February 17, 2015 [Tuesday]
I am bundled up and ready to face the cold, with flats on my feet and boots to change into because I know my flats will be soaked by the time I get to work. I do not have snow boots yet, and I am not prepared for the depth of snow I encounter when I step outside.
The world is asleep. The snowflakes are falling on my lashes, cold and wet, and I blink them away as I raise my hood over my head so I can see more clearly.
I have missed this. I have missed the soft crunch of the powder beneath my feet, the way the harsh cold bites at my nose and the way the temperature shocks my system, makes me feel so alive. Is this why they turn up the air conditioning in exam rooms until you are freezing? So you can concentrate better?
I only have to walk half a block before I cross the street to wait for the Q47 bus to the subway station. I will probably be late for work. As I stamp my feet on the sidewalk in the cold, a car pulls up, and some of those waiting for the Q47 clamber inside. I am told this is an unofficial – and illegal – way of getting to the subway station, for two dollars a person, no MetroCards accepted. The car is green, and I am reminded of the service taxi system back home.
The edge of the train platform is painted yellow, to encourage people to avoid standing in that area, and the railroad tracks are precariously far down and spaced in such a way that I can see the open air and streets below. The sky is sunny, cold and light blue above, and opposite my side there is the yellow-edged platform for the train going in the reverse direction. When the train approaches at high speed, steadily slowing to a stop, I draw nearer to the edge and recheck the app on my phone with a map of NYC’s subway system.
I get off at Grand Central Station. Past Lexington Avenue and three more avenues down, I find the United Nations Headquarters. Am I really doing this? Am I really here?
I change into my boots before I meet the lady I have been in touch with throughout the application process. She is brisk and smiling, a relief in a large building with security barriers and strange elevator keypads.
I am told that there is a photo-shoot with the Secretary-General today for all the interns, an experience that takes place once every six months. I smile slightly when I remember what my mother said to me at the door, before I left home to go to the airport: “Say hello to Ban Ki-moon for us!”
It is ironic that I will actually be meeting him on my first day.
The fellow interns are friendly. They’re here from all over the world, and most have been here for a month or two. There are interns from Palestine, Spain, Austria, Azerbaijan, and India, not to mention the New Yorkers who are themselves diverse. I love how the atmosphere is friendly, open, international. I am at home here, too.
By the time Ban Ki-moon arrives, we have been standing in position for at least forty-five minutes, organizing ourselves with the tallest at the back and the rest muddled around the podium. He is friendly when he arrives, entering through the door to our right with security, and he takes pictures with us before addressing us in a vague, general speech about the United Nations and service.
We are still standing as he gives his speech, and I almost faint from the heat of bodies pressed against mine and the dull ache in my tired legs. A quarter of an hour later, the Secretary-General concludes his speech and begins to shake hands with the front two lines before leaving.
I feel rising panic as he steadily comes closer to where I am standing in the second line, smiling and nodding all the while. I am a Muslim woman, and I do not usually shake hands with men. What will I do?
But he is Ban Ki-moon, and he should be accustomed to acting diplomatically in all situations.
So when he comes to where I am standing and I place my hand over my heart while smiling, he smiles too and puts his hands together, bowing respectfully and asking me where I am from.
“Lebanon,” I reply.
“Ah, assalamu alaykom!”
“Wa alaykum el salam! Thank you for today.”
I think at how small we are, such tiny specks on this earth, and how despite this we have somehow built customs and traditions and methods of interaction, worlds upon worlds of different ways of communicating the same feelings, the same thoughts, the same meanings.
The day at work passes, and I am given my assignment. I spend my day poring over public administration initiatives in the Middle East and chatting with the intern one cubicle over. We both have the tendency to procrastinate, and we both don’t know yet what we will be doing next year.
The day passes. I buy the last pair of black snow boots I want at Macy’s, and I eat delectable beans and rice with a friend at Chipotle, a place I plan on frequenting often while here. I am captivated by the wonders of this city.
I am captivated by its contradictions, its sprawling vastness, its madness and its mystery. I do not know where it will take me next, but I have no doubt that it will be somewhere inspiring.