It was heady. Unabashedly. Unapologetically. Heady.
This indescribable sensory blend of freedom, space and tranquility. Something which I have never experienced before. Anywhere. This ability to walk into an almost empty park, lie down under a tree full of yellow autumn leaves and just watch them flutter down one by one whenever a hint of a breeze passed through. This ability to just be there at that present moment and experience the magic of autumn unfolding, without having to constantly look around to see who is approaching, or that the angled golden rays filtering through the trees meant that it would soon be time to head towards safer places. This ability to just be me, outside in the open world, which in India can only be done in the confines of your home if you are privileged enough to stay on your own.
I travelled through Netherland, Germany and Slovenia for almost a month, visiting friends and family, and trying to experience the life of a local. The weather became my friend; for wherever I went, it pushed away the grey clouds and brought out the sun. Even in a stubbornly grey and rainy Berlin. Nature played out its part gorgeously, but in a languid and teasing sort of way, turning yellow and red and brown and barren in bits and parts. Sitting on a bench besides one of the narrow canals in Amsterdam and reading, experiencing the silence around a crystal clear lake in Slovenia, running after a tram in an empty street late at night in Dresden, and walking along the river Neckar in Heidelberg on a chilly afternoon, life seemed perfect. Almost dream-like.
Along the way, I understood that these countries (even ‘poorer’ Slovenia) have achieved a quality of life that we can only dream of here, which values human life and dignity. A standard of life where the goal of earning money, which has driven our nation literally batty, has lost its importance. Because everything else is taken care of: from super-efficient idiot proof public transport systems, fresh food (now also vegan) on the go, strict waste segregation, flexible work hours, carriage for babies which can be attached to a cycle for mothers to freely move around, pet friendly restaurants and public transport, to even plastic-bag-pickup-points for collecting dog poop in case you forgot to carry your own.
Along the way, I also understood that much of these privileges came at the cost of destruction of natural resources, first theirs and then ours, struggles of the previous generations, and a largely welfare-state approach. That many, especially the current generation, do not realize just how privileged they are. That the immense importance given to personal space and individualism has resulted in people fearing overstepping boundaries creating a rather formal and lonely community where even friendships can be more of a duty (Slovenia still has its rough edges and hence more easy-going people). That the warmth of community living of the East with its crazy informality amongst friends and families, is something which the West has probably lost forever.
Yes, despite all this, life seemed perfect and dream-like. Well, almost. Because how can life be real if there are no birdsongs, when the mornings are eerily silent, where woods are devoid of nature’s noises. Even in this chaotic city of Mumbai, I wake up every day to a cacophony of birdcalls. Even now, when I wake up in the dark and I hear the single eight-note song of the fantail, I know that dawn is about to break. Nature it seems, like people and the systems there, is just as manicured. Even in a more ‘rural’ Slovenia. Forests, constantly cut down in the name of its management, have little hope of home for undergrowth or wildlife.
But in all the days of my travel, these aspects of life were blurred, registering somewhere only in the back of my mind. Because throughout the journey, I was busy filling my senses with this exhilarating feeling of being able to breathe. Because I didn’t know if I will ever get to experience it again.