Looking ahead by looking back

My friends tell me I am always in a mad rush to change things, people, the world – both things I can influence and things I can’t. I know that. It manifests itself in the impatience (that has also quadrupled during my 8 years in McKinsey) with which I regard situations, in the passion with which I throw myself into things I love, in this jumbled mish-mash of my hyper-focused short attention span combined with an-almost contrarian risk aversion.

And that is unfortunate. Because in this tumult of running around just to keep with what I want to do, there have been casualties.

I found this over the weekend, when I sat down to read my blog archives. In my first post ever (incidentally, in 2004 on a blogger address called Mumble Jumble, because why not?),  I tapped in not-very-vast reservoirs of anger to rant about slow internet speeds, spam and limited-size email inboxes.

And over the course of the next three hours, I read the book of my life (ages 19 to 30-something) as jotted down by a capricious teenager who was faced with the enormity of growing up and becoming her own person.

I still like her – that 19 year old Shruti. She seems manic – running from one thought to another with nary a breathing space. She is naive and the knowledge of the rest of her life hasn’t fully hit her yet. The troubles, thus far, in her life haven’t made her jaded or cynical, though she really wants to be. And she is fun, so fun.

Her writing has the same quality. It is breathless, moving from one topic to another at the speed of light (the way I still think, incidentally) and utilises way too many exclamation marks and unbound ellipses (Like this!!!!…..). It is imaginative – running the gamut from useless advice columns and fake book covers to the creation of a whole new character, Shruti Fraud. It is intimate – she made inside jokes to her regular readers with a wink and nudge; in fact, learning that she had regular readers inspired another breathless I-can’t-believe-it post. And most of all, it is personal – that young version of me treated her blog like a diary, ripping band-aids in public, whilst keeping the story private.

And like Google coming and solving that terrible limited-inbox problem, I have grown up into someone the 19-year old would not fully recognise. Yes, some of the quirks still remain, including the perpetual clumsiness and the manic-ness that has morphed into a self-aware undercurrent of impatience.

She would approve of what the 31 year old has done – she’s gone to a good school, got a great job that lets her travel the world, found her place in the world FINALLY (India is not kind to women who don’t conform to the norm of expectations), broken/mended her heart a few times (“Not to anyone inappropriate, surely”, she’d muse) and become more comfortable asserting her authority.

And, everyday I try and over-plan my future and try to reconcile my life and my ambitions, I forget how far I have come. And that, to be entirely fair to the 19 or even 25-year old me, is inexcusable. Because to look forward is also to look back sometimes and pat yourself on the back. It’s been a long journey but I really do think it’s been worth it.

While approving of the general direction, the 19-year old would wonder, “But what about your hobbies? What about writing? Singing and twirling in the house with abandon? Doodling in all corners of your books? What happened to all the manic energy you put into creative pursuits? Why have you stopped? And, and, and… what about your friends?”

And for that, I need to start making amends. Consider this step 1.

A Stitch in Time

Kayak.com

From: BRU. LHR. CDG. FRA

To: COK. BOM

I thought about it a while and typed decisively.

BOM.

17th April 2009.

It was the first time I was going home in almost a year. And hell, I wasn’t going to lose my chance to go and see my friends in amchi Mumbai.

A few mails and general mayhem ensued. Happiness! I was going to meet at least Kenny (all the way from Hong Kong! Amen), Vinay (from Hyderabad) and Abhay! Yay. This trip looked great! Who cared if I had a sum total of three days in India of which 2 days would be back home in Kerala. I was meeting friends. Oh wait. And family.

The connection to Frankfurt (Deutsche Bahn ICEs- my favourite trains!) and to Kochi, (Deccan Air- so not my favourite) were done. Using my newly-learnt principles of JIT*, I had optimised my time to 1 hour at the Frankfurt airport and 2 in blissful Dubai duty free! Life’s great, ah non?

The list was written.

Online check-in. Check.

Hand luggage only. Check.

Passport, residence card. Check

No liquids. Check.

