Miami Gateway Orientation (August 21 – 25, 2017)

Here I was on a flight from Moscow to Paris. It seemed ironic as I thought travelling to the USA was what I needed to do to let go of my romantic tendencies, but I was about to start my journey there via what is generally known as the world’s most romantic city. I knew that night at the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow that my final hours in my home land were running out. For a moment it felt as if I was actually on a trip to Paris, to where I think my favourite part of the world is. But I hadn’t really been to the others so was that too early to profess never-ending love…? That’s the thing about first love that you think nothing in this world (or no other part of the world) is capable of extinguishing it. Is it indeed? I was granted this beautiful opportunity to test my feelings and myself while experiencing a whole range of them.

Who was that person waiting to board her flight for Paris? That was someone thinking back to all those months and months of anticipating, waiting to hear the news and getting increasingly worried about what she would do if it came and what if it didn’t come at all? I’d spent so many breaks at work looking at another classroom at the university where I had been teaching English for almost five years thinking whether I would be there that same time next year and see all those same faces? I needed a break, I did know that but was I ready to handle that change of scene the way I wanted to? How would I tell everyone if I got it? Did I really know I needed that break for that matter?

It felt so nice that night in Moscow to think back to those times of uncertainty just to realize I was only thinking back and I was taking my break, no doubt about that any more! Sometimes it takes someone else (the Fulbright people in my case) to let you know you deserve a break. They obviously knew better than me at that point and what I had to do was just to believe that I was good enough for what was to come and let go of my self-deprecating (if not romantic) tendencies for sure. I could only hope and do my best to get my professional, social and personal makeover underway and control and embrace those changes in me.

I had read quite a lot on what a Fulbright experience constituted for different individuals. What I decided and thought a sensible thing to do was to make it more not just about places that I was looking forward to visiting to nurture my love for travelling but about all those individuals they had no idea would come my way and neither did I know I would meet. The problem was how to store my memories and keep them alive and running? That’s what I knew I would do while taking care of my other love, which is writing, not just about me but people that contribute in various ways to how I feel and see me as part of sharing this huge universe with all of them.

A few hours I got to spend at the Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle airport, which included sipping on a cup of a revitalizing beautiful French coffee, got me dreaming of people and places that were just a long transatlantic flight away. Paris-Miami! Would I ever have thought I would be on such a fancy flight at all?! Paris, I knew I would miss you even if realistically my French isn’t good enough yet for me to take you in. A multitude of beautiful faces, the way you sound… After hearing a combination of mostly English, French and Spanish, I was ready to start my journey swept away by more handsomeness on board. Through the course of my flight besides drifting in and out of sleep and enjoying the beautiful food and drinks generously served by Air France, I took time to browse through some videos and marvel at the beauty of marketing and how a single piece of an advertisement or music video could transport you to your image of France. But I am going to the USA of course and who knows what kind of new images and colors this land is going to create in my head…

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A bit more than nine hours later, I caught the first glimpse of the USA. Yes, it was astoundingly regular – green fields, blue skies! Before taking off in Paris, I got a message (thank goodness for the Internet!) from a fellow Russian Fulbrighter who happened to be accepted at the same university as me saying that her flight would be arriving at about the same time as mine so we would be able to share a taxi ride to our hotel in Miami together. It was thanks to the Gateway Orientation that we got in touch in the first place. Technically we must have met during the reception in Moscow in late June, but we probably wouldn’t have talked at all. Initially one might be skeptical about spending time with someone from your country while abroad as first of all, both of you might end up in a linguistic bubble that would leave you with a zero chance to practise English. But as we are both linguists, we laughed off this possible danger some time before finally meeting in Miami and knew we would have to be extra cautious not to let anything of the kind happen to either of us. Being able to find each other at Miami International Airport quite quickly after our arrivals and sharing a taxi ride through what to me seemed more like Spain that I had visited a few months before made for a nice transition from Russia to Paris and finally onto Miami. We have to give ourselves a breather when it comes to facing enigmatic abysses of new cultures and thus it is comforting and reassuring to have someone coming from your сulture taking this plunge into a new one with you and having pretty much the same things to admire (beautiful weather in Miami) and complain about (the Russian mobile providers that wouldn’t operate well here).

