- No te preocupes! Don’t worry! Let the universe do its thing!
This is something I’ve learnt along the course of my somewhat peripatetic life the past 6 years: sometimes, people (and opportunities) fall into your lap in the most unexpected, unlooked for way; and these congenial little windfalls may be the best things that happen to you in your new home.
I remember a certain day in Ithaca, New York, where Z and I had moved right after getting married. Z was in class at Cornell, and I was busy cleaning, unpacking and ‘nesting’ in our new apartment, a ground-floor portion of a typical East Coast colonial house, when our gritty old landlord Carl ambled up to the front door, dressed in his customary red plaid shirt and classic blue jeans. “Hey there!” Carl hollered, “I wanted to introduce you to these nice folks,” he gestured towards the smiling young couple that followed him. “They’ve just moved to Ithaca from Mexico, and are thinking of renting from me as well!”
That was the first time I met Elsa & Silvano. Though we only spoke for five minutes, standing in the porch of Carl’s yellow-painted dollhouse, and thought they didn’t end up renting from him after all, they became our closest companions the 9 months we spent in Ithaca, and we still count them among our dearest friends.
So, just like that, someone may chance to cross your path, and you’ll hit it off with them like you never imagined. Maybe a friend of a friend puts you in touch with somebody they know who happens to live in the same city; and you turn out to be kindred spirits, Anne of Green Gables-style. Or maybe another like-minded soul, going through the same experiences as you, discovers you and contacts you through your blog!
I find it so interesting, how these connections are made – magically, almost – bringing complete strangers together through no deliberated effort. So, if you ever find yourself lost, alone and friendless in a new city, wondering why on God’s earth you ever transplanted yourself in the first place: don’t worry! It takes time for a plant to adjust to new soil, a new atmosphere. But once it gets over the wilting, drooping, moping period – ‘transplant shock’ in botanical terms – it thrives. In fact, if you don’t keep an eye, it may even start merrily taking over your garden, and you won’t know what to do! :)
Happy New Year from Madrid! Here are some photos we’ve taken of the city’s squares, streets and public spaces.
Language exchange, or intercambio, is a popular (and free) method of learning languages in Spain. There was a plethora, a veritable sea of Spaniards out there, my Spanish teacher told me, who were desperate to find a sympathetic English-speaker to practice their hesitant conversational skills with. English is taught in Spanish schools as an optional second language, but in the most pedantic way possible, so that somebody who has “studied” English for over 10 years can barely formulate a coherent reply to a “Hi, what’s up?”
Kind of like how we were taught Pakistan History in secondary school. Once, in a surprise test, the teacher asked us to write an essay comparing the achievements and successes of two of Pakistan’s Prime Ministers. I started with the conventional introduction (memorized from the textbook, of course), ended with the conventional conclusion (we knew it like we knew our multiplication tables), and filled in the middle with a fictitious story, sprinkled with song lyrics. The result? 9/10, if you please, and a “Well Done!”
But, coming back to Spain – intercambio sounded like the perfect arrangement for me. Not only would it help my Spanish, I would also have somebody to chat with over a cup of coffee – that nameless, shadowy, friend-like figure I wanted so badly in Madrid! All I had to do was find somebody…
I immediately set to work. I went to tusclasesparticulares.com, created a profile, and posted an anuncio, an ad, stating my particulars in a cheerful, casual tone, and offering my stupendous English-speaking ability in exchange for un poco ayuda with my abysmal Spanish. We could meet in a cafe, or a park, como tu prefieres. I enjoyed photography, and writing, and meeting new people. Hoped to hear from you soon!
It almost felt like online dating, or shaadi.com. I went to bed that night with a flutter of excitement in my heart. Who would read my ad? Who would reply? Would I like them?
But nothing could have prepared me for the deluge of emails I found in my inbox the next morning; messages from men and women of all ages, all walks of life, from the city of Madrid and beyond, asking for my hand as their intercambio partner.