Printouts of all tickets. Check.

Cometh the hour, I clambered onto the train to Frankfurt Flugenhopf and prepared myself for a short-ish train journey.

Till Koln happened. Till they announced in3 languages (German, French and Dutch) that we would have to change trains at Koln because the present train has an (I quote) engine problem.

Ack! I HAVE A FLIGHT IN ANOTHER 2 HOURS!

We were unceremoniously booted out into the station. People were running through the platforms to the next ICE.

They refused to let us in. I was freaking out. My mother was freaking out. I was freaking my mother out. (Ah. Not so hard to do, by the way).

The train left and I was left alternately staring at an empty platform and my watch ticking away the minutes.

30 minutes passed and our replacement train pulled in.

The conductor announced that the train would reach Frankfurt 40 minutes late (which, observant readers will note leaves me 20 minutes to change terminals, go through immigration, security check and board. Oh yes, the gate closes 15 minutes before departure). And oh yes, the Deutsche Bahn apologised for any inconveniences.

I started plotting scenarios where I won 1 million euros from DB for mental agony.

And yet, time ticked on.

I gave up making money off this sad state and starting calling other airlines. My friends’ faces were swimming in front of my little eye, which is the eye of solitude. I was mentally mapping my epic run to Terminal 2 and the gate in my head a million times.

Freaking out some more, of course.

The train threatened to pull into the airport bahnof at 8:40. (Ah, I have 30 minutes! Wow) I pulled my suitcase out. The elusive airport remained elusive. Till 8:50 happened and the train pulled in.

I punched the green button and ran out.

And promptly fell over a German Herr’s suitcase.

From my vantage point, sprawled on the ground, I looked at the man with a hurt look on my face. He apologised and I waved it off, running to the escalators, my strolley bumping along the steps as I ran up and down.

Run, run, run… out of Terminal 1.After 2 minutes, I reached the outside, and went to a taxi to beg him to take me to the other terminal.

The man had a stupefied look on his face and shook his head.

“Pleaaaase?” Like it would change ANYTHING.

Argh, I had to run to the Sky Train.

Now, Frankfurt Airport is a huge monster. I ran to the other side of Terminal 1 and up the escalators. Right in the middle of the checkin area, I lost sight of the sign of the sky train and the gates D and E. Yelling at the information guy seemed a good idea.

“WHERE IS THE SKY TRAIN?”

“Up 4 escalators on the right”

You GOT to be kidding me!

I ran like a pack of angry dogs were behind me. (Yes, I forgot that there were things called lifts in this dratted place). Up those blessedly short escalators only to see a sky train pull out.

“FUCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCK”

The German police in front of me looked startled. I snapped my mouth shut, remembering old times of them checking my Schengen wherever I went.

The next Sky train pulled in. I sedately walked in and sat down. The watch said 9:00. Hope was almost dead. The train clattered to Terminal 2 at 9:03.

I was off like a shot down the stairs and straight to immigration.

The policeman picked up my passport. And spent a few minutes trying to find a valid Schengen. He shook it a little, hoping for a magical schengen visa to drop out.

I hissed, “I have a Belgian residence card.”

He took it up lesiurely and looked at the photo. And at me. Then the first passport.

“Sigh. Can I go?”

“I need to verify it.”

He mentally translated the Dutch to German. Swatted a few flies and handed over my documents.

I was hopping from one foot to another. “Where is gate E2?”

“Left from the Duty Free.”

A bullet from a gun couldn’t be faster.

Thankfully, Gate E2 was the first one. I sneaked a glance at the watch. 9:06. This was my last leg… and maybe my last legs too.

The barriers snaked through 3 rows. I ran through them and pushed my bags into the scanner, pulled my belt out and told the security guard I was in a hurry.

Just for that, he passed my laptop bag twice through the scanner.

The time was 9:10. The girl in front of me snapped at me.

“You hit me with your laptop.”

Visions of me hitting her on her dumb head instead danced through my mind. I muttered “sorry” and looked towards the Promised Land. The Boarding Gate.

