Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Moving and pre-departure jitters

Hey all!

Tomorrow is the big day. At 3:52 Eastern Time, I leave Michigan. And at 7:30 Central Time, I will step onto the plane that will carry me to this blog's titular Land of Fire and Ice.

However, it is impossible to discuss my departure tomorrow without including a development of the last year and a half or so that I've mentioned briefly here and there, yet haven't gone into too much detail about due to the long hiatuses that I've continued to take from blogging, one after the other: My family's move to St. Louis.

While I'm in Iceland, my parents and sister will leave our house behind and meet the moving trucks at our new St. Louis home in the Central West End. I consider myself lucky, in many ways, not to have to experience the move directly, as I head straight back to campus at Beloit after my landing back at O'Hare on August 21. But that means that, for all intents and purposes, this is indeed goodbye.

Tomorrow is the day that I leave behind the only home I've ever permanently known. In all likelihood, forever.

As such, I'm trying my best to keep my mind grounded as it fights through a torrent of powerful conflicting emotions, swinging erratically back and forth between the breathless and tantalizing excitement of finally making it over to a place I've dreamed of seeing for a quarter of my life, the relief to finally be introducing a bit of excitement to what has otherwise been a pretty boring summer, and fear of leaving behind this place that has seen me grow throughout my whole life into the person I have become, that houses so many treasured lessons, secrets, and memories of my growth and self.

Many people I have talked to about these fears have been surprised that I feel this way. "But you travel so much, and you've lived in so many places!" they say. And while this is true, I've never permanently moved before. Not even houses. And all of the times so far that I have gone and lived away, whether it was living with my relatives in Italy for six months in middle school, my exchanges in Egypt and Turkey, or college at Beloit, these were adventures that, relatively speaking, I embarked upon by myself. My family was always here; this is always where I came back to.
Where I came home to.

When I was younger and first began to really fall in love with travel to the extent I have now, before having actually lived away for any significant amount of time, I used to front like it would be easy for me to go and globe-trot and I would have no trouble not coming back. I thought my desire to explore as much of the world as I possibly can would override my attachment to the place I grew up in.
And, as with a great many other previous misconceptions of mine, my year as a high school exchange student in Egypt with AFS did a great job of proving that I was wrong.

I got very homesick a number of times when I was there, at different intervals, for different reasons, with differing effects. But overall, to quote a post I wrote after I got back, "…I now recognize that I have an intrinsic need to return to where I came 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 maze and blue clad Michigan 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 gold and red hues of autumn apple orchards and their apple cider and doughnuts; and so much more, in this incredible city which I am so proud and lucky to call my hometown." 

I could not sum it up in any better words.
I know that moving away does not mean that I will never come back by any means - my family is already talking about coming back to visit as early as Thanksgiving. It doesn't mean that my feelings towards this place are any different. It doesn't change the fact that this is my hometown in which I grew up, that I love it, and I will always proudly proclaim to be from here.
But it's different.

It's different, new, scary, and kind of sad. Something big and crazy that I will be experiencing for the very first time in my life to this extent. As I've begun to meet up with close friends of mine, from people I've known all my life to more recent connections I made in high school, these meetings have sported a weight of finality above their usual fun, even though I know I will come back to see these people again.

I'm afraid, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

In spite of all these complicated feelings, however, I know in my heart that things will ultimately be all for the best, hopefully.
I still have my family, and my friends, and those relationships will not wither regardless of where I or any of them are in the world. I look forward to the adventures my parents, sister, and I will have together in St. Louis and beyond in the coming months and years.

And I know that, no matter where I go or what I do, I am a proud Ann Arborite and Michigander, through and through. It is a treasured part of my identity, and no one can take that away from me. I may still have an insatiable case of wanderlust that I will do my very best to feed at every opportunity, and I hope to go far. But I will always happily return to this city in which I was given life, where I fell in love with the world, and everything and everyone within it that have made me who I am.

Aside from all the moving jitters, here's to a new adventure. Ísland, hér kem ég. Ég er tilbúin.

-Nico (Nicholas Edwardsson, if fashioned in the traditional Icelandic patronymic style)

(A nice and relaxing song.)

(Figured this was appropriate.)

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Hey guys!

So after sharing some of my very favorite books and TV shows of mine, I thought it might be neat to do the same thing with some great movies I've enjoyed as well. I'll post a trailer for the movies I talk about whenever possible; for those where it's not possible, I'll insert a link. Also I will mention if it's available on Hulu or Netflix or anything else like that. Hope y'all enjoy!

1) A Borrowed Identity
This movie will be the first of a few movies having to do with Palestine/Israel. This one in particular is about a Palestinian boy named Eyad, who is gifted with great intelligence, and gets accepted to a prestigious Israeli boarding school, where he befriends a disabled Israeli boy and falls in love with an Israeli girl. It makes for a nice, fairly light and entertaining viewing overall, portraying a great ideal for integration and friendship between the two embattled peoples. It's on Netflix.

2) Live and Become
This movie takes place in the context of the airlifts of Ethiopian Jews (Falasha) from their homeland to safety in Israel during a war with Eritrea. A young Christian Ethiopian boy named Shlomo takes the place of a Jewish boy his age who passes away from sickness, and he makes it to Israel, where his adopted Jewish mother passes away as well. He is adopted by a French-Israeli family, and the rest of the movie deals with him trying to sort out and connect with the secrets of his past, as well as dealing with the racism he faces as a black man in Israel. A fantastic flick.

3) Promises 
A documentary for a change, this movie is a collection of interviews with Palestinian and Israeli children, who very aptly all live within twenty minutes of each other, but "are growing up in very different worlds." There is also ample, comprehensible historical context provided alongside the interviews for background information. In the end, a group of the children meet each other and have fun as children do, while still managing to have some pretty deep conversations about their complex political situation that demonstrate a maturity beyond their years. A must-watch.

4) Out in the Dark

Last in this little stream of Palestinian-Israeli movies, this one is a love story between two men, one Nimr, a Palestinian student at an Israeli college, and the other Roy, an Israeli lawyer. Besides covering the story of the love that unfolds between them, it also depicts a predicament of a little known intersection of people within the conflict: the plight of queer Palestinians, who face being ostracized, disowned, or even killed by their families in the Palestinian Territories, but are not recognized or helped in any way by the nominally pro-queer State of Israel. It's compelling, it's very intense in some ways; you really need to mentally prepare yourself before sitting down to watch it. But it's worth it for sure; a truly beautiful movie. It's on Netflix.

5) He Named Me Malala

A documentary about her life and accomplishments, this movie is essentially a televised version of the book I Am Malala. Definitely a great viewing, as in addition to all the elements of the book it also features conversations and bits of interviewing with good friends of hers in Pakistan, and her family. Many parts of the story are also very artfully and imaginatively portrayed with beautiful animation overlaid with narration. Fabulous. It's on Hulu.

6) Fly Away Home
If I had to pick a single favorite movie, this one would probably be my go-to. I've loved it since I was a very small child, and in spite of its status as a fairly little-known flick, I've always loved it a lot. It centers around the story of a girl named Amy, who has been living in New Zealand with her mom since the age of three, and has to move back to Canada to live with her estranged father when her mom is killed in a car accident. As she's getting settled in her new environment, Amy discovers an abandoned nest of Canada goose eggs, takes them home, and then they hatch. The rest of the movie deals with her and her father raising the goslings, eventually flying them south for the winter in homemade ultralight airplanes, and getting to know/love each other again in the process. It's cute, it's sweet, it will delight bird or aviation enthusiasts in particular. Watch it.

7) The Way He Looks
This is definitely my favorite queer movie I've seen thus far. The story centers around a blind Brazilian high school student named Leonardo, whose friendship with Gabriel, a newcomer to his school, begins to show signs of developing into something more. It's very interestingly realistic in most of its aspects, and really feels like something that could have actually happened in the real world. It has a great happy ending (in contrast to a lot of queer flicks). It scores a lot of bonus points with the representation presented by a disabled main character. It's very non-sexual and subtle in many aspects - though there is some bullying featured, none of it is really homophobic in nature, and the words "gay," "homosexual," or "queer" are never even said, which I find very interesting. Also it's freaking adorable as eff. Please watch. It's on Netflix.

8) Jongens (Boys)
If The Way He Looks is my very favorite queer movie, then Boys for sure takes a very close second. This one is about a friendship between two Dutch teenagers, Sieger and Marc, which gradually begins to develop into something more as they train together for an upcoming race (they're runners) and also begin to hand out aside from that. It's very similar to The Way He Looks in many aspects - the platonic beginning, the eventual questioning of the nature of the relationship, how it feels easily existable, the lack of any major homophobia or bullying, and an (ostensibly) happy ending. It's just a really nice, feel-good coming of age story. It's on Netflix.


