Exactly a decade ago, in the annual Calcutta book fair, I turned pages of a novel on ‘Neellohit,’ an immortal character in Bengali literature. Although without a job, he was a voracious reader, carefree individual and an ardent traveller. In all his journeys, he deconstructed people he engaged with, be it in the United States of America or in a remote tribal village in West Bengal. He identified with those characters, but never became one of them. Neellohit never settled. He longed to travel while at home, and yearned for home while he travelled.

Neellohit had cast his influence on me. Specially a novel based on his yearlong stay in the state of Iowa in the United States. There, Neellohit described his travel across United States and its contrasts with India, his emotions, romantic affairs, and encounters with art, literature, and food. The imprints of the novel never really left me. Unknowingly, I nurtured within myself a deep urge to live in a different country, on my own.

Seven years after I read the novel for the first time, I received an email from my law school authorities. The email read that my application to spend a semester abroad on exchange had been accepted. With limited number of seats across universities abroad, being selected for a semester exchange wasn’t certain. As an average student with average grades, I had little expectations and with low expectations came great happiness. The next few months were spent in procedural hassles and finally on the evening of August 25, 2016 I landed in a city 9000 KMs away from home. With two big suitcases, easily available Wi-Fi, and no knowledge of Spanish, I was in Madrid.

I could only move into my permanent accommodation for the semester from 1st September. So, I had to take shelter in a quaint little apartment in Calle de Turquesa. I had the burden of carrying 30 Kg of luggage, the fear of losing my passport, and the sultry weather showed no mercy. Then, to my utter surprise, my tiny room didn’t have a fan, for which I felt a dire need. The landlady tried to assuage my discomfort, stating that it’s common to not have a fan in Spanish houses. “Oh! Nice. I didn’t know that”, I muttered.

When you are alone, stressed and struggling, you pay attention to the fact that you are hungry. I didn’t have my law school mess that serves food four times a day to turn to. I remembered having dinner with my parents the night before. A longing for home was about to encapsulate me, when I met Lotta in the apartment kitchen. She smiled as if she just spotted a dear friend after a gap of several years. Lotta offered me Mexican soup and bread. I had never been more relieved. It’s not a bad idea to go hungry at times, because you remember that food does not come easy, and learn to be grateful to those who bring it to you.

Lotta, an engineering student from Berlin was my first guide in Madrid. She introduced me to the Madrid metro, walked with me along Madrid’s most famous street, Gran Via and I shared my first drink and tapas in Madrid with her. I shall offer a clarification here, especially those who consider tapas to be a delicious dish and strongly advised me to try it.

Tapas is not a specific dish, but a type of meal (mostly bread with some toppings) that is served free along with a drink in many restaurants across Spain. I spent only five days with Lotta and it was enough to be charmed by her intelligence, kindness and depth. She had read Harry Potter in four languages; English, German, Swedish and Spanish! She also took credit for spilling into my brain ‘muchas gracias’, the first Spanish phrase I learnt.

Two weeks into Madrid, I familiarized myself with regular Spanish phrases and deployed them at local stores to buy bread and sausage. I conveyed to my friends back home my lessons from being independent, and actively misrepresented that I was cooking for myself. Whereas, all I could do was pour the bread and sausage on a plate and clean the plate afterwards. My British roommate, Adam Campbell, a 19 year old English teacher and musician probably overheard my mischief. Keeping in tune with the history between our respective nations, Adam offered help. He taught me to hold a knife properly, cut onions efficiently and make omelette. I went on to learn a few more dishes from others, but I must acknowledge my gratitude to him for introducing to me the basics of cooking.

A month into Madrid, the buildings didn’t seem that majestic anymore, shortcuts to destinations were discovered, assignments arrived in my university email id, and friendships were forged.

Those who became my friends in Madrid were of course, in the beginning oblivious of my past. Absence of any notion as to who I was sowed the seed of curiosity in their minds. They lent their patient ears to me and I construed it as an opportunity to assess the course of 21 years I had spent on this planet. Those conversations, over tea or cerveza, filled with warmth, honesty and most importantly, acceptance taught me an important lesson.

We have all, been scathed, triumphed over adversities; felt, deep pain, overwhelming joy, and perceived the world through our idiosyncratic lenses. To the rest of the world, those perceptions are either absolutely true or equally false. How can it be both at the same time? It is so because we examine veracity of perceptions on the parameter of whether we relate to them or not.

Honestly, whether we relate to perceptions or not should not decide their fidelity. Perceptions are deeply embedded in unique circumstances, and are not meant to hold true universally. Nevertheless, perceptions deserve an uninterrupted and respectful hearing. Because it’s when we engage ourselves in debates over perceptions, and not doubt them that we learn who our friends actually are, and spot invaluable cues to identify aspects of our own characters, we were completely ignorant of.

Acquaintances become attachments during an exchange. That’s what happened with Madhavi Gopalakrishnan, my classmate from law school. We have been classmates for three years, but it was in Madrid that we discovered a confidant in each other. We lived in the same building, walked down the street at 3 AM for a bite of Burger King, sipped tea on her apartment’s tiny balcony and immersed ourselves in gossip from law school.

