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In search of human dignity in Greece

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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 compatriots are lining up outside ATMs and stuffing their savings under the mattress at home. When they are not lining up at ATMs, they can be found at gas stations or grocery stores, preparing for the unknowns to come. Starting tomorrow, the banks will be closed for a week, and the maximum withdrawal limit is 60 euros per day. Those without ATM cards (often the elderly, the retired, and those living in the periphery) cannot access their pensions or public sector payments, which are allegedly due to deposit on Tuesday. For those who depend on their relatives abroad, any remittances sent may not be able to be withdrawn in Greece. Responsibilities, be they bills or taxes, are not letting up during this time, nor are the everyday necessities of family life, from food to medicine. In the meantime, in the foreign press, numerous articles delineate every possible outcome, narrated with a clinical, detached tone, full of acronyms and economics jargon.

In thinking about the effects of war, it is tempting to talk in abstractions: to talk about ‘systems’ and ‘powers’, to think at the level of governments or institutions or armies or militia groups, and not of individuals. As a researcher on mass atrocities and practitioner in the humanitarian field, I often ask how the depersonalization of violence and the framing of war in the broadest, most abstract light serves to obscure the horror of the individual lived experience of it. What does war actually look like? What does it mean to participate in war — as a combatant, as a civilian, as a victim, as a survivor, as a bystander? What does it feel like? The discussion of the financial crisis in Greece has reached the level of an international gamble: Will Greece go bankrupt? Default on its loans? Leave the Euro? Leave the EU altogether? Drag everyone down with her? How do we insulate ‘us’ from ‘them’?

The internet is full of ‘explainers’ and ‘predictors’, and life unfolds in quotation marks because it is hard to assess what is literal in Greece any more. Even the predictions are full of abstraction: “If Greece does X, things will be very bad.” “If Greece does Y, things will be bad (too).” Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of watching this discussion unfold as a Greek and an immigrant is the ease with which the human experience of this crisis fades to the background and a callous narrative of ‘personal responsibility’ floats to the surface. In many discussions, there are undertones of “the Greeks brought it on themselves.”

So I ask: Which Greeks?

It is seductive to summarize a whole country based on the decisions of its political leadership. It is easy to imagine Greeks as a faceless, homogeneous whole. It is also dangerous, for it renders power and its inequalities invisible. It presumes equal agency, equal responsibility, equal determination of one’s fate. And it ignores a system that was already full of the everyday injustices and cleavages that magnify the effects of the lived experience of a crisis like this one. So let me tell you about a few of my Greeks, and what austerity and a debt crisis look like.

***

X is an engineer. N is an architect. M is a special ed teacher. E is an archaeologist. My other friend M is a doctor. T is a doctor too, so is A. Or at least, that is what they trained as. That is the future they dreamed for themselves when they were putting themselves through school. We are saturated with a narrative of complacent Greeks who neither have drive nor strive. When we believe that narrative, when it crowds out all the stories of effort and imagination of a future, we fail to treat my friends’ dreams as equal and legitimate. The person who makes your coffee in Greece, that ever famous Greek coffee that is emblematic of our culture, may be my friend the engineer, or my other friend the doctor. My friend A graduated from university, with an honors degree with distinction, and became an intern. She is a 30-year-old intern, who has never had a job, and she is repeatedly told to say “thank you” for the stipend of roughly 400 Euros she receives for a total of 5 months of interning. Total, not monthly. These are the stories of my friends, unless they are in the 49.70% of youth unemployment reported in the country earlier this spring. Before you rush to suggest that perhaps they should have worked harder, or looked for other jobs or taken what they can get, before you point out that Greeks enjoy doing nothing, contemplate this: Nothing quashes imagination like idleness does.

***

The arrival of new mail triggers hearts to beat faster. Greece needs to collect enough money to ‘earn’ its bailout payments, so each bill comes with new taxes and fees, slapped on in the name of ‘national camaraderie.’ The word that sums up these added fees is xaratsi, a term that originated from taxes and fees levied by the Ottomans on their subjects. The xaratsi is slapped on to the electricity bill, in an effort to stem the rampant evasion in the tax filing system. In abstraction, it, too, is a tax, a fee, a policy. In reality, it has led to people living in darkness. It has led to headlines about the imminence of homes being seized because of unpaid taxes on electricity bill. Or, in the exceptional but still very real experience of a 56-year-old tetraplegic woman on life support in her home in Crete, it caused the electricity company to cut off the power because of unpaid debts, leading to the woman’s tragic death.

