One Year // Ein Jahr

The whirlwind swirled to a halt. Just a few tasks on my Boston to-do list stood undone, then un-doable. In late October, my earth froze, signaling me: pack your bags and head south. The ground, the air, the last fresh-cut flowers for the kitchen, no more groceries, the sell-off of unused belongings. Instead of going south, I ventured east. With the flash of my ride to the airport, handing my key to my roommate, I suddenly had nothing to do in Boston and everything to do in Berlin.

Nine boxes on their way. Five bags and me, in the back of a Mercedes van from Tegel airport to an Airbnb in Friedrichshain. Berlin welcomed me with silence on a Sunday morning, and the frost of those quiet moments has yet to melt away.

I never imagined how moving to a foreign country – truthfully, one that didn’t feel so foreign – would make me more comfortable with myself. I imagined the opposite. One of my goals was to become more familiar with needing someone else’s (a government’s) permission to exist. I lived with privilege and comfort for enough of my life to know that I didn’t know any better. I sought a better awareness of the world. I moved at a time when I thought I knew myself: extroverted, adventurous, thoughtful…

Surprise! The past year has afforded more “me” time than the previous decade. “Me” time has developed my self awareness. I’ve found strange comfort in the loneliness of evenings and weekends by myself. I didn’t used to be so “good” at spending time by myself. My life in America overflowed with busy-ness and preoccupation, always jumping from one plan to the next, rarely with time to respond to the fleeting greeting: “how are you?”

How am I? I am relaxed, in bliss, comfortable with nothing and curious about everything. I am joyful about living by myself in a space that challenges my confidence. I am sometimes afraid to speak German. I am sad that many of my family and friends are elsewhere. I am inspired by the free, loving nature of the people of Berlin. I am angry that if I were an immigrant in the United States, I would be seen as less valuable. I wonder if I should feel like a different person in my different homes. I feel everything when I create time for nothing.

Sometimes change is an empty canvas. Sometimes change is the same art in a new frame. Sometimes it’s a cloudy day, and sometimes change brings clear, blue skies. Change can be chaos, and change can bring calm.

This past year, change created comfort.

The World’s Best Butter?

Germany loves its dairy. Cheeses, creams, ice creams, milk, yogurt, quark… the quality standards sit stubbornly high in the Alps.

While I’m a firm believer in eating ice cream on the coldest days of the year, over the course of the summer, I especially pursued an exploration of Berlin’s many ice cream parlors. Almost always, two scoops in a waffle cone. The winner is a tie between Vanille & Marille and Rosa Canina, though Eis Piraten earns an honorable mention for its appropriately large servings. Vanille & Marille serve regional flavors with season flare,  while Rosa Canina takes a more eclectic approach to its creamy offerings.

Mostly though, you need the privilege to savor a top butter brand, Le Président Meersalz (Sea salt) Butter, which originates from France. The Germans love it, too. When I noted the strange packaging in the office refrigerator, a colleague mentioned that it was probably the best butter in the world. I tried it – yea, quite good. I had friends coming for dinner, so naturally I bought some of this famous butter to go with our bread. Suffice to say that we caught Daniel putting little slivers of salted butter on the cucumber slices in our salad, because he couldn’t get enough when we finished the bread.

Le President Meersalz Butter
Can you see the waves of salty oil tucked inside the mound of butter?

 

 

 

Since finishing the first package that I bought in July, I’ve bought it again, and I will keep buying it again and again. This funny-shaped butter is the best you can get, and other people agree.

 

Comparing Apples to Äpfeln

At the beginning of 2015, I started tracking all of my grocery expenses. While checking out at the grocery store, I started saying “yes,” when asked if I want to receipt. I take the slip home and sum each item into a category: bakery, fruit, vegetables, dairy and eggs, meat and seafood, dry and canned goods, prepared foods, juices, sweets and junk, flowers, and household goods. I also list the grocery store. And I add the items mentally, because brains need exercise, too.

