A day before Christmas, my friend Giulia and I reached her maternal grandfather’s apartment in Milan. It was a humble home, scattered in great abundance with signs of its owner’s eccentricities and whims.
The antique rocking chair, handcrafted in walnut, drew from him often bouts of careful inspection. He would kneel down beside and run his hands over it lovingly, studying the new scratches it had endured since his last assessment and shaking his head lament the loss of his beloved’s youth.
The spoon collection, put together with hundreds of specimens from all over the world, was the pièce de résistance of the living-room. Like contestants in a beauty pageant, they were placed equidistant from each other at an angle most flattering. Next to the collection, on either side of the display, were old photographs and books. A brief history of time, its torn cover mended with transparent tape. A dashing young man on a beach in Sicily. Cosi fan tutti, its pages the colour of amber.
Below the cabinet, on the floor, was the presepe—a Nativity scene—built with meticulous care. The manger had its usual cast of Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men kneeling on a burlap floor. They were surrounded by a village populated with tens of little ceramic men, women, children and animals handcrafted in painstaking detail in Naples.
Like them, I had found myself a rather warm nest.
On Christmas eve next morning, I woke up early to the sound of the doorbell ringing. Giulia’s uncle had arrived with his family of four. I had barely made acquaintance with them when the doorbell rang yet again. Throughout the day, Giulia’s maternal family continued to pour in from all over Europe, each one letting loose on arrival a spurt of atomic energy that reverberated through the apartment. By evening, there were 30 of us, our collective cacophony deserving at least of an Indian wedding.
Later that night, we headed to a restaurant for dinner where for four hours, nothing ran out – neither the conversation nor the food. Between generous helpings of caprine cheese, panettone, taralli and salads, we discussed everything from world politics to Kim Kardashian’s rear end. Once we returned home, we settled down with glasses of wine to chat some more while around us, the half a dozen kids in the household waged war. Finally on the brink of gastric coma, we exchanged and opened gifts and called it a night.
Hitherto I had been feeling homesick. I craved often for the warmth of my family and our home back in Pune. I longed to hear my nieces sing rhymes while my mother’s conspiracy in the kitchen turned the house fragrant. Perhaps it was my craving for a home that made me find one in a stranger’s. Perhaps that was the reason why celebrating Christmas in an Italian household felt like homecoming.
I carried back the experience to Barcelona like a blanket, the coziest of its kind. Every time I realized deeply the physical distance that separated me from my family, I wrapped myself in it and let its warmth seep into my bones.
Meanwhile, life trudged along. Catalonia agitations still showed no signs of waning. I continued to travel, eager to make good my limited stay in the continent.
In Prague, I wandered through the city’s maze of cobbled lanes long enough for my google map history to look like the artwork of a five-year-old left unsupervised for too long with a crayon.
In Budapest, I spent most of my time evading inebriated locals and despicable teenagers who indulged freely in catcalling and jeering.
And in Iceland, I watched my parents’ bemused looks as locals jogged at midnight, daylight still fresh.
I was thrilled beyond measure when I left for Europe. Like every other Indian, my imagination fed by Hindi movies and photographs of stunning landscapes, I believed that this was to be the epitome of all my travel experiences so far. After living in Spain and travelling across Europe for a year, I realized that the continent’s rosy reputation starts to wear off once you observe it from close quarters.
I have seen political unrest bring Spain to a boil. I have been a victim of eve-teasing on several occasions all over Europe. I was almost robbed once. I have walked down dangerous alleys as dark and as dirty as one would find them anywhere else in the world.
I have had some fantastic experiences too. I celebrated Christmas with locals, shared with them the warmth of their hearts and homes. I found guardian angels in strangers all over Europe. I experienced their madness and quirks and understood that they are no different than us in most ways.
All of this together taught me one simple thing - Europe is like any other place in the world; it certainly is no utopia. I learnt too that to travel somewhere and to live in that place are two completely different experiences. To travel to a place is to simply see the rabbit being pulled out of the magician’s hat and applaud. To live in a place is to lift the magician’s hat and find the hole that runs through the table under it. There lies the allure of travel, in its inability to offer more than one-half of the truth. And there lies the tragedy of this world – in it being perfect only in halves.
As told by Harsha. All photographs shot by her.