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Points of intersection

Two mismatched siblings try to overcome their incompatibility while travelling in Europe

The Rosary Quay is one of the most photographed spots in Bruges. Photo: iStockphoto
The Rosary Quay is one of the most photographed spots in Bruges. Photo: iStockphoto

When my sister, who is four years older, suggested a trip to Europe, I said yes immediately. It seemed like a pipe dream: She has a seven-year-old daughter and my son is 2. She heads the business vertical of a firm and I write for a living. We aren’t the likeliest candidates for a two-week backpacking trip.

But she was keen, so I started researching the itinerary. Even as we applied for the visas, I doubted whether the plan would materialize. But it built up momentum. I got good round-trip air fares and booked hotels. Didi’s encouraging words—“Are the tickets blocked? Good. What about the hotels, are they centrally located?"—were her only contributions. I knew I was going to end up doing all the work, just like old times.

Even when we were children, I was always the anxious one. Scuttling beside Ma when we had guests, setting the table and socializing while Didi stayed in her room. She would join us much later and charm everyone with just one smile.

I called her the day we were leaving, as I tearfully bid bye to my toddler. She cut the call to message later, “Busy, what’s up?", as if it were just another day. Later, on the flight, I perused our itinerary meticulously while she browsed the in-flight entertainment. I felt 15 again.

Berlin, our first stop, was a grand mix of history and modernity; the people were warm and the food was delicious. As we set off to see the first thing on our (read, my) list, the Berlin Wall, it started to pour. Our phones and camera were out and we didn’t have an umbrella. While I worried, Didi ecstatically posed against the art on the remnants of the infamous wall. “This is amazing, take my picture, Nanu!"

I did not know what to do with her.

A tiring START

From the Reichstag to the interactive DDR Museum, and the Topography Of Terror—a permanent exhibition on the propaganda and politics that existed in Berlin, Germany and the rest of the world before, during and after the Nazi period— I made three errors. One, when I walked ahead of my sister, following the map on my phone. The second, when I went back to look for her. When I did find her in one of the currywurst stalls, we walked back to the destination. With new shoes biting my feet, the pain was more than emotional.

At the Wittenbergplatz metro station, I groaned. Didi, who had cribbed the whole morning while searching for her make-up, stared at me for a second and said: “What’s with the complaining? It better not affect our trip." I realized, now that it was too late, that I would often be bursting into tears during this trip.

When we reached Amsterdam and met my friends, Didi asked if they could suggest places for us to see. I stared at her in disbelief. She knew I had a five-page, meticulously researched list tucked in my bag.

The open-air East Side Gallery in Berlin. Photo: iStockphoto

The next day, we reached the Rijksmuseum, frozen to the bone by the cold winds. Didi had the warmest idea. “Let’s have hot chocolate at the museum café first." For once, I agreed. Later, given our shared love for paintings and artefacts, we spent hours at the Rijks.

From there, we headed to the Red Light Secrets museum, where we learnt a great deal about the sex workers of Amsterdam’s famous windows. We also learnt that we could now talk about sex without awkwardness or teenage giggling.

Between weed hunting and actual hunger pangs, we settled for some sushi at a tiny restaurant in the lanes beside the Amstel river. That day, the hurried meal evoked the same contentment I remembered from the Sunday-special meals of our childhood.

Chalk and cheese

At the Bock Casemates, the Unesco heritage site that gives Luxembourg its status as the “Gibraltar of the North", Didi kept getting lost. The fortress, from 963 AD, has an unending number of doorways, stairways, and freaky temperature drops. She chose this time to talk about monsters. Friendly tourists around us, realizing what she was doing, joined forces to scare me out of my wits.

As we travelled, our approach to money became a clear indicator of how differently we think. She chose eateries on a whim; me, according to the day’s budget. She bought a local phone number for €20 (around Rs1,600 now) in each city and used it to update her Instagram, while I conserved data to use maps.

At a souvenir stall, she said, “This wooden crocodile is for your kid." I was stunned to find out that the tiny toy cost €15. “My boy doesn’t need this. Let’s go," I urged. “You embarrass me," she said, and paid anyway.

It has always been this way. When Didi got her first salary, she bought herself a jacket with 90% of that money. Even at home, she would suddenly order a large cake in the middle of the night and then binge on it with me. While I have done the math all my life, she has spent lavishly.

The writer (left) and her sister at Chemin de la Corniche in Luxembourg. Photo: Runa Mukherjee Parikh

Funnily enough, the constant PDA on the streets of Paris made my sister sad. The dancing couples in front of the Palais de Tokyo, overlooking the fabulous Eiffel Tower, made her melancholy. A walk by the Seine on a windy evening, and a visit to the Notre-Dame cathedral during Sunday mass, made her tear up. It was only inside the Louvre, near the famed Mona Lisa, that I found my sassy sibling again. “So this is what it’s all about, hmph," she said to her audio guide, and moved on.

Bonding over beer

By the time we reached Brussels, we were both homesick. But the Grote Markt—a central square with 17th century architectural marvels—wowed us, easily becoming our favourite destination from the trip. With beers, a raspberry-flavoured one for her and a La Chouffe for me, we sat down on the cobbled street with a hundred others like us. From life’s aspirations to overwhelming motherhood, Brussels made us converse the way we would have on the balcony of our Delhi house.

The next day, the airlines misplaced my baggage, and she admitted she was glad it was me who went through the ordeal. “I would’ve gone nuts," she said. For all her first-child tantrums and narcissism, she was honest.

Clenching my jaw, I breathed out slowly. When you’re family, nothing can really break you, least of all a vacation. But it can come close.

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