Not So Much Culture Shocked As Mildly Surprised and/or Inconvenienced

I’ve now been living in Tashkent for over a month, my first time spending an extended amount of time outside of the US, France, Spain, and Korea. Basically, my first time being somewhere that constantly challenges, frustrates, charms, and amazes me. The following are just a few of the things I’ve been adjusting to here, though it’s not in any way meant to be representative of the whole country, as I’ve so far only been in Tashkent!

  • Toilet paper

I had somehow gone a month without needing to even pee at my university (that’s my cue to #HydrateToDominate more often), but when the day came that nature called as I was on the job, I was shocked to realize there was no toilet paper in the stalls. Everyone is supposed to bring their own, and my own happened to be uselessly sitting in my suitcase at home. I frantically texted my coteacher, S., “How am I supposed to wipe my ass????” She replied, “Wash it, baby!” Oh. That’s what the nozzle was for.

  • Weighing vegetables

In the US, cashiers weigh your veggies for you. Here, you hand them off to a worker who weighs them and slaps a price sticker on them before you head to the check-out line. I have too often held up said line by forgetting to hit up my vegetable man. The worst is when I forget that I also have to get pre-packaged vegetables weighed. Good thing juice isn’t weighed.

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  • Impromptu taxis

There’s no Lyft or Uber here, but if you just stick your arm out on the road, random people will stop for you, ask where you’re headed, and give you a ride if it’s convenient for them. When I was young and stupid a month ago, I paid 20,000 soum (about $3) for a ride. I’ve since learned that rides should be only be 8,000-10,000 soum (a little over $1). And no, they don’t have seatbelts. You – yes, you. Stop fumbling around for a seatbelt. The seatbelt does not exist.

  • School uniforms

Men wear a suit and tie, and women chic white blouses and sleek black skirts/dress pants. Backpacks? Never heard of her. Men carry briefcases and women colorful purses. At Tashkent State University of Law, where I teach, I almost feel like I’m on an episode of Gossip Girl, if Chuck and Blair were trilingual, lawyer-hopefuls, and not allowed to do any of the things they did till marriage. NYU was never the place to wear sorority sweatshirts and running shorts to class, but I do miss being able to roll up in jeans and sensible shoes.

  • Milliy taomlar

Uzbek for “national dishes,” which includes osh (plov), manti, somsa, lagmon, non, the list goes on… From what my coworkers have told me, trying foreign foods isn’t very interesting to them because they love their milliy taomlar so much. They also “can’t live without meat,” so that crosses a few cuisines off the list. As much as I dislike meat, if I just eat around it, milliy taomlar are some of my favorite dishes too.

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  • Spontaneity

Make of this what you will since my informal job here is diplomacy. As challenging as it can be sometimes, I’m also a pretty spontaneous person myself, so being in a country where others can be last-minute camouflages my own, erm, need to more meticulously plan.

  • Spring/Fall Showers Bring…

Every fall and spring, for 5 days as the centralized heated water is being changed, all you get from your faucets is the cold stuff. Those smarter than me mixed it with boiled water to produce something usable. I just stood shivering next to my showerhead, splashed water on myself, and threw on five layers of clothing.

  • Running

“Women don’t run” is the message that silently screamed at me every time I notice people staring at me like I’ve sprouted an extra arm when I run, or when I see races that only involve men. I may still be horribly out of shape, but I hit Ecopark every weekend to, as Fergie said in 2006, “work[] on my fitness.”

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The ups and downs of living and working here are what make the whole experience so rich, as opposed to past experiences abroad that were pretty “easy” and therefore did not allow for ample mental and professional growth. As often as I feel stressed out or confused, it’s all part of the ride. And I’m just thankful that my particular ride doesn’t (so far) include Imodium.

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Armenia Pt. 1 / April 2018

After a whirlwind day of layovers and reunions in Dusseldorf and Vienna, I landed in Yerevan at 4 a.m. Fortunately, my EducationUSA virtual internship supervisor, Shushanna, and fellow virtual intern, Kentina, were already at the airport to greet me! It was surreal meeting them in real life after working online alongside them for months. Hope they don’t hate me for dragging them out of bed in the middle of the night! We grabbed a cab, and they took me to my host’s home.

