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.

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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.

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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.

Takasaki: The Iowan-Bellybutton of Japan

It was 1:00am. Technically a Thursday morning. My backpack straps were securely fastened into the marked indents on my shoulders. Under the alien-blue lighting of the train station convenience store, I browsed Pocky snacks of every flavor imaginable. Each box was only around $1. I knew then and there that I was in a good place. An out of breath, slightly shrill voice yelled my name from behind. I whipped my head around to see a tiny girl in blue-speckled glasses too big for her slim face, huffing at the glass entrance. Embracing in the middle of the potato chip aisle was the most comforting feeling I’ve had in months.

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The view from Takasaki City Hall.

Greetings from Takasaki, Japan! My saintly host and friend, Angela, who’s doing two years of the JET programme here, describes it as “the Iowa of Japan.” I’ve never been to Iowa, but despite the boring and slow connotations associated with Iowa, I think that “idyllic” is the best word to describe Takasaki, in the summer at least. Angela lives right by the river – a slow moving body of water cupped by twisting green banks with tall, shooting grass. There are always people riding their bikes along the raised sienna paths. Chatty bands of school girls off to cram class, uniformed office workers singing bar songs as they pedal home… it’s a view straight out of an anime.

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The first day, Angela let me be her shadow. We followed her JET friends to the mall to set up their phone bills and bank accounts. Later, Angela’s boxy white Honda was delivered to her apartment. Her apartment is very Japanese. In my crude American mind, I want to describe everything in Japan as shaped like a bento box. But it’s true! Even the tatami mats in her room are fitted together like Jenga blocks. I’m very happy to be helping her move into her new home and new life. I’ve seen many glimpses of friends’ post-grad lives over snapchat or skype, but it’s a real treat to live it with them in person. Finished the night with an absolutely stellar bowl of Hokkaido miso ramen and girly chats.

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Gyoza chilling in the back.

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The writer masters her craft in the early morning.

On Friday, we drove up one of the mountains surrounding the eastern edge of Takasaki. This area of Japan is famous for its decadent onsen (hot springs) and I desperately wanted a good soak. I forgot how much I love driving, especially in the countryside. At ikaho onsen (which doubles as a traditional Japanese inn), Angela and I were lucky enough to have the entire women’s onsen room to ourselves. The spring water looked a dark, murky jade and the entire experience felt like sitting naked in a cup of steaming green tea.

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After onsen, skin-a-glowin.’

That evening, I had katsudon at a family restaurant recommended by Angela’s former host mom, Yoko, who says it’s the best katsudon she’s ever had. Yoko has been all over Japan but has never found katsudon comparable to Kiyosumi’s. Washed down with a bottle of Kirin Beer, the egg-battered pork cutlet definitely hit the spot. If you’re into reading fiction books that explore the healing comfort of great food, I suggest Kitchen by Banana Yakamoto. Katsudon makes an extra special appearance.

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I drove an hour for this and it was 100% worth.

Saturday (this) morning, I finally finally finally had the opportunity to do a morning run somewhere that didn’t damage my lungs (I had started to develop a Beijing cough). Japanese people are quite active. May it be jogging, cycling, golfing, soccer practice – there were a fair amount of people up and about outside at 6:30am. Rising early rewards you with a luxuriously long, lazy morning during which Angela and I completed our first vlog. It’s basically fourteen minutes of us eating pudding and chatting nonsense. View at your own peril.

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Early morning traffic buzz even on a Saturday.

Now, I’m on the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) en-route to Tokyo. Takasaki gave me slowness after almost two months of China mayhem, but I’m pumped to take in Tokyo’s neon lights and crowds. Harajuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and more in 24 hours? I’m definitely down.

Fortune Telling from Turkish Coffee Grounds

I don’t believe in fortune tellers and horoscopes. I believe in serendipitous moments in which the right person says the exact thing you need to hear at exactly the time in which you needed to hear it. Throw in a beautiful embroidered tablecloth, ornate copper tea cup-holders, and the smell of Turkish coffee mingling with sweet cigarette smoke – for a moment I can believe in destiny and psychics and magic. I mean this in the least “Orientalism” way possible.

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Traditionally, one finishes sipping the coffee, leaving the bitter grounds congealed at the bottom of the cup. You cap the saucer on top of the tea cup, grip the two together while rotating it in front of your body clockwise three times, and then flip (always away from your body) the cup-saucer upside down. If you want to know about your financial success, place a coin on top of the upside down cup. If you want to know about your love life, place a ring on top. Introspect about life and make a wish as you wait about five minutes for the cup to completely cool down. Turn it over to your lovely Turkish friend who will proceed to read your future.