My eyes misted over. Would I be Moses?

I ran. Again. Two women and a man sat there idly, chit chatting.

I arrived. There was no other word for it… hands flailing, bag strap trailing, shoelaces undone.

“I have to goooo”

“Excuse me, madam. You are on the EMIRATES flight?”

I nodded my head furiously.

“Sorry, ma’am. The plane has already left.”

I stared at the man and burst into tears.

The air in the gate became a little tense.

“I was… late… because” (heart wrenching sob) “the train was late.”

“Ma’am, are you Shruti George?”

I nodded my head again, wiping my eyes. “But… now… the flight…” (Some more wailing ensued).

A motherly looking woman patted my head sadly. “Don’t worry.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Brusselssss”, and the wailing continued.

They handed me my boarding pass and said, “We can try.”

I was sniffling.

The man talked on his walki talkie and 2 minutes later said I could go.

And again, I ran. But this time, between crying and saying thank you.

The woman followed.

The guard at the gate said, “Your tags”

She grimaced and yelled at him in German. The gist was… “Let her go”.

And I ran again. Down the stairs, through the still open First/Business concourse into the airplane, waving at the sweet woman.

In the Boeing, I collapsed.

The cool airhostesses looked a little alarmed.

“I hope you are okay. Where are you coming from?”

“The… railway… station.”

I was gulping some deep breaths. They pulled my bag for me into economy.

Once in my seat, I drank 2 bottles of water, and promptly fell asleep, neck all askew, dead to the world.

They upgraded me to Business in Dubai. 😉

Moral of the story: A stitch in time isn’t as good as 9 tears later.

Second moral: Take the direct flight from Brussels next time.

* Long story

I don’t understand how…

some people are so enamoured of their reflections that they preen at the first indication of a shiny surface.

Imagine this (rather recent) occurrence:

I am in the office and pulling out the cord and putting away my laptop in the bag when a friend comes to enquire when I am leaving.

“Right now,” I said. “So what are your plans?”

I noticed he wasn’t looking at me. I followed his line of sight to behind my shoulder to the picture window behind me, which was rendered almost opaque by the darkness outside. (Small aside: The view from our office windows are amazing)

“Uhm, you do know I am approximately 2 feet away from where you are looking, right?”

So, he dragged his eyes away from the fascinating sight of his suited self and brought himself back to earth. “uhhh, let’s go down and find your housemate. She’s on the phone.”

“Sure.”

We went down and called her from her own landline to come down.

When she came down, I remarked (I thought wittily), “Boss here can’t take his eyes off his reflection.” till I realised I didn’t have her attention either.

And there we shall leave the scene, both of them feasting greedy eyes on their beauty and me looking up to heavens.

Son of a Preacher Man and Other Stories

“Que Sera Sera…” Doris Day scantly had time to start off the first line of her song and I had clicked the wheel on my iPod to go past it. I was feeling restless, in a state of nervous excitement and had already forwarded through Devdas, Dil Chahta Hai and Dhoom, pausing only to hear Don McLean.

I flicked my eyes down to the screen- Son of a Preacher Man, it flashed with the name of the artist scrolling, “Dusty Springfield.” I paused in my incessant clicking and sat back in my seat as the memories came flooding back.

Songs are powerful, aren’t they? They trigger all the thoughts and ideas you had somehow buried at the very edge of remembrance. They remind you of how it had been, how people had been- what life had truly meant.

Taking time to make time… Learning from each others’ knowing, looking to see how much we’ve grown.

Don’t turn off the lights always cracked me up. I still remember Vimitha’s earnest face when she assured me that Enrique Iglesias was the next best thing since sliced bread. Vimz was always like this. Earnest, dependable, always on hand to do the right thing, and NEVER thought bad things about anything. For Pete’s sake, she liked Enrique Iglesias!

All of us mused on the idea and turned on the music system.

