The 28th Rule

I finished “40 Rules of Love” by the Turkish author Elif Shafak last week.  The book is named for the 40 Rules of Love formulated by Shams of Tabriz, a famous Sufi (Muslim mystic).  He was most famous for his relationship with the poet Rumi, another Sufi, who began the tradition of the whirling dervishes.

I say I finished the book, but I really mean that I read through the English translation; I’ve just started it in Arabic.  I’m a full 9 pages into the Arabic version, which may not sound like much, but I’m proud of it.

Arabic is a difficult language– it’s commonly accepted as one of the four hardest languages for native English speakers to learn, in fact.  Some days I stare at a page of Arabic conjugations, realize that I’ve forgotten to shorten a long vowel to a short one on a third-person irregular feminine plural, and curse my younger self for not choosing Spanish or French.  But if you gave me the chance to go back and pick again?  I’d stick with Arabic, because I really do love it (even if the grammar is a wee bit obnoxious).

Being in Jordan has shown me just how much more I have to learn.  It’s easy to get into your fourth or fifth Arabic class, start reading news articles, and think, “Man, I’ve learned so much!”  But the day-to-day struggle to direct taxi drivers or order coffee is a stark reminder that I’m not even close to where I want to be.  Not yet.

It’s also made me more committed than ever, though, to reaching that level.  I’m constantly exposed to new, beautiful aspects of the language and culture, which inspires me to learn more.  I’m finding new reasons to learn Arabic every day– a book I want to read, a beautiful song to play, or a really neat person I’d love to get to know, but can only do so in Arabic.

Thankfully study abroad is the sink-or-swim of language learning, so I get a little bit better every day.  I’m also better able to appreciate the skills that I do have– and being 9 pages into a novel, believe it or not, feels like an accomplishment.

I understood all 9 pages.  Sure, I had to look up quite a few words… but I didn’t have to look up any sentence in its entirety.  Arabic grammar is different enough from English that occasionally I’ll know every single word in a sentence, and still not be sure what it’s saying; that hasn’t happened so far.  9 pages in, and I understand what’s happening.

It’s 8 weeks into my time here, and I’m starting to feel the same way about Jordan.  I’m still occasionally confused by something, but overall I know what’s going on.  I understand the world around me.  I can read the street signs well enough to navigate home if I’m not sure where I am, I now generally have pleasant chats with people I meet. I feel comfortable here.  It requires more effort than being in the US, but it isn’t exhausting, it isn’t overwhelming, and it’s incredibly rewarding.  I’m genuinely enjoying day-to-day life here.

I’m also really enjoying this novel.  I liked it in English, and the prose sounds even more beautiful in Arabic.  I’ll be sad to finish it, when I make it through it the last 493 pages (so, um, maybe in like three years?).  Before that happens, though, something else will end: my time in Jordan.  I’m already starting to worry about the fact that I’m halfway done– half of my days here, my short and sweet four months, are gone.

But I shouldn’t worry.  The whole point of the novel, which draws heavily on Sufi themes, is that we only have now.  We can worry about the past or the future, but– in this instant– neither one exist.  I only have myself sitting in the afternoon sun writing about this book, and you only have yourself, right now, reading my words.

It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn by heart this semester, enjoying each of my days here, but not counting.  Maybe I don’t have two more months– maybe I’ll get struck by lightning and die today (knock on wood) or maybe I’ll return and be in Jordan for years in the future.  It’s impossible to know.  But today?  I have today in Jordan, today to enjoy sunlight and reading and maybe even a lazy weekend nap.  It’s very in-line with Arab culture, which is slower than at home, less concerned with where you’ll be in five years, more about enjoying where you are right now.  So I’m going to take some deep breaths of the sandy Jordanian air, and think about  the 28th Rule of Love: “The past is an interpretation. The future is an illusion… If you want to experience eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.”

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The Swimmer

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

– G. K. Chesterton

Reverse culture shock – strange term, right? The phrase gives me this mental picture of a swimmer feeling a literal shock from jumping into the ocean in February and then, like a VHS tape comically rewinding the scene, experiences an almost more disorienting shock at uncontrollably reversing back onto the shore. As anyone who swims in chilly water knows well, your body gets used to the water temperature after a while and you can even feel comfortable. Emerging from the water to return to familiar land often feels more disconcerting than the inward plunge. And the crazy thing is that with travel, we willingly choose to be the swimmer.

A bystander on the beach might ask the swimmer, “Don’t you feel cold? Wouldn’t you prefer to stay on the beach where the sun can warm you up?” After the four months I spent in Denmark, I think the question I would ask the swimmer is, “Are you different because you dived in and came back?” and I’m sure the answer would be “Yes.”

