[Editor’s note: Alexander Anand, our guest writer for this issue, is a National Merit Scholar and a 2012 graduate with dual bachelor’s degrees in Russian and East European studies. Anand will travel to Russia to teach English this year with the support of a Fulbright grant.]

When I stepped off the plane on that rainy first night in St. Petersburg, I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, there had been plenty of prep work while I was still in the States, but it flew out the window when faced with the enormity of what I had gotten myself into. When I had been told that the first few days in-country would be tiring, I had underestimated what was to become the most exhausting and enlightening few weeks of my life to date. The cognitive strain of trying to adapt to an alien social climate was unprecedented in my life up to that point. And … it was absolutely exhilarating.

Of course, my experiences overseas “reshaped my worldview” and “expanded my social consciousness” and all the other psychological effects of being a foreigner in someone else’s country for the first time. Even after spending so much time at OU learning about the history, literature and culture of Russia, my time there was still packed with surprises. For the first time in my life, I had to relearn people’s body language, facial mannerisms and tones of voice. Living in Russia also gave me unexpected insight into the dynamics of power and social interaction in my own country, along with a healthy dose of political skepticism.

But when I returned, I left Russia with something more. A fiancée.

I’ve never really been the sentimental type, so my thoughts on marriage when I left for St. Petersburg were not particularly favorable. I was wholly unprepared for what I was about to face. Within two months of my arrival, I was completely entranced by the charm, wit and grace of Nadia, a woman I’d never have met had I played it safe and stayed in Oklahoma. But this is just the most striking example of a wider trend I experienced: I really connected with my classmates and host family in a way I didn’t expect. Even if it took me five minutes to get out a relatively simple idea, my Russian family and friends were so patient and kind that I never felt like a stranger. Thanks to the Russian tradition of “kitchen talk,” sitting in the kitchen for hours and having thoughtful discussions on social, philosophical and even metaphysical subjects, my host family practically poured their collective knowledge and insight right into my skull.

Just talking to my host family, I got a basic play-by-play of Russian society from about the mid-sixties to the present, including loads of delightfully candid political commentary. I was offered an insider’s perspective on everything from the individual leadership qualities of Soviet leaders to the declining quality of Russian romance novels. Russia’s short list of presidents was a frequent topic of discussion, and my host mother took pride in declaring that St. Petersburg State – or, as she called it, “our university” – was the greatest producer of presidents in Russia, since 66 percent of the three presidents had been educated there.

Had I not studied abroad, my life would be very different, and not for the better. Thanks to my two semesters abroad, I am now going on a Fulbright grant to teach English at a Bashkir school for talented students. I’ll be getting married in the fall, and I have uncovered a connection to the rest of the world I would scarcely have believed existed four years ago.

As I promised, I’m going to continue on this idea of “home.” But this is also about my Thanksgiving travels.

A few weeks ago, I did another full week of traveling with two new friends I made at OUA.  We took an overnight train to Vienna, Austria, where we saw some wonderful museums, shopped at the twinkle-light Christmas markets, befriended a nomadic Kiwi, miraculously found a can of root beer (!) to go with our schnitzel, and realized my years-long dream of seeing the band MUSE live in concert. (I could make at least one full blog post about that concert, but it seems kind of irrelevant to the study abroad experience, so we’ll leave it with the commentary that I almost don’t like to listen to their recorded music anymore because it was so much better live.)

One of the highlights of my year–hearing Matthew Bellamy shout out “How are you feeling tonight, VIENNA?”


After a few nights in Vienna, we headed up to Prague.  We exchanged our Euros for Czech Krona (1000 krona = $50. It was dangerously like having a pocketful of Monopoly money) and found our beautiful (and apparently eco-friendly?) hostel. 
Everyone has always told me that Prague is “like a fairy tale” … and they weren’t lying.  The whole city was magical, from the river to the “dancing building” to the castle and—my favorite—the astronomical clock in Old Town Square.








It was in the UK that I realized my confusion with the whole “home” thing.  In discussions with the other OUA students we had met up with in London, I found myself using “home” in three ways.

