In purdah in Frankfurt

May 29, 2013, 07:42 IST | Malavika Sangghvi

How deeply do clothes affect our lives? Bored at Frankfurt airport, waiting for a connecting flight we pull out a random black shawl from our bag to use as a hair scarf

>> How deeply do clothes affect our lives? Bored at Frankfurt airport, waiting for a connecting flight we pull out a random black shawl from our bag to use as a hair scarf.

Wrapping it around our head it feels a strangely comforting accessory in this unfamiliar setting. But with our black headscarf and dark sunglasses (to mask weary eyed passenger syndrome) we realise we are attracting more than our fair share of interest. Suddenly fellow passengers are staring at us most with a mix of curiosity, hostility and even some with fear.

Women clad in burqas in the West are looked at with suspicion

Then it occurs to us: that the act of wrapping the black scarf around our head has suddenly transformed us from a vaguely Asian looking female tourist into a possible Muslim jihadi, aircraft hijacker in the eyes of our fellow travellers. Are we imagining things? Are we channelling our inner Mira Nair? We think not. Fear, hostility and suspicion is reflected back at us from what until a few minutes ago was a crowd
of benignly uninterested co-passengers. All it’s taken is one black headscarf and for a brief but memorable hour we experience what people in traditional Muslim gear must feel each time they step out in public in most of the developed world. The West hands us brownie points when we please it by embracing its ways. ‘Wear our Chanel and DKNY and we allow you on to the high table’ it says. A whimsical black headscarf at Frankfurt airport teaches us a valuable lesson in identity stereotyping. Of course, bored with the play acting we remove the scarf on boarding the aircraft and order a crisp Chardonnay and the light meal option: cured ham and tuna carpaccio. We can swear we hear an audible sigh of relief from fellow passengers as we take off!

The singing taxi driver
>> As a traveller, one’s first vignettes of a city lay the foundation of our impression. Montreal airport is full of charmingly shrugging Frenchmen and gentle service providers. The absence of North American agro is even more pronounced once we exit the airport.

Cabs in Montreal

A beatific Haitian taxi driver sings local ballads to us as he deliberately gets us lost in Montreal’s charming cul de sacs for extra fare. No matter. What’s a bit of extra fare when we get to see the innards of a charming University residential neighbourhood? We hum a Bollywood number in return to keep up with the general serendipity.

One more cup
>> City of biting long winters and sudden summer sunshine we think we are going to love you. At One More Cup, the local Starbucks-like student hangout, an Asian looking youngster on the next table is banging away on an antique miniature Remington.

An original Remington Rand typewriter

“No kidding!” we say, “It works?” He smiles proudly at the recognition. “Found it on eBay. It’s a 1938 original.” This place is growing on us by the minute!

Snooty Japanese eatery
>> Dinner at a snooty Japanese fine diner. An unacknowledged tribute to Morimoto and half the price of Wasabi back home. Jet lag makes us picky about the menu and too tired to bother to use chopsticks. Therefore, the hostess speaks to us very slowly as if we require a crash course in Japanese cuisine.

A sushi platter

We play along never mentioning even once that not even a month ago we were in Tokyo being served by a Japanese master chef. How nice to be a middle aged gauche and unschooled Asian woman in a North American restaurant! We are beginning to be fascinated by the politics of identity and travel! 

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