Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Indians in Switzerland

Sid and I just returned from a trip to Switzerland. We biked and hiked for two days in Interlaken, roamed about in the old town of Bern, and then literally walked into a summer party in Zurich. The city was holding a summer festival - which takes place once in every three years - so Sid and I got a firework show, an airshow and lots and lots of good food in the bargain!

 What took me by surprise was how many Indians we bumped into in Interlaken, and almost half of them were honeymooning couples (the gigantic choudas are such a giveaway). Amongst them, I also came across one of the most disturbing sights ever: a newly-married Delhi couple on their honeymoon with the bride's mum-in-law and bro-in-law in tow.

Most of them looked slightly bewildered and bored - like now that they finally were in the much-hyped Switzerland, they really didn't know what to do with it.

I think it is because we Indians don't grow-up vacationing. And thanks to Bollywood, vacations to beautiful places are more of an exotic idea to us rather than a reality. So when we finally go on one, we don't exactly know what to do. (It happened to me as well on my first few trips - thankfully Sid was more practiced at it than me.)

For example, the main beauty of Interlaken is in the mountains and lakes around - and the possibility of adventure. It offers parasailing, gliding, and lots of mountaineering, hiking and biking options ranging from very easy to quite tough ones. But we were the only Indians cycling or hiking, albeit on the easy ones. The rest just seemed to congregate in the tiny Interlaken town square (which by standards of European town sqaures is rather boring) and spend their time browsing through its seriously touristy shops.

Another strange thing was how no Indian ever acknowledged another. Instead, they pretended they hadn't seen you. This was something that a friend - see Leo Mirani among the followers of this blog - had pointed out over beer one evening. When a Spanish meets another, he'll go hola. An American is always happy to meet another. But Indians act as if the other Indians in their direct line of vision are not there.

So I tried smiling at a few Indians. Just as Leo had predicted, I got some deadly glowers back.

My theory is that when Indians land in Switzerland, they are expecting the exotic. But seeing so many other Indians around somehow reduces the specialness of the experience. And in response, they school themselves to not see other Indians.

Being in Interlaken also made me notice how ungainly most Indian women look, and the kurti on jeans with huge Nike shoes - their regulation vacation attire - doesn't help their case. I still am not sure whether it is their figures or the clothes they don - either way, they don't make a pretty sight. Which is bothersome, because it makes me wonder what I look like.

I do know one thing though, I certainly don't wear kurtis on jeans with big Nike shoes anymore ;-)

10 comments:

jaimit said...

hahah. it does seem like the indian traveler attire. did you see the bindis as well along with? Since indians dont like research and want to go with the crowd, in large ferried groups; i wonder why they dont like meeting more indians along the way. or thats the point - they are enough of them in any case.. next to them in their flights, rooms, bus seats, toilets, macDonalds, ice cream carts...
but somehow i guess the cake goes to the northindian honeymooner who goes to goa and is seen on the beach with her swimsuit, sindoor, really large set of red bangles and a vodka breezer bottle; with really large brown sunglasses that seem to match with her straightened and streak bleached blond hair.
am i being mean?

inthearmchair said...

"I think it is because we Indians don't grow-up vacationing. And thanks to Bollywood, vacations to beautiful places are more of an exotic idea to us rather than a reality. So when we finally go on one, we don't exactly know what to do."

You nailed it there.

"My theory is that when Indians land in Switzerland, they are expecting the exotic. But seeing so many other Indians around somehow reduces the specialness of the experience. And in response, they school themselves to not see each other."

I don't think that's it. First, we don't smile at each other in India. I've got glowers for smiling at Indians in India. We think there's an ulterior motive or the smile is really a jeer in disguise. Second, I think Indians are so afraid of being perceived as "ordinary Indians" that they'd rather associate with foreigners. If you associate with foreigners, you're special. This happens in India too if a foreigner is around.

globalbabble said...

Jaimit - oh, I think your description of those honeymooning brides in Goa really hits the bull's eye. I think they look ridiculous - so that makes the too of us.

In the armchair: Perhaps, you are right. Maybe, I was too charitable. But how would you define "the ordinary Indian" that they are so scared to be perceived as?

Vaibhavi said...

Aaah, Switzerland is on the bucket list, wonder when we'll make it.

And about desis not smiling - its a worldwide phenomenon. Americans always acknowledged us on the streets in the US, never the desis. Suraj and I used to hike a lot pre-kids and the desis never EVER said hello. After a while it became sadistic entertainment to us to say a loud Hey/Hello/Howz it going to any desi we crossed on the trail and to see their shocked stammer in response... heh - well ok, maybe only on the more monotonous stretches of trail :)

So true on the attire. Tho' methinks this is the "modern" attire. Otherwise its salwar-kameez and Nikes :)

globalbabble said...

Vaibhavi: Why do you think Indians don't want to acknowledge each other?

Yes, it is the "modern" attire. Though, I must say that I find the salwar-kameez on Nikes of my Mum's generation rather endearing. I mean, it doesn't have any pretensions of being modern. It is just about comfort.

But kurti on jeans with Nikes is actually considered a fashion statement... me thinks!

Vaibhavi said...

Non-acknowledgement - That's cuz as inthearmchair said - We don't do it in India. Lots of friends have echoed that sentiment in the US. We don't do it in India, why should we be all American here? Only, then they shouldn't ack the Amrus either rt? :)

On the attire - I didn't mean on just the aunties - the younger gen does that too.

TMJD2009 said...

I love your blog..:)...I'd say the same thing about Indians that I bump into over here. The camaraderie kicks in more so in places that tie you back to home, like in an Indian restaurant or maybe so at the temple...but something about exotic vacation spots or spots you don't quite expect other Indians to be seems conflicting at some level to us..?...I think it stems more from not knowing how to react/interact than from a chosen plan to avoid acknowledging one another.. The very attire seems quite confused in terms of she wants to identify with (men don't quite have this conflict!!) ...hence the conflict in identifying with other Indians..my two cents..

globalbabble said...

TMJD2009: So happy that you like my blog...

The only solution that I can think of to this conundrum is to smile and acknowledge every Indian I meet on a holiday from now on - irrespective of the response-frowns. We've gotto crack at some point...

inthearmchair said...

I don't necessarily view it as a bad thing that Indians don't smile and nod at strangers. It doesn't mean we don't get along -- witness the excellent bonhomie and conversation of co-passengers on trains. It's just not part of the default Indian behaviour. Took me a while to get used to it.

As for what an "ordinary" Indian is, I just meant people like to distinguish themselves in India and associating with a foreigner is one way. Being viewed as "important" is important to a lot of Indians. Funny thing is, many of the greatest people I know don't give a damn about being considered important.

AK said...

ha ha ha...... spot on observation. As Vaibhavi says I have made it a cardinal rule to smile and nod at every Indian, esp the older ones, when I see them in malls and tourist places. Their myriad of reactions is worth my effort plus I believe there is some karma for putting a smiling Indian face on the globe.

And here is my take on the 'habit of not smiling/acknowledging'; it is common in India to associate stern and serious look with being good or disciplined and also it has an added advantage of projecting a 'i am important' image on others. I have had ample instructions as a kid (not from my parents, thankfully) that a smiling face sends out a 'i am gullible' signal. I guess that's why I am such a big fan of The Joker.