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Bitter-sweet memories August 9, 2017

Posted by globejam in Denmark, Uncategorized.
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cranberry juiceWhen Matt moved to Denmark, the thing he pined for most was his church. It had been the centre of his social life back in Madras and he missed the weekly sermons, the choir practice and the company of his friends. A devout catholic, he appeared to suffer from extreme withdrawal symptoms every Sunday.

After watching him fidget around for a couple of weeks, I suggested he find a local church he could attend instead. I also helpfully pointed to a church close to our house, observing how it was empty all the time and should provide him with all the peace and quiet he required. Matt however, was not looking for peace and quiet. He was not interested in just any old catholic church either. He wanted an Orthodox Syrian Catholic church, preferably filled with Orthodox Syrian Malayalees, or at least, a congregation that he could identify with.

My suggestion to look for a substitute church was, however, not entirely lost on him. So, over the next month or so, Matt left home Sunday mornings to check out churches around Copenhagen looking for people he could gel with. Thankfully for him, quite soon, he found a Russian Orthodox church which he felt was very similar to his church back home. He told me that he did not understand the sermon as it was mostly delivered in Russian or Danish, neither language he could understand, but nevertheless, he felt connected and that made him happy.

A new routine set in after that. Every Sunday, Matt would get up early, dress up in his finest and go to his church. He would return in the afternoon in time for lunch, most often with a fellow congregation member in tow. Over the next few months, I met a steady stream of colourful characters from all walks of life, whom I would never have crossed paths with if not for Matt. One such fine character was Mr Beraki who eventually became a regular visitor until one fateful day.

Mr Beraki was an Ethiopian. Unable to take the long and protracted civil war in his home country, he had somehow wound up in Denmark where he had been welcomed as a refugee and given asylum. At one of the transition camps, he had met and married a fellow refugee from Russia. At the time he first came to our house, they were waiting to get their permanent residence permit in Denmark. While that process was going on, Mr B made himself useful by teaching engineering drawing at a school nearby.

Most Sundays, he would accompany Matt to our house. Like Matt, he was also a man of few words and they would just sit together in companionable silence for a couple of hours before he said his goodbye and left. We would, of course, invite him to join us for lunch, but he always politely refused. Each time he came home, he would come with one of his children, every time a different one, and each one cuter than the previous. I lost count of how many children he had, but I am sure it was somewhere between quite a few and far too many. The typical, impolite, insensitive Indian that I was, I asked him once how they managed to afford looking after so many children given his meagre refugee support payments. He politely answered, in a disarmingly candid and surprisingly dignified way, that more children meant more allowance from the Danish Government and so having more children actually helped them! I wondered aloud how the Danish government felt about that point of view, to which he nodded sagely as though he was ready to consider their opinion too.

Since he became a regular fixture who consistently refrained from sharing our lunch, we made it a point to buy different fruit drinks and punches to serve him and such of his children old enough to drink them. Some of the juices we liked ourselves, but there were quite a few that were always too sweet for us. Having tasted rye bread  and gammel dansk, both unpalatable to the unaccustomed, we just decided there was no accounting for taste and left it at that. One drink that we found too sweet even by “Danish” standards was the cranberry juice. That tetra pack had languished in the fridge for a few days untouched after the first syrupy sip.

When Mr B came next with his eldest, a boy of about 12, Matt must have thought that was a good time to reopen the cranberry juice. He filled two tall glasses for them while the two of us had our lunch, all sitting around the table. Mr B took one sip and then did not touch his glass again, while his son smacked his lips and emptied the entire glass in one long slurp. Matt, the attentive host, refilled his glass with more juice which also disappeared just as quickly. In retrospect, I don’t quite know what was going on in Mr B’s mind, but after a while he obligingly nudged his full glass towards his son. Not requiring another invitation, the kid finished that drink too.

Only after the kid had polished off the last drop of his third full glass did Mr B casually remark that the pack had the word “Koncentret” written on it. Matt, despite not understanding a word of Danish, very dismissively responded, saying “That’s just Danish for juice. It says the same on the pack of orange juice I have for breakfast”. Not wanting to argue, Mr B nodded his head noncommittally and gently also pointed to the small print below and said “It also says here to mix one part of the concentrate with 5 parts of water”.

The import of that statement struck us simultaneously. No wonder the drink had been so cloyingly sweet! Matt burst out laughing while I turned to look at Mr B’s son who had finished nearly a liter of concentrated cranberry juice under the watchful gaze of his father. There he was, sitting rigidly upright, his eyes glassy and his lips smudged a bright scarlet. Combined with his porcelain skin and mop of black curly hair, he looked like a doll on which a child had liberally smeared lipstick.

Matt reined in his laughter quickly while I struggled to put on an expression of adequate remorse. Mr B’s expression, however, never changed. He got up languidly, bid us adieu, took hold of his son’s hand gently and left.

We never saw them again.

