It is a strange feeling indeed when you spend the morning reading Murakami, alone in a hotel room in a country far far away. Fortunately for me, the sun was shining bright, revealing Stockholm’s warmer tone and texture. I tried to picture the same scenes in the steely barely-there Nordic winter light. And I knew what I was seeing wasn’t quite right, but guesswork about something I have yet to experience. A die-hard optimist and travel lover, I imbued a romanticism to that wintry scene that locals may find naive, going by the enthusiasm with which folks claimed gardens and public spaces across the city, soaking in the sun in a state of trance!
I have hardly ever felt the kind of loneliness the narrator talks of in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. When I have, it has sent me into a deep, dark place. I am always surrounded by people and with many I interact with I form real, and at times deep, connections. When I travel, I carry some people with me, inside. My family and select friends, I imagine sometimes, ‘see’ the world through me. In my head, I speak to them. So-and-so would have loved this, someone else would have found this funny, the kids would have never left this place, etc etc. Yet, I revel in being alone. I feel free to not have to make adjustments for anyone else, to be able to take off on a whim, or to simply not leave the hotel room to write! I see things differently when I travel alone, I think, I heal and rest. I re-calibrate. And when I return home, I hope, I connect even deeper.
Last Saturday, walking around Stockholm rejuvenated me after a long flight. I didn’t need food, or rest. The textures, the light and shadow, the colours and the architecture was fuel enough. I wandered aimlessly with camera in hand. I didn’t know where I was going and I found myself walking past the St Jacob’s Kyrka, the Royal Gardens, cross the water past the Palace. I walked until I ended up in Riddarholmen, a small island that houses a medieval church and many beautiful palaces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A veritable feast of architectural styles- Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque with hints of Baroque. The altitude here allows for many vistas that look onto the water, offering spectacular view of Stockholm. I sat for a while next to an old lady on a bench. She wrote in her diary and I stared out onto the water, shared moments without exchanging a glance or acknowledging of each other, but yet a hint of awareness of sharing the space with another.
Eventually I was sucked into the ‘tourist trap’ (I am borrowing a friend’s phrase here) of Gamla Stan. The crowds struck and the usual paraphernalia of inner city tourism in Europe: endless souvenir shops, quaint ‘historic’ eateries with international brands sneaked in to make folks comfy (go figure!), boutiques and art galleries and cafes spilling into the streets in an unabashed celebration of summer’s unique consumerism. Amidst the hyperactivity, I found solace in beautiful doors, unexpected silences in side streets and ‘secret’ courtyards.
Nearly everyone who’s been to Berlin, every travel website and brochure, puts Checkpoint Charlie at the top of its list. And so, after a look at the insides of Nikolaikirch, we set out to tick the infamous CC off our list.
Historical info: Checkpoint Charlie was the crossing point between East and West Germany, manned by the US. It is perhaps the most poignant physical symbol of the Cold War along with the Berlin Wall itself (post coming soon), which was built to prevent East Germans from crossing over to the other side.
As luck would have it, we were rained out before we got there and it was a bit of an anti climax to see the poor guards positioned there (for touristic value only, I presume) scurrying around for umbrellas, not looking one bit stern but rather, hassled and helpless. The sad stack of cement bags was something we folks from Delhi see at every Metro station and for some reason, despite knowing the enormous historic significance of this point on the earth’s surface, I wasn’t really impressed! The lines to get into the Checkpoint Charlie Museum were long and forbidding and we did not even try. Plus, the place was way too touristy, advertising itself blatantly to American visitors complete with morabilia stores and even a giant Mc Donald’s that looks straight onto CC!
We detoured into Mc D’s for a pit stop (a mandatory visit thanks to Aadyaa who is something of a loo-tourist!) and ate a sausage or two off a streetside stall. Udai then had the bright idea of asking someone where The Wall is (he was obsessed with the task of finding the remains of the Berlin Wall) and off we marched to explore some more…
After a congenial and comfortable train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin, we weren’t exactly tired. And so, shortly after we dumped our bags in our hotel room, all four of us were eager to walk around and explore our new destination.
At first sight, I found Berlin hard to read. So much was happening around me visually. Heritage structures abounded, but the skyline was dominated by the slender and modern TV tower, the 4th tallest structure in Europe. Cranes dotted the horizon as well and I could sense the energy of a city that seemed to be in a constant state of re-invention.
Despite the broad research I had done, I hadn’t dwelt on what it would be like to walk the streets of Berlin and I loved the feeling of taking in a new place, the tingling sense of curiosity, the eagerness to discover. Rahul and the kids seemed to share this feeling as well and we found ourselves walking around the Nikolaiviertel (St Nicholas Quarter) that was adjacent to our hotel.
