Saturday, December 21, 2013

Two Men and A Car-- a road trip across Germany, Belgium and France.

My friend Jan Peters is a landscape ecologist. He invited me on a road trip across France when I was his guest in Germany. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, My reply was a loud “yes.” Our road trip across Germany and France began on 23 July 2013 from Greifswald where Jan lives. It’s an old coastal city of young people in the north east of Germany. It was an important city during the Prussian empire two centuries ago, Jan tells me, while we are standing on top of the 50-metre high steeple of Dom St Nikolai church. From here, Greifswald appears to be a small city with red slanted roofs, beyond, there are green open fields where huge threshers tirelessly paint the landscape husky brown. Beyond that is the harbour, the sea is radiant blue in the bright summer sun, a part of the sky.  
We drove westward along the Baltic Sea, and made a halt at a nude beach in Weststrand Darß to soak in the sun without the interference of clothes. Though there is little scope for me to tan, the temperate sun turned me a dingy brown. We travelled for hours after this, and late in the evening parked our car in a residential area in the city of Dagebül by the North Sea.  We walked bare feet on the seabed to reach Langeneß, almost a 10-km walk. Twice a day, for about six hours, when the tide is low, the water drains out and you can walk from the island of Langeneß to the mainland.
There was ankle-deep water with thousands of sticky, white, gelatinous, mushroom-like objects all over the seabed.  I concluded they were jelly fish, waiting for the water to return. There was hardly any wind, the conditions were ideal for walking. I was told that I am damn lucky to get this weather. When we were halfway there, the mainland behind us was a bright line, bisecting land and sky. On the other side, the island was still hidden. The sun had set, the sky was deep blue, the water on the ocean floor reflected the sky. A deep blue infinity surrounded us. We stood in the middle of this emptiness like inconsequential dots. We stayed on the island for a day and a half; we walked back to Passy early one morning and found ourselves with a parking ticket.
Jan with parents Udo and Sabine
We visited Jan’s parents, Udo and Sabine, in Sylt Island where they were having an extended holiday. We took a train, first and the last time on this trip, that chugs along on a dike that connects the island to the mainland. We were treated to crispy fried fish served with gigantic salad leaves. I guzzled beer like nobody's business. The strawberry tart I had here remains my favourite dessert of the whole trip.

Jan's family home

We drove inside a tunnel near Hamburg underneath one of the busiest harbours in Europe to Jan's family home in the town of Oldenburg in western Germany. I was told it is a city of rich, old people. Jan spent his childhood here with his two brothers: Florian and Christoph.

Our road trip was interrupted for a week when I flew to Finland to see my friend Paavo Yliluoma. I went to sauna with Paavo’s  family, friends and strangers. The sum total of these experiences was revealing. For more on this please check out:
A week later, I was back in Oldenburg and stayed here for two days, listening to stories from Jan’s childhood. On 3 August, we resumed the road journey; in the next ten days we travel 3,500 km across Germany, Belgium and France.

The main protagonist of this story is Passy--a 1994 model Volkswagen Passat Variant. She’s a low, flat, long and broad hutchback; white in colour, hardworking, solid, basic by German standards, age has touched her but she remains competent at her job. Passy is witness to Jan's life; she accompanied Jan on memorable trips; ours was just another one.
We dumped our luggage, sleeping bags and two crates--one full of beer, the other full of bread, cheese, and fruit—in the car. On the back seat, we kept my camera, laptops, and chocolates, a water bottle, a tetra pack of buttermilk with berries that Jan loved to drink, soda bottles that Germans call Mineralwasser and drink like water.

II. Jan is in love with Passy. I fell in love with her in the next few days. This is how it happened.

There is no speed limit on Autobahns. Speed thrills, but diminishingly so when high speed is a constant. There was no perceptible change in the scenery. I did a lot of talking to prevent Jan from dozing off. My incessant chatting evoked several yawns from him. It was difficult to maintain the right balance.

