New Years

I am not the type of person who cares for events – things like religious festivals celebrating long lost, outmoded traditions and rituals, capitalist mercenary nonsense like Hallmark holidays or even personal milestones like birthdays and anniversaries. To me, these are all artificial in one way or another and thus don’t mean much to me.

The one event that I do give some thought to is New Years. Yes, it is in one sense as artificial as others (Neil DeGrasse Tyson has already tweeted for the millionth time that is has no scientific significance) and has absolutely nothing to do with my life specifically. However I look past this as dates are a very important part of what we are and what we do in our lives because they put a timeline to them. Major memorable life events hold meaning only in context and the date gives a large part of that context for it helps us link the various threads of our lives – personal, familial, financial situations at a particular time – which directly drive many of our actions. Breaking up one’s life into the larger component of dates – i.e. calendar years is both intuitively sensible and also goes easy on the memory. The artificial ending and starting of “years” allows us to break our life into easy to use compartments. This is not true of birthdays as we all have different birthdays – comparing lives and where our lives intersect with others on a common scale makes a lot more sense. So while New Years is artificial, it makes sense, and that is worth something.

I am fundamentally a person who craves for progress, and also holds lofty aims of continual self-awareness and self-improvement. I see value in my life in terms of skills added, work done, knowledge gained, experiences collected and to some extent, albeit a small extent, money earned and thus security ensured. And this craving is what really drives my liking this artificial construct of a “year” and by extension the New Year.

Like most people, I too go through the charade of resolutions every year. But mine are nearly always variants of the same things – read more, travel more, listen more, watch more, consume more, know more – for the most part can be summarised as “be better at everything than you are now”. Being better is something of an obligation to myself. The real interest is in what way I need to be different. For me, New Years is a day to look back and see where I fucked up. And identify why it happen. And thus what needs to change. It causes me significant misery every year when the extent of my lapses truly hits me – but this is exactly where the real value of New Years lies, for we cannot fix what we don’t identify as a problem.

‘Be the best version of yourself’ is a trite cliche. But its also an appropriate note on which to end this post. Happy New Year.



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Trip to the western edge of eastern Europe: Chapter 9 – …and back again

We took our bus from Paris at 11pm and reached Aachen at 5am. After getting home, popping more painkillers and sleeping till 2pm, we finally got up and started to go about the last leg of the journey – seeing Aachen.  Mercifully it stopped raining at around 4, giving us enough time to see the city.

We started with the Lindt factory – the largest outside of Switzerland – where I bought tonnes of chocolates. Then we headed to the city centre and bought souvenirs and Enthu gave me his famous walking tour of Aachen.

Aachen is a little town (the westernmost in Germany) with a long and glorious history. This small spa town was chosen by Charlemagne as his seat and the Holy Roman Empire was ruled from this humble town for 300 odd years. A number of the cathedrals in the city as well as the old Rathaus are lovely heritage structures – some of them were destroyed in World War II raids, but the Germans having kept meticulous detailed records of everything, could construct almost everything identically again.

The Aachen cathedral is particularly beautiful and fascinating. The original structure built by Charlemagne over 1200 years was a small octagonal church which has been embellished over the years to create a large complex structure. This cathedral also holds the tomb of Charlemagne and several artefacts from medieval Christendom.

The last item on the agenda was to go to the point where the borders of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands intersect – Drei Lander punkt. A short hike through the forest and over the hills, we came to the small pillar at the centre of a pie chart which breaks up the land around into the 3 countries. Also interestingly, barely 50 metres from this location is the highest point in the Netherlands (just 322m above sea level!)

We walked back[1] the few kilometres to the city and headed to Zu Hause – a local pub which a huge collection of whisky. A few drinks later – we headed back to Enthu’s place. Some packing later we were off to the Train Station to catch my train to the Dusseldorf airport to fly back.

The flight was smooth and everything went off okay this time (both bags reached).

Back in India, I t over the most important order of business post any international flight[2],  took my taxi to Gupta-Korni’s place and started dealing with the depression of going to work the next day.



[1] So much for our initial plan of “Aaj toh chill lete”

[2] Buying exotic alcohol from the Duty Free Shop

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Trip to the western edge of eastern Europe: Chapter 8: The one in which we do not see the Eiffel tower

The road to Pula was long and winding and generally very uncomfortable. We barely slept throughout the night and reached Pula totally zonked. The decision to get some sleep and check into a hostel for a day was taken nearly instantly. On the way, we checked out the Pula Amphitheatre – a replica of the Roman Colosseum. It was slightly underwhelming – not as grand as I expected – but then it was 7 am!

We checked into our hostel and slept instantly – our host Zoran and his Vietnamese wife were very helpful. It certainly worked in our favour that he had travelled to India and particularly to Maharashtra – Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, and Ajanta – Ellora. We got a nice discount as well. A good nap later – we figured we should at least see the main city and eat some lunch – this was done extremely quickly as there really isn’t much to see in Pula. We worked our finances perfectly and were almost out of Kunas as we left for the bus station to take us to the airport. We had a bit of a problem with getting bus to the main stop for the airport shuttle as no one spoke English and directions was a big issue. Thankfully a Serbian guy who was working at the hostel offered to give us a lift in his ancient Nissan to the bus stop. A short ride to the airport and we were set to go to Paris. Enthu risked getting arrested at immigration by making the Cher, Bono, Jesus reference – but other than that we were fine.

We reached Beauvais in Paris and headed to the main bus station with the shuttle – there were suddenly more Indians everywhere[1] and we at once felt like mainstream travellers – but not for long as we had come for a totally hipster reason – to watch the last stage of the Tour de France.

We met our friends (Rahul and Gayatri) who were kind enough to host us for the night, at the station and headed for dinner – we had a lovely Senagalese meal (the highlight was the fish, the beef curry and a hibiscus rum concoction).  When we got to their place in Puteaux, we were lucky to see the Eiffel tower all lit up in the distance[2] (it happens every hour post-midnight)

The next morning, we woke up fighting the sedatives taken for sinus issues the previous night and got ready to leave for the Champs Elyssee. Getting there was fairly smooth and a shot walk later we figured out we were ridiculously early[3] – nearly no one was around. A meal of boxed salad, baguette with cheese and coffee (and painkillers) was had sitting outside Marks and Spencer (which was quite a surreal experience considering we were in the fashion capital of the world) and we took our spots near the Arc de Triomphe and waited.

Nearly 5 hours later, the race reached Paris. It was interesting to see professional cyclists go past at a distance of barely 5 feet, but this was more of a pilgrimage than anything else. And like all pilgrimages, this was not the best way to experience the event. Cycling is not the most spectator friendly sport, and is best enjoyed watching on TV, not standing on a road, waiting for 200 cyclists to zip past every 10 odd minutes.  But as far as pilgrimages go, this was quite a lot of fun.