For most Greeks, austerity has not meant death, in quite as literal a way as it did for the woman in Crete. Unless it did. According to a University of Portsmouth study, there has been a correlation between spending cuts and suicides in Greece (emphasis mine):

“According to the research, every 1% fall in government spending in Greece led to a 0.43% rise in suicides among men – after controlling for other characteristics that might lead to suicide, 551 men killed themselves “solely because of fiscal austerity” between 2009 and 2010, says the paper’s co-author Nikolaos Antonakakis.

In the research on war-related atrocities, we often focus on fatalities. The reasons are both complex and straight-forward: Fatalities are easier to determine, callously so. You are either dead or you are not, and there are few qualitative differences and nuances between ‘dead’ and ‘not dead.’ Complicated as the fatality numbers may be to document and verify, the data for other forms and experiences of violence, from sexual violence to torture to disappearance, is even more scarce and difficult to procure. There are good, scientific reasons why we focus on the fatality standard in our research, but we have to ask what that means about experiences of violence in mass atrocities that do not lead to the person’s death. How do we account for those? And how do we make sure that our fatality standard does not end up meaning that people with other, non-fatal experiences of violence do not feel invisible and that those stories fit into the broader narrative of atrocities and patterns of violence?

There are many alive Greeks right now. What about the non-deathly suffering? What about the death of dreams? What about all those images of what life may have been? Of meaningful employment, fulfillment, creation, of youthful travel, of not abundance but enoughness? And before you dismiss the pain of shattered imagination, think about the moments in which, even from a place of abundance, you have experienced loss of a dream or a vision of a life: the break-ups, the grief that follows a sudden loss, the rejection that shuts a door. Now picture living in a country of shutting doors.

Some respond to the loss of an imagination of a life defiantly. Four of my Greek friends have gotten married this summer. Their anniversaries will coincide with memories of bank runs and gas raids. Every time I see photos of my high school classmates in wedding gowns and suits dancing as the sun rises over Thessaloniki, I remember dancing until the sunrise in the same spot. Images of dancing Greeks in the foreign press prompt indignation at their ignorance in the face of ‘these times.’ When I see those same images, I see resilience and an awe-like defiance to let love and the sea and those Thessaloniki dawn skies drown out, for a moment, all that Greeks cannot have. It is an attempt at emotional abundance, one of the only kinds that is still available.

Just as the narrative of lazy-corrupt-Greeks-who-deserved-their-fate wipes out all nuance, it is also unfair to assume that suffering has a single face and a single story, that it falls equally on all Greeks. In fact, we know that the same power inequalities and justice cleavages ensure that the burden is not shared. These are the stories of some of my Greeks, not of Greece writ large, not of THE Greeks. We need to turn our anthropological curiosity to those who do not appear to be as affected, and ask about the factors–just and unjust, legitimate and corrupt–that shield them. And just as looking at the lived experience of Greeks matters when it comes to really understanding what a crisis feels and looks like, looking at the lived experience of those on the other end of power can be illuminating as well. As Cynthia Enloe and other feminists or critical writers have reminded us, speaking of ‘the institutions’, ‘the troika’, or even ‘the IMF and the Eurogroup’ comes with its own level of abstraction. What are the mechanisms that enable these policies to come into effect? What does power look like? How does it preserve itself? How does it make itself look invisible? How do decisions appear to be ‘natural’, when in fact a lot of effort goes into them? And how do these questions relate to the effects on the lived experience of humans on the other end of powerful decision-making?

My friends are hurting, but they are not entirely robbed of agency. They vote, they attend and organize protests, they attempt to convince their friends and families on how to vote, they put up the best fight they can summon. Suffering is often portrayed as voicelessness, and that is another victimization: yet another way to rob people of agency and integrity in a moment of vulnerability. If I have learned anything about Greek suffering, it is that it certainly has a voice. The rest of us need to ask whether we are hearing it, and whether we are treating the stories it tells as legitimate and real and worthy of equal scrutiny as the Financial Times graphs and projections.

A lot of these sound like exceptionally dark tales from a country on the brink. Exceptional they are not. For each story I can narrate here, there are another dozen lurking around it. I am only a vessel for these stories. I repeat them, in English, because in a sense, they are pointless in Greek. The Greeks I know have lived them, heard them, can retell them themselves. It is in the space of English language deliberations and pronouncements on ‘responsibility’ and ‘justice’ that these stories of a lived human experience of crisis are necessary.