Action in Stockholm March 29, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
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fuzzy-TV-thumb-500x343-7074One fine Sunday afternoon, Matt walked into the house with a spring in his step and announced “We are going to Stockholm!”. I was surprised. A couple of weeks earlier I had broached the subject of going to Stockholm or Oslo during the forthcoming long weekend and had gotten a lukewarm response. Later that week I had tried to kindle his interest with “Stockholm is supposed to be really beautiful this time of the year, with wonderful rivers and bridges”, and again with “The art museums are world class, you know”. Matt had not responded one way or another. Then suddenly it appeared that my hard-selling had worked after all.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I agreed readily. Then hoping he would thank me for the idea, I asked, “So what made you change your mind?”. Apparently it had nothing to do with my suggestions. He had called his mother over the phone on his way back from Church and she had told him that their Parish priest had asked Matt to visit his nephew Steve who was in Stockholm currently. Steve being a fellow parishioner and a childhood friend, Matt was very keen on meeting him again after a long time.

“Glad that you agreed”, gushed Matt, as though it was all his idea in the first place. “Steve is a great guy, you will like him and we can stay with him at his house”, he continued. Not too keen on imposing myself on a stranger, I expressed my discomfiture. However, Matt was quite sure Steve would be happy to accommodate me and asked me not to worry. Finally, after some back and forth, we decided that Matt would call Steve and explicitly ask if we could stay there before we took any further action. A couple of days later, I asked Matt if he had spoken to Steve but Matt was a little evasive, just saying “Don’t worry, I know Steve. I am sure it won’t be a problem”. I felt that something was amiss, but not wanting to probe deeper, I quietly booked a room in Stockholm, just in case. It proved to be a wise decision, as you will see.

Subsequently, we booked our tickets, by train and ferry from Copenhagen to Stockholm and set off that weekend. We boarded the train in the late afternoon and took our seats. The train went up north to Helsingør, the famous setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There, we had to cross the sea to reach Helsingborg on the Swedish side. We had assumed that we would have to disembark, get on to the ferry, get off at the other end and catch another train. However, it turned out that we did not have to move an inch. At Helsingør, to our great astonishment, the train got divvied up and loaded onto a ferry, with us and all the other passengers still inside. The ferry then crossed the Øresund, the strait separating Sjælland and Skåne, a distance of about 4 Kms in about 20 minutes. At the other end, the train assembled itself again and we continued onward towards Stockholm.

Though the sea journey was only 20 minutes, all the dis-assembly and assembly meant that the actual time taken for the crossing was closer to about 4 hours. So, by the time we were on the Swedish side, it had become late evening. We had something to eat and retired to our berths for the night. For someone used to the narrow Indian no-frills berths, the ones on the Swedish train appeared luxurious. Each cubicle had four berths and an attached toilet. Built for Danes and Swedes, the berths were easily 7ft in length and a good two-and-half to three feet wide. They had soft beds with deep blue upholstery, fluffy white pillows and even softer blankets. The train was practically empty so I had one entire cubicle all to myself. Matt, likewise, had a cubicle all to himself.

I closed the curtains and lay down thinking how wonderful and peaceful travelling by train was turning out to be in that part of the world. I wistfully thought how it would have been even nicer to have had my girlfriend with me there. Which got me wondering about how many Danes may have made love on these very berths while travelling from one country to another. Which of course led me to worry about body fluids and hygiene. Which got me bolting out of the berth. I jumped down, switched on the light and minutely examined the berth, the pillows and the blankets. Thankfully, there were no telltale blotches or stains and everything appeared to be every bit as clean as I had initially assumed. Banishing all thoughts of sex, involving me or anyone else, I climbed back into the berth and slept peacefully through the rest of the journey.

Early next morning, I woke up as the train entered Stockholm station. Matt was already near the door with his bags, all excited and raring to go. We got off the train and caught a bus to Steve’s house. On our way, the usually reticent Matt was uncharacteristically loquacious and gave me some background on Steve.

Apparently, Steve and Matt had been neighbours in Chennai and thick friends since their early childhood. They had gone to the same school and the same church and were both members of their church choir. They had been practically inseparable till their college days. Both families were devout Christians, with Steve’s extended family having a number of priests amongst them. Steve’s uncle was their parish priest and everyone, including Steve, believed that Steve would follow his uncle into priesthood. Many in the parish also secretly believed that Matt would also become a priest along with his friend one day. If at all there was a blemish in their friendship,it was that Steve’s family had the unfortunate habit of comparing Steve unfavourably to Matt on occasion. Steve, Matt felt, resented this a little, though apparently he understood that it was no fault of Matt’s.

As things turned out, Matt’s family was not keen on him becoming a priest, and shockingly Steve also had other ideas. Steve met a girl, fell in love with her, and promptly dropped out of his priesthood training despite strong opposition from family. Matt, the sensible link between Steve and the rest of his almost estranged family, was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing Steve back on track. The subsequent attempts by Matt had only resulted in putting a strain on their friendship and this had resulted in Steve moving away from Matt as well. Finally, Steve, unable to take on the mounting pressure, quietly gathered a few other friends as witnesses and got married to Marie at the local registrar’s office.

Steve’s family, having no other choice, had quickly accepted the situation and embraced Steve and his new wife Marie back into the family fold. Steve’s uncle, not wanting Steve’s association with the church to discontinue, had found him gainful employment within the church itself. This was how Steve now found himself in Sweden on Church business.

As for the friendship between Steve and Matt, it had not recovered fully from that episode, though they had continued to stay in touch sporadically. Matt was hoping that this trip could be that opportunity to rectify the situation that he had been longing for.