We arrived quickly in Downtown Miami and found the smiley and friendly Helen, one of the organizers, at the hotel lobby. That was another beautiful moment of actually getting to meet in person someone you’d been talking with online for a while in the run up to the event. It felt as if we’d known each other for quite long. We both got cookies from Helen as a welcoming gift that said “Glad that you have arrived”. It is so amazing how these little things make life taste and feel so much sweeter. I was astonished at how much thought must have gone into planning the gateway orientation as contrary to what I had expected, Anastasia and me coming from the same country and going to the same university weren’t going to share a room as according to Helen, that was part of the plan to put people from different countries together in a room. Yes, we would have simply ended up speaking Russian and living Russian, that’s fair enough. I went up to my room to go back down for the welcoming dinner a bit later. I was wondering if my roommate was already in there. Who would that be? I found the room empty and resisted the temptation to crush on the armchair as it had been a long flight. Jetlag wasn’t surprisingly an issue at all. My part of Russia was seven hours ahead and I had actually got those seven hours of my life back having arrived here. Palm trees lining the street and a remote view of the bay – that still seemed to remind me of Spain. After a much-needed shower, I went down to the lobby to find Helen seated with a few other Fulbrighters. I smiled to myself at the prospect of being able to meet these people during my first hours here in the USA. There were three girls from India and one from Costa Rica. I was worried I might have difficulty remembering the Indian names and was mentally sorry about that. These first probably originally clumsy conversations are always to be remembered particularly well. I could well relate to Lalitha, Krittika and Geetanjali struggling to explain what spices are used to cook popular Indian dishes as I was experiencing the same speaking about how to prepare one of Russia’s most popular dishes, i.e. borsch. Sharing is caring and it is so beautiful to share a piece of our culture and what used to be your everyday life back home to become something extraordinary for someone who had been a stranger before. I felt a shot of national pride showing the girls some pictures of our national costumes as they were going to wear theirs for the culture showcase event. Those next few days would involve a lot of generous sharing! I felt sorry for Karla who was ill. She had travelled the shortest way to get here from her warm country where she hadn’t heard about all those winter clothes we have to wear to keep warm in Russia. The rest of us were astounded looking back at how long we had actually travelled to be here having this conversation eating our first American food surrounded by the catering staff all speaking Spanish. I was all ears ready to take in whatever linguistic miracles were about to unravel. We even got to talk about Indian weddings and found that Krittika had just got married and how she and her husband had to compromise to accommodate the customs and traditions of their diverse regions of India. It is incredible to think of all the people these individuals had left behind to come here, all those sacrifices made for a better lives to be enjoyed with those we love… Adriana, a Mexican girl, joined us later. We had had an agreement to meet at the airport and share a ride together but there was no way I could have let her know I was leaving earlier.  We greeted each other in the Latin way and it felt as if we had known each other. Social media has this inscrutable power to create an illusional (or is it really?) sense of being connected with people you have never met.

Having decided to make it an earlier night, we went up to our rooms. It felt amazing to be going to bed knowing there would already be people you would be looking forward to meeting and so many more you were just about to meet. I found my room still empty and that got me even more curious when and most importantly, who I was to share this night in Miami with here in this room. A little while later, I heard someone trying to get in and I opened the door for them anxious to make their acquaintance. That was Julia from Hungary. We didn’t happen to talk on Facebook before the event so we had all those ice-breaking activities to engage in. I love how travelling is a powerful conversation starter. Budapest, goulash, paprika – I was hoping I was providing a transition for Julia who had just arrived as I knew about them already having been to her country just a year before. I had actually finished writing about my trip to Budapest before I left for here.  A combination of travelling and writing are an immense social lubricant. Another chance to get astounded at the routes and times it had taken us to be here… Julia came here to do her research in linguistics as well and talking a bit about Chomsky’s theory was what reassured us we were in the same club! Was that also part of the thoughtful conspiracy to put us together like that…? Showing off each other’s suitcases and how much heavier mine was as I was to be here for twice as long as Julia was part of our hotel fun. It was even more reassuring to learn some of my fears, anxieties and funny stories were part of someone else’s stories as well. I felt I had to introduce Julia to the view of the nighttime downtown Miami in our window. After taking in the view for some more, getting through bedtime routines and trying to get myself to believe I had finally made it here, I went to bed with a smile knowing that it was all going to work out.

