No 5AM alarms, a couple more hours of sleep No morning rush, no traffic woes Just wake up and sit in front of the laptop As the whole world dials in at 9AM From within their respective four walls They call it work from home You split the territories There are 4 of us in the house But only 3 rooms so boundaries become paramount Morning concalls for setting daily agenda Midday concalls to get over the anxiety Of not seeing human souls around you End of day concalls to tell each other That the work we do from home everyday Is of relevance to this world The world that is slowly dying Or probably coming alive Depending on whose side you are on And then there are the calls that you want to make To tell the people who matter That you are holding up To provide your loved ones who are alone In faraway lands a human touch And a support system that acts as a pillar To keep the four walls around them from closing in You are thankful for the work That keeps you occupied longer For remote work only means more people To report to every hour of every day But then you don’t want empty time You know your mind is a devil Smaller coffee breaks and no conversations Walks from the living room to the bedroom And then back to feel like you still have some freedom Social distance from your colleagues Your friends, your neighbours Even from people who live with you Because remember boundaries? And still there is enough time in the day For your mind to remind you That everything is falling apart Media feasting on your anxiety To an extent that after the millionth message You have trouble recognizing true from false Real from fake and Good from bad But in all this you know That you are doing the right thing Helping the people who are putting Your safety ahead of theirs You tell yourself that this too shall pass It’s only your space that is confined, not your mind You will come out of this stronger May be even warmer and kinder You are thankful that you have someone To share your space and life with and be hopeful At the end of each day And as you close your eyes you give yourself A pat on the back for doing what’s best For keeping your anxiety at bay And for not letting the whole world Overwhelm you with too much information And most importantly for making it through one more day!
I sit there looking at you, unable to turn my gaze away, almost on the verge of creeping you out with my unfazed stare. You are not the prettiest in the room, definitely not the tallest, or the fairest, but you are the most alive! I can almost see your eyes dance as you wade through topic after topic, animatedly crushing my opinions about politics and psychology. It’s been a year of watching those eyes dance and I still can’t get enough of them. You momentarily glance at the screen behind me, while I talk about the book I have been trying to read for almost a week without any progress – and I know in my head that you are trying hard to balance between your love for football and your eagerness to shower me with a hundred percent attention. I try to play the perfect date by momentarily dragging on with some unnecessary details till the clock hits half time!
Now, you look at me, as if to return my stare back with a vengeance and I hold your gaze, trust me this is more romantic to me than holding your hand! Why do you like me so much, you ask absent mindedly, making it seem like a normal conversation. The first personal question you have asked since we started dating and I blurt out, unthinking, that maybe because you are easy. I stop short realising the wrong choice of words. You roll your eyes in disappointment – of having stumbled upon one more guy mistaking approachable for easy! You have seen your share of men with misplaced belief systems – the ones who could not help getting attracted to you for you are like a filter coffee in a world of oreo milkshakes, easy to get addicted to but impossible to reduce dosage once someone gets hooked!
And what do I do with such addiction if I am not prepared for it, if I am not looking for an addiction or if I pride myself on my so called self-control? I blame the coffee! Of being a heavy dose stimulant, a drug that recharges my system without my permission and makes me feel alive even if I don’t want to. It is easier to accept that you play with the boundaries of my mind without my consent than to admit that I have let my self-control slip. And of course, if you have done this to many men before me, then it must be you who is a bad habit and not me who is a drug addict. It would probably let me sleep at night peacefully believing that I am still driving this, that I still can restrain, that its all you and not me!
Oh wait! You are already getting up to leave and I have to do some damage control here! So words rush out of me – easy to be with, I scream! You give me a puzzled look, and I repeat – you are easy, easy to be with, easy to build a life around, easy to fall for! I have a million other ways to tell you why I am not one of those guys – and why you are notrepeating your mistake! But I know you have heard my voice even though the words are yet to leave my mouth. So I gently place my hand on yours, in a casual yet reassuring way, and ask you with a smile, do you want to try the filter coffee here? It is supposed to be perfect!
This same day 10 years ago, you wanted to get away from work early, so that you could bring in New Year the way it is meant to be. You had never partied into New Year – New Year meant wishing your parents at midnight and getting up in the morning to visit a temple because that’s what your dad told you was the right thing. With this new city and new freedom, you needed to see what the hoopla was all about. So, you wanted to step out of work at a decent hour – 9PM – to step away from the crazy work hours and the pointless job. You wanted to wear your little black dress and stilettos, with a mild yet inviting makeup, and step out into the city lights dazzling like a diva. But you had to down two tequila shots to make you forget last year’s heartbreak, make a resolution to not think of your failed relationships and step into the new year full of dreams and plans – plans for a decade to earn more money, travel more and fly higher. You stood at the bar as the clock was about to strike midnight and amidst the gossips about cute guys in office and bitchy bosses – you welcome the New Year with customary New Year hugs and countdowns and a couple of more tequila shots!
