Sunday, July 25, 2010

Finding the Dean to my Deluca

Since being back in Kuwait, I’ve picked up sport. Though I’m not the most athletic person to have ever lived, I think I’ve found a sport that uses my body’s abilities to the fullest It doesn’t have a name yet, but my sport involves moving between the bed, the kitchen table and the couch in as many combinations as possible during the course of the day. The slower and more sloth-like your movements are, the more points the competitor accrues. The great thing about this game? You play against yourself and you almost always win. And baby, I’m in it to win it.

Other than perfecting my skills in this demanding game, I have spent my time eating my way through the day. Cake, éclairs, pastries, cookies, chocolate, candy, ice cream: you name it, it’s been gone into my mouth and passed through my gut at some point during the past two weeks. I’ve found that basing my day on consumption gives it a particularly comforting rhythm. And my parents, in their excitement at having their little baby back, have come a hair short of treating me like a goose being prepped for foie gras. All I have to do is set my eyes on something and mention how enticing it looks for it to magically appear on a plate in front of me. This has resulted in the morbid end of cartons of Haagen-Dasz, bags of candy from Dean & Deluca and mounds of pure cream parading as cake from our favorite over-priced French bakery, Fauchon.

To add an intellectual component to my days in this literal and cultural desert, I read. And watch hours of ’30 Rock’ at a time. (No, really, I promise I’ve read some stuff. I just finished “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy, which is absolutely haunting. I’ve been eyeing the book for years – ever since it came out when I was seven and was past around the members of my family like candy. I’m currently reading Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, a classic that slipped through the cracks of my Brit-centered education). These travails of the mind have taught me two things:

a) that reading, contrary to the beliefs I hold while at college, can be done for enjoyment


b) that Tracey Jordan is totes cray-cray and Tina Fey is nothing short of a goddess.

Home is a funny thing. And so is college, I guess. Stepping back into my room after an entire year of absence, I was met with a sudden sinking feeling. I can’t really put a finger on the reason, but I think I can trace to a disconnect I felt that had developed during my two years away at college. How could I reestablish the connection I once had with this room, this house, this country in just two weeks? I immediately regretted all my decisions to go traipsing about Morocco and Spain, deciding for a fleeting moment that I should have had the sense to spend more time at home.

Thankfully, that moment was only fleeting. Yes, I love it here. My parents have always spoiled me but they now take it to new extremes. My mother will comment on how grubby my blazer looks and within 48 hours it appears dry cleaned in my closet. My camera breaks and then magically fixed. But my mind’s vegetal state is a little bit much for me to bear. My day is filled with naps, Liz Lemon and caloric snacks… and though it’s fantastic to laze about like a mindless vessel for a couple of weeks, I think a couple of weeks is all I can handle.

Having been away from this gem of a country, I’ve been afforded a little distance that allows me to marvel at its innumerable quirks. Where else in the world can you get your groceries delivered from the check-out line at the supermarket to the trunk of your car for an eight cent tip? Where else can I shop at American Eagle and the Gap while the call to prayer sounds out inside the mall? Where else is 'dusty' on the weather forecast... all. the. friggin'. time.? Where else can I go get a donut from Dunkin’ or an ice-blended coffee drink from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf followed quickly by kebabs? No, really, the last one is not rhetorical. If anybody has any leads, let me know, because this is a formula that has worked for me that I can’t seem to find ANYWHERE.

The Gulf-style extravagance that I have been witness to and a part of is truly a mind-baffling thing when examined at a distance. The first weekend I got back, my parents treated me to a typical day in Kuwait. We went to The Avenues, Kuwait’s premier mall, once dubbed the largest in Asia (much to local dismay, malls in Singapore and Dubai have since trumped this little big guy). A very regular weekend outing for anyone in this teeny country. We stopped in at Dean & Deluca for some gourmet groceries, had lunch at P.F. Chang’s – our neighborhood Chinese bistro, indulged in dessert at Pinkberry (the craze has taken the country over by storm) and took a leisurely stroll through the Pottery Barn. Move over, Puerto Rico, Kuwait’s taken your place as the 51st state.

