The offer came from Belgium. For the previous three months I’d been on the desk 18 hours a day, mailing my portfolio to architectural firms all over Europe. My main reason for choosing to work there was the wish to travel, to witness different cultures, try varied cuisine or just go to the ‘land far far away’. To live in a place with cobbled roads was another reason, which I didn’t publicize from the fear of seeming presumptuous. So I started my job search. Knowing that in Europe the economy is in a bad state, the laws for hiring foreign nationals are tiresome, and the chances to get a job are unlikely, I kept trying. After hundreds of disappointing replies, one of my mails reached the right office and I got the job.
The first thing that came to my mind on reading the offer from Belgium was Hercule Poirot. He was the only link I had to that place. Going to live in a country where the only person you know is a fictional character was exciting. I imagined that people there would have egg shaped heads, stiff moustaches and go around speaking French. I was about to find out find out for real. I had been placed in Brugge, known as a fairytale town, which it most certainly is. Placed in the Flemish region of Belgium, about half an hour from the coast, it is as 18th century Europe as it gets! With its heritage buildings, horse ridden carriages, you wouldn’t feel out of place if you walked around wearing breeches or a gown! Moreover, it had cobbled roads!
Brugge is the place to go if you like it slow. To walk around the city, feed the ducks, eat rabbit cooked in beer, buy lace and gorge on all the chocolate you can have. This I did when my parents were around, (they had come to drop me off and left for their Euro tour after a week) but after that I was just another student in the city, who worked from 8-6, had a train pass, and ate frites for all three meals if possible. I was saving my money for my Euro Trips (and of course, shoes.)
Just two weeks after joining, I started traveling. My first stop was Rotterdam for a weekend. Going from Brugge to Rotterdam takes less time than from Chandigarh to Delhi. (Thank god, because the train was full and I had to stand throughout the journey!) As an architecture student, my perspective was somewhat different from the regular tourist’s. For me, Rotterdam was the Erasmus Bridge, the Cube houses, the sales and having McFlurry for the first time (which later replaced frites as meals sometimes.)
It was the second week of August 2012, when my office closed for three weeks. When most of my classmates there were figuring out where to buy groceries from, I was already planning my first trip across Europe. After many hours of exhausting net search and reading travelogues, I finalized my itinerary. Then I just left home, bought my Eurail pass, made the reservations and caught the first train to Berlin.
It took many changes and a night train to reach there. I had packed according to Belgium where it was 10° and reached to about 30° in Berlin. (Yes, the next time I checked for the weather). So I repacked, keeping my boots at the bottom, buying sandals along the way. I had a senior who had worked in Berlin previously, so my travel plan for the city was ready. I just took a map from the hostel, a metro pass and started exploring. Brandenburger Tor, the Holocaust Memorial, Jewish Museum, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin wall and all the other places that I saw filled me with awe. It was the first city of my travels, thus it was the most special! As I was alone, I could choose where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do. This was a very unfamiliar experience and also a very liberating one. I walked around till my feet cursed me, kept stopping to click, and even met some Punjabi person who, much like people back here, asked ‘hor vi, kiddan?’
The next stop was Krakow, which is a somewhat unpublicized treasure of Poland. It too is a fairytale town, famous because of Auschwitz, the largest concentration camp, which is an hour’s drive from here. Visiting Auschwitz is not for the faint-hearted. To walk on paths the prisoners walked on, look at their living conditions and see places specially meant for their torture is saddening to say the least. No wonder many visitors are moved to tears. The experience makes you realize the level of their suffering and I consider myself fortunate to have had this experience.
After the austerity of Auschwitz, I went on to see the lovely city of Prague! It is one of my favorites, the original bohemia in itself! Though I got off at the wrong stationed and was fined also, I still love the place. Prague shouldn’t be visited for the famous places it has, but for the feel of the city. My favourite part was sitting at the Charles Bridge, where every few meters you find a different kind of music being played!
On the train from Prague to Vienna, I caught fever, so Vienna is associated with a runny nose for me and not for Mozart! The next stop in my plan was Munich, where I had friends! As soon as I arrived at the station, we went to the Olympic park, where a festival was going on! After many rides and pretzels and bratwurst, we went home to be scolded by my friend’s landlady. After visiting the Allianz Arena, I caught a train to Interlaken, the location of so many Bollywood songs. It was not a big surprise to find out that Yash Chopra is actually the Ambassador of Interlaken. Here I went to the Jungfraujoch – The Top of Europe. This was one place my father had recommended and it was worth the 150 € that I paid hesitantly to get there.
