Monday, March 27, 2017

The sentimentality of places

Hey guys!

So a few months ago my dear friend Paula wrote a status on her Facebook asking people what places they felt sentimental about and why. I answered, and had so much fun doing so that I said to her in an additional comment, "you may well have just inspired my next blog post."
And while it wasn't the next one literally, as I've written a couple since, here were are nonetheless.
Being a super sentimental person who has left his heart in tons of places, writing about the places I mentioned in that comment is going to be super fun for me.

Let's go!
  1. Ann Arbor, Michigan: So in case you didn't know, Ann Arbor is the town in which I was born and grew up practically all of my life. I've studied at college in Wisconsin for nearly two years now, and last summer my family moved to St Louis, Missouri. Not having my home base in Ann Arbor very more is very weird and even quite painful at times, but I don't care to discuss that too in detail (maybe another day). What matters for the purposes of this post is the place and how it makes me feel. And I honestly love it so much. As much as I always used to front when I was little like it would be easy for me to move away and never come back, I found I was W-R-O-N-G. Ann Arbor is where I grew up, where I fell in love with the world, where all of my childhood and adolescent secrets, growth, development, and memories reside. It's a very comfortable place to live and grow up. It's very pretty, with different kinds of beauty that provide subtle and beguiling changes that show off different sides of the same places and sights at different times of the year. There are all sorts of diverse educational opportunities and events as a result of the University of Michigan's presence in town, which is something that I highly value as having given me access to different opportunities I was lucky enough to participate in there. That's about all I can think of. Ann Arbor is an amazing place that is a part of who I am, a part of my very identity and soul, that I  carry with me everywhere I go. Because of the nature of how I grew up there, for a solid nineteen years, I'm beginning to realize that as much of a traveler as I may be and as many places there are in which I feel at home, none of them can ever feel like home to me in the same way that Ann Arbor does. I miss it intensely, every day of my life, and cannot wait to finally go back this May for the first time since last July. 
    The view of downtown <3
  2. Viadana, Mantova, Lombardia, Italy: Viadana is a little town of 20,000 souls on the banks of the Po River, right on the cusp of the Lombardy-Emilia Romagna border, where my mother was born and grew up until she moved to the United States at the age of twenty. Though she's lived in the States since then, her entire family and many close friends still live there, and so throughout my life I've grown up essentially with two countries, two identities, and two languages. Every year growing up, usually in the summer, I would go to Viadana with my family for at least three weeks to visit my relatives. When I was fourteen, I decided to take matters into my own hands with regards to my lackluster Italian skills, and so I went and lived with my uncle and grandmother for five months, commuting every day with my uncle to the nearby village of Dosolo, where he owns a drug store, and going to school there. In this first little "exchange" of mine, I regained my fluency in my first language. Needless to say, Viadana and its environs constitute a place of immense emotional significance to me. They house a good portion of cherished childhood memories of mine from our numerous visits every summer, which I always looked forward to. Ever since I can remember I've been going, and I've always felt very at home there. I think of myself as having a very general and non-regionally specific Italian identity, devoid of typical campanilismo, meaning "bell tower-ism," referring to strong regional identities attached to different regions or towns (hence the bell tower reference) throughout the peninsula. This is especially due to the fact that, much as I love Viadana, I would never live there permanently, as it's very provincial, isolated, and consequently the people as a whole, even of my own generation, are generally not as open-minded as I like. Even with all of this, it is impossible to deny that my Italian identity is attached to Viadana. Though I haven't grown up there for a comparable solidly long party f my life, Viadana is my home in much the same way as Ann Arbor is, and it is a place of great importance to me that I always return to happily. 
    A church in the center of town at twilight - the piazza is directly behind it
  3. Bursa, Turkey: In case anyone didn't know, Bursa is the city in Turkey where I was hosted during my NSLI-Y program there in the summer of 2014. It's the fourth-largest city in the country after Istanbul, the capital of Ankara, and Izmir, and was the "first major and second overall" capital of the Ottoman Empire between 1335 and 1363. Istanbul is without a doubt my favorite city in the world (more on that in a moment), but Bursa holds an irrefutably special place in my heart as being, for all intents and purposes, my Turkish home. Of the different communities in which I've been hosted, it's the only one that I've returned to thus far, and coming back to it felt like returning home in the Turkish context. It felt familiar, welcoming, a place where I have the support and hospitality of my host family and their loved ones to fall back on, which is home to the treasured memories and growth of my first summer in Turkey. It's rich with Ottoman history and gorgeous architecture, referred to aptly in Ottoman Turkish by the nickname of Hüdavengir ("God's gift"). It's surrounded by majestic mountain peaks covered in lush green forest, with cozy little mountain villages and both Ottoman and Greco-Roman era historical sites dotting its province. I can think of few better words to articulate my feelings about Bursa then these I remember writing in my journal while I was there: "when I see the light of the sunrise hit the mountains in the distance on my long metro ride into the city every morning, I know I was meant to come here for a reason."
    A view of the city from Hünkar Köşkü, a mountaintop residence of Atatürk's
  4. Istanbul, Turkey: As I mentioned above, Istanbul holds the humble honor of being my favorite place in the entire world, my favorite city I have ever visited thus far. This is something which has developed over my two visits; the first time I loved it and felt very drawn to it, but also did not spend very much time there, and our time with our program was quite controlled and structured (sometimes in illogical ways), so I didn't quite get a chance to formulate that connection. That was more a feature of the second time I visited in January 2016, in which I had four days to wander the city more or less alone aside from a few meet ups with Turkish YES alumni friends of mine. I wandered the city in all its monumental historical glory, spending three glorious hours falling in love with the divine beauty of the Hagia Sophia, taking in the view of snowcapped rooftops from the Galata Tower, discovering the secret underground world of the Basilica Cistern, and getting to know the city intimately in its little-known coastal mosques, quiet residential alleys, and dynamic metros and buses. I fell head over heals in love, seized by a peaceful sense of belonging and allurement such as I've never felt anywhere else, as though my soul had been linked to that city by destiny. I know that sounds revoltingly cheesy, but it's true. I don't even know what else to say about Istanbul; it's incredibly gorgeous, built on nearly five millennia of history, a dynamic and diverse microcosm of the very nature and defining beauty of the human condition. I cannot recommend it enough (as can be seen). I've missed it every day since I last left, and shed very real tears on my ferryboat as it departed for Bursa. In spite of the tense political situation, I yearn to go back, and fervently hope that I will be able to soon. 
    The aforementioned view from the Galata Tower
  5. Rome, Lazio, Italy: Rome is a place in which I have admittedly not spent a ton of time. I've only been once, which was the summer between my fifth and sixth grade years when I was twelve. I was in Italy over the summer with my parents and sister visiting our family, and we decided to go to Rome as a side-trip, just the four of us, for about four days. But I remember being utterly spellbound. I've always been something of a big history buff, and at that time in my life I was pretty into ancient Mediterranean empires/cultures, namely Rome and Egypt. Needless to say, visiting this city where so much of what I had been reading about and learning about had actually taken place, where there were museums and genuine artifacts and monuments built around them, was, for sheer lack of any more apt terminology, pretty fucking awesome. I love Rome for much the same reasons as I love Istanbul; for it being a place of intense significance, literally built on its millennia of history, dripping with atmosphere and beautiful culture. And in addition, it also has a bit of a homey twist for me as a center for the Italian psyche, feeling breathtakingly and tantalizingly unfamiliar, but also welcoming in its language and culture at the same time. I greatly hope to spend a while living in, or at the very least return to, the Eternal City at some point in the not-too-distant future. 
  6. Venice, Veneto, Italy: I think it's hard to visit a place like Venice and not have it become a place of sentimental significance. Something about the sheer improbability and constant novelty of finding oneself in a city perched on the sea, where canals take the place of streets and little boats that of cars and busses, captivates and fascinates. I've been to Venice twice, once when I was about five years old, just barely old enough for a few snapshots of it to be successfully etched into my long-term memory, and once again with my mom and grandmother just about three years ago, when I was seventeen (I also met up there with my dear German friend Regina, who I'd gotten to know from my exchange year in Egypt). I suppose being somewhere with someone you greatly love, care about, and have missed for a long time can definitely influence a favorable impression of a place, and that certainly may have been true here. But I still found myself mesmerized by the haunting and ethereal beauty of the place itself. We arrived at night in perfect darkness and therefore didn't get a good look at it until the next morning, and I don't think I will ever forget the feeling of stepping out of that little apartment where our friends were hosting us in Canareggio and seeing the palazzi on that street and the canal in front of it illuminated by the light of day. 
    A street in Changer
  7. Núpur, Vestur-Isafjardarsysla, Iceland: Iceland is a place that I love and feel nostalgic for in general for a great many reasons. From a geographical and natural standpoint, it is without a doubt the most breathtakingly beautiful place I have ever seen in my life. The whole country is alive with spellbinding landscapes and little traces of history, by kind people with a wry sense of humor and a gorgeous, ancient tongue. But the Westfjords, and especially Núpur, where my language program I participated in last summer took place, are the seat of my Icelandic nostalgia. The Westfjords are pretty much the closest thing that I have to an Icelandic home, and though I certainly wouldn't call them as much in the same way as I would, say, Bursa as my Turkish home, or Alexandria as my Egyptian home, due to the fact that my stay was only three weeks long and I didn't forge a ton of local relationships since mine was not a homestay program, the Westfjords definitely represent a site of formative experience and great enjoyment for me. They boast a beauty that is both typically and atypically Icelandic - since most of the volcanoes in the area are extinct, there logically is not a ton of volcanic activity as in much of the rest of the country, and the trappings that come with it, such as vents of thermal water, beaches with black volcanic sand, and so on. But what there are many of in the Westfjords are (unsurprisingly) fjords, mountains, beaches, gorges, and waterfalls. Being their in the summer, the unity of these features with sunlit greens and scattered patches of colorful flowers produces an otherworldly beauty. The midnight sun that kept true darkness at bay the entire time we were there made for a truly ethereal atmosphere. And from a standpoint of human connection it was just as incredible. Our ragtag bunch of thirty-five or so from the United States, Italy, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England, Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Canada, Japan, China, Kenya, and half-Icelander-half-Irish-born-and-raised-in-Paris made for an odd but lovely union of people. We were there for diverse reasons, some to study the language of their ancestors, others to prepare for an exchange semester or year at an Icelandic university, but many more, whether they were studying languages, physics, or architecture, were just there for the sheer adventure and pleasure of taking the plunge into a beautiful, little-known language. My time at Núpur was magical, and I will always look back on it as my incredible introduction to the Icelandic language, and a wonderful time in my life.