The next day, my parents took me to another mall where we had breakfast at our favorite French café (a Parisian import) and then watched Toy Story 3 in 3D (which was released here on the same day as it was released in the States). This weekend, we had lunch at my Boston favorite, Wagamama (the chicken ramen with coconut broth is delicious – go get some if there is a Wagamama near you. Now.). My existence here has always been an imported one. And then I went and exported myself to go get an education. Does that make me an imported import? … Whatever.

The other day, I had Fadey over (I have seen her in three continents in three weeks) and we watched a movie (Date Night, in honor of my continued obsession with Tina Fey) and gorged ourselves on cookies and leftover cheese. I was filled with nostalgia. Every weekend in high school, my friends and I would go to the mall or out to eat and then I’d have them over to watch movies and gossip about the latest slew of relationships and retards at school. Yes, we’d get stared down at the mall because we were a mixed group of kids (guys and girls). Yes, my house was the only house we could congregate in because my parents were one of the few who were cool with their son having girls over. Yes, some key cultural concerns stopped us from being the kids we saw on TV. But I think my childhood made for an Eastern hemisphere dweller who can relate pretty darn well to his peers all the way across the Atlantic. And yeah, we could talk forever about whether or not that’s a good thing, the homogenization of culture, the insignificance of tradition in the modern world and all the rest yadda yadda yadda. But it’s one of the things that gives an Indian passport-touting, Kuwait-and-Quebec born-and-raised, British-educated American college student some comfort. Being home reminds me of all beauties of my adolescence: beauties that translate rather easily in conversations with people all across the globe.

And that’s what home is all about anyway, right? Comfort and a side of nostalgia.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I'm A Free Bitch, Baby

I spent four days in the city heading uptown, zipping downtown, racing crosstown and switching Brooklyn for Manhattan and vice versa like I do my flip-flops. If Spain epitomized the laidback European lifestyle that seems to be so covetable during the summer, my short stay in the Big Apple was a muggy race to finish that had me schfitzing throughout. But, true to my restless nature, I loved every moment of it.

I landed in New York a little after 4 on Wednesday, a full 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Of course, just because Royal Air Maroc kindly decides to land its flight from Casablanca early does in no way mean that Turkish Airlines will vacate the hangar in time to get its ass out to Istanbul so that I get on with my day. We ended up deplaning after 5. I made it to Maya’s in Park Slope a little after 7 and in no time, I was ready to go out to dinner with Maya’s posse from high school – a crew of smart and stylish Brooklynites who could make up the cast of a movie. We headed to Robin des Bois for dinner out in a candlelit garden. Residual afternoon heat wafted in the night air but jovial conversation and a hearty risotto had me in heaven: it was the most remedial experience I could have asked for after having spent four dark weeks largely in solitude. The only thing that enhanced the experience to something celestial was our post-dinner trip to Blue Marble, a Brooklyn hipster ice cream institution that takes you from the ground to the Cloud Nine in a lick. I fought through the jetlag blues to hang out in the park, soaking in the sounds of company.

The next day it was the Brooklyn Museum, then the Upper East side with Rachel for lunch at Nanoosh, back downtown for a surprise dessert of artisanal ice cream out of a truck courtesy of Coach (yeah, the bag and shoe people … strange, right? Hey, I might have been the only male standing in that line, but did you really expect me to walk by when you offered me Earl Grey Tea ice cream?) and then a jaunt through SoHo and the West Village for window shopping at Marc Jacobs and MC J Books (great place to scope out models). A caramel cupcake from Magnolia Bakery ended my outing. Headed back into Brooklyn for a picnic at the Brooklyn Bridge park in Dumbo and an outdoor screening of Annie Hall with the Hudson River and all of Lower Manhattan as the backdrop.

