As you can tell, March was a big travel month for me! I’d only been back in Tashkent for a few days before leaving again to my next region, Jizzakh (also the name of the city we were in)! It’s also kind of a coincidence that I planned to write this post today because I got an email from the embassy this morning asking me to fill out a form related to the conference I was in Jizzakh for… four months later? 0.o
Anyway, one of the ELFs, V, was holding a big conference at her university, Tashkent Pedagogical. We had a casual dinner at her apartment the night before, which basically looked like we were inside a cupcake! A lot of us hadn’t seen each other in a while, so it was nice to reconnect. An ELF in Tajikistan, Linda, was the keynote speaker, and I just love her and was so happy to see her again!! This was one of my favorite parts about being in a newly-established Fulbright program in a non-western European country: there are so many opportunities! If you have an idea, the embassy will support you. If you’d like to initiate different projects, your community members are eager to attend.
I learned so much at the conference! I was also impressed by how smoothly it ran and how much of a team effort it was; V was well-supported by her colleagues and students at the university. The embassy contributed too by funding travel for all the Elves and ETAs plus one or two colleagues each to come with us. ELF Josh talked about how to introduce critical reading to students by starting with two news articles, one true and one filled with biased and incorrect information. I never ended up using his lesson in my classroom, but it’s something I’d like to do with future students. ELF Peter showed us how to use art to teach descriptive writing. Once again, a lesson I didn’t end up putting into practice but that I have stored away for future writing classes and even speaking clubs. 🙂 I presented too, about writing effective resumes and cover letters by showing, not telling. 😉 It went over really well; a lot of people came up to me afterward complimenting how clearly and understandably I spoke, and some of the ETAs shared the good gossip their colleagues were talking about my presentation. 😛 That was definitely a confidence boost because I always get nervous before things like this! I ended up using variations of my presentation throughout the semester with the Prosecutors’ Academy and EducationUSA. Hopefully it’ll be useful in France, too!
The decor at the restaurant where we had dinner was… interesting. V described it as “alarming.” The pasta I ordered also had too much dill for my liking, but that’s what I get for ordering a non-Uzbek dish in a country that loves dill.
I wrapped up my trip to Jizzakh with ETA/ELF/local counterpart friends in one of their hotel rooms, watching American and Russian music videos. The songs I listened to that night still remind me of that evening and Uzbekistan in general, and all the good times had. 🙂 Fulbright was a difficult experience for me, and I still feel a lot of anger about some of the things that happened to me, but I make peace with it knowing how many good people entered my life from it.
This is going to be a lesson not in Uzbek, but in (mostly) English! Although my students were speaking English at a high level, a lot of words are used differently in Uzbekistan than in America. Here’s are a bunch of words you need to relearn in order to navigate the higher education system in Uzbekistan 🙂
School – only used to refer to the equivalent of our elementary/middle schools. If your counterpart calls you from the university asking where you are and you say “I’m on my way to school” as in, “I’m on my way to you,” you’re going to get a “????” Same with if a student needs to give you something and asks where you are and you text back, “Don’t worry I’m still at school!” They’ll think you wandered off to a kindergarten.
College – only used to refer to the equivalent of our high school. University is not college! A lot of confusion would arise when I’d talk about all the study abroad I did during my “college days” as my coworkers imagined a 14-year-old Paula traveling the world. Fortunately, I didn’t make this mistake too often because collège is high school in French, so I’ve been used to this for years.
Pair – This refers to a class period, which counts as a “pair,” or a two-hour block of time. It’s not actually two hours but 80 minutes, but that flies too! When I told my university that the embassy required me to be in the classroom for at least 10 hours, my counterpart counted each pair as 120 minutes instead of 80. I wonder if the embassy would’ve seen it the same way…
Dekan – the dean!! There are multiple deans it seems, at least one for each grade level. As you can imagine, the deans are very strict, enforcing high standards of dress (my male students wore a full suit and tie to school – I mean university! – every day), behavior, and academic performance. I once got in trouble with the dean. I let my students out early when they’d finished their work quickly, and it was caught on camera. The dean told one of my students that he would “punish me.” The punishment never came. 😛
Rector – what we would call the president. I really respect the rector at TSUL. He’s from Karakalpakstan, a semi-autonomous region in Uzbekistan, and despite being the Deputy Minister of Justice of Uzbekistan and rector of one of the most prestigious universities in the country, he is one of the most laid-back, funny guys I’ve ever met. He initiated all reforms at TSUL: pushing against bribery, promoting English, listening to people’s feedback, encouraging professional growth opportunities. One time I went with him and other staff on a team-building retreat to the mountains. A few of us wanted to get on ATVs but were scared. We argued amongst ourselves about whether we should ride one or not, and when we looked back, the rector was already zooming off on his own ATV.