I am not a correspondent, not a reliable one. I am not there right now. This immediately assaults my credibility and the badge of honor that is assigned to co-suffering, to having been in the trenches. I am in my own trenches, but even hinting at the existence of those illuminates the path to hierarchies of suffering and competitions of victimhood, a path I do not wish to go down here. I will, however, say this: There is something particularly paralyzing about being an immigrant during this time. It feels as though I am sitting on that hill, voyeuristically watching the bombs fall, and being powerless to stop them. They are not falling on me, not directly. I am shielded by distance and by the life that a privileged education abroad and international employment have afforded me. I hear their echoes and reverberations, though: I see the suffering I cannot allay, and I experience the burning disappointment, that classic immigrant disappointment, of knowing I cannot meaningfully give back to those who helped me get to this shielded place. I cannot restore dignity.

Perhaps the greatest loss is that of human dignity. Dignity demands some determination over one’s fate and standard of living. There is little room for dignity when fears of losing one’s home to a missed electricity tax payment resurface every month. There is little dignity to being a parent who has to entirely depend on your daughter to stay alive, and there is little dignity to being the daughter who cannot meaningfully help. The space that dignity could have occupied is now instead filled with shame: shame about all the things we wish we could do, and the collective web of helplessness that binds us. Dignity is personal, but like many other facets of identity–like masculinity, like victimhood–it is also continuously confirmed, contested, or validated by others. The indignity of many Greeks’ existence right now becomes especially unlivable when it is cast in the frame of having been earned: of being a just end to a trajectory of excess. Cast in this light, Greek dignity and its lack are invisible, blinded instead by notions of justice and deserving and agency and responsibility — notions which, in turn, blind our compassion.

Is compassion a currency in our economic systems? Is compassion a vector in austerity packages? Is dignity?  Are our conversations about these programs and policies framed around compassion and the dignity of the human experience? And can we truly live in a world in which they are not?

This feminist’s fatigue

Or: an assorted list of arguments I’m tired of.

1. Explaining that we love men.

Most every feminist argument I’ve engaged in or witnessed recently, and which attempts to critically examine masculinity or patriarchy, has had to include a caveat along the lines of “don’t get me wrong, I love men.” I am tired of having the choices be ‘thoughtful critique with caveat’ or ‘presumed man-hating.’ When is the last time we heard someone say “don’t get me wrong, I love socialists,” when they engage in a critique of socialism? “Don’t get me wrong, I love aid-in-kind,” when they argue in favor of vouchers or cash instead of direct food and soap distribution in humanitarian settings? Critics of systems other than patriarchy get to engage in deconstructing and pointing out the holes and offering the counterpoints — the very things feminist gender analysis seeks to do in patriarchal systems, only we have to bathe in caveats first, lest we be discredited for man-hating.

2. The choice between likeability and assertiveness.

Here, I turn to the essayists and novelists. When confronted in an interview with suggestions that a character in her novel The Woman Upstairs was “angry, really angry”, Claire Messud responded:

“Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of the angry woman.”

When the interviewer pressed on, saying “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs], would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud noted:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

Lena Dunham and Zadie Smith echoed similar sentiments on the gendered dimensions of likeability in a recent conversation — sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Except when I look beyond fiction and the products of our imagination, I find that likeability matters to me in my daily life. I enjoy community and companionship, I enjoy engaging in thoughtful arguments with groups of people I love or have just met — and, in that context, I am tired of my choices being ‘speaking up/being assertive/yes, even being angry’ OR being ‘likeable.’ This is particularly the case with uncomfortable or feminist arguments (which are often an overlapping set). To be clear: I will almost always choose the opportunity to have the feminist conversation, to ask the feminist question, and I am daunted by neither discomfort nor propriety in this context.  I am, however, increasingly exhausted by being treated as though my critique, my emotions, or yes, that anger, threaten my warmth as a human, my capacity to be kind and caring, my ability to find things humorous or to take things lightly. I wish I could say I do not care, but I do. I care enough to notice this is a standard we do not equally impose on men who critically engage in conversation, and that this is a standard I do not wish to live by.

3. The demonization or discrediting of emotions.

When did we become so dismissive of sentences that begin with “I feel?” As someone who spends much of her life thinking about how to use evidence-based research to inform better decisions in policy and practice, I am all for data (which, by the way, serves a similar function to “I don’t hate men” as a prelude to feminist claims — see point #1 above. It goes to prove how difficult the caveats are to shed if we wish to be taken seriously, and also that perhaps not all caveats need to be shed.)

But: Feelings are a data point too — and the fact that they are harder to quantify, measure or account for is not license to dismiss them.  Humans experience injustice and inequality. They feel it. They feel marginalized. They feel invisible. They feel unheard or silenced. They feel as though their opinions and/or their identity do not matter. Just because they may not in that moment be able to provide a standard of proof for their marginalization that would meet a conviction claim in a United States court of law does not mean their experience is any less true or valid, and any less of a data point.

