Chicago Summer Wedding

JM

Summer vacations are my favorite time of the year. We usually travel to some exotic destination in Europe with the family and spend some quality time bonding. This year though, we broke with tradition.

My little brother got married this summer and we flew all the way to the US to celebrate his wedding in the picturesque city of Chicago. The wedding itself was a beautiful affair which struck a delicate balance between old school Indian traditions and newer Western concepts.

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Chicago riverside at night

All the key elements from traditional Indian weddings were incorporated into this event. These included the baarat (wherein the groom enters the wedding location with the wedding party dancing to some crazy beats), the tying of the knot in the presence of the purifying fire and the holy priest, and of course rich Indian food. The couple was even able to convince the priest to shorten the traditional ceremonies from the hours long monologue to a more interactive and much appreciated 45 minute version.

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Bride & Groom in wedding garb performing traditional rituals

In addition to these Indian concepts, there were a number of western concepts woven in. For example, the bride and groom following their families in walking down the aisle, the couple reciting their wedding vows during the rituals and their first dance as a married couple.

What stood out in stark difference to traditional Indian weddings was the small number of people present. A traditional Indian wedding has well over a thousand guests. When the Honey Bee and I tied the knot, there must haven been between 1,000-2,000 guests, most of whom we did not know. This wedding, on the other hand, was a relatively intimate affair with about 100 close members of the family and friends groups. A welcome change in my opinion.

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Personalized cake topper with avatars for the bride & groom

We were also personally responsible for organizing an afternoon tour of Chicago followed by lunch at a local favorite restaurant for our out-of-town guests. The tour was great, especially given the phenomenal weather we had. We even took guests to the famous Lou Malnati’s for a taste of the authentic Chicago deep dish pizza. Suffice it to say, people overestimated their eating capacity and we had a LOT of leftover pizza.

The wedding went off flawlessly, and I’m glad to say we were even able to lend a helping hand in organizing the event. Everybody had a great time and I was even invited to give a toast. Albeit extremely nervous, I really enjoyed standing up there facing the bride, groom and the rest of the wedding party delivering their wedding toast.

To wrap up today’s entry, I have posted the full text my toast, with all personal identifying information redacted. I was very conflicted about posting it on here, but I finally decided to post it for the sake of posterity.

Most of you here already know me. For those who don’t, my name is ***, and I am ***’s favorite brother. Yes, his only brother-but that doesn’t matter.

And as his only brother, I feel it is my duty to tell you about little *** here. *** and I first met 29 years ago. It was March **st, 19**. I’m sure *** doesn’t remember that day, and that’s understandable because he was going through a lot at the time. Nonetheless, *** and I shared an immediate connection.

Like most siblings, we had our fair share of tussles, but that was mainly because of our different personalities. You know, *** was always loud, abrasive and foolish, while I was calm, composed and good-looking, and still am.

I kid of course, but the good thing that came out of all of these fights, is that we both became really good at apologizing. ***, you’re welcome!

*** and I have always shared a strong bond, and he’s been a best friend and confidant. As a result of this closeness, I like to think of myself as having been a little protective of him.

I still remember when I was like 12 and he was 10 and some of our friends were picking on him. I stopped them and said, “hey, don’t pick on my brother!—–Only I get to that!”

On a serious note though, as I stand here today, I still can’t believe that my baby brother is getting married.

*** and *** met at college in Bloomington, and it has been wonderful to see their friendship blossom into love over the last 11 years. It is an intense source of happiness for me to know that my brother has found his soul mate.

I consider myself blessed for having such an incredibly loving soul as a brother. I could not have asked for anything more and I just wanted to say that I love you. And now, I am also being blessed with a wonderful sister.

Welcome to the family ***!

And so, without further ado, if everyone would join me in raising their glasses. To *** & ***-a a lifetime of love, unity and happiness. God bless you both! Congratulations!