9) North Sea Texas
Though it is also in Dutch, this one takes place in Belgium. This book centers on the relationship between two close friends, Pim and Gino, which they hide for a long time, mainly due to the fact that Gino's family acts as an adoptive family towards Pim since his mother is often not very present in his life. It covers the evolving and often tempestuous nature of the friendship/relationship they share. It's a little bit more emotionally intense than Boys and The Way He Looks, and definitely much more explicitly sexual at times. Still a great movie and worth a viewing overall. It's on Netflix.


10) Sasha
The last in this little stream of foreign gay movies. This one centers around a character (unsurprisingly) named Sasha, a student of classical music who is head over heals in love with his piano teacher. Being a member of a Montenegrin immigrant family in Germany, he also has to hide his true self from his homophobic family, and takes great comfort in his friendship with his best friend Jiao, a Chinese immigrant girl who can easily relate to him as a member of her own immigrant family. It's very interesting for a lot of these important intersections it portrays, and though perhaps a bit more suspension of disbelief is necessary than for the previous three flicks I mentioned, it still definitely feels like something that could have actually happened to a real person. 8/10 would recommend.


11) The Lion King
I would think I probably don't need to go too deep into talking about the story. But in case you've legitimately never seen/heard of this movie, it's Hamlet with lions on the African savannah. Main character Simba loses his father, Mufasa, the king of Pride Rock, to his uncle Scar and eventually has to go back to reclaim his own rightful place as king. I don't think I need to say too much more. It's beautifully animated, has great music, and is one of the best known movies of all time.

12) The Princess and the Frog
A more recent Disney movie, this one centers around Tiana, an extremely hardworking young girl from New Orleans who is on a mission to fulfill her dream of opening up her own restaurant. Along the way she accidentally kisses a prince who has been turned into a frog by a voodoo master, who mistakes her for a princess, and they must work together to break the spell. The plot can be a little confusingly complicated at times, but it's honestly a great movie. Very imaginative, out there, and also giving representation to an environment not covered previously by Disney. The music's great too (it's New Orleans, after all).

13) Mulan
This one is up there as one of my favorite Disney movies, though I actually saw it for the first time in high school. The basic plot is that, as the Huns invade Imperial China, a young girl named Mulan, fearing that her elderly father will be taken away as the only male member of their family and die serving in the war, disguises herself as a man in order to fight instead, and through a number of trials and tribulations, ends up saving the country. It's a good movie, quite funny at times, and also deserves some credit as being the first Disney movie with any sort of conscious feminist effort. It's on Netflix.

14) The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Probably my other favorite Disney movie ever, this one is based on the book by Victor Hugo, though it's understandably pretty watered down from its original source material to keep a hold of that G rating. Even so, it's definitely pretty dark in many aspects as far as Disney movies go, and by far the most heavily religiously themed. For those who know nothing of it, the main character, Quasimodo, is a deformed hunchback who hides in the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral and rings its bells, kept there by the villain, his master Judge Claude Frollo. Quasimodo develops a friendship with a kind Gypsy girl named Esmerelda, who is hated by Frollo along with the rest of her people. It's a bit intense at times as far as "kid's" movies go, but for sure a great one. It's on Netflix.

15) Up
One of the best Disney movies in general (I dare anyone to make it through the first ten minutes without shedding at least a single tear), this one focuses on Karl Frederickson, an old man who is doing his best to fulfill a dream he shared with his late wife Ellie to visit the lovely Paradise Falls in South America. Which he reaches by attaching a bazillion balloons to the roof of his house, and flying it south. Genius.
He has an accidental stowaway, a young boy from the neighborhood named Russell, who annoys him at first, but eventually they come around to each other. That's all you're gonna get out of me - go watch it because it's amazing. It's cute, the animation is great, it's incredibly imaginative, and also funny. Go for it.

16) Ratatouille 
Another one of Disney's most wondrous creations. This one focuses on the story of a French rat named Remy who is fascinated by humans, more specifically by human cuisine. He ends up in the prestigious five-star restaurant of a Parisian chef he greatly admired, and finds a clever way of collaborating with a bus boy named Alfredo Linguini to cook together as a team. I feel like a broken record - it's beautifully animated, cute, funny, blah blah…It also makes me super nostalgic for Paris. Need I say more?

17) The Rescuers Down Under
I promise, we're almost done with the Disney movies.
This one, a sequel to The Rescuers, is an improvement on the original by far, in my humble opinion. The story tells of a boy in Australia named Cody, who befriends a giant golden eagle named Marahute (one of the main draws for bird-obsessed, six-year-old me to this movie) and is imprisoned by an evil poacher who is trying to capture the rare bird for himself. When notified of his confinement, the two mouse characters from the original, Bernard and Miss Bianca, travel to Australia themselves to help set him free.
It's not too different from the original in its premise - it's just an adventure movie, featuring little talking mice. But it's done SO much better, and in Australia to boot. IMO this is one of Disney's most underrated movies ever, and not a lot of people know about it. If you're reading this, help change that. Watch it. Do it.

18) The Emperor's New Groove
Alright, last Disney movie for this list!
This one may sound a tad weird if you've never heard of it, but hear me out: In essence, Kuzco, the emperor of what is never explicitly described as but is almost certainly the Inca Empire, is (accidentally) turned into a llama by his vengeful advisor Yzma, the villain, who intended to poison him, in order to take over the throne herself. Through the help of a good-hearted peasant man named Pacha, he must find his way back to the palace and change himself back to a human in order to take over his kingdom, and evade capture and death at the hands of Yzma and her henchman, Kronk. It's actually a pretty good movie, and the two villains in particular are hilarious. Trust me, they make this, and they're worth everything else alone. It's on Netflix.

19) Love Actually
Please don't judge me.
This movie is undoubtedly one of my many guilty pleasures in life.
An occasionally cringe-worthy, but mostly adorable, collection of love stories all happening around each other in the London area which incidentally all have their climaxes on Christmas Eve.
A certain suspension of disbelief is definitely needed to get fully into this movie, and if you're not at all into schmaltzy, rom-com type stuff, you probably won't like it. But if you can get past those elements, you find a great and compelling Christmasy romantic comedy. I still greatly enjoy watching it every year around the holidays.

20) The Polar Express
Speaking of good holiday flicks.
The Polar Express is based off a children's book of the same name (which I also really love!). It's best to think of the movie and book as two separate entities, because they're very different in many ways. The book is a lot more ambiguous and ethereal in a lot of ways - i.e. there's only a few illustrations that betray the appearance of the narrating child. Whereas the entire movie is told from the perspective of the "Hero Boy," and has a number of plot adjustments in order to stretch it out to an hour and a half, through the use of (admittedly) not entirely necessary action sequences and characters getting lost. What makes up for any weaknesses in the adjusted plot is for sure the atmosphere and the appearance. With the possible exception of the human characters' faces, the movie is animated spectacularly, with bright, vibrant colors, and the environs surrounding Santa's workshop on the North Pole is incredibly imaginative. I rewatched it for the first time in several years right before Christmas this past winter, and I'm glad I did. It brought back many memories and feelings from when I used to watch it as a child. If you're looking for a good movie to watch right around the holidays, this is for sure a good one.

21) La gabbianella e il gatto - Rendered in its English version as "Lucky and Zorba" (though the original title means "The Little Seagull and the Cat"), this movie is based on a book by Spanish author Luis Sepúlveda called The Story of a Seagull and the Cat that Taught Her to Fly. When Kengah, a young seagull who gets caught in an oil spill, manages to lay her egg before death, she makes a cat named Zorba promise to take care of the chick that hatches, and teach it to fly. It's a movie that I've loved since I was very small, and a particularly prime example, I think, of an Italian animated film. It's truly a part of my childhood, and watching it always makes me feel very happily nostalgic. I believe that an English version was once produced, but I've only ever watched it in Italian. If you can I would recommend watching the Italian original with subtitles.

(I couldn't even find a proper trailer, so I decided to just use a clip, which doesn't have subtitles. Sorry if you don't speak/understand Italian.)
22) The Music of Strangers - Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
I actually only just saw this yesterday in a movie theater.
This one is a documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, which puts together the musical talents and traditions of people of very diverse national backgrounds. There are a couple of main interviewees who contribute the most to the movie - a Chinese musician, an Iranian musician, a Syrian musician, a Spanish (more specifically Galician) musician, and Yo Yo Ma himself, the visionary who worked to put it all together. They all go into great detail talking about their own musical backgrounds, their love of their own instruments and musical styles and, through those, their connections to their cultures, and so on. It also features a number of incredibly filmed scenes of beautiful places, particularly Istanbul, a few of which moved me to tears. Check it out if you can manage it, folks. You won't regret it.

That's all from me for now. Hope you all enjoyed reading this and that someone found a good new movie to easily watch! Take care.
Enjoy a good song too. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

TV Shows

(So apparently I'm including the song I'm sharing with you guys at the top of the post today, because blogger simply loves not cooperating with me. Oh well. Hope you guys enjoy this great song all the same, which I first heard on The Fosters, my favorite TV show, as I will shortly discuss.)

Hey guys!

