Cairo, Egypt - Differences are Relative

After nearly two months, I am reunited with my family. After traversing three different countries and an arctic island, I meet my mom, my dad, and my sisters at the airport in Cairo.

I have traveled to Europe nearly every summer since I was little to visit my family. It's easy for us. The only thing we pay is the plane ticket. Once we get there, food is provided to us (and usually much much more than we need), and so is a place to stay. When I was 18, I would sit in the airport with my dad and we would guess where each person who walked by was from. By the end of this summer, I was doing the same thing by myself. I've gotten pretty good at knowing the people of Europe, and now, especially the ones from its northern part as I studied with many Germans, Fins, Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, and Danish in a small arctic island for six weeks. I can walk into an airport and tell you who is from Italy, who is from Eastern Europe, who is Greek, who is Nordic.

The thing I hadn't prepared myself was for North Africa. I took a flight to Egypt from Rome. On the bus from the airplane to the terminal in Cairo, I met an Italian man with a guitar and naturally, (because of the guitar) we struck up a conversation. He, like me, had never been to Africa before and never to the middle east. He was flying to Cairo by request of the company he worked for, and he would live in Cairo for three months before going back to Italy. We spoke about our inferences regarding the differences between Europe and North Africa. In doing so, I am reminded of a lecture I was given by a professor at my university, on the concept of "the Mediterranean". Is it possible that two places, separated only by a relatively narrow sea, can be worlds apart in culture, language, religion, way of life?

You can travel between New York and Texas and think that you've observed the greatest differences between people and ways of life; these people eat barbecue and play country music, the other people eat bagels and take the subway train. Then you may travel between the U.S. and Europe and realize that Texas and New York are not so different after all. In Europe, those people wear tight pants, drink espresso, drive small cars, but in the U.S. we drive big cars and air condition our houses until we freeze to death. You may even (like me earlier this summer) marvel at the differences between people within Europe; the Norwegian with his Fjallraven pants, the Eastern European with his Adidas gear (he drinks hard liquor), and the Italian woman with her high heeled shoes (she drinks wine of course). How the hell does she walk in those things on cobblestone streets?

I never lumped all of those people into the same category before I visited North Africa. I traveled to Asia four years ago and caught a glimpse of the Eastern hemisphere but didn't spend enough time there to reflect (I was in China for a week when I was seventeen). In Egypt, my world was turned upside down. The streets have no lanes. Big cars, small cars, buses from the 1960s packed full with people, you name it. All of them are crammed into the same tiny street and yet they still find a way to zoom past one another. Being a passenger in a taxi in Cairo is a white-knuckle thrill ride; a dozen levels more extreme than driving in Italy or Romania. It's almost stressful just to sit there and see a van 0.5 inches from your face as you watch from the next car over. Somehow there are very few fatal car accidents in Cairo. I am more at risk driving on the highways in Texas, although they don't seem nearly as dangerous.

About halfway into the trip, after coming back from Alexandria, I was couch-ridden with a food virus. I didn't get up (only to go to the bathroom) for about two or three days. It's in these moments when you realize how "the same" everyone in the western hemisphere is. I never once felt this sick in any country in Europe. If my eyes and mind were not telling me, my body sure was- this place is different. But what makes a difference? And how big does it need to be, to be considered a legitimate difference? I recovered quickly, and I realized that all of the differences we observe between ourselves and the next country over, or the next two, or three- are relative.

Naples in July

After leaving Longyearbyen, Svalbard, I stopped briefly in Bucharest at my grandma's place. I had a couple of days to dump all of the cold weather clothing out of my bags and instead stuff them with dresses and white linen shirts. After five weeks in the high Arctic tundra, my legs were full of hair and as for the hair on head, this was the first time in over a month that it would be exposed to the outside air (without a warm hat on) for a significant period of time. For the first time in five weeks, I felt feminine again.