  1. (Sitting around the English pub that was the first floor of our hostel drinking Strongbow cider)  “It’s too bad I won’t be able to drink this for another two years when we go home.” (Here meaning the states.  I’m 19, and totally not a lawbreaker, if you need some context there).
  2. (Inside the National Gallery looking at some uber famous super amazing paintings) I don’t want to spend all day here because there are other things I want to make sure we see in London before we fly home tomorrow.  (Home here meaning Arezzo).
  3. (Taking pictures of Big Ben and Westminster) We can head home and check out that Christmas market by the London Eye on the way. (Home here meaning…..wait, a HOSTEL?

Let’s break from this list thing. Did I really call a HOSTEL “home?”


You bet I did.

We only stayed anywhere a maximum of two nights.

We never had a room with less than eight people in it.

We kept our bags in locked lockers and had to pull out a slip of paper to remember the combination to get in the front door.

But it was home.

Just for a few days…it was home.


That’s completely crazy, isn’t it?



Disclaimer: This window has nothing to do with this post. I just really love it.

Despite my best efforts, the thing most on my mind lately has been this concept—home.

I say “despite my best efforts” because the last thing I want to be doing in my final ten days in Italy is thinking about leaving it. But in my studies and in my travels I keep coming back to this idea—home. I consider and I wonder (like the over-analytic freak that I am)…what is home? What does that mean to me anymore? I call myself a global student; I call the world my classroom. But am I a global citizen? Is the whole world also my home? I can’t seem to escape the question.

It doesn’t help that I have six songs on my iPod all dealing with “home” (three of which are literally titled “Home.” I don’t have any other repeats that dramatic—maybe this concept has been more important to me in the past than I knew?).


To share these thoughts with you (and of course give some updates on my time in Italy as it comes to a close) I am going to make a series of blog posts, starting now and ending when I fly back to the States, about this idea of home. And I’m going to share some of these songs. Hope you enjoy!


**Gabrielle Aplin- Home** – this is my most recently-dicsovered (and favorite) “Home” song that I have.  My friend Ashley shared it with me a few weeks ago, and it’s quickly become the theme song of my semester.


We learned in Immigration Class that the Italians in the days of their mass emigration (1800s, mostly) had a sort of catch phrase with which they consoled themselves – tutto il mondo e’ un paese. Or “all the world is a home town.” Through the generations they had learned that they could bring their culture with them wherever they went and be happy anywhere in the world.

Before I had ever heard this phrase, I made a similar comment.

This summer, my best friend and I backpacked around Europe for a week before our semesters started. We traveled through Edinburgh, Sheffield, London, and Luxembourg, and by the end I decided that the lesson I learned (and I pull this from a travel journal, I’m not just conveniently making this up) was “With good friends, good coffee, and the good Lord, you can feel at home anywhere.”

(Edinburgh especially felt like home becuse we found my new favorite coffee shop ever)

Guess I was already more Italian than I thought.


Read more

A week or so ago, I made the quick comment on Facebook that “it’s impossible to be upset about being so overwhelmingly busy when all the things competing for my time are so amazingly awesome.”  I didn’t go into details at the time—because I was just too busy.  But now, as I have hit a rare relaxed weekend, I would like to elaborate.


Here is what the past few weeks looked like for me:


One of these days, I’ll get the Facebook/selfie picture-taking thing down.

Wednesday, October 17th – Finish up midterms

As I believe I have mentioned before, we actually take classes here.  And while I personally adore all the classes—and the fact that there are about 15 students in each one, that the professors are so passionate about what they’re teaching, and that we’re actually learning about things in context of the place where we’re living—midterms are never fun.


Friday, October 19th – Monday, October 29th –Parents Visit!