After sharing with you some lists and descriptions of my very favorite books, I thought it would be cool to do the same with some neat TV shows that I've enjoyed in my day. There's not nearly as much to talk about here, as I only have a couple of TV shows that I'm really into to any major extent. But nonetheless, I hope you enjoy hearing about them and that my praises may become of value to some of you. :) Let's go.

1) The Fosters - One that I started watching in the spring of 2015 (two weeks before my IB exams, no less; my timing for discovering and getting addicted to shows is ostensibly not the best), this is undoubtedly my favorite show ever to date. When I started watching it, I got hooked in a way I never had on a TV show before, discovering the true meaning of "binge watching." The show is in essence about the life and times of a family formed by two moms, one of the moms' son from a previous marriage, their two adopted twins, and then a brother and sister who they start fostering and eventually adopt into the family too. The title of the show is a double entendre, being a reference to the last name of one of the two moms, Foster, but also being a reference to foster children, as that is what the brother and sister are when they first enter the family. The show does a great deal to publicize and bring awareness to the struggles typical of the foster community and the cause of aiding it. There is also great attention to representation of actors and character story lines of diverse racial and queer identities, and to touching upon various issues, from questioning one's sexual orientation at a very young age to police brutality against people of color. The show also boasts the honor of having featured the youngest same-sex kiss ever broadcast on American television, between the two characters who form my OTP, no less (meaning, as described on Urban Dictionary, "'one true pairing' in a work of fiction; a favorite combination of characters in a fandom; two characters a person thinks work well together"), who are the subject of that fan fiction I'm currently writing (so not sorry). Need I say more? It's amazing and in many ways unprecedented for all of the aforementioned reasons. It's entertaining, it's compelling, it's easy to get super into (as can be easily seen in my case). It's definitely geared towards a more younger audience, but I think people of all ages can easily find a lot to take away and appreciate from it. Check it out, folks. I'm sure you won't regret it.

2) The Tudors - This is a show I had seen my mom watch several years ago, but I only just really watched and got into it myself earlier this year. I got hooked on and was definitely binge watching this one a good deal as well, though not quite as quickly and precipitously as when I got hooked on The Fosters. This show is a dramatization of intrigue, scandal, love, and life in the royal court of Tudor England, focusing on the reign of King Henry VIII and his numerous wives - six, to be precise. I will forewarn you all that it can be quite raunchy and violent at times. Unsurprisingly, as this is medieval Britain we're talking about, after all. And though the historical accuracy is overall not too outrageously deviant from reality, the writers did take occasional liberty with it, so I would advise anyone watching that has any interest in making sure that they understand what really happened to do a bit of research alongside the show. But be all of that as it may, it's well acted, well put together, with beautiful costumes and scenery to match, and an inviting ease to viewing it which will get both giant history buffs and the unrepentantly not alike hooked like me.

3) The Simpsons - I've liked this show a lot for a very long time, and recently I was looking back on my life, thinking hard so as to identify how exactly I had started watching it in the first place, as I couldn't recall for the life of me. I've since determined that it was because in eighth grade, a teacher who I did not take from but taught people in my grade played The Simpsons in his room during lunch, as an alternative for anyone who didn't want to eat in the cafeteria (naturally, being the shy, uncool little fourteen-year old that I was, I relished the chance to take refuge with my soggy pizza and slushies anywhere that was not the cafeteria if possible, and just so happened to get into The Simpsons by taking advent of this one in particular). The show satirizes a great many aspects of American culture, society, television, and the human condition in imaginative and comical ways, and also is very easy to view in that it doesn't need to be watched in any sort of strict or linear chronological order. For the most part, all episodes consist of individual, stand-alone plots, so when examining different episodes, you can very easily just pick at random and enjoy. My personal favorites are the "Treehouse of Horror" episodes, which are the Halloween themed ones that feature two or three little story segments that are oriented in some way to this particular holiday.
(I couldn't find a more general trailer-type thing for the show as a whole, so I just used this random one.)

4) Red Band Society - Before I discovered The Fosters, the closest I'd ever come to truly getting hooked on a show was Red Band Society. I remember seeing a trailer for it in a movie theater, and thinking that it seemed interesting. So when I came across it one day while perusing Hulu, I remembered that, and gave it a try. At the time, new episodes of this show were coming out. For the first couple of months of my senior year, in the months right after I had gotten back from Turkey, it became a weekly ritual - I would come home from school, late since I had a two-hour martial arts enrichment after school, and immediately watch the new episode of Red Band Society. This show is about the life, times, and friendships that unfold between a group of teenagers living as patients in the pediatric ward of a hospital, all told from the perspective of a boy in a coma. It may sound like a downer, but for such seemingly intense subject matter, it was quite upbeat for the most part, while still paying ample respect to the issues at hand. It focuses on the ups and downs of how the various patients in the hospital deal with their own individual issues, as well as the friendships and drama that develop between them in rhythms staggeringly typical of "normal" teenagers. Unfortunately, for reasons unbeknownst to me as a big fan of the show, it was cancelled and not renewed for any further seasons. Admittedly, I too could benefit from a reviewing of the one season that does exist, as it's been a long time since I've seen it at all. But in any case, I would recommend it overall. 

5) Nurse Jackie - I have to admit that my grasp of this show is not up to par, as it's been a couple of years since I watched it seriously in any capacity, and I'm not at all caught up. But it's a show that I watched quite a lot back in the day (and still do from time to time) with my family, mainly my mom. Again the premise seems a bit intense - it's basically about a nurse named Jackie (shocker, I know) who is a drug addict. It also depicts the struggles and stresses of her everyday life in her harrowing work environment and at home with her husband and two daughters, and struggles to come to terms and deal with her own issues as a drug addict. Naturally, I suppose, given the subject matter it concerns, things do get heavy at times. But all in all it makes for a pretty interesting and entertaining viewing. 
(Couldn't find a trailer-type video, so I'm just being lazy and using the title sequence.)

6) Rome - Be warned: good and compelling as this show may be, it's raunchy and violent à la The Tudors, but even more so. This show is a British historical fiction dramatization which takes place in the 1st Century BCE, during Rome's transition from republic to empire. A number of very famous historical figures feature in this show, including Julius Cesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, Octavian, and even Cleopatra. The lead characters, though, for all intents and purposes, are a pair of soldiers named Titus Pullo and Lucius Verinus, whose life events ultimately intertwine with each other and with important historical events going on at the time. The show is exceedingly well-acted, has a very authentic and true feel to it, and for the most part is pretty historically accurate. Good stuff for sure. (No trailer for this one though, unfortunately.)

7) The Daily Show - This one is terribly famous, so I don't think I need to go too much into talking about it. Just in case you've legitimately never heard of it before, it's a comedy show that draws its humor from satirizing the news and the incredibly ridiculous and often effed up world we live in. I admit, I haven't watched it that much since Jon Stewart left. But the new episodes I've watched more recently with the new host Trevor Noah have been great too. Definitely with a different sort of feel somehow, and it's a little strange for me since this show is really something I associate with Jon Stewart. But great nonetheless.

8) Last Week Tonight - Essentially the same as The Daily Show in its premise and function, this show is hosted by John Oliver, who actually also took over as host of The Daily Show for a time while Jon Stewart was taking a break to help direct the movie Rosewater. This show is one that I've watched a lot more of recently, and it's fantastic. John Oliver's style of humor is one that I really click with somehow, and this show is always entertaining. He also seems to go interestingly off the beaten path in some of the issues he covers on the show, the best example being a 2015 episode I remember in which he talked about the shockingly unfair and antiquated laws restricting the citizenship rights and governmental representation of people from U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and American Samoa. Not too much more to say about this one; it's just really good. Check it out!

Well, thank you all very much for reading. I hope that this was at least a little interesting and that I get someone hooked on a great new show. ;) 

Do something fun today. 

Good reads

Hey guys!

