Some three decades earlier, as an informal part of our marriage vows, Mangla and I pledged a lifetime of love; and we mapped France, Italy, and England as blissfully romantic distant lands we would visit someday. But first, we immigrants to the United States needed to learn how to earn our keep and put food on the proverbial table for the children we dreamed of.
Neither Mangla nor I explicitly mentioned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (MHoN), but, like the good migrants we aspired to be, we embraced the 19th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s model of human motivation and dreamed of ascending life’s ladder.
To a large extent, our first twenty-five years of family travel reflected this aspirational climbing up Maslow’s pyramid. Every other year, we would return to India so that Anu and Siddhu (our children) would be tacitly socialized in the ways of our ancestors by staying connected to family in our ancestral land; during the alternate yearly summer vacations, we stayed in our adopted land, with the children tucked away in the back seat of rented cars that would help take them across America, the land of their birth.
Now it was time for Europe.
Reflecting back on my visit, I think of the constrained village life of my grandparents, and consider what President Obama had expressed during a visit to a prison: “There but for the grace of God go I.” While dusty Rajasthani villages are by no means a prison, if I had remained within their desert walls, I don’t believe I could have developed an expansive world-view: the meditative quality of travel that encourages one to challenge long-held beliefs.
Our six days in London whizzed by seeing iconic places and meeting famous faces.
Iconic places included: Buckingham Palace, Westminister Abbey, Big Ben, House of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, National Gallery, St. Paul’s Cathedral, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tower of London, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Punjab Restaurant, and others either forgotten or perhaps somewhat forgettable.
Famous faces included: Queen Elizabeth II at a distance on her “Trooping of the Colours” belated birthday celebration; “Changing of the Royal Guards” in front of Buckingham Palace, but more interestingly up close at their training quarters; faux Beatles in a musical tribute to George, Paul, John, and Ringo at London’s Garrick Theatre; the real Michelle Obama with mother and daughters in tow, but only seen in newspapers that celebrated their visit and reflected in traffic jams that stopped our bus; a seemingly alive statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi in front of the House of Parliament peacefully confronting a stony Winston Churchill (who once disparaged the Mahatma as a “half-naked fakir” in a loincloth); one ferocious “Tipoo’s Tiger” music box, muted but forever memorialized at the Victoria and Albert Museum slaying a red-coated Englishman; and some 30 angelic-sounding choir boys praising the Lord in song during Westminister Abbey’s Evensong, for which the three of us were democratically and randomly given front-row pews where perhaps the Queen herself might have sat during the many Royal Weddings conducted during her 63-year reign.
Serendipity gave us one of the unexpected highlights of our trip: a viewing of Magna Carta on June 15, 2015, exactly 800 years to the day that this magnificent charter of governance was issued.
From America’s early days, when Edmund Burke proclaimed that colonial settlers should “Sit down … to the feast of Magna Carta” to modern-day lawyers defending the rights of men wrongfully imprisoned at Guantanamo, Americans have rallied around Magna Carta as a touchstone. And in the centuries in between, others like Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela have referenced Magna Carta’s 4,000 words to make the claim that rights extend to all men and women, not just people of a skin shade lighter than brown.
Over the next two weeks of our vacation, I would often come across men and women-migrants like my family, and at the same time very unlike us. Existing at our taken-for-granted base of MHoN, these weary souls seemed to have no charter with the modern world; having left their traditional lands, these fellow travelers apparently have no Magna Carta type of document protecting their rights. Their pacts with the past were broken. Their bargain with the present was seemingly Faustian. And with Europe’s precarious position on the world economic stage, their futures were fragile.
As we stepped out of the Colosseo metro station, we immediately had in front of us two awe-inspiring sights: the nearly 2,000-years-old Colosseum, with the setting sun giving its ancient stonework a golden glow; and Gabriella Cini (a.k.a Gabri), the youthful grandmother who savvily used Airbnb to host her lovely apartment to visitors like us. Despite the Colosseum living up to expectations, it was truly Gabri who exceeded expectations.
Rome, Gabri’s Rome, became our home for six days. Our initial meeting with Gabri at the Metro prophesied a memorable intimacy; it was actually an Italian embrace, complete with hugs and affectionate pecks on sun-kissed cheeks).
