The Bengalis meet the Vikings. Mom’s Scandinavia Diaries, 1975

K: This is the story of my parents and my road trip through Scandinavia. A trip they could apparently make because their son ( ‘K” i.e. me) was ‘not a cranky’ baby. This is the story of an Indian who represented England in an orthopaedic conference. A story of nights spent in the parking lots or at the house of stranger, of grand banquets and French fashion shows, of polar bears and penguins, of my first steps, At Hamlet’s Castle. I was a year old and not in a hurry to start walking.

Mom wrote these stories and got them typed at a cyber cafe at Calcutta. I spent one evening at her favourite spot at Mumbai, Carter Road, doing a loose proofing to check for gross copy errors. The words are her own. My sis in law scanned these photos from our album and sent them to me a while back. This has been with me for a while. Well children never reciprocate with the patience parents show towards them.

I have posted the whole story at one go. So take your time and read it. And do post your comments. My mom looks forward to them. So here goes …

 

Breaking News: An Indian represents England in a conference and plans a road trip

It was the summer of 1975 in the U.K. The cherry blossom trees, in front of our Canterbury house, were in full bloom.

Summer is the ideal time for the Britishers to go on holidays. The whole country, as if, wakes up from hibernation and gets ready for fun and holidaying. We too, like the natives of the U.K. were thinking where to go that summer. The year before we had gone to the Continent. That year we were thinking of going somewhere nearby like Devon and Cornwall.

It was at this time, one evening; K’s dad came home with some very good news. His paper, which he had sent to the committee of World Orthopaedic Congress, had been selected. Not only that, he was to represent Britain in the World Orthopaedic Congress, which was to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Out of all the Britishers, an Indian was to represent the U.K. in the world conference! It was the wonder of wonders. Lord Clive would have turned in his grave, if heard about it.

All expenses for K’s dad was to be paid by the British Govt. But not for K and me. But K’s dad said he would take the both of us along with him. To make up for the expenses, he decided to drive down to Copenhagen and other countries in Scandinavia. It was to be a very long drive but as K’s dad drove very well, he did not mind it. At that time we had a green Volkswagen car, which was very sturdy.

With a lot of happiness and enthusiasm, we started getting ready for the unexpected holiday, which was almost like a windfall.

One of the teachers of K’s dad was also to come to the Copenhagen conference with his Anglo Indian wife from Kolkata. He teacher was a world famous Orthopaedic Surgeon .

We coordinated with him. He was to come from Kolkata by plane and we were to drive from the U.K.

We picked our car with our suitcases, a lot of baby food, nappies and a push chair for K as he was only one year old. K was a very happy –go- lucky type of baby and not cranky at all. That’s why we could take him on such long journeys.

We also carried lots of savouries - ‘chanachur’/’dalmut’ - which we got from Indian shops in London for emergencies

We started with our bag and baggage on the designated day. On the way, we halted at a ‘bed and breakfast.’ After that we crossed the English Channel. Once we were outside the U.K., K’s dad started driving with an eye on the road-map. We also stopped at some places and asked for directions. People were very helpful.

As we drove on, we saw many new places and new things. In one place, there was a big traffic jam. We could see an endless queue of cars and other vehicles. I realized that traffic jams were not the monopoly of India only. It was found in ‘modern countries’ too. In the long queue of cars, we met a few Indians who were working there. It was a place near Copenhagen.

There is no place in the world where the Indians do not work!

Image 1Image 2

Twilight at midnight

By evening, we reached the outskirts of Copenhagen. It was time to stop for the day. But we could not find any accommodation. The hotels, which were available, were beyond our budget. So we decided to stop in a car park. Theses car parks were meant for the convenience of tourists in lieu of nominal charges. There were facilities like toilet, washroom, cafeteria etc. You could even fill the tank of the car with petrol. There were many caravans parked in the parking lot. Many people used to take caravans on holidays as it saved money for accommodation. These caravans were equipped with all the modern amenities like heaters, fridge, wash basin, toilet, bed etc.