I’ve definitely been changed by my time abroad. Not all of my experiences were “good” in the sense of enjoyable, but they all affected me and helped me develop a new understanding of the world and my place in it. Like the winter-swimmer, I developed a sense of comfort in the once-chilly water of a new culture. And I, too, felt this weird sense of backwards motion as I returned to the culture I grew up with in the U.S. A week since my plane landed in Boston, that feeling is starting to subside and is being replaced with a mixture of familiarity, nostalgia, and (to my disappointment) boredom. It’s definitely good to be home; I missed my family and friends, and spending time with them makes me really happy. But in down-time or if something sparks a memory, I find myself missing the exhilaration, anticipation, and even the anxiety that accompanied exploring a foreign place.

The consolation I’m left with is that “Yes” I am different because of my time abroad. As Chesterton says, I do find some small things that I would once take for granted exciting and full of possibility like a new toy at Christmas. I never realized how BIG almost everything in the U.S. is – milk and juice, for example, is only sold in 1-litre cartons in Denmark, and my host family hardly ever had snack-food because it was so expensive. Opening the fridge and pantry in my home was almost overwhelming at first! I felt like it was all disproportionately large. The wonderful familiarity of seeing signs in English, hearing radio hosts and TV anchors speaking English without an accent, and simply knowing that everyone around me was from my country were privileges I never knew I should cherish. The U.S. was foreign in that it felt different, or I felt different, than I did back in August.

Now, I’m not worried about my future. I learned that I really love travelling, so maybe I’ll backpack some more? I’d really like to explore the U.S. – I’d like to see Yellowstone, mountain bike the Appalachian trail (or part of it!), listen to a super-indie band perform in Seattle, eat lobster in Maine. I want to meet people from all over, learn about their lives, their worldviews. I want to share my experiences with as many people as possible – for the personal gratification of doing so but more so on the slim chance that maybe something I say will have meaning for them. I know I’ll graduate in the spring, not with a fantastic GPA but a respectable one. I know my path will lead to medical school, and I know I’ll eventually become a doctor. But if my study-abroad experience taught me anything, it taught me to enjoy the things I don’t know, to delight in filling in the gaps between the “I know’s.”

I’m excited to explore them.

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The Stages of Culture Shock

As an American studying abroad in England, before I arrived in this country, I did not expect that I would get a big culture shock. I was wrong. The similarities that the United States and England share are just above the surface. Once I arrived in England, I felt that I completely skipped Stage 1 and I went straight to a mixture of Stage 2 and Stage 3. If anything, I experienced Stage 1 before I arrived with my ideas and expectations of what I thought England was going to be, but my ideas and expectations were probably a little bit too high.

The feelings of irritation, frustration, homesickness, depression, and helplessness were experience the first 6 hours I landed in England! But I already talked about that in my previous post. Let’s just say my first day in England was definitely rocky and it didn’t help with my exhaustion and jet lag. Put me into a situation where I am tired, hungry, and have no Wi-Fi or cellular network and I feel very vulnerable and upset.

However, I have grown past all those feelings and have bettered myself to be a stronger and more independent individual. I’ve gone through Stage 4 by taking each day at a time and making new friends while I am studying abroad. When you experience new challenges and changes all at the same time it can be very overwhelming, however the best thing to do is just to tackle each challenge and change one step at a time. I have met new friends from all over the world and it’s so wonderful to learn about their different perspectives in life. It allows me to broaden my mind by being more humble, accepting, and understanding.

Currently, I am at Stage 5. I am well adjusted to my new life here in England and I’ve gotten used to many of the new challenges and changes I’ve experienced in the beginning. There are moments while I’m walking on the street and I just feel so blessed to be studying abroad in England. While it is much colder in England than in Florida, I would not want to go back. If I had the chance to stay in England longer, then I would definitely take that chance! My 5 months in England just doesn’t feel long enough. As much as Dorothy wanted to go back to Kansas, I don’t want to go back to Florida.



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Beograđani: The Real MVP

Beograd is my first real city. I grew up on a farm in rural Nebraska and later moved to a seeming metropolis of 150 people, so living among 2 million (but probably more like 3, unofficially) is quite the change. But I found that taking it all in stride has—rather unexpectedly—made the difference an easy adjustment.

