Natakallam Arabi

As a way to practice and improve on my Arabic, I joined the Arabic Flagship program at the University of Oklahoma. In it, we attend meetings every two weeks and participate in a culture club once a week. In particular, my favorite meeting was a roundtable where we talked to two refugees from Syria: one who currently lives in Brazil and one who lives in Lebanon. They both work for an organization called “Natakallam” (نتكلم), which partners refugees from the Syrian Civil War with people who want to learn and practice Arabic. In our discussion with them, they told us about their experience in Syria and how they left the country. One of them spent years trying to escape, and his journey included covert border crossings and Turkish prisons. The other got a work visa for Lebanon, and crossed the border every couple of months to keep it current so she would not have to stay in Syria. Their journeys were harrowing, and it was eye-opening to hear about experiences like theirs that I only ever heard about previously.

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However, one of the most interesting things that they talked about was their outlook on the future. Both hoped to return to Syria, but they also doubted that possibility because of its current political situation. They also talked about their perceptions about the places where they live. The one who lived in Brazil talked about the Arab community that was already in the country and how they helped him transition to Brazilian culture. It was especially interesting to hear this, as in our Arabic class we read a poem by a girl from Palestine who currently lives in Brazil, so it was fascinating to see the connections and differences.

Arabic Talent Show!

The University of Oklahoma’s Arabic program always ends the semester with a talent show, where students at all levels of the language can perform, display their advancements, and enjoy (free) food and entertainment. It’s a fun way to end the stressful week before Dead Week and spend time with the language that you (hopefully) love dearly. As with every semester, I had a small role in the talent show. Although, unlike previous years, I did not perform with the Belly Dancing Club. Instead, I helped make a video that showcased the dialectal and cultural differences between Darija (Moroccan) and Masri (Egyptian) Arabic. Specifically, my portion of the video highlighted the differences in their gestures, which make almost no sense to anyone outside of the dialect, and the resulting misunderstandings.

 

However, this year’s talent show also featured poetry readings, singing, videos, and skits. As always, one of my favorite parts of the night is watching the belly dancers perform, because it’s such a fun experience to see all of their hard work and how the audience reacts to them. There were also a lot of fun skits, including a Masri (Egyptian) Arabic one that had a few light jabs at our university’s main rival, the University of Texas.

 

Despite all of the entertainment, one of the best things about the talent show is realizing how far your Arabic has progressed. I remember my very first talent show, where I had no idea what was happening and I lived or died by the quality of the video subtitles. This year, I was able to follow along and translate different sections of the show to my friends who did not know any Arabic. It just helped me realize how much of the language I know now, which is an extremely rewarding and encouraging experience.

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Ugandan Elephants

When I walked into Gould Hall, I did not know what I was expecting. I certainly did not foresee a relatively empty room, with colorful animals and cloths right outside. At first, I was unsure if I was in the location, as the engineering hall seemed an odd choice for a talk on Ugandan peace building. However, once I walked through the double doors to the lecture room, I knew immediately that I was in the right place. Pictures and typed paragraphs surrounded the room on all sides, detailing the lives of women I would never know, who were already so much braver than myself. From their biographical snippets, I learned a small portion of their stories: how they were kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and made into child brides, forced to bear and care for children when they were not even full adults.

However, one of the most striking aspects of their stories were their (generally) hopefully outlooks, primarily due to Sister Rosemary and the opportunities that she provides. Crucially, Sister Rosemary creates jobs for the young women, including making stuffed animals and purses. In fact, these vary products were the colorful animals and cloths that I witnessed just outside the room.

It was impossible to read their stories and not visit the little table off to the side that carried the fruits of their labor, their hopes for the future. On the table itself were little giraffes and elephants, with beautiful bracelets and necklaces surrounding them. Ultimately, I bought two stuffed elephants: one for me, and one for my mother. In the women’s stories, their mothers, and the larger theme of motherhood, was a constant, as many lost theirs or were otherwise unable to be with them. It gave me perspective on my mother’s role in my own life, and it reinforced how lucky I am to have a mother figure who is so present and active in my life. It seemed like the right thing to do to give her one of the elephants as a thank you for her continued support and presence.