As we walked into the fresh-as-an-Italian-daisy apartment, we appreciated the milk, cheese, and chocolates in the refrigerator, and the pasta, olive oil, and spices on the shelves: so much of a delightful surprise; so much what members of a community do for each other. Gabri’s helpfulness and mindfulness reminded me of neighbors borrowing a cup of sugar in South Asian homes.
One of the capabilities that Mangla looked for when searching Airbnb accommodations was the availability of Internet access-a Maslovian must-have.
Poor Gabri was crestfallen when her modem balked in its transformation from a modern-day convenience to an Airbnb everyday necessity. Although we didn’t make a big fuss, Gabri immediately raced down the six floors of the building, requested that the Volare Restaurant located on the ground floor make available its Internet password to us, and climbed back up the stairs to not only convey “mission accomplished” but also to say that that she would call Vodafone to have the issue resolved. Imagine our surprise the next day when Gabri had provided our various electronic devices, with their appetites for global connectivity, a mobile hotspot that we used all over Rome, except for Bibliothè.
Bibliothè is a charming Indian restaurant-cum-bookstore-cum-salon located a healthy walk from the Colosseum, with the Roman Forum and the Capitoline Museums (considered by some to be the first museum in the world) virtually next door. Like the Capitoline Museums, Bibliothè is a treasure that has much packed into it.
While the museums have at their center an equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Bibliothè has Enzo Barchi, the erudite owner who has stocked the kitchen with what he calls Ayurvedic ingredients, stocked his bookshelves with what I call literary India, and decorated his salon and restaurant with what a museum would call a fusion of India and Italian art. The real treat for us at Bibliothè (and the reason we didn’t have the heart to open a smartphone) was Rajiv Roy.
Like a museum curator, Rajiv, who manages the restaurant, understands that with his own artistic sensibility, he can bring to guests all that Enzo and the staff create. Rajiv is an aspiring film student from Bengal who was inspired to be a director by the master, Satyajit Ray, and is studying in the land of Vittorio de Sica, whose own inner eye had produced Bicycle Thieves, a masterful film of gritty Rome that had influenced Ray’s own Bengali neo-realism.
The beauty of this Italian capital is its living people: Gabri, Enzo, Rajiv, and so many others. Some were strangers who guided us to the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin; this minor church is where the “Mouth of Truth” marble sculpture welcomes fans of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn’s magical scene in Roman Holiday (or is the sculpture actually a huge manhole cover that swallows hands?). Another stranger was Sergio, a street artist who produced a memorable portrait in charcoal of Anu at the top of the Spanish Steps. And two of the others included Manuele and Hiat, the two warm-hearts who ran the Volare Restaurant some fifty steps below Gabri’s apartment.
Manuele and Hiat were so friendly and accommodating of our vegetarian and gluten-free diets that we enjoyed several meals at their restaurant. And we returned every evening after exploring Rome and looked forward to greeting Hiat and Manuele with a smiling (if somewhat travel-weary) “Buonasera.”
Even Rome, with all its charm and hospitality, had us going up and down MHoN as if we were going up and down the Spanish Steps. The government employees were consistently inhospitable at best and downright rude on lesser days. And, unfortunately we even had to climb down a few very short steps of the Maslow pyramid with self-actualized Gabri.
Midway through our stay, the hot-water geyser in our apartment stopped smiling. We were prepared to “suffer” cold showers, but when Gabri sent a WhatsApp text to Mangla (“Hello. How is Rome? All okay?”), Mangla responded, “Buongiorno. Bien. Also, the water heater is not working.”
Gabri came over that evening with her sister Paula, whose English is more fluent than Gabri’s. Together we tried to fix the recalcitrant tank of cold H2O, but to no resolution.
Gabri was not one to give up. She called four “Speedy Repairmen,” but this being relaxed Rome on a lazy Saturday, speed meant Monday or later. Gabri was besides herself. Though we insisted it was no problem, her face clouded with concern and, two hours later, she texted to say that she was returning with Alessandro, a handyman friend. Though Alessandro only repeated what Gabri and I had previously done, he proved to be the “geyser whisperer,” and hot water flowed through our 100-year-old apartment’s modern aqueduct system.
