Oh, The Places You’ll Go

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Sometimes love is a place. But only if people you love defined that place for you.

There’s a scene at the very end of  the movie, Amelie, where Audrey Tatou is sitting on the back of a motor scooter, her arms around the driver’s waist, driving along the streets of Paris dappled in Indian summer sunlight. The lighting is exquisite. Melodic accordion music plays in the background as she hurtles down those streets, and the narrator intones, “September 28th, 1997. It is exactly 11 am. At the carnival, near the ghost train, the marshmallow twister is twisting. Meanwhile, on a bench in Villette Square, Felix Lerbier learns there are more links in his brain than there are atoms in the universe. Meanwhile, at the Sacre Coeur, the nuns are practicing their backhand. The temperature is 24 degrees C, humidity 70%, atmospheric pressure 990 millibars.”

That perfection of circumstance, that minuteness of detail, that macro/micro overwhelming feeling that you can feel, touch, smell and hear everything simultaneously with such clear and sharp focus, that is how I remember Heidelberg. For me, it is a world built up on memory, on love, on friendship, on experiences stitched together in my mind to form a giant carnival tent, one that comes alive in my dreams and behind my closed eyelids. It remains suspended in perfection.

It wasn’t always this way. I first set foot in the town on a rainy day in November 2002. I wish I could say I felt then what the city would mean to me, that I had a whiff of foretelling on the wind, but I didn’t. I’d moved to Germany – to a suburb outside of Stuttgart – in July 2002, to be with my family. That country was still a blank slate for me, made up of foreignness, unfamiliarity and lack of attachment.

When I was accepted to the university in July 2003, I took a train to Heidelberg to find an apartment. I think back now to that warm day as I wandered, confused and self-conscious between the two dining halls, reading the apartment listings on the walls in one corner of each dining hall and jotting down phone numbers. The German language felt less like a misheard song lyric but still like listening to words underwater, upside down and inside out.

My first apartment was across the Neckar. In that apartment, I dispensed advice to a new friend about his girl troubles while cooking lentils and rice and listening to Frank Sinatra. I stepped out to catch a tram to my first Stammtisch, where misunderstanding the words of the guy who became one of my dearest and most devilish friends led me to the first time dancing the night away at a divey place called “Cave,” the first of many nights spent there.

My second semester meant a second apartment, the sublet on the first being up. It was a tiny place, with the uncommon advantage of being right in the middle of the old town in the summer. I could smell spring flowers from my apartment, walk five steps to the Old Bridge and eat genuine Italian gelato.

There were more dinners and gatherings of friends, despite the cramped kitchen where everything was compact. I walked up and down those cobble-stoned streets, tasted espressos from every little cafe, took in the city at all hours of the night and day.

We trudged to watch my first Eurovision at the dining hall, followed by a walk along the Neckar. We watched the sun rise from the Old Bridge, walked through the quiet streets at dawn, saw vendors setting up their wares. Slowly, a group of friends came together, forming an orbit as their hearts were snatched from the ether, making for me a separate family.  We could talk late into the night or sit in comfortable silence. They made sure I got home safe and I risked driving stick-shift down empty streets at 4 am (stalling my friend’s car more than once, to his amused dismay) when I was sober and they were not.

My last semester is a blur – this time, it was in an apartment high up on the mountain, a magical place I lived in with my best friend – to this day, despite distance and sporadic contact, she is the person who knows me best, who shines brightest for me in my memories. She is blond-haired blue-eyed and rebellious, utterly unconventional, a free-spirit. I am dark, with dark hair and eyes, somewhat more stolid than her, more tied to family and tradition.

Yet our friends mixed us up constantly, calling me by her name and her by mine – we were inseparable, our heads (mine dark, her’s light) bent together in some secret conspiracy. A friend once described us as “the devil and the angel.” In this apartment, we were high above the city, could look down and see the town’s lights and the river snaking through. We walked to the castle grounds every day, then down the mountain to class in the old town. We had snowball fights by the castle in our pajamas, shared taxis down to the city proper, took Sunday walks with the two guys who, with us, formed the core of our little family. We found a Russian dive bar for our hangouts, we fell in love and out of love, with other people, with each other. We went to a funeral for my friend’s father, my first funeral, and helped each other through moments of darkness. To this day, those three people know me and my secrets better than anyone else in this world.

The day I left that place, I felt torn as I’d never felt before. Coming back was a shock – I’d gotten used to the German ways of things and could no longer feel American (though Pakistani was always there, mixed in with both).  Time wore on, things changed, as I knew they would. Yet when I visited two years ago for a friend’s wedding, I learned a sharp lesson: I thought I loved the town itself, and perhaps I still do. Its alleyways and streets are etched into my memory, as is the language and its ways, misheard no more. But part of my love for the town was driven by the people in it, and the memories we made.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot of one memory in particular: a late summer night, back when my best friend and I didn’t live together, we had spent a few hours lounging around her kitchen, snacking, talking, the others drinking. It came time to head out, and I left with two of the guys. While I was determined to walk back to my place, my one friend insisted that someone walk me back. Eyeing our third friend’s bicycle, he told him to escort me home, since we lived in approximately the same neighborhood. Our friend got on his bike and said, “Hop on.”

“You’re kidding,” I shot back. “Hop on where?”

He pointed to his handlebars and quelled my protests that I was too heavy. I sat precariously in front and he began to pedal, with me hanging on for dear life. The sweet summer night air wooshed past as he rode down the street, going round a traffic circle, pedaling down the cobblestones while I laughed, managing to keep my balance.

Seven minutes later, he deposited me in front of my doorstep with a flourish, kissing my hand with a gallant “au revoir madameoiselle!” before biking off towards his place, his glasses glinting in the moonlight.

The lights on all three floors of my building were blazing, despite it being 2:30 am, and my downstairs neighbor, who had locked herself out, was drunkenly trying to negotiate with someone down the street for a ladder so she could get in. I smiled as I let myself in. This town and its absurdity were all mine. And encompassed in this memory is my perfect moment, suspended in time.

LoveinshAllah.com columnist Zainab Chaudary works in politics by day and as a writer by night. Her blog, The Memorist, ruminates upon travel, religion, science, relationships, and the past, present, and future experiences that make up a life. She tweets @TheMemorist