Two Men And a Car

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A road trip across Germany, Belgium and France
My friend Jan Peters is a landscape ecologist. He invited me on a road trip across France when I was his guest in Germany. Our road trip across Germany and France began on 23 July 2013 from Greifswald, where Jan lives.

It’s an old coastal city of young people in the northeast of Germany. It was an important city of the Prussian Empire two centuries ago, Jan tells me, while we are standing on top of the 50-metre high steeple of Dom St Nikolai Church. From here, Greifswald appears to be a small city with red slanted roofs. Beyond, there are green open fields where huge threshers tirelessly paint the landscape husky brown. Beyond that is the harbour, the sea a radiant blue in the bright summer sun, a part of the sky.

We drove westward along the Baltic Sea, and made a halt at a nude beach in Weststrand Darss to soak in the sun without the interference of clothes. Though there is little scope for me to tan, the temperate sun turned me a dingy brown. We travelled for hours after this, and late in the evening parked our car in a residential area in the city of Dagebül by the North Sea. We walked barefoot on the seabed to reach Langeness, almost a 10-km walk. Twice a day, for about six hours, when the tide is low, the water drains out and you can walk from the mainland to the island.

There was ankle-deep water with thousands of sticky, white, gelatinous, mushroom-like objects all over the seabed. I concluded they were jellyfish, waiting for the water to return. There was hardly any wind, the conditions were ideal for walking. I was told that I am damn lucky to get this weather. When we were halfway there, the mainland behind us was a bright line, bisecting land and sky. On the other side, the island was still hidden. The sun had set, the sky was deep blue, the water on the ocean floor reflected the sky. A deep blue infinity surrounded us. We stood in the middle of this emptiness like inconsequential dots. We stayed on the island for a day and a half; we walked back to Passy early one morning and found ourselves with a parking ticket.

We drove inside a tunnel near Hamburg underneath one of the busiest harbours in Europe to Jan’s family home in the town of Oldenburg in western Germany. I was told it is a city of rich old people. Jan spent his childhood here.

Our road trip was interrupted for a week when I flew to Finland. A week later, I was back in Oldenburg and stayed here for two days, listening to stories from Jan’s childhood. On 3 August, we resumed the road journey; over the next ten days we travelled 3,500 km across Germany, Belgium and France.

The main protagonist of this story is Passy—a 1994 model Volkswagen Passat Variant. She’s a low, flat, long and broad hatchback; white in colour, hardworking, solid, basic by German standards, age has touched her but she remains competent at her job. Passy is witness to Jan’s life; she has accompanied Jan on memorable trips; ours was just another one.

We dumped our luggage, sleeping bags and two crates—one full of beer, the other full of bread, cheese and fruit—in the car. On the back seat, we kept my camera, laptop, and chocolates, a water bottle, a Tetrapak of buttermilk with berries that Jan loved, soda bottles that Germans call Mineralwasser and drink like water.

Jan is in love with Passy. I fell in love with her over the next few days. This is how it happened.

There is no speed limit on German autobahns. Speed thrills, but diminishingly so when high speed is a constant. There was no perceptible change in the scenery. I did a lot of talking to prevent Jan from dozing off. My incessant chatter evoked several yawns from him. It was difficult to maintain a reasonable balance.

Passy showed no signs of exhaustion during the long stretches of high-speed driving. We would, more often than not, sit quietly, staring at the road. Jan would break the silence by asking, “Can I have some buttermilk?” and then, we would start talking. We talked about his life, my life, our respective careers, his stay in India, my stay in Germany, his hobby of bird watching, my hobby of sketching nudes, about girls, nudity and anything and everything that came to our mind.

When we were not talking, I observed the humongous trucks on the roads. “Everything in Germany is bigger than in India,” I would joke with Jan, “People, cattle, even the trucks.”

Life is fairly predictable and convenient here; Jan stops me to add “boring as well” compared to India where, according to Jan, “anything can happen, anywhere, any time”. I missed the dhabas, the tea stalls, the street dogs, the stray cattle and people crossing the roads—a long list of miscellaneous events that can happen on Indian roads and may be described by one word: ‘suddenly’.

What I didn’t miss was the honking; the silence on the autobahns is like the thick mist that descends on a valley.

When we crossed the border into Belgium, the quality of the road deteriorate noticeably but not enough to render the ride bumpy. It was getting dark and we had been driving for a good five hours now. I wanted to drink beer, but abstained out of solidarity with Jan who was driving. We had noticed a big lake on the map near Keerbergen city, and decided to camp along the shore. We took a diversion from the highway, drove south for an hour or so, crossed many villages and towns, but there was still no lake. Passy was tired and getting cranky.

