Thou Shalt Schlep

In typical Wendy fashion, this blog entry is approximately two months late. I am no longer in Chicago. I’m now living in Paris and completing my masters program. 

While lifting off the dusty tarmac of Cairo International Airport, I anticipated the reverse culture shock of arriving back in Chicago after a full year abroad. It took me ten months to adjust to the lack of sidewalks, manic driving, and thick air of Cairo’s metropolitan core. Ten months to consider the two-hour commutes as comfortable, the festive crowds as commonplace, and the unrelenting sun relaxing. What will my charming Midwestern, American city be like after such a crazy ride? Turns out, I needn’t have worried one bit. Returning to the pace of life back home was as effortless as breathing.

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What’s not as effortless as breathing is stomaching full-force Cairo pollution jammed down your lungs.

A couple years too late but home this summer meant working a summer job. The art of the side hustle, the struggle, and the extra mile is an American covenant – Thou shalt schlep.

To that end, this summer I took a serving job at a theme restaurant located in Chicago’s tourist central – Navy Pier. Half motivated by the lucrative tips and half motivated by the thrill of trying something completely new, I signed up to sling fried shrimp and po’ boys five days a week. Trademarked birthday songs, trivia questions at every table, and decor dripping with movie references came neatly packaged in the deal of a summer jaunt on the Pier. Just because I was at home-sweet-home doesn’t mean I should get too comfy, said my inner masochist.

A central belief I have developed for myself over the past few years is to always try new experiences that make me feel uncomfortable, or to push my boundaries of comfort. I was walking behind this group of teenage boys last week on my way to work. One of them had on a t-shirt that read, “Pain is weakness leaving the body” splashed in caps across the back. Similarly, experiencing discomfort is like purging limitations from my mindset. The more you do what you once thought impossible, the more you begin to believe in your unlimited potential.

hushpuppies

Tried hush puppies for the first time ever and my life is changed. Who knew corn, cheese and oil could make such a magnificent orgasmic experience.

If you know me, you would know that I am not loud, pushy, or beguiling. Well those are apparently the three traits one needs to be a successful server. Of course, one should definitely not come off as loud or pushy to the customer, but as I quickly learned, one needs to be forthright in the kitchen and with managers in order to get orders out fast and problems fixed without a hitch. I also come home smelling like fish and chips every night. Mmm beer-battered seafood is quickly becoming my signature scent. I scream. I smell. I schlep. Summer exploration of the many sides of myself is indeed an immersive sensory experience.

Peace, love and coleslaw.

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Still lasted longer than Eric Forman at Fatso Burger.

City on Fire

Summer is encroaching on Cairo. Gone are the short days when I would leave my house in the hazy grey morning, and then leave work to a setting sun. The darker, cooler days of winter and spring used to be especially depressing in Chicago, when the wind picks up and nails you straight through the heart.

However, summer’s arrival in Cairo is not the same breath of relief as it is in Chicago. Summer in Cairo means a constant ray of solar heat penetrating every window, every shaded tree, every inch of exposed skin already sticky with sweat and sunscreen. Summer in Cairo renders the entire city low key catatonic, the heat whisking away any ounce of energy within us to do anything but sit and drink chai. It’s also the pollution. That potent cocktail of chemicals combined with dehydration has me, more often than not, a walking zombie roaming the streets. Dazed. Confused. Nauseous.

Thankfully, Cairo seems to experience a high frequency of magical cotton candy twilights during the warmer months. I have no knowledge of the processes that create such saturated colors and swirling designs in the sky, but I do have pictures!

I am T-minus five days from leaving Cairo permanently. My plane ticket is taking me and my two suitcases back to the lake waters of Chicago for the summer. After a year away from my dear home, I am more than ready for food fairs, music festivals, and familiar souls.

Unavoidably Immersed

“Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, on learning the Italian language

There’s no way around it – Arabic is a daunting language for English-speakers to learn. When I practice, sounds come from places in my throat I never even knew existed. The script, while beautiful, blends into one long strand of arabesque.  Unlike most of the other interns, I had never studied Arabic before. I literally looked up how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” while sitting in my airplane seat en route to Cairo. Thankfully, my new friends and co-workers at AUC have enthusiastically helped me grow my vocabulary over the past three months. But no one has been as encouraging and influential as my Arabic tutor, Arwa.

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All interns receive six hours a week of private Arabic tutoring as part of our program. For me, this meant spending the first month learning the alphabet, the number system, and simple greetings. Now, after almost six months, I have graduated to directing taxi drivers and exclaiming my excitement for various food items. Arwa is an amazingly patient teacher. During our lessons, she repeats words and phrases many times over until their sounds became familiar to my ears.

