Growing up, my favourite subject was Geography. It mentally took me from pole to pole, while physically being present at one spot. Pluto intrigued me to the hilt while learning about the solar system. Zaire, Greenland and Antarctica engrossed my mind with their extreme climatic conditions and the traveller in me wanted to unravel the mysteries of the world.
The year was 2009 when I came to know about the tiny town in Russia—Yakutsk, the coldest inhabited place on earth. I was completely mesmerised by its charisma and aura. It’s my dream to travel there one day but my better half is not in sync. I can’t blame him though.
The average temperature there is minus 50C and at minus 45C, wearing glasses gets tricky. At that temperature, the metal sticks to your cheeks and will tear off chunks of flesh when you decide to remove them.
As both of us wear glasses and contacts, it will be a challenge (out of many others, of course). To quote him, “Tumhe apne haath se apni aankh noch leni hai contacts ke saath, toh tum karo. Main tumhare saath reh ke roz hi apne baal nochta hoon. That’s enough for me” 😉
I don’t know if I will ever make it to Yakutsk or Antarctica, but we did make nine homes, in four countries, in the last nine years. Every country had something to offer, abundant enriching experiences to share, so many learnings to provide, and a living I call life today.
The US: I married Shahzeel in December 2009. Soon after, we moved to the United States. It was the first place abroad and I felt new to things around me. It was a never ending flight. Due to volcanic events in Iceland in May 2010, the flight took an unusual route. Hyderabad – Mumbai – Dubai –Washington – Chicago – Portland. And I do have an unusual development, I can’t sleep on flights. By the time I reached our hotel in Portland, I was a walking zombie who then underwent 12 hours of hibernation. By the time I woke up, I had no idea which time zone I was in. Till then jet-lag was only a word I knew, that day I experienced it for the very first time. And yes it is tough. I was up at 1AM PST and then we spent the whole night (day time in India) talking. It took time for us to acclimatize.
My very first memory of meeting technology was in O’Hare International airport, Chicago. We were seated at the food court, waiting for our next connection when I excused myself to use the restroom. The cleanliness abroad strikes you but to get a first-hand experience is another thing; especially when it comes to public bathrooms. No sooner had I got up flushing the toilet, than a “shroom” voice caught my attention. Behold a toilet seat with a protective-plastic-film glory. The automatic seat cover system’s rotation was new and innovative for me. Hygiene had a whole new meaning then.
It was the first time when everything got expensive. In 2010, a USD in comparison to INR was ~45 and the mental currency converter was always at work. Speciality food, like Indian food, was comparatively expensive but then consumer brands and gadgets got cheaper.
Driving was another venture. We bought a Nissan Sentra pretty early in our stay. He took driving lessons and passed the test is one go. Impressive! And then in one of our early drives to WinCo Foods (supermarket chain in the US) he forgot which land he was in. The car kept sailing at left side of the road till we saw another one coming towards us with beaming lights in broad daylight.
“Who is this moron? Why is he blinking lights? Why is he driving on the wrong side?” we murmured in our heads.
You don’t need to tell me who was the moron then. Thankfully, just in time, we morons realised our mistake; his reflexes made him take a steep left turn on the side trail, and we gasped in horror.
The next action was a round-about turn, accompanied by tight lips throughout the drive. We were attentive, played by the rules, read and drove; basically the reverse of everything back in India. This was followed by a huge fight at home. We fought about whose fault it was, but we knew we were mad because we got scared. But then we learnt the hard way, and we were lucky to learn without a scratch. That was some day!
One thing I recognized about the US is that they skewed everything compared with the rest of the world and screwed the people coming from abroad badly. Everything needs conversion and everything needs time to settle. Gallons vs Litres, Pounds vs Kilograms, Miles vs Kilometres, Fahrenheit vs Celsius, everything needs to change. And so does your attitude; your attitude towards the passing-by strangers. The first time someone said “Hi! How are you doing?” to me on my evening walk, I felt weird.
“Why are they acting so friendly?”
As an Indian the rule embedded in our head is, “Don’t talk to strangers.”
And then we understood their way of life. Foreigners like me may find it unusual, but for them it can’t be any other way.
In the short duration of 1.5 years spent in the US, we stayed on both coasts, and befriended diversity on the both ends. While Portland was quieter, green (it rains all the time), a laid-back-city, Chicago was fast, windy and hugely populated.
The US was definitely an enriching experience. It helped me take business in my own hands. I learnt to help myself as for the first time I was living in a land of ‘no help’. Thousands of Indians romanticise with the idea of living in the USA and it has done wonders for many but then to each its own. We wanted to be back to India as we felt very far away from home and were badly homesick, after a certain point.
