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The Pakistani Shop on Istedgade February 13, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.

istedgade-copenhagen-shoppingWay back in the year 1993, my colleague Matt and I embarked on our first official trip to our HQ in Denmark. Another colleague G who was already there in Denmark came to pick us up at the airport. “Good thing you came in today. If you had come tomorrow, we may have missed each other!”, he said. When we heard that he was flying out the next day, we were thoroughly taken aback as we had been informed that he would be there to guide us till we became familiar with the new city. When he saw panic on our faces, he laughed and said “Don’t worry. We will do a dry run to the office and back, so that at least you can get started on the work front. Other things I will explain as well as I can and then you can take your time to figure out the rest!”.

So from the airport we went to our new home, which was a fairly large house in a quiet suburb, dropped our bags and accompanied G to the office. We had to take a bus, then a train, then another train and finally a bus to get to the office. By the time we came back it was fairly late. We stopped to have a quick bite at a falafel joint and then went shopping for groceries. G pointed out a couple of Indian restaurants from the bus and before we knew it, it was dark and the day was gone.

G was considerate enough to spend his last day in Copenhagen giving us clear instructions prioritized on how critical it was for survival. It was a lot of information in a short period of time and quite difficult to remember. There was the central heating system to master, the cooking range to get used to, learn how and when to clear the snow and who to call in an emergency.

Then there were details on where to buy the train and bus passes, when to take the bus in the morning so as to reach office in time, what to do if we missed a connection, the last bus with connections, and how to pronounce the home and office addresses in case we got lost along the way and needed to ask for directions.

On top of all that were all the work details including who to report to, who was in charge of guiding us, where the various files that we would be working on were, which bugs needed to be fixed urgently and how to use the new revision control system.

We jotted down as much as we could, but it was all pretty overwhelming. A new city, a language we did not speak and pretty much no one to talk to, life was going to be tough for the first few days! “Now you are all set for life in Copenhagen”, said G breezily. “The only item on the list that I have been unable to complete is the trip to the Pakistani shop, where you get all the Indian veggies, condiments and spices. But don’t worry, I will give you clear directions.”, he said. Then with a glint in his eyes he continued, “Take the train to Copenhagen central station, turn west and ask for Istedgade. Anyone will direct you from there”. That sounded simple enough. We thanked him for all the support and the next day he was gone. It was a sunday and we sat at home and mulled over all that we had heard and hoped for the best.

The next morning we diligently followed G’s instructions and managed to reach office without any trouble. The buses and trains worked like clockwork and once we caught the first bus the rest of it happened pretty much as per the script. The rest of the week flew by. It was still winter and hence pretty dark most of the time. Every day, we would get up by 7 AM, get ready and catch the 8:02 AM bus. We would reach office by 9:22 AM and it would still be dark. It would brighten up a bit by about eleven and then become dark again by half past three. We would leave the office by the 5:42 PM bus and be home by around 7 PM. Those days, not just the offices but most of the shops also worked 9:30 AM – 5:30 AM on weekdays, so pretty much everything would be closed by the time we came home. We were grateful to G when we realized why he had insisted on grocery shopping before all else. If G had not stocked the fridge for the week, we may well have starved to death!

The thing we missed most the first week was Indian food. Even though I knew how to cook, we did not have any of the ingredients necessary to make any Indian dishes. G had told us that the Pakistani shop was open for the first half only on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. So we were looking forward to our first Saturday in Copenhagen.

Saturday dawned just as dark and gloomy as all the other days but our mood was sunny. We were going to venture out for the first time, for apart from the trips to office and back, we had not ventured beyond our gates. We got ready, wore all the warm clothes we had brought, put on the black leather jacket and embarked on our quest for some Indian masala and coriander leaves, at the very least.

It was easy enough to get to the Central station. Once we were there we were totally lost. G’s instructions had sounded very clear when he told us – Exit the station and proceed west. Standing in the station, the instructions sounded grossly inadequate. To begin with, the station had multiple exits. We looked around and decided to exit through the largest one hoping that would be what G would have expected. Then the next problem cropped up. Which side was west? Remember, those were the days before GPS and smartphones. We did not have a map and had just assumed that finding west would be as easy as it is back in India. After all we knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. How difficult could it be? Unfortunately Denmark was an altogether different story. Every day, the sun came up just over the horizon, drifted sideways with disinterest for a few hours and sunk back under the horizon.  There was no way of knowing which was east and which was west.