  8. Reykjavík, Iceland: - Reykjavik is the only other place in Iceland in which I spent any significant amount of time, four days after my arrival, and one night before my departure, flanking my three-week program at Núpur. Capital cities often tend to be microcosms of their respective countries, and this is definitely true of Reykjavik. It's quite small as a capital city and largest city of a country by international standards (around 130,000 within the city proper and 200,000 or so in its overall metropolitan area), but it still has a fiercely cosmopolitan air. It's at once Icelandic and international, crawling with tasty restaurants of diverse cuisines and visitors from the world over, with museums and monuments proudly attesting to the country's rich cultural and historical heritage. In behind the city lies a range of modest but beautiful mountains, reminding this little urban outpost of the wildness of its land, which is never far away. Even though it's FILLED with tourists in the summer (try to avoid spending too much time there between May and August if you can), it's a beautiful city which I have fond memories of, and I especially feel that in my last twenty-four or so hours there before flying back to the United States, I got to see it in a whole new light after building my understanding of Icelandic culture and language, as though it had granted me an 'in' on the city that the average tourist never sees.
  9. Beloit, Wisconsin: Beloit is a town of about 36,000 people right on the border of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, site of the college of the same name at which I study, now a sophomore. Much as I may complain sometimes about its size, lack of certain types of opportunities and diversity, and so forth, it's not a terrible place to be. The downtown is pretty cute and has some neat stores and restaurants, there's a really nice park near campus along the Rock River that has been the site of many a sunset walk of mine, and when I'm feeling really desperate to break out of the bubble, it's neither too long nor too expensive a trip to Chicago or Madison, both about an hour away northwards and southwards respectively. But I think that the sentimentality I attach to Beloit is more experience, rather than place, oriented. Though I've not changed immensely since I got here as a freshman in terms of interests and ultimate long-term goals, I've done a lot. I've formed a number of very close, rewarding, and supportive friendships with people who have been there for me when I've most needed it, and who have shaped my perspectives and worldviews greatly as people of various racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, academic, mental health, and class identities. Thanks to the professors, events, and classes I've participated in, I have learned so much about so many things, and have reinforced and streamlined my own academic and life goals. And as a result of all of this, this has been a place of great formative growth for me. As excited as I may be for study abroad later this year and what lies beyond graduation, and as much as I may need to break away from this place from time to time for the simple maintenance of my own sanity, I do love this place a lot, and I will miss it dearly while I'm gone. We are definitely not perfect as an institution, as not a single one is, and I try as much as possible to be conscious of that and call it out when necessary. But the experiences I've had here have been amazing overall, and I cannot deny how much of a constant this place has been in the face of being uprooted from Ann Arbor as a center of the Midwestern terrain, climate, and culture I've been familiar with growing up, and spending the majority of the year here, Beloit has essentially has come to function as a makeshift home for me, one that I'm proud of and thankful for. 
  10. San Francisco, California: San Francisco is honestly one of my favorite places in the whole world. Barring the hideous costs of its housing market, it's the place I would most like to live in all the United States. I've been there twice, once when I was fourteen with my family, and the second almost two years ago to visit Gianna, Salma, and Ruth when we converged on Gianna's beautiful Excelsior District home. Its natural beauty of diverse kinds, with oceanfront walks and mountain hikes at equal convenience, is nothing short of dazzling. I love it's baffling microclimates, which lock it in a near permanent state of 65-ish degree Fahrenheit weather, which is pretty much my picture-perfect climatic ideal. Its delightfully liberal politics are just the short which I jive with. Its ethnolinguistic diversity and queer friendliness make it just the sort of dynamic and cosmopolitan place that I love and feel comfortable in. Going along with the nature bit, the focus on environmental sustainability that is clearly palpable in the city is to be greatly admired. And last but certainly not least, I have very good friends and extended family that give the area an even friendlier feel. I can honestly think of little else to say; I just love it so much. And I fervently hope that, short of marrying rich or playing favorites with my internal organs, I can make my dream of living there a reality one day, or at the very least go back to sometime soon.   
  11. Portland, Oregon: The reasons I love Portland are in many ways quite similar to the ones for which I love San Francisco. The natural beauty definitely holds out - the lush forests, tall mountains, and gorgeous sapphire coast are all very easily reachable. The weather is a little hotter than San Francisco, at least when I visited in the summer, but I've been through worse. It's a little more matter-of-fact in its ethnolinguistic diversity and queer friendliness, with the latter particularly being less ostentatious, but they're definitely there, helped in no small part by the similarly left-leaning politics. The environmental sustainability focus is even more pronounced. And even though it's a little earthier in its vibes and ways of doing, I liked that a lot. It's very real and down-to-Earth in a way that I find refreshing. It was my first place that I traveled to alone without any family or people helping me, which gave me great confidence and independence in my travels going forward. And though I can't say much in any specific terms about this, it was also a site of some wonderful, positive, and formative romantic experiences of mine. :) I'm really hoping to go back sometime soon, especially because thanks to Beloit's interestingly high population of Portlander students on campus, I now have some good friends who live in the area that I would love to visit on their lovely home.
  12. Topsail Island, North Carolina: I can hardly begin to describe the emotional significance that Topsail has for me. For context, my American family is very large (my dad is the youngest of ten children), and scattered all over the United States. For years growing up, Topsail was our traditional meeting point, where we'd all get together for a week or two, enjoying each other's company with the backdrop of the powerful and inviting Atlantic waters, the flaming sunsets over the sound on the other side of the island, and the cute bookstores and shops in the center of town. I went there every summer of my life until I was sixteen, with the last time I went being the summer before I left for Egypt. Unfortunately we haven't gone since; we stopped going in the summer after that year because my grandparents weren't feeling up to the trip anymore, and since then some of my relatives have continued going, but they tend to be the retired or working-age ones whose schedules allow them to make the trip off-season, when it's unfathomably cheaper. Though I've doubtless had some pretty incredible adventures in the four summers that have followed since the last time I went to Topsail, it's a place of immense childhood significance for me, that I deeply love and care about. I hope that later on, as I get towards the time in my life when I might be able to go off-season as well, I can join my relatives that have kept going at that time. Or go back sometime else. Whatever works.   
  13. Traverse City, Michigan: Traverse City is probably my favorite place in Michigan aside from Ann Arbor. I used to visit it often as a small child, because my dad had annual work conferences there for which we as his family were allowed to join him. It's located in the far north of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, a good four hours by car from where I grew up. It's located on the shore of Lake Michigan, with the impressive Sleeping Bear Dunes and the insane steep drops right behind them towards the giant sapphire expanse of the lake itself. There are lush forests nearby, and the downtown area itself is not bad at all, full of cute shops and very tasty restaurants. I definitely miss Ann Arbor more than anywhere else in Michigan, but in terms of priorities as a place to revisit within my beloved home state, Traverse City doubtless takes a close second.      
  14. Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Italy: Parma, as I believe I've mentioned in the past, is the closest big(ish) city to Viadana. It tends to be something of a point of reference for the viadanesi, a place they go if they want to go shopping, out to dinner or a movie, or just need a little escape from their provincial home. This was definitely true for me as well when visiting there, but it was also quite pronounced due to the fact that we, until recently, had a family apartment in town. My great-grandparents used to live there when they were still alive, and my grandmother had held on to it as a means of helping her brother, who worked as a fruit seller in Via Farini, one of the main streets in the center of town. Back when we had the apartment, we would stay there a few days every time we came to Italy. Now it's unfortunately been sold, but due to the reasons I mentioned earlier, we invariably still end up going to Parma a few times per visit. And though I certainly don't know it as well as Viadana, or love it with the same frenzied passion I feel for Rome, walking down Parma's streets I always feel calm, content, as if I've been welcomed back into a place from my past. It's like a second little home for me within the radius of my family's home turf in Italy, and I always go back happily. 
    Via Farini
  15. Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota: I visited the Twin Cities for the first time last October, when I went to visit Gianna over my fall break. From what I'd heard, I imagined I would like them a lot, and I was definitely right. The city in some ways reminds me of other cities I love on the west coast, like San Francisco and Portland, but with distinct traces of the familiar midwestern culture I grew up around in Michigan, on a big city scale. The architecture is very sleek and modernist, with tall buildings glossy and full of glass. It has a very palpable respect for, proximity to, and integration of nature into its urban environment, and there seems to be a cultural affinity for appreciating nature and activities within it that remind me a lot of Iceland. That's about all that I can think of specifically off the top of my head; I just really enjoyed my time in the Twin Cities, even aside from the fact that I was visiting one of my best friends in the world there, and for that reason as much as to see the cities themselves, I hope to go back again. 

