Monday, July 29, 2013

Tre giorni en Milano

In mine and Robin's plans for our travels this summer, we decided we'd end up in Milan for three days and two nights. Robin took better pictures than I did of this part in our trip, so check out his flickr set for artsy pictures of Milan

Sights to see

Unfortunately, we were in Milan on a Sunday afternoon, Monday, and Tuesday morning. This meant that, like many respectable museums, many fantastic museums in Milan were closed on Monday. As a result, we did not get a chance to see the famous Triennale Design Museum or the La Scala Opera House Museum. However, we did get a chance to see: 
  • The Duomo cathedral of Milan - you can climb on the roof! How many cathedrals can you climb on the roof of? It's a cool Gothic-style cathedral right in the center of town.
  • Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II - a large covered "market", for lack of a better word. Cool designs to walk around through. 
  • Castello Sforzesco - cool old castle with fantastic park grounds you can walk around in, often filled with live music
Apparently to see The Last Supper you need to reserve your tickets months in advance, which we did not do. In either case, it costs on the order of 60 euros for 15 minutes of walking up to the fresco. I mean, it's famous art, but we couldn't justify 60 euros for 15 minutes worth of culture... it was probably too crowded anyway.

Eat with the locals! 

While we were traveling, we made it a point to look up some particularly-recommended restaurants or eateries for cheap. One dinner in Milan we ended up with the most delicious dinner and wine we'd had in our entire stay in Italy. Unfortunately, I've seem to lost all record of it's address, so I'll never find it again. 

We walked from the apartment we were staying to a small eatery that we nearly missed when we walked by it - it was literally a hole in the wall. We walk in to see three tables and a single deli-counter with meats and cheeses. A pleasant woman behind the counter seated us, and we proceeded to discuss what we were going to eat in a mix of Spanish and Italian (I don't speak Italian, she doesn't speak English - Spanish is a good compromise). We got a mixed plate of cheeses and meats to try, along with infinite bread. You might think that dinner on cheese, bread, and meats is not satisfying, but the cheese (goat, milk, sheep) was so rich and thick that it, combined with the cured, marinated, and salted dried meats was more than enough to satisfy us for a dinner. 

We wanted to get some quality wine, too (since we didn't get to do any wine tasting while we were in Italy), so the woman spent some time explaining the 10 different kinds of wine that would go well with our meal. We settle, of course, on her favorite. What we didn't realize she did was put the bottle of wine right next to our table during dinner, so we ended up drinking the entire bottle along with our collection of fantastic local meats and cheeses, making that bottle of wine the most expensive bottle of wine we'd ever bought and drank - around 20 euros. Maybe Robin remembers the kind of wine we got, because I sure don't. 

Just don't get covered in dirt

We found a place to stay from Airbnb and really had only one option. Our search parameters included (1) an awesome host and (2) close to all the sights. Turns out, we chose exactly right. 

The room we rented was the spare bedroom of a Milan resident who lived exactly in the center of the city, maximum 20 minutes walk to all the central locations in Milan. Our host was Saeed, an Iranian man who was living in Milan studying industrial engineering and design in the polytechnic university in Milan. He was fun to talk to and gave us some amazing restaurant and bar suggestions. The apartment was on the second floor of a 3-story apartment building surrounding an inner courtyard. The spare room had two windows - one facing into the inner courtyard and the second facing out on the street. Because it was around 100 degrees Farenheit our first night in Milan, we opened all the windows and slept on top of the sheets, taking advantage of the cross-breeze. We were so tired from traveling the day before and being in the heat all day that we slept like logs. 

The second night was cooler, so it was pleasant to keep the windows open. But we forgot that we were (1) in the center of town and (2) that it was supposed to be garbage collecting day the next morning. The good part was that the window next to my side of the bed was a strand of ivy that meant that with the window open the neighbors couldn't peer into the room.

Around 5am, the wind picked up, flinging pieces of dirt across me and Robin from the hanging ivy below. No problem. Close the window, clear off the dirt, go back to sleep. Wrong! Around 6:30am the garbage collector and recycling trucks appeared. First came the glass container - CRASH, BOOM, DING. Silence. CRASH BOOM DING. Ok, no problem, 20 minutes later it stops and we go back to sleep. But then the worst way to be woken from sleep comes again - the garbage truck. The garbage containers holding organic waste were picked up by the truck, releasing the strongest, most intense odor of compost right below our window. The smell seeped through the closed window, attacking our noses with it's awful smell. At this point I start laughing hysterically at the various ways we'd been woken up that morning, so we had a good giggle while the garbage truck did it's thing and went back to sleep before breakfast. Just goes to show, you never know how you can get woken up in a foreign country. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A trip to the Negev and the Dead Sea

The Negev

Most of the instructors arrived at MEET and after a day of orientation were whisked off to the Negev for a retreat before the hectic of the summer started. The goal of the retreat was to get to know the instructors and staff at MEET that we'd be working so closely with all summer. It just so happened that we got to go into the Negev too! 