5 seconds later, I giggled. “Eh, Vimz. You adore his squeaky voice, right?”
Vimz looked suitably puzzled, “What?”
Reshmi had understood what I meant, “You know, where he goes, don’t turn off the li-yiieeets.”
Both of us burst into spontaneous giggles again while Divya looked on impassively. (She’d always been the grown up one, right?)
“Yeaaaaah! It’s even better with the chorus. Ee-ah-ee-yah-ay!”, I happily went on.
Vimz finally got the joke, “Shrutz, you have ruined the song for me!”
“My pleasure, as always.”

And, for this great love that Vimz has for Enrique, I transferred these really bad songs onto my iPod.

Now, Rush is trickier. She was the one person I used to constantly hang around with, but there was never that one song that seemed to say to me, “This is her.” Till I remember… again… those words.

We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…

To Rush then, Westlife’s Seasons in the Sun. She was the one I always strangely felt protective towards, but somehow knew that she was strong. My cute and funny third cousin once removed. Snooty Syrian Christian blood aside, I am always glad I got to know her.

To Divz, the steadfast soldier, the one who always plodded on regardless of what she ever REALLY felt, the one who ate potato chips everyday and never gained an ounce, the one who was always dependable, always Divyasree J… the only song I can ever ascribe to her… Noori. And yes, her ghost impressions are VERY good!

Euphoria’s songs hold special meaning in my life.
The first one is Maeri which was the L^2 staple. I remember sitting on the ground in the pouring rain with my batch around me singing loudly, I remember being giddy with happiness, sad and even crying when the sad stirrings of the music were just too much for me to bear. Maeri’s been an anti-anthem for me, the symbol of the youth and freedom I had that somehow were slipping away all too quickly.
The second one is for another one of those special women in my life. Pooj (Aka Pooh Bear. She hates that) She always brings back the Dhoom in my life. Without her, listening to Phir Dhoom would never be the same. The memories are of stage performances, of standing next to Pooj, squeezing her hand, and grinning manically through jeers and STILL going on… She’s the support, she’s the strong strong one. She’s just special and for her, I keep listening to this one.

Jeryn- my neighbour for longer than I knew. The neighbour I knew only for the last two years in my college life. Maybe the guy I ought to have known a long time before, if only to SMS insults starting with P for one whole day after only knowing each other for 5 days. Period. Seriously. He pinged me one day in his characteristic way.
“Idjit”
“What?”
“Do you listen to Beegees?”
“Yeah. I like Words.”
“You will like this.”
Jeryn is sending you New York Mining Disaster 1941- Beegees.mp3. Accept? Decline?

I accepted, got hooked on Beegees and still play them on repeat on Youtube. And yes, New York Mining Disaster 1941 is one of my most favourite songs. And this song is Jeryn to a tee as well, concise, abrupt and filled with meaning.

Chingamasam to Josen, the perennial worry wart. He needs to always reassure himself that everything is, will be and was all right. But of course, he is saying that just to reassure YOU! What did you think, huh? He needs to remember those hours and hours we spent- from editing videos and studying hard for CAT, to discussing life, the universe and everything. It’s funny, I don’t know what songs he likes, but this song is always linked to the dance in my mind and the dance to the camera man.

Rishab, childhood friend through thick and thin, my Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day. Rouged cheeks, yellow dresses and tuxedos apart, thanks for being there, dude.

Bitter Sweet Symphony is the most ironic song in my collection of song-stories. This one is to the friendship I shared through my school days, and to the girl who lost touch… almost delibrately it sometime seems. This song to lost friends and companions.

To those who spend time wondering… Linkin Park answers. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

Vinay, the always energized child I know. The one who used to break out into a deverish-like dance everytime Appadi Podu played on the dance floor. And STILL had energy to dance for Manmadarasa. For Vinay, I want these songs to be played on repeat. He needs to keep playing his life like this!

For Abby, I only have the theme song to F.R.I.E.N.D.S, I’ll be there for you! And if Abhay doesn’t get this allusion, he deserves another kick! I shall gladly give it to him.