  16. Madrid, Spain: I'm thinking about writing a more detailed blog post about my school trip to Spain and France over the summer of 2015, as I mentioned it in a post I wrote later that year, but in a highly overgeneralized and undetailed fashion. Suffice it to say for the purposes of this post that, with a few additional stops in between, the main points of our trip were Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, and Normandy. I loved every place we visited on that trip, but it definitely helped solidify my love of Spain in particular, which captivated me. Particularly within Spain, Madrid stood out as my favorite place we visited. Some of my other classmates who were with me didn't understand this, feeling like we had visited more monumental places. But I can't quite put my finger on it; I just really loved Madrid. Everywhere in Spain we were had bright colors, vibrant architecture, vivacious people, a lovely Spanish accent, insane history, and a general feeling that felt homey to me due to its resemblance to Italy, but with a streak firmly its own, different enough that it felt tantalizingly and invitingly new and unfamiliar. Of all the places we visited, Madrid was the one that combined them in the way which most appealed to me. I can't really say why. I just fell in love with it, and I hope that Madrid might be a potential site of the consolidation of greater fluency and accent authenticity which I hope to forge for myself in Spanish in the future. 
    Plaza del Sol
  17. Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy: Bologna is a city in Italy which I've been pretty familiar with in the past, as it's a sizable city not too far from where my family lives, and going to Italy growing up I'd fly into Bologna's airport much of the time. But even so, somehow this most recent trip there, when I was in Italy a few months ago, caused me to see the city in a new life and fall in love with it. It's pretty much perfectly sized, big enough to be dynamic and have plentiful resources and opportunities, but not to the point of it being dizzyingly chaotic. It's breathtakingly beautiful, with plentiful aesthetic architecture in dazzling oranges and reds. It has delicious local cuisine. It's got a delightfully left-leaning political tendency and an immensely educated nature, in no small part because of its prestigious university. I can think of little else to say about it; it's one of my favorite places I've visited in Italy, and will be at the top of my list for places I hope to live while fulfilling my goal of spending another more extended period of time in the future.

