Inside USD

Grassi: Discovering My New Neighborhoods

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This is a personal reflection from Greg Grassi, a 1999 USD alumnus and current associate director for USD’s Office of International Students and Scholars. He and his wife went to Europe for a few weeks this summer where they explored culture in cities new and familiar, sought great food everywhere and shared quality time with international Toreros.

It’s 10 a.m. and my wife and I are walking through the 10th arrondissement in Paris on our way to a “haunted” mansion where we will sleep for the next four nights. We’ve done this before and we quickly weave through this up-and-coming neighborhood, luggage in tow, and passing by numerous African restaurants, French hipster bars and the legendary bakeries that more than live up to the hype.

Our plan was to end our two-week trip to Europe on an extended visit with our good friends in Agugliano, a small town in central Italy that has become our Italian home away from home. But we simply could not resist a stopover in Paris to enjoy the city’s gardens, eat copious amounts of pastry and to check in on our friend and USD international alumnus Adil Houti ‘09.

Houti is the owner and operator of Le Manior De Paris, a converted historical building where actors lead patrons through frightening rooms showcasing the dark legends of Paris. Le Haunted House, if you will.

In my role as associate director for USD’s Office of International Students and Scholars, the best part of my job is the people I meet. Over the course of my almost six years at USD, I’ve had the pleasure of helping our new international students and visiting professors adapt to life in the United States. I always strive to show them a local’s view of San Diego. As a USD alumnus, I consider it a particular honor to help guide our international students and scholars and help them understand our institutional culture and values. It’s one thing to visit a city on vacation, but it is quite another challenge to move off to a far-away place for a semester, a year or the two to four years it takes to complete a degree.

Even San Diego takes some getting used to and cultural differences tend to surface quickly as our internationals settle into their new lives. A $500 deposit to set up a cell phone account? Why do these Americans move away from me when I am talking? Are you sure that I can’t smoke at the beach? Trust me. Culture is powerful even in the age of globalization and it’s my job to explain the unexplainable to an often-perplexed audience.

On a typical day, I might help a new graduate student enroll in health insurance while discussing our current health care debate, help a new exchange student understand the American definition of plagiarism so that he cites sources correctly, or work with a faculty member having difficulty communicating with an international freshman in her class. In return, I meet fascinating individuals from all over the world. Our university currently hosts student and scholars from 75 countries and I get to learn about their nations of origin and how they see us. Naturally, I’m often extended open invitations to visit our international alums and many are eager to show me the “real” Lima, Istanbul, or Tokyo and I’ve managed to visit a handful in the last few years.

But back to Paris. Months before completing his undergraduate degree in International Relations, Adil sat across my desk and told me how he’d experienced an epiphany while visiting the “Haunted Trail” in Balboa Park close to Halloween.

“Nothing like this exists in France,” he said. “And Parisians would love it.”

He hatched a plan and attended haunted conventions in Texas until he hooked up with his eventual mentor and business investor. Two years later, Le Manior opened its doors, terrifying visitors in French and English three nights a week. Adil credits USD for helping him to think creatively and admits the professionalism and dedication he saw in American small business owners inspired him to pursue this entrepreneurial dream. A year ago, my wife and I were making our first trip to Paris and Adil insisted we stay with him. We were impressed with his tireless effort and spirit and he frightened me every chance he could find, training his troupe of 20 actors to sneak up on me.

The best part, however, was seeing Adil’s neighborhood through his eyes: the Lenny Kravitz approved falafel place (L’As Du Fallafel), the best baguette in the 10th (it’s a secret) and a legitimately tasty burger for le brunch just around the corner. Did I mention I like to eat? Of course, we discovered our own gems: a 60’s Bob Dylan-inspired crepe bar (West Country Girl) and a corner park in central Paris hidden in plain sight. By the end of our second visit, Adil’s neighborhood felt like our Parisian neighborhood and we couldn’t wait to go back. My urgent desire to eat baguette from that little bakery near Le Manior reminded me of how our recently departed international students tell me they can’t wait to return to San Diego, dreaming of a Taco Tuesday trip with the roommates in San Buen or a jog along Sunset Cliffs at dusk.

After Paris, we met up with another student and her family for a few days in Germany and we were shown similar hospitality in the not-so-Parisian village of Limburgerhof. Upon arrival, I posted a few photos on Facebook and was instantly hit with messages from six or seven German alumni. “Welcome to Germany, Greg!”“ and “When are you coming to Stuttgart/Berlin/Freiburg?” I liked Germany already. The Kiefer family took us on a magnificent hike through the forests of Rhineland and we walked together in the evening to their tiny, but award-winning, butcher to buy sausages for dinner. It was the Germany of my imagination — the local’s version — and I was invited to take part.

Next we went to Italy for a relaxing week in Agugliano wherein I managed to ingest my yearly average gelato intake in six days, fish for moscoli (mussels in local parlance), dive into the warm Adriatic, and somehow procure a pork shoulder to make American-style pulled pork sandwiches for our Italian friends on my night to cook.

Going back to Europe and connecting with USD while abroad reminded me once again that touring the world alone will not convert me into global citizen. I like to slow down and learn about a culture one neighborhood or village at a time.

— Greg Grassi ‘99

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