Barcelona

The thing with travel writing is that it takes a long time between travel and the actual publication of the article. Depending on the publication.

Barcelona for Eat Stay Love

We picked Barcelona as a vacation destination for the same reason that many families do: great weather, design, architecture, the hub of the global food scene and a non-stop flight from India. Choosing the hotels was trickier. As a travel writer, I wanted to stay in some of the best hotels in the city. Being a vegetarian family, we needed to spend at least part of our stay in an apartment hotel with its own kitchen. And we wanted to be by the ocean for at least part of the time.

Hotel Arts, managed by the Ritz Carlton, fit the bill on all counts. We decided to stay in the apartments on the top floor because they came with a kitchen. We didn’t realize that the architecture and location would make for stunning rooms, or in our case apartment. Designed by the late great architect, David Graham for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; and in the shadow of the famous “peix” or fish sculpture that Frank Gehry built for the same occasion, the Hotel Arts had aged well and was full of architectural surprises. We got to know the staff even before we got there. My husband wanted tickets to the Copa Del Ray or King’s Cup between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. We peppered the staff with questions about where to buy tickets and would they hold our tickets if it were couriered to them. They did.

What makes a great hotel? Sure, a lot of it is hardware. Nobody wants to come into a lobby with drooping flower arrangements or dodgy showers. Even though luxury hotels don’t like to admit it, small mistakes happen even in the best hotels. What redeems every hotel’s flaws is the way the staff treat the guest. The woman who responded to our emails, Melanie Dorange, was one such. She researched Valencia; held our football tickets; arranged for a rental car; and answered all our insistent, sometimes inconsequential questions. When she learned that my daughter wanted to be a chef, she took us on a guided tour through the kitchens and introduced her to the pastry chef. It is these gestures that make for memory.

Our apartment was fantastic. Spread over two floors, and overlooking the blue sea, it included a spacious living room, study, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms upstairs. Light filled the space and created angles and lines in the shadows. We had access to the club floor for sparkling cava or champagne along with snacks and sandwiches throughout the day. Breakfast was in the lawns under Gehry’s fish, with European children doing cartwheels or jumping into the pool.

We were reluctant to leave the Hotel Arts but we wanted to try out a real Barcelona apartment, to see how the locals lived. The Urban Suites came highly recommended on Tripadvisor: two bedrooms, bathrooms, living, kitchen, dining, and best of all, a spacious balcony. We had dinner there surrounded by flickering candles and read books on the lounger under the Catalan sun. The Urban Suites was located near Montjuic hill, where the Olympics were held. It was a great location for shopping, hiking and taking in museums such as the Joan Miro Fondacion. We walked to the local grocery store, manned by Indians (surprise or no surprise); bought manchego cheese, crusty bread, tomatoes, olives, onions and herbs for a great sandwich lunch. We sat in the sun and drank the famed rioja wine and sparkling cava. Round the corner was Barcelona’s most happening nightclub and one night, we joined a long line of teenagers to watch local bands perform. For a family that wants independence without the fuss of staff; that wants to live like the locals at stylish digs; that wants to live in a vibrant neighborhood with great access to public transport, malls, museums and restaurants, The Urban Suites is a good choice.

The Mercer Barcelona is rated amongst the best in the world. The hotel is a revived and refurbished Roman fort in the old Gothic quarter. The red brick fort walls are still visible in the back of the hotel. Our room, a junior suite on the top floor overlooked a beautiful courtyard with orange trees. The scent of orange blossoms delighted our night. At the rooftop terrace, we could sip Bellinis and look over the turrets and cathedrals that dotted this beautiful city. Best of all, we could walk out of the grand swinging door of The Mercer and merge into the narrow lanes and cobblestone streets of the ancient Roman city that has recently spawned the likes of uberchef Ferran Adria and his cohorts who are still cooking up a Catalan storm in the city they cherish.