  18. Bolzano, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy: Bolzano was honestly not a city that I expected to fall in love with as much as I did. As I mentioned in my post about my most recent trip to Italy, my plans for the trip that I ended up spending part of in Bolzano shifted erratically a great many times and only fell into their ultimate form at the last minute. In the end, I ended up spending a day trip in Bolzano with my aunt, and was captivated. I guess it's natural that I'd end up loving Bolzano as someone who is fascinated with multilingualism and intersections of national identity, because that's literally what Bolzano and its regione, Trentino Alto-Adige, are built on. Having shifted borders and been ping-ponged back and forth between Teutonic and Italian powers many times, the lines between them are hugely blurred. Nowadays the whole region is bilingual, and the respective groups are fiercely proud and even protective of their respective ethnolinguistic heritage. Beyond that, the food is hearty and tasty. The architecture is lovely, with soothing soft lines and creamy, azure hues that make the center of town look like something out of a fairy tale. As someone whose favorite holiday is Christmas, the holiday atmosphere in its distinctly Saxon Christmas markets did not disappoint. And from a natural standpoint it's incredible too - the mighty Dolomites stand guard over the town like benevolent guardians with flowing snowy cloaks, not allowing the city to forget its mountainous roots. I can think of little else to say; I truly, truly loved it, and hope to go back soon. The experience I had in Bolzano interested me in German much more than I was before, and going forward I may deepen my knowledge of that language in order to connect more with the heritage of this city that I grew to unexpectedly adore.

  19. Aswan, Egypt: As a place that I lived for almost a year, it's only fitting that I should write about some Egyptian cities too. Of the whole year I was there, one of the best times of the entire year was the midyear AFS trip to Aswan and Luxor in the south of the country. It came at a time when I was really ready for adventure, and wanting to get a wider impression of the country I had tentatively begun to call home. Aswan was honestly lovely. The weather, warm during the day and cool at night, just enough to need a light sweater, was picture perfect. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, with the nature of the Nile coming into full bloom, quite literally, clean and full of life and animals and colors in a way I had never seen it in the unfortunately more polluted northern cities. The cultural differences were fascinating, as Aswan is something of a concentrated seat of Egypt's southern Nubian minority, and their unfamiliar language, energetic dances, and colorful clothing. I also was able to experience more of Egypt's Christian community, as my temporary host families from the local AFS chapters in both Aswan and Luxor were Christians. And as the four of us exchange students who were left by then were all there, and being hosted by AFSers, many of the young people having been exchange students themselves, it was wonderful. Aswan was honestly one of my favorite places I visited the whole year I was in Egypt. 
  20. Luxor, Egypt: Ditto on pretty much everything I mentioned above for Luxor as well. Overall there were definitely many things in common about what I loved in Luxor that I did in Aswan too - the natural beauty, the weather at that time of year, the togetherness with everyone and the fun I had with all the people I was traveling with. But beyond that, there were a few differences. While my Aswan temporary host family were Protestant Christians, my Luxor temporary host family were Coptic Christians, Egypt's traditional Orthodox church which comprises the vast majority of its Christian population. Therefore I was able to experience their unique traditions, from the Coptic language itself that preserves many features of the language spoken in the times of the pharaohs, to the ornate rituals of its services. But perhaps the biggest characterizing feature of my experience in Luxor, and of the city itself, would be its history. It's a short drive away from the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Nobles where Egypt's elite and royalty were entombed for centuries, and is home to the Temple of Karnak. Entire parts of the city are like giant open air museums, and the whole time I was there I felt like I was bringing my childhood fantasies of discovering ancient Egypt to life. Needless to say, it was beyond incredible; I can barely find the words to describe it.