I’m not going to lie to you guys – I wished for love. Self-love, romantic love, familial love, I don’t know what, I just wanted love. Perhaps because I had just watched Moulin Rouge on the plane a la “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Filiz lifted my upside down cup off the saucer and a plop of coffee grounds spread out cleanly in one mass.

“Oh! That’s really good! That means whatever the fortune is, it will happen surely and definitively.”

She then peered into my cup and my fortune began – “I see a big cloud. This means that there’s something in your life that’s weighing you down, you’re obsessing over it and it’s holding you back. There’s a bright star, that’s good. Your future is very bright but whatever the cloud is in your life, you need to overcome it. I see a whale…but I’m not quite sure what that means. There looks like you’re having trouble at your work. Sometimes at work it seems like there’s too much for you to handle but don’t worry it will all be fine in the end so do not be overwhelmed. Oh! I see a big romance and love coming soon for you.”

The final step is to tilt the contents left on the saucer back into the cup and read the drippings while holding the saucer vertically. Most of the time, they’re confirmations and predications of the timing for what was read in the grounds.

“You’re fortune is going to come true during the dark of the moon. Be alert for love then!”

Look, I know this is irrational and just for fun. But I looked up the next “dark of the moon.”

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It’s set for September 24th. I also looked up whale symbols in coffee readings and found that it signifies a very big accomplishment especially in your career. And you know what? I have been obsessing over past relationships. I have let it affect me even now when I should be completely free to explore the world, to make decisions about my future selfishly and with greed. Nothing will hold me back anymore from traveling the world a thousand times over. And balancing work with language classes with scholarship applications has been taking its toll on me this month. I needed that reassurance that everything will and always will be fine. Nothing new was really learned I guess but it helps.

Though if on Sept. 24th I fall in love at first sight at some art exhibition in Paris… we’ll see.

The Mid-Term Renewable Energy Report: Paris 2014

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system does not decrease. This is often misinterpreted and used incorrectly for a bunch of analogies about life and whatnot. This is probably yet another one. That’s unfortunate since I’m supposed to be well-versed in the basic understandings of heat conservation by now because one of my main projects for work is on renewable energy. As always, a jack of all trades and a master of none. Anyhoo, this got me thinking about my own energy supply these days. Humans don’t have an endless amount of energy and everyone has their limit. But how do we replenish? How do we keep nurturing and conditioning our inner strength to make it through every new day?

I’m about halfway through my time in Paris this summer and even though I’m physically exhausted most days, I’m at peace and proud of my accomplishments so far. I think that’s the important key – giving yourself time to reflect on all the great things that you’ve achieved and experienced recently. Telling myself “You know what, you’re a pretty awesome person. Good job!” Modesty is an important characteristic to have these days, but it shouldn’t replace a healthy dose of self confidence. It’s not selfish to focus on yourself to make yourself a better, happier person. And so, here’s a list of some of the things that I’m glad to have experienced in Paris. Sorry for the comparatively sparse amount of pictures, I feel too self conscious snapping pictures when hanging out with the cool Europeans that don’t have time for that shit.

1. The museums here are a dream. Large, massive, mini-cities like the Louvre, to small three-story artists’ apartment/studio like the Musee Gustave Moreau.
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2. Having lunch in the shade of the Eiffel tower at least once a week. Having 4pm coffee/Nesquik milk breaks with my intern “bestie” in the office bar that also overlooks the Tour Eiffel. Still not desensitized to this view.

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3. Finally, finally, finally figuring out the Paris metro – even during summer reconstruction that forced me to change my route to work three times. The world will never know how many selfies I took either bored, angry, or hopelessly confused in the metro.

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4. Happy tipsy drinking with friends and colleagues. I was wrong – you can get drunk off wine.

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5. The exotic yummy souvenir table right outside my office. I don’t need to travel if people just bring back all the food to my doorstep. Let’s be honest, that’s all I would’ve been doing anyway. (Pictured: Czech wafers with hazelnut cream filling)
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6. Sundays when I lie in my bed and see how long I can go without moving. Also known as…

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7. That time we drove to Gent for a beer festival and I dropped my glasses in the river. But I ain’t even mad. At least I’ll have made my mark in some way since no photos of me in Gent exist… was it all just a dream?

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8. I witnessed the Bastille Day fireworks. Alone yet warmed by the company of all the people. And their sweat.