Similarly, the word “emotional” has become a not-so-subtle way to discredit women’s arguments (and the arguments of certain types of men, for the targeting of loaded labels with gendered undertones is not only limited to women). And I ask: When did it become acceptable — indeed, cool — for anyone to aspire to not having emotions? To being someone unaffected by feelings?

4. Binder-making.

There is a pattern in my life these days, and in the life of my feminist colleagues in fields from academia to foreign policy and beyond. It goes something like this: Someone publishes a list. Let’s call it “Top 10 foreign policy thinkers of all time” or  “Top 10 foreign policy thinkers of 2015” or “Top 10 novels” or… You get the drift. Sometimes the list is an academic syllabus, sometimes it’s a conference panel of experts. Said list consists almost entirely of men and is almost always predominantly white (and the overlapping of those identities is rarely a coincidence in itself). A colleague points out the identity politics behind the list. The list creator apologizes and provides one of a number of explanations of why women were not included. One of the explanations is almost always “this was not a deliberate exclusion, we just did not know who the women in ____ <insert field> are.” The colleague (a position in which I have often found myself) then makes it a mission to compile Binders Full of Women. Binders Full of Women Novelists. Binders Full of Women Foreign Policy Experts. Binders Full of Women In National Security. Binders Full of Women You Did Not Know About.

As someone raised in the school of “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” I fully support binder-making. I intend to continue to do it, and I fully embrace the mission of elevating women’s voices and visibility in fields from which they have been traditionally excluded or in which their work is less known. I also commit to demystifying the politics of this exclusion and invisibility for, as Cynthia Enloe said in my favorite talk of hers, “nobody is made marginalized by the ether.” But I also ask, from a non-cynical place: At what point is the binder-making another way of simply tasking the people who were already asking feminist questions with ‘fixing’ a decidedly unfeminist narrative? And at what point do we hold institutions and individuals accountable for nuancing this narrative themselves, instead of looking to their dutiful binder-makers to do it for them?

***

I am tired. I am tired of gendered spaces, gendered notions of expertise and credibility, gendered double standards, the gendering of emotions and legitimacy and data. I am tired of pointing out these dynamics. I am tired of explaining that, in my mind, working on gender inequalities is not antithetical to working on issues of race or class or ethnicity or…  — and tired of acknowledging that yes, these activisms are often pitted against each other because that is an easier (and lazier) path for the status quo than pitting them against itself. I am tired of having this fatigue be followed by “oh, I thought you were happy/doing well/just got married/things are so good in your life.” Why can’t we hold many worlds simultaneously in our hearts?

I am tired of the caveats and the disclaimers. Like, for example: This fatigue does not mean I will not continue to work towards gender equality or advocate for feminist causes. This also does not mean that I do not acknowledge my position of relative privilege on some of these issues, and lack of privilege on others. As Roxane Gay writes in my favorite chapter of Bad Feminist:

In online discourse, in particular, the specter of privilege is always looming darkly. When someone writes from experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege. How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or lack thereof? We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege.

Simply, on some days, I am tired of the privilege wars, and the gendered disparities, and all the inequalities and injustices I experience, witness, or contribute to. On a good day, an optimistic day, it is this fatigue that fuels my work and activism. On a day like today, frustration is exhausting.

Jogs of shame

Elijah and I are walking to the gym.

This is a sentence I have never uttered before. Every piece of it feels foreign. A few years ago, I was talking to my friend Katherine about how at home a morning swim makes me feel, and she interrupted me amusedly: “You … work out? I never pictured you as working out.”

I never did either. I loved to swim, but swimming was not “working out”  in my mind, and “working out” was not something I associated with myself or to which I aspired. I blame my childhood in Greece, where–between the complete lack of sidewalks and seemingly collective disregard for the state of our arteries–nobody ever seemed to jog back then. My mother’s sense of exercise extended to imitating the aerobics segment of morning television programs that self-professedly catered to housewives. On the screen would be a supermodel in Jane Fonda socks, counting “and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4” while gracefully swinging long limbs everywhere. Across the screen, my petite mother in her leggings-worn-as-pants (in an era before that was taboo) would flail about in some combination of kicks and grunts. By the first commercial break, she’d give up, in favor of worthier pursuits. As for my father, the sports he embraced were a vociferous support (from the couch) of Panathinaikos’ soccer club, which vicariously made him a devoted athlete, coupled with competitive chain smoking.

It was not until my freshman year of college that I realized that “working out” was a part of my peers’ daily routines, right alongside lunch and going to class . They put it on their calendars, they dressed for it, and they descended on the Charles River with synchronized looks of determination. I, too, loved the Charles River, but in the sea of crimson Harvard T-shirts and bouncy ponytails, my nostalgic amble to feed my need to be by the water felt like a tiny dam against a tide.