Yes, in this digital age, I track paper receipts in a spreadsheet. (You’re hearing from the guy who tallied his coins, his cash, and his savings on three separate pieces of paper through his teenage years. Yes, his coins.) Why the paper receipts? Truth be told, I drank a lot of orange juice. I wanted to know how much money I spent on orange juice compared to other groceries. The answer: consistently 8-10% of my monthly grocery expenses were orange juice (until I overdosed on sugar in October 2015, but that’s a story for another post.) I also felt that I was losing conscience awareness of my spending habits when declining the receipt, swiping my card, and walking away. Despite using mint.com to track my finances, I wanted more granularity. Not “how much do I spend on groceries each month?” but “how much do I spend on vegetables compared to bread?”

I continued with my pile of receipts and my spreadsheet through 2016, building 24 months of records. Having answered my question, I took a break in 2017.

Earlier this year, a new question surfaced: is Berlin really less expensive with regard to cost of living than Boston? Anecdotally, the answer is an inarguable “yes.” You can get a whole meal – a döner – for 3-4 €. Paying more than 20 € for a meal is kinda “woah!” A beer costs just a few Euro. Rent is far more affordable. But what about Stephen’s groceries? I needed data.

Berlin loves cash and loves to hate card payments. EC (debit) card? Maybe. Credit card? In your dreams! (Germans are rather risk averse, and why accept money that may not exist.) So, in this city, cash is king, and carrying cash is my first point of advice to anyone who visits Berlin. Though groceries can often be bought mit karte, my card payments are few and far between. Most of my expenses are cash, and it’s hard to track any sort of categorical expenses without the complete digital data.

Behold, my “grocery expenses” spreadsheet has returned to life. I started saying “ja, bitte” I wanted my receipt. (I still don’t know the word for receipt, but I know when to say “yes, please.” (Bitte is actually “you’re welcome,” but the fact that Germans say “you’re welcome” as another form of “please” is another situation for another post.))

So, in the spring, I decided to collect my own data, and I have monthly grocery totals for May, July, July, and September of 2018.

Grocery Minimum Grocery Maximum Grocery Average
2015 $171 $348 $250
2016 $142 $271 $183
2018 153 € ($176) 213 € ($245) 179 € ($205)

A few considerations:

  • In each year, I’ve had lunch provided at work on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays.
  • I’ve excluded calendar months which I traveled for more than one week.
  • 2018’s bakery (bread) tracking is off, because I willingly go downstairs to the bakery in my building for fresh bread/rolls on many weekend mornings. I’ll pay 0,60 € for a fresh Kartoffelbrotchen every day, because yes, potato bread! (I’ll also buy you one if you come visit :).
  • In 2015 and 2016, I know my average expenses allocated to restaurants were $170 and $133, respectively. I have no clue how I spent significantly less on both groceries and in restaurants in 2016, compared to 2015. Maybe I mooched more. Maybe I was more fiscally efficient with food. I don’t have restaurant expenses tracked for 2018.

So, how much did I spend on orange juice compared to other groceries, prior to October 2015? 8-10% Is Berlin more affordable to live than Boston? My grocery expenses would argue “no, the cost of living is the same.” Perhaps I’ve upped my standards… doubtful, because I did most of my Boston grocery shopping at Whole Foods (hey! I could literally see it from my bedroom windows! and I totally don’t endorse/support them after the Amazon buyout) and I shop at a variety of Berlin supermarkets from low-end to mid-range.

I really can’t explain why my grocery bills average and range similarly. I need to compare the categorical breakdown between countries and months and years, because I don’t know where the money has shifted. Every time I go to the grocery store, I’m surprised at how much food – especially fresh product – I can get for so little money. e.g. today I purchased a three pound pumpkin, fresh ginger, a package of fresh plums, an avocado, blackberries, 3 fresh figs, a jug of multivitamin juice (I’ve been sick!), and a half-dozen eggs for a whopping 8,96 € ($10.37). So, yes, Berlin is cheap, but I’m still figuring out what’s eating my juice budget.

More research is in order. Perhaps I’ll make the same recipe in Berlin and a future visit to Boston, and we can compare apples to äpfeln.