The following day, it was breakfast with Michelle at the Park Slope bakery she works at (everyone must go! It's named Blue Sky Bakery: it is adorably hipster/hipsterly adorable and they have the best muffins you'll have EVER tasted) --> lunch at Grimaldi’s with a friend I had made in Morocco --> uptown to hang with Fadey and her fam at the PENTHOUSE SUITE in the Bestwestern on Broadway --> SoHo for coffee and the park with Yanie --> the LADY GAGA concert at Madison Square Garden (she is my goddess) --> Late night reunion with Noor ... and a really long game of Kings.

Post-Lady Gaga and a 4AM bedtime, Fadey and I went to get breakfast at the Chelsea Market. We went a little overboard, getting iced coffee from Ninth St. Espresso, brownies from Fat Witch and a blueberry-cardamom popsicle from People’s Pops. Noor, her boyfriend Ted, Fadey and I then went down to the Meatpacking District for brunch at the sexy Café Gitane at the Jane Hotel. We then eventually found ourselves in SoHo at the Arab Cultural fair which seemed to pop out of nowhere, the sound of a dabkas and the smell of falafel rising from 3rd and Broadway so surreptitiously that it took everyone by surprise. With nothing else to do and the fear of rain, we took a cab all the way uptown to the Met, where I went a little gaga for their South Asian art collection and their current exhibit on painted Ramayana narratives (this my shit, as you all know). After wandering the museum, I rushed back downtown for dinner with Maya, Mike and Brooke at the East Village outpost of Frankie’s Spuntino (as Maya will not let you forget, the original is in Brooklyn, y’know, the one that Beyonce and Jay-Z really like?). We had the most amazing and scarily grownup dinner, digging into Italian food perfectly paired with wine, ending our meal with dessert and espresso. Though the bill might have had us on the cusp of a nervous breakdown (I spent that much on ravioli?!), Maya and I shared a look in which both of us knew that we’d done it up right. After dinner, Maya and I went back uptown for a second dinner, this one cooked by my darling Tommy with the help of Barefoot Contessa. I didn’t know what I was more excited about: the requisite Whitney on the speakers, the exquisite guac or the fact I was with Tommy and Tess for another one of our signature weekend hangouts, New York edition. I think it was an easy choice though… the guac was sensational. Joking, joking… Being back with T. Nels and Tess is like being at home: it always just fits. The two T’s ended up going to East Village, but I stayed in the Upper East Side with Maya’s friends from Williams. It’s always weird when things like that happen, be it in Fez, Granada or Manhattan, the Williams experience can oftentimes defy spatial constraints. Put a critical mass of Ephs together and I feel like I could be back in Billsville with just the blink of an eye.

My last day in New York read like this:

- Eggs Benedict from Choice Market, a café that could not be more Brooklyn even if it tried

- Shopping side-by-side with the Lower Manhattan hipster crew at Opening Ceremony

- Goodbye with Noor uptown

- Watching the glorious game in Brooklyn

- Airport to catch my flight back home.

What is it about New York? For one thing, the city inspires a blog post that reads like a journal entry slash food blog (and for that I apologize… this might as well be an ad for all the establishments that I visited in the city since I’ve namedropped about a jazillion times). Chock full of things to do, a moment is never lost, a second never spared. It’s thriving, alive and filled with some of my closest friends. I just can’t get enough and I can’t wait to be back.

Boy, it would really suck if even after spending half a year traveling, my fave locale is a place that has been under my nose all this time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sun, Sauntering, Sundries And A Whole Lotta' Soul-Searching

(I actually wrote this post yesterday. So keep that in mind if you’re a fickler for dates. Although I don’t know why you would be. Okay, I’m going to shut up now. This post is long enough as it is.)