After dinner, we went inside our car and reclined the seats. After a while, we fell asleep. I woke up after sometime as there was light all around. I looked at my wrist watch and saw it was only 3 a.m. I thought that my watch had gone wrong. I woke up K’s dad saying it was time to start. He looked at his watch and found that it was only 3 a.m. How could both the watches go wrong at a time? Suddenly I remembered that I had read somewhere that the days are unusually long during summer in the Scandinavian countries. The night, in between, is faintly dark but not exactly dark like at night. That is why at 3 a.m. we thought it was dawn.

The World Orthopaedic Conference at Copenhagen

After sometime, we started for Copenhagen and came in front of the ‘ Bella Centret’, the conference hall . World conferences are still held there.

So at last we were in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, The Scandinavian countries consist of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The Scandinavians are known as Vikings, Danes, Sea-robbers, Normans etc.

They conquered Britain in the 11th century. But in the mid seventies of the 20th century,

the people of the Scandinavia seemed to be very modern and good hearted. They were less formal and conservative than the British.

The Indians are very fond of visiting the continent but very few think of going to the Scandinavian countries though they are equally beautiful.

After reaching Copenhagen, we went inside the Bela Centret, the conference hall and took the key of our room. They had arranged for a room for us in the adjacent area. The room belonged to a university student, who had rented it out during summer vacation for some extra income .It had a beautifully polished wooden floor and was very neat and clean. We liked it very much. It was comfortably furnished and had a little kitchen attached to it.

The conference was to last for three days. It was arranged on a very grand scale. The surgeons came from all over the world. Among them were quite a few from India.

Image 3Image 4Image 6

The opening ceremony

In the evening, we went to the Copenhagen Town Hall as the Mayor of Copenhagen was to host a reception party for the doctors. Children were not allowed in the party so they were kept in an adjacent room under the supervision of professional baby-sitters. After much hesitation, we too kept K in the nursery for a short while.

After that we went to the hall which was beautifully decorated. What amazed me most were the huge glass chandeliers in the ceilings. The menu consisted of more than a hundred items. Most were bread based. Bread was in all shapes. Apart from bread, there were the famous Danish cheeses, chicken and other types of meats. The Mayor welcomed everyone and formally declared the conference open.

Sightseeing, ballets & fashion shows

Next morning we went to the conference venue being accompanied by the professor and his Anglo-Indian wife. There were arrangements for sightseeing for the wives while the husbands were busy in the conference. Children were not allowed on the trip. As I did not want to keep K with the baby sitters in an unknown land for such a long time, I stayed back while the professor’s wife went on tour.

During lunch time, on the first day, all of us including the doctors were taken to a nearby hotel for a fashion show. The fashion show was organized by France to sell mink-coats, with furs in the neck and in front. The mink-coats are valued throughout Europe. Even three and a half decades ago, France was the market leader in fashion. I liked the show very much as the beautiful French girls walked on the ramp to show off the mink-coats. To top of it, all of us were given a gift hamper each, consisting of a Christian Dior perfume, a compact powder and a few other things. Prospective buyers were called after the show. Since we were not among them we left for the conference hall.

Nights were also taken care of. They used to show us live performance of Danish ballets. They were the best ballet performances that I had ever seen in my life.

On the second day of the conference, K’s dad became free a bit early. So we decided to go to the sea-beach and see the famous Little Mermaid of Copenhagen. As I had said earlier, the sun set at 10 p.m in summer at Copenhagen so there was no problem seeing it clearly.

At last we reached the sea beach and saw the little mermaid sitting on a huge round shaped stone inside the sea not far from the shore. There were quite a few rocks scattered near the statue. The statue of the Little Mermaid was made of jet black stone.

The mermaid, supposed to be half woman and half fish, was sitting on her fin or folded legs. She sat there bending a little forward. Her face was turned slightly to her right side. Her hair was sculptured in such a way that it looked wet. The little mermaid quietly sat on the stone looking at the shore. It seemed as if the mermaid had been waiting there for ages to meet her merman.