Kafedra – what we would call department. I was working in the til o’rgatishi kafedrasi, or language training department. Although there were a few people in that department who made my life difficult, for the most part, I got along with the other teachers and felt supported.
Home task – homework 🙂
Current control – There were three marking periods at TSUL that were the average of homework, participation, and classwork grades. Each of the three marking periods counted for 10% of the final grade.
Midterm/final control – midterm/final exam. There were two midterm controls, and I believe each counted for 10% of the final grade. The final control counted for 50% of the final grade.
Mark – grade, as in score, always out of 10. Except for the final control, which was out of 50.
Year – grade, as in 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year, 4th year. People would just get confused if you asked what grade they were in!
Group – Students are divided into groups and have most of their classes with their groupmates. I mostly taught the “special” English-track groups, but I had one class that was a mix of two different groups.
Group leader – the student who leads the group. This person is the point of contact between the dekan and his groupmates and has extra responsibilities that I’m still not totally clear on.
Track – The education system in Uzbekistan is divided into two tracks: Russian and Uzbek. Parents choose which track their child will follow. My university also had a third track, the special English one. I heard a lot of teachers warning me that the Uzbek-track students wouldn’t have as good English skills, but I disagree! Although my Russian-track students generally had better spoken English just by virtue of being a louder, more spunky group, my Uzbek-track students were amazingggg at anything writing, reading, and critical thinking-related, which is just as important. They also followed instructions and turned things in on time more often than the Russian-track students… But I loved both my groups. 🙂
Journal – the book where you keep track of attendance. The group leader holds onto this and marks people present with a + or absent with an нб (не было – wasn’t here). Then the teacher (that’s me!) signs it. This is separate from the attendance I kept track of for current control marks. This was submitted to the dekan for ~disciplinary purposes~
Klyuch – Russian for “key.” Very important, as before class, each teacher must get the key from the front-door guards, sign for it, and unlock their classroom. I was never guaranteed a room for speaking club and had to just ask for whatever key was available. Sometimes I’d be given a key to a room that was already in use, sending me on a wild goose chase to find an empty room and go back down to ask for the key to that room.
I’m sure there are way more words I used in my everyday, and I’ll update this list as I think of them!
Anyone who has asked me for travel recs in Uzbekistan, as well as every Uzbek who has asked me my favorite place in Uzbekistan, knows how PASSIONATE I am about Termez, the very southernmost point of the country. A historic city that stands on the Amu Daryo (one of the major rivers in the country) with Afghanistan just on the other side of the sneakily-named Friendship Bridge, Termez is where you can go to see not just Islamic but also Buddhist and Bactrian (Alexander the Great made it all the way there) architecture. The mountains that border Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, neither of them far off from Termez, just adds to the multicultural vibes of the whole area.
You can fly to Termez from Tashkent, but my friends and I took the ~14 hour overnight train. It was my first and so far only time on a sleeper train, and I loved it. We woke up to beautiful views of mountains and villages and chatted with our roommate, a guy from Karakalpakstan.
We stayed at this hotel that seemed to cater to Chinese and Russian businessmen on the main road in the city proper. It was pretty comfortable, though the wifi didn’t work and the water pressure in the shower was inadequate – but if you’re like us and those aren’t the things you care about, it’s a cheaper option than some of the other hotels in town. At one point I was hungry and wandered down to reception to ask if they had food, and they pointed me to the attached restaurant next door. The cooks were confused about this foreign girl going directly to the kitchen to ask for vegetarian soup (you.. aren’t going to starve without meat??), but they made it for me and we even had some nice conversations in Uzbek! I was a little doubtful about my food because the kitchen wasn’t the definition of spick n span, the container they poured my soup into was also of doubtful cleanliness, and my soup was extremely oily, but guess what? Even though I have extremely sensitive intestines, I wolfed it down and was fine!
