Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.

The Streets of Philadelphia – Deccan Herald

This past 13th* marked 13 years since the day I arrived in the US – with two huge suitcases, one handbag and one really thick jacket my mom and I bought from a pavement seller in the Jayanagar 4th block shopping complex.

The suitcases contained everything I would need and all that I could call my own during my first few months in the US – rasam powder, sambar powder, molaga pudi, and assorted snacks and pickles, all of my favorite clothes plus a few new ones purchased in bouts of frenzied shopping as the d-day arrived, money orders for school, passport, I-20, and all the collective hopes, aspirations and fears of a family sending their girl off to a foreign land thousands of miles away.

My parents and brother traveled with me from Bangalore to Bombay to see me off on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. It was an ungodly hour but the airport was bathed in undying light, alive, busy, buzzing with people trying to manage farewells and immigration forms and carts and unwieldy suitcases and sleepy children and bubbling emotions all at once. As I turned to wave a final goodbye, I saw the pinched, drawn faces of my parents and brother through suddenly hot, stinging eyes. The fact that I was going and going alone did not sink in until I passed immigration and faced the long, nearly-empty passage to the Lufthansa gate.

The lounge at the gate was a good place to transition between what I left behind and what I was flying towards.

The flight itself was an adventure I greeted eagerly. I loved the food (yes, airplane food!), I loved the way time changed so quickly as we sped across time zones (wow, it’s only 2 in Frankfurt but already 6 in Bombay!), I loved the way the moon seemed to be bouncing up and down like a ball outside my window as we were flying over Turkey, I loved the bratty kids, the snooty airhostesses (some of them, some were really, really nice), I loved the huge terminal at the Frankfurt airport, and I loved waiting there to catch my flight to DC (how cool that sounded then). On the flight to DC the German lady sitting next to me inhaled the aroma of my chicken curry and rice (Asian Non-Veg option) enviously. I loved that too.

I loved all of this so much that I wrote about it on the Lufthansa post cards and mailed them off to my family.

Of course, my real adventure was yet to begin. After a few days in DC, V and a few of his friends drove me to Philadelphia where I would stay with V’s friends for a couple of days during which I would find a room-mate and an apartment to share before starting classes at Temple University.

I hated Philadelphia those first few weeks.

Everything seemed starker, darker. I was alone most of the time – on the way to school, at school, while figuring out what classes to take, at the bank. The days were getting shorter and colder and all my classes were at night.

The friends I was staying with were very nice and always made sure I ate when I was home, but they had their own lives, their own personal crises and their own inside jokes (one of the girls was a big Oprah fan and the other girls used to tease her about it. The first time I heard them teasing her, I thought, wow! she must really love the opera to want to watch it on TV everyday!).

The roommate my friends had in mind was a PhD candidate who was coming back to Temple for what she hoped would be her final semester. She definitely did not want to stay on or close to campus because she wanted to be close to her friends who lived in South Philly, plus it was less expensive. So after a couple of days of looking around, we settled on a third floor apartment in a street of row houses just off of Broad Street in South Philly. It was a long hike from there to school. The bus stop where I would catch the bus that would take me to school was at least 5 minutes away by walk, close to the grocery store where we would get all our groceries. The subway was in the opposite direction, less than two minutes by walk.

I got the smaller room (she had way more stuff than I did). It was about 7 ft. by 10 ft. with a closet and a window. I had my sleeping bag, folded over once so I would have some cushioning, spread out over the dark brown carpet along the shorter wall, pictures of my my mom, dad and brother on the wall to the left of the sleeping bag, clothes in the closet, books in the corner by the window, toiletries on my side of the bathroom shelf, and all the snacks and spices in the kitchen.

In retrospect, having a roommate who had lived in Philly before and had gone to school at Temple helped a lot. She loved the city, knew her way around the campus. We settled into a routine. She cooked three days of the week, I did three days and we took the seventh day off, ate whatever. She introduced me to her friends, to the grocery store, to the streets of Philadelphia in this crazy walking tour that took us from South Philly through Chestnut and Walnut and Locust and Market Streets all the way to the Harbor, and most importantly, to the Italian Market in South Philly.

My whole perspective of the city changed when I stood at the entrace to the market and looked in.

Shops lined both sides of a very long street. The street was busy, to put it mildly. The shopkeepers were a noisy lot, hustling and bustling, calling out to their regular customers, many of them old ladies. Wares were laid out on the pavement, everything from crockery to clothes, to plastic knick knacks to fruits and flowers. People stopped to look at everything, haggling, buying a thing or two, making their way slowly down the street.

It wasn’t the Malleswaram 8th cross market, but pretty close.

I plunged in, taking in the smells, the sounds, the sights, the happy camraderie. I only had a couple of things on my list to buy, but I peeped in every window. Most of the stuff on sale was very strange to me, baguettes, sausages, scones, cookies, brinjals at least ten times bigger than any I had seen before.

As I came out of one of the stores and headed up the market again, an elderly gentleman looked me straight in the eye and said, “God! You’re beautiful!”

That did it. I fell in love with the city right there.

In feeling sad for myself over the first few weeks of my stay in Philly, I had failed to notice something, but which was very clear to me at that moment. I realized that over the previous few weeks, I had not been gawked at, whistled at, winked at, or brushed against. In fact, people had made eye contact, smiled, called out a cheery ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ and even wished me a good day. I had my space. It simply felt good.

It was time to think about embellishing my humble abode, so a friend took me, in a borrowed rickety old car, to this huge godown of a place near some railway tracks with everything from nails to HVAC systems. I can’t remember the name of the place now, but it was not Wal-Mart or Home Depot or any of those franchises. I found a table fan for $10. That’s all I could afford to buy there. On the way back, we passed by a moving sale in progress, and I found this bright yellow table with leaves that could be completely removed. I got it and a chair for $5.

We trashed the table a couple of years after I moved to DC, but we still use the $10 table fan and a comforter I bought at the now defunct Woolworths on Market Street.

I witnessed the glory of fall that first semester and wondered at the beauty of it all. I picked up a golden orange leaf from the sidewalk and mailed it to my parents. I wrote to them regularly about everything, including all the different colors of hair that my classmates had.

I found an on-campus job, made friends, settled down in my classes, and my roommate said my cooking reminded her of her aunt’s house in Bangalore.

I’d found my groove.

*This essay was originally written in August 2005. A shorter version of this essay has appeared in Deccan Herald (but was wrongly classified as a Short Story).

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This entry was posted on October 10, 2005 by in Personal Essays, Published and tagged , .
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