I have fond memories of that place. While Disneyland, Niagara, Seattle and Oregon have a place in my heart what I remember the US mostly for is as the birthplace of my Macbook and iPhone. Like I said, it’s a land of gadgets and to each its own. 🙂
London has its own magic. I remember how Charles Dickens made a place in my heart while growing up. It was his verses that made me fall in love with London. Of course, it was all very dark in his books. Well, he had no choice; he had to mould characters like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. But yes, I had to meet the city, and so I did in January 2012.
The cold ran through me as soon as I stepped at Heathrow airport. It was -10 at that hour and I did not need to check how it “felt like” as I did feel Siberian. Sub-zero temperature freezing cold.
London is iconic and a simple stroll in that city will make you realize why. I always feel the sense of fondness of anything comes with the memory linked with the place. Reading about London Bridge was one thing and then visually meeting it made me gasp with content. I had heard about the Royal family and then I saw them. And I saw them while sitting on my husband’s shoulders amongst thousands, at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
This vampire city (less sunlight) had more gloomy days but offered the sunny inclination of losing myself in intriguing times of history. You get used to the greys and blacks and watching sun go down at 3:50PM in winters.
Now if 1:45 was a scary conversion rate in the US, try passing 1:100 as a conversion. Yup! 1GBP costed almost INR 100 then but the mental conversion was quite an ease.
Rather than opting for an apartment, we stayed in a Victorian home, made in the early 19th century. It was a lavish house divided into four parts. We were residing in one tiny unit with a conventional setting. How conventional, you ask? We had a coin-operated-electric meter installed in one of the cabinets in the kitchen. We had to keep checking the meter so the pointer never aimed at the empty slot. Once reached, you had to insert those heavy pound coins, reset the meter to enjoy electricity. You can say it was a jukebox for electricity.
Accent hit me hard in the UK. Unlike the US, I was not married to H1 in the UK and had the permit to work. I was lucky enough to score contractual work there and may I say I loved it. Playing with British accent wasn’t difficult. I understood them irrespective of them missing out ‘r’ in their words. I wanted to tell them that ‘r’ is there for a ‘r’eason, but then who am I to tell? The point is that I understood them and thankfully and more importantly, they understood me. But by the end of my stay I started working with a Scottish fellow and then there was no understanding what-so-ever. Oh! he was a wonderful person, only that I was made to work with a fellow whose accent I was not able to fathom.
You see, people of Ireland and Scotland have the toughest accents to crack.
Andrew, my reporting head, easily transmitted work via phone. I, on the other hand insisted on travelling to work every day. He was being kind, and did not want me to travel in freezing temperatures in December but I had to see him on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong. I needed to read his lips, for me to understand the nature of the work given and his oh-so-hard-to-interpret accent.
Overall, both the US and the UK have English as their primary language but it is severely different. A colleague of mine in London once said, “People in the States speak American. It’s not English.” Well, it is different in vocabulary, spelling, collective nouns, and of course the accent. So I guess the old saying goes true, that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language.”
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in London. The city also offers a great connection to every other European country. It’s because of it that we could travel to seven countries in one year – Scotland, France, Amsterdam, Belgium, Spain, Turkey and of course the UK.
We soaked a lot of Europe in less than a year we stayed there. Even after coming back to India the line murmured in my ears, “Mind the gap”. Even the tubes in London have a personality. Oyster cards (public transport card) become part of your wallet as much as your debit/credit card.
I did have a preconceived notion of London being a snooty lady but it was quite in reverse. The city accepted me with open arms and its charm still mesmerises me.
In October of last year we moved to Australia.
This is my third stay abroad and things are a little different this time around. Firstly, I am with a mini version of myself now. A baby changes everything. The first thing I wanted to know about Australia was its immunization schedule and education system. Everything else was secondary. Secondly, nothing seems new and currency conversion doesn’t bother me much. I guess I have made my peace with the outer world operations.
So far what I have learnt about Aussies is that they shorten almost every word (a cup of tea is cuppa and MacDonald’s is Macca; Biscuit is biccy and chocolate is choccy and this list is long) and shorts are their national dress. Unlike the US and the UK, this country does not have a rich history but this is a land of the future.
This is not a place for online shopping as the economy is highly reliable on imports and cost of living here is exorbitant. Weather here is more aligned with India, except it gets extremely hot in summers. You need to wear a sun block, every single day, without fail.
One word that was same through all my stays abroad is homesickness. Normal days yet crawl away but festivals (Diwali and Eid) tear you apart. No matter how much we cook and how much we do, we are never home. Kyuki ghar toh gharwalo se hota hai!
The positive is that I stay in Melbourne and it’s close to Antarctica. I know it’s a far-fetched dream but then when have I stopped dreaming?
I still remember once a 18-year boy told a 17-year girl, “Tomorrow, if we are together, we will move to Australia one day. I love that country.”
17 years later, it happened. We are here and I believe, I will achieve my polar dream one day. Cheers to daydreaming and never ceasing. I don’t know if the world is at my feet or the world is my oyster but I do know if you believe, you achieve.