Back to School // zurück zur Schule

Germans have this funny tradition of giving kids a large cone, filled with treats, as a sort of school send-off. Turns out they’re called “Schultüte,” which is effectively school bag or school cone. The primary idea of the gift is to relieve the anxiety that comes with starting school. I recall hearing about the unusually-shaped presents at some time over the past year, and I was delighted to see them in the center aisles of grocery stores this past month. (I almost bought one for myself, but I’m trying to avoid material waste.

After spotting the cardboard cones and assorted stuffers in some shops – sort of assemble-your-own-kit style – you can imagine the joy I felt when I saw a few kids carrying their cones around the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon in late August. Parents, grandparents, and young kids traveled in little crowds. They were all well-dressed and seemed to be leaving a nearby school. I guess that they were getting comfortable with finding the school, knowing their teacher and classroom, and then the parents wanted to take first day of school photos… (this is where guessing turns to complete speculation)… only before the first day, because I don’t think they started on a Saturday… who knows!

As for me, I’m back to “school,” too. I’ve been taking private German lessons once a week since May, but we paused for all of August and half of September, due to me and my tutor both having vacations. Isabelle assigned me to bring postcards and write short summaries of my travels. I also had to write about my grandparent’s garden in response to a text that we read about “Prinzessinnengärten,” an urban community garden in Berlin. Now that we’re back to class, I’m feeling über-energized to continue practicing speaking and writing. Isabelle says I’m making good progress, and I’m grateful to have colleagues that encourage and challenge me with new words and phrases.

The most challenging aspect of learning German is undoubtedly the fact that there are three possible genders (masculine, feminine, neutral) for each noun. The gender informs the article (respectively: der, die, das for the; ein, eine, ein for a), BUT the articles also change depending on the case: whether the noun functions as a subject, direct object, indirect object, or possessive. In fact, in German you can write “the dog bit the man” (in that order) to also mean “the man bit the dog,” depending on which form of “the” you use. Oh, and the article changes for plural nouns. So, there are something like 32 permutations of an article. (I have a tendency to just guess die – pronounced dee – in most of my writing and speech. Can you imagine my inclination to just guess again when Isabelle asks me to correct myself? I promise, I’m trying!)

I give myself this: I’ve learned a lot of vocabulary and I am growing more comfortable talking to store clerks and friends in German. [NEWS FLASH: I registered myself in my new apartment, and this time I – barelymanaged to follow instructions and close the door before getting yelled at.] I spend a lot time listening to the sounds of the language and reading signs when I’m out and about. Isabelle also gives me speech sounds to practice, such as:

  • zensur (sensor): which is hard for Anglophones, because the z- has a ts- sound and the s- has a z- sound.
  • Ich zeige der Ziege wo sie viel Essen kann, weil sie so die besten Wiesen und Weiden findet, which is basically a memorized tongue twister about showing a goat where to eat. She made this phrase up for me, because I was struggling with the -ie- and -ei-. (From a native English speaker’s perspective: always pronounce the second letter,) I also need to practice my z-, w-, and v- sounds. After a week of cycling to and from work blabbing to myself about a goat, I can now audibly distinguish and read these words accurately!
    • zeige / Ziege
    • viel / weil
    • Wiesen / Weiden

I’ll leave you with some “fun” German words:

  • I write product instructions for work. The word for instructions: die Bedienungsanleitung (6 syllables)
  • The German word for “challenge”: die Herausferdorung (5 syllables)
  • I asked a colleague how to say “finishing steps”: Fertigstellungsschritte

German words are notoriously long, because they often make very rational compound words. For example, Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft. I’m mocking the language, because this makes it digestible for me. I’m sure English is more challenging. German also has short words and pictures, which are easier for me to understand.