I was terribly flattered – and a bit overwhelmed. There were just too many fish in the sea. I needed to focus, start being selective, separate the wheat from the chaff, as they say. So began Step 2 of the intercambio-partner-hunt: carefully reading every ‘applicant’s’ email to divine something about their personality (Does she sound too serious? Does he sound sleazy?), stalking them on Facebook and Twitter, examining any photos that turned up. Some applications were discarded immediately; for example, the 38 year-old pianist who sent me a tea-stained studio portrait of himself in a brown fedora and brown tweed suit, or the 18-year old Economics student whose entire album of Facebook profile pictures consisted of duck-faced selfies.
After I had completed the first shortlist, I sent an email to each selected ‘applicant’, requesting, somewhat discreetly, a 200-word personal statement: “So, what do you do? What have you studied? What are your hobbies? I think it’s important, for a successful intercambio, that we share some interests, don’t you agree?”
When the replies started coming in, I made a second shortlist. Emails that included the words “books”, “languages”, “cinema”, “outdoors”, “museums” and “dogs”, for instance, were directed to the “Yes” Folder, while emails with the words “motorbikes”, “shopping”, “clubbing” and “pop music” were immediately relegated to the “Rejects” Folder (no offense meant to motorbike aficionados, shopaholics and Katy Perry fans, it’s just that, I wouldn’t know what to say to you!).
Now came the hard part: the actual, face-to-face meeting! I made appointments with the final 10 candidates, to meet them at a public square or coffee shop – blind dates, really. We barely had any idea of what the other person even looked like. And anyone who has been on a blind date will know that the first meeting was absolutely crucial. It could make or break the budding relationship. Either you liked the person, or you didn’t. Either you wanted to see that person again, or you didn’t.
Sure, I had my share of disappointing dates. Some people, intimidatingly interesting on paper, were plain boring in real life. Some people lacked energy or enthusiasm (for which I always tended to overcompensate, resulting in the peculiar condition know as the “laughing headache”), and some people just didn’t speak. In these cases, I found silence to be the best way to politely “end” things. In other cases, I was forced to lie: “I’m sorry, I’ve found a job as a dogwalker and don’t have time to do intercambio anymore!”
But, with some people, it just clicked. Conversation flowed naturally, there was laughter on both sides, and you were perfectly at ease after the first five minutes. I met a medley of memorable characters – a lawyer, a psychologist, a biochemist, an astrophysicist – all more or less my age, warm, openminded, hardworking people from different parts of Spain, who somehow found time to meet me for intercambio in their 10-hour work days. Finally, I could stop! Stop the endless virtual interviews, the awkward blind dates, the cruel but inevitable rejections!
So, has language exchange made me fluent in Spanish? No. Has my Spanish improved? I’d like to think so, yes. But more importantly, I’ve found Spanish friends, and through them, an insight into Spain. They tell me their views on love, marriage, family, religion, politics, and I share with them my experiences growing up in Pakistan and living in the United States, two completely different worlds about which they are equally curious. It’s strange how two people, complete strangers in one moment, can go to speaking about their personal lives with the air of old friends in the next. It is something that happens always with expats – maybe out of the boldness that comes with being a foreigner, or maybe out of our intrinsic need to trust, to talk, to confide in a palpable human being, in a place where there are no givens, where we must build our life up from the ground.Read Tip #1,Tip #2, Tip #3, Tip #5, and the introductory post of this series!
Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10, 600 feet at the northern tip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan’s Himalayas, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have been there twice, the first time as a 12-year old and then in 2009, when I determined to capture some of its magic on camera and on paper, in the words of two local storytellers who relate the legend of the Lake to visitors.
It is the story of a prince and a fairy, Saif-ul-Malook and Badr-ul-Jamal – a story of love, adventure, faith, magic, suffering and betrayal – a story of the multitude of human passions.
Many different versions exist, but below is a reproduction of what the storytellers told us, with ample writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!
