Friday, 12 March 2021

Berlin: Poor But Sexy

The former mayor of Berlin, in an attempt to attract artists, musicians and other creative professionals, described Berlin as arm aber sexy or poor but sexy. The slogan worked and attracted artists from all over the world. But it also attracted tech workers and entrepreneurs. People who were neither sexy nor poor. And in a way it attracted me too, as I moved to Berlin in 2020. The planning started in December 2019, but it took until Oct 2020 for me to move, due to the pandemic and the subsequent lock-downs.

Berlin has a unique charm, thanks to its unique history. After a tumultuous 20th century, peace has finally reached Berlin. Berlin has constantly had to reinvent itself over the 20th century. At the start of the 20th century, under the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Germany was the most powerful of all European countries and Berlin, it's capital, the center of all European and world politics. However the first World War and the subsequent German defeat brought an end to the aristocracy and monarchy. The Weimar Republic was established. Berlin was the capital of the new republic, with a constant threat of a coup by both the far-left and the far-right. 

During the 1920s, Berlin became the center of arts, literature, cinema and science. German Expressionism in arts and cinema reached a peak. German cinema was far ahead of contemporary Hollywood, as German cinema dealt with far more "intellectual" topics compared to the action-adventure and romantic movies of Hollywood. The great Alfred Hitchcock spent some time in Berlin working on a movie in 1924, and left with a German influence that lasted with him for a lifetime. Sciences too rose into prominence. Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921 while living in Berlin.

The Great Depression and the subsequent rise of the Nazi Party brought a great change in Berlin. Berlin became the capital of the Reich. The Nazis labelled all art from the Weimar Republic decadent and hedonist. The Second World War was an eventual disaster for Berlin. Almost 87% of the city was destroyed in the second World War, with Berlin hit by around 68 thousand tons on TNT. At the end of the war, the city was split into Eastern and Western blocs, which eventually became part of two countries - the capitalist West Germany and the communist East. The 60s saw East Germany build a wall around West Berlin to prevent it's younger population from fleeing to West Germany. The two German states were a front of the cold war and Berlin was at the center of it. The fall of the wall in the 1990s and the subsequent reunification of Germany and Berlin undid the damage of the cold war to some extent. Berlin today is the hub of innovation, research, arts and tech.

Living in Berlin has been a unique experience for me. The restaurants, caf├ęs and museums are shut due to lockdowns. Most of the tourists are missing, which means that you can explore the city in relative solitude. It also means that I have no clue what actual Berlin looks like. But it is certainly different to any other place I have ever been to. Whether it's cycling along the Berlin Wall, or having lunch by the Spree or jogging in the hunting grounds of the former Prussia kings, each experience has been an enriching one. Every building or street has a unique piece of history attached to it. The Brandenburg Gate is a relic of the era of Prussian kings dominating Berlin and Europe. The Berlin Cathedral, adorned by statues of Martin Luther and other protestant reformers, all pointing to the scriptures, is reminiscent of Berlin's protestant past. The TV Tower, Karl-Marx-Alle and the Soviet styled communist apartment complexes symbolic of the Soviet Influence. The "Little Istanbul" of Kreuzberg and the Dong Xuan Center are a reminder of the various ethnic communities in Berlin.

The building that encapsulates 20th century Berlin the best is Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus. Built under the Nazis in 1936, it was the largest building in Europe. It housed the Luftwaffe, the aerial warfare branch of the German forces in the Second World War. Post WWII, the building became the seat of power of East Germany and after German reunification, it houses the Berlin branch of German Finance Ministry, the Ministry that is responsible for revenue administration. Some buildings are destined to be used for evil.

Berlin today is not poor, it is liberal, non-judgmental, culturally diverse, artistic and still sexy.

Sunday, 6 December 2020


"Diego Armando Maradona", said my history teacher, on a chilly December morning, talking about football as that was the morning topic of discussion, "was the best ever and will always be the best ever". This was the first time I had heard of his name. Us students were used to this grumpy Arsenal fan ranting about old players. The school had always been decidedly Manchester United and he had at times thrown names like Thierry Henry and Robert Pires, combined with words like best and greatest, to sway some of the students to the side of the Gunners. I had always sympathized with him, waging a war against a bunch of hooligan supporters of a sad football club who were drunk on their own success. "United will fall off their perch, just like Liverpool did", he said. And so it was all the more surprising when he mentioned a name that was not of an ex-Arsenal player.

