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.

 

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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.

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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. 

I am not a foodie but I eat well

I am not the person to whip out my DSLR camera to snap food before consuming it. I am also not the person to seek out restaurants known for their hip, new-fangled way of preparing grilled cheese or tiramisu. But I love eating well and eating diverse. Cairo is an amazing city for trying cuisines from all over the world. My favorite restaurant in Cairo (and one I already frequented four times) is Mori Sushi, and I am constantly getting recommendations for Thai places, Indian restaurants, Yemeni joints, and Syrian bakeries.

So enjoy this collection of my screenshotted snapchats, poor quality photos sent over Facebook chat, and my trademark unimpressed selfie face (but with food). I think this presents a more accurate view of my Cairo life anyway. Hover and click for captions.

Favorite Food Places in Cairo —

The Post-Graduate Reading List

Many of my friends who have just graduated college are getting back into free reading. A few even joined book clubs. As a consequence, I’ve been asked by a lot of people for book recommendations. This makes me feel like a fraud – I actually don’t read as many books as my friends think I do. I’m much more an essay/short story/Aeon/New York Times person. Out of the recommendation list below, there’s only two full length novels – the rest are collections of short stories or a novella. I blame my impatience and/or inability to sift through long-winded allegory for meaning.

Anyway, the following are my favorite books that I’ve read after college graduation, listed in the order in which I read them.

Books and Novels

1. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera

Honestly, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was much better. But to uphold the integrity of this post graduate reading list, I had to leave that Kundera novel off and replace it with this one instead. This book is a classic Kundera – set in communist-era Prague, with a bunch of cheating husbands and wives and spies scattered around. For those new to Kundera, he writes like a philosopher whose primary concern is to explain a concept. His focus is not in realistic character development or tantalizing plots. He’s perfect for those who dabble in existential crisis.

Buzzwords – orgy, horoscope, ostriches

2. Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
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This is a very simple story about a girl and a boy and a mom persevering through life despite hardships. However, the context in which I read this book gave it incredible meaning to my life. I borrowed it from Angela to read during the five-hour ordeal that is college Commencement, and then I finished it on the plane to Beijing just two days later.  It’s one of those stories that soak up and illuminate the environment in which you read it. I bet if I reread it in less terrifying, less daunting circumstances, I would experience a different interpretation and mood.

Buzzwords – pineapple, katsudon, taxis

3. On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
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Zadie Smith is non-stop wit and satire in this novel. At its heart, this is a story about family relationships, but a mixed “modern” family with transatlantic roots, from England to New England. It does a wonderful job of depicting the diversity of experiences within black communities.  I especially recommend it to my college friends because it paints such a vivid picture of the pretentiousness and hypocrisy in elite higher education. Certain one-liners had me snickering out loud.

Buzzwords – slam poetry, aesthetics, Haiti

4. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, by Vincent Lambloodletting-and-miraculous-cures

I recommend this collection for those who want more Asian characters in fiction but don’t want the entire plot to center around the struggles of being Asian and born in a non-Asian country. (God I wish this book took place in America so then I could have written Asian-American instead of writing that convoluted sentence, but it’s important to acknowledge the difference between the Asian-Canadian and Asian-American experience).

Buzzwords – premeds, purple birds, Canada

5. Graduates in Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-DaleGraduates_FINAL-cover

Coming clean here: I am still reading this. But I knew from page one that I had found the voice(s) of my generation. In this non-fiction memoir, two best friends keep in touch through detailed, charming emails about their new post-grad lives in Beijing, New York, Paris, and more. Of course, terrible dates and awful jobs are analyzed in detail. Quite a few of my friends have scattered across the world in search of adventure and work, and I know we all get pangs of loneliness from all the unfamiliar. Reading this is like reading emails from your best friend and being home again.

Buzzwords – Beijing bikini, beard brother, grad school

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I know, I know. Given that it’s been over four months since graduation, my book list is rather paltry. But since I’ve been abroad for that entire time, getting my hands on a physical copy of a good English-language book (I refuse to join the Kindle revolution) has proven difficult. The selection has been limited to discarded books from faculty and hostels. I made up for it by reading a lot of online short stories and essays sourced from my friends (many thanks to @thenarrowroad). I would just load them on my laptop for times when I had no wifi, which was way too often. Sometimes, I read an idea that actually changes my life. This happens more with short stories and essays than it does for full-length novels.  I think it’s because essays are more direct and to-the-point.  In times of distress, certain lines from an essay would pop into my head and I would repeat it like a mantra to calm down.  I love essays – they can save you. The best part about essays is that they can be easily shared with people for free over the internet.

The following pieces all introduced a new perspective to my life – my routines, purpose, relationships, etc.  Or I just found them to be fantastic writing that made me really feel something. I hope they do for you as well.

