In a calm and peaceful neighbourhood in Springfield, I am sitting with my uncle and my aunt, who drove me from New York to their place. It doesn't take long until other relatives of mine who live here join us. Among them are two of my cousins, Billu and Ali, the latter being my partner in crime when we were kids and tried to implement a rescue operation to save a sheep’s life, something I will elaborate on if I make it to Pakistan. Tonight, we decide, Ali and I will spend the night at Billu’s place. "As I hear Billu uttering the word ‘Alexandria’, I begin to smile, because he lives exactly in the city where I need to be. One of my biggest personal missions on this world trip is about to begin. The people that I hope to meet in Alexandria are my former neighbours, my best friend in my early childhood and his mother. The last time I saw them was in 1993.
The entrance to the Miller Family's home was on the opposite side and only ten meters away from our flat's entrance on the first floor of a 14-storey-building, a minute away from the main river in Offenbach, where I live even to this day. Because our families visited each other several times a day back then, both of our parents usually left the doors open all day long. Chris’ father, who was talented in making colourful, cartoon-themed and delicious cakes, was married to Humeira from Afghanistan, who had a very good relationship with my mother in particular. Chris, Sabrina and I usually spent our time playing with toys, video games or watching WWF Wrestling, often imitating the athletes and show men in the ring. Actually, we imitated everynything we saw on TV, which led to my first kiss with a girl after watching a wedding scene.
In early 1993, however, the Miller family moved back to the United States. In times, where the internet was still a new phenomenon, it happened pretty soon that we were no longer in touch. Another one of many days had passed, where I came back home from school, looking at the closed door in front of our flat that used to be open all the time. “Where does Christopher live now?”, I asked my mother. “In a city called Alexandria”, she replied. The newly introduced possibility to chat with people all around the world via the AOL Instant Messenger prompted me to try to find him online, but in vain, and my sporadic attempts over the years to find him were not successful either.
Shortly before my around-the-world rrip started, my uncle and my aunt had invited me to visit them in Springfield, Virginia after my stay in New York. Remembering that the Miller family lives in Alexandria and finding out that it is only a fifteen minute drive away from Springfield, without much hope, after repeatedly failing to find him online over the years I decided to try and find Chris again many years later, this time on Facebook, which apparently is now the next big thing in terms of social networks. Seventeen years had passed already. Probably they don’t even live there anymore, I was thinking. I didn't find him on Facebook and gave it one more try on Myspace, even though that platform is not as popular as it used to be. There were many Christopher Millers in the search results, and none of them looked like that short haired American kid that was my first ever best friend, except for that long-haired guy with dreads that I saw as I stopped scrolling down. It was Chris. Our first conversation after all those years ended with me promising that I will come and visit them in Alexandria.
As my relatives get ready to attend a seminar to listen to a financial expert in Washington D.C., I prepare for going to Alexandria with Billu and Ali. Today is my only chance to do so, as I still have to visit my relatives in Sterling, and the day after tomorrow I need to be back in New York to catch my second flight. But going to Alexandria has to wait, because my relatives want us to join them. "Do you have a suit?", my aunt asks me. "No, I usually don't wear suits, only on very special occasions", I reply. If there is a dress code for that seminar, maybe I do not need to go there and can directly go and search Christopher's home, I think for a second, until my aunt tells me not to worry, because they have an extra suit for me, and I begin to worry, because time is not my best friend these days.
In the early evening, we reach the location in Washington, where the seminar takes place. As we take a seat, a shrewd and eloquent Pakistani man introduces himself, before he begins his speech, using rhetorical techniques and repeatedly using words such as money, dreams, talking about time management and life changing opportunities, before stressing that fulfilling such dreams are now within reach. “If you were at home right now, what would you do?”, he asks the crowd rhetorically. That’s an easy answer for me. It's monday night. Of course I would watch WWF Raw, my favourite show. A second later somebody in the crowd says: “Watch Monday Night Raw”, causing laughter and amusement in the audience. It's not a surprise that many of us were thinking the same, as the weekly wrestling episode is the highest cable TV show in the United States. The host skillfully manages to redirect the attention back to the topic of this seminar and soon begins to raise high hopes, convincingly describing a snowball system concept without actually using that word. Instead, he insists that making a lot of money is not as difficult as people want us to believe, if we invest our time wisely. The more often I look at what time it is, the more tension I begin to feel, realizing that right now I am losing very valuable time listening to a guy talking about time management. My uncle and aunt know that I have a date with destiny and therefore give me and my cousins a signal that we can leave.
