The Brussels skyline is shrouded in mist. Tall buildings in the distance appear as hazy outlines, as if a film of translucent paper was covering a photograph in a book. It has been drizzling on and off through the day, with temperatures bordering 15 degrees celcius and the wind chill making it seem like winter. Mom and dad are taking things bravely: they managed a few hours outside with just a thin sweater on.
They arrived on Saturday. In these four days they’ve already visited Heidelberg, Luxembourg, Gent and Brussels. Memories of their previous visit four years ago are fast being replaced by new images and new episodes. I expect an eventful three weeks.
Dad is constantly comparing things to India. One moment he is the engineer comparing building construction practices across Europe and India; the next moment he is the social historian wondering why some countries destroyed in World War II were able to rebuild themselves at an astonishing pace while we Indians are still so “backward” decades after achieving independence; a little later he is the environmentalist marveling at the “purity” of air here, in contrast to the dust and pollution back home. At such times his emotions oscillate between thoughtfulness, anger, despair and, on the rare occasion, hope. Such extreme reactions aren’t surprising: the contrast to their world in Bangalore is so much that he cannot help ask these questions. I used to ask them too in the beginning (I remember early conversations with new arrivals here tracing similar trajectories) but these days the difference no longer surprises me: I rarely wonder why things back home are the way they are and ask how they can be improved. It isn’t that I have lost my curiousity; I am curious, but in a detached sort of way – like a traveller documenting things on his foreign trip is curious about his environment. Dad, in contrast, feels passionately about the situation back home. (It also occurs to me that our recent conversations with friends have been around the experiences of the returning NRI: how challenging it is to re-tune oneself to the habits of a society they were once a part of. Similar theme, similar dislocations, different direction.)
Day 1 – 19th July – Heidelberg
Saturday evening we drove to Heidelberg and spent time walking next to the Neckar. Along the way I became aware of the glances we were attracting: Germans are openly curious about anything foreign or exotic, so with mom in a saree this was to be expected. This is a recurrently familiar sight: each summer, in our little town in southern Germany, we see parents of Indians living here going out on walks by themselves or taking the grandchild out on the stroller. They stand out from their surroundings – there’s no one their age wearing such costumes in our town – and in fact they are an oddity, a unique consequence of the Indian migration Westwards. The temporariness of their stay means they have little motivation to integrate into this society – either through language, dress or behaviour – and at their age, adjusting to a new way of life does not come easily.
Day2 – 20th July – Luxembourg, Brussels
On Sunday the morning – sunny and fresh – was perfect for outdoor activity, and I took dad for a walk in the woods. We saw tents pitched next to the pond; some people were outside, fishing. Dad began to think about finding a place to retire and take long walks each morning.
Later in the day we started for Brussels. We stopped for lunch in Luxembourg and spent some time strolling its streets. Shops were closed and tourists were few, but there were a few street entertainers – the first mom and dad encountered this visit – whom they found amusing.
P’s apartment is in the centre of Brussels, and to enter its garage you have to pass through three electronically controlled security gates not dissimilar to those you see in Bond movies. It never fails to amuse me, but Dad was in awe. “Which of our Indian cities have apartments with such security systems, tell me?” he asked.
Day 3 – 21st July – Gent
The next day – Monday – was cold and rainy, but a European summer holiday means never having to sit indoors; we drove to Gent, described by the guidebook as a city “with history and character”. It was still drizzling when we reached, and we had only one umbrella. Finding a shop with umbrellas seemed unlikely as it was a public holiday. We walked into a nearby cafe in the hope that the weather would improve after a while.
The cafe had some surprises in store for us. The menu had an item “Mysore cafe” – we unanimously agreed to try it out. When it came, the elegant glass filter caught mom’s eye; I could see that she’d love to have something like that at home. The coffee was excellent, and so was the snack we ordered: a plate of fried banana slices, identical in taste to what vendors sell on the trains in Kerala. P was thrilled – getting her favorite mallu snack in a Belgian cafe was something she expected least. The waitress – presumably of North African origin – enthusiastically answered all our questions (about the dishes, the umbrella stores, father’s inquiries on why it is today a public holiday in Belgium, and many more). When we left the cafe, we were all warmed up.
We spent the next couple of hours exploring the city centre. Despite poor weather there were people all around. And where there are people, there are those who entertain them.
The highlight of our walk turned out to be a portable public urinal at the edge of a side-walk. We all gaped at it with open mouths; in all these years in Europe I’d never seen something like this.
It seemed perfectly positioned for a rainy day: waste disposal is much easier if its contents could be passed off into the street as rainwater. Perhaps I should write to the municipal corporations of Indian cities to take up this innovation.
Another memorable location was the top of Belfort – a medieval clock tower – which offered 360 degree views of the city. The view of the squares and streets below offered a different dimension of people-watching. One pattern that struck was that very young and very old couples tend to stick close to each other while walking; the middle-aged ones gave each other more space. Unfortunately, the harsh cold wind did not permit us to stay on top for long.
Down below, there was a group of young gymnasts giving a street-side show. The performance was amateurish, but their enthusiasm to perform in this weather was inspiring. A small crowd had gathered, some with their umbrellas and some without, and they cheered each position – the successful and not so successful ones – with equal fervour.
On the way back to parking garage we picked up some french fries from a stall. It was the closest thing to to magic of garam-garam pakodas in cold weather, and dad – who always used to stop at the roadside stall near our home in Secunderabad and ask the guy to pack some mirchi bajjis – enjoyed it thoroughly.
To be continued….