Scents of Ithaca

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I woke up this morning with the smell of damp earth and wild flowers tickling my nose. I imagined I was in my room in Lahore, lying on that beautiful Sindhi-tiled rosewood bed my dad had unearthed from some curio shop in Karachi, the plum-coloured curtains flapping in the breeze and the jaamun tree outside my window bristling with dew. There would be halwa puri and aaloo cholay for breakfast downstairs, and Ammi Abbu would be sitting eating sliced oranges with chaat masala in the front lawn reading the Sunday paper, with our two Alaskan huskies Sabre and Tara gracefully curled at their feet…

I rubbed my eyes. No, I wasn’t in Lahore. I was in our apartment in Ithaca. But outside, it could’ve been Lahore, on a rain-fresh, life-affirming November day. “I’m going for a run,”  I announced, a newfound interest since my high school track champ husband Z bought me a pair of purple Nike running shoes for my birthday.

As we jogged along on the clean wet pavements, wind rustling in the oaks and maples overhead, purple  tulips and yellow daffodils nodding in their beds below, past the shingled cottages, blue, pink, red and white, and in the distance, the rolling hills of Cornell, silhouetted dark green against a steel blue sky, I breathed in the cool, redolent air and thought, “Ithaca really is beautiful. I’m going to miss this place”.

I wouldn’t have said that nine months ago. Soon after we moved to Ithaca last Fall, and Z settled into his school routine, leaving for class every morning at 8 and returning at 6 in the evening, I found myself a prisoner in our apartment: tinkering around in the kitchen, vacuuming and re-vacuuming the bedroom, re-arranging the cushions on the sofa,  trying to decide what to make for dinner…Days, sometimes weeks went by when he was the only person I talked to face-to-face.

I felt frustrated – and I was annoyed at myself for being frustrated. But it couldn’t be helped. How many books could you read, how many BBC miniseries could you watch,  how excited could you possibly be about cooking when you had to do it everyday? The fact was, I had never been the  “domestic” or ghareiloo kind – though I had imagined I would be if given the opportunity – and never in my life had I been so unoccupied, so uncomfortably free. Till now, every moment had been replete with people, parents, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, teachers, classmates – something to do, somewhere to be, something due, something planned, someone to talk to. I had even complained about it sometimes – Oh, I wish I had more time to myself! – and now that I had that time, I didn’t know what to do with it.

I blamed Ithaca. Dull, boring place. No jobs to be had, no friends to be found, no sign of life after 7 p.m., sub-zero temperatures 3/4ths of the year, nearest grocery store a 40 minute bus ride away on a bus that came every hour… How was one to live in such a place? Weeks of job-hunting and CV-submitting turned up nothing – even the local Barnes & Noble never got back to me. I was so mad I vowed to defect to Borders. “They probably thought you were over-qualified,” said Z to comfort me.

But I wasn’t comforted.  Innumerable possibilities crowded my mind  as I sat daydreaming in my red arm chair,  of New York City, of the Bay Area, of Lahore, of what I might have achieved had I been there, of what I might have made of myself. Oh, what if?…

That was nine months ago. Z is about to graduate now, and our move to the big city is  just weeks away – the start of our new life, on our own feet, the excitement, the rush of people on the street, the plays and the concerts, that dream job, glowing above in the neversleeping neon ether…

I’m excited. But more than that, I am at peace, because I understand now what I achieved in Ithaca, what  I found – something more precious and infinitely more satisfying than any job could have been.