It’s my last day in Granada and I’m in a little need of catharsis. This marks the close of a six week-long adventure, one that has taken me through tortuous trials and unexpected moments of bliss. I come out the other end not knowing much more about Moroccan culture and contemporary immigration issues than I did a month and a half ago (more on that later), but I do emerge knowing myself better than I ever have before. This journey has presented me with mirrors at every turn, forcing me to study myself even if it would have been more comfortable not to. Anyone who thinks I spent my time in Morocco and Spain leisurely sipping mint tea, shopping the souks, drinking on some o’ that sangria and sunbathing would be … well, only a little wrong. There was some of all of that. But if this research experience has taught me one thing, it’s that there are many, many, many hours in the day. Especially if you’re alone, have no plans and nowhere to be at any particular time. So, what happens situations such as these? You go for a walk, turn a bend and the startling brightness of the summer afternoon sun forces everything into resplendent clarity. And it’s not often a comforting or comfortable experience.

On research and academia:

Someone had said that these travel fellowships were supposed to be about research or something. Let me share something with you: as a student of Williams College who can only ever be certain of himself when he’s sitting in Sawyer with a stack of books piled high at his carrel, doing fieldwork can be the most thwarting experience of an academic lifetime. The lack of concreteness in anything that happens, be it an interview or an observation related to space or culture, often leads the hardcore student in me to ask, “What’s the point of this? How is my looking at this research? Where’s the book published by the professor at UC Berkeley or Yale? Does this person’s opinion really matter?” Getting over these uncertainties and having faith in the fact that I was viewing everything and anything I saw on my travels through an academic lens (as my notes will hopefully prove) was enough to make this an academic experience.

I also learned something very important about issues of socio-anthropology: you might have a great revelation sitting at a desk an ocean away but that revelation may not translate very well when you go in search of its source. Let me be more concrete and relate this to my project: I was so excited to hear about the large Moroccan immigrant community in Granada that had set up shop selling everything from leather pouffes to choubakiya (traditional Moroccan sweets). I immediately thought, “This is an immigrant community’s attempt at fostering native space and implanting it onto space abroad! Like duh!” Ummm… well, okay, maybe. But when I walked through the area of Granada that is fondly referred to as “Little Morocco”, it felt nothing like the streets of Fez or Marrakech, as much as photos and travel reviews might like to set up intimate comparisons. More importantly, the Moroccans I interviewed didn’t think about their lives in that way. In fact, it seemed that most of them didn’t think about their lives at all. And how could I have expected them to? Sure, I’ve got critical distance from the subject and I can try to grapple with it and analyze it with intellectual tools – but we are talking about people’s lives and it is not often that someone takes a step back and says, “Oh, I must be doing this because it is a subconscious attempt on my part at recreating an Orientalist interpretation of Andalusian history.” I stupidly expected people to provide me with countless thought-provoking answers and that was… well, it was stupid of me.

The most important thing I learned, though, is that even these little fails formulate an important part of the research agenda. Every response, every observation, is a telling one, even if they are seemingly void or banal. It’s the ability to filter them in the right way that is the key. And it’s not a skill that I’ve honed yet, but I keep on trying the best I can.

On me:

Having to live and go out in search of answers alone in a foreign country does some crazy things to your ideas of selfhood. Surprise? I think not.

When I first went off to Morocco in May, people would keep asking me, “Wait, you have to do this alone? No travel companions? No contacts? No definitive plans?” “Yup”, I’d always answer, “and so what?” I think of myself as an independent soul and have always prided myself on the fact that I can pack up my life in two medium-sized cardboard boxes and two suitcases. It felt good to know I could wrap up and ship out of any place at a moment’s notice. I’ve got me, myself and I and that’s all I need to make a new life.

Not that simple.

Though I might be an independent soul – I can hold down an apartment, cook, clean, grocery shop and happily keep myself amused with my own company (ummm…?) – I’ve learned that I’m no hermit. I cannot eschew a life of friends and companionship in favor of complete solitude. I need my friends. They remind me to take a break; to savor life a little. It’s still funny to me that some of my favorite moments in Spain were when Fadey (my best friend from home), Saeed (her brother) and I were all together during their visit, not doing anything particularly Spanish. Did we go out on the town? Yup. And we killed it. But the most fun we had was while lazing on the couch with the entire third season of Sex and the City, a large bottle of Veuve Cliquot (we do it up right, child) and a box of donuts (didn’t I tell you we do it up right? Also, interesting note: Spaniards are obsessed with donuts. God knows why.). They reminded me that no matter what I was doing, this was the summer and I deserved to feel like I was not at school. And I also equally deserved to feel like I needed their company. There was no shame in watching Carrie’s antics or a couple of hours during the day: the only reminder you need that you’re in Spain is the bottle of Rioja that you’re cradling.

