Berlin! Berlin!

I took an overnight bus from Amsterdam to Berlin, because the desi in me figured I’d save a night’s stay somewhere. In case you are interested, a number of my trips were pre-planned and booked through Omio and it’s all pretty convenient and reliable.

Amongst many other differences, one of the starkest is the emptiness of European bus-terminals, especially for an overnight bus, compared to an Indian bus-terminal. That evening in May ’19, when I got to the bus-station near Sloterdijk, the entire lot was empty and almost dark. There was just a small group of people collected around a bus. I walked past them looking for where I was expecting to see the bus to Berlin.

There is something about being a woman from a South Asian region, we are all highly alert in the dark and lonely corners of our world. So here I was, alone in the dark, and add to that, the stress of possibly having missed my bus. What if this wasn’t the bus terminal at all? All my future pre-booked journeys! All the pre-booked places to stay! All that money!

Every step I took around that empty lot made me more and more nervous. Until I saw a small-built man with Asiatic features; he had a small bag and was also pacing around the corners of the empty bus-stand. He passed me once, and then again when he was walking back. Something about seeing a face that was vaguely familiar made me call out to him for help. Did he know anything about the 8 pm bus to Berlin? Oh he was travelling on the same bus too?! Wow, alright, can you imagine, we can’t find the bus…do you think it’s left. Ah yes, you are right we still have about 10 minutes and these Europeans are very punctual aren’t they? So where is the bus? And where are you from anyway?

I wasn’t expecting this, but A_ turned out to be a compatriot…a fellow Indian and from a nearby region too- Assam! What were the chances?!

So here we were, two lost Indians looking for a bus to Berlin. In a bus-station that was so unlike ours. Where were the countless, aimless people walking around whom you could just tap on their shoulders and ask “Brother, where is the bus to Berlin?”. Where were the all-night chai-wallahs, cheap tea-shacks with busy hands exchanging money for the tiniest cups of tea (under 50 ml). They always had people who were human “information kiosks”.

A chai-wallah, tea-shack. These ubiquitous businesses employ millions and are a source of local gossip, hot tea with some snacks. Everything for a few rupees. Credits: Paul Hamilton / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Suddenly I was missing the highly un-organised and informal country that I came from. We have chaos, but there is also a strange order in that chaos. It’s a complex system by itself, like an anthill, moulding around structures. Incredibly resilient too, except when it comes to some overnight exogenous shocks. Such shocks that have only come twice in my lifetime…one was during the ill-conceived and over-night “demonetisation” of 2016, and the other has been during this corona-lockdown of 2020. Breaks my heart to think of the complete breakdown of our own chaos, all because of some ham-handed men. But I digress…

Made a good friend, A_ from Assam. Here he is at Brandenburg Tor. I was thoroughly impressed by his ability to travel unconventionally all over Europe. He spent a month there, and made some incredible trips (including a return to Amsterdam just to go to the Anne Frank Haus). He is also incredibly humane and one of the declining tribes of left-liberals in India.

So here were the two of us, and a missing bus. After a few more rounds of the station, A_ decided that he wanted to check out what looked like a CityBus terminal. Later we realised that this was for well…city buses, and not our inter-country bus with the same descriptive name. We even lost each other in this madness, and now I was really worried, three minutes to 8 and I had lost a friend and was probably missing my trip.

I still don’t know what made me head back to the first bus I’d seen earlier in the evening, but I am so glad that I did. The group of people waiting were now boarding, and as I got closer, the driver was getting into his seat. Was the CityBus to Berlin I asked in a last hopeless effort. Yes indeed it was! I still cannot get over that immense relief, you know when you have narrowly missed something that could have been a mini-disaster?

But once inside I was worried again…what about A_? He’d run off looking for the CityBus terminal and we’d lost each other. Did he run back to where I was? Should I ask the driver to wait? Were drivers in Europe okay with these “please adjust na” kind of requests?

Just as I was tangling myself in self-made complexities, A_ walked into the bus! Lovely! We greeted each other happily, laughing at our collective anxiety and relief that was washing over us. And now we could discuss Berlin and what we were planning to do there. It turned out that we were staying in hostels that were close-ish, so we decided we’d do the Brandenburg walk together.

My first view from the bus the next morning, Berlin’s communist-era TV tower.

Anne Frank’s House

Although I spent far too little time in Amsterdam, there was one place that I meant to visit and I did- Anne Frank’s secret annexe. Anne Frank needs little introduction here, her diary has been one of those treasured introductions into a past that we must never forget. I am ever grateful to my mother for getting me this book from the library, probably when I used to be sick a lot and sat in bed reading all day.

We need every little girl (and boy) to read her diary. To understand why a precocious girl who could write so well, never grew up to be an adult. That was why I wanted to visit the last place where Anne had a semblance of normal life.

A “stippenkaart” at the Anne Frank Haus. Each dot represented 10 Jews and this map showed where the Jews were concentrated in Amsterdam. Such meticulous attention to plans of pure evil.

Photographs help me in reconstructing my travels, but I do remember the intense guilt I felt at taking pictures inside the house. Photography is forbidden, and I did not want to be that ugly tourist. At the same time, how would I remember later? So I sneaked a few shots in the beginning, but as we got into the living spaces of the Frank family I simply couldn’t. It just didn’t feel right. So these are the only photographs I took.

now you know, this is the face I make when I am breaking the rules.

