Grilled Cheese and the Big Apple: An International Student's First Visit to New York City

Before visiting New York for the first time, my memory was filled with a deluge of images from “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother,” both sitcoms that are set in New York. I had the impression that when one is in New York, there are no ordinary moments — at any one point in time, something, big or small, is happening. As a romantic, in every face I saw, I envisioned a lively person. New York, I believed, was the capital of modernism.

I went to New York for the first time last week for a debate tournament at Columbia University. The university seemed to reflect the city — beautiful and energetic. In front of the library were people from various cultures, all united in dance to a song that was playing. A photographer would have wanted to capture that moment, to preserve the image in a still frame.

After finishing the first round of the tournament, my friend and I wanted to eat. Childish excitement filled me as I wondered where my first meal in New York would be. We eventually ran into Tom’s Restaurant, this perfect little diner (the site of Monk’s Diner from the hit sitcom “Seinfeld”). I had never eaten a grilled cheese sandwich before, so I opted for that with a cheeseburger as an additional dish. When the grilled cheese sandwich arrived, I was satisfied: the cheese was perfectly melted between two slices of wondrously crispy bronze bread. As I had my first bite, I knew I was in the U.S.A, for there could be no better grilled cheese sandwich. The burger was juicy, unhealthy and delectable, and the cheese seemed to have been melted with such care. In other words, the burger was picture-perfect.

After finishing that satiating meal and the other two rounds, I headed to Manhattan on the subway. In Egypt, where I am from, public transport is inadequate Rarely would one ride the subway; a large portion of the population opts for taxis instead. I was excited to have the chance to ride the subway, but ran into a problem attaining a MetroCard. It was 11:30 p.m., and I was stunned when a man, whom I can genuinely say I was afraid of, approached me offering me a MetroCard for $5, equal to the amount the card was charged with. People had inculcated a false stereotype of New Yorkers in me: busy, hostile and aloof. Of course, I paid him money for the card he gave me, but it was the spirit of the act that mattered.
After reaching the platform, I pictured the arrival of the subway, remembering the poem “The Express,” by Stephen Spender:

Ah, like a comet through flame, she moves entranced,
Wrapt in her music no bird song, no, nor bough
Breaking with honey buds, shall ever equal.

I looked around and there was a man playing the guitar, singing “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley. His smooth voice abated my worries. After reaching Manhattan, I walked to my destination, 93rd Street. The streets had shifted in their appearance: everything looked archaic; the weather became more placid; and the people were more relaxed. I reminisced about El Korba, a place in Egypt that seemed to reverberate with the streets’ atmosphere. I felt at home.

The next day, after finishing my fourth round, I wanted to walk around New York. I decided to have a burger from a street vendor. He had a “Rab3a” pin on his hat — he was an Egyptian who supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Let me take this chance to negate the idea that all those who are affiliated with the Brotherhood are “bad” people, for that’s not true. However, like any other Egyptian with any political view, he spent a while talking about politics as he prepared my burger.
Walking as I devoured the burger, I looked at the architecture of the buildings and decided that I’d listen to “Sweet Disposition,” the song from the movie “500 Days of Summer.” New York seemed to emanate immediately an aura of intellect, creativity and modernism. My emotions were accentuated; I had fallen in love with the city. After finishing the debate tournament, I met with my friend. I had remarked earlier that I had seen a Five Guys restaurant, so we decided to eat there. Marshall’s description from “How I Met Your Mother” had been apposite: “This [was] God, speaking to us through food.”

The next day, we went to Times Square. The enormous screens screamed of ambition and initiative, echoing the screams advocating the end of climate change. There was no ordinary moment. As I ate a hot dog from a street vendor, I noticed a sign saying “The New Egypt,” and it made me wonder. Will Egyptians ever be able to present the latent beauty of Egypt, as New Yorkers have been able to do with New York? I hope so. T.E. Lawrence once said, “Happiness is absorption,” and I had been fully absorbed by the city that is New York.