After constantly being the most bronze woman in the room, I was greeted by my high school friend, Camilla in the Naples airport, whose skin was five shades darker than mine after her many trips to the beach-

"Amanda! You're so pale."

Our time in Naples consisted mostly of hanging out. We walked around the archeological excavation sites (scavi), ate panini at the beach, took the train to Vico Equense, had aperitivi in Sorrento, and on the last day I sung and played guitar for nonno and zio Amitrano in the kitchen of their apartment in Castellammare di Stabia as pasta was being made. During the night time, I drank wine with Camilla's uncle. In between glasses he would cut pieces of parmeasan cheese and put them in front of me until I begged him to stop. Non c'e' la faccio! It seems like they always give the smallest person the biggest plate just to laugh when you can't finish it all.

"Amanda, tu mangi come un uccellino." (Amanda, you eat like a little bird).

It's the famous line I receive every time I go to Italy. I've acquired a pretty legitimate fear of eating in front of other Italians. It's a fear that I struggle with because Europeans (mostly Italians) will judge you extremely hard if you don't even make a dent in the food they've prepared for you. At the same time, you have to wonder where that judgement originates; perhaps from a place of care, a burning desire look out for one another. This includes making sure that we are all eating enough (too much).
View of Castellammare di Stabis from an elevated archeological site. Mount Vesuvius on the horizon.

Beyond the Arctic Circle - Photos from the Last Few Hours

Most of the permafrost class, who walked me, Karen, and Vida to the bus stop before we left to the airport.
One last photo outside of the dorms, over looking the fjord. Right before heading to the airport. Left to right: Vida (Norway), Karen (Hong Kong), me (U.S.)

"Svalbard" prosecco made in Italy. Not Svalbard.

My dorm room.

My grandpa's thermal shirt which also doubles as a pillow case.

Five Weeks Beyond the Arctic Circle - A Photo Dump

Photos from the last week in Svalbard (July 8th, 2019) on the trip to Pyramiden. Photos are NOT in chronological order.

Classmate Tereza with a giant block of ice.

Statue of Lenin's head (from the back) over looking the glacier and the abandoned Russian town of Pyramiden

Classmate Jarkko from Finland

Classmate, Tereza, from the Czech Republic.

From the abandoned Russian mining town, Pyramiden.

My classmates and I. Left to right - Me (United States), Bettina (Denmark), Karen (Hong Kong)

I have no idea who that person is.

Four and a Half Weeks Beyond the Arctic Circle - At the Edges

My last couple of weeks beyond the Arctic Circle consisted of aggressive report writing, last minute dorm cleaning, and rushed goodbyes. After all, I was there to study.

When I was little, I noticed something about the way my father would stand in a room full of people; or rather where he would stand. Every time I found myself in a public space (a school, an auditorium, you name it), I knew that there was always one place where I could find him: at the edge of the room.

I have heard of ex-convicts that always feel more comfortable sitting or standing at the back of the room, so as to make sure that there is no one to sneak up behind them. For these guys, it's a trust issue. For my father, it's an issue of getting the best vantage point. In the waiting period (waiting for your daughter at the school nurse or at the coffee shop), life is a spectacle; something to be watched. The people are actors, and all of the elements of the environment are props, meticulously placed to aid us in understanding the scene as a whole. My father stands at the back for the same reason that you wouldn't choose the very first row at the movie theater. You cannot get the full perspective.

I'm writing this post from my home in Houston, Texas. Three weeks ago, I was standing at what seemed like the edge of the Earth; the very top of the world. This was my waiting period, the period in between stages. Here is a nowhere place; no trees, no insects, few roads. And still, there is so much here which is intangible; things that you cannot see and cannot touch. You cannot bring many things here (only 23 kg to be exact). There is no time and simply no space to stress over unnecessary things. You to be selective about what tangible things you will use to create the space in which your life will play out for five weeks. Only the things you absolutely need. This time, your scene consists of few props. The rest of the world is far away in space and in importance.