I was staying with Ani, one of my virtual students, and her family, consisting of her mom and younger sister. Ani and I had talked pretty extensively online, so I felt like I already knew her. Her family speaks to each other in both Russian and Armenian, which made it easier for me to communicate because I knew verrrry little Armenian but at least some Russian. Ani is fluent in English (though she would protest me saying that!), so she did most of the translating when my Russian wasn’t up to snuff, which it usually wasn’t. šŸ˜‰

In the afternoon, when I finally woke up, I was treated to a decadent Armenian breakfast on the lush green patio. I scarfed down lavash (thin Armenian bread baked in stoves built into the ground) slathered with homemade apricot jam, apricot juice, chicken salad, and Armenian coffee, which is made in a jazzve – thick, earthy, sweet.

Afterward, Ani and I ventured out to Republic Square, where the government buildings were built out of Armenia’s signature pink volcanic rock, called tuff.

We then chilled in Lovers’ Park, discussing topics about Armenia that don’t quite breach the park’s namesake: protests against the former president who had just declared himself Prime Minister in order to stay in power, territorial wars with Azerbaijan, and the genocide. At that point I was an alternate for the CLS Azerbaijani program, so I was trying to learn all I could about relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan! Things became lighter when Shushanna and Kentina joined us in the park, though.

It was Ani’s birthday, so we celebrated that night with a big dinner, cake, and her aunt and cousins coming over. I like to think my arriving that day was a birthday present too (cue flipping my hair).

One of the local EducationUSA interns, Vruyr (or Michael as we like to call him, since it’s his alternate name on Facebook and neither Kentina nor I succeeded in pronouncing his name correctly during our week), was excited to meet us, so we joined him at Cascade, a set of stairs that give you an amazing view of the city. It was too dark to see anything when we went, and I heard it’s more of a date spot, but what matters is the thought! Not that much thought or romance went into huffing and puffing our way up those steps!! #LegDayEveryDay #UrbanHiking On our way back home, we could already see people camping out for the protests against the PM that would last the rest of the week until he stepped down.

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The next day, Shushanna, Kentina, and I drove to the Lori region. My friend did his Peace Corps service there and was the one that insisted Shushanna take us there. As much as I hate to concede he’s right about anything, I grudgingly have to admit that he didn’t lead us astray with these suggestions. We visited three monasteries, Haghpat, Sanahin, and Odzun. Odzun was my favorite because it was also pink with tuff, like the buildings in Republic Square, while Sanahin, though much more lively with tourists, seemed a little less well-kept to me than the other two. Shushanna explained to us the cultural importance of the cross hatches carved into stones at each of the monasteries and told us that during persecution, churches were seen as a safe haven and therefore built to last.

Finally, we made it to American Corner Vanadzor, an embassy-sponsored space (there are usually several in different countries around the world) where locals can practice English and learn about America. We had an eager but shy audience. Kentina talked about building resumes and seeking university career services, while I spoke about finding your passions and not always needing to compromise. Hesitant as they were to speak up during our presentation, they flocked us afterward to ask questions and add us on social media! They were great, and I still talk regularly to a few of them!

And let’s not forget the beautiful views we encountered on the drive up to Vanadzor:

Takeaways from my first few days in a country I’d dreamed so long of visiting: the people are warm, the mountains unlike anything I’d seen before having grown up in the Midwest, the coffee delicious… and the midnight sprints to the bathroom just another part of traveling in that otherwise enchanting region of the world.

First Impressions

I’m never quite sure how to answer when people ask me what life in Tashkent is like, but I figured the best way to evaluate the day-to-day of life in x place is by hearing what’s needed or not needed there. So here’s a list of just some of the things my 20/20 hindsight wishes I had brought along or left at home.