Jan is acutely aware of Passy’s comfort levels and would maintained an average speed of 120 kms per hour. I was the navigator for this trip; my diligent effort was just short of a disaster given the maps we carried were either in German or French.
On the way we dropped a dear friend of Jan. We spend a lot of time with her in Oldenburg. I will remember her as a nice girl who didn’t barter her convenience to speak in German for a worthwhile conversation with me in English.
Passy showed no signs of exhaustion during the long stretches of high-speed driving. We would, more often than not, sit quietly, staring at the road. Jan would break the silence by asking, “Can I have some buttermilk?” and then, we would start talking. We talked about his life, my life, our respective careers, his stay in India, my stay in Germany, his hobby of bird watching, my hobby of sketching nudes, girls, nudity, and anything and everything that came to our mind.
When we were not talking, I observed the humongous trucks. They to me were tamed monsters. “Everything in Germany is bigger than in India,” I would joke with Jan, “People, cattle, and even trucks.”
Unlike in India, there were no cleaners or helpers to accompany truckers, it’s a long solitary drive for them, eight hours a day, every day. Jan dubbed it the “worst possible job.” All of them, I reckon, after a few months, would essentially turn thinkers. The truckers are generally big. It was my secret pass time to look out for a skinny truck driver, a rarity. 
 Life is fairly predictable and convenient here; Jan stops me to add “boring as well” compared to India where, according to Jan, “anything can happen, anywhere, any time”. I missed the dhabas, tea stalls, street dogs, stray cattle, people crossing the roads and a long list of miscellaneous events that can happen on Indian roads and can be collectively described by one word: suddenly. What I didn’t miss was the honking; the silence on the fast autobahns is like the thick mist that descends on a valley.

III.When we crossed the border into Belgium, the quality of the road deteriorates noticeably but not enough to render the ride bumpy. It was getting dark and we had been driving for a good five hours now. I wanted to drink beer, but abstained out of solidarity with Jan who was driving. We had noticed a big lake on the map near Keerbergen city, and decided to camp along the lake. We took a diversion from the highway, drove south for an hour or so, crossed many villages and towns, but still, there was no lake. Passy was tired and getting cranky.

We stopped at a food joint that was unusually crowded, there were humans in excess of ten. This shop was selling French fries like hotcakes. So we queued up. Belgians make the best French fries, Jan told me. I had no reason to doubt him. We agreed that we are clueless about what is so ‘French’ about the fries. We got ourselves a generous helping, topped with a big scoop of cheese based sauce with mint flavour. I was reminded of ice capped Himalayas. We spend next quarter of an hour in silence devouring on it, emitting vapours from our mouths like a chimney. A small can of beer was my chosen beverage, Jan took more sips from it than he intended; I got another can.
It was nippy, soon there is the jaundiced light of street lamps. After an hour of vagrant driving, we found a spot to park near a cornfield. We parked Passy such that the trees were baldachin. She creaked as Jan pressed the break for the last time that day. I thought it was her sigh of relief.
I woke up early and took a walk in the farm; the crops stood shoulder high and were somewhat defiant in allowing me passage. Sitting on my haunches, I defecated in the open. I strolled for an hour in the wilderness, Jan was up by the time I returned.
In two hours, we were in Brussels. It was raining there. We had breakfast in an Indian cafe called Kapoor’s, which looked like a hideout for Third-World migrants. I insisted on speaking in English when the host, a bearded young Punjabi brat, spoke a few sentences in pure Hindi.

IV. We would put our luggage on the front seat, and fold the back seat forward. It made a perfect queen-size bed where we slept in sleeping bags. The sleeping bag Jan gave me could keep you warm even in subzero temperatures. We would open our eyes to the soft morning light, sieving through the green canopy above us.
I was supposed to have made arrangements for our stay in Paris through my friends but nothing worked out. For ten days, Passy was our home. We would lock her doors and pull up the windows, leaving one window slightly ajar for fresh air. Passy felt like a womb, pregnant with twins. Every day, we would take new birth.
We drove past Paris’ arterial ring road on our way to Orleans. For the first time in Europe, I heard cars honking. Jan had been militant about avoiding Paris, he loves being out in nature. 
I struggled to find the right exit out of the city; the map we had was in French. I blamed the map, “It’s not detailed enough.” Jan castigated me for being critical of things like a typical German. I felt, at that moment, Jan was playing a critical German by criticising me for being critical. We got irritable, but we found highway N20 after straying a bit. Soon we crossed the suburbs, conviviality entered Passy with the cool breeze from the open meadows.

The plan was to follow the river Loire, do some sightseeing, stop at the cafes, take walks in the city, and reach Noirmoutier Island in two days. That night, we crossed Orleans, drove along the Loire, crossed the river by a hanging bridge, and parked Passy. We sat facing the river for a long time: the bridge looked like an art installation, the castle on the other bank was forbidding. The breeze rejuvenated our tired bodies. We finished the leftovers Jan was carrying in glass jars. It was, perhaps, the best site we camped at.

In France, the only alcoholic beverage we allowed ourselves was wine, and logically so. We went to the supermarket everyday and bought local wine. Till this trip, wine tasted like the fermented juice of sour grapes. I could now appreciate there was more to it. But chilled beer remains hot my favourite, flavour of local beers in Germany change every hundred miles like dialects in India. I would have easily emptied about 100 bottles of beer in a month's time. 

Every time my carnivorous instincts would beckon me, we would head to a nearby city. 

