Country and the Countryside : Europe Diaries 3

14th September, 1030 hrs.

Last station was called Ameins, and the train is breezing through the beautiful fields, forests and villages. With the comfortable seats, footrest and the wide window pane, the views outside seem like a beautiful painting. Even the villages have a self-assured air of perfection, with ordered houses in similar color and shape, small but clean and well-built roads and dedicated farm areas, with wind-mills in the background.

15th September, 1130 hrs.

The train is running on the French countryside, heading towards Spain, and it is difficult to keep the eyes off the wide window pane, such is the beauty of landscape and habitations. Vast green pastures of grass on shaped  land, cows grazing lazily on them, rivers with spotless clean water, fields with well-arranged patterns of crops, surrounded by tall trees on all sides- all giving the scene an imagery of having a windows wallpaper on the window pane, a series of them actually.  This is nature at its best. With some wonderful music, the journey seems even more ethereal, and you don’t want it to end ever.

‘…Manzil se behtar lagne lage hain ye raste…’

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The lines never seemed truer. On second thoughts though, it could be the obsession with perfection (or closeness to it) of the first world countries in everything they do – and most certainly in their outward appearances. The countryside is a glaring evidence. Despite supposedly being natural, there is no random wild outgrowth of trees or bushes, no abandoned or unfinished buildings or huts thrown in the wilderness. The ordered and finely shaped rows of plantations decorate the rising and falling earth. As Spain nears, the gradual and subtle changes in landscape and climate are unfailingly noticeable. The cows and pastures are being replaced by horses and bounded lands. The cold winds are being mellowed by the bright sun and warm breeze. The number of rivulets and canals is increasing and with a pleasant surprise, a vast indefinite water body just appeared – the Mediterranean Sea.

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A sense of satisfaction fills my heart as I see the fourth sea, after the three surrounding our own peninsula. Playing in its waters, of course remains to be done. The trees as well as grass move with the wind, as if showing you the direction.

..’Hua hai yun ki dil pighal gaye, hawaa me beh rahi hai zindagi, ye humse keh rahi hai zindagi, ab to, job hi ho so ho’…

Such is the effect this world has on you. Yes, you get bedazzled, wide-eyed in awe of everything. After some futile attempts, you finally let go of attempts to capture the beauty in your camera and let the eyes do their work with the soul serenading in the pleasures of sight. The station is called Port La Nouvelle. There is the sea on one side, visible in form of stretches of water and numerous canals passing though the city leading to it, on the other side. It is a delightful sight – the train moving along the sea, with waves making desperate attempts to reach the tracks. The waters vanish at places, making way for roads amidst land, trees, vegetation, windmills. A group of girls stands on the roadside waiting for perhaps a bus, while trying to control their flowing brown hair, white hat and colored skirts. Their skin glistens even more in the afternoon sun. I am tempted to sing ‘Senorita’ and see their reaction, but the train moves on. The station is called River Saltes. River, canals, sea everything can be seen around.

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* * * * * * *

Yes, Europe is THAT beautiful, more than what I had imagined it to be. It enchants you with every sight be it the country or the countryside. It became clear to me the first morning I stepped outside of my flat to a chilling cold air and some never seen before surroundings, comprising of wide pavement on both sides, an almost new looking road with a number of symbols painted, an unmanned traffic signal, and a long queue of cars on both sides of road as well, in a marked zone between the pavement and the driving space. I started to walk towards the college. All those perceptions I had of ‘foreign’ were coming back to me, and most were being proved right then and there. The roads are absolutely clean, and spotless at a first glance. Leave the roads, even the pavements are as clean as new. Though on observing closely I could see a number of cigarette butts thrown around on the sides of the roads. The queues of vehicles I realized were, in the parking spaces. They don’t need to have parking space in homes, as the roadsides are marked for parking cars. Despite it being a Monday morning, I could see very few people on the road, something which did not feel good to me. I had some confusion about the way to college and spotted a woman and went to her. As she saw me coming near, she smiled in the most polite manner, and greeted ‘Bonjour’. I replied, and as rehearsed, asked,’Parlez vouz anglias?’ she replied yes with more smiles, and then guided me with a lot of patience. I kept on walking, while my surrounding visuals kept me wide eyed. The houses were all of a similar height in a particular lane, and almost of same color and design with hut shaped roofs. It seemed they do not have a provision of front offset, i.e. leaving some open space in front of the home, as all the buildings – homes, shops, offices, schools, started right from the boundary itself, i.e. the end of pavement. The similarity in the houses was striking. The windows had, apart from the glass panes, those shop like shutters. I guess those are protection from the snow storms in the winter. Most buildings were complete, and even the incomplete or broken ones were not putting up an ugly show but were either covered gracefully with covers, or decorated with an attractive graffiti. But the one which attracted my attention the most, with a sudden feeling of joy and blessing was this one.