Now, once the marriage and initial hullaballoo about Prince Saif’s return to Egypt – with a Fairy Queen on his arm – were over, Saif was eager to settle down to a ‘normal’ life, the kind he had known before embarking upon the mad quest for Badr Jamal some six-odd years ago.
His responsibilities as Crown Prince were many – attending public audiences with his father the King, listening to people’s grievances and advising just solutions, traveling to all corners of the kingdom, sometimes in disguise, to ensure that governors, ministers and other official functionaries were doing their job, negotiating with ambassadors and entertaining visiting dignitaries from the great empires of Rome, China or India. Prince Saif’s father was growing old, and soon the mantle of rulership would pass on to Saif; much valuable grooming time had already been lost, so the King was in a hurry to teach his son everything he possibly could before Death came subtly knocking on his chamber door.
As it happened, Prince Saif was away from the Royal Palace most of the day. Badr, meanwhile, stayed at home; for it was not customary in those times for Princesses to gallivant about the kingdom with their husbands, hunting leopard or swigging wine with Roman dignitaries.
Domestic confinement was just one of the ‘rules’ that Badr had to adhere to in her new life as wife of the Crown Prince. On the very night of their wedding, Saif had said to her, “Badr, my dear, now that we are here, in my country, and you are soon to be Queen, surely you have no more need of your Fairy wings?”
“Why? Why do you say that?” Badr had responded defensively. “I’m a Fairy, of course I need my wings!”
“I know, my love, I know. I just feel that it will be easier for you to, fit in here, if you don’t go around with those monstrous appendages on your back,” Saif had reasoned. “I mean, it unnerves people. Especially my mother! You know how jittery she gets in your presence.”
Seeing that Badr was recalcitrant, Saif had tried again, in his most conciliatory tones. “Look, all I’m asking is that you keep the wings away. Can you do that for me? Besides, you might get it into your head to fly back to Koh Kaaf one day! I can’t risk that now, can I?”
He had meant it as a joke, but Badr Jamal did not find the Prince’s comment remotely funny. It was as if to say that Saif did not trust her; that he considered her fickle, an unruly child who had to be disciplined and placated. However, she said nothing of this to him, and merely nodded. “Yes, of course, my Prince. Anything you say.”
And so, some months passed in this manner. While Saif was busy dispensing his princely duties, Badr would be attending balls and garden parties arranged by her mother-in-law the Queen, dressed in voluminous, human-style gowns, with her hair elaborately braided and coiffed in the human fashion, and her feet bound in jeweled sandals. She found these ladies’ functions excruciatingly boring – all they talked about was their children, their servants, the latest import of silks from China, the best way to prepare stuffed pigeon. Badr had no knowledge of these subjects, nor was she interested – she would have preferred to sing rather than talk, dance rather than walk, wear the least amount of layers the weather permitted, and let her hair fly loose in the wind. As for fancy foods, the meal she liked best was a hearty chunk of game venison (preferably raw), with a side of wild herbs, downed with good, strong grape liqueur.
This predilection for bloody meat was another one of the Fairy Queen’s seemingly uncivilized idiosyncrasies that Saif was nervously learning about since their marriage. Yet another was bathing under the full moon in the nude, in the closest available water body – which meant the fountain in the central Palace courtyard. At this Saif had to put his foot down – his people were not ready, he said, to accept that kind of free-spirited behavior from their future Queen.
But the venison was an essential part of Badr’s natural diet. She could not do without it. Supplies were running low, and Saif was pressed to make an urgent trip to the southern woodlands to procure the next batch, under the guise of a sport hunting expedition. Venison was not commonly eaten in Egypt, and the Prince’s unplanned excursion would arouse suspicion if its true purpose was known.
