Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Final days

Sorry I haven't been very diligent about updating my blog lately.
I mostly have been neglecting to update this blog because the final days are proving to be very chaotic, as I begin to pack, say goodbye to friends, buy all the last souvenirs, and just in general try to mentally prepare for my departure, which is now three days away. Very amazing, crazy, and fun. But certainly quite chaotic, and I've been left with few free moments to write a blog post about what I've been doing. So just what have I been doing? Lots of things; I'm not going to go over each and every one of them individually, but I'll make a list for you guys. I have:
  • Hung out with a number of my friends from school, and said goodbye to a few
  • Bought most of the souvenirs that I need for people back home - now I just need two more
  • Started packing, which has proven to be quite a pain in the neck - I'm not even halfway done (although granted, I've been going about it pretty leisurely, since I still have a few days left ahead of me)
  • Spent a day sitting at the sea, watching the sunset 
  • Said goodbye to my calligraphy teacher 
  • Picked up my final report card from my school, from which, much to my delight, I discovered that none of my grades were lower than an A- :D
  • Had a one-on-one final orientation yesterday with my good friend and AFS returnee/volunteer who went to my hometown, Fatma, in a cafe called Roastery, which was very fun; we got the orientation done pretty quickly and had the rest of our time there to just enjoy the good food, relax, and chit chat. Since she knows both Ann Arbor, my hometown, since she was on exchange there, and Alexandria very well, she was also able to give me some excellent insight into how to make the best of the reverse transition.
  • My friend (another AFS returnee who was in Ann Arbor) named Ahmed came to visit me from Cairo and say goodbye, and I spent the whole day before the orientation with him and my friend Adham walking along the sea and having a great time together, which was amazing. :)
  • Procrastinated on blogging.
  • Been sleeping and getting up atrociously late. 
And lots of stuff like that.
That's what my life has been like lately. 
Very fun and very full of activity, but conversely also extremely chaotic at times.

I'm not going to talk too much about how it feels to be going home so soon, because honestly, in spite of the fact that I'm going to leave in three days, and I've even begun to pack and prepare in many ways that make the fact of my impending departure tangible and undeniable, it still feels very unreal.
I simply cannot fathom that in three days, I will be leaving this country indefinitely. 

Let's hope that everything goes well and that the transition will be easier than I fear. 
Many things about leaving will not be easy, but I have hope that everything will be fine in the end. 

That's all for now, I should continue to be productive and go do something else that I need to get done! :P

I most likely will not be posting again until I have returned to the USA, because I have a number of things that I still want to do before leaving (i.e. say goodbye to a few more friends, buy the final two souvenir items which I need so I can finish that once and for all, continue packing, try to make s'mores for my host family, etc.), and I feel that these last three days are my last chance to do these things, while conversely blogging is something that I can do at any time I wish, anywhere in the world. So I will save my next post for when I will have returned to my Ann Arbor, when I will most likely have much more interesting things to share with you all. 

So, bye for now, and I'll write again soon enough.

Here are some pictures from the day I watched the sunset by the sea. 

I feel like these pictures of the sun setting are a good metaphor - symbolizing the end of my time here.
With Ahmed and Adham 

With Ahmed 

A pretty hotel that I decided to photograph.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Pre-return jitters

As of today, seeing as I'm leaving Egypt on June 28, I have seventeen days left in this country.

Saying that seems incredibly and utterly unreal. I remember when I was beyond exited that I had five months to go before my departure, and now this experience that I've looked forward to for a quarter of my life is going to be over in seventeen days.

There are, admittedly, things that I will be happy to be leaving behind. The verbal battles that people of different political views have with each other. The problems happening as a result of the ongoing recovery from the effects of the revolution (i.e. inadequate garbage pickup, very wide socioeconomic gaps, the unstable politics and the people's dissatisfaction with the government, etc).  The heat. Language barriers. The population density. Some people's conservatism. And other things of this nature.
And there are many things that I've missed about home. My family. My friends. Snow. Christmas. Frozen yogurt, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, and Indian food (which are all difficult to find here), plus my mom's cooking. Feeling 100% confident in my surroundings and being able to express myself without any linguistic inhibitions whatsoever. The quality of the American educational system, as stressful as it can be at times. The wide open landscapes and abundance of green spaces, that are difficult to find in urban Egypt. The lovely lakes and forests that abound in my home state of Michigan. And other things like that.