Yes! My parents got to come visit me in Italy! It was something I never thought would actually happen.  My parents, who hardly ever travel, took off work for 11 days to come halfway across the world to see me.  I took a 4-hour train to meet them in Venice, and over the course of the 4-day weekend we explored Venice, Riomaggiore, and Pisa.  I left them in Florence on Monday night when I had to head back to Arezzo for classes.  Our Art History class was in Florence on Wednesday, so I met up with them at the Academia Museum (where our class was learning about Michelangelo’s David).  They came back to Arezzo for a tour of the town, our school, my apartment, etc. (and they later declared it their favorite city in Italy), and by Friday, when I was done with classes for the week, we were heading to Rome for the last four days of their trip. Daughter, Student, Tour Guide, Immigrant

As the middle child in our family, it’s been rare for me to ever have one-on-one time with my parents.  Add to this that I truly feel in my element while I’m traveling, and this week was really something special. It would even have been completely stress-free…if life could have stopped in the mean time.



Tuesday, October 23rd

My Tuesday classes run from 9am to 4:30pm.

In a break between classes, a few of us went to a coffee shop to meet some local college students who are about to graduate with “American Studies” majors and need conversation partners to help them with their final film projects. …My academic tracks at OU are International Studies and Broadcasting and Electronic Media, so this was absolutely an opportunity I couldn’t turn down! (not to mention that I’ve been dying to hang out with local students!)

After classes, our Student Advisory Council had “training” for our biggest event of the year—a Halloween “Fright Fest” for local children.

After that, I went all around town with a woman from OU’s College of International Studies who was visiting OUA to work on some amazing publicity materials for the program here.  Again, a fantastic combination of International Studies and Broadcasting/Electronic Media that is exactly up my alley.  I was fortunate enough to be recommended to work with her, and we spent the evening walking around town getting pictures and videos of Arezzo for an upcoming coffee-table book and iBook.

Then I got home in time to read up on Michaelangelo’s statue of David, which we were to see the next day.

It was one of the most overwhelmingly awesome, custom-made-for-Shelby, miraculous kind of days…could I seriously complain that I was tired as I collapsed into bed? Absolutely not!


Saturday, October 27th

While sitting on the hotel bed after a very long day in Rome (and anyone who has been to Rome knows that any day in the city is a long one—it’s just so overwhelming! Again, in an awesome way.  Can you seriously complain that St. Peter’s Basilica is simply too magnificent or the Colosseum too historical?) I remembered that my enrollment time slot had opened up…and I was still somewhat indecisive about what classes to take.  I’m looking at trying to do another semester abroad before I graduate, and depending on if I want to go to South Korea or Romania or on an OU Journey summer program etc., everything changes. But seriously, could I complain that there were too many exciting options to choose from? Of course not.  But it was still a bit stressful.


Tuesday, October 30th

My parents caught their 6am flight!

After another 9am-4:30pm day of classes (wait, has it seriously been a week since the last crazy Tuesday already?), some of us from the Advisory Council ran over to one of the apartments and began turning it into a haunted house for the next day’s festivities.

At 5:30, a group of us went up the street to the Children’s Library to do a Halloween story time and monster-balloon craft with a handful of local elementary school kids….or we thought we were going to have only a handful.  …The library was overrun. We prepared fifty balloons for the craft and didn’t have enough for all the kids until we made some more.

…More than fifty kids to listen to us read “Go Away, Big Green Monster” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” and to sing “the head bone’s connected to the neck bone…” ?! It was OVERWHELMING…and AMAZING.  What a cool show of what awesome community support we have here in Arezzo!  I suppose we should have taken it as foreshadowing of what was to happen at the Fright Fest the next day…

And from there it was back to OUA for a festive, good old American pumpkin carving!

The logo for a Canadian travel show I adore! …only one person understood the reference, so I’m planning a watch-party. 🙂


Wednesday, October 31st

Florence for class again!  This was one of the most overwhelmingly awesome “classroom” experiences of my life—as we got our lecture on the architecture of the Florence Cathedral from the special-admission-only balcony on top of it.  400+ stairs to the top of the duomo, a baptistery from the 11th century, and a Medici-commissioned church later, and we were on the 3:00 train home. 

As soon as we got off the train, we dashed to our respective apartments to grab costumes and a bite to eat, and then we headed over to OUA for the party.
OU does nothing halfway, so we had plenty of things to occupy the six-and-a-half trillion children (and their parents) who showed up for the duration of the party—thank goodness!  Mummy races and face-painting, coloring and cookie decorating and, of course, the haunted house were all smash hits.