While Saif was away, his uncle and aunt came to visit the Palace, along with their three daughters, Saif’s cousins. The family had been traveling in Asia for several months, and thus had missed the royal wedding. They came now to offer their presents and felicitations to the happy couple; and to see for themselves this mysterious Fairy that Saif had brought back with him from the Himalayas. The eldest of the three cousins, Safiyya, was particularly curious about Badr – you see, she had hoped to marry Saif herself one day. This young princess was exceptionally beautiful, not to mention exceedingly clever and proud to match. Deep in her heart, she could never forgive Saif for choosing another woman over her; or the other woman for taking what was rightfully hers.
“My dear aunt,” Safiyya said to the Queen, Prince Saif’s mother, as she reclined on a divan in the zenana, the women’s quarters of the Palace. “Where are you hiding this Fairy daughter-in-law of yours? My heart is burning to see this piece of moonlight!”
Just at that moment, Badr entered the hall from a side door.
“I am Badr,” the Fairy announced. Safiyya, her sisters and mother quickly turned their heads towards the direction of the commanding voice, and saw standing before them a tall, plain-looking girl, her dull black hair tied back in a severe bun, and her face set into a grim line. Her skin was sallow, her eyes colorless and cold, and the rich robes she wore hung awkwardly over her thin frame. The contrast with Safiyya, who was petite and amply figured, with a rosy complexion, glossy brown curls, dark, mischievous eyes set in a heart-shaped face, and a vivacious laugh on her lips, could not have been greater.
“You?” Safiyya stared at Badr in disbelief. “You are the Fairy Queen Badr Jamal? Excuse me for saying this, Aunt,” she smirked, “but a milkmaid in a princess’s gown is a milkmaid nonetheless!” Everybody laughed, including the courtly ladies and servant girls present. “Love truly is blind, or Saif would never have picked this homely peasant girl over me!”
Badr’s cheeks flushed crimson, and the Queen looked visibly uncomfortable.
“Princess Safiyya,” Badr spoke in a restrained tone. “You are speaking in this ignorant fashion because you have not seen my true beauty yet.”
“Oh, is that so? There where is your true beauty?” Safiyya taunted. “Locked away in a trunk?” Again, everybody laughed, except Badr and the Queen.
“As a matter of fact, yes. It is locked away in a trunk,” Badr replied. “Queen Mother, if you please, bring me my wings.”
The Queen stuttered nervously. “Oh no, Badr, no, you know I can’t…You know Saif has forbidden you to…”
“It doesn’t matter what Saif has forbidden her to do or not,” Safiyya interjected. “He isn’t here right now. Aunt, please bring the wings, her ‘true beauty’ or whatever she calls them. Let us see what the fuss is about once and for all!”
The Queen had no choice but to comply. While she went to fetch the wings, word spread through the Palace that the Fairy Badr Jamal was about to demonstrate her flying ability. Nobody had ever seen a Fairy in flight before, and the excitement produced by this news was so great that by the time the Queen returned with the wings, folded and wrapped in layers of muslin, the women’s hall was packed. Everybody wanted to witness the spectacle of a flying Fairy.
“I don’t think this is a good idea, Safiyya,” the Queen whispered to her niece. “What if she flies away? What if she escapes?”
“How will she escape, aunt? We’ve bolted all the doors, barred all the windows. Besides, we don’t even know if she can fly at all!” Safiyya smirked again, confident in her triumphant beauty and full of ill will for Badr.
Badr stood on a raised platform at the end of the hall. The Queen handed her the parcel. She held it for a few moments, thoughtfully; then she spoke.
“Now listen to me, one an all!” The clamor in the hall dropped to a hushed murmur. “What you are about to see you have never seen before, and most likely will never see again. I don’t know how many of you can even withstand it. So let me say that I do not do this of my own will, but out of compulsion” – she shot an icy look at Safiyya – “to defend my own honor, as none here will do it for me.”
With that, Badr unwrapped the muslin parcel. The moment her fingers touched the misty, gauze-like material that lay folded inside, the dormant wings sprung to life; like a firecracker, they whizzed and whooshed through the air in circles before swiftly fastening themselves to Badr’s back.
What happened next is difficult to describe. The women and children who witnessed it could not stop raving about it till the end of their days; and the memory of what they saw has become the stuff of legend.