Something I've always loved ever since I can remember has been books, and reading them. I was inspired to share some of my favorites with you all after my good friend Paula, a NSLI-Y alumna who went to Korea the same summer I was in Turkey and is one of the most awesome and like-minded people to me I've come into contact with, shared her favorite books in a post much like this one. (Hit up her blog, it's rad. :3)
I hope that this is enjoyable for you guys. If even one person reads a single one of these books and enjoys it, then I will be immensely happy. :)
  1. The Girl With Seven Names, by Hyenseo Lee. This book I read back at the beginning of the summer. It's an autobiography written by Hyenseo Lee, a North Korean refugee, who tells the story of her childhood in North Korea, her escape to China and the several years she spent there before finally ending up in South Korea, and then the harrowing and highly suspenseful tale of venturing all the way back to the North Korean border and back down through China to get her mother and brother to safety in the South as well. The book does a great job of telling these stories in hugely compelling ways along with providing ample context in terms of history and culture through Lee's memories, and also represents an interesting prospective of the author as a child of a fairly privileged and well-off North Korean family, as well as the Korean-Chinese community in China, which she did her best to blend into for safety reasons in her time in China (the Chinese authorities officially view North Korean refugees as "economic migrants" due to their alliance with the North Korean regime, and repatriate them if they are discovered in China without authorization, which results in their execution). It may seem a bit dauntingly long, but trust me, you won't be able to put it down. I finished it in three days. 
  2. Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick. This incredible book tells of the lives and times of six ordinary North Korean citizens over a fifteen-year period. Though it does a great job of giving historical context of the founding of the country, the Korean War, the rise of the Kim regime, and all that stuff, it really is a book that's focused on the everyday lives, the trials and tribulations, the love affairs and familial drama of ordinary North Korean citizens. The best example I can think of is this story about two teenagers who were secretly dating that took advantage of the lack of power at night to go for long walks hidden in the darkness together (they were from different social groups and had to conceal their love as a result). That sort of stuff is the true core of the book - simple yet profound elements of everyday existence. All of these citizens are now defectors living in the South, so the book also goes into detail of their intense and harrowing escape stories, and how some of them eventually reconnect in their new country. This was easily one of the best books I've read in a long time. 
  3. Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden. This book focuses primarily on the story of North Korean defector Shin Dong-Hyuk, who is the only person known to have been born in one of his country's many concentration camps for political dissidents to have escaped to the outside world. Aside from telling the intense tales of Shin's life inside the camp, his escape, and the process of adapting to life in the South, it goes into ample detail in explaining how these camps operate, and the psychology of life within them. On top of entire extended families being imprisoned in these camps where they are essentially worked to death and/or executed arbitrarily, they are forced to enter arranged marriages and produce children by the guards, to prolong the suffering of human life even further, creating entire generations that have known no reality but that of the camp, as Shin did. It tells of how the lack of the regime indoctrination in the camp which is the life and breath of mainstream North Korean society made it easier for Shin to escape and adapt to life on the outside, which I found very interesting. Naturally this book is quite intense in many aspects, but it's fantastic and informative. Bluebird NK, a club I was a part of at my high school, which works to raise money and awareness to save North Korean refugees, particularly children, actually reached out to Shin Dong-Hyuk, and in the spring of 2014 he flew out to Michigan all the way from Seoul to speak at our annual Korean Dinner about his life and experiences. It was incredibly surreal to meet him - here was this man who had survived all these unbelievable hardships I had read about, standing right next to me. I did a double take. On top of having survived all said hardships, he was a wonderfully pleasant, kind, and humble human being. He actually signed the dedication page of my copy of Escape from Camp 14 on my request, and as such, it remains, on top of being one of my favorite books, one of my most treasured and valued possessions. 
  4. The Invitation-Only Zone, by Robert S. Boynton. Last North Korea book, I promise (I've read a lot of good ones haha). This one focuses on an abduction project in which the North Korean government kidnapped several dozen people of diverse nationalities, though the majority of them Japanese, during the 60s and 70s. Stories of many are told, but the two most prominently featured are two Japanese citizens named Kaoru Hasuike and Yukiko Okudo, whose stories are told from the day of their abduction in Japan as young twenty-somethings, to their arranged marriage (luckily they were a couple and in love to begin with), hiding their Japanese nationality from the kids they eventually have, to the governmental negotiations which resulted in their return to Japan twenty-four years later. The book also goes into great detail explaining the historical relationship between Japan and Korea going back hundreds and thousands of years which ultimately influence the lives and standing of these Japanese abductees in North Korea. Might seem like intense material, but it's a really great and informative book with a (pretty) happy ending. 
  5. The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak. One of the most recognized Turkish authors, Shafak writes in a way that embodies her diverse and international upbringing, while still paying ample homage to her beloved hometown, Istanbul. She writes in a really beautiful way, always pausing for a moment to paint a clear picture of a scene or image in her reader's mind through intricate and beautiful metaphors. This particular novel is, at its core, a story about a friendship between two girls, one Turkish and one Armenian American, whose family histories are interconnected. Though much of the story seems like things that could well happen in the real world, there's also some really mystical elements of magical realism thrown in. One particular aspect of the book is quite disturbing. But fortunately, it's not revealed until the very end. Still an incredible book nonetheless.
  6. Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk. This book is a memoir by Orhan Pamuk, another prominent Turkish authors on an international scale, in which he goes into great detail describing the city and his relationship to it through memories of his childhood and adolescence, and growth into adulthood. It's not exactly a page-turner, more the kind of book that you enjoy and savor slowly. But still a worthwhile read nonetheless. An interesting and beautiful literary love letter to what I ardently believe is the loveliest city on Earth. 
  7. Turkish Awakening, by Alev Scott. Scott, who is half English and half Turkish Cypriot, moved to Turkey to learn the language, reconnect with her mother's culture, and do the research to write this book. The result is an outstanding overview of pretty much every facet of Turkish society and life, divided into chapters that tackle different issues and elements of life in the country. These range from technology and economic reform to the struggles of queer Turks, from the position of minorities in the society like Kurds, Armenians, and Greeks to the intense and contentious political rivalries that divide Turkish politics, including a chapter on the 2013 Gezi Park protests. It's hugely informative and well-written, a must read for anyone traveling to or seeking to better understand Turkey.
  8. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. This is a book I happened across while browsing in a bookstore about a month before I left for my exchange in Egypt, and as soon as I read the back cover, I knew I was walking out the store with it in toe. I wrote a whole post about this book as well during my first few weeks in Egypt, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. But it's about an medieval Andalusian shepherd named Santiago who embarks on a "personal journey" of exploration and self-discovery that eventually brings him all the way to the Pyramids of Giza (one can easily see how an exchange student headed to Egypt could connect with this book, no?) to find a treasure. The book talks a lot about the importance of realizing one's personal journey, listening to one's heart, paying attention to the omens around us, etc. I also loved the idea of "beginner's luck," that when someone earnestly seeks to fulfill their personal journey, all the universe will conspire in their favor. That, and the idea of there being a universal "language of the world" that everyone can use to communicate, regardless of what barriers there may be (as someone who has had great times in the company of people whose languages I couldn't speak too well, this one resonates with me in particular). The book is compelling, interesting, written in very beautiful, ethereal, and timeless language, and leaves the spirit feeling refreshed, so to speak. 
  9. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. An ideal introduction to the works of Czech-French author Milan Kundera, this book is told from the perspectives of two different couples who live in a Czechoslovakia on the brink of Communist collapse and separation. This book is another with an interestingly ethereal feel. I can't really think of much else to say about it, other than that I recommend it very much. 
  10. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a great book to follow up The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's quite similar to the former in many ways, but whereas the former takes place in a Czechoslovakia on the precipice of dissolution, this one takes place chronologically earlier to tell the tale of madness of the typical existence in the country under the full swing of its communist heyday. Also differently to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is told from the perspective of a comparatively much more limited number of characters, this one has a great number of them that operate in unrelated storylines. It has the similarly ethereal feel to it, and it's a great book as well.  
  11. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Definitely Hosseini's most widely known novel, and for good reason. If you've never read any of his books, I would say that The Kite Runner is a good place to start. It does a marvelous job of telling a story of a friendship between Amir and Hasan, two boys of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that are often at odds with each other, against a backdrop of years and generations of Afghani history. Although there are some rough, intense, and gut-wrenching parts of this book, it's definitely worth it. I find a lot of similarity between Khaled Hosseini and Elif Shafak's writing styles. They both have a similar eye for detail, never hesitating to take a moment to step back and weave in some detail with lovely and flowery figurative language. So overall, A+. There's also a great movie based on the novel to boot, which is in Hosseini's native Dari (Afghanistan's Persian dialect), with which he also occasionally embellishes the text of the book to give it a truly authentic feel. 
  12. A Thousand Splendid Suns is the only other book of Hosseini's I've read thus far. And I'm glad for it, because it's a good on to follow up The Kite Runner. It is similar to the former in many ways - the elements are essentially the same; a personal story spanning generations, told against the backdrop of the same monumental Afghani history and transformation of the country. The big difference is that this book is told from the perspective of two female characters, a young woman named Laila and an older one named Mariam, in contrast to The Kite Runner being a book heavily dominated by male characters. I won't say too much about the relationship between Mariam and Laila, because in order to say anything meaningful about it I'd have to spoil a good deal of the book. But suffice it to say that the relationship between them is strong, heartwarming, and empowering. Similarly to The Kite Runner, it has intense and disturbing elements to it. But the book is worth them all.  
  13. I Am Malala, by Malala Youssafzai. A memoir detailing all the many things that she has achieved and lived through in her young life, it lives up to the words of a The Guardian reviewer who stated that "the haters and conspiracy theorists ought to read the book." In this book Malala tells of her happy childhood existence, her love for school and education as long as she can remember, the BBC Urdu blog that she through which she fearlessly spoke out about her life under the Taliban occupation and desire for education of girls in her native Swat Valley, the attempt against her life in 2012, and her subsequent escape to and recovery in England. This book is a joy to read, and left me feeling an even greater respect, admiration, and love for this heroine of mine. I took my copy to the event I attended with Gianna and Salma at San Jose State University in California where we saw Malala speak, interviewed by none other than Khaled Hosseini, in hopes of getting it signed (along with my copy of The Kite Runner). Although there was unfortunately no meet and greet or anything where this could take place, and my copies remained unsigned, the event was no less incredible. Her never-ending bravery, warm aura, and friendly spirit were even more wondrous to behold in person. 
  14. Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse. This book is based on the life of the author's grandmother, with the main character being a young Russian Jewish girl named Rifka who emigrates to the United States via Ellis Island in the 1920s. The book is told through "letters" Rifka writes to her cousin in the margins of the pages of her treasured book of Pushkin poetry that she carries with her the whole journey. She faces many difficulties along the way, being separated from her family, having to make stops in both Poland and Belgium, where she explores the local culture and customs with great interest, and finally being held for weeks on Ellis Island itself before rejoining her family, where she befriends a little Russian peasant boy named Ilya. It's an easy and light read, but no less impactful for it. It's a "kid's book" for sure, though I was fifteen when I first read it. But it remains very special to me, and I would heartily recommend it unto anyone regardless of their age.
  15. Postcards from France, by Megan McNeill Libby. I actually wrote a whole post about this book during my first month back in Egypt, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much in case anyone cares to check that one out. But essentially, this is a book written by an American from Connecticut about her year as an exchange student in France - language learning, discovery of cultural quirks, struggles, victories, and all. It's divided into different chapters that deal with different issues, elements, or parts of the experience, from the language to observing the apparently great behavior of French dogs to the triumphant glory of being mistaken for a local. It's a great book, one that I heartily recommend to anyone who is, has been, or is thinking of becoming an exchange student, particularly if your country of interest is France.
  16. Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book inspired me to become a vegetarian. Though it was something that I'd been considering for a while prior, this definitely clinched it. The book is about agriculture, factory farming, and the meat industry in the United States, and how they've evolved over time in horrifying ways. The information is put forth in clear and plain terms, and was very obviously researched in thorough and exhaustive detail. Foer is primarily known for his fiction novels, and although I haven't read any of them, I now truly want to, because though one might think a book about this sort of thing to be quite cumbersome and dense a read, it's really not. It reads easily, like a story book, peppered with familial memories and visits to various farming institutions. I'm not out here to convert anyone, but I would say this book makes for a fantastic and thought-provoking informative experience.
  17. Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. This book is a teenage love story, and knows that, and loses itself in it wonderfully. It's not so intense as to be disturbing, but definitely with plentiful grit so as to make it not frothy or cheesy. The titular characters, Eleanor and Park, are students at the same school who, by chance, end up sitting next to each other on the bus one day, and their relationship builds from there to them eventually being each other's first love. The book goes to great lengths to establish them both as unique and well rounded characters with lives and issues of their own, from Eleanor having troubles at home to Park's relationship with his Korean immigrant mother and butting heads with his hardline, war veteran father when he takes an interest in eyeliner. It's compelling, it's cute, it's easy to lose yourself in. A great book for sure. 
  18. The His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. Most recognizable by the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, on which a movie was based, though the book's original title was Northern Lights. The two subsequent books in the trilogy are called The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I first read this trilogy when I was ten, and it became my favorite series I've ever read to this day. In these books, characters from thousands of parallel universes come together, with the climax ultimately being a conflict that threatens to destroy them all, but instead saves them. The universes are incredible, intricately imagined works of genius in my opinion, and the whole series is hugely compelling and intriguing. I have a lot of feelings about the movie version of The Golden Compass, as I don't believe it did the book any justice (as movie adaptations of books rarely do). Several main events in the storyline were either combined or needlessly reordered; defining elements of the book were greatly diluted, and the lackluster reviews coupled with the 2008 financial crash months after the movies release denied the production of any sequels (which I'm still highkey salty about). Nonetheless, I cannot deny the movie is aesthetically and visually very well done and does the book great justice in those elements for sure. In any case, the books are amazing and I truly look to them as examples of beautiful classics in fantasy. 