There is not much to do once you arrive; one small grocery store, one university, a small nightclub where geeky outcasts dance embarrassingly and so vulnerably. The plot is simple but it moves fast. After a night of drinking, I sat with a group of classmates on the floor of a dorm room. On this floor, we were philosophers, future masters students, the next generation of scientists. Here, we admitted our lack of knowledge, it's the only way good science can be carried out; the only way to get to the truth. We didn't know all of the answers about climate warming in the Arctic in the same way that we didn't know where in the world we would be a year, two years from now. We did not know everything about sex; about men and women. We did not know everything about nature or death. Questions: if we couldn't answer each other, surely the world would give us the answers at some point in our lives. Until then, we speculate. And during this five week time for speculation, the rest of the world seems to recede into periphery. This is the waiting period.

Here, you realize what really matters. The other stuff, is too minute. At the same time, your suitcase can only hold so much weight. Only the most important things. The desire to change yourself in an effort to be more likeable, less overbearing, more insincere, and less vulnerable because it makes you "stronger" or more "cool"- all of these things are too heavy. There is no choice but to leave them behind. At the edge of the world, I made friendships which relied only on each of us being who we truly are; honest, and proud of where we come from. At the edge, I felt more "American" than I ever have in the United States. No one mistook me for a person I was not. At the top of the world, I realized more of who I am, and what was important to me.

Frantically searching for seat in the theater, I reside at the edge. Here at the top of the world, I realize that I have the best seat in the house; the best vantage point. I have time to look around. After all, this is the waiting period. From here I can see everything, everything that matters at least. The scene is set. I take a seat. And watch.

Three Weeks Beyond the Arctic Circle - Fjord of July

The following blog post was written on the fourth of July and I am only now getting a chance to post it. Life has moved way too fast the past few weeks. I'm now sitting in an apartment in Egypt, on holiday with my family. I came here by way of Italy, where I spent some time near Naples (Sorrento, Castellammare and the surrounding area). More on that later-
Happy fjord of July.
This is not the first Independence Day I have celebrated outside of the U.S., but it is by far the coldest. Nearing the end of my third week in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

Two Weeks Beyond the Arctic Circle

I'm nearing the three week mark on my "expedition" through Europe and North Africa and the two week mark on my stay in a remote island near the North Pole. I haven't seen the moon for fourteen days.

I'm studying permafrost here, but my time in Spitsbergen, Svalbard has been so much more than a strictly scientific endeavor. I am continuously inspired by the fact that there are 24 hours of daylight on the Svalbard archipelago due to it's position at the top of the Earth and its perpetual exposure to the sun from mid-April until August.

Those who are familiar with my songs/writings or have seen me perform, know how much I speak about the "everlasting daylight". Before I even knew that going to Svalbard was a possibility, I wrote a song about the Earth's rotation as I was traveling alone from Houston, Texas to Bucharest, Romania in the winter. When I left the states, it was afternoon, the sun was shining. When I reached Europe, nearly twelve hours later, the sun was still shining. It was morning again. I hadn't seen the moon for an entire 24 hours.

In that moment, I thought of myself as someone who was chasing a sort of everlasting daylight. I was eighteen going on nineteen, desperate enough for some change in my life that I decided to fly half way across the world to a city which seemed to be in hibernation under sub-zero temperatures. Why?

Like so many other people on this planet, I must have been looking for something.

And there must be reason why I am living here in Spitsbergen with so many young Swedes, Chinese, Americans, Dutch people, Brazilian people, Danish people (the list goes on). Now congregated at the top of the world, we do our searching under perpetual daylight. This is where we grow.

I am learning science; the science of crossing my fingers while throwing a load of laundry into a Norwegian washing machine on which I cannot read the instructions. I am learning the truth; the reality that there are so many people on this planet that desire something more than banality. I am greedy for knowledge, interaction, adventure. I want more. But don't we all?

Last week I picked up my guitar and polished the last line of a song I've been writing-
Seekers do their seeking in the everlasting sun; one by one, one by one.