I wish I’d packed…

  • Pasta sauce. I cannot find it ANYWHERE here, only tomato paste. If you know where I can get pasta sauce, let me know. In the meantime, I’m putting my subpar cooking skills to the test tonight and making my own sauce.
  • More snacks. The supermarkets here have plenty of interesting options, but sometimes you just want a taste of home.
  • More books. Unlike in big cities in the U.S., you don’t just stumble across bookstores and newsstands in Tashkent as you stroll around. A lot of cafes don’t have wifi either, which is the perfect excuse to spend more time reading. Unfortunately, I only brought a few books with me, and I’ve already read every single one of them before, a couple of them multiple times. I have a stack of books I’d like to read or reread at home, and I wish I’d brought that stack with me to Tashkent.
  • A fuzzy blanket. For when I want to cozy up on the couch and pretend it’s not basically the same as staying in bed all day!
  • Lotion. This country boasts a humidity level that hovers around 10-20%, which means your legs are going to look as arid as the steppe itself. I can’t seem to find lotion at the supermarket, either.
  • A big bottle of contact solution. I haven’t been able to track any down here yet, but I might just be looking in the wrong places. I recall contact solution being sold in France at pharmacies, not supermarkets, so maybe that’s where I should be headed.

I wish I’d left behind…

  • Excessive feminine products and toiletries. The supermarkets here have all your favorite brands.
  • Some of my uglier, more conservative clothing that I don’t actually want to wear. I thought I’d need to be pretty covered in Tashkent, but it turns out the people in this city pretty much dress the way Americans do. I could’ve saved suitcase space by keeping some of those pieces that I know I’m not going to wear at home.

Really, I would say my quality of life in Tashkent is actually better than what it was in NYC. The types of cafes and restaurants I could only afford as the occasional “treat yoself” on my college budget in NYC are places I can frequent every day here because the US dollar stretches so much further in a country where ingredients are more cheaply grown and locally-sourced. From my impressions of my neighborhood, people seem to care more about a “nice” experience than finding the coolest hipster coffee shop or hole-in-the-wall restaurant, so the cafes here are much more upscale than in NYC, with full menus filled with pages of breakfast items, refreshing smoothies, coffee options, and hot dishes. The restaurants are also diverse, ranging from Uzbek to Italian to Korean to Turkish and even Irish!

The streets aren’t exactly comfortable to go out on a run on because they’re bumpy and inconsistent, but I haven’t died yet! I can find almost anything I need (except that darn pasta sauce) at Korzinka, an Uzbek supermarket chain. And while we were warned about how crazy traffic here is, it’s not anything I haven’t already seen in China. If anything, Tashkent traffic is a much tamer version of Tianjin traffic.

The people here have been my biggest resource, though. The other ELF/ETAs in Tashkent have answered all my dumb questions, from whether a green peach is an unripe peach to how to say “garlic” in Russian. Curious locals here have been patient as I insisted on subjecting them to my Russian and Uzbek. And most touching of all, when I offhandedly complained to my counterpart about going to bed hungry 4 nights in a row because I didn’t know how to use my stove, expecting nothing more than a simple sympathy text back, the next thing I knew she was at my door, steaming takeout dinner in hand, coming to show me how to use my stove.

I think I’m going to like it here.

A little soapboxing for ya!

NYU had me give some responses about the Fulbright application process. I honestly don’t know if they’ll publish my answers because I’m a little unconventional with this kind of stuff, but it’s a topic I am excited to discuss, so I’m acting preemptively and posting my responses here! If you’re applying to Fulbright now, I hope you find as much growth from the application process as I did.

What’s one thing you didn’t anticipate about the application process?

While I have always loved writing essays for applications, I didn’t anticipate the impact this particular one would have for me. I wrote one of my essays about my fifth grade teacher, and through it, I was able to verbalize for the first time in my life what she means to me and how she continues to shape me as a person. It was an essay that suddenly flowed out of me all in one sitting, as if the words had been stewing in my head for those 12 years and finally found their place on my page.

If you had to go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I wouldn’t have shown my essays to as many people. I did so because I was proud of them and wanted to share with people a piece of me, but the problem with that is that not everyone will treat your vulnerability with the care with which you worded it.

What’s the one thing you think currently enrolled students should keep in mind when applying for scholarships?

If it serves to paint the clearest picture of you, break any rules of writing that you need to. Take pride in your work and invest yourself into it. Oops, that’s three things!

