Thursday, January 17, 2008
US - 101 (episode 1)
I grew and fed my apprehensions with red wine and flushed the stench down with mouth fresheners.

When we flew down into Amsterdam I had my first realization of being in a place unlike anything in my country. Things were bigger, better, faster and more organized. People went about with destinations stuck to their forehead. I wandered apprehensive and spotted a ground staff. I walked to her, expecting her to greet me for being here or something like a “good morning!” or “welcome to Amsterdam!” just to be doubly sure that I did not board a different plane at Hyderabad. What I heard instead was, “You need to look at the monitor and note the tier to board your next flight.”

I was startled. In all my quarter-decade existence I was trained to approach a ground staff to feel reassured or guided. I was expecting her to be pleasant and smiling. She shooed me away.

I mumbled a thanks and walked away from her and closer to the electronic display. Spotted the flight I was to board in a couple hour , matched it to the tier number and walked away aimlessly.

I desperately wanted to talk to someone I know. Anyone...a friend, my mum or some boring acquaintance from any of the companies I’d worked for in the past. I could even talk to a cigarette to look preoccupied, but smoking wasn’t allowed, except in the airport bars. I didn’t know where they were and I wasn’t inclined to look for it, fearing some other kind of mental torture or questioning.

When people accidentally glanced at me, I dug into the boarding pass, pretending to read something important. I wandered at the airport hoping to strike gold on some idea that would keep me occupied for the next two hours. Decidedly, I coud go to a coffee shop and just sit around with a Dutch news daily. But I had a hundred dollar wad and feared the coffee shop guy wouldnt have change or I wouldn’t know if he returned the exact balance. I didnt even know the units of US currency. Nobody at school taught us about cents and dime and how many of them make for a dollar. Besides, I didnt know what to do if I had to pay in Euros. I didn’t know the conversion rate...nor did I have my laptop to google for it.

Eyes spotted a phone booth to my right and gleefully glided to it. I decided to call the friend I was visiting in the US. Picked up the receiver and didnt hear a dial-tone. A list of instructions appeared on the LCD. I hurriedly checked if someone was looking or trailing me. I was satisfied to see no one around. Hung the receiver back and read the sticker on the face of the phone booth. It said I could use a Visa card. I was joyous. Thankfully, I had something I could use globally...[sparing Nepal and Bhutan of course.]

I was relieved to hear my friend on the other end. I told her I feel clueless of everything around; even to make a simple phone call. She was glad the learning had begun. And I felt better after confiding into someone about how I felt.

I almost instantly took charge of my new life in a new continent. Stuck the receiver back and walked to the duty-free shop. I entered it like how the humming bee knows which flowers to sop up nectar from. I picked up a few magnet stickers for the refrigerator and walked around the payment counter casually noting how people paid for stuff they bought. To my relief there were people paying in USD and even high denomination notes like a 100. I knew I cracked my first international commercial transaction.

After 22 hours of cold indifference and straight-faced “enjoy your meal” on board the KLM flight, I was glad to see land approach. The last half hour in the flight was spent looking over the shoulders and heads of people seated far left and right of me. We did finally touch down at la la land.

I knew I had a great deal of learning to do in the weeks to come. Though it was my first flight out of my birth country, I continued to pretend like I was tired of flying in and out of time zones every fortnight.

I believed a hundred dollar bill is like a 100 INR, which frankly was not to be. When you hand out a crisp green hundred dollar bill, people scan you with suspicion, because it’s like the salary day beauty. Also because people believe in the power of plastic money. They pay 50 cent parking tickets with their Visa.

I was still new to the feel of fresh air and cold wind and my friend dragged me out to shop at Ikea...the world famous in America - furniture store.

They have this USP of selling stuff in flat packages. Which means you have to nut, bolt, screw and knock it together on your own. It’s like building your toy home with your own rickety hands. The carpenter in me didn’t complain much cz it spelt fun for the day to come.

For almost the entire first week, we only went from one shopping center to the other. They were huge, innumerous aisles of frozen and canned food, rows of fresh and frozen meat, assorted bread, racks and cartons of wine and spirits to select from, jams, jellies, sauces, condiments, some 5 varieties of potatoes, 10 of tomatoes, 15 of oranges and all that. Basically, any departmental store was your key to grow obese and penniless.

At the cash counter, faces grin and almost always break into, “hey! How are you doing today?” The first few times I imagined people were mistaking me for someone regular at those stores. But soon grew used to it cz they say that to everyone...a sheer way to greet people to lure them into patronizing the store.

Some weird thought made me paste an Indian face to the greetings. I was trying to imagine folks at Lifestyle or Food Bazaar quip in joy of having you at their store. I’d be convinced they’d quit of over working. Not because Indians always sulk and frown but because we are just happy people and we do not need to look any more happy than what we already are, lest someone called the asylum folks over with their pick-up van.

Anyhow, it was a welcome I deserved after the moth-eaten reception I met at Schipol airport, Amsterdam. I don’t have anything against the country or Europe - the continent, but they could all do with some generous dose of “chill pill”.

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posted by Shivranjini Krishnamurthy @ 1/17/2008 06:33:00 AM   5 comments
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