Eventually, we’ve also started to take our meetings outside of the AUC campus. Once, I learned how to order Koshary – a quintessential food staple of Egyptians – at a Koshary shop near Tahrir Square aptly named Koshary El Tahrir. Koshary is a quick, easy, cheap fill-‘er-upper consisting of pasta, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and topped with hot sauce, tomato sauce, and tangy vinaigrette. Inside the store, Arwa refused to say a word as the waiter came around to our table, forcing me to slowly choke out the Arabic equivalent of “Koshary. Small. Extra onions. Thank you.” It is quite easy to resort to English and get by in Cairo, so I very much appreciate Arwa persistently urging me to speak Arabic.

koshari

Perhaps most empowering is the freedom that comes along with speaking Arabic. Even armed with just four months of lessons, I feel more assured to explore Cairo by myself. It has been a gateway to the city because now I know that if a taxi driver does not speak English, I can navigate. If I believe I am being overcharged, I can bargain down. Furthermore, I have been able to strengthen relationships at the workplace with my co-workers. Taking a genuine interest in the language, and by extension, culture of any country not your own demonstrates to others one’s assertiveness, curiosity, and open-minded nature – all of which helps in making new connections in a foreign place. So even though Arabic is difficult and the learning curve is low, I am encouraged to putter through it because knowing those words means freedom and understanding.

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My new oyster.

“I like slice-of-life.”

I am tired. There are so many ways that a person can be tired and I have felt them all this week.

When you’re young, you can have an infinite number of dreams. One morning you can fancy being a conceptual artist. By dinner you can want to be a human rights lawyer and that’s fine because by the time you go to sleep you can dream of being a rapper. Growing up is giving up on having endless dreams and aspirations as you realise there is only time enough to do a handful. It’s not the giving up on any specific dream that breaks me – it’s the loss of the idea of unlimited possibilities.

If I were to move back to the States, I would only really want to live in Chicago. If I were to live in any American city other than the one I call home, I may as well live across the globe. I guess this means I’m homesick.

Running is freedom distilled into a physical movement. You don’t need anything other than what you already got, to go on forever and ever and ever.

I hate how it’s sometimes considered a bad thing for a girl (or a guy) to be really into dressing up, doing their hair, and/or makeup. I appreciate a carefully cultivated aesthetic. The image of a woman is a construction of smoke and mirrors and a spritz of fairy dust. There’s power in that visual. Own it.

I like hugs (but not from strangers).

The Passage of a Year

Almost exactly a year ago, I made a zine for a visual arts class. I’ve always held on to bits and pieces of stuff. They’re mostly just piles of receipts and flyers sitting in eternal purgatory somewhere in my apartment. This was the first time I ever compiled them.

2015 was a crazy period of change, but looking through my year-old images, I realize that I’m still very much influenced, driven, and characterized by the same things. Postcards that never got sent, annotated text, artist bios, being so into someone – the passage of a year revealed the authenticity contained in this little book. In 2015, I actually ended up visiting Prague, Paris, Vienna, Florence, Berlin and more. I saw the original Egon Schieles. I walked the streets of Kundera.

I should make one every February for good luck.

 

My 25 Euro Cornetto

I just missed my train and am drowning my sorrow in a giant cappuccino at the station café. Is there anything more depressing than a train station waiting room at 7:00am? Maybe the Reg bookstacks during finals week.

My original plan for this morning was to stopover in Florence for 2 hours before my train to Naples. I had already day tripped there last week but I did not get a chance to see the Galleria d’Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s David. But this dummy here just had to stop to get the pisctacchio cornetto she spied in the bakery window, didn’t she? So now I get to spend two extra hours in Bologna Central Station – 25 Euro poorer and kicking myself over and over again for making such a rookie mistake. I am angrily chewing. The brioche should taste perfectly sweet and doughy, but all I taste is salt.

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Sometimes these were filled with strong rum cream. Venice was pretty great because of that.

I should rewind and first say, Buongiorno! Back in November, I spotted a $350 round-trip ticket from Cairo to Rome for January and I went for it. The great thing about working at AUC is that we get the American, Coptic, and Islamic holidays off, allowing me to take a 15-day (!!) vacation this month. What’s not so great is the little spending money I have saved up from my job. But through proofreading and babysitting gigs, I’ve managed to scrape enough together to travel quite comfortably for two weeks.

After five months of living in a Muslim country, I kicked off in Rome with a huge fanfare of prosciutto. Melon-wrapped prosciutto, prosciutto Panini, prosciutto and mozzarella sampler plate, cheap supermarket prosciutto on a 1Euro baguette – alas, I am now officially done with prosciutto.