Dirt ‘n’ Worms…cider…such lucky kids. 🙂


And now for the self-analytical part of this blog (you can’t escape it with me!)

I have found myself caught in a dichotomy here. 

On the one hand, I want so badly to make the most of this experience, so I have been volunteering myself for any and every opportunity that arises.

On the other hand, I want just as badly to get a chance to live the Italian lifestyle…which with its slower pace and emphasis on “tranquillati” (relax yourself), doesn’t mesh well with day calendars packed and color-coordinated.


Regardless, I have now had five much-needed days of alternating hibernation and study time, and only just found the energy to write this very long, drawn-out blog post.  But I re-iterate: I am not complaining about any of the things on this list.  How could I?  Everything that has happened in the past few weeks has been something so far beyond good.  I have been overwhelmed, but overwhelmingly happy.


My solution: discover the cure for the necessity of sleep.


A dopo



We finally found someone to get a picture of the three of us!



Oh yeah, can’t forget this thing…

One thing I learned about Italy – Until you can no longer physically jam the doors closed, it’s acceptable to squeeze more people onto the bus…at least in Rome, and at least when the Blue Line of the metro is down.


One thing I learned about myself – I’m not incapable of speaking Italian…I’m just a chicken.  When placed with people who know no Italian at all, I gladly rose to the occasion and managed to have a ton of conversations in Italian.  I’m sure I don’t sounds like a poet, but as far as I could tell I didn’t mortally offend anyone, and we always got where we needed to be.


Best thing I ate – It’s a toss-up.  It is either 1. The three-course dinner of pear risotto, roasted potatoes, and lemon chicken that my parents and I had at a local trattoria or 2. The BBQ Burger with caramelized onions and bacon that I had at the Hard Rock in Rome (hey…after 2 months away from the states, I’m allowed to enjoy a nice burger and free drink refills).


Italian Word of the Week: “Spaventoso” – meaning “scary” or “frightening.”  I.e. Are you sure it’s a good idea to come in?  This haunted house is molto spaventoso.


Travel Quote of the Day

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” – Dagobert D. Runes



Okay, I realize I hit it kind of hard in that last post.  I promise this one is much less self-analytical and grandiose.  It is, in fact, just a simple recounting of my day.  It’s not even very detailed because I wrote it on a train.  So just in case you were wondering, here is what a Wednesday in my life looks like…


I was almost late for class today

but I broke into a run through the cobblestone streets and across the piazzas full of Italians confused by my rush, so I made it to class before the bells started ringing……and by “bells” I mean church bells from the bell tower at the top of the hill, and by “class” I mean the train station.  Today we were going to Florence again.

We crowded onto the train and sat back to watch the bright green hills and blue sky of Tuscany pass by for the next hour.  I pulled out a notebook and my degree sheets to try yet again to pick my classes for next semester.

Just another day.

It was “business as usual” when we got off the train–a 15 minute break to use restrooms and get cappuccinos and fresh croissants from a pastry shop near the piazza where we would later meet up.

Fifteen minutes never feels like enough when running on Italian Time, as we have all come to refer to the pace of life here, but eventually class has to start–which today meant going into the Santa Maria Novella, a 576-year-old church that saw the beginning and end of the Black Plague, in front of whose doors hordes of worshippers once whipped themselves in hopes of gaining favor of God, the church featured at the beginning of Boccacio’s Decameron…. Today, it saw a line of students and tourists.

Light shone in on us through huge stained glass windows as we listened to and took notes on Kirk’s lecture, while viewing in context a piece we all expect to be on our midterm next week.  We had walked through the cemetery courtyard outside, through the “valley of death,” and seen it straight ahead of us–a Holy Trinity, signifying life after death–in the way the artist intended (plus or minus the sounds of some people working on restoring another nearby hundreds-of-years-old fresco).  We complained when the lesson was over–we wanted to stay longer.