What’s the best piece of advice you received when you were applying?

If you receive a piece of writing advice that goes against your gut, listen to your gut.

What was the most rewarding part of the process?

Finally being able to verbalize my gratitude towards the impact my fifth grade teacher had on me. Being able to share with her my essay after years of trying to grasp the right words made the entire process worth it, no matter what the outcome would have been.

On Firm Ground

Earlier this summer my coworker and I were having a conversation about how, back when I wasn’t accustomed to flying, I’d feel the ground shifting beneath me for a couple days after getting off a plane. He quipped, “Or it could’ve been an earthquake. If you’re in Uzbekistan, it’s definitely an earthquake.”

Fortunately, I’ve landed on firm ground, both metaphorically and physically speaking. I really can’t verbalize the sudden panic felt when I woke up from a nap on my overnight flight from Istanbul to Almaty, the third leg of my four-flight journey to Tashkent. Any traveler with emetophobia will know the thoughts racing through my head all too well: What if I get food poisoning? Can I even brush my teeth with the tap water? How will I wash my fruit? What if I get nauseous and panic when there’s no wifi and can’t talk to anyone? I could die – or worse, throw up! I was sure that as soon as I landed in Kazakhstan, I would have to arrange for a journey back home; I felt defeated by my fear before my program even started.

But as beautiful snow-capped mountains rose up parallel to the plane as we made our descent into Almaty, I felt a sense of calm wash over me and realized I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

And really, for the past week (knocking on wood as we speak), it’s been smooth sailing. I was sure I’d have some GI issues this first week, as I’m – shall we say –Ā proneĀ to those types of problems, but somehow nothing! I can’t even travel domestically without my intestines rebelling, so to make it to Central Asia without that happening yet is pretty impressive. A pat on the back for you, digestive system.

Everything else has been going well, too. The Embassy scared us the first day with cautions about food poisoning and earthquakes and car accidents, but the second day we talked about the helpful resources and fun opportunities available to us. We also had the opportunity to meet Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, who patiently and eloquently answered my questions about why exchanges like Fulbright and FLEX are important to Uzbekistan and how receptive Uzbeks are to a diverse picture of America. My colleagues at Tashkent State University of Law are enthusiastic, dedicated, and kind, and the other Fulbright ETAs and English Language Fellows in my cohort have so much to offer to the institutes they’ve been placed at. I feel very fortunate that another ETA and an ELF live within walking distance of my apartment.

I was worried that what with my phobia and lack of teaching experience, I’d be running around with my head cut off, especially in comparison to others in my cohort. But what I’ve discovered is that we all have different things to bring to the table. While that’s extensive teaching skills, deep knowledge of Central Asian politics/history, interesting hobbies, and, well, not having a phobia for them, I bring my own flair to this program too. I speak an intermediate level of Russian (which only three out of the eight of us at orientation do) and an elementary level of Uzbek (which none of the others do), and while I may not have extensive knowledge of teaching, I have a bit of experience working with State Department initiatives like EducationUSA, FLEX, and American Spaces, which the embassy wants us involved in. There’s so much I have to learn in order to be the best teacher and citizen ambassador I can be, and I’m excited to learn from the others in my cohort, but I also need to have some confidence in my existing abilities and not see my phobia as something that renders them all invalid.

They told us that when an earthquake happens while we’re here, to search for a strong piece of furniture to form a three-point safe zone against falling objects. I’ve found my own three-point safe zone for my personal strength: me, myself, and I.

Onward to…! // Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation in DC

Anyone who follows me on social media already knows this, whether they wanted to see all 10 of my related posts or not, but I’m going to be spending the next academic year in Uzbekistan teaching English through Fulbright!

