Appa, my husband, was only one year old when his father was sent to France for a trimester of professional training. Thatha was then a promising young engineer at the Indian Space Agency. He was one of a crew of 20 dispatched to the town of Vernon in Normandy (home to a rocket engine production center) pursuant to a technology sharing agreement between India and the European Space Agency.
This was Thatha’s first time abroad and also, somewhat amusingly for an aerospace engineer, his first time traveling by air. No wonder his memories of the autumn he spent in France are vivid and specific.
His stay was anything but leisurely. He was busy training from early morning to evening, each working day ending with a debriefing meeting with his Indian colleagues. He remembers the French engineers he interacted with as friendly and open. One thing that quite struck him was their long lunches and their alcohol drinking even at the canteen. From what he described to me they were probably fans of Ricard, a classic French anise-flavored aperitif drink.
Tourism was obviously not the purpose of the trip but Thatha was very curious about Europe all the same. He got only one day in Paris but he made the best of it, managing to fit in a remarkable number of monuments and notable places. He also went to Germany on a short professional trip from France (the first time he ever saw snow…) and to London for a few days just before returning to India.
So what did he make of his first incursion out of his native country? He says he saw beauty and order. Something that seems to have particularly appealed to him was the respect for law and rules he witnessed most everywhere – though he was not very impressed by the Parisian tendency to throw away garbage in the streets.
When the time had come to go back to India, he shopped eagerly. Among the things he brought back home was a tape recorder and some French and English pop music. The tape recorder figures prominently in Appa’s childhood memories, as do French songs sung by then immensely popular Joe Dassin, of “Les Champs Elysées” fame. Joe Dassin’s charming and well-crafted songs are still dear to many in France (and other European countries) but it was quite a surprise to me when I met Appa that he would relate to them as much as I did.
We both think that our becoming a couple is not foreign to Appa’s accidental familiarity with France. I picture him, a young Indian boy, listening to Joe Dassin in his tropical house. The very same songs I grew up with remind him of his own childhood… From that little bit of France in a southern Indian home to our French-Indian family there are many steps but I can’t help seeing Thatha’s trip and his curiosity for what he saw and heard as a starting point. As I am writing this Thatha and Aachi are in France, visiting my parents in their hometown…