Growing up, football was not something we cared about. We were cricket nerds, memorizing boring statistics to use during lunch debates. Sachin was the greatest ever. We had heard of Pele, the model player, liked by everyone and who won Brazil the world cup as an 18 year old. My earliest memories of a FIFA World Cup were watching the highlights of the 2002 World Cup. Football was absolutely alien to us born in a cricket mad country, and yet utterly fascinating. We saw people from countries we had only heard about - countries like Denmark and Sweden, Trinidad and Senegal. And yet, once the world cup ended, we forgot all about football. It was only after 4 years that we noticed football again. This time all the news was about a bald French player called Zidane. Everybody said that he was carrying the French to the finals. My brother and I were not allowed to watch the final, as our father refused to let us stay awake past our bedtime, instead watching the match alone and telling us in the morning that Zidane had head-butted an Italian player and got sent off. Wow! Did we regret not watching it live! By 2010, we had immersed ourselves in the footballing culture. Video games meant that we started enjoying football more and everyone in school had chosen a club, most of them Manchester United.

Back to that December morning and as we were listening to our teacher talk about the greatness of Diego, we realized he was talking about his journey to football. He had elaborately described the 1986 world cup and those two famous goals. He talked about how he, as a 10 year old boy, was listening on the radio the next day about this Argentine player who had dribbled past 8 players to score a goal. And that is when I realized that he was not just talking about Maradona or how great a player he was. He was talking about how this short man from Argentina had introduced the world of football to him. It was his story of playing football in his childhood, on the streets of Kerala, dreaming of winning the world cup, just like Maradona had done. Maradona's goals were not mere statistics, they were history itself , an epiphany, an almost spiritual awakening for the non Europeans. To this day, Argentina is loved by people all over the world because of Maradona. He was a short diminutive brown man, who bested the white man at his own game. His story had captivated and inspired millions of people like my history teacher. Our teacher subtly did not mention anything about Maradona's history with drugs or other run-ins with authorities. 

And as he finished talking, one could almost see a sense of pride in his eyes. He had done his bit in keeping the legend of Diego Maradona alive. He had baptized a bunch of teenagers to the church of Maradona. By the next week, somebody had downloaded videos of his goals from YouTube and sent them to everyone. It was already part of the collections of "great goals" videos. 

They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and the second, a bit later on, when somebody mentions your name for the last time. Maradona's story will be told a thousand times over. And for that reason Maradona remains immortal.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Old Friends

Yesterday I found the blog of an old friend, someone I last saw years ago. I haven't talked to for her around 3 years now. Reading her blog took me down the memory lane. I was a different person back then. I was younger, optimistic, healthier and happier. I was also a student with very little money. It was nice to reminisce about a simpler time in my life. I also thought about my friend. If I had met her now, I am not so sure she would be a friend, probably just a pleasant acquaintance. She and I are very different. And that made me wonder, how many of the relationships we have in our life are just because some people are there at a particular moment. That friend in school you grew close to because they too hated maths. Or that college roommate who was allotted the same dorm by chance. Maybe it is not just our friends. Maybe the career or education that we are so proud of is also a product of coincidences.

It also made me wonder, how easy is was to make friends when I was younger. I think if I had met that shy coworker who sits on the opposite desk some years back, we would be very good friends. Or the guy next door who annoys everyone on the floor by leaving his beer bottles outside his door. He is not very different from some of college friends.

As I basked in the glory of my very unremarkable observations, I thought about the friend who I had lost touch with. I remember the first time we got our salaries and went out to celebrate. We had tried sushi and realised that everybody who said they loved sushi were lying. Nobody wants to be the weirdo who hates sushi. People gobble up raw fish, so that they are not social outcasts. Our eventual dinner was "pav bhaji" from a roadside stall. Would she be stunned to know that I loved sushi now? Or had she strangled her free spirit too, by stuffing herself with raw fish? 

