The Little Girl in the Red Skirt

I capture moments while travelling because I do not trust my memory. However, this weekend was different. What the human eye perceives in real time can almost never be recollected in flat photographs. The camera struggled in my fastened, floral backpack. For the first time, a close Mexican-Pakistani friend, Lali, was visiting my current home, New York. She was probably the second best thing that happened to me in rural Oman two years ago. (The first being my progress in Arabic fluency. Bound to happen when you can’t speak to anyone, literally anyone, in English for weeks on end during your stay!)

Two days are not enough to catch up on the past 730 days or to explain the vibrancy of NYC. Or the air that is shared by American Dreamers and the homeless sleeping outside the beautiful Columbia University buildings. So, I became a tourist with Lali, eight fresh pairs of eyes exploring the city together. (Both she and I wear glasses or contacts.) Little did I know that while keeping my camera (mostly) away, my eyes would experience the city in a way different from all the years lived here combined:

Day 1. 12:30PM. It all started with a decent cup of tea in the East Village. The Strand is a haven for book-lovers, founded ninety years ago. I followed Lali and we happened to encounter a section I hadn’t noticed when perusing in the past because my mission usually involves poetry/travel/fiction. Across us stood a small collection dedicated to tea and coffee. For the past few weeks, I had been brainstorming gift ideas for a Chinese co-worker who shares my love for tea and sarcasm. And here was the perfect gift, a satirical book on the history of tea and recipes for baked goods fit for an invigorating conversation, peppered with witty banter.

Day 2. 6:10PM. If only someone could serve us a warm cup of tea right now! Our hats and mittens were not sufficient to shield us from the icy evening wind attacking our shivering bodies. However, the cold didn’t stop the African-American man in Times Square dressed in a light jacket. He bellowed at the tourists focused on clicking the perfect selfie, “Let me introduce you to Jesus! He can save you! He can bring us up!”

Day 1. 5:25PM. We went up indeed. Not to the skies, but to the top of the Empire State Building. The sun disappeared behind the skyscrapers as the Hudson River came to life. I looked below for the dancing fountains, my soul transported back to when I was studying in Dubai. I was at the top of Burj Khalifa with my circle of five international students: American, Danish, Egyptian, Nigerian, and Pakistani. Diversity, that’s what made my soul come to life. Diversity, the most precious gift New York had offered me.

View from Empire State Building

View from Empire State Building

Day 2. 1:40PM. Here, religions, ethnicities, languages, identities came together, befriending and clashing and growing simultaneously. A man in his forties in Central Park protectively carried a wedding veil, while two photographers guided the groom (wearing a Kipa, the Jewish cap, I learned after moving to the US) and his bride, dressed in an angelic gown, white flowers embroidered on her shoulder and arms. The exciting start of a new life. The picture of the couple and the entourage brought a sad smile to my lips.

Day 1. 2:30PM. The most magical works of art are paintings, moving ones that encapsulate humans laughing and crying and walking and sitting with dogs and without. When god uses his brushes and then frames His creations in windows taller than us. I had just finished praying at the New York University’s Global Center. My third time here, my first to notice the life-sized painting through the windows overlooking Washington Square Park.

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park

Day 2. 12:10PM. A girl with dark-brown curls and the perfect mascara seated at the table behind us at Sarabeth’s scrunched her eyebrows. Her eyes focused on her iPhone’s camera, hovering at an angle. Once satisfied that justice had been served to their brunch, she allowed her partner to begin eating. Patient, but starving, he immediately attacked the omelette with his fork.

Day 2. 1:20PM. Atop the infamous horse carriage in Central Park, a woman rode like a queen while the driver watched the road ahead. Her fingers were clutching an iPad, religiously videotaping the view from her elevated position. Around her smiling eyes appeared thin wrinkles; perhaps, she was Skyping with a loved one abroad and enjoying the experience with him. Ah, the possibilities. My eyes lingered a few seconds more on the purple blanket she had wrapped around herself. Was it as warm as the one I had?

Day 2. 3:50PM. An elderly Asian man was jogging in Central Park at the same speed at which Lali and I were powerwalking. All three of us were watching a father on a bicycle encouraging his son to pedal faster on his tricycle. Slowly, the Asian man picked up his pace and ran in front of us. Three generations in a single snapshot.

Day 2. 2:55PM. Outside an apartment building, a little girl bid farewell for the day to her best-friend-forever, who lived in this building. The little girl’s father was placing a bike helmet on her head, preparing for the bicycle ride back home.

Day 2. 4:25PM. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found my inspiration to write this post: a little girl wearing a red skirt sat on the floor, a drawing book in her laps and an open box on her right filled with color pencils. Her only care in the world right now was to capture what her heart saw in the shelf of oddly shaped pots. Papa often chukled to Mama in Kachi, “We didn’t know our little girl in the red skirt would accomplish so much. Do you remember the tears wouldn’t stop flowing from her eyes on her first day of school because she didn’t want to leave us for the day?”