For, as soon as Badr’s wings attached themselves to her back, a blinding light burst forth from her person. The bulky dress she was wearing fell to the ground in a heap, the innumerable pins in her hair sprang out, her tight sandals came flying off.
And there she was, free, hovering above their dumbfounded faces in a dazzling halo of light. Her face glowed white like the moon, framed by clouds of black hair that shone like the midnight sky. Her golden eyes flashed with all the hues of the sun, and every movement of her long, slender limbs bespoke grace, as though she were swimming through the air, through the flowy, translucent garment that draped her body. And her wings – they were like living creatures in their own right, two iridescent chimeras filigreed with the brightest of silver, radiating all the colors of the universe.
She was mesmerizing. She was unreal. She was the most beautiful sight that they had ever seen, and would ever see.
“Now, you all have seen me, in my true form, my true beauty.” Even Badr’s voice had changed. It was more powerful, more melodic. “But I know that you do not deserve me. Neither you, nor Prince Saif. You judged me for my beauty, my uniqueness, and bade me hide it; then you judged me for my lack of it.”
General commotion followed. There were shouts, and gasps, and people jostling each other to get closer to the Fairy Queen. But before anybody realized what was going on, Badr transformed herself into a white dove, and flew straight out of the hall through a tiny crack in the roshandan, a small skylight high up on the wall that had somehow escaped previous attention. And just like that, she was gone.
- JOIN A RECREATIONAL CLASS
When you’re not a full-time student, nor do you have a “’real” job, nor any family in the city where you live, you end up with a lot of free time on your hands – which can be perfectly utilized by learning something you’ve always wanted, but never really got a chance to do. For instance, crocheting, or Thai kickboxing. Sushi-making, or calligraphy, ventriloquism, or, better yet, magic!
That something for me right now is Middle Eastern dancing. I carry my black coin-belt around with me wherever we go, and Google down a dance class whichever city we happen to be in. Apart from the fact that I love to do it, it’s also a good way of meeting people – perhaps even a potential friend, whom you are assured of having at least one thing in common with!
So, with all this in mind, I joined a classical Egyptian dance class in Madrid, taught by a half-Egyptian, half-Paraguayan, Spanish-born woman called Yasmina, who has been dancing professionally for 20 years.
On my first day, I arrived late. I had gotten confused when exiting the metro station, and walked in the wrong direction for a good ten minutes. “Darn it,” I thought, when I realized my (usual) mistake. “There’s no point of going to the class now. There won’t be space for me anyway!”
I was envisaging, of course, the type of dance classes I had attended in Berkeley and New York; a normally tiny square-shaped room packed to the seams with a variety of serious-faced girls in intimidating-looking leotards; the teacher (whom you could barely see) hollering instructions, bootcamp-style, over the pounding music; and me in the back row, whacking my hands into the wall every time we did snake arms, or getting trampled on by Rubber Girl next to me at every grapevine turn.
But here, when I scrambled into class, huffing and puffing, with a “Lo siento-ooo!”, I’m sorry-yyy, on my lips, I was shocked to find myself in a 60 ft x 30 ft, hardwood-floored room, glistening mirrors on not one but three sides, nicely framed posters on the cool blue walls, and Yasmina the teacher with two students – dressed in comfy track pants and T-shirts – quietly doing some stretches.
“Is the class already over?? Has everybody left??” I asked, bewildered.
No, they were just about to start! “Solo nosotras,” Yasmina smiled, flicking on the music. I couldn’t believe it! What joy! What pleasure! What a wonderful feeling to sway about freely my unusually long limbs without colliding into an animate or inanimate object at every move!
There were even times when the other two students didn’t show up, and it was just me and the teacher, whom I could pester with complaints and questions to my heart’s content (“But why can’t I do the sideways shimmy? Why? Why doesn’t it look as good as yours?”) On the downside, nobody in the class, including the teacher, spoke any English, so we had to suffice in our communication with gestures, intonation and a range of facial expressions. The other girl in the class, who was my age, seemed nice, but I could not glean much about her from my limited Spanish and her non-existent English save that she worked at a pharmacy, loved leopard print and Khaled.
