Monday, August 15, 2016

Rewind: The Fall of 2014

Time does fly, and my vivid recollection of activities I did in the month of August, 2014 is a testimony to this fact. If I am asked to visually represent how the month of August in 2014 was for me, I will choose a Bell curve because I was literally at the top of the world, yet at the bottom. Having successfully completed an internship with a reputed market research and consulting firm in the satellite industry called Northern Sky Research (NSR), and also being the first person to have a job offer before graduation was something worth celebrating and being proud of. However, it also marked an abrupt end of the road with many people from across the world, with whom I had spent the best year of my life. Not that I wouldn't be in touch with them, but there was a certainty about not seeing many of them for years to come.

Lot of people would have loved to be in my place back then - good grades in college, job secured, and a decent social life. But I wasn't very happy or excited to start a new life, because I preferred hanging on to an imperfect one that I had in Strasbourg over a perfect one that stared at me back then. The last couple of weeks with the troupe were emotionally taxing, as we had to come with terms on the fact that we would probably not be drinking so much in our lives again. The silver lining was that we could make up for it by drinking our livers out in those last few days, and we did exactly the same!

The event that stood out for me as a defining moment of my life was a road trip that I did with a few other friends - Paul, Leena, Vittoria, and Jose. If there was something in my life that I regretted and wanted a second chance, this was it. We went to beautiful places, no doubt about that, but I wish there was someone who could regulate the emotions that overflowed from my end during the trip. After a few outbursts and a lot of grumpiness, I realized that is what it means taking control of your life - managing your own shit without harming others or yourself, because no one will do that on your behalf. And if someone does, that person is worth hanging on to. 

After a lot of drinks and words, things converged on the finality of a life after ISU, and it took an U-turn as I moved back to India and chose to start working out of Bangalore - the city that was to become my new home for the next two years. I joined a small team of Analysts from all over the world at NSR, and restarted my career all over again after 3 years of core engineering work with ISRO. The journey since then has been a roller-coaster ride, but not without its own hiccups - and more on that in my future posts :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What is Dead May Never Die

I had almost forgotten that I used to write a blog until recently, when I received requests from two unknown kids on Facebook, who referred to some old posts and seeked 'career guidance' in the field of astronautics.

Two years have passed since I wrote my last blog-post, and there is so little to catch up on the personal front that it amazes me how time flew. Life has been busy with work and the pressure to have a social (media) presence despite it.

In the coming few weeks, I will try to ponder how the last two years has changed every aspect of my life, and share a few thoughts on my blog for future reference before I forget. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Europe You Beauty!

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." -- Lao Tzu

That single step for me was the booking of a car from a rental website, after days of speculation whether we would do a road-trip to Italy and Croatia. This was one small step for Leena, who had previously driven for long distances, but a large step for me since I hate driving and also because the steering wheel as well as the roads in Europe is reverse of that in India. But nevertheless, a decision was made that we would be driving all the way to Pula to meet our friend Robert, and pickup another friend Vittoria on the way. That was the rough plan, and thankfully none of us tried to fine tune it during the course of the trip, and therein lay the beauty of our 'plan'. We were travelling not to arrive at some destination, or to see something specific like tourists, but we were travelling to see whatever comes our way...

We got to Strasbourg airport to collect the car, and were pleasantly surprised to find a mini-van instead of the originally booked mid-sized car. The car had automatic transmission, a glass roof, curtains and just too much space for three people. It felt like one of those cars my mom would be travelling in without complaining. But the one thing missing was GPS navigation support. I was sitting beside the driver, so unfortunately that responsibility was bestowed upon me and I would like to believe that I did pretty well for the first two minutes before my Blackberry decided to give up on me. We still made it beyond France within an hour of our departure from Strasbourg, and that's when our smartphone GPS stopped working. We were forced to navigate through Switzerland in the conventional way like our ancestors did, reading signboards on the road and using our common sense. Driving through Switzerland was so aesthetically pleasing that we didn't care to freak out because of this small glitch. We were also very happy at having received a 2 CHF coin each at the border control toll booth, after paying a whopping tax of 40 euros. 


