The Classroom in Czechoslovakia

It’s a classroom, almost.

Three wooden school benches stand one behind the other, empty but holding the weight of their own history. The desks, old and tired, and yet free of adolescent engravings, hold open textbooks with lessons I don’t understand. The pages are yellowing, the print on the cover is relatively fresh, a blue base with yellow writing.

I am fascinated. These are the pages from cold war thrillers from my teens. These spaces have existed in my mind as narratives and fast paced prose – spies, jumping from pages in novels to blockbuster film scripts, Bourne style. And now, here they stands in front of me, real, raw.

I follow the invisible chalk trail from the blackboard to the ground, but the dust has been swept out. Charts are tacked on to the wall with bits of tape. But what catches my attention is a little above eye level, next to a propaganda poster: A grime coloured gas mask; hollow eyes and an alien snout. It looks down with a sinister expression, flushing the room with something cold and terrifying, these Dementors of the Iron Curtain.

“I remember the gas drills,” she says. Her curls are as steady as her voice, both anomalies. “We had to wear the masks and run out to the open ground. The mask was so heavy. It was really hard to run.”

Something shifts. It becomes real. Not a novel anymore, but harsh and difficult. We keep standing there, behind the exhibit ropes, lost in versions of that time.

All is Not Calm on the EU Front

Autumn has come to Zagreb. The August heat was washed out yesterday in an unusually long downpour. Today the long sleeves are out.

The Main Square is busy, taken over by a local produce fair. The white tents hold typical Croatian goodies; the jams, I am told, are the hot ticket items; the lavender is overpriced.

There’s music playing over the loudspeaker, and in a spot not taken over by the fair, a couple, surrounded by a group in blue, dance with banners – NE HVALA, No Thank You, it says. Above it the EU sign is crossed off in a bold red.

Anti-EU protests. This is the second one I’ve stumbled into this week.

I love their Tees. They are in the EU blue, with the EU stars, but instead of EU, they say NE. No.

Its a small crowd, but larger than the last one. No one is paying much attention though. The press is present, snapping photos for tomorrow’s deadline. I pull out my phone too when I spot a familiar face. He is holding a sign almost as big as him. London Bridge is Falling Down, EU is Falling Down. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it gets the point across.

I go say my hellos and ask a few questions.

It’s a small protest, I say. He says, I can’t believe people are so apathetic. They refuse to participate but tomorrow they will be the first to complain.

Why not join the EU? We’ve already been in one bad union (A sign in the background equates EU to YU – Yugoslavia). We had a very small voice there, here it will be even smaller. He puts down statistics, votes the bigger countries get Vs Croatia. His point is clear – 8/10 times Croatia will have to toe the line.

Why all the music? We can’t be angry or violent. It’s takes very little to get dismissed as Fascists, so we have music, and banners, and tees for sale.

I wish him luck. He picks up his banner and heads back to the group. The referendum is close, there’s no time to waste, he says.

Bollywood Peaks

Switzerland is interesting.

It’s beautiful. It’s not broken or dishevelled. It’s not shiny and busy. Driving in, it reminds me of the calendars from my childhood home. Snow peaked mountains, clear lakes and velvet grass. Wooden homes, with flower pots on window sills, tucked in at odd spaces. As we pass hotels, the neutral Swiss flag waves enthusiastically. Right next to it, the Indian tri-colour is just as happy.

India’s obsession with this landscape is well documented. Switzerland has for years been the go-to location for romantic Bollywood escapades. Nothing quiet says romance as whisking a girl, dressed in a soft pastel sari, from the busy streets of Mumbai to an isolated mountain top near Lucerne, and proclaiming your love, preferably in song. Naturally, the whole country is sold on the ticket. Every year bus loads of tour groups make this cinematic pilgrimage, pointing their cameras at where Bollywood royalty once danced. I just didn’t realize how strong, or influential, the Indian contingent would be. I hear more Indian accents than German. And there’s a touch of spice in the air.

It’s one thing to put up flags and customize service for your biggest customer base, but to pick up popular Indian phrases and use them with absolute comfort, is an effort that gets noticed. I can’t help but smile when the cable car guy shouts, “Chalo, chalo, shanti se chalo!” or when he whoops out, “Ganpati Bappa, Maurya!” on our safe return. His audience is giddy with joy. This is a story that will be told over several rounds of Kingfisher. And be written about on blogs.

On the mountain top things are a blinding white with a smudging of dark woollens. Everything seems in order till I catch a flash of bright green. There’s something very familiar about that green. Box-office, block buster familiar. Non-Indian tourists give the bright cut-outs a confused look over. Indians break into a big grin. Standing in the snow are two Bollywood superstars, in a still from one of the most successful films of all time, a movie that passes through Switzerland, full of cow bells, mountains and of course song-and-dance. These are after all Bollywood mountain tops.

Lights and Crackers – Foundation of the State Day in Budapest

It’s 20th August, Foundation of the State Day in Hungary.

Pulling into Budapest we notice the empty IKEA parking lot and a desolate Tesco. Maybe it was mistake driving down from Zagreb on a public holiday. But the closer we get to the city centre, the livelier it gets. Hungarian flags line the Budapest bridges and flutter enthusiastically. Closer to the water gathered crowds sway to music coming from giant loud speakers. The RJs speak in Hungarian so I don’t catch a word, but the mood is infectious.

The day’s celebrations are set to culminate in a firework display on the Danube. Families and tourists have flocked to the waterfront with hours to spare, catching good seats. Along the sideline the city police stand in their yellow vests, patient. Vendors, in tight, short skirts, offer water and other refreshments, even though most people have come well prepared – I see biscuits, sandwiches, fizzy drinks and even a bottle of tequila being passed around.

Pumpkin seeds (at least that’s what I think they are) seem to be quite the local favourite here. Women set up stalls on streets that are pedestrian-only for the night. They sell heaps on squares of paper, much like bhel is served in India, or peanuts in other parts. The seeds are shelled and munched on, while the discarded bits collect in small piles. These little pale hillocks stand all along the waterfront, some tall and proud, others squashed flat by a careless foot.

The firework display starts exactly at 21:00. Hungarian pop makes way for a cheerful instrumental track. Young kids climb on shoulders, older ones stand over any vantage point they find; every head is tilted to the skies. There are three simultaneous spots (in the water) from where the crackers are launched. For half an hour Budapest’s clear night sky sparkles, glitters, and cracks.

The display signs off in a magnificent, colour filled burst, and an applause. The crowds start filtering out, making way for the cleaning crews armed with bins on wheels, brooms and picks. The police continue their shift. The air isn’t singed with smoke. Neither is the sky. It continues to be a beautiful night in Budapest.