For example / zum Beispiel:

im Kino

Last Saturday, I holed myself up to rest before I competed in a triathlon on Sunday morning. My friend/neighbor/colleague Robin and I sat on the couch, eating a hefty pre-triathlon meal of roasted vegetables and salmon, while watching “Aus Dem Nichts / In the Fade,” a German film recognized as the 2018 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. Naturally, with my German being still less than elementary, we watched the film with English subtitles. With myself and my instructor both on holiday, I’ve been without German lessons for all of August, so the subtitles were good practice to gain familiarity with words and tones. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll leave you with a recommendation to watch it and a footnote that I walked home a bit paranoid and not as relaxed as I’d hoped to go to bed. I’m glad to get into foreign films, to be the outsider who needs subtitles, and to see true stories reflected on the screen.

With today’s near repeat, maybe Saturday nights will be movie nights for the foreseeable future. The first time is an accident; the second time is a tradition. I spent a good portion of today running 30 kilometers around Berlin. Though my training has been subpar at best, I figured doing one long run two weeks before the event would be a worthwhile endeavor. With tired legs, I wanted relaxation for the afternoon and night, and decided to venture to the cinema – das kino – for the evening. I took the train to Hackescher Markt, a quaint series of connected courtyards in the pseudo-posh Mitte neighborhood and waited in line to buy a ticket for BlacKkKlansman, a 2018 film by Spike Lee and Jordan Peele. I didn’t know of the title before I looked at the movie listings today, but the ratings were high enough to intrigue me.

Scannable Document on 1. Sep 2018 at 23_31_19

Only one part of the cinema experience caught my attention: I bought the ticket at the same stand/counter where the refreshments were sold. There was no separate box office. They offered popcorn, bottled sodas, and beer, though the popcorn machine warned “sweet only!,” which I guess means they have kettle corn, not our beloved, buttered, lick-the-salt-off-your-fingers American movie popcorn. I took a rhubarb lemonade with my ticket, then found a seat in the theater, which was otherwise similar to American movie theaters.

Cut to the chase: this film is not for the faint of feelings. Be ready to feel history. BlacKkKlansman follows the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, as he goes undercover in investigating the Ku-Klux-Klan. It’s a timely and necessary story to bring to the surface, with the present day race conversations in the US. Aside from offering an intriguing historical narrative, the plot elevated my heart rate, my hands were clasped knuckle-to-knuckle, and I had to remind myself to let my head rest against the padded chair. It sounds bad, but I actually enjoy a movie when I am able to fear and feel for the characters.

Yet, these weren’t just characters, they are real people’s stories. I sat and witnessed behaviors – events that actually happened – that go beyond “discrimination” as we often see it. Discrimination is more than a white page with black text describing a company or organization’s commitment to not treat people different on the basis of x, y, and z. Discrimination happens every day in verbal, physical, and subconscious forms. The film brought subconscious realities into my conscience.

The German-language subtitles flickered consistently through each frame, reminding me of the city, the country, the history, the Holocaust that once happened outside of the theater. This awareness scared me. As an audience, we witnessed relentless derogatory comments that positioned people as lesser because of their skin colors and their religions. These atrocities rolled from the mouths of the actors like butter on a biscuit in the heat of summer. Meaning everything, but said like nothing. Let me say again: I’m in Germany. This country knows all too well the realities and effects of ostracizing certain races and certain people. Sitting in a crowd of Germans, I watched America with a different perspective. I saw the word “Führer” – compounded with another word – flash across the screen when describing David Duke’s role in the Ku-Klux-Klan.

The film ends with clips from recent events in the US. The sound of a glass bottle rolling along the theater floor. Otherwise, solemnity and air stale as popcorn from last year. I thought of the one character, a Klansman, whose dumbness, drunken stupor, and lack of common sense brought comic relief to the plot’s tensest moments. I’d heard people in the audience laughing, and suddenly, nothing was funny. This is a true story, and though I watched it on a screen, I watched it in a place where people know worse is possible.

The Middle East is Not Singular

I pieced together an early breakfast with the few remaining groceries I bought on my arrival to Eilat two nights beforehand. I pulled the drawstring on my backpack shut. I messaged my parents. They knew my plan to travel to Petra and on to Amman, and they knew there was no actual plan. My nerves hesitated. What other tasks can I justify doing to prolong the inevitable? 