We got back surprisingly smoothly with the metro and Gayatri treated us to a great home cooked meal – chicken curry, rice and wine (we were in Paris after all).



[1] Which meant we could not curse in Hindi / Marathi loudly as we had been doing all this while

[2] This is the closest we got to being touristy in Paris

[3] And thus all the info online about the crowds at the Tour de France is wrong

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Trip the western edge of eastern Europe – Chapter 7: What do you mean Singapore is not in India?

Our trip from Budapest to Zagreb was quite eventful in that the itinerary changed midway through the first half an hour of travel. We started at the Budapest Central Station and immediately we realised that this could be an extremely bad idea – and maybe we should have just taken the flight.

For starters, there were literally hundreds of backpackers on a train with less than half the capacity to hold them. To add to that, Hungarians seem to not know what an Air Conditioner means and we all nearly died of heat and dehydration. It was a huge relief when the ticket lady came in and started yelling to get our attention “Hallo! Hallo Passengers! Hallo! Hallo!”  Once she had that, she communicated the change in itinerary “Machine absolute stop – Dombovar. Autobus – Kishkorpar. Kishkorpar – machine – Zagreb”. A couple of repetitions of this later, we figured out exactly what she was saying. The bus ride from Dombovar to Kishkorpar was uneventful but we got to see some of rural Hungary which was nice. The train ride from Kishkorpar to Zagreb was much better, thankfully our reservations were intact and we got a place to sit. Funnily enough, the only non-Europeans in the entire train were all sitting in one compartment – the two of us and a Korean family of 4.

Our American friends in Budapest had given us great instructions on dealing with Zagreb – everything went off smoothly. We were especially proud of ourselves for remembering to convert cash to Kuna in Budapest itself. The bus ride to Dubrovnik was mostly spent in trying to sleep on the winding road and occasionally waking up at ungodly hours to marvel at the beauty of the Adriatic Sea.

After yet another bad decision of walking up a hill to the hostel in Dubrovnik, our run of luck with accommodation continued and our 3 bed dorm was upgraded to a much more expensive apartment for 2. Some much needed sleep later we left to figure out our trip to Montenegro.

The person handling these bookings for the tour company was a pretty, college girl named Ivana.

[Telepathic conversation: “Dude, she’s hot” “Dude, you have a girlfriend” “What’s your point?”]

Being literally the only 2 brown people in the country, we were quite worried about whether we would be allowed to enter Montenegro or not. When we enquired of Ivana if we were certain to get entry she said she wasn’t sure and that they don’t have a refund policy. Naturally, we insisted that she find out if people with Indian passports can go to Montenegro or not else we are not taking the risk. We were asked to wait in the lobby while she called her superiors. Five minutes later she came back jumpy and excited and told us “There is no problem at all! You can go and stay for up to 90 days!”

[Telepathic conversation: “That is definitely wrong” “I doubt we are allowed to enter Nepal or Bhutan and stay for 90 days let alone Montenegro!”]

“Err, that doesn’t seem right. Can you repeat exactly what the guy said?”

“Ya. He said everyone from Singapore can stay in Montenegro for 90 days”

“But we are from India”


“You just said Singapore”


“Do you not see a problem here?”

“What problem? Singapore is in India, so you can go ahead”

<mental facepalm>

Telepathic conversation: “Actually, you are right, I do have a girlfriend” “No, no. Your girlfriend is not even from this country. Go ahead” “No, you are a guest here, I insist”[1]

Anyway, we somehow controlled ourselves and did not roll around on the ground laughing and sent Ivana back with strict instruction to directly read the words off our passports – “Republic of India”. Finally, she got info that we would be allowed and we started the process of booking the journey.  She then took our passports to write down our details to send to Border control. And this is where we had one of the best moments of the trip. My passport went off smoothly. But Enthu has made sure his surname does not appear on his Passport as he does not have one.

“What is your surname?”

“I don’t have one”

“WOW! That’s like Cher….and Bono …..and JESUS!”

Well that escalated quickly!  Much laughter ensued and we had our Montenegro trip figured out and headed to the old city of Dubrovnik with heightened spirits.

Dubrovnik is one of the older republics in the world with the old walled city being hundreds of years old. High walls confine the restaurants, the shops, the stone clad streets and over 2000 residents living in quaint little houses distributed across several small winding lanes. Most of Dubrovnik has been built using the same type of rock and thus looks exactly the same. Somewhere along the way, you’ll find larger buildings (invariably churches or administrative buildings) which look slightly different, but for the large part it’s like one large building. While roaming about aimlessly, we came across a small non-descript sign board saying “Cold Drinks”. As we entered we saw the most famous bar in Dubrovnik – Cafe Buza.  If you were to list all bars in the world by awesome-ness of location – this bar would almost certainly win / finish among the top few. The bar is built into the cliffs outside the walls of the city. Hence you literally look out into the open sea. They know they have the best view in town and they charge you for it – the drinks are extremely expensive and served in plastic glasses. No effort is made for service – but the sunset over the Adriatic certainly makes up for the exorbitantly priced beer in your hand

Dubrovnik is very touristy and this very expensive – luckily we had done our research and knew where we wanted to eat. Headed off to Mea Culpa – a famous place with excellent fish and salads – and my dinner was, naturally, a tuna salad.

The next day we took a bus sent by the tour company and headed to Montenegro. As expected, we were the only 2 non-Europeans on the trip and of course, our passports were taken, scanned and given back after a while. While we were worried about whether we would be allowed to enter the country or not, our European companions were jealous that we were getting stamps on our passports from different countries and they weren’t. I guess you always want what you don’t have.

Montenegro is breathtakingly beautiful. Over 80 percent of the landmass is mountains and these start immediately at the coast. The mountains are thickly covered with dense forests and large trees – which gives the impression that you are staring up at a large black mountain when you come in from the coast – which is how the country gets its name “Monte-negro” (Black mountain). The local name is Crna Gora which also means Black Mountain.

We went to 3 places in Montenegro – the first of which was Kotor. This is a small city very similar to Dubrovnik in that it is old, walled and has significant Italian and Austro-Hungarian influences.  There was not much to see in Kotor itself, but the Bay of Kotor (Boca Kotorska) that surrounds it is particularly lovely – its deep blue waters are mesmerising and one can just sit on the walls and stare out into the blue distance for a while.

After Kotor, we went into the mountains to a village of Njegoshi. This is one of the most famous villages in the country for the longest running dynasty of Montenegrins comes from this village – starting with Petar I Njegos and running on for over 400 years. We are also pointed out to Mt Lovcen which houses the mausoleum of Petar I and is thus the highest mausoleum in the world. Incidentally one can see 5 different countries from Mt. Lovcen (Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Albania).

