It was sometime in early 2011. I was having a chat with a couple of friends centered on a quote from the Tom Cruise starrer ‘Knight and Day’. Not exactly the kind of movie to throw up quotes worthy of discussion or much thought. But surprisingly, it did have one particularly special quote– moving, thought-provoking, enigmatic and slightly frightening if I may say so.
“Someday. That’s a dangerous word. It’s really just a code for ‘never’. “
So many of our dreams and desires revolve around the distant but sweet promise of a ‘someday when’. And here was this thought which was robbing me of that precious comfort and hope. The conversation with friends gave me encouragement though. It turned out that, deep down, many of us believed in the possibilities of a ‘someday when’, for it gave us the impetus, the urge to strive towards our goals, and not give up midway. As we spoke on, we realized that many of our ‘somedays’ had indeed come true; from small to big, we have had our trysts with wish fulfillment. Little did I know then that just months later, I would be part of a life-changing experience and live my dreams. With that came an important lesson, not to lose focus in an indefinite wait for that ‘someday’, and miss the chance to seize the all-important ‘today’.
The eighteen months that I spent living alone abroad was the most wondrous and enlightening experience of my life yet. If anything the interminably long hours of watching Disney-Pixar films had taught me, it was the invaluable lesson that ‘adventure is out there’ ; so I was looking forward to being marooned and then finding the shores on my own. The adventure is long over, and I wish it had lasted longer. But the gifts it brought me are for a lifetime indeed. I’m now a happy victim to wanderlust for evermore.
Here’s my story:
Work took me to Stockholm in late autumn of 2011, and it was here that I spent the most amazing eighteen months. I have loved Stockholm in all its moods, maybe sometimes a little less and at other times a little more, but have loved it nonetheless. Before I came here, I didn’t have much of an idea about how beautiful a city this was, and that’s why my wish list of cities to visit on a European vacation had never featured Stockholm. But now it feels like Stock-‘home’, and I carry it in my heart always.
Stockholm has something to offer to everyone, it caters to a multitude of interests. For the connoisseurs of art, culture, photography and history, there are a plethora of museums and galleries covering a wide spectrum of subjects. For the music and theater aficionados , there is the Royal Opera, the Royal Concert Hall, the Royal Dramatic Theater to name just a few, with regular open-air concerts taking place in summer featuring different genres of music. For the bookworms, Stockholm has the most amazing and efficient free of cost public library system, it kept me from pining for my bookshelves back home. For the thrill-seekers and adventure enthusiasts, Stockholm is a veritable goldmine – running, cycling, hiking, rafting, sailing, skating, skiing, rock climbing, hot air balloon rides, you name it and you find it.
And if nothing else, just plain random roaming in the weekends, unplanned bus/metro/train rides were so much fun! A bottle of water, a burger to pick up on my way, and armed with my camera and the monthly travel card, I would be off exploring the length and breadth of the city. Weekends were solely dedicated to the purpose of wandering about the city, in keeping with the spirit of one of my most favorite quotes ever – ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’ And it was during these wanderings, that I fell in love with stunning Stockholm! This was undoubtedly my greatest source of joy while living in Stockholm. It gave me such a high, the sense of freedom, the rush of seeing new places and meeting new people. Living in a place like this, which enlivens and excites, which is charming and interesting; being happy and content seemed like the easiest task in the world.
The unparalleled beauty of Stockholm lies in its proximity to Nature. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most stunning capital cities in the world in this aspect. On a bright, sunny day the city might well be a painter’s lessons in different shades of blue and green. A year in Stockholm reveals the grandeur of the four seasons; spring, summer, autumn, winter parade in all its glory before one’s eyes. And how can I forget the waters, the bluest and the cleanest that you will ever find, and the piercing cries of the seagulls circling overhead. Stockholm is a city built on the waters and made of islands. The pride of every true-blue Swede is the archipelago, dotted with red, wooden houses and boat piers- the magical retreat of glorious summertime.
Some months back the New York Daily News had ran an article titled ‘Stockholm is a city made to be in pictures’. I agree with it a hundred percent and then some more. Rarely has there been a day in these past eighteen months when I have left home without my camera in tow. There is always some sight to grab your attention and invoke the urge to capture it. You don’t have to be a great photographer to take great pictures in Stockholm. This spectacular city makes even an amateur’s photos look brilliant. My favorite hour of the day in Stockholm was twilight, when the sky was awash with colors beyond one’s imagination. It was just the perfect moment to pause, ponder and marvel.
Stockholm also served as the magic portal to realizing my childhood dream of visiting Europe.