Oh God… I insisted we eat here on the first day because it looked nice and was right across the street from our hotel. But when I ordered lagmon, it took a literal hour of waiting for them to come back and tell me they didn’t have it. An hour! Then I stupidly brought everyone back on our last day. Sarah, Graham, and I tried our luck ordering lagmon. Sarah and I got ours, but then after an hour, they told Graham they didn’t have it anymore. Uzbek people are constantly asking me what they can do to build their tourism infrastructure, and for the most part, it’s great. Highways are well-maintained, accommodations are varied and adequate (I’ve had amazing experiences with Airbnbs), ATMs are starting to pop up in more places, multilingual tours are available, people are open and kind, and of course, there are so many amazing things to see. But the one thing that’s missing: ANY SEMBLANCE OF SERVICE AT RESTAURANTS. It’s not too big a deal for me; it feels like part of the experience. Eating out isn’t a huge part of Uzbek culture (not when the women in your family can serve up an amazing feast made from fresh ingredients!), so it makes sense that waiters and restaurant owners aren’t trained to check in on guests at regular intervals, accommodate dietary restrictions, or give free stuff when they eff up. Those are very western parts of restaurant culture and we can’t expect that it’ll be like that everywhere in the world. But I’m just saying: if Central Asian countries want to attract American and European tourists, these are things we throw fits about.
The city of Termez
Ben, Sarah, and I got to Termez before Caroline and Graham and spent the afternoon walking around the city. We visited the park and the archaeological museum. I’ve heard great things about the latter, but to be honest, I didn’t get much out of it without context first. I should’ve gone to it after our tour of the surrounding archaeological sites, not before like my guidebook recommended. Another part of the guidebook we could rewrite… 😛
Sarah found an awesome guide, an eccentric and extremely knowledgeable guy named Sergei. We drove about 45 minutes out of Termez to the ruins of what was once Alexander the Great’s Alexandria Oxiana. The Amu Daryo used to flow right up against it, but it changed course to be closer to what is now Afghanistan, which is why the town was eventually abandoned. We trudged through the cells of the stronghold as Sergei pointed out pottery and bones, and what was amazing was that we were completely alone! One reason I recommend Termez so highly is because a lot of these breathtaking sites are basically unknown to tourists, so you have them to yourself.
Wrestling match and spring party
We were driving to our next site when Graham and Ben noticed an enormous village wrestling match and insisted we go check it out. I was not interested and kind of annoyed to be dragged along, but I’m so glad they wanted to see it because it ended up being an awesome experience! The village elders welcomed us to sit with them, and the energy among the wrestlers and spectators was tangible. One man invited us to his spring party around the corner, so we took a peak and were rewarded with flowers and performances. Definitely a unique experience that is so easy to miss if you’re like how I was in that moment, closed-off, but that are so easy to partake in if you just open up a bit! I’m probably gonna say that every part of this trip was my favorite part but no really, THIS is one of my favorite memories from my entire 10 months in Uzbekistan.
We walked through a village (and, consequently, people’s backyards) to get to this minaret, built of herringbone brickwork. It was completed in 1110 and used as a Silk Road lighthouse; even Chenghis Khan didn’t dare to touch minarets because they were a symbol of God’s power on earth.
Sultan Saodat Complex + Kokildor Xonaqohi
A mausoleum for the Sayyid dynasty, this was more of a typical “Uzbek” site, reminding me of places I’ve visited in the better-known cities of the Silk Road. I liked the darker shades of teal and brown in the brickwork and tiles, and we joined a man in prayer and song as he wished these travelers well. Kokildor Xonaqohi was used as a medieval guesthouse for pilgrims to Sultan Saodat, but I had more fun watching as Sergei enthusiastically pointed out a coniferous tree from Azerbaijan, almond trees, and apricot blossoms.
This means “40 girls” in Uzbek, and it’s a 9th century summer residence named after the 40 cells it contains and also after the legend of 40 Amazon girls who defended the fortress from invasion. I like to believe it’s the latter. 🙂 Two Slav-squatting guys with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and loud music playing watched as we walked around but said nothing.
This was probably the closest we got to Afghanistan – we could clearly see Kara Tepa in the no man’s land between the two countries, as well as the fence separating them. Fayaz Tepa is a Buddhist monastery with a stupa (as they’re called in Central Asia)/pagoda (as they’re called in South Asia), and inside every stupa is supposedly a relic of the Buddha. There were parts of the ruins where we could see where statues and other things had been taken out, probably on display in the Archaeological Museum.