We skipped that part of the instruction and jumped to the next one. We started asking around. “Excuse me. Could you tell us how to get to Istedgade?”, I asked a middle aged gentleman outside the station. I think he did not understand English and only recognized the word Istedgade. He waved vaguely to our left and spoke one long sentence, shook his head as though in despair and walked away. We were happy. At least we knew which way was west.

We continued down in the direction he had pointed for a while but none of the street signs said anything remotely like Istedgade. So we asked the next few passers by. “Excuse me. Which way to Istedgade?”, we asked hesitantly, for nobody was making eye contact with us. The first two we accosted ignored us and several others just shrugged their shoulders and mumbled something in Danish. We assumed that they were saying they did not speak English. We then spied a newspaper stand and went there to ask for directions. This time, we decided to take a different approach. Matt walked up and asked “Excuse me, do you speak English?”. The shop keeper must have been an English man for he replied sarcastically  “Of course not!”. He then turned away a little rudely and we clearly heard him mutter “Looking for Istedgade, I suppose and so early in the morning!”. We left him to his grumbling and walked a little further while scanning the roads for Pakistanis or Indians. But there were none about. Then we saw a shop that was open and I told Matt, “I am going in there and asking the person inside. If we can’t get proper directions, we go back home, that’s it!”. Matt agreed readily because he was also getting tired of timidly saying “Excuse me” to strangers.

I went in and found a sweet old lady. I asked her the way to Istedgade. She smiled beatifically and gently held my hand, walked with us for about 100 meters and then pointed at the next crossroads and said “Take the next left there and you are on Istedgade. Hope you find what you are looking for.” I think I may have said “Absolutely. You can’t imagine how desperate we are”. We thanked her profusely and with our faith in humanity restored, we briskly walked towards the next turn.

We took the left and walked a few meters and there it was – the small Pakistani store, sandwiched between two huge showrooms one screaming “Delta love shop and spunk bar” and the other emblazoned simply “Sex Shop. Dildos for all”. With mouths agape, we looked around and there were tattoed women lounging everywhere. It appeared that we had entered the heart of Copenhagen’s red light area!

The strange looks and snide remarks of all those people we had asked for directions started making perfect sense. While I was thinking “It’s OK. Nobody knows me in this country” and beginning to take an interest in the displays, Matt was turning red. He looked down and ran into the Pakistani store as though his virginity was at stake. I followed him slowly in what I hoped would look like a nonchalant walk though I don’t know how I could have possibly carried it off with my jaws down and eyes nearly popping out.

I picked up all that we needed from the Pakistani store while Matt tried to postpone getting out of the store by searching for non-existent products that we didn’t need. Finally we mustered up enough courage and beat a hasty retreat. Matt hit the bible hard that evening.

After six months my first stint in Denmark ended and I came back to India. Since I was not assigned to any other project for a few days, I thought I could use this time effectively by writing a handbook for my colleagues going to Denmark on work. After all, I did not want them to suffer the way Matt and I had. I put together about 30 pages crammed with the information that G had given us along with all the rest we had learnt during our stay. The booklet also had common phrases in Danish, how to nod your head so the Danes understood what you meant and even some easy Indian recipes. I put in everything I could think of into that book and in great detail. But when I was writing about the Pakistani store, I don’t know what evil got into me. Instead of giving clear directions, I only put in what G had told us, just a cryptic “Take the train to Copenhagen central, go west and ask for directions to Istedgade”.

Over the next 4 – 5 years a steady stream of my colleagues went to Denmark on work with a copy of my handbook to guide them, possibly resulting in a steady stream of young guys asking for directions to Istedgade on Saturday mornings. Some days I like to imagine that there is a Dane somewhere going “You know, these Indians are a strange people. I have found most of them to be gentle, well-mannered and largely God fearing. They’ll  wax eloquently about a wide range of topics from movies and sports to arranged marriages and the benefits of monogamous relationships. But come Saturday morning, and they will all be making a beeline to the whore house. Go figure!”.



1. padmaja - February 17, 2016

lol!!! u r evil!

globejam - February 17, 2016


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