One of the unique travel options that you can avail from Stockholm or, for that matter, from any of the major cities in the Scandinavian/Baltic belt, is a cruise liner. And what an experience it is! Such an unforgettable cruise took me to the ‘Paris of the East’, the Latvian capital, Riga! Riga was immensely memorable. It was just the type of experience I treasure, places with a quaint, old-world charm. The origin of the city of Riga has such an endearing piece of folklore associated to it.
As I walked along the banks of the Daugava River, I came upon one of the most storied attractions of Riga. Enclosed within a glass box, and overlooking the river, stands the statue of a sturdy, giant of a man carrying a little boy on his shoulders. This was the fabled Big Christopher (Lielais Kristaps). Legend has it that he carried the child-Christ on his shoulders across the river and received a pile of gold in return of his humble services. He later used this wealth to build the city of Riga. Big Christopher is considered the city’s protector from natural disasters and in the older days, seafarers used to seek his blessings before embarking on a long voyage.
Looking around the city of Riga, I could see glimpses of its tragic past. The Freedom Monument is a beautiful and imposing sight in the heart of the city. It is a memorial honoring the fallen heroes in the Latvian War of Independence. At the edge of the lawns of the Riga Castle, almost obscured by the tall buildings all around, is the beautiful stone figurine of a little girl. A plaque at the site reads ‘Dedicated to children deported to Siberia 1941-1949’. It makes the busy, time-bound traveler pause here for a moment and ponder. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia brought me face-to-face with the dark days of Latvia’s history. Scenes from Holocaust movies flitted before my eyes as I made the rounds of this museum. Never knew before that Latvia too had its own Auschwitz-like horror story – ‘Rumbula’. Fraught with years of a brutal Soviet regime of terror and oppression, where all protests and rebellions were stifled by an iron fist and free voices mercilessly silenced by deportations to Siberia, the German troops were actually greeted as liberators by the Latvian masses. What a tragic irony then, that these supposed liberators would be responsible for the greatest tragedy in Latvian history. The trip to Riga was quite a moving experience indeed.
During my time at Stockholm, I had the happy fortune to visit the marvelous ‘Oranje’ country twice. The first trip was in the midsummer weekend of 2012. The second at Easter 2013 was a farewell gift to me as my European sojourn came to an end.
I visited the Anne Frank House during the first trip, which was a long cherished dream come true. Within those walls, time stands frozen and Anne is still a beautiful young girl with dreams in her deep, dark eyes. One of the most poignant places in the entire Secret Annexe is the attic, whose little window was Anne’s only outlet to the world outside, a world she yearned desperately to be a part of once more. It was through this window that she could see the changing colors of the sky, the sprouting of branches in spring, the twitter of birds. And her free spirit longed for the day when she would be treated as any other normal human being and not stigmatized as a Jew. For such a bright, vivacious young girl, it must have been unimaginably painful, to see the world around only through a tiny square opening in the attic, unable to venture out, breathe the free air, live her dreams. Like our beloved, impish Peter Pan, Anne Frank will be forever young. Her legacy is a celebration of the indomitable human spirit which triumphs over the ravaging fires of hatred and war. It is also a poignant reminder to never let this happen again. The Anne Frank House visit was an experience that I will always cherish.
Amsterdam fascinated me endlessly. There was this energy and excitement in the air, a vibrant and pulsating life that was very appealing. On the other hand, there was also the tranquil serenity of relaxing in a waterfront cafe, taking a pause from the frenetic pace and just watch life go by.
I had put up with some friends at Utrecht during this trip. The train rides from Amsterdam to Utrecht were a lot of fun. Netherlands has a wonderfully efficient railway network. It is a superlative experience to travel from one city through another, passing through expanses of lush green, fringed by canals with a windmill or two looming in the distance. One of the most exciting things I got to do during my stay at Utrecht was to go out on a bike ride in the beautiful outskirts of the town. My Enid Blyton fueled childhood fantasies came true in glorious fashion as I cycled down the narrow country lanes bordered by seemingly never-ending green fields on both sides, often coming across charming farm houses along the ride.
The second trip revolved around the famous Tulip Gardens at Keukenhof and also included a visit to the charming Dutch city of Maastricht. People from all over the globe converge to these beautiful gardens during those precious few weeks in spring/summer when it is open to the public. My companions for the trip were, in fact, playing a funny game of ‘guess the nationality/accent’ on our walks along the tulip-fringed paths. I also got to see the wonderful Flower Parade with the marvelously decorated tableaux. One stand-out memory was the sight of a group of colorfully dressed Dutch folk singers atop the balcony of a windmill, joyously belting out one tune after another, while the crowds beneath swayed to the music and cheered lustily.
