1. COMING TO AMERICA
Where are the skyscrapers? I am 17 and heading to the US for an undergraduate degree. After a heart-stopping 20-minute phone call (these were the days international calls cost a dollar a minute), a dean of admissions confirmed that the University of Pittsburgh would offer me a scholarship at its branch campus in Bradford, Pennsylvania. These were pre-Google days; we didn’t even own a computer. But I knew Pennsylvania was right under New York on a map. I said yes right away. Little did I know that Bradford was a small, mostly-white town of about 10,000 people, and New York City was a seven-hour drive away. I remember seeing nothing but trees on the plane ride to Bradford. My only exposure to America had been Manhattan, and I had little reason to think that all of the US did not look shiny and imposing. Instead, I landed at an airport the size of my home; no immigration counters, porters, or food stalls. And, I discovered, lugging two massive suitcases off a tiny belt, no taxis. “Bradford has one cab driver,” a kind local explained. “And it’s Sunday, so it’s Bob’s day off.” I knew, at that moment, that this experience was going to be foreign in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
2. OUT OF AFRICA
I’m five, my sister is 12—and she’s the naughty one. We aren’t allowed to eat beef. But we are far away from home, in our second home, where our father lives, in Lagos, Nigeria. We are expat kids here: we don’t know the locals, we hang out with other Indians living between Africa and London, we spend our days swimming at the Ikoyi Club. On the grounds far past the pool, under a large canopy, Didi and I have a secret. There is a hot barbecue pit, where shirtless men stand grilling skewers of beef smeared in spicy suya powder. When done, the meat is slightly charred, it burns the tongue, it’s juicy—but the flavour, oh the flavour. All these years later, I can still taste it on my lips if I try. So spicy, it tingles, yet sweet. So distinctive, I have never eaten anything similar enough to liken it to. The skewers cost 10 naira. My sister figures out how to pay; we cannot allow our mother to find out. It feels wrong, but it is too tasty to resist. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first of many, many times I would go great distances for delicious food.
3. AN ITALIAN CONNECTION
In Florence, I see a woman on the street selling little works of her art. The canvases are painted with part-fairies and part-mermaids in pastel colours with flowing hair and long eyelashes, a dusting of glitter on their wings and tails. I am 23 and my life seems wide open to all possibilities. I have many dreams to fulfil. I want to buy this art, but my companion deems it too silly to bother with; it is not serious art. I don’t argue. I don’t walk up to the woman and buy them anyway. I don’t even compliment her. We move on. Something about that moment stayed with me. Something about that art stayed with me. It would never have won an award or been hung in a museum, but it captured my spirit at that time. On every subsequent trip to Florence, I look for it. I have learnt since then to buy art that moves me, to trust my instincts when it comes to relationships, to follow my heart and use my voice when it comes to chasing my dreams, regardless of what people might say. When I close my eyes, I can be immediately transported to Florence, by the Duomo, surrounded by tourists, to that moment in my life when everything was possible, when I felt part-fairy, part-mermaid.
4. THE FRENCH WAY
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