September 09, 2008

A tale of three cities

London, New York and Paris are three cities which have withstood the test of time and have redefined the way the modern world has shaped up, for better or for worse.

Having been fortunate enough to spend time in all three of them within a space of an year, and having been bewitched by each of them in their own unique ways, here are my views on them.

London was home to me for two years. London was everything I expected it to be, and a bit more. As a character says in Snatch, "London, you know... - fish, chips, cup 'O tea, bad weather, worse food, Mary @#$%ing Poppins, London!". My own views are not that cynical but yes, the worst thing about London is surely the weather. Well, for eight months of the year at least.

It is not just the fact that it is cold but it so amazingly depressing in the short and cloudy days of the winter, that I often wonder how the British have resisted suicidal tendencies! In the summer, however, England is the best place to be. With the extended daytime and sunshine which is at once bright and not overbearing, the English countryside is a great place to take long walks. Coming back to London though...

No matter what kind of a person you are and whatever is it that you like, chances are, London will have just the kind of place which would keep you interested. For anyone with the an interest in history and the arts, there is the British Museum, the National Gallery, the theatres in West end and numerous other places. If you are a party animal, there are countless clubs blaring out music all night long. If you like Sports, there are at least 3 test matches played in London alone every year, apart from Wimbledon, football, Formula One, the London Marathon, etc etc.

Only a few of the British however, were as I had expected them to be. My idea of a Britisher was of a tough as nails, eloquent fellow who knows exactly how to convey disappointment and appreciation in equal measure, without ever seeming to do either!

Unfortunately, like the rest of the developed world, the British have also gone into a slumber. The youngest native Britisher in my office was 27! Most of the young generation do not study beyond high school and chalk out their livelihood doing petty jobs in supermarkets and the like. Whatever happened to the seafaring adventurers and pioneers of industrial revolution I do not know. They seem to have lost the buccaneering spirit. According to a statistic, Pakistani immigrants would outnumber the English in Birmingham in as early as 2027. What that would do to England as we know it, only time can tell.

But meeting a few of the people I was fortunate to work with made me appreciate what made these people rule the world. The written and verbal communication skills coupled with the analytical ability of one gentleman in particular made me step up the bar of my own work and improve.

While discussing a particular logic, this particular gentleman would say something I wouldn't understand at the moment. As I kept looking for solutions to the problem and thought out the outcomes of each step of the proposed solution, I would finally hit a roadblock and blurt out 'we could have done XYZ but it wouldn't be possible because of ABC' and it would strike me that he had said the same thing about four or five minutes earlier. As they say, the best way to learn to play is to play against a better player and that's what happened to me!

All said and done, as a wise man had said, 'A man tired of London is tired of life!'

London and Paris were the most prominent cities of the middle age and shaped much of arts and technology of the time. I was expecting Paris to be similar to London but the moment I saw trash lying all over the place and overflowing toilets at the bus stop, I knew I was in for a surprise. Paris is as different from London as the French are to the British.

As with London, Paris has more than its share of museums, art galleries and grand old buildings, with a little difference. Most buildings in London (I only refer to the ones built before 1850), though large and grand in their own way, were built to serve practical purposes more than anything else. Not for the British the unnecessarily large halls and archways. Paris, and Europe by extension, has huge palaces and cathedrals which were built to satisfy the royal families' ego more than anything else. Whatever it cost the citizens of the time, they make for excellent tourist destinations. I visited the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and the Eiffel in a single day and that was best combination of monuments I saw in such a short time. The Notre Dame and other cathedrals are also a must watch, and so is a boat ride on the Seine.

Paris once stood for grandeur and magnificence and is now mostly known to be the fashion capital of the world and, for some strange reason, the most romantic city in the world. Maybe it was because I roamed all over Paris all alone, but I couldn't fathom why it is considered so. But not for nothing is it called the fashion capital of the world. Home to every other fashion label, even the streets of Paris have clothes and accessories of all kinds catering to all budgets. I never saw a wider range of shoes and hats worn than I did in two days in Paris.

The Parisians love food. Roadside restaurants with lovely umbrellas and chairs line up either sides of almost all major streets. Sitting in one of these sipping coffee and people watching is a great way to while your time away.

The French are very easy going people. While the British make a conscious effort to maintain a stoic expression and look 'stylish', it comes fairly naturally to the French. They are very liberal, as is evident from their movies, and quite prone to bend the rules when required. The British on the other hand follow every rule to the T.

Paris, thus, is not as clean and disciplined as London is. In two years I saw exactly one traffic violation in London while I lost count of it in Paris in precisely two days, just like I would back home. The streets, the underground railway and the city in general has a feel of a city which 'once was'. However, with so many magnificent buildings and monuments, it is unlikely that Paris would ever lose its charm.

If London and Paris represent the older world, New York, more than anything, symbolises the new world and the idea behind America as a nation. A land of settlers rather than natives, the country has been built brick by brick by people who travelled across the seas to a vast, hostile land which had as many natural obstacles as it had resources.

For more than a century, New York was the first place Europeans from across the Pacific landed in and tried to chalk out a living. It was not a land where freebies were given away. As a result, only the enterprising and the hardworking survived.

In a sense, it is to America and the world what Mumbai is to India. It is a melting pot of people and cultures from all corners of the world. As with London, it has something to offer for everybody. But it is just so much bigger and busier and livelier than London that it took my breath away.

I always thought touring New York would be akin to visiting a concrete jungle. I couldn't have been more wrong. The city has such an energy about itself, it is hard not to get infected by it. Manhattan with its skyscrapers and unruly traffic is a great place to stroll through. Though the likes of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State building and Central Park are good to visit, they are not a jot on the attractions on offer in the other two cities. But that is not where the charm of New York lies. New York thrives on its streets. It is said that if you stand on the Times Square long enough, you would meet people from every country in the world. It is certainly not an exaggeration.

It does have its share of traditional attractions too in the form of museums, night life and Broadway.

New York has for long been a Democratic hub and is quite liberal in its outlook. The dignity it observed while mourning for the loss of 9/11 was a lesson for us in particular. The eerie silence on the WTC site sends a shiver down the spine even today.

The Americans live in a world of their own. All the fuss about global warming and saving natural resources does not seem to have reached them yet. They continue to drive their SUVs as if it is the only 'single seater' conveyance mode available, use up as much paper in form of stationery and toiletry in a day as we would in a fortnight, keep the lights on throughout the night in malls and shops, and do just about everything possible to accelerate the planet's death.

It is not that they do not care, but just that they do not get it.

They are the most interactive of the lot. Any polite enquiry towards their well being is answered with an emphatic 'great!', 'wonderful!' and the like. A Britisher would feel stretched to say as much as 'good'. A typical answer in this case would be that he isn't doing bad, or worse, that he is doing tolerably well.

With its diverse architecture and cultures, these cities have shaped the modern world and attracted people all over the world for more than a century. It is up to us, the developing world, to draw inspiration from them with respect to urban planning and mass transportation.

I certainly do hope to visit each of them again to soak in the sights and sounds of these wonderful cities.


Neha Natu Sharma said...

Caught up with it fairly late but it makes an awesome read! :)

I loved the way you blended your entry into each city in your write-up without having to specify a title for them.

Could not agree with you more when you said abt the Americans and their ignorance towards the global warming thingy. They literally live on paper...more paper...n use up tons of paper each day! When I go shopping I see them using legions of plastic bags a day. Only God knows if they will ever catch-up with the world and lend their support in saving the planet.

Atul Bhogle said...

And I in turn caught up with the comment pretty late :)

You are right, even the though of using up so much paper would render me sleepless.