That's all I could think of for now, but it's definitely plenty, I would think.
Hope someone found this at least remotely interesting. May you all find good books to read and enjoy, whether they're on this list or not. :) 

Take care and look after yourselves, people.

A good song. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

More about Iceland

Hæ allir! / Hey everyone!
As you may have noticed, I've given my blog a temporary little makeover in preparation for my trip to Iceland, renaming it "eldur go ís(land)," Icelandic for "fire and ice(land)," two elements which are quite typical and defining of the country, its existence, and its fabled natural grandeur.

Since I've neglected this blog a great deal in the last several months, I realize that I haven't talked a lot about my upcoming adventures in Iceland, why I'm going, and just what it is I'll be doing there. Today, for that reason, I wanted to offer up a little more background info about the trip, and also just about the country itself.

Essentially, I was notified in the spring of 2015, a few weeks after getting into Beloit College that I would be among a group of select incoming freshman to be awarded a "Field Experience Grant," an allotment of money to organize and carry out a project of some sort over the summer of 2016. Naturally, my mind immediately jumped to venturing abroad, and I aspired to use my FEG to participate in a summer language program at an Icelandic cultural institution called the Árni Magnússon Institute. I also separately applied to the Critical Language Scholarship (essentially a college version of NSLI-Y, the high school critical language program I did in Turkey) for their Turkish program.

When I unfortunately didn't make the semifinals for CLS, I decided that I should line up some alternative plans in case I didn't make it for the Árni Magnússon Institute's program either. I thought of other places I might venture. Through online research, I managed to find the University Center of the Westfjords (Háskólasetur Vestfjarða in Icelandic), an institution of higher education in Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords region in the northwest of the country, about seven hours north of the capital, Reykjavik, as a potential backup to still get me to Iceland, as I've very much wanted to visit the country and learn Icelandic for a long time. I also thought of other languages I wish to learn, looking into programs in Budapest and Debrecen, Hungary, to build on the meager base I managed to build in my Hungarian class at Beloit last semester. I even thought of going to Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem to learn some Hebrew, or to Brazil or Portugal to gain a base in Portuguese, two other languages that have also interested me for quite some time.

My original intention, if I had been fortunate enough to get into the Árni Magnússon Institute's program, would have been to do that one, which took place from the 1st to the 30th of July, and then to immediately follow it up with a two-week intermediate Icelandic course at Háskólasetur Vestfjarða thereafter. In the end, unfortunately, I didn't make it into the Árni Magnússon Institute's program. At first, I turned my attention to the Hungarian, Hebrew, and Portuguese programs I mentioned above, because I had somehow gained the mistaken impression that the beginner level program at Háskólasetur Vestfjarða was only a week, and I didn't feel like that would have been worth it. However, upon closer inspection, I discovered that it was actually three! Figuring that would indeed be worthwhile, I quickly applied and was fortunate enough to be accepted. Iceland was in the cards after all, and I was overjoyed.

About three weeks later, in mid-March, I booked my plane tickets, and the deal was sealed. Sitting alone in my room after midnight, fighting a bad cold, I was overcome nevertheless with positivity and excitement. My adrenaline was rushing, my blood was pumping, and I felt alive and joyful in the purest way. I immediately went out for a walk into the clear, cold, starlit night, in spite of how late it was, dancing and skipping through a park near campus with glee.

The program will take place from the 1st to the 20th of August, but I will be in Iceland from July 28th to August 21st. The first four days I will spend staying at a hostel in Reykjavik to do some exploring and sightseeing immediately after my arrival. On the 1st, I will make the the seven-or-so-hour trip north to the Westfjords on a chartered bus serviced by the program with fellow participants, and for the three weeks of the program we will have our Icelandic language lessons five days a week, with weekends free for our own activity. The program ends on the 20th and the return chartered bus service back to Reykjavik leaves that day. I will stay overnight in a different Reykjavik hostel, and then fly back to Chicago the next day on the 21st, to return from there straight back to Beloit's campus to begin my sophomore year of college the very next day.
The place where I will stay with the other participants of my program is called Hotel Núpur, which is a former boarding school right outside of Ísafjörður. We will regularly go into town on trips organized by the program, which I look forward to.

Ísafjörður itself is the largest town and political seat of the Westfjords region. Its population is around 2,600. Its name means "ice fjord," a reference to the breathtaking geographical location and beauty. The town was first settled as far back as the ninth century, when Norsemen first arrived in Iceland. When I will be there, I will have unfortunately just missed the midnight sun, which lasts from around June 10th to 29th (though I'm sure it will still be quite light much of the time all the same). In spite of the minuscule population and historical isolation from much of the rest of Iceland, the town is said to have a surprisingly urban atmosphere, boasting a school of music, a modern hospital (the old hospital building having been converted into a cultural center with a library and showrooms), and even a reputation as a center within the country for alternative music, with an annual festival called "Aldrei fór ég suður" ("I never went south," a reference to a Bubbi Morthens song), which attracts people from all over the country and even overseas. And, of course, the University Center.
The town at night in the winter.

A better view of the namesake fjord.

The center of Ísafjörður.