  21. Cairo, Egypt: I think a list like this would probably be incomplete without talking about my visits to Cairo. Over the course of the ten months I lived in Egypt, I visited Cairo a total of five times, all for very different purposes. The first time was when I had just stepped off the plane and was there for my welcome orientation overnight. The second was for a day trip with my local AFS Alexandria chapter, when we went to see the Pyramids of Giza, the Old City, and the Salahaddin Citadel. The third time I was there for a weekend in the winter for my AFS mid-stay orientation with the other hosted students. I went again in the spring for a fourth time with my host mother and her aunt to visit my host mother's parents. And then the last time I went later in the spring was to visit my good friend Hady, who I had met when he'd been an AFSer himself in Ann Arbor from 2010-2011, and hosted me in his home for a weekend. As a result, I got to see the city many times, but each time experiencing it in very different ways with different people, and thus getting to see the city in a variety of different lights. The first time I wandered around the island neighborhood of Zamalek, tasting shwarma and sugar cane juice, spellbound by the sound of the Friday call to prayer, taking in the sensory overload of arriving in such a new place with my brain still reeling from jetlag. The second time was unabashedly touristy, even for the Egyptians I was there with, a sampling of some of the city's most well-known monuments in all their historical grandiosity and contemporary kitsch. The third time was quick and fleeting, just a little weekend with the two other exchange students and the volunteers directing our orientation, sampling Zamalek's beautiful riverside views and bougie foreign restaurants. The fourth time I got to know the city in a deeply personal way, connecting with my host family's heritage; I saw the apartment where my host mother grew up, got to know her family, and hear her parents' stories of their experiences having lived in that apartment since 1961, watching their country morph from the dynamic and cosmopolitan city they knew at that time into its much-altered current form. And the fifth and last time was honestly one of the best parts of the entire year, as I stayed for a weekend with a good friend of mine who had overseen the beginning of my Arabic education and the furthering of my goal to spend a year in Egypt with AFS, introducing me to his kind mother and sisters, his hilarious and worldly friends, and his Cairo, centered on his beautiful home on the island neighborhood of Manial. I'm honestly so thankful I got to visit such a unique city so many times, and get so many impressions of it for a more roundabout sense of its beauty and charms. Many bash it as overcrowded, harsh, and chaotic, and right they may be. But if you allow yourself to look past those aspects and find the beauty within, the City of a Thousand Minarets will not disappoint you. 
    From the Citadel
  22. Alexandria, Egypt: I will conclude the first installment of this list with Alexandria, the city in which I was hosted as an exchange student. If you've been keeping up with my blog for a while, you'll know that my experience in Egypt, though incredible and rewarding, was also very challenging, and my feelings towards the place and my experience there are incredibly complex, ever-changing, and I'm still navigating that. My relationship with Alexandria itself as the seat of my Egyptian life is no exception to that rule. As my daily life took place there, so too did many of the struggles that were a part of it. Nevertheless, I cannot deny the fact that Alexandria is, similarly to Cairo, a beautiful and fascinating city if you're able to look past its chaos and such. Though little tangibly remains of the city's ancient glory days as the capital of Ptolemy and Cleopatra's kingdom, what does is incredible, and even just the thought of being on their home turf is insane. The Mediterranean Sea is right on the edge of town, site of gorgeous sunsets, a point of reference, and guardian to the winding Corniche that stretches along its shores. Its dense neighborhoods mask all sorts of guarded little charms, from old Armenian and French churches to Greco-Roman architectural marvels. And moreover, beyond the difficulties in the experience I may have had there, my host family showed me and helped me to fall in love with their city, helping me to feel welcome and safe. Knowing that I was always at home in the safe space of their apartment, I used it as a little launching pad for my explorations, discovery, and growth, and it was there that I learned to tentatively call a place that had initially been as foreign as another planet home. 

Kudos to everyone who stuck through up to this point. I hope that reading this is as fun for you as it was for me to write it. I've taken many trips down memory lane, revitalized thoughts and feelings attached to cherished places the world over, and gotten to remind myself just how lucky I am to have experienced, seen, and done so many things in this beautiful world we call home. 
I will definitely return to this concept of the sentimentality of places in the future, especially after my upcoming year abroad. 

For now, enjoy, take care, and I will be back soon enough.

With love,
Nico 

Enjoy "How Far I'll Go" in its Czech version, now up in high quality on Youtube! 


Friday, March 24, 2017

AZERBAYCAN!

Hey guys!

I've already written about this quite a bit on my other social media, so I'll try to just go over the basics.

So I'm not usually one to type all crazily with tons of caps and exclamation points, but there are few other ways to accurately articulate the level of excitement that I feel about this subject.

I'M A FINALIST FOR THE CRITICAL LANGUAGE SCHOLARSHIP AND I'M GOING TO STUDY TURKISH FOR TWO MONTHS THIS SUMMER IN AZERBAIJAN AHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Okay, now that's over.

A few weeks ago, when I was in St Louis visiting my family over my spring break, I was safely ensconced in a delightful little corner of existence known as Left Bank Books, a bookstore in my family's Central West End neighborhood ruled by a fluffy black bookstore cat, browsing contentedly after having gotten a massage and lunch with my mom that morning.
Having known that I was a semifinalist since late January, by then I had begun to reach the stage of decision processes like this where I was super stressed about it, on edge, checking my phone constantly, convinced that every solitary single buzz of my phone might be the notification of that one email that would make or break me.
And as I stood in the basement floor of Left Bank, clutching a discounted old phrasebook that I had selected to gift a friend, it came.
It finally came.

As I saw the subject line, my breath stopped, my heart started pounding wildly, and for a few moments I could hear and sense nothing else around me. I remember just being cognicent enough to register the words, "congratulations, you have been selected..."

And it was all I could do to hold back a wild scream of cathartic joy and triumph.