However, our next stop was certainly worth cutting short our time at SMN.  The “Uffizzi Gallery” is a name anyone who has taken an art history class is somewhat familiar with–only today, about 20 of us became quite personally familiar with it.  The building itself is incredible, and was once the location of the offices for the Medici Dukes.  Today, it is packed with famous art.  From incredible work to incredible work we made our way through the gallery, and I kept having to remind myself to take notes on Kirk’s lecture–the setup is one I’m used to from touring exhibits on vacation, not from an upper division humanities course.  It wasn’t until we had seen Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (yep, wasn’t expecting it, couldn’t believe I was seeing it.  Oh right, take notes…) that we took a break to get something to drink and to look out at the famous Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, and the countryside on the outskirts of the city.  And after that, we powered through a Michelangelo piece and a controversial Venus from an artist in Venice.  And then we had two hours to explore Florence. 

It’s a pretty recognizable piece.

The city is full of things to do, but since our feet were tired and we know we’ll be back at least twice more for class, a couple friends and I decided to pass our time with a classic Italian “slow lunch.”  For 12 euro, we each enjoyed a pasta dish, a main dish (mine was grilled Italian sausage), and a side of roasted potatoes, as well as a glass of wine, great service, and a cup of gelato (which, for those people whose lives have tragically not been graced with gelato, is like ice cream…but better).  Everything was homemade–no microwaves, no preservatives–and locally produced, and it came out course after course after course for a good hour and a half. (Note to self: I need to write down my glass of chianti in the wine diary I’m required to keep this week for another class).  

  And now I’m on the train home, 15 minutes out from Arezzo, watching my exhausted classmates, who have finally all found available seats, fall in and out of sleep as I write and the hills and five-hundred-year-old villas pass outside the open windows.  As I finish this entry, I’ve started making a to-do list for tonight.  I need to type this journal entry into a blog post, I need to study for my Immigration in Italy midterm, and I need to pack my suitcase so I’ll be ready to catch my flight to Seville tomorrow after class.

Yep.  Just another day in the life of a student abroad….

The setup for the wine tasting we attended the other day. It’s a little odd that I’ll be 19 when I get home, and still unable to drink for 2 years. it’s such a no-big-deal thing here.


One thing I learned about Italy
Trains are “deletable.”  …It is really important to always book in advance…and be flexible since nothing ever seems to arrive on time.

One thing I learned about myself
I’m still not over my claustrophobia…as glamorous as train travel can sound, when you end up standing in the aisles sharing air with too many people, it’s not all fun and games.  So I’m going to keep working on that fear.

Best thing I ate
Lane and I won a “Buddies” cooking competition with our amazing “Nutella Ravioli” — shortbread pastries filed with hazelnut/chocolate creme and coated in cinnamon sugar, with strawberries–so let’s go with that.

Italian word of the Week
“Sperare” meaning “to hope”

…I just think it’s a good word. 🙂

Travel Quote of the Day

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” -Robert Louis Stevenson


Will write again shortly,


There are a lot of things that have building up in my brain lately that I realize I must write about, but have no way to find the words for it all.  I believe the best way to start is to talk about this month, which is considered the most important month for many Arabs: the month of Ramadan.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this holiday, it is the biggest and most widely celebrated in Islam.  It is a month dependent on the Islamic lunar calendar, so it begins on a different day every year, this year starting July 20th.  This month is a time of spiritual reflection, and historically, the Prophet Muhammad first received revelations in the lunar month of Ramadan. Therefore, the month of Ramadan is considered to be the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar.  Ramadan consists of fasting from sunrise to sunset, where Muslims refrain from food, drink, sexual activity, and smoking.

Watching the sunrise go down on a Falooka boat before we eat Iftaar

This is a time when most people stay in doors (especially when Ramadan takes place in the summer!), sleeping and laying low.  The women spend all day preparing special dishes and huge meals for their families.  As soon as the sun sets, everyone gathers for the evening feast, called Iftaar, and spend time in celebration late into the night with gifts, food, music, special t.v. shows, and of course family and friends.  Before sunrise, everyone will eat again around five in the morning in preparation for the long day of fasting to come.  Although children are not required to fast, many of them do in order to practice later in life.  Here in Egypt, most Muslim women wear the higab, or head scarf, to cover their hair.  During the month of Ramadan, even young girls, sometimes five or six years old, wear the higab as well, in order to respect the sacredness of the month.