I wanted to know. I was hopeful. I thought about reaching out to her. But somehow I couldn't. I have a photograph of the night, when she and I tried to eat sushi. We were young and hopeful. We had talked all night about life, love, philosophy and our dreams. And that's the memory I wanted to preserve.

Old Friends by Simon & Garfunkel

Saturday, 30 May 2020

In Bruges

What's the best way to spend two months locked up at home, when the world is grappling with a pandemic and there are no guarantees when normal life will return? I wish I knew the answer. I am trying to think about happy times, like last year, when I had one of the most memorable experiences of my lifetime. I travelled alone, to a different country, for the first time, and it was wonderful. I thought I had seen a lot of things. I had lived in 8 different cities across 4 states in India, each state with a different language, all different from the one I spoke at my home. I am from Kerala and right from my childhood I had learnt that no place is more beautiful than Kerala. I thought nothing in the world could surprise me. I couldn't have been more wrong. 

I was in Belgium for a two day conference. But at the last moment, at the advice of a coworker, I decided to skip the second day of the conference, to visit a small city near Brussels, a two hour train ride away. And yet it is years apart from Brussels. 

Bruges is a city in the province of West Flanders, in the Flemish region of Brussels. The city is beautiful and the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the early 12th century to 15th century, the city was a strategic centre and formed an essential part of the trade routes of Western Europe. Bruges' golden era declined during the late 1500s and by the early 16th century, the rise of Antwerp caused a decline in trade. It gradually descended into slumber and became a ghost town, with population falling to 50000 by early 1900s. The Germans occupied the city during WWI and WWII but did not destroy it. Even the Germans couldn't bring themselves to destroy this beautiful city.

At the same time, Bruges became one of the world's first tourist destinations. The city has preserved most of its medieval architecture. Once in Bruges, you are transported to a time when life was simpler. The houses resemble the ones in fairy tales and the city centre is stuff of Bollywood dreams. The brightly coloured houses, the arced rooftops, and the many churches can make anyone look a great photographer. The city is connected by canals and one can take a ride in boats across the canals. Only later, when I read more about Flanders, did I realise that not only is Bruges one of the best places in Europe, the entire region of Flanders is an absolute beauty. (If you wonder why red poppies are a symbol of remembrance for soldiers fallen in WWI, read about the poem "In Flanders Fields").

I spent around 4 hours and decided to return to my hotel in Brussels. I had imprudently forgotten to charge my phone. Not a smart thing to do while travelling in a country, where you don't speak the language. One of the worst things about visiting Bruges is that you will have to eventually leave. 

A random canal with some houses in the background

The canal with the Bell Fry in the background

A beautiful arched bridge

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

10 footballing moments that defined 2010s

Another decade has passed. 10 years older and none the wiser. Liverpool were 8th at the start of the decade and by the end of 2010s are European Champions, World Champions and  poised to be Premier League Champions. But this post is not about that. This is about 10 moments that were momentous, shocking and the defining moments of the decade. And to add a bit of fun, I have picked only one from each year.

2010 - Andres Iniesta wins the World Cup

It's hard to pick another moment in a World Cup year, other than the World Cup final. Spain winning the world cup for the first time in 2010 was the only worthwhile event in an otherwise dreadful tournament . Despite having a competitive league and some of the best clubs and players in the world, Spain had never managed to win the World Cup. They went into the tournament as European Champions and overwhelming favorites. If the Dutch gave us Total Football, Spain(specifically, Barcelona) made it fashionable. They lost their first group game 1-0 to Switzerland, but came back to win 2-0 against Honduras, 2-1 against 10 men Chile. They won 1-0 against Portugal in the round of 16 and then won 1-0 against Paraguay to set up a semi-final against Germany. A thumping Carlos Puyol header gave Spain another 1-0 win. The final, against Netherlands, resembled more of a wrestling match than a football game, not helped at all by Howard Webb, the match referee. Iniesta won the final in extra-time with a goal at minute 117. The fact that it were two catalans who scored the winning goals in the semi-finals and finals is a tad ironic, when one considers the separatist sentiments in Catalonia today.

