With bated breath I had asked my doctor over the phone if I could fly for a short holiday across time zones. She was as silent as the falling snow before she asked again if my third trimester had for sure “only just begun”. ‘Just’ is a relative term of time, isn’t it? After a confident yes I hurriedly cut the call. I was going to take my big baby belly to Helsinki, and then cruise across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. Where was there room for pre-natal mathematics amidst prospects of a splendid Christmas in Scandinavia?
What made me so self-assured about travelling to foreign cities where temperatures were falling to minus 20 degrees, with my feet swollen, a painful back, haywire hormones and even a husband in tow? I don’t know. I know I was brave, and many would have consulted the Great Old Indian Book of Pregnancy To-Dos. But I wanted to leave misgivings and superstitions behind; to conquer them even if by following my own now-almost-maternal instinct. It said go, so we went.
As a seven-month-pregnant woman traveller with a backpack, I found the Indian bystanders’ gaze on me quite often at the airport. One of them suggested I wrap a stole to cover my apparent pregnancy, while another one inquired why I had not put on enough weight. Was it this that I was getting away from at the 11th hour?, thought I, as I pulled the seat belt to the maximum size and buckled in.
As a seven-month-pregnant woman traveller with a backpack, I found the Indian bystanders’ gaze on me quite often at the airport
No daylight, but no calling it a day!
December so close to the Arctic Circle meant there would be muted light behind the envelope of grey clouds at 9am, which would be gone by 3pm. As a tourist this bothered me. How will I sightsee? The window of my hotel near Helsinki Centre overlooked a metro rail station. At odd hours, I would peep out to always find someone walking briskly to and from it, their smoky breaths leaving behind twirling, icy trails in the dark. Often, the lone figure would be a woman’s. New Delhi’s unpredictable regard for women was a part of my being. Here by the window I was looking at a world which was going on without cares or concern.
What was there to think then? After making good use of the breakfast buffet the next morning, I laced up my snowshoes, pulled the belly-support pants in place and stepped out into a light snowfall. Poor husband had left for a few hours of work.
Helsinki is lovely in spring, they say. But if spring is lovely, can the beauty of Christmas be far behind?
I walked around the neighbourhood without a map, one sure baby step at a time. A tiny Christmas bazaar sat right behind Kamppi Shopping Centre. It was much smaller [and cheaper!] than the famous St Thomas Christmas Market of Helsinki which we saw later, but it was memorable for my first encounter with a rather different looking Santa Claus. A little distance away a park lay lonely, bereft of all green and of people. The crowds were busy shopping for the festive season in warmly lit shops lining the streets. Meanwhile, Helsinki Central Railway Station looked sombre despite the fairy lights, like a man who had a job to do. My eyes took in all the sights, while my hair took in the snowflakes. When I turned the last corner to go back to the hotel after a few hours of solo walking, I encountered a steep climb. I hadn’t come miles away to turn away. We huffed and puffed back to our nest, baby and I, just in time for the father to return.
I walked around the neighbourhood without a map, one sure baby step at a time
It was 12am when I shook my husband awake. ‘Do you want to go for a walk?,’ I asked. He knew better than to refuse a tenacious wife. And that’s how, dear reader, we did the tourist circle in Helsinki city centre. At one point, when we were lost, we met an old couple near the famous Stockmann building and asked them for directions. They did not know English. But they finally went, ‘Oh! Senaatintori,’ when they realised we wanted directions for the Senate Square! From 12am to 3am, with a few coffee stops in between, we saw all there was to see. Even did some window-shopping at a most appropriate Lastentarvike baby store! Whoever was on the streets, now inseparable from the white footpaths, was high on spirits and spirited hellos. By the time we tucked into bed that early morning, my eyes were sated but my feet were screaming for rest. After all, the next day two masterpieces awaited us.