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9. Challenging and fulfilling assignments at work. This one’s a big one for which I am especially thankful. Also for the office espresso machine. Also for the hilarious and interesting people with whom I have the privilege to work. Just, god bless this internship…

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10. Losing weight and exercising without trying. This picture was taken the first weekend in Paris. Since then I’ve lost most of the excess flab I’d gained during Spring finals week. Confusing Metro closings definitely force you to walk a few extra miles…

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tl;dr – Positive vibes, chill feelings, yet still in awe like a doe-eyed college student. That is my current status update.

The Marchutz Oil Painting Haul

Since my experience in Aix was intimately tied up with what I ended up painting during my time at Marchutz, I thought I’d visually introduce you to some special people and special places of my time abroad through my paintings. Starting with…. the lovely faculty of the Marchutz School of Fine Arts:

I’ve never experienced such lavishness in terms of a teacher’s dedication to their student’s learning process. They are more than teachers; they are dear friends.

I have so many of John because he would sit the longest and read to the entire class from a book. Like To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

We also did a few weeks of still lives. I don’t have as many because our motif was kinda limited by the natural cycle of rotting, maggots, and an unbearable smell of spoiled food in the studio. I was also unmotivated to work fast as an apple sitting on a counter isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

For the first month, we took the “vomit comet” out to the landscape near the base of Mt. St. Victoire and painted in a field of snails, grain, and Provencal farm houses. Life is beautiful when you really stop and look at all the colors and movement that make up the world.

Of course Marchutz wouldn’t be Marchutz without the best classmates and friends and buddies I could ever have asked for. Portraiture was the last leg of the curriculum and the one I enjoyed the most. I love trying to capture the personality of a person. Again with the beauty thing; painting people just makes me think how beautiful all friends are. Not everyone sat for a portrait but here’s what I have.

Those are just the paintings I thought were worthy of your attention. Drawings (which I am much much more comfortable with) will be up by a distant date in the future. I have Christmas parties to do.

Alone in Strasbourg

No, Strasbourg is not in Germany. Once you get near Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), all the streets seem to alternate between German, French, and Dutch names. I really wanted to visit Frankfurt or Munich but there just wasn’t enough money left in the coffers so I cheated and went to Strasbourg, which is in the Alsace region of France – as German as you can get without actually crossing the French border. Luckily, it is also the “Capitale de Noel” or Christmas Capital.  Unluckily, I hadn’t the foresight to factor in increased levels of homesickness during the holiday season when I decided to be cool and travel solo for a weekend. Thanksgiving had just passed and I was hitting that three-months-away-from-everything-familiar mark. And you know what cures that, right? Three days in an even more unfamiliar city on the weekend that every European family and couple decides to go out and be merry together at the biggest festival celebrating the love of togetherness and friendship.

But no, all in all, my first experience traveling alone was relaxing and beautiful. Though I’m beginning to think that Europe is just beautiful everywhere. You can walk around a corner and oops, I ran into this 12th century perfectly preserved and still in use Gothic cathedral, my bad. Case in point:

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The entire thing – inside, outside – still overpowers my senses today in the same way it has for centuries. Let that sink in a second; before the world wars, before the founding of the United States, before the discovery of the New World, these walls already stood. Countless people throughout all that time have tilted their heads back at distressing angles for unforgettably long pauses to take in the ceiling’s criss-crossing beams, the exact same way I did now.  How many sick or dying have these candles burned for? How many echoes of whispered prayers have swept through the halls? Some human behaviors never change, such as the need for comfort from others, and hope, and community.

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Traveling alone gave me much more time to be with my thoughts. I realized I’m a sappy romantic, I can try to hide it behind this resting bitch face and monotone voice but just one solitary walk along a cobblestone river bank and I turn into fricking William Blake.

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And trust me, Strasbourg has a lot of rivers.

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And they don’t kid around when they say Christmas Capital of the world. Throughout the city center, there were probably five or six huge Christmas markets spread out and all with a specific theme. In my opinion, the theme of Christmas markets is food. I cannot tell you if I tried how many bretzels and manalas I ate over a three day period. This is what a manala/mannele (an Alsatian brioche in the shape of St. Nicolas) looks like:

Yes, raisins for eyes and buttons!! History and recipe here.

I definitely plan on traveling solo again but ecoutez, if you want a fun, social time choose your hostel wisely. The hostel I stayed in was not really geared towards youth as much as for group tours of retired elderly couples… Nonetheless, still met a Canadian woman I shared the room with who traveled alone in Europe for three months at the age of seventy. So all you wanderlust kids scared of being alone in a strange new world: if she can do it, you can too.