The Year That Was

I remember clearly how I felt this time last year. I had just booked the tickets to travel to a foreign country for the first time in my life. Alone. I was excited, yes; also very happy that the long process of applying to colleges and waiting for replies was finally over. I had a wonderful prospect at hand and the future looked promising. I was also finally breaking free from the monotony of the nine-to-five, for a couple of years at the least. But, at the same time, I was petrified. With the tickets booked without any return date, it hit me hard that I was leaving, for better or for worse, and everything would change before I knew it. The feeling didn’t leave me for all of the next month while I was packing and saying my goodbyes to family and friends. And it was there in the pit of my stomach all through the long journey from home to New Delhi to catch the flight that would take me to a new destination. Thus, a terrified self-conscious young woman arrived in Copenhagen.
My first reaction on arriving in the city was noticing how beautiful it was. The skies were a pristine blue as the sun shone brilliantly, accentuating the green of the trees and grass along the city’s roads. The ride from the airport to my university took around thirty minutes and I couldn’t keep myself from peering out of the windows like an excited child. I have traveled extensively in India, bore witness to some of the most breathtaking views- but the idea of such an aesthetically pleasing city was new to me. Adding to my amazement also was the near absence of crowds and traffic on the streets. This was something that had often been told to me by people who had traveled overseas, but it was only when I witnessed it myself that it registered. By the end of that day, my nerves had calmed down considerably. The university campus was spectacularly huge, swanky and modern.  The administrative staff was welcoming and cordial. I was provided keys to my own fully furnished studio apartment. Anybody who has studied in a public Indian university would know how much of an impact the above might have had on me. It was like Christmas come early. :) 

Following in the cycle track :)

One of the lecture buildings at DTU

The first couple of months just flew-by in getting to know my surroundings better, meeting new people and keeping up with the coursework and the cumbersome housework. The language used in most public places was Danish and we had to quickly learn how to read and translate common words (most importantly in the supermarkets and on the public transport system). The university campus, on the other hand, was totally multi-cultural and one ended up meeting people from all over the world. I was once invited to a dinner party where we had to bring dishes from our home countries to the table and ended up sampling Greek, Italian, Spanish and German cuisine (I took shaahi paneer and naan). I look back on this as one of my most colorful learning phases- interacting with people of different cultures and nationalities provided me with a new perspective on the world and the oft-invoked term called ‘globalization’. I got to know some interesting viewpoints people held about my country and also got to break some of the stereotypes that i had subconsciously collected over the years. All in all, it was a big learning experience as I became aware of the differences across cultures and nationalities and also about the things that we all had in common- goals, concerns, and love for art, music and food.
Autumn gradually gave way to winter as the days started getting shorter and the nights chillier. I had come to Denmark prepared for brutal cold, complete with thick woolen socks and mitts. But I soon found out that it was not the cold that bothered me but the lack of sunlight. Come December and my days began with a pitch black sky that slowly gave way to only grey clouds before immersing into darkness again. It was difficult to adjust to this and I could feel my mood dampen. It didn't affect me for long though as, on consulting with friends, I was told that a bright and cheerful lamp in the bedroom could make all the difference. Another thing that worked to raise my spirits was experiencing my first snow. I remember scanning the weather forecast a week before to know the exact date when to expect the showers. I had read earlier that it did not snow much in Copenhagen and when it did, it got usually mixed up with hail or rain. But, did it snow that weekend! The entire city was covered in a thick, glistening layer of white. And I observed how the white also made the nights somewhat brighter, emitting a soft phantom-like glow. Being the good foreign resident that I am, I made my way to the nearest park and played with snowballs. 
Snow in the nearby park
The one drawback to the weather though was that it had become very difficult to cycle. Even though the tracks would be cleaned of the snow, the winds and dipping temperatures would turn my fingers gripping the bike handles to ice. Anyhow, soon there were more pressing things to fuss about other than mode of transport as with December also came the end of the semester and with it, you guessed it, examinations. I found myself spending hours in the library printing notes, going over assignments and frantically finishing up reports. The written exams themselves were all open-book, with the use of a computer allowed in some. But preparing for an all-aid exam was a task in itself as one had to be absolutely thorough with the methodologies used to tackle every problem. People tend to think that presence of aid would make the exam easier as there would be no cramming involved (like in our universities back home), but in my opinion they actually free the examiner to set up challenges for your analytical ability and not just test your memory. The Danish grading system is a tough one where one has to demonstrate understanding of at least fifty percent of the course to obtain a passing grade. This meant that to obtain a top score, the examinee has to have a thorough grip on at least ninety percent of the tasks asked for in the examination. Needless to say, I found this requirement extremely stimulating, especially after the format at my undergraduate university where scoring above eighty in a paper was a rarity. I would exit the exam hall thoroughly spent and exhausted, having exercised my mental abilities to the fullest.
The DTU library in festive mode