A map of the country.

The Westfjords region is highlighted in red.

Ísafjörður is marked precisely within the region here.
The University Center's logo.
The University Center describes itself as a "small higher educational organization" which was established in 2005 and began operations in January 2006. It acts as a distance learning center that serves around 100 distance students. It offers two main master's programs, one in Coastal and Marine Management, and another in Marine Innovation. There are also a number of summer programs offered, among which the Icelandic language and culture immersion programs like the one that I'm doing. There are also a few others offered for different levels in the language.

I've wanted to visit Iceland due to my interest in its culture, language, and stunning natural beauty for a long time. The language has remained virtually unchanged from the Old Norse spoken by Viking colonists who came to the island around 870 CE, enduring so perfectly through the five hundred years that have elapsed that speakers of modern Icelandic can pick up a book, saga, or document written by their Viking ancestors in Old Norse and read it without any difficulty. The language also remains staunchly insular, fashioning new words out of existing roots rather than taking on foreign loanwords like many other languages do. For instance, the word for electricity, rafmagn, literally translated means "amber power." The word for telephone, sími, originally meant "chord."
I have always found the historical power and uniquely self-preserving nature of this language fascinating, and yearned to access those things by learning it. In my opinion, it's also a quite beautiful language to listen to. It's light, soft spoken, and airy, drifting in soothing up and down motions like the waves the Vikings crossed to bring that language to the island that's saved it to this day for all the world.
The contemporary culture also interests me greatly, seeing as the country is renowned for its extremely well educated and literate populace, environmental consciousness, concern with patronizing the arts and literature, and maintaining a progressive and dynamic national character and society.

I cannot wait to be exposed to all of these things in just a few weeks' time, and to learn and grow from this adventure in every way I can. I will always be grateful to Beloit and to the University Center of the Westfjords for helping me to realize this dream.

That's all for now, just wanted to offer up some background info.
Bless bless! / Bye bye!

PS: A cultural point of interest: most Icelanders don't have last names in the traditional sense. Rather than having a surname shared by the family, Icelanders traditionally use patronymics, a name derived from their father, as their surname. A person's patronymic surname is formed from their father's name, followed by "-sson" or "-sdóttir," meaning ___'s son or ____'s daughter. For instance, if rendered in this way, my name would be Nicholas Edwardsson (literally Nicholas, Edward's son), and my sister Carson would be Carson Edwardsdóttir (Carson, Edward's daughter). I've heard that in some cases a mother's name may be used in the same way instead, and that a very small number of people have begun to take on familial surnames like in other parts of the world. But the vast majority of the population still just uses patronymic surnames.
Just a fun fact.

(Here is another favorite Icelandic song of mine! It's called "þorpið," which means "village.")

(An a cappella version of the national anthem, "Löfsongur," meaning "Hymn.")

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The rest of 2016 so far

Hey guys!
I'm glad I was finally able to talk about the incredible experience that was my first return to my beloved host country of Turkey. Obviously it's been a while since then though, and unsurprisingly a fair amount of things have happened in the six months that have passed since my return (good grief, has it really been that long?! Yikes…). Today I'll finally catch us up to the present of what's been going down in my life the past couple of months.

1. Second semester at Beloit 
At the end of my magical eighteen-day Turkish odyssey, I returned straight to the campus of Beloit College to start my second semester of my freshman year the very next day. Overall the second semester was pretty good. Some of my classes, namely Russian language and culture, as well as guitar lessons, were fantastic, wonderful, and pretty much everything I had been looking forward to and more. Others, such as Hungarian and Central Asian History, which I had also looked quite forward to, unfortunately turned out to be letdowns in a lot of ways. Everything considered, I'm satisfied with what I learned and gained academically. I also was able to streamline my academic plans a bit further, by declaring a double major in Russian and international relations with a minor in Spanish on the day of spring advising practicum! 
On a day to day basis, things started to get kind of monotonous after a time. I credit this partially to the long and cold winter (even as someone who loves it), and also partially to the fact that the novelty of being at college had worn off in comparison to the first semester. Nevertheless, I bonded and grew even closer to most of the friends I had made the previous semester, and had a lot of fun and fulfilling experiences. Though I'm grateful for the long summer break to get away from it all for a while, I am looking forward to my return in the fall. My classes are mostly exciting, I'll be living in the Russian special interest House, I'll be beginning my plans and applications to study abroad my junior year, it'll be nice.
Sunset in Riverside Park near campus.

We get some lovely sunsets in southern Wisconsin.

What my dorm looked like by the end of the year.

A frozen river I crossed.

One of the most noteworthy experiences I had during the semester was a chance to attend the Midwestern Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Ally College Conference (MBLGTACC), an annual conference of collegiate queer organizations of Midwestern colleges and universities which this year was hosted at Purdue University in Indiana. I was among a group of people from Beloit's Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) which was able to go for the weekend, and attend a number of interesting panels on various issues relating to different queer experiences and identities. My personal favorites were the ones I attended on Native American two-spirit gender identities and queer terminology in American Sign Language. A great experience overall. 

3. Spring break at home
As good as things were on campus for the most part, I can't deny I was happy for our ten-day spring break. About two weeks after MBLGTACC, I headed back to Ann Arbor to spend my spring break at home, and it was fantastic. A bout of much-needed rest and relaxation, watching movies and The Simpsons until atrocious hours of the early morning with my cat on my lap. I didn't get to see many of my friends, as most were out of town or not on break at the time. But I was able to meet up and have some fun with those who were, conversely. 

4. Summer
The rest of the semester passed uneventfully enough, and even with surprising speed, I must say. Classes were over by the beginning of May, and as finals week was in full swing, friends began to leave campus and head home for the summer. I had only two actual final exams to take, but unfortunately one of them wasn't until the second to last day, so I had to wait pretty much right through the end. On May 10, my mom very graciously came to campus to help me move out of my dorm and put my things in storage in the basement of the Russian House, where I'll be living in the fall. The next day, once everything was put away, turned in, and we had lunch at Bushel and Peck's, one of the main restaurants in Beloit's tiny downtown area, we headed home and were back in Ann Arbor in time for dinner.
I won't lie, this summer so far has been quite boring. With such a long time before I would be doing anything or going anywhere, I tried to find a job, and even interviewed for a few. But none of those leads ever went anywhere. Many of my friends have been either out of town or extremely busy with summer classes, so I've been left with little to do with myself. I've been trying to make the best of it by reading for pleasure again as much as possible (something I had little time for during the school year), watching movies, and catching up on my favorite TV shows (#TheFosters, whaddup), and - dare I say it? - I've been writing a fanfiction. Even so, there have undeniably been long periods of extreme boredom and restlessness.
I don't fear as much for what's left of the summer though. Friends are getting back to town or less busy soon, I'm going to be volunteering at the Bird Rescue Center of Washtenaw County a few times a week, and hopefully trying to do some volunteer work for the AFS chapter in my area as well. 

5. St Louis
So as I've probably mentioned before, my family is going to be moving to St. Louis, Missouri. Originally we were supposed to move in mid-June, but the move got postponed until the first days of August. I was happy for the chance to calmly experience one last Michigan summer, but this is part of the reason I've been left with little to do.
However, I was fortunately able to make a trip out of it, and go visit my dad there for a week! I had only been there once before when my family met up there last Thanksgiving, and at that time I was only on the ground for about two days when everything was closed for the holidays, so I don't feel like I got a solid impression of the place. This last visit gave me a chance to thoroughly change that.
I really liked it overall. We spent a lot of time in Forest Park and the main sights thereabouts (the Zoo, the Missouri History Museum, etc), as well as some of the main downtown sights like the Gateway Arch and the Courthouse, as well as ample time strolling about through the delicious restaurants and neat stores of trendy neighborhoods like the Central West End and Tower Grove. We ate at some delicious restaurants, such as Sameem (Afghan), Grbic (Bosnian), Pho Grand (Vietnamese), and of course returned to Aya Sofia, home to what I retain is the best Turkish food I've eaten outside of Turkey. 
I also got a chance to meet up with one of my closest friends from Beloit, Abby, who is from the St. Louis area, on her home turf. One day we hung out and had some true St. Louis pizza at an Imo's, and then we also went to St. Louis Pride together, which was a delightful experience of queer solidarity and celebration in all its rainbowed glory. 
St. Louis is a wonderful city, and though I'm somewhat apprehensive about leaving the only home I've ever permanently known here in Ann Arbor, I do look forward to living in St. Louis and exploring it further with my family in the months and years to come.

6. Iceland
I was selected as part of a group of people in my freshman class to receive a Field Experience Grant from Beloit, a grant which we were to use to set up and carry out a project over this summer. I had a number of applications to different programs and ideas as to how I could use mine, but I ended up using mine to attend and participate in an Icelandic language and culture immersion program at the University Center of the Westfjords, just outside of Ísafjörður, Iceland. My program is from August 1-20, but I will be spending four days before the program and an overnight after it ends in the capital city, Reykjavik. All in all, I will be in the country from July 28 to August 21. I cannot even begin to explain the excitement I feel. I've dreamed of visiting Iceland and learning its beautiful and unique language for so many years, and in just a few short weeks, that dream will become reality before my eyes as I step off my Icelandair flight from O'Hare at Keflavik. Ég er tilbúinn til að koma.
As such, expect a potential Icelandic-themed makeover to temporarily take hold over this blog quite soon.
I will keep you all updated with the details as time goes on.