I had originally applied for Kyrgyzstan and was an alternate, and I really didn’t expect to get bumped up because the ETA program in that country only has 3 spots and I doubted anyone would drop. However, after the death of their former president, Uzbekistan recently began opening back up to the international stage and is eager to collaborate with the U.S. embassy on education projects. The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) program wasn’t slated to begin there until next year (I’d even been considering applying to Uzbekistan but saw that a program didn’t exist), but I suppose last minute funding was found for it to start this year – next month, to be exact. They’re even thinking of bringing Peace Corps and possibly American Councils (and FLEX??) back to the country, so it’s going to be an exciting, inspiring time to be there. šŸ™‚

This whole process has been an exercise in flexibility, patience, and humor – fortunately, some of few qualities I actually have. Power went out in the entire U.S. embassy during our webinar call with them? That’s fine, I’m not scared of dealing with my own power outages. Still don’t have any information about my placement or visa even though I’m due to arrive in about exactly a month? No problem! I didn’t even know I’d be going at all just a few weeks ago. The Uzbek version of Tajik Tummy sure to hit my intestines during those first several weeks? Laugh it off like I always do. But of course, there are other things I’m more concerned about: food and water sanitation (thank you, emetophobia, for making simple things a thousand times more worrying for me), whether I’ll be a good teacher or not, how I’ll cope with moving from 4 years of big cities and lots of friends to possibly a remote town where I know absolutely no one and barely speak the language. But I think the latter two will be part of the fun; they’ll motivate me to work hard, study lots, venture out, and talk to people!

Last week I attended my PDO, which featured all the Central Asian countries plus non-Commission European countries ranging from Armenia to Macedonia to Serbia. I met amazing people: alumni, other ETAs, student researchers, and scholars. Something that’s great about Fulbright that is distinct from NSLI-Y and CLS is that you get to meet people of all different ages and at different points in their careers, from recent graduates like me to university professors who are established experts in their fields. Most of the other people in my Central Asia cohort have already been to the region and know a lot about it, so I felt a little out of my depth, but that just means there’s more for me to learn!

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Some highlights from PDO were…

…An English-teaching workshop that taught me a lot about teaching pedagogy, English grammar, and myself! I sometimes get nervous just answering a question in class, so I thought getting up in front of my peers to mock-teach would be intimidating, but it actually brought out a side to me I didn’t know I had! It was fun and felt like acting. And I feel better prepared to bring multimedia materials and effective teaching strategies to my own classroom.

…A visit to the U.S. Department of State, my first time being inside the building. We were briefed on Central Asia and our role as citizen ambassadors.

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…A panel featuring Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s media relations manager, Muhammad Tahir; the State Department’s Public Diplomacy Officer for Central Asia, Jenn Miller; Dr. Dinissa Duvanova, a Fulbright Scholar to Kazakhstan; and Dr. Paul Michael Taylor, Director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program. I took extensive notes on what each of them had to say, particularly Tahir and Miller. Keep in mind that the notes below are their words and opinions, not my own, and while we’re at it – nothing on this blog is reflective of the State Department or Fulbright or any of the other alphabet soup of programs I talk about!

Tahir: Uzbekistan is experiencing top-down changes, so although they are opening back up to some degree of cooperation with international states and NGOs, others find it hard to make their way back into the country. Turkmenistan, his home country, is “going backwards” but is stable, with nothing in the political regime drastically changing and the Taliban still on the other side of the border. However, unemployment is at 60%, the average salary for the 40% with jobs is $300/month, there are 110,000 high school graduates vying for 6,000 university spots that can only be filled through bribery (which can go upward of $75,000 just for admission, not to mention tuition and passing your classes!), and the president loves to rap with his grandson and break Guinness World Records. In Tajikistan, the president’s daughters control politics and his son-in-laws business. There’s been a backlash in the country against Islam, with beards forcibly shaved and hijabs pulled off. This kind of repression feeds into religious extremism. The former president of Kyrgyzstan left power peacefully, but he helped his Prime Minister get elected as the new president. This new president, however, has been anti-corruption and going for his former president’s people. Tahir hopes that this does not feed back into authoritarianism for this fledgling “democracy.” As for Kazakhstan, all he said was to keep an eye on the 2020 elections and whether they’d yield a transition of power.