With the end of the exam week, the dormitory started emptying out. Christmas was one week away and my fellow students were looking forward to seeing their families. I, on the other hand, was excited about witnessing my first Christmas in a foreign country (and was also secretly praying for snow on the day). The city was adorned for the holiday season as lights and baubles went up on the streets. A Christmas market was also set up in the city center and I was very delighted to walk through it and immerse myself in the festive spirit. There were fireworks every night leading up to New Year’s Eve and the whole city life was as if suspended. I too found myself truly relaxing for the first time in four months- taking walks in Copenhagen’s famous gardens and enjoying the scenery, watching street artists perform in the marketplace and observing the evening sky light up with the shimmering fireworks. I had made it through the semester. I had successfully negotiated the differences between two countries, cultures and technical frameworks. I had made it through, presumably, for the better. :)

The city getting ready for Christmas


I’m going to write about grief. Now, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to say here and what I mean to accomplish. But I do know that what I say is going to resonate with an aggrieved soul somewhere and that is all that I need to know.

My grief has a vague starting point. Was it when I heard the news? Or was it when I said the goodbye, knowing inexplicably that it was going to be the final one? Or do I trace it back to the periodic realizations of the inevitable loss I would have to face one day? I do not know- it was all of this and much more that contributed to the build up of the dam that has now let go. Before I lead you in any further, I will tell you in summary what this is about: I had a dog and it, she, died. That is all there is to it, if I were to disengage myself from my emotion for a bit, that is all the story has to it. But, alas, being alive and vulnerable to all the experiences life has to offer, I cannot disengage myself from the countless fleeting seconds of joy that filled up and up the cup of my being and left it perilously tilted.

It is not my intention to romanticize my grief, to make it a muse for morose poetry or a scalpel to extricate the complicated darkness of the human soul. It is only because of the relatively sunny disposition of this day’s morning that I have found the will to stand away from my grief, for just a while, and examine it. There is nothing romantic about grief anyway, as any body who has been down in it’s depth can testify. It strikes heavily, leaving you panting for mercy, panting for a way out, panting and sweating while your heart shudders and your voice fails. There is nothing romantic about grief.

So, let me begin at when I heard the news. I was home after six months; I couldn’t wait to see her. Instead, I saw tears in my father’s eyes when I asked for her. Yes, it would make sense to mark that as the beginning of my grief. Only, it wasn’t. My grief started the moment I had kissed her goodbye because, you know, life has no guarantees and I was going far, far away. I missed her terribly from that moment on. I missed my home, yes, and my parents too- but nothing as desperately and intensely as I missed the touch of her coat and the warmth of her eyes. But amidst all the eye moistening memories and longings, I clung on to the idea of a future reunion. The phone calls made it better. Sometimes in love it is enough to know that the other is happy.

Now, I don’t have that respite. She is gone. I don’t believe in an afterlife, or anything spiritual for that matter, and I can’t come to terms with her death. The grief makes me want to stay in bed all the time, all the time conjuring imagery from the past to make me surrender in guilt, remorse and sorrow. It makes me question life, my existence and my inexplicable fortune to be in existence when she is not. This is not an exaggeration, dear reader, this is what goes on in my head as a consequence of loss. You cannot imagine what all will be lost with the death of a beloved. Though these are just the thoughts which, in due course of time I have learned, grief brings along to torture us, in those initial days I drowned myself in them, crying for meaning, crying for redemption.

I turned to my parents first. They were heartbroken, too. But they had spirituality to guide them through it- they had recited the Gita into her ears and were sure she was in heaven. They had done their duty to prod her soul gently into the beyond. They were heartbroken and sad, but they had done their duty and it alleviated their suffering. But, no, they would not get another dog now.

I turned to my friends. They sympathized and held me while I cried. They listened to me patiently and tried valiantly. But how can I ask them to help me fight against something they cannot fully understand or imagine? Sure, I have lost family before. Sure, they must have, too. But, what is the appropriate code of conduct when that family is canine?They do not know the depth of my grief and I do not know the depth of their understanding of it.

Religion, family, friends- none served my purpose. So, I turned to my grief. I had contacted an online support group and they told me not to resist the grief. They told me it was the price I had to pay for being human and of being capable to build the lovely bond that we had had. They told me that this grief was the final frontier of our journey and I had to hold on. They told me that in the end, I would be rewarded with something beautiful that I could cherish for the rest of my life.

So, I turned to my grief and decided to plunge into it’s pools.

Grief has no constant current: it ebbs and falls. You begin to realize the pattern once you let yourself go with the flow. You begin to realize the difference between grieving and being melancholy. The melancholy is the lowest the grief will depress you but it will also, at times, leave you with enough breathing space to be smiling. Then, there’s the anxiety, the unfounded feelings of foreboding, the deep breathing and staying still till your heartbeats return to normal. But, the worst are the memories, memories of the previous night’s dream that your mind plays relentlessly with the sun rise, invoking grief at the stroke of dawn. It is okay. It is okay to not want to move for a while, to just let the tears flow. It is okay to let the grief take over. Grief has not a constant current.