For Mama, I always have a rousing encore of Tera Suroor Himesstyle. He’d be delighted to know he actually looks like Himes bhai with the baddd cap days!

Sonal gets Sajnaji Vari Vari. Yes, I remember Meenu tai and I danced to her tune on her sangeet. Like so many have before and so many will later in life! Sonal is also rum and coke… the final push into total drunkenness!

I’d love to say I had a song for Ken (maybe Punjabi?). But I don’t. Ken’s the video to these songs with a 360 degree pan shot. Ken’s nonsense limericks and nursery rhymes. Ken is the picture that speaks a thousand words and the biggest grin at the end of the worst joke. There is no song for Ken. (And he is complaining about it now!)

The only one who could ever teach me was the son of a preacher man. Yes, he was…. Dusty Springfield finished her song.

Sam, this song is always for you.

Saying Goodbye is Difficult

Two days after convocation, I woke up on a mattress shorn of its linen, in a room that did not look like my home for the past year, in a block that was defeaning in its silence.
This had been the scene of the block parties, midnight gossip sessions, of friendship, of laughter and tears, of companionship, of late night meals from Athica’s and hot coffee for 2 AM cram sessions followed by 3 AM Bracket sessions, of lazy weekends spent lolling around, of trying to get back after L^2s (or get to), of charged up weekends seeing volleyball matches and hours spent reading books. This was the home I ran to- the cool refuge, an oasis of green and pink calm and most of all, cleanliness!

I have left the proof on the table…see… that ring was left by my coffee mug. Look at these walls- the paint is peeling because I stuck my pictures and those tiny stars. Look at those flowers painted on the bookshelf. That was done in a burst of creativity that subsided later.
These little signs are all that’s left of my existence in B-204. The rest has been packed up and sent away. Those memories have been filed away neatly. I am feeling a bit nostalgic already… How will the future be?

Maybe I will be that alumna that goes eagerly to her room 10 years hence, look around and explain that this had been my room for my PGP2 year. Or maybe I shall be that alumna who said that IIMB was WAY better then. Maybe I shall never bother coming back… to those faded yellow walls, the dust that had to be swept everyday and the light that woke me up when the sun rose, the lovely blanket I snuggled in at night.

But I bid adieu to that stone maze that was IIMB, knowing I’d come back again.

I take my bags to Mumbai to attend a wedding. It’s 2 days of roaming around and talking. And again the same hugs and promises to keep in touch. I wave my hand at the girls and blow them kisses. The feelings are the same. I am saying bye to the people I lived with and loved.
I reserve a special hug for Vinay and Saikat… It’s been 2 years of bibliophiling with them. Strand book fairs aplenty, loads of birthday mails, sleisha shady stories and again, lovely memories. Another farewell said, and another promise to keep in touch. This time, I can’t seem to let go of their hands…

But, go I must. The auto makes sure of that.

One month later, we’re back for Sonal’s wedding. The whole gang is at Udaipur (minus a few notables who know who they are!) and attending the ceremonies. All of us stay till 2 AM for the phera and then I suddenly realise I have a flight to catch. We get back to the guesthouse in a hurry.

Half an hour later, Sonal is back. We all rush down to see her. She looks like a little doll made to life in her deep red skirt. I watch her take her first steps into the room, her red feet leaving prints on the marble floor.
Noone’s saying a word, but everyone feels it… the gravity of the situation. This does not feel like the other weddings I have been to. A lump rises in my throat and my eyes suddenly feel slightly wet.
The ending is anti-climactic. All of us walk quietly away from the passage and agree that this was… poignant.

I greedily hold those memories close to my heart, looking around trying to blaze into my mind those last moments. Our last card game, the last night talking together, our last trip (Rooti Rani anyone?!), throwing the peas at each other.
We’re still gloriously together but soon it’ll be time to go.