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Cow spotting became a sport for the rest of the journey, and almost got us killed once when we freaked out our trip sole driver (Leena), but that comes later. The countryside was beautiful and serene. The radio music was terrible and we ended up buying audio jacks at the first stop in Altdorf, Switzerland in order to be able to play music from our phones. It was interesting to note how the language, food and people changed within such a short period of time. We reached Milan, Italy by midnight and got used to spotting the 'uscita' sign instead of the usual 'ausfarht' or 'sortie' which we saw on the road in Switzerland and France. We also happened to cross some of the longest tunnels in Europe on our way, and every time we entered, one I was reminded of the movie 'Matrix Reloaded'. Yes, they were so well kept and completely justified the exorbitant toll fee (later on we found out its a yearly fee, not one way).

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Milan turned out to be the reminder of what happens when you do not have GPS access. After a nice late night snack at a cafe, we thought of visiting a few places before exiting. I happened to pass out conveniently, waking up two hours later to find out that we just exited the city! Leena and Pulkit was super stressed and pissed after having driven in circles for more than an hour to find the way back to the highway. Leena still kept driving while Pulkit took his turn to rest while I returned back to my job as navigator, and by Leena's side to keep her awake till we reached Verona.

Chilling in Milan   

Verona turned out to be one of the many surprise packages of our trip. It is a small town in northern Italy, and a world heritage site as per UNESCO. My only source of know-how about this place was through the Shakespearean drama 'Romeo and Juliet'. We reached there early morning and had a crisp breakfast, which was basically 2 pints of beer, something that Pulkit missed while having Milan nightmares at the back seat. We strolled around the city, visiting the Grand Roman period Arena (which is the 3rd largest in Italy with a diameter of 139m), Piazza dei Signori, and the Cathedral San Zeno Basilica, before setting off for Venice where we were supposed to meet Vittoria, but not before we took a short detour into the vineyards on the mountains. The greatest problem we faced all this while was to keep in touch with friends and family, and getting to that place with free wi-fi became a challenge that we accepted humbly.

City Centre
At the Arena
Piazza dei Signori
Cathedrale San Zeno Basilica

By the time we reached Venice, most of us were dying out of tiredness. The entry to Venice was kind of melodramatic with Leena showing signs of road rage, while I struggled to keep my eyes open.

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We were received by Vittoria and her pretty Italian friends in Venice, who escorted us till our hotel. The crazy thing about the place is that there is no motor vehicle allowed, so you either walk your legs off or take the super expensive water taxis. After having walked for about an hour, we finally reached the place, but completely rejuvenated admiring the beauty of Venice. We took a late night stroll to the main bridge, and had delicious authentic Italian food for dinner, with an expensive bottle of dry Italian wine. Yes, we were doing it the right way ;)



We woke up to a bright morning, after having slept like dead men, and explored Venice on foot. People got the traditional masks, gifts, etc for the loved ones as mementos. Venice was pretty, probably the prettiest place I have ever been to. And the fact that I was exploring it with the people I love made the experience even better. It is a colorful city splattered with winding lanes, old buildings patronizing the Roman architectural styles, backwaters (hell lot of them!) and tourists from all over the world. We were thankful that we had an Italian friend with us, which ensured we won't be ripped off at every nook and corner. Childhood memories of playing Assasin's Creed came back being in the city, so did the typical Indian stereotypes depicted in the movies and captured in this video beautifully.

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We set off for our next and last target, Pula (Croatia). The 3 hours’ drive was through Trieste, which happened to be the hometown of Vittoria, and turned out to be another surprise package of our trip. Situated at the border of Italy and Slovenia, the city is built along the hillside which merges with the north Adriatic sea. The drive through the cliffs was simply amazing, with hills on one side and the sea on the other. Later on after researching, I found that Trieste has been rated by LonelyPlanet as the No.1 underrated travel destination in the world!

 

We reached Pula by 10pm the same day, and miraculously found out Robert's place without getting lost. The ghosts of Milan still haunted us and we took extra care this time. We got a warm welcome from his parents, and were immediately directed towards the dining table to have the delicious food prepared by his mother. His dad pampered us with a short wine tasting which we thoroughly enjoyed and almost got drunk. There were some embarrassing pictures of young Robert, when he used to enjoy a normal BMI. Next morning, he made us a sumptuous brunch and we set off exploring the city. It was Wednesday and 11am in the morning, but the cafes were full of people chatting and sharing a drink! According to Robert, that is a normal day for people in his laidback hometown. We visited the market, a fort, a church and the arena (most towns of the old Roman Empire have one) before breaking for lunch.

