Robbed on Champs de Elysees & listening to a policeman sing..only in Paris..

Robbed on Champs de Elysees & listening to a policeman sing..only in Paris..

I had so looked forward to my first trip to Paris, the city of lights.

I pictured myself sitting at a cafe on Champs de Elysees, watching life go by…shop at the world’s biggest LV store on the fashionable street and saunter around the city.

We finally board the Eurostar and get ready for the Channel Tunnel ride, setting out from St Pancras International in London.

Two hours later, the Eurostar rolls smoothly into Gard du Nord. I can’t wait to experience the City of Lights. Yet as we step out of Eurostar, the platforms of Gard du Nord, the main railway station in Paris, is nothing like the St Pancras we left behind in London – busy but clean-  it hits me soon that Gard du Nord is dirty and not very tourist friendly. Many immigrants parade here with boards written in bad English asking for financial help. They literally walk into you, bold and unafraid. My husband, our two kids and I try to walk out of the station as fast as we can.

Outside, on the taxi line, we hail our first cab in Paris and are promptly charged 45 Euro to get us to our Air bnb apartment. Our host Didier is mortified to learn the amount – robbery, he says and quite rightly so. It seems the usual fare is only about 15 Euros. Our cab driver was an Arab looking immigrant and we didn’t ask any questions.

Having settled in, my husband and I take a walk – the street we are on is lovely, very Parisian – plenty of cafes where people sit and sip coffee, delicatessens where we buy delightfully French pates to go with fresh bread from the near by patisserie..so far, so good.

The next day, we go to Champs Elysees. Triumph de Arc looms over us majestically at one end – we walk leisurely along the tree lined road known famously throughout the world. We reach the world’s biggest Louis Vuitton store soon enough and I am feeling enthralled by the sights and the sounds.

Inside LV, shop assistants clad in chic black LV outfits present LV bags with gloved hands to eager customers, staring in awe at the world’s most coveted hand bag. It is a moment most cherish – one in which you can lose your bearings and for a moment frozen in time, forget all the warnings about the pickpockets and the street hustlers of Paris.

No one inside LV’s shiny store, knows that outside the luxury goods store, pickpockets wait, clad in finery themselves. And that they can swiftly, surely, unknowingly open your hand bag and flick your wallet in no time.

The unfamiliar lump in my throat grows by the minute when I discover, to my horror, that my wallet, with money and credit cards, is missing. We had just sat down for our dose of a Parisian cafe on the great street itself. It  was such a powerless moment that is etched, almost  frozen in my mind. Even now, I can close my eyes and feel the panic.

Push becomes a shove when my iPhone starts receiving texts of purchases amounting to over 1000 Euros on my stolen cards. I clam up and for a spilt second, cannot comprehend anything. My husband takes over and urges me to call the banks – I do and the cards are blocked. But not before one purchase goes through -albeit for a small amount – on a debit card. Increasingly, the thieves bring down the amounts they are trying to charge on the cards.

Finally, after what seemed like eons, the attempted charges stop.

I walk on, fazed. Being robbed on the world’s most elegant boulevard brings me back to earth with a thud.

I have seen the French police fully armed and ready to confront any would-be terrorist, patrol the streets of Paris. They’ll get the pickpockets, I tell myself.

At the police station on Champs de Elysees, I sit down and try to explain my predicament to the policewoman on duty. She is not impressed – I’m but one of the many tourists crowding the police with complaints of being pick pocketed. One Korean lay sits down, tears in her eyes ; they robbed her money and her passport.

The Parisian police is so laid back you want to do something but you just sit there and pretend you are ok when you are not. Suddenly, the police we grumble about back home seems very efficient to me. This is Pink Panther true to form; departing and arriving policemen and women kiss each other on the cheek in true Parisian fashion, armed to the teeth. This is Paris ; get used to it, I tell myself.

Finally, a policeman is ready to take my complaint. I explain what I lost and in halting English, he nods his head as he types on the keyboard. The French keyboard can be challenging to English speakers.

But wait – the best part in the whole drama is when he pulls out a speaker from a drawer and starts playing classical music. Right there, as he takes my complaint down. He hums and sounds like he is enjoying it all.