And all too soon, I need to leave to the airport to go to Mumbai. I need to get my visa. And four guys have volunteered to drop me off! Karan says, “Georgy, last night I was the only one who said I’d come. And today you seem ultra popular.”
Abhay*, Ken and Jayarama squeeze into the Maruti as well. I am giggling like a small child and my spirits are high.

Half an hour later, I have been deposited at the small Udaipur airport. I hug them all and stand waving till the car leaves. Suddenly, I feel alone and my heart is heavy. I have just bid farewell to the best days of my life.**

This time, it’s just that distance.

I walk into the marble tiled departure hall. It’s the start of a new life.

It’s hard to say goodbye… To IIMB, my friends, to the life I led, to India, to my family. To those who have made me who I am, to the ones I love so much, this is not a goodbye.

*Yes, the selfsame one.
**Till now anyway.

It’s My Way or the Autobahn

I have had my share of adventures behind the wheel. Curious folks may see how I had close encounters of the kanoon ke haath bade lambe hai variety by speeding in Belgium and stopping in Trivandrum. This is one of those adventures…

The story begins innocuously enough. I was at the fag end of one project (the middle of my internship) and champing at the bit. The next project was supposed to be in Luxembourg and I had long due weekend plans with other humans finally!
I’d asked one of my friends who was in Germany at the time if we could make plans to meet up in Cologne, which was around 200 odd km from Brussels. I shall call this friend Abhay*. He’d agreed, provided the other ‘fraud’ interns at Germany agreed but he didn’t see that would be a problem since none of them had come to Cologne. Not thinking this would be a problem, I agreed with alacrity.

In the middle, I got a phone call from Avis who informed me that they’d like to take the VW Golf Plus I had been driving around for a month and give me a Volvo C30 instead. I had visions of driving a large airbus. Time proved that these fears were indeed true.

But I am getting ahead of the story. This had been one week ago and on the Wednesday of the long awaited weekend, I eagerly asked Abhay what plans had been made.
Abhay very brightly answered, “We’re going to see the Mercedes showroom in Stuttgart. Cologne next week pakka.” (All thanks to GTalk archives)
I reproduce my exact words, “WTF? F*** You! This is my only free weekend.”

The next 5 minutes were spent cyber-yelling at each other, trying to pin the blame of wrong assumptions and stupidity. Till of course, I pulled out the greatest weapon known to womankind… guilt.

“TWO FREAKING DAYS! I HAVE BEEN ALONE IN BELGIUM FOR ONE WHOLE MONTH. Do you GET that? I was looking forward to meeting you @&$*@@& for at least two days.”

Abhay was nonplussed and totally wrong-footed, “Whoops. I know, darling,” said he, “Let me see if we can change plans or something. It’s just that there are 6 other stakeholders and I can’t make plans alone.”

I was just getting started, “Never mind. I’ll do something else. It’s not like I am wanted anyway.”
Abhay was rapidly feeling sorry for me, “What exactly were you doing all these weekends?”
“Sitting at home, walking through Brussels. What else?”
Abhay felt like a total heel, “You should have told me! Maybe we can do Stuttgart and Cologne. Can you drive till the Black Forest?”
“I said no need. I will go to Paris alone. I might even enjoy it.”
“There are wonderful places to drive.”
“Yeah. I love driving ALONE, which is why I am walking around Brussels alone. Forget it now, I have other things to do.”
“Shut up!” But curiosity got the better of Abhay, “What better things, busy Maharani Georgy?”
“I need to find something about the cosmetic industry**”
“Google?”
“Idiot. Company intranet. We are pah-sood.”
“So when can I get an appointment next?”
“Whattttteeevvvverrrr”, I drawled.
“Mochu, did you lose weight?”A complete change of subject.
“Yeah, I have been taking 3 km walks everyday because my *friends* don’t have time for me.”

A long silence ensued. Suddenly Abhay piped up, “Can you drive to Koln?”
“It depends, I have to adjust my schedule you know.”
“We have adjusted our schedule JUST for you”
“No thanks, I will stick to my old plans. Walks in Brussels, here I come! You go to Stuttgart or wherever, which is, incidentally 800 km away.”