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There was a school on the way. There was a little crowd, but that would be unmatched by the crowd which we have at dropping and receiving times. None of the kids I saw wore a uniform, and most of them did not carry their school bags on shoulders but they had those pulling carriers with wheels. Many of them were coming on those skates and scooters, as they call them. They seem to be really popular here as a means of transport in the city. With the smooth road, and wide pavements I guess they really are helpful, across all  ages. The main city roads seems as wide as some of our much talked about expressways, with rows of greenery in between. There are signs such as ‘BUS’. ‘TAXI’ on the roads, and a pedestrian light at every signal, along with a crossing for the pedestrian and the cycle. I came across one, and as the light turned green, all the vehicles stopped, and I crossed the road with utmost ease. This reminded of our cities, where crossing the road would be such a mammoth task. At the next crossing, I saw the vehicles stopping at the green pedestrian light even though there was no pedestrian in sight. As the college neared, the number of people carrying bag on their shoulders increased.

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After I failed in my search for a water cooler (or heater, or whatever) in the college to quench my thirst, I asked for one, and was replied ‘It is drinkable everywhere!’ with a puzzled look. That also explained the lack of a water purifier in our home. Though drinking the tap water did feel a little awkward at first, and if the tap is in the college washroom, then even more. From the college, I continued my walk on the roads which lie ahead. There was a water body flowing by the side of the road, and I could not make out if it was natural or man-made. It looked beautiful though, and disappeared away from the road, turning into some dense forest growth next to the roads. I followed the canal (I decided it was one) and went in the forest like area. There was a small bridge over it, which was for pedestrians and cyclists (or bikers, as they call it). Across the bridge, it was almost an actual forest. Tall and dense trees, lush green grass all around, and what more, there were some monkeys as well, though they were all on a small island and some kind of barricading was done so that they could not jump off and trouble the people. I followed the canal and it led to a larger water body amidst woods and wilderness on one side, and an urban growth on the other. I found out later that both were in fact canals.

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15th September, 0100 hrs

We reached this station called Valence Ville at 10:20 pm, and the next train is at 7 in the morning. We had not given much thought about how to spend the night beforehand. The station was quiet and deserted, and had the usual air of sophistication and being well taken care of. The night was cold, and we had to cover our heads. A man on the platform told us that stations in France close by the midnight, and no one was allowed to stay on the platforms either. As we started walking towards the exit, the friendly station officials came towards us and asked if we had a train the morning, and then told we could stay in the waiting room of the station for the night, and that the station would otherwise be closed. What more, he even gave us some 40 minutes ‘to go get some sandwiches, have our dinner, and then pack off for sleep!’ We kept our bags in the waiting room, which just had some 4 benches for sitting, but a room sufficient for all of us, in our sleeping bags, and went out of the station. It seems to be a small town, but the visuals were very colourful outside. There was a statue in the large open space outside the station which was glowing with blue light. The road was narrow, with wide pavements as usual, and across the road was a bar, and a kebab shop, that was all we needed. The station and shops glow looked even more beautiful in the drizzle that had begun by then. We ordered kebab sandwiches, fries and coke to be packed. The nearby bar was playing some groovy music for the night, and people were enjoying the drinks outside on the pavement in the gentle showers. A man, who had probably got too high on the drinks, or who knows maybe just life, and was dancing merrily across the road, near the statue greeting everyone joyfully. Everyone would greet him with equal joy then! We took our stuff and came inside. I remembered seeing people waiting, sleeping on the stations in Varanasi and Delhi, and wondering what kind of people they must be, maybe poor. Who would have thought, that I’d be one of them, here in a sleepy little town of southern France!

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The light from the platform is really dim, and I need to have a good sleep.

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* * * * * * *

Feeling poor is definitely one of the changes that you feel in the first few days here. With the rupee falling lower each day, you just keep multiplying numbers in your head each time you pay those precious euros. As I walked towards the city centre, I kept checking prices in the showroom displays. A packet of lays started from one euro, a sub at subway started from 3.5 euros, the cheapest item at McDonalds was of 1.9 euros, and it was plain cheese burger. But then, France is one of the most costly countries even by European standards, so was I told. Seeing familiar brand names certainly gives you a comforting feeling, that of belonging to the global world. However, even better feelings were aroused by an Indian restaurant, and the Bata footwear shop. Somehow Bata has always had a very Indian feel about it. The city centre was buzzing with people all around. There is a fountain in between, with a statue on it and a number of restaurants mark the area. On the one side there is a theatre, and on the other side is the grand Opera building. These, along with a shopping mall provide one of the most beautiful sights of urban planning I had ever seen. There is an underground parking zone right below the city centre. The road ahead leads to the two main railway stations of the city – Lille Flanders, and Lille Europe. An old man sat on the roadside, playing the old fashioned harmonium which was probably last seen in a Raj Kapoor movie. The music was enjoyable though, and I end up putting a euro in his basket.