The Negev is in the south, south of the city of Beer Sheva. It sprawls for about 13,000 square kilometers, says Wikipedia, so there is a lot to see. We were aiming for the Mitzpe Ramon Crater, near the development town of Mitzpe Ramon. In the Negev, there are a few small villages, some kibbutzim, and a few Bedouin villages, but other than that, it is just a sprawling wasteland. 

I will only put a few choice pictures here, since the rest of them are on Flickr:

Noga arranged for us to be driven around the Negev with these Jeeps, including some short hiking, some off-roading, and some talks about the history and significance of the Negev.

The views into the Mitzpe Ramon crater were amazing - the Mitzpe Ramon is apparently one of the few "natural" craters in the world, not formed by a meteor. The way it was described to me, think of building a mound of sand on the beach. Then take a bucket of water and pour it on top. What do you get? A crater!

It was so hot, but the way to hike in the desert when it's so hot is apparently to walk a bit, have a picnic, walk a bit, go swimming, rinse, repeat. I'm not complaining. 

And at the very end of the two-day trip, we of course drove past the Dead Sea (and later swam in it).  The view before descending the last few hundred meters is amazing - the salt flats across the sea and the view of Jordan across it, completely surrounded by sand, is quite impressive. 

We camped in the Mitzpe Ramon crater for a night after having dinner and a bonfire. The stars were among the most amazing stars I've ever seen - the Milky Way crystal clear, and the sheer quantity of stars was incredible. Because the sun was so powerful, we slept in the shade of a cliff wall until the sun encroached on our campsite and we woke up to the powerful rays of sun (and of course, Abdallah making coffee). 

The Dead Sea

On our way back up north, we had to stop by the Dead Sea for a quick dip. 

The Dead Sea itself is unique, that's for sure. The salinity is so high that there are signs and warnings all around to NOT put your face in the water, and if you get the water in your eye, it is too painful to open, so a friend should escort you to the nearest outdoor shower to rinse off. The feeling of weightlessness is incredible and nothing like I'd ever felt before - you just lie there and you float. Your knees, feet, shoulders, and your butt all gravitate towards the surface - no swimming required! We of course tried to spell MIT while floating in the Dead Sea, but I'm not sure the pictures came out (they were not on my camera). 

What surprised me most about the Dead Sea was the heat. Sure, it was hot, but the water felt like a sauna! In addition to the fact that all your scars and cuts stung (a.k.a. most of your skin, because everyone has many micro-cuts on their skin just from regular life), the water was not refreshing from the 37+ degree Celsius heat. In fact, the moment you got out of the water you instantly felt better. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Middle East culture: not so different

When I first signed up to teach for MEET, I knew barely anything about the Middle East. I knew only what I heard from the American media. I didn't know what being Jewish really meant. I had never met an Arab. I didn't know a single word of Hebrew or Arabic. At the end of the program and after traveling the region for a few days, I feel like every American needs to come here and find out whatever truth he is looking for. 

At first, I thought the conflict would be on everyone's minds in their daily life. I quickly learned that I wasn't (completely) correct. In my experience, people only talk about the conflict when prompted, and more often than not, it's not something they will bring up themselves. To me it seemed like people were tired of the conflict, tired of dealing with it, and tired of talking about it. They wanted it solved, but they were too exhausted with their perceived futility to let it permeate into every aspect of their lives. 

The things that were most striking about the difference between Middle Eastern culture and American culture:

  • Everyone wants to help! People are friendly, open, and willing.
  • You've never really tasted falafel / shwarma / hummus until you've had some here. 
  • Cucumbers taste infinitely better when fresh and local! 
  • Olive oil goes on everything.
  • Think it's hard to get around with just English? What about three working languages!
  • Eating out is less common, since people have to balance dietary preferences and religious fasts among different people.
And then the things that are the same everywhere, with increased globalization:
  • Facebook (and social media) are a common currency
  • Runners line the streets in the early morning
  • Gas stations are all you see along highways in some parts of the region
  • Everybody likes traveling and experiencing new cultures
  • American TV shows and songs are really popular - people here know more about American movies, TV, and music than I do!
In short, I learned that the world can be as similar and as different as you want it to be. I learned how to navigate a new region (with lots of help from my fellow instructors and some MEET staff). I learned that language is a real barrier in interactions - my not knowing Hebrew or Arabic is sometimes a detriment in being able to talk to someone. 

I haven't answered all my questions about being Jewish (and what that means, and whether I want it) and what it means to live in a dichotomous society, but I was able to observe some new perspectives about how people live their lives in a society so different from the one I grew up in. Maybe one day I'll get to learn more. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

The start and end of MEET

This summer, I taught computer science for a program called MEET (Middle East Education through Technology). It is an NGO that recruits (and partners) with MIT to teach computer science and business to a group of students in Jerusalem, half of whom are Israeli and half of whom are Palestinian. The goal is to empower the students to bring forth social, political, and economic change to their region. Naive about the conflict in the Middle East but a seasoned traveler, I left my parent's house in New York with just two backpacks filled with nice clothes for teaching and crappy clothes for hiking later in the summer. 