Abhay was getting more and more depressed. The others had rejected his fine notions and I was being pigheaded. He couldn’t handle my depression any more than he could handle me kicking him. He was yet to figure out which was worse.
On the other hand, I was having a jolly good time guilting him out. Finally, it came to this…

“I am coming to Cologne, no matter what ANYONE says.”
I informed him I had no enthu for any more plans. And would he kindly get lost?
Abhay continued insisting and I finally told him I was doing this JUST for him. He thanked me profusely.
I was smiling the broad grin of a woman who had her way done.

A mail sent the next Monday sums up the weekend succinctly.
“Abhay nearly got me killed on the Autobahn. Drove 1100 km in 2 days. Conked off at the Hilton Luxembourg. Nice green place. Crappppy hotel.”

This is the story in excruciating detail…

That Friday, I got the keys to my Volvo C30. I spent 10 minutes (I kid you not!) searching for a place to insert the ignition key till I realised it was by the right side in the middle of the dashboard. The next 10 were spent staring at the road in front and gauging how exactly I was supposed to take the car out of parallel parking.
[Totally Unnecessary Aside: Incidentally, I found out something even more interesting about the car two weeks later when its battery was dead. It was this- Swedish cars only have three modes for the headlights- Dipped, Dim/Bright (Both of which are On while driving, Off while parked) and Park lights (Off while driving, On when parked). There was no way you could turn off the headlights without putting it on Park lights… this, of course, killed your batteries. The travails of using a Swedish car in countries with even minimal amounts of sunlight!]

The start to the weekend did not seem auspicious after all.
However, the irrepressible self bounced back and I packed in a week’s worth of clothes into my suitcase. I was planning to go to Cologne first and pick up Abhay. Go to Stuttgart with him, see the others and go to Weinheim for the night. The Sunday would be spent in lovely lovely Baden Baden with its Roman baths and prettiness before moving onto Luxembourg. (Bill Clinton’s comment is remembered here…”Baden Baden is so nice, they had to name it twice”)

This just goes to show something they keep saying about the best laid plans of mice and men…

I woke up well and early at 5:30 AM. Abhay had informed me that his train would reach Cologne 8:12 AM and I was supposed to be standing at the Hauptbahnhof (fancy German name for Station) with my arms outstretched and preferably some flowers. (He’s a romantic young man after all). I looked outside and it was raining merrily. I swallowed the last bit of the Orangina in the mini-fridge in my apartment and clattered downstairs in the rickety 2-man (or 1-man and 1 strolley) lift. After a bit of shuffling with my access card, I took the car out for its first long drive.

Armed with the ViaMichelin maps for Brussels-Cologne-Stuttgart-Weinheim -Baden Baden-Luxembourg, I felt reasonably happy about life. After all, what more could an intern want? Again, if fate had her way, loud bells would have been heralding the beginning of my foolishness.

The journey onwards was not too bad. It started raining heavily, but I sped forwards at crazy speeds that would have made the folks back home ground me for an entire year. At 8, I’d reached Cologne. Abhay called.
“Dude, so where is the Bahnhof?”
“It’s near the cathedral .”
“Where’s the cathedral?”
“Near the river. The whole town IS the cathedral. You can see it from the road.”
And I could. A huge Gothic monstrosity- the facade had turned black in the pollution. And somehow it was strangely moving.
I parked the car in an underground parking and ran up the stairs looking for the bahnof. And there, in an ugly concrete square, set right next to the biggest structure in Cologne, was the Bahnhof.

After some more phone calls, Abhay was found. After 90 minutes spent in the Cathedral, a walk along the Rhine (and over the opera house) and the Starbucks on the Cathedral square, we rushed into the car to ostensibly leave to Stuttgart.
All the way through the autobahn, life was fine. Abhay was having the time of his life, ribbing me about driving in Europe and scaring the locals. His words? “If you can do it, a wonderful driver like me can do so well. It’s like child’s play. Pshaw.”
Little towns whizzed past, we bid adieu to large cities, till on one of the exits we saw written- Koblenz.