Inside a mosque for the first time

Having Iftaar on an island off of the Nile river

Keeping all of this in mind, I am experiencing Ramadan in the Middle East first-hand for the very first time.  The best way I can describe my environment here is by telling you that night is day and day is night.  During the day, the normally crowded streets are practically deserted, and many shops are closed until sunset.  However, as soon as the sun goes down, the whole world comes alive.  Women quickly prepare to go out with their friends and families, every shop is filled with people buying helowiyat (desserts, sweets), colored lights line the windows of countless apartments, and people laugh and talk together.  It is a wonderful feeling, and very similar to the days before Christmas in the States.

During the late night hours, many people eat helowiyat and fruit of all kinds, like Kanafa, Atayef, watermelon, mango, grapes, apricots, and bananas.  My personal favorite is the delicious kanafa, which can be made with raisins and nuts, custard, or a type of creamy cheese (custard is the best!).

Kanafa with custard, made with shredded pastry dough and delicious honey.

Best of all, it seems that the music and atmosphere of the late night hours during Ramadan only increase the constant hustle and bustle of the streets.  This light-hearted, joyous feeling that takes over people simply after eating a delicious meal drowns out the grave political tone that resonates on the streets of Egypt lately.  With the new Egyptian president after over 30 years of the same dictator and centuries of corruption, the streets are tense with political anticipation and expectation.  During Ramadan, however, all of this seems to slowly disintegrate in the wind by the pure joyousness of tradition and holiday spirit.  I wait in anticipation of what the social mood might be like at the end of this holiday good cheer.

A group of us girls about to enter a mosque

In Bordeaux, France, meeting a German student

This last week was a mixed bag of emotions, frustrations, confusion, but also memories I hope never to forget. In my last post I talked about my trip in Sharm As-Sheikh to keep me busy, but I’ve still been very homesick with no way to hear my mother’s voice.

How we all feel after trying for hours to get the internet in our dorm

I finally spoke with her a few days ago and I was so relieved, I cried at the sound of her voice over the phone, thousands of miles away from me.

My beautiful niece in 2008

My best friend since I was 2 years old

Yes, my emotions these days seem to run quite high, I am embarrassed to admit.  But out of it all I spoke with and became closer to people with whom I never expected to have much contact.  I took too many pictures…I don’t know if it really has sunken in that I will be here in Egypt for an entire year.  Time moves so slowly and yet so quickly concurrently.

The newest addition to my heart. Lameese and I are two peas in a pod

My parents. I miss them like crazy

My mom, brother, and newest addition to the family, my niece Rowen

My confidence in my abilities sky-rocketed even after a brief chat with my mother.  I recently realized how important it is to keep good ties with family members and friends back home in order to keep yourself grounded and sane.  No contact with my family until quite recently has made me feel vulnerable and fragile, ready to blow away by the first wind of criticism or disapproval.

Awesome dorm-mates and new friends

One of my sisters in Christ, Kelly!!

Even the sound of my mother’s voice makes me feel so safe, secure in the fact that people are persevering with me in spirit, thousands of miles away from me.  It’s heart-warming, really.  It gives me the courage to continue in my endeavors and increase my motivation for self-sufficiency in a country with which I am completely unfamiliar.

New friends in a new program! Grace and I

Summer domestic flagship, last summer in Austin, TX

I’ve come to the conclusion that new experiences and new friends are always a treasure, and we should never fear stepping out from what is comfortable.  I feel that is rather clear.

My sister in Christ, Xin Zhang, in Archachon, FR

However, this does not by any means imply that through this, we break and lose the ties to those who know us best.  There is value in expanding our horizons, making new–and perhaps lasting–friendships through our adventures.

Arcachon, FR 2011

But perhaps that which is priceless is our closest or oldest ties, those relations that we forget are so valuable because of our close proximity.  I have always loved to travel and jump into the next thing, but that oftentimes causes me to take for granted those whom I love so dearly, cheering me on in my wake.  As wonderful as the future always appears in our dreamy thoughts, the present is a gift in itself and should never be pushed to the side.