Because at the age of 17, you feel you can try selves on for size, one day I, too, put on my brand new Harvard T-shirt and only pair of sneakers in an attempt to Be a Jogger By The River. I lasted two blocks, wore the full spectrum of agony on my face, and would have Googled “am I having a heart attack” if I had had a cell phone. It was at that point that I developed a lifelong awe mixed with bitter envy for the people who make disciplined exercise feel easy and ‘natural’.

Athleticism is a badge of honor. People proudly share the mileage and time of their runs on Facebook. They wear their shiny gear to brunch-after-yoga and post Crossfit selfies. And why shouldn’t they be proud? They have the sense to take care of their bodies, and the discipline to develop that routine of care — a sense and discipline I have lacked. My friends look forward to working out. They find it interesting to talk about. Some would identify it as a hobby or favorite activity. Others find joy in being good at it. In my universe, there is a certain amount of shame — or, at the very least, peculiarity — associated with being an able-bodied female in the 21st century who knows the benefits of exercise and chooses not to practice it.

It is this shame, and the recognition that I ought to like exercise, or at least engage in it out of an awareness of its benefits, that prompts statements like this: “I have always appreciated movement and feeling my body be pushed to its limits, but I have primarily enjoyed that sensation in natural settings: on the surface of a mountain, in the hug of a wave, on the back of a tandem bike going downhill with breeze drying off sweat.” Charming as that sounds, never has the romanticism of those moments translated into anything that would resemble a ‘fitness routine.’

Here I am, however: walking to the gym with Elijah. He walks with purpose, the way I am told you are supposed to walk to warm up before the gym. I walk with dread. I have chosen to be on this icy path on this day, wearing all the athletic clothes I own in one go. I am here because of that mix of shame and hope, of mortal fear that if I do not take care of this body it will begin to crumble under me, and optimism that I can train this mind to not resent every step of the process.

When we finally get to the gym, he splits off from me and I look at the runners with the nose-pressed-up-against-the-glass kind of observation reserved for people on the other side of one’s reality. I am not them. I listen to Dear Sugar podcasts while I run on the indoor track with elderly men consistently lapping me. Cheryl Strayed whispering her thoughts on grief straight into my earlobe is a more familiar reality to me than lycra shorts and calories burnt per hour.

When Cheryl’s podcast ends, it clears space for the angry, wheezing explanations to bubble up.

“I need to model this for my daughter,” I think to myself, even though I don’t have a daughter.

Is that even true? Given the choice of what to model to my hypothetical, imaginary child — kindness, a giving spirit, a curiosity about the world — would I model a commitment to exercise? Maybe if my parents had modeled exercise to me, I wouldn’t be quite so miserable as I hear my own pulse in my ears and my feet pounding across this track. Maybe if I had grown up in a culture in which people valued working out regularly and visibly, I would have grown accustomed to it “when I was younger.” Perhaps if there were more space to talk about how unpleasant exercise can feel, particularly to the uninitiated, if there were space to admit to our unpopular dislike of what is popularly known to be good for us, there would be more of us suffering together and collective suffering would one day miraculously make athletes out of us. The logic is tenuous at best in this delirium, but I need it to explain away the shame of being nearly 30 and a clueless beginner at offering my body this type of care.

Unlike other forms of care, it does not feel tender or even desirable, but it is born from that same place of aspiring for radical (self-) kindness: That nagging place that reminds you that even when you have neglected it, your body keeps showing up for you every morning, accompanying you on your journeys. The responsible place that resists denial and connects the dots between your father’s sedentary chain smoking and his sudden loss, between your anxiety about the world evaporating suddenly and your resistance to doing anything to prevent it. The irrationally optimistic place that believes both the narratives of your being impervious to exercise and your ability to learn to be otherwise, just because this time you “really mean it” . . . whatever that means. And that hereditary, nurture-or-nature place from which the voice of your father emerges, somewhere between Cheryl in your ears and the wheezing in your chest, to remind you that he stoically believed in persistence, that we stick to some of the Not Pleasant But Good For Us things in life, because that is just the thing to do.

Is this what they call a runner’s high? Will I ever be good at this or will I have visions of my father mixed with Cheryl Strayed mixed with my imaginary daughter every time I set a hesitant foot on an indoor track? And all this, in the name of what? Being a New Englander who can run alongside the Charles in her bouncy ponytail with purpose?