Just before 7:30 am, I tapped “Request Ride” on Israel’s ubiquitous GetTaxi mobile app. These would be my last moments with access to internet and the final possibility to rely on Google for the remainder of the day. Had I fully researched and prepared to cross the border and find a ride to Petra? Would I need special paperwork? Would there or would there not be a fee for a Jordanian visa? Utter fear of the unknown, and I uttered nothing other than “toda” – thank you – as my driver dropped me at the border, a dust-coated, sterile compilation of fences and small huts separating Eilat, Israel from Aqaba, Jordan.

One year ago this week, I left the barely comfortable land of Hebrew and hummus, walked across the border with only a backpack, and entered the equally hot and arid deserts of Jordan. The geopolitical boundary separated dark from light in my thoughts and emotions. I desired the experience of Petra without feeling like an outsider in my own sneakers. I sought the taste of Jordan without knowing a lick of Arabic: illiterate, unequipped, alone, cash-less, thirsty, both cold and hot. After six nights exploring Haifa in Israel’s north and the sun-kissed urbanity of Tel Aviv, my yet-to-begin two days and one night in Jordan already felt like an eternity.

The no-actual-plan plan for Jordan consisted of the following:

Winging it, based on advice from a friend of a friend in tourism. Cross the border. Hire a taxi to Petra. Find someplace to store my bag then there will be many private guides waiting for guests. After Petra, hire a taxi to Amman.
Source 1: “If you arrive in Jordan’s southern city of Aqaba by air on an international flight, by sea from Nuweiba in Egypt or by land from Eilat, you are entitled to a free visa as part of the free-trade agreement with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Area (ASEZA).”
Source 2: “‘Visa on arrival’ is back at the Wadi Araba/Arava Crossing but it is not free of charge any more, it costs JD 60.”

As shown above, internet searches suggest – somewhat contradictorily –  that visa fee policies can vary based on the day and current economic arrangements. I remain uncertain how I would have paid, since there was no ATM and I had not yet procured Jordanian dinar. Lucky for me, there was no fee. Following behind a young man and woman – couple? friends? could they help me if I needed assistance? don’t go too far! – I passed through several windows with paperwork and inked stamps marking my progress into Jordan. The border crossing surprised me with its ease; just like that, I reached the taxi and bus area.

I guess this is where I should ask for a ride to Petra? The young French couple and I negotiated in clear English with one of a few waiting drivers and we agreed to split the fare: 20 JD (28 USD) each for two hours of driving to Petra. We tossed our backpacks into the trunk of his 90s-model green sedan, and we hit the road into Aqaba and onward into the Rum Desert. (No, this is not rum dessert. Though that sounds more inviting than this scary adventure, the desert landscape offered an equally sweet, sensory-awakening experience.) With a weak air conditioning system, we alternated between the forced warm air through the vents and rolling down the windows. I felt surprisingly joyful and calm in the foreign, dry, desert landscape.

Along the road, we stopped at a roadside building for an unannounced bathroom break. Several vendors had wares and souvenirs spread throughout the open floor plan. I knew I would need protection from the heat and hesitated to try on a headscarf. Though there’s natural trepidation in the unknown, there’s also often delight in exploring local customs. Thanks to the salesman who showed me how to tie my scarf, I stayed cool in Petra – you know… I’m cool. I fit in.

After about ninety minutes of driving, our driver mentioned his brother also drove a taxi. We stopped at another roadside building with a scenic overlook of the desert valley, and suddenly our driver’s brother arrived with a slightly newer car. The brother would finish the drive to Petra – hmm… remember, Stephen, trust – so we switched our luggage into his trunk and hit the road for the final stretch.

Upon arriving in Wadi Musa, the town that serves as the entry into the archaeological site, we agreed that the brother would store our luggage for the day and that we should meet him in the parking lot at 4 pm to continue our travels. I would continue on to Amman after we dropped the French couple at their Bedouin camp nearby.

Trust in fellow humans is a paramount quality for travel. People are human everywhere, and they’ll take care of you.