On a whim, we took the exit out into the quaint little university town and fell in love with its prettiness.
We parked the car (mini-bus) along the lots near the river and paid for the parking. Abhay kept the chit in the pocket and walked away, feeling smug. I called him back, amidst laughter and pointed to him the advantages of leaving the receipt tagged to the windshield. It had been a lesson learnt the hard way after all. Abhay puffed off, a mass of hurt dignity which could only be soothed by free Indian food!

After lunch at a Pakistani restaurant (paid by me, that cheapster), the usual checking out of the local church and ramble along the Rhine, we took the car out of the parking place and drove off to find Stuttgart. But now, we suddenly realised that the ViaMichelin directions were useless.
No matter, the soldiers strove on bravely. The roads became weirder, we followed the course of the river for around 30 minutes till we figured out that we were heading in the wrong direction. After backtracking, we went on the highway and found ourselves on the way to Frankfurt AM and after over-correcting back to Cologne. Things were going weird FAST. We were completely lost.

At around 3 PM, I felt tired. It had been around 500 km later and I was rubbing my eyes. I parked on a shoulder off the autobahn and after filling some fuel at a Shell station, turned to Abhay, “Dude, can you drive? I am really tired. It’s actually quite simple, only that’s it’s a left hand drive.”
Abhay nodded his head eagerly and sat in the driver’s seat, pushing it back (I am quite short!) I collapsed on the passenger’s seat, wholly prepared to enjoy life.
The rest of the story is vividly etched in my mind… Abhay took the car by fits and starts onto the road. He was averaging around 30 kmph on the friggin’ German autobahn, where Mercs, BMWs and even Peugeots whizzed by at average speeds of 180 and the lowest legal speed was 70. Mentally I was groaning, this was a switch- getting caught for slowing on the highway must be a first.
Abhay felt confused, his machismo had evaporated and I was yelling at the top of my voice, “ABHAY, DRIVE FASTER. I DON’T WANT TO DIE.”
The car shook a little as a car zoomed past at 200 kmph. “ABHAY, TAKE THE EXIT NOW. NOW. NOWWWWWWWWWW.”
Abhay was confused, “Which one?”
“RIGHT.”
He took it onto the railing.
I started screaming as if I was on a roller coaster, “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”
Abhay joined me in screaming.
“PUT ON THE INDICATOR.”
Abhay obliged, unfortunately for left hand drives, the levers were interchanged and the wipers started moving. He’d found his way onto the exit back to Koblenz by now.
“AHHHH. ABHAY STOP THE CAR NOW!!!”
And he did. Right on the Autobahn, he stopped the Volvo C30.
There was pin drop silence for one second. A whole line of automobiles piled up behind us, blowing on their horns as if to ask, “Which kind of MORONS stop on the autobahn?”
I started yelling again, “TAKE… AHHHH… THE… AHHHHHHHHHHHH… CAR… OUT OF THIS MESS.”
Abhay obliged and we went to a Burger King next to a fuel station. I took a deep breath and wiped my clammy hands on my jeans.
“Maybe I ought to teach you the basics. You know you nearly killed us on the autobahn?”
Abhay shook his head silently, bravado suddenly coming to the fore again, “Maybe you ought to have TAUGHT me.”
“Maybe, but you said you knew and it was easy.”
There was another silence.
“You don’t have to thank me for this. Since on the positive side, Abhay, I am sure no girl will ever scream this way for you ever again in your life.”

PS: We finally got out of Koblenz at 4 PM and had no time to go to Stuttgart, so found our way after 90 km of wrong turns at the beautiful university town of Heidelberg. Abhay regaled our classmates with stories of how he saved my car from destruction from women drivers. And of course, he drive 10 km in Baden Baden with the hand brake on.
He’s still a good friend 😉

*Name unchanged. Abhay never needs privacy.
** Industry name changed to protect privacy.