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.