Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Life in the US of A

The last few weeks have been so tumultuous. After years of resisting a trip outside the country, I finally gave in and 'came abroad'. To the US! What a trip it has been! If ever there was an experience worthy of being labeled 'a bundle of contradictions', this would be it.
New York was where I landed – the city where I would work, learn and live for 4 weeks. After the mandatory (for me) 1 day of pining for the 'comfort of the routine', I switched into a (mandatory) hyper-curious mode.
The highlight of the second day was a futile attempt to penetrate mainstream culture by taking the Metro to work. All I had, was a laptop (stuffed with all sorts of wires and connections, 1 mobile phone and its bulky charger), a duffel bag filled with the following contents - water (yes, I thought the office may be a desert), fruits (I rightly estimated that my Indian tummy would accept nothing strongly non-vegetarian), books (yes, it's funny that I went to my first day at work with the optimistic view that I would have tons of time to sit idly and flip through a couple of pages...), lots of stationery (to be fair to me, I was only being well-prepared), a planner, a mobile phone, moisturizer (well, it was close to 5 degrees centigrade) and a handbag (yes, how could a lady be seen without one?!). Well, you know how that Metro ride went, don't you? I had several startled Americans dodging me, as successive stops would hurl me at them with a force accentuated by gravity and body weight! It was a game they enjoyed and I quickly tired of, so no more Metro rides after that.
The third day was forcibly leaving behind the duffel bag and its contents and focusing on acquainting myself with the city. Where better to start than the food? Mexican food, sandwiches and lots of juice - the sum total of my diet. All this culminated in a strange (never-before-experienced) fondness and nostalgia for 'Vegetarian, Indian food'. I was beginning to give up - foreign land, too hectic for me to adjust, food too far removed from my comfort zone...
Day 4 - I was sent on a field trip to Chicago. And my life changed! See, being a Qualitative researcher, travel was a reality that I lived with most of the week. Travel brought out the survival instincts and the explorer facet of my personality. But NY had done me in with its fast pace. Too much of a departure from India, that too Bangalore! Chicago on the other hand, was a perfect mid-point. It had most of the amenities and the quirks of America but it was a tad slower than NY. People here, walked...as opposed to the hordes that galloped in NY. People here, had smiles on their faces...as opposed to the grim faces on Manhattan roads. 2 days here, and I felt ready to face the pace of NY.
We got back and I got in - to the rhythm and the joy that is life in New York. Never feeling alone on the road (there are people purposefully making their way somewhere even at 1 in the night, much like Bombay). Never having to forage for food (the neighborhood deli was open till 4 in the morning). Never having to look far for good coffee (Starbucks made sure I didn't miss 'Inch' back in Bangalore). Most importantly, I saw a side of the city that thrilled me. Like Bombay was for several years (still is, to some extent), NY is America's city of dreams. NY has something for everyone with an imagination - opera singers, artists, documentary makers, people with alternative sexual preferences, children's book writers...Everyone comes here with a dream! People come here in droves, live in bleak apartments, race through the day, handle multiple jobs (one for their soul, one for their stomach, one for their mind) and yet, have a terrific sense of humor (maybe that's what keeps them going).They live off sandwiches and deli-coffee (muddy but piping hot) and yet, will 'splurge' on Starbucks coffee - 'just to feel better about my life'. They rush through the streets and yet, will sit for hours on a museum's doorstep watching an impromptu mime performance.They have no qualms about 'throwing a party' in a small, bleak apartment. They would take up a job for their imagination - "I am doing this coz I think I would go crazy from just doing office work all day...but that gives me money and this gives me life".This city's love for culture though, is distinct from Bombay. There are no social or economic strings attached to acquainting oneself with or appreciating art and culture here. People work as ushers in Broadway, to be able to experience the thrill of the musical, firsthand. Waiters in restaurants save up money to see 'The Phantom...'. Art, in its myriad forms is amply evident in the city's bloodstream. Right from impromptu violin performances at the subway, to rapping on buses, to graffiti on the walls.
So, I finally fell in love with the city. Then again, I fall in love easily... but is that such a bad thing when there's so much in this world, to love?
I found my own neighborhood deli that had 'the most awesome french toast mankind has ever tasted', my favorite Starbucks (that makes a latte just the way 'Inch' makes it), my shortcut to office (that saved me 2 dollars by cab), and a dozen chinese take-outs that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy! I saved up to watch 'The Phantom of the Opera' and came close to watching 'Beauty and the Beast'. I went to the Met and had the most awesome time ever! Yes, life in New York was good. I learnt that there is a part of America that lets dreams, culture and opinions thrive - where you could live, and learn. I learnt that life did not have to have a slow-motion quality for me to appreciate it...sometimes the beauty is in matching the pace. After all, it was the pace that allowed me to do so much more in the 4 weeks that I have been here!
And if you listen and watch closely, the pace becomes a rhythm!