Action Reaction

Year 2007. I was in my late twenties. Flying from Zurich to Dusseldorf. In my next seat was a Swiss lady in her middle age. A kind face and a warm nature. She told me she lives in Zurich and is a doctor. She asked me what is the purpose of my journey, what do I do, where do I live. I remember her eyeing my dress. I was wearing a salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian dress. I didn’t mind her curiosity at all…I was happy to chat with her. At some point she asked me if I was married. I was not. She then apologetically asked me how old I am. And then came the surprise: “Are you allowed to remain unmarried till this age, in India?”. The surprise in her voice was genuine, and my surprise was also equally real. I have traveled to many countries and I understand what cultural shock means. But I still can’t imagine one educated person can have such sweeping notion about a whole country. When I told her there are many women in India who are highly educated, hold good jobs, and some of them may have family, while some may choose to remain single, not all women in India marry at a young age and have children….she stared at my face and I sensed she was trying to see if I was offended by her question. I was not. But I admit she made me self-conscious.

Year 2016. Just landed in Frankfurt international airport. In the queue for passport control an Indian family was before me. Father, mother, and three kids one of whom was a special child. I noticed everyone in the family was being playful with him. They were cheering him, joking with him, keeping him happy. He was a happy child indeed and it was heart-warming to see him surrounded by such warm affection and love. Without me knowing, my lips had curled into a smile as I looked on. When their turn came at the counter, they handed over their passports. While the person at the counter was examining the passports, this particular child was looking at his face with interest. The father noticed it and after they got back their passports, before leaving the counter, the father asked the child if he would like to shake hands with the man at the counter. The child happily extended his hands and the man took it, shook it, the family left. It was my turn now. As I stepped to the counter, I found this guy is applying hand-sanitizer in his hands, with a disgust on his face. I remembered the glowing face of the child as he left the counter and the disgusted face of this germ-maniac made me sad. He checked my passport, put his stamp, and slided it back to me over the counter. I suddenly decided to act differently than I normally do. I held the passport pouch in my left hand, and using my right index and right thumb pinched one corner of the passport and put it back in the pouch….as if I would rather not touch the object he had just touched. I made eye contact with him, and left the counter. Did he think I was crazy? Most likely yes. Did he realise I did it on purpose and got mad afterwards? May be, may be not. Did any of this drama have any effect on the happy child and his loving family? Absolutely not.

Through the rear-view mirror

I never feel brave enough to drive in that part of the city. The traffic is too dense, other drivers are too aggressive, streets are too congested. Whenever I need to go there, I take an uber. On this day also, I booked an uber and after waiting for few minutes the cab arrived, along with a cranky driver. When he found out about my destination, he immediately started complaining: “I had opted for a home-bound trip, my home is towards the eastern part of the city, but uber assigned me this trip which is towards far north. These apps are getting more and more useless with every passing day.” Now I am not very well aware of the interface experienced by the uber drivers, I only know how it works for an user. May be this guy had reasons to get upset because the app messed up. But certainly it is not my fault  that the app paired me up with him. Throughout the trip he vented, and this made me upset. I chose to remain silent and ignore his rant. But he simply would not let go…he made the point again and again that he wanted to go east and because of me he is having to go north, how unfair all that is! It also turned out he is a lousy driver and this raised my irritation more. I mean, I myself chose not to drive and hire a cab, but the cab driver seemed to be a worse driver than I am, only difference is he did not care about it. It was a bad trip and I reached my destination in a bad mood.