The people of Scandinavian were not only great sailors but also great sculptors. The whole of Scandinavia (especially Stockholm in Sweden and Oslo in Norway) was full of stone statues. They were everywhere - in the gardens, town centres, in front of buildings. They were mostly bare bodied statues of men, women and even children, made of black, white or brown stones. In the U.K. I had not seen so many stone statues. This gave me the impression that the Scandinavians were great sculptors and artists.

The third day of the conference was to conclude with a banquet. But we decided not to attend the banquet as we did not want to keep K with the babysitters at night for such a long time.

K was given a set of Legos by the conference people. He was very happy to get the set.

Most of the doctors went back to their countries. But we decided to stay for one more day and see the important places of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen was very costly as compared to the U.K. Koner was their currency. It was more so for the Indian doctors. We could hear them saying in Hindi, ‘you know, a cup of tea costs Rs100/-!’ (Mind it, this was thirty five years ago)

Next day, at first, we went to the town centre and bought some souvenirs. After that we decided to go to the Copenhagen zoo. Apart from the usual animals, we saw a few polar bears. Polar bears are found in arctic region, which is very cold and full of ice. The polar bears in the zoo were as white as milk. The frail ones were kept on the blocks of ice so that they could acclimatize themselves to the climate of Copenhagen.

I had seen zebras, giraffes and even kangaroos in many zoos but nowhere have I seen polar bears of the polar region.

We also saw some sea birds of the Antarctic region in the zoo. They were penguins. These penguins were kept in a sanctuary near the sea side. These birds used their wings to swim in the water. The interesting thing about them is that they can walk on their toes. When they stand up, they measure four or four and a half feet high. When we went to the sea side, about fifty of them came giggling and running towards us. They looked like toddlers, with huge nappies at their back, coming to greet us on their wobbly feet. It was a wonderful sight.

Next we went to see the Royal Palace of Copenhagen. It was a huge building with a modern look. The colour of the building was dark pink. It had a beautiful, well maintained lush green garden around it. The plants in the fences had pink flowers. Not only that, even the trees had pink flowers . The whole colour tone was pink .I do not know if the colour scheme was coincidental or intentional. But the whole place seemed to be an example of the artistic temperament of the Danes. By sheer coincidence, that day I had put on a Kashmir silk sari with pink flowers printed on it. I got a photograph of myself with the castle at the back. It looked as if I had become one with the surroundings.

Image 5Image 9(1)Image 10(1)

To walk or not to Walk

K’s dad told me that he was going to take me to another castle at Kornberg in Copenhagen. This castle named ‘Helsingor’ was built in the 14th century by a Danish King. Shakespeare immortalized this castle as ‘Elsinore’ in his greatest tragedy ‘Hamlet’. On reaching the castle, I was amazed and thrilled. It sunk in me after sometimes that it was the famous castle of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark.

Our college teacher Prof M.N.Ghosh excelled in teaching Shakespeare and insisted on our reading each and every line of the text. But he did not even spend ten minutes on telling us about the location of Denmark or its distance from England. Showing the map was out of question. But according to the modern theory of education, no subject should be taught in isolation. Each subject should be taught in correlation with other subjects. If Prof Ghosh had correlated the play with its geographical position, the fact that Hamlet’s palace was in Denmark would not have gone out of my mind.

‘Elsinore’ the palace of Hamlet, was very huge and magnificent to look at. There were many tourists around the palace. The story of the ‘to be or not to be’ Prince came rushing to me. I was still dazed.

Baby K made the castle even more memorable to me by taking his first step in the stairs of Hamlet’s castle. K was a bit late in walking. Usually boys walk at the age of eleven months but K walked at the age of twelve months. Maybe he was waiting for Hamlet’s castle to take his first step and make the moment memorable.