Needless to say, I worried about how their reunion might turn out and hoped that our reception would not be a cold one. I needn’t have worried. Steve turned out to be a friendly chap and his welcome was spontaneous and effusive. He hugged Matt tightly and wouldn’t let him go. Matt, not used to such overt expressions of affection, reciprocated hesitantly, but I could see that he was also greatly relieved and extremely happy with the profuse welcome. After a while, Steve noticed me, apologised for his lapse in hospitality, introduced himself as Matt’s best friend and invited me into his house.

He introduced me to his wife Marie, and then to his six months old daughter. Marie said “hi” to the both of us and went back to the kitchen. From the smells wafting from the kitchen, it appeared that she was cooking up a feast in honour of Matt’s visit. I made myself comfortable on their Sofa while Steve was bringing Matt up to speed on all that had happened since they last met. Matt was listening to him with rapt attention and one could see that everything was getting back to as it should be between two childhood friends.

While they were catching up, I took my time to give the place a once over. The house we were in was a study in contrast. It was one of a row of single storey, single bedroom tenements that had seen better days. The furniture in the hall consisted of a faux-leather sofa set with cracks in the upholstery, a small cane tea table with some nails sticking out, a wooden dining table with a tattered plastic table cover and four mismatched chairs. In the bedroom, I could see from where I was sitting, two mattresses on the floor and no other furniture. It was as though somebody had pieced together everything at a garage sale. However, there was also an extremely large, and clearly new television set connected to a dish antenna. In addition, a large bowl of fruits dominated the dining table, and the fridge, I noticed when Marie opened it to take something out, was well stocked with lots of meat and other good stuff. On the tea table were a lot of magazines including the latest editions of Time and Newsweek.

From overhearing some of the conversation between Steve and Matt, I gleaned that the church was paying for all this and it looked like, though the church didn’t care too much for appearances, it was making sure Steve and his family had all the creature comforts that they desired.

After a while, the little baby started crying and Steve went into the bedroom to make her sleep. Subsequently, excusing himself, Steve joined his wife in the kitchen, leaving us to amuse ourselves. I started browsing through the magazines while Matt grabbed the remote to see what was on TV. The remote was a battered piece of metal, probably having received rough treatment in the hands of the baby. Its battery cover was missing and the batteries were practically dead. It would work once or twice and then stop working. Matt would then slap it repeatedly and twirl the batteries to give it an additional two clicks of life. While we were thus engaged, Steve, being the good host, would peek out of the kitchen every now and then and try and engage Matt is some conversation.

All that unaccustomed talking must have tired out Matt. Soon he was lolling on the sofa with the usual glazed look on his face while he continued mindlessly changing channels. I watched him for a few seconds, happy that normal services had resumed and went back to my magazine. A few minutes later, my attention was rudely drawn by some moaning sounds from the TV. I looked up to see on TV two voluptuous women soaping each other under the shower. I quickly turned to Matt, who was as usual in some other world and hissed “Matt! Change the channel quickly!”. Startled thus, Matt jumped up like a jack in the box. He frantically pressed the buttons on the remote but nothing happened. Exasperated, he then gave it a hard slap. Too hard, unfortunately, for remote jerked out of his hand and crashed to the floor. The case flew to one side while the batteries ejected and rolled under the Sofa. Matt stood there transfixed in the middle of the room, with his mouth agape, looking alternately at me and towards the kitchen, while the moaning and soaping continued unabated. For once, I had my wits about me and I quickly jumped and pulled the TV plug out of the socket. Thankfully, Steve and Marie seemed not to have noticed anything and we let out a collective sigh of relief.

A few minutes later Marie announced that lunch was ready. Steve set the table and brought out a veritable feast, including rice, chicken curry, beef pepper fry, sambar, rasam and the works. I thoroughly enjoyed myself though Matt appeared a little preoccupied, probably still thinking about the near disaster. After lunch, while Steve and Marie were clearing the table, Matt thanked me profusely for my quick reaction. I brushed aside his compliments, saying it was nothing and that anyway we were all adults and Steve looked like a grounded guy and would not have made a big deal of it. Besides, I pointed out with a laugh, I had only switched off the TV and in all probability when they switched it on again, the same channel would be playing, and they would find out anyway. I thought he would see the funny side of it, but Matt’s face turned ashen. When I gently admonished him for making a big issue of nothing, he said that I didn’t know Steve and that he might tell the people in their parish back home that Matt watched such programs and tarnish his spotless reputation.

Though not entirely convinced, I tried looking for the power switch of the dish antenna to solve the problem once and for all, but couldn’t spot it. Matt in the meanwhile I noticed was getting increasingly agitated. So in order pacify him I half-jokingly offered, “Don’t worry. If he does go back and tell everyone, just tell them it was me doing the watching and not you”. Matt shook his head vehemently and stated categorically that he couldn’t possibly do such an awful thing as to put the blame on me.

