Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas time in the city.

Season's greetings to the readers of my blog. I hope you had a holy and joyous Christmas. This was my first Christmas away from home. I missed my family and my village. But thanks to the Altmans who had me over for Christmas, I didn't really feel alone. I had a chance to celebrate Christmas the American way.

The preparations and fun start weeks before Christmas day. The church marks the four Sunday's before Christmas as Advent Sundays. Advent is time when we prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas. I went to Ben's house on the Saturday preceding the third Sunday of Advent. They had the lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath followed by prayers and dinner.

Then there is the tradition of carol singing. I joined the Newman Center Young Adults group for a night of caroling. And what a contrast it was to carol singing in Goa. Here we went to people's home in cars rather than on foot as a group. People gave us cookies and other treats and even beer as compared to money back home. The homes were informed well in advance about our arrival in contrast to caroling in Goa where kids sing loudly in front of homes till someone shows up. But the spirit is the same, to spread the joy of Christmas. And I am sure our visit meant a lot to senior citizens living alone. One gentleman said he didn't feel it was Christmas until we came caroling to his house. For one 98 year old lady it was the 1st time someone had come to sing carols at her home. It refreshed memories for the old people. I love Christmas carols. All the carols that talk about snow and winter stuff make so much sense here! You should definitely listen to O' Come All Ye Faithful performed by Celtic Woman

I like the festive look that comes with Christmas. The homes, shops and streets are decorated and well lit. You hear Carols in shops and on radio stations. Stores are stacked with Christmas gifts and decorations. I think Christmas has become so commercialized, loud and bright that some people have forgotten that Christ was born in a quiet humble manger. So it was good to be out of the city for Christmas.

Soon it was Christmas eve. I was at Ben's house. We decorated the tree and put some lights. We had a delicious traditional Christmas eve dinner prepared by Ben's mom. The table was lit by the Christmas candle. And it was snowing outside. It was truly amazing! We went for a midnight service at a church in Chaska. We celebrated the birth of Jesus one more time. Joy to the world, the Lord has come!

Christmas day was spent at Mrs. Altman's parent's house. It was a traditional Christmas celebration with a family get together for lunch, opening of gifts and games. The wonderful day was capped by a wonderful movie, 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Its a classic movie and a must watch around Christmas time.

'Something about Christmas time, makes me wish it was Christmas everyday' goes the song by Bryan Adams. Looking forward to the next Christmas. 362 days to go...

Happy new year 2010!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The tale of two cities, the capital and the big apple

After more than three months in the beautiful and quiet Minneapolis, it was time to visit arguably two of the most famous cities of the US, Washington DC and New York City. A couple of days in each city was more than enough to get a feel of life in the two cities. So here is the tale of two cities.

I arrived in Washington on a cold Thursday morning. I stepped out of the bus and was greeted by, well, no one. The streets were deserted and eerily quiet. For a moment, we thought there was a curfew for some reason. There was no one around to even ask where our hotel was located. We entered a subway station and the platforms were completely deserted. I guess this was Thanksgiving afternoon effect.

We visited the capitol, only to be told that it was closed. There were few other tourists there, mostly Indians who I guess,like us, don't celebrate Thanksgiving. We walked around the main streets. This was the Capital! Of the world literally! The Washington Monument and the War Memorials are quite spectacular at night. So is the Lincoln monument. I like Lincoln's style. Really overflows with attitude. I must emulate him. There are tons of museums around. We only visited the Air and Space Museum. It is a must visit for aero enthusiasts. You can also see the White house from a distance. It would have been great if Manmohan Singh at invited us for dinner. Not a mistake. He was there that night at Obama's Thanksgiving dinner. I didn't have the audacity of hope to get an invite from Obama.

The next day we visited the Capitol. We got a free guided tour of inside the building for free despite being non US citizens. Isn't that awesome? It was great to walk the corridors of power surrounded by walls richly decorated with carvings and frescoes. The opulence around was slightly overwhelming. It is a place steeped in history and abounding with legends and tales. We also spent sometime in Georgetown. Its a lovely part of town that still retains the Old European feel. Cobblestone sidewalks, small stone facade buildings and dining places serving cuisines of virtually every European country.

Next up was the Big Apple, NYC! I had seen NYC only on the small screen of my laptop. Two of my favorite sitcoms, Friends and HIMYM are set in NYC. Finally it was NYC in person! You can see the glitz and glamor all around. Brightly lit shops and buildings, limousines and overdressed people paint a glamorous picture. The sidewalks are filled with motley crowd of people from every corner of the world. And new york reminded me a lot of India. You have street food, road side vendors selling everything from 'Rolex watches' to books to gum, cycle rickshaws (yes, I swear!), insane cab drivers jumping lanes and honking away to glory. You can cross the streets anywhere anytime. You have street entertainers. And on one occasion, there was a band playing inside a store! And to top it all, people are generally rude. All this is a far cry from Minneapolis, where everyone is nice and everything is orderly.

So whats there in New york besides a Starbucks on every street? You have times square which is just an intersection of two streets surrounded by bright billboards and filled with loads of tourists taking pictures. Then there is the empire state building which was once the worlds tallest building. The view of the city from the top is worth the 1 hour wait and $20 fee. Then there is the iconic statue of liberty. It was the symbol of the free world for the politically and financially oppressed Europeans of the early 1900s. You should also visit the museum on the nearby Ellis island. About 40% of the American population trace their ancestors to Ellis island immigration office.

Any trip to NYC will not be complete without a bit of shopping. I had the chance to shop in the world's biggest store. It covers an entire block and is 8 stories high! You have a mind boggling number of options of any thing. And when you are in a store this big, it can be a nightmare. But then most of it is covered with stuff for the ladies. I don't know why they need so many clothes when they strive to wear little. Anyways every shopaholic should refrain from entering these stores with their credit/debit cards. I mean you don't let loose a drunkard in a wine cellar. Besides Macy's I also shopped at the Apple store. Yup, an Apple from the Big Apple. Okay I got the cheapest item available. And I guess I was the only guy who goes for black Friday shopping and buys the one thing in the entire store that doesn't have any discount!

So that was the Tale of two cities. It was a hectic vacation. I needed a few days in Minneapolis to rejuvenate me. Thank you Vaibhav for being the guide for the entire trip!