It was nippy. Soon there was the jaundiced light of street lamps. After an hour of vagrant driving, we found a spot to park near a cornfield. We parked Passy such that the trees were baldachin. She creaked as Jan pressed the break for the last time that day. I thought it was her sigh of relief.

I woke up early and took a walk in the farm; the crops stood shoulder high and were somewhat defiant in allowing me passage. Sitting on my haunches, I defecated in the open. I strolled for an hour in the wilderness. Jan was up by the time I returned.

In two hours, we were in Brussels. We had breakfast at an Indian cafe called Kapoor’s, which looked like a hideout for Third World migrants. I insisted on speaking in English when the host, a bearded young Punjabi brat, spoke a few sentences in pure Hindi.

We put our luggage on the front seat, and folded the back seat forward. It made a perfect queen-size bed where we slept in sleeping bags. The sleeping bag Jan gave me could keep you warm even in subzero temperatures. We would open our eyes to the soft morning light sieving through the green canopy above us. I was supposed to make arrangements for our stay in Paris through my friends, but nothing worked out. For ten days, Passy was our home. We would lock her doors and pull up the windows, leaving one window ajar for fresh air. Passy felt like a womb, pregnant with twins. Every day, we would take new birth.

We drove past Paris’ arterial ring road on our way to Orleans. For the first time in Europe, I heard cars honking. Jan had been militant about avoiding Paris. He loves being out in nature. I struggled to find the right exit out of the city; the map we had was in French. I blamed the map: “It’s not detailed enough.” We got irritable, but we found highway N20 after straying a bit.

The plan was to follow the river Loire, do some sightseeing, stop at cafes, take walks in the city, and reach Noirmoutier Island in two days. That night, we crossed Orleans, drove along the Loire, crossed the river by a hanging bridge, and found a spot to park Passy. We sat facing the river for a long time: the bridge looked like an art installation, the castle on the other bank was forbidding. The breeze rejuvenated our tired bodies. We finished the leftovers that Jan was carrying around in glass jars. It was, perhaps, the best site we camped at.

In France, the only alcoholic beverage we allowed ourselves was wine. We went to the supermarket everyday and bought local wine. Till this trip, wine had tasted like the fermented juice of sour grapes. I could now appreciate there was more to it. But chilled beer remains my favourite; the flavours of local beers change every hundred miles in Germany, like dialects in India. I could settle in Germany for my love of beer, despite not speaking German. This could easily lead to an existential crisis. I realised this on many occasions. I joked with a friend of Jan’s, “German is all Greek to me.” She looked anguished and replied in English: “The two are different languages.”

In Europe, everything is so expensive for an Indian that I quickly stopped converting euros to rupees. But when I bought beer or wine, I felt rich: beer in Germany is cheaper than in India; a beer can cost less than a water bottle. One of the reasons for their economic boom is that they have got their priorities right.

Jan is streetsmart: he would avoid highways in France because you have to pay for passage. He would check out petrol rates every time we passed a gas station, and fill up his tank where fuel was cheap. We spent about €500 on Passy’s supplies.

Passy was our space under the sun, the moon and the stars; oh, what stars and how they glittered! After long walks in the city, by the river, or on the beach, the sight of Passy was reassuring. Passy was our home. I didn’t feel like a tourist, I felt I belonged.

For the next week or so, we would lead a primitive life in the most developed part of the world. Sleep in Passy’s womb, shit in the open, bathe in the river, eat by the river or on the beach, drive every day (the only non-primitive thing). I’d often wonder: have I come to Europe for this? This life is exotic for Jan. I enjoy it, too. But for millions of Indians, it is a reality they have not chosen; basics like drinking water supply and sanitation facilities are nonexistent for many.

Castles of varying vastness loom over the river Loire. They are static witnesses to time, with the river symbolic of the passage of time. The castles are reminiscent of the violent past of the region where big and small principalities fought one another to assert control over territory. But then Europe realised, after paying a huge price in the form of two world wars, that conflict leads only to misery. The biggest enemies of the past are now the best of friends: Germany and France. They assert their national identities, yet there is mutual adulation, laced with just a bit of suspicion. Jan’s favourite dessert is Pain au chocolat—sweet phyllo stuffed with chocolate flakes. “French make it the best,” he would say every time we had it.

I would drink deep from the taps of the ‘WC’—the water closet. At most places, unlike India, they have one WC for both sexes. I would divide my time inside the WCs between urinating and drinking as much water as I could from the tap. I felt like a camel. It is safe to drink tap water in Europe, I had to tell myself every time. Bottled water was so expensive that the idea of paying for it quenched my thirst.