Love Thy Neighbour
As Billu drops me at the address that I received from Chris, it finally really feels like a dream is within reach. I never thought that what is about to happen, will ever happen. My cousin Ali has decided to join me. Shortly after ringing the bell, I hear the voice of Humeira aunty, and although she must have heard from Chris that I am coming, she can’t believe her ears once I tell her that it's me. An elevator takes Ali and me to the 11th floor, where we walk down the hallway on a long, red carpet. In front of us we see an open door. Once we enter the door, it feels like entering a gate and traveling through time as Christopher's mom warmly receives me with a hug, shortly before me my first ever best friend give each other a hug.
While my cousin is also noticeably touched by this emotional reunion, beginning with the present, we talk about our current lives in Alexandria and Offenbach respectively. Chris feels like a prisoner in his own country and talks about how he can hardly afford to go abroad because he cannot find a job. To increase his chances, he got rid of his dreads. Even if he had a job, he says, he would have the money to go abroad but not the time. While talking about the days that I spent in New York, we redirect our focus from our present life to the 11th of September, 2001. “I was in school that morning, when all of a sudden we clearly felt how the ground was shaking. We knew that this was not normal. At home, I was watching with my friends what had happened in New York and in Washington." - Since Washington D.C. is very close to Alexandria, Chris had decided to take his bike and drive to the Pentagon. "I’m telling you, there was not any trace of a crashed airplane, nothing. And all the cameras and mobile phones were confiscated.”
Our conversation subsequently revolves around our common memories in the more distant past. “Just recently, before you wrote Chris, we were talking about you.”, Humeira lets me know. “Do you remember, when we were running up that hill and lit up some grass, until your dad came to scold us?”, Chris says laughing, not only reminding me of the good old times, but also reminding me of the song that got stuck in my head on the night before everything changed.
Time was flying faster than I could ever fly around the world, and only reluctantly I get ready to bid farewell. Before doing so, we take some pictures of this very special moment, in which we have reunited. Suddenly Chris’ mother points at my shoes: “What is this?!”. Was I supposed to take off my shoes? Humeira aunty would never react this way, even if that was the case. Chris looks down on my black pair of Nike shoes and I see his jaw drop. Humeira then points at Chris’ shoes. He is wearing black shoes, too, so what? It is a pair of Nike shoes as well. “I cannot believe it!”, Humeira repeatedly says, while I finally notice that Chris and I are wearing the exact same pair of shoes. We cannot take the smiles off our faces, looking at each other in disbelief. Apparently, even after 17 years of not seeing each other, we still have a similar taste. Before Ali and I leave, Humeira aunty stresses one more time that I should be careful in my trip and points with her finger at a golden framed calligraphy in Arabic that says:
لا إله إلا الله
“Never forget“, she says with urgency. „I won’t“.
Billu and Ali tale me to a bar, and the encounter with my old neighbours is of course still in my head. Even in this bar everything is reminding me of the surreal encounter, be it the Miller beer or a cover version of the song "Running up that Hill" that is playing through the loudspeakers shortly before we leave. I haven't even reached Hollywood yet, and this journey already feels like a movie.
'Always be Flexible'
There is no chance that I will leave the East Coast without having visited my relatives who live in Virginia as well. In the late afternoon, I arrive at my uncle’s carpet shop in Sterling. He used to do big business with my dad in Heidelberg many years ago. My uncle Haneef receives me with the same love and warmth like ten years ago, when he drove me from Virginia all the way up to the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls. Once he closes the carpet shop, he drives me to his flat, where I reunite with the rest of the family and get to know his youngest son, whom I hadn't met before. Having spent a night with long conversations, with nice food, playing video games with Haneef uncle's son, and without any sleep, in the early morning I get ready for what will be a challenging day. On the phone, I express my regret to my uncle and aunt from Springfield, because I cannot say goodbye personally. “Don’t worry. Did you already forget what I told you?”, my uncle said. “Whatever you do, always be flexible!”. Hence, I don’t waste any time and head to Washington D.C. to take a bus back to New York, where I grab my luggage in Astoria before heading to the JFK airport to take a 6 hour flight to LA. In the West Coast, I will not have any relatives who can help me out any time, but at least a good friend who can show me around. With relief I hear the announcement that we are about to land. I just couldn't sleep in the plane properly and haven't slept properly for almost thirty hours, albeit I have a feeling that once I reach the next the place where I want to stay, I won't have much sleep either. Hollywood, here I come!