And so with that, we wrapped up the wedding. However, the wedding was at the end of the trip. Since we were travelling so far, we also decided to get a taste for some other parts of America. So in the next post, we will rewind a couple of days and take a look at some of our other adventures in the US of A.

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Family Travels Part 1: Budapest

We just returned from our annual family vacation, and boy did we have a good time. We went all over the place, starting off with a couple of days in Budapest (Hungary), with quick stopovers in Bratislava (Slovakia) and Vienna (Austria). Then we hopped across the continent to visit the southern Algarve region of Portugal, followed by a car ride to Seville (Spain).

Like always, to keep this post as clean and crisp as possible, I will focus on the places we spent the most time in: Budapest & Algarve.

Today’s post is dedicated entirely to Budapest, and next week I’ll cover Algarve.

Let’s jump right in. After reuniting with the family at the Budapest airport, we spent more than 30 minutes in line waiting to catch a cab. Our hotel was conveniently located right in the center of the city. Over the next few days, we thanked our lucky stars because being centrally located allowed us to do and see sooo much more. The name of the street we stayed on was Váci Utca and I’d strongly recommend finding a hotel on or around it.

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Large parts of the center are pedestrian only, and hence make for a great place to spend time. Apart from the frequent tour providers trying to get you to sign up for their tours and forcing you to “try” their Segway, we really enjoyed Budapest. Most of the pedestrian areas are lined with all kinds of shops (brands, chains, souvenirs, local trade, etc.).

There is certainly no shortage of restaurants either. Since this is a heavily tourist area, beware of restaurants that get away with serving horrible food and charging high prices. I’d recommend you look them up on TripAdvisor before entering. I must admit that the city center seemed to be overrun with tourists, and has perhaps lost some of its charm. However, given that travel and tourism contributes over 11% to the country’s GDP and is expected to rise, it doesn’t surprise me.

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The Budapest that we know it today was originally composed of 2 cities-Buda & Pest that were combined into a single city in 1873. We mostly walked everywhere, but I’d also recommend using public transportation which includes a very good network of buses, trams and a very comfortable underground metro.

Here are some sight-seeing & activity recommendations, ordered by my personal favorites:

Gellért Baths: Originally built between 1912-1918, the complex was damaged during the Second World War and rebuilt. The complex contains a number of pools, saunas, and wellness related services. The entire facility, although old, is built-in an art-nouveau style. I’m certain I can’t do justice when describing the splendor of this place, but I’m going to try. From the moment you enter, the grandeur hits you straight in the face. The imposing high ceilings, the beautiful fountains, the mosaic tiles on the walls and the floors, the statues, the colors, every single thing here astounds with its majesty and magnificence. The closest comparison I can think of is bathing in a cathedral.

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The thermal waters contain calcium, magnesium, hydro-carbonate, alkalis, chloride, sulfate and fluoride. The properties of the water are said to help with various conditions like joint illnesses & inflammation, spine problems, vertebral disk problems, etc. The temperature of the water is between 35 °C and 40 °C. In fact, references to the healing properties of the mineral hot springs at this location can be found dating back to the 13th century. If you visit Budapest, this place is a must visit and should be at the very top of your list.

The Liberty Statue: Built in 1947 at the top of Gellért hill, it commemorates those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.

The Gellért Monument: Built in 1904 in honor of the 11th century bishop St. Gellért who converted the Magyars to Christianity. Below the memorial is a man-made waterfall. Legend has it that Gellért was put to death by pagans at this spot by putting him in a barrel and rolling it down the steep Gellért Hill and eventually into the Danube River.

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Cave Church: Part of a network of caves within the hills, it is often referred to as St. Ivan’s cave. St. Ivan was a hermit that who lived there and is believed to have used the natural thermal water from a muddy lake next to the cave to heal the sick. It is likely that this same water fed the pools of the old Sáros fürdő (“Muddy Baths”), now called Gellért Baths.