I can settle in Germany for my love of beer despite my lack of knowledge of German language. This easily can translate into an existential crisis. I realised this on many occasions, in several ways. I joked to a friend of Jan’s, persuading her to speak to me in English, “German is all Greek to me.” Anguished she looked and replied to me in English: “The two are different languages.
In Europe, everything is so expensive for an Indian that I quickly stopped converting euros to rupees. But when I bought beer or wine, I felt rich: beer in Germany is cheaper than in India; a beer can cost less than a water bottle. One of the reasons for their economic boom is that they have got their priorities right.

Passy felt like a womb, pregnant with twins,pregnant with twins. Every day, we would take new birth.

V. Jan is street-smart: he would avoid highways in France because you have to pay for passage; He would check out petrol rates every time we passed a gas station, and fill up his tank where fuel was cheap. We spent about 500 euros on Passy’s supplies.
Passy was our space under the sun, the moon and the stars; oh, what stars and how they glittered. After long walks in the city, by the river, or on the beach, the sight of Passy was reassuring.  Passy was our home. Jan made me feel at home. I didn’t feel like a tourist, I felt I belonged.
For the next week or so, we would lead a primitive life in the most developed part of the world. Sleep in Passy’s womb, shit in the open, bathe in the river, eat by the river or on the beach, drive every day [the only non-primitive thing]. I would often wonder: have I come to Europe for this? This life is exotic for Jan. I enjoy it, too. But for millions of Indians, it is a reality that they have not chosen; basics like the supply of drinking water and sanitation facilities are nonexistent for many.

The only discernible distinction between a village and a town was the size. The agriculture is industrialised.  The humongous threshers, weeders, straw reapers, puddle rot, cage wheels looked like various types of dinosaurs domesticated by humans to work in the fields.  
The urbanised villages bore a deserted look as we drove pass them, the big windows were shut; the stone paved roads were clean and empty. The life here was devoid of vivacity. Yet, they all made perfect picture frames.
Castles of various degrees of vastness loom over the river Loire. They are static witnesses to time, the river represents the passage of time. The castles are reminiscent of the violent past of the region where big and small principalities fought amongst each other to assert control over the region. But then Europe realised, after paying a huge price in the form of the two world wars, that conflict leads only to misery. The biggest enemies of the past are now the best of friends: Germany and France. They assert their national identities, yet there is mutual adulation laced with a bit of perceptible suspicion.
Jan’s favourite dessert is Pain au chocolatsweet---sweet phyllo stuffed with chocolate flakes. “French make them the best,” he would say every time we had it.

On many occasion we would enter a town, find a free parking for Passy to rest, and walk the town. One such town was Meung-Sur-Loire, we walked for an hour, went to an old church. I felt a sense of stability. There were graves inside the church, is common in this part of the world. I was fascinated to find the faith and the dead lived together on the same manor. I like the way they keep their churches. Antiquity is preserved fresh so that the present can witness the past as it was. 

We decided to have lunch at an open air restaurant in Tours. Our table was in a crowded street where people cycled and walked around leisurely. I wanted sweet wine. Jan used his finesse with the French language to order one for me. The waiter seemed to understand every word Jan said. But I was not served sweet wine. “Does the sweet wine also tastes sour?” I asked.  
At another place, we ordered minced meat with mashed potatoes by the side. I loved it so much that I ordered another plate. That evening I regretted that our capacity to eat is finite. In a busy city square of Nantes we had  Crêpes.
I would drink water from the taps of the ‘WC’ or the water closet. At most places, unlike India, they have one WC for both sexes. I would divide my time inside the WC between urinating and drinking as much water as I could from the tap. I felt like a camel. It is safe to drink tap water in Europe I had to reassure me every time. Bottled water was so expensive that the idea of paying for it quenched my thirst.

I was fascinated by the old ladies on bicycles. They were immaculately dressed in tunics with floral prints, hats as wide as umbrellas, riding shakily yet exuberating confidence that they are in control. I would wonder how long it takes them to dress up? Their sagging lips had layers of red lipstick. Do they have help? Does it keep them distracted from their loneliness when they need support most? Jan told me his paternal grandmother’s story, she was confined to the bed for years before she died.
Near Ancenis, between Angers and Nantes, we dined one evening on wine, goat cheese and sausages by the river. A French couple walked up to us for a chat, we shared dessert, booze and pot. My perception of reality became sharper that evening. They slept in a translucent blue tent ten metres from Passy; I could see their silhouettes seen dancing in embrace till they switched off their solar torch.
We passed by a nuclear reactor in Chinon near Saumur, one of four nuclear plants in the Loire valley. There were three thick, serpent-like clouds rising up from a coolant plant. It looked like a direct passage to hell. Especially  after Jan’s animated talk, explaining that nuclear power is not a green source of energy. He has participated in student protests against nuclear power on many freezing nights. I hope the reactor hasn’t contaminated the river, not far from it, I took a dip.  

