Austrian Airlines lost my luggage and the first thing I felt was relief. I wasn’t that surprised: My flight to Vienna from the states had been delayed two hours and my connection was tight enough that I had to sprint to my gate for my flight to Jordan. I was just glad to be on the plane, and wasn’t holding out hope for the luggage.
In college, homes and bedrooms don’t last that long. Especially with COVID and remote school, I got used to moving around by the semester, and so to make adjusting easier, I perfected the perfect suitcase. T-shirts from past events, little bowls my sister found, pictures of family and friends, my favorite pillow case. All this stuff, lost to the Viennese void, maybe for some Austrian Air bureaucrat to uncover one day. Maybe it would be nice, I thought, to start from scratch. It would be like the first time I traveled, alone in the world without the protective blanket I’ve built to keep myself comfortable, no matter where.
At the class welcome dinner.
And after the initial relief, I felt some reality. My contacts, my tennis shoes, my plug adapters, shoot. I’m in Jordan. I can barely speak Arabic. I actually want that protective blanket, I really need to find my bag.
I asked a man at the information desk for help. Chatting on the phone, he ushered at another woman making her way through the airport. “Follow her,” he said. I chased her through the maze of people to the Royal Jordanian baggage desk where they informed me that yes, my bag was still in Vienna, and hopefully it would be on the plane tomorrow. Halas, hopefully it would arrive. I headed out of baggage claim to meet the other CET students at the Starbucks nearby.
At the Amman Citadel on our first day off.
As of this summer, I’ve studied Arabic for almost two years over four semesters of school and 300 in-class hours. Even before I started my first class, I wanted to study abroad and learn through total Arabic immersion. When my university eased their COVID travel restrictions this spring, I searched for a program where I could take a full language pledge and learn Arabic both within and outside of the classroom. My professor pointed me towards CET and in reading about student experiences on the blog (this blog!) it seemed like a great fit for me. Access to Jordanian neighbors and language partners was especially appealing, as that kind of conversational, peer learning is hard to get in American college classes. I was accepted into the program right as I got super busy with school, juggling school work, extracurriculars, and my job. Study abroad drifted to the back of my mind until the end of May when I looked up and realized I was about to leave for Jordan.
Arriving at Queen Alia airport, most of what I knew about CET came from my initial research back in early March, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Luckily, it was all planned pretty seamlessly. After a group of us congregated at the airport Starbucks, Ahmed, one of the program directors arrived and put us on buses that took us into the city. My first impression of Amman was its colors. The beige and cream buildings blended into the dusty streets and stood stark against the bright blue sky. I saw a few skyscrapers from the highway but most buildings were about the same height. Hills surrounded us, the city rolling up and down on either side.
There was a little confusion about where to drop us off. The drivers had to stop the two buses once or twice to consult with each other and with Ahmed on the phone. Unsure exactly where we were headed, I looked at each building closely, wondering if it would be my home for the next two months. The boys were dropped off first and we pulled around the corner to our building, set back from a busy four lane street. Mazen, another one of our directors, greeted us at the door, checking our name off a list.
“Meg Buzbee,” he said, scanning his paper. “Apartment 19.” He handed me a key and waved me on my way.
Fruit plate from the store.
I wasn’t the first one to arrive. One of my roommates had flown into Amman the previous night and taken a taxi to the apartment that morning. She greeted me at the door with a “Marhaba” and without any formalities, gave me a tour of the apartment. I felt comfortable right away.
One of my favorite things about the CET apartments is that each one is a little different. They’re not dorm rooms and not all collectively owned, just rented out to us for a few months of the year. Every apartment has the same basic necessities and appliances, but they’re furnished differently and laid out differently, each with their own quirks. Visiting a friend’s apartment for the first time is a fun surprise. Will it be modern or traditional? What kind of coffee mugs will they have and what spices were left behind in their cupboard to use?
My apartment seemed unfamiliar at first. The furnishings are definitely different from what I’m used to in the United States, mostly in style. The living room furniture is light pink and beige, appropriately matching the city’s color scheme. The upholstery is surrounded by gold-painted frames with curved legs and carved embellishments, seemingly modeled after some traditional palace style, but now a little run down. In the bedrooms, there are massive shutters, controlled by an automated switch, that when closed, block essentially all light from the room. The bedspreads are more decorative than functional, sensical given Amman’s heat.
The bathroom took a little getting used to. I share both a bedroom and a bathroom with one of my two roommates. The shower is less of a shower and more of a corner of the room, sunken maybe half an inch to help water drain. In reality, half an inch is not quite deep enough, and after two showers from two groggy 21 year-olds, the entire room was drenched. The next day, we went to Safeway and bought a squeegee mop, an easy solution. Who needs a shower curtain?
The hot water heater also gave us a little trouble. Whenever we want hot water, for a shower or dishes, we flip a switch which manually heats up a tank of water. The second night we messed it up, I’m still not entirely sure how, and all the water in our apartment trickled to a stop. I texted Mazen who sent the building caretaker over to check it out. He putzed around the kitchen and bathroom, flipping switches and fiddling with the faucets. I sat on the couch tapping my toes, hoping we hadn’t permanently messed something up. Eventually, he ushered me over to the water heater switch. In a kind but somewhat exacerbated tone, he gave me a stern lecture in Arabic about the water heater and when and when not to keep the switch turned on. I nodded and nodded, catching about every third word, but understanding the gist. It felt a little comforting to be lectured about appliance-usage by an adult, some things are the same everywhere.
I think that I got lucky with my apartment. Other students’ apartments are a little bigger or a little more modern. But I’ve grown fond of the pink, gold furnishings, and our location is hard to beat. My roommates and I live on the third floor, the top floor of the building. We have a balcony and a big window that both face west. Every night, the sunset floods the apartment with dense yellow light and as it gets dark, we can watch the lights of the city turn on. At night, Amman is much more colorful than cities I’m used to in the United States. Restaurants and buildings display purple, green, red, and orange light in addition to more common yellow and blue ones. My roommates and I frequently sit outside on the balcony after finishing our homework to chat and enjoy the cool desert breeze.
Sunset view from the balcony.
My bag eventually arrived, with a lot of help from Ahmed. He managed communications with the airport and the luggage service, and also dealt with my worried text messages without complaint. The night after our first day of orientation, he called me at 11pm to tell me they would arrive soon with my bag. When I met the man at the front door he checked my ID and my baggage number and pulled my bag out of his van, the whole back seat filled with other suitcases.
“Thank you so so much” I said.
“I heard you were stressed,” he replied. “So I came here first from the airport.”
I felt a little silly for being stressed out when he said that.
It’s funny to think about what his conversations may have been like. Something along the lines of this silly American is stressing too much just like so many other Americans who probably stress out too much about their luggage when it will surely get to them at some point, let’s just get it to her first. A good reminder, from the kind luggage deliverer, to trust a little more in the process. I thanked him again and he hurried off.
Grace and Kelly with some fruit.
The morning before, on our first day of orientation, Ahmed and Mazen had sent all of us off on a scavenger hunt to get to know the neighborhood around the school building. I was nervous to speak Arabic, having never practiced entirely outside of a school setting before. My group started off, in search of bread, coffee, a music store, and lunch. The first place we went was a fruit market, but when the owner heard us mention coffee, he sent someone off to get us some from the place next store. While we waited, he introduced himself and asked us where we were from. In our hesitant, day-one Arabic, we told him about CET, our respective homes, and the language pledge. He saw me struggling to peel an orange, took it from my hands, and quickly sliced it open with a knife.
The coffee came back on a tray, steaming hot, thick and dark, the smell mixing with the orange peel. He handed us a plate of grapes and peaches. “No payment,” he said. “Welcome to Jordan.”