Luxembourg, Luxembourg | December 2018

While visiting my friend C in her hometown, Metz, we made a quick trip to Luxembourg because she works there and it wasn’t yet the holidays for her. I felt like she was bringing her kid (me) to work. :,) I spent most of my day in Trier, Germany, and didn’t see much of Luxembourg, a fail on my part. I’d love to go back someday when I’m better at German since the prevalence of both French and German in the city would be a fascinating case study (or just an excuse for me to run around spouting off both) once I up my proficiency in the latter!

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Trier, Germany | December 2018

I went to France for winter break, and this trip to Trier was a trip within a trip (to Luxembourg) within a trip (to Metz, France) within a trip (to Paris). I was only there for a few hours, just walking around the main part of the city to look at Roman ruins, admire the colorful buildings in the main square, stop by the house where Karl Marx was born, and buy my favorite kids’ books in German. 😛 Enjoy some pictures!

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Dark Before the Dawn: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan | December 2018

I just skimmed through all 100+ blog posts I’ve written since starting this in 2015, privating a couple because they’re pretty embarrassing. I’m embarrassed by them because of how naive and open and optimistic I was. Four years since the start of my blog, I’ve been burned enough to want to keep some of my feelings to myself – but I don’t like that. I miss being naive and open and optimistic. It’s what I’ve always been known for and it’s how I’ve made so many great friends around the world through the power of the internet. I still post a lot on social media, but I’ve noticed that my content has changed. I used to write a lot about what was in my heart. I used to allow my moments of inspiration and passion to guide the way I interacted with social media. Now, a lot of my interactions with social media are guided by a sense of mistrust of the people who could read my posts, not a sense of camaraderie with them.

However, I’ve been actively working to untangle those feelings and find a way to be more “me” online again. This blog post about my time in Bishkek is a challenge to myself: to reflect on my moments of simple happiness without feeling like I’m naive, to share my struggles without worrying I’m too open, to dream about the future without wondering if I’m overly optimistic.

Happiness: Early Morning

“Rise and shine!” I texted D shortly after my 6:40am alarm went off. In 20 minutes, wrapped up in every piece of winter clothing we could find, we were in the hotel lobby then out the door.

The sun hadn’t risen yet and wouldn’t rise for another 1.5 hours, but given our busy conference schedule, we were determined to see a bit of the city, even if it meant a pre-dawn wakeup call. We trudged through the dark streets until we arrived at Ala-Too Square, lit up with New Years decorations in festive colors. Across the street was a protest of three people. Amazed, I watched as policemen walked past them without a word.

“Are you allowed to talk like this about your president?” I asked one of the protesters in Russian after a quick glance at his hand-painted banner.

“Of course, according to the rights given to us in our constitution,” he responded proudly.

With sunrise on the horizon, we decided to head back to our hotel for the start of the conference. We asked a policeman where we could get a taxi, and he called his friend. He didn’t look at us, didn’t talk to us, but he waited with us until the taxi came.

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Openness: Afternoon

In the middle of the conference, I received news that hurt, humiliated, and confused me. I’d never seen myself as a strong person in any sense of the word. But that day, I proved to myself that I’m not just strong – I’m brave. I didn’t run to my room to hide and cry. I continued to participate fully in all activities, to challenge myself to do better, and most importantly, to trust people. It’s that trust – of me in others and of others in me – that has helped me weather the worst of storms.

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Optimism: Evening

The last day of the conference, we were all invited to a networking dinner with Kyrgyz alumni of U.S. Department of State programs. As we all know, State Department exchanges are my passion, and I felt so in my element chatting with Kyrgyz Fulbright alumni, reuniting with my friend O (the EducationUSA Kyrgyzstan adviser and Study With US Central Asia coordinator) and her adorable family, and meeting the coworker of my former U.S. Embassy Bishkek internship supervisor. Did I squeal when talking to the Fulbright alumni? Of course! Did my heart melt to a puddle when I got to see O’s adorable baby again? Duh. Did the coworker and I text pictures of me looking salty AF about my former internship supervisor not having time to meet up with me to him? Wouldn’t have been me without the saltiness. There are days when my dreams feel so far away from me, but then there are days like this one, sitting around a table hearing individual stories about the impact of exchange and berating diplomats, that anything and everything feels possible.

And out of those “anything”s that feel possible, here’s one that does again after writing this post: being myself.

 

Samarkand, Uzbekistan | December 2018

After months of being in Uzbekistan, I finally visited the Silk Road city that the country is famous for! 99% of my time was spent with other Americans who are here on Fulbright ETA and English Language Fellow scholarships, but we all did get massive discounts for speaking Russian (me) and Tajik (our friend K), and for being residents in this country. The city has some beautiful monuments, but because we didn’t get a tour guide, I didn’t learn as much about the history as I could have. Still, I had a great time, and my favorite moments were not visiting those monuments, but just sitting around a coffee with my friends, talking about our experiences around the world and in Uzbekistan. Oh, and scaring P by telling him I had x-ray vision and could see him through the hat I had pulled down over my eyes.

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The iconic Registan Square

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There is a sizable Armenian community in Samarkand, and P and I went inside this church to pray with them.

As I mentioned above, I loved just getting to know my fellow ETAs and Elves better and hearing about their ideas and travel stories. We ranged in age, from 23 (me) to 33 to 50, and we’ve all lived in different countries. P has a lot of experience in the Balkans, a region of the world I want to learn about. He also is a RPCV from Tunisia, so we talked a lot about that. J and V have both taught in multiple different countries, K has a lot of experience in Tajikistan (so her placement in Samarkand, a Tajik-speaking city, is perfect!), and I was just there to soak it all in. To have these conversations on the backdrop of some of Uzbekistan’s best-known architectural marvels – even better.

But maybe I’ll focus a bit more on the history side of things my next trip there.

Gulistan, Uzbekistan | November 2018

Prior to this trip, I hadn’t actually left the Tashkent region of Uzbekistan. But Gulistan is situated about a 1.5-hour drive from the capital, located in the Sirdaryo region. I was going with Sarah, another ETA, to her host city after she’d been at my place for Friendsgiving weekend. Stuffed with chicken, mashed potatoes, and apple pie, we caught a taxi out of Tashkent.

Now, Gulistan is not a particularly pretty city, and it has quite a small-town feel despite being the capital of Sirdaryo. However, as cliche as it is for me to say, the people were absolutely amazing. Sarah and I were invited to dinner with her landlord and her landlord’s colleagues; they are all middle school English teachers. I was not only touched by the delicious food and tea they whipped up for us, but also impressed by who they were as people. One of them had a fiery passion for English and teaching English, something I could relate to given the meaning I get from my own studies of languages. Another, despite the disapproval of everyone she knew, married for love instead of agreeing to an arranged marriage like most women in the Uzbek regions do. To be honest, I had almost been dreading dinner because I tend to become shy at group meals. But I kept telling myself that I might end up surprised at how much I could enjoy it if I pushed myself… and I did! I had such an amazing time getting to know each and every one of them. The dinner ended, though, when their husbands texted asking that they come home.

After walking with Sarah to her university the next morning, I caught a marshrutka back to Tashkent. It was a bizarre experience sitting on a seat that faced the side door, jammed between like 10 people. It costed 10,000 so’m, which is only a little over 1 USD!! The funny thing is, it was less expensive than the 15-minute taxi I then took from the marshrutka stop in Tashkent back to my apartment.

“Chou-Chou” Places for me in Tashkent

Most people hear “Uzbekistan” and think “Pakistan,” or if they’re a little wiser to the region, images of the Silk Road cities pop into heads. I don’t think the capital, Tashkent, is a hot spot on Uzbekistan travel lists, but I actually enjoy living here. “Chou-chou” (not even sure if it’s spelled correctly because I only ever use/hear it spoken) is one of my favorite French words and translates to something encapsulating both cozy and beloved. While nothing to come to Tashkent specifically for, these are my “chou-chou” places that make the city feel like home.