  
 

  


The clouds had cleared by then, and we hit the beach. Our original plan was to sail in the Adriatic aboard Robert's boat but that could not materialize due to fickle weather condition. The beach was a rocky one but nonetheless we went for a swim once we got accustomed to the cold water. I was swimming after almost a year, and probably swimming for the first time in a place other than the pool, where I learnt the art three years back. I did not fare badly on that account, although my tongue did feel salty for the entire evening. We had a grand dinner by the sea in Istria, tasting authentic Croatian sea-food preparations. It was delicious and expensive, but we had stopped caring by that point of time about financials. I was having the time of my life, and knew it may well be the first and last time we all group together for such a holiday.


  

  

We returned the next day, driving continuously for over 10 hours and stopping at Trieste to drop Vittoria and be treated to delicious Italian pasta and hospitality. There was a certain calmness that I had seldom felt in a long long time. Traveling regulated my imagination with reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, I saw them as they are. Our battered bodies were overlooked by the satisfied soul. I was happy, after a long time and I would like to take another trip to Italy this year...

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As we neared our destination and the sun set on us, I was remembered the dialogue from the movie 'Perks of Being a Wallflower' in my head

"I know these will all be stories someday. And our pictures will become old photographs. We'll all become somebody's mom or dad. But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening. I am here and I am looking at her. And she is so beautiful. I can see it. This one moment when you know you're not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you're listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite..."


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- Prateep


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ma Connexion Russe

Before setting off for Strasbourg, I had managed to meet most of my friends from Bangalore and Trivandrum, to say a long good bye and get their best wishes. But there is one conversation that I remember vividly till date from that phase of my life...

My Friend (browsing Facebook pages of some girl who was on the ISU 2013 group): Dude! This chick is hot..you should definitely pursue her.

Me (halfheartedly looking up to see whom he was gaping at so joyfully): Meh...I wonder which one is her...(there were two girls in the display picture, both in bikinis at some beach)

My Friend: Ha! Both are out of your league but you could still try lol... 

I shook my head in agreement to change the topic of the conversation and we continued drinking our beers and discussing politics, career and what not, like usual. I remember it was a good night... 

One Month Later in Strasbourg

It was my first day in Strasbourg, and I was roaming around the famous Cathedrale Notre-Dame with Pulkit, Robert and Vatsala. Pulkit had arrived a day before me so he happened to meet some other classmates who were staying in and around the city unlike us, who were at Illkirch Graffestaden. He had the phone number of just one person, a girl by the name of Leena Pivocrates, the same girl my friend back in India was so interested in. Robert concluded that she is Greek going by her surname. Meanwhile, I was cajoling Pulkit to call her and meet up with the rest of the space crew. Unfortunately, that never happened although Pulkit did call, but we got caught up exploring the beautiful neighborhood of La Petit France that day.

One Day Later

We had arrived in Strasbourg ten days before our term was supposed to start at ISU to attend French language classes. But I met up with few of my classmates a night before these classes started at 25 Cathedrale place, which housed three of our classmates namely Leena, Sam and Trisha. I was meeting them for the first time so I had bought a few drinks to carry to their place. The place was at the top of the building and the stairs up till there reminded me of the Cathedrale which I had scaled earlier that evening. It was winding and spiral, or in short - horrible! I was out of breath by the time I reached the door and promised myself never to be back at this place again. Our teaching assistant Nathan received us and introduced us to the people sitting around the living room. I do not remember who all were there except the people who lived in that place (except Trisha, who joined later). There she was, Leena Pivocrates, sitting by Sam's side who had her arm wrapped around her. I made a mental note to tell my friend that she was the girl in the left side of the picture (later on, we would joke that she was the one with the smaller boobs). Her black hair, deep eye shadow and brown eyes struck me as Asian features, and my guess was confirmed when she introduced herself as Russian origin-USA settled.
             To my glee, there was a sheesha in the house and I had to stop myself from grabbing the pipe from the person taking puffs. The introductions were pretty straight and formal, and I was amazed to see people from as far as USA and Australia sitting together in the same room. The only difficulty I faced that night was to participate in any conversations as everyone had a different accent and it took a lot of effort trying to understand each and every word that people spoke. I spoke the maximum with Trisha, since she took a place right beside me, and enjoyed the occasional sheesha that came my way. My memories of the first night out with my future classmates is limited to the feeling that people were trying hard to make an impression on each other. Hence, most of them were talking and participating in the conversations vehemently except Leena, who was more observant and talked only to the point. In my culture, such behavior maybe considered impolite but I had heard that's how normal Russian (and Chinese too) people interact socially. I had also heard from my seniors at ISRO that Russians seldom smile, and Leena soon became a living proof of this fact to me.
           By the end of the night, I had failed to make any impact on the people present. But the one positive thing that I took from that night was while bidding good byes, when I noticed that there was another person being as uncomfortable as me doing it the French way, and it was none other than Leena. I smiled to myself that I was not the only one...