While coming back I booked another uber. The driver arrived, a cheerful person. As soon as I climbed in, he started chatting. He told me he wanted to have a cup of tea and stopped near a street side shop sometime back, but while getting down from the car, his shoe strap came off. It is difficult to drive with a torn shoe. He has to find somebody to mend it, but these days cobblers are not easy to find, that is one trade which is disappearing fast with time. These days people simply throw away their damaged shoes and buy new ones and he finds it very strange. He did not forget to mention that he is lucky that he is not having to walk in those shoes, driving is a bit difficult but still lot easier than walking. He urged me to imagine that some person is walking down a street, no cobbler in sight and suddenly the shoe strap comes off…he thinks he is far better off than THAT. He also told me he earlier used to work in the sales department of a shoe shop and he knows all about shoes. It was perfectly delightful to talk to this man….in a very engaging and animated way he was holding the conversation. He had so much to say and there was a simple sincerity about him in everything he said. I reached home in a happy mood. My husband noticed it as soon as I stepped in: “Had a good day?”

A short trip to Stockholm

Last week I was in Stockholm, on a business trip. This was my first time in Sweden and so I tried to look around the city as much as I could, although time was short. Ideally I should have added few more days to my trip, but for many reasons that was not possible.

Whenever I go to a new country, there is one particular moment that I relish. It is when I exit the airport terminal and smell the air, hear the sound and see the sight of the brand new place for the first time in my life. Just before the exit, my mind goes blank…..I don’t know what to expect, and then the full thrust of the new land hits me. I always prefer to make the journey from the airport to the main city by road, not by metro. In the airport coach I stare outside the window as the new country passes me by. I almost feel like a child in those moments. The sight, sound and smell that I receive in first few minutes of setting my foot in a new country, always gets stored in my brain as characteristic to that place. Every time in future I encounter a similar sensation, I think of that country.

No exception this time. My flight from New Delhi to Stockholm was pretty long, almost 8 hours, and I had to travel from my home town to Delhi via a connecting flight in the same morning. So when I reached Stockholm, I was physically quite exhausted. But after passport control, when I got out of the airport terminal and boarded the airport coach that will take me from Arlanda airport to Stockholm central station, all my senses were heightened and I was feeling very very alert. My fatigue, exhaustion completely gone (only to come back ten fold after few hours), I was keenly processing all the inputs that my eyes, my ears and my olfactory nerves were receiving. I think it is fair to say that I could effortlessly achieve mindfulness in those moments. Every time I enter a new country, mindfulness comes easily to me. And every time I realize how liberating that experience is.

Unfortunately I am not in the habit of taking pictures with my mobile. Most of the time I forget to even take my phone out unlike many people who automatically click or record everything. And when I do remember to take some snaps, they are often not good, not worth-sharing really. So this blog remains without pretty pictures, and I am not sure if a travelogue in pure text, without a single photograph, is even legal these days. But I do want to mention few things which I found special to Stockholm.

1. The silence. Right after deplaning, when we were waiting for passport control, there was not a single sound. Even we Indians who are habitually loud, were talking in hushed tone. A large hall, packed with more than 300 people, and so quiet….I found it amazing. Later I noticed the same thing, on streets, inside super markets, at railway platforms….the noise level is far below what I have encountered at other places.

2. It is expensive, even the food. Unlike many other places in Europe, food is quite expensive in Stockholm, if you want to eat out. I stayed in a hotel apartment which had a fully equipped kitchen and this helped. Although I did sample the local cuisine, I did not have to rely on outside food for my every meal. I bought some simple ingredients from the local grocery store and used the kitchen. Saved me quite a bit of money.

3. The food is too good. I tried some of the famous restaurants there: Meatballs for the people, Kajsas Fisk, and their very own Max burgers. Loved them all.

Back to my own place now. Trying to get back to my daily routine, to bring my sleep schedule to normal hours again (thanks to the time difference, my sleep pattern has gone haywire), to restart my exercise (I am not going near any weighing scale for next few weeks, all eat and no play has surely taken its toll). And I am staying grateful through it all. I enjoyed this short visit, although it was hectic and I could see only little bit of the place, but I loved it all, and I am happy to be back, in my own place, among my own people whom I love. People who miss me when I am gone, who worry about me when I travel, who get unsettled when they do not get a phone call from me that I have reached safely, who count days till I am back, who are happy and relieved after I am back. I take none of these for granted, not anymore. This love that surrounds my life here, I am grateful for this everyday.