But at the same time, there are things that I am going to miss so much about this country and will be heartbroken to be leaving behind. Alexandria itself (i.e. the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the good weather, having the Mediterranean Sea be a fifteen minute walk from my home, etc). The adaan (call to prayer). Speaking Arabic. Being in a constant state of learning and discovery, gathering knowledge about the local culture and history. The perfect balance between having a home and a family, and freedom, that I've built up in my time here. Egyptian food. All the places that I love to visit. Some of my teachers. My home. My neighborhood. My friends.
And most of all, my host family. I love my host family so much; in my time here, they have gone from being a group of complete strangers to being my second family. They treat me like a son and a brother, and after more than nine months of living in their home, I feel like one of them.
And I'm going to miss them so much.
Saying goodbye to them is going to tear me to pieces inside. There's no two ways about it.

And moreover, in spite of the fact that my departure has been on my mind a lot lately, simply put, it doesn't feel real that it's about to happen.
A few days ago, when I was Skyping with my family back in Michigan, and I saw the house, the backyard, the living room, they all looked so familiar and yet so foreign to me after over nine months of being away. And the fact that I will be in that house in almost two weeks simply feels unreal.
I liken this to how I felt in the months leading up to my departure from home when I was coming here. I thought about my departure and my upcoming exchange constantly, but, in a way, it didn't really feel real that I was leaving until maybe the last week or two, and I didn't actually get the feeling of "OH MY GOD, THIS IS REAL! I'M DOING IT!" until I said goodbye to my dad when he dropped me off at the gateway orientation back in New York City, all those months ago.
I think that this time around, it will work similarly.

A few months back, the idea of leaving this place used to utterly and completely terrify me every time I thought of it. I developed this paranoia of it that was temporarily fueled by the arrival of my return flight information back in March. Then that randomly vanished about a month or two ago. For a while I couldn't tell if it was because I had begun to lose my fear of returning to the United States, for whatever reason, or if I was just becoming numb to it in a way, not realizing that it was going to happen. And I now think that the latter is true. It simply doesn't feel real that it's happening.

One thing that I was feeling so paranoid about before was, apart from the idea of leaving this place, the process of readjusting into my life back home. Many returnees had stories to tell of reverse culture shock and feeling out of place in their own homes that worried me greatly. I wondered if I would experience similar feelings after the end of my experience.
But now, I'm simply not sure what will happen. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel after I get home. I just don't know, whether or not I will feel out of place or have reverse culture shock. I just don't know.
What I do know, is that it will certainly be a strange transition at first. There are things that it will probably take quite a while to get used to. For example, the absence of the background sounds of traffic and the adnaan will probably be very strange, and make it feel very quiet at first. Also, I'm getting the feeling that it will be very strange for me at first to be speaking English all the time. Despite the fact that I speak, write, use, and think in English a lot here, I speak Arabic most of the time, especially when I'm with my family. And I'm so used to leaving my home and using Arabic to get from place to place and buy things that the idea of communicating in English in order to do these things seems almost strange.
Simply speaking English twenty-four/seven is probably going to be very strange at first, and I can tell that there are Arabic words that I will be subconsciously wanting to say, that have no direct translation into English. This has already happened to me a lot while Skyping with family and friends back in the States.

And besides reverse culture shock and feeling out of place, another factor which fueled my paranoia of leaving, which still is a very real concern for me, is that this experience is almost over.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, I've been wanting to go on this experience for a quarter of my life. For four years, since I was twelve, this has been something to look forward to, to work towards, to be proactive for, to aspire to.
And now it's almost over. And I'm not really sure what I'm going to do with myself after it is.

Moreover, I also have to deal with the fact that, although my host family will always be my other family, and this city will always be my other home, and this country, in many ways, will always be my other country, my life here as I've known it throughout my exchange will end when I step onto that plane in the Cairo International Airport in seventeen days.
Meaning, I can always come back here and visit my family and friends, and I will, of course. But it will never be quite the same as it is now.
And I guess that that is one of the main things that worries me about my rapidly approaching departure date.

Additionally, I've undeniably changed in a number of ways since I came here. I've grown up a lot mentally and emotionally. I've become much more mature and independent. I feel much more confident in my decisions, opinions, choices, and tastes. I feel like I understand how the world works so much better, if that makes sense. I've learned an incredible amount of things about Egypt, about people, and about life in general. And I've gained so much knowledge, respect, and love for another country, Egypt, another religion, Islam, another family, another culture, and another way of life, while at the same time gaining a new love for and appreciation of my own country, faith, culture, traditions, and family.
I think back to the guy who boarded the plane back in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on September 1, 2012, and I find it astounding to think about who he's become.
And that time feels so far away, so far in the past. Even my first days in this country are very distant, almost dreamlike memories that feel like they happened eons ago. And the days leading up to my departure from home before I came here feel even longer ago, as though they happened in another life. It's so strange.
And part of me already knows that I'm going to have trouble explaining just how these kinds of changes feel to people back home.

