Back to school

I have now been in State College for a few weeks. The first week was a whirl of getting the apartment stocked and shopping for furniture. I also ventured onto campus for the first time; my previous tour had been a virtual one online while I was in Israel. Penn State’s campus forms a large rectangle; at its south end is the downtown. Campus has two major attractions: Old Main and the Nittany Lion Shrine. The Shrine is apparently the second most photographed place in Pennsylvania, after the Liberty Bell. I have yet to pay homage to the Nittany Lion, but I have nearly circumambulated Old Main, which is a handsome replica of the university’s first building. A lawn stretches from Old Main to downtown, and I found that a flock of ducks likes to dawdle on the very edge of campus, near people waiting at the bus stop. (One day I was sitting at the bus stop and a lame duck—yes, a literal lame duck, not a congressperson—was quacking behind me. I wish I had a crutch to give it, but I’m no doctor, just a quack.) I would add a third attraction, which is the popular Berkey Creamery, serving locally produced ice cream and dairy products.

Week two was orientation, which involved the fearful task of meeting new people and trying to make friends. I did try to push myself in that regard. I have attended a grand total of four grad events requiring mingling, at which I’ve been able to show off both my lack of mingling prowess and my teetotalism. The first event was bowling night. It had probably been over a decade since I last stepped foot in a bowling alley. While I remembered the important aspects of the game—pick up ball, release ball, knock down pins—putting it into practice proved difficult. I was invited to join a team (alas, unfortunate team to recruit me). On my first few turns I managed to knock down nothing besides my self-esteem, but eventually, by developing my own method of tossing the ball, I managed to knock down a decent number. I think I might have even gotten a spare! While initially, I was thinking that it was unfortunate for the older grad students’ first impression of me to be my terrible hand-eye coordination, I realized the next evening that bowling had given me the opportunity to engage in short conversations with fellow bowlers with the option of watching the action when we reached a lull.

At dinner the next evening, there were no distractions. People broke into groups, impenetrable to a shy person, so I found myself frequently pouring myself cups of Coke to look like I was occupied. And I missed out on an apparently popular conversation topic sparked by the presence of lots of bottles of wine and beer, namely, alcohol. One acquaintance asked me what drink I would recommend…well, soda, of course. I have made one friend in the program thus far, and afterward, she told me I look very elegant even when standing alone awkwardly. (She didn’t say “awkwardly,” but it’s the truth.)

As an act of divine mercy, I was struck with a cold that weekend, which excused me from yet another mingling event, a party involving pizza and…a keg. The invitation said to bring your own drink if you didn’t want beer, and so I had anxious visions of myself clinging to my water bottle and hiding in a corner, the only sober partygoer. Instead, I had a quiet evening alone with my box of tissues.

This weekend, I again confronted my distaste for alcohol-centered events. My friend invited me to join the cohort (the group of first-year English MA students, of which there are seventeen) at a bar—we could get soda. And soda we did get, ginger ale in fact, in a very noisy bar where I could only hear the person next to me speak. My friend, who is from Taiwan, asked why people in America enjoy going to bars. “You are asking the wrong person!” I replied.

Finally, I attended a gathering of English MA students. This involved a brief bout of horseshoe throwing (before I gave up) and several hours of attempted mingling. Also, I made the mistake of assuming dinner would be ready when I arrived and showing up hungry. It was ready about two hours later, so in the meantime, I dominated a bowl of kale chips that happened to be in front of me.

Besides stabs at socializing with grad students, I have actually started grad school! While Mount Holyoke prepared me well for the academics, I’m still getting used to having all my classes in the three-hour, once per week seminar format, and spacing out the heaps of reading properly. Plus trying to learn Russian on the side in preparation for Cold War 2 (jk, just trying to get in touch with my husband’s roots).

The following is somewhat representative of the transition to life as a commuter grad student. One of my classes runs from 6:30-9:30, so around 5:45, I went to wait for the bus. As I was heading out, I heard some thunder, so I grabbed my umbrella. Then I was waiting by the bus stop…and waiting…the air was growing thick and hazy with the expectation of rain. And then it started to sprinkle. And then the heavens emptied themselves! I ran under a tree with my umbrella, but my legs and feet were immediately soaked, as was my poor backpack. I thought I saw my bus in the distance, but then I looked back, and it was gone. At this point I figured it would be difficult to attend class in my drowned rat condition, so I ran back to my apartment, changed, zipped up my raincoat, ran to my car, tried to figure out the windshield wipers, which I have never used in this car, and then drove downtown through the deluge to a parking garage, from whence I walked to campus as fast as I could. Somehow I made it only about a minute late! I think I disappointed my professor by my timeliness, because I had emailed an apology for being late after my bus fiasco. He actually arrived a few minutes after I did, and when he saw me, he said, “You’re here! I saw your email and I thought ‘good, I won’t be the latest one to class because of the rain.’”

