Sunday, January 26, 2014

Italy trip and midstay orientation reflections

Well, here I am again.

Today I just wanted to talk briefly about my trip to Italy over the holidays, as well as some thoughts I had after helping lead my local AFS chapter's midstay orientation this month.

So first of all, Italy! I left for Italy with my mom late in the evening after a cheery Christmas day of opening presents with my family, on a flight out of Detroit to Amsterdam Schiphol. The plane ride passed pretty uneventfully, and then after our not-too-long-and-not-too-short connection in Amsterdam, we were on to Bologna.
I spent almost the entirety of the second flight sleeping from jetlag, and then after a nauseatingly bumpy landing, we were greeted by my uncle, who came to pick us up and bring us back to my grandmother's home in my mom's little hometown of Viadana.

Being in Italy again was a little surprising at first. Because of finals and then Christmas, I hadn't really had a chance to think or prepare much for my trip. I remember thinking about it when I was out finishing up my Christmas shopping, and realizing "holy cow, I'm going to be on the other side of the world in a few days!!" But the shock didn't last long, and I got right back into the groove of things.
My Italian was still intact as ever, I'd say. I've spoken it at home with my mother my whole life, so I had no need to brush up. But I hadn't been to Italy since April 2012, before I left for Egypt, so at first my speaking was a little shaky due to simple lack of habit. But after a day, once my jetlag had more or less worn off, all was well again and I was speaking perfectly fluidly.
I spent the next week or so simply hanging out with my friends and family. We went over to my cousin's house and had lunches and dinners with my aunt and uncle and some close friends of theirs, I spent time with my grandmother and mother, and stuff like that. I also spent quite a bit of time hanging out with my friends - it was really nice, because I rekindled a lot of friendships with people that I hadn't spoken to a ton recently, which is always nice. :) And then I finished up my perfectly amazing 2013 with a New Year's Eve party at a new friend's house.
Then on the 2nd, I went with my mom and grandma for a quick, "touristic" excursion to Venice.
That was absolutely amazing. I had been to Venice once before, but I was only five at the time, so it was lovely to see it again and fully appreciate and remember it this time. We have some Venetian friends that we know because they lived on sabbatical years here in Ann Arbor, so it was especially helpful to have Venetians guide us around, show us really authentic places, and offer wonderfully insightful thoughts on the city - as well as their relative's flat for us to stay in. :)
It was simply so beautiful. Everywhere we looked we were surrounded by beauty and history, there's just no other way to describe it. It's so wonderfully unique, and I think it's definitely become one of my favorite places on Earth.
Not to mention, Regina came to Venice to meet up with us on the 3rd, along with her mother, Isabella. :D
That really made the entire trip for me.
It's only been almost a year since we've seen each other, and yet it feels like such a long time and no time. In any case, seeing her again was amazing. The way that we interacted and our relationship in general had not changed at all, and we picked up right from where we'd left off. :) It was weird in a good way to see her in Venice, when before that we'd only ever seen each other in Alexandria! :)
We took Regina and Isabella with us to the Ca' Rezzonico, a beautiful Baroque palace turned into a museum. That was lovely - we wandered around looking at the colorful, beautifully preserved artifacts, walls, and paintings that adorned the Ca', and chatting all the while about our lives, updates and recent events, thoughts about our Egyptian experiences in retrospect, and memories of our time together. :)
Afterwards, we did some wandering around, a bit of shopping, and then we said goodbye to Regina and Isabella for the night, and my mom, my Nonna (grandma) and I headed back to the flat where we were staying to get ready for dinner at a friend's house.
The next morning we started off with a visit to Piazza San Marco - a pretty obligatory destination for anyone visiting Venice.
Unfortunately, it was raining at the time. But that still didn't take much away from the sheer beauty of the Campanile (bell tower) and the basilica. It was simply breathtaking. And there's not much else that can be said about it; it was just amazing.
Afterwards, we grabbed a quick lunch, said goodbye to our Venetian friends that we had met up with the day before, and then I joined Regina and Isabella at a nearby cafe to spend some more time together before needing to go catch our train back "home" to Viadana.
We walked around a bit, caught a vaporetto (public transportation boat) to the train station, and took some selfies along the way. We even arrived at the station ahead of my family, who arrived several minutes later.
Then we sadly had to say goodbye - we exchanged invitations to visit each other in our home countries some time soon, and wished each other all the best in life, until we meet again.
Then we boarded the train, and after three hours and a connection at the train station in a small town near Venice called Monselice, and my uncle coming to pick us up at the train station in Mantova, we were back.
One thing I discovered was that Venice is actually not too far from Viadana at all - just a total of three hours by train, even with the connection, which I will certainly take advantage of during future visits to Italy.
The next day was my last full day in Italy, unfortunately, and I spent it hanging out at a good friend's house, watching a comedy movie, playing Just Dance, and talking about life and exchange, since my friend who was hosting the party is going to Australia later this year, and my other friend who was invited is coming to the States.
Then afterwards I went home, finished packing, wrote in my journal, and then had to endure a terribly early start to our journey home - our flight from Bologna to Amsterdam left at 6:30, so we had to get up at 3 to get to the airport on time, and of course I didn't fall asleep before we had to get up to leave. -.- I managed to get a bit of sleep on that flight, and then after our tight connection in Amsterdam and a fairly unremarkable 8 hour flight back to Detroit, we were home, arriving in the extreme cold and astronomical quantities of snow which were ravaging the Detroit area (and nearly the rest of northern North America) at that point in time.
I initially felt a bit upset coming back - we hadn't been able to stay very long, because we had to squeeze the visit between Christmas and the end of the break.
But fortunately, school then proceeded to get canceled for five consecutive days thanks to all the cold and snow - convenient for me, so I could get off of jetlag. xD Though I do wish I'd had the psychic ability to know that was going to happen before the fact - had we known, we could have stayed five extra days in Italy, come back Friday, and then we still would have had a weekend to recover. xD Oh well.
All in all, it was a fabulous trip. Quite a bit shorter than I would have liked it to be, but worth it nonetheless. I miss Italy now, but it's nice to be back in the States too, and I know I'll be back sometime in the not-so-distant future.
It's always interesting coming back from Italy. I was born and raised here in the United States, and so, understandably, this is probably the place where I feel most comfortable. It's the place I know the best, in which I can express myself the best, where my close friends and much of my family live. But there's also a big part of me which feels very Italian, and in some ways I feel more at home there than I do here. I wasn't born in Italy, but I've been visiting my mom's side of my family there for my entire life, and so Italy is part of who I am. The country and language have a very strong sentimental value for me. And coming back is always bittersweet. But it's also usually a very interesting point of self-reflecting upon my own identity.
Enough of my rambling, here are some photos:
From the descent into Bologna. 