Enjoy a favorite Icelandic song of mine! It's called "Lifið er yndislegt" - "life is wonderful."

Also, in honor of my one semester of Hungarian, enjoy some good Hungarian music too!


In the meantime, take care of yourselves, dear readers. Learn something. Do something that makes you happy. Treat yoself. And take good care.

Good vibes always,

Türkiye Ocak 2016 - Turkey January 2016

Hey guys!
So now that I'm off for the summer, I'll start catching up this blog with an account of my amazing trip to Turkey back in January.

Istanbul: December 31-January 4:                                                        
On the 30th of December, my family accompanied me to Chicago, where we spent a few hours exploring the brightly lit city, still alive with Christmas lights and other such festive decorations, and eventually said our goodbyes as I hopped on a metro to O'Hare.
From the Turkish Airlines checkin all the way to the Istanbul, I was overcome by this overwhelming sense of surreal excitement, as I began to fully internalize and realize that this adventure, this return to my beloved host country which I had dreamed of since August 11, 2014 - the day I'd left the first time - was finally coming to life before my eyes.
Towards the end of the flight, as we entered the Turkish airspace, I admired the view from the window with this little spiel in my travel journal: "Hovering over a seemingly desolate, rocky brown landscape, we seem to be nearing our descent here on Turkish Airlines Flight 6…I'm hyped up [in spite of the jetlag]; these views of the Earth from the sky, the gentle rumble of the engines as background noise, this is the stuff I live for."
I was immediately struck by the seasonal change - there was plentiful snow on the ground, more, in fact, by far than there had been when I left the American Midwest! Not a problem for me, in any case - I'm a big fan of snowy weather, and as far as I was concerned, it made my favorite city on Earth even prettier. :)
In spite of the fact that I arrived on New Year's Eve, I did little to celebrate the new year. I made my way straight to the #bunk hostel where I was staying, near Taksim Square, checked in, showered, and just about collapsed into bed.
I awoke the next morning bright and early, tanked up on breakfast at the hotel, where it was served on the top floor, with a beautiful terrace overlooking the city on which people can sit outside in warm weather, and made my way straight to Sultanahmet, where many of the touristy attractions are located, on the metro.
I visited the Basilica Cistern, a hauntingly wonderful underground complex of ancient columns and two famous Medusa busts, and then headed from there to what I'd been most upset about not being able to see my first time in Turkey, and therefore made darn well sure it was one of the first things I saw this time: the Hagia Sophia.
And my God, it was worth it.
I found myself mesmerized and enveloped by the many layers of inter-religious history - the sweeping golden letters of Arabic calligraphy spelling "Allah" and "Muhammad," the Byzantine mosaics of Biblical scenes, and the warm, lovely colors that they all shared between them. I explored all the floors, stayed for over three hours, and still could barely stand to leave.
From there, I headed to the Archeological Museum, where I was treated to a rich and never-ending spectacle of artifacts and relics from all ages of the city's monumental history, as well as a little bonding moment with a pack of friendly cats in the garden outside, and then I ended my incredible first day with  a visit to the Topkapı Palace, the ancient home of the sultans. Unfortunately, I came just late enough that the harem, which I'm told is a main point of attraction, had just closed. But I was still able to draw plentiful enjoyment from the exquisite colors and architectural mastery of the site, imagining the lives of the powerful monarchs who had once ruled one of the world's mightiest empires from it.
My second day started off with a visit with a friend - I went to hang out with my good friend Demi, who I met at the YES end-of-stay orientation in DC last June, in a district called Eminönü. We first checked out the New Mosque, one of the defining landmarks in the area, and then walked and talked as she did a bit of shopping in a nearby bazaar in preparation for a visit to her host family in California the very next week. We finished our time together with a quintessentially Istanbullu lunch near the water's edge - balık ekmek (literally "fish bread," a delectable fish sandwich) and turşu suyu (pickle juice). It was lovely to spend time in one of my favorite cities with such a good friend. :)
From there I headed to a different mosque in another neighborhood called Süleimaniye. There I meditated peacefully, as I enjoyed feeling small inside this amazingly large and tranquil spiritual space.
I finished the day's adventures with a visit to the Galata Tower, which is not especially remarkable in and of itself save for its impressive size and presence, but offered some magnificent views of the sprawling, snow-covered city.

The next morning, I headed up to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which is in many ways the antithesis of Topkapı- as much as Topkapı is a monument to oriental Ottoman opulence, Dolmabahçe is a stronghold of European royal envy, a Versailles on the banks of the Bosphorus. Certainly more familiar-looking, but no less impressive. Unfortunately I wasn't able to take any photos on the inside, as it was prohibited. I wandered down the street afterwards and took a quick peek inside Dolmabahce Camii down the street, which was lovely to look at, but not especially distinctive compared to Yeni or Suleimaniye Camii. After that, I headed back to Taksim to meet up with Gökçem, another Istanbullu friend of mine from the YES end of stay orientation, who had been an exchange student in upstate New York. We walked up and down Istiklal Caddesi together, had some sweets and tea, and also stepped inside the rather impressive Church of St Antony of Padua.

The last day was sadly my last in this favorite city in the world of mine, the only one which quite literally straddles two continents. But I made sure to make the most of it.
Checking out of the hostel early in the morning, I stored my stuff and went off on a last stream of exploration. First up was the Kariye Muzesi (Chora Church in English), a beautiful old Byzantine church full of golden walls and Biblical mosaics. I experienced a crazy moment of spine-tingling interfaith glory as the ezan echoed from outside through the mosaic-clad walls of this old church.
After a quick cay in a nearby cafe, I made my final stop of the day at the AFS Turkey headquarters in Nisantasi, where I payed a quick visit to my friend Cemre, who works at AFS Turkey and made a visit to my local AFS Washtenaw chapter in Michigan in the spring of 2015, at her office. After a while chatting with her and her colleagues, I headed back to #bunk, caught my feribot (ferry boat) to Bursa, and shed a few tears as I left behind this city I love so.
How snowy it was when I got there.

The Basilica Cistern.

Hagia Sophia.

Topkapı Palace.

Me and Demi.

View from the Galata Tower.

Dolmabahçe Palace.

Me and  Gökçem

Chora Church. 

Bursa - January 4-January 11:
Once ferry, one bus, and a metro ride into my host family's neighborhood, and I was back and Bursa, where it all started - the city in which I fell madly and irrevocably in love with Turkey.
This weeklong portion of my trip was different from the days I spent in Istanbul in many ways. It was the first time I've returned to either of my host countries, and in some ways I was unprepared for just how it would feel. During the first hours and days of the trip, as I stepped down into the metro, heard the names of the stops on the intercom which I could almost remember, walked off into my host family's neighborhood and up into their house, I was beset with a sensation of intense deja vu peppered with crazy nostalgia. For the first three days I was in Bursa, I could go nowhere and do nothing without  memories of things I had done or experienced on program the first time rushing unexpectedly back to my senses, things I hadn't thought of in a long time.
I remember one of the first things I did after getting back to my host family's apartment was retrieve my Turkish language textbooks, which were waiting for me on the bookshelf in the room I always stay in there, and looked over exercises I remembered, compositions I'd written, and little notes that reminded me of things we'd done or said in class together. It was bizarre, surreal, and somehow beautiful.
The first few days I just sort of chilled out a lot at my host family's house. It was nice to have the chance to rest up a bit and regain my energy after four straight days of constant sightseeing and meeting friends in Istanbul. I grew closer to everyone in my host family this time, and also was able to get in some good Turkish practice with my host parents (I'm glad I had a couple of days in Istanbul to get warmed up before being thrown into that immersive situation).
One day I went out with my host mom to buy my bus ticket to Izmir and then meet a few of her friends that work in the center of the city. The day after I went out by myself to do some shopping for souvenirs in Kozahan, the Silk Bazaar in the center of town, as well as a bit of sightseeing - I went back to Ulu Cami, the Grand Mosque of Bursa, which still holds the humble honor of being my favorite mosque in all of Turkey. Another day I hung out with Sena and Şeyma, the Turkish host sisters of Gianna and Salma respectively, with whom I journeyed to Hünkar Köşkü, a lovely property up in a mountaintop in the outskirts of Bursa which belonged to the famed and well-loved founding president of the modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. We enjoyed the incredible sprawling views of the city, the two of them graciously translated the tour we got of the small but dainty and well-kept house on the property, and I enjoyed some great company catching up with two good friends. :)
Overall, my time in Bursa was fantastic. Istanbul is my favorite city in the entire world, but Bursa is my Turkish home, the place where I fell in love with what has become one of my favorite countries, and it will always be special to me for that.
On January 11th, I said goodbye to my Turkish host family and home, and headed off to catch my bus to the city which would be my last stop for this trip. And as incredible as what came previously had been, it wouldn't be a lie to say the best was saved for last…

The Silk Bazaar sold silk, surprisingly enough.

