A Post on Living in Paris

Perhaps I’ve been holding off writing about my Parisian year because of the sheer weight that the City of Lights holds over the American imagination. “We’ll always have Paris,” declares Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman. Quotes from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast swamp the #paris feeds. Perhaps the only thing more basic is a pumpkin spice latte selfie in front of the Eiffel Tour.

Paris is always a good idea

I do not have the original poster anymore, but I assure you it looked basic like this.

Or maybe I’ve put it off because Paris has held such a spell over my own life. For a year in college I hung a poster of Audrey Hepburn’s famous utterance, “Paris is always a good idea,” in my room. Superimposed upon an aerial view from the Arc de Triomphe of course. I tried hard to hide my longing for the most cliched of European cities, but alas everyone knew and everyone congratulated me wholeheartedly when I finally got the chance to live the Parisian life this year as a masters student at Sciences Po. The beautiful dream came true and the mythical city became my every day reality. How can I do it written justice now?

To be honest, I don’t have much to add to my past experiences of Paris on the subject of Paris itself. My lasting impressions this time are less about the chic fashion and croissants, instead they have turned inwards. As with any dream of epic proportions, its luster fades once we transform the dream into our everyday, lived experience. Once you live within your dream, it will eventually cease to be your dream because, by definition, the dream has become your reality. And when that happened to me, I learned that no matter how much living in Paris inspires me, how many beautiful moments I encounter along its streets, I am left with my same core personality, tendencies, and flaws. I think it’s too much responsibility to give to any city the power to fundamentally change people.

Since college graduation, many people have jokingly asked me what I’m running away from, citing the trope of the 20-something girl traveling the world to escape heartbreak, boredom or something equally tragic. I’ve always waved them off because I’m not running away from anything like that — in my view I’m chasing a professional path in international development. I guess you could then ask me what is it that draws me to a career in which the boundaries between professional and personal life are blurred. People in development, at various scales of self-righteousness, are motivated to do their job because they believe it will make a positive difference in the world. That one is easy to understand. But people who work in international development also praise the heavens when they get a contract that lasts longer than one year. People in development are ready to drop everything and pack a suitcase with their entire life inside at a week’s notice. And that kind of lifestyle is unreasonably seductive to me, despite the predictable giant wrench it throws in your personal relationships. It is also, to a degree, irresponsible.

Do you know that sometimes it feels good to be completely lost and disoriented? I’ve always conceived of life as a series of uncontrollable events and situations emerging from chaos. I like it when life such conceived hits me full force. I feel most alive when I’m trying to reign in the chaos– this feeling is most viscerally experienced when I’m plopped into the heart of a new city, a new culture and new code of behaviour to decipher. The feeling of living in a parallel universe is delicious. When things are out of your control, you cannot to be blamed. I love it when decisions are made for me, when some life decisions are automatic. But it’s wrong to try and live your life perpetually in this way. Isn’t this running away from responsibility? Kundera’s heaviness?

I apologize that nothing is really said about Paris in this post. Did Paris make me somewhat fancier, more stylish, and snooty? I will have to say yes, at least in part, to all three. However, Paris represents to me a broader disillusionment of dreams bringing to light my flawed inner realities.

 

 

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 —

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.

11221921_10200966504801124_4841834062301644000_o

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.

12027173_10153051830031956_6242169490359085099_o

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.

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).