A Week Later...

Attending the French classes together was a good social activity to begin the year. We all were from different countries and this feeling of being foreigners somehow brought us together. I had become pretty comfortable with most of my classmates, especially Robert and Trisha, with whom I spent maximum time (and I am not counting Pulkit here, since we knew each other from six years, a fact that never failed to garner those looks of amazement and at times shock whenever people came to know about it). I had missed the house-warming party at Jose's place since I was still mentally adjusting myself to the completely new culture I was experiencing. My last outing was at the "Language Exchange Bar', which was memorable but for all the wrong reasons. I was hit on by a gay guy, could not manage to continue a conversation with a decent looking German girl who had herself initiated it, ended up laughing alone at my jokes, was laughed at when I wasn't trying to make any joke (I was hitting on the pretty bespectacled girl named Alix, from Canada), and saw Leena being carried by a drunk Sam on his shoulders.
           My self esteem was at a record low, but I still decided to give social life at Strasbourg another chance and went dancing to this place called Barca Latino, which was basically a shabby looking boat serving cheap drinks and providing a decent (but in no way comfortable) dancing floor. My dancing skills are as good as Marlon Brando's singing, hence I abstained venturing to the danger zone while Pulkit and Raul (from Venezuela) rocked it. I spent more time chatting with this Spanish guy called Isaac, who like me was also not into dancing. I had met up with Leena and Co. earlier and she seemed pretty drunk. Also, her comment that her leather jacket was real and mine wasn't had put me off a bit. But there was something about this girl that kept me interested. Maybe it was her eyes that didn't give her away, or her 'devil may care' attitude at the bar where she kept downing shots  like I drink water after being out on a hot sunny day, or her sense of humor (she could be funny when she wanted), but the fact is till date I haven't been able to figure out.
         I don't know what happened that night (I had a bit too many shots myself obviously) but I decided to join the dancing group. I danced till I started smelling my own sweat, and that was when I noticed only me and Leena were left on the dance floor. Our friends had gone out for some fresh air, and one half of me wanted to do the same but I stayed back. Leena was grooving in a way I had seen only actresses do in Bollywood flicks. I wanted to dance with her and mustered up the courage (thanks shots!) to ask her to teach me how to dance with a girl. The next five minutes were a blurr as I followed her lead and had a gala time until she brought my senses back to Earth by saying she likes girls too during the conversation we were having while managing to move on the heavily crowded dance floor. That day, she officially became the first bisexual person I had ever known. We had a brief 'moment' together after this piece of breaking news and till date we haven't come to a clear conclusion of who was hitting on whom, but it clearly marked the beginning of our friendship. I admired her capacity to practically inhale alcohol while she may have realized I wasn't that much of a weirdo. I managed to find her precious leather jacket among the heap while leaving the club and I guess this gesture put me in her good books.

One Month After Barca Latino

The ISU crew had bonded pretty well by then, and we partied every weekend as if there was no tomorrow, with 25 Cathedrale being the one stop party shop. I was good friends with Robert and Trisha by then, and she used to spend most of  her evenings with us much to the annoyance of her room mates, especially Leena. The two American ladies then decided to rename me and Pulkit from 'The Indians' to 'Indian Boyfriends'. According to the 'nomenclature' and 'agreement', I was Leena's Indian bf and I used to call her 'crazy little russian gf'. Today when I reminisce about it, I feel amused when I think 'Oh! That's how we got to know each other...'