Four weeks in Granada also showed me that size is of the essence (if you just smirked, you have a dirty mind. And that’s probably why we’re friends). And no, I don’t work well in small cities. Granada is quaint. Charming. Idyllic. Gorgeous. (Ring a bell, Ephs?). But it ain’t no New York, Paris or Madrid. I need a city, a real city, to quench my thirst for life. I need to go to art galleries, museums, large bookstores and relaxing coffee shops to feel like I’m doing something. And sure, that sounds plenty pretentious and a tad snooty. But maybe I’m a little bit of that, too. ;)

All this solo travel has taught me to better handle the entire cohort of conflicting emotions that hound you on your little independent walks around town: happiness at being some place that’s different, breath-taking and beautiful; frustration at feeling boredom and loneliness; the loneliness itself; the insecurities about the validity of your project when it’s been days since you’ve felt like you’ve done anything project-related; the knowledge that this experience is life-changing; the understanding that you are so lucky to have this invaluable opportunity; the excitement for the culture that surrounds you; the anticipation for the countdown to when this will finally be over and you can be done with it all; the self-loathing for counting down the days when you feel like you should never want this to end. Yes. I felt all of these things and more in the course of a minute. Was all this travel an emotional experience? You betcha.

So now it begs the question: would I do this again? Absolutely. Because I know what’s good for me. And if you know me, you know that I always like to see the glass half full. I’ll take all those rapturous times with sunshine and wine with the requisite dose of uncertainty and depression that comes with it, because I like the self-aware package that got dumped off at the end of the road. I thought it would take an entire summer and a semester of traveling to get here. But all I needed was six weeks on the road.

So the next time you laugh off the summer travel fellowships as a joke, laugh a little louder, because they can be. Mine, for what it’s worth, was life-altering, not for the substance of my research but for what it taught me about the man in the mirror (for one thing, he needs to shave, but that’s just the start of it.)

Now for pure frivolity – we’ve had enough hard talk for one day. Let me list my top ten favorite moments in Spain (in no particular order):

1. Watching Satyajit Rai’s “Mahanagar” (a classic of Bengali cinema) at the Filmoteca de Andalucia in Granada

2. My first taste of tapas – and real Spanish wine – which made for some interesting times one crazy Friday … at 2PM.

3. Noshing on some top-notch nosh at Mercado San Miguel in Madrid

4. On my last day in Granada (as in today), I walked into the coffee shop I’ve been going to every morning. The barista took one look at me and said, “Café con leche y una media tostada con aceite y tomate, ¿sí?” Why yes… how did you know?

5. Stumbling on the quaintest, most perfect square I’ve ever seen in Sevilla and letting the sun set while contemplating life

6. Eating (twice) at a dirt-cheap Chinese restaurant with Candace, where a four course meal is less than 6 euro, and then following that up with a trip to my local hipster bar where the bartender is so damn cay-ute!

7. Mojitos and Mirador San Nicolas. Perfect combo. ‘Nuff said.

8. Dancing to ‘Waka Waka’ at a club where a window overlooks the dramatically-lit Alhambra

9. Noticing that my mouth was open when I was looking at “Las Meniñas” at the Prado.

10. How could SATC+Champage+Donuts not be on here?

Adíos, España. Go on and win the World Cup! You rock and I’m so happy that you’ll always have a part of me. Now for one last walk around Granada and a swishy afternoon in Madrid and then it’s onto New York City!

(Thank you to all those who read this post from beginning to end. You’re a true friend. Also, thank you more generally to people who are reading my blog regularly. Your support means so much to me!)