Notable mentions:
Inter's Treble

2011 - Liverpool off their perch

For too long the red half of Merseyside prided on being the best team in England with 18 first division titles to their name. When Liverpool won their 18th title in 1990, United had 7. They were not even second on the list (Arsenal had 10 titles). Even the most optimistic of United fans would not have expected that United would ever catch up to Liverpool, never mind within two decades. Rooney, Chicharito and Berbatov guided United to their 19th title, in a season where their eternal rivals Liverpool might have gone into administration. Arsenal, who were the primary title challengers for United, ended up finishing 4th, while a late title charge from Chelsea was not enough to stop United from knocking Liverpool off their perch, although they were brought back to earth in 3-1 Champions league humbling by Barcelona.
Notable mentions:-
That goal from Wayne Rooney. Barcelona win Champions League and La Liga. The Blue moon rising- City win a trophy after 35 years.

2012 - Aguerooooooo!!

There might never be a moment as staggering as the Aguero goal to "snatch the title away from Manchester United in injury time". After starting the season in scorching form, beating Spurs 5-1 at White Hart Lane and United 6-1 at Old Trafford, City's form dipped in the second half. A late Mikel Arteta goal against Arsenal at the Emirates left City 8 points behind with 6 games to go. But a 1-0 loss for United at Wigan and 4-4 draw at home against Everton, meant that the deficit was only 3 points by the time the two Manchester rivals met in May. A Vincent Kompany header secured the 3 points and moved City above United on goal difference. United played Sunderland on the final day, while City hosted QPR. A Rooney goal was enough for the 3 points for United, while City, who led through a Zabaleta goal at half-time, were suddenly behind in the second half. Mancini threw Dzeko and Balotelli and City were playing with 4 strikers towards the end. A 91st minute header by Dzeko restored parity and gave some of the fans hope. City were "still alive" and a Nigel De Jong pass, laid on by "Balotelli and then Aguerooooooo". "I swear you will never see anything like that ever again.".
Notable mentions:-
Chelsea winning the Champions League, against all odds and defying all common sense,. Invincible Juventus - Unbeaten all through the season. Liverpool win the League Cup :P

2013 - Fergie's Time is up

Sir Alex Ferguson symbolized the Manchester United that I grew up watching. If ever there was a pantomime villain for a Liverpool fan, it was him. As much as I hated Manchester United, I could only admire the great teams that they had. Visiting teams would often wilt under the sheer willingness of Ferguson's United, one of the many reasons why they won games with some many late goals. 13 League titles, 2 Champions Leagues and countless other cups, Sir Alex is the second best Scottish manager the world has ever seen (nobody can be as good as Bill Shanks).

Notable mentions:
PSG win their first league title after the Qatari investment. Wigan Athletic win the FA Cup, in one of football's most romantic stories, Bayern become the first German club to win the treble.

2014 - Marcanazo returns

It's hard to pick another moment in a World Cup year, other than the World Cup final. And yet Brazil's 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany is one such moment. 2014 was to be Brazil's year. This was the year that they buried the ghosts of 1950, the year people forget Marcanazo. Marcanazo was forgotten, but not the way everybody expected.
Brazil had failed to convince in the entire tournament. They topped Group A with 7 points thanks to some Neymar heroics, and then needed a penalty shootout against Chile to reach the last eight.
They seemed to have turned a corner in the Quarterfinals against Colombia, as they led 2-0 until the 80th minute. A James Rodriguez penalty cut the deficit to 2-1, but Brazil still looked like going through. An unfortunate injury to Neymar in 88th minute though, changed the nature of the win. Brazil had to face Germans without Neymar and their captain Thiago Silva, who was suspended.
The semi-final was nothing less than catastrophic for Brazil. Thomas "Ramdeuter" Muller scored the opening goal from Germany's first corner of the game in the 11th minute. Brazil tried to respond, but within a space of 6 first half minutes, let in 4 goals. The Brazilian defence was in shambles, with David Luiz, guilty in particular, caught napping at the halfway line when his team conceded the third goal. The first half ended with score 5-0 to the Germans. Germany added 2 more in the second half, with Oscar grabbing a glorified consolation in injury time. Brazilian fans were devastated and most of them couldn't hide their tears. Brazil ended up finishing fourth, losing the third-place playoff 3-0 to the Netherlands.
The defeat sent shock-waves all over the world, with ex-players, media and even the German players coming out in support of the Brazilian team, trying to protect them from more trauma. Also, Deigo Maradona was spotted singing a song mocking the Brazilian defeat.