Fast forward ten years to this day – you get invited to 3 such parties. Your boss tells you to leave at 4PM but you love your work too much to delegate to your junior and step out. You decide to wait till 7PM and then call your friends who you know have made your past year tolerable and tell them you need to see them before the year runs out. The past year is a fleeting glimpse of hectic work moments and some priceless conversations. You meet your friends in your work clothes – hair undone, the morning eye liner and lip shade peeling off – forget to touch up on your makeup. You don’t need prior notice for clicking photos for you have fallen in love with your after work tired-yet-satisfied look. The clock is about to strike midnight as you sit with your scotch in hand laughing over the silliest of memories with those same people in the last few years. You laugh a little more when you think of your younger self from a decade ago. The dreams are still there – some achieved, some in the distance which you are not sure are within your reach. You earn much lesser than what you thought you would earn in your 30s and you definitely do not have the strength or aura to walk around in stilettos all night. And when the New Year hits, you are not all you wanted to be but you are a better version of the human you used to be. Your dreams don’t scare you but provide you an assurance that you are still an ambitious soul. And when you feel a little too down about what you failed to achieve, the people around you hug you and tell you how their year was special because you were a part of it!
You haven’t grown up to what you thought you would be but you have grown up all right! There are dreams for the next decade as well – just not to fly high, but to stand strong!
She: You know how when you go to buy the perfect party dress… you roam around hundreds of shops and finally settle for one which fits you in some aspects but makes you look incomplete in others? You still buy it because you are running short of time and you think perfection is a myth. And then when you have accepted that is how you will probably look on that special day, you get completely blown away by this perfect dress that was everything you every dreamed of! You wanna buy it but then you already are vested so much in the existing one that you do not have the courage or the resources to buy the next one!
He: Are you saying you want me to buy you a new dress? Because well if you do, the person who you should be talking to is your boyfriend and not me because I have bigger things to handle right now!
She: Really? Can I help you with that?
He: I really really want to move to this role that my boss just hired someone else for. I know that guy is a complete misfit and he is just not good enough. And you know me! I have the dedication and passion to get the best out of that role. I can do the justice to the role that it deserves. He is just not the right guy! That job needs someone like me!
Sadly, metaphors and subtlely were neither’s strong point!
There are some things of which you can never have enough – like a mountain view, filter coffee, Agatha Christie novels and holidays in Europe. You know how you sit with a map when thinking of a holiday and explore Africa, Australia, South East Asia and then just end up in Europe every time? No? It somehow happens to me every year! And I will still not say that I have had enough of European holidays!
Every time I have been to Europe, I have found something new, something that the previous trip conveniently managed to hide! In this trip, it was the fascinating landscape. Somehow, so far, Europe to me was medieval towns, small lanes, cute cafes, riverside walks and a little bit of mountains. But now, after Germany and Slovenia, Europe feels far less man-made and much more of nature’s creation. I planned this trip carefully to circumvent the big cities to the extent feasible and go to places not too famous among tourists. Advantage – the experiences were exhilarating and you feel so connected to the nature that it humbles you. Disadvantage – planning is not the easiest and it takes massive amounts of research and commitment to be able to cover all that you want with minimum hiccups.
I have chosen to write a detailed account this time (so be prepared for a 10-15 mins read) about each of the countries I visited, mainly because I did not visit the conventional places, and if there are any travelers out there, looking to plan an offbeat vacation like mine, they may benefit out of this!
Germany was the reason we planned the trip – not in the least because I thought it was a beautiful place and hence a must visit, but more so because my sister lives here (in a University town called Regensburg). There was only one thing that I had always wanted to visit in Germany – Black Forest, and hence my entire stay in Germany was planned in and around Black Forest and Regensburg!
We started from Munich (in a car hired from Sixt) and drove southwards tracking the route of Füssen (the town closest to Neuschwanstein castle), touching the German / Swiss border to visit Rheinfall, then to Friedenweiler at the southern tip of Black Forest (Baden-Württemberg), along the Bundesstraße 500 (Federal highway than runs through the forest), to Baden-Baden at the Northern end of the Black Forest, onward to Bingen in Middle Rhine valley before finishing with some city touring in Nuremberg, Regensburg and Munich. This whole drive took us about a week’s time with 4 hours of drive per day on an average, and an overnight stay at most of the stops. The drive was smooth as silk and the roads were best-in-class as one would expect when one thinks of Autobahn!