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The trains of Europe! Well, one can go on and on about them. No wonder Bollywood is so much charmed by them, that it keeps on churning Eurail romances from the iconic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (Oh, writing the full name really feels good) to the dud Ishkq in Paris. That the train connectivity throughout Europe is very strong is well known, but what adds to the charm is the elegance and beauty of the trains themselves. Most of the trains have chair cars, as the intra-country distances are not as large as compared to those in our country. For comparatively longer journeys, there are night trains with coaches having sleeper berths. Each country has its own fleet of trains, which are all privately managed, and the design of the coaches also varies, extreme cleanliness and comfort being common across all. The French, as expected have the most elegant coaches. Many of the trains have two levels like the double decker buses of Mumbai, and have a separate coach which serves as a bar and restaurant. Many of the coaches in fact resemble (or I daresay better!) some of our airlines! Same applies to the railway stations. Besides obviously being spotlessly clean, most of them are an architectures dream. Another distinguishing feature of the stations across Europe would be the excessive usage of underground space. Instead of overhead bridges above the tracks, they have underpasses, and often the entire platform is underground, or raised!

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I start walking back at about 8:30, and it has just started to turn dark. With the start of night, life starts growing on the roads of Lille. Like the innumerable redis, gumtis and chai, paan shops on our roads, they have bar and brasserie (brewery). As the other shops close down by about 7, these open up, and the crowd starts accumulating. Infact this is the only time when you get to see some life, some crowd on streets.  As I take a turn, something slippery rubs under my foot and I find with disgust that it is dog shit. Now, that is something that hasn’t happened ever with me back home. (Okay, we are tolerant towards cow dung!) Cigarette butts, and now dog shit, hmm. (Smirk!) The park is almost deserted now. I take a route surrounded by trees and bushes, and am welcomed with a foul smell of a public urinal, which clearly it was not but was being used as apparently.

Well, at some level we all are the same I guess, just that with great development comes great responsibility.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you have to feel the real vibe of the country, countryside is the place to be. The first train I took here was for a mere 30 minutes, and the stop was a place called Tournai, in Belgium, on the French border. Surprisingly the train reached ten minutes late, and even the display boards were not digital, but the old number patch types, functioning and accurate nevertheless. There was a small chamber with a drape for an entry on the station, which was labelled as Photomaton. I went inside and found that it was a pay-and-get-your-own-photo machine, with options for size and other specifications. A girl in rugged clothes and carrying a baby was asking for money from everyone. The station building as usual was an architect’s delight, and opened up to roads on three sides. The big map on a board outside was all in French, so I took the road which went straight, and walked as far as I could remember the way back from. Europe has a very popular culture of eating in the open it seems, as there are chairs and tables in the open outside every restaurant. There were gardens, fountains, trees, canals and the town amidst all this. I sat down in a one park and tried to write something. There was a couple nearby getting cosy, and some kids playing nearby, oblivious of the surroundings. The silence in the atmosphere was just too seductive.

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If Tournai was a regular small town, Bruges, at an hour’s journey from Lille resembles a town from the last century. Stone paved roads, narrow lanes, and a beautiful network of canals throughout the town. The homes actually have doors and windows which open to canals, and boats are one of the most popular modes of travelling here. If all this was not enough, the rhythmic tick-tock sound of the horse cart provided a perfect music, and sound to the vintage soul of the town. It is also known for its breweries of Belgian beer, the Half-moon (De Halve Mann) being the most prominent. A tour of the same was an interesting experience. This cold little town is perhaps a small model of what Venice promises to be for the travelers seeking it as a stop!

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15th September 1700 hrs

The train is about to reach its destination – Barcelona (Barcelona Sants). It is passing through a number of small stations, without stopping and in the most stupid of thoughts, I feel bad for the stations. Though it could also be due to something else. I am happy to have made some new friends, to find some great company for travel. Though I had almost prepared myself for a solo backpacking trip, it is always good to have some people with you. I feel already knowing myself better. I am not as big a loner as I thought I was. Their friendly conversations and fights remind me of my own friends, the good times, and of course, college. As much as I am enjoying these experiences, of exploring a new continent, a new country, a new culture, there is a certain yearning, a certain craving inside to be back there as soon as possible. But it is natural I guess, as a great poet once said-

Dilon me apne betaabiyaan lekar chal rahe ho, to zinda ho tum…

Barcelona Sants– the train just stopped. I already feel alive.

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