Wednesday, July 30, 2014

...Nothing changed at all?

“It’s like that, you know.” Justine pondered, lying on my favorite couch as I threw the last of my things into suitcases. It was on that couch where I sat for hours and days as the military cleared the protests. It was on that couch where I often fell asleep on a seemingly quiet evening during curfew and awoke to gunshots from the bridge.

“It’s like what?” I asked, immersed in the sorting of knick-knacks from my dining room. What to pack, what to leave?

“It’s like nothing has changed. When you go home, and you feel like things should be different. But everything is the same.”

I had just played Bastille’s “Pompeii”, my soundtrack-song for leaving Cairo.

“But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
You've been here before?”

Matt and Steph were sitting on opposite couches, their agreement communicated in silence. They had all three been home in the last year, but this was my first trip. I hadn’t been to America since flying away to my first international teaching assignment two years prior.

I said my last goodbyes, then, to the three people who helped shape my time in Cairo. I thought I didn’t have any more tears, but of course that wasn’t true. I sat alone in my empty apartment and thought about what Justine said. Would it really be the same as I remembered? I had been so worried that I would go home and feel lost, feel like everything and everyone had moved on without me. I was sure I wouldn’t fit-in, imagining a dramatic Coming-to-America-esque vibe full of new fangled technology and shocking progress. I was also concerned that I was too different, full of social faux pas and unusual habits I had picked-up abroad.

I ended up with quite the transition time. Originally, my plan was to leave Egypt Wednesday morning and be at my parents’ by Wednesday night. The time change would make the change quick and jarring. But an unexpected 24-hour layover in O’Hare quite possibly pushed me through the initial stage of culture shock, instead. I got used to being able to understand the conversations around me, the clean, crisp, smoke-free air, and the way Americans travel with intense purpose, even when they are just walking to the bathroom.

I arrived home and after tearful hellos and a good shower, settled onto a stool in my mother’s kitchen. I watched her cook, hearing again the noises of my childhood: kitchen sounds of scraping, clanging and mixing. And it felt just like Justine said it would, like nothing changed at all.

The memories came flooding back to me. Instead of two years, I felt as if I had only been gone a week. Egypt was bottled into the back of my memory bank, and things like driving, watching TV with my brother, and shopping with my mom were easy, innate activities.

Two years of memories cannot, however, be bottled-up without eventually overflowing. I noticed little spurts of Egypt creeping into my comfortable Kansas life. I had to stop myself from speaking Arabic to the servers in restaurants, I missed the fresh produce and busy streets, and the calm, quiet demeanor of people in public was a little disconcerting.

I noticed changes in myself, as well. I walked with confidence and energy, no longer feeling as much insecurity about my weight or appearance. I felt strongly connected to my family, with a yearning to help them and care for them in a way I couldn’t for two years. And I felt perfectly fine sitting alone, no longer sad or lonely, without the need to be around people all the time.

A week after arriving home, my mother had major heart surgery, and I put aside any element of culture shock to apply myself fully in that experience. But the passion and love-for-life I gained in Egypt is what allowed me to fully invest in my mother and family at that time. I was a better daughter, sister, housekeeper and friend than I would have been two years ago.

The combination of Egypt and my home in Kansas make me so ready to continue my adventure in Indonesia. I am grateful for the things that haven’t changed, and the things that have. I am both excited for my journey and excited to spend the remaining week here with my family. I am proud to be from Kansas and have lived in Egypt. I know, as I delve further into international teaching, the positive changes will only continue.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Place in the Theatre

I was not born to perform. Some people may think that, because I have no trouble belting out a random line from “Some Enchanted Evening” in a crowd full of people. I am not embarrassed to krump in the middle of a shoe store or make strangers laugh in a restaurant.

The stage, however, is a different story. After performing a bell solo in the school concert when I was six, people were impressed at the effortlessness of my five-second moment. I knew the truth, though. I felt that shake, the nameless, unknown first hint of nerves and anxiety that would grow to haunt me for life.

As I got older, as I was able to understand the stakes and delve into the drama of who was watching, what they were thinking and how I looked and sounded, the anxiety ate at me daily. A performance several months away would run through my mind constantly. I would analyze every note and decide how I wanted everything to sound, how I wanted people to react. I listened to recordings over and over and imagined myself sounding just like the professionals. When I sang, my voice would shake and I would revert to a nervous chest sound. When I played violin, my vibrato was either incessant or nonexistent.

I used meditation, rituals and eventually a mild antianxiety medication as coping techniques. Eventually, this allowed me to pull out some surprisingly decent performances. But I never felt at home and I always knew that no matter how much I wanted it, I could never perform as a career. I was much too inconsistent.

So, I searched for another place in the theatre, on the stage. I wanted to immerse myself in music and performance, but I needed a different angle. I tried pit orchestras, symphonies, chamber music, choirs, and small ensembles, and ended up having some of the best experiences of my life. In the end, though, I valued the communities and the experiences but still stressed over each performance.