Aside: We stayed at the Novotel and Aadyaa called it the No-Hotel for two whole days to our utter amusement. A decent place to stay, not luxurious but well located.
Interestingly, this is the oldest residential area in Berlin dating back to medieval times. We circled Nikolaikirche, the oldest church in the city, which was to become a familiar landmark over the next few days. We walked past the ornate Ephraim Palace and the red Rathuis (Townhall). We admired the River Spree and paid our respects to St. George slaying the dragon.
Everywhere, I saw the infill new buildings that had been fitted into the fabric of the older city and it took me some time to shake off the visual symmetry of the Dutch landscape and accommodate the more kitschy urbanscape of Berlin. Somewhere in between our wanderings this first evening, we sat down to a hearty German meal of bratwurst and potato salad, beer and schintzel. A good beginning to a packed 4 days ahead in one of the most interesting cities in the world!
We walked and walked till our feet ached everyday…
This sort of sums up our summer Europe travels to The Netherlands and Germany. It is also a commentary on the wonderful ease of walking in European cities, something that never ceased to amaze Udai, who celebrated his tenth birthday during the vacation. Aadyaa’s boundless energy continued to delight us. We were right in assuming she is now old enough to be a proper type tourist, we told ourselves in congratulatory tones!
Perhaps it was the ideal temperature or the infectious happiness of being on holiday, but each evening we still had the energy to turn on the TV to cheer our favourite players and teams at Roland Garros and FIFA 2014. Of course, Team Oranje’s (Dutch) two fantastic wins against Spain and Australia as well as Germany’s good fortunes in those first few matches would not have been possible without Udai and Rahul’s lusty yells and Aadyaa’s somersaults!
And thus start my posts about our travels. In the season when travelogues inundate blogosphere (and FB is flooded with happy family pics that have the power to make you laugh or howl, depending on your state of mind while viewing), I’m hoping my accounts of our Europe trip will both entertain and inform. In 2011, when I returned from Barcelona after our first long summer vacation with both children (then 7 and 3), I was new to blogging and had compressed my experiences into one single, long post addressing one single theme. By our 2012 Istanbul couple trip, I had learnt to break the experience up into smaller easier-to-digest posts that carried more pictures. Earlier this year, I recorded my girly road trip with my two besties in a chronological-cum-thematic way. This time round, I’ve chosen to not blog real-time and am mulling the best way to write my travelogue, wanting to give it a fresh twist that I’m yet to find. Wish me luck and keep your eyes peeled for the many posts that are bound to follow!
The buzz on migration has been growing the past few years, but it is hard to connect the dots on economic, social and right-based approaches the to the issue and even harder to understand migration in the context of urbanization and globalization, both forces that are fueling and shaping the mobility of human beings across the world.
The tragedy off Italian island Lampedusa with the drowning of 300 African migrants served to highlight the conflicts and contradictions, and how confused our understanding is on the issue of migration. This morning, The Hindu carries an excellent interview of Francois Crepeau, who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. A few points he states helped me put things in perspective and am paraphrasing the highlights here for you.
1- Economies need migrants (widely rewfering to low-wage, illegal migrants in the international, esp European context) because they do unskilled, low-paid jobs that no one else wants to do and are regularly exploited while doing so
2- They subsidize industries (he cites the example of strawberry picking) that have low margins. If we really want to do away with illegal migration, we would need to subsidize or improve these industries, not clamp down on migration, which clearly is the backbone on which these industries survive. This sort of analogy holds equally true of internal migrants from rural areas to cities, except that there is no question of illegality (except for countries like China where systems like hukou restrict mobility).
3- The sovereignty of nations is hugely compromised by globalization and there is a sense of loss of control, hence an over emphasis on the protection of boundaries and clamping down on migration. It’s a misfit solution to a complex problem.
4- The plain fact is that politicians are “not up to the task of telling their populations that we need migrants-doctors abd engineers, but also we need low-skilled or unskilled migrants.” Crepeau states that this is because the discussion on migrants becomes about national identity and societies are simply not ready to accept change. There is therefore the need for a great discussion on “diversity policies- on who we are and how we see ourselves in 50 or hundred years.”
I couldn’t agree more. We do not need to see migration from a perspective of paranoia and suspicion. We cannot protect our boundaries of caste, clan, class forever. We, in India and especially in urbanizing areas of India, need a civic engagement and dialogue about diversity. In our schools and colleges, in our drawings rooms, in our workplaces, we need to talk about inclusion, humanity and human rights, we need to learn to accept the ‘other’. If we refuse to do so and continue to build the walls higher around us, we will leave behind for our children a world unlivable- a battleground, a barren waste.