Before we could contemplate the next line of action, Steve and Marie joined us in the hall having completed their kitchen work. “I hope you are staying with us”, said Steve. Now that I had met Steve, I was actually quite comfortable with this idea and was about to nod my head in the affirmative when much to my surprise Matt abruptly announced that we had already booked a room closer to the centre of Stockholm as that would help us see more of the city within the short span of our stay. Though disappointed, Steve was gracious and agreed that was also a good idea. After a few more minutes, Matt suggested that we leave and so we bid farewell to the Steves and left their place.

Once we left their house, not wanting him to get worked up again, I confessed to Matt that I had already booked a room in the heart of the city, just in case, and we could go there. He seemed relieved. As the evening progressed, Matt seemed to become more and more relaxed and he was back to his normal self by the end of the day. The rest of the trip turned out great and we returned to Copenhagen with wonderful memories.

A few years later, Matt got married. I attended his wedding reception and got introduced to his pretty wife. I asked if Steve was around, wanting to say “hello”. Matt informed me that Steve wasn’t there as he had not been invited. He further told me that they were no longer on speaking terms. “Just as I predicted,…”, he started, when his mother joined us. He stopped whatever he was saying in mid-sentence and introduced me as his close friend and ex-colleague. She hugged me affectionately and said it was good to meet one of Matt’s few close friends and asked me for my name. When I mentioned it, she turned to Matt and asked, “Is he the one who went to Denmark and Stockholm with you?”. Matt started saying “Yes…” and then looked guiltily at me. Having got her answer, his mother then glared at me and turned away as though someone else had caught her attention. Not wanting the embarrass Matt on his wedding day, I pretended as though I had not noticed anything amiss. I congratulated Matt once again on his marriage, wished the newlyweds all the very best and left.

But I knew that he knew that I knew that he had, after all, acted on my suggestion offered half-jokingly so many years ago.

Chalk and cheese February 21, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
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cow-chewing-grassMatt and I were very different. Poles apart actually. Like chalk and cheese, you could say.

I was gregarious while he was reserved. I wanted to go out and see places; he was content to stay at home. I loved the work I was doing, but for him it was just something to do. I was, and still am an atheist and he was, and probably still is, a devout Christian, an Orthodox Syrian Christian. I needed to be unnecessarily early for every bus, train and plane I had to catch while for him everything was last minute. I was born a vegetarian but ate everything that was deemed fit to eat, including pickled fish, dry rye bread and whatever Danish cuisine had to offer. Matt on the other hand was a non-vegetarian but very picky about his food. He preferred Indian with the only exception being burgers from McDonalds or Burger King. I loved listening to music while he did not seem particularly interested. I smoked though not regularly and liked an occasional beer or two. He was a non-smoking teetotaller. The biggest difference, however, was that I was a chatterbox and he was extremely miserly with words.

Despite all that, we got along very well. Having stayed with other colleagues at different times in different countries, I can confidently say that there could have been no better a roomie for my first stint abroad. He was neat and tidy. He was game for all my suggestions. If I said “It looks like a fine day, let’s go out”, he would say “ok” without even asking where we were heading. Importantly, if we ended up at a museum, an exhibition or the cinema and we needed to buy entrance tickets, he never thought of it as an unnecessary expense. He was one of the few Indians I know who did not constantly convert every expense from Kroner to Rupee and obsess over it.

At home we shared the work without having to ever explicitly ask each other to do things. If I cooked, he cleaned up afterwards and when he cooked I did likewise. He never once complained about what I put on the table and to be fair to myself, I was also always appreciative of his cooking, however it turned out. We went shopping together with a list. If something outside the list took our fancy we just bought it. We did not split the bill every time we spent money outside. We had a jar at home into which we shoved all the common bills marked with our initials and at the end of the week or whenever we had the time and patience, we would go through it quickly and settle the accounts. Neither of us pored over each of the bills or worried about who ate how much of what.

There was only one bath and toilet and thanks to our routines being so different, there was never any contention over who went in first. Same with the washing machine. Some days I would have just loaded my clothes into the machine when he would come out of his room with a basket full of his clothes to wash. He would see that I was already using the washing machine and say “OK, I will do the washing some other time”, and turn back into the room. It was domestic bliss. I was happy and extremely lucky to have had a guy like Matt to share my early days in Denmark.

It may not have been as easy for Matt though. On cold days, I would go stand outside the kitchen and have a smoke. In the evenings, if we did not go anywhere out, I might open a bottle of beer and sit in front of the TV. Matt clearly disapproved of all this, though he never said a word about it. I loved listening to music and had a small cassette player and a pair of portable speakers. I played most of the music in my room, but sometimes when I was cooking or doing other domestic chores, I would bring my player out to keep me company. I had an eclectic collection from classic rock to carnatic music much of it uninteresting to Matt. The only time he perked up was when I played Jim Reeves. Listening to somebody else’s choice of music is never easy and I wouldn’t blame Matt if he had been just a bit annoyed at some point in time.

Once in a while we would go to the Video Netto lending library to pick up a movie or two. While Matt would scour the top floor, with eternal optimism and very little success, for Mamooty and Mohanlal starrers, I would, with equal optimism and just as unsuccessfully, be browsing the much larger basement, scanning the racier sections for movies with a strong storyline. Again, Matt clearly disapproved, but as always held his tongue.  Not that he had too much to frown upon in this case as invariably we returned with movies that both of us could watch – mostly spaghetti westerns.