Up until this point, whenever I've thought about things that I want to see or do, I've always thought about them at least relatively calmly, because "there's so much time left; I'll be able to do everything I want to without any trouble!"
But the truth in that statement is very quickly fading.
In fact, I'd say it's just about gone at this point.

With seventeen days left, I need to take advantage of the time I have left to the fullest. Do and see everything that I want to. And enjoy everything that I'm going to miss after I have to leave.

After seventeen days.

That's all for now. I'll leave you all with a short blurb that I found circulating in one of the AFS Facebook groups about pre-departure sentiments. Although I didn't write it, I certainly think it sums up these tremulous feelings quite well.

"A year has passed and now we stand on the brink, of returning to a world where we are surrounded by the paradox of everything and yet nothing being the same. In a couple of weeks we will reluctantly give our hugs and, fighting the tears,we will say goodbye to people who were once just names on a sheet of paper to return to people that we hugged and fought tears to say goodbye to before we ever left.We will leave our best friends to return to our best friends.

We will go back to the places we came from, and go back to the same things we did last summer and every summer before. We will come into town on that same familiar road, and even though it has been months, it will seem like only yesterday. As you walk into your old bedroom, every emotion will pass through you as you reflect on the way your life has changed and the person you have become. You suddenly realize that the things that were most important to you a year ago don't seem to matter so much anymore, and the things you hold highest now, no one at home will completely understand.

Who will you call first? What will you do your first weekend home with your friends? Where are you going to work? Who will be at the party Saturday night? What has everyone been up to in the past few months? Who from school will you keep in touch with? How long before you actually start missing people barging in without calling or knocking? Then you start to realize how much things have changed, and you realize the hardest part of being an exchange student is balancing the two completely different worlds you now live in, trying desperately to hold on to everything all the while trying to figure out what you have to leave behind.

We now know the meaning of true friendship. We know who we have kept in touch with over the past year and who we hold dearest to our hearts. We've left our worlds to deal with the real world. We've had our hearts broken, we've fallen in love, we've helped our best friends overcome eating disorders, depression, stress, and death. We've lit candles at the grotto and we've stayed up all night on the phone just to talk to a friend in need. There have been times when we've felt so helpless being hours away from home when we know our families or friends needed us the most, and there are times when we know we have made a difference.

Just weeks from now we will leave. Just weeks from now we take down our pictures, and pack up our clothes. No more going next door to do nothing for hours on end. We will leave our friends whose random e-mails and phone calls will bring us to laughter and tears this summer, and hopefully years to come. We will take our memories and dreams and put them away for now, saving them for our return to this world.

Just weeks from now we will arrive. Just weeks from now we will unpack our bags and have dinner with our families. We will drive over to our best friend's house and do nothing for hours on end. We will return to the same friends whose random emails and phone calls have brought us to laughter and tears over the year. We will unpack old dreams and memories that have been put away for the past year. In just weeks we will dig deep inside to find the strength and conviction to adjust to change and still keep each other close. And somehow, in some way, we will find our place between these two worlds.

In just weeks."

Monday, June 3, 2013

The month of May and my Egyptian birthday

*I have become a worse blogger than I had ever expected to. xD This post has been sitting around as an empty draft under the title "Shem el-Naseem vacation and updates" for nearly three weeks. My bad.*

{And NOW this has been sitting under the new title "The month of May," almost completely edited, for another week or so. Therefore I have edited the title even further. Sorry my blogging skills have officially gone south.} 

Well, since I last left off with my update about Carson and Annika's visit to Alexandria, which took place in the final two days of April, I figured that it would be appropriate to call this post "The month of May," and update you all on everything that happened in it.