Do you know that feeling when you look at some pictures and think that nothing can look as beautiful without some camera filters? Well Neushwanstein castle does! In fact no amount of pictures can prepare you for this pretty sight! We stayed overnight at Füssen in a small hotel overlooking Hopfensee (Lake) in a peaceful neighborhood. The drive to the castle was hardly 5 minutes, and we took a bus to the Marienbrücke– the bridge which offers an unhindered view of the castle and the lakes beyond with the Bavarian Alps backdrop. From here we hiked a small way to the top for a less crowded view, you could choose to hike the whole way (completely skip the bus), which we avoided for it was a scorching hot day! The walk back downhill was a breeze though. You can skip entering the castle but do walk around for views from all directions. Trust me, you would not regret it even on a hot day.
Next up, we had the Black Forest to look forward to. After getting a hang of how smooth and tireless the driving was, we decided to take a detour for the Rhine Falls. What we missed reading on the map was how and when we crossed the border to Switzerland! Mind you, there are signs and a small check post, which you would easily overlook, especially if you are from India and you are used to endlessly long tolls even for crossing from Mumbai to Thane! Thankfully, our car was compliant with the toll requirement (otherwise you would have to buy the same from a fuel station before entering Swiss). Rheinfall (as the falls are referred to in German) springs up on you out of nowhere, you are in a city neighborhood and suddenly the roar of the falls hits you and after a few minutes of walking, you see this gigantic water body with unimaginable volume of water!
We ended the day at a small town called Friedenweiler at the southern tip of Black Forest, in a homestay where we had the Black Forest view from the patio. The drive from here along the B-500 highway, entirely through the forest, is the best drive I have ever experienced, with super tall trees and breathtaking curves along the road. It is as magnificent as the Youtube videos claim! Travel tip – Do take a pit stop in any one of those small Bavarian towns on the way (we selected Triberg) to have the authentic Black Forest cake from the region. You could stop overnight at one of these towns inside the forest if you prefer, we skipped that as we had too much ground to cover, plus the forest was best experienced along the drive.
We drove straight to Bingen in the Middle Rhine valley and booked the cruise for the next day. The cruise provides you flexibility to get on and off at any of their stops. There are 40 castles and fortresses along the cruise and on a bright and sunny day, any one of them would be a good hike opportunity. You can plan the hike based on the cruise timetable. A word of caution though – the cruise ships are a bit crowded and getting a good seat that provides a view of the castles could turn out to be quite a task!
I am not going to dwell too much on the remaining three cities because… well they are cities and not even remotely as interesting as the other smaller places I visited. But I want to share here some of the things that left a lasting impression on me – the beautiful English Biergarten in the middle of Munich City (which is a mini version of Central Park, and you can spend a good half day walking around the winding lanes), the cobbled streets lined with shops and cafes and the Danube riverside walk in Regensburg town and lastly the Nazi Party Rally grounds in Nuremberg where you can walk through the history and the atrocities of the World War. Warning: this experience may leave you depressed and resigned towards the brutalities that humanity can impose!
I promised to myself the last time I left Salzburg that I would come back here (probably to re-scout this city as an option for my retirement home!) and true to my word, 2 years later I landed in the city. This time though, I spent a total of 3 days in Austria, spending most of it in the Bavarian Alps of Salzburg and nearby Berchtesgaden and a day in Vienna before catching my return flight back.
Austria was much hotter than I remember from my last trip! Granted this was June and the previous one was April but the temperature levels are alarming and the locals confirmed it too. European homes are not made for such temperatures – most of them do not have the cross ventilation that we in India are familiar with or even ceiling fans for that matter. Lesson learnt – Need to be more careful while booking stays in Europe in case of another summer holiday.
What made me fall in love with Austria the last time I visited was the Bavarian Alps – miles and miles of it with pretty, hidden lakes. So this time, I spent more time in the Alps. A day is enough to cover the small city of Salzburg – the usual town square, Mirabell gardens, Mozart’s birthplace and a late sunset near the Salzach river. We spent a whole day in the Alps in Berchtesgaden near Austria / German border. We took the Jennerbahn (cable car) to reach the summit. From here you get a breathtaking view of the Alps, which you just cannot get enough of. Plus, you can walk to the nearby Königssee – a lake as green as emerald with a calm and peaceful backdrop. There were some tourists (not a lot) and you could easily spend a lazy afternoon here sipping beer or enjoying Gelato (try their berry flavours – they are out of the world!).