Hakim al-Termezi mausoleum/museum
Al-Termezi was a hadith, someone who interprets the Quran. It was said he lived to a ridiculously old age before being killed by his enemies. Inside the complex was a museum full of Ghandari works, a mix of Greek and Indian influences. Sergei told us that the first depiction of the Buddha made him look Greek because it was in this Ghandari style. Before we left, we climbed the outside gate, which afforded us views directly into Afghanistan across the river. We could see smoke rising out of the chimney of a house.
To sum up, these are the reasons I’d recommend Termez as the #1 place to visit in Uzbekistan:
With the right guide (ahem, Sergei), you will learn sooo much, and there’s a lot to learn in Termez that is so unique because of the influence of different cultures.
You’ll see things you can’t see in other parts of Uzbekistan – Buddhist stupas and Greek ruins and freaking Afghanistan!!
There are no tourists, so you’ll have a lot of these beautiful places to yourself.
Adventures around every corner, from restaurant mishaps to village wrestling matches. 😉
A small detail but that’s important to me that I’ve been struggling with while captioning photos and writing blog posts is whether to use the Uzbek or English spellings of place names! For example, Khiva and Urgench are both English spellings, but in Uzbek they’d be Xiva and Urganch. Xorezm, however, is an Uzbek spelling, and it’d be Khoresm in English. I keep finding myself mixing spellings depending on what I’m used to seeing. I always write “Andijon” (Uzbek) instead of “Andijan” (English), but never “Farg’ona” (Uzbek) instead of “Fergana” (English). These inconsistencies are inconsequential to reader comprehension but for a “linguist” like me, I’m bothered and need to find a way to be consistent about my spelling. 😛 I guess I could start with the title of this blog post, but hey, I’ll leave it up so this spiel makes sense. 😉
In the beginning of March there was a week off from lessons for midterm preparation, so I visited my ELF friend Mina and her husband Adam in Urgench. The real jewel of the Khoresm region (I guess I’ll stick to English spelling for this blog post since I always spell Khiva and Urgench the English way anyway), though, is Khiva. A marshrutka ride there was only an hour long, and I laughed at the way the kids stared at these three foreigners with their dog (Mina and Adam’s pom, Charlie Boux, is always with them on their travels!). They thought Charlie Boux was a cat!
We didn’t spend much time in Khiva, just touring Ichon Kala, the walled part, for a few hours. We admired the smooth silks, lapis minarets, and soft kitties. Mina kept running into her Turkmen students (Khoresm is right on the border of Turkmenistan, so a lot of students come to Uzbekistan for their education!), and Adam and Charlie Boux kept getting stopped for pictures.
We went back to Urgench, where Mina and Adam were living, and just had a chill night. I cannot remember for the life of me what they’re called, but I tried these little dough pockets of spinach, a regional specialty that’s served with a healthy dollop of sour cream on top (except I don’t like sour cream.. oops). We watched a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer as I worked on PowerPoints for my next lessons, Charlie Boux learned to like me, and Mina assured me that the bathroom always smells like sewage and that it wasn’t me.
The next day, after a mug of Black Bear Cafe coffee prepared by Adam for all of us, I explored Urgench. Mina and Adam lived off the major road, with the airport on one end and train station on the other. There isn’t really anything to see, but I had fun stopping by some food places they recommended! First was Garage Burger, a new restaurant serving burgers and fries. The sauce that came with my fries reminded me of something I used to have at Pommes Frites in NYC, so the place gets a thumbs up from me! Interesting vibes there too; it was darkly-lit, with a mural of an astronaut eating a burger, neon purple lights over the cash register, bar stools, exposed brick, and western pop music videos on full blast on the TVs. Then I grabbed coffee at Caramel, and they even had to-go cups, a novelty outside of Tashkent! I wish I’d had enough stomach room to try their big selection of desserts, but I’d just come from a big serving of lagmon at a milliy taomlar (national dish) restaurant). While I was eating, I was reading the Urgench section of an Uzbekistan travel guide, and it baaaadly needs updating. Of course, neither Garage Burger nor Caramel were in it. I honestly think the ETAs and ELFs could rewrite at the very least the food and accommodations sections of a lot of these Uzbekistan guidebooks!
In the afternoon, I headed over to Urganch Davlat Universiteti to join Mina’s Access speaking club. It was more like a class, though, with everyone in assigned seats and structured activities. First they got to ask me questions and I got to ask them questions, and then I mostly observed as Mina lead them through activities describing people’s personalities and talents, figuring out their own personality types according to a quiz. Finally, we played a game where someone had an animal in mind, and the rest of the class had to ask yes/no questions to guess what it was. The whole time I was making mental notes of how I could fit these into my teaching. The animal game for my Istiqbolli Avlod classes. Activities with personality types for speaking club. I didn’t end up using them, but they’re stored away for the future! And anyway, I enjoyed watching Mina teach. She and I have similar styles; we tend to be jokey and warm and close to the students, which some might say leads to misbehaving (and it can and does sometimes!), but for the most part has resulted in a lot of trust and creativity and openness in the classroom.
