Anecdotes of Europe #3: Story of a Knife

This story is about a knife.

I visited Switzerland pretty early during my summer stay in Germany in 2011. I have friends there with whom I stayed. When I was about to return by train, my friend Alex who had come to see me off  went into a tourist shop with me in the station as I bought a few little souvenirs. This is frankly the last type of place where you should buy things, because they are targeted towards tourists with money to spend on junk trinkets. But what the hell, I was pretty late and I wanted something. So I bought a few things (including a red T-shirt with a proud Swiss flag and ‘Suisse’ written across the chest, and which upon subsequent investigation revealed a tiny ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag), and then my gaze fell on something that I just had to buy. Of course, it was a Swiss army knife. My birthday had been just a couple of days ago, so Alex became wonderful and said he’d pay for it as a gift. I was overjoyed.

On the way back, I started to completely drool over it and took a photo of it in the train. So here it is:

IMG_1389

After I returned to Germany, though, and had taken a better look at it, I was a little unsure of exactly how sharp it was. I couldn’t immediately think of anything to try the blades on. If you own a Victorinox, that is of course not a feeling you want to have about it. You want to feel content.

Anyway, on my next trip a week later with a friend named Vishal, probably to Italy, I took the knife along.

Sitting across the aisle on the train was a wiry woman who I didn’t like the sight of very much. Yes, just because of the way she looked. She was thin, wiry, had sunken eyes and thinning hair, and looked on the whole pretty sinister to me.

So on the train I pulled out the knife, of course.

If you are imagining that this caused some panic or distress among the passengers, no, that’s not how this story goes.

I pulled out the knife to show it off to Vishal. He took it in his hand, and I started to say, pretty proudly, ‘Be careful. This is very sharp stuff, man. Don’t cut yourself.’

Vishal was very impressed with the whole thing, you know, how cool and outdoorsy it is to have a Swiss army knife with you. And I was radiating tangible awesomeness as I took it back from him.

A couple of blades were open, and I started to close them.

Do you know how this closing works? The blades resist your closing for some of the way, then at a critical angle it suddenly snaps close. As this happened with one of the blades, my finger pressing behind it followed along with the blade, and landed smack on the cutting edge of another blade that was open.

I watched as blood started to flow immediately from a beautiful, long cut.

I remember the next thing that happened: my lips bent involuntarily into a serene, pristine smile, watching the accumulating blood.

This shit is sharp, I thought.

Vishal was visibly distraught. I was, too, now, realizing how stupid this was looking. I needed to stop the bleeding and the dripping and all the red nonsense somehow. Red is too bright a colour in a train full of people like that.

I pulled out some tissues that had come with some McDonald’s stuff I had packed along, and started dabbing my finger on them. I could not dab the tissue on my finger because it was too much blood, so I just had to lay the tissue on the seat and dab my finger at different spots, letting gravity do its job.

It was a pretty long cut, and the blood just kept flowing. In a few minutes, the tissue had become this:

IMG_1557

At this time, an Italian train attendant of some kind arrived in our compartment, to check the tickets or perhaps he was just going through, I can’t remember which.

I was worried now, and embarrassed to a far greater extent, and I asked this guy if I could have some first aid. People were looking at me now.

He looked blankly at my cut (it was just starting to look scary at this point), and shrugged and said there’s nothing he could do, and went on his way. Italians are rude, I thought. I had got too used to German politeness.

I was hating to touch the tissue by then; it was starting to remind me of a, well, you know what. But given the options, I decided that I’d have to resort to keep dabbing my finger on it until the bleeding stopped. This looked like first class idiocy now.

Suddenly, this wiry, sinister woman, who had observed the exchange with the attendant, called me across the aisle, and said that she had some band-aid with her.

She rummaged through her purse, pulled out a band-aid and gave it to me. I was immediately so sorry and grateful to her that I showered her with profuse thankfulness as I accepted it.

So the band-aid went on the finger, and the rest of the journey was uneventful. Except that I made a fierce mental note in my head, Looks-based impression: 0, band-aid-based impression: 1.

 

The other half of this story of the knife happened on my way back to India. This is a sad story about the loss of the knife actually. And there are three people who are responsible for it, to be revealed in chronological order.

When I had packed my bags for India, I had suddenly become too moronic to suspect that Swiss army knives would not be allowed in the cabin baggage. So it arrived in Hamburg airport happily nestled in my backpack, oblivious yet of its impending fate. I, therefore, was the first of the three persons responsible.