Strangers too, build their nests in your mind. On our orientation day at Comillas Law in Madrid, Madhavi and I were introduced to Maithili, Rakshit, Nikhil, Anjali, and Arvind, five fifth year law students from National University of Juridical Sciences, Calcutta.

Maithili and I indulged ourselves in our life stories on a bus ride to Barcelona that we made together. Fluent in Spanish, French, English, Marathi, Hindi and Konkani she marches towards a new language as enthusiastically as most Indians do towards Indian food, while they live abroad. She has had a deep influence on me whose impact I am yet to ascertain, and I already feel a slight discomfort apprehending her disapproval of the analogy in the previous sentence! Anyway, Maithili and I also discovered our favourite restaurant in Spain on our first day in Barcelona. It was a compact place, with bulbs of all colours lighting up a delightful spectacle. Its wooden tables and rusty steel chairs radiated warmth of the old and trusted. It had a charming French manager, and we loved the Burrito he suggested to us for dinner. Unfortunately neither of us remembers the name of the restaurant. Isn’t it reason enough to go back?

Rakshit was my buddy in Madrid. Together, we explored Andalusia, the southern region of Spain. We danced together next to Flamenco dancers in a cave situated opposite of the majestic Alhambra in Granada. Nothing embodies the meaning of the word ‘intensity’ neater than a performance by Flamenco dancers. It was exhilarating to witness their performance holding a glass of sangria in our hands, complimentarily offered with the ticket to the show. Rakshit and I have spent several evenings together, either shopping and discovering cheap snack joints, checking out Picaso Museums or flaunting our kurtas on Diwali night while we hopped from one bar to the other. The abundance of secrets between the two of us offers stiff resistance in writing at length about him, as divulgence of privileged information was declared to be strictly prohibited before we left Madrid.

Nikhil played a crucial role in one of the happiest days I spent in Madrid. In early September, he woke me up to inquire if I was interested in watching a match between Real Madrid and Sporting Lisbon at Santiago Bernabeu, the home stadium of Real Madrid. He had just discovered that tickets were available at a nominal rate of 50 Euros. I instantly agreed and he kindly booked them. To watch Cristiano Ronaldo score a goal from a free kick, and witness my childhood hero Zinedine Zidane waving hands at his players was a dream come true. It was a privilege to be present in Santiago Bernabeu, amidst thousands of die-hard fans. Some twenty five of them hugged me tight after Real Madrid won the match in the last minute. Sports do overcome racial barriers!

Arvind is a learned and righteous man. With Arvind around you, a guide is unnecessary in any historical location. Arvind and I were in Barcelona around the September end, and the Mediterranean Sea’s water would be quite chilly by the evening. Defying the cold, Arvind and I walked into the sea and spent half an hour. We sat neck deep in water to meditate, and didn’t open our eyes in spite of apprehending a splash of the tide on our face at odd intervals. It was uncomfortable and hard, but a training in resisting being swayed by impulses.

Anjali, Enrico, Jesse and Lucie were responsible for dragging me out of my room to parties in Madrid which unfolded only post 1 AM. Anjali and I would share a drink and discuss our favourites from Calcutta, while Enrico would be intoxicated to the point of lying flat on the streets of Madrid. Jesse and I would run around to fetch him back to our apartment, where Lucie would be eagerly waiting for us.

The madness consumed time, and it dawned upon me that an Emirates flight would soon take me back to Calcutta. As I would buy my final set of groceries in the Super Mercado (Super Market) adjacent to my apartment, it occurred to me whether I had made the most of my time in Madrid?

I was mostly on my own in the last week, as the characters I mentioned had wandered off to other European nations. I sat in a church located inside of Comillas Law, where I studied. Its architecture was dazzling and its silence was meant to overwhelm. I sat for an hour on one of the hundred mahogany benches neatly arranged on the sprawling floor of the church. Why did I even come to Madrid?

As I closed my eyes images of crowded streets, unruly cars, dusty roads, roadside chaiwallahs, struggling pedestrians, young children playing cricket on streets lined up one after the other in my mind. I could hear the traffic police hurling curses in Bengali, elderly men and women raising their voices in the super market to reduce the price of a product by a few rupees. I envisioned my room at home in Calcutta. I remembered Neellohit and smiled.

Steve Jobs in his commencement speech at Stanford University had said that, we can only connect the dots in our life looking backwards. Until then, we must have faith that somehow the dots will connect. Picking up Neellohit in a book fair was one such dot, and now that I look backwards, it was a meaningful dot. Had Neellohit not urged me, through his adventures, to live abroad seven years ago, nothing of these would have happened. The last four months were all about living the dreams of a fourteen year old kid from Calcutta, inspired by a novel from 1970.

All that happened in Madrid, happened with the characters I lived with. It’s the characters who breathe life into our existence, either in a novel or in an alien city. Most likely, I haven’t made the most of my time in Spain. However, I retain no regrets. Somewhere, I am certain that the characters will bring me back to explore what remained untouched this time.

That evening, I turned to a small printing shop run by an unfailingly polite Chinese lady. I had printed all I needed to in the last four months from her. I was there to print my ticket from Madrid to Calcutta, my last from her. My familiarity with the city had begun to wrap me in a cover of nostalgia.

She handed the ticket to me and softly uttered her usual, ‘Hasta Luego (See you)’.

‘Hopefully’, I smiled and left.