The thing he would have found most difficult to handle must have been that I talked incessantly while all he wanted was some peace and quiet. Something that must have been near impossible for him to find with me around. This was one area where things could have been a little better for me as well. I could have done with some conversations. In all the time we were there, Matt never spoke more than a few words a day. It was the same in office too. While I would participate in meetings, discuss ideas, raise issues and give status updates, Matt would get through his day with barely a word spoken. Back home, we never discussed his work, though I talked about what I was working on at length. Sometimes, I would go on and on for a few minutes on some topic that had caught my fancy, turn around and find Matt staring into space with glazed eyes. “Matt! Matt, have you heard a word of what I said?”, I would exclaim. Upon repeated calling, a furrow would gradually appear on his forehead as though he was straining to hear someone calling his name from a great distance. Then with visible effort, he would reel himself back into his body from wherever he had drifted to. He would turn around and look at me with mildly surprised eyes as though to say “Hey, where did you come from?”. Finally, realization would dawn that we had been in a middle of a conversation before he had switched off and then he would smile a little sheepishly and say “Go on. I am listening”. After every such incident, I would promise myself to give him the space, peace and quiet he needed. I would consciously refrain from talking to him and we would go for days on end without exchanging a word. I doubt whether Matt even noticed these interludes while I struggled with my self-imposed vow of silence. An excruciating few days later I would revert to my usual garrulous self. Matt never shushed me even once during our entire stay. Then again maybe he never heard me at all.

All things considered, of the two of us, I may have had the better deal. Looking back there was only one thing that really annoyed me and that was Matt’s habit of chewing with his mouth open. He would open his mouth wide after every bite and each time I would hear the sound of his tongue separating from the roof of his mouth. The smack, smack, smack of his mastication was difficult to take, to put it mildly. You might think that this is a minor issue that I am blowing up. However, it built up as the days went by. There was no escaping it as we had dinner together most days. Also you must appreciate that there were absolutely no other noises to detract from the full impact of the sound. During the entire period of dinner, all I would hear were these regular smacks, each one seemingly louder than its predecessor, working on me like the drops of water that dripped on the forehead of some poor soul stuck in a Chinese torture chamber. Most days, not wanting to upset Matt, I would just put my head down, gobble up my food and scoot. But one day, it became too much to bear. After anguishing over whether to raise the issue or not through most of the meal, I blurted out “Stop”. Unable to look him in the eye, I stared at my plate and continued “Please don’t chew with your mouth open. It’s disgusting and driving me nuts. I cannot take it anymore. Did your parents not teach you to keep your mouth closed when there is food in your mouth?”. I must have ranted on for a full five minutes unable to control myself now that the flood gates had opened. All spent, I calmed myself down and mustered up the courage to look up at him.

Matt was there, two feet from me, staring at the ceiling with vacant eyes. Clearly he had switched off long before I had started my tirade. Worried equally that he may have heard, or not, I shook him by the shoulder and inquired “Matt! Did you hear anything at all?”. He slowly came back to himself, smiled his guileless smile and said “Sorry. What was that again?”.

Matt was a gentle soul. I did not have the heart to hurt him by repeating all the nasty things I had just uttered. I forced on a smiled and said, “Nothing. I was thinking maybe we could go to Tivoli tomorrow”. He nodded his head good-naturedly and resumed his chewing as usual.

When I learnt a little bit more about myself February 16, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
3 comments

Neonazi-skinheads

My morning schedule on working days in Denmark was unvarying. I would get up at half-past six, brush my teeth, have a bath, grab a bite for breakfast, walk to the nearest bus stop, and catch the 8:02 AM bus for the first leg of my journey to the office.

Matt’s schedule was a little different. His first goal for the day was to get up as late as possible. Most days I would have to knock on his room door a few times before he would respond. He would then leap out of his room and rush into the bathroom and before I could say “Good Morning”, he would be gulping down a glass of juice for breakfast and leaving the house with me to catch our bus. One day he came out of his room at 7:55 AM and still managed to catch the bus at 8:02. How he managed to brush his teeth, use the toilet, have a bath, get dressed, have breakfast, lock the house and cover the 400 meters to the bus stop in those 7 minutes, I will never know.

In all the time we lived in Denmark, there was only one day when he missed catching the bus. That was the day I learnt something about myself.  Till then I had always thought of myself as “unbiased”, “broad-minded” and “non-judgmental”.

On that day, Matt did not emerge even after I knocked on his door several times. When I could not wait any longer, I screamed, “I am leaving now” through his door and left. I walked slowly to the bus stop, constantly looking over my shoulder expecting Matt to run up and join me at any moment. Logically, there was no way that Matt could have made it that day, but he had defied logic on so many occasions that I was not willing to write him off. I reached the bus stop and still there was no sign of him. Soon the bus came and I got in, still looking in the direction from which I expected Matt to emerge at any moment. Finally, just as the bus doors closed and the bus started, I saw Matt turn the last corner at a fair sprint waving frantically at the receding bus. The last view I had was of him standing with his arms on his hips, gasping for breath.

I made the rest of the trip alone. I caught our regular train for the second leg and reached Lyngby station, changed platforms and reached platform 2 just as my train to Birkerød trundled in. That train was almost always empty at that time of the day and that day was no different. When I got into the compartment I noticed that I had it all to myself.

