It is not without regret and a great sense of pain that I narrate the last part of the story; for I wished to stay back and renounce my homeland. I could not wish to part with such beauty and splendour as I’d witnessed in these parts for the past few days. My mind was pounded with a multitude of burgeoning feelings. With a heavy heart, I walked under the cold twilight.
I had trodden no less than 5 kilometres that day, a few hundred metres more to the east of the Galleria dell’Accademia would now take me straight to my lodging. The skies were clear and the cramped roads were shining brightly under the streetlights and brighter even under the multicoloured headlights and taillights of motor vehicles as they zoomed past me haphazardly.
‘So, what time is your next flight?’ asked Massimo swiping my credit card on the EDC machine (I had packed my luggage that morning anticipating a delay in my arrival).
‘At 7:00 am,’ I replied.
‘Departing from Amerigo Vespucci?’ he asked.
‘No…I’m leaving for Rome tonight, my flight leaves early morning,’ I said.
‘You’re in need of a taxi, eh?’
‘Perhaps,’ I nodded. Massimo signalled a waitress and within 5 minutes a white Skoda saloon came revving up the narrow street and parked in front of Soggiorno La Pergola. I should say that Massimo was an extremely benignant gentleman.
‘Rome’s weather is bad they say. A couple arrived from Rome last night. The flights are delayed,’ he said and wished me well for my return journey.
Clad in my trousers and a weatherbeaten sweater upon my t-shirt, I stepped out of the lounge. The Cathedral’s duomo stoutly pointed skyward upon a sunless horizon, surprising its onlookers; Illuminated by the artificial lights below, the everlasting white stone structure adorned the city like the moon does the night sky.
‘Dove stai andanto?’ asked the taxi driver stopping by me.
‘Santa Maria Novella,’ said I. My luggage was too heavy for my already tired body, although the only relics I had in my luggage were the remainder of ready-to-eat convenience food packets that I had brought from Bengaluru and a few loosely packed wash-ready raiments.
I was bogged down by the unintelligible announcements at the station. In fact, they were so stuck in my head that it was played on repeat. The random noises were silenced when the train came to a rumbling halt; Frecciarossa 9553 flashed the electronic screens.
Curiously stalking me from the opposite berth was a man in his 40s. ‘Ciao,’ said he overestimating my language skills greatly (perhaps he wished to spend some time talking to a man who closely resembled an Asian race). Another Punjabi! Finding Pidgeys in Pokemon Go would be rarer, I exclaimed smiling back at him.
‘Aap Bharatiya hain? (Are you an Indian?),’ asked the man looking at my inability to return a greeting in Italian. We Indians are so diverse that each Indian language is alien to the peoples speaking another language, and, to me, understanding Hindi seemed no better than understanding Italian.
‘Haan, Bengaluru se,’ I stammered.
We began talking mostly about Indian politics and the technological developments of late. The man worked with Trenitalia and he knew precisely when the next local train would arrive and from which province in Italy without any reminder whatsoever. Although I’ve forgotten most of what we spoke that night, he left me with a totally new perception of Indians in Italy. His grandparents were some of the first Indian immigrants in Italy. ‘Jupinder Chadha, a veteran from the first world war, my grandfather; he was in the Indian contingent sent by the British nearly a hundred years ago. The man never returned to Phagwara to see his parents. Although he and his regiment escaped a plane bombing, the unlucky chap died of wounds within a month, leaving my grandmother, my aunt, and my father,’ narrated the proud grandson sitting next to me. ‘The family moved to the US when my grandmother married an Italian-American Army doctor. Soon, we had to relocate to…uh..the name escapes my memory… Philadelphia!, my stepgrandfather’s new home after he was injured and deemed unfit to serve the camp and dismissed immediately.’
‘What brought you back to Italy?’ I asked.