I was fascinated by old ladies on bicycles. They were immaculately dressed in tunics with floral prints, hats as wide as umbrellas, riding shakily yet exuding the confidence of being in control. I would wonder how long it takes them to dress up. Their sagging lips had layers of red lipstick. Do they have help? Does it keep them distracted from their loneliness when they need support most? Jan told me his paternal grandmother’s story: she was confined to bed for years before she died.

Near Ancenis, between Angers and Nantes, we dined one evening on wine, goat cheese and sausages by the river.

A French couple walked up to us for a chat, and we shared dessert and booze, and smoked pot together. My perception of reality became sharper that evening. The couple slept in a translucent blue tent ten metres from Passy; I could see their silhouettes dancing in embrace till they switched off their solar torch.

We passed a nuclear reactor in Chinon near Saumur, one of four nuclear plants in the Loire valley. There were three thick, serpent-like clouds arising from a coolant plant. It looked like a direct passage to hell. More so after Jan’s animated talk, explaining that nuclear power is not a green source of energy. He has participated in student protests against nuclear power on many freezing nights. In the hope the reactor hadn’t contaminated the river, not far from it, I took a dip.

We reached Noirmoutier Island, driving on the ocean floor during low tide. It was a Friday afternoon. On the island, there was a traffic jam but no one honked. It took us a good hour to find a suitable place to park Passy. A five minute walk along a sandy track took us to the beach. On the left of the beach was a long bridge that connected the island to the mainland. Speed boats came from that direction every half an hour to ferry tourists to a nearby island hidden over the horizon.

The beach was very windy. Jan would set off on birding walks with his binoculars. Thousands of migratory birds, identified by Jan as Sanderling, would gather on the beach picking insects. Then they would all fly away in a formation, like a huge kite, casting a shadow on the beach. They would leave millions of triangular webbed foot marks on the beach that would be washed clean by waves sweeping the coast.

I would go for a jog every now and then. Rest of the time, I would sit and sketch. We brewed coffee in the mornings, sipped wine in the evening, watching the sun set. Several times in a day, we would go swimming. We would dive on top of a soaring wave that foamed on hitting the coast. Nudity was not on display here. The winds were so strong that our wet clothes looked like flags at full mast.

The sun would go down the horizon reluctantly, turning the sky crimson.

We were to drive about 1,500 kilometres from Nantes to Berlin. We started on a Sunday morning, and the plan was to reach Berlin by Tuesday evening. We reached the suburbs of Paris on Sunday evening. Instead of entering the city, we reached a farm, drove into the middle of a wheat field as long as the muddy road with tall grass would allow us. Jan checked to see if there was any board prohibiting driving on the road; there wasn’t any. We parked Passy where the road curved to face a barricade at the tip of a forest.

Passy stood under a tree. We went for a walk. It took us more than an hour-and-a-half to walk around the wheat field, along the forest and come back to Passy. She stood unperturbed in the middle of a lush green agriculture field and thick forest. I wore my boots before dismounting Passy in the darkness that night to empty my bladder. It was a surreal dark silence that was petrifying. I stood firm for a while, as if resisting being swallowed by a black hole.

We drove to Paris early on Monday morning. It took us a good hour to find a free parking spot. Jan is skilled in doing this. He saved us at least €100 in this way. We took the Métro or Métropolitain and did the ‘touristy’ places. The Arc de Triomphe and Louvre Pyramid were overwhelmed by East Asians. I felt like I was in Shanghai. We had coffee, and roamed around. Jan wanted to get out of here.

Before we climbed the hill to reach the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur, (which translates to ‘holy heart’), in Montmatre, we had a well-earned lunch of beefsteak and wine. When I was done, it didn’t take me long; I felt like a python that had swallowed an antelope.

We left Paris at five in the evening. In three hours, we had reached the French border. A few miles before we were to enter Belgium, a constable stopped the car to conduct a breath-analyser test on Jan. He’d had a glass of wine in the afternoon. He held his temper and forced a smile; he also passed the test.

In three more hours, we crossed Belgium and reached the German city of Aachen. It was well past midnight and we parked Passy under a tree not far from the road. There was another car parked in front of us. This was the last night we would sleep in Passy’s womb. I went to sleep with this thought in mind.

We drove for a good part of next day to reach Berlin. We stayed at Jan’s brother Florian’s apartment in Frankfurt. I wanted to continue sleeping inside Passy.

Her womb gave me a sense of security that Florian’s couch didn’t. The next two days, we cycled around Berlin, ate Turkish food and bar-hopped. I was the last one to board the flight to Delhi on the late afternoon of 16 August. I had a lump in my throat.