Vienna was as culturally rich as I remembered from the previous visit. We did all the usual things – visit to Stephensplatz (cathedral and town square), Wien Prater (Ferris wheel), Schonbrunn Palace gardens and finally the Royal Orchestra (which was an invigorating experience even though it wasn’t the first time I was attending this, so I guess novelty had very little to do with the experience). The new thing which I previously missed was the Vienna Zoo which is inside the Schonbrunn Palace gardens – the oldest zoo of Europe and home to a polar bear, a giant panda, an Australian koala and some of the large cats like leopard and tiger. Though watching caged animals is not something I usually fancy, this zoo has tried to mock the natural surroundings for the animals and done a pretty decent job out of it. So for the time being, I can tick pandas from my bucket list – till I plan my China trip!
I have saved the best for the last!
Slovenia is not a part of the bucket list of a conventional tourist, and honestly it neither fits into the historical marvel of the Western European countries nor into the upcoming party destination profile of the Eastern European neighbors. It is a small haven in itself and had it not been for the border that it shares with Austria, I would not have ended up here. But how thankful I am that I did!
I spent a couple of days in Slovenia – mainly in and around Bled but those two days were the highlight of my trip. The town is a preferred escape for cyclists and trekkers. We were told that a car hired in Germany cannot be taken to Slovenia, so we took the train from Salzburg to this small town and then a bus from the train station to reach the lake. Bled is one of the many lakes in the Julian Alps, and is surrounded by mountains and meadows. We stayed in a small local house, whose backyard opened into the meadow. You could sit here in the sun, close your eyes and let the sounds of birds, horses and streams completely take you to a Zen mode.
Once you have done a lot of trips, you figure out that running around throughout the day is not your thing. At the same time, I am a sucker for hikes and walks and I am always on the lookout for hidden trails and dirt roads. So with that in mind, I spent a day just walking around Lake Bled, viewing the Bled Island from every corner possible, stopped in between for refueling with a Gelato and the gorgeous Bled cream cake, watched the sunset over the Bled castle with a beer in hand and took the Pletna boat ride to the island. Even if you are not someone who fancies walking around a lot, just do not miss the view from the western end of the lake – the shot is breathtaking!
I spent the next day visiting Soteska Vintgar (also known as the Bled Gorge). This place is about 15 mins drive from the Lake Bled. There are cabs which take you back and forth from the town centre and drop you at the entrance of the gorge. The trail is 1.6km long, hugging the gorge (comfortable walkway is built along the gorge). The landscape is untouched, refreshing and picture perfect! This place is not to be missed, especially if you are a nature enthusiast like me. The Radovna river which has carved out the gorge flows in full force and the trail ends at Sum Waterfall, with numerous spots on the way to stop and marvel at the landscape around you!
This trip to the gorge is a half day thing, and you can either spend the rest of the day visiting Lake Bohinj and other nearby sites or lazying around Lake Bled and shopping at the town centre. I preferred the latter as I just could not get my eyes off the magnificence of Lake Bled. If not for Slovenia, my trip would have been nowhere close to as satisfying as it turned out to be.
I want to close this piece with a small note – the temperature levels in Europe are alarming and having visited Europe 5 times in the last 8 years, I have witnessed this increase and can vouch for it. While there are a lot of things that are causing the environmental damage, tourism could easily be one of the main reasons. Travelling is a great hobby and vacations are an integral part of our lifestyles – but let’s resolve to travel responsibly and to not disturb the sanctity of the ecosystem and do all we can to maintain the pristine beauty of nature. Only then can we ensure that the marvels of nature which bring heaven on earth remain a reality, and not just a folklore!
“I can’t believe you agreed to meet me”, he looks at me with light in his eyes.
And I can hear my roommate’s voice shouting at me that it’s always a bad idea to meet an ex! This is going to be a bad evening, I realise but try to force everything out of my mind and look at his face. He is pretty much the same man, who left me in the middle of one night and never came back, except there are more wrinkles on his forehead.
“I can’t believe you selected this place”, he smiles at me teasingly, his gaze moving from my eyes to my lips, as I tried to avoid looking at him and stared instead at the ceiling, the same roof below which we kissed for the first time five years ago!
I hear my roommate warning me to not make the same mistake again and I have to shake my head to stop my ears from ringing. “So how’s life”, I manage casually to make time move, to stop the floor from sliding beneath my feet and to prevent my legs from shivering.