END

STAY – 80-82 Barcelona 2

Brooms

The big brooming business

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An acquaintance of mine, Chantal, called from New York the other day with a request: she needed brooms; lots of them. Could I source them from India? Chantal is a gaunt French-Algerian chain smoker. She says merde (shit) a lot; wears Dior rouge lipstick, and lots of moody grey Chanel eyeshadow. She used to be a hand model but now specializes in department store windows. Her job, she says, is to make mannequins “look like models”.
Over Skype, Chantal explained her idea. She would decorate an entire department store with brooms. She had watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Madison Square Garden in New York, US. Her current boyfriend is Gujarati and had told her about the “Clean India” campaign. She had seen photos of Modi cleaning the streets. She didn’t care for the politicians but she wanted those brooms; at least a hundred of them. The mannequins could hold the brooms in various poses.
“Think about it,” said Chantal. “Flying Balenciaga clothes with brooms; Sacai on brooms; Givenchy’s Antigona bag surrounded by a chandelier of brooms; Celine in a forest of brooms; Christian’s nail polish (shoe designer Christian Louboutin) dripping red and purple on brooms. The possibilities are endless.”
I told Chantal that I would see what I could do. I knew a person who could deliver on this demand: Nagamma.
As a young girl, Nagamma had worked for my grandparents in Coimbatore. She was now a septuagenarian and had returned to the family business: broom making. She taught me many of the skills that have made me the woman I am today: stringing together a jasmine garland with a thread made from banana fibre; playing “five stones” and picking up three, four, five and even seven stones with one fist; drawing elaborate kolams or rangoli designs on festive days; and expertly parting hair with fingers and catching running lice.
I caught up with Nagamma at her village near Modakurichi, Tamil Nadu. We squatted under the swaying coconut trees with verdant paddy fields on all sides and engaged in an activity that she had taught me as a child. On one side were dried up coconut leaves. We had to squat on the ground and slit the leaves to pull out the spine. It was an activity that was as meditative as tying jasmine flowers or cleaning a lice-comb with a toothpick. For a while, Nagamma and I sat in companionable silence, ripping the coconut spine from its leaves. We both were chewing betel leaves and it was tough to talk over the red juice that was on the verge of drooling every time I opened my mouth. Finally, I tucked the leaf expertly in a corner of my mouth—another skill that Nagamma had taught me—and proceeded to lay out my proposal. I needed 100 brooms to export to the US, I said.
Nagamma leaned forward confidentially. “Kannu,” she said. The word means “eye” in Tamil but is used not as an “eye for an eye” type threat but an endearment. “Kannu, ever since the Aam Aadmi party, our bijiness has been very good. Every politican wants to wield a broom these days. How can I supply 100 brooms for your friend, Shanta?”
“Chantal,” I corrected absently but that wasn’t really the point.
Nagamma corrected my technique: slit in the middle, not the top, she said. That way I could pull the spine out on both sides. Quickly, she tied a bunch of coconut sticks, or eer-kuchi, as we called it, with a coir rope. A broom was done.
“You’ll get paid in euros, Nagamma,” I said.
She frowned. “Can I buy vethalai (betel leaves) with euros?”
I nodded vigorously. She could buy a barnyard full of betel leaves with euros.
That got her attention. Now I had to lay the problem at her feet. Chantal wanted the brooms to be tied with twine of multiple colours: neon, purple, candy pink, red, and turquoise. “We can’t put Chloé on traditional brooms,” she had said. “We need the brooms to have fashion also.”
Nagamma would have none of it. In the past, she said, they tied brooms with banana fibre. Tying it with coir was itself a compromise that she made for city-dwellers. Neon plastic twine was sacrilege. “In our country, we can eat our brooms, Kannu,” she said. “It comes from earth and it goes back to earth. How can I put all this false colours on the broom?”
I consulted Indologist Rekha Rao, who has written several terrific books on therapeutics in Indian sculptures and how they depict healing mudras and marma points (published by Aryan Books International but hard to find in bookstores). “There are objects that look like our brooms in Indus seals,” said Rao. “In fact, Narendra Modi looks like the male figure of Indus seals. With the same type of beard and facial features.”
Brooms in ancient India were used for saucha, said Rao. Cleaning the external space but also the inner negativities. Rao has analysed the sculptures of Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat. She said many of the sculptures there held brooms and their uses were somewhat similar to the shamanism that was practised in Tibet and Nepal— where the body was literally swept clean. “We use the chamara for fanning and similarly such brooms were used to sweep the body clean,” said Rao.
Rajiv Sethi, the painter and art curator, once showed me photos of brooms designed and held by tribal women, each of which was hand-tied and decorated in a fashion that was almost Japanese in its minimalism and subtlety.
So I did the only thing possible. I called Chantal and told her that I could provide Harry Potter’s flying brooms in a variety of colours if needed. But the humble Indian jhaadu was non negotiable: take it or leave it. She is still thinking about it.