At the next station, a group of about twelve youngsters got in. Late teens or early twenties by the look of it and extremely noisy. Despite having the entire compartment to choose from, they came and sat in the section I was in. I watched their animated faces and listened in on their excited talk though I could not make out a word of what they were saying. I was happy with the company and the noise actually. Denmark is a very quiet country and I had been missing all the noise and action of chaotic Chennai.

As I continued to surreptitiously watch them, slowly more details registered. Tonsured heads and mohawks, tatooes and earrings, leather jackets and heavy boots. Suddenly realization dawned. They were Skinheads. No doubt about it. A recent news item about a fellow Indian having been beaten to death by a group of Neo-Nazis skinheads in neighbouring Germany flashed through my mind. I feared the worst. I looked around and absorbed the scene. There I was, a single tiny non-European, stuck in a moving train with 12 possible Neo-Nazis!

I kept my head down and made myself smaller that my diminutive 5 ft, 6 inches. Maybe I will escape if I did not make eye contact, I thought. Maybe I could talk my way out of this. Did not Hitler think Indians were part of the Aryan race? Would telling them that I had no plans on settling down in Denmark help? Could promising to leave the country in a week’s time get me off the hook? A million thoughts ran through my head. “Bugger Matt”, I cursed pointlessly, as I broke into a sweat.

A few minutes went by, and they continued their animated discussion. The next station came and I was in two minds whether to try and dash out and possibly draw their attention or remain quiet and hope to go unnoticed. I chose the latter because I would have to go past them in order to reach the door and any one of them, all well built and strong, could have easy held me down with one hand if they wanted. A few more uneventful minutes later, I started to relax a bit. They had not shown any interest in me and seemed totally oblivious to my presence. “Not every Skinhead is a Neo-Nazi, you idiot”, I admonished myself.

Just as I thought I would get away unscathed,  I saw one guy nudge his friend and nod in my direction . The friend who till then had been regaling the crowd with what seemed to be a really funny story stopped in mid-sentence and looked in my direction for a second. Then he leaned forward conspiratorially and spoke in a low voice. The others suddenly quietened down too and cast furtive glances in my direction. More whispered discussions ensued.

A new stream of unbidden and unwarranted thoughts raced through my mind. “They probably think I am some uneducated refugee looking to suck their social security system dry. Just because I am brown in color doesn’t mean I am some homeless asylum seeker. Well I am not. I am here because your country requires my skills. I am adding value to your economy”, I shouted inside my own head. “Don’t forget Tranquebar. You tried colonizing us, remember? I still hold no grudge against you”. And then ” Oh! My God! I am going to die in the hands of these racist bigots”.

The next days headlines flashed in front of my eyes. “Indian software engineer beaten to death!”, screamed one. “Racism raises its ugly head”, said another. I imagined bloody Matt giving sound bites about how lucky he was to have missed the bus that day.

Then the nudger got up and started sauntering towards me. “This is the end, my friend”, I muttered as I braced myself for the action. The mohawked youth came close to me, bent down and whispered “Our apologies for disturbing you”. On cue all the other guys and girls got up, said “sorry” most politely and trooped off to the other end of the compartment.

As I sat there thinking about what had just happened, I realized that in truth there had only ever been one racist bigot on that train that day.

The Pakistani Shop on Istedgade February 13, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
2 comments

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!”.

About cringe-worthy verbal tics… February 10, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark, This is not bad. It's worse!.
1 comment so far

cringe-emojiJust as some people have nervous tics, some others have what I call verbal tics. These manifest under various conditions, most commonly under stress. In some cases these tics become a habit even after the stressful times have passed.

A verbal tic is when a person adds a word or a phrase, you know, on a regular basis, you know, like during a conversation, you know? I mean, a verbal tic is quite often, I mean, inserted because, like nature which abhors a vacuum, some people, I mean, seem to hate pauses in between or within sentences. I guess you get the point.

These verbal tics, like their nervous counterparts can sometimes lead to undesirable and even funny outcomes. One such incident happened a long time ago…

It was a time when the software industry in India was just beginning to blossom and “body shopping” was all in vogue. Software companies of all colours and hues were mushrooming everywhere with genuine companies, fly-by-night operators, and unscrupulous elements all raking in the moolah!

At that time, I was working for an obscure Danish company that was hardly known in India. We had offices all over the world, and there was great need for people both in Europe and in the US. As part of our expansion drive, I along with Sri and Sashi were despatched to Bangalore to recruit a bunch of guys for our European operations.

We made an incongruous trio. I was young and looked much younger than my years and dressed to the hilt – tie, suit, boot and all. Sri, a decade older, had the capital I from the Iyengar drawn in startling vermilion on his forehead and being an anti-colonial non-conformist, was not wearing the proscribed suit. Sashi was somewhere in between, managing to somehow appear properly attired and disheveled at the same time.

Sashi was the head of HR and in charge of the arrangements while Sri and I were the technical people in charge of selection of candidates. For the interviews, Sashi was supposed to have hired a business centre in a 5-star hotel for the day, but had somehow contrived to get us a “cottage” in a dilapidated 3rd grade hotel instead. The cottages were, I think, servant quarters of yore, refurbished at some point in time and left to deteriorate back to their earlier state. There was a steel cot in the room with a dead cockroach on the pillow, the way they place mint chocolates in some hotels. I think I may even have spied a couple of rats scurrying about.