The first thing worth talking about was that, for the first two weeks of this month, I was on vacation for an important holiday called Shem el-Naseem.
Some background info: The holiday's name translates to "the sniffing of the breeze," which is a holiday that dates back to Pharaonic times and is meant to be a little celebration of the beginning of spring. Its name is derived from the name of the Harvest Season in ancient Egypt - Shemu - which means a day of creation. Ancient historians wrote that the Egyptians once offered salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their deities on this day. When Egypt became Christianized during Roman rule, this holiday eventually morphed into its current date (Orthodox Easter) and form, and even after the Islamic conquest of Egypt, this holiday remained. It is celebrated as more of a national holiday, by Egyptians regardless of their religion, than as a religious one, even though Coptic Easter does fall on the same day. In modern times, it is typically celebrated by picnicking outside in parks or public gardens, eating feseekh (salted grey mullet, which I tried and admittedly did not like so much xD), lettuce, and scallions, and younger children often color and decorate eggs.
It fell on the 6th of this month, and although my host family and I didn't really do much to celebrate it other than eating some lettuce and feseekh with our lunch, I did have the opportunity to go to an Easter celebration in a Coptic church with my kind neighbor and friend Youssef, who took me to his church with two of his friends, named Abanoub and Mina, and I got to meet lots of very nice people and get a look at how Copts celebrate Easter. It was a great experience. :)
After that we ended up hanging out together for a few more hours before going home. I'm very glad that I had the chance to see and learn about all of these unique Egyptian celebrations.

Me and Youssef :) 

From left to right: Youssef, Abanoub, me. :)

The lovely chocolate egg that Youssef brought me. It was delicious. :3

The rest of the Shem el-Naseem vacation was fairly uneventful, and I went back to school on 12th.  Their scheduling of the vacation had been pretty inefficient - we essentially had two weeks of vacation right before the end of the year, and then came back with only two weeks to go - and one of them reserved exclusively for the fourth quarter exams. So we only had a week to cram in all of our lost lessons before testing, which, of course, ended up being extremely chaotic.
But, in any case, we somehow managed it, and then the following week we took our exams, and then it was over for me on May 22.
On that day, when I stepped out of the room in which I took my final exams, I was finished. Finished with school for the summer. The end of my time in Taymour English School was fairly unceremonious, and at first it didn't really feel real that I was done. But, as I've said before, although I've made some very good friends from my school that I'm very happy to have met, school has definitely not been the best part of my experience here, so in many ways I was relieved to be done. That, and the fact that my desire to study pretty much died during the Shem el-Naseem vacation, contributed to my relief. xD

In any case, I've been finished with school for ten days now, and it feels very nice to be on summer break. Although many of my friends are still not done with their exams and are not free to hang out with me, I've still been able to do some pretty great things since I finished school.

On the 24th, my host brother Loay took me to a resort on the Mediterranean coast about 20 kilometers outside of Alexandria, called Sidi Krier, with a group of his friends. First we swam in the large, connected system of swimming pools, which was refreshing. Afterwards, we headed to a nearby mall to grab a bite to eat, and then headed to a place inside Sidi Krier called Amoun Cafe, which is right beside the sea. Loay and I ended up running straight to the water's edge together. :) And oddly enough, as soon as I saw the place, I realized that I had been there before! I went there, with the same people, all the way back in September, in my first week here. So I subsequently kept flashing back to that whole evening to that night.
That was a fabulous day. :)

A few days later, my host father's brother and his family came over for a little while, and since there was a power outage at the time, I ended up chatting with them for a long time and we actually hit it off quite well. I remember thinking at the time that it was quite comical - bonding with people I had only just met, in the dim candle light of a power outage. xD

Then, on the 29th of May, to celebrate their final day of school (since all the grades bellow high school finished on that day), I went out to an open air mall within walking distance of where I live, called Green Plaza, with my Egyptian American friends from school, Youssef and Hashem. We saw Iron Man 3, ate at a Pizza Hut for dinner, and then made use of the large trampolines in a part of Green Plaza called Karamantas. It was a great day out with two great friends, in spite of the intense heat that day.

Then, June 2nd was my 17th birthday! In order to celebrate, Youssef and Hashem took me out to San Stefano, another large mall that I've mentioned before, and we kind of just walked around, talked, and had fun. And in the middle of our time there, my AFS returnee friend Adham surprised me and showed up with his brother Ahmed and a friend of his named Salah. It sounds pretty simple, but it really was a good day. :)
Although I must say that I really feel no different yet, now that I'm seventeen. I guess it just has yet to sink in? Perhaps...
In any case, I had a very simple but very fun Egyptian birthday. :)

That's all the news that there is to report at this point...I'd say that I'm doing pretty darn well in general. I have been sick on and off a bit these past few days, but hopefully that will pass. And today I guess the universe decided to make up for the scorching heat on my birthday yesterday ( the high temp was 107 Fahrenheit -.-) and offer a much more pleasant 82. :)

Sorry I've been seriously slacking lately when it comes to blogging. I will try {note the word try} to be better about it in the near future, starting with writing a couple of posts from that list of ideas I had back in March.

Thanks for reading!