The steps slow down. My too-cheery running app tells me that I have met my goal for the day. I’m not any less skeptical, resentful, or cynical — traits I seem to bring to the track with much more readiness than in any other arena of my life. Perhaps this is what these moments are reserved for: For carving out room to be the selves we aren’t used to being, the selves we weren’t bought up to be, the selves we thought we couldn’t be. The athletic, sometimes resentful, sometimes cynical, motivated by shame and optimism alike selves that we thought belonged to others. Perhaps on the other side of this process, on the other side of acceptance, there is a less discordant, dissonant version of all this. Perhaps there can be a self who finds herself by the river and appreciates both the water that reminds her of home and the mostly painless way in which she runs along its side.

But first, you have to run there to find out.

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 Elijah, 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. (Greece and the U.S. and, arguably, everywhere have that in common…) 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 Elijah 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.

In your country’s shoes

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“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, you have no real sense of heroic magnitude at the age of 17.

After the judges congratulated us on our unlikely win, we were standing on a train platform in Stuttgart with the rest of our delirious, shocked team and our coaches, when the question arose from a fellow debater: “Why do all Greek girls wear those shoes that can kill cockroaches?” If you zoomed out, you would have seen my teammate in an enormous coat and black, pointy-toed boots. My coach Eirianna stood next to her in black kitten heels, with a hint of fishnets peeking out from underneath her jeans. My other coach Effie wore an identical pair and Helen, my English teacher, stood next to her in – you guessed it – her own pair of black pointy-toed heels. I was in a white cream suit– my first ever suit, in fact –coupled with a pink pashmina and black suede heels. Our unprecedented good fortune continued through multiple rounds of debating and, when it became apparent that we would reach the quarter-finals, my teammate’s mother got on a plane from Greece to Stuttgart to cheer us on, arriving with a case of champagne and her own pair of black heels. My male teammates had their own lucky dressing rituals before each day’s debate, though, disappointingly for the purposes of this story, they didn’t involve black pointy-toed heels.

“Why do all Greek girls wear those shoes that can kill cockroaches?”

None of us had an answer. Unlike other debate teams, we had neither a uniform nor a dress code. “It’s just what you wear at home” was, I think, the best we could muster.

***

What I learned from Effie and Eirianna and Helen can be summarized as follows:

There is no such thing as “arguing like a girl.”

Notice your voice — its sound, its pace, its impact.

If you have a question–a good question, the kind of question that bubbles up to be asked- do not hold it back. Especially do not hold it back out of shyness.

When you are nervous, you do not breathe. The whole room can hear you not breathing. To this day, Elijah will sometimes point out to me in the middle of an argument that he can hear the absence of a breath.

You can be kind and opinionated. Your opinions, the forcefulness with which you argue them, your desire to be an excellent debater, a compelling speaker, a person who wins the argument needn’t come at the expense of kindness. If you have to be unkind to win an argument, you are probably not being smart enough.

Do not retreat before you finish your sentence. You sometimes let your sentences trail off, as though you are debating apologetically. Lose the question mark, the lilt at the end. End in a period, in a firm step.

When a boy comes to the hotel lobby of the debating competition with a rose, let him talk to you about the PSATs, his love of Napoleon, or how you look like Alicia Silverstone — even if you don’t. Even if you’re an awkward teen too. He might just teach you a thing or two about love.

Also: Iron everything. Wear sunscreen in the winter. Baby blue and forest green go together, even if it looks like they don’t. Wear a pink dress to a debate round, even when you’re scared of being The Girl in a Pink Dress. And, when in doubt, pointy-toed heels.

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***

My sartorial education began long before I joined the debate team. My hometown, Thessaloniki, has a reputation of “I will not even take the trash out in my house clothes.” What are house clothes, you ask? Sweatpants, leggings-that-are-not-pants, pajamas, all of which are acceptable within your own home domain, and not a step outside of it. Relatedly: Are you wearing sneakers? You had best be en route to or from wherever you exercise. That grace period expires approximately half an hour after the sweat has dried. If you cannot wear your house clothes out, surely you can wear your Outside Clothes in the house, no? Trick question! You would never have been able to slip past my mother and get on the bed–or worse, in it– without changing back to house clothes.

The rules continue, and they are arbitrary, strict and generous in stereotyping: “You never wear a skirt and heels in the winter without hose – that’s what Americans do.” In the age before opaque tights and Brooklyn hipsters, thin black tights were the only way to go. Never skin-toned — because whose skin tone do those flesh-colored tights really match? — and never white. Those are for children’s birthday parties. Women’s dress shoes all came with a long pointy toe. The only exception to this rule was if your feet were above a certain size: “above 39, pointy toes makes it look like you are wearing flippers, not shoes!”