I will always remember the singing policeman in Paris. I had never, ever heard a policeman in full uniform, taking down the complaint of someone in distress sing as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

He hands me the complaint in French – and I leave.

Outside, the City of Lights was still the same.

Afterwards, we are hesitant to finish the rest of our touristy visits but no, I tell myself, we came for this, we’ve got to do the rest of it.

Even though Paris was hot and the crowds were pressing – we visit The Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. And Notre Dame.

Later, the Frenchmen and Frenchwomen I meet in the local butchery, the patisserie and the pharmacie apologise profusely for the shame of being pick-pocketed- even the cab driver. He shakes his head and says ‘ That’s Paris of today”.

The French are not bad to tourists at all – those who live in Paris have much to do deal with. Roma gangs bother tourists at places where people gather such as Champs Elysees and Notra Dame. The pickpockets, the refugees who hustle for money and the belly of the ugly Paris still exists.

We go for a last night dessert to Avec Ma Blonde, a quaint Parisian cafe on Montemartre Damremont, 18th Arra, our neighbourhood. The cafe is run by Benjamin and his friend.

Benjamin turns out gourmet desserts as only a Frenchman can  ; as the sun goes down on a hot summer’s day, the cafe fills up and people eat, drink vine and have great conversations. It’s all very French. And very elegant too. No one wolfs down food – everyone eats slowly, digesting it well, while having the conversations with the ease that only the French can. Laughter and the sweet aroma of Benjamin’s desserts fill the room.

Taking the Eurostar back to London, I miss my cream coloured wallet. And my ID. And my driving licence. And whatever else that was in my wallet, a lot of things that people usually put in their wallets and forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Of Danno Budunge, Hymn for Sri Lanka & Opera

Of Danno Budunge, Hymn for Sri Lanka & Opera

The perfect delivery of the much loved Danno Budunge in operatic style was done with both aplomb and finesse by Kishani Jayasinghe, a soprano whom we should all be proud to call a fellow Sri Lankan.

The story that goes even further, despite the ire of many social media users, is that the original melody of the Danno Budunge was the beloved Hymn for Sri Lanka, penned by Rev. W.S Senior back in the early part of the 20th century. The hymn is still sung in churches throughout Sri Lanka. Rev Senior was an educator in the style of pioneer men and women from Europe and USA who went out to the world – he was the Vice Principal of Trinity College Kandy and contributed immensely to that school.

This, really, is not about Rev Senior, the Hymn for Sri Lanka, Danno Budunge or the stellar reputation Kishani has as a soprano whose voice and talent has put Sri Lanka on the map. It is more about who we are as a nation, where we are and where we are going. About what values we are passing on to our children and in which ways we can connect to the rest of the world.

For some of us, anything western is anathema – but migration to a western country is not. It’s perfectly ok to have children here at home in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the world who cannot pronounce Sinhala properly but it is not ok to sing a Sinhala song in any other style but the one it is sung in.

It’s ok to drink frizzy drinks and eat fast food – pay no heed to the mantra to return to healthier food and drinks of our forefathers. It’s perfectly acceptable to throw garbage and ruin the fragility of the scenic environment in Sri Lanka – or invite the dengue mosquitoes to breed with unclean drains and polluted environs.

But it is not acceptable for a Sinhala song to be sung in a different yet perfectly acceptable style loved by half or more of the world out there.

The list goes on – and the list is full of hypocrisy and phobias. After some 2,500 years we are supposed to be proud of – I recently came back from a visit to Polonnaruwa during which I took my 9 year old daughter around the ruins and we both fell swelled in our chests about the feats of our ancestors – we are more inward looking and insecure than we were during the days of kings.

The world runs on innovation. That’s the buzz word for economic, business, social and personal success. Granted we must be proud of our heritage and who we are – but we also must emerge as capable and relevant in the world of today. The ostrich mentality will only serve to sink us further – like some truck stuck in the sands of time unable to get its wheels out of the mire.