Shoba Narayan knows how to make brooms. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Frankincense

Oudh and frankincense are scents of the day.

Here is a story that appeared in Qantas magazine, Australia.

Thank you, Stanley Pinto for organizing a superb trip to Muscat. And hustling all of us energetic tourists and members of the Bangalore Black Tie into some semblance of organization.
And thank you, Shawqi Sultan and Saleh Talib for showing us an insider’s view of your lovely city, has only Epicureans can.
Here are some favorite photos of that memorable trip.

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And thank you, Elisabeth, for being my fragrance friend. I miss you!

Perfume Oman

Male Perfume

I thought male perfume was a bit of musk, wood, leather, and all those usual suspect-ingredients. Who would have thought about oudh, orange blossom and the like? These new male perfumers are changing the paradigm. I pitched the story to my editor, Ted, based on Byredo. The perfumer is half-Indian which is how I heard about it. I also sniffed the perfume at a shop in Paris. Bloomberg Pursuits gave me the other names. My Parisienne friend, Elisabeth helped me a lot with this piece. Sourcing contacts and the like. Here it is finally.

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The magazine is here.
BloombergPursuits-Spring2014

Mahmoud Darwish

Whose writing I adore. A niche brand of perfume called Carlos Huber makes a scent based on a boutonniere

Delhi’s fetid desire, Mumbai’s petrol fumes
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Can you smell the ‘garam masala’ and greed in Delhi? Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The best writing on scent comes from the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who writes, not about the “scent of a woman” or a man, but about cities. It is so evocative that I am compelled to quote it: “Cities are smells: Acre is the smell of iodine and spices. Haifa is the smell of pine and wrinkled sheets. Moscow is the smell of vodka on ice. Cairo is the smell of mango and ginger. Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke, and lemons. Paris is the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of enchantment. Damascus is the smell of jasmine and dried fruit. Tunis is the smell of night musk and salt. Rabat is the smell of henna, incense, and honey. A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable.”
I disagree with Darwish even if I love his writing. Damascus is the scent of luscious roses, not jasmine. The best jasmine comes from Tamil Nadu in my view: there is Madurai jasmine, mogra, and Ambur mullai, each of which smell different and can be layered by stringing them together on wet hair. This is what Tamil women do on wedding days. But “cities are smells”, as Darwish says.
Delhi is the smell of garam masala, wealth and fetid desire. Bangalore is the smell of red earth and falling rain. Mumbai is the smell of speed (not the drug but the verb), sea, and petrol fumes. Pune is the smell of goda masala and tanpuras. Kolkata is the smell of fish, addas, and maverick sweat. Jaipur is the scent of wafting veils, pearls, chiffon, and kachori. Amritsar is the scent of langar, water, and service. Vadodara is the smell of banyan, baithaks, and artist’s oil paint. I will stop now. I cannot match Darwish. I don’t know Indian cities well enough. But I do know scents and given this party season, I have been thinking about them.
A man without a scent is not to be trusted. Not the scent that comes from a bottle but one that comes from the skin through pores and sweat; mingled with spices and cigar smoke; occasionally unpleasant but certainly unmistakable. A man’s scent is his signature; his calling card. Along with touch, the scent of a man is what stays with a woman: like a breeze long gone but not forgotten. Scents evoke a sigh, sometimes wistful. Sometimes, they evoke a quick inhalation of surprise and desire.