‘It was but a mere chance that brought me back. I was born and brought up in the suburbs of Turin where my grandfather once lived – some 350 kilometres from here as the crow flies. It was my father – a journalist back in the US – who wanted to move to Italy,’
We were beginning to enjoy each other’s company. The train was empty except for a few wayfarers walking along the length of the train. About an hour later, the train coasted smoothly along the edge of platform number 8 and halted with a jerk. ‘Train: 9553 Origin: MILANO CENTRALE Arrival: 21:33‘ read the electronic board on the platform. I found myself staring at a familiar urban agglomeration – Yes, the very station I began my journey 5 days ago. ‘Termini!’ jumped Mr.Chadha with excitement. He couldn’t wait to meet his wife and daughter. The man did a quick search as the passengers alighted from the train before dialling his wife. The anxious husband dashed towards the exit waving at me as he ran. The wonderful gentleman has been in contact for over a year now and the friendship is only getting stronger by the day. Anyway, coming back to my part of the story, I have to confess that my last few days were very tiring. My odd travel timings had left me hardly any time for lodging, and without a proper roof over my head, for the most part, my routines were disrupted to a considerable extent and I was continually reminded that I still had 2 more days to go before I can sleep on a proper mattress. Of course, I had planned this to save time and I did pay dearly for my inability to cope up with my stringent plans.
Of all the restaurants that were open at 10 pm that night, Mcdonald’s was perhaps the most familiar to me that served vegetarian foods (saving me the trouble of finding a vegetarian restaurant). So famished I was that I supped nearly two McVeggie burgers (recently launched in Italy) and chips enough to choke me. I had a vicious appetite that evening; for my last meal was 7 hours ago and I probably had no idea when my next one would be.
It was all in the plan. Having eaten a lavish meal much to my own surprise, I bought my ticket from one of the Biglietto Veloce machines on the platform. It was now time to leave the city – as mentioned in one of my previous chapters, there’s a special train that shuttles between Termini station and Fiumicino Airport – and the last train was supposed to depart Termini at 22:25. Unlike the regular Trenitalia Frecce or the privately run Italo locomotives, Leonardo express looks more like a super-fast tram. The €14 ticket was well worth the journey.
Ascending in the twilight rain: Little had I anticipated that the weather would turn drastically towards the end of my journey. The skies thundered as if Thor’s hammer beat the clouds asunder. ‘Twas a deluge.
Finding a way through this airport building is no easy task. If getting to the airport is one thing, finding your check-in desk is quite another. Mind you, this airport is nothing like any Indian airport. It is of colossal dimensions and that means hundreds of desks serving a constant influx of wayfarers numbering anywhere between 100 to 300 at every single desk. As the amenities grow, so does the infrastructure and the crowd. However, the airport looked like it was struggling to house the masses. Of course, with a complicated managerial bottleneck such as this, the airport seemed to implore more staff to handle the mob. ‘Look,’ I told myself. ‘you still have time; time enough to reconsider your plans. Why don’t you get a job at the help desk or the ticket counter? The job will earn you well, stay back’ The urge was too strong to let go of. I even envied the job of a luggage inspector, as he carried out a physical screening and all.
Apart from the plane journey itself, getting to the terminal is one heck of a thing. And by the time I got to terminal 3, I was sick of everything. My watch struck midnight just as I reached the terminal. I still had 6 more hours before boarding and the night was stupendously uneventful. I lay there, all warm and cosy watching those young people walk briskly. The airport’s deep silence was sundered only by the occasional landing/takeoff noises. It’s pretty safe to spend a few hours at the airport, nothing unusual happened. But, of course, if you’re planning to leave your handbag and wander off sightseeing the huge pier building, don’t expect to find your luggage again. After a few minutes of browsing and listening to some music, I dozed off instantly.
My alarm went off at 4 am in the morning, waking me to the sound of early morning announcements on the 14th of September. The airport staff were beginning their day’s drudgery as the day waxed. I had a tough time coming back to my senses waking from a deep sleep. Nothing was unusual, nothing except the occasional Hi-Hellos and helping an elderly customer with whatever little knowledge I had gathered from my 6-hour say at the airport.