On the evening before our departure from Rome, Gabri dropped by to say “Hello.” She handed us an envelope and requested that we not open it until she had left. There were nine pieces of paper: two 50 Euro bills, four 20 bills, two 10 bills, and a clean sheet of white paper with a note in English. Our Euro compensation for one day of life without hot water was far too generous. And Gabri’s sentimental farewell note to her new-found friends was priceless:
“Dear friends, your courtesy and patience to the problems that occurred during the stay in my house, it was outstanding. I apologize again and I hope to fix with this money to your hardships.
I you leave reluctantly because your presence was one of the most welcomed. I wish you bon voyage.
Presented on white printer paper, these words made that simple sheet of stationary come alive. Il Papiro’s (a lovely vellum shop in Rome) luxurious hand-decorated paper was no competition to Gabri’s heart-decorated pedestrian papyrus. Gabriella’s words (idiosyncratic typos, Italian grammar, grandmotherly hugs, and all) reflect an amazing grace.
Confronting America, Considering France
After our time in Rome, we made our way to Paris, taking the highly integrated Eurail system along the Mediterranean Sea visiting Pisa, Ventimiglia, Nice, and Marseille along the way.
While we were in France, back in our not-so-united United States, President Obama led a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace.” His eulogy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston reached the soul of an American summer that uneasily confronted its racist winter. Leading up to the President’s speech in the heart of America’s south were a series of southern and northern killings of innocent black men, women, and children. Some of these deaths came at the hands of criminals; some came at the hands of police officers, hands entrusted to keep our bodies safe.
Upon returning to California, I felt as if I had returned to the racial politics of my 1960s American childhood: Governor Nikki Haley oversaw the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s State House; my high-school literary hero, the legendary Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird, was re-presented by Harper Lee, the novelist who gave him birth as an avuncular attorney who saw justice as color-blind, and gave him re-birth as an agitated apartheidist who saw integration as a threat; and the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates enriched the African-American conversation with Between the World and Me, a searing indictment of the nightmarish American fairytale of equality translated to his son as a tale of fear.
Across the Atlantic, I felt safely cocooned in those super fast European trains, riding a railway system that purports to unify rather than divide. But in France, I was to soon learn that the post-racial French dream had at least three strikes against it; in the République française, despite its aspirational motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité, to be perceived as dark and/or Muslim could mean to be outside the protective blanket of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Strike One: On the Train to Nice
The night train from the small Italian town of Ventimiglia to the French resort of Nice had the feel of a commuter train. There were several stops, and people got on, people got off. All along, the Mediterranean Sea gleamed.
Suddenly, the train stopped and stayed stopped. Small groups of men in black climbed aboard each coach. Their black gloves suggested that they were on official business. Intending no malice to us American-passport-holders, these men had a firm look of menace to anyone whose papers were to be handled by those gloved hands.
Since we had crossed into France, when one of these border patrols walked past us, Siddhu and I said, “Bonjour” in nervous unison. Without a smile, without looking at us, he responded with a “Bonjour” that suggested that he had other business.
We saw this officer and his colleagues interrogate several other passengers, all men, all ranging in color a shade of brown darker than Siddhu and me. Only one of those undocumented migrants was allowed to remain on the train. Apparently, these men, and others like them from North Africa, float to Italy on flimsy rafts, and then attempt to float across the European Union’s relatively open borders into France. Some lose their lives on sinking vessels somewhere between Libya and Italy, resulting in a papal plea: “Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?” Others make it to the Italian gateway, as a result of the Italian government’s generosity or laxity (depending on one’s point of view). And a lucky few make it to Northern European countries that aid asylum-seekers or at least enable them to sell selfie sticks at street corners.
Though we made it to Nice without being asked for our passports, somehow the racial profiling shook us up a bit with that Obaman sense of “There but for the grace of God go I.” Paradoxically, and I write this with no small sense of shame or privilege, I felt safer knowing that there were anonymous black gloves controlling the borders. Perhaps Donald Trump and demagogues across the world trade on this type of fear-mongering; they know that if you incite those emotions lurking at the base of MHoN, fear buys votes.