In Njegoshi we had local drink (a mixture of red wine and honey brandy), locally made smoked ham and cheese with homemade bread. On the way down, our tour guide told us some great stories about the history of the country and the rocky socio-cultural history as well as the reluctant acceptance of this arrangement  to allow Croatian tourists to come to Montenegro easily despite the bitter relationship between the two countries since the last homeland wars of the mid-1990s.

The last stop in Montenegro was a place called Budwa[2] – a city almost entirely owned by rich Russians. This is also the host to the Sveti Stefan[3] resort where Novak Djokovic recently got married.

After this we headed back via ferry and thus actually travelled through the Bay of Tivat towards Croatia.

Not much of note happened once back in Croatia expect for one memorable moment involving Enthu. So Enthu, in his enthu, decided to jump off the cliff into the Adriatic sea[4] at Café Buza. He thus joined the small exclusive list of people who have jumped off the cliff with the entry now reading “Hundreds of mad Australian tourists and 1 tambrahm boy”

The next day in Dubrovnik was spent exploring the islands and just eating and drinking and lazing around. Or rather this is what I did, Enthu went and jumped into the Adriatic[5]  . One small adventure involving multiple boats later[6], we were brought back to the Bus station to just make our bus to Split in time.

Our time in Split began by discovering why people are crazy about parties in Croatia. We got off the bus at midnight and for every step of our 1.5 km walk to the hostel, we walked past parties. We were too exhausted and the hostel guys were being cranky about us landing up so late, so we went straight there and crashed. We woke up the next morning and decided to explore the old city[7].

The old city of Split has the usual cathedral but more importantly it has a lot of Roman ruins built by Diocletian (including his palace). Diocletian even decorated the palace and the main square quite opulently with artefacts from all over – including 12 miniature sphinxes. Sadly, centuries later, these were destroyed as the Roman empire converted to Christianity and rejected all pagan symbols.

A lovely meal under a tree later, we made the horrible decision of climbing up the Marjan hill[8]. Forty minutes of fruitless climbing and several near death calls later – we decided to go back to the hostel and do nothing. We sat in the air conditioned common room and watched TV (finally caught up on what was happening in the Tour de France in order to avoid potential embarrassment by making statements like “GO FROOME!” “Oh he is injured and out of the race? When did that happen?”), had a cup of tea, made some final arrangements and left for the bus station.

On the way, who would we meet but our Brit friends from Budapest? Enthu greeted them with “Aalo lads! Fancy bumping into you here”[9].  I didn’t say anything as it is hard to control maniacal laughter and talk at the same time.  Some bonding later – we wished each other a good trip took a typical touristy photograph (which we forgot to ask them for) and went on our way to catch the bus to Pula.



[1] Some of these telepathic conversations might not have happened

[2] Much snickering happened #Marathi #Juvenile

[3] More snickering happened #English #Juvenile

[4] I told you to wait and watch.

[5] Again

[6] Flame Rouge, but this time on a boat!

[7] This is getting predictable isn’t it?

[8] “Apanich wo chutiye hain jo party wali jagah jakar dopahar ko 2 baje dongar jadhte”

[9] Note this is the same guy who went “Zis is all ze fault of ze Breetish” just a few days ago in Vienna

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Trip to the western edge of eastern Europe: Chapter 6 – Budapest

Our bus trip to Budapest was memorable for several reasons – one, it was easily the most luxurious bus rides we have ever taken – with large seats, in bus entertainment, free tea and coffee, magazines etc. and two, because we got really really late in reaching Budapest.

Thankfully, we discovered as soon as we reached, that our hostel in Budapest was extremely well located. Just a short walk from the metro station and more importantly, a short walk from practically all the major touristy places like the St Stephan’s Basilica, the Spanish Synagogue, the CEU, Academy of Science, and the Chain bridge which took you across to the other side of the Danube to Buda.

Pest is the cheaper and seedier part of the city – but it certainly has more character than Buda which is full of rich people. And we lived in the centre of Pest – right in the pub district. Totally lucked out on acco!

The first night was spent in trying to find places to change currency and then finding some food. After ordering a large portion of red meat for dinner was when Enthu broke the news to me that he does not really have meat – and I had to finish it on my own. One unnecessarily heavy meal later – we headed back to our hostel and went to sleep. The next morning, we got up and leisurely lazed about for a while – and did something we were looking forward to for the last few days – washing our clothes. Getting currency was a nightmare and we soon discovered that no-one in Budapest speaks English. Several frustrating interactions later, we finally put together enough coins to get our laundry done.

Once we were done with laundry we got down to trying to figure out the rest of our trip in Budapest. We started by making friends with the receptionist who was super happy that finally people were asking her stuff other than “Where can I buy cheap booze?” and helped us a lot in finding cool things to do, nice restaurants, live music and other attractions.  We also met an American group who had just come from Croatia – these guys gave us a lot of gyaan about Croatia which helped us quite a bit in our time there.

The first day, we had lunch at a local eatery which was football themed. Images of the Hungarian football team adorned the wall – but we noticed that they were all pictures from the 1950s. Pictures of Puskas, Kubala, Czibor, Hideguti, Kocsis, and Grosics et al are all over the place[1]. It was a sad realization that this country is so deprived of sporting heroes that they have to go back over 60 years to find one person they can be proud of.

Also, literally everyone has heard of Puskas. Not just heard of, everyone knows that Puskas was a great player and almost worships him. I found this remarkable – that’s like Indian kids singing of the glory of Vijay Hazare even today.

After lunch we roamed about the city and saw all the old buildings, went across the chain bridge and saw the Buda castle and the St Matthias cathedral and the Fishermen’s Bastion.

We got back to a small place where we were to catch some live Gypsy music along with dinner. While the music was good – it was slightly disappointing that it wasn’t truly gypsy music. As soon as they saw us, they first gave us a weird look as if to say “Brown people here? HERE?” and then proceeded to play some songs at other tables ahead in line (they go one by one to each table and play songs). When they got to us they asked us where we came from and stuff and then confidently added that ty are playing only traditional Hungarian music. They were in for a bit of a surprise – for we had both identified the first piece as “The Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss (not remotely Hungarian ) and the second piece as the Russian folk tune “Kalinka” – much open mouthed gaping later we were asked if we were really from India or just pulling his leg. When we assured him we were – we were asked if we were musicians. Then they at least played some music we hadn’t heard of earlier – but it didn’t sound very much like gypsy music.  I also had a lovely meal of a traditional roast duck.

