If Twinkle Khanna had her own travel show, it would feature a series of episodes dedicated to her many misadventures: “The Time I Went Looking for Eggs and Ended Up Fighting With My Family in a Supermarket,” “The Search for French Food in a Russian Restaurant” and “How Acting as a Human Shield for My Sister Nearly Gave Me Swine Flu.”
Khanna has a to-do list for everything in her life, except her holidays. She enjoys globetrotting with no agenda because it leaves her with the best memories and the funniest stories, snippets of which end up in her weekly column under the name Mrs Funnybones. “I don’t know if I seek out things or adventure seeks me out,” she tells NGTI, in an interview at her Juhu home in Mumbai.
Your recent trip to Paris was splashed all over the news. Walk us through that holiday.
This was the first time I used an Airbnb in Paris. I went with a close friend and we stayed at this quaint apartment at Rue de Vaugirard.
I’m terrible at French and my friend doesn’t speak it either. Once, we decided to do a spa day. We went to this fancy place but the massages were horrid. So we sought out a Thai place next. Our host had recommended this dodgy place down the street. My first thought on looking at it was, “There’s no way this can be good.” It was a nail salon and they had this dungeon below for massages. There I was, lying prone, and suddenly I felt two hands and then four hands on me. I looked up to see that the masseuse was sitting on my back, like a crab. Just like Vikram and Betaal! I didn’t know how to react. It turned out to be the best massage I ever had. My bones were singing her praises.
When travelling, do you seek out hotels or prefer renting a really nice home?
I like a mix of both. We [her husband Akshay Kumar and children Aarav and Nitara] just went on a holiday to La Môle in France near Saint-Tropez. We rented this beautiful home—there were mountains on one side, wild boars running around the place, and vineyards everywhere. The meals were Michelin star level. But these things can be hit-and-miss. My husband was fooling around and tried jumping over me on the bed and fell down on the floor because the bed was so small. This would not happen in a hotel because you know what to expect there. There aren’t any surprises. I like surprises, but my husband prefers a more standard type of holiday.
On the same trip, we rented another house in in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. What I didn’t realise was that it was a little outside the village. One day, we gave my son a bicycle and told him to go play paintball in the village. While waiting for his turn, a few splinters of wood went into his bottom. Then he got hit during paintball. The injuries made the cycle ride back rather uncomfortable, and to make it worse, some dogs began chasing him. He was hysterical when he returned and said he hated the place and wanted to leave right away. Everyone in my family hated that holiday. But I thought it was my best holiday.
Would you rather find yourself in a destination that is iconic or one that is offbeat?
It’s not the place that matters but what happens there. For me, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was the village where Vincent van Gogh was put in a mental asylum but he still ended up painting some of his best work. We visited another village nearby, Les Baux-de-Provence. They had this event called Carrières de Lumières where some of the greatest art in the world—Rembrandt and Raphael among them—was projected on to limestone walls with classical music playing in the background. I thought it was an amazing experience. After half an hour, the family got bored and asked, “Can we leave?”
I once took my husband to the opera at the Prague Opera House because I had read that it was beautiful. We left the place in seven minutes because it was the worst thing we had ever seen. My husband kept cursing my fetish for seeing this side of life. The thing is, when you are the one who is planning all this, you’ve to put on this stoic face because you can’t show you don’t like it.
As tourist traps increase, does it become difficult to find an authentic experience?
I think the notion of the authentic experience is dubious because wherever you go, you are taking yourself and corrupting your surroundings. So, you are the inauthentic thing in that pea soup. The only way to have an authentic experience is if you go and live somewhere for a year. These holidays are just ways of seeing different places briefly and I’m not worried about it being an authentic experience; it would be foolish to expect that.
The holidays I remember are the ones where things may have gone wrong at the time, but I look back at them and laugh. I will never forget Saint-Rémy-de-Provence even though we had a fight in the supermarket because we couldn’t find eggs. For me, that was my best holiday.
In Paris, my friend and I wanted to eat authentic French food. We went to this cafe, Café Pouchkine because we wanted to avoid the tourist traps. But it turned out to be a Russian café and we didn’t really enjoy the food. Later that night, we had Japanese for dinner. If you talk about authentic French experiences, that wasn’t it.
Before heading to Paris, you mentioned trying to learn a little French. Do you do this when travelling to other countries too?