Notable mentions:
Gerrard slip La Decima - Real Madrid finally win their 10th Champions League Germany win their first World Cup as a unified nation Atletico Madrid win the La Liga against the two best sides in the world Arsenal end their trophy drought.

2015 - Double Treble

A true treble is one of the rarest occasions in football, when one team manages to win the domestic league, domestic cup and European Cup. Only 8 clubs in Europe have managed to do that, Celtic(1967), Ajax (1972), Liverpool (1984), PSV (1988), Man United (1999), Barcelona(2009,2015), Inter (2010) and Bayern(2013). Of all the clubs, Barcelona are the only club to win the treble twice. The 2014-15 Barcelona side relied heavily on Messi, Neymar and Suarez, as the fabled MSN trio led Barcelona to a glory season. They had to fight it out though, as they won the league by one point against arch rivals Real Madrid on match day 37.
They won the Copa Del Rey final 3-1 against Athletic Bilbao, with Messi scoring an astonishing goal by dribbling past a number of players from the right flank.
They played a memorable Champions League campaign, which included a semi-final against Bayern Munich, in a repeat of the 2013 semi-final which they lost 7-0 on aggregate. The tie also marked the return of Pep Guardiola to Camp Nou for the first time as an opposing manager. Lionel Messi scored two wonder goals in the second half to win the first leg 3-0, as Barcelona won the tie 5-3 on aggregate to set up a final against Juventus. The final itself was a tense affair where they led 1-0 early in the first half thanks to a goal from Ivan Rakitic. Juve equalized at minute 55 via Alvaro Morata, the ex Madrista, before Suarez made it 2-1 in the 68th minute. It stayed like that till Neymar scored and secured the treble deep into added time.

Notable mentions:
Jose wins the third title with Chelsea. Chile win Copa America for the first time. The Golden generation of Ivory Coast win Africa Cup of Nations. Arsenal become the most successful club in FA Cup history. Jurgen Klopp becomes a Kop favorite.

2016 - Leicester's Fairy Tale

Leicester City had barely survived relegation in their first year back in the top flight. Nigel Pearson had staged a memorable comeback to save a team who were rooted to the bottom of the league. It was then, surprising when Leicester City sacked him and appointed Claudio Ranieri as the new manager for the 2015-16 season. The pundits predicted Leicester to get relegated and the bookmakers gave them a 5000-1 odds of winning the league. They lost a total of 3 matches all season. They topped the table at Christmas, before a Boxing day loss to Liverpool dropped them to second place. Leicester soon regained the top spot and did not relinquish it. They won at Etihad in Jan and that had people noticing them and giving them a chance. They lost at Emirates to Arsenal deep in second half stoppage time, and it seemed that it would spell the end for their title hopes.Arsenal being Arsenal, couldn't sustain a title challenge and on May 2, after a 2-2 draw between Spurs and Chelsea, Leicester won the league
The win had a phenomenal reaction, evicting responses from the British and Italian Prime Ministers, former Leicester players and managers. Heck, even I posted a status update on Facebook.

Notable mentions:
Pep joins City Portugal win Euros, their first ever major trophy.

2017 - Neymar's Transfer to PSG

The world was in shock when Neymar decided to leave Barcelona and join PSG. As much as the footballing wisdom behind the decision is questionable, the transfer shook the footballing world to the core. 222 million euros was a sum unheard of. The transfer spurred a chain reaction of events, wherein 100 million+ became the norm for attacking players. Teenage stars were attracting figures of 120 million and more, while defenders were costing 70 million euros. Liverpool's buy of Mo Salah for 35 million euros a month before Neymar transfer seemed like a steal. Football as we knew did not exist anymore.
Just like the birth of Christ divides modern history, the Neymar transfer divided footballing history into two eras, the one before transfer and the one after.

Notable mentions:
Barcelona comeback from a 4-0 first leg deficit to win 6-1 against PSG. Real Madrid become the first team to defend the Champions League in the modern era.