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(Photo from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/320670435949168125/)

Prague

The major trip of the month. Kelsey and I randomly decided to go to Prague. So, we booked our tickets, (Only 55 Euros for a direct, and roundtrip bus fare.) Early note on Prague, do not take a taxi. They are outrageously expensive, and will attempt to rip you off. For example, they tried to charge Kelsey and I twenty Euros for a fare that was only half a mile. We walked.

I’m not going to go into too much of what we did, but we walked the famous bridge, visited the castle, walked in the main square, toured the Jewish quarter, and saw the Lennon Wall.

The main sites in Prague are relatively simple to get to. As the city is condensed, everything is within a short walk of one another. Charles Bridge links the castle with the rest of the old town. Side note, I am not sure about the reasoning for this, but I can assume that the monarch, clergy, and wealthy people lived on the one side, with the other end of the population on the other.

One of the main reasons that people go to Prague is the low cost of everything. For example, on the first night, I got a beer, burger, goulash, bread, french fries, and a dessert for around 460 Czech Korunas… that is around 18 Euros. For the most expensive 500 milliliter beer, (that I saw) one would pay about $1.2 USD.

Prague is beautiful, fun, and cheap. I would recommend it as a “budget” European trip… although nothing in Europe is actually cheap.

Hirschhorn

This past month has been a blur. I actually didn’t travel extensively,   but with my classes really turning up the pace, and the travel that I did do, days disappeared.

One of the best places that I visited this month was Hirschhorn. Nicknamed “The Pearl of the Neckar Valley,” this small city within a Geo-Naturpark, is stunning. With Hirschhorn being only 30 minutes away from Heidelberg, I was happy to be able to take one train and be done. (S-Bahn)

I arrived in Hirschhorn at around midday, knowing that I would be able to see the parts that I wanted to see within a small amount of time. I began with a walk to the castle.

Walking to the castle was a fun experience. I walked up a steep hill, full of little shacks made of logs, with the scent of wood fire in the air. Walking at a slower pace than usual, I made sure to enjoy the moment. When I finally got to the top of the hill, (where the castle is) I proceeded to climb the castle… All the way to the top of the tallest tower. The climb was worth it, as I was immediately greeted with some beautiful views of Hirschhorn and the surrounding area. After getting my fill of the views, I climbed down and headed toward the old town.

The old town is very small, but makes up for it in beauty. It is a traditional southern German town. (And, despite being very small, the town is proud of its history. There are little plaques dotted on the outside of houses providing a brief summary of the historical significance.) Perhaps of the most interesting thing was the flood marker. Dating from 1491, it precedes even Columbus’ voyage. I thought it was very cool to see a little mark on a wall representing a time in history. (As opposed to the copious landmarks, buildings, and plazas that every European city has.)

While Hirschhorn may not be the most famous place, it is another place in the region of Heidelberg that I would recommend to everyone.

*Disclaimer* Although I have plenty of places along the Neckar that I have yet to see, the majority of the cities require hiking and the ability to do a fair amount of stairs.

School… and a Little About Oktoberfest

School is finally underway here in Germany. While my fellow students back in Oklahoma began their midterms, I readied myself for my first class.

University studies in Germany are a weird concept for me to comprehend. For most classes, there is only one meeting per week, of about one and a half hours. Some go more, some less, but I would say that 1 1/2 is the median. So, with such little instructional time, it is imperative that the student spends a substantial amount of time learning outside of the classroom. The suggested course bibliographies are pages long, and “only brush the surface” of possible texts that we can find in the library. So, I have been visiting the library on most days just to see what I can find. So far, I have found a couple of books that should help me on my term paper.