The Little Girl in the Red Skirt

The Little Girl in the Red Skirt

Day 2. 4:29PM. I would forever be a little-girl-in-the-red-skirt for my parents. I wondered what adults would give in exchange for a few moments as a child again. Isn’t that the most important struggle of life? To live responsibly, yet allow time every day to follow one’s heart? My thoughts took a backseat as my eyes followed the hairpin of a woman in her early thirties. Her long, silky, black hair was secured together with a pin shaped as a row of seven small color pencils.

Day 2. 4:36PM. I pointed out the cool hair pin to Lali and we followed the lady to another area of the museum. She led us to a 1920s French marble carving called The Angel of Death and Sculptor. The Angel holds a bouquet of poppies, symbolizing eternal sleep, as she interrupts the sculptor’s work. To me, the memorial signified the passing of time, instead of its cessation. The last time I saw this memorial was three years ago, when I was a third-year college student, worrying about getting into graduate school. And here we were again, I had recently accepted an offer from a PhD program that had won my heart even before I had first started applying to programs.

The Angel of Death and Sculptor

The Angel of Death and Sculptor

Day 2. 8:05PM. Like the sculptor, wasn’t it crucial to continue pursuing to the last breath what excites your heart? To live to the fullest? I finished reading on the train on the way back home, having hugged Lali good bye, with hopeful plans of meeting in another city in a couple of months. The weekend ended as my eyes drank in Rupi Kaur’s words:

i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like

when i am sad

i don’t cry i pour

when i am happy

i don’t smile i glow

when i am angry

i don’t yell i burn

the good thing about feeling in extremes is

when i love i give them wings

but perhaps that isn’t

such a good thing cause

they always tend to leave

and you should see me

when my heart is broken

i don’t grieve

i shatter

Natsukashii in the Dark

I sat down on the plump couch, still in doubt that I had followed through with my decision to come here. I mean, who in her wildest dreams would believe such a place existed in reality? A warm fragrance enveloped me as I attempted to focus on the shapes of other people who were chattering away. The night outside was cold and black, and now that I was inside, I could feel my fingers again, yet I was still unwilling to take off my coat. The dark had followed me inside, but there was a reddish stroke of light in the air here. 

Peculiar menus

“Here you go,” a man interrupted my quiet analysis as he placed a white candle on our square table and handed us peculiar menus. My friend smiled with her eyes, knowing exactly how fascinated I was with this place, The Witches’ Brew. Both of us are obsessed with reading the Harry Potter series and an opportunity to spend time in a magical place thrilled us. 

The Witches' Brew

While driving here with our eyes on a GPS that kept swerving us onto the wrong path, my friend joked, “Only those who know about The Witches’ Brew can see it.” Since we found the place, I like to entertain the notion that there must be some magic in us! The menu, bordered in cobwebs, was filled with the most unusually named drinks. Some of the teas that caught my eye were: “Once upon a time,” “Mandela Masala,” and “Eve’s temptation.” After much deliberation, I ordered a “Black Widow” espresso. 

As I slowly took my first sip, the distinct tastes of almond, chocolate, and coconut merged together to transport me six months back to a different country. 

Saray Muhallebicisi

This time, I was alone, but in a familiar place. I had been to Saray Muhallebicisi several times after dinner with friends because the assortment of deserts more than fulfilled my sweet tooth. But on this particular day, I had arrived late afternoon on my own. Although I was seated at the veranda, I hadn’t noticed the sun creeping out of sight. I would be leaving Istanbul in two days. Most of the friends I had made who were also visiting students had already left. And yet, I wasn’t fully prepared to embrace how quickly the summer had flown by. I was going to return to my last (most hectic) year of university. Living in Istanbul was a two-month long fairytale which I was not ready to end just yet. I had just finished my Caffè Latte and I was wrapping up my poem filled with memories collected over the past two months and thoughts on the near future.

Caffe Latte

Desert

Empty

My waiter, a friendly, short, bald man, took away the empty cup and returned with Turkish coffee. I told him that I hadn’t ordered Turkish coffee. In fact, at the beginning of my stay in Istanbul, I had vowed not to drink Turkish coffee again for I couldn’t take the bitter taste. My Turkish friends chuckled at this, but they knew I strongly preferred çay, Turkish tea. The waiter conveyed to me in gestures and basic Turkish (for he spoke little English and knew that I had insisted on practicing my Turkish since my first visit) that the coffee was on the house. 

Turkish coffee

At first, I adamantly refused, but he kept insisting. I gave in at the end and thanked him profusely. Perhaps he was aware of the emotions I had spilled onto the paper in front of me, of my attachment with this enchanting city and its hospitable locals. And what is more Turkish than a cup of Türk Kahvesi? He left with a smile and “Afiyet olsun” (bon appétit). 

“Hey, did you like your ‘Black Widow’?” asked my friend with a smirk, bringing me back to The Witches’ Brew. It’s magical how some smells, tastes, or sights can launch you into the past, right? 

Natsukashii (adj.): Suddenly, euphorically nostalgic, triggered by experiencing something for the first time in months 

Origin: Japanese