Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thank you, Syracuse!

Apartment - Syracuse, NY

I remember that warm and clear summer night in Syracuse like it was yesterday. The little United jet from Washington Dulles was headed in to Syracuse late at night. Looking down, I saw darkness, some hills, tree covers, and then we emerged into a small set of city lights. The plane didn’t have to circle at all - no waiting for clearance to land - it pretty much headed straight for the runway, landed and arrived at the terminal. Syracuse Hancock is one of the quietest airports I have seen. Once it touched down, I saw a red neon “Syracuse”, and I remember my first feeling, it was one of horror – “What have I gotten myself into, and how do I get out of this?”

Prior to this I had primarily lived in Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore – three bustling metro cities, and I thought a couple of years of grad school in a small city (but within a 4 hour drive of NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa) sounded like it would be an experience. But I didn’t know if I was ready for this. Being a big city kid all my life, this was a countryside experience for me! (Some people would argue that Syracuse is the fifth largest city in NY state, but I mean I’ve been a really-big-city-kid, 5m+ people, Syracuse is 150k).

Sighing, I got off the plane, deciding that I would graduate early and leave, not knowing I’d spend the next seven years in this city. My friend had come to pick me up, and we headed directly to Alto Cinco. But I was crazily tired and couldn’t wait to sleep, so we didn’t hang around long. We left soon.

The next day, we headed to Atlantic City early in the morning. I had hardly seen Syracuse in daylight. I was sleepy, but my friends asked me to sleep off in the backseat of the car. So, I was a washout on the trip, but it was quite a welcome to grad school life, before I even said hello to the folks at the university.

Syracuse University is very pretty in the summer, good to be outdoors, to play cricket in the quad or in the nearby park. Central New York is awesome to be driving around in the summer. I hadn’t bought a laptop yet, so I used to head out to the campus to check email, the then very popular Orkut, and of course, to roam around - the nomad in me always wanted to aimlessly roam. I met a bunch of people also holding maps in their hands (no smartphones yet), and hey, new friends. While wandering around checking out the new campus, I found a “Chess for Kids” camp happening, and thought I’d volunteer. It was fun playing chess with kids, although I admit it was more like playing marbles with the pieces.

Overall, it was a good first ten days. It was an eventful beginning to my stay in Syracuse.

I was told that we pay for the awesome summer privileges in the winter, but why worry about it in the summer – cross the bridge when you get to it. Winter has its beauty too, although I’m not too much of a winter guy. Winter treks, skiing, etc. haven’t (yet) really appealed to me, although I did get fond of ice skating, especially with some good music playing. I found that the same songs sounded much better on the ice.

December came, I went on a break to India, came back into the Spring semester, which got over in another blink of an eye. Played a lot of “Bangalore vs. Chennai” cricket in Thornden Park in the summer, which again zipped by. Soon I was staring at graduation in December.

“Hey, what the…?!”,  was in my mind as the fall sem began, “didn’t I just get here?” I was getting used to this city and was enjoying being back in school, and in the aforementioned 2-3 blinks of my eye, it was all coming to a close. I had started off on a masters thesis, I was lucky to have had a very friendly advisor. It was my first time doing research. I was half-heartedly applying for jobs, but I didn’t feel like I was done with grad school just yet. Finally, after weeks of thinking, and listening to my inner voice, and my advisor’s voice, I decided to start off on the long road towards a PhD.

Now, it was the other end of the previous problem. PhD is well-known to drag on and on. So, while I’m at it…

I signed up for a Tae Kwon Do class in the gym. I didn’t know then that I would continue it for the next five years! Had to sleep on one side for a couple of weeks because of a bruised rib, had to limp a few days, needed a few ice packs, learnt the hard way that sparring without head gear is not recommended. Nevertheless, TKD was one of the best things I did here for sure. I will try and keep the practice of a martial art as a regular thing in my life.

And while I was at it, I also played some chess, percussion at the odd classical music event, and managed to learn a bit of scuba diving too. I must admit though – Skaneateles Lake is very clear (and is also the drinking water source for Syracuse), but there was nothing much to see underwater, and was always cold.

Chess was pretty good here. It was a pleasant surprise. Who knew that there would be titled players on campus?! I played many chess games with them and other strong players on campus, and even got to play a GM in a simul in Cornell!

I used to hate the game of Scrabble when mom taught me as a kid. I tried playing a few games on my iphone, and found out that a club had just started. Spent quite a few pleasant evenings in Recess CafĂ© playing scrabble. I’d never thought that the day would come when I’d actually like Scrabble. I also threw in a little bit of Badminton and Aikido, and all of these probably explain why I took so long to finish my PhD, but what the heck, it was quite a ride!

There’s something unique about student’s not days or weeks that fly – it’s semesters. So now, the time has come to leave. There’s a feeling of relief in these last few days before graduation. There’s also a slightly unsettling empty feeling – no more student life, the end of a long program, leaving a familiar place and familiar people…in short, change. They say that change is essential – things just can’t remain the way they are. They also say that there’s a time and place for everything, and it looks like my time is up in this place.

Apart from friends, peers, professors, there’s a lot of places to thank as well. Starbucks on Marshall Street and Tim Hortons on Brighton Ave for keeping me caffeinated regularly, Westcott’s Alto Cinco with the awesome Mexican Pizza/Dos Equis combo, and then Inn Complete, and Faegans, and Carousel Mall/Destiny USA’s Coldstone, and…

The list of acknowledgments is pretty big, so I think it’s easiest to say - Thank you, Syracuse! After Bangalore, my hometown, this is the longest I’ve ever stayed in one city. And it’s been a blast - no matter how cold it gets here, no matter how many times I have had to dust the snow off my car, and no matter what it lacks by not being a big city. It will remain my American hometown. Thus far, I used to miss only Bangalore, but now I will miss Syracuse as well. I’m now into my last couple of weeks in Syracuse, and will try to make it count.

I have no idea how many butterflies were responsible for me being here and now. I owe them for my memorable time here. So here’s to whatever these butterflies are setting in motion as I write this, by flapping their wings wherever they are. For now, Seattle beckons.