Miller: She had a more optimistic view of Central Asia and reminded us that most of these republics are only 26 years old, and that when the US was only 26 years old, we were doing some pretty nasty things too. I’m not sure if I agree with this comparison. The media in the region is still owned by Russia, which affects how citizens view the outside world, including the United States. The governments of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have reached out to the U.S. embassies for help developing as quickly as possible, and in the former’s case, making up for lost time. Uzbekistan sent the U.S. embassy an 100+ page of priorities, which we’ve wittled down to: anti-corruption/bribery, freer journalism, university partnerships, and English for STEM. We’re looking to help with English for journalists and Afghan refugee support in Tajikistan. Countering violent extremism by making sure madrassas provide quality education that lead to employment is a priority in Kyrgyzstan – and something I’m excited to learn more about, as my VSFS internship with U.S. Embassy Bishkek was somewhat related to this topic. Kazakhstan might soon cost-share ETAs with us, which means we’d get to send more ETAs over there! And the goal for now in Turkmenistan is to just keep the light on, to support the State Department exchange alumni who call it home, and to continue providing quality services at the 4 American Spaces throughout the country. She also told us to keep a lookout for exceptional, motivated teachers that we encounter, as there is State Department funding to support them. She told us about a Kazakh woman she met who taught both students English and teachers English pedagogy at her university, then went home to care for her farm and 8 kids. #PowerMovesOnly

…A networking event where I got to introduce my friend John (NSLI-Y Russian 2014, Fulbright Russia) to my roommate Delia (NSLI-Y Turkish 2010 & 2011, Fulbright Tajikistan) and chat about Central Asia and my virtual internship with someone from EducationUSA! Contrary to popular belief and I guess counterintuitively, I am staunchly against networking, so I zipped out of there after talking to those people. šŸ˜›

I’m so thankful for this opportunity to live in a country that’s beginning to open up again. I’ve already started studying Uzbek (the grammar is so exciting!!! I love grammar!!!), which I’ve happily put to use in social media captions because that’s the most fun way for me to learn a language. šŸ˜‰ It’s kinda funny because just a month ago, I was like, “Screw it, if Fulbright isn’t going to send me abroad, I’ll go on my own trip!” and proceeded to book a trip around Europe and the Caucuses. Now I’m $1000+ out on a trip I can’t take, but at least my dream came true and I’m doing a Fulbright! Priorities.

This is going to come with its own particular challenges for me because of my phobia(s). But rereadingĀ DivergentĀ (see, there’s a method to my madness of continuing to read kids’ books!) has taught me a lot about myself in relation to my phobia, and how although it’s a part of me, just like my skin and blood, it doesn’t have to alter my reality. So I just tell myself,

Be brave.

 

Dusseldorf, Germany + Vienna, Austria | April 2018

Just the day before, I’d been confiding in a friend that I felt like I had no knowledge of the world and wasn’t prepared to enter a career in international relations, or really any career at all. The following day, I was on a plane to Dusseldorf, explaining U.S. politics to the German man sitting next to me and listening to his explanations (in German!) of European politics.

It seems to me that once travel becomes a big part of people’s lives, the mundane details lose their novelty and excitement. As much as I love to travel, I hope it doesn’t become too big a part of my life, because I’m in love with those mundane details. I never want to lose the blooming sensation in my heart as I step onto a plane or watch the landscape rising up to meet the underbelly of those steel wings or greet the immigration officer in his language. Although this was my 2nd time in Germany and 6th time in Europe, it felt like my first time out of the country.

Despite the fact that I spent the entire flight catching up on school readings and journaling, not sleeping, I was wide-awake and ready to sprint through the airport to make the most of my 4 hour layover. Thankfully, Dusseldorf Airport at 6am felt itty-bitty compared to some of the other German powerhouses that accommodate the people criss-crossing the world. It took me less than half an hour total to get through customs, exchange some dollars for euros, hail a cab, and step foot into downtown Dusseldorf.

An early Saturday morning, people my age stumbled around the square, slurring at me and trying to get my number, my money, my phone. “Ich verstehe nicht,” I lied, relief washing over me as I spotted C finally appear across the street.

C, a lovely friend from my 2014 NSLI-Y program in Seoul, who, on my journey back to Chicago from Abu Dhabi in 2016, drove 2 hours to Charlotte, North Carolina to see me for 30 minutes during my layover. Here, in Germany! She took the semester off to study German at a university in Mannheim, but not before spending a semester working as a plumber, kayaking guide, AND animal caretaker!