Not all men understand the potency of smell; not all men know how to play with it; make it their own. They don’t layer scents like the Arabs do; or make it sacred like the early Christians did by sprinkling blessed orange blossom water on virgin brides. Often, men reduce scent to spritzing cologne—what a waste.
Given that we are laden with tropical, fragrant flowers, Indian men don’t use the Boutonnière, or buttonhole flower, nearly enough. Imagine clasping a lilac, gardenia or a string of jasmine to your buttonhole. It will make your lady swoon. Selecting the flower is like selecting a tie: It depends on the mood or moment.
To a date, you would take a restrained orchid: beautiful to look at but without laying all its scented cards on the table. To an evening with a woman you hope to win over, you would go all out and wear a tuberose on your lapel, and hope that she will fall for its heavy, luscious charms. To an evening with your bride, you would wear a gardenia, often called “opera flower” because it goes so well with black-tie attire. Gardenias can make a bride bloom. When you go out with your wife, you wear a rose, with all its trite, romantic connotations that you—much like your wife—take for granted. To an evening with a forbidden lover, you would wear unscented lilies and hope that it will restrain your amour or desire.
The glory of a flower lies in its fragility, its ethereality; the fact that it is here today, gone tomorrow. Flowers on a buttonhole can add depth to the scent a man wears. Most male scents rely on bergamot, musk, oud or frankincense and citrus for their “notes” or layers. Adding a live flower to the mix will enhance and compound every layer.
A male friend told me about his (and perhaps others’) male fantasy. He wears a scent so potent that when he is walking on the street, a strange, but beautiful, woman comes and licks his neck. Iconic scents like Dior’s Fahrenheit, Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, Obsession, Aramis, Escape, Fracas (recently recreated), and Chanel No.5 have the power to inspire such reactions.
The International Fragrance Association—an institution that maverick perfumers hate—tries to make fragrance, if not egalitarian, at least mass market, by forcing niche perfumers to test and change their scents based on allergic reactions. Like unpasteurized cheese, ultra-high heels and tight clothes, often the best scents don’t worry about the reactions on a person’s skin. They exist for themselves.
What is the scent of your woman? What is the scent of your man? Even if you cannot vocalize it, a funny thing will happen on the way to the boardroom. You will roll down your BMW car’s windows, smell something from far away and think of the woman that got away. A scent is a memory. Sometimes it reminds us of the people we love and sometimes, of the ones that got away.
Shoba Narayan wears a whole bouquet of scents: kewda, jasmine, rose, musk and citrus.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Coming of Age

My colleague, Shefalee Vasudev, who has a wonderful sense of Indian fashion, wrote this piece in which she included me. Shefalee knows Indian fashion well. Her aesthetic veers towards handmade, handwoven, quirky and local. I like the photos they have included with the piece as well.

I have another friend, Shruthi, who is a curator of content for an extended group of readers. But she mostly sends articles from US publications. Wonder why Indian publications have not hit her eagle eye and eclectic taste? Is it because they are not as good? Or because we are so bombarded with media and stimuli in India that we prefer to subscribe to our NYT online or The Atlantic online (both of which I do) and forget the India Today, Open, Caravan, Outlook, etc. etc. magazines?

Vintage cars

Have to write another article on inheriting collections. Don’t think I gave a satisfactory answer to this very interesting question: are you doing your kids a favor by passing on your collection to them?

