Essay - Becca Novak

Becca Novak is in her first year at Tufts University. This talented member of Arete 2005 is finishing up Intro to Acting, Arabic 1, Intro to Religion, and The Belle Epoque (french history just before 1900)at this time. Her next semester will include Arabic 2, Economics, Intro to Ethics, Creative Writing, and Intro to International Relations. Becca has always been a favorite of her friends. Happiness is Becca. In sport she was one of three who led the girls' cross country team to a co-pennant in 2003, is well up on the Drake "all time" flat road list and is also on the county course "all time" rankings. She writes, "Arete is probably the reason that I'm at Tufts. It enhanced my international awareness, made me want to push my boundaries. It's a starting point that I'm sure I'll work off for the rest of my life".

Bill Taylor

Once again, I am in an airport. I am sitting in one of those uncomfortable chairs that sometimes plays bed to tired travelers and I am scrawling in a small notebook. It feels like Arête all over again! It’s five forty-five am on November twenty-second and I am sitting before Gate 10C at the Logan International Airport in Boston, MA. It is the morning of my eighteenth birthday. I haven’t slept, my hair isn’t washed, and my belongings for this Thanksgiving weekend are pushed beneath my chair. I’ve got everything I need and several things I don’t, but this trip I don’t need to be economical about space. I am flying to my parents’ new, temporary home in Maryland after my first four months in college. It’s my first time leaving school for any significant period of time and I am as wrong-footed as I was while we waited for our departure from SFO a year and a half ago. There are significant differences however- I am a year and a half older, I am much more familiar with airports, and I am on my own.

Boston’s airport is vastly different from the targeted Rafik Hariri International airport in Beirut. I have never been more apprehensive upon an arrival; we had reached the culmination of months of study and anticipation and we were entering a land about as unfamiliar as one could be. What was a group of seven upper-middle class kids from Marin Country doing in the Middle East? How did we end up so far from home? I was very nervous for the first few days. I was self-conscious of my clothing and embarrassed to speak to locals. I didn’t want people to know I was an American, to realize that I came from a country I saw as too powerful and overrun with irresponsibility. I was fascinated and embarrassed and anxious – all the reading and research in the world couldn’t have prepared me for that feeling of being utterly foreign. However our first few days relieved my apprehensions; we were welcomed warmly and without reservations.

In a week, I fell in love with Lebanon and the Lebanese. There were many people who charmed me: the friendly shop owners of the convenience store where we bought water and sweets in the mornings - a group of jovial men joking and smoking as they taught us the words for “beautiful” and “I am happy”, a man, hurtling past on his motorcycle amid the frenetic insanity of Beirut traffic shouting simply, “Hello my friends! Welcome to my country!”, the very young boy in Sidon’s marketplace who spoke no English but had a strange affinity for Mr. Taylor, the open-faced soldier we passed while walking to dinner, who upon our “Marhaban!” laughed, “How do you all know how to say hello! I hear, marhaban, marhaban!”

In no other country were we as well received as we were in Lebanon. In June of 2005, being in a land both ancient and modernly vibrant was a vacation. I was in situations I had never before encountered and every day challenged my preconceptions, but it was easy to be there. The beauty of the country and the kindness of her people made it so. My memories from Lebanon are some of my favorite from the trip.

However, not every memory is as easy as those. The scars of the civil war were evident in the bullet holes scoring the walls of every building. A series of bombings in the months previous to our trip had left more recent marks - the crater where Rafik Hariri had been assassinated was just around the corner from our hotel. It had been months but the street remained un-repaired because of the ongoing investigation; half of the St. George Hotel sagged over a gaping wound in the concrete and damaged cars lined both sides of the street. We ran past the site on our morning runs along the corniche - a deeply unsettling contrast with the fun we found along the waterfront. It seemed to me an aberration, a blemish on the face of an enthralling country that had a troubled history but was moving beyond it. It forced me to realize the strength of a people who could live among such horror and continue to live.

Our stay was short and for the most part lighthearted – while adventurous, it was an easy first week. Because of this it is that much more difficult to connect my memories of “our” days with the photos I hunted down feverishly on the internet all of this past summer – photos of destroyed streets, toppled buildings, the injured, the dead, and craters upon craters upon craters.

Is Arête about confronting the terrible? About recognizing the awful potential of humanity that resides within others and within ourselves and asking, what can we do?

This past summer I spent working in the Fairfax movie theatre scooping popcorn and handing out over-priced ice creams. I read newspapers between tearing tickets and boxing up my childhood home. How could there be such an incredible dichotomy between my world of summer jobs and packing for college and the other world of war and destruction and fear? It is so easy to disconnect, so easy to separate ourselves and draw distinct lines between countries and religions and cultures. However, Arête is all about connections – the connections that bind together the different continents and cultures into one indivisible world.

My Arête trip showed me that I know too little. It offered up the bounties of knowledge and history and the beauty of the world and asked me to take hold. I bounced around the globe on plane and ship and train and came home almost forgetting that I’d ever lived anywhere but the cramped back seat of the van. I was placed in foreign situations and forced to confront realities more terrible than any I had previously been exposed to.

I wish I could state simply what it is that Arête has given me -at the very least, such a statement could make explaining the trip a whole lot easier! Then, those six weeks were the longest I had ever spent away from home. Now, I’ve been gone for just over 4 months and I am learning by being on my own. I am striving to become someone worthy of the honorific term that has come to mean so much to me; I am learning and traveling and experiencing with the hope of someday achieving Arête.

Becca Novak
December 2006