Tuesday, April 26, 2011

2011 New Thing 7. Free Cone Day

Last night I was downloading some pictures and realized I had recently done a blogworthy New Thing and it hadn't even registered.  Every community has its own local traditions that might be observed in other places, but not with the same meaning.  Here in Burlington, Vermont Free Cone Day (FCD) is one such event and, though I've lived here for a dozen years now, I'd never been.

The MDG independent study group hard at work: Alexsis, Ben, Amanda and Matt
 For the sake of any ice cream haters out there (for they would be the only people who don't know this), I'll recap: on April 12 Ben and Jerry's ice cream stores throughout the world open their doors to everyone and give free cones to anyone willing to wait in line for them.  For us Burlingtonians, this day has special significance, because our downtown is the birthplace of the Ben and Jerry's scoop shop and though the company got sold to Unilever some years ago (to our everlasting sadness), Ben and Jerry are still prominent Vermonters and supporters of the lefty politics that makes the political right wing of this country avoid our state like the plague.  Plus, on a good year April 12 is our first day of spring, since the one that the Weather Channel claims (March 21) is usually marked by some kind of blizzard here.

This year April 12 fell on a Tuesday, which is also the day of one of my favorite activities of this semester, my independent study meetings with Alexsis, Amanda, Ben and Matt.  Every once in a while a teacher gets lucky by having an astoundingly great group of students all in the same class. That happened to me in fall 2010 when I taught a new course on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for the first time.  As I've written elsewhere, and will be writing about again shortly, the interest of the class has blossomed into an amibitious book project, drawing in a lot of outstanding alumni, that we are pursuing together.  On Tuesdays I have been teaching two different independent studies with four of the students involved in the project.  Alexsis and Matt were not able to take the original class and so have been doing the readings from the course and meeting for the discussions.  Ben and Amanda were in the original class and signed on for an advanced topics version of the MDG experience.  All four of them have also been helping bring together the logistics of the project, which are about to get complicated in a hurry, because this summer, with major support from the office of the Saint Michael's College Academic Vice President, Karen Talentino, we are continuing with the writing and sending student teams to four countries to gather information.  That project will be its own post, but for now, I'll just say it's a lot of work to pull together, and it's been great to have the support of the independent study team.

When we met on the twelth it was a beautiful and sunny late afternoon, and we quickly decided that we could just as easily discuss our aganda standing in line on Cherry Street as around a table in Alliot Hall.  So, we crammed into my car, headed downtown and loaded up on ice cream.  Oh, and learned a new truism -- nothing says Millennium Development Goals like Ben and Jerry's.
MDGs + free Ben and Jerry's + warm spring day = the Perfect Independent Study Class

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

2011 New Thing 6: One Weekend, Two Road Trips

I've been to both Boston and Washington, DC lots of times before, but never via road trips on the same weekend.  It all started out when two Saint Michael's College clubs -- the Student Global AIDS Campaign and the Dear Hilary Campaign for the Congo -- decided to join forces and take a bus down together to Washington DC so that we could spend Friday doing a rally at the state department ("Joining Hands for the Congo") and some lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Late Thursday afternoon 55 Vermonters -- about 30 students and faculty from Saint Mike's, the rest members of the local Congolese community (and a few, like my friends Cleophace and Pierre, who are both) loaded up the bus and headed out for the 10+ hour drive to the Nation's capitol.  The next day we held a big noon-time rally directly in front of the state department, complete with drumming, a song in Swahili that Naweza patiently taught us on the bus ride down, speeches, and most importantly, an appearance by a number of state department officials working on African issues who came down and asked to meet with some of our leaders.  One of the chief demands they discussed was our call for a special envoy to the Great Lakes region.  Given that the Congo is (and has been for 15 years) experiencing the greatest devastation caused by conflict on the planet (more deaths, rape and murders than Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan combined), we believe that the focused attention that a special envoy could bring to the conflict is obviously warranted, and in fact, long overdue.

One of the best things about being political in Washington DC is the chance to see some of my favorite alumni.  Here I am (complete with rain-soaked hair and a Michelle Duggar-esque t-shirt and long skirt ensemble) with Kelly and Siham.

Sam, Alexsis and Alyssa -- we thought we were early, but actually we were just waiting on the wrong side of the state department building. (Alyssa has her own blog: get her version of events at http://alyssasmc.blogspot.com/)

After the rally ended, a team of us headed over the Senate buildings to lobby on global health spending and issues in the Congo.  Our group, pictured here talking to a staffer for Senator Kerry, also met with staff from Senator Leahy's office, which the other team visited the offices of Senators Collins and Shaheen
The trip to DC was the epitome of speedy.  We left Burlington on Thursday afternoon and arrived back on Saturday morning. For me, that was pretty necessary, because I also had a plan to spend part of the weekend in Boston, visiting my beloved niece Tigist and her parents, Katrinka and Brian, who were in town for a conference.  It was a lot of driving for a single weekend, but some things are so completely worth it.  Here's some pictures featuring the cutest three year old in the world (that would be Tigist).
Tigist and mom (my sister Katrinka) hanging out at the New England Aquarium.

