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By Megan Gardner

Our homes shape who we are today. Going abroad is not about renouncing all aspects of home and fully immersing yourself in a completely different culture with no consideration for your own. Going abroad is about learning more about the world and where your home stands in it. It’s also about learning that the world is not that big. Once you start looking, you find thousands of small similarities between your home and wherever you’re visiting. It’s important to find those parallels and use them as support to build the bridges between cultures.

Thanksgiving was celebrated two weeks ago in the US. Every year, family and friends gather together to enjoy a big meal. Everyone wakes up early and spends hours cooking the big feast. Families teach their children how to cook traditional dishes like turkey, mashed potatoes, mac n’ cheese, and of course, pumpkin pie. The day ends with a big dinner where everyone talks about current events, life updates, and what they’re thankful for.

Obviously, but Tunisia does not celebrate Thanksgiving (although SIT did host a great Tunisian Friendsgiving). However, they did celebrate Mawlid (المولد) a few days before Thanksgiving. Mawlid is the celebration of the birth of Mohamed. Every year, family and friends gather together to enjoy a big meal. Everyone wakes up early and spends hours cooking the big feast. Families teach their children how to cook traditional dishes like a3siida (عصيدة). A3siida is similar to a pudding made from pine nuts and it takes hours to prepare. Everyone helps out and decorates their own bowl of a3siida with almonds, walnuts, and candy pearls. The day ends with a big dinner where everyone talks about current events, life updates, and what they’re thankful for.

Clearly, Mawlid and Thanksgiving have very different roots. Nonetheless, the ways that they’re celebrated are not too different from one another. Loved ones come together to cook and to share a meal. Families and friends spend time together and have great conversation. There are many things that connect all people regardless of origin. Love of family, friends, and great meals are just a few.

By Megan Gardner

If there’s anything I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that Murphy’s Law is very real. Everything that could possibly go wrong, will go wrong. However, it teaches lessons that can’t be taught in any other way. You learn quickly that nothing is solved by being passively apathetic. Unexpected challenges will pop up and all you can do is adapt to the new circumstances. It can be difficult to accept a certain turn of events, but it is necessary to overcome particular obstacles. Besides, these road bumps often end up being the most memorable parts of the journey. They make something that was supposed to be mundane become an adventure.

Two weeks ago, my program was returning to Tunisia from an excursion in Italy. The entire journey was only supposed to take an hour. But, it did not go as planned. We were scattered across the airport terminal for hours before learning the flight was cancelled. We sat in plastic blue seats, shared overpriced snacks, and swapped stories for our last grand Italian feast together.

Last semester, my friends and I planned a weekend hiking trip in the north of China. We traveled overnight for hours by bike, metro, taxi, bus, plane, and train to get to the mountains. What we didn’t plan, however, was a hostel. We thought that there was a town full of hostels at the top of the mountain. After hours of late night trains and planes, we hiked for 10 hours up the mountain with all of our bags to find beautiful views, but no town and no hostels. We wandered around tiny villages until we stumbled upon a woman who offered us rooms and a hot dinner. At the time, we were all exhausted and starving and thirsty, but it ended up being the best meal of my life and one of the most memorable experiences in China.

The trips themselves were incredible, but these happy accidents are what made them so memorable. I never would have remembered a canceled flight or basic hostel, but memories of sitting in the airport swapping stories with friends over the cheapest bottle of airport wine and memories of wandering around small Chinese villages will stick with me forever.

So cheers to the missed flights, the late trains, the broken down cars, and the poorly planned plans because they are what make travel worthwhile.

By Megan Gardner

There’s always a moment when a new place starts to feel like home. It happens slowly and it’s often too difficult to notice until it’s done. Eventually, the sight of a coffee shop near your apartment starts to be comforting. The broken sidewalks feel familiar. The chipped paint on the outside of the building is inviting.

However, it’s not only the place that composes the home. The community creates a sense of belonging within that place. The people who surround you make the unfamiliar environment feel welcoming. Inevitably, there are moments when you’re abroad where you’re completely and utterly confused about everything, but it’s the people that help in these moments who become family. It’s moments like fighting off wild monkeys on a mountain peak in Zhangjiajie or bartering with merchants in the middle of the Sahara or being stranded and starving in an Italian airport for hours that help to build these relationships. Retrospectively, these moments are the most cherished.

The first home away from home that I found was in DC, but thanks to the Global Bachelor’s program, I feel like I have dozens of homes scattered across the world. Paris, Shanghai, Palermo, Sidi Bou Saïd, and Tunis are all my homes away from home. Each study abroad group has felt like a family that I can reach out to for help no matter where we are in the whole wide world. Initially, they help you sail confidently into the unknown until you’re able to navigate them yourself. Eventually, those unfamiliar waters become a home.

By Megan Gardner

My family always taught me to respect the sea. We spent nearly every weekend by the water, whether it was fishing or boating or swimming together. They regularly reminded my brothers and I that, while it seems peaceful, it is unforgiving and we don’t truly understand the power that it holds. I’ve always kept the strength of the sea in mind, but it wasn’t until this semester that I ever considered the magnitude of its power, nor the power of the sand.

This semester, I’ve been studying the migration crisis in the Euro-Mediterranean space. Since I arrived, I’ve been studying the Tunisian democratic transition process and the factors behind outward migration. A week ago, I arrived in Italy to study the realities of the system from this side of the sea. I have been attending lectures, visiting migrant welcome centers, meeting local NGOs, and visiting legal clinics. In one of these lectures, a founder of a local NGO spoke about the common migration routes from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southern Europe. We followed the process from beginning to end and spoke about the threats at each step. We were all familiar with the perils of crossing the sea, but not many of us were familiar with the dangers of the sand. He mentioned that almost four times as many people die crossing the Sahara than crossing the sea. These numbers aren’t publicized, because they are unknown. There are no existing NGOs that monitor the Sahara for migrants because of the inherent dangers, both political and natural, in the area. We can only speculate the numbers based on migrant accounts. In a separate conversation I had with my professor, Mounir Khelifa, he warned me “not to underestimate the power of that sand,” while motioning to the Sahara.

In Sicily, the strength of the sea cannot be forgotten. The rocks that act as a barrier from the water are hidden by graffiti from artists reminding the public of the thousands of migrants who have lost their lives in pursuit of a better future. The desert and the sea have the power to take life and the power to provide opportunity. Their decisions are ruthless and dispassionate. My conception of the power behind the sea and the sand has shifted. Not only do they hold a such a raw, primitive power, but they also hold a deeper power. They represent an obstacle on the path to a better future. When I watch the sea or walk through the desert, it’s impossible not to think of both their beauty and their puissance.

By Megan Gardner

Tunisia is and has always been in the crossroads of many great civilizations. Each of these civilizations have helped to shape and form the unique cultures and society of Tunisia today. They simultaneously identify as part of North Africa, part of the Arab world, part of the Mediterranean Basin. Their land has been claimed by the Amazigh, the Romans, the French. Each have left lasting marks on the cultural landscape of the country. Just last week, my group went on an excursion to the south of the country. In just a few days, we saw a Roman amphitheater, rode camels in the Sahara, and stayed in troglodytes that were inhabited by the Amazigh for centuries.

In every country I’ve studied in, there’s been a clear preference for either coffee or tea. When I studied in France, there was a clear preference for coffee. Each street is lined with cafés and terraces where people enjoyed sipping on their coffee while watching the world go by. When I studied in China, the obvious favorite was tea. Instead of cafés, the streets were adorned with tea houses and tea shops where people would spend hundreds of yuan for a few good cups and a great experience. Unless I wanted to spend a significant amount of money, it was nearly impossible to find any coffee that wasn’t instant. In Tunisia, I’ve found that neither tea nor coffee is as blatantly favored. It is just as common to see people sipping mint tea as it is to see people enjoying a strong coffee in each café.

A country’s predilection for either tea or coffee may not be culturally significant. However, in each of these countries I’ve studied in, café culture is an integral part of the larger culture. Cafés are a place where all people gather together and discuss everything from grand concepts to simple chit chat. Everyone partakes, everyone speaks, ideas are exchanged over a hot drink. In Western societies, such as France, this drink tends to be coffee. In Eastern societies such as China, this drink tends to be tea. While the origins of this difference is probably about the agricultural feasibility of each crop, today, when each product is readily available at the market, it represents an interesting cultural divide. A schism where Tunisia finds itself in the middle. Like so much in the Tunisian culture and Tunisian history, its caught in the crossroads. It teaches Arabic and French. It eats croissants and harissa. It’s stuck between the coffee-lovers and the tea-lovers.

By Megan Gardner

Culture is a difficult concept to define. Many scholars disagree on what exactly constitutes a culture. What falls under “culture”? What does not? Who gets to decide what is a culture? Where are borders drawn? Who draws those borders? In Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind,” Harari crafts an alternative definition of culture based in anthropology and history. He states that each society has contradictory belief systems that cannot simultaneously exist, and it is the dissonance and relationship between these ideas that form culture. In his own words, he writes that “if tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, human beings who belong to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be driven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance ... Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.” Essentially, Harari argues that culture is created by the points of contention within it. In many Western democracies, this cognitive dissonance exists between the deeply held fundamental values of equality and individual freedom. Yuval frames these as conflicting values because “equality can only be ensured by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off.” It’s at the crossroads where these two values interact and conflict that culture and politics occur.

If someone were to take a snapshot of Tunisia at this moment in time, particularly the political landscape, two opposing sides would immediately come into view: traditionalism v. modernism. Tunisia honors its past, but simultaneously tries to move itself into the future. Tunisia is at a critical moment in its history where it is trying to build a new government. Since the revolution, there’s been an internal debate about the role that the past should play in state-building efforts. Many believe that the answers to any political question lay in the past and we simply just have to look back to find them. They focus on the glorious days of Carthage and other great empires. They believe that in order to reclaim that glory, the government should be rebuilt in a way thats inspired by the value systems of previous eras where the country was strong. In contrast, there are many who believe that the revolution should have represented a permanent cut from the past. They believe that the country needs to have its eyes fixed on the future and work towards that vision rather than continuously look behind it. The interactions between these two groups and sets of values is shaping the modern state of Tunisia as well as its culture. The revolution was not just a political upheaval, but an opportunity for cultural change.

By Megan Gardner

Before exploring a new country, its natural to have a general understanding or view of the culture and society; however, these preconceptions are often proven wrong. For example, many may continue to associate Tunisia with the oppression its people faced during the past authoritarian regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. While this suppression of freedoms certainly existed prior to the so-called Arab Spring, everyone today enjoys these rights.

The political landscape in Tunisia since its independence from France in 1956 is unfortunately marked with authoritarianism. Habib Bourguiba took immediate control of the country until Zine El Abidine Ben Ali staged a bloodless coup in 1987. Ben Ali led the country in a manner that showed no respect or compassion for those he was supposed to be the ultimate protector of. Any rebellious activity was immediately quelled until Mohamed Bouazizi committed a striking act of self-immolation in protest of the government’s power in December 2010. This event is retroactively cited as the “spark” that lit the fire of the revolution in Tunisia. People all across Tunisia could sympathize with the extraordinary desperation that Bouazizi must have felt to take his own life in such an extreme manner. The Tunisian uprising was the first of the widespread protests throughout the North African and Arab world referred to today as the “Arab Spring.”

The protests continued until the pressure was too high for Ben Ali to stay. He fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011, at that very moment, everybody across the country suddenly stood on an equal platform to speak. All of their stifled whispers under the Ben Ali regime turned to revolutionary shouts for all of the fundamental rights they were previously denied. Civil society rapidly swelled as hundreds of organizations and political parties were formed to protect and advocate for causes that never would have been tolerated under Ben Ali. These organizations brought many issues to light that were previously unknown or blatantly ignored by the old government.

Freedom to express opinion without fear of official retaliation is easily taken for granted in countries where the citizens have always enjoyed that right. In such a post-revolutionary context, many people love to speak up and have their voice heard. One group that is very vocal on the national stage is women. Last week, a local group organized a feminist and LGBTQ rights arts festival in downtown Tunis called Chouftouhounna. This festival brought speakers from across the country and the world to talk about women’s rights. It also showcased art, films, and dances celebrating the cause. There is certainly still progress to be made, but this festival, hosted in the middle of the old médina, shows that any remaining embers of oppression will be quickly extinguished.