I found two friends, Elsa and Silvano. The moment we met, at the door of our apartment, where the landlord and local godfather Carl Carpenter had brought them in his cherry-red pickup, the “nice Mexican couple” who had just got into town and were looking for a place to live,  I knew we were kindred spirits.  It was the kind, laughing eyes, the ready smile, the same room at the Hillside Inn. We could talk about books and movies, music, religion, ideas and dreams for hours on end, till we’d look up and see the empty restaurant tables and anxious faces of the waiters, and cry out, “What, it’s been four hours already?” We laughed at the same jokes, took immense pleasure in “Big Brother”-bashing, reveling in our non-Americanness, whispering animatedly of conspiracies and capitalism lest the identical blond-beefy-biker family sitting next to us at the food court overheard.  The Beatles, Dracula, Scorcese, 1984, Pictionary, Canon cameras and 5K runs, achari chicken and tostadas, Tampico and Lahore, Urdu and Spanish…it all seemed one. Urdu and Turkish, too, and aromatic tea from a petite hand-painted glass cup, cranberry muffins and Turkish delight, bangles and Rekha and two adorable two-years olds in shalwar kameez with cake on their face. Alev, Demir and the twins, my Ithaca family.  It began with an email, a response to a Craigslist ad, my first freelance video-editing  gig; turned into Urdu lessons and babysitting, playing with puzzles and building blocks, cushiony footballs and cars, singing “Lakri ki Kathi” and “Chanda Sooraj Laakhon Taare”; ended with sisterhood. They threw me a party on my birthday, a beautiful picnic in the park, gifted me their comfylicious Papasan, just because I had once said in passing that I liked it. I was overwhelmed by their affection; I felt I had left some mark on their lives, as they had on mine, found a relationship that would last. Could I have said the same about proof-reading papers for the Cornell Astronomical Society,  cashiering at Barnes & Noble?  When one of the Taiwanese students I tutor got an A on a final paper I edited, or the Chinese visiting scholar’s request for an interview with a D.C. official was finally accepted, with the help I’d given him in his letter, and they said to me with  endearing directness, “We are so lucky to have you” – how could I have underrated that feeling, that sentiment, that satisfaction?

We came back from the run, and I made spicy baked eggs for breakfast, one of beautiful Shayma’s wonderful recipes. My husband did the dishes while I read aloud a chapter from “Brave New World”, Elsa and Silvano’s birthday gift to me and sequel to our recent Orwell craze. Afterwards we sat listening to George Harrison on Pandora while Z worked on a presentation and I wrote this post, with the doors wide open and the smells of spring enveloping our little one-bedroom house, evoking memories of different times and places, mingling past with present.

Reading “Brave New World” on my Papasan. Bliss!

11 thoughts on “Scents of Ithaca

    Zuhaib said:
    September 17, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Ah Manal, your writing keeps inspiring me n m all engrossed into it….. I cant stop myself after reading your write ups at tribune’s website so here i m….n believe me its like exploring the life through your words…..really enjoying it….. =)

    Alev said:
    May 13, 2010 at 8:58 pm


    Congratulations! This will be a valuable memoir for you and for the little manals to come :) Great photography as well as great writing!

    Looking forward to reading more!


    Sabina said:
    May 12, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Manal! Thanks for sharing. You write beautifully! Reading your blog reminded me of my own experiences when I first landed here in the US :) Good luck with your move to New York and keep blogging!!! Hopefully I’ll have some good pics to share with you from our trip to Pakistan.

    tehmina said:
    May 12, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    simply loved your post!!!

    Jenny said:
    May 12, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    You are always a breath of fresh air, a great friend to have, and a blessing.

      manalkhan responded:
      May 13, 2010 at 9:14 am

      thank you jenny :) that’s the nicest thing anyone could ever say. love you!!

    keith said:
    May 11, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Nice blog… a few things tho:

    1.) Borders? Really? B&N is where it’s at, even if they did dis’ you, haha. Kiss and make up.

    2.) Nikons rule.

    3.) I knew your do-nothing break after grad school was only good in theory and wouldn’t hold up to rigorous daily testing.

    4.) “Big Brother” may not be reading your blog yet, but “Big Cousin” is (me). Watch out!

    All your talk of food reminded me of a new favorite of mine; spicy aloo saag. Hope you keep this up when you shift to NYC. Looking forward to reading some big-city adventures.

    shahper said:
    May 11, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    this is amazing, manal. berkeley’s almost over and i’m getting ready to move home. it’s all quite overwhelming and your post made me realize how much i’m going to miss everything! congratulations on this wonderful new project! :) looking forward to more. lots of love.

    Lawyer Loves Lunch said:
    May 11, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    This is a lovely post! I found myself in a similar position when I moved to San Francisco after getting married. For what it’s worth, it felt equally solitary in a big city. My friends were big city attorneys and I was suddenly a housewife. It’s only in hindsight that I recognize how valuable that experience was. Thanks for sharing (and all the best on the journey ahead) :)

      manalkhan responded:
      May 13, 2010 at 9:18 am

      thank you for stopping by! its good to know that other people went through the same thing and you’re not the strange one, lol…i think its just the enormous transition of being married, no matter where you go. are you still in SF? i love that city!! :)

    shayma said:
    May 11, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    it’s a lovely post, Manal and thanks for the honourable mention. your writing is something i can relate to and similar to mine in so many ways- i love it! i always call myself a gypsy- a gypsy with my home in lahore. best wishes for the move – whatever path you choose! lots of exciting stuff, i am sure. here’s to lots of more heart-pouring style of writing- which is the best kind there is. x shayma

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