The Rock Church in Helsinki is unique. Excavated into solid rock, with a copper-lined dome, this unconventional structure was once rejected as a “devil defence bunker”. But the experience of standing in the underground oval church-hall bathed in daylight is something few other places of peace can match. My stomach was grumbling, for the baby had finished the Finnish cheese at great speed and I was hungry, again. Wary of it echoing, I sat there, praying for happiness and health, but also hoping the grand organ would come alive to put the baby’s kicking to sleep. The Sibelius Monument was what we saw but did not really see. It was snowing heavily and the design which once sparked lively debates about abstract art was lost to the white of falling flakes; 24 tonnes of 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern as a tribute to the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. No wonder then, that souvenir shops in Helsinki charged me my car’s worth for glass artifacts made in the 2012 World Design Capital.
Helsinki abounded with creativity and hopefully it had seeped right into the unborn too.
It was 12am when I shook my husband awake. ‘Do you want to go for a walk?,’ I asked
When I entered our cabin on the cruise ship which was to take us to Stockholm, the baby shifted uncomfortably as if it read my concern – ‘Where is the oxygen coming from?’ The cabin was tiny. But when up above there lay life [read gambling tables, live music and a shopping mart] who wanted to sleep? It was a night of gay abandon on the Baltic Sea.
On stepping ashore, the Royal Palace, clad in white, sat majestic; the guards withstood the blizzard as if it were but a breeze tickling their cheeks! The Parliament House of Stockholm stood steady near the harbour, seeming much quieter than the Parliament I had left back home.
Before we headed to Gamla Stan, the Old Town, in Stockholm for a hearty meal and a little shopping, a chatty taxi driver took us to the Vasa museum. This man knew India because he had visited Agra to see we-know-what with a fond friend called Singh! If his story wasn’t amusingly unbelievable, the Vasa warship’s was. This Swedish warship, built in the 17th century and touted as a symbol of great Swedish power, had sunk after sailing for about 1300 metres. Now how was a pregnant woman, a victim of funny hormones, not supposed to laugh out loud at those puny figures? So I laughed. I’ve been reading about why the Vasa sank and found out that, apparently, it was just too heavy to float! They must have designed it wrong. Now I understood why Helsinki was the World Design Capital!
Home sweet home?
When you return home you carry not just objects but whole new experiences and memories. What did I carry home?
My heightened sense of being a woman, thanks to my pregnancy, helped me carry back a different sense of freedom than I had experienced before. I had explored these two cities as an individual whom no one burdened with unwanted gaze or unsolicited advice. I was just another person walking on the road, free from the apparent physical condition that often invites second looks.
When you return home you carry not just objects but whole new experiences and memories
It wasn’t just anonymity and gender equality which freed me, but also the extent to which I felt welcomed on those foreign shores. I carried home the friendliness that I had been shown. To be allowed to catch my cold breath in a warm shop and to not be judged for leaving food half-eaten on my plate, with the chef saying, ‘I understand!’ On the streets, the regard for one another shone like headlights when cars stopped to let you cross the road. Tour guides worked with honesty and taxi drivers earned your respect for minding the speed-breakers and not just their fare. Who would imagine feeling such geniality in bone-chilling cold weather and with barely a shared language between us?
When I look around, I realise how some places free us. Don’t the most traditional people wear in places like Goa and Bangkok what they would not dare to at home? Because the flavour of a place helps us shed inhibitions, we feel freer than where we come from. It is ironic, perhaps a little tragic too, how I had to travel miles from home to truly feel safe in trying weather and under medically delicate circumstances.
By the way, I also carried my unborn child back in situ. No false labour echoing in the Rock Church, no palpitations in the cruise ship cabin and certainly no dramatic delivery mid-air. Secretly, photographic memory of the good-looking men and women I saw did sneak back with me too. After all, don’t they say to look at pleasant things when you are pregnant? Conveniently so, I did, in Helsinki and Stockholm and for a full night on the Baltic Sea.
- All Pics: Sakshi Nanda
This was first published in the August 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.