From Interlaken to Barcelona, there was a mix up in my reservations. As I sat there, broke, afraid with no place to go, I met Santa Clause as the train conductor! He saw that the mix up was a mistake of the official who had made the reservation and not only offered me a seat which I had paid for, but a berth! That for a person who has been travelling alone for the past 10 days, walking all day, living off McDonalds was a pinnacle of luxury! In a cabin meant for 6, I was all by myself. Locking the door from inside, I slept.
In Barcelona I met up with a friend and we explored the city of Gaudi, Zara and Mango together! Here we found Indian restaurants, which even upset our stomach but we didn’t mind. Spain is very different from the other European countries, and is more like India. Here we felt at home!
After the end of my long vacation , I went back to work. The weekend getaways continued, sometimes to Belgian cities like Ghent, Liege, Antwerp or outside Belgium, to Amsterdam, Den Haag. When the school of my employer’s children had a week’s vacation, I was given one too. All I though was that it was the perfect time to go to Paris! It was the city I had dreamed of living in, and still do. It is very cheap to go from Brussels to Paris, the ticket for the round trip bus journey being 15€! And I had friends working there, so my lodging was taken care of. As it is a very expensive city, they were living in a small place, shared by many people. Their roommates were people form Andhra Pradhesh who fed me kundru, Hyderabadi biryani and paste chicken as much as I could eat! It was their kindness that made Paris more special even than the walks along the Seine, seeing the Eiffel Glimmer at night and even Euro Disney had! But Paris is the place to be for young people, wishing for excitement.
My work in Brugge ended in November and it was then when I started my one month jaunt across Europe. I started in the opposite direction this time, with a friend to Rome! Maybe it was because I had seen too much and was saturated by history, so I thought Rome was overrated. It reminded me a lot of a shrunk Delhi, with historical structures springing up here and there. But of course, the Colosseum, the Vatican and the spaghetti were amazing.
Florence was the next on the list, where it was raining all the time we were there. But it was the day of the leather market and lasagna, so we went forward with a full suitcase and stomach to Venice! In Venice, with the song ‘ye kashti wala’ on our minds, we went about walking all over the city, crossing all the bridges, eating pizza, allowing the pigeons on Piazza San Marco to sit on us and buying postcards!
Next I went to stay with some known people in Basel. It was a rest stop and that’s what I did there. Sleeping till I wanted, sock shopping and watching movies were my activities for the next few days. Witnessing my first snowfall and going to Strasbourg’s famous Christmas market with its enchanting Christmas lights were the highlights of this stay.
After the rest, I proceeded to Nuremburg, where my friend was eagerly waiting for me! Known for being Hitler’s base while operating, Nuremberg is the perfect mix of a small town and a big city. After having our share of hot chocolate and candy apples and frozen lakes, we started on our journey to Scandinavia.
On the way, we stopped at Dessau to see Bauhaus (People related to architecture will understand why.) and proceeded to Copenhagen. It is also one of my favorites, with the colorful Nyhavn, the Black Diamond and the freezing wind. We arrived at Stockholm on Christmas eve, so everyone was in the spirit and kept wishing us on the road as we trudged through all the snow. Here we had our first experience of ice skating. (Yes, I did fall flat on my back, and it hurt for days afterwards)
Oslo , the world’s most expensive city , was mostly shut down when we got there on Christmas. So we went to the only place open, the Nobel Peace Center, and did the walk for peace. It was too cold to roam around the city outside , so we spent time indoors with our hosts. They hosted travellers from all over, and the dining table which we ate on had people from Norway, Morocco, Scotland, France, Nepal and India.
From here I got back to Brugge, to pack for my return to India. But there was still one more trip to go! My friend insisted that I go with her to Paris for the New Year. And this is a request you just don’t say no to! So we spent the New Year under the Grand Arch, watching the fireworks above the Arc De Triomphe. I left the next day for I had a plane to catch from Brussels! My 6 month adventure of living alone, eating frozen food, sending postcards, getting lost and finding my way back had ended, and I was returning home!
On being back to normal here, at home, what didn’t seem much there, seemed like a huge feat. It fills me with joy to tell you that I have backpacked across Europe, mostly with my own money, and, not that I counted, been to a total of 40 cities and 14 countries.