Trusting that my luggage would be safe until 4 pm offered a fairly negotiated deal considering I had yet to pay the first driver or his brother for their driving. I never guessed that lack of cash would cause the most anxiety in this lonesome adventure. Imagine my concern when I’d taken two taxis and arrived in Wadi Musa still to find no working ATM. I paid for the Petra entrance fee and an additional private tour guide by credit card, then met a mid-30s bearded gentleman who was assigned as my guide to walk me through the canyons.

Walk and talk, we did! Mahmoud originates from a local Bedouin tribe, whose people lived in the caves (formerly tombs and temples) of Petra until 1985, when the UNESCO World Heritage site designation forced their move/removal. In fact, my guide was born in one of the caves in 1983 – see, mid-30s was a good guess! – and he started supporting tourism when he was five years old. While some kids sell wares and animal rides – I saw many of them, including one young girl who casually asked me to marry her as I strolled past! – Mahmoud went on to university in Amman and studied sustainable tourism. Today he develops private guided treks on Jordan’s desert trails. Petra has dealt with an influx of tourism since the 2007 designation (determined by a corporation, cough) as one of the “New 7 Wonders.” It’s no doubt why the rocks enamor us, but not all the locals wanted to win the honorable title. Seeing this site as their home and hearing the words of a native resident, I can imagine why.

As we meandered through the sunlit canyons, Mahmoud explained the current philosophy of the ancient site’s construction and the known purposes of various features: the caves, facades, aqueducts, temples, amphitheaters, etc. For example,

  • more layers of carving above an entryway indicate a more prominent resident, because their edifice brings them closer to the heavenly gods.
  • Petra is an active archaeological site, with most funding and exploration coming from foreign universities and governments, and the researchers believe that the site is barely 80% excavated. This means that many structures remain buried several stories deep by sand that has blown through the area over many years.

Mahmoud greeted various other guides and their animals as we walked and talked, transversing geology, history, culture, and the current state of affairs. Without any Jordanian cash, I offered to tip Mahmoud a small amount in American dollars, and he agreed to give me change in the local dinar.

After settling the tip and exchange, I hesitated to rent a horse named Whiskey from his cousin, Samson. Business stays in the family in Jordan, I guess. Samson aggressively pursued me, suggesting that I’d save two hours of walking by riding Whiskey to the highest canyon viewpoint instead, and I agreed to pay 20 JD to rent the horse. After negotiating the price with Samson, he walked alongside while I rode Whiskey to the back of the canyon, stopped for photographs and a snack, and returned to the main site. Whiskey flawlessly – er, I mean, he didn’t fall! – navigated narrow passageways and rock surfaces that were smooth yet steeply angled. I rode nervously, more like a mechanical bull.

Believe it or not, while I lacked cash, many of the outposts that sold small knickknacks, souvenirs, and snacks accepted credit cards through machines connected to satellites, and the bodega offering sandwiches and juices had WiFi! I paid 6 JD cash for a pomegranate-orange juice and a pita wrap with a small spread of hummus.

Upon return, Samson hustled me for a bigger tip! I had to be stern, knowing that I’d already negotiated a lower price than the original offer – he agreed to the price! – and that I didn’t have much cash. I needed to get water and a snack and to get back to meet my driver. He seemed upset that I didn’t offer a big tip for riding Whiskey. Did they take advantage of me? Did we make a fair deal? Did I take advantage of them? The concept of “fair” is perhaps an age-old question in establishing peace in the “Middle East”.

The next interaction more deeply strained my concerns and nerves. After speed walking and photographing (see above) my way from the colonnade through the main canyon areas – gah, golden hour sunlight, why must I abandon you just to meet a taxi driver!? – I opted to take a horse for the remaining mile to the entrance. Mahmoud had shown me that my entrance ticket included a one-way horse ride for the first or last portion of the main Petra pathway. A gentleman approached me offering a ride, and in a hurry, I figured why not. Along the way, he picked up the reigns of a second horse and verbally acknowledged that I had two horses. You can imagine my surprise when, after the five minute ride, I tipped him 2 JD (almost 3 USD!) and he started harassing me for more cash! He suggested I pay extra for the second horse, which I never touched. A ride that was included in my ticket with a tip that I felt was reasonable… you may have nice horses, but I’m not an American cash cow. Petra is beautiful, but you’re not the rock carvings and you have no cash machines.