I had planned the house tour after the canal ride, suspecting it would be a bit heavy on the emotions. Most of touristy Amsterdam is well within walking distance, and the city is such a pleasure to walk through. As I approached the house from the other side of the canal, I saw a line of people waiting, perhaps for the same 4 ‘o’ clock schedule that I had. When it was time, we were all ushered in, first through a modern looking space and then we started walking up narrow and rather steep wooden stairs. Stairs that reminded me of old houses in Darjeeling.

The original flight of stairs

The museum has preserved the entire section of what used to be the the annexe of the office building/ warehouses. This was the section that stayed hidden until the families inside were betrayed. As we climbed, the audio guides were helpful in giving rich details of each section. {An aside: western museums have perfected audio guides, there have been many that I was glad to have invested in.}

These narrow rooms piled vertically were the tiny spaces where some Jew families lived in hiding during the war. The architecture of Europe in the 1940s is almost more familiar to someone who comes from crumbling colonial towns like Darjeeling. I could imagine Anne’s family using the black protruding electric switches or washing dishes under grinding taps of water at the sink; even the naked light-bulbs throws a glow that I am familiar with. Suddenly her world was not so distant. Time and distance had collapsed only to reveal me and legions of tourists shuffling in spaces where all traces of the original people who lived here was gone.

The tour ends just below the steps that lead up to the roof, where if I remember correctly Anne and Peter would sometimes sneak up to. The room was Peter’s and on the wall is a photograph showing how it would most likely have been.

The misery of the Jews, and Europe’s preservation of this dark chapter in their history is absolutely unique. It is not as if there has not been genocide in other parts of the world, some have indeed been extremely cruel and brutish. There have been unrecorded eradication of people to such an extent that nothing remains of their language or culture except an artifact here or there. Sometimes mute ruins hint at a lost glory. I bring to mind entire continents of people that have been subdued, their elders silenced and their young fostered in new cultures, whose descendants become the lowest pecking order of the invaders’ society. In some instances, there have even been protracted exploitation of the weak., not an annihilation but a continuous grinding of existence.

Yet, almost nowhere have I seen an effort to preserve the past, to keep reminding others what was here once, except in Europe. An effort to atleast try and learn from what went before.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana
Before we go, we must also remember those whose humanity prevailed. This is a photograph of Miep Gies, the lady who supported the Frank family during their hiding. She is also the one who found the diary after the family was arrested. Image source: Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

Tip: Book your tour of the Anne Frank Haus in advance here.

The canals of Amsterdam

May last year, I was roaming around Europe. How impossible that seems today! If this pandemic had happened then, I would have been highly stressed today, cancelling tickets and probably crying! What strange times we live in, and how important it is to keep appreciating what you do have and have done.

To start again, last year I was in Amsterdam for a very short visit. I’d taken the train from Bonn, with a detour to Louvain-La-Neuve. I still remember not understanding the train system in Belgium and waiting for hours for a train that never came at a windy platform in Ottignes. You can read about what I did at LLN here.

I loved Amsterdam from the moment the train started entering the Dutch countryside. I was staying at a women-only hostel which was a lot of fun and I had already drawn up an itinerary. Compared to the earlier two cities, Amsterdam was a breath of multi-ethnic fresh air, more people, more chaos and more smiles too. This was a city that knew met lot of different people, and knew that the best way to survive is to try and live together. Probably my best memory is also of big-built young men, Ajax fans, crowding into the metro after a game, and how they sang, beating their big nordic feet in time, and probably holding up the metro at a station or two.

Some of the houses have darker windows- these are the houses that lost people to the Great Plague. Current residents are required to keep the windows a darker shade of glass.

What does the person from a southern climate and developing world see? Firstly I saw that the photographs I took came out crisper. Like there was no dust anywhere and the light was sharper. At the same time, that sun that looks so bright? Don’t be fooled by it. Throughout my stay at Amsterdam (and most of other places until blessed Athens) I was sniffling at the cold wind. This was like Darjeeling, minus the grime and with well…more prosperous people. Of-course it took a museum trip for me to realise just how the Dutch became so prosperous as they sailed out from their small country and extracted resources from distant colonies. Note to self: the rich are rich because they have, or currently do, extracted more resources than their fair-share. That is a fact of life that we must all remember before we berate our poor selves 🙂

One of the starkest observations for me was to see how everywhere in Europe, the emphasis is on preservation and a transition to the modern, rather than the immediate bull-dozing and concretisation that characterises so much of Indian “growth”. If you don’t believe me, and can feel your (nationalistic?!) bristles rising…then I will humbly point you to how Bangalore/Bengaluru now looks like a countless Indian cities. Or sample my little town of Darjeeling and Gangtok, losing their charm everyday as the locals scramble over each other (literally) to build “hotels”. Nothing from the past deserves a second chance, it’s like watching the final descent of a once noble house. The good times have passed, and now the decadent descendants cannot wait to sell every last family jewel, or failing which, every rusty door-knob.

The Asiatic in us strives to great resplendent glory, and then we tear it all down before the day is over. The next morning it is like we were never there.

Mostly what I loved about Amsterdam was a welcome straight-forwardness and lack of, what we in India call “emotional atyachaar”.

Everything is OK, said many of my guides, as long as you don’t kill someone against their will and as long as you pay your taxes.

My Sandeman guide said this as he walked us through the red-light district, and the boat-ride pilot from Those Dam Boat Guys said that too. He then pointed at the Museum of Sex at the mouth of the River Amstel and told us how school kids were encouraged to visit the place. After all, why would you not want the children to learn more about how they were created?!