Visiting Maastricht was a spur-of-the-moment kind of decision. There were two contributing factors. Firstly, for some strange reason, the photos of Maastricht reminded me of the many images of Vienna that I had come across in so many books and films. That made me curious about the city. Secondly, I am a great admirer of the classical violinist Andre Rieu, who hails from this city. His grand open-air concerts at Maastricht, staged in the backdrop of majestic buildings, with a huge orchestra of impeccably dressed musicians, seem like royal functions of yore. Having seen videos of these concerts, I wanted to at least visit the city that has gifted the world such a genius. Maastricht was a lovely experience, walking leisurely along cobbled paths, tree-lined avenues, passing by spectacular cathedrals, charming houses, posh boutiques, bustling cafes. The city lies in close proximity to the borders of Belgium and Germany. So close in fact that there are cycling path signs, pointing westwards from the railway station, and marked ‘Belgie’! Now that was quite a funny idea, cycling from one country to another!
One of my very distinct childhood memories is about an assignment that I had to do in fifth grade. It was an essay about the country you wanted to visit the most. I had written about Italy. That was as distant a ‘someday’ as there ever was. History lessons in school had ignited the nascent desires. The history of the ancient ages replete with tales of the all-conquering Greek and Roman valor. Of the medieval period, the birth of Renaissance, bringing about a revolution in art, sculpture, architecture, literature. Then on to 20th century and the wars which changed the face of the world. Europe was the melting pot, an amalgamation, a mirror which reflected the progress of the ages; in a way akin to India.
Later on in college, the desire to visit Europe was further fueled by Hollywood golden oldies, most of which, more often than not, opened with sweeping, breathtaking vistas of Rome or Paris! I feel extremely elated to declare that both these places have now been ticked off my bucket list, though the irresistible charm of these cities demand many more return visits.
Close to two decades down the line, one of my fondest dreams came true in the summer of 2012, when I spent a week in Italy. It surely has to be the most magical week of my life yet. What incredible sights and scenes! What a treasure trove of memories! It was such an indescribable feeling when people and places I had only read about till now came to life vividly in front of my eyes! Each city in Italy has its own special character, its own distinctive beauty, which makes the experience so enriching.
Rome was an unforgettable experience. I literally had to pinch myself to believe that I was truly there, walking the fabled cobbled paths of the Eternal City. It felt surreal. Like I was looking in through a kaleidoscope, while a montage of my oft-dreamt about places played before my eyes. The Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, ‘Mouth of Truth’. The Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St.Peter’s Basilica. The Piazza Navona, Piazza Venezia, the Pantheon. The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Circus Maximus. It was a travel back in time through centuries. During my stay, I took a night ride through the city on one of those hop-on-hop-off buses. To say it was magical would be an understatement. What struck me most was the absence of any jarring neon lights or billboards. The whole city was bathed in a soothing amber glow emanating from the streetlamps, which enhanced the old world charm even more. There was a palpable sense of romance in the summer night air.
They say if you drop a coin into the Trevi fountain, Rome will call you back someday. I had thrown in a couple to increase my odds. Will the clarion call come? I dream of it all the time. My favorite memory of Rome? Relishing on a gelato cone on the Spanish steps, I was Princess Anne for one brief but glorious moment.
To my immense regret, I couldn’t arrange a visit to Pompeii during this trip. However, in the process, I discovered the beautiful ruins at Ostia Antica. One of life’s serendipitous moments! Literally meaning ‘mouth of the sea’, Ostia Antica was once Rome’s seaport. A short train ride from Rome took me to this lost harbor city of the 4th century B.C., the embers of a glorious past. It was a surreal experience to explore the ancient ruins that bear silent testimony to the power and grandeur that had once been the Roman Empire. It was like I had fallen through a wormhole, from Rome in the summer of 2012 and traveled back in space and time to step out into the halcyon days of the legendary Roman Empire.
The train journey from Rome to Florence, amidst lush green meadows, rolling cliffs and glorious sunflower fields was again a dream come true. It brought me closer to a fond wish of being ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. From Florence, I moved on to the leaning marvel at Pisa.
And then rounding off the most joyous summer, it was time for magical Venice. The canals, the bridges, the trinket shops with Casanova masks and Venetian glass showpieces. My fondest memory – The ‘I-don’t-mind-if-you-take-away-my-last-cent’ gondola ride and the handsome gondolier Gabriel who showed me the Casanova house, the Marco Polo house, occasionally bursting into songs (which probably every gondolier worth his striped vest does), and regaling me with stories how he had seen Daniel Craig in action as Agent 007 in the Quantum of Solace shoot at Venice.
If it was a ‘Roman Holiday’ in the summer of 2012, it was a Parisian romance in the winter of the same year. It was sheer magic. Watching a glorious sunset on the Seine from atop the Eiffel Tower. A magical boat cruise along the Seine as dusk fell. Marveling at the lights, the charming cafes and the vibrant pubs. Exploring the treasures of the Louvre. Walking along the spectacular Champs-Élysées at night. Awestruck at the grandeur of the Arc de Triomphe. Returning after a busy day to my cosy hotel at the legendary Montmarte district with the pristine Sacré-Cœur looming in the distance.
