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.

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.

frittelle-tonolo

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.

Untitled design

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

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
kitchen

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
onbeauty-125

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

___

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

___

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.

tumblr_mn5meuQKNs1qc0cxpo1_1280

#goals.

New Cairo, Cairo, Cairo

During the first week of Janurary this year, I stumbled upon a job post in Cairo. I believe I was at the Reg first floor tables pouring over list hosts, scanning for anything with the words “international,” “politics,” and “health insurance included” in the description. After five days of frantic emailing for recommendations and multiple edits of personal essays, I somehow met the deadline. Another week later, I was scheduled to interview. Two weeks after that, I woke up to an email in my inbox telling me that I had gotten the position. And I guess now, eight months later I’m out on my second-floor balcony, feet propped up on a wicker chair, looking out at the dusty shades of sand covering every inch of New Cairo in Cairo Governorate, Egypt. And that’s just how life happens.

So hello hello from the American University in Cairo where I am part of the 2015-2016 cohort of the Presidential Internship Program. Even though it’s Cairo, even though I don’t speak Arabic (yet), and even though I don’t know a single person within thousands of miles (yet), this place radiates familiarity. Every university anywhere is bound to have a few things in common – a ton of extracurriculars, professors brimming with knowledge, truckloads of students my age bustling through classrooms, hallways, and the quad. Those just happen to be some of my most favorite things. I feel at home.

Not Farewell, but Another “See You Later,” 北京

Every morning, twenty-one million people wake up to tackle the third largest city in the world. Three millenia of history reflected in its tea houses and imperial gardens, bundled together by glass steel shopping malls and 15-lane freeways. A city housing 7,000 hutong alleys and 3,000 McDonald’s with 24-hour delivery service. Four kuai beer and five kuai jianbing. Miles of zhajianmiangallons of suanmeitang, a ton of spiced lamb skewered into yangrouchua’r

img_3543

I could eat jianbing for days. Straight.

…and yet I decided to spend the better part of the summer tethered to my Mac, bitching about Beijing’s smog to my friends back stateside.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re incredible support during a time of bewildering change, but there is such a thing as relying too much on Skype relationships. I can recount my cramped subway ride into a speaker and show off my new purchases over a screen, but no app can truly allow me to share Beijing with them viscerally. The result was a rather lonely, unfulfilling June and July.

After my refresher trip to Japan, I genuinely made an effort to reach out more to people I knew in Beijing. Man how I wish I did so earlier. With the company of friends, old and new, Beijing quickly transformed from a grey concrete expanse into a dazzling 热闹 metropolis. I found my grounding, and it turns out not to be the perfect cafe or park bench, but to be in people.

This got me thinking – how do we evaluate a city? Most people would tick off concrete fixtures. For Beijing, that sounds like “the subway system is so extensive” or “it’s such a bicycle-friendly city” or the ever popular “dude, clubbing is ridiculously cheap.” Convenient transport and affordable nightlife may set the scene, but my experience of any city is intensely colored by the people with whom I share the scene. After all, it’s our friend groups that decide how we spend the night out (seedy sports bar or upscale dance club?), and how we utilize top-notch metro transportation (oh you live just two stations away? Let’s get coffee more often)!

10023288506_96c5434006_z

Nightlife in Beijing is super….neon. Not here (Gulou) though! (PC: Michael Chen)

So thank you, to everyone I met in Beijing and who colored my experience with lively conversation and laughter. Without you guys, Beijing really would have been just the pollution and humidity. I didn’t expect to, but I am going to miss it here. Funny how that always happens.

Of course, there’s still a few things left on my Beijing checklist that I didn’t get around to this time, most notably climbing the Great Wall of China (lol). It’s like how Chicago natives never go up the Sears Tower (yes, Sears) or the Ferris Wheel. We always think that we’ll get around to it, if it’s even worth visiting.

10229208386_49b702d390_z

I have a feeling that the Great Wall is worth a visit, of course. (PC: Michael Chen)

Live update: I leave in four hours on a flight bound for Cairo, Egypt. Another city, another life (it seems).

Beijing Transience

It’s been almost two months but I never feel quite rooted in Beijing – like I’m only half there. (Err here).

Maybe because every past visit was a half-return, knowing that I will always be back in a few years for more family reunions in smoky restaurant dining rooms. And this visit, I saw it as a stopover between my college graduation in Chicago and my adventure year in Cairo. In my mind, Beijing was not an anticipated destination with a culture shock to boggle my mind, but the faded city of my birth. Beijing is a transfer stop. I had left it for good 18 years ago.

Recently, I’ve realized that this is a terrible, if not detrimental, perspective and attitude. It’s never a good idea to be only half-present in a place, environment, community, what-have-you. It leaves a lot of room to detach from reality and float into depressing introspection. So we’re just going to skip over that chapter of my summer.

These days my brain’s been simmering on the chasm of differences between living in a Western country versus an Eastern country. Pre-arrival Wendy was like: I lived alone for seven months in France, no problem. Not an ounce of homesickness, not even during the Fourth or Thanksgiving. I’m set for a life in international diplomacy! I can fly anywhere like a free bird! 

Ha. Ha. How ridiculously naive it was of me to assume that that meant I was invincible and beyond ties. If France is the sleek tabby cat that brushes up against your leg as you sit out on a terrace cafe, Beijing is the running of the bulls, a wild gazelle stampede. Which is to say, all the briskness, alertness, avoiding, sweating, and people are beginning to wear down my body and mind. I really have to fight for myself here – a spot on the subway, my way up the stairs, the right to cross the street. At least this is good for my character which has always erred towards the side of passive. As much as the smog of a million cars and roars of a million screeches silence everything, the monstrous din also pushes me to strengthen my voice and shout louder for myself. If I don’t, I really am only half here.

In the midst of transience, I have fondly discovered three places in Beijing where I do feel grounded, solidly planted into the cement.

1.) The Bookworm

11705426_10155810095785111_6398429036843787591_o

Coffee, books, friends. Nothing feels more familiar than that.

2.) Xiwai Cultural Leisure Plaza Footbridge

IMG_4079

The view looking east.

3.) Yonghegong Lama Temple

IMG_4046

My photos don’t do this place justice. Also, you can’t smell the greatness that is incense from a photo.

Just writing this post makes me feel better. It’s a relief. The mind is a muscle one can exercise and mold. No matter where you go, there are tangible steps you can take to mitigate homesickness. It could be grabbing your subway card and hightailing it to one of your grounded places. It could also be listening to that one album while walking, or sketching a landscape that strikes you, or drinking crazy amounts of bubble tea (like dangerously unhealthy amounts of bubble tea). Conceptualize those steps – whatever they may be for you –  as a fertilizer that nurtures deeper, more penetrating roots.