What is a story? Is it only a collection of memories, fact or fictional, emotive, evocative, startling or banal at times, or memorable or just plain recounting of events as they happened; an eyewitness account of incidents, places, people, atmosphere, smells, feelings, emotions… I have told you many stories both in my verbosity and in my silence through my blog, columns, features and this time too there’s so much to tell and to share, but however we may wish to share or want to hear, the stories would never end, because all stories even when they are worthy of telling, are never told.
Thus would be the fate of many such stories of my recent European trip, where within the span of nearly six weeks I flashed through eight countries, briefly touching a ninth; following much of the tourist trails where I have never walked before, and also to some spots where few ever walk upon. So the first story that I wish to put up here is a summary, a tiny nutshell that kind of encompasses and even dares to capture all that had happened in those fateful weeks. Being a really tight summary it is more statistical than sensational, more objective than adjective, more fun than pun, and obviously more forgettable than forgivable. So here it comes, straight and neat down the throat, just the way I love it and exactly the way it happened; and mind you very little of this was ever predicted. It all happened because one morning, just before embarking on an adventure from where I had little hope of returning, I decided to accept an invitation to give a talk in Zurich. From that humble beginning the rest just spiraled and made themselves happen. It’s not a bad thing these days to land in Europe with a long multiple entry visa and no idea of what you are going to do with either. Let’s find out…
Places touched – Country (city / region) in the chronological order
Switzerland (Zurich, Lugano, Bern, Geneva)
Lichtenstein (Schaan, Vaduz, Sargans)
France (L’isle Adam, Paris)
Latvia (Riga, Liepaja, Kuldiga, Sigulda, Cesis)
Luxembourg (Luxembourg City)
Belgium (Brussels, Dinant, Namur, Ghent, Antwerp, Oostende, Bruges, Eupen)
Netherlands (Amsterdam, Delft, Den Haag, Haarlem, Marken, Maastricht)
Germany (very brief brush at Aachen so it is not counted actually)
Italy (Verona, Trent, Bolzano, Collalbo, Ritten Ronen, Pisa, Firenze, Chianti, Naples, Sorrento, Rome)
Total distance covered (this would have errors of may be 5% plus or minus) by different means: I used trains, trams, boats, cable cars, cars, buses, airplane, funicular, afoot, cycle; in short nearly all means of transportation devised by human except a submarine or hot air balloon to get from one place to another. Some of them were tardy, some very quick, some challenging, some daunting, some different and some indifferent, but all enjoyable to degrees matching the occasion and my mood; so yes, I enjoyed each of them immensely.
9947 km (air: 5778; train: 2737; foot: 437; bus: 426; car: 235; cycle: 174; tram: 89; boat: 41; cable car: 24; funicular: 6)
Northernmost Point reached: Cesis in Latvia; 57 deg 18 min North latitude
Southernmost Point reached: Sorrento in Italy; 40 deg 37 min North latitude
Highest Point: Rittner Horn in Italian Dolomite; 2260 m
Lowest Point: Marken in Netherland, not sure of the altitude since it is below sea level
Rivers crossed: over bridges by foot, train, tram, bus, cycle or on boats; and no I didn’t swim across any.
Limmat, Rhine, Rhone (Switzerland)
Seine, Oise (France)
Gauja, Daugava, Lielupa (Latvia)
Meuse, Sambre (Belgium)
Tiber, Arno (Italy)
Cheapest Public Loo – Public Library near Amsterdam Central station (0.20 Euro)
Dearest Public Loo – Firenze Central train station Italy (1.0 Euro)
Free Public Loo – Den Haag Town Hall (but you won’t find it if you aren’t as desperate as me, desperate to pee and desperate not to pay for offloading myself; I mean in India you can do it free on the walls of Parliament House for God’s sake). Btw this is the only good thing that Den Haag has in offer.
Cheapest Public Transport – tie between Latvia and Italy
Dearest Public Transport – Switzerland is hands down winner
Commonest object all over Europe – McDonald’s outlet; I am guessing they already have one or will be having one soon inside Vatican and we would soon see the Pope ordering his first ‘Happy Meal’ with mustards on the side and declaring nonchalantly ‘I am loving it!’