Through my travels I have realized that the best way to explore a city is to take a walking tour. That is, inevitably, the first thing on any itinerary that I plan. It is a wonderful experience indeed – new people, new places, new stories, a whole new perspective. It was on the Paris walking tour that our guide narrated the concept of the Elysian Fields or Elysium, the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous. For us to get a clearer picture, he referred to that memorable scene in the film ‘Gladiator’, where as Maximus dies, he has a vision of walking through a field of grain and being finally reunited with his wife and son. Champs-Élysées, literally means the Avenue of the Elysian Fields. The Arc de Triomphe symbolises the portal to Elysian Fields. To be there gazing up at the Arc de Triomphe, standing proud and magnificent, and learn about Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Elysium was an immensely moving experience.
Paris is like a different world altogether and worth every bit of the gushing admiration it receives. All the time I walked the Paris streets, I would be reminded of the sepia tinted celluloid frames of the Hollywood classics that I adored so much and, more recently, of Woody Allen’s delectable time-travel saga ‘Midnight in Paris’. Coincidentally, that was the movie I had watched on my first flight to Stockholm; anxious but excited, making a wish-list of places to visit, cautiously optimistic about its fruition. Of the many high points of that trip, the breathtakingly beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral is right up there. Gazing up at the magnificent structure, imagining the bells to ring out any time, and hoping to catch a glimpse of a forlorn, hunchbacked figure in the shadows – that was another ‘someday’ which became a ‘today’!
Further adding some East European flavor to my travels was Budapest, a singularly gorgeous city. As dusk descended and the twinkling lights came to life, I embarked upon the mesmerizing boat cruise across the Danube. The waltz ‘The Blue Danube’, an integral part of famous ballroom scenes, from umpteen Hollywood golden oldies kept playing in my head. As did a charming line from an old English movie which suggests that the Danube appears blue only to a person in love. The Chain Bridge, the palatial Parliament house, the Castle Hill all lighted up at night is one of the most spectacular sights I have ever come across, and more than justified why Budapest is called the ‘Pearl of the Danube’. Gazing down over the entire expanse of Budapest from the Fisherman’s Bastion in the Castle Hill was undoubtedly one of the most memorable moments of this trip. Walking along Budapest’s famous Andrássy Avenue took me to the iconic Heroes’ Square. Against the backdrop of an inky-blue night sky, the illuminated ‘Hősök tere’ (Heroes’ Square) was a sight to behold!
Budapest is also a foodie’s delight. My friend in Budapest took me this cosy restaurant which served the most delicious goulash, with the famed Hungarian paprika playing its part to tantalize the taste buds. Dessert was equally delectable – the Palatschinke (pancake) with a heavenly filling of sweet cottage cheese, accompanied with gooey chocolate sauce. One of the unique attractions of Budapest are the ruin pubs, which are exactly what their names suggest! These are night clubs opened in abandoned buildings, fitted with old furniture giving it a bohemian, retro look. On the last evening of my stay, I dropped in at the famous and fascinating Szimpla Kert (recently voted third on Lonely Planet’s list of great bars in the world). And I was glad that I went, for the Szimpla Kert absolutely defines ‘unique’ and ‘cool’!
You know how in our daily work lives, we often speak of keywords while preparing a PowerPoint or a document. If I ever asked to describe my story with a set of keywords, I would choose the following: Wanderlust / Enchanting Europe / Endless Memories / Untold Stories / Cobbled Streets/ Shops around the Corner / Walk the City / Bridges Tell Tales / Friends from the Road / Call Me Back
Europe was endlessly enchanting, magical and mesmerizing. Places steeped in legends, lore, myths and history. Walking down streets which might have looked just the same hundreds of years back. Getting lost in musings of the past, a past that lives breathes and speaks to us across the curtains of ages.
The eighteen months of living in Stockholm and traveling around was a life-changing experience in every way, with lessons galore. To adjust to a life without the taken-for-granted comforts and familiarities of home. To be more social, outgoing and make a positive impression on people. To embrace new experiences. To venture down unknown paths without a travel plan. To talk to strangers for sometimes they have the most interesting stories to share (at the end of which they are strangers no more). To always have a ready smile because people remembered it the most. To pause to listen to a street musician, or look at the streets all lighted up in Christmas decor.
I wish the sojourn had lasted a little longer. But like all good things in life it had come to an end. It has left me richer by an unimaginable wealth. It really did open my eyes and heart to a lot of things and simplified many equations.
They say – “You never really leave a place or person you love, part of them you take with you, leaving a part of yourself behind.” Thank you for the memories!