The summer after I graduated university, I settled into the ticket office at Starlight Theatre, a large outdoor venue that hosted Broadway musical tours and concerts each summer. I still got to talk about my love of musicals and I contributed to the “scene” with my strength: administrative work. I was promoted to supervisor and worked as hard at my summer job as I did teaching. Still, the stage seemed so distant and I imagined myself being up there again, singing or playing. But every time I so much as opened my mouth at the all-school talent show, the anxiety came rushing back.

This is how Adam found me. A nervous musician, a former performer, with a flair for organization and detail. Through the first musical we did together, I stood in where needed. I ran the sound at rehearsals, took care of some administrative details, and sang when actors were absent. I developed relationships with the secondary students, an age which always frightened me. I learned the light and sound boards. I eagerly watched Adam work, soaking in his expertise on acting and vision. I probably learned as much from him in three months as I did during my entire teaching program. Adam suggested that I direct my own show.

Directing a show was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it gave me insight into the theatre, into the deep workings of a musical, that I did not have before. I was good at the technical elements and the administrative details, but I struggled with the artistic vision.  I cared very little about costumes and could not even sketch out set ideas. Thankfully, I had a team of people more creative than I to push the artistry forward and I ended up with a show full of talented children with several talented adults behind-the-scenes.

I don’t know if Adam knew where I belonged. He is the type to sit back retrospectively and watch, putting everyone in their exact right place. It is what makes him a brilliant director. One of us came up with the idea of me stage managing The Sound of Music, the all-school musical and the largest production this school had seen. At the beginning, I wanted to do a good job because I wanted to help Adam. I wanted to support him after he supported me as director and teacher. As the process intensified, I found myself extremely invested in the show, perhaps even more than I was in the production I directed. I immersed myself in the technical elements of light hanging, set building, and sound design. I opened the lines of communication with the students and parents. And on show-night, when I was calling cues and live-editing microphones up in the booth, I felt like I was performing, in a way. I was performing, but this time without the anxiety.

I owe a significant portion of my happiness in Egypt to Adam. He has put up with my anxious and emotional temperament and never stopped teaching me. He helped me love my job here. He made me laugh harder than I ever have and party more than I ever should. But most importantly, he found a place for me in the theatre. He has been a rock, a mentor, a colleague, a teacher, and a friend.
Adam, hanging curtains on the set of Sound of Music.
Trying to take pictures on closing night without laughing.
Light hang for the Sound of Music.
At the cast party with Stephanie (choreographer and lights) and Joe (teacher/actor). 
Director and stage manager.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


The water rushes upward, bubbling past my shoulders, escaping in a splash. My feet force themselves downward, but like a slow motion trampoline, I am returned to the surface, popping up in tact, howling about the coldness or the beautiful day, singing about the creatures we might see. I can already taste the saltwater as it clears my sinuses and settles comfortably on my tongue.

My first Open Water entry was on October 19, 2012, more than 150 dives ago. At that time, the 10 seconds from the step (or, in fancy scuba terms, “giant stride”) off the boat to the successful entry into the water were the most thrilling 10 seconds of my life. I had never been very prone to outdoor activity nor had this landlocked Kansas girl ever been so close to truly experiencing the sea, but in these 10 seconds I became a completely different person.

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble sleeping, I close my eyes and try to remember. I think it helps disguise some of my fears about leaving Egypt, if I can latch onto my memories. I swim through them slowly, calmly, trying to feel again as if it were the first time.

I remember my first octopus. The colors changing from red to white to purple, slithering tentacles growing spikes before my eyes. A beautiful, intelligent creature coping the best it could with eight divers huddled around its hiding place.

I remember tumbling backwards off a zodiac for the first time amidst jokes about badass Navy Seals and secret missions, followed by a drift dive which propelled us through the water as if we were flying.

I remember the first time I saw a banner fish, a lionfish, an anemone fish. I feel the butterflies from my first Napoleon wrasse and the slight cringe at my first stonefish.

I remember the shark. THE white tip reef shark that defined my social circle and our experiences for the next two years. I grabbed the guide’s hand tightly and froze as we met the shark that inspired the White Tip Dive Squad.

I remember the gangster school of hammerheads, the first manta ray that passed over us like a cloud, and the second that stayed for 12 minutes.

And then there are the people moments. Feeling Joe take my arm when he sensed I was nervous, hauling Bethany out of the water during my rescue course, and screaming with Justine on the surface after an amazing dive. Linda, whose endless excitement can inspire even the most apprehensive diver. Bassem, who can spot the tiniest, most beautiful nudibranch in every mass of coral. Titch who shows constant, true joy, even underwater. And Rick. Rick, who took a dramatic, anxious, difficult Kansas girl and, in two years and four courses, made her into a divemaster. Rick, who helped me to truly belong, to diving, to nature, and to my own self.

As I sat down to organize my last White Tip Dive Squad trip, I felt a little bit like that octopus. I wanted to back into a hole and cope, find a way to cope with my first last. I wanted to delay this inevitable last dive trip because I cannot imagine my life without this sea, and these fish, and my people. I want to change colors and put up spikes until I find a way out that isn’t going to hurt so much. But I’m not as smart as an octopus, and all I can really do is remember and be grateful. Be grateful and keep diving.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Men That Egypt Sent Me

I could write about the bad. I could share stories of dismissed heartbreak and careless games. I could dramatically discuss my self-worth, how it was propelled to new heights by meaningless compliments and then shot down to nothing by tradition and lies and assumptions. I could tell you about the men I dated here in Egypt. The three men who twisted my emotions and toyed with my established feminism. Man 1: afraid to date for a year; Man 2: swear off Egyptians; Man 3: sigh, and be done with dating all together.

Or, we could commiserate on the hundreds of men that shout across streets, walk too close, or tell me that they love me under their breath. We could exchange advice about hugging the buildings and staying close to the guards, or pulling back our hair because maybe, just maybe, the harassment decreases a bit with the help of a ponytail. No one really complimented my appearance before coming to Egypt, and now, I hardly want anyone to compliment it ever again. Nothing creates more vulnerability, fear, annoyance and frustration than being stripped down to nothing but blonde hair and female curves, every time I leave my apartment.

But instead I will tell you about the three men that Egypt sent me. These three men defy the norm and prove that Egypt has hope of becoming more than the daily dose of harassment most women experience on the street.

Ahmed, Taxi Driver

I met Ahmed, a quiet, hard-working driver, when Angela force-fed me his number in my first month. “He’s the best,” she explained, simply. Without a car and living in the suburbs, I started calling Ahmed now and then. I was still trying to walk or ride my bike to work and fill my backpack with groceries on the way home. Eventually, the harassment left me too vulnerable and I no longer enjoyed walking alone. Ahmed started taking me places almost daily, and his business grew as others learned of his dependability and trustworthiness. His fees are modest, too modest, and many of us press him to increase his fares. He humbly refuses.

Ahmed is more than a good business man, though. I can fall asleep on a long ride and feel safe. He plays Top 40 radio, and smiles when I sing along. He waits for me to get inside safely and walks me in if he feels uncomfortable about my surroundings. He politely tells me I look beautiful when I dress-up. He drives slowly and calmly, while the Cairo traffic swirls in ridiculousness around him. And he always, always gets me home, no matter how late, or tired, or inebriated I am. He is younger than us, but in a way, he protects us all like a parent might protect his children. Ahmed is the main reason I still feel safe here.

Ahmed, Dance Teacher

I was hesitant to continue my ballroom education in Egypt. There are cultural ideas, here, that imply inappropriateness when a men and women touch more than a handshake before marriage. What type of man would teach dance in Egypt? Would it be someone who wants an excuse to touch women all day?

My fears were quite unreasonable, but they were based on a year of experience, a year of the implication that if I danced with someone, I might accidentally give him the idea that I also wanted to take off my clothes. One courageous day, though, I boldly called the dance studio and requested an intro lesson, knowing that if I did not like it, I could leave and disappear into the Cairo streets to never encounter him again. That is when I met Ahmed, and 15 lessons later, we are still dancing.

Ahmed forces me to smile. I come in after a long day, after hours of teaching and rehearsal and answering parent emails, and he teaches me the jive and the cha-cha. Post-school-day me barely wants to walk, much less dance. But by concentrating on my strengths, with patience and encouragement, he makes it impossible not to enjoy that hour. When I am there, I feel safe, and best of all, I am actually learning something. When I leave, I feel confident and energized, able to bravely walk home and conquer Cairo. As a teacher, I appreciate good education and I know how hard it is to achieve. Ahmed has given me a long-lasting, positive relationship with dance, and with myself. For that, I am extremely grateful.

Bassem, Diving Leader

I get along with people who work hard. Perhaps it is my Midwestern upbringing, but when I look around at my friends, we are all people who take our jobs seriously and personally. In Egypt, I have had to adjust my expectations. Culturally, Egyptians enjoy life and build relationships. They work to live, whereas I live to work. This new attitude has taught me to relax (a little) and recognize that there (might) be more important things in life than my job.

But Bassem fits into the category that feels like home. If I were back in my comfort zone, he is exactly the type of friend I would have: hardworking, honest, hilarious and kind. Our relationship was purely business for quite some time. He is a business-smart owner of a dive center in Dahab, where I spent my summer, and I was an overzealous trip-planner with annoyingly obsessive organizational skills. As I got to know Bassem, I realized that I was being my most true self around him. He has seen me at my worst and best—melting down after a bad dive, or when a trip does not go as planned; or, finally completing my divemaster certification, feeling happy and accomplished. Yet, he still wants to hang around me, worst me and best me. It is his supportive advice that got me through the last of my poor dating choices. Our simple, natural friendship has encouraged me to remember that men and women can be friends without the expectation of anything more (an idea that has become obsolete since coming to Egypt). I admire him greatly and so appreciate our friendship.

Those are the three men that Egypt sent me. Not the three that I dated, the nameless three that broke my heart, not all of the men from the streets, cafes and stores that cause me daily discomfort, but these representative three: a driver, a teacher and a friend. It is them whom I will remember when I leave here. They made my experience in Egypt unforgettable.