All posts filed under: In Search of Home(s)

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Estranged tongues

Naming ghosts of patriarchy and misogyny was a feminist project to which I have committed my life with little hesitation or regard for propriety (ever the fear raised to caution people away from uttering powerful words). Except, somewhere along the way, I became more comfortable exporting this project to other domains rather than finding the words for it in my homeland. The same can be said for tolerating all other manners of abuse–racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia–for which the words felt foreign or the battles felt like they were someone else’s to fight. Is that not a form of complicity in oppression, disguised under the banner of foreignness?

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Desynchronosis

My dear friend Erin, with some help from Alexander Pope, likes to remind me that “hope springs eternal.” With all the love for Erin and poetry alike, I struggle to believe in eternally springing hope this week. One of the disorienting aspects of watching the crisis in Greece unfold from afar as an immigrant involves reckoning with joy. On Saturday night, on the eve of the referendum on austerity measures in Greece (or, depending on whom you ask, on the future of the Euro and our lives as we know them), I found myself sitting next to a two-year-old. Every four minutes, like clockwork, he would exclaim “Fireworks! … Fireworks!” Fireworks, indeed. Eight different displays of them, in fact, all visible from the same porch. We were splayed against lawn furniture, the type that defined the image of New England for me before I could identify the region on a map. Since I ever watched those Steve Martin Father of the Bride movies with Greek subtitles in the early 1990s, I have wanted an Adirondack chair, even before I knew its …

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In search of human dignity in Greece

I remember when people would gather to watch the war. This usually consisted of sitting on a hilltop and watching the bombs fall not even two miles away. Hearing the sonic boom, seeing the smoke rise, then quiet. In other situations, a crowd would gather to watch a lynching or another paradigmatic punishment for a perceived war-related crime. I would find myself in these situations as a humanitarian practitioner in conflict-affected areas, and I remember being puzzled by the callousness of watching the war as though it were a film, as though it were the fictional story of someone else’s life, as opposed to a reality unfolding so close you could touch it.  There is ample research on the psychology of crowds in war, and much as I read it, I cannot get over the paralysis of watching suffering, when the act of observation is not one of documentation, assistance, or advocacy, but merely of voyeurism. Earlier today, Athens-based photographer Mehran Kahlili tweeted that “ATM shots are the new crisis porn.” All around Greece, my …

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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 …

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In your country’s shoes

“I have a question for you… Why do all the Greek girls here wear those shoes that could kill cockroaches?” I was 17, and part of the Greek National Debate Team contingent that competed in the World Schools Debating Championships. I am not sure which is more astounding: that I ever recovered from that level of … coolness, or that to this date, I look back on that experience with the kind of sincere, boundless gratitude that faux teenage coolness could never inspire. Our team had just managed an upset victory in a debate against Scotland, a country which had for years produced debate powerhouses (Yes, “debate powerhouses.” Ceaseless coolness, I tell you.) When it dawned on us that our team full of vividly gesturing English-as-a-Second-Language debaters just might beat the polished Scots, I remember thinking back to all those subtitled movies about underdogs that Greek TV loved to broadcast on Sunday afternoons: the Jamaican bobsledding team that wins in the Winter Olympics, Herbie the Beetle that beats the much cooler cars. As it turns out, …

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When the syrup makes a sound

I am standing over a pot on the stove, stirring the syrup. Are you supposed to stir syrup? Or are you supposed to let it sit and boil undisturbed? Does it even matter? Cooking inspires an uncharacteristic resignation in me. I succumb to the bubbling honey. It will either congeal, or it will not, and I can live with the worst outcome. I shrug, stare at the mix, and keep stirring noncommittally. “How much is 180 degrees Celsius in Fahrenheit?,” I call out to Elijah in another room. “You’ve lived here all these years! Come on!,” he sighs exasperated. “You can’t at least look it up?” I have stubbornly resisted translating some pieces of my immigrant life to the language of its new home. I think in meters and kilometers, rendering my instructions for parking useless and my sense of distance impractical. I measure heat in Celsius — but cold in Fahrenheit, because it was only here in Boston that I learned this kind of cold. These dilemmas are all arising in the context of my determination …

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Migratory silences

September 1, 2014, Acadia National Park “I feel like we have done this before.” We are at a campsite at the very edge of the woods near Acadia National Park on what feels like the last weekend of summer. He loves it, the privacy, the vastness. I wish I had googled “bears at Acadia National Park?!” before I lost reception. We are wearing all the clothes we brought on top of themselves, sweater above sweater, shorts above jeans above leggings. He makes a comment about how “tight European pants” are no good for layering when it’s 38 degrees at night on what should have been the last weekend of summer, but we both know he hates those pants in the city too — at all seasons. He is making me my first ever s’more. I am watching for bears.We both forget I didn’t grow up here sometimes. He insists I must have eaten a s’more before. We are now at the deep end of splitting hairs: “a marshmallow yes; a s’more per se? No!” “What about at …

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Our honest places

It is the smell that catches you first. You open the front door gently, a skill you learned when you were 15 and tried to glide into your house without anyone noticing you are wearing blush. You didn’t know then that mothers can detect makeup on their daughters with infrared vision, even if the teen magazines swear that it’s a “natural neutral look.” But you did know just how to turn the key so the door doesn’t squeak and which tiles to step on so you do not wake up the whole house. This is how you still enter your childhood home, even though your cheeks can shimmer without inspection.It is always the smell. It does not emanate from the people. It is steeped in the place. You have left and returned here before, but you always somehow forget about the smell. It escorts you from room to room. You feel larger than life and play Alice in Wonderland with the objects of your childhood. Were the shelves always quite so low? Were the curtains …

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Hereditary travel neuroses of a Greek childhood

Things I learned in Greece: Never rush your coffee, summer is everything, always chase the dust. This is my last morning in the United States for some time and I have spent it shaking my head at dust. Let me explain. Ever since I was a child, I could never sleep the night before a big journey. “A big journey” then meant a car ride from Thessaloniki to Larissa, 2 hours away, where my father’s family lived. I prepared for those trips for days, lining up all my stuffed animals, deciding which of them get to go on this trip, making packing lists (for them, not me, because the beauty of being six years old was that I could live in a single pair of shorts all summer), writing up itineraries (again for them because, um…), and packing car snacks. In the summer, my aunt Mina would move from her home in scorching hot Larissa to the seaside town of Platamonas. At least two weeks before my family descended on Platamonas to join aunt Mina, …

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Untranslatable words, saudade, and linguistic nostalgia

Every so often an article catalogues untranslatable words from around the world. For example, as this Matador Network piece tells me, mamihlapinatapei means “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start” in Yagan, an indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego. According to the same article, the word ‘tartle’ in Scottish refers to “the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you have forgotten their name.” And then there is my personal favorite: saudade. Not quite nostalgia, not quite longing or yearning, not a blend of both. There is more to saudade — and perhaps its magical grip lies in that untranslatable space the other words do not quite capture. In my column today at The Equals Project, I explore untranslatable words, linguistic nostalgia, and what happens when you feel your mother tongue slipping away from you. Wander over here to read it.