“Well, Singapore is easy”, he says, “but it’s not home”, he adds as an afterthought! His hand moves on the rim of his plate and I am taken back to a time in that hostel room, under the moonlight, when his fingers used to dance on my pale skin. But the gleam of the ring on his finger brings me back.
I feel nauseated, and my head starts to spin, but my ego holds my mind in place. I cannot break down in front of him, I promised my roommate before leaving. “You are exceptionally quiet today, I don’t remember this side of you!” he tries to make conversation but words fail me and I fight to hold back the tears stinging the back of my eyes.
He reaches over and touches my cheek with the words “You look stunning, you know” and I pray to god to not let him realise how much I am trembling! “I should never have left…. I think I made a big mistake”, he adds quietly as I keep dodging those brown eyes that made me fall years ago.
The “date” comes to an end, we get up and all I have managed is three words the whole evening! It’s now or never, I tell myself as he holds the car door open for me. I was always the hesitant one when it came to making a move! I pull out a box from my bag, and hand him the chocolates I made for him.
I see what I think are tears in his eyes, as he hugs me close with “You still remember my favourite homemade chocolates!” He takes the box and lingers for a while holding my hand, and finally comes close to my ears with a whisper “call me soon!”. With that he turns and walks away.
I stand there looking at his car leave, with a relief I hadn’t experienced even for a day in the last five years, wondering how long it would be before he has the first of those chocolates and bleeds to death!
It’s a long walk and I’m already tired
Of all the weight and the heat
It’s exhausting and I don’t know yet
How long it’s going to take me to reach
So I stop for a while and look around
At every single face, it’s a huge crowd
And an intimidating one, almost repulsive
But then I see you and I feel a little more assured
A little more at peace, a whole lot calmer
For you look as lost and as repelled
By the crowd and the walk as I do
So I take the first step to walk
Towards you not for once worried that it will
Slow me down in the walk towards the end goal
All of a sudden I do not want to walk alone
Hell, I don’t even want to reach the destination
We talk, firstly with caution, to test the water
Then more freely, because it just seems natural
And we keep talking for there is so much
To share, so many stories to exchange
For we have walked alone for far too long
This now seems easy, this long journey
Maybe it is too soon to hold your hand
Maybe I do not want to hold your hand
But I want to see that smile everyday, and
Hear you talk about everything you love
I like your company, you smile and say
And I think to myself, too scared to tell you
That I like everything now, for you are around!
We are all puppets of time
Living under restraints
As if there are strings controlling
Every action, every move, every thought
More often than not, these strings
Are pulled by people who don’t know us
Who don’t care for us, who don’t matter to us
But we never try to break the thread
Because we all, as humans,
Are programmed to follow instructions
And a thread of control is a shield
Against a wandering mind
That wants to break away
That wants to run free
So we let our mind be ruled
Our thoughts and actions be defined
As per the “social norms”
But what does it take to break loose
To cut barriers and to defeat norms
A similar heart, that mirrors your beat
That kills your fears and gives you wings
A hand to hold and eyes to guide
That finally tell you that
There is one person who doesn’t want
To pull your strings but instead
Longs to set you free and fly beside you
Do we all find this liberation, this freedom?
Well of course not! But then,
What is the meaning of this life
If you do not even make that effort !
She is not pretty but she is beautiful
Her face doesn’t remind me of an angel
But she does look like a superhero
When she is deep in thought
Attempting to save her own world again
Her eyes are not the most expressive
But her determined look
Makes me take a step back
When she threatens me with her fire
She doesn’t smile often
But I love the smirk on her face
When she has just proven herself right
Against all those natural odds
No she is not a princess
But you cannot resist her brilliance
When she stands there in her armour
Looking like a knight
She doesn’t have that calmness to her
But her chaos washes all over you
Leaving you a mess of confusion
Making you fall in love with uncertainty
She doesn’t give me a shoulder
To cry when I am down and out
But she has my back
When all seems lost
No she is not pretty
But she can win you over
Just with her looks!
I am sure that this is all a plot
To make sure I do not stop thinking about you
And the wind must be the main culprit
Slowly ruffling my hair the same way you do
Touching my skin and making me tremble
Just the way your fingers make me blush
Whispering something in my ear
Which though mumbles remind me of your voice
The wind must be the culprit
Or wait… just look once at the smirk on the face of the moon
As if to tease me by sending the wind to do its job
To tell me that oh you are so unlucky
I can see him from here and you can’t
And he is looking at me too
And I just want to tell the moon
Don’t you put yourself on a pedestal here
It’s not you that he is looking at
He is not smiling at you
All he sees is me when he looks at you!!