Two months in and grief is like an old pest, still unwelcome but it’s presence somewhat expected and habitual. I wake up, make my bed, put my coffee to brew and wait, subconsciously, for it to peek through some long forgotten crevice. And as I reach for the cookies on the top shelf, a couple of them slip and fall to the ground and I can almost feel her, head rubbing gently against the back of my exposed shins, gobbling up the unexpected treats. Thus, grief joins me for coffee.

I am waiting now for the support group’s promises to come true. I want to be happy for all the love she gave me but I can’t right now. So, I will wait and wade through the grief her death left behind. I imagine that one day it will stop hurting enough for me to actually look back and appreciate her for the beautiful thing she was and not for the void she left behind. That is the goal and till then, the grief will have to stay.

Living in Denmark

Half a year has gone by since I moved to Denmark to pursue a Masters degree at DTU and lazy me has not chronicled anything about this extremely exciting change. That there is a world of difference between how my life used to be before August '15 and how it is now is an obvious conclusion. Denmark and India, or North India to be more precise, are worlds apart when it comes to the obvious geographical and social parameters. But, what do I feel about these differences? And how do they affect my daily life? Are they really so huge or do we tend to augment them using our imagination? I will try here to identify a few and write about them, hoping to make it a light and informative read.

So, here goes:

The Food
It is only when you step away from the comfort of the home-cooked, adequately scheduled meals that you realize what a life altering factor food is. But, since I am no stranger to living far from the security of mother's morsels, the food factor did not pack much of a rude shock for me. I still eat pretty much the same as I used to back in India (which is whatever can be easily bought and prepared). For those accustomed to the more traditional Indian cooking, Copenhagen does offer most of the ingredients you'd need for a nice meal. The grocery stores are in fact well stocked with ingredients for many types of world cuisine. There's only one thing that I dearly miss: paneer. The stores do have cottage cheese on offer, considering how huge the dairy industry is here, but it is not the same consistency I am used to. I guess the people here are just not too fond of this variant of cheese.
Copenhagen is pretty cosmopolitan when it comes to eating habits. The streets are full of cafes and eateries offering pizzas, french hot dogs, kebabs, samosas, shawarma, falafels, etc. I can't say I've tried much of Danish cuisine except for their legendary open sandwiches, but Copenhagen does have some of the highest rated restaurants in the world. One of the best places I have visited for street food so far is the Paper Island (Papiroen). Set inside an old, vacated paper mill, this place invites street food vendors from all over the world. You can have American, Danish, Italian, Middle-Eastern, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Turkish.... the list goes on. Even the canteen at DTU offers a variety of multi-cultural cuisine on a daily basis.
Inside Paper Island. Photo Courtesy:

The bottom line: if you're picky about your food habits, you might have to work a bit hard to replicate the situation you're used to. Otherwise, there is a wide variety of stuff to try and it is mostly delicious!

The Weather
When I was planning on moving to Copenhagen, the one feedback that I constantly received from all and sundry was that Denmark was going to be bitterly cold and I would not see the sun for weeks. Well, it is nice and sunny today. :) Of course, Copenhagen is not sunny like Tahiti (or New Delhi in March, April, May, June, July --- October) but the Sun does peek through regularly, bathing the city in it's gorgeous glow.

Sunny in Copenhagen :)
The long and dark winter days did not bother me as much as I had imagined they would. It was cold but not the bitterly torturous sub-zero temperature cold other countries in similar climate zones have. I had always enjoyed winter back home and the extended version of it here only made me increase the frequency of warm winter treats and cozy winter reads. This was also my first experience with snow and I loved how the city transformed into a winter wonderland.
The one outstanding feature about Copenhagen's weather though, is it's unpredictability. A day would start off as sunny, proceed to cloudy before mid day, the afternoon would be wet (you might even have hail or snow) and by evening it would have all settled down again.

Winter Wonderland in my backyard :)

The most valuable piece of advice I have received about the weather here is to always, always carry an umbrella/rain jacket and an extra sweater.

The Population (Or the relative lack of it)
Coming from one of the most populated cities in the world, this aspect is a welcome change. Nowhere is this difference more apparent than on the streets. No long queues, no crowding, no jostling, no traffic jams and honking cars and much, much more breathing space. Even when using public transport during rush hour, you are guaranteed to find a place to sit within five minutes. Of course, the story is much different in India. I can only use pictures to describe this.

Denmark, on a whole, has a population of around 5 million people. Approximately 2 million of these are residents of Copenhagen. Compare this with New Delhi where the population is nearly 16 million, if not more. This factor also greatly benefits the Danish society as it obviously makes for much better and efficient administration.

So that's it for now, a short succinct summary of the most obvious differences between my life in Denmark compared to India. I shall continue this with more about my cross-country experiences.

*Picture Courtesy: Wikipedia