As I checked in to get my boarding pass, I met the second person responsible for the sad parting: the woman at the counter.

She was a thin, old-ish woman with pale hair. As I was putting my suitcase on the belt for the registered luggage, she told me that I’d have to get rid of all the previous airplane tags. She tried tearing them by hand, but it wouldn’t tear. I tried it, and I couldn’t tear any either. Then I remembered the knife. I told her, just one moment, and with one elegant flourish, I brought out the knife from my bag and snapped open the scissors in it, and got to cutting the tags away.

A sensible counter person would at the sight of this have gone into a wild-eyed tantrum, shrieking like a love-crazed yeti at me to put the knife away in the registered luggage.

You know what she did? She went completely gaga over my effusing superhuman coolness and watched me and my unbearably awesome army knife go at the baggage tags like some starry-eyed, giggly high school crush.

happy-oh-stop-it-you[1]

And this is why she was the second responsible person. If I were sorting these people instead in terms of their contribution to the misfortune, she would lead hands down.

I checked in my registered luggage, popped the knife back into my backpack and got on the flight. Nobody stopped me even at the cabin baggage check.

Oh wait, actually they did. It was because I had some liquid with me. I think it was a face wash gel which I had to throw away. Then they said I have more liquid. It was a bottle of water, and they said to throw it too, but I had memories associated with the bottle (that’s me), so I asked them if I could just drain the water, which they allowed. So I actually left all my stuff at that checking, strolled out of the airport, found a trash, drained the water and came back. But I remembered this little part mostly positively, because the girl who was requesting me to get rid of all these was very sweet and apologetic and she seriously asked me if I had been in the US for long (I had a serious American accent on throughout my Europe stay).

Anyway, back to the story.

My flight wasn’t a straight one to India. It was a cheap (the cheapest I could find) Aeroflot flight that connected through Sheremetyevo, Moscow. Suffice it to say that

a. There was another check of the cabin baggage there, and

b. Russians are more careful.

 

So I’m wearing my shoes after the security pat-down when this beefy, stern looking security woman watching the scans of the bags tells me that I have a knife, and I must take it out. She is, of course, the third person.

For a moment I don’t know what she is talking about, then I remember. And I think, aghast, no, not like this.
I gingerly bring out my Swiss army knife. She unceremoniously puts it to her side and tells me to move on.

You know what happens when an Indian suddenly faces the inexorable hand of fate like this? (There’s a pun here with face and hand. It’s called a slap. It’s what fate usually does to you.)

We reset to our default Indian bargaining mode.

I ask her if it is not allowed. She says it is not. Then I ask her with please. She said there is no way that knife is allowed in the cabin.

I think of a last-ditch try, although in my head it sounded really lame. This is your last chance anyway, I told myself. Then I looked up at her and blurted out: ‘But it was a birthday gift! From a friend!’

She did not even look up as she repeated the same thing. I think she was starting to think now that maybe I had some serious terrorist ideas.

I walked slowly away from the checking, gazing longingly at my Swiss army knife, knowing it was the last I would ever see of it.

 

Epilogue

My friends from Switzerland visited us later the following year in India, and I had told them of the unfortunate story and told Alex to bring another Swiss army knife, a better one, for which I would pay. He brought it, and I have it now, and it’s awesome and sharp and cutting-edge technology. I don’t test it on myself any more though.

Anecdotes of Europe #2: How karma travelled from Venice to Prague

You may remember Vishal from my last Europe anecdote, the guy I had travelled to a few countries with. In the same weekend that we visited Rome, we also visited Venice for a day. (We also toured Pisa and the Vatican City that weekend. Yeah, hell of a trip.)

So as we arrived in Venice on the train over a bridge through the seas, I went completely and helplessly monkey over seeing nothing but water outside the train window. It was surreal.

IMG_1651

However, as we got off at the station, I started getting a little impatient because I didn’t get the ‘Venice’-y feel from the place that I supposed should have struck me the moment I landed (I had gathered these preconceptions from reading books such as The Thief Lord, with its vivid and evocative sketches of the city). The station we had arrived at (Santa Lucia), looked ordinary and forgettable. I was starting to expect just such an ordinary city outside the station, and was feeling somehow tricked. Vishal went into a queue to ask some questions at a Trenitalia booth about his return Deutsche Bahn ticket. So I decided to take a quick look outside the station. I went out of the doors and bumped right into this:

IMG_1657

Canal, bridge, boat, Venice. The whole deal.

A voice inside me exploded: ‘Ohmygod, this is Venice!’