The church has an interesting history and was sealed with a thick concrete wall by the Soviet Red Army in 1951. It wasn’t until the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1989 that the wall was brought down and the church restored.

Hungarian Parliament: Completed in 1904, it is the largest building in Hungary, and the tallest in Budapest. About 100,000 people were involved in its construction, during which 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kilograms of gold were used. Interestingly the architect went blind before it was completed, never being able to see his completed work.

Heroes’ Square: Completed in 1900, this it is one of the major squares of Budapest and includes a number of grand statues of past leaders, and among other things the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Although the square itself is very large and magnificent, it didn´t quite live up to my expectations. As a European square, I was expecting it to be filled with life, lots of people and cafes. However, all we found there were parked buses, empty beer cans, and rowdy tourists. Although I wouldn’t recommend penciling in spending too much time there, I would recommend paying it a visit.

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Others: Gellért Hill, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Buda Castle, Night cruise on the Danube River

All in all, we spent a wonderful 3.5 days in Budapest, but I’d recommend going with 4-5 days in hand to really get to know the city and try everything it has to offer. Food, accommodation, transport and shopping are relatively cheap compared to Western Europe, which is a good thing ‘coz your money goes further.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Algarve region of Portugal.

The Barcelona Fire Rescue

Recently, we were in Barcelona for dinner. After dinner, as we were walking around we were suddenly overwhelmed by the sound of sirens and blinded by dozens of flashing lights, as a cavalcade of emergency service vehicles passed us. We soon reached where they had stopped and tried to find out what was going on.

Turns out, there was a large amount of smoke billowing from the entrance to a building and its parking garage. The fire-fighters were efficiently working to connect their hoses to fire2the fire hydrants and the police were scrambling to set the security cordons. We passed some people sitting huddled in blankets, probably having been rescued from the fire. From a safe distance, we watched the fire-fighters rush into the burning building. We just stood there watching these brave men run into the burning building, wearing their heavy fire-retardant clothing and lugging their weighty oxygen cylinders on their backs.

We couldn’t really tell much about what was going on, until suddenly we heard a child’s voice crying out, trying to get everyone’s attention. Observers lining the street heard the cries and started to shout out, getting the attention of the firemen and pointing to the child in the building above. With no hesitation, these men mounted the little basket, and started to extend their ladder all the way to the 5th floor. They also promptly extended the support legs from their truck, to ensure its stability.

This street, like most others in residential Barcelona, is narrow and tree-lined. As a result, the process wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been. Nonetheless, they expertly maneuvered the ladder and basket through the tree line until it reached the 5th floor balcony. Within moments, we saw the fireman climb out of the basket and into the apartment. In a matter of minutes, he helped 2 people into the basket, and the ladder was soon on its way down. Once again, they very adeptly maneuvered the ladder around the tree line, street lights and telecom wires. We couldn’t see who was in the basket until it actually touched down on the street. Turns out, they had just rescued a mother and her probably 7 or 8-year-old boy. The entire scene was very emotionally overwhelming and brought smiles to a lot of faces.

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Rescue images from left to right: 1) Fire truck ladder extending towards the building, 2) Fire truck ladder (with basket now visible) returning to street level with rescuees, and 3) Rescuees being escorted to safety by the fire-fighters

You can’t help but be grateful to these men, risking their lives for little pay, running towards the fire while everyone else runs away from it. The fire-fighters continued to fight the blaze, long after. I was able to click some pictures to share here. Unfortunately, with all the flashing lights it was hard to get clear pictures. Nonetheless, I think they give a fairly good idea about what was going on.

On a related topic, I was actually to run a 10 kilometer race to raise awareness and funding for fire-fighters the next day. The fire-fighters, fully equipped with all their gear, participated as well. Running alongside these heroic men, especially after having seen them in action, inspired me to run faster and push myself harder to reach the finish line.