On the upside, one of the first things I mastered in the Spanish language were parts parts of the body – rodilla, tobillo, talón, cadera, codo, muñeca, cuello – much to my Spanish teacher’s amazement when we came to study that chapter in class. You bet, I knew them body parts like a doctor. And, generally, I became known amongst the nice ladies at the dance school as the funny “American” girl (because I spoke English) who laughed a lot, seemed genuinely excited to be in Spain (unlike the Spaniards themselves, who were desperate to leave), and who continually invented new ways to bungle their language – which they didn’t seem to mind at all!
I was recently interviewed by The Displaced Nation, a New York-based online collective of travelers, expatriates and ‘global nomads’ pursuing creative interests, in their homes-away-from-home. Click here to read the interview, and let me know what you think!
- JOIN A LANGUAGE SCHOOL
Now, this may seem like an obvious thing to do if you move to a country where you don’t speak the local language (and no, ordering a burger or asking where the bathroom is does not count), especially if you plan to stay there for a couple of months or more.
But many expats and immigrants, particularly from my “brown” part of the world, prefer to muddle through daily life with vernacular scraps, picked up in various situations and locations, and, needless to say, grammatically atrocious. Coupled with histrionic gestures and deliberately choppy English, they manage to make themselves almost perfectly understood, albeit in a primitive, cave-man sort of way. “I-go-mercado, para shopping.” “This-seat-libre, por favor?” “Me gusta this movie. It is muy bien.” “Tiene scissors, chop-chop?”
The real barrier, though, is the cost of learning a language. Well-reputed language schools promise you many grand things – “Speak Spanish like a native in just six weeks! Three months to your dream job as a parasailing instructor in sun-filled Majorca! Looking for love in Spain? Let us teach you the language of loveee!” But they also require you to dig deep into your pockets for the bargain, which most immigrants cannot afford to do.
However, thanks to my avid habit of reading advertisements in the metro (and everywhere else), I came across a language school that was reasonably-priced, and only a five-minute walk from where we lived, near Puerta del Sol. Upon investigation, I discovered that C.E.E. Idiomas was indeed a legitimate language school, complete with an administrative office, three stories of classrooms, and plenty of bright-faced, noisy internationals crowding its narrow staircases – and not, as I had initially suspected, some sinister racket for trapping gullible foreigners on shoestring budgets.
My first day of class I was terribly excited. I’ve always been a bit of a nerd, and loved going to school as a kid. So, I picked out a crisp new Generation kurti, slipped on my favorite orange flats, tossed a purple notebook and Piano pen into my Democracy Now tote bag, and set off bouncing along to class. I wasn’t only going to learn Spanish. Nobody knew it, but I had other intentions. I was friend-hunting.
Unfortunately, my dream of finding a kindred spirit, sitting there waiting for me in the classroom – darkish hair, fairly tall, not unlike myself, whom I would then proceed to hug, and demand, “Where have you been all this time???” – did not quite materialize. None of the students were the right fit. Some were too old (grandmother), some were too young (just out of high school), some had too many responsibilities (committed housewife, mother of two school-goers), and some were just too foreign (Kentucky, USA?). There was only so much we could share or talk about.
But still, peeling off my pajamas and going to class everyday in the fresh morning air, interacting with corporal human beings apart from my husband and the Carrefour lady was admittedly very pleasant. Plus, our Spanish teacher was an absolute riot, and we spent most of the hour laughing, though we didn’t understand half of what she said. I was learning quite a lot, too, very useful and practical things (for example, the important distinction between ojo, eye, and ajo, garlic, which I had confused more than once at the grocery store: “Tiene salsa de ojo?” “Do you have eye sauce?”). And – how can I deny it – I loved being back in ‘school’!