Next time, I shall stick to my word and be late!

Day 6: A palace and a dervish

A few days after leaving Turkey, I had a dream that I was wandering in a vast palace covered with Iznik tiles. I think this was the result of our tour of the Harem of the Topkapi Palace and Tiled Pavilion of the Archaeological Museum, both of which demonstrated an artistic obsession with these intricately painted tiles.

Tiled walls in the Sultan's room

Tiled walls featuring calligraphy surround an ornate fireplace in the Harem.

The day had already turned gray and rainy by the time we got to the palace grounds. The palace is not a single building, but rather a giant complex of buildings around four courtyards. Every sultan made his addition to the complex as new needs arose. At one point 10,000 people lived and worked in the compound, so I suppose the crush of tourists actually helped us imagine how busy this place was when it functioned.

We started with the Harem, the section of the complex where the sultan’s wives and mother lived along with the eunuchs and concubines who tended to the women. Contrary to Western notions, the harem was primarily an administrative establishment, carefully designed to ensure there would be no squabbles over succession because of heirless sultans.

The Harem is the most decorated part of the palace, with many of those Iznik tiles coating chamber after chamber. After touring that part, we began our grueling expedition through sopping courtyards to see the treasury (lots of shiny jewels), the kitchen (unfortunately foodless today), and the armory. In the armory, I found myself suddenly intrigued by a thin sword on display and desperately needing to examine it up close for several minutes, which I assure you was not at all because there was a heat vent below the vitrine. We were amused to find the weapons arranged under signs such as Stabbing, Slicing, Smashing, etc. There were a fair share of funny elements to the palace besides the weapons: the sultan’s throne in his reception chamber appeared big enough to fit ten men side-by-side, the council chamber where the ministers consulted had a window grille above it through which the sultan could listen like a literal eavesdropper, and his mom’s room was located strategically between his room and the rest of the harem. Ah, the tough life of a sultan!



Hungry and wet from the drizzle, we proceeded to our next stop, the archaeological museum, which is actually a set of three museums. The visit started on a happy note when we found coffee that didn’t cost $10 a cup, approximately the palace price. Now, the café where we lunched had a decent selection with entrees, salads, and sandwiches—but once we had decided on our picks, stomachs growling, we were informed that out of the 20 choices on the menu, they actually only had dolma and pistachio cake in stock.

I guess this was a preview of the rest of the museum, which was under—you guessed it—restoration, and the starring items, such as the famed Alexander Sarcophagus, were off display. A bit perturbed, we made the most of the remaining sarcophagi and their occasionally belligerent inscriptions (e.g. “If any man disturbs this tomb, let him be smashed and his whole family crushed”).

We love history!

Up close and personal with ancient history.

We walked over to the museum next door where we saw…more tiles! In fact, this small museum is called the “Tiled Pavilion.”

Excited to see tiles!

Or “the Tired Pavilion”

Finally, after a detour in the sculpture garden, which is where the disenfranchised statues are left to suffer the elements, we went to the last museum: the “Ancient Orient.” Upon my approaching the entrance, I was greeted by a guard clearly communicating that my entry was unwelcome. Apparently, they chase everyone out 20 minutes before the museum actually closes. I convinced her to let us in for “one minute,” and after we cruised through Babylon, the lights went off. But I could not leave without seeing at least one famous item, the Treaty of Kadesh, the world’s oldest known peace treaty. The guards relented and flicked on the lights for us to get a brief look at the tiny cuneiform tablet.

And that concluded our day of odd museums.

With only a few hours left in Istanbul, we headed to the Arasta Bazaar, where Jasmine purchased a beautiful inlaid box and Sergey and I drank the shopkeeper’s apple tea. Then we happened upon an outdoor restaurant where a trio was performing—and, most excitingly, a whirling dervish was whirling!


Whirling dervish, Sufi dancer, your skirts are a sheltering canopy, your eyes, divine ecstasy.

Entranced, we watched from the sidewalk, and then decided it was worth eating a freezing al fresco dinner to see him whirl. While I’m always skeptical of the authenticity of “cultural” activities in a tourist district, he seemed to be legitimately meditating as he spun, eyes nearly closed, apparently unconscious of his audience, including the paparazzi in the front row seats (us).

Finally, it was time to say “good night” to Istanbul. Our journey had reached its end.

Near Divan Yolu

City of 10 million people

burqa-clad women, bohemian men,

fish sandwiches scenting thousands of fingers.