That evening, we went over to the house of the Access coordinator, Feruza. She herself is a Fulbright alum, and she treated us to homemade plov (she even made a portion without meat for me!), fresh juice, wine, the obligatory green tea, and lots of gossip. 😉 I have to say that I really enjoy Khoresm plov because it’s a little less oily and “blander” than other regions’ plov, which is fine by me because it means less stomachaches! Although I did get struck with Tashkent Tummy as soon as we got back to Mina’s – but for once, I don’t think the plov was to blame. 😛
I know my portion about Khiva was really short compared to Urgench, which might surprise people because Urgench is really just the city that tourists fly to to get to Khiva. But you’ve probably figured out by now that I don’t really care for touristy things. My time in Urgench was way more fun for me, full of exploring new restaurants, working with the amazing students of an Embassy-sponsored program, meeting a badass Uzbek woman, and spending lots of quality time with friends!
Before I got my Fulbright acceptance, I’d already dropped about $2500 booking a trip around Europe and the Caucasus, figuring that if CLS and Fulbright (I was an alternate for both programs) wouldn’t send me abroad, I’d send myself abroad. And then I ended up being accepted to Fulbright, and only about $500 of my trip was refundable, but no lessons were learned because how could I have known that the State Department exchange gods would smile favorably upon me? (By exchange gods I basically mean the PAO at U.S. Embassy Tashkent, John, who was the one that put together enough money to open the brand new Uzbekistan ETA program a year early.)
Tbilisi was one of the stops I’d had planned, and it was my second time trying and failing to go – I’d really wanted to when I was in Armenia the previous spring but didn’t end up making the effort to. Third time’s the charm I guess, because when I heard the Fulbright Russia ETAs were putting together a conference for Eurasia ETAs, I immediately signed up!
I’ll admit that I really didn’t see much of Tbilisi, but that’s because I was so busy spending time 1) participating in the conference, 2) squeezing into other professional events, and 3) chatting with local Georgian friends! So those are worthwhile causes, right? Here are some highlights from my trip, with a little bit of touristing mixed in. 😉
It was my first time flying the infamous airline, and I even had a layover in Moscow Sheremetyevo, my first time touching Russian soil! Or snow, I should say. Cons: I don’t know if this is an Aeroflot thing, but as the plane was ascending, the engines got really quiet and that freaked me out because it’s usually the opposite. This occurred on all 4 Aeroflot flights I was on and I definitely panicked the first time it happened. Pros: my charging cord broke and the Russian girl setting next to me just happened to have a spare and cheerfully gave it to me.
Ripped off, but later good karma
My taxi driver was awesome and told me what I should do in Tbilisi, but then he totally ripped me off, charging me 94 lari (about $40) for what should’ve been a 20 lari ride. I was young and stupid and didn’t know the exchange rate of the currency or the worth of a taxi ride. However, on my ride back to the airport, my driver and I were already halfway there when I realized I left my flash drive at the hostel. So we turned around, got it, and went to the airport. I should’ve owed him about 45 lari, but I only had 35 on me, and he was fine with it and kind about it and didn’t make me withdraw more money or anything. There are some good people in this world.
