Thursday, October 06, 2016

Europe, then and now

In the year 2005, I landed in the Stuttgart Airport with my colleague and friend to a pall of chill wintry winds slapping our faces.  The snow flakes were flying thick and fast.  People back in Bangalore had advised me to take thick jackets and be wary of the snow.  "It's going to be cold at this time of the year", they said with the same expression as some of the characters in Game of Thrones say, "Winter is coming."  I was nervous.  Those days, I used to be nervous about everything.  So, I had packed long winter jackets, woolen caps, woolen socks, shoes that weighed a few tons, and thermal ware.  When I say I was packed, I mean it.  I had a check in baggage which contained all kinds of food items.  "I don't know what you'll get there.  I have also put some rice and lentils in there", she told me.

The canal running through Amsterdam
It was my first international travel experience.  I had a lot of apprehension and excitement in visiting Europe.  Somehow, Europe is a dream destination for everyone, what with the rich cultural heritage and traditions.  Europe evokes awe.  So, naturally, I was excited.  The kind of travel advice I was getting from colleagues was quite funny.  "You know a few strands of coriander costs 1€." I didn't know how important that information was, but I took it in.  I was advised about the S-Bahns and the U-Bahns, about the public transport in general, the general way of life, and so on.  Anyway, a lot of it was good advice that helped me soak in the European experience.  We traveled to a couple of different countries around Germany and overall, it was a lot of fun.  Those days, I was working in Bosch, probably the most respected company in Europe and even more so in Germany.  During travel in the trains, I would randomly be asked by the authorities to pull out my passport  for verification.  And as soon as they saw the Bosch ID card tucked in, they would feel guilty of even questioning me, "Oh, you are from Bosch.  You don't have to pull out your passport." When I narrated this experience to friends, they would say, "Yeah, it happens all the time.  We are Asians.  This won't be the last time." They were true that it wasn't the last time.  But about the Asian part, I don't know.  In the US, and in the bay area, something like this is unheard of.  The Indian and Chinese population is so well integrated with the rest of the society in the bay area that something like this happening is not even imaginable.  

Coming from India, I always found the calm and quiet way of life a bit disconcerting.  I was so used to seeing people back home.  Evenings after 6PM were generally quiet.  Not many people on streets, shops were shut at 6 PM.  On Saturdays, they closed at 4PM.  On Sundays, practically nothing was open.  This was in Stuttgart, one of the main cities of Germany.  So, I could imagine how the not so big cities would be.

After about 11 years, I am on a business visit to Europe, this time to Eindhoven, about an hour from Amsterdam in Netherlands.  Unlike last time, this time, our trip was planned just a couple of days before the actual departure date.  I did not carry most of the stuff I carried with me the first time.  What with having lived most of my last ten years outside India, I was more confident and sure of myself.  International travel was no more a black box.

High Tech Campus, Eindhoven
We spent a day exploring the city.   The air was wet thanks to the incessant drizzle.  For me, the weather is never important when exploring a new place.  I feel that whatever may be the conditions, one has to enjoy the setting.  Amsterdam is really beautiful.  The canals pass through the city at different places with streets along the canals decked with restaurants and houses.  It was fun walking around aimlessly.  Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and I could see why. We were hunting for lunch on Sunday and found that most of the restaurants opened only at 5 PM and the rest opened at around noon.  We had a good meal in an Indonesian Restaurant. Even though Germany and Netherlands are two different countries, there is a general commonality that cannot be missed - the calmness, history and heritage.

Then, we moved to Eindhoven, where the population is pretty sparse compared to Amsterdam.  When we reached Eindhoven, it was about 615 PM on a Sunday.  The city was practically empty.  We went to the High Tech Campus Area the next day.  My colleague who was travelling with me told me that the tech area had not changed at all in the last ten years.  Previously, it was occupied by Philips, but now, it was a bunch of companies grouped in the area.  It was ironic because the landscape of Asia and the US has changed considerably in ten years.  It is like time freeze, my friend said.  One of the local guys told us that even though the landscape was the same, the jobs number was good now.  We noticed that the cost of food was very high.  A decent dinner cost a person about 25€.

Fake Tulips on flower street
My stay in the Netherlands is only for a week, but the last time I was in Europe, I was here for about a couple of months.  I found the general calmness in the air a bit unnerving.  After staying in the bay area, with people always loitering around late in the evenings, there is always a buzz in the air.  I kind of miss that here even now.  In the bay area, I have never looked up Google to see if a restaurant would be open at 6 on Sunday evenings.  Even at 9PM on a Sunday evening, I can go to a Safeway or a Target to buy a gallon of milk.  Something like that is unthinkable here.

Things have changed considerably in the last 11 years.  I was single, ready to put in long days in Germany for work purpose.  A work extension did not worry me too much.  It was fun exploring different parts of Europe.  Now, that's changed, what with having to leave behind my wife and toddler.  My mind was constantly pegged to how my wife was handling my son, whether he was missing me and a million other things as a parent.  We had to put in long hours so that we could take the earliest flight back home, even if that meant coding and debugging for 24 hours straight.

The most popular mode of transport
My wife and I always dream of exploring different places in the world.  It's a fascinating experience.  We even think that we should have a stint in Europe for a couple of years.  I don't know if that would be possible, but I would love to explore Europe with my family and experience the laid back lifestyle that is just not imaginable in the bay area.