We took a nice walk around downtown Dusseldorf, admiring the colorful architecture, surreal flat-topped trees, powerful Rhine river, and distant Rheinturm. I was disappointed not to see any of the wild parrots C had hyped me up about. It was early enough that we encountered few others, which us feel like the only people in the city. C was probably tired of hearing repeat myself over and over: “Germany is so beautiful! I can’t believe I’m back in EUROPE!”

I had anticipated only having 20-30 minutes with C because my layover was only 4 hours, but I ended up staying an hour, and even then, I had another hour to kill at my gate when I got back to the airport. People were not exaggerating when they told me a taxi ride between the city and the airport would only take 15 minutes! And whether I would’ve had 15 minutes or 15 hours with C, I’m happy our friendship has survived distance and only seeing each other twice since NSLI-Y.

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I sat next to two unfriendly-seeming guys on my flight to Vienna, but as soon as I started talking to them in their language, Italian, they softened up and were curious about where I was from and where I was going.

My nearly 24 hours without sleep was starting to catch up with me, so I planned on taking a nap in the airport before venturing into the city. But then I reminded myself that I only had 10 hours, that friends were waiting for me. Although I usually find it impossible to fight off the hands of fatigue (let’s hope taking vitamin D every day eventually solves that), I forced myself to take the next train into the city. It sounds inconsequential, but for someone like me who lets chronic fatigue control my life and sometimes negatively impact relationships, this was a step in the right direction, proof to me that I am in control of not just my mind but my body.

At Vienna Central Station, I was met by Carolyn, a good friend from my semester at Yonsei, and Alexa, one of her friend’s from Yonsei. Carolyn is French-American but goes to school in the Netherlands, and Alexa is a local Vienna resident. I had withdrawn early from my Yonsei semester, and on my last day, Carolyn and I wondered when we’d see each other again and where it would be. We certainly did not anticipate it being a mere 6 months later in Vienna!

It was my 2nd time in Vienna and 3rd in Austria, but I was there long enough ago and for briefly enough that this trip still felt like my first time in Austria at all! We tried melanges (a local Viennese specialty that’s basically a cappucino but made with a long shot instead of an espresso), sucked down free smoothies and left our marks at a Yoobar pop-up store, caught up on each other’s lives on Museumplein, took a quick nap at Burggarten. It appeared that my plans to see Schonbrunn Palace again were too ambitious for the <10 hours we had together on my layover.

I follow a travel vlogging couple, Sam and Audrey, on Youtube, and as Carolyn and I were walking around intending to stop at the first cafe we could find, we stumbled across one of their recommendations, Aida! Not exactly a local favorite but definitely a tourist one, we decided to drop our guard just once and let ourselves get caught up in a swirl of waitresses in retro skirts, bright pink decor, and decadent cakes.

Then I got a text from Delaney, one of my NSLI-Y internet friends, that she was in the city too! She did NSLI-Y in Oman studying Arabic, and she was on her YES Abroad exchange year in Bulgaria. She and her host grandmother had come to Vienna for the weekend, and we sat at the aqua-domed Karlskirche together for an hour, talking about our different experiences abroad. And can I just say that her BulgarianĀ Š±Š°Š±Š° is quite the adventurous, happening woman?!

Then came time for me to catch my flight to Yerevan. Thankfully, I had a row to myself and could finally sleep. I had never really heard spoken Armenian before – the only exposure I’d had to the language was the Glendale Armo rap I listen to. It was definitely exciting to meet Armenians at my gate and hear them speaking their language!

It seems like many of the best days of my life are spent on planes, in airports, on layovers. Reuniting with old friends and meeting in real life an internet friend whom I’ve seen a couple more times since Vienna? Check. Exploring a new city and rediscovering an old one? Check. Using rudimentary high school German? Check. Realizing that fatigue and discomfort are just messages to the brain, and that I can hold all calls if I want to? Definitely check.

I may still not know to much about the world, but at least I know myself.

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