My friend and former colleague from American Councils put me in touch with his friend in Georgia, Mari. She took me up the funicular (and graciously tried not to laugh at my fear of heights) and in the restaurant at the top of the hill, had me taste Georgian treats: lobiani (puff pastry with a bean filling), ponchiki (cream pastry), and Lagidze (carbonated flavored water). I liked Mari the moment I met her. She’s so chill and sweet and funny, has spent a lot of time with Americans (mostly Peace Corps Volunteers), and insisted on treating me because I was her guest. :O We’re planning to go to Portugal together while I’m in France. 😉
Work, work, work
ETAs repping several countries were present at the conference: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Latvia, Russia, Belarus. I loved all the presentations. Stu in Azerbaijan discussed appreciating diversity instead of trying to automatically find commonalities, a point I LOVED because in some cases, we can be more different than alike, and that’s beautiful and acceptable and should be acknowledged. Jack in Azerbaijan suggested incorporating lessons about the National Parks system into English classes to encourage environmental awareness and civic participation, especially in a country like Azerbaijan where being an environmentalist can be seen as anti-oil and therefore anti-government. Rachel and Kyle in Kyrgyzstan showed how their Access group, whose students attend a theology school, is developing quantifiable skills through their course, which I actually remember Jenn Miller from the State Department mentioning at PDO as a goal for Kyrgyzstan. 🙂 So kudos to them for accomplishing literal State Department policy objectives! The Belarus ETAs talked about activities for low-resource classrooms, which didn’t really apply to my everyday teaching situation but was still useful as ideas for speaking club activities where I didn’t always have access to a computer or projector. And I presented about the realities of women in Uzbekistan and what’s being done to improve their status and safety. I had it checked by an Uzbek friend working at an NGO that supports women to make sure I wasn’t putting words in anyone’s mouth, and he did make some minor edits. The bulk of my presentation, though, consisted of discussion questions for everyone to share their own experiences and what they’ve been doing to promote gender equality!
American Councils cannot escape me
I met up with Sopiko, a Georgian FLEX alum who was interning with me at American Councils in DC last summer and now works at American Councils in Georgia! We had a lovely dinner discussing FLEX alumni and feminism, and the next day she took me to the American Councils office! I even got to meet the CLS program officer there, and we had lunch with another staff member of the FLEX team. As I’m getting a little “older,” I’m less interested in stories about these State Department exchange programs and more into how the programs function and their implementation and the numbers behind them. I mean I do love a heartwarming story, especially given how I myself have participated in a few of these programs, but what is really interesting for me now are the answers to questions like: how can we improve FLEX alumni programming to maintain a sense of community and civic duty? Which NSLIY languages get the highest OPI results, and what could be the cause of this that can be implemented in lower-performing language programs? What needs to be in place before a new Fulbright program can be initiated? It goes on.
Stalin’s biggest fan
I dragged my friends Alex and Yasha to Stalin’s Underground Printing House, where the former leader of Georgia’s Communist Party explained to us in Russian every corner of the museum. To be honest, I understood very little of it, but the newspaper clippings and paintings and printing presses spoke for themselves. If you want to get the most out of this museum, you better have good Russian or Georgian language skills!
Diplomats, of course
At the conference, we met Julius Tsai, the Cultural Affairs Officer, and Lika, who helps run cultural exchange programs, from US Embassy Tbilisi! Julius talked about his trajectory from professor to diplomat. He’s served in Manila and Beijing and speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese, German, French, Japanese, Tagalog, and Georgian, as well as having studied Classical Chinese, Greek , and Latin. 😮 Later that day, I attended Suitcase Stories at the American Councils office. US Embassy Tbilisi Press Officer Erin Jarrett told an enthralled audience of me and a bunch of FLEX alumni about her stints in Jerusalem and Tbilisi, and how she speaks Arabic and Georgian!
The first of many Fulbright-Peace Corps crossover episodes
I hung out with Mari again, and she brought along her Peace Corps Georgia friends, one of whom is actually an RPCV who was doing Fulbright in Bahrain! Then suddenly a bunch of my ETA friends arrived, and I was overwhelmed by two of my worlds crossing?? But I guess it’s really not surprising.
Fabrika was the name of the hostel we stayed at but also the area the hostel is located in. Full of cool street art and modern restaurants, I can see why so many young people go there to hang out!
Fine, a few touristy pictures…
… and yummy food at Hummus Bar!
Not a bad first foray into Georgia! Next time, I’m hoping to experience more of the tourist sites, go beyond Tbilisi, and maybe learn a bit of the language. 😉
And I’m not talking about the physical things! I don’t want to write a cliche post about how much this year has impacted and changed me, but it has. In some cases, I don’t like the ways I’ve changed. I’m much more cynical and guarded, which some would say is just a part of growing up, but those are two characteristics that are so against the person I’d always been: positive and open (perhaps too much so for both).
But for the most part, I’m excited for the good developments from this year influence the decisions I make and person I am.
Physical Resilience. Okay, I’m still not great in this category, especially given my phobia. But I’ve had enough less than stellar BMs this year to feel like I have some traveling cred. (Cue the Parks & Rec “stop…. pooping” gif.) Actually, living in Tashkent, things were not very physically difficult for me. I had consistent heating/AC, electricity, running water, and western toilets, as well as access to varied cuisines: Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, even Czech! In addition, most of the roads between major cities are quite well-maintained, and I only once had to ride a marshrutka; comfortable shared taxis are widely available. But it’s still definitely not the same as being in America, and I will not quickly forget having to pee in a squat toilet in a stall without a door or toilet paper, my long skirt hanging in.
