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A Westerner’s Sensory Overload

Special Note: Adrian writes from India this week and next. We hope you enjoy traveling with her, as she views life on the other side of the planet from the point of view of an American, a European and a “Westerner.”

“Sensory overload” is a good way to describe the intense and overwhelming reaction a Westerner might have experiencing the Indian culture for the first time as we are. It is non-stop highs and lows, brights and darks, happiness and sadness, calm and chaos, silence and noise, kindness and maliciousness, timidity and aggressiveness, tenderness and violence, colorfulness and grimness. There aren’t enough words to describe the sensations.

The contrasts are striking and nothing makes sense. Not at least, to our eyes and western “default modes” — a blend of American and French, two worlds light years apart from this one.

Our second day in India we bravely ventured into Old Delhi, parking across from the most famous monument, the Red Fort. Another “Bollywood” movie was in full filming, so there was no way to enter or even get past the crowds watching from outside the gates. My daughter, Erica, stood atop a rickshaw to get a glimpse. The driver didn’t seem to mind – he was doing the same.

Armed with the Rough Guide list of acceptable restaurants, we worked our way down the Chandi Chowk, the main boulevard, wearing an invisible bubble to protect ourselves from the extreme poverty that begs at our feet, avoid the splatterings of human spit and witness the scene of hectic commerce emerging from the vendors hawking you into the shops, make-shift stalls and street side carts. The fresh coconut and pineapple looks tempting, but we know better than to taste its sweet meat, filled with bacteria our virgin systems won’t digest.

Until now, we’ve had few dietary issues and have enjoyed every authentic vegetarian morsel, both north and south Indian style. We stay to lightly spiced dishes, but taste everything – I refuse to miss a single cooked dish of freshly prepared cuisine. Most of the Indian restaurants in Paris are actually run by Pakistanis, just as most of the Japanese restaurants are run by Chinese, and furthermore adjusted to the bland French palette – so how authentic can it possibly be? We’re discovering they are a poor substitute for the real thing.

Two days of acclimation only bar

ely prepared us for these last three days of traditional wedding events with one more to go. Our Hindu host is father to both a groom and a bride, brother and sister. Their two weddings take place one after another, each two days long. His son’s wedding which began Monday was “arranged” with a young woman from south India, having known each other about one year. His daughter’s wedding started today with a series of similar ceremonies. It’s “déjà vu” –all over again, now with some experience. She is marrying an Indian man also from the south, but whom she met living in Seattle five years ago. The entire family speaks very good English, is of the highest caste (Gujarati Brahmin), is well educated (primarily in the U.S.) and are the most gracious of hosts.

The son’s weddding was consecrated last night during a final gala event at a garden where all the guests were wearing their finest garb. The “garden” is an area designed just for events of this kind. When traveling down the road you might not suspect what lies inside the fence, but once darkness falls and the lights of the grounds go on, you enter a world in complete contrast to the marble yard across the street and garbage dump just down the road where sacred cows graze.

There are seats made of burgundy and gold fabrics around large round tables set under tents draped with the same fabrics, stand after stand of exotic foods, drinks and games for the children – a virtual private carnival on a large expansive terrain of grass and dirt.

I sampled from 20 different vegetarian dishes, several different kinds of rice, noodles and breads. The lucky couple and the immediate family held court on a large elaborate stage while guests came to greet them and hand them the traditional envelope of gifted money. Then we danced on an open platform to modern Indian music and we laughed until we cried from exhaustion and exhilaration.

It would be difficult in this small space to correctly or fully describe the experience of attending a traditional Indian wedding except to give you a glimpse of some of the high points and perhaps let you see some of the less personal images Erica has taken as one of the official photographers. From the beginning, however, there has been a constant smile on our faces – as in every aspect, there is both tradition, meaning, and a whole lot of celebratory fun.

We are more than “guests” as we are part of the party itself – Erica must be present at every event, not to miss a single important moment. She has not stopped taking photos – to the tune of about 1500 per day. This has been the most challenging task of her short photographic career, of which she is sure to have many rewarding images, both mental and digital. Over the past few days, the family and friends have come to know us as we have of them.

We are the only Westerners and are being well taken care of by our host and their family and friends. We are outsiders, yet they take us in, invite us to visit them, share with us their thoughts, ask questions and give us physical affection. It’s heartwarming, comforting and reassuring. They seem so enamored of us as Westerners that they have asked to have their photos taken with us and made us promise to send them quickly handing over their business cards and asking for ours.