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Miami at night. View from the hotel room

A new day waved me a sunny hello as I looked out the window incredulous at having just spent my first night in the USA. It felt so new to start off the day by saying “Good morning!” to my “roomie” and laughing about how funny it was to speak English first thing in the morning. I was grateful to the organizers for providing me with someone to share breakfasts and speak English with. Going down to a hotel lobby to find a fine selection of food is part of a holiday experience  and that was even more than that as there were more people to have conversations with. We were joined by Camila from Dominican Republic and Cristina from Mexico. I could feel this Latin flavor added to our breakfast as we shared our perceptions of each other’s countries and I was ashamed to admit that my view of Latin America was excessively generalized, but of course both girls had their own national identity to prove me wrong. Another thing that made me feel ashamed was to see lots of different fruits on the girls’ plates, which made me want to go get some as well to let my palette take advantage of where I was. Sunshine, fruit, the coast were things that these girls were more accustomed to and that made me think of how all these were so quick to trigger images of holidays in my head. They probably wouldn’t in theirs. It was great to have some fresh fruit on my plate that morning as, to the girls’ astonishment, those weren’t readily available all year round in Russia. The rainbow of colors my stomach had just been treated to matched well with the downtown Miami that felt incredibly humid and tropical as we took a quick walk to the Miami Dade College for our first day of the gateway orientation surrounded by rows of palm trees and air of humidity and excitement feeling our relaxed lungs.

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On the way to Miami Dade College on our first morning in Miami

I knew I would have a sort of a jaw-dropping moment stepping into an American higher education institution for the first time and that was it! Beautiful space with large interactive screens welcoming us all in. We got our bags, posed for some photos (there were a lot more of them to come) and got into a big conference hall for our first sessions.

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With Anastasia and Qian from China

What followed some introduction speeches from the organizers working hard to make us feel welcome on our first full day in their country was one of the most extraordinary things. A lot of people have dreams of travelling the world but to our chagrin, it is not “doable” for all of us. It seemed plausible and possible then as each participant took us to their part of the world and pointed it on the globe and gave us what I argue is the best taste of a land – its language (music to a linguist’s ears) teaching us how to say “Good morning” and “Welcome” in their respective languages. The room was certainly filled with all sorts of music to my ears coming from 32 nations that morning. Some things cost nothing to share but are much more powerful than a lot of material things. During a break I got to meet Pascal from the Netherlands that is known to have a large number of fluent English speakers. I was actually humbled by how confident and good he sounded. I occasionally get those moments when I wished I hadn’t mentioned I was in fact a teacher of English. He’d been to South Africa for a year and I admired his brave and adventurous personality for that and made a mental note to myself to try to finally visit Pascal’s native country and see beyond windmills, canals, waffles, etc. Another person sitting next to Pascal was Dania from Jordan. I have to admit it is the country I hadn’t even had any misconceptions and stereotypes about. I had ticked the first blank space on my globe! During the coffee break it seemed that everyone was eager to make as many international connections as possible and even though we had exchanged a few comforting Russian words with Anastasia, I knew we were both better off letting each other mix with other people. Here were Lalitha, Krittika and Geetanjali again and we had already had a connection going and that was thanks to the previous evening meal. I also had Dea from Kosovo come up to me. Of course her home land was not a blank spot on my globe but rather a controversial one unfortunately. We were really amazed by how similar our accents were! That had to do with our common Slavic roots! Languages have the power to provide a good cement for friendships and connections. We both shared love for Italy and Dea was lucky to have spent a term studying there and enjoying beautiful aspects of la dolce vita. Europe, I already hear the bells telling me I miss you. But I was getting the idea that nowhere else in the world would I have been able to encounter such an extraordinary amount of diversity to inspire me to visit places I’d never been to and long for those I had travelled to.