Adventurous-ness. Same as above, I’m not great in this regard, but traveling in Uzbekistan has definitely made me more open to new experiences. For example, while driving through a village near Termez, the guys spotted a village wrestling match and wanted to check it out. I was very much not interested, but I followed them anyway, and we ended up being welcomed by the local people and even invited to a spring party. That was easily one of my favorite memories from my entire year, and it wouldn’t have happened if the people around me hadn’t pushed that opportunity on me! Plus everyone who’s talked to me about places to visit in Uzbekistan knows that I love the sites that are off the beaten path. Samarkand and Bukhara are obligatory because society says they are, but if I were to plan an itinerary for someone, it’d literally be a journey around the perimeter of the country, to Termez in the south and Nukus in the west and Lake Aydar (+ yurt camping) in the north and the silk and ceramics cities of the Fergana region in the east.
Ambition. I’ve always been ambitious, but I didn’t act on the things I was interested in because I didn’t think I could handle multiple priorities at once. I was only involved in a couple extracurriculars in high school, and I wasn’t at all a part of campus life in college. There were so many clubs I wanted to join and so much volunteering I wanted to do, but I was worried I wouldn’t have time for my studies/internships or energy for my sports if I added anything else to my plate. During my time in Uzbekistan, though, as soon as I had an idea, I acted on it. I was frustrated by the disparity in gender equality, so I started a Girls’ Club and volunteered with a local NGO. I missed high school cross country, so I set a strict weekly schedule of running workouts for myself. I was getting a lot of questions from local students about writing effective application essays, so I led several workshops on the topic. I was determined to get to an advanced level of Russian and intermediate level of Uzbek, so I studied with tutors twice a week for each language. (I didn’t reach those goals, but I made huge improvements, so that’s all that matters to me!) I wanted to visit all 13 regions of Uzbekistan, so despite major mental health obstacles, I did. Now I can’t even imagine that for most of my life, I was kind of complicit with myself and didn’t push myself to do more. I’ve proven to myself this year that I am capable of doing more.
Fearlessness. Well, only in very specific situations. Even if you barely know me, you still probably know I have some pretty severe phobias that control a lot of my life. But one thing I’ve never been scared of and never will be is people. There were people this year who had power over me and thought they could intimidate me by lighting a (metaphorical) fire under me. I turned the heat up higher. A lot of my peers were concerned; “I wouldn’t want to risk my future career by starting a conflict with x person.” But my ruining my career by standing up for myself doesn’t scare me. What terrifies me is not standing up for myself the way I stand up for others and not treating myself with the same dignity I would expect myself to treat others who are powerless. There were people around me who were in a position to stand up for me but stayed silent. So if no one else will do the right thing, you must advocate for yourself. And after this year, I can definitely say I’ve learned to not only survive but to excel in the face of powerful forces trying to silence me.
There’s a line in one of my favorite songs that goes “there’s the person we want to be, and the people we are.” I’m still a long way from the person I want to be, but this year has made me a lot prouder of the person I am.
Despite Paris being the “city of love” to probably most of the world, and despite having met a great guy studying there several years ago and happily being in a relationship with him for a while, Paris has never been a romantic city for me. Instead, it’s been a steadfast symbol of my dreams of becoming a diplomat. When I was in high school and French was the only language I had any proficiency in, my school’s French exchange trip was the manifestation of all I had worked towards. We spent 2 weeks living with host families in Angers in the west of France (and I still dearly love and keep in contact with mine), and then 5 days in Paris. By the end of those 3 weeks, most people were tired of speaking French and ready to go back to America. Me? I sobbed and sobbed at the thought of leaving all the new local friends I made and at not having the opportunity to use French every day.
Fast forward three years, and I was studying for a semester in Paris! I interned for an international education organization, AFS, at their France branch, took classes at NYU Paris and Sciences Po, and lived with a host family, a single older woman who used to be a flight attendant and has traveled the world. To be honest, I wasn’t very happy while I lived in Paris and was having a hard time academically and socially.
So when I went back for winter break this year, I was determined to find again another manifestation of my diplomacy dreams. And find them I did, in the places I went and people I spent my time with.