Strike Two: Eating Down and Back Up the Hierarchy of Crêperies
We got into Nice late in the evening, and Siddhu discovered that a well-regarded crêperie was within walking distance and open until 11:00 p.m. We walked in, and I proceeded to practice my rusty French. Immediately, the maître d’ (or maybe he was the owner or perhaps just a tired waiter) said, “We are closed.” It was 10:10 p.m. so we were a bit taken aback. Siddhu said, “Your website says, ‘11:00.’” The maître d’ said, “Sorry. It is wrong. We are closed.” Mangla said, “Your sign on the door says, ‘11:00.’” The maître d’ said, “We are closed.”
I looked around the restaurant and noted that there was a couple waiting for their meal, which the chef/cook was making in the open kitchen near the dining area. The place seemed friendly enough, and the maître d’ was not hostile. So I bantered a bit and suggested that we would be fine with take-out. “We are closed.” I tensed up. After a long day’s night traveling from Florence to Pisa to Genova to Ventimiglia to Nice, we needed to make sure that Siddhu’s ulcerative colitis didn’t flare up.
I was angry, but helpless, so I changed tack: “My son has an illness. He must eat or he will suffer. Please.”
Maître d’: “We are closed.”
“You don’t need to feed my wife or me. Just one small vegetarian crêpe please.”
Mangla, feeling shamed by the interaction walked outside with Siddhu.
The other diners had distressed looks on their faces. I can only imagine how their appetites were responding to the sight of a middle-aged man begging for food for his son.
The maître d’ was unmoved: “We are closed.”
Defeated, I shuffled out the door, wanting to go back to the crêperie and smash a window or at the very least write a scathing note on TripAdvisor.
We started our next day in Nice with a walk to the Old Quarters, which Queen Victoria enabled many years ago when the English royals came to Southern France to escape England’s miserable winters. After the four of us enjoyed a dip in the sea, we headed over to an open market where, just like in California’s farmers’ markets, the food looked fresh, and we gladly paid extra for the aesthetic pleasure. We also had some exceptionally overpriced candy (Okay. Okay. Chocolat.) at a chocolatier founded in 1820. But the culinary highlight of the entire trip was at Crêperie le Trimaran. Not only was the food delicious, but the service was deliciously funny.
Clement Sanchez is the client-facing part of the operation and his less visible wife is the genius in the kitchen. When Anu inquired about gluten-free items on the menu, Clement pointed to his slender frame with a mischievous smile and said, “Sans gluten? Moi aussi. And look at the results!” Like Anu, he also kept gluten out of his diet, and like a mime, he glided back and forth from the kitchen to the diners’ tables. But once he got to the table, the fun would really start. Seeing that I enjoyed my gluten and chocolate, I was tabbed as “Max Gluten.” The humor enhanced the meal, but the singing truly capped it off. When Clement asked us about our country of origin, Mangla, Anu, and Siddhu said, “America.” After I chimed in with an amplifying, “California,” I explained that Mangla and I were originally from India and the kids were born in the United States. Suddenly, Clement burst into a robust rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” I joined in, and Anu captured the border-busting fun on her smartphone. So much for French chauvinism or American parochialism. We were just two happy fools enjoying each other’s company on a lovely summer day.
Strike Three: Muslim Marginalization in Marseille and Peak Performance in Paris
On our way from Nice to Paris, we opted for a one-day halt in Marseille. At our hotel, we met a mother and son who came down to the lobby with us in the elevator, and, like us, were visitors hungry for a place to eat during their first night in Marseille. So we asked the manager about a place where we could get a bite to eat on a balmy, Mediterranean Friday evening. He enthusiastically suggested La Major, “a huge restaurant that always has open tables without need for reservations.”
At the restaurant, doing my best recollection of high-school French, I expressed appreciation as our beaming hostess led us to our table in the outdoor seating area. Suddenly, a pit bull of a manager in black suit and tie blocked our way. He gruffly asked, actually demanded, if we had reservations. I said, “Non, mais pourquoi?” No, but why did we need a reservation if the hostess was already taking us to the table in a largely unoccupied restaurant.
The manager simply said, “Reservation is required.”
Siddhu firmly inquired, “Until what time are tables reserved? When is the next open spot?”
The manager menacingly smiled,
“We are full all night.” The hostess kept her head down, averting shame-exposing eye contact the whole time. It didn’t feel right, but on the surface there was not much that we could do. No reservation. No openings. No dinner at this swanky nightspot.