I immediately proceeded to call up all my friends and email all my professors who had been privy to or invested in my selection process in some way, and notify them of my big news.
Thankfully, my two closest friends who also applied, Gianna for Azerbaijani and Paula for Korean, got in as well. I'm so delighted and blessed to be embarking on an incredible, monumental, and life-changing adventure, along with two of my closest friends on this planet.

I will be studying Turkish for two months in Baku, Azerbaijan, this summer, from June 11 to August 14.
Due to the unfortunate security situation in Turkey, the CLS programs have been moved to Baku since 2016. This is due particularly to the fact that Azerbaijani has a level of about 90% mutual intelligibility with Turkish, and is often debated to be a Turkish dialect, as well as the fact that many people in Azerbaijan, particularly in and around Baku as its capital, can speak Turkish proficiently.

I'm going to be studying with the other Turkish participants at the Azerbaijan University of Languages, and living with a local host family in Baku, at least some of which will be proficient in Turkish. Though they will technically be in a different program and taking different classes, the CLSers who will be studying Azerbaijani will also be in Baku with us at the same time, and therefore I look forward to being together with even more Turkic language aficionados, among which Gianna as one of my closest and most cherished friends who I've known since the experience which gave me my fierce love of the Turkish language to begin with.

I remember that when I first learned of the switch in program locations, I was admittedly skeptical at first. How can there be a Turkish program somewhere that's not TURKEY? I wondered. After talking to some of last year's participants, I learned of how rewarding and informative their experiences still were, and that reaffirmed my desire to participate in a CLS program.

How far I've come.
Now I look forward to few things more than this incredible possibility to deepen my fluency in one of the languages I love most, in a fascinating new country to boot.
I miss Turkey deeply, every single day of my life, and intend to go back at the earliest opportunity. But I look forward to revitalizing and increasing my fluency of its beautiful language, in an incredible new country to boot, which has historically been something of a sister language and culture to it.

I honestly can think of few words to accurately articulate my overwhelming gratitude and joy. CLS, as a prestigious program well-known as an esteemed college-level continuation to the NSLI-Y program (which brought me to Turkey the first time) has been a goal for me since high school, a distant and tantalizing dream, and now I'M DOING IT. 

I will hopefully be back soon with more logistical and concrete information as it comes in from the program itself. But for now, a giant and sincere thank you from the very bottom of my heart to the Critical Language Scholarship, to the State Department, and American taxpayers for allowing me to live out yet another of my many dreams.

Here I come, Azerbaijan. See you soon.




Thursday, March 23, 2017

Italy Winter Break 2016/2017

Ciao a tutti!

Today I'll finally be talking about my long-awaited trip to visit my family in Italy over this year's holiday break, and some related reflections that came to me as a result.
Andiamo (let's go)!

As I spent the entire break in Italy, I left directly from and returned directly to my college campus. This time I flew with Swiss and had brief layovers in Zurich both ways (on the outbound trip it was a little too brief; I had to go to another terminal to catch a flight with less than an hour to spare). I found Swiss pretty good, a comfortable and quality airline with which to travel. I had a little bit of a scare when it became clear that my American passport was only a few months away from expiration, and also because my flight was delayed an hour because (get this:) it was so freaking cold that they had to restart the engines so that the plane could take the eff off.
Though the flight was fine overall, but because of that delay I had to RUN in the Zurich Airport, as my connection was in a different terminal and I had less than an hour to reach that departing gate.
But somehow I managed it, and after the mesmerizing descent over the snowy mountains between the two cities, I landed in my other country, my second home, for the first time in almost a year and a half.

Milano, Lombardia:
Unlike most trips, this time I was not picked up directly at the airport by relatives or family friends, but instead stayed overnight with one of those family friends at her Milan apartment. As one of my mother's closest friends since childhood, she's essentially been an aunt to me growing up. I took the Malpensa Express train into town from the airport, and had a much-needed nap at her apartment before she got home from work and we went out to dinner at a nearby Trentino Alto-Adige restaurant (a foreshadowing of the lovely experiences I would have in Bolzano and Trento later on in the trip, unbeknownst to me at the time).
The next morning I had several hours to explore the center of Milan by myself before we headed back to Viadana, my mom's hometown where this friend of hers is also from, that night.
I didn't get to tool around nearly as long and see as many things as I might have liked, but what I did get to do and see were pretty wonderful. I had a delicious doppio espresso and chocolate croissant breakfast, and then headed over to the Duomo in the center of town.
I had been to Milan and the Duomo specifically before, but hadn't remembered it being so...beautiful. The inside of the Duomo was breathtaking, expansive and enormous in a way that made me feel humble and tiny, wondering how my ancestors had gone about constructing such a majestic monstrosity with the technology available to them at the time. There were also a number of splendid stained glass windows.
I also went to the top of the Duomo, which I remember having done as a young child the last time I went to Milan, but again, I didn't remember it being that wonderful. Despite the gray, cloudy day, the view of the city was amazing, especially as the windows started to light up close to dark. The spires and shadowy statues made for a beautifully chilling effect. And overall it was just great.
I definitely intend on spending some more time in Milano on future visits, as aside from being a very lovely place it combines so much of what I love about Italy and my culture with a more cosmopolitan and open-minded lifestyle and way of thinking.
The inside of the Duomo

Stained glass


My breakfast
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Landing in Zurich
I found some pretty awesome murals - this one says "what has been written without passion will be read without pleasure."



I'll give an overall account of how all my time at home in Viadana went now:
Basically, it was really wonderful. I spent plentiful time with my relatives and friends. I spent a day with some of my close friends at their university campus. I made a couple of day excursions to Parma, which is the nearest big(ish) city to Viadana. I ate plentiful delicious food. Hung out with my friends. Went with my aunt and uncle to one of her relatives' houses in the foothills of the Alps. I experienced my first real Italian Christmas celebration with my aunt's extended family - it was crowded, chaotic, noisy, and I loved every second of it. I spent a fun and crazy New Year's Eve at a party hosted by one of my best friends there. And even though there were many days when I didn't really do much - when I would wake up late, have lunch almost immediately after, then go out for long walks or bike rides alone and take pictures of the sunset - there was a sort of leisurely beauty to be found in that as well. Many of my other trips recently have been shorter, a week to ten days, and in those trips I've always had to portion my time carefully and be busy more or less all the time in order to make sure that I went everywhere, did everything, and saw everyone I wanted to. But this time I had a routine, more stable and tranquil, and I reveled in it.