2018 - A crazy World Cup in Russia

The 2018 World Cup was one the craziest, if not the craziest, in recent times. There were a string of upsets, close games and lots of goals. This tournament belonged to the underdogs as the big names failed to impress. Italy, Netherlands and Chile failed to qualify for the main tournament, while the likes of Argentina and Germany, finalists in the last editions, failed to convince in the group stage. Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw by minnows Iceland, before being thrashed 3-0 by Croatia. Only a close 2-1 win against Nigeria helped the qualify for the knockouts, where they were soundly beaten 4-3 by France. Germany had their troubles too. They lost their first game 1-0 against Mexico. The second game against Sweden was a close encounter, where they were trailing 1-0 after the first half. A goal from Marco Rues and late injury time winner from Toni Kroos secured a win for Germany. But they lost 2-0 to South Korea and finished bottom of the group.
One of the other favorites, Spain, lost in the Round of 16 to hosts Russia on  penalties. Meanwhile, England managed to reach the Quarter-finals after winning a penalty shootout against Colombia. Read that again. England won a penalty shoot-out.
Belgium were on the brink of elimination against Japan, trailing 2-0 with 20 minutes to go, before staging a monumental comeback to win 3-2 in normal time, the winner coming in the 90th minute after a counterattack from a Japanese corner.
Brazil were knocked out by Belgium in the Quarter-finals, losing 2-1, while France beat Uruguay 2-0 to set up a semi-final against Belgium. England and Croatia played the other semi-final, which England led from minute 5 thanks to Kieran Trippier. Ivan Perisic equalized in minute 68 and it remained 1-1 at full-time. Mandzukic scored in the 109th minute to give Croatia the lead and help them to reach their maiden world cup final.
France won their semi against Belgium 1-0 thanks to a goal from Samuel Umtiti. The final was a very eventful affair. Mandzukic scored an own goal in the 18th minute to open the scoring before Perisic equalized for Croatia in the 29th minute. Greizman gave France the lead from the spot after VAR assisted handball call against Croatia and the first half ended with the score 2-1.
Paul Pogba added an insurance goal in the 59th minute before Kylian Mbappe added a fourth in the 65th minute. Mbappe became only the second teenager after Pele to score in a World Cup final. There was even time for Hugo Loris to let one in four minute later as he kicked the ball straight back to an onrushing Mandzukic. The game finished 4-2 to France as they became the World Champions for the second time.

Notable mentions:
VVD to Liverpool, becomes the most expensive defender. Barcelona collapse against Roma - throw away a 3 goal lead. Real Madrid win their third successive Champions League City's Centurions. Ronaldo's transfer.

2019 - Corner Taken Quickly

Barcelona arrived into their semi-final second leg against Liverpool with a 3-0 lead from the first leg. The entire eleven players who started the game were rested over the weekend with the league already won. Liverpool on the other hand were bruised, starting without 2 of their fabled front three. The front three that started were Shaqiri, Origi and Mane. The game seemed a lost cause and few believed that a comeback was even possible. Jurgen Klopp told his players that "it's almost impossible, but because it's you guys I believe it's possible."
What happened over the next 90 minutes is the greatest comeback in European football, after Istanbul 2005. Forget Roma 2018, or Barcelona themselves in 2017, this was momentous. Divock Origi, the man who many thought was surplus to the needs at Anfield, scored in the 7th minute to give the Scousers hope. But it took a string of good saves from Alisson and some poor finishing from Barcelona to keep the game 1-0 at half time. Andy Robertson was subbed off with injury and on came Gigi Wijnaldum, the Barcelona slayer. He scored twice at minute 54 and 56 to level the tie. Barcelona did not know what hit them and they were all over the place. However the moment of the match was yet to come. When the ball rolled out for a corner for Liverpool in the 79th minute, Trent Alexander-Arnold saw the Barcelona defense napping and quickly found Divock Origi ,who finished smartly to give Liverpool the lead for the first time in the tie. They held on to dump Barcelona out and book a place in the final in Madrid, which they would eventually win. The post match celebrations and the rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" would eventually be one of the best moments Anfield had witnessed all decade.

Notable mentions:
Domestic Treble for Manchester City. Messi wins the sixth Balon d'Or. Liverpool win the Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup.