I would say the moment I am talking about came about three minutes after I had walked into our hotel room in Venice. I was minding my own business as the wife captured territory with the flourish of an empress, when I casually opened the pages of the Venezia magazine and choked. Oh my God, I told myself. They hate us.
The story was about a new Vaporetto (water bus) route that was reserved only for Venetians holding an ID. It opened thus, in somewhat incorrect English: “Just for you, you who cannot stand anymore the umbrellas by the tour guides, of sandwiches by the tourists hit and run, of the groups with their nose up in the air, by the billions of cameras ready to immortalise sick pigeons.”
Hmmm. Many Italians hate the 37 million tourists who invade their country every year. I don’t blame the Italians. But I am not going to make it any easier for them either — I am going back again after some years, immediately after I have paid off my credit card bills for this trip.
Italy is beautiful, so rich in natural splendour and art and history that it doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Over two weeks, we took train journeys through the beautiful countryside, walked dozens of kilometres (no, the paunch is sadly still intact), feasted on architecture — and delicious wood-baked pizzas (refer to misplaced paunch complaint above), wrote a Bollywood song for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, and sat mesmerised in stunningly designed churches.
But Italy took away my most favourite childhood thing. Bata. I grew up in Bata’s Naughty Boy shoes. I had just the single pair. It held great memories of childhood in Nainital, walking to the football tournament at the Flats in the St. Joseph’s College uniform, wading through rain and then waiting for them to dry the next day. Bata, pretty much like Tata, was to me nothing but Indian. So the day when I learned in my adulthood that Bata is a European company, was like the day when children are told there is no Father Christmas.
I had still held out, though, until I landed in Italy — and found a Bata at every corner. I ventured into two stores, but bought nothing — after all, one of the pieces of my childhood jigsaw had just been snatched away.
Spot a friend
Bata wasn’t, but there was a lot else that was, indeed, Indian and I found them at the most unexpected moments. As I tried out a pair of trousers (I hate that exercise) at a Sisley store in Rome, a smile hit my face: I heard the booming Hindi words, Piya Re, Piya Re, from an Indian album of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. At the Piazza Navona, I said loudly in excitement, “Ganges!” — there was a statue representing the river.
Two days later, as I talked to a White sales girl about a shirt size at the huge Zara store on Via del Corso, I was interrupted by a bigger surprise: Shamshad Begum singing Majrooh Sultanpuri’s beautiful lyrics in the song Leke Pehla Pehla Pyaar.
And in Florence, there was the clock at Massimo Dutti showing Mumbai time, and huge show window models of old Indian matchbox, brands at a Hermes store, which (I am told) sells the world’s most obnoxiously priced bags. There they were — Key, Taj Mahal, Aeroplane and the Elephant brand made in Mahbubabad, looking up admiringly at the mannequin. And with all this Hindustani connection, it was only fitting that I shout “Namita Bhandare!” stopping right in the middle of a cobbled street in Florence. No mental problem caused it; it was just that I had sighted my friend of the same name, who used to earlier edit the Saturday edition of this paper, out of nowhere.
I knew the wife would feel left out — so out of great concern, I brought back another equally big catch the next day. I found her her close friend Parul, also an Indian journalist, who was in Florence only for a few hours. I should have been a detective — going by the way I led the wife as we tailed Parul in a pink shirt trough a crowd, through a square and three lanes, before finally cornering her at a toy store as she looked speechless (much before Scotland Yard came, late as always, my dear Watson).
The Great Photo Pact
With visual delights (apart from these two lovely ladies) at every street corner, I took hundreds of pictures on my Nikon D-80 as the wife, a constant enemy of my photography, looked on resigned and fiddled with her Blackberry. I could do all that because of a masterstroke before boarding the flight — I had made her sign a pact that was simply: if you don’t let me take all the pictures I want, I ain’t goin’. I know it sounds harsh, but it is based on previous experiences when my talent had been mercilessly stifled.
But back in Venice, there were other scarier things to deal with. In the hotel room, the story in the La Rivista di Venezia promised locals rides on the boat taxi “free from the reek of the tourist’s armpits”. And some distance away from the hotel, the graffiti on the wall said in Italian: ‘Journalists terrorists’.