The Borgo, the old part of Viadana (my mom's hometown).

View from the balcony of my Nonna (Grandma)'s apartment.

The piazza (town square) looking all Christmas-y.
Venice at night is breathtaking. 

Looks pretty rad in the daytime too.

Necessary photo of a gondola.

Me and my Nonna :) 

Ponte Rialto

Me and Regina on the vaporetto! :) I missed this girl like no other.

The frozen window of the plane from the descent into Detroit on the way back home. 

And now, some thoughts on my experience in retrospect:
On January 11, I volunteered with my local AFS chapter, assisting a few other volunteers in leading the midstay orientation for this year's hosted exchange students.
It went very well - it was my first time leading any event of the sort, and somewhat ironically so, as exactly a year ago that day I had been in Zamalek, Cairo, attending my own midstay orientation with Annika and Carson.
It went very well though - I had a good time, and I got to spend time with students that I'd already known, as well as get to know a few others a bit better. And I felt like I was genuinely able to provide effective and relevant advice from my own experience and from my knowledge of the way things work here on my own home turf.
Leading an orientation like this one exactly a year after I'd been the one being lead in one was eye-opening in a lot of ways. This, along with chatting with Regina in Venice about our experiences in retrospect, caused me to come to a few resolutions and conclusions that I thought would be relevant to share with you guys. So, without further ado, here they are.
  1. I don't do too well with excessive amounts of time alone. I think I had known about this beforehand as well. But my experience in Egypt, especially the second semester specifically, highlighted it for me. When on exchange, no matter how involved or busy you get, you're going to have large amounts of free time, and I am and was fine with that. I definitely relish getting to spend time with myself and focus on myself. But one of the many things I learned about myself on exchange was that I am not an introverted person. I crave and enjoy human contact, and I often feel very low if cut off from it for too long. I'm not saying the second semester was a bore, far from it. But I definitely could have accomplished more. Part of that's on me, part of that was on the specific circumstances of where I was. And part of that is just because of how being an exchange student is in general.
  2.  I really am proud of my roots and where I come from. OK, I had known this beforehand too. But again, my experience in Egypt really brought this out fully. I have wanted to travel the world since I was very young, and at times I've been so caught up with the foreign countries I want to see and experience that at times I've disregarded my own. I still do want to travel to a lot of places very badly. But now I truly recognize the worth and beauty of my own country and state, and I truly love them and am proud to come from them. This was true before, but again, it's been truly highlighted by my experience abroad. In fact, because of this, one of the places that is now highest on my list of places I'd like to go is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan - I've been to quite a few faraway places, but there's an entire half of the state I've been born and raised in for practically all my life that I've never even seen before, and I'd like to change that.
    Anyway, I'm now truly proud of the fact that I'm an American, a Michigander, and an Ann Arborite. Not that I wasn't before, but now I really have a balance - I have a case of insatiable wanderlust and wish to explore every corner of the globe and be a citizen of the world, but also a truly full love and recognition of the worth and beauty of the place I come from. And I now recognize that I have an intrinsic need to return to where I come from. I can't just abandon this place and never come back. I certainly plan on living elsewhere, hopefully multiple states and countries, in the future. But I will always return to visit the bustling, shimmering downtown, the sports games with the crazy maize-and-blue-clad U of M students, the gorgeous parks, the fun, upbeat music of Top of the Park, the magical, colorful, snowy Christmastime I missed so much in Egypt, the endless golden-red hues of autumn apple orchards and their apple cider + doughnuts, and so much more, in this incredible city which I am so proud and lucky to call my hometown (plus surroundings).
