For juniors Patrick Lavallee and Adam Rasgon, a semester in Amman, the capital city of Jordan, provided lessons in hookah smoking and international politics alike.
Though they entered their respective programs with different abilities in Arabic, both students found the Jordanian people to be very curious about foreigners and eager to learn more about them.
"You get so much attention, pretty positive attention, just from being an American," Lavallee said. "For girls, that became a problem because they'd be constantly harassed, but I was fine."
Rasgon had similar experiences.
"A lot of Jordanians initiated the relationships, it wasn't even the Americans that did," said Rasgon. "A guy came up to me in the street and started talking to me and we exchanged numbers. Then that guy called me 14 times the next day while I was in class."
That experience was not an anomaly.
"We were constantly bombarded by invitations to have tea and coffee from Arabs on the street," Rasgon recalled. "It was a very sincere gesture; they weren't trying to take anything from you. Hospitality was a hallmark of their culture."
The country is still developing, and both students commented on the economic disparity in Jordan. Rasgon said he "realized he was living in a third world country" as soon as he left the city limits.
"The cities are developed, but when you go out of the city, the homes are just built up," said Rasgon.
Lavallee got a taste of the wealthier life in Amman after living with a well-to-do host family and spending time in the upper echelons of society.
"I was able to build relationships with very rich Jordanians; they lived above the law," Lavallee said. "There was one guy who, every time I saw him, would say 'Let's get wasted!' Then he and his friends would go drunk driving. Their socioeconomic class has the connections to be elite and do whatever they want."
Lavallee said he went out less than at Bowdoin. Some of the other Americans on his program, though, continued to follow the same routines that they would at home.
"There were absurd people that would go out literally every single night and find the party scene, even though that's not normal or very accepted there," said Lavallee. "This is not Paris, this is Amman. You can't have the European experience when you're not in Europe."
Rasgon said he spent many nights relaxing and chatting with friends at the Jordanian equivalent of bars.
"Arab society generally is conservative, so the cool thing to do is to go to a café, where there would be hookah, tea and coffee," said Rasgon.
Even during nights out in the city, Rasgon and Lavallee could never forget that they were living in a volatile area. Amman is only 20 miles away from the Israeli border and 65 percent of the city's population is Palestinian.
"I met one Palestinian student that was living in my building. He had a number of assumptions about me just because I was Jewish and assumed I was a supporter of Israel's occupation," Rasgon said.
Lavallee also took note of political divides in Amman.
"My host mother prided herself on coming from a family that was 100 percent Jordanian," said Lavallee. "Wearing a certain kind of scarf showed if you were Jordanian or Palestinian, and people would get into fights about what kind of scarf they were wearing."
Despite these social tensions, Lavallee emphasized the city's general safety and overall low crime rate. He said his worst experience with crime was getting "ripped off on a purchase because I didn't know how to haggle."
Lavallee and Rasgon had different concerns before departing for their semesters in Amman.
While Rasgon had studied Arabic for two years already and spent the summer living in Israel, his family still had major safety concerns.
"They thought a young Jewish boy going to the Middle East was going to end up in a sad situation," explained Rasgon.
Lavallee, a government and legal studies major with an international relations concentration, was more worried about the language barrier. While initially interested in Spanish language programs in South America, a number of classes with former Assistant Professor of Government Shelley Deane sparked his curiosity about the Middle East.
"I really liked the idea of studying in the Middle East and thought 'hmm, maybe I could take a stab at it,'" Lavallee said.
He attended the CIEE Amman program with 125 other American students.
Rasgon, initially applied to the Middlebury in Egypt program to get a firsthand taste of democracy in action.
His interest in the Middle East dates back to high school, when he attended a conflict resolution summer camp, Seeds of Peace, which brings together students from countries of conflict. At the camp, he formed lasting relationships with peers on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"The next year I visited my friends I made at the camp in Israeli and Palestinian territories," Rasgon said. "I knew that when I came to Bowdoin, I wanted to continue studies in Middle Eastern politics."
Rasgon's study abroad plans were almost derailed when the Middlebury in Egypt program was cancelled due to the country's political turmoil. He was given the option of deferring his acceptance to the Egypt program to another semester, withdrawing from the program entirely, or spending the semester in Amman, where Middlebury had started a new program.
The program's language requirement appealed to Rasgon.
"Everyone there was expected to have had two years of Arabic language study," Rasgon explained. "People were at all different levels—some students were very conversational, others really struggled. I would say I was average."
Lavallee's program had no language requirement, but the focus was on Arabic.
While his major objective was "to get a sense of what kind of people were living there and to try and understand the Middle East a little better," he said that he really enjoyed learning Arabic.
"I completely fell in love with Arabic," said Lavallee. "I'm glad I took that risk."
His limited knowledge of the country's language did not hinder Lavallee's interactions with Jordanians, he said.
"A lot of people there speak English and really love Americans and America," Lavallee said. "I met a lot of kids on the campus of the university who learned English watching 'The Breakfast Club' or entertainment wrestling."
By the end of his time abroad, though, Lavallee said he felt his Arabic language skills had improved dramatically. Rasgon, on the other hand, was actually slightly disappointed by his language ability upon his departure.
"I had this fairy-tale idea of how my Arabic would improve," Rasgon said. "I think I improved a lot, but if I had the opportunity to spend more time with Arabs on a regular basis, I would have improved even more."
When he was able to spend time with Arabs, Rasgon succeeded in his other goal of discussing issues of conflict.
"I got to learn so much about how the Jordanians and Palestinians feel about the Arab-Israeli conflict," said Rasgon. "It wasn't my job to tell them how I feel or how I think. That was a very special experience for me."