Chaikof

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My favorite coffee chains here are Black Bear, B&B Coffee Roasters, and Chaikof, but the latter holds the most meaning to me because I’m constantly running into and making new friends here. Although I discovered it relatively late in the game (I’m not sure how, since I walked past it all the time on my way to and from a restaurant I’ll talk about below!), it’s quickly become a favorite. They serve all different kinds of dishes, including pasta and smoked salmon crepes, which are the ways to my heart. I don’t come here for the atmosphere or anything because it’s always super crowded, and the floors are kinda slippery?? But I love that I can always find a familiar face here – or if not, become friends with people who will become familiar faces! One time the waiter got my order wrong, so I was agitated as I explained to him in Russian what I needed. The woman sitting next to me told me in English that she could help me, and, already annoyed, I responded coldly, “Я говорю по-русски.” You’d think that gaffe would turn her off to me, but instead, she liked my spunkiness and chatted me up afterward. We quickly became friends, and we already have plans again this week. Runs, dinners, and wine & whines are in the works. 😉

L’Olio

The restaurant I mentioned above that’s right next to Chaikof is called L’Olio. As you can guess, it’s an Italian restaurant. It’s not a restaurant to write home about, but I go there when I’m craving a slab of salmon or can’t be bothered to cook my own pasta. It’s also the only place I’ve found in Tashkent so far that sells pasta sauce, although at a premium price and only in small quantities. (It also unfortunately does not taste that great. Not savory enough, too tangy.) So why am I writing about it? Because the waiters are super friendly and eager to practice English and help me with Russian. So friendly that we now have a group chat on Telegram (the most popular messaging app here) called Спагетти Помодоро (Spaghetti Pomodoro – my order there almost every time), and I’ve hung out with one of them. Plans for all four of us to hang out are being formulated, but every time we try, someone is curled up with Tashkent Tummy (me) or hungover (any one of them).

Java Coffee Roasters

Ah, the most chou-chou of the chou-chous. I’m there literally every day, and the baristas (pictured above) are some of my favorite people in Uzbekistan. They don’t speak any English, but my Russian is finally at a level where I can both roast the shit out of A and cry to him when I’m having a bad day. S once posted the pic of us and the Christmas tree on her Instagram, saying that I’m always happy and that she adores those kinds of people. It meant a lot to me because Fulbright has been extremely difficult for me, and it’s like I’m almost never really happy here. But by nature, I am actually a happy person, and Java is the oasis that brings out the real me. I’m touched that S noticed. I could go on and on about Java and all the friends I’ve made here and all the funny moments experienced, but I’ll leave you with this: yesterday they trusted me with a knife to cut my apple, and as I wielded it for photos and pretended to cut people from afar, one of my friends muttered, “Can’t believe they let you have that.”

Makro

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Yes, a grocery store chain is one of my chou-chous. The produce and snack sections are a bit lacking compared to the other chain, Korzinka, but I always associate Makro with calmness. I only ever go at night, and whenever I’ve had a bad day, I just put my phone on airplane mode, take a stroll to Makro, and buy myself food that’ll cheer me up. I’m not one to walk aimlessly, so one day when I wanted to experience freshly-falling snow in Tashkent, I walked to Makro. Snow always puts me in a good mood, so even now when the skies are clear, walking there reminds me of snow. A recent development: I keep getting the same cashier, so we now have conversations in Uzbek when we see each other. It’s probably the only time in Tashkent I ever use Uzbek, so that’s been nice. And why not befriend the person who rings up your broccoli heads and baby food packets??

I happened to go to three of those four places today, so it’s been a pretty good day in the end.

Chimgan, Uzbekistan | October 2018

Unbeknownst to me until another ETA here, J, rounded all of us up for a trip there, there are gorgeous mountains just a 1.5 hour drive outside of Tashkent! The country isn’t all desert!

Word to the wise: even though we were going off-season, the hotel we wanted booked quickly. I think we tried about two weeks in advance to reserve a room, and it was already at full capacity. Book accommodations early if you plan on going (well, I guess the goal should be to get you to come to Uzbekistan in general, not just Chimgan specifically!), especially during summer (when everyone goes for beach activities) and winter (when the place is crowded with skiers).

Another word to the wise: Confirm prices of accommodations beforehand. We (well, mostly J, who speaks Russian well enough to have these difficult conversations) got into a fight with the owners of the hotel right before we left because they tried to overcharge us. Consequently, we did not get the free lunch we’d been promised that morning. I tell you this for the sake of your own stomach.

Yet another word to the wise: Don’t be so scared of heights that you squeeze your eyes shut the entire ski lift ride up the mountain, then have to crab walk on slippery rocks an hour back down.

And now I leave you with my favorite pictures from the weekend.

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Pictured above: The mountain I crabwalked down. Thankfully, a few other people shimmied their way down (read: we all fell on our asses multiple times) with me.