Short Stories

Essays

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And of course I’ve been a total basic bitch and reading quotes off of tumblr. But whatever. Words are words. Here’s the most recent:

“Sometimes we must undergo hardships, breakups, and narcissistic wounds, which shatter the flattering image that we had of ourselves, in order to discover two truths: that we are not who we thought we were; and that the loss of a cherished pleasure is not necessarily the loss of true happiness and well-being.” – Jean-Yves Leloup

Finally,  great books and stories spark unforgettable conversations with friends and loved ones in real life. So please let me know if you have read anything amazing recently. I would love to expand my reading list. Or if you also read any of the stuff listed above, in which case I want to pick your brain for your reaction and thoughts.

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#goals.

On Stone Ankles and Stolen Croissants: Luxor to Aswan, Egypt

Disclaimer: This post was originally published on the official AUC Presidential Internship Program tumblr. You can read that version here. However, this is a more bare, less politically-correct version that’s more my style but can’t be shared in an email to thousands of prospective interns. 

When I told my Egyptian co-workers that I was spending Eid on a four-day Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor, I was met with praises for the region’s beauty and magnificence. Yet I also often met the follow-up remark “but you know, I’ve never visited.” I’m from Chicago, and when I hear this response, it reminds me of what Chicago natives always say about the Sears Tower (yes, Sears Tower) – it’s that world-famous cultural destination your pride never lets you visit because only the tourists go there.

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But sometimes the tourists get it right.

We’ve all learned about the ancient Egyptians in class, seen pictures of hieroglyphics – hell, my high school even had a real Egyptian mummy in the social science department office. But none of that prepared me for the liminal experience of actually being there.

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Friends with great photography skills are wonderful. I now have my RBF at Philae Temple documented for prosterity.

That feeling hit a little late at Philae temple in Aswan, a solid month into my time in Egypt  I had studied Egyptian art briefly in high school and before this trip I could tell you that bas-relief is a type of sculptural relief that projects slightly from the background. However, the figures carved into the temple columns and walls were much more three-dimensional than any of my art history books suggested. The anklebone of each figure’s feet was rendered extremely lifelike, that indention where the foot meets the leg curved perfectly. And because I was in Egypt and not the snooty Met Museum, I was able to run my fingers along the two thousand year old grooves and rest my body against the hefty columns crowned with stone fig leaves.

Fast-forward a day (or a few millennia) to a café in Luxor.  Against a brilliantly violet wall, we seven Presidential Interns squeeze onto a couch clearly designed to hold five. Soaring wooden stilts prop up a steeple metal roof. Long settled into their seats, groups of young Egyptian men huddle over low-lying wooden tables. The air is abuzz with colloquial Arabic, pierced by the click-clack of backgammon pieces. Soon enough, our own voices enter into the mix as we recount our long day – the colors decorating the tombs in Valley of the Kings, the heat that makes even your legs sweat, and Regie’s knack for using everything from napkins to empty toilet paper rolls to sneak croissants from the hotel breakfast buffet (college habits die hard).

If you were to glimpse us from across the room, you wouldn’t believe that less than a month ago we were complete strangers. We’re all pretty different, for sure. We got the entire spectrum going from me, the artsy hipster loner, to Abu Adventure (as we kindly call our sustainable desert irrigation intern), to our finance intern whose mind is organized as perfectly as the budget Excel sheets he sends out. But as it turns out, a program like PIP attracts a certain breed of fresh-faced American college graduates – a little restless, and a lot curious.

Midnight Naps at Ain Sohkna

I can recount four times since starting college, that I laid out under the night sky around midnight, basking in temperature so ideal you wouldn’t change a single fraction of a degree. The first night was first year, in the aftermath of a Summer Breeze party. Keerthi and I had plopped on the grass by Eckhart, moon gazing in silence, until some guy asked if we were ok. The second time was alone outside the front of the Reg, on one of the stone benches, while listening to One Republic’s All This Time. May 2nd, 2014 – freshly broken-up and so I wanted to do something dramatic. Third was under a tree crawling with spiders, on a bench in the very center of the quad, trying to feel the weight of the hours left before graduation, after which I could no longer lie around in random campus places inconspicuously. And finally, last night, sunk into my white plastic beach chair at a resort in Ain Sokhna, as the Red Sea inched closer.

Everything became crystal clear and every movement was registered. The slight breeze winding over the curve of my exposed stomach and tickling the hairs on my shins. The crunchy texture of my salt encrusted bangs. The grains of sand exfoliating the crevices between my toes as I wiggle them around, enjoying their freedom outside of Birkenstocks leather.The omnipotent presence of that odd, bulky military ship docked off shore with white and orange paint. Unlike any of my previous midnight sojourns, I could actually see the stars. 

On the bus ride out to Ain Sokhna, I read a Joan Didion essay in which she expressed the passage of her time in New York as walking through a revolving door at age twenty-two and emerging out the other side at thirty. When did being present become so difficult? Are we ever conscious of it? Can the passage of time be felt everyday, or does it only exist in retrospect? Grasping a moment, tying it down and wrestling it to the ground – that struggle tends to only happen before a longterm goodbye, and is not the most peaceful of feelings. I was never one for resort life, but the stillness at Ain Sokhna was powerful and oh so soothing.