Cleanest – Latvia (actually Lichtenstein it should be, but then no one lives there, so obviously it is clean as a brand new slate)
Dirtiest – no prizes for guessing, Italy it is again and again. It can rival India any day in being dirty
One place I wish I hadn’t visited but I did – Luxembourg
One place I wish I had visited and I didn’t – Austria
Best thing I did (according to me) – cooking my mom’s recipe of eggplant at several friend’s
Worst thing I did – visit Luxembourg
Most number of photos taken in a country – Italy
Least number of photos taken in a country – Luxembourg
Languages I labored through – Swiss, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Latvian, Russian, Italian, and several strange dialects of English
Number of old friends I met – 28
Number of new friends I made – must be close to or above a hundred
Number of people I met – impossible to predict or count
Friendliest country (I have friends everywhere so all nations are friendly to me, but here I measured the general public, whom I don’t know and never will, through brief encounters like seeking directions or guidance on the roads or in a shop, etc) – Latvia (people smiled and offered help even with language handicap, people offered me their mobile phones to make calls without asking anything in return, people gave me lifts in their cars at odd hours; all simply because I was a guest in their country and didn’t know the language)
Least friendly country – Luxembourg (even the bus driver, in whose bus I was a rightful ride, couldn’t be bothered to tell me where my stop was)
Best located and guided tourism service – Latvia (you have to experience it to believe it, they have outdone the Swiss for sure)
Best Public Transport System – Sticking to timely service it’s a tie between Swiss and Latvia but Latvia would be winner since they are way cheaper.
Worst Public Transport System – Italy for sure, even Italians claim that.
Best food eaten – something that my friend Claudia prepared in France
Worst food eaten – a smelly goat cheese that Claudia had offered one day
Best located place I stayed in – my room in Lichtenstein, Schaan, where I could see snow covered mountains from every window, door, room, even the toilet.
Worst located place I stayed in – in Rome, surrounded by the usual chaos of a city
A place I never wanted to leave – Latvia and Lichtenstein
A place I wanted to leave the moment I arrived – Den Haag, Netherlands
Most memorable experience – walking alone through the deep autumn woods of Lichtenstein and then plodding through knee deep snow up steep mountains of this picturesque country
Least memorable experience – I have forgotten for sure
Longest Day – starting from Amsterdam at 7 am, I climbed the highest points of Netherlands and Belgium and reaching my friend’s place at Brussels at around 9.30 pm the same day.
Shortest Day – pooped inside my friend’s house the entire day due to heavy rains and thundershower in Amsterdam. Even then I did go out for two hours and returned totally soaked and chilled.
Craziest thing I did – drive a friend’s left-handed Porche sports car in a subterranean garage with his wife next to me. I could have killed us both. And to make matters worse this friend was actually taking pictures of the whole episode.
Coolest thing I did – enter Louvre gallery without buying a ticket. It was heartening to find that French could be fooled at their own game.
Scariest thing I did – cycle through Zurich
Stupidest thing I did – try to rock climb a patch of moss covered wet rock face beneath a waterfall in Italy. I could have fallen a long way and got seriously injured. Luckily when I slipped and started to fall, my left wrist jammed in a crack stopping my fall further but majorly spraining my wrist, which is still swollen and painful.
Cleverest thing I did – I don’t do clever things, period!
If there’s one thing I could change about this trip – nothing really since bad is to be experienced to know the good, so everything is welcome but yes, I wish I had more days to spend in Latvia, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.
Something that happened for the first time in my life – I was picked up as a suspected terrorist bomber (this has happened with me before) and scanned for explosives in my body and in my netbook by a special group of anti-terrorism military at Rome airport while leaving the continent. Of course they found nothing and on revealing my past military background that proved I was way senior to the Italian Army officer in charge of the operation, I enjoyed exotic coffee and delicate cookies and cakes with them at their office prior to boarding my flight. And you all say that Italians are bad, come on, they are worst; but then there are nice Italians as well.
My shopping list: I was gifted several objects of desire by different people but this list is of the things that I actually bought with my own money in a manner of speaking, since it wasn’t my money, people had given them to me, so while spending them they did belong to me I guess in a manner of speaking…
Two bars of Belgian Chocolate, one bottle of Sorrento signature Lemon Liquor, a pair of woman ornaments, a tie and a box of Italian coffee – all for gifting to my friends in India
For myself – absolutely nothing
For my mom – a bunch of leaves for her botanical album collection, but then these were for free, picked up from the ground or plucked from the branches
What did I gain from the trip – nothing that I already didn’t have, which is friends, happiness, craziness, memories, smiles, laughter and lots of stories
Moral of the Story – Have fun, party tonight
Parting words – Take a vacation; go on a holiday, who knows how many days you have left in this life
One Word – Awesome
Two Words – Awesome, awesome
Three Words – (I am sure you can guess by now!)
Four Words – Never say never again
Five Words – I am out of here