The banks of the Po



New year's fun



Bologna, Emilia-Romagna:
Immediately prior to Christmas, I made my way down to Bologna to visit my dear friend Sofia who I got to know during my language program in the Westfjords of Iceland last summer. She's from Imola, a small town right outside Bologna, but mostly lives in a family apartment in the city center as she was studying (and just graduated a few days ago!) architecture at the University of Bologna.
I had been to Bologna a couple of times in the past, as it's not very far from where my family lives and sports one of the closest (and certainly most convenient from our relatives' standpoint) international airpots to my mom's hometown, so we've often flown into it in the past. But somehow this time I got to see it in a bit of a different light, and just ended up really falling in love with it.
Sofia and I wandered the city together, climbing up to the top of one of the hills on its outskirts, San Michele in Bosco, which overlooks the city with a view uncannily similar to that of Bursa from Tophane. We ate delicious food in little restaurants she knew, ran into a poet with a little booth on the street who wrote poetry (that was bizarrely accurate) about us just from staring into our eyes for thirty seconds. We saw Oceania (the Italian dub of Moana) at the movies. And the next day she introduced me to a couple of good friends of hers over a lunch of pretty tasty sushi.
Overall, it was an amazing time. Not just because she's one of my best friends in Italy and all the world, and catching up after so many months apart was fun, restorative, and memorable in so many ways. But also because I got to see her city in a different light.
From the convenient launching pad of her apartment, which was a delightfully literary and worldly little corner of existence, I got to experience Bologna's fiery colored, gorgeous architecture, its strong left-leaning politics, and dynamic, educated nature as a result of the aforementioned university (one of the oldest and most prestigious in all Italy). It was amazing, and I fell in love with La Rossa ("the Red," one of the Italian nicknames for the city in honor of one of its most widespread colors) in a way that I had not on previous visits.

The beautiful door of a church we stopped by


The view from San Michele in Bosco
As Sofia accurately commented on this picture as uploaded on Facebook, "maestri del selfie" ("selfie masters").


The big, beautiful Christmas tree of Piazza Maggiore

Siena, Tuscany:
I went to Siena with my aunt and uncle immediately following our Christmas festivities. It was actually on Christmas Day itself that we left - we'd been talking about going somewhere for Santo Stefano (St Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas, which is a pretty big holiday in Italy), but as we were making our way through the center of Viadana, taking a walk there to get an espresso in a feeble attempt to work of the catastrophically enormous caloric bomb of my grandmother's Christmas lunch, my aunt said, "perche' non partiamo oggi?""Why don't we leave today?"
And so it was.
We headed home, threw some stuff into backpacks, and went off on our merry way, booking an Air BnB in a little village right outside the city called Monteriggioni.
We stopped in another little village on our way to the one in which we stayed, but I remember little of it. Likewise we took a quick walk through the center of Monteriggioni and up to the castle that overlooks the town, but the center was quite small, and of course at 10:00 at night on a holiday there was little to be had there.
The next day we had breakfast and spent the morning exploring Siena, which was breathtakingly beautiful. The bizarrely shaped Piazza del Campo is the heart and soul of the city, where the annual Palio, a horse race in which all the city's rival neighborhoods are represented, takes place, is in my opinion a sublime place. My aunt and I climbed to the top of the Torre del Mangia that overlooks it, where we were treated to twenty minutes of incredible views of the city as oncoming fog gradually overtook the tower and obstructed the view of the city below, which made for an incredibly ethereal sight.
The Duomo, though we didn't have a chance to get inside, is also quite pretty, as it and most of the area around it is constructed from marble, which looked amazing when the early morning sun shone against it.
Siena was definitely one of my favorite cities I've visited in Italy thus far. Even the little residential streets on the outskirts of the city look like something directly out of the Middle Ages; ignoring the odd TV antenna and pair of jeans drying outside windows, being there feels like having stepped back in time.
Beautiful to the max. 10/10 would recommend.







Bolzano, Trentino Alto-Adige/Bozen, Südtirol: 
Bolzano was truly an unexpected gem among the places that I visited on this trip. My trip to Trento was a constant and given in the places I would visit, and I dreamt of attaching something else along with it. For a while, hoping to take advantage of this longer trip to Italy compared to the past few I've taken, I teased the possibility of trying to make it to the south of the country. For days, my plans veered astronomically on a constant basis, and in the end I decided to abandon that particular bit of craziness. What in the end happened was that my aunt and I explored Bolzano together prior to her dropping me off at my friend Francesca's in Trento.
I expected to like Bolzano, but I honestly did not expect to fall in love with it as much as I did. It always mystifies me how much cultural identity, dialect, and local consciousness in Italy can shift even in minuscule distances, and no clearer was this true than when we ventured to Bolzano. We left Viadana around 7:45, and by 10:30 it seemed as though we were half in Austria.
I think in some ways it makes sense that I liked it as much as I did; I'm someone who is fascinated by intersections of national identity and bilingualism, among other things, and as a bilingual Italian-German region that belongs to Italy politically but culturally seems much more akin to neighboring Austria. The true proportions of 75% native Italian-speakers to 25% native German-speakers almost seem improbable when German feels like it's the principal language spoken everywhere, and although my aunt and I had no trouble as Italians moving around and interacting with people using our mother tongue, most locals spoke it with an accent resembling German high school students taking it as a foreign language.
In any case, I loved it. The bizarre but nonchalant togetherness of cultures and languages. The breathtaking, dramatic backdrop of the jagged, snowcapped peaks of the Dolomites. The hearty, tasty Germanic food. The relaxingly creamy and light blue shades of the buildings.
I would heartily recommend Bolzano as a destination to anyone interested in Italian, German, or certainly both. Not to mention mountains and pretty places, more generally.







The Christmas markets were still open on January 5. 

The Duomo.

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We went up a cable car.



And then took an incredible panoramic train ride.