Image 7(1)Image 8Image 11(1)

Guests of the kind Swede of Stockholm

Next morning we started for Stockholm, we first went to the city centre. It had some beautiful and modern shops. Swedish flags were flying all around. After some shopping, we went to a coffee shop. It was inside a beautiful garden. There we met a tall Swedish gentleman who was about fifty years old. K’s dad asked him about the important places of Stockholm that one should see. The gentleman told us about the tourist spots. Then he added that he could take us around as he was free that day. We readily agreed.

Image 14Image 19Image 21

First, he took us to the Royal Palace of Stockholm. It was a majestic building. Luckily, at that time the guards were playing on a military band. It was a part of their daily ritual.

After that, he took us to the building, where the Nobel Prize committee’s meetings are held and prizes are awarded. The Swedish people are very proud of their Nobel Prize and rightly so. It was a huge majestic building, made of white marble stone, with tall pillars. In front of the building, there were three very artistic statues.

We saw a market, adjacent to the building, where business was going on as usual .People seemed oblivious of the great building. But it is very natural because they were used to seeing the building every day. However, we considered ourselves very fortunate because we got to see one of the most important buildings of the world.

We stopped at a place to have a quick lunch. In the meanwhile, the Swedish gentleman had shown us quite a few gardens which were very beautiful and well maintained. We also saw many statues of men, women and even animals . These statues were exquisite and built to perfection. They were to be seen to be believed.

In the evening, we went to see the famous Tivoli Park. This was Sweden’s oldest amusement park set up in 1883.

‘Tivoli Park’ means ‘green wood’. As far as I remember, it was a huge park with big trees. Under one big tree, quite a few boys were playing musical instruments. Just like that - to entertain themselves and the tourists..

We also saw a giant wheel, standing vertically, which had many two seater cradles attached to it. It went up down. When we were young, we used to see such things in local fairs. They were called ‘nagor-dola’ (in Bengali) and were made of wood. The one in Tivoli Park was made of steel . Nowadays even in India, we see many sophisticated ferris wheels.

There was also a disc where many people were dancing to the tune of music. It seemed quite crowded.

Image 20Image 12Image 18

As the evening was coming to an end, it was time for us to look for shelter. We could not afford the big hotels as ours was a low budget trip. The smaller ones were all full. We were thinking whether we should go to a parking lot and stay there for the night.

Seeing our predicament, the Swedish gentleman told us that we could stay at his house for the night though his was a bachelor’s den. We were taken aback by his proposal. But after some hesitation, we agreed to go to his house.

Very soon we reached his apartment. We expected it to be a typical bachelor’s flat with things strewn all over the flat. But what we found instead was a very neat, clean and well managed house. He opened the guest room for us. In the meanwhile, he arranged for some milk for baby K. He also took out bread, butter cheese, ham and fruits from the fridge. Then he called us to the dining room and apologized for not providing us with cooked dinner. We thanked him for everything saying it was more than enough for us.

Then we went to sleep. We were very moved by the hospitability of this foreigner. Later, however, I thought how we could stay in an unknown person’s house that night!

His forefathers might well have been sea – robbers. On the other hand, we too could have had some sinister motives. But at that moment, these thoughts did not come to our minds. It was a matter of mutual trust and faith in humanity.

In the morning, he prepared a sumptuous breakfast for us. Milk, bread, butter, cheese, eggs, bacon, sausages, coffee- all were there. After breakfast, we wanted to know where the bathroom was so that we could take bath. But the gentleman said that there was a toilet in the house but no bathroom as he shared ‘community bath’ with others. We were very surprised to hear it. But I later remembered that ‘community bathing’ was in fashion in Europe in early centuries too. In ‘Bath’, a place near London, there used to be a ‘community bath’ near a hot spring.

In West Bengal too, people used to have ‘community bathing’ in villages. There used to be separate ponds for women and men.