  3. Arabic is a difficult language in more ways than one. I have explained the diglossic dynamics of Arabic before, and I won't get too into them again. But it honestly does really get in the way of learning Arabic. Because I learned from being immersed and speaking, the Arabic I know is almost exclusively spoken and colloquial. That is all very well and good; I am extremely glad that I learned as much as I did in the time I was in Egypt; I love Arabic and I know that all that I was able to learn of it was priceless. But what admittedly annoys me very much about it is that there's such an astronomical difference between the written language and the spoken languageS (emphasis on the plurality). Since I can't write down the dialectical Egyptian Arabic I've learned, I can't really practice it, and I'm in a situation where it would sadly be all too easy for me to forget what I learned. I keep checking in to make sure it's still there, and honestly I haven't forgotten much. But I easily could. I'll need to find a way to change this... But even aside from the whole diglossic situation, the sense of humor also complicates things quite a bit. Even towards the end of my exchange, when I could understand around 85% well and speak about 70% well, oftentimes the odd and intricate metaphors that lace colloquial interactions would negate any understanding I thought I had. And trying to be funny or sarcastic, even towards the end, while speaking Arabic induced an equal amount of hair-pulling (like the awkward time I tried to say "Was I right, or was I right?" in Arabic to be funny and had to spend over a half hour explaining what I'd meant to my host brother Loay because he had no clue what I was saying...) So there's that too. I love the Arabic language, but it's a toughie. Undeniably so.
  4. Exchange can so easily be a tough experience. Before I left, I was half-hoping-half-expecting that mine would be one of those story-book exchange experiences, where my host country would become my second home, where I would effortlessly make hordes of life-long friends (both fellow exchangers from all over the world and locals), where I'd be invited to so many gatherings and events that I wouldn't know where to start, where I would be absolutely devastated to leave, where I would experience intense reverse culture shock and reverse homesickness for my host country after going back home, and so on. But now that I've lived my experience and met so many other exchangers, I now understand that those are truly more the exception rather than the rule. Sure, there are plenty of exchange students that have experiences like the ideal I've described. But most have problems of one kind or another. I know I did, in spite of my experience being quite successful overall. But there's just so much that can happen that I've now learned that these sorts of fairy-tale exchanges are the exception rather than the rule, and that should be kept in mind for anyone currently on exchange, or once was, or plans to be, when thinking about their own experience.
  5. My experience taught me so much about politics and international relations. Understandably, politics are something that are very much discussed nowadays in Egypt. People converse, debate, and argue about them on a daily basis, and the variety of opinions on how the country should be run, as well as those on various social issues facing the country is staggering. I also learned a lot about my own political views. I won't get too deeply into it, but let's just say that even before I left, I knew I was pretty left-leaning politically...But that being in Egypt really confirmed that for me.
    But on the other hand, this is somewhat of a good thing - due to my increased awareness of my own political views and affiliations, I have inspired to become more politically active in order to better support social issues that I am passionate about, so that's nice. 
  6. My feelings towards Egypt and my exchange there are many, and they are complicated. This is natural, I think. I have many very beautiful memories and things that I miss about my experience. But I also have many things that I'm glad to have left behind and don't miss at all. I've reconciled many of my negative memories, and I have come to fully appreciate both the good and the bad of my year in Egypt and how everything has come to form my experience and the way it's become a part of who I am. It's always evolving. 
That's all I can think of off the top of my head. Hope you enjoyed this :)

Possibly coming back soon with a new post. We shall see. 
(I'm kind of enjoying blogging again, so I think I'm gonna keep it up. I may give this blog a little makeover to ensure its relevance outside of my year in Alexandria. We shall see. :3)
Bye for now, guys!

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