That night we went out to explore the ruin pubs of Pest. These are essentially abandoned buildings which have been converted into pubs. They take ambiance to a whole new level and the one we went to first – the oldest and best known one called Simpla was something else  – neon lamps, graffiti on every inch of the walls, stuffed toys, CDs hanging from the ceiling, broken tables, trees, car lights and everything imaginable in one room together giving a surreal feel to the place. After a drink and much bonding with Swedish guys and girls over how bad the weather in Budapest was[2], we left to find some other Ruin Pubs.  Much pointless roaming about and fruitless searching later – as we were walking down the road, a large burly Hungarian man came up from behind us and said something very loudly in Hungarian. Both of us turned around with a start and he realised we do not speak Hungarian (and also that we were obviously not from here). He proceeded to ask “I am sorry, did I scare you?” We said “No, why would we be scared of you. You seem like such a nice guy”[3]. A conversation started – names were exchanged – his name was Levante – a Turkish Hungarian. Some conversation around meaning of his name followed. Levant means “rising” in latin – but when he said he didn’t know what the name meant Enthu proceeded to tell him “it is a north African origin word which means the eastern wind that gives solace to the weary traveller”[4].  We told him we were looking for a ruin pub and he insisted on buying us a drink. He said he would take us to a nice bar (called Piritosh) and buy us a drink. So we went to Piritosh and had a drink and a conversation. He revealed he works for Citibank in IT and said he could easily get us jobs there. Also he said we looked like “those people who were in terrorist groups[5]”. A lot of “No, we are not from there” later, we moved on to other conversations. We had initially planned to hang around outside for just a couple hours and be back in the hostel by 1am. It was already 2am when Levante said – “Now I take you to discotheque”.  One coordinated panic attack followed and we protested profusely and said we are late and we are really not interested but he would have none of this. We were particularly freaked out because he said the place is not walkable and we would have to take a cab[6] – last thing we needed was to be far away from our hostel at an ungodly hour. He would not listen and practically threw us into a cab to take us to another ruin pub cum disco called Instant. Once in the cab, I was thankful that drinking in Europe is so expensive and that given our budgets, we were almost never high. Both of us were on high alert and noting the route the taxi was taking, and names of roads where we could. Our worries were unfounded as Instant was barely 500m from Piritosh and Levante simply was too drunk to guide us there on foot. So we went into Instant[7] – which also had a superb ambiance. We drank some more – tried Palinka[8] – Enthu danced with random Spanish people and we finally said our goodbyes to Levante and got back at 4 am.

The next day we decided to take the walking tour – which was largely underwhelming as we had seen most things and knew most of the stuff the guide said anyway. We had a nice lunch near the Buda castle and then proceeded to visit the Szechenyi baths – a series of Turkish baths in the Pest side of the city. We spent about 2 hours at the baths – going from pool to pool with varying temperature (the lowest temperature they had was 100C and we were to finally work our way up to a 700C sauna).

We then headed back by the metro to our neighbourhood. Small digression here – one of the most interesting things about Budapest is its metro system. Some of the trains as well as stations are obviously remnants of the communist era with harsh metallic colours and no effort to conceal the brute power of the machines. Some of the stations on the more restored parts of the city especially Andrassy – are like out of a movie from the 1930s – beautiful tiled walls, quaint little ticket boxes and vintage furniture.

After the baths, we went to watch the Hungarian Folk Ensemble Orchestra. The Orchestra put up an amazing performance where they played Bohemian music and folk tunes (lots of Berzsenyi Meszaros), tunes made famous by Hungarians or which were about Hungary (such as Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5). The only issue I had was the dancers which distracted from the music for the most part – they were great dancers but given the gypsy-ness of the performance they were required to make shrill sounds and shriek in the performance which killed some of the musical effects for me.

We decided to spend a quiet night in the hostel and finish the bottle of wine we had been carrying with us all the way from Krems. As we drank in the common room, there was a bunch of British kids (all under the age of 20) who were also drinking the Hungarian equivalent of tharra and ….quizzing! They asked us if we wanted to join in the quiz drinking game, and we of course did. A while later we were bonding about football and taking each other’s case about which football clubs they support when we were joined by Jose. He was returning from Romania and had with him a bottle of wine – which needed to be finished as he wasn’t going to take it with him on his flight the next day. It was excellent wine and we were not going to protest – so a quiet night turned into downing 2 bottles of wine between 3 people and we went out again with our Brit friends to Simpla for a drink to end the day in god-awesome atmosphere.

The next day we walked down Andrassy Street which has all the good buildings in Budapest. Sadly we could not see the House of Terror (a museum dedicated to the communist atrocities the people of Hungary had to suffer) as it was closed that day. We had lunch at a little Jewish place and had some excellent Jewish food. As expected, Flame Rouge again – a short run later, we were on our way to the Train Station to catch our train to Zagreb.

[1] Along the way also we had seen huge hoardings celebrating the great Hungarian Laszlo Kubala’s career at Barcelona all over the roads and assumed it was just a weird thing that Barcelona were doing.

[2] I do not exaggerate when I say the weather was horrendous. And I mean Calcutta level horrendous.

[3] Sarcasm was probably not the best course of action at this point

[4] This guy would make a great consultant with those bullshitting skills

[5] At this point it is pertinent to mention that Levante had just had a fight with his girlfriend and was drunk

[6] Our receptionist friend had also told us to avoid the immediately adjacent neighbourhood which was super shady. This came to us as we got into the cab.

[7] We found out the next day that this is one of the best clubs in Budapest. Whodathunk

[8] Traditional Hungarian drink – very strong schnapps. Sucks. Feels like drinking ethanol.

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Trip to the western edge of Eastern Europe : Chapter 5 – Bratislava

This is not the chapter I had originally written, but one which evolved into this piece which was carried by Mint Lounge on 23rd May, 2015

“Bratislava? Did you buy a hotel there?” one friend laughed when I told him I had spent a couple of days in the capital of Slovakia on a trip to Europe. His impression of the city was defined, as many people’s is, by Bratislava’s appearance in EuroTrip, the cult 2004 teen movie. In it, the city is depicted as a hellhole with no law and order and completely in ruins due to the ravages of war—in reality no major war has befallen Bratislava since World War II. It is shown as a place with a comically weak economy and currency, where a nickel buys you a hotel. Hence that initial question.

In the heart of central Europe and surrounded by prime tourist cities such as Vienna, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest, Bratislava is not a city many people visit. Indian travellers prefer Yash Raj film locations such as Switzerland and Paris. Unlike them, Bratislava does not have monuments that your friends will recognize when you post photographs on Facebook.

Perhaps it was this impression that piqued my curiosity about Bratislava. A little reading online told me the picture painted by Hollywood was entirely incorrect. Also, Bratislava fit nicely into my European holiday plan as it was a logical stop between Vienna and Budapest, both on my itinerary.

I took a 7.30am bus from Vienna and was in Bratislava barely an hour later. I was surprised how close it was to Vienna—barely 80km by road and closer by ferry down the Danube river—and how different the two cities were. Vienna is a cultural hub and a true global metropolis while Bratislava is still a typical Eastern Bloc city.

