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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

27 December, 2004

It was Santa Claus

16th Dec, 2003, 13.06, Malmo Central.

Chest heaving with exertion, groaning under the weight of my backpack, I raced down the platform towards the ticket counters. Finding long queues at each counter, I rapidly assessed which one would move the fastest. Counter no.3 seemed to be the best choice. Shrugging off my backpack, I realized that the lady in front of me was grumbling under her breath about the inefficiency of Swedish railways. I asked her if she, too, was the unfortunate victim of the train being cancelled from Copenhagen to Stockholm; and regretted my question almost as soon as I uttered I, for she responded in a jeremiad of complaints about wrecked schedules….Giving up any hope I had of finding support and companionship from her, I focused my attention on the counter, willing the queue to move faster, while keeping one eye on the train schedules, checking fervently if a train was leaving for Stockholm within the hour.

I wasn’t in luck. I knew the reply even before I reached the counter. The next X2000 for Stockholm would leave at 15.30. The train wasn’t running between Malmo C, the southern-most station in Sweden and Copenhagen, since the lines were being repaired for the season before the snow arrived. I had no choice but to wait for over two hours at Malmo. “Is there anything worth seeing close-by?” I asked the woman at the counter. When I received a dour grunt in response I wearily accepted my new reservations, and trudged out to the waiting area where I collapsed into the nearest chair. It was cold...cold enough for me to feel it through the layers of clothing I had on me in preparation for the sub-zero temperatures I’d been expecting in this part of the world. I leaned back, closing my eyes, wondering if the trip was worth all this…

The trip had seemed jinxed from the beginning. I had to get my reservations changed when I discovered that I would have to spend four hours at Hannover Bahn, in the middle of the night. Not knowing any German, I had to drag my friend back to Magdeburg Bahn, putting her through yet another session of enquiries and translations before I was satisfied that I had the best route possible. When I’d boarded the train yesterday afternoon at Magdeburg, butterflies were fluttering excitedly in my stomach. I put it down to the trepidation I felt at the idea of crossing two countries to meet people I didn’t know. It was only the prospect of getting to visit the Nobel Museum that made me agree to this trip.

As with any cross-country journey in Europe, I had to change trains several times between Magdeburg and Stockholm. My first change was at Wittenberg, the native town of Martin Luther. The train was 25 minutes late and I missed my connection to Hannover. At a complete loss I frantically made a call back home, asking my father what I should do next. Daddy’s girl ain’t I? Reassuring me that I can do it, he asked me to go ahead and change my reservations and continue with the trip. So I stood by the counter, repeating the refrain “Sprechen zie English?” for nearly half-an-hour, feeling like a beggar asking for alms, before a young girl said she did. She helped me explain the situation and get my reservations changed. I caught the next train to Hamburg, after a two hour wait, at the cold, windy and deserted station. I’d been at the same station a fortnight back, with a huge group of international students, on a University trip to the Lutheran city on the occasion of Reformation Day. It hadn’t seemed half as dreary at the time, as my friend valiantly fought off the unwanted romantic attentions of a Polish guy who thought all Indian girls were ready to jump into bed with a white-guy!

Reaching Hannover Central, I found my way to a hotel, where I dumped my bag, before setting out to explore the Weinachtmarkt (Christmas market), highlight of all German towns during Christmas. I wasn’t disappointed – the market in Hannover was at least four times as big, colourful and exciting as the one in Magdeburg. I mentally noted the differences that I could share with my room-mates. Back in my room, I called my hosts in Sweden letting them know that I’d be with them by late afternoon the next day, instead of early morning; and then a call home letting my father know that his daughter had successfully completed the next leg of the journey before curling up under the blankets.

The next morning I felt optimistic – nothing could go wrong now – the Euro-City would take me across from Hannover to Copenhagen, where I had 34 minutes to spare before boarding the X2000 to Stockholm. I was excited about this part of the journey, for I knew that the train would board a ferry that would take me across the North Sea into Denmark. An entire train on a ship – I’d been stumped at the notion, till I realized that the train wouldn’t be half as long as our good old Indian trains. With barely 6-7 coaches, the train easily fits on the ship, leaving plenty of space for other vehicles. I climbed up to the uppermost deck as soon as they gave us notice that it was safe to get off the train, taking in the sight of the disappearing German shore, feeling the sting of the icy breeze on my cheeks, allowing it to toss my hair wildly. When I’d had my fill of the sea and the breeze, I wandered down, and explored the on-board shops, wishing it wasn’t a budget trip! We crossed over to Denmark safely. And the lady luck decided she’d hide in the clouds once again. The captain of the ship made a terse announcement that the train would reach Copenhagen 30 minutes late, because of technical problems. I told myself to calm down, reminding myself that I’d still have 4 minutes to catch my last connection.