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Lunch was also full of new interesting encounters and interactions. During the bingo game, I got to meet Pedro from Mexico thanks to the question I had that was “Find someone who has travelled to your country”. I thought I would not be lucky on this. It was fascinating that contrary to what the media back home have us believe, people do love visiting our country despite it not being overly tourist-friendly. Pedro had even been to Kizhi Island in the north of Russia, our open-air museum known for its architecture, where I had never been. We talked to Camila more and I learned that she had actually brought her cat here and would be taking him all the way to NYC that she was deeply in love with. I smiled to myself for having a chance to feel that way too soon. The whole room was full of people talking and enjoying substantial meals – a perfect happiness and joy formula! I also met Ogochukwu from Nigeria, a mother of four. She could read bewilderment about that in my eyes! I could well picture her and a fellow Nigerian Enibokun being in the forefront of a feminist movement. As we were to learn later that day during a group discussion, they were both very assertive and vocal. It wasn’t just their bright-colored clothes that made that hit the spotlight. I couldn’t stop myself analyzing, matching visual and linguistic images of people…

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At lunch
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From left to right: Ogochukwu from Nigeria, Anastasia from Russia, me, Camila from the Dominican Republic, Bent from Afghanistan, Enibokun from Nigeria
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A group photo

Before we were to wrap up our first day with dinner in the famous Nikki Beach Club, we had about an hour to spare. Me, my “roomie” Julia, her fellow Hungarian Patrik and Cecilie from Norway decided to explore the laid-back area of Bayside Marketplace. Cecilie was going to MIT and she seemed so humble about that. We also talked about Surströmming,  a type of “stinky” Baltic fish that according to Cecilie, wasn’t too bad as some travel videos had me believe. How more stereotypes would have to be thrown out of the window through the course of our stay in this country…? We took some scenic photos and joined a crowd of holidaymakers having conversations and munching on their food.

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A bit later we were taken to Nikki Beach on a classic American school bus where I was most delighted to be joined by Apoorva from India. We had talked on Facebook before and I had a feeling I was going to connect with that particular person for that light she was capable of radiating even miles away. I believed this feeling was mutual as we finally met in person and spent the entire ride talking about London where she had studied, Bollywood and the way their films reduce human emotions to primitive. I couldn’t help bringing up Bollywood as another feeling I had was that I was sitting next to a Bollywood A-lister! We were distracted by the beauty of the Miami coastline and impressive rows of luxury accommodation. As diverse as Miami seemed, it certainly appeared as a place fit for living it up. The Nikki Beach Club was so relaxed and people around seemed too busy enjoying themselves to mind a crowd of us turning up.

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At the Nikki Beach Club

The Atlantic Ocean, I knew I would be having this moment of reunion with you as I had laid my eyes on you for the first time just a over month before in Portugal!

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The Atlantic Ocean
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From left to right: Patrik from Hungary, me, Julia from Hungary, Cecilie from Norway, Solongo from Mongolia
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All of us at the beach