East meets West


separated by the strait of the Bosphorus

marble tongue of Marmara licking the cold cup of the Black Sea

and Black Sea pouring its dark contents into Marmara’s mouth.

The Pilgrims

Courtyard of building at Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, Israel

Courtyard of building at Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, Israel

As I sit here writing, wind buffets the windowpanes, driving rain against our building. It howls like a banshee. It gusts, it moans, it wails, it whines. This is the second night of this storm. This morning, after a night of half-sleeping to the thudding sounds of the wind banging against our windows, we awoke to find Haifa coated in dirt, apparently the result of a marriage between a rainstorm and dust storm. Now it continues to rain, but just water without the dirt. This long-lived storm reminds me of the one that made our Pilgrimage so memorable.

A few days into our nine-day Pilgrimage, a strong thunderstorm drove sheets of rain down so hard that our windows leaked, inspiring us to batten down the hatches—or in this case, to lower our plastic shutters over the glass, partially to block out the water, partially because we feared the wind would smash our windows. This was the first time my mom and sister got to experience the full volume of a storm as heard from our flat. It sounded like the world was ending, as thunder coupled with the thudding of wind on windowpane. With the storm came the insidious damp cold that seeps into every pore. The storm started in the evening and was still going strong in the morning, when we went to visit some of the sites in Akká associated with Bahá’u’lláh.

Akká boasts a vast and varied history, oscillating between glory and ruin depending on the ruler, which we had learned about the previous weekend on our visit to the underground crusader city. Yet, by the time of Bahá’u’lláh in the 19th century, it had become a penal colony of the ailing Ottoman Empire. Along with His family and some followers, He was banished there from the previous place of exile in Adrianople (today’s Edirne, Turkey).

The nasty weather was an appropriate reminder that the Akká of that time was a far cry from the bustling touristy city we see today. Wrapped in many layers and carrying umbrellas like lances to battle the storm, we stepped off our bus into the gray day and walked through the old city gate to the prison cells where Bahá’u’lláh’s family lived after their arrival. Chilled to the bone even within the stone walls of the prison citadel, it was hard to imagine surviving for two years in these barren quarters. Outside the windows, the sea crashed against the city ramparts, foaming angrily.

I had the same feeling in the next house the family occupied. Although surely an improvement over the desolate prison, the house still bore an aura of oppression about it. Looking out the window of a room upstairs upon the block of cold stone houses and the leaden sky above, with nary a tree or creature in sight to relieve the harsh view, I could begin to imagine the pain of living as a prisoner.

That was the dark part of Pilgrimage, which helped us appreciate its lighter times: our time spent together, and the eventual return of the sun for our visits to Bahjí, Junayn Garden, and Holy Places in Haifa.

Light moments had to include a trip to the big baklava mountain, where the nutty pastry naturally accumulates in waist-high drifts.

Light moments had to include a trip to the big baklava mountain, where the nutty pastry naturally accumulates in waist-high drifts.

NB: Bahá’í pilgrimage consists of nine days during which pilgrims visit the Holy Places in Akká, Haifa, and Nahariyya associated with the history of the Faith in the Holy Land—and most importantly pray at the Shrines built at the resting-places of our Central Figures: Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. If a Bahá’í has the financial resources, he is supposed to make pilgrimage at least once in his life as a means of spiritual deepening.

Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh at Bahjí, the most holy place on earth for Bahá'ís

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahjí, the most holy place on earth for Bahá’ís

A Rainbow

A morning rainbow

A morning rainbow

Mornings are hard.  Back in my single life, I used to struggle to force myself out of bed.  You would think that marriage would somehow make Sergey and me into the sort of mature, efficient people who just spring out of bed at the first ring of the alarm.  Not so.  If anything, it made us even lazier, as we enabled each other to snooze later and later.  Finally, frustrated with my lethargy and lack of punctuality in the mornings, I told Sergey to start physically pushing me out of bed–and after much resistance (“How can I push a woman?”), he complied.  Now we are more on time, but the struggle remains.

I say all that as a preface, because the struggle of the morning contrasts so intensely with the often splendid seascapes outside our windows shortly after dawn.  This week, I saw one of the most beautiful–a sunrise rainbow!  As rain sprinkled the Mediterranean, the rainbow shone forth.  After stumbling into the kitchen to make our coffee, my groggy eyes caught sight of it, and I ran into the bedroom to tell Sergey to look.