The breathtakingly peaceful beauty of Ulu Camii.

The view of the city from Tophane - had this directly to my left as I sipped tea at an outdoor cafe. It was a pretty rad moment of zen. 

A mosaic of the teleferik (cable car) in a metro station. 

The view from Hünkar Köşkü. 

Sunset near my host family's apartment complex.

Izmir - January 11-January 17:
I'm glad that I was able to enjoy my five-hour or so bus ride from Bursa to Izmir - aside from the fact that it was quite comfortable, complete with entertainment systems and a snack cart, it was wonderful to watch such a large and varied chunk of the country unfold before me as I passed by. The nondescript minarets of quaint little country villages, towering mountain ranges, sprawling forests, and all in between.
Once I arrived in Izmir, I got settled in my clean and comfortable hotel in the Alsancak neighborhood near the water, and spent most of the days I was there dedicated to spending time with Gianna and Krista (as well as their three fellow NSLI-Yers on Izmir's year program, Kendall, Lars, and Mary-Eleanor, or ME). I found in the Izmir portion of my trip a sort of happy medium between the constant and unending slew of activity I engaged in while in Istanbul, and the much more subdued and relaxed time I spent in Bursa. I found that, though Izmir is most definitely a beautiful city and 100% worth seeing, there's not a whole lot of specific monuments one should visit, like Istanbul. It's more a city to be enjoyed in aimless wandering along the Kordon (the main street along the water's edge), taking a ferry ride to the other side of the city just for the sake of it to watch the sunset, and the maze of the Kemeraltı Bazaar.
Even so, I did manage to see some fantastic specific sights which I most definitely would recommend - one is Kadifekale, an old castle located on a hilltop just outside the city, with absolutely breathtaking views. Another would be Ephesus (or Efes, in Turkish), which is a large and spectacularly preserved complex of Greco-Roman ruins which I took a morning off to go visit by myself, and had a great little adventure doing so. Aside from being delighted that I got a chance to see such a magnificent place, standing in the midst of these old marble buildings that had stood for thousands of years, I was also immensely proud of myself for navigating the three different forms of public transportation to get there completely by myself, using only Turkish (#smalllinguisticvictories). Another place I'll mention would definitely be the Agora, another complex of Greco-Roman ruins which is located well within the heart of the city itself. Not nearly as grandiose as Ephesus, but still impressive for sure. There was an unaltered, functional fountain inside this complex that was working after having been left untouched for thousands of years. As an Italian, I have a marked fascination with Roman ruins as being part of my own cultural heritage, and this discovery left me with my spine tingling. My ancestors may have been pillaging warmongers, but no one can deny that they sure could build.

The afternoons and evenings I spent with Gianna, Krista, and their friends were truly some of the best in a long, long time. Sitting at cafes on the Kordon, practicing our Turkish together while also indulging in some swift and slangy English that an Anglophone exchange student inevitably comes to crave after long periods without it, laughing and talking about anything and everything - those moments were incredible, and already halfway through the week I was dreading leaving them behind.
We also met three other AFSers who were in Izmir on unsponsored programs, Soraya and Joshua from Germany, and Mint from Thailand.
On my own time, I also met up with two more friends I made at the YES end-of-stay orientation: first, my good friend Damla, who I hung out with near the Clock Tower for a few hours before meeting up with Gianna and Krista on the first morning, and in so doing, got to see the incredible views of the city from Tarihi Asansör, a lovely historical tower in the Konak district not too far from my hotel. And a few days later, my friend Cavit, who I managed to squeeze in a quick hangout with in the afternoon after I got back from Ephesus.
There were a number of friends I made at that orientation who I really wanted to meet up with, but unfortunately didn't get a chance to, as most of them were high school seniors in the midst of horridly intense studying for the infamous high-pressure end-of-high-school exams that play (in my opinion, certainly) an unfairly huge role in determining the college opportunities, and by extension, the general futures, of Turkish students. Next time.
Another thing that was beautiful in Izmir was the weather - in the low 60s Fahrenheit the entire time I was there. In many ways, the city reminded me a lot of Alexandria - similar geography and climate, and a similarly cosmopolitan Mediterranean heritage. As I've mentioned before, there is a hugely distinct polarization in contemporary Turkish politics between the secularist and Islamist factions of society, and though there is certainly overlap everywhere, for the most part the western and eastern regions of the country are dominated by the former and latter respectively. Even so, Izmir is westernized, indeed almost European, in a way that is atypical for much of Turkey, and it was interesting to see that element to the local culture. All in all, Izmir was the first place I saw on this trip that I had truly never been to before, and I'm glad for it. It's a lovely place that I enjoyed in some of the best company there is anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, as most good things, I suppose, my six days in Izmir (and eighteen in Turkey) came to an end on January 17. I took the metro to a stop where I changed onto the IZBAN, a larger train line for the Izmir Metropolitan Area, which I took all the way to the airport. As I gazed out on the lush green foothills in the distance and the foreboding grey clouds that began to let forth a gentle drizzle, I quietly cried on the train as I approached the end of a voyage in one of my favorite countries that enriched my soul and invigorated my love of life in a way only it and my loved ones therein can do.
My trip back to the States passed uneventfully enough - I only had a brief connection in Istanbul to contend with, and landed in Chicago to find its -2 degree temperatures a far cry from the balmy Izmir winter I'd left behind. I took the Van Galder bus straight back to campus at Beloit, and collapsed almost immediately into a deep, jetlag-induced sleep, with only that standing between me and the second semester of my freshman year starting the very next morning.
On the bus ride.

Tarihi Asansör.

Me and Damla.

Rainbow and peace-sign decorated staircase.

At the Agora.

Hisar Camii.


Me there.

One of the innumerable spectacular views.

Izmir's iconic Clock Tower (Saat Kulesi).

Took a ferry ride across the city for the heck of it while I waited for my friends to get out of their Turkish classes.


I think this was a temple?

The entrance to a library, I believe.


The Kordon at night.

Me and Cavit (pronounced "JAH-veet.")

Saat Kulesi at night.

Me and Gianna.

A synagogue I found which was sadly closed.

On the descent into Istanbul on the way back.

An additional note: 
On a darker and more sobering note, I do wish to pay a bit of homage to the victims of the many savage and deplorable terrorist attacks which my beloved host country has suffered lately. October 10, 2015 and February 17 and March 13, 2016 in Ankara. January 12, March 19, and June 7 and 28 in Istanbul. And April 27 in Bursa, right outside of Ulu Camii, no less.
Various groups trying to heinously perpetuate their evil agendas by targeting areas in which countless innocent civilians have lost their lives in these attacks of hateful violence. Many Turkish, others not.
It makes my heart heavy to have to address such matters, and that such matters even exist to be addressed in the first place. But we must remember and honor these people, lest they be lost in vain.

Firstly, I would like to extend my deepest and most heartfelt condolences to the entire nation of Turkey, in particular the families and loved ones of those lost or affected by these tragedies. None of you are alone. The world sees to and mourns with you, and sends you nothing but love, good vibes, and wishes for eventual peace.
Secondly, I would like to reiterate something that I discussed at great length in the post I wrote while in Izmir, about the Turkey that I would like the rest of the world to know. In that post, I talked about how Turkey is a safe country, and how I never feared for my safety for a single second either of the two times I've visited thus far. As much as it breaks my heart to say it, it's certainly not as safe as I said at that time anymore. But even so, regardless, to anyone considering going: PLEASE DO. When you think of Turkey, think of iftars in front of the Blue Mosque, of hijabis marching in Istanbul Pride, of imams sheltering cats in their mosques from the winter cold, of people of diverse beliefs and interests coexisting, of priceless antiquities and monuments of every age, and of hospitality, love, and warmth unmatched by those of any other land. Don't be afraid to experience all of these things and more in a country that is one of the world's greatest lands. This is the true Turkey, the one that the world should know. Don't be afraid to experience it. Don't let them win.
I have greatly mourned every one of these attacks and the hardships they represent for the country that is my third home, and have taken every opportunity possible to keep in mind the country and the victims of these attacks in thoughts, prayers, and actions to fight for peace. I heartily encourage anyone who reads this to do the same, and pass on such sentiments.
Things look tough at the moment. But, with will and some luck, inşallah, we will see peace again some day soon.

Thank you all for reading this account of a wonderful trip back to a country that I consider my third home. I have already been missing it dearly these past few months, and hope more than anything to go back and visit just as soon as I can manage it.
Stay safe and be well, dear readers. Kendinize iyi bakın.

P.S.: Enjoy my favorite Turkish tunes!

(A little throw-in: Turkey's rousing national anthem, the March of Independence.)