***

Translating sartorial expectations is an exercise in puzzled indignation and marvel alike. During my first year of college, I gaped at people in plaid pajamas in our 8 AM class and at friends crawling into bed in their jeans. I have never met a Greek abroad who hasn’t encountered the “oh, what are you dressed up for?” when they leave the house on a random Tuesday. To this date, my freshman year roommate–who remains one of my very closest friends and who has witnessed an array of memorable moments–claims her most striking memory of me back then involves ironing pashminas at my desk.

The welcome packet for Harvard “strongly recommended” the purchase of a warm winter coat. I dutifully pack the ivory peacoat that came with that first debate suit, and the pashminas that went with it. As my first New England fall unfolded, my classmates trotted out their own ‘uniforms’: seas of North Face jackets and Columbia thermal sweaters. After the first snow, the coats got puffier. Our radiator stopped working, prompting my roommate to prepare for bed every night as one would for an expedition to the Arctic: hat, gloves, three pairs of socks. That was the winter when I learned what the “wind chill” is and that, when in doubt, the “feels like…” temperature is the one to note. Weather.com tells you it is 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but feels like 3? Always cite the more dramatic one, even though the scale means nothing to you. When it got so cold that the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales began to converge, we called Campus Facilities once again to fix our radiator. “The cold builds character!,” we were told.

Through that winter, and the four that came after it, I insisted on my own character-building ivory coat. A kind boyfriend tried to convince me of the value of a Practical Jacket and even went so far as to attempt to purchase one for me to no avail. When he said practical, I heard ugly.

I was a migrant. I began understanding Fahrenheit temperatures. I became fluent in the wind chill. I bought flannel sheets and toe warmers to stick in my (pointy-toed) boots. I even bought a single sweatshirt, which I wore to the annual iconic football rivalry (and not a step beyond). But the coat? I couldn’t abandon the ivory coat. It felt as though Greece was watching, and would take note of my leaving her behind.

***

Recounting these memories as a feminist who tries to be conscious of the construction, production, and (dis)approval of particular iterations of femininity, I am dismayed. In fact, many of my recollections of Greece don’t hold up to feminist or class-conscious scrutiny. Why is it that there was an unspoken standard of women’s presentation? Who created it, how, and what role did we as women play in its construction? To what extent was our active deliberation on what to wear itself an act of choice and feminist agency versus a mechanism of oppression and exclusion?

Even then, I knew that debate judges — often older, white men — would approach our coaches and comment on the length of my skirt or the pinkness of my pashmina. I also knew that the same comments, be they playful, derogatory, judgmental, inappropriate, or all of the above, rarely surfaced with regard to my male teammates’ appearance. Girls’ dress is “distracting,” boys’  is, at worst, “disheveled.” I remember the first flash of quiet rage when someone called my speech about capital punishment “cute,” confounding the content with the petite girl in the pink dress from whom it emanated. I remember wanting to be noticed for Not My Dress, but also learning that rendering my dress or appearance invisible was shifting responsibility away from the listener who ought to pay attention and towards myself, perceiving a need to obscure any hint of ‘distracting femininity.’ I didn’t have the words for this then, but I know now that hearing my speech be dubbed ‘cute’ was a formative moment for my budding feminist consciousness. Ultimately, I am sure that narrow and gendered conceptions of femininity guided the rulebook for Girls From Thessaloniki — and yet, I still uphold many of those expectations to this day, an ocean away from home, not out of gendered conformity, but out of nostalgia, out of a memory of what my self looks like and how she came to be.

***

Ten years later. -29 Celsius (yes, with the wind chill). Leggings, and over them pants, for leggings are not pants. My favorite summer T-shirt, which smells like Thessaloniki and the soap in my drawers. Three layers over it. A hat, because Elijah has finally convinced me that “most heat escapes from your head.” A puffy green jacket. And Practical Shoes. My ivory coat still hangs in the closet, with a tiny bar of almond soap in the pocket. This one I learned from my mother: always scent the drawers, and the coats.

As I walk to work, I am amazed that people here had been this warm in weather this cold for this long. I partake in New England winter rituals now. When I look down at my feet, I can’t help but feel that on the day I walked down my stairs in round-toed, brown, functional snow boots, Greece became a little more foreign to me. Or I to it.

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 to make melomakarona, my favorite Greek Christmas dessert. The Greek word meli, at the root of melomakarona, means honey and the whole word, to me, means home.