My aunt and me.


The center of Collalbo, or Klobenstein, the town at the end of the panoramic train line.


Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige/Trient, Südtirol
This trip was made mainly for the purpose of visiting my dear friend Francesca. Francesca is originally from Nuoro, Sardegna, and I first met her when she was studying in Pinckney, about an hour from Ann Arbor, as an AFS exchange student in 2014 at one of the local chapter's orientations I volunteered at. She's now studying at the law school of the University of Trento, which is why I visited her there, and as it had been three years since we'd seen each other, needless to say, we had quite a bit to talk about.
For two days I stayed at her place, comfortably hosted by her and her amazing Bosnian Serb roommate Tanja (who spoke beautifully fluent Italian), and we wandered around the city, hitting up in particular the Castello del Buonconsiglio and the MUSE, the town's famous natural history museum. It was amazing to be together again. Ours is one of those awesome friendships that can just pick up from the last time we left off as if no time has passed at all, and the hours pass like minutes in our conversations. I'm so glad that we had this chance to meet up again, and look forward to hopefully ensuring that, as she so aptly put it, "non passi un'altra morte di papa fino alla prossima volta che ci vediamo" (that another death of a pope doesn't pass until the next time we see each other - she's got a great sense of humor, as can be seen).
Trento as a city I found honestly to be a little less interesting. Being much more homogeneously Italian-speaking it doesn't have the same bilingual-blurred-cultural-and-political-borders thing going for it like Bolzano, and the mountains around it are more foothills, devoid of jagged snowcapped peaks. But it's still a very pretty little town with a bright and welcoming town center that certainly deserves to be seen.

The center



The view from the MUSE

Inside the MUSE


Me and Francesca


"United Against Racism - Refugees Welcome"

Frescoes

The view of the city through arches was beautiful.



Heading out at sunset


Bologna, Emilia-Romagna (again):
Since we live so close to each other, Sofia and I had been planning on seeing each other once again before I left Italy. Originally we'd thought about meeting up in Mantova, but because of some changed circumstances we decided I'd just come to Bologna again, as our Dutch friend Louise who was also on our program in Iceland with us (she and Sofia were roommates).
I took the train down to Bologna directly from Trento, and Sofia and I enjoyed a couple of hours on our own having a pizza dinner and chilling in her apartment prior to Louise's arrival. There had been an awful ice storm ravaging the Netherlands that night, and though she arrived three hours late due to a very delayed flight, we were very cognizant of the fact that she'd been lucky to arrive that night at all.
I remember us hugging when she got into the apartment, but at this point I remember little else of the first evening we spent together, as both of us guests were very tired after many hours of traveling and it was getting into the early hours of the morning, so we went to bed almost immediately.
The next day we had a fairly leisurely start, though we didn't sleep in terribly late either. After chatting over breakfast we went out to the city center, and toured many of the same monuments Sofia had showed me the first time I'd come to Bologna. It was fun being able to function as a second-tour-guide in command in that way. :)
We had lunch in a hidden little trattoria, and walked through the colorful centro storico, just chatting and catching up. It was as though a little bit of our time at Núpur had come to life on the streets of Bologna, which was bizarre, but magical, a welcome clash and blending of two beautiful places and experiences.
Later that evening, I said goodbye to them, and my aunt and uncle picked me up from Bologna to take me back to Viadana.
A very funny sign I agreed with a lot - "Sleeping is a right, preventing it is oppression" - this was a street that is apparently notorious for late-night student partying, much to the chagrin of the non-student residents.

From left to right: Louise, me, Sofia. 
The last week was relatively tranquil. Getting back with only a week left, I began to lose the tranquil routine, thinking increasingly in terms of who I needed to say goodbye to or things I needed to get to bring home before leaving, and I didn't like that. I had a couple of great sendoffs, one of my favorites being a delicious dinner at a Ligurian restaurant in Parma with my four closest friends my age in Viadana. Couldn't have asked for better.
I left on the 15th of January, accompanied to the airport by my dutiful and doting aunt and uncle. The trip out was arduous and marred by pretty awful sleep deprivation, but I had a little down time on this leg of the trip to sit and relax in the Zurich Airport before my connecting flight to Chicago, and by far the highlight was sitting next to a delightful and adorable Mexican nun named Ana on the transatlantic flight. We made great and pleasant conversation (not too much, not too little) in Spanish and Italian (as she's lived and worked in Rome for years), she fed me abundant snacks, high-fives me when the plane landed, and we hugged each other goodbye when we had to step into separate lines as a resident and a visitor. I'm very thankful that I got to meet her, and remain thankful for the calm and positive energy that she gave what was otherwise a pretty sucky trip.













This trip to Italy helped me to realize a number of things about myself, my identity, and the nature of the place in the world that I wish to fashion for myself.
As I've doubtless written about in past posts, I am half Italian and half American, a dual citizen since birth. Over the years, I've developed a proud identity of duality and blended culture, language, and upbringing, which something that I'm hugely proud of. Even so, I've realized from this trip that from a distance, it's easy to maintain this dual pride while still allowing my traveler's instinct to command more, and focus more on going places where I don't have strong connections, fearing that otherwise I'll never have the chance. But during this trip, feelings that I can only describe as belonging reawakened in me, and I felt a burning desire to return and never go away. I feel very at home in Italy, and I love it there, and it can sometimes hurt when people there do not fully recognize the validity of my Italian identity because I am not fully Italian by blood or did not grow up there. There are also a number of ways in which I don't feel completely at home, mainly concerning the sometimes racist, homophobic, or otherwise small-minded attitudes typical of a small northern town. I also have a sort of pride that is in some ways atypical; loyalties in Italy tend to be by hometown and region far before nation, whereas I have a pride in my heritage and history that is pan-Italian more than Viadanese, and far more so than Lombard or Mantovano. As I've grown older, I've begun seeking connections with places and people that will allow me to build a sense of my Italianness against a background of more worldly and open-minded places and friendships, and I'm well on my way, thanks in no small part to this trip.

It was an amazing one, and I've already been missing Italy dearly. I cannot wait to go back, hopefully this winter in between my semesters in Russia and Finland.

Arrivederci, Italia mia. Quanto mi manchi.