need to carry slack on this count. But for everyone else it’s a choice between one of the main meals on offer, and for vegetarians who like to eat well it’s a rather sad choice.

If I were offered this menu three years back when I was still vegetarian there’s a high probability I would have asked for the French cuisine. And eaten everything but for the chicken (and perhaps the mashed potatoes since they came in the same container as the chicken).

Or better I might have tried to negotiate with the airline staff to give me everything from the French menu but for the hot stuff – which would come from the vegetarian option. Given its air France I don’t know if I would’ve succeeded but would’ve tried.

I remember this fight in 2011 on Aegean airways from Rome to Athens when we had pre booked vegetarian meals and were given sad looking fruit bowls in lieu of pastries. We has asked the staff if they could give us pastries instead of our fruit. And they ended up giving us both! But then not all airline staff are so empowered!

It’s not easy being a minority, on whatever axis. Markets are too illiquid to cater to you.