(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 mou, paidaki 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 mou. Roxanaki 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.