A few weekends ago I was sitting in a noodle shop in midtown, with two friends who have been my food partners throughout this City for some time now. We’ve eaten B Grade to 3 Star Michelin, sirloin to cassoulet, and every ethnicity in the spectrum from Cantonese to Korean to Southern Italian to Dominican. But they hadn’t been to this ramen place, so we went. There’s nothing inviting about this place from the outside. It’s in a basement between two apartment buildings and another Japanese restaurant next door. It’s crammed, typically with tens of people waiting on the steps trying to get one of the coveted few seats inside. We put our name down on the list, which was about an hour long, and killed time at this Vietnamese spot up the block and ordered some spring rolls and Thai beer. An hour goes by and we head back to the noodle shop and after a few minutes of waiting – and a dash to the ATM because they only accept cash – we’re seated at the bar where three Japanese dudes in black shirts are stirring vats of broth with a freaking oar, and blow-torching pieces of pork until they’re nice and juicy. I mean, it was heaven. We gawked like fucking Jesus himself had risen from the dead and asked us to happy hour on Tuesday. There was some serious staring going on. We stared at the pork hard, like, “holy shit the pork is about to whip off its undergarments” type of staring. This was no joke.
The ramen finally arrived. Three bowls of steaming noodles and pork. We’d been waiting for this meal for over an hour now and here it was, in all its glory. Time to go to fucking town.
Yet, I hesitated.
You ever have those moments where everything becomes silent, like time has stopped and you’re the only one moving? As soon as the bowl was put in front of me, everything ceased to exist, but my mind was moving faster than ever.
“Why does this feel so familiar to me? This right here. Eating this bowl of noodles, in this restaurant, during this time of year?”
It’s because two years ago to this day, I sat at the exact same bar, in the exact same seat, eating the exact same dish, and then wrote about it afterwards.
And then I began to think about everything that has happened to me between the last time I sat here and now.
This was a horrible summer, my least liked summer of all the summers I can remember. I was frustrated, confused, agitated, self-pitying, self-absorbed and generally miserable. I’d lock myself up in my room for days on end, look for jobs and watch the screensaver go by on my laptop, an ever-cycling array of photos from year in Tanzania. This was bad. I’d see photos and reminisce, but not the good kind of reminiscing. I’m talking about the kind where you see a photo, a memory, and you relive all the emotions that turn your insides out.
My grandmother has kept a diary her entire life, and she’ll read entries she wrote decades ago and it will stir up all these feelings and get her so riled up that she’ll suddenly stop talking to someone because of what’s happened 20, 30 years ago.
That’s what I was doing. Trying to pick fights with people who weren’t there, let alone on the same continent, in the same hemisphere. Trying to reconcile stupid arguments that I had with someone in Arusha months ago. It was unhealthy. It was depressing. I was unemployed, living with my parents again and putting myself through this cycle where I’d want to go back but couldn’t. Worst of all, it was amounting to a massive blockade for a path forward.
I’d physically come home, but my mind was still in a town on the other side of the world. It was still running down dirt roads at 6:30am, the sun just about to peak across the valley illuminating the churches and chicken coops and Mt Meru to the east. It was still traveling during dusk on a dala. It was still falling asleep to the comforting silence of East Africa, assuming you’ve killed all the mosquitoes in the room first. The earth smells different over there and the air is cleaner and brighter. I’d wake up in the morning, walk out of my room and just breath. Close my eyes and breath because what I did for 13 months, what I lived and let change me – everything about me – was liberating. Things I thought I cared about suddenly fell by the wayside. New causes and goals and ambitions replaced old ways of thinking. What I care for now, who I care for now, is decidedly different than two years ago.
There was never any decisive point during this past summer where I finally began to dig my way out of my own head and reconnect with the present. It just happened. Time happened. It’s now November 24, 2013 and I’m sitting at my desk, wrapped in my red shuka because it’s bitingly cold outside, with laundry on my bed I have to iron to wear to work tomorrow, and my head is finally clear enough to write this all down. Sure, I still think about the past and miss it dearly. That will never change, and I hope it doesn’t. I’ll reminisce and look back fondly, but not dig further than I need to.
It’s Thanksgiving next week and Christmas a few weeks later. Last year I spent Thanksgiving climbing Mt Kilimanjaro – we were in a tent on Lava Tour and eating chicken wrapped in chapatti with roasted potatoes. That was my Thanksgiving meal. Last Christmas I was in Marrakech eating couscous, khobz, and vegetable tajine with people from the UK and Serbia in a hostel. I mean, what is that, it’s crazy and I love it and it makes me smile. But that’s all it is. Happy memories. Things that make you smile. People that make you laugh. But I now live in the United States, tomorrow I have to go to work and I have to buy presents for my niece and nephew for Christmas.
This is where I am, until where I am going next, and, if I’ve learned anything from Tanzania, is that “next” is better left unscripted. I have some thoughts about what I want to do, directly because of my time spent abroad, and I’ll try my hardest to get there. But for now, this will do.
I looked down at my bowl, this spicy cauldron of amazingness, and took my first bite, again.