(to be continued) 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

My New Space- Part III

The delay in writing the third piece about my life at Strasbourg is due to multiple reasons, foremost being procrastination. At the end of October, we had our first examination which most of us passed with fairly decent grades. This marked the beginning of the next six months, which were as hectic as it could get. We were doing three modules in parallel - academic lectures, the team project and the individual project; the most among them was the team project for reasons far more greater than the scope of the project. every year at ISU, two team projects are carried out which are inter-disciplinary in nature and inter-cultural in team composition true to the ISU motto of 3Is education. This year, the team project titles suggested to us were 'One way mission to Mars' and 'Space for Migration'. Both of these topics sound fairly vague, and I was assigned to the latter. The individual project work was more laid back and this helped me to divide time efficiently between lectures, assignments, the two projects and having fun at the same time. 

As I had mentioned earlier, the team project was the most important aspect at ISU as it happens to shape the social group dynamics for the entire year. It is through this endeavor that we come to know most about each other. When you put people from culturally diverse countries together, sparks are bound to fly. Even though I had worked in ISRO where people from different parts of India work together, we shared some common sentiments, hence working on the team project was a completely different experience. The topic itself was a difficult one to crack and went through many changes, before being finally named as Steps To Effectively Prepare for Migration (STEP M). I had a gala time and would remember this for a long time to come. Its not often that you find your team members from 11 different countries like the USA, South Korea, China, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Venezuela, Czech Republic, Nigeria, Ireland and Japan. The academic load had some effect on the partying spree, and also stressed out a lot of people, which was reflected in the increasing number of arguments (and bitching that people resorted to thereafter) people had for petty issues like the cleanliness of the student lounge.

Team Migration at Flams, Strasbourg

One of the good things at ISU is the guest lectures delivered by eminent people from industry and academia. Module 2 had a bevy of such lecturers, the most popular among them being by astronaut Bob Thirsk. The area of Space Medicine had already caught my imagination due to the awesomeness of the way it was taught to us by in-house faculty member Dr. Gilles Clement. Bob Thirsk took it to another level during his lecture presentation, and later on we got to interact with him personally in typical ISU fashion with snacks and drinks. Most of us managed to get an autograph from him, and a few of our classmates successfully managed to persuade him to write about kitchen cleanliness! Being the gentleman he is, he obliged to our childish requests and I have this autographed poster thanks to him. 


We had many industrial visits during Module 2. In module 1, there was the remote sensing trip which was spoiled by bad weather, still it was pretty awesome and we had a great time at Mount St.Odile. The ones after that included the trips to Astrium, Friedrichshafen (Germany), SES, Betzdorf (Luxembourg) and ESA ESOC/Telespazio, Darmstadt (Germany). The bus journeys were not that eventful with most of us being passed out for the maximum amount of time. Meanwhile, there was a big Christmas holiday in between when most of the class went to their respective homes and only a few of us (mainly Indians) were left to enjoy the excellent Strasbourg Christmas, photos of which can be found here - https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/107005930852174377989/albums/5923808040874314497. It turned out to be a great holiday, especially since I had a visitor back from home, and we all had a blast (unfortunately I can't post the best photos of our adventures). I explored Strasbourg like never before, and also happened to visit a small town 30 minutes from here called Colmar. One of my classmates is from this place, and her mother's hospitality touched us, especially since we were visiting during Christmas when you are supposed to be with family.


While all this was happening, I got so engrossed in my ISU life that I forgot about my life back in India. I never lost the connection, but some strings went loose and I paid the price for it. I may have learnt to do a system design of a remote sensing spacecraft in 3 days flat, and managed an inter-cultural team for a few weeks successfully, but I failed at managing my personal life to the extent that I stopped caring about it. I knew I seldom learn from my mistakes but this time it was right on my face and yet I repeated the same mistakes that I have committed before. Thankfully I had a good support system of friends with whom I spent almost 16 hours per day 6 times a week. Honestly speaking, I haven't spent this amount of time continuously even with my parents in the last three years. Hence a strange bond existed among all of us..we may not like each other a lot, but we still had to bear with this fact and live like a family. The projects were completed successfully and both teams were lauded for their efforts.

With this I end the summary of my life at ISU, Strasbourg. There are a few important things which I did not mention because I will be writing separately on them. I tried my best to present my experiences in a crisp way. Keep reading for more details :)