Scrutinised at the airport: Nearly 3 hours after I woke up, and an hour after the miscellaneous boarding routines, there was an announcement: The departure of flight 243 from Rome to Frankfurt. Please, passengers, proceed to gate D10
Soon, the monotonous journey ended at Frankfurt airport; a stopover in my 18-hour journey back home. Being the second busiest airport in Europe after Heathrow, a trip to the observation deck was definitely a worthwhile experience. There was an absolute hive of activity out on the tarmac with planes coming and going from all corners of the world. I spotted aircrafts from India, Vietnam, Brazil, Tunisia, and Australia just to name a few. It costs just a few euros to walk out to the viewing platform, located on the roof of a terminal building. Interestingly, I found a troupe of young Indians – or so they seemed – shouldering their backpacks as I arrived at my departure terminal at the intermediate airport – two ladies in their early 20s and another chap quite the same age but looked older. Although we exchanged eye contacts, neither I nor they were willing to initiate.
That’s when a security guard, who was stalking me from his desk a few metres to my right, started walking towards me. A sense of uneasiness clung onto my body as the man conversed with his colleagues pointing at me.
‘Excuse me?’ said I trying to act normal. The man said something I could not perceive. The situation got even more intense when the staff called in more men. All eyes were on me as the drama unfolded, ‘What’s happening?’
Looking at all the unrest created, the Indian troupe tried to help me out of the mess. Lady 1: *Questions the European in an incomprehensible masculine tongue they call German*. South Asian man (translates to me in long detail, longer than what follows): A man – middle eastern by looks – was here a half hour ago. It seems like the guards found his behaviour a bit odd. He had two identical briefcases says the guard. This gentleman’s been watching him for over an hour and he has supposedly vanished just as you arrived at his place. The guard suspects that you have something to do with this briefcase he left behind. It is one of the two he carried. Nothing serious. Lady 2: I don’t think this briefcase is yours or is it?
‘No…no no’ I said. ‘This isn’t mine. The backpack is all I own.’ The European didn’t look very satisfied with my answer. He did a complete scan of my luggage until nothing was found that matched his suspicion. ‘So that’s that!’ After crosschecking my passport, the man apologised. The embarrassment wasn’t over. Among the many eyes, that turned, some were still starkly espying me. ‘Look away, you fools’ I whispered. The incident ruined the rest of my day.
Lady 1: Well, hi, I’m Sachini. Suddenly the other two opened up, Dinesh and she’s Upeksha. Me: Not Indians? Dinesh: Srilankans. You’re quite safe now. Don’t mind him. Me: I hope so (I did not have the mood to talk). Well, thank you for helping me. With that, we parted ways as I was getting late for my next flight.
‘Twas nearly a month since the day I departed my hometown. Spotting people speaking a familiar language was a sight to behold – banners, signboards in Kannada were especially encouraging to see. I was home. For a man who’s never flown before, the trip was nothing short of amazing experiences bundled with a tint of cumbersome incidents that has, I suppose, transformed me for the better. Not all went according to my plans, in fact, they are not meant to; for you only gain experience from that which is unknown, unplanned. Many a time I had to dine in restaurants I’d never wanted to or eat foods that tasted awfully bad – loved many dishes, coveted a few – I was wont to surviving on vegetables (Cabbages, cauliflowers) and fruits in the absence of cooked food. I mastered the things I thought I couldn’t live without; made new friends, unmade some; been to places that exceeded my expectations. Above all, I walked the same earth which has been trodden for 4000 years, isn’t that something?
The most precious souvenir I brought back from my travels is the memory itself. The very thought that I walked the paths trodden by Rameses, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Claudius, Augustus, and of course Julius Caesar is a relic enough to be cherished for the rest of my life.
– Immortal Chiron