Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Travels I - In the Land of Machines...

(Warning - Long Post)

Watching the countryside glide by in a motley hue of Grey and Green, I would have never known that we were cruising at a speed of 220 Kmph., had the speedometer of the Merc. not shaken me out of my torpor. "Welcome to Germany", I told myself, as the road snaked past the bucolic landscape of Dusseldorf on to the charming little town of Herten, a mere 150 Kms. away.

Apart from the enormity of the feeling that this was my first visit abroad (and the fact that Europeans drove on right hand side of the road, as opposed to Indians), remarkably little had been unsettling. The stopover at Dubai suddenly made me realize that coffee could cost 420 INR (after conversion) and that a Lamborghini drew in as much crowd as did a filmstar. But those were minor blips, in an otherwise, serene and eventless journey wherein I gobbled up about 4 movies during the 8 hour flight from Dubai to Dusseldorf since the air-hostesses on board the Emirates resembled their Indian counterparts, and hence, failed to entice me (it must be noted, that I had a similar effect on them).

Satyajit Ray had once described Dusseldorf as a city painted on a canvas. My first impression of Herten was along similar lines. Our hotel served to be the microcosm of that impression. It was a ranch styled cottage, garnished with multivariegated trees and the earthwork was strewn with leaves not unlike what we witnessed in that epic disaster titled Mohabbatein.

Castle Park - Our Hotel

The rooms were spartan, and the only object that caught my attention was a copy of the New Testament that proudly lay perched on one of the burnt wood tables of our room. The television was irrelevant as we neither followed the language nor had the luxury of time to peruse channels. A quick shower however sparked my astonishment. People actually drank from the wash basin. It turned out to be a savior, for Germans, by habit, had their water spiked with gas, and even the Abgas (German for without gas, and I'm not going to bother with the umlaut) had a fair sprinkling of carbonated water to give it a soda feel.

Herten reminded me of a time that had actually gone by. It was also a land of mystifying contradictions. Here was a place, which featured an avalanche of, what would be high end vehicles in India, that ploughed on with dispassionate nonchalance (sample this - in the first two hours of our visit, we , unsurprisingly, saw more models of Audis, Volkswagens, BMWs, Mercs, Citroens and oh yes, even one Swift DZire than we would in a month in India) and alongside, featured bicycles straddled by all shapes and sizes furiously skittering the Autumn leaves as they pedalled towards their rendezvous point. Here was a place that featured cars designed to pack the whole family in it along with the essentials for subsistence, and alongside them, ran the Smartcars, whose creators obviously hadn't taken into consideration people of my size, while designing its interiors.

But above all, what stood out, in its impressive majesty as well as humility, was that, the riches notwithstanding (its one of the most expensive places to stay in Germany), the people therein had refused to relinquish their rustic appeal. It was actually a wonder for me to see a car stop to let the passers by cross the road, and cheerfully wave to them, as he sped by; see mothers strap their pinklipped crimson cheeked blue eyed toddlers to their backs, as they swished on their purple bicycles on a biting Grey evening (in five days, we saw the sun twice, for about 5 minutes each); to see cottage styled villas have angels and carved metal butterflies adorn their doorsteps and frontages respectively, whilst an Audi TT or a Mercedes would be strewn across, with almost vulgar abandon, on the lush green manicured garden; to see the Germans huddle together with their beer in a bar cheering themselves hoarse over a Bayern Munich victory or curse them with an almost Indian-like intensity over so much as a draw (we saw both); to feel the single golden ray of the sun beam itself across a desolate European sky on my face on a blustery cold morning; to admire the cozy interiors of our hotel featuring simple artwork and tireless order that only served to emphasize upon the unwavering discipline of its creators; to eavesdrop on the whistle of the wind, as it blew across that tiny little town which had, somehow, managed to remain in a time warp to pay homage to its roots, and yet, synced itself with the luxuries of our world.

A typical German House in Herten

The Germans pride themselves on the merits of precision and system, and both were on offer in bountiful. I've never seen such rigorous discipline that was only heightened in its impact by the seemingly unassuming manner of its execution. It seemed, that if god was a planner, he had restricted himself (I'm not a sexist, this is only for the sake of simplicity) to places like the one I was in, while deputizing the Devil to plan for the place where I was born. From simple lane discipline to an assembly line at a factory, the Germans were systematic to a fault. They were robotic, and it sadly reminded me of the price we've had to pay for our brilliance, for here was bunch of people, who made the simple decision of collective improvement, rather than individual glory and hence, adhered to a predefined system with a diligence that would have shamed our flamboyance, had we been humble enough to admit it. We have much to learn.

Being a vegetarian has its advantages in India (the probability of a non-veg. dish going abysmally wrong, especially in monsoons is almost twice that of its vegetarian counterpart). In Europe, and especially in Germany, wherein language is a major hurdle to overcome, being a vegetarian exposes you to its commensurate miseries. As I was to discover, the concept of vegetables simply didn't exist, and when it did, horrifyingly comprised of a very liberal dose of brinjals and carrots (somehow, the idea of an omlette cooked from Ostrich eggs and garnished with brinjals didn't exactly set my imagination or taste buds on fire). However, the presence of Darjeeling tea in the middle of Germany did bring a smile and a small illustration of globalization to my being (it was the best tea I've had in a long time). Our hostess was a fiery and yet, courteous lady, who spoke a smattering of English and German and befriended my mother on the first morning as we left for our work. On our return, my mother was full of tales of how Mariann (the lady in context) had proceeded to regale her with tales of her husband's (the hotel owner) incompetence. Certain things, I suppose, transcend beyond geographies and cultures.

In the five days that we parked ourselves at Herten, a regular feature would include long walks along the German neighborhoods, admiring not the grandeur of the structures, but its delicate preciseness. We came to understand and soak in the polite courtesy of the Germans, that was warm and aloof at the same time, the antithesis of a stone Mermaid and the Store of Sevens perched together, the ornate rose structures before the Deutsche bank, the lavishness of King's Alley at Dusseldorf (the costliest street in Europe), and the simple countryside of Herten and the many tiny differences that stacked together to fashion our cultures to be so radically diverse, and yet, perhaps complimentary.

On the final morning, as we lay dozing on Air Berlin, the aircraft taxied with bone jarring efficiency towards the same destination, where my dreams had already wafted to - Roma!!!