VI.We reached Noirmoutier Island, driving on the ocean floor at the time of the low tide. It was a Friday afternoon. On the island, there is a traffic jam but no one honked. It took us a good hour to find a suitable place to park Passy. A five minute walk along a sandy track took us to the beach. On the left of the beach was a long bridge that connected the island to the mainland. Speed boats came from that direction every half an hour to ferry tourists to a nearby island hidden behind the horizon.

The beach was very windy. Jan would go for birding walks with his binoculars. Thousands of migratory birds, Jan identified them as Sanderling, would gather on the beach picking insects. Then they would all fly away in a formation, like a huge kite, casting a shadow on the beach. They would leave millions of triangular webbed foot mark on the beach, would be washed clean by waves sweeping the coast.

I would go for a jog every now and then. Rest of the time, I would sit and sketch. We brewed coffee in the mornings, sipped wine in the evening watching the sun set. Several times in a day, we would go swimming. We would dive on top of a soaring wave that foamed on hitting the coast. Nudity was not on display here. The winds were so strong that our wet clothes looked like flags at full mast. 
The sun would go down the horizon reluctantly, turning the sky crimson.

VII.We were to drive about 1,500 kilometres from Nantes to Berlin. We started on a Sunday morning and planned to reach Berlin by Tuesday evening. We reached the suburbs of Paris on the Sunday evening. Instead of entering the city, we entered a farm, drove in the middle of a paddy field as long as the muddy road with tall grasses would take us. Jan checked for any board prohibiting driving on the road, there wasn’t any. We parked Passy where the road curved to face a barricade at the tip of a forest. Passy stood under a tree. We went for a walk. It took us more than an hour and a half to walk around the paddy field, along the forest and come back to Passy. She stood unperturbed in the middle of a lush green agriculture field and thick forest. I wore my boots before I dismount Passy in the darkness that night to empty my bladder. It was a surreal, dark silence that was petrifying. I stood firm for a while, as if resisting being swallowed into a black hole.

A morning walker woke me up. He grinned at the sight of Passy and asked Jan: “Are you German?” as if this one fact would explain why and how Passy reached here. 

We drove to Paris early on Monday morning. It took us a good hour to find a free parking spot. Jan is skilled in doing this. He saved us at least a hundred Euros in this way. We took the Métro or Métropolitain and did the “touristy” places. The Arc de Triomphe and the Louuvre Pyramid was overwhelmed by the East Asians. I felt like I was in Shanghai. We had coffee, and roamed around. Jan wanted to get out of here.We took Métropolitain to reach a street where there were many saloons in a row. I could see inside from glass panes, burly African-origin women were sitting patiently to get their hair braided.
Before we climbed the hill to reach the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur, that translates to holy heart, in Montmatre, we had a well-earned lunch of beefsteak and wine. When I was done, it didn’t take me long; I felt like a python that has swallowed an antelope.

We left Paris at five in the evening, in three hours we had reached the French border. Just few miles before we were to enter Belgium, a constable stopped the car to conduct a breath-analyser test on Jan. He had a glass of wine in the afternoon. He checks his temper and forces a smile; he also passes the test.
In three more hours, we crossed Belgium and reached the German city of Aachen. It was well past midnightand we parked Passy under a tree not far from the road. There was another car parked in front of us. This was the last night we would sleep in Passy’s womb.  I went to sleep with this thought in my mind.
We drove for good part of next day to reach Berlin. We stayed at Jan’s brother Florian’s apartment in Frankfurter. I wanted to continue sleeping inside Passy. Her womb gave me a sense of security that Florian’s couch didn’t.

The next two days we cycled around Berlin, ate Turkish food, bar-hopped and got drun everyday. 
The best part was picnicking with friends: Finn, Arthur and Anicia joined us in Berlin.
Jan, Anicia, Finn and Arthur: a lazy afternoon in Berlin

Arthur, he is an American by nationality, was my flatmate for an year in Delhi. It felt odd to see him, of all the places, in Berlin, sipping beer, soaking sun in a park on the riverside. He felt like a migratory bird that strayed to reach a different continent. He must be feeling the same for me.
Finn’s owns a red colour Passat, is five years older than Passy. These two ladies in their metallic bodies are good example of a simple fact: age is just a number. 
Jan and Finn were declared the founding members of The Passat Gang.
The Passat Gangsters: Finn and Jan

Fin, Jan and Red Passy: Berlin Airport on August16.
I was the last one to board the flight to Delhi on the late afternoon of 16 August, I had a lump in my throat.

No comments:

Post a Comment