Bordeaux, FR 2011

To all of you who I have left behind for these trips and adventures I feel I “need” to take: I am sorry for the times I caused you to feel that I didn’t care or didn’t try.   I am sorry for making you feel like you don’t matter.

Austin, TX at the ESL dinner with lovely Eman

Fayetteville, AR 2012Another fabulous niece, Cassie

Because in truth, I am only here today, living my dreams, because of you.  Your influence over me has been crucial, and will remain a part of me forever.  I love you all, and I thank you for your unwavering support and encouragement, even when you did not understand my intentions or goals.  Thank you for standing with me in spirit.  It is the cornerstone on which I base my life.

Best friend forever, Tiffany, in Cali. I've known her since I was 7

My sister in Christ and partner in crime, Hannah. 🙂

This last week we all headed to Sharm As-Sheikh, the famous resort town, for a few days of vacation from classes.  I had heard stories of how this town was built around tourists and how it is quite different from other areas of Egypt, but all of those stories were gross understatements to the reality of this place.  Sharm As-Sheikh is the Las Vegas of Egypt, and quite possibly of the Middle East.  There were no restrictions on clothing there, and I saw almost more Russians than Arabs wandering the streets, buying trinkets with inflated prices.  The staff at any restaurant, café, hotel, or shop spoke English fairly fluently, and a few even spoke Russian.  I truly forgot I was in Egypt for a few days.

A little surprise from the cleaning staff at the hotel

The degree of westernization was astounding, to say the least.  On the 4th of July, a group of us all went to a club and begged the DJ to play American songs, as we were the only people there.  He finally agreed and we danced until 2am to songs we all knew.  It was an unforgettable moment in time, on the open balcony of the club, the lights of such a tourist town twinkling around us and the gentle waves of the sea in the near distance.

Early 4th of July party in Alexandria the day before we left for Sharm

We all had to fight in order to speak Arabic with most of the people there, especially our guide when we took a boat out to the beautiful coral reefs of the Red Sea.  Our guide confessed that our group was the first to which he could give instructions all in Arabic in the 14 years he had lived in Sharm As-Sheikh.

On the Red Sea

Out on the Red Sea, I was blown away by the crystal clear blue waters, only a thin veil to the picture underneath the waves.  I went snorkeling for the first time, and I hope never to forget what I saw, the silent world of fish and sea creatures pulsing with life.  There was no sound, but the waters were tense with energy, even the plants and coral seemed to breathe in their bright colors, flowing with the soft current curling around their edges.  Even the schools of fish all seemed to have such purpose, such importance.  I only wish I had an underwater camera.

The coral reefs, from the boat

Showing a little Egyptian pride

The color changes where you can see the solid coral reefs

By the end of the four days we spent there, I was ready to return to Alex.  Despite the luxury of the experience as a whole, I was ready to leave a place that felt so manufactured, so fake.  The thought that wouldn’t leave my head was that some people come to a place like this, and they have no concept of what the rest of Egypt, the real Egypt, is like.  Perhaps they think that Egypt is that tolerant to loud tourists, or bars, or bikinis on the beach.  They would be shocked and most likely disturbed by the reality.  I, however, prefer the real Egypt, despite its flaws.  Outside of Sharm As-Sheikh, Egypt does not seem so stifled, so perfect. It has the feel of a bustling, crazy city, a nugget of the real world in a very populated area.  Just like the my view underneath the Red Sea, Egypt seems to flow with a type of current, tense with energy, filled with purpose, ideas, feelings, opinions.

On the boat with friends

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we adapt to something new.  As much as my generation complains that people resist change, put any single person in a new environment and watch him not only survive, but thrive.  The first few days after I arrived, as much as I tried to blend in, I looked blatantly foreign.  My social skills stuck out as my white skin and grey eyes.  Yet here I am, just barely two weeks in and I am already learning to be street smart, how to use good manners, how I should or should not dress, etc.  All of these sound simple enough on paper, but can only be achieved through trial and error, and lots and lots of practice.  I am finally starting to adapt.  It seems to be much easier to cross the intensely crowded streets, to look like I at least know where I am going, to order things in restaurants, and to give the correct responses to certain cultural phrases.