As we headed away from La Major, we saw the mother and son from our hotel being escorted to a table. They had told us in the hotel lobby that they might meet us at La Major but were first going to explore the area before the French night became too dark.
Seeing these two fair-skinned visitors seated left the four of us darker-skinned visitors with a collection of emotions: sadness, exasperation, rage, and confusion.
How could these two be seated, but a few minutes earlier we were refused service? Siddhu and I went back to the manager and asked about the two guests who had just been admitted to the restaurant. He blankly lied, “They have reservations.”
I shouted, “No they do not! They are from our hotel, and I know they don’t have reservations. If you’d like, let’s go ask them directly.”
As the caught-in-a-lie manager shrugged his shoulders upwards and pursed his lips downward, Siddhu waved his hands across a sea of tables with empty chairs, “So why do you have space for them but not for us?”
The pit bull found his bark, smiled a little racist smile and said, “People like you don’t have shoes? Must have shoes for a quality restaurant like ours.”
Shod in stylish slippers, Siddhu, with his Stanford debate training, retorted, “Okay, I’ll go change into shoes. Our hotel is minutes away.”
The dog pulled at his collar in the evening heat and said, “You need a blazer.”
Although Siddhu indeed had a navy blue jacket at the hotel, he grew tired of the power game. The manager could have pointed to 75% of the men in the restaurant and made the same demand, since three-fourths of the male guests were sans blazers. The difference, perhaps, was that 100% of the guests were white. And, perhaps, with his four-day fashionable beard, Siddhu “looked Muslim.” And, of course, like blacks in America, Muslims across the world have to be careful about showing anger in public places.
The four of us moved away and marveled at how we could celebrate living in a country with a black President who had a Muslim name. Our America was engaged in a forward-looking, albeit not always balanced, dialogue around what words like liberty, equality, and fraternity mean to all people; their France was stuck in a backward-looking, limited view of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
Later that night, we walked to a tougher part of town and had a pizza. Its owners, Marc and Virginie, were sympathetic to our experience from earlier in the evening. They and the Muslim men they employed told us that while Marseille does have its racial tensions, not all French men and women were like the black suits we had encountered.
Indeed, on the next afternoon’s train to Paris, we met a sweet family of four: an IT manager, his wife, and their two young daughters. We talked, shared cherries, appreciated the verdant French countryside outside the train windows, discussed how technology was changing life, and even had a moment to explain to the elder daughter the significance of the red bindi on Mangla’s forehead.
Our time in pre-November-terrorized Paris was peaceful. And the food, while not optimal for vegetarians, was a pleasure. The outdoor markets were fresh and friendly. And the picnics in outdoor gardens were memorable, especially in Le Jardin du Luxembourg with its outdoor orchestra and quaint little wooden boats.
But it was our penultimate day in Paris that made our Europe trip complete. On the second to last day of our vacation, having seen most everything that the guidebooks suggested we should see except Leonardo’s Mona, we ventured out early in the morning for a full day at the Musée du Louvre.
Upon entering the museum, Anu led us directly to the “Mona Lisa.” Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic portrait did not disappoint us with her beguiling smile. But a smile is but a smile; there was so much more to see in the world’s largest museum. The writer in me was joyous to have drawn the lucky ticket: an image of “The Seated Scribe” in the Egyptian Hall.
As with all masterpieces, this sculpture encouraged my own reaction, certainly quite different from the artist’s intention. I first reflected on the fact that while African migrants aren’t welcomed into France with the visa version of a lucky ticket, their masterly artwork is proudly enshrined in the country’s most prominent museum. And then I turned the gaze more inwards and saw myself in the limestone ancient man seated upright in a lotus position, with hands positioned to document the needed. In his glossy crystal eyes, I saw a mirror of my own writerly aspirations. And I was grateful that the pen and notebook that had accompanied me throughout Europe had given me a privileged view of life in England, Italy, and France. I had come to spend time with family, and that I did. And the pen gave me a third eye, a way of confronting and conflating three worlds: the country of my birth, the country of my residence, and these three countries that over three weeks welcomed my family and me in such uneven mindful and mindless ways.
As part of the MARS gang (Mangla, Anupama, Rajesh, Siddhartha), RCO is a Martian of sorts, forever an outsider, never fully comprehending the war of the worlds.