A Place With a Fountain

The DAAD asks for essays from people it gives scholarships to. Mine’s below the fold.

It was a Saturday morning in December 2008 when I opened a confirmation letter from the DAAD saying I would be going to the HFI, TU Berlin for an internship in the summer. Most of what followed was a blaze of paperwork, and some useful advice from former students of the WISE program.

Berlin

So there I was, in Berlin, after what seemed like an eternity on a Lufthansa flight with no in-flight entertainment (my friend who was with me was especially cross about this; he had bought us the tickets), and a shorter flight after a changeover at Frankfurt International with its 150 terminals. A PhD student from the lab I was supposed to be working in had kindly agreed to pick us up at the airport and show us around on the first day. We dropped off our bags at our room in a local apartment complex at Iranische Strasse before we were shown around TU Berlin. When I flopped into bed that evening, I had no idea of what I was to expect from the next three months of my stay in Berlin and Germany.

The first thing I noticed, which was on the second day, was how late the sun sets in Berlin compared to India; it takes getting used to! Berlin, in spite of being the capital of Germany, all but shuts down by the time the sun goes down, at about 9 pm. These things apart, we were well prepared for most of the other things that Berlin would throw at us; the DAAD pre-commencement meeting had spilled some beans, as it were! The public transport system is, by far, the best I’ve seen and almost punitively punctual for those of us used to taking the commute to school or work a bit easy. The local trains were late for a cumulative total of 10 minutes in the three months I was there. Even the local buses run on a precise time-table and have electronic display-boards at every stop. One could plan one’s daily commute to the minute, and do it all easily in advance, thanks to the internet.

All this was just as well, because, as we were also warned, Berlin is kind of, oh-how-do-I-put-it Non-English. As long as you were inside TU Berlin, you would perhaps run into people who knew English; but once you stepped outside the premises of your laboratory, you were left with the international sign language as your only means of communication. To my credit, I believe, then, I befriended a man in my apartment and had long discussions with him about Indian politics and cooking even though I knew four words of German, and he knew even fewer of English. All these were but trifles in what turned out to be the most eventful three months I’ve had in my life.

HFI, TU Berlin

My internship was at the Hermann-Fottinger Institute for Fluid Mechanics and Technical Acoustics at the Technical University, Berlin – quite a mouthful, isn’t it? – Or HFI. The work I was supposed to be doing was something called Active Flow Control, which, not to get too technical, involved the control of fluid-flow using active forcing (hah, gotcha!). For reasons of logistics, however, this work never took off, and I ended up doing experiments in Laser Doppler Measurement (LDA) and writing computer programs (let the jokes begin!) for the LDA data analysis among other things.

HFI has quite the varied collection of people working in it. I worked with Yogesh, the aforementioned PhD student, who likes to think he can give Germans a run for their money at beer-drinking. I also worked with Katharina, who is about as hard-working as anyone I’ve known. She works with Joshua Grey, a graduate of GeorgiaTech himself, who also happens to have worked during his undergrad years with a prof currently at IITM. There were also students from the American equivalent of WISE, a senior from Georgia Tech, Dan, and a junior from George Washington, Ashley.

At HFI, the entire bunch of grad-students and interns has lunch together, more often than not. The trip to the TU Mensa every day at noon was an opportunity to talk to people you may not run into during the rest of the day. On Fridays, we mixed it up and had lunch at a different cafeteria that served chicken soup. And, as often as the weather would permit us, we’d go to the cafeteria at the Mathematics building and get sandwiches and sit by the river that runs next to quite a few of TU Berlin’s buildings. These outings while we foraged for sustenance, I will sorely miss for quite some time to come.

The Eurotrip

When you are offered money to go to Europe, you are almost honour-bound to go round Europe on some version of a eurotrip. And what a trip it was! We made plans through the week, plotting our way through some place we agreed could not be missed, and went around visiting the place on the weekends. All told, we toured eight countries (my friend would say nine; the Vatican is technically a separate state). We went to Austria, and trekked into the longest ice-cave in the world; to Munich and the sprawling Olympia-Stadion and the immense Deutsches Museum; to the magnificent Neushwanstein (meaning new swan-stone) Castle, about an hour from Munich. We also travelled to Mount Titlis in the Swiss Alps, which was quite an experience for someone who had never seen snow before. Paris and the impressive Eiffel Tower and the unending halls of the Louvre, Amsterdam and its innumerable coffee-shops, Cologne and the imposing Cathedral Dom, The Czech Republic and the free-walking tour at Prague, Belgium and the quaint little town of Bruges were all to be visited by a bunch of wide-eyed twenty-somethings from colleges in India, spending someone else’s money while they had the time of their lives.

All this brings us to the characters that make up the ‘we’ I’ve been using (no, it wasn’t editorial). The Eurotrip was as much fun because it was with these people as it was for the places that were visited. Mohith, who has long been a good friend, and who is from the same college as I, lived with me for my three months in Berlin. Swathi, also from my college, travelled with us as often as she could, considering she was in Dresden. Megha, from BITS-Goa, who ended up being the prime-mover on more than one of our trips, is, to date, the only person I’ve made friends with in the first meeting. She will remain someone I shall forever look forward to meet, and talk to, again.

The Fountain

There are some pictures and events that one never forgets. (The wittier among us might add that for everything else, there’s always a good Sony Cyber-shot). We were in Rome and had just been to all the usual places – The mighty Colosseum, the crowded Trevi Fountain and a few other places and had decided to take a break in one of the half a million piazzas of Rome. This one had a relatively small fountain which stood close to a high wall at the middle of the square. The low barricade around the fountain doubled as a sitting area, and from here, sitting with one’s back to the larger wall, one could see one entire half of the grand square.

Among the hundreds of people in the square itself, and dozens at the fountain, was a small boy who was there with his mother. The boy could not have been more than five – the crib was still around, but he was old enough to be allowed to run around on his own. I sat there spellbound by this kid of five, watching as he ran from his mother to the other side of the fountain and back, to splash her with water from the fountain, and laugh without a care in the world. He’d run past the people sitting on the barricade again, and back to his mother again, to splash her with more water. Happiness and Joy are two different things, they say; only the lucky get to see the difference. The really lucky might get to experience the difference. I count myself lucky – The joy that showed on the mother’s face was quite something.

The square is called ‘Piazza Novona’, meaning ‘New Square’. Fitting.

Epilogue

Megha had to leave for the US two weeks before Mohith and I were to leave for Bangalore. She was, however, to return to India on the same day as us, and would change flights in Frankfurt at about the same time as us. She had promised to find our terminal and meet us. The fourteen levels of security checks, however, each requiring a boarding pass, convinced us that there wasn’t a chance we’d ever see her again. Unless…

I was convinced she wouldn’t have her German SIM-card with her. Mohith wasn’t, and thank goodness for that. Her phone went unanswered the first two times I tried. This usually means the SIM card is no longer within operational distance. Trying her number the third time was something I wouldn’t expect myself to do, nine times out of ten.

We found Megha taking a nap, in the waiting area of terminal C-15, a hundred feet from our boarding terminal.

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