I made a short list of “downsides” to city life in Belgrade, but when revising my post I thought they were too forced.  There are no downsides, honestly, or at least none that are worth mentioning. I have decided that the upsides of this city—and the source of its charm—are a result of the unique blend of civilizational differences and geographical positioning as is expressed through the people, the city’s real MVP (to borrow the meme-making colloquial sensation from Kevin Durant’s emotional nod to his supportive mother in an NBA MVP acceptance speech):AnlanCheney_RealMVPMeme

Belgrade inhabitants (literally translated to “beograđani” in Serbian) are a beautiful mix of ethnicities, opinions, persuasions, and etc. They walk everywhere, they are incredibly hospitable, they eat well and they party hard, they love fast and with abandon (but then also get heartbroken and sing about it in kafana, they are loud and opinionated and will tell you off when you’re out of line (intentional or not), but then they are also extremely polite.

And, perhaps because a truly overwhelming tourist force has not yet overtaken the city completely, beograđani are—at least in my experience—very cordial to foreigners. Our presence gives them a chance to practice their English, of which nearly everyone is at least learning or can speak a little. But the absolute best thing is to learn several words and phrases in Serbian so you can see a local’s face light up when you speak (or indicate you are interested in learning) in their own tongue.

I love my commutes because this is where you see them: briefcase in hand on the way to work in the morning, little ones with their mama, a baba (grandma) feeding pigeons in the park and the dede (grandpas) playing chess and sitting on benches discussing the weather, or the young and fashionable lovers walking arm in arm on their way to watch the sunset at Kalemegdan (historic fort and original Belgrade).

Beograđani gather at their city’s first inhabited spot, a fort named Kalemegdan, at the convergence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Image by author.

Beograđani gather at their city’s first inhabited spot, a fort named Kalemegdan, at the convergence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Image by author.

My idealistic view of beograđani was born out of the reason I came here in the first place. Serbia, due to the fascinating geographic and historical roles of the Balkan peninsula, is basically in the middle of this colossal exchange of civilizational values that has been ripping our world apart for the greater part of the last millennium. As an American, I vastly misunderstood the role and significance of the Balkans, one that Vjekoslav Perica emphasized in “Balkan Idols” was incredibly multifaceted:

  • the land over which Rome and Byzantium and later Ottoman Turkey and Habsburg Austria “challenged each other and vied for souls and loyalties of the local peoples”;
  • Where the notorious “Eastern Question” originated;
  • Where “the first large heresy within the Communist block was born”;
  • where “the first large-scale post-Cold War conflict took place”;

There are things about Belgrade, about Serbia, and about the Balkans in general that are mystifying and inspirational, but there are also things that are not beautiful, aesthetically, ideologically, and otherwise. Some pasts are very hard to confront, and to deny so would be truly out of sync of the region’s character.  Indeed, the history here is fluid and alive; it is still being articulated in some instances (World War II, for example) because of the very nature in which it developed in the region.


Members of the Serbian military participate in a ceremony celebrating Dan državnosti (Statehood day) held each February 15th. The holiday is celebrated in remembrance of the beginning of the Serbian revolution that resulted in formal Ottoman recognition of Serbian statehood in 1817 (de jure in 1830).

Members of the Serbian military participate in a ceremony celebrating Dan državnosti (Statehood day) held each February 15th. The holiday is celebrated in remembrance of the beginning of the Serbian revolution that resulted in formal Ottoman recognition of Serbian statehood in 1817 (de jure in 1830).


Even through an exorbitant amount of unpleasantries, they have endured and even succeeded in preserving (in good humor, no less) the resilient approach to life that is characteristically their own. I love the title of Slavonia Drakulic’s book, How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed because that’s what this is, through communism or otherwise. And that’s why I think they’re the real MVP. Here’s to you and a fantastic rest of the semester, Beograd: thank you for the beautiful welcome.

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Tanzanian Food Culture

pilau with spinach and banana

pilau with spinach and banana

Food in Tanzania is simple, yet tasty. Dishes consist mainly of carbohydrates and lots of starches (think rice, spaghetti, potatoes, savory bananas, and breads), with the occasional meats and veggies on the side. Spices aren’t as prominent as I had imagined in East Africa, and almost no food is prepared to be spicy–though pili-pili sauce (chili) is readily available as a condiment. Fresh fruits and veggies abound on every street corner, with large outdoor markets remaining very much a part of the culture. Best of all, local dishes are incredibly affordable, with many meals costing only $1-$2 USD for a heaping portion.