Summer Travels Part 1: Croatia & Slovenia

This summer we traveled to Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany over an 8 day period. We traveled with family and were blessed with good weather for the most part. Since the trip spanned so many places, I will try to crystallize the experiences and focus on the highlights. Instead of wasting space with paragraphs of text, I will include numerous images and as you will see, each image speaks volumes for itself.

We had a lot of fun on this trip and returned home more tired than we were before we left. We did a lot of wonderful sight-seeing, but definitely were not able to get in as much rest and family time as I’d have liked.

Let’s jump right into it:

First stop: Croatia. We spent 3 nights here. We spent 2 days in the capital Zagreb, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. It’s a medium-sized city where people are very friendly and things are much cheaper than Western Europe. Most of the main tourist attractions were pretty concentrated around the center. It’s easy (and fun) to get lost strolling around the quaint cobbled streets, grabbing a beer in one the many street side cafes, stopping by the main farmers’ market, and hopping in and out of esoteric museums. We tried the museum of torture, which I’d recommend if you’re not faint of hearted, and the museum of broken relationships, which I thought was a complete waste of time and money and would advise you to avoid at all costs. Croatia’s old school communist provenance is also fairly visible in the older buildings and tramcars that dot the city.

Day 2 we visited the Plitvice Lakes National Park. This place’s fame was the entire reason Croatia even made it on to our itinerary. A beautiful almost 300 sq. km. park, it consists of 16 large lakes, at different heights, connected by waterfalls. There are numerous excursions that can be undertaken following the various marked trails. We chose the longest that lasted 6 hours and was probably around 9 kilometers. There are numerous walkways and trails crisscrossing the lakes and also a combination of bus and boat rides that need to be taken to complete the excursion.

To say it was beautiful doesn’t do justice to the marvel of this place. Crystal clear waters through which you can see the bottom, a plethora of waterfalls of all heights, a wide variety of flora, plentiful fish and wonderfully designed walkways all let you immerse yourself into the natural experience without damaging this stunning wonderland. I couldn’t help but want to jump into the water and unwind, but the Honey Bee maintained a tight grip. 😛

A side note: I was highly surprised to learn that most people across Croatia, not just in the capital, are fairly proficient in English. Quite a surprise given the wide gulf in the quality of education and wealth between Croatia and most of its non-English speaking European counterparts.

Second stop: Slovenia. We spent 2 nights in the capital: Ljubljana (liub-lee-yana). We visited the Postojna Caves, a massive cave system carved out by the Pivka River. Following a mini-train ride that takes you deep into the caves, you walk for around an hour in the depths of the earth, alternating between small connecting passageways and massive cavernous halls; the enormity of this cave system is mind-boggling. Seeing the grand calcium stalactites (the ones that grow downwards from the ceiling), stalagmites (the ones that grow upwards from the ground), and the rare instance when they fused to form columns was a truly unforgettable experience. It’s humbling to be witness to these grand structures that have grown over centuries. FYI: The average stalactite grows at the rate of 0.13 mm/year.

Here, we were also fortunate to witness the Olm, popularly known as the Human Fish. These cave dwelling amphibians live in the range of 60-100 years, are capable of surviving 7-10 years without food and are blind owing to their underdeveloped eyes. The Postojna Caves are a must visit for anyone visiting Europe.

Close by, we also paid a quick visit to the Predjama Castle, a large full-on renaissance era castle built flawlessly inside a cave’s mouth, complete with moat, drawbridge, torture
chamber and secret tunnels. Walking around outside and inside, it is hard to tell where the castle ends and the cave begins.

On day 2, we visited the ominous sounding Bled. A small town built around a glacial lake, this picturesque getaway boasts of a small island with a rustic church and a café in the middle of the lake. To get to the island, you can take a ride in one of the charming little boats that ferry passengers back and forth. Or, if you want to do something more interesting you can rent a boat and row the 10-15 minutes to the island. I’m glad to report I safely rowed the entire family all the way to the island, all the while enjoying the uplifting beats of Volare.  A great way to wrap up the first half of our trip.

…to be continued in Part 2