! I could go on and on complimenting the Atlantic and it was time for me to get one from Professor Johnson saying that my dress was beautiful while he was walking by. It was so unexpected and nice! I should keep practicing paying compliments after all! Paula from Spain who I had just been telling about my trip to Valencia earlier that year to thought it was sweet as well. Our meal here at the Nikki Beach Club certainly had a Spanish taste to it as more than half of the people at our table were Spanish-speaking. Me and Pedro exchanged some more thoughts about Russian food and made the rest of the people curious as well. At some point the conversation broke completely into Spanish making me aware of how being fluent in English alone wasn’t always enough to make you comfortable. Of course, we all love this solace and comfort our native language creates for us and might forget about strangers to our land of comfort. After it seemed as if we could eat no more, we were joined by John Chin from Miami Dade College to have an enlightening discussion about what we were to expect here in the USA in terms of politics, economics, etc. I would love to take this chance to mention again how friendly and approachable the organizing team was! Later on, I was joined by Michael from Belgium and that was when I couldn’t help starting a little chat about bilingualism. Michael seemed so outgoing and engaged in our conversation and I was amazed to talk about the linguistic landscape of my country as well which didn’t quite seem so diverse as huge as Russia is. It is not just about the size in sociolinguistics after all! We shared our final chat at Nikki Beach and a ride back with the shy but lovely Patrik. It wasn’t his first time in the USA and it was wonderful to hear his reflections on the places he had visited. We both agreed that the views of the lit Miami skyscrapers we saw driving by were breathtaking. Finally, we were ready to call it a night and head back to our hotel rooms. We shared quick impressions of the day with my “roomie” Julia and we also agreed on how special and privileged we were made to feel being here. We decided we would come back to the beach the next day during our free evening. With that in mind, I couldn’t help going to bed with a smile on my face after taking a while to peer at the dancing figures on the nearby building through our window where I’d also seen my first quick downpour here.

Our second morning in Miami started off rather cloudy and I thought I’d rather not start feeling gloomy that the beach might not be on the cards that day. I told Julia about that quick tropical rain I had seen at night and how changeable the weather in this part of the world should be. After eating a nourishing breakfast that I knew had to contain some fruit and greeting a growing number of familiar faces, we headed to the college where we had more lectures about cross-cultural understanding and interpersonal relationships while I couldn’t help checking my phone sending photos of me and my new friends that we had just taken on the way here to my family and waiting for their reactions. During another coffee break there were more opportunities to talk to people I had already met and to watch others interact as well. I was thinking about how grateful we should all be to English as an international language making most of our communication possible. We had lunch at another building this time where we started with another chat with Pedro and his impressions of my country. I even showed him a photo of a monument to Peter the Great in my city as Pedro turned out to be interested in this particular Russian emperor. What followed was a talent showcase with the participation of Dania from Jordan with a fascinating quiz about her home country, Apoorva talking about the history of India’s national costume and Lalitha performing a traditional dance. Straight after that we were to go on a tour of the city and had only a few minutes to get back to the hotel to change or get some stuff. I was in such a rush to do that as I knew I would hate myself for possibly missing out on swimming in the Atlantic that I had forgotten my cell phone on the table. That was only at our hotel room that I realized I had. I ran back hoping I would be able to get hold of it and I saw my roomie and my savior with my phone in her hands! At that moment, I knew there were people to rely on in this part of the world as well! As we had just boarded the bus, it started raining so heavily I wished I hadn’t run back to the hotel to get my swimming suit. Dr. Paul George was a marvelous and a very enthusiastic tour guide telling us more about Miami’s attractions as we were driving by them in the pouring rain. I was becoming increasingly aware of the city’s diversity as I saw displays of luxury that looked a bit menacing against the rain and grey skies and sketchier neighborhoods with run-down cleaner’s, groceries, etc. Our tour guide seemed more knowledgeable about the routes to take than the driver himself. He seemed to be attached and close to every turn, every corner that was given account of with unflagging enthusiasm and assertiveness. We were sharing our thoughts with Cecilie sitting next to me. I was really charmed by Little Havana (La Pequeña Habana) as I discovered passion for Cuba in me while travelling to Valencia earlier this year. Cigars, colorful window shops, Spanish signs everywhere and of course occasional people out in this weather – we could imagine Cuba in all of its dimensions! We do bring a piece of home either consciously or subconsciously wherever we choose or have to go. I thought if it didn’t look like we were going to hit the beach, we could come here after the tour was over. Another gem of Miami surrounded by an alternation of fancy and sketchy streets was Wynwood, a world-famous neighborhood showcasing art on countless murals. That reminded me of the Berlin Wall that I had had a chance to see twice in my life. The tour guide asked if there was anyone willing to go to the beach so the driver could drop them off a bit earlier and Cecilie suggested it could still be a good idea. When we were approaching the hotel and it wouldn’t stop raining, there was no one willing to do that. Well, weather has a way of interfering with plans we are sometimes so busy making. Everyone seemed to want to go to either Little Havana or Wynwood. I knew I would join the first group for sure! Julia, Patrik, Cecilie, Michael, Pascal and me set out to get there. We walked, took the subway, a bus, then another bus. That has been a long way there and we didn’t seem to know how much further we needed to go! But we were having fun about it. Michael threw in some ideas that made me take a new perspective on the research I came here to do. On our final bus ride where I got to witness the ethnic and social diversity of Miami, he seemed to be enjoying the company of two Russians at a time as me and Anastasia sometimes presented contradictory facts about our country making it even more of a “riddle wrapped in a mystery” as Churchill famously called it. There are things about your own country that this overseas experience makes you question and ponder. A bit later on this ride, Pascal joined us and together with Michael they got into an extensive discussion about Europe’s economic prospects and who might be held accountable for what as they were both involved in Economics. I felt I shouldn’t have prompted this discussion that left me feeling a bit ignorant about their home part of the world, the one I was so in love with… All I could do was to applaud their linguistic prowess in English. After we got off the bus, we walked for some more and that was long enough for me and Michael to engage in more profound discussions about what we were pursuing here professionally and personally and talking about my motives for coming here and how doing that wasn’t something the society back home wanted and expected me to do but I didn’t care. Michael agreed I shouldn’t. We were really happy to see that after around two hours we were finally there as Little Havana was welcoming us in on this grey evening. We finally agreed on a place to eat and that was a low-key Cuban restaurant with a very plain interior.