Riding off of the ending of the previous paragraph, some classes only have one grade. A term paper. This paper is a far more stressful way of grade giving than in the US. Without tests, quizzes, short essays, and participation grades, there is no room for error.

Now, the lighter part of this post. In my previous post, I mentioned that I had a layover on my way to Italy. Well, that layover was in Munich. I found my favourite beerhall, as the last time I was in Munich I enjoyed Hofbräuhaus’ beer. (Also, it is the quintessential German beer brand… in my opinion. Not the Paulaner, Warsteiner, or the innumerable regional beers aren’t amazing.) I ordered a maß and joined the crowd singing the traditional German beer songs. In addition to the already fantastic atmosphere, Chancellor, Angela Merkel decided to have a beer in the tent as well. So, upon her entrance, cheers, chants, and the sound of hands slamming the wooden tables rung out across the hall.

(I did venture outside of the Oktoberfest grounds to explore Munich, but I won’t go into that. Munich is pretty, large, and exciting city, but manages to keep the charm of a smaller city. I know that sounds strange, but I suppose you’ll just have to go to Munich to see if you agree with me!

 

Viel Glück

Italian Adventure

As today is the first of November, October has come and gone, and I have another month of living abroad under my belt. Over the first week and a half of October I journeyed down to Italy.

To start off my journey, I went to Rome. As they say, all roads lead there (: Despite Europe being generally being called “small” or “condensed” by people from the US, I can vouch that the train ride from southern Germany to central Italy is not the shortest undertaking. (Though, this is largely due to my inability to sleep on trains…) Anyhow, about 15 hours, and one layover later, I arrived in Rome.

Despite allotting three days in Rome, I feel that I covered the city very well. Walking 12+ miles every day allowed me to see the city better than any bus, train, or car will ever do. Museums, the Vatican, the major ancient sites, the piazzas, additional touristy places, and even the nice area of Trastevere were covered in my Roman romp. (The Roma Pass that I bought was nice, but would be better utilized by people who intend to use public transport. I only took the bus once, and that was to the Vatican.)

Next on the list was Florence. I bought the Florence Card, which, while daily expensive, would allow me to skip the queues at most museums. If you don’t remember to book your tickets to the Uffizi and/or Academia Galleries, then this is the cop-out, as both of the museums are included within the card. Covering lots of ground in Florence as well, I saw the art I wanted, went to Dante’s house, walked in the footsteps of the Medici, visited the Galileo Museum, payed my respects to the famous Italians at Santa Croce, climbed the bell tower, walked the bridge, and saw the classic scenic overview at Piazzale Michelangelo.

I also opted to take a day trip around Tuscany. Seeing Pisa, San Gimignano, and Sienna. San Gimignano was my favourite, and also included a lunch at a winery. I was able to sample three wines, one of which was a relatively rare product from the surrounding area.

Lastly, I went to Venice. Venice didn’t blow me away in the same way the Rome and Florence did. In fact, I didn’t find it overly fantastic at all. St. Mark’s Square and the things do see inside of it were ornate, but left more to be desired. Venice ended up feeling like a city to check off the list, rather than one that I want to come back to as soon as possible.

After Venice, I boarded the train (s) back to Heidelberg, and reflected on my amazing trip.

PS. I tossed a coin into both the Trevi Fountain, in Rome and the Boar, in Florence, so should be guaranteed a return to both of the cities some day in the future.

Local myths aside, I definitely plan on going back. Italy is amazing. Just watch out for the traffic in Rome.

600 Years of Wine

A few weeks ago, Germany played host to the Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt festival… for the 600th time. Held in the small city of Bad-Dürkheim, it is the largest wine festival in the world. Getting to the festival isn’t as simple as one would think, and definitely not for those of us not familiar with the train system. Anyhow, after three switches/2 hours later, (for what is supposedly a 45 minute car ride) I arrived at the train station.

The walk to the festival was simple, and not overly crowed. After another fifteen minutes, I stepped foot into the festival grounds. A note on the security, there was not much. Although I’m not one to let this ruin my outing, I can say that there was a lingering worry in the back of my head.

At the festival, there were amusement rides, little store selling all sorts of various trinkets, tons of food, and, of course, a seemingly endless assortment of places where one could buy alcohol. For the first hour, we (Kelsey and a girl named Rebecca) walked around. Taking in the sights, we were amused by how many rides had US flags on them. As if it was the only country that contained rollercoasters and thrill rides, haha! Eventually, after witnessing so many people eating and drinking, we succumbed to hunger.

First, we ordered food. I got a 1/2 metre-long wurst, and Kelsey and I both ordered a small wine, which was still substantial! (25 ml)  We sat ourselves down on a long bench inside a tent, and talked about nonsense while taking in the atmosphere. People were singing, glasses were clinking, and alcohol was flowing.

Finally, we got up and started to walk back to where we would catch the train home. But, before we did that, Kelsey and I wanted to ride the giant ferris wheel. And we did, for five Euros, the views payed for themselves. We could see the world’s biggest wine fest, the world’s largest wine container, and the surrounding area. It was spectacular.

After that, we went home, only having to make two stops this time. For those of you still reading, if you ever have the time/opportunity to go to this festival, I recommend it.

 

Getting Started in Heidelberg

Ok. So, I’ve now been in Heidelberg, Germany for three weeks. Getting used to everything/finding the things necessary to make me feel comfortable has been an interesting experience. First of all, the shopping in Heidelberg was difficult. The prices for basic things, such as pillows, sheets, were exorbitant, but necessary.  And having to pay thirty Euros for a small pillow was painful, but not as painful as sleeping without one.

The next big shock was, the split personality of Heidelberg. While in the Altstadt. (Old City) the buildings are beautiful and old, but, when I head home, the buildings become modern, and the skyline goes up. (Although, truth be told, Heidelberg is not a city of high-rises.) Every morning I drag myself out of bed, and attempt to prep myself for the four/five hours of German that I will be learning today. I get ready, leave my apartment, board the bus that takes me through the modern centre of Heidelberg, and then hop off when I arrive in the old town. From there, I walk across the beautiful bridge to my class, which is held in the Max Weber Haus. (Overlooking the Neckar River and the Heidelberg Castle.)

The final major acclimation to my life in Heidelberg, was the set-up of the university. I can be on one side of town for a history course, but then have to take thirty minute bus to my German class. Honestly, I don’t know if I will get used to that. At OU, all the classes are easily accessible. I can walk to each class, and not have to worry about bus schedules and distances.

All-in-all, Heidelberg has taken some time to get used to, but I can tell that I will enjoy my time here (:

North vs. South

These two cardinal directions of England vary greatly. In the South, there is London, and copious amounts of pretty, light stoned buildings throughout the various cities and towns. In the north, there are cities that hold their industrial revolution history dear. Manchester, Leeds, and many other cities are grand, dark, and imposing buildings. Not as easy to look at as the south.

Starting from the south, London is in a league of its own. As a major port in its own right, along with being the centre of commerce for the English, it contains every type of architecture in England. However, traveling outside of London shows a different part of England. Bath, for example, is a stunning city. With magnificent whitish/yellowish stone buildings, the light shines off the buildings in a way that makes ones jaw drop. The south feels wealthier, and less working class than the north, and as a result is more expensive.

In the north, using Manchester as an example, is not a pretty city. Sure, there has been recent remodeling of the city, which has led to it becoming a popular place for people to go clubbing, but it is not a pretty city. Manchester is proud of its heritage, and lets it show. The buildings, as I mentioned earlier are darker, and many used to be large factories. Things are cheaper, the people are generally more working class, and also, people are generally more friendly.

Both parts of England are amazing to visit, and I recommend going to see both. If there are any questions in regards to England, or this post, please feel free to comment, and I will answer back.

To view my pictures from England, please check my Instagram.

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