I scamper into the station and announce excitedly to Vishal something to the end of ‘Ohmygod this is Venice! Canal, bridge, everything, it’s just like Venice! Ohmygod!’

We went back outside after a while. I had already planned a detailed itinerary. We would take the vaporetto (the waterbus or big passenger-carrying boats) that started from right in front of the station and travelled the length of the canal weaving through the whole of Venice. We would get off at the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), look at all the spots there (there are quite a few), take the boat again to the Lido beach, come back by evening to the Piazza again, and take a walk at night through Venice’s famous narrow, Kolkata-esque winding alleys back to the station in time for our train. The problem was that this was the early part of our stay abroad, so we were still hesitant at all occasions of parting with our Euros, which in quick mental calculations always turned out to be really expensive in rupees. We had therefore gone into some deliberation over managing our primary expense, the vaporetto ticket fare. € 6-7 each is good for tickets that last an hour, so that should get us to the Piazza. But we again needed the waterbus to get from there to Lido later, and back to the Piazza in the evening. We were not sure of spending so much for the tickets in one day and were confused as to whether there could be a better way, with the longer duration or group tickets, but nothing was working out to our advantage. Anyway, we were not sure of anything, and at this time we were just looking around, really excited and all, posing for photos in the open space that you see in that picture, when the first part of the karma story happened.

All of a sudden a young couple came up to us. They looked Indian. They came up and asked us, ‘Are you Indian?’ I felt a little irked at this. I never liked making a big deal out of my nationality while I was abroad, or going and deliberately meeting other Indian people. Anyway, we said yes.

Then they held up two cards and said, ‘These are magnetic tickets for the vaporetto. We bought them, but we have to go somewhere else now, so we have to leave quickly. We cannot use these any more. These are 12-hour cards valid until 9.30 at night. You guys want them?’

Something smelt fishy to me. I am always immediately suspicious of such things, especially in this case because they had searched us out. So I was pretty disinclined at this, and asked them to clarify what they were saying. They repeated the explanation, and said they had been looking for some Indians to give this to, and had found us. They seemed to be in a lot of hurry to get out of there.

Finally I asked, ‘How much do you need for them?’ And they said, ‘Oh, no no no! You don’t have to pay anything. Just take them.’

We were like, whoa!

We accepted the tickets and thanked them furiously as they left. Then we walked to the vaporetti platform. There was a magnetic reader where you could stick your ticket to check it. It confirmed that both the tickets were valid till late evening. We grinned like maniacs at each other. What were the chances that exactly two people, Indians, would find themselves in excess of the exact tickets we needed, at the exact time we arrived, and found us to give them to us, for free? I remember that I went really hypocritical on myself at that time and started feeling really happy about the whole thing, not so much for the money, but for the happenstance of events, and the gesture of the couple, that they found us out because we were Indians, that we Indians do such things. I didn’t know then that this momentary gladness would embed itself in me for a long time.

I checked later that they had saved us near about a total of € 36.

Anyway, we travelled along the canal to the Piazza and saw all the places we wanted to visit, we went to the Lido beach where I had a nice dip and some really nice Italian pizza, came back to the Piazza, all with the same tickets, and had another adventure trying to walk back to the station that maybe I’ll tell you some other day. And all of this in some small extent owed itself to two kind-hearted people who had taken the time and effort to find some people to give their tickets to.

Around a month and half after this, after Vishal had returned home to India, I decided one Friday to go to Prague, Czech Republic on my own for the weekend, because nobody else was available to come along.

Prague was a beautiful place, made more memorable for the experiences in the awesome little Travellers’ Hostel I stayed in (hopefully I’ll write about it some time). In the daytime I went to visit the Prague Castle, the biggest castle in the world. I bought a ticket that included all the buildings inside the castle perimeter. I took a long time going around some of them, and as in most places in Europe they were beautiful.

IMG_6919

It was late afternoon when I realized that 3 or 4 items were still unvisited and thus un-punched on my ticket, but I had not enough time to possibly cover all of them and then walk to the famous old Charles Bridge while there was still some daylight left.

I was about to exit with my unfinished ticket anyway when I caught sight of a group of Indians. They looked like students. I surveyed them as I remembered the Indian couple in Venice from long back and this idea started to crystallize in my head.

I ruminated for a while more, then I walked up to them and asked, ‘Are you Indian?’

The rest, as they say, is history. I can still remember feeling the universe let out a blissful purr as long-forgotten karma balanced itself again at a different place and time.