Typical lunch in Tanzania

Typical lunch in Tanzania

The national dish of Tanzania is a corn flour mush known as ugali. It resembles mashed potatoes, though has the consistency of day-old play dough. Alone, it is nearly tasteless so it is often paired with sauce along with veggies, beans, or meat. Though most food in Tanzania is eaten with utensils, ugali is almost ALWAYS eaten with the hands, where mushing the corn flour into balls before dipping them in a gravy-like stew is common. Another local favorite is kuku (chicken) served with sautéed spinach, a thin tomato based sauce, and accompanied by fries, rice, ugali, or chapati (an Indian-like tortilla bread).

chips mayai

chips mayai

Wali maharage (rice with beans) is a popular staple among locals, usually served again with a side of sautéed spinach or cabbage. My personal favorite local dish is chips mayai, which is essentially a french fry omelette. Doused with ketchup and garlic chili sauce, chips mayai is good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a late night snack.

For drinks, I’ve come to be prepared to drink chai (tea) several times a day. This may take the form of plain spiced chai, or chai maziwa (milky chai). Sugar is used liberally, and if the chai has been prepared for you, expect a full cup of sugar to have been added to the batch (I personally, have no issue with this!). Soda is the other common drink to have with meals, with Coca Cola, Sprite, and Fanta dominating the market. In smaller villages, sometimes people will sell homemade breads and juices directly out of their homes. I can’t attest to the sanitation of homemade juice, but from this method I have found the best ice-cold avocado/mango/passion juice mixture on the planet. Not to mention, the mama who I buy juice from reuses returned bottles–yay sustainability!

Food culture in Tanzania is also something worthy of mention. When eating with a local family, as I did during my 3 week Home-stay in the rural village of Bangata, I learned to expect to be served portions of overwhelming size. Being large is respected, as it shows you have wealth, so the locals did their best to fatten us up with a plethora of hearty foods. Although breakfast would simply consist of a several slices of bread and butter, lunch and dinner could be a mountain of rice with beans, banana stew, goat meat, and spinach. Even after you have managed to finish as much as you possibly think you can stomach, local mamas with make sure to refill your plate, just as high–if not higher–as before.

In contrast to western etiquette, it is polite to leave a small amount of food on your plate instead of licking it clean to show you are satisfied. An empty plate signifies that you are still hungry, and you can expect to be served another dollop of rice if you make this mistake. “Nimeshiba,” or “I am full” became a popular phrase I used, often needing to argue that I indeed really was!

I truly believe that food is one of the great doors open to you for experiencing a new culture. By trying new things and dining as the locals do, it has allowed me the opportunity to not only taste exotic ethnic cuisine, but also to make friends. After eating several times at the same local lunch spot, the cooks and servers came to recognize me. And, simply by eating at the non-touristy food spots, I often found myself in conversation with other locals–they get a chance to practice English, and I get to work on my Swahili. There is no rush in the Tanzanian food industry, and fast service is non-existent, but if you learn to embrace the slow pace and take your time to enjoy your meals and interact with others, you may realize that finding a meal can be an incredibly rewarding part of each day.

an outdoor market

an outdoor market

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Warning: Cliché Up Ahead

Zachary Schmelzer - Warning Cliche up ahead

This look out point is a fantastic five-minute walk from my apartment. The bridge in this picture is one of two bridges in Istanbul that connects Europe and Asia. When I took this picture I was standing on the European side looking toward the Asian side of Istanbul. This is also the spot where I first really talked to someone in Turkey.

Living abroad is an amazing thing. So amazing, that you start to realize all of your firsts when you look back… The first time you correctly use the host language, the first time you successfully use the subway system, and even the first time you are going down the slippery steps of said subway system and you fall and nearly break your wrist. Every time you do something even close to noteworthy you feel as if you should write a novel about it: “The time I was being chased by a dragon in Istanbul and I slipped down the stairs to the subway…”

Seriously though, I had been in Istanbul for about a week and I had yet to really talk to anybody. I already finished all eight Harry Potter movies, so I think I was more than ready to take on the city. It was early September, so the weather was perfect, and I wanted to take full advantage of it. I grabbed my wand and went for a walk. I had absolutely no idea where I was, so when I left my apartment building I took a left and hoped for the best. Fortunately, it turned out great, and I ran into this amazing place that overlooked the Bosphorus.

After taking some pictures I noticed someone had joined me at the lookout. I pretended to not notice the new company, while silently hoping he would come talk to me because I hadn’t had real human interaction since the flight attendant asked if I wanted the normal or vegetarian meal. Finally, I noticed he was approaching me. For about two seconds I was excited until I realized I knew zero Turkish. I was about to turn away until I heard him say “hello.” I vividly remember thinking, “Thank God, English!” (Now, I love the Turkish language, but it is a beautiful thing to understand someone and to be understood fully.)

Anyway, we started talking about who we were and what we did. We even helped an elderly Turkish man take a picture of the view with his non-camera phone… See what I mean by fully understanding someone?

Now, this guy and I never became friends. I talked to him probably five more times after the lookout, and he has since graduated and moved away. However, this is the first conversation I had with someone while abroad, and I walked home that day with a smile on my face. My confidence level grew exponentially and since then I have met more people than I could have ever imagined. The friendships I have made with people here are some of the best friendships I have ever made. There is something about knowing you both have this new, foreign land in common that makes you skip the boring acquaintance step and move to close friends right away. I’m glad this is how my friendships here have played out because we don’t have the same homeland in common, and my time here will unfortunately come to an end.

With that being said, I have made friends all over the world and I know these friendships are permanent. I cannot wait to further my travels while visiting my new friends’ host countries and let them visit mine.

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Conservation and Freedom

Danes love Denmark. Their countryside in Jylland heals them and calls them back to a simpler, more rural past; their access to the ocean feeds them and reminds them of their Viking ancestry (of which they are lightheartedly proud). As a country, the Danes try to do everything they can to preserve the richness of both their nature and their culture.

Two weeks into my semester in Denmark, I had the opportunity to visit an island called Samso (pronounced Sam-soo) about 3 hours northwest of Copenhagen. I’m deeply involved in sustainability efforts back at my campus (I went so far as to take a job picking recyclables out of the trash – have you ever stuck your arm shoulder-deep into a trashcan after a weekend party to fish out a misplaced bottle?). I’ve struggled with how to make my individual efforts count, especially when faced with mass-ambivalence towards “environmental awareness.” In the U.S. it seems like saying words like “environmental,” or “green” often flip some sort of off-switch in a person that causes them to passively ignore what you’re saying. It seems like too big of a problem (and in reality it is) for anyone to meaningfully contribute to a solution.

Visiting Samso was, therefore, inspirational. Back in the 1990’s, the residents won a Denmark-wide contest to create a 100% sustainable region, and since then they’ve made it a reality. Over the weekend, I saw the many innovative ways they did so. Gigantic 8-MegaWatt turbines drilled deep in the ocean floor waved a welcome as we approached the island. Using hay and heather grown across the island, the islanders insulate their houses, produce heat, and thatch their roofs. Large steel vats of water aligned in neat rows like solar panels soak up heat from the sun and then flow into people’s houses – and real solar panels decorate many of the more modern homes. An Energy Academy modeled after a Viking longhouse educates residents and communities worldwide about Samso’s efforts. Although they still import some gas, the energy that the share-owned wind turbines produce offsets this import.

Seeing a whole country (and especially this one region) dedicated to living as sustainably as they can was refreshing. I felt like I’d been walking in a swamp of lethargy and apathy and then been thrown a lifeline to pull myself into a new way of thinking. As I came to realize, the average Dane doesn’t necessarily think about living sustainably. Like so many other aspects of their life, they trust those sorts of big issues (e.g. healthcare) to the government and then take pride in following the programs it sets up. For example, my host family spoke with pride about Samso, and told me about all the wind turbines and other renewable sources Denmark uses to produce energy. But my host-brother still took fairly long showers (longer than me!) and they threw out leftovers fairly often. Both my host parents had cars, but they were limited in these luxuries by the high taxes placed on energy and water – they could only afford to have them because they had solar panels on their roof that provided about 90% of their energy. Toilets all had dual-flush functions (less water for fluids, etc); gas and even fatty foods were highly taxed to discourage their use.

The truly innovative aspect of Denmark’s approach to many societal problems is that they keep them as societal problems. They don’t ask individuals to tackle problems like water shortages or global warming on their own; instead, they set up economic and social incentives that set boundaries on what residents can do. Can we apply this to the U.S.? I’m not so sure. Above almost every other ideal, we hold freedom vital to our national identity. Wouldn’t putting higher taxes on resources as Denmark does essentially limit our freedom? Wouldn’t it be a gross violation of the liberty we hold so dear? An example of this mindset is the backlash against the ban on supersized sodas created by New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg. However, I think we’re incorrectly defining what freedom is!

What I’d suggest is that we re-examine our concept of freedom. Since the Enlightenment ideas of Locke and Hobbes, we’ve had a notion that people enter social systems to avoid a chaotic “state of warre;” We still believe that you can do what you want until your actions limit someone else’s freedom. As this country matures (we’re still youngsters compared to many others!) I really hope we can grow to see that having largely unlimited, unrestricted access to resources actually limits everyone’s freedom – overuse creates a tragedy of the commons where soon no one has the freedom to use a resource because it’s quite simply gone. I think Denmark as a country, and individual Danes, recognize this; from what I saw, in trusting societal problems to society, they don’t have to worry about them. Despite living in an essentially socialistic society, could the Danes actually be more free than U.S.?

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