Memoirs of Distant Winters ? a part-by-part chronicle

Facebook is telling me that winter festivities have gripped the spirit of Kolkata!

Tinsels are a-sparkling, bells are a-tinkling, plum cakes are doing the rounds... it’s the season to be jolly, to make the most of the fleeting luxury that is winter.

Much as I have my ongoing love story with Kolkata, it is this season that reminds me of winters spent in distant lands, like the bitter-sweet memories of a long-lost love...

I was looking up the old albums of my reminiscence, and the images of my first tryst with winter outside Kolkata came up – vivid – as if it was only yesterday!

It was 1998, I had just joined an IT shop as an almost-fresher along with Samhita, my BFF from school. One morning, we were called in our director’s office and told that we were to go to The Netherlands for 3 months, for a project assignment.

I was all of 24, and had never even boarded an aircraft before! Imagine my ecstasy at having to go to Europe for 3 whole months, and that too with my best buddy! We were euphoric!!

And so, it happened.  

We were put up in a tiny apartment in Breda, a city lying on the Southern Netherlands, close to the Belgium border. On hindsight, it probably looks like any small, nondescript European cities, but to my Fresh-off-the-Boat eyes, the town looked like a place straight out of a storybook! The cobbled streets, the serene parks with beautiful Weeping willows, the Centrum (central square) with its medieval buildings, quirky bookshops and antique stores, the picturesque Tudor-style houses (I don’t know whether they were actually Tudor style, but the name sounds good, therefore I’ll use it. So there!) and the strange foreignness all around gave me the surrealistic feel of living someone else’s life!

The apartment that we lived in was above a joke shop – a phenomenon that was extremely new and intriguing to me! There were all sorts of fancy costumes, stink bombs, fart sprays, telescopes that would give you a black-eye, candies that would turn your tongues blue, creepily realistic-looking plastic bugs and every other weird stuff that you can imagine. I would often stand in front of the display window for lengths, marvelling at the ingenuity of pranks that the shopkeeper has conceived!

My other favourite shop was an apothecary just around the corner. When you walk in through the glass door of the shop, a heady aroma of musk, herbs and other complex perfumes would hit you and you would feel as if you were in a scene from a Harry Potter movie! There were shelves full of glass bottles, jars and vials – bottles containing essential oils, perfumed oils, unguents for headache, muscle pain, broken heart, and any other conceivable malaise. An old couple owned the shop, who looked very much like a pair of happy witch and wizard, with their snow-white hair and twinkling eyes. They would pamper our every visit – letting us try endless varieties of perfumes and explaining the medicinal properties of the oils and essences in broken English.

Those weren’t what one could call as easy days by a mile, but they were like an exhilarating adventure!

I can still see us breaking into a jog to catch the 6:40 train, shivering in the cold; the outline of the town still diffused in the twilight, like an impressionist watercolour. The platform would already be busy with early-morning commuters and have a mixed smell of coffee, perfume and Weed (The Netherlands has a pretty relaxed drug policy). I sometimes still smell that strange aroma in my dreams.

We would board a train to Tilburg, where our workplace was, and would take a ‘train-taxi’ - a taxi service only available to and from railway stations. A lot of university students and ex-professionals worked as part-time cab-drivers – a serious-eyed, intellectual-looking girl with jet-black, curly hair and nerdy glasses; a boy with ash-blonde hair and a reckless, jaunty smile who was total heartbreaker material; and even an old professor who reminded me faintly of Albert Einstein! We got around to being quite friendly with the lot, (minus the Casanova dude, who made me feel too self-conscious and completely tongue-tied when he was around) and happily chatted away with them to work.

In the office, I got introduced to the marvel of vending machines, vending not only the usual sodas, chips and chocolates, but also hot sausages, little pies and other hot snacks! Samhita would invariably go for a sausage during our breakfast-break! Much as I like sausages, I simply hated the smell of microwaved, boiled Bratwurst-type sausages so early in the morning, when my olfactory faculties were still not awake enough for a full-blown carnivorous assault! Rather, I used to pick one from the many flavours of fruit-yogurt available.

We had to call for a taxi when it was time to go home, and making this call was like passing a hot potato – nobody wanted to do it. The reason – our office was located in a place called ‘Zevenheuvelenweg’ – a name that was completely un-pronounceable to our Bengali tongues! To top this problem, it had to be pronounced with the right Dutch accent in order for the taxi service people to understand it, and we would often spend a long time trying to twist our tongues in weird ways and spitting up a storm in an effort to make the guys understand the pick-up location, sometimes missing a train due to the time taken in the long phone call!

I see us coming back from work on Fridays, carrying Styrofoam boxes of pita bread and shawarma for dinner; the tail of our overcoats flying in the chilly air, our high-heeled shoes going clickity-clack in the cobbled walks; a bottle of Bailey’s, Amaretto or Cointreau tucked in our underarms; the exotic beverage to be savoured in the evenings mixed with the heady freedom of living in a foreign city just by ourselves.

We would go to the market every Sunday for grocery shopping, and would soak in the dizzying variety of sights, sounds and smell surrounding us.

There was a butcher shop that sold horse meat among the other varieties, and was run by a lady who looked pale and tired, with unusually melancholy eyes; she would chop cuts of our choice with the practiced ease of a surgeon, with a cleaver that probably weighed a ton. Then there was this ‘kaas’ (cheese) shop where a chubby old man would greet us with a smile and heady aroma of Gouda, Edam and Maasdam cheese – the shiny, colourful roundels winking at us invitingly. We would stare agape at people eating Nieuwe Haring (raw herring that you typically hold by the tail and dunk in your mouth), nibbling stroopwafels ourselves – two waffle cookies with a sweet syrup sandwiched within. Sometimes we would be stopping by at a vlaai shop, drawn by the irresistible smell – a bakery selling an assortment of delicious pies with fruit or custard or savoury fillings.

(to be continued…)