Typical bread cart in the streets

At a semi-private beach called Agemy Beach

Even the sounds of life in this city no longer sound so foreign to my ear.  My ways of thinking are shifting and even tuning my ear to the sounds of danger, joy, and daily music of life passing by in the streets.  The latter is something I already love a great deal.  There is something quite distinct in the rhythm of the way Egyptians call out to sell their goods (e.g. watermelons, various assortments of nuts, grilled corn on the cob, pottery, bread, etc.), warn you with a short beep of the horn (as opposed to a long beep, which means you are holding up traffic or there is significant danger), or even the flirtatious comments and cat-calling to any woman on the street.  All of this is becoming very normal.  And so quickly!  I know the streets of this city to a very limited extent, and I am looking forward to knowing my way around a little more every day.

A stray cat making a meal of someone's leftovers...he was later chased out.

Fresh mango juice, the best thing in the world

As strange as it may sound, I rather prefer this “lack” of comfort that comes from living outside the United States; the bed I first thought hard, I now consider perfect, the bathroom I first considered dirty, now seems very western and normal.  I appreciate small things very much, like how white the main floor shines when it has just been cleaned, and the look and smell of boiling hot tea in the morning.  It is amazing to me that even in such a short time, by my sheer presence in this beautiful country, my mind-set is adapting, taking in all the glory of a new culture and new ways of life.

My friends and I, making an afternoon of it on the Korneesh

Sunset on the Korneesh

As a young, independent woman, I am learning to lean on others much more here.  The girls are not always mature, but they are wise and nurturing towards one another.  We have so much respect for each other, simply because we know that we are women, and sometimes that can be difficult enough by itself, especially here where the standard and the customs between the sexes is so different.  I rely, nay, require a great deal more patience that I first imagined I would need.  It is much more difficult for me to express or articulate how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking.  I haven’t been shy since I was four years old, yet here I am, one of the quietest ones because I am still struggling to understand what is being said or how to say what I wish.  It is an experience to be sure, and one I will never regret.  Inshallah (God willing; hopefully) my skills and my courage will increase as I continue to adapt and discover.

Two of my favorite people in the program 🙂

A lovely typical day at a café

Visiting a coptic church

A supermarket that had an especially beautiful display window

The following is from my journal during the first day in Alexandria:
I lie here on my bed on my first full day in Alexandria. The very first thing I noticed flying in to this country was all the many buildings, crammed together into little towns and cities, very much like the imprint of a gridded shoe in the earth, a once muddy surface, now dry and cracked. It was quite an impression. As I stepped off the plane into Cairo, the dry heat and dense air hit my face but I was surprised by the hot breeze that occasionally passed by.

On the Korneesh, on the edge of the Mediterranean

We arrived at the girls’ dorms by the late evening where I met my Egyptian roommate, Alaa. She is only 20, but acts like a big sister with me, very caring and patient with my unfortunate Arabic. Most of the other girls in this program are in the same position, with varying degrees of fluency in the dialect here. Madame Hoda, the kitchen manager, has taken an extreme liking to me, as I am uncannily similar-looking to a girl from a few years ago. I’m going to take it as a compliment.

My dorm room

Everyone here talks so quickly that it’s very hard to follow right now. However, they also have very kind eyes and often greet me with a smile. I haven’t ventured outside in the daylight yet, but soon.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed, even after a day, is the way in which people communicate. It seems that in order to be heard, everyone talks over everyone else, even those with more authority. It’s as if they fight for their voices to be heard among the chaos (which seems counter-productive). Entry from 6/10/2012
The last thing I would like to mention is how valuable water is here. There is a brand of bottled water called Hayat which means, “Life”. Fitting, isn’t it? One of the biggest symbols of life in this country is indeed water. Without it, everyone would be reduced to nothing. It’s common for Americans to think of the Middle East to be dry and dusty.

View from the plane, Frankfurt to Cairo

But here I am at last, and Alexandria is bordering the beautiful Mediterranean Sea…A symbol of the life that thrives here so vibrantly.

The view of the city from my dorm room

The Mediterranean

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