Just shy of a month’s time into my experience in Egypt, I found myself standing among the ruins of an ancient lecture hall and amphitheater in the heart of Alexandria. This place once hosted world-renowned philosophers—the ones we typically encounter as two-dimensional figures in history books but tend to forget were once living breathing people.
Living in the midst Alexandria’s urban metropolis, I sometimes forget that this city sits on thousands of years of rich history, embodying the meaning of cosmopolitan since the invention of the word itself.
The woman who showed me this place, a history expert who has spent her whole life in Alexandria, explained that the site was discovered purely by accident by a team of archeologists searching for the tomb of Alexander the Great.
“Here in Alexandria,” she told me, “When we go looking for something, we always find something else."
I can't help think how aptly this phrase describes my own experience here. I came to Alexandria looking for something—an opportunity to deepen my regional experience, to gain insight into international education, to build community.
Instead, my most meaningful experiences are the ones I never could have predicted. An attempt to try out my limited Arabic with the watchmen on my block has led to a daily ritual of 'hellos' and 'how are yous' that make this small street feel infinitely welcoming. A broken washing machine led to the discovery of an incredibly generous neighbor, who has since become a valued mentor and friend. Asking for directions on the tram led to a family essentially adopting me for a night. A chance encounter outside the Alexandria Opera House led to complimentary tickets to that night’s show.
The things I love most about Alexandria are the things I never expected to find. I love the verticality of the city, its narrow streets and long shadows, how its buildings hug the seaside, the way everybody seems to be constantly finding space. I love the way some streets have deep parallel impressions from the era of horse-drawn carriages. I love the Ladas, distinctly Alexandrian black and yellow taxis introduced in the 1960s by the Russians, which have somehow become as permanent a feature of the city as the streets themselves. I love the way the streets come alive at night, with vendors selling fresca, cotton candy, fruit, tea, and beans with lemon. I love the generosity of strangers, and the way the warmth of the people makes this city feel like an offering.
I’ve heard Alexandria described as the “Athens of Africa.” The city's history is often defined with respect to those who influenced it from the outside in, whether it be pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, the French, Italians, Russians, or British. But characterizing the city ‘in relation to’ masks how the city's identity is uniquely rich in its own right. In the midst of various eras and influences, Alexandria has developed its own unique identity, one that cannot be so neatly categorized.
In the span of a month, Alexandria has already taught me so many things. How to accept the generosity of strangers. How to embrace spontaneity and find beauty in unpredictability. How to smile abundantly. How to make the most of a blank slate.
This city has also challenged me. It has challenged me to take on a new role, to meet a steep learning curve, to handle transitions with grace, to accept ambiguity. I still have room to grow, and this experience has more to teach me.
We go looking for things, and find something completely different. Opening to new experiences invites moments to receive deeper insight and understanding. I can’t wait for what the rest of this year has in store.