Greece features, Home Features, In Search of Home(s)
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Call You By Your Name

(With thanks to Andre Aciman, for a variation of the title.) 

“Very healthy, we believe you. A girl, though? Impossible! This family only has boys.”

That was, allegedly, my parents’ reaction upon learning a very healthy baby girl would enter their world. My mother took great pride in that being the last time the label ‘baby’ was attached to me. “You were Roxani from the womb,” she insisted.

This is the story of a name and, inevitably, of the stories we tell ourselves.

Many Greeks name their children after the grandparents, a game that invites the kind of social gymnastics that need a flowchart to explain: Which set of grandparents goes first? Do the living or the dead ones have priority? What about if you have multiple children? Or just one? What about your siblings’ children? What if–gasp–you don’t like your parents’ or in-laws’ names? What if–further gasp–you just want to name your children something other than what their grandparents are called?

Ρωξάνη. For a little baby (fine, a huge, 10-pound baby), my grandmother’s majestic name felt outsized. For a mumbling toddler, Roxani was both impossible to pronounce and write. The hard x, the rare omega in the middle of the word. Ro-cha-mi was the best I could muster, with a hard ch-, like challah. This misfortune was especially critical given that, right around the time I was chubbily mumbling my own name, the most (in)famous celebrity criminal in Greece, known for serially escaping from jail, was named Vangelis Rochamis. “What’s your name, sweetie?,” my mother’s friends would ask, with that tone that betrays setting children up for a performance. “Rochami!!!,” I would shout, and they would all giggle.

In case you are curious, two decades later, I can pronounce my name properly and Vangelis Rochamis was caught, escaped, caught again, escaped again, served a jail sentence, got married, and is now the proud owner of a seaside tavern. And yes, much of what you need to know about Greece is captured in that sentence.


Part of my big fat Greek education involved reiterating year after year the feats of our ancestors– and, like most educational curricula in the world to this day, obscuring those blemished aspects of history from which we could all stand to learn. There was a steady rotation: the Athenians, the Peloponnesians, the Spartans, the Persians and their wars, the Minoans, the Mycenaeans,  the Macedonians. The journeys and conquests of Alexander the Great held a special fascination, particularly because there were two points of connection between me and Alexander the Great (neither of which involves a direct lineage, I hate to disappoint): He married a woman named Roxanne and we lived on 100 Alexander the Great Street growing up. When my history teacher asked us if anyone knew who Roxanne was, I confidently raised my hand and declared that “she was the wife of 100 Alexander the Great Street.”


When I consider my life’s many blessings, my parents’ insistence that I learn fluent English, despite–or perhaps because of–their own linguistic limitations, ranks near the top. I always did like our English as a Second Language class in school and would regularly jump ahead to chapters the teacher hadn’t yet taught: participles, the past imperfect tense, the passive voice. Since our teacher was Greek, my ear had no natural feel for the English language. The closest I came to recognizing its sounds was when my mother and our neighbor Mrs. Iro watched the subtitled The Young and the Restless every day. In the background, I would repeat words I had heard in the thickest accent possible, which mostly consisted of my repeating “alright, alright” as one of the huffier characters did with some regularity, and feeling very sophisticated for it.

In the fifth grade, we were graced with a new English teacher. She was an American woman who had married a Greek and moved to Thessaloniki. When she was making our name tags, she informed me that Roxani in English was Roxanne. Within the blink of an eye, I had gained an extra ‘n.’ When she pronounced my name, it rhymed with pain: Rox-ay-nne.

I was skeptical at first, but she introduced me to Nancy Drew, phrasal verbs (“put off” is different than “put up” and certainly different than “put out” — lifelong knowledge here!), and to Maya Angelou, so I trusted her. My Roxanne alter ego was born.


Had my parents known that Sting (and Moulin Rouge and the musical Chicago) would make Roxanne famous, I like to think they would have reconsidered. Had they known they were setting me up for a lifetime of people bursting out into a song upon meeting me–a song about putting on the red light, no less–I like to think they would have named me after the other grandmother. Alas, my cousin Neni, 54 days older than me, beat me to the name game.

By the time I went to college, Roxani had been left behind. I was fully Roxanne by then, until one day my roommate beckoned: “Rooooox, do you want to watch an episode of something with me?” My father had an aversion to nicknames and never called me anything short of my full name: Roxani. On a good day, I was poulaki moupaidaki mou, or kori mou — my little bird, my little child, my daughter. Diminutives in Greek end in -aki, making any word instantly cuter and tinier, particularly when followed by a possessive mouRoxanaki mou, however, was never uttered.

“Rooooox!”, was a shock, then. “Can I call you Roxy?” was almost always followed by an abrupt “no, that’s a dog name.” I have had a series of other nicknames, from Mpoumpou to Buttons, but my shortened name never did stick.


“Señora Rossan!” I was neither a señora nor, to my knowledge, Rossan, but I felt compelled to turn around. “Fíjese, señora Rossan… Lo que pasa es…” I heard those words a lot in Colombia, filled with hedging, and explanation and the gap between imagination and reality bridged by every sentence that began with “well, the thing is…” The x in my name was not only unattainable for my childhood self but also for some of my Colombian colleagues. Señora Rossan was there to stay. She now rolls off my tongue such that, when ordering coffee in Mexico recently and the waiter asked for my name, my  Rossan produced an incredulous co-traveler, who for a minute did not recognize his travel companion.


When I enrolled in graduate school, things began to change. The registrar insisted that my email address and placard match the spelling of my name on my passport. For the first time since grade school, my name in the classroom was Roxani again. I couldn’t quite correct my professors; Roxani was my name, after all, so I began to lead a bit of a double life. I introduced myself as Roxanne — the only name I had ever called myself in English, and a name most everyone could pronounce. Roxani was reserved for Greece — for childhood, parents, and a different self.

The deeper my roots in the United States became, the more the bureaucracy expanded. Taxes, leases, and immigration documents all demanded a resurgence of the legal name to which I was born, not the English name and spelling I was bequeathed in the fifth grade. When my then partner became acquainted with my homeland, he quickly grew fond of adding an -aki suffix to every Greek word he knew: souvlaki mou, Roxanaki mou.

In the summer of 2014, I found myself on my Greek balcony anew, in the throes of one more round of immigration-related agonizing. I was Roxani for a whole summer, the longest period I have lived by that name as an adult. When I returned to the U.S., it seemed some of the aura of home had stayed with me: “Can I call you Roxani?,” a new colleague asked me, with the kind of warm forthrightness I hadn’t encountered when it came to my foreignness before.

Over the winter holidays, Niki gifted me Richard Romanus’ Act III, a boundlessly charming memoir about his family’s choice to retire on the Greek island of Skiathos. I devoured the book with the awe one experiences when an outsider writes about her country in a way that captures its soul. It is easy to write about Greece’s sun and sea, but thoughtful love for place, the kind that paints a portrait you recognize and nod enthusiastically as you watch it be sketched, is rarer. As I read, I couldn’t help but note that the protagonists’ names were all indisputably Greek: Katerina, Matula, Spiros. This realization made Roxanne feel especially incongruent. Somewhere between the book and my graduate school email address, between my new colleagues and the immigration forms, somewhere between Skiathos, Thessaloniki, Boston and all the journeys in between, I had a yearning to be Roxani in my story again.


  1. Roxani, my name is Ligeia (as in the Greek siren; and as a short story by Edgar A. Poe)

    As a child I was known as Lea, Leia, Ligera, etc. My husband left me on my birthday, the same day and month as Hiroshima was bombed. Shortly after he walked out I chased down a job. Upon getting the job a sassy little Filipino woman smacked me on the ass and said “you have a beautiful name, we call you Ligeia. No more Lea.”

    Lea was my alias, which was to hide me from my natural father. Leia was Star Wars. Ligera was reserved for the lazy who could not manage to HEAR that there was no “R” in the name. I got called Lea-pea by a cruel adult who tried to feed me peanut butter (something I am deathly allergic). Leia was of course all the rage, for a time.

    At 30, I got my first name back.
    At 34, in front of a judge, I asked to have my LEGAL Maiden name returned to me.

    I started a life from there. The name made me feel something different. Something I could not put my finger on.

    Today, I am 49, and at 49 my high school classmates call me Lea, though I’ve not used it in 20 years and they don’t know who Ligeia Tunnicliffe is which allows me to remain somewhat hidden in plain sight.

    I finally, looked at the problem of my name and came to this conclusion: Professionally I was Ligeia, and to VERY few I can be Lia…which makes SENSE if you wanted to nickname me. Lea, does not.

    Your share here, reminded me of how my names had different effects on me. Ultimately, I accept being born on Aug 6, 49 years ago; and I am Ligeia – siren and ghost of a wife revered and lost. There is weight to my name. People ask what it means, and I feel it every time I say it, every time I tell the story, every time I must offer a depreciating joke so as to smooth over the harsh and frightening of a name that is known for death to the mariner, and dead wife driven to posses the new wife her husband took after her departure from life. And born on the day remembered for the first nuclear warfare on an entire city and it’s people.

    There is sorrow to this name, and the date. My life has been pinpoint focused on Justice. The bomb I ever dropped was when I blew the walls of dysfunction and cruelty out of my life and have moved forward no matter how hard.

    You have made an impact on me about your name. I thought I would share that you are so very correct.

  2. I love how well you articulated the truth of our names and identities being interwoven. It’s so powerful. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    • Roxanne says

      Thank you for this lovely and generous comment, Sherryl! I hope your year is off to a wonderful start.

  3. Panagiotis Krystallis says

    “…despite–or perhaps because of–their own linguistic limitations…”. Well, dad actually claimed being fluent in five (!) languages…(his words – not mine).

  4. Artin says

    Your writing is at once very charming, and also remarkable for its economy of words, and the wide variety of emotions it conveys. If you write this way without an editor…you could easily give J.K. Rowling a run for her money.

    Also, by means of of just, sharing information in a very neutral, objective sort of way…: Roxani is a Greekification of the Old Persian Roshanak, deriving from Roshan “brilliant” and the suffix -ak meaning “little X”, with the two together meaning “star.” So you and the Bactrian princess that Alexander married were well-named. 😉

    • Artin, thank you for this lovely, very generous comment — and for the etymological, linguistic lesson! Absolutely loved it!

  5. Is your Greek name, Roxani, a word in and of itself and does it have a meaning? For instance, the male name Gregory (from the Greek Gregorios) I believe means watchful.

    • Thank you for your comment! Actually, in a beautiful coincidence, a fellow commenter on this post answered your question for you… Love this world!

    • Roxanne says

      I miss you too, Madera. And the amount of self-revelation and journeys graduate school inspired, sometimes despite itself, can really not be quite captured… Sending love your way.

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