I was filled with a mix of emotions - would the students fight with each other? Would I feel safe in the city? What would the MEET staff in the Middle East think of the naive MIT instructors? Would I be able to control a classroom filled with 17-year-olds (barely younger than me, barely older than my sister)? Would I even be able to teach the students any computer science in the midst of the conflict? Would I actually be able to help, or would I be wasting my time?

Turns out, the answers to all of my questions were astonishingly positive. 

The MEET 10-year celebration brought together a room filled with 600 people - mixed between Israelis and Palestinians (and of course the Americans that came to teach or support). The student's projects were phenomenal, and the atmosphere was one of positive change. Saying my goodbyes at the end of the ceremony, I felt like I truly was appreciated by the students. And I was proud of them for accomplishing so much. 

Now that the program is over, I am sitting and reflecting on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

I have been terrible about keeping up with my adventures this summer so far, but I am going back and blogging about them. Sorry for the delay.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

MEET = staff + students (+ instructors)

This summer at MEET was a fantastic learning experience for me (and I hope for the students!). What is MEET? MEET is, simply put, what you get when you put together the Middle East staff, the MIT instructors, and of course the Israeli and Palestinian students. 

The staff

The full-time staff in the Middle East at MEET is as close to 50-50 Israeli-Palestinian as possible. All the staff are as closely involved with the students as possible, and all work towards achieving MEET's mission: in short, to empower Israeli and Palestinian youth to create positive social, political, and economic change in the region. 

CEO, program manager, TA, alumni coordinator, director, facilitator. Sometimes we get bogged down in the names, but in short, all the staff deserve a piece of the shared responsibility pie. 

Noa, Ala, Talya, Mustafa, Abdallah, Noga, Manal, Dikla, Dana, Marina, Ahmed, Shira, Amin, Uriel, Liel, Sadek, Xander, hopefully not too many more that I forgot. These were some of the people who were responsible for making up the staff contingent this summer at MEET. They worked hard every day to make sure the students and instructors had the resources they needed to succeed - without the dedication of the staff, MEET would not exist. 

The students

The students I had the pleasure of teaching were some of the best and brightest I've had the pleasure of teaching in the past. Coming from a range of backrounds - Israeli, Palestinian, male, female, from Jerusalem-area, from Nazareth-area, the students were all the same in one respect: they had a passion for learning. They were all at MEET because of their talents - they excel in school and want more challenges. They want to change their own perspectives about the world by exposing themselves to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They wanted to learn computer science and business. 

During the summer, the students split their time into three chunks - business, computer science, and deeper understanding. The MIT instructors are responsible for the business and computer science sections, and this summer we worked them hard. From 9am to 7pm every day, the students are busy mastering skills in business and CS that will help them make an impact on society in the future. 

Talking to the students during breaks and meals, you learn that they each have a unique passion - some want to go to medical school, some are in love with robots, some want to start businesses, become politicians, cure cancer, go to the moon. In other words, they are a typical cross-section of motivated youth from anywhere else in the world. The difference with these students is their maturity - they live in a society that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a daily basis, and as a result they've (mostly) learned to deal with problems with more-than-high-school style. They ponder, they discuss, they solve. (Don't get me wrong, they're still high school students and have lots to learn, but in some respects they are more mature than their American counterparts). The other difference with these students is that they at least have the mastery of  at least two languages (many, 3 or more). That is something American schooling won't be competing with any time soon. 

Without the students, MEET would not exist. Your job is to have a passion for learning so that the staff and instructors can teach and mentor and instruct about the world at large. MEET exists for the students, so keep being awesome to give us a reason to keep doing our jobs!

The instructors

The instructors that get recruited for the summer component of MEET hail from many different wakes of life. Most have ties to MIT, but some get recruited by happenstance. 

Meet the instructors from summer 2013: Julia, Tim, Jamie, Elena, Alex, Sally, Sean, Sesha, Kyle, Aline, Michele, Nikhil, Lorenzo, Salahuddin, Neha, Zafir, Christine, Marvin. 

We all are passionate about what we do and we love teaching it - our job is to facilitate learning business and computer science in an experience as intense as we (and the students) can handle. We take our inspiration from our own experiences - at MIT, at Google, at work, at home, elsewhere. We bring to the students our experiences from the US (and abroad elsewhere), but throw all that out the window when it comes to learning. When it comes to the classroom, we buckle down and teach our subjects as best we can. Because we all are "experts" in our fields (I say it in quotes because some of us are recent grads or still in school), we want to make sure we teach our material with the appropriate level of respect it deserves. But we do more than teach - we talk to the students about our own experiences (CS, business, and otherwise), trying to share some of our hobbies, knowledge, and passions outside of our fields with them. 

Without the instructors, MEET would just be like plain old summer camp. We bring to the table our intensity and experience to make MEET more than a summer camp - MEET is an intense learning experience for our students. 

Putting it all together

Without the instructors, without the students, without the staff, MEET is nothing. MEET is not a summer camp, it's not just an after-school program, it's not just another NGO. MEET is a program that brings together passionate adults in the Middle East, inquisitive and motivated students, and intense instructors from MIT, Google, and elsewhere. We put them all together in a classroom, tell them to learn CS and business, and make awesome happen as a result. 

MEET = staff + students (+ instructors). Easy.