Musée du quai Branly
Situated near the Eiffel Tower, this museum is full of NON-EUROPEAN art. Yes, you heard that right, a space where you can be like, “hwite people? Never heard of her” as you browse works from Oceania, East Asia, the Americas, the African continent, and even Uzbekistan :,) Now I don’t pretend to know anything about art, but I was absolutely giddy to stroll through pieces bearing styles that I’d never seen before. I squealed when I found traditional jackets and jewelry from Bukhara. It reignited my excitement to explore the world and not just stay in capital cities but also get to know the local cultures of the places I visit. I’ll admit I haven’t done a great job of that in Uzbekistan, but at least I’m taking studying Uzbek quite seriously??
Friends old and new!!!
C’mon y’all, it wouldn’t be me traveling somewhere without State Department exchange alumni and other friends!! My first night in Paris, I had dinner with my mom’s coworker, Christina, and we ended up mostly talking about Pokemon Go. 😛 I spent a couple days with Sophie, a NSLI-Y Arabic alum who used to be roommates with Delia, also a NSLI-Y alum who is doing Fulbright “with” me but in Tajikistan. Sophie’s French is impeccable, and she knows Paris so well and took my ignorant ass around town, including to the above-mentioned museum and to an excellent American breakfast place. On Christmas Eve, I visited the holiday market under the Eiffel Tower with Monah, my Lebanese friend whom I met in 2014 when he was studying in the US through the YES program and I was interviewing for the NSLI-Y program (!!). He now studies in Prague but was in Paris visiting family, and it was crazy to reflect on how far we’ve come since we first met each other in high school. My NYU friend Marla and I got coffee, and it was strange how much but how little had changed since we suffered through Sciences Po together a few years ago. She’s now living, studying, and working in Paris, and it was nice to see her so happy and relaxed! I was definitely happier and more relaxed this time around too.
I also met up with Jeremy, a dear friend who did YES Abroad in Macedonia. We ate at my favorite crepe place. I ordered “un crepe à compote de pommes et un café allongé” and, without understanding my French, he coincidentally ordered “an apple sauce crepe and a long coffee”!! We were not full from the crepes, though, so we tried to sneakily go to the restaurant right next door. Our waiter watched us leave, so we had to pretend to keep walking past the restaurant until he looked away, at which point we ran back to the restaurant. We unfortunately got placed at a table within eyeshot of our waiter at the crepe place, and he gave us weird looks all night.
It’s so comforting to know that no matter where I go in the world, I’ll have interesting, kind, funny people to meet up or reunite with. I hadn’t seen Christina since my hometown in 2017, Monah since 2014 in Chicago, Marla since Paris in 2016, and Jeremy since Skopje, Macedonia then Washington DC in 2017. Sophie was introduced to me through Delia, and I had never met her before, but I ended up spending the most time with her! She has so many great experiences, like interning for the US Consulate in Marseille and now doing her MA at Sciences Po. She also speaks fluent French, Russian, and I believe decent Arabic?? I learned so much from everyone but especially her during my trip and left feeling so motivated to accomplish everything I’ve set out for, including higher proficiency in French and Russian and hopefully someday an internship or job (!) with the State Department.
My host mom ❤ ❤ ❤
When I was studying in Paris, my host mom and I didn’t bond that much because I ended up living mostly with my then-boyfriend. And yet, she welcomed me back to her home with enthusiasm, free of charge, and we bonded so much this time around. I had Christmas Eve AND Christmas dinner with her, her sister, her son, and his partner. On the mornings that I left for Metz and then later back to Tashkent, she woke up early to buy us a hot baguette, make us fresh coffee, and chat and enjoy breakfast with me until it was time for me to leave. Given her career with Air France, she had some amazing, hilarious stories to tell about trips she’s made to Cuba, Afghanistan, Jordan, and USSR Russia. She’s a very proper Parisian woman who insists on my using “vous” and getting rid of my “street French,” yet she’s also sassed Cuban police and gotten drunk with Soviet guides. Amazing.
In September, I’ll be moving back to France as a TAPIF English teaching assistant. I’ll be in the academic department of Montpellier, but not in the city proper; I put a preference to be in a rural setting close to the border with Catalonia so I can immerse myself in French and hopefully Catalan. I know many people who do TAPIF use it to travel around Europe, but I’m ready to “set roots” for the 7 months I’ll be there and really take my French to the next level, improve the English-language environment, strengthen my relationships with French people.