I just do it before I go to France because I’ve studied French for five years in school and yet, can barely speak the language. I try to improve my French before each trip using this podcast, Learn French with Marie. It teaches me rubbish things I don’t need to use like, “Can you find me a doctor?” Yet I persist; I keep walking in my garden and listening to it. Then I abandon it. Every couple of years I start over.
I intend to learn French, though. Not for anything else but because I’ve learned it’s one way to combat Alzheimer’s. I have this fear of getting the disease. Learning a language, I have heard through another podcast, is good for the brain.
How different is travelling with different family members?
My holidays with family are all different. When I travel with my sister [Rinke Khanna], though we are squabbling, there’s always something going on. My sister has specific rituals on the plane—she doesn’t touch anything because of germs—so I end up opening doors and handling trolleys for her. Recently, we were going to London for our friend’s birthday. On the flight, we sat next to this man who was sneezing and blowing his nose. My sister refused to sit next to him so she used me as a human shield. I was fine when I reached London. The next day, I was sneezing, had a fever and thought I had swine flu. I even ran into the man at the hotel. In my head, I was screaming at him for making me fall sick.
When I go with my husband and children, it’s as if I am wrapped in three layers, inside a box with thermocol and cardboard. I am safe. My kids have adapted to our travel lifestyle even if they don’t always like it. My son hates museums. I took him to the Picasso museum in Antibes and told him about the great artist. He asks me, “Did he do this when he was young?” I told him this was at the peak of his career. He says, “I can also do this.” What do you say to that?
What was it like travelling as an actor? Now that you’re a writer, do you travel differently?
I don’t think my interests have changed dramatically even if my profession has. I’ve been a bookworm my whole life so I’ve always gone to bookstores. In La Môle, I walked into this tiny bookstore and bought antique and smelly French editions of Enid Blyton’s stories. I realised that was the same village where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, had grown up. That book is my favourite. I was determined to have a look at his chateau even if it was from a distance.
Is it safe to assume your suitcase always has books?
Yes. I always carry books with me. Recently, I was chaperoning my son and his friends during a one-night trip to Aamby Valley. I packed one change of clothes and two books but only managed to read one story from Haruki Murakami’s new book Men without Women. Nowadays, it’s easy to download a story on my iPad if I run out of books. Back in the day, I remember packing eight books for a 20-day scheduled shoot in Canada as I was worried I would run out.
What can’t you live without when you travel?
Nothing except a hot water bottle. I’ve realised in certain places it is difficult to find. I’ve had quite the adventure looking for a hot water bag. I went looking for one in France and I was desperate. I went to the supermarket and tried explaining to people what I wanted, in my broken French, but they had no idea what I was saying. Then I saw this cosmopolitan-looking young couple and tried to explain to them what I wanted in French. After a 15-minute conversation, the man looks at me and says, “Hot water bottle?” I was so relieved I requested him to tell the supermarket people in French that I wanted one. He said, “We are British, we don’t speak French.”
Has posting photos regularly on Instagram changed the way you travel?
I like taking Instagram pictures because my memory is not as sharp as it should be. I always feel like there are blank spaces and I can look at the photos and remember it. But once, I had put up a picture of this beautiful lake with the sun in the background and I couldn’t remember if it was sunset or sunrise. That’s another thing that Instagram has done to our brains; it’s made us forget the experience.
Have you thought about writing about your travels?
My next book has an element borrowed from my travels. I’m always watching people and looking at behaviour. I have a keen ear for dialogue. I take copious notes when travel-ling. Wherever you go, whatever you do, it comes through in your writing.
I did do a travel book for my family for our wedding anniversary last year. I wrote about our adventures, put in pictures of our best holidays and did illustrations. I have a whole treasure chest of things that are absolutely precious to me—things our parents left us. It was professionally done and there are only five copies in existence. Unfortunately, nobody seems to like the book apart from me. They said they liked it but I have never seen anyone flipping through it or reading it.
In April last year, you tweeted, “As I get older, I travel more.” Why is that?
I wrote about it recently: I can probably hear the silent call of mortality right now. I need to see everything before I reach the finishing line. But you can’t be on a holiday for too long because then it stops being one. Every time I am flagging, I travel because it is a way of rebooting myself, getting a new perspective before coming back and diving into this world.
Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer and journalist. A silent feminist (they do exist!), food snob, and Potterhead, she prefers canine company to that of humans. She actively seeks out cheap eating haunts, and weird and wondrous places, when travelling.