From Rome, I went on to Florence and then Venice, which together constitutes the holy Trinity of any Italian trip. Though each city has a distinct individual history, they all are located in Northern Italy and you just feel the reliance on tourism in the restaurants, stores, and sights. Well of course there are natives (even native Venetians though they only number 66,000), but I couldn’t easily shake off the “Disneyland” vibe from any of those cities. If you will allow me a few myopic generalizations, Rome is for the famous monuments, Florence is for Renaissance art, and Venice is for honeymooners.

Thus, I’m dedicating an entire post just for Bologna because:

  • I think it’s under appreciated.
  • I had to hunt for the Bolognese tourist attractions amongst a sea of local spots, whereas the exact opposite was true for the Trinity.
  • There are already thousands of travel articles written about Rome, Florence, Venice.

I’ll definitely get that Bologna post up soon. Recently, a lot of my friends are planning trips to Europe and have asked me for backpacking advice. As I wrote my lengthy replies, I realized that I actually am qualified to share practical tips and design itineraries for 20-something kids who want an exciting yet affordable travel experience. A lot of travel sites with lengthy forums and discussions seem to be dominated by an older demographic and those with families. It’s probably because us youngins’ tend to wing it, which I’ve come to believe is always not the best way to travel.

But for now, I will say ciao to the North as I make my way South to the sun-drenched region of Campania. I’m planning on hitting Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast. It’s also going to be my first time Couchsurfing! Please pray that no pistaccio baked good will cause me to miss another train. Grazie.

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The coat of arms for Rome, Florence, Venice, and Bologna. Sorry Rome, but why are you so basic?

An Egyptian Family Christmas

It was the morning of Christmas and my apartment smelled like cat piss. My refrigerator was painfully similar to that of a fraternity house – half a whiskey bottle, a couple of eggs, and some mushy apples. Scholarship applications rested unfinished somewhere on my Mac desktop, probably floating (sinking?) in my Chicago River screensaver. Worst of all, the meet and greet service guy who was supposed to pick up my parents in 12 hours still had not confirmed. But that was okay because all this stress meant that I would be with my family for the winter holidays, Egyptian border control be damned. 

It’s daunting to wake up knowing that you have all this stuff you must get done. Suddenly the world outside our bed just seems incredibly frightening. Nonetheless I dragged myself up and out the door to give my life and apartment a parent-friendly makeover. I started by waiting an hour for the Syrian pastry shop in Tahrir to open. Take note – almost nothing is open in Cairo before noon on Fridays. But the barista at the chain cafe across the street put a cute animal face in my cappuccino foam as I waited and apparently, that’s all it takes to brighten my day.

coffee art bear

I forgot to take a picture, but it looked as adorable as this one.

With a delicious assortment of honey drenched sweets in hand, I headed down to the jewellery stores in Maadi to pick out delicate silver bracelets for my mother, and to eat hearty Chinese dumplings with my Egyptian friend who made sure the meet and assist guy confirmed.

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Let it be known that the Chinese food in Cairo tastes better than most Chinese food in America.

By early evening I was back in my apartment and everything had turned out fine – I got the piss smell out of my apartment by thoroughly washing the litter box and throwing open all the windows. I even had time to whip up a quick dinner.

After a hasty hour of cleaning bathroom sinks and sweeping up mounds of cat hair, it was 8pm and I was in an uber on the way to Cairo International Airport. An hour ride later, and a half-hour of waiting outside later (for security reasons), I was in the arms of my mother and father. Just like that, after a six month absence, I was smelling my mom’s hair and kissing my dad’s cheek in the middle of the parking lot. It’s so weird.

We spent the last two hours of Christmas at my apartment unwrapping gifts and playing with the cat around my coffee table, spread with Syrian desserts and instant ramen. My dad had a cough for the past week and apparently all he ever felt like eating was instant ramen. As I watched my mom nibble at the kunafa, her shoulder hunched in that familiar slump- her mouth making circular motions as the chewed, I couldn’t stop thinking – one day, I will never sit across from my mom and watch her eat. Because one day she will die. Then I became obsessed with memorising the exact detail of how her face wrinkled and the color of her eyes and the movements of her hand as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

One day you feel infinite and then one day, you don’t. Over the past few months, I was so busy being annoyed at my parents and avoiding them that I overlooked their mortality. They’re getting older and it’s showing. Now everything seems like there’s a time limit, and I am fixated at counting the grains of sand I have left in the hourglass. Yes I know that that’s a rather morbid thought to end on, especially for a Christmas post, but it’s better to be aware of this now than to regret it when it’s too late.