Who determines what is a fair, middle compromise amongst a politically and culturally diverse and de-centralized set of communities, languages, and cultural norms? What is culture? Simply my thoughts: culture is the spoken and understood identity of a place or group of people. It’s the combined sensory experiences – unconscious and conscious behaviors, sounds, flavors, scents, rituals and habits – the perception when you close your eyes and hear a name or place. I have to imagine that my negotiation and tips could be truly wrong in their eyes and that their willingness to shame me would also be acceptable. This is their world, not mine. This is Easter, and I’m dressed as a Halloween ghost. The misfit has a right to be scared, even when they wear the scary costume as a guest to a not-scary party.

I could go on, and maybe I will write more in another post. The abbreviated summary:

  • Instead of the brother driving me to Amman, I rode for four hours with their cousin and then paid him for all three taxi legs. Do business and money both stay in the family? The “taxi” cars became progressively nicer, while the English fluency of my drivers grew worse. (Dear cousin, “your” and “my” are not to be confused, especially when calling my friend Lauren to arrange where to meet in Amman. No, driver man, it’s my friend, not your friend. I was tired. We managed.) I was cold and sleepy, but afraid to snooze in the car with a stranger, so my headscarf became a blanket.
  • I saw men walking arm-in-arm on the streets of Amman, and this was certainly not the culture I expected in Jordan, a country dominated by Islam which forbids homosexuality. Most likely, they weren’t gay. Women fraternize with women, men fraternize with men, and this is an everyday way to accompany your friends out in public.
  • Amman was as hot as Israel, but I couldn’t distinguish signage for a toilet from a cafe, as everything was Arabic-only.
  • Taxi drivers especially tried to charge higher prices with Lauren, despite her living in Amman, knowing the fair rates, and speaking some Arabic.

A day in Petra and a day in Amman gave me many of these experiences, ones strange and eye-opening to me and perhaps everyday life for Jordanians. Plentiful observations and sights in Jordan, yet my arrival in Amman sticks out.

IMG_1222b
Lauren stands alone under the reconstructed dome of the empty Umayyad Palace at Citadel Hill in Amman.

My emotional tank stood empty from the nerves of travel and the excitement of seeing Petra. My stomach sat pruned, with little cash and barely enough time to see Petra. Pulling up to a shopping mall to see Lauren relieved both of us. I dropped my bag in her shared apartment at the language school, and we promptly left to find dinner. She apologized that she only knew a few places where she felt safe and comfortable to walk in the neighborhood. It was cheap, too. 3 JD for both of us, cheap. I told her not to apologize:unun

“it’s hard to step outside your comfort zone when your comfort zone is not all that comfortable.”

The words thoughtlessly rolled out of my tired brain, maybe from the deepest canyon of my empty stomach, and the words resounded with the chimes of every call to prayer we heard the following day in Amman. I can hardly imagine Lauren’s experiences over six months. To be a single, white woman in a culture that actively discredits femininity is to be the face painted witch at that Easter brunch. My ghost’s white sheet innocently veils my ignorance, while her masked skin suggests she wants to be accepted like any painted egg, yet we’re all scared of what we don’t know.

The beauty overwhelmed me, and my unfounded fears kept me grounded. If Israel felt foreign, Jordan felt extraterrestrial. We call this tapestry the Middle East, but the only middle I can find is that people are people. There are common genes where there is not common ground. These aren’t bad people or bad hosts. They’re different people. They welcomed and chauffeured me. Different is neither good nor bad; it’s different.

To see more of my two days in Jordan and perhaps a more celebratory perspective of Jordan, read Beit Sitti: My Grandma’s Kitchen or watch the two videos, from my Instagram daily stories, below (coming soon!)