Sometimes natural beauty is hard to appreciate.  For example, I find the beauty of Israel challenging–it can be hard to find anything wild in the paved, packed city, where the hot dust settles on everything.  The Bahá’í gardens are, of course, spectacular, but I crave something less manicured, something moist and verdant–basically, the leafy luster of the northern states of the US.  The tender evanescence of springtime, the green opulence of summertime, the jewel tones of autumn, even the silent blankness of winter (although I don’t miss that season as much!).

My natural environment, the green world.

Basking in my natural environment, the green world, during our honeymoon.

Spending some time on the land of the B&B where Sergey and I honeymooned reminded me that this terrain, this flora and fauna are planted in my heart.  In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, the title character enjoys the solitary barrenness of the desert; on the contrary, his lover Katharine yearns for the moisture and verdure of rainy English gardens where hedgehogs roam.  I sympathize with Katharine, though I have seen hedgehogs in Israel.

But sometimes, it is patently easy to see the beauty of nature, when it stretches itself out right in front of you. Closer

The home of the spider

There is a flâneur inside all of us.  If I recall my art history classes well enough, once Paris was Haussmanized–many of the charming little streets were converted into wide, orderly boulevards–a new species of pedestrian emerged: the flâneur.  The flâneur was a window shopper, an idler, an urban vagrant who did not necessarily set out with a destination in mind; he walked around to see the city and maybe stop for a croissant every once in a while.

My flâneurism (which sounds like a dangerous combination of flan and aneurysm) manifested in some exploration of the Hadar, a commercial and residential district which, according to the map, my street borders.  I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent examining maps of Haifa in a fairly futile attempt to commit the general layout of the city to memory.  There’s the tourist map I keep in my purse at all times, and the one on my bulletin board at home, and there’s even one up in the office.   So I had my route planned out, and I successfully found the main shopping street with its endless noisy clothing stores and the department store wherein I found this happy couple.  Please take a moment to note his rakishly angled spectacles and her receding hairline.  Aren’t they cozy.

They do say love is blind...

They do say love is blind…

And this–jeans as art, or maybe the dryer broke:

Artist's house

Artists’ house

Once I had procured some houseplants and a muffin tin, I decided to retrace my route.  If I could accomplish that, I figured that would mean I actually knew the Hadar.

I did not accomplish that.

I suppose I was distracted by the unusually cool weather, the streets damp with rain, or maybe it was the dead cat in the street.  Anyway, I forget to take a turn and found myself in an unfamiliar area.  Unwisely, I decided to keep walking.  I suppose I hoped my “intuition” would lead me aright and my apartment building would suddenly appear in front of me.  Eventually, I swallowed my pride and found the friendliest looking person around (not a particularly easy task–Haifans are not the smiliest bunch) and asked for help.

“English?” I asked.  Over the course of the morning, I had gotten accustomed to the answer to this question being a shake of the head.  But it turned out she spoke very good English.  After she explained where I needed to go, she pointed at my map and asked, “Does it help?”  Good question.  As soon as I pull it out, I mark myself as an outsider, a foreigner.  But when I try to navigate without it, I end up seeing more of Haifa than intended.  Perhaps trying to make me feel better about my orienteering failure, she said, “The streets in Haifa are like the home of a spider.”  A very messy spider, I might add, the kind who eschews neat webs in favor of tangled nests where he stores his victims, including young women carrying Tourist Board maps.

Monsoon, monlater

On the walk to lunch, I felt it: raindrops!  Just a few tentative beads falling from an ambivalent sunny-cloudy sky, barely tangible.  I stretch out my arms and stop for a moment, turning to my friend–“This is the first rain I’ve felt in three months!”  Reportedly, it’s been raining in Akka and two weeks ago for a few minutes in Haifa, but I missed it.

After lunch, I step outside and it’s raining in earnest, fat drops and the fragrance of ozone.  I hesitate under the overhang, considering taking the tunnel back to my office.  But I choose to be impractical and to take a walk through the garden in the rain.  It’s deserted, and I appreciate my solitary stroll, pretending that my skin is like the soil thirstily drinking up the rain.  By the time I get to my building, my shirt is dappled and my hair has curled into messy ringlets.  I might work indoors all day, but that doesn’t mean my existence must be hermetic in either sense of the word.

Navel-gazing, but arboreally.

Navel-gazing, arboreally.  It’s only natural.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about awkward interactions, hasn’t it?  I’m sure they’re still happening to me (or more aptly I’m happening to them).  Maybe I’m just acclimated and no longer even notice.   Maybe I’ve finally broken out of my chrysalis of shyness into a gorgeously non-awkward social butterfly (lolz, yeah right).  Or maybe I’m getting too contemplative–goodness, I keep writing about lying in the grass and soaking up the rain, even though the majority of my time is spent in the land of Excel spreadsheets!