Within 5 minutes of being there, I realized how small it was. Barely 10 minutes of walking and I was in the old city. In about 20, I was out the other end. The old city reminded me of the peth area in my home city, Pune; all the old buildings and heritage sights are concentrated here while the locals live in more modern parts of the city, where most business and day-to-day life unfolds.

Finding a place to stay was a concern. Slovakia’s other major popular culture appearance was in the horror movieHostel, in which unsuspecting teenagers on a trip across Europe find themselves confronted with a sadistic hostel owner who kills them in brutal ways in a fictional town near Bratislava. My mind was set at ease when I saw that the two major hostels in the city—both across the road from each other and barely a 5-minute walk from the city centre—had received positive reviews online, were well done up, seemed safe and were popular with travellers. I proceeded to embarrass myself by asking the hostel owner about the exchange rate in Bratislava (damn you, EuroTrip). He gave me a wry smile and informed me that Slovakia was one of the first countries to adopt the Euro as its official currency.

Once I got over the shame of that episode, I decided to take a walking tour of the old city, which began at its heart. The main square is called Hviezdoslavovo námestie, after Pavol Hviezdoslav, an acclaimed poet, dramatist and translator. He made Slovakia’s heritage more accessible to the rest of Europe, wrote about the state of the nation in trying times and served as the head of the Matica Slovenská, a cultural institute that kept alive the flame of Slovak literature through the dark days of Hungarian suppression at the end of the 19th century.

The square has a pedestrian-only cobbled street lined with shops and restaurants, and a large garden and fountain in the middle. We started at the statue of Hviezdoslav, walked around the square and then went to the Old Town Hall, which today hosts the City Museum. It is a stone tower built in the 15th century with a cannon ball embedded in its wall that was supposedly fired by Napoleon’s forces in 1809, during his conflict with the Habsburg monarchy. We then covered other attractions, including the National Museum and the Slovak National Theatre. In one of the old city’s lanes, the Man At Work statue, a quirky little sculpture of a man coming out of a manhole at the end of a workday, draws in crowds. We stopped to rub his nose for luck.

Next, we saw the Primate’s Palace, a lovely neoclassical structure built in the late 1700s, and had a quick look at some churches and cathedrals. Barely an hour into the tour we were done seeing everything in the old city. We ended it by walking along Coronation Road, a trail on which at least eight Hungarian kings over 300 years walked to their coronations, which took place at St Martin’s Cathedral. The road, which has crowns embedded in its stonework, starts at the cathedral and ends at St Michael’s Gate, the gate to the old city beyond which one comes to new Bratislava, where the majority of the local population now lives and works.

In Bratislava, you will constantly be told that much of the city’s history has been destroyed and that it is trying determinedly to reclaim some of its glory. For centuries, Bratislava, or Pressburg, as it was known then, was a part of the Hungarian empire and enjoyed a place of great geopolitical importance in the region. So much so that in the 1500s, when the Hungarian empire was facing defeat by the advancing Ottomans, Bratislava was made the capital of Hungary. As a part first of the Austrian and then the Austro-Hungarian Empires, Bratislava was the seat of the Hungarian crown jewels and saw concerts by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. It had a thriving industrial scene and was a multi-cultural centre with a mix of German, Hungarian and Slav residents.

All this changed after World War I, when the region was absorbed into the then Czechoslovakia against the wishes of the general population. The city lost its multicultural character and much of its vibrancy as industry and recuperation took precedence. Sadly, these changes continued post World War II and, in fact, got even worse as the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia seized power and Bratislava became part of the Eastern Bloc.

While Prague’s architectural beauty was left largely untouched, the communists destroyed most of the physical remnants of Bratislava’s historical and cultural heritage. The idea was to turn Prague into a centre for softer industries such as services and tourism while Bratislava became an industrial hub. A lot of the traditional and central European architecture in the city was looked down on and, in some cases, actively suppressed.

Recently there have been attempts to recreate some of Bratislava’s historic structures. The Bratislava Castle, once a spectacular piece of medieval European architecture, was served a rather unfortunate, and somewhat ridiculous, end in the early 1800s when a few still burning cigarettes thrown around carelessly by guards started a fire that burnt down most of the castle. In 2008, the castle was rebuilt, but with its pristine white walls and sparkling stone statues, with name boards written in English for the benefit of tourists, it looks obviously artificial, almost like one of those reconstructed exhibits at museums.

The physical history may have been destroyed but what remains in Bratislava are the stories. Most of the residents know their city’s history and speak with great fervour about the significance of Bratislava in earlier eras.

While its history may be the most interesting thing about Bratislava, there are other enjoyable aspects of the city. It is remarkably clean, hostels and hotels are safe and well maintained, signage is efficient and tourist-friendly, most people in the popular tourist areas speak English, and the food and drink is excellent. There are several establishments that serve delicious local food. At a place called Slovak Pub, you can get a sumptuous zemiakova placka (potato pancake), a thick red Slovakian-style goulash and a glass of Zlatý Bažant dark beer, an excellent local brew. Meals and entertainment are much easier on the pocket than most European cities.

Bratislava charms you with its little cobbled streets, small local markets and its friendly and hospitable people, who are great story-tellers.

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Trip to the Western Edge of Eastern Europe: Chapter 4 – Zis is all ze fault of ze Breetish

The next morning, we left for Vienna using a popular carpooling service called Blablacar. The guy was chatty but thankfully spoke only German. This helped both of us – as Enthu never gives up on a chance to show off his German and I wanted to sleep.

We reached Vienna and checked into our hostel – we almost had a scare when we found out how far from the main city centre Vienna was, but these fears were unfounded as the place was just 500m from the nearest Metro station. Once we had changed and settled in, we started figuring out our plans for the next 3 days and that’s when the mountain of pamphlets hit us – there was so much to see and do in this city! Tonnes of art / culture / performances / movies / music / architecture / animals / palaces / bars / cafes and what not. Three frustrating hours later, we had something that resembled a plan. We headed out to the city centre where we got off a Karlsplatz and walked.  Vienna is essentially a large museum in itself – a collection of architectural marvels. Perhaps a remnant of the Habsburg way of doing things – everything was aesthetically superb.  After going around Karlplatz and Stephansplatz and wandering around and taking a million photographs, we ate at the famous Bitzinger Wurstelstand right outside the Albertina museum. A good snack of wurst and beer later, we went along on our way. Eventually we stumbled upon a lovely complex – with large arches and green domes adorning the top of a magnificent building. We went through the gates and noticed a sign – Spanisher Hofreitschule. We had inadvertently walked into the Spanish Riding School[1] ! This meant we were just outside the Hofburg Palace. We walked through the large white arches along the roped walkway and there it was – a mountain of intricate windows and doorways bathed in yellow light. If you go to Vienna make sure you go see the Hofburg only at night. We indulged in some awestruck gaping and took pictures of the surroundings – the equine statues which we had gotten used to now, the church in the distance with only its clock tower lit up against an otherwise black structure, and the main gate to the complex.

