Parlez vous anglais? :)

I wonder what I could write about traveling through France that hasn’t already been written about before. And since I’m harbouring the delusion that long-form travel reads are still a thing, I have to try…

Ruki and I took a long-awaited trip to France earlier this month, and it turned out to be an experience of a lifetime. We haven’t travelled a lot together in the short time that we’ve been married, and this was my first time outside the subcontinent for reasons other than work. But we were very clear from the start that we wanted to explore the world, one country at a time, and not really travel the way our parents did – covering multiple countries in a fortnight or less, constantly on the move with barely any time to soak anything in.

Our nine-day itinerary covered three cities and started from Paris, known for social media pictures of people pinching the Eiffel Tower. Our first stop was the Louvre, one of the largest museums in the world. It’s pretty much impossible to cover its three wings and all they offer in one day. If you’re a dilettante and indifferent to art, then you’re probably there to see Da Vinci’s most famous work, The Mona Lisa, with the added attraction of walking the same halls that Tom Hanks did in The Da Vinci Code, concluding with the Piramide Invertida, the supposed tomb of Mary Magdalene in the movie. There’s enough literature available that talks about what each of the three wings carry, and you could pick one and spend the day there. There are Nintendo audio guides available as well, but they’re a little pointless; it takes time to figure out how to operate them and it’s an added distraction when there’s already a lot to see and do. There are two entrances to the museum, and the smaller one near the Tuileries Garden is generally less crowded. The highlight of our day was an early dinner (with lots of champagne) in a double decker bus that took us through Paris and its pretty sights.

By the second day, we’d become “experts” at riding the metro and taking the bus, one of the cheapest and most convenient ways to travel in Paris. When you travel for the first time, purchase a wad of 16 tickets at any station. This works out to be cheaper than buying a card, and is convenient since you’re not under pressure to use the card a minimum number of times to break even. There’s also an app called Rome2Rio that’ll tell you exactly which lines to take and which stations to change, and it’s always a good idea to check with the travel desk or your host where you’re staying. There are metro maps, mobile apps and enough literature about do’s and don’ts available online 🙂 Continue reading

Billion Dollar Loser: A Short Book Review

Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser is the story of Adam Neumann and his startup WeWork. As I write this review, SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son – the false prophet of the venture capital world who bamboozles his way into industries with his Vision Fund, and one of WeWork’s biggest investors – has reported a $23B loss. Incidentally, it also comes as Ruki and I are finishing The Dropout, a series on Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos and one of Adam Neumann’s contemporaries. Continue reading

Stolen Focus: A Short Book Review

As I read Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel from his work to what I’ve been experiencing over the last few months. I’ve lost sight of the things that matter, and I’m starting to operate in a state of extreme and perpetual chaos. I’m distracted from the things I should be doing – like reading, working out – and instead, I’m filling my day with mundane and pointless activities. I’m unable to read for long stretches without picking up my phone, without switching over to tasks that don’t need doing; the fact that I spend close to four hours a day on average on my phone – without any social media apps on it – is an indication of how frenzied my existence has become. I’m unable to find joy in the things that made me happy, and the only moment of clarity I experience is when I’m watering the plants on the terrace. Through all of this, I kept blaming myself. That something in my head had shifted and I was probably going through a phase, not too dissimilar to ones I’ve experienced in the past. Johann’s book gave me something else to ruminate on… Something that has changed drastically over the last two years of the pandemic. My environment.

Relying on scientific studies, interviews with experts, and personal experience, Johann Hari attempts to make a case for a crisis not recognized – that of our shrinking attention spans and our inability to focus. Johann presents his case in a lucid and accessible manner, never laboring the reader with esoteric and technical details of the studies he references, and always using his personal experiences and ruminations as a navigational tool. Regardless of the anecdotal halo to his book, his work is backed by solid research (as is evident from the 46 pages of end-notes) and anchored in today’s dominant scientific view. He lists 12 causes of this crisis, calling out some obvious ones such as technology and social media, to some less intuitive ones such as the rise of what he calls cruel optimism – the belief that individual changes will be enough to respond to a crisis triggered by a changed and overloaded environment. Meticulous and well-structured, Johann’s work is honest and a joy to read, and it showcases his ability to break down complex problems into smaller, more digestible chunks.

Data points from Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus. Taken out of context, they may not mean much. But if any of these shock you, it might be worthwhile to pick up the book! A key callout is that these are mostly relevant in an American/ British context and not really a global one.

We’re overloaded with information and we’re fighting a losing battle to absorb it. We’re constantly trying to multi-task, thinking of it as a virtue when it’s not. We’re no longer experiencing flow states, periods of unwavering focus on a pleasurable activity. We’re tired and exhausted, anxious and insecure. We’re sleeping less and replacing that with screen time on Instagram or on Netflix. We’ve stopped reading, playing and letting our minds wander. We’re eating food that causes energy spikes and crashes, and breathing air that is literally dulling our senses. And lastly, we’re all trying to find an individual solution to this, harboring a delusion that somehow, holding ourselves accountable is the key to all this. When was the last time we succeeded in limiting our social media use? Or the last time we could read a book without picking up our phones?

Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. Very few things worth saying can be explained in 280 characters. If your response to an idea is immediate, unless you have built up years of expertise on the broader topic, it’s most likely going to be shallow and uninteresting.

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Short Book Review

I still can’t believe that I finished a biographical account of someone who decided to raise bees for a year, and actually enjoyed it. Helen Jukes’ A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is an eccentric record of her first steps as a beekeeper. Weird, warm and wonderfully but predictably woven, her writing floats and flits between the hive and her personal life, which keep feeding off each other. Never lingering and never still. Almost like a bee.

I’ve often marveled at our ability to find meaning in the most mundane of things. Or perhaps – and I’m certain that Jukes would agree – it is the other way around… Only when we begin to find meaning and joy in the most mundane of things, do we find ourselves. Like when we stop to notice how blue the sky is or how green the leaves of the trees are… She finds a totem in the beehive, and the act of keeping and caring changes her. Reeking of passion that borders on obsession, and always simmering with self-awareness, her story resonates.

As I feel new spaces forming, new possibilities opening beyond the hive, I too have been preparing to lift up, break out. I feel ready for it. The bees have chewed through some of my congested bits just like the wax moths do; I’m feeling better resourced, more in touch with things around me, more able to begin something new. Perhaps in a way – unbeknownst to them – it is the bees who are the open-handed ones; they are setting me free.
How much of looking, how much of wanting to look, is about its opposite – about wanting to be seen?
Last year, I was also feeling blocked, caught in a culture and a state of being that seemed to be short on care and to have little patience with sensitivity. The hive, for me, was about escaping that site of difficultly; or the hive was not about escape at all, but about the upwards thrust of my own hard-fought belief that something else was possible – a different kind of perception, of relation – within this less than perfect range.

Working from home for the better part of two years through the pandemic has shrunk my world down to the two rooms of my matchbox-sized apartment. It has changed me and warped my reality in ways I can’t fathom… But I’ve starting filling this reality with moments of extreme clarity born from simple acts: watching parrots peck at the bird feeder outside our bedroom, watering the plants every morning, feeling the soil for moisture and touching the flowers in the garden on our terrace. Not too dissimilar, I think, to the act of keeping bees. It has a rating of 3.76 on goodreads and is a satisfying read to kickstart 2022!

PS: A glimpse of the flowers in the garden on the terrace 🙂