Driven by a passion for possession
Can you love a collection that you inherit, particularly one that is not easy to maintain?
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Sep 14 2013. 12 03 AM IST
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The vintage rally in Bangalore was part of a campaign for a cleaner city. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
A few weeks ago, on a beautiful Sunday morning, a few hundred enthusiasts gathered at the ITC Windsor, Bangalore, for a vintage car rally that lasted all morning. I went to answer a question that had been puzzling me for years: Can you love a collection that you inherit, particularly one that is not easy to maintain?
Collecting, I get: hunt, find, own. Cars, I get: the petrol fumes and orgasmic “vroom”. I understand the seduction of owning old things, which have stories to tell and previous lives to reveal: antiques, heritage, vintage, call it what you will. Vintage cars have all three. Is inheriting such a collection a privilege or a pain?
Rupali Ravi Prakash, 24, makes it sound like a privilege. A slim girl clad in a simple jeans and T-shirt, she stands to inherit 180 vintage cars, collected by her father, a cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr Ravi Prakash. A Bangalore girl who attended the liberal Valley School, she addresses people politely with a “sir” or “ma’am”. She develops board games for a living, and markets vintage car memorabilia through her own brand called Roadster. If you passed her on the street, you would not guess that this girl rode a 1907 Locomobile at age 2.
Rupali is passionate about vintage cars. She grew up around them. Her father, called “Doc” by the vintage car world, began with a Sunbeam-Talbot 1937, willed to him by (father and daughter repeat this frequently to the press) General Mahadevan of Chennai. Since then, Prakash has amassed 180 cars, housed in “Kala Farm”, outside Bangalore. Their collection, says Rupali, includes cars from “every era—Edwardian, Veteran, Vintage as well as Classic cars, right from an 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen (the first gasoline-powered automobile), to Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, Mustangs, Delages, Mercedes and so on”.
This must mean something to some of you vintage car buffs, but I was only trying to figure out if all these cars were awe-inspiring or ache-producing. Well, her father is a doctor so he’s got that covered, I guess. Fifteen men work full-time on these cars—tinkering, repairing and sourcing parts from all over the world. On weekends, and this is the best part, they get to take these vintage cars out for joyrides along country roads. Riding in these beautifully detailed automobiles is a thrill. They make you feel like Grace Kelly, or Gayatri Devi. “There is only one reason to do this: passion,” says Rupali.
Her father, a genial, smiling man clad in a cowboy hat and black pants, organized the rally, which ended with lunch at the ITC Gardenia. The large banquet hall was filled with men wearing shirts with cars designs on them and cowboy hats. Both Rupali and Dr Prakash list their invitation to the Concours d’ Elegance, a vintage car rally at Pebble Beach in California, US, in 2012 as one of their proudest moments. Another vintage car enthusiast at the event estimated the cost of transporting two vintage cars from Bangalore to Pebble Beach to be about Rs.50 lakh, maybe more. I didn’t want to ask the owners. It’s like the old saying: If you have to ask the price, you just don’t get it. Asking a vintage car collector the cost of transportation is like asking a Bordeaux wine collector about the cost of cork: a bit tasteless.
At Pebble Beach, Prakash drove a 1930 Delage and Rupali, a 1907 Locomobile. “To be the only Indians with two car entries was a proud moment for us and a lifelong dream for my father,” says Rupali.
Across the country, in Delhi, I visited another inheritor of vintage cars. Anubhav Nath, 35, who is the director of Ojas Art gallery and a co-founder of Ramchander Nath Foundation, a think tank with a focus on the arts. He has a lovely property at Mehrauli in the shadow of the Qutub Minar. Nath, who prefers not to put a number on his collection, has a 1912 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, a 1916 Buick, a 1936 Maybach from the Maharaja of Patiala, a rare 1930 Delage, a 1955 Chrysler Imperial that was gifted by King Al Saud of Saudi Arabia to Jawaharlal Nehru during his state visit to India and later acquired by Nath’s grandfather, in his shed. Nath’s favourite is a 1926 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, “as I remember playing taxi-taxi in it all the time,” he says.
Childhood memories: that must be it. Happy memories of grandfather working on the car while grandson plays in the car. That must be why these heirs care for the cars and the collection (once you take out commercial reasons, that is). It is the same with Rupali. She probably associates the cars with family, laughter, and nature.
“People ask me if I have added to the collection,” says Nath. “My reply is, “If I can just maintain the collection in the same condition that I inherited it, I would have done a good job. For me, it is my grandfather’s legacy that I am trying to preserve as best as I can. Yes, it is a lot of work, but at the same time, it is like a part of him continues to live with me.”
Poignant, isn’t it?
Shoba Narayan is happy to ride in vintage cars—that she doesn’t own. Then again, she might feel different if she were mechanically inclined.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
First Published: Sat, Sep 14 2013. 12 03 AM IST

Sari Warrior

A piece on my favorite subject.