From here we headed into the Museum Quartier and roamed around till we reached Stephanplatz again where we ate a slightly disappointing dinner – all cafes close by 10, so we had to eat <gasp> chicken wings!

The next day we split up. I went ahead to see the Schönbrunn palace – the seat of the Habsburgs for a few hundred years (which interestingly started life as a hunting lodge – just like the Palace of Versailles). I took an extremely good guided audio tour for 21 rooms (didn’t have more time than that) which covered the personal chambers of Maria Theresa and Francis I as well as their many children including some fascinating stories about the marriages to form alliances with other kingdoms (one of these kids was a lady by the name of Marie Antoinette).  Once the tour was done, I was joined by Enthu and we then roamed the grounds of the palace including the large open space filled with white sand behind the castle and the majestic statue of Neptune which stood at the other end overlooking the fountain. We contemplated going to the Tiergarten – the oldest zoo in the world – but decided against it to go up the hill to the Gloriette – a large arch type structure built to oversee the palace grounds, the Palace and the entire city of Vienna behind it – once again a spectacular view.

Lunch was spent at a traditional Viennese café, where we had local wine and Wiener schnitzel.  The afternoon was spent in the Albertina museum which was running a nice exhibit starting from impressionism (Monet and others) to abstract & modern art (Picasso, Appel, Giacometti etc.). One regret was not going to the Belvedere and seeing the works of local art-hero Gustav Klimt. That one is filed under “Vienna trip agenda when we have more money” – along with a concert at the Wiener Philharmonic and a performance of the Spanicher Hofreitschule.

We then went to one of the recommended bars and the night just took off from there. It was a place called “Travellers Shack” – which the guidebook said was the best place to drink for travellers because of two major reasons. One was that everyone else is mostly a traveller – so you don’t have to worry about culturally fitting in and the other was the Austrian locals who did show up were the types who wanted to hang with travellers anyway and hence were super friendly. The ambience was insane – with posters of kangaroos, semi naked women, rock bands, alcohol related humour on the walls.

Anyway, we started drinking the usual local beer (Kozel) and Enthu starting doing his thing – talking to random people. A few drinks later, we were surrounded by a bunch of Austrians. The first order of business was to curse the Brits.  Enthu tends to speak in the accent the other guy is speaking – so we were now speaking English in a German accent. Outrage was poured on the Brits for not being able to hold their drinks which is why the bar had to resort to plastic beer mugs (you can imagine how German blood boiled at the prospect of drinking beer in a plastic mug) “What ze fuck is zis? Plastic coops?” “Zis is all the ze fault of ze Breetish. Fookers can’t hold zeir drinks”. We were mildly worried when the bartender started looking at us funny – but then he said he was Irish and he shared our view that the Brits ruined everything.

One of the more interesting people we met was an IT professional from interior Austria who was working in Vienna at the time. When he found out we were Indian, he said “Oh! That’s great! I’ve been to India”

“Oh really? That’s great! Where have you been in India?”

“Mostly the north”

“Oh where in the north?”[2]


“Wait what?”

“Ya. My mother lives there”


“Or rather my father’s wife lives there. She is actually my step mother.”

Wow. Imagine meeting a white Viennese guy who has family in Bathinda. We also met a german girl who spoke remarkably good English, her Austrian boyfriend, a Croatian dude Ivan who gave us a lot of gyaan about places we should go to in Croatia and, after a few more drinks, also offloaded a lot of post Homeland war frustrations on the table.

By the end of the night, we headed back at 2 am. As we got into bed at 3am, we realised that we had to leave early morning the next day – to catch a train for Krems an der Donau where we would be taking part in a bicycling wine tour of the Wachau valley. We cursed ourselves to sleep for a short 4 hours.

We mostly slept on the way to Krems once we crossed Tulln[4] – which is a small town an hour away from Vienna. In Krems we picked up our bicycles – which looked heavy and primitive at first but as we started to ride, we realised they were excellent bikes with very smooth gears and easy to control (mostly[5]).

We rode all along the hills, going from one vineyard to the next – tasting great wine and enjoying some lovely weather (it had started raining in the afternoon). Cycling around in the rain with ponchos on was quite an experience.  We stopped for lunch at the little village of Dürnstein – an ancient town which developed around the castle there. It is said Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned here for at least 6 months while being held by the local king as he was returning back from the Crusades. We are told he wrote songs here and when they say “imprisoned” they actually mean kept in a luxurious house and allowed to do everything except for go to England.

We climbed up the Durnstein castle where Richard was supposedly kept – and were treated to some brilliant panoramic views of the Wachau Valley and the Danube going through it.

A lot of roads and buildings allude to Richard’s stay here. We ate lunch on one such “Richardstrasse” –  in a small cottage restaurant which served us traditional drinks (Spritzers and wine and beer) and food (Austrian Goulash/ Schnitzel and Potato Salad)

Once this was done, we were on our way to the last vineyard – the smallest one. Here Enthu jumped into the Danube and went for a swim[6]

We came back to Vienna tired and dirty and decided to have a quiet night and ensure we reach the bus station in time for our trip to Bratislava the next day.

[1] The Spanish Riding School is famous for having ridiculously well trained horses do ballet. Yes, ballet!

[2] He MUST have gone to Agra and Delhi. Hmph. Tourists.

[3] Errrmmm. Okay so we got that one wrong

[4] The birthplace of Egon Schiele can be seen from the train. Don’t ask me why we get excited about seeing houses in which artists were born a hundred years ago.

[5] Brakes were the other way around. So we fell twice in the first 100 meters because we jammed down on the front brake

[6] Enthu is very sanskari and needs to take a dip in all water bodies like a good Hindu. This is just the beginning. Wait and watch.

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Trip to the Western Edge of Eastern Europe: Chapter 3 – Weltmeister!

Some of the most memorable hours of my trip (life perhaps) were spent in the Eastern German city of Dresden. We reached the central station at around 6pm and made our way to the hostel and checked in. We had figured out a public viewing on the banks of the river Elbe right across the river from the Frauenkirsche, Opera House and the Theatre. Sadly the Elbe valley is no longer a UNESCO world heritage site and lost this status a few years ago because of a dispute between UNESCO and the City of Dresden – the city had plans to construct a bridge across the Elbe which, in UNESCO’s views would have defaced the historic site.

We reached the public viewing and found that thousands were already inside and thousands were already in line ahead of us. The line did not seem to be moving so we went from the side and did “Indian-giri” and found that people were just walking in from there. We just entered happily and after an awkward conversation with a German guard where I was trying to convince him in English that a) I am not Russian and b)No, I am not carrying vodka in my bag – we were through.

The set up was phenomenal with rows after rows of seats already filled with people and a huge 40 feet tall screen broadcasting the match. Obviously everyone was drinking already (now 2 hrs before the match) and some had even bought six packs of beer to start off their day there.

The match itself was obviously a lot of fun – I was taught German supporter songs which thankfully are very simplistic. Most popular one was “Olllee Olllee Ole Ole Ole Super Deutschland Super Deutschland Ole Ole Ole”. Also it turns out Germany has exactly one pop star – Helene Fischer. I heard her song “Artem Los Durch Die Nacht” literally 10 times that night.

Post-match, the crowd went mad much as expected – but the biggest party was at the public viewing itself. The roads were filled with drunk Germans – who partied till 2 am and then went back home (in order to wake up and go to work at 7am the next day). Hyper efficient freaks.

On the way back at 2am under lights, we noticed that Dresden is incredibly beautiful. A large number of extremely beautiful old buildings punctuated with newer architecture which has been carefully crafted to ensure blending in with the rest of the city. Dresden was one of the most affected cities in World War II being the target of relentless bombing and was nearly completely destroyed.

Unluckily for Dresden, the period of total devastation had to be followed by close to 40 years of pseudo-Soviet rule in East Germany. They say Dresden (and much of Eastern Germany) has never really recovered economically from the effects of Communist Rule. The cultural isolation is also evident in the extremely few non-Germans one sees in Dresden as compared to some of the western cities.  For a city that has gone through a lot, it is quite remarkable how the city has been restored.

The next morning, we left for Vienna – which needs a chapter to itself.

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Trip to the Western Edge of Eastern Europe: Chapter 2 – Are you Hinduist?

We reached Prague at around 11 am and headed to our hostel. After that we immediately changed and headed out to catch a walking tour[1]. Our tour guide, Adam, was this super jumpy Half Czech – Half Brit kid who made Enthu look sober and sedentary. The tour itself was fantastic – informative, inclusive, well planned and entertaining.  Prague is an extremely beautiful city with processions of baroque and rococo masterpieces lining the roads. Particularly beautiful is the Jewish quarter – which began life as a swamp and is now one of the most attractive and exclusive parts of the city. On the tour we also saw two of the oldest synagogues in continental Europe. Our tour guide explained that despite Hitler’s forces being in possession of Czechoslovakia for 7 years, they were ordered to not destroy its rich Jewish heritage – because of an odd reason that Hitler wanted the Jewish quarter to serve as “a museum for the extinct Jewish race” once he was done cementing his supremacy over the world. Chilling thought, but glad the madman had it – for the Jewish quarter owes its existence to it. Adam ended the tour with an explanation of Prague’s long and glorious (well okay, mostly KLPD but sometimes glorious) history right from the Celtic tribes that founded civilisation in Bohemia to the struggle between the Communists and the independence movement (the Velvet Revolution) led by Vaclav Havel.

We then walked across the Charles bridge to the other side of the Vltava river and were treated to some more beautiful, albeit modern architecture in the Malastrana region of Prague.

After all this serious history and art and culture inculcation, we were then treated to some surrealism. On the way back to the Hostel after dinner, we were randomly accosted by a guy whose questions were as follows:

“Does your phone have internet?”

“Can I use your phone?”

“Are you hinduist?”

“Oh ok, do you worship the blue guy Shiva or the Monkey man Hanuman?”

Before we got around figuring out whether it is a good idea to go into why neither of us are believers and more importantly, that “hinduist” is not a real word, the chap just ran into a bar when he saw some friend of his.

At the time, we really didn’t know what to say, but we saluted the guy for knowing more about Indian worship systems than we knew about Czech traditions and went on. Just a small incident, but “Are you Hinduist?” is something that has remained with me with quite some clarity. (Digression – in terms of most surreal conversations I’ve ever had – this ranks just ahead of  my “Why my washing machine is my best friend” conversation with Hari .)

Next day we headed to a village called Kutna Hora, about 2 hours from Prague. On the way we met two Americans who lived in Prague and taught english. At this point we had another major cultural learning – Americans for some reason never introduce themselves as “Americans”. We introduced ourselves as from India; they said they were from Maryland and ‘Mass’. (The same thing was repeated throughout our trip and also my later travels to the UK.) Much sniggering was done.[2]

Anyway, we reached Kutna Hora on a strict timeline. We had to see the Sedlec Ossuary (the famous church where all the interiors are made of human bones), the St Mary’s Church (only because we had paid for it[3]) and St Barbary’s cathedral, and then we had to go back to Prague and go on a pub crawl. As it happened, we saw the first two churches and missed the bus to the city to take us to the third. So we walked 3.7km to the city. We stopped for lunch at an Italian place and had a local beer – and after a few sips – we came to the conclusion that we are incapable of making any major decisions without alcohol as we simply do not have the clarity of thought without it – plans just align by themselves after a drink. This was the point where we questioned ourselves “Do we REALLY need to go on the Pub crawl today?” and our minds immediately came back with a “nah, not really. Let’s take the later train and go straight for dinner”. Then we just soaked in the atmosphere for an hour, went to the third church leisurely and spent a good hour and a half there. This was an excellent move as St Barbary’s is a stunning piece of architecture with intricate towers and facades. Multiple chapels line the interior and the central chamber’s ceiling is painted with crests of the neighbouring kingdoms which supported the building of the Cathedral.

We really enjoyed our time in Kutna Hora as it was the “idyllic European experience” that we went looking for – cobbled roads all over lined with small independent houses on either side of the street, the little cafes on the roads serving excellent food and beer and people walking their dogs without leashes.

Next big item on the agenda was to watch the World Cup 3rd place match – turns out the Czechs don’t care much for football unless their team is playing. So we went to a Brit bar hoping for the Brits to have some sense. Sadly, karaoke night was going on. We grumbled and exchanged disgusted looks and resigned curses with the waiters and waitresses who wanted to watch the match as well.

The final item on the agenda in Prague was seeing the castle – one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. While the castle is very impressive and loaded with history, what makes it really worth it are the phenomenal views of the city across the Vltava river from a height.

The last 30 minutes in Prague was what we came to refer to as “Flame Rouge”[4], a Tour De France term for the last 1km of the race where all the frantic action takes place. European weather is not like Indian weather with designated seasons at times of the year for rain and dry weather. The funda in Europe is simple – it gets hot, water from rivers and lakes evaporates and it rains a couple of days later. After a couple days of sunny weather in Prague – it decided to pour cats and dogs just as we were about to leave for the station. We had split up – so there was the added complication of picking up bags from the hostel. Thankfully, we had gotten used to Prague’s ridiculously complicated railway stations[5] and could make it to the station a good 5 minutes before our train was to leave[6] for Dresden.

