Saturday, Jul 02, 2022
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Our Man In Europe: Backwards We Go

Shouldn’t travel take us back in time too - to experience again what we have already experienced, albeit with eyes that have seen so much more now?

The La Glace patisserie in Copenhagen, Denmark
The La Glace patisserie in Copenhagen, Denmark Krista/Flickr

Should travel be a forward movement, always? Or can it look backwards, seep into the recesses of our memory, and fish out pearls from long-forgotten years? Can travel do more than just expose ourselves to different peoples and cultures? Or could it, at times, be more like a time machine taking us into our past?

These were the questions that I meditated upon while waiting outside La Glace, a Danish patisserie dating back to the 1870s, to get a pastry. In front of me, despite the pandemic, a queue of people snaked around the corner of the patisserie, waiting to get inside. I studied those in front - most were past their prime, their heads predominantly white. There were a few children, holding the hands of their grandparents. Breaking the monotony were a few tourists like myself.

I had come to La Glace on the recommendation of my good friend, Jan. Jan had suggested that I try the hot chocolate at La Glace. “It’s the best hot chocolate you can get in Denmark,” he had told me, “And you even get a free refill!” Once, Jan’s grandparents used to bring him to this patisserie, nestled in a side street along Strøget, the main pedestrian street in Copenhagen. Now, he brings his sons here every once in a while.

As my turn came, I stepped into the building that seemed to be frozen in time. The walls inside were covered in green wallpaper; the seating area marked with padded chairs and marble tables. On the walls hung pictures from La Glace’s long history, and from the ceiling hung lamps of frosted glass. The interiors, I was told, were deliberately kept the same way they were when the shop first opened in 1870, as I settled on an upholstered sofa in one of the many rooms the patisserie had.

“Why do I see so many old people today?” I asked the young waitress who brought me the famous hot chocolate drink. She was dressed in a white shirt and a green apron - a uniform that has also stayed unchanged with time. “Well, it’s not just today,” she replied. “The people you see bring their grandchildren here. Look,” she pointed to the little kids digging into their cakes. The elderly come here to relive their childhood and also bring along their young grandchildren to create birthday memories. “La Glace is not just any patisserie; it’s a tradition in Denmark. It reminds people of their best years, I suppose” she said.

As I sat there, sipping my hot chocolate drink, I thought of my own childhood - of the days when my parents and I would walk, hand-in-hand, to the neighbourhood ice-cream shop to celebrate every small achievement of mine. Sitting at La Glace, I found myself wondering what happened to that ice-cream shop I visited in my childhood, and the elderly woman who served scoops, always wearing a smile.

Outside La Glace, a Danish patisserie from the 1870s
Outside La Glace, a Danish patisserie from the 1870s Illustration by Nitin Chaudhary

A space opened up inside me. A desire to revisit the places of my childhood, to relive those experiences still nestled deep in my memory, welled up. Could I travel again to my childhood, I wondered. All these years, I had been travelling to learn something new, to explore cultures not mine, to add yet another experience to the ever-expanding repository.

But, is that the only purpose of travelling? Shouldn’t travel take us back in time too - to experience again what we have already experienced, albeit with eyes that have seen so much more now? Thus far, I had believed strongly in looking forward. After all, isn’t that what life is all about? Or so I had thought.

There I sat - in a world far from the one in which I had grown up. Around me, I saw people still tethered to a small, yet tangible, piece of their childhood. I felt I had no such place to go to - a corner of the world that reminded me of where I come from. I had left it all behind to continually move forward.

Perhaps, now is the time to pause a little. Even step back - and explore those leftover memories and find their material reminders. That’s the journey I will take next!

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