The National Conversation

The sari is neatly woven into my country’s social fabric
Shoba Narayan
Aug 28, 2013

Different people have differing relationships with their country’s traditional clothes. The Japanese, for instance, have eschewed the kimono and adapted western attire. So too the Chinese. In Arab nations, women still wear traditional clothes. So too in Vietnam and India, where women switch between western and traditional wear depending upon mood and circumstance.
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In the last few months, I have started to wear Indian clothes, specifically saris, more often. It didn’t start out this way. During the 18 years when I lived in the US, I rarely wore saris. Vintage Christian Dior suits for formal occasions and shorts when the weather turned warm was more my style. They were comfortable and functional; and got me where I wanted to go.
After returning to India six years ago, I began to look for a style that suited a new life in a new land. Since I work from home, I had to dress for the people I dealt with on a daily basis: the plumbers and carpenters who came to fix my home and hang my paintings; the two women who helped cook and clean; and assorted home-delivery people such as the dry cleaner and tailor.
Gradually, I discovered they took me more seriously if I wore traditional clothes. The sari gave me gravitas. It allowed me to wield authority like my mother instead of appearing like a little girl clad in shorts and a shirt.
The sari also drew me into a life that I didn’t know existed.
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The sari, to put it simply, is six yards of unstitched cloth that is woven and draped by women all over the Indian subcontinent. For women of my mother’s generation, the sari has a huge resonance. It is a dress that they know, love and understand. It conveys purity, unsullied by needle and thread. So much so that most women don’t even stitch the edges of the woven fabric, preferring to tie it into knots to prevent it from fraying. No stitches, no pins, no cutting, just long swathes of beautiful textile that they drape over themselves like the ancient Greeks. This is the sari.
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If you ask Indian women, they will tell you that the sari is supremely graceful. It is also, to the modern woman, cumbersome, because it relies on drapery rather than tailoring to give it shape. When I began wearing the sari, I could barely move. The sari, in that sense, is a luxury garment, because it demands a certain leisure and grace that is reminiscent of the past. But looks can be deceiving. My housekeeper, for example, wears a sari to clean my bathrooms. My cook goes through the day – bending, chopping and lifting, all clad in a sari. It is, like haute couture, all a matter of practice.
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With practice, wearing a sari got easier. I realised that it was all a matter of how I draped the fabric and where I tucked it. Soon, I could sprint across the road clad in a sari. It suited the climate of India perfectly, airing out heat from the open midriff and covering the appropriate shoulder when the weather got cold. It made me feel at home. It also made me feel like an anomaly.
You see, the sari, for better or worse, has become a garment that the young and fashionable will not wear, unless it is a special occasion. The young women who populate my book club often prefer to wear skirts and dresses from Banana Republic and Nanette Lepore instead of a sari. They associate the sari with their mothers; with being old fashioned and traditional; with orthodoxy; with being an anomaly. Often, at parties, I am the only one clad in a sari. It makes me feel weird and not “with it” as my teenage daughter says.
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The sari disarms people though. When I go into a gathering populated by the Indian elite, clad in a sari, everyone in the room visibly softens, probably because I remind them of a time when all the women they loved wore saris. Just as the red oxide in my floor prompts Indians to say, “Oh, this floor reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” the sari is an icon that evokes nostalgia. So I disarm the audience in my sari and then slowly reveal the feminist underneath. What was it that they said about iron hand in a velvet glove?

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir