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

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. 

Don’t unpack the coffee-maker yet.

What is it that grounds us in a new home? Is it our feet on the ground, physically through the new doorway, keys in hand? Is it the first story that we tell about it? The first memory we make?These are the questions I seek to answer in my column today over at The Equals Project, ominously titled “Don’t unpack the coffee-maker yet.” It chronicles the process of making a new space a home, complete with getting locked out on my and Elijah’s first night of living here. *** Home begins with light, with a story and a memory. More here.

In fear of spring

In late July, as I was photographing a friend’s hands clasping pebbles from a Greek beach, I pronounced myself a “summer person.” I did so with the awareness that being Greek and being a “summer person” was, practically, a tautology, but I declared myself one with certainty regardless: “Definitely a summer person,” I said, and I was off to the water once again. By late October, as I was pointing my camera up at a red tree whose leaves reminded me of everything I missed about New England autumn, I had changed my mind. “I’m a fall girl, I declared.” Not even for the sake of a writerly analogy can I pretend that by mid-February, as I was trudging through the post-snow slush, I was a full convert to Boston winter. And still, something about the sound of synchronized snow shoveling interrupting the piercing quiet after a heavy snowstorm that resonates with me. Elijah caught on to how fickle I was with my attachment to seasons and remarked, “You are, apparently, an all-seasons girl. I …

The homes that inspire nostalgia

This essay appeared first as my Eternally Nostalgic column on the Equals Record this week.   We first met when I was on the cusp of nomadism and she was on her return voyage.I was about to embark on my first true field work in conflict management. I did not know it then, but that year would hold memories of Egypt, Uganda, Colombia, and Guatemala. Her journey stretched from Liberia to Indonesia and Boston to the Hague. We both swam in the pool of conflict management professionals, spoke with our hands, loved every baked good we met, and shared a passion for wander and wonder. In many ways, she inspired my own path with her courage, whimsy, curiosity, and attachment to service and to making impact. Meeting her kindled my faith in humanity—and sparked my consequent overuse of the term.We are now sitting at her dining table in Washington, DC, five years later. She and her loved one built the bench atop which I am perched, and everything else in the house too. Even if …

Anchoring love in memories

When I was growing up, my mother insisted that “respect cannot be forced; it must, instead, be inspired.” She may as well have been speaking about love. My notion of love is grounded in place, anchored in memories of the self I was when the heart fluttered readily and of the life that made it come aflutter. I remember what I was wearing, I remember the documents I was editing when I was g-chatting inconspicuously in another tab. The slight nausea in anticipation of the moment when the distance would end, and he would parade through the airport doors. The need to remember how to be with one another again, in proximity and in the flesh, not protected by laptop screens thousands of miles apart. I remember what loving in Egypt felt like: dusty, furtive, tasting of ‘shai’ and ‘asir faroula’ and ‘sheesha toufach’, with the strong Arabic ‘ch’ at the end that I could never quite muster. It felt clumsy and young and shy and full of wondering and wandering. It was the love …

Thoughts from the girl who goes: On place, planes, permanence

If there were assigned roles to airport farewells, I would lay claim to the part of the girl who is tearing up on the walkway to the gate. I have been that girl time and time again, wearing every article of clothing that did not fit in checked baggage and carrying on my shoulders every book and memory with which I could not part. Despite the moving walkway sweat and sniffles, and much like a high school student auditioning for a play, I have thought that the parts in the drama of airport farewells are unequal: It has always been easier to be the girl who goes, than the person who is left behind. “I am sick of watching your backside fade into the distance,” I was once told. I have been privileged to always leave one home in search of another, one project in anticipation of the next, to depart from one community with the knowledge that I am en route to the next one that will host me. And every time, the person …

Reflections on an experiment: One photo a day

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) vulnerability, mortality, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” — Susan Sontag“ Darling, do we have to sleep with Susan every night?,” he asked, pulling Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks from underneath his back. “She pokes me!” Well, she pokes me too. We seem to seek the jarring comfort of particular writers’ words at different epochs and this is the Susan era. Actually, it is always the Susan era, the Joan days, the Mary mornings. Even though I am currently absorbed in Sontag’s diaries, only to realize she was a more complex, eloquent 16-year-old than I could have ever aspired to be, I was first acquainted with her during a course on authoritarian cinema as an undergraduate. I do not remember the text, I cannot provide you with a reference, but I remember what the page that contained the excerpt I am recalling looked like. Her passage spoke …

Surprise grief

He loved balconies. Before glaucoma struck, he would solve equations on napkins in his favorite chair overlooking the city. Outdoor lunches still taste like factoredquadratics to me. One can, apparently, inherit a love of patios. My International Baccalaureate exams smelled like sunscreen and sounded like pinecones crackling in the heat. So did the SATs and the GREs and every subsequent acronym tied to rites of passage. I associate balconies and porches and patios with squinting and deep learning, with note-taking and striving, and with grief for a fatherly presence that is long gone. It is hardly surprising, then, that when an Uncommon email landed in my inbox from Lisa, extolling the “magical, unexplainable power of the front porch,” it felt like the universe winking at me — and with it, all my past selves, all the grief pulling me in. There is no badge of honor to mastering grief, nor is there a committee of admissions that will verify that everything you learned on porches and patios about it suffices to welcome you into the …

Fall fragments

By Friday morning, I can only think in fragments. My brain has expended its analytical and synthesizing capacities and all that is left are quotes. Little fragments of wisdom are swimming in my head, crystallized from weeks’ worth of discussion on gender, conflict, international development, the life of aid practitioners, peacekeeping operations, and negotiations. I am craving a forum to share my learnings — even more than that, I am craving the presence of mind and cleared space in that cluttered head with which to isolate that which is worth sharing. A year ago, I was writing about the crackling of pomegranates, about Jerusalem’s portions of beauty and suffering. I was longing for this: the classrooms, the crowded brain, the rushing thoughts. The notes, the notebooks, the fall. The leaves. I could not shut up about the leaves. I miss the crackling pomegranates — the crackling life we led then. It was a life tinged with warm light and apple-flavored smoke, steps on stone streets and heartbreak around every corner. We are profoundly shielded from …

Youthful exuberance

Beirut’s drummer started grinning the second he set foot on the stage of their Boston concert. He did not stop until the end. Neither did I. *** I remember eras by the music that permeated them. “And in a year, a year or so, this will slip into the sea” was the musical carpet to Cairo and novelty, to young love and friendships that grew in alleys. Beirut’s music was the soundtrack of arms sticking out of car windows in Lebanon and Syria, of cheekiness and youth, of an unbridled desire to breathe in the world in its entirety. “Good evening, Boston!”, said Zach Condon into the microphone. “That’s us!” I told Elijah in a fit of obviousness. This is our city in which he is performing, our home point to which he is referring. In the disorientation of transitions, I have forgotten that we are not transient here. We are budding Bostonians, just as we once were aspiring Cairenes. It feels like Beirut and our love provide the only consistent narrative threads between then …