Sashi didn’t seem to find anything amiss, while Sri and I were aghast at the thought of carrying out serious interviews there. We hollered and raved and ranted and eventually convinced Sashi to change the venue. Unfortunately, since Sashi had already informed all the candidates about the venue, we had to settle for a room in the main building of the same hotel (no business centre was available).

The room, it turned out, was only a marginal improvement on the cottage. The carpet was threadbare and musty. It must have been green once, but several years had changed it into a dull bile color. There was a double bed in the middle of the room, a small tea table and two chairs. Thankfully it appeared that the cockroaches had all moved to the cottages as, though they had left their distinct smell behind, there weren’t any running around.

Sri sniffed the air and crinkled his nose while I tried my father’s favorite philosophy on him – “Don’t worry. You will get used to it!”. We cursed Sashi under our breath but settled down for day-long session of interviewing. Sri and I sat on the foot side of the bed, while Sashi sat on one side on one of the chairs available. We placed the tea table in front of us and placed the other chair on the other side of the table for the candidate to sit on. We then decided that Sashi would usher candidates in and make them comfortable while Sri and I would do all the talking. This was a conscious decision on our part as Sashi’s English was more Malayalam than English and we felt it may not create the right first impression with the candidates.

The candidates started coming in one after the other and soon the interview process began in earnest. Sri and I would take turns describing our company first before moving on to the technical questions. The first few candidates who came in were either fresh out of college or people with one or two years of experience. In their eagerness to work for a foreign company, they failed to notice anything odd about the entire setup. Some of them did sniff the air the way Sri had done, but I guess soon even they got used to it.

After a dozen or so interviews, Sashi was feeling left out as he had nothing to do except sort through the printed resumes. So he suggested that he would like to do the company introduction for the next set of candidates. By then we were also getting bored with repeating the same spiel about the company, so despite some misgivings we agreed readily.

Before we progress further, I must tell you that besides having a strong Malayali accent, Sashi also had a verbal tic. It was not one of the usual annoying but harmless ones such as “I mean”, or “like” or adding “per se” to the end of the sentence. What he did was pepper his sentences with the phrase “if at all, maybe“.

Coming back to the story at hand, the next candidate walked in. He was in his late 20s and according to his resume, he had already worked in the US for a couple of years. He had this superior air and looked at us and our room with a certain disdain. He introduced himself as Raj, with an accent.  We warmly welcomed him in and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Then Sashi started his company introduction. To his credit, he started well.

He drew in a generous breath and in a measured tone, began. “Hi. I am Sashi and I am the head of HR at such and such company. We have our offices in Chennai and we are looking for good candidates such as yourself for many of our overseas projects”, he said. Then came the fateful part. His verbal tic kicked in with a vengeance when he continued with “We are head quartered in Denmark and have branches around the world, if at all maybe, in Norway, if at all maybe in the US and if at all maybe…”. At this point Raj raised his hand and stopped Sashi in mid sentence and asked the inevitable question, “You have branches in these places or maybe you have branches in these places?”.

I don’t remember the rest of the interview or even the rest of the day. All I know is, if at all, maybe the ceiling fan had been within reach, I may just have hung myself from it that day!

Sometimes some dreams come true, but not quite July 7, 2009

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
6 comments
Sometimes some dreams come true, but not quite
This happened a long time ago when I had just started living in Denmark.
I was a bachelor then and shared the company provided accommodation with Matt, a colleague of mine.  Matt, by the way, is a devout Syrian Orthodox Christian Malayalee, which is germane to this story and some others to follow – otherwise I will not bring it up.  Both of us moved to Denmark at around the same time, towards the latter part of winter.  The days were still short and we just had time to go to office, work, come back home, cook, eat, watch some TV and sleep.  Since we were new to the place, we did not venture out much after dark, and it was pretty much dark most of the time.
During the initial days, after work, I would be glued to the television watching the rather explicit scandinavian fare.  While I was beginning to enjoy the open culture, Matt was finding it rather difficult to adjust. He would retreat to his room and read the bible.  On several ocassions, I heard him repeat the phrase “decadent society” like a mantra, I think, to drown the moaning and groaning that was emanating from the TV.
Gradually my interest in the unwavering constancy of the libido of the actors waned.  Summer was also creeping in and the days started getting brighter and longer.  During the weekends, Matt and I would wear several layers of clothes, sweaters and jackets and venture out to some place or the other.  Since it was still pretty cold, we tended to go to indoor places like museums and such.
A few months went by and one Saturday in May dawned, bright and sunny.  It was like summer had decided to do a preview show.  We stood outside and soaked in the sun, though it was still pretty chill for us, except under direct sunlight.  Our spirits soared and we decided we would make a trip to one of the numerous castles around Copenhagen.  We checked Copenhagen this week which suggested that the Rosenborg Have was the right place to be on a sunny Saturday.
So, Matt and I, wearing only a sweater and a jacket over our regular clothes (it was still cold, by Madras standards), set out to Rosonberg Have, the gardens around the Rosenborg palace.  We reached the gates and it appeared that half of Copenhagen had had the same idea.  People were coming in from all directions.  Not only had we been deprived of sunlight all these months, we had been deprived of crowds too. We were so happy.  For the first time in months, we felt as though we were in Madras.  There we were, two Indians, overdressed for the ocassion, in a sea of Danes, looking around with wide eyes, taking in the crowds and the noise.  We walked on and soon we were surrounded by youngsters holding hands, kissing, with hands roaming under each others shirts.  We should have noticed the signs, but we didn’t.
A little further down, there was this empty bench under direct sunlight.  Matt suggested that we sit down for a while and soak in the sun.  We sat down and I was talking to him in my usual animated fashion, oblivious to the happenings around us.  Suddenly we looked around and realized we were right bang in the middle of an impromptu nudist camp.  There was not a stitch of cloth around, except for the two of us, of course, who it seemed, had enough clothes on to cover everyone else.  GLBT and straight, all represented.  It was like all the movies I had watched rolled into one and how!
I was too overdressed to look, though all I wanted to do was stare. While I was contemplating removing my clothes and blending into the group (I would have been the only non-white, non-blond, non-blue eyed single feller around, but hey, you got to take a chance once in a while!), Matt, I thought was having a heart attack.  He had his eyes scrunched up, was hyperventilating and making all kinds of strange noises.  Before I could decide whether to strip first or call the ambulance, he got his breath back, sprung up in the air like a jack-in-the-box and dragged us both out of that place.
Later that night, I lay in my room listening to the chants of “decadent society” from the next room while wondering if tomorrow would be bright too, and how I could get out of the house without Matt finding out.

This happened a long time ago when I had just started living in Denmark.

I was a bachelor then and shared the company provided accommodation with Matt, a colleague of mine.  Matt, by the way, is a devout Syrian Orthodox Christian Malayalee, which is germane to this story and some others to follow – otherwise I will not bring it up.  Both of us moved to Denmark at around the same time, towards the latter part of winter.  The days were still short and we just had time to go to office, work, come back home, cook, eat, watch some TV and sleep.  Since we were new to the place, we did not venture out much after dark, and it was pretty much dark most of the time.

During the initial days, after work, I would be glued to the television watching the rather explicit Scandinavian fare.  While I was beginning to enjoy the open culture, Matt was finding it rather difficult to adjust. He would retreat to his room and read the bible.  On several occasions, I heard him repeat the phrase “decadent society” like a mantra, I think, to drown the moaning and groaning that was emanating from the TV.

Gradually my interest in the unwavering constancy of the libido of the actors waned.  Summer was also creeping in and the days started getting brighter and longer.  During the weekends, Matt and I would wear several layers of clothes, sweaters and jackets and venture out to some place or the other.  Since it was still pretty cold, we tended to go to indoor places like museums and such.

A few months went by and one Saturday in May dawned, bright and sunny.  It was like summer had decided to do a preview show.  We stood outside and soaked in the sun, though it was still pretty chill for us, except under direct sunlight.  Our spirits soared and we decided we would make a trip to one of the numerous castles around Copenhagen.  We checked Copenhagen this week which suggested that the Rosenborg Have was the right place to be on a sunny Saturday.

So, Matt and I, wearing only a sweater and a jacket over our regular clothes (it was still cold, by Madras standards), set out to Rosonberg Have, the gardens around the Rosenborg palace.  We reached the gates and it appeared that half of Copenhagen had had the same idea.  People were coming in from all directions.  Not only had we been deprived of sunlight all these months, we had been deprived of crowds too. We were so happy.  For the first time in months, we felt as though we were in Madras.  There we were, two Indians, overdressed for the occasion, in a sea of Danes, looking around with wide eyes, taking in the crowds and the noise.  We walked on and soon we were surrounded by youngsters holding hands, kissing, with hands roaming under each other’s shirts.  We should have noticed the signs, but we didn’t.

A little further down, there was this empty bench under direct sunlight.  Matt suggested that we sit down for a while and soak in the sun.  So we parked ourselves on the bench and the usually reticent Matt started talking about what a wonderful day it was or some such thing, oblivious to the happenings around us.  During a lull in the conversation,  we looked around and suddenly realized we were right bang in the middle of an impromptu nudist camp.  Everybody had wanted the same sunny spot, I suppose.  There was not a stitch of cloth around, except for the two of us, of course, who  had enough clothes on to cover everyone else.  GLBT and straight, all represented.  It was like all the movies I had watched rolled into one and how!

I was too overdressed to look, though all I wanted to do was stare. While I was contemplating removing my clothes and blending into the group (I would have been the only non-white, non-blond, non-blue eyed single feller around, but hey, you got to take a chance once in a while!), Matt, I thought was having a heart attack.  He had his eyes scrunched up, was hyperventilating and making all kinds of strange noises.  Before I could decide whether to strip first or call the ambulance, he got his breath back, sprung up in the air, jumped across a pair of lesbians in full flow and dragged us both out of that place.

Later that night, I lay in my room listening to the chants of “decadent society” from the next room while wondering if tomorrow would be a bright day too, and how I could get out of the house without Matt finding out.