Thursday, July 03, 2014

A Conference, Columbus and Celebrities

I have said it before on this blog, and I'll say it again: we Indians do not know how to make statues. Maybe we knew it once, when our sculptors were carving out the temples of Ellora and Konark, but these days most of the statues that are made in India are vaguely human lumps of rock or metal, with no touch of life in them. I was reminded of this sad fact once again when I saw the Umbrella Girl statue at Schiller Park in Columbus, Ohio last Friday.

Since I live in Virginia, a bit of an explanation about how I came to be in Ohio would not be out of place here.

A big conference on computer vision and pattern recognition (unimaginatively called CVPR) causes all the celebrity scientists in my field to flock together and show off their research once a year. This year the venue for CVPR happened to be Columbus, Ohio. The reason for this choice, if certain inside sources are to be believed, was to ensure that people attend the conference and don't take sightseeing breaks as they usually do in, say, Hawaii or Las Vegas. I had gone to meet the celebrity scientists of course, if creepily standing near them and ogling at their name tags could be considered "meeting." But in spite of a packed conference schedule and the relatively uninteresting venue, my trip was pretty good.

I travelled to Columbus on a turboprop plane that was delayed by over two hours - a significant amount considering that the flight itself was just an hour long. The girl sitting next to me was a professional model from the UK whose name I will refrain from mentioning here. OK, even if I did mention it nobody outside the fashion industry would probably recognize her, but to me it seemed I was travelling with a celebrity. I always crib about the lack of celebrity encounters in my life. While some of my friends and relatives regularly run into Bollywood and Hollywood stars and cricket players at airports, restaurants and even on the street, I have been singularly unlucky in this regard. Little did I know that I was going to meet many more famous people over the span of the coming week.

Our motel, the German Village Inn, is in the middle of an area called the German Village which was created by German immigrants in the early part of the nineteenth century. The lanes are narrow and brick-lined, and the houses have gardens and a distinctly old European style. They even conduct a "Haus und Garten Tour" on the last Sunday of June every year but unfortunately I left on Saturday and so had to be content with looking at the hauses and gartens by myself.

Downtown Columbus, or at least the two miles of it between our motel and the conference venue, has the more conventional American city look, with glass-covered skyscrapers. We took the #7 bus every morning to the conference, and in the evening we came back by the #7, #8, or sometimes the C bus which is free. I made two of the trips on foot during the week to take photos, but my other friends did not share my enthusiasm. Walking was easy, since both our motel and the Greater Columbus Convention Center are on the same street, the High Street, but for a greater variety of visuals one has to step into some of the side streets. I did that, and found old stone-walled Gothic-style buildings covered with ivy, cute little pedestrian bridges and open air restaurants. High Street, of course, is not all skyscrapers. It has its fair share of old breweries and the Ohio State House, which sits amid a large garden with statues, is also on High Street.

The conference went smoothly. With breakfast, snacks, lunch, tea, dinner and drinks provided, there was hardly any motivation to go outside. I met many famous researchers as described above. I also met a Caltech student who had acted in The PhD Movie. Apparently people who go to Caltech are so good that they have time to write papers good enough for CVPR even after acting in movies in their spare time. The exhibits by the companies were no less attractive than the food and celeb-spotting. One doesn't get free T-shirts, pens, notebooks, bags, caps, Lego puzzles and other assorted stuff everyday, so I grabbed whatever I could.

The Internet says Columbus has a very good zoo, a science museum, a botanical garden and a topiary park. Now I don't want to sound smug or anything, but when you live in New York and Washington DC for six years, you don't feel like visiting museums or zoos or botanical gardens anywhere else anymore. Besides, I did not have much time. So these things were out of the question. To find out more about what to see in the city, I pinged Kuntala one morning and asked for suggestions. After all, Columbus was the city where she had started her now-famous blog.

"Trust me, there is nothing to see in Columbus," she was prompt in replying. "The only thing that I suggest is, try the Vietnamese banh-mi sandwich at North Market, and then try Jeni's Splendid ice creams." Therefore, eating at North Market became one of my priorities. Since the market closes at five on Mondays, I could not eat there on the first day, but on Wednesday, I slipped out of the conference slightly early to explore North Market before it closed at seven.

At first glance, North Market reminds one of Quincy Market in Boston since both of them are full of eateries from different countries. However, closer inspection reveals that North Market has raw food shops along with cooked food shops, and a shop selling cards and flowers as well. Also, the atmosphere at North Market is much more homely and friendly than that of Quincy Market. This is emphasized by the collection of brochures near the entrance, one for each of the 35 shop-owners. Lan Viet Market, located near the northwest corner of the market was easy to locate. The banh-mi sandwich there was delicious as predicted by Kuntala, and Jeni's splendid ice cream lived up to its name afterwards.

That more-or-less covers what I did at Columbus for six days. The only other thing left is the statue that I was talking about at the beginning of this blog post. The Umbrella Girl.

It was a little hard to find, since the local people seemed to be oblivious of its presence. However, by repeatedly asking people, with a little help from Google maps, I finally found it. In a small fountain surrounded by benches in the middle of trees, stood a bronze girl with an umbrella in her right hand and holding her shoes in her left. The water was coming out of the top of her umbrella and then flowing down the sides just like rainwater flows down a real umbrella. The statue was so beautiful in its simplicity that it was almost mesmerizing. And besides being a beautiful work of art, it told a story. I sat down on one of the benches. My friend George sat on another. We kept sitting there, watching fireflies dancing in and out of the grass, listening to the fake rain, watching nightfall. We were tired, but we also loved staying out late that evening, our last evening in Columbus. The dark shade of trees, the sound of the water and the fireflies somehow reminded me of my hometown Hooghly. Columbus was not New York or DC, but Columbus had won my heart. Long after it was dark, we finally returned to our motel.

The rest of my stay was uneventful. The same could not be said for what happened after I caught a plane back to Virginia the next day. When my friend Shreevallabh came to pick me up from the airport, I realized he was accompanied by his childhood friend who is a South Indian film actress. She was a guest at his house for two days. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing a photo shoot with her till 3:00 in the morning on the Georgetown riverfront. But that is probably a story for another day.

At the conference reception


  1. আমার স্বীকার করতে লজ্জা হচ্ছে, আপনার ছবিগুলো আমাকে সিরিয়াসলি মস্ট্যালজিক করে দিচ্ছে। কলম্বাস আপনার ভালো লেগেছে জেনে শান্তি পেলাম। খুব খুব ভালো হয়েছে লেখাটা।

  2. darun chhobigulo aar lekhata onobodyo!
    modelti ke? actress tiy ba ke?
    excuse my vulgar curiosity! :-P

  3. @Kuntala: Aha nostalgia to bhalo jinis. Lojja pachchhen keno?

    @Keka di: Ei lekhata complementary to eita. Na pore thakle pore dekhte paro. Vulgar curiosity is very much appreciated. Tomar Facebook messagebox e naamgulo pathachchhi. :-)