Siham joined us for dinner Sunday night.  She and Tigist share an unusual hobby, namely finding the teeniest tortilla chips in the basket to eat.

Although Tigist was too little to appreciate it, we had dinner at the Border Cafe in Cambridge because it has special significance to Katrinka and Brian -- it's the place they met.  Here they are with Siham, Tig and Brian's colleague, Kell.

Saying goodbye to Tig before heading back to Burlington Monday morning.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Major Development in the Quest for New Things: It's Jordan, Baby

So, it's not every day that a form letter has the power to rock your world.  But that's what happened to me Monday when I finally got the answer I've been waiting for since I sent in an application back in late July of 2010.  On Monday I found out that I've been selected for a Fulbright award to teach for the 2011-12 school year at the University of Jordan.  For those who might need a slight refresher on their Middle East geography, here's a little map for reference.  The University of Jordan is in the capital city of Amman, so that is obviously where I'll be as well.
As you can see, Jordan has some neighbors who have made the news quite a bit in recent years.  It shares borders with Israel and the West Bank, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Although I will miss people here terribly, it will of course be a win-win situation for everyone when as many of my family, friends and past and current students as possible take up my call to visit me and explore the wonderful country of Jordan and the surrounding area.  Chris and I have already started to think about all kinds of interesting possibilities for him to spend part of the year there, and Katrinka, Brian, Siham, Leah and Jamila are cooking up itineraries as well.
Everyone who knows me knows that I am, to put it mildly, directionally challenged.  Here I am at  a major University of Jordan landmark with our incredibly gracious host, Inas.  I think I'll be orienting myself with the tower a LOT next year.

So, a couple of this year's challenges just took center stage -- like trying to learn a bit of Arabic -- and at this time next year I'm expecting to be posting new things left and right. But for now I just wanted to do a wee bit of recap about a few of the reasons I am one very lucky person to have been given this opportunity to go to Jordan.  Here are three from among the many I might have chosen.

Hospitality I wrote a whole blog post about this last year.  Siham, Connor and I were blown away by the amazing hospitality we encountered absolutely everywhere -- from the Omrans, who knew only that we were friends of friends and made us at home in their house, to Inas who showed us all over U of Jordan and treated us to the biggest lunch of our lives, to  Mazen who not only set up our visit to the Baqaa refugee camp, but accompanied us inside, to Khaled who quickly became our favorite new friend because of his sense of fun and willingness to introduce us to so much of Amman.  I've been to some astoundingly hospitable parts of the world, but Jordan really is in a class by itself.

Here are Connor, Siham and Inas in the U of Jordan faculty dining room trying to eat a bit more of the biggest lunch in the world that Inas treated us to.  I am going to need to limit my time there next year or I may come back to SMC as the biggest person in the world.

Our amazing friend Khaled took us to yet another fabulous dinner right before our trip was coming to an end.

So much left undone  Siham, Connor and I all agreed that last summer's trip to Jordan was a major highlight of our lives so far.  There was so much there that we loved, from the big (like Petra) to the everyday (like hanging out at Books Cafe watching the night descend upon the hills of Amman).  But there was so much that we couldn't get to in two weeks: the desert of Wadi Rum, the mosaics of Madaba, snorkeling in the Red Sea, the Roman ruins of Jerash, or seeing any museums at all, actually. And then there is so much travelling to the fabulous surrounding countries to be done (We did pop over to Jerusalem and I got in a viewing of Cairo, but Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, the entire Gulf Peninsula, and more of Israel and the Palestinian Territories as well as Egypt, are just begging to be explored.)

Here are Siham and I taking a breather from playing tourist in Jerusalem.

It's easy to see why Siham, Connor and I became semi-permanent fixtures at Books cafe in Amman.  The open air, the fabulous view, the friendly people (and Green Mountain Coffee to boot) -- what more could you want?

Petra Wrote a whole bunch about this last year too, since it was only probably the most unexpected adventure of my life.  But even if Ibrahim and Khaled aren't on hand the next time I return to show me and whoever I'm with a bit about life among the Bedouins, Petra will still probably be the most breathtakingly visual experience I've ever had. Can't wait to see it again, and to share it with people who come over to visit me.
Look at how tiny Connor and Siham look.  Everything about Petra is truly amazing.

There's lot more to do with this semester, and with some ongoing projects, especially the MDG book, before it will be time to focus on the Fulbright.  And besides, there's lots of details I still don't know.  I'm pretty sure I'll be teaching from September to June, and that I'll be teaching both graduate and undergraduate students in the American Studies program there. I'm headed to Washington DC in June for a few days of orientation with other Fulbrighters going to Middle East, and should learn lots more details then  So now it's back to work, and trying not to think too far in the future about the what life will be like in Amman.  But one thing I know for sure is that it will be an amazing adventure, and I hope many of the people in my life will want to come share a bit of it with me.