[1] “Apanich wo chutiye hain jo dupari bina lunch khaye 4 ghante ki walking tour ke liye bhaag ke jate”

[2] Temptations to introduce myself as “from the Islamic Bolivarian Jamuriat of Golibar” were controlled

[3] lulz, paisa wasooli

[4] Happened far too many times for my liking

[5] They seem to have designed them specifically to troll tourists – multiple signs pointing in opposite directions for supposedly the same location (one is the scenic route perhaps?) across multiple levels under the ground

[6] I was shitting bricks but apparently all Europeans run on this model of reaching mere minutes before the train leaves

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A Trip to The Western Edge Of Eastern Europe – Chapter 1: There

Let us begin, as most things do, at the beginning. I took off from the new terminal of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai on the 8th of July and took a Swiss air flight landing first in Zurich and then a connecting flight took me to Frankfurt.

Oh wait, that is not the beginning.

It all started sometime in January, when my friends from Germany descended upon Pune to get married. Naturally, we all got drunk thereafter. One of these friends (Aadinath – hereafter referred to as Enthu[1]) told me of a plan he had to go to Central Europe. He is the types who would have gone for this trip irrespective of whether I joined or not. My joining just gave him a sense of comfort that if he does drink himself to death / gets killed after inadvertently insulting some local deity – someone will be around to transport his corpse back home.

Anyway, this idea being in my head happily coincided with the time where I was realising (the hard way) the absolute futility of trying to plan a holiday with 2 married couples. So one ghastly summer day in April, I thought “Fuck it, let’s go to Europe” and mailed Enthu asking him to count me in. In a week, I had taken leave and booked my flight tickets. In a month we had chalked out an itinerary and booked all our accommodation. My visa process was a breeze and before I knew it, Gupta and Korni[2] were driving me to the airport through mad pouring rain (or what Bombay people call “a light drizzle”) to take my flight.

Now coming back to where I left the first paragraph off. My adventures started as soon as I landed in Frankfurt with Swiss Air forgetting to put my bag onto the Zurich – Frankfurt flight. The lady smiled and said “Your change- over was only 40 mins[3] so while you can run, your bag can’t. Makes sense right?”. Of course my first thought was to shout “THEN WHY THE FUCK ARE YOUR CHANGE OVER TIMES SO TIGHT?” – But I settled with “Fine, when will I get my bag and how”.  Some polite cursing later, I gave her the address of the friend[4] I was staying with in Germany and took my train.

The train journey was a new experience to someone like me used to travelling Indian Railways and expecting delays, random stops and eunuchs demanding money. For starters, when the Germans say the train’s 2nd class compartment will arrive at 10:23am in the E section of the Frankfurt station, come hell or high water the train’s 2nd class compartment will arrive at 10:23am in the E section of the Frankfurt station. Also in the Frankfurt – Cologne stretch, no other trains allowed to run, which also meant the train I was in had the freedom to rip it. So I was actually travelling at over 300 kmph in this stretch. A short 2 hour journey later, I was at the other end of Germany – right on the Western border, literally the last city in Germany – Aachen.

My time in Aachen was not touristy at all. Friends had come from Stuttgart just to meet me and I already had several other friends there. I indulged in typical German things to do such as drinking beer at home, eating döner kebabs, drinking beer on the streets, eating Lebanese food, drinking beer in bars, taking Lebanese food from local shop to bar and eating it along with beer, watching football while drinking beer and coming home and closing the day with a glass of beer. This is also where I saw Germany thrash Brazil 7-1, but that match was so eventful that it was boring and the celebration was fun but subdued. German laws don’t allow drivers to honk, play loud music or drive while drunk – all this happened after the match. Of course, all of them were still driving in lanes and would have moved aside for an ambulance in a jiffy – just shows that Europeans are spoilt with success and have no idea how to celebrate it Indian style by fucking up life for everyone else. Hmph. N00bs.

The next day was spent in chilling and cursing the rain (while my friends were cursing me in the background because I apparently got bad weather to Germany) and booking the last few bus tickets and arranging for some last minute changes in plans.

The next day, Enthu went for his Master’s thesis defense while I went to Cologne to see the city. I loved the fact that you literally walk out of the Railway station into the main square which also houses the stunning Cologne Cathedral. Most of my time was spent in ogling the spectacular cathedral, one of the largest in Western Europe – a magnificent structure that took close to 600 years to complete, from all angles. It took a while for me to completely wrap my mind around the fact that there were literally hundreds of years of history to explore in this one building. After spending about an hour in the cathedral, I took a very stupid decision and proceeded to climb the main tower. When you see pictures of the cathedral you will realise that the tower is very tall – and has over 500 steps. Also if you know me, you will know that I am not fit by any stretch of imagination. Also the charges to climb up to the top are 3 Euros. Long story short – I paid 3 Euros to climb up a medieval tower and almost gave myself a heart attack. To makes things worse, the view at the top was slightly underwhelming. However, this climb was important for one major cultural learning. People from all over the world have vandalised the top of the tower – with “Ian & Jennie from New York were here in 1998” type messages. This is a theme that would come back to us several times in our journey – sometimes we give our own countrymen a little too hard a time for lack of civic sense and discipline but the truth is that these idiots exist everywhere[5]

After nearly dying of exhaustion, I went for a walk around the city centre and relaxed (with Lime juice – because beer after nearly dying didn’t seem like the best idea at the time) and waited for KB to show up. Once KB got there, he took me to get one of more prized souvenirs of my trip – the original “No. 4711” Eau de Cologne named so because the original shop was at 4711, Glockengasse. After this we went to a local brewery and had some delectable Rhineland food – Himmel und Ääd (a blood sausage with apple and potatoes)[6] and Sweinbratten (grilled pork) with the local beer (called Kölsch) served in the traditional manner in thin long glasses of 200ml each. After this we spent some time on the promenade watching the Rhine go by before going to Papa Joe’s Jazzlokal – a local Jazz club with Rhinelandish uncles singing in the dialect of the region (also called Kölsch) – which is so odd that even other Germans don’t understand it.

At the end of the day, after much needless exertion, I proceeded to treat my body to some needless sleep deprivation to catch our 3:45 am train to Nuremberg from where we would take a bus to Prague. Enthu had not slept for 2 days prepping for his presentation and as you can imagine, we hardly slept in the journey and reached Prague nearly dead.

[1] We started with calling this guy Enthu Fresher in 2007. Over the last few years, we have realized the need to drop “Fresher” from the name

[2] May or may not be one of the aforementioned married couples

[3] This was true, I had to run for my life just to make the flight.

[4] A character named Kaustubh Bhat (aka KB) – a freakishly intelligent anti-social creature (much like me, well, except for the freakishly intelligent bit) who disdainfully agreed to come in contact with another human to collect my bag.

[5] Our exact words were “Saale, sab chutiye hain.”

[6] Incidentally, the name means “Heaven and Earth” to depict the contrast of the sauce ingredients used – potatoes which grow under the ground and apples which grow on tall trees

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