Nothing starts on time and nothing lasts as short as we are told. They call it “India Stretchable Time,” a joke taken from “India Standard Time.” One ceremony leads to another, having first to do with chastity before marriage and then the vows to one another for a lifetime of devotion. A variety of simple implements are used symbolically – herbs, flowers, burning incense, altars, statues, foods and fabrics. Family is of utmost importance and in many rituals, they must hold one another with loving hands.

They chant and they sing, quite naturally. In fact, singing is quite normal for anyone, anytime, anywhere. We realized that never do we hear anyone in France singing idly – almost always in concert or on the Métro, but here, it as commonplace as carrying a bagette on the street is in Paris.

Dancing is also very much a part of the culture and tradition. At an evening ceremony the second night, various people performed traditional Indian dances before a seated audience, including the soon to be bride, her friends and children of the family. Their saris glittered and swirled showing off their henna-designed feet and hands.

At a ritual gathering, “mehendi” (the Indian word for “henna”) artists came to decorate any hands wanting it. The brides? hands, forearms and feet were each elaborately adorned. I was encouraged to having at least the backs of my hands painted with flowers and spiral motifs by a beautiful young woman with medium brown hair and light green eyes from Mumbai (Bombay) who professed to be a better artist than the hired ones. And so she was quite talented. She wore a golden voile sari both elegant and stunning.

We are told that one can tell which women come from the south vs the north just by the way their saris are worn and their colors. One woman, however, just to please the other family, wore hers draped over her right shoulder instead of her left. The saris are stunningly colorful, glittery and elaborate. I have yet to understand how they manage daily life wearing so many yards of fabric perfectly folded and draped without it falling down, being tripped on or torn or how on earth they maneuver a trip to the ladies room!

We will also likely never understand their toilet habits, even though I’ve read all there is on the subject and carry both toilet paper and handy wipes with me at all times. We take every opportunity to visit the toilets at the hotels or private homes – even at the wedding event hall you wouldn’t want to venture in…it’s not the most pleasant of experiences. I’ve learned to hold my breath, not look too hard, roll up my pants, hold any shawls or draped fabrics, aim and pray like hell!

I joked with one well-informed young woman who works for GE in Mumbai abo

ut black being the primary color of dress in Paris – such a contrast to the carnival-like colors of the silk saris. How strange the streets of Paris would look if this well-dressed wedding party had been dropped miraculously into a gray-toned Paris scene. And there is no shortage of bedazzling jewelry of gold…earrings, necklaces, bangle bracelets, rings and adornments of which we have never dreamed. The women become overweight as they age, and their hair is often hennaed to cover the gray, but they are stunning at every age. They embarrass me by my simple clothing and lack of Indian style. Thank goodness for having purchased the “Punjabis” at the market our first day – I feel much less out of place among these beautiful women.

The cook serving every meal at the event hall is so proud that we like his food that we are the first he asks if he can prepare anything special. All the dishes are vegetarian, of course, and he is careful not to heavily spice…just for us. One gentleman living in London was so pleased that we were “neighbors” and warned us to stay away from drinking the “lassi,” a yogurt-based beverage, as its bacteria might not agree with us.

Today we witnessed the “kitchen” staff prepare lunch for the wedding party and guests outdoors on concrete under a tin roof in large woks and pots on an open propane flame propped on a stack of bricks. Women sat on the ground making rounds of dough and patting them flat while a man fried the “parantha” in oil. They washed the pots and pans under an open spigot. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the kitchen of award-winning French chef Christian Constant where I once took instruction and where every copper pot is hung in a particular kind of order over the big gas stainless steel stoves. How our lives differ!

All in all we feel terribly safe here with the exception of the risk of traveling by car from one place to another. Our host has supplied us with a car and driver wherever we want to go, but going and coming is a life-threatening experience. There are no driving rules in India. There are no lanes, there are no lights, there is no respect of the other vehicles on the roads, which include cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bikes, rickshaws, horses and yes, even camels. They drive fast, they drive slow, they pull into traffic without looking.

The drivers incessantly honk their horns to warn the other drivers they exist. I call it the Delhi “symphony.” Erica calls it the Delhi “cacophony.”
Last night our driver was completely drunk from the Vodka at the party – so drunk that I took the wheel in hand from the back seat. He was fired today for his behavior. I felt bad for him, but not for having lived another day.

Another day of wedding ceremonies starts tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. Another week in India starts Friday when we take to the road to visit the rest of the “Golden Triangle” — Delhi, Agra (the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur.

In another few days there will be photos from the weddings I will share with you, but to see a glimpse of some of Erica’s best photos she has already posted, visit her site at http://www.ericasimone.com/

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

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