After breakfast, we went to the town centre, accompanied by our host. We had some coffee in a shop before leaving for Norway. The gentleman excused himself for a while and came back after sometime with two roses, one blue and one yellow. He presented those two roses to me saying that the colour of the roses represented the colour of the national flag of Sweden. Moreover they matched with my blue printed Kashmiri silk sari that I was wearing that day. It was his way of saying ‘good bye’ to us. We were very much moved by this gesture. Many years have passed since then, I do not even remember his name but the memories of his kindness and friendliness still linger in my mind.

Saying ‘goodbye’ to him, with heavy hearts, we proceeded towards the sea-port to embark on our journey to Oslo in Norway.

After the formalities were over, we boarded the ship. The car was taken inside the ship.

Image 16

The beauty of Oslo and Norway

The ship started sailing smoothly. The day was clear and sunny. The sea looked amazingly beautiful. There were many small rocks in the sea. In some stretch, there were small islands. I do not have words to describe the beauty of the sea. It seemed god had bestowed all its kindness on Scandinavia. I was so moved by its beauty that I exclaimed to my fellow passenger that they were very lucky to be born in that beautiful country. I still remember the remark of my fellow passenger. He said that he did not think himself to be very lucky staying in that country as he was used to the beautiful surrounding since his childhood. He did not know the difference between a beautiful place and a plain one

The rocky sea, though looked beautiful during day, posed a great danger to the sailors those days at night especially on a stormy night.

Many ships dashed against the rocks. To save the sailors, many kind hearted rich people tied bells near the rocks so that they rang loudly on stormy nights and warned the boatmen. Nowadays, of course, there are many techniques of warning the ships on stormy men.

Soon after, the ship reached its destination we got off the ship and started waiting for the car to come out of the ship.

Out of curiosity, I went near the shore and found a fascinating scene. The water of the sea was crystal clear. We could clearly see the star fish, jelly fish and other types of fish swimming inside the water. It was a wonderful scene.

After this, we drove for a while and reached the border of Norway. Soon we were in Oslo. Nature was more beautiful here than in other parts of Scandinavia. Beautiful snow-capped mountains, the sea, dense forests everything was there. People were very good-natured and simple. At night, we stayed in a ‘bed and breakfast’. Next day we went to see the’ ship museum’. In this museum, they had preserved the boats and ships of the ancient Scandinavians, who were great sailors as well as sea-robbers. Different parts of the ships e.g. wheels, masts and flags of the wooden ships were preserved very carefully. We got a glimpse of the old Scandinavian culture by looking at the boats and ships.

Image 22Image 23Image 25

Norway is very famous for skiing as its mountains are covered with thick ice during winter. We went to a place where skiing was done. There in the office, we found a board displaying pictures of dignitaries of different countries.

Surprisingly enough, we saw a picture of Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s 1st Prime Mistier with a foreigner. The Indian connection in such a far off country made us exceedingly happy.

Image 26

Oslo is a very beautiful city. The climate was very soothing during summer. It was extremely neat and clean with beautiful buildings all around. It is needless to say that the city was full of statues made with exquisite craftsmanship. In one place we saw the statues of a man, a woman and a child in between them representing a family. We too stood under the statues and had a photograph taken. There were full-fledged statues of men, women as well as animals.

K’s dad went inside a hospital and introduced himself to the doctors. There was beautiful landscape all around. It looked too beautiful to be a hospital.

We stayed in Oslo for one or two more days. Then it was time for us to go back. Nothing eventful happened on our way back. While coming back, we saw beautiful glaciers, snow covered mountains, forests and hamlets, which filled us with happiness.

Image 27Image 28Image 29

Back home

Almost forty years have passed; still I have not forgotten the small rocks jutting out in the sea while going over from Stockholm to Oslo. Nor have I forgotten the tranquil and transparent water of the sea with star-fish and jelly fish swimming in it. I try to recollect those scenes on my “rainy days’.

We returned home, in this case, 3 the Gap, Canterbury, with minds full of happiness as well as a tinge of sadness that always follows a long holiday.

We knew, though, that our next door neighbour Mrs Taylor would be standing at her door to receive us with a smiling face. That was something to look forward to!

Good bye.

R.K

Kolkata

7/6/2011

20