The world of today is not limited by race, creed, caste or religion. It combines it all, making a perfectly stirred pot of all nationalities that strengthens and reinforces the hope of humanity. The lyrics of the Hymn for Sri Lanka are penned by a clergyman who loved this land like his own and is buried here, and is set to lilting music by Deva Surya Sena, who pioneered the style of local and traditional singing of Sinhala hymns. The same melody is then transformed into the beauty of Danno Budunge and has enthralled generations with its simple yet profoundly sweet melody.

In a nutshell, this melody connects the nation at many different levels. To me,it embodies the spirit of Sri Lanka as we are – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem. The true spirit of a nation in which we all share the common space to grow, to work, to gather together to worship our God or gods.

When Kishani Jayasinghe sang Danno Budunge on 68th Independence Day, it was not the first time. She sang it last year, at a concert titled Kishani Sings With Friends – her rendition of Amazing Grace and Danno Budunge were applauded with gusto. But it took a post of her singing going viral to generate the kind of contempt that can only come from a deep sense of insecurity ingrained with a false sense of pride which is contrastingly different from the real love one feels for one’s heritage and identity.

For the generation of today who connect seamlessly via social media and the internet, the world is their oyster. They can relate to all kinds of music, which for them transcends all barriers.

Let us learn a lesson here from the young ones. And they surely have plenty to teach us.

 

 

 

 

When angels fall…

When angels fall…

I am the mother of an eight year old girl who still likes to play with her Barbies. She doesn’t like to sleep alone. Like many other little girls, she likes to dabble with my make up and dress to impress.

I joined millions of other Sri Lankan mothers, sharing a grief that was theirs and mine,  when I saw the crumpled body of little Seya on prime TV. I felt violated when TV stations chose to show such macabre scenery ; not done in  civilized country. Come to think of it, there should be a ban on showing shocking images of bodies on media but we still haven’t gone there, it seems, despite all the talk about being civilized above all else.  Seya’s hour or two in the devil’s grip still evades me – I don’t want to even think about it. I’m sure no one does. Two little girls killed within a spate of a week – one along with her parents in Minuwangoda and the other, taken from her bed and sexually assaulted, her little body thrown in a ditch.

Now before we let ourselves loose on the emotional wagon hitched to demanding better laws, we need to address ourselves as mothers and fathers. Are we doing enough to make sure our children are safe – not in strange places but in our own homes and in our own personal spaces? Seya was taken from her bed – I wish her mother bothered enough to check the first time her father noticed the little girl was not on the bed, instead of assuming that she had gone to the grandmother’s room. We are mothers in charge of children whose very fate depends a lot on us – we cannot assume things. We need to always double check, always make sure the children are safe because one never knows when human beings can turn evil. And usually, the purveyors of such evil are among those closest to us.

Mothers and fathers need to be vigilant – parenting is a full time 24/7 job. It doesn’t stop when the kids grow up either. You need to be in the know, on the ball, connected to the daily rhythm of your children and generally be the eyes and ears all around. If you cannot, then you are not cut out for parenting in the 21st century. You need to get it into your system by default.

Sure, we need better laws. More importantly, we need better execution of existing laws – we need to upgrade the severity of punishment for crimes against children and women speedily, brought to a level of action, not just talk. We have heard a lot of talk but we need to be able to get things done – I certainly hope the new Minister in charge of Women’s & Children’s Affairs, Mrs Chandani Bandara will get started down that road.

We need to remember Seya – not now, but tomorrow and the next year. We know we forget a lot of things however sad, however appalling, when the story winds down. But we need to keep remembering so that somewhere in Sri Lanka, a little girl or a little boy will not face the same fate as her. We need to remember to lock our doors, check out strangers and pay more attention to what is happening around us.

When the perpetrator is found – I pray to God he will be – we need to make sure that as a society, we deal with such evil in a way that will deter others. We also need to have in place measures that will work towards minimizing sexual crimes ; a key step in this direction would be clamp down or restrict access to on porn sites ; Google recently bestowed upon us the infamous title of the country seeking the biggest slice of sex related material on line. We hope that the Good Governance Government will take the right steps in that direction.

We have too many lessons in the death of an angel to forget – it is my prayer and I know it is your prayer too ; may this be the last such tragedy we will hear about. RIP Seya – Sri Lanka weeps with your family..