Thursday, May 29, 2014


In the very last story '14e arrondissement', in the movie Paris je T'aime, Carol, the mail carrier from Denver, Colorado, is on her first European holiday. She has taken a few French lessons, and is travelling alone in Paris. Middle-aged, not overtly attractive in the popular sense, she visits the regular touristy places, and eats sandwich while sitting in a park. When I'd watched Paris je T'aime while in college and university, I was always avowedly moved by the earlier stories: tropes of romance, loss, reunion, sprinkled with a bit of literature ('Père Lachaise', enacted in front of Oscar Wilde's grave) appealed more to my taste. However, Carol's story always stuck a precarious chord because of the last lines:

Sitting there, alone in a foreign country, far from my job and everyone I know, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I'd never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn't know what. Maybe it was something I'd forgotten or something I've been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. Yes, alive. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.

It was on a random day probably in Hamburg (or it could have been during the lone day I spent walking around in Berlin) over the past three weeks, when I was suddenly reminded of Carol. But I would delude myself, if I said that I fell in love with Hamburg, and Hamburg fell in love with me. After Berlin, Hamburg took some time getting used to. The incessant rain for the first one and a half weeks accelerated the problems with my hair, and my big wet shoes which squeaked on every wooden floor, made people often see through me to my companion from Delhi. Despite commenting that Barock is a sort of wood, and that Bremen is a "great place" because it has a store called Primark where one gets cheap stuff, she managed to procure a proposal of marriage within two days, and formed many alliances of friendship. I walked around the city with my sticky hair coiled in a bun, and with my big squeaky shoes, and in a classic moment of de ja vu, relearnt the meaning of loneliness. Then I started visiting the museums every day.

It began with gathering enough courage and taking a detour from the Hauptbahnhof to the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, and walking along corridors adorned with Art Deco pieces. It strengthened when I took another detour the next day, and went to Kunsthalle to see the double exhibition on Feuerbach's muses and Lagerfeld's models. The return to Kunsthalle the next evening after class was crucial in many respects: after one year and three months je regardai the works of the Alte Meister--from my favourite Caspar David Friedrich, to the French Impressionists; and my rant about the brushstrokes and art movements cemented by friendship with my Physicist classmate from Ukraine. I felt a strong sense of Glück, when acting on impulse after learning about a Picasso exhibition on the train , I walked miles to reach the Kunsthalle in Bremen to experience the said exhibition. After a walking tour through the Altstadt hours later, I felt the twin emotions of joy and fulfillment when I took the stairs to the Paula Modersohn Museum and the Ludwig Roselius Museum. At Lubeck, I read with awe, Thomas Mann's notes at Buddenbrookhaus, and looked around me in wonder at the illustrations of Günter Grass in his museum. Yet, the moment dearest to my heart would be when I decided to walk into the 13th century church St. Jakobi, and despite the high-pitched protests of my unfortunate companion, spent a quarter of an hour, listening to the recitals of the twin organs. 

Back in Hamburg, I found my voice and my idiom a little more with every passing day, and used it to make a presentation on Rabindranath Tagore's Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), and to speak with unceasing wonder about the Bengal Renaissance; as well as to form new friendship. I stood in train stations, self-consciously nibbling at my cheese-ham sandwich, looking at the multitude of people walking across the platforms. How thrilling to simply walk back to the Kunsthalle and be transported to the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec; how thrilling to guide a Brazilian couple in Berlin about the right bus to take to Ku-Damm, and where to sit to get a perfect view of the city; how soothing to sit by the Spree all by oneself, to wait for lunch, and to watch school children and new lovers enjoy the sun; and it is with beautiful sadness, that you return to the Spree again when night falls, perch yourself on top of a hillock, and watch couples slowly dance the tango on a wooden platform beneath you. We all have our moments of weakness, ranging from the uncontrollable tears on holding old postcards of Berlin at Dussmann, to regularly sending photos, long texts, or making very long calls to an innocuous fifteen year old because you are so obsessed with fulfilling conversations--but what is life without some little bashfulness? In Berlin, when I ran after the tram at midnight, with heavy shoes, hair in reckless abandon, and pollen getting into my eyes and nose, and still managed to miss it, I realised that even though the cities did not really love me, they had accepted me. Every day, as I would wait to get my breath back after the long walks and climbing up and down the numerous stairs, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I'd never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn't know what. Maybe it was something I'd forgotten or something I've been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. 

Wir sind voller Begegnungen, Begegnungen ohne Dauer und ohne Abschied, wie die Sterne. Sie nähern sich, stehen Lichtsekunden nebeneinander entfernen sich wieder: ohne Spur, ohne Bindung, ohne Abschied. 
Wolfgang BorchertDraußen vor der Tür

We are full of meetings, meetings without permanence and without farewells, like the stars. They bring themselves closer, and yet remain light years away from each other: without a trace, without bindings, without farewells. [Translation mine.]


  1. This reminds me of a Bashō haiku that lingers at the edges of my mind.

    1. Thank you for introducing me to Matsuo Basho. Could you perhaps share here which haiku this reminded you of?