Five minutes before we entered Copenhagen Central, there was yet another announcement – the X2000 from Copenhagen to Stockholm wouldn’t be running today. Passengers were requested to contact officials at Copenhagen for further information. My mind went numb as I struggled to digest this latest bit of information. Surely this couldn’t be happening to me? I leaned over and asked the man sitting across if I’d heard correctly. He jerked his head in affirmation before returning to his newspaper. I must have been the first person off the train – luckily I found an official just a few meters down the platform who asked me to race over to Platform no 6, and catch the shuttle to Malmo. I wouldn’t need reservations, he assured me. Bordering hysteria, resisting the urge to giggle as the image of a grumpy Garfield musing over his misfortune, thinking “Why me?” popped into my mind I took in a deep breath and set off. I reached Platform no 6, just in time to hear them announce that the shuttle would leave from Platform 27 today – the same platform that I’d been on 2 minutes back. With no time to think, I screeched to a halt, turned on my heel and raced back, pushing people aside, much in the same way daily commuters of Mumbai locals do on our overhead bridges. I entered the shuttle seconds before the doors slid shut and collapsed on the first seat. “Where exactly is Malmo?” I asked the couple sitting next to me. They appeared amused but informed me that it was in Sweden. “Well at least I’d get into the damned country.” I was beginning to curse the moment I’d agreed to make this trip….

Rousing myself, I made yet another call to my hosts, informing them that I’d now join them late in the evening and then I forced myself to pull out the sandwich I’d packed for lunch. I had no appetite but knew I had to eat to keep my energy levels up. I must have swallowed barely two bites before the tears came…huge, big, fat scalding tears that raced down my face. “Horrible, horrible, cold country. Why had I agreed to come?” I was missing home, missing B’bay and its crowded local stations. Missing the heat and humidity. Missing my family. Suddenly the excitement of traveling across Europe, meeting friends, and making new ones, had lost all its charm. All I wanted to do was go back – I had my tickets in my pocket; I wondered if I could get them changed and fly back from Stockholm.

“Miss, has your young man not come to pick you up?” I shook myself out of my misery to find a 70-something man, peering worriedly into my face, offering me his pristine white handkerchief. I sniffed back my tears, and shook my head. He asked me how he could help and before I knew what I was doing, I’d poured my heart out to him. He was waiting for his daughter who was coming to Malmo for the holidays, by the next Copenhagen shuttle. He sat with me till her train arrived, trying his best to raise my spirits. When his daughter heard what I’d been through, she fished out a handful of candy, ordering me to have some and insisted they’d wait with me till my train came. Since there were only 15 minutes left for my train, I thanked them profusely and waved them home-wards, assuring the kind old man that I wouldn’t shed another drop of my precious store of tears, but save them for the day my “young man” stood me up!

Later, as I sat in the train, gazing idly at the passing countryside, I felt the excitement return. It was already snowing in Sweden and the train was full of youngsters going up north for a skiing trip. I knew by then, that I wouldn’t be able to see the Nobel Museum, since it would be shut by the time I’d get to Stockholm and my hosts had planned something else for the next day. But I had found my spirit again – everyone went to Sweden and saw Stockholm. I was going to go even further north to Vasteraas, and visit Upsaala University from there, the University where my grandfather studied for six months, the grandfather who I never met. Finally I’d have that one exceptional link with him; a link that would make up for the fact that I have no fond memories of him as my cousins do. And I’d finally meet the Rabergs, my father’s friends who sent Christmas cards every year, even though it has been a decade since they last met him.

By the time I reached Stockholm at 19.20 my spirits were restored. Today as I look back, I know that the unexpected warmth I received from that kind old man is what helped me pull through and bounce back. I hadn’t even bothered to ask him his name, so wrapped was I in my misery. I hadn’t believed in Santa Claus till that day – but that day I changed my mind. If there is a Santa Claus, he’d definitely embody the warmth and generosity of spirit that I found in that kind old man. Maybe it was Santa Claus?

(I wrote this on my way back from Sweden – the journey was not at all eventful. Trains slid onto platforms dot on time and I had already been prepared for the extra change at Malmo, because the X2000 was still not running all the way to Copenhagen. I didn’t get to see the Nobel Museum, but did visit Upsaala University, one of the oldest Universities in North Europe, saw some Viking graves, and got a delightful peek into Swedish winter lifestyle and Christmas cuisine which my hosts made specially for me, even though it wasn’t Christmas yet. I also experienced snow for the first time, had my first snowball fight, slipped on the icy footpath. And I made new friends. The Raberg’s are a wonderfully warm family. We stay in touch via email, but I hope I shall meet them again.)

It's a little late (OK, very late) for Christmas, I know, but here's wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays - the tardiness is a result of being away in Tinsel Town for the better part of the week, and then entertaning guests for the remainder of the week! It was a good week, filled with wonderful moments, and good movies - people go watch some intelligent cinema in the form of Khamosh Pani and Raincoat! :-)


Blogger Sreekesh Menon said...

a very intersting journey!

27 December, 2004 13:04  
Blogger Max Babi said...

This is a deft combination of a travelogue
and a short story, Geets. The largest gathering
of caferati @ pune, nearly 35 writers, last month
had enjoyed your reading....

cheers !

29 December, 2004 15:16  

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