Sunday, 2 February 2014

Glad to be in Gland, ravaged in Rome

The car screeched to a halt. Then another, and within minutes we could see a sea of vehicles standing in a long queue. We had just stepped near a zebra crossing and were mulling over whether to cross the road or not. With the light showers, the weather was chilly, cold enough to trembling you down to bones. 

Seeing us confused, an old woman in blue raincoat came running to us. “Gentlemen, if you are thinking of crossing the street, go and do it,” she said. “Seems you guys are new to the place. It’s the pedestrians first, if there are no streetlights around a zebra crossing.” She was kind enough to apologise in French with the first motorist in the line, for us.   

We rushed to other side of the road. Then there was a melee of vehicles zooming towards their destinations. They had stopped to let us cross the road. Even in a small place like Gland, it was like the traffic jam in neighbouring Geneva. It was the first lesson in Europe for my friend Suman and I.  

Both of us were in Europe for the first time. We had lodged in a cosy hotel in a small town called Neon that can be reached within 18 minutes from Geneva by train. Gland is only 4 minutes’ ride from Neon. Gland is a must visit place for conservationists. Both the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, World Wildlife Fund in the US and Canada) and IUCN (The World Conservation Union) have their secretariats in Gland.

As it was getting darker in the evening, we scouted the place in the search for rice. How can a Nepali survive without dal-bhat (rice and lentils)? The case of my friend was more serious. He is a pure vegetarian and wherever we went, they were serving non-vegetarian food. In search of rice and vegetarian food, we had toured a whole section of Geneva Lake in Neon suburbs. Lac Leman, as the French call it, is one of the largest lakes in Western Europe.

Finally, we settled down for a Chinese restaurant. We were hungry and the walk along the lake had further upped the hunger. My friend ordered a plate of fried rice and mushroom curry while I satisfied my hunger with a plateful of chowmein. The food was yummy but the price, especially for we Nepalis, was skyrocketing. My friend had to cough 26 Euros for the food and 5 Euros for the bottle of water he had ordered to gulp down the dinner with. I was lucky. I had ordered a can of beer instead. And I paid only 3 Euros for the drink in comparison to the expensive water. My food too was cheaper than his vegetarian diet. My friend later repented on his decision to drink water.

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Within a year of my visit to the Swiss countryside, I was lucky to travel to Rome, my dream destination since schooldays. Reaching Rome, I rushed to the Colosseum, the famed arena where the gladiators fought with each other and with wild beasts to entertain the rulers and the rich.

The Colosseum, in spite of being built during the heydays of the Roman empire, still remains a colossal structure and an enigma to the visitors. The intricate design speaks of the advancement of the architects of that time.

Being in the land of pizzas and Pinocchio, I never wasted a chance to taste the Italian delicacy in every nook and cranny of the city. I didn’t even leave the pizza being sold by a roadside vendor at the Colosseum.  

Being a diehard football fan, the first thing that I did in the ancient city was to get to the Lazio headquarters. Nearby was the Prime Minister’s Office. Silvio Berlusconi was the Prime Minister at that time and I was amazed to see only few security personnel guarding the office. Comparing the heavy security in Nepal, it was nothing. Even in front of Singh Durbar, our administrative helm, there are vans of security personnel. Let’s not talk about the security convoys for the VIPs.

Having heard a lot about the Trevi Fountain, I made my way to the famed landmark, asking the way to the passers-by.  On reaching the spot, standing against the fountain, I threw a one Euro coin using the right hand over the left shoulder. Luckily, the coin splashed in the water. It meant I would get another chance to visit the place. Many tourists were hurling coins like me. An estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each day. With the belief of getting a chance to return to the city, I roamed through the streets. 

On the way, I met an interesting Italian. He was funny and helpful. Knowing that I am from Nepal, he started blurting out his knowledge about Nepal. The three facts: Nepal is the only country in the world having a triangular shaped flag, Buddha was born in Nepal and Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world is in Nepal. 

As we traversed the thoroughfares, he described about the monuments and Italian culture. Suddenly his face lit up. He said, “Do you know why the Italian police Carabinieri have stripes on one side of the trouser?”

“So that they don’t end up putting on the trouser the wrong way,” he giggled. Just then we noticed a Carabinieri coming towards us. Both of us could not stop laughing.

Next stop was the Spanish Steps. I ran up the steps in one go and in spite of the chilly weather savoured a cone of cold ice cream. Made famous by the film Roman Holiday, it attracts a lot many visitors.

After all the good memories, there was one bitter experience at the end of the journey. I was to board a train to the airport and to buy a ticket I took to a vending machine. As I was hitting on the buttons, an old man came to me and offered help. I thanked him for his generosity and continued the process. Later I came to know that the machine had only Italian and French languages, and both were Greek and Latin to me. So, I had to ask for the old man’s help.

The old man took the money from me and inserted inside the vending machine. He pushed the buttons but the machine stopped working. Instead, a slip with the message to collect the reimbursement at the nearby counter or airport came out of the machine. I had lost 25 Euros. There was a long queue at the nearby counter and I had no time to stand at the end of the line.

Then an old woman who was with the old man offered me few Euros in exchange of the slip. I then realised,  both of them were hand in glove to dupe me. I remembered one of my friends warning me, comparing Rome to the Bihar of India.

I quickly bought a ticket from an agent and got inside the train. The old woman was still bargaining with me. She was ready to give 20 Euros for the slip but I had made up my mind. I would try getting reimbursement at the airport.

At the airport, I easily got the money reimbursed. There was no queue and the lady at the counter apologised with a smile for the machine’s failure to deliver the ticket.

Finally, I was in the plane and tying up the seat belt. My mind was comparing the three old persons: the old woman in blue raincoat from Gland and the old couple at the railway station in Rome. Although all of them were European, one was kind and gentle and the other two were outrageously cunning.  It might be the poverty, forcing them to turn into cheats.

Read the Nepali version ग्लँकी दयालु बुढी, रोमको ठग्ने बुढो

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