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La Pequeña Habana

Me and Anastasia got into a discussion about what we could order and what we could expect to turn up on our plates and how different that would be from whatever we were used to back home. Michael sitting across the table kept on making jokes. Regina from Brazil was sitting facing me across the table. Food is definitely another thing we all humans share and bond over! It was fascinating to learn that Beef Stroganov was a popular dish in Regina’s home country. I had to struggle explaining about our main national dish borsch again and that had to be really representative of Russia despite disputes of it originating in Ukraine, which is a current burning issue back home. As we were talking with Regina, I had a feeling we should have met earlier during the event and I had no idea why we didn’t. On my left I had Joris from France. He took me back to my Paris-Miami flight. All this handsomeness and charm reminded me why I was so longing for this country that was my favorite back when I was a child. We exchanged some words earlier that day and my humble “Bonjour” was all I felt confident practicing with a native speaker of French. Having been a language teacher doesn’t help in being OK making a disgrace of yourself when it comes to embracing a new language. As our drinks had arrived, I proposed a toast as we always do in Russia. As Joris’s relatives have been to Irkutsk (a remote city in Siberia), he knew from them that toasts are an essential part of Russian parties. I felt a bit sorry imagining French people in the Far-Eastern region of my country. What made Joris instantly unique to me was that he was one of few French people I’d met who spoke decent English. I was able to reminisce about my quick trip to Paris a few years earlier, my sweeping love for Nice and how I thought sometimes I should have been born French (despite my rusty French skills). Joris had studied in Texas so he wasn’t new to this country. Yes, when you are away for a considerable time, you might miss some important things happening in your family and those sad moments that we pray will never happen either with us there or away. There was one moment like that Joris had missed while being far from home and that got into perspective sacrifices we make in pursuit of what we hope would be a brighter future with all of our loved ones around to witness it. On a brighter side, Joris seemed to match a few typical stereotypes of the French – he ate frog legs for festive occasions and had croissants for breakfast every morning. We laughed hard about that as we were working our way through our food. Joris was doing so much better while I found a portion of black rice, seafood and fried bananas too large for any average female to manage. I was making a good progress enjoying house wine, though, which to break at least one stereotype, Joris wasn’t having (he preferred beer to that as most people at our long table). I really have to thank him for making me feel welcome in his country if I happen to decide to embark on a longer trip there (it will be a while before I do as I have the survival French to master at least). It was getting late and it was time we left. That had been a great evening filled with laughter and food. Someone was going to be in charge of walking all of us back to our hotel. It started raining again, but we didn’t mind as everyone was busy talking with someone. Qian from China, Anastasia’s roommate, was amazing to share a talk with. We talked about China and Russia and our corresponding national dishes of course. We were also joined by David from Colombia who we had exchanged glances with before but had never actually talked. He seemed the type of a person who seems more laid-back and relaxed the more you get to know him. We all admired the views of the Miami skyscrapers and I mentioned we now needed nothing more to remind us there would be lots more skyscrapers for our enchanted vision as we are in the USA!

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The hotel was actually only 40 minutes’ walk away! We were really amazed how it could have possibly taken us around two hours to get to Little Havana! We finished off the night with me, my roomie and Cecilie sitting near the hotel pool and reflecting on the day. The next day was going to be our last one here together… Let’s just refrain from thinking about goodbyes for now!

Our last full day in Miami, Florida, started off cloudy again. I was starting thinking of how I would miss speaking to Julia first thing in the morning…  As we went down for breakfast, I saw Kirill, a fellow Russian, who was to join us later that day to share his experience being a Fulbrighter in Atlanta, Georgia. He had been there for a year and had one more to finish his studies. We had talked on Facebook previously and instantly recognized each other in the breakfast venue. There is an air of reassurance about meeting like-minded fellow countrymen abroad. It was starting feeling bizarre speaking Russian now, though. A whirlwind of linguistic transformations was what we had all signed up for getting this scholarship!

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Downtown Miami taken by my “roomie” Julia
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Julia and me

We had a leadership workshop early that morning taught by the amazing Dr. Mercedes Medina that spread happy positive vibes all across the classroom. I used to think being a leader was something I was completely terrible at. But to come to think of it, this is a skill we would have to see ourselves acquire especially when we return to our home lands as people are definitely going to have high expectations of us and our accomplishments. There had already been so much to take away from the things having been talked about in that classroom, things I didn’t use to dare to ponder back at my own classrooms both as a student and as a teacher. At lunch we were joined by the fellow Fulbrighters like Kirill who were to give their presentations straight afterwards. At our table we were joined by Syed Mustafa from the University of Florida we had previously talked on Facebook with. Solongo from Mongolia was sitting next to me and once we made an acquaintance, I thought we should take a photo together as we were getting the feeling it was all coming to an end. I chose to attend the presentation by Kirill and we laughed about how cold the room where it was to take place was! Well, someone must have known there would be two Russians in there who were supposed to be fine with that! Kirill’s section was informative and fun and I could feel our shared way of approaching some things and I loved the fact he was sharing that with the others present. We walked to another building for our final lecture with David. Before the final lecture I met Mercedes from Argentina who came here to study urban construction and that was when I got a feeling I wished we had met earlier again. Some more laughs with my roomie, Adriana and Cecilie during our final group discussion… We had some free time before our farewell dinner at an Argentinean steak place across the road from the hotel was to kick off. I felt a traveler in me disgruntled at the fact I hadn’t got my fridge magnets and postcards yet. I knew that was what I would be doing before I got changed for the evening. Julia felt like relaxing at the hotel room so before I ventured out on my own, we laughed about that thing I felt I would resent myself if I didn’t get done. The street was wet and full of puddles. I didn’t get mind my feet and new shoes I was testing for the night getting drenched. I felt I was here for real as I knew I couldn’t possibly be surrounded by such nice people the whole I would be here. Sometimes it is refreshing to get a moment with the city on your own and compare the feeling it gives you in its urban privacy. I heard so much Spanish being spoken as I was shopping and I smiled at the thought that the top I was to wear for our dinner came from Valencia and somehow had never been worn before.

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Cecilie from Norway, me and Julia
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Me and Krittika from India
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Solongo from Mongolia and me

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We took some more photos at the hotel lobby and had so much fun with posing for what I called “a Hungarian sandwich” as we were striking a pose with Julia and Patrick. Looking back at the whole experience was what we were doing as we were treated to a lot of various food including steaks of course!

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Me and Patrik from Hungary
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Hungarian sandwich!
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Me and Michael from Belgium

More funny stories from Julia and some life reflections with Qian who had left her husband and young son behind to do her research in Translation Studies here. It was reassuring again to hear her say that I should relish and make the most of this time of freedom I had been rewarded with. She was the one telling me it was ok not to want to settle down yet. I wish I had heard more people telling me this back at home. More farewell group photos followed as we started saying our goodbyes to those heading back to the hotel.

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At the final dinner

A group of a few of us decided to head to a bar. We had another chat with Joris on our way back to the hotel and I was surprised to learn that the name of the city I was heading to the next day didn’t really sound as French as I thought! Perceptions of words and emotions we attach to them can be so different depending on the color and flags on our passports. It turned out Joris was the one to lead us back to our hotel from Little Havana. Now he was going to be the one to lead to a place somewhere “around the corner”. It really wasn’t, but as we were having fun, who cared after all? I knew I had to taste a Belgian beer here as Michael was around to give advice. Joris was the one to be entertained and treated to more Russianness the way Michael had been the day before as me and Kirill told him more contradictory fables about Russia. There were things we agreed and laughed about and that might have confused the poor Joris even more. How could Kirill have possibly cooked borsch for four hours? I knew I would hope I would be able to get at least some people from here to come eat my borsch. I am not saying I am a brilliant cook but I think there will come a point when I will feel like cooking the way I did back home and that involved cooking for not just myself and this is what I argue makes the process more fulfilling and rewarding. It was time for me to feel younger and freer as we were to get an Uber to a dance club. I can’t say I feel really comfortable being there as I haven’t been to many at all, but that night in the open sky of Miami I didn’t care and I think everyone else would have agreed I shouldn’t. Who cares about dance moves, it’s all just about being present in the now and hang on to it while it is here… We drove back home through the nighttime Miami without a care in the world with music beats still in our ears. I was leaving early in the morning the next day with Anastasia so it was now time for hugs and goodbyes. We’d only known each other for three days but it seemed we needed them anyway… It got really sad back at the hotel room with the suitcase to pack and carry again… I was thinking about transformations our personalities undergo as we switch languages while Julia was having a conversation with a relative on the phone and I was wondering whether she was the same person speaking her language that I couldn’t understand and thus didn’t have to worry about invading her privacy. I took extra time to watch the lights on the building next to ours burst into beckoning lights that to me symbolized freedom or at least its pursuit that millions of people have come to this part of the world for…

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At the dance club

After our final breakfast in the morning and a wet embrace with Julia who was taking advantage of the early morning swim in the hotel pool, I had to say goodbye to Miami and this sweet “honeymoon phase” of my Fulbright experience. I wished I had had more photos with everyone I have made sure I mentioned here, but that might be another excuse to meet again! We won’t be able to forget each other for long as we are now in each other’s happy memories. We gave each other a taste of what a Fulbright experience is about and it is first of all about building bridges making the world a home comfortable for everyone. Now amidst all the things that we have had or will have coming our way here in the USA we have these three days we had spent together in Miami. Happy moments are so quick and fragile, but our memory that knows we have been lucky to have had them keeps them lasting and strong inside it. Thank you to everyone who have been part of mine. Fulbrighters rule! 🙂