The ‘Christmas spirit’ is a curious notion, particularly for someone whose attachment to the holidays is born out of nostalgia, not religion. My family took pride in how we celebrated the holidays, from Christmas to Greek Easter, and there was a predictable script to our exclamations every year. My father would unfailingly pronounce that “this is the best tree we’ve ever had!” every single Christmas. My aunt Mina would fill our fridge with butter in preparation for baking and our neighbor, Mrs. Iro, would count the sticks. 41 was the record in the Christmas of 1995, and it is, in retrospect, amazing that some of us have survived it. There would be at least one fight over cleaning and whether the house was ‘fit enough’ to receive guests — even though it always was, and even though we were related to all said guests (“whose houses were not as clean as ours,” my mother felt compelled to point out.) Only after every last corner had been cleaned twice would we be allowed to decorate. No space in the house could beg for mercy from decoration. When my uncle Stavros emerged from the bathroom holding his head one Christmas Eve, the following exchange took place:

My father: “Poinsettia to the head? From the windowsill?”
Uncle Stavros: “Yes… How did you know?”
My father: “Was it the one with the gold wrapping paper?”
Uncle Stavros: “No, mine was the silver.”
Mum, from the distance:Stavros!!! You’d best not have ruined my bathroom decorations!”

My parents anchored those holidays, and the rest of us were supporting characters, eating the desserts, ruining the decor, counting the sticks of butter.

As the cast has changed over the years, courtesy of grief and migration alike, the transition to hosting the holidays produces an unanticipated nostalgia. I keep telling Elijah that these are our first real holidays. There is a mythology to my counting, given that more than a half-decade of love later, we have had the chance to celebrate everything from the Ramadan on the first day of which we met to Hanukkah to Christmas to Thanksgiving to a few Greek holidays thrown in for good measure. Yet, as I told my friend Niki in an email yesterday, the holiday spirit is something whose presence you may not quite be able to articulate, but whose absence you notice. Without wanting to rob all those other holidays of their magic, I always noticed at their conclusion that they lacked a gravity-tempted, silver-wrapped poinsettia to the head.

In many ways, 2014 has been a year of anchors. Boston has become home — home enough to receive our guests from far away, to own six different devices to make coffee and not worry about how we will transport them across the world on a moment’s notice, to buy used books with reckless abandon, to fill the shelves, unpack the boxes, stow the suitcases. Boston has been where we have found and grown community, where we exhale with recognition when the plane lands and the pilot says “welcome home.” My sense of home is promiscuous and my heart is stretchy when it comes to place, so I have been reluctant to admit that we live here now, in one place, and that all those other places are homes we had, made, and left in the past — as though that admission would cheapen the other places’ claim to home-ness in our hearts.

But, here we are. There are little lights nested in the wine glasses the ‘tavern girls’ gifted me with their names inscribed on each. There is a garland on the window, and every time it sheds, I feel compelled to bring out the vacuum cleaner. We are hosting a holiday party — our first, perhaps in quiet acknowledgment that we live and celebrate here now. My ghosts of Christmases past are present in their own ways, and they are pushing me to make melomakarona, a dessert none of my friends have had and nobody can pronounce.

This is how I found myself shrugging over a pot of boiling syrup.

I am hopelessly bad at this.

I start by blaming the instructions, measured in a completely subjective Greek unit called “me to mati.” It means “measure with your eye” and it reads something like this:

“Keep pouring flour until you don’t need any more.”
“The honey syrup will make a sound when it’s ready.”

These are instructions written by hand, in cursive, in the pre-food blog era of cooking when you could not “just look it up.” These are instructions written with a presumption of intuition, an intuition that comes after years of observation and training your eye — an intuition I lack.

On the day of the party, my melomakarona are sitting on a platter. If the honey syrup made its characteristic sound, I did not hear it. They taste roughly like home, but they look nothing like my mother’s. My mother’s melomakarona were perfectly shaped, perfectly measured “with the eye.” Mine look like obese gingerbread men taking a nap. There are no poinsettias in the bathroom and I’m sure that if my mother were here, she’d find a stray hair on the shower wall and express her indignation that I can receive guests “like this.” When I raised this with Elijah, he said, with a resignation of his own: “Honey, I don’t think anyone will be showering at our party.”

I wrote earlier that in years prior, I noticed the Christmas spirit by its absence. There is another noticeable absence from our festivities this year: the absence of grief — the punctual, uninvited holiday guest year after year. I am in no pain. Nothing aches. This is the first holiday season when the possibility has emerged to remember and recreate and stir boiling syrup without interminable sadness. Those I have lost, those far away, are invisible guests at our table tonight. I hear their commentary about the melomakarona batter on our floorboards, I see their ambivalence about candy canes match my own.

I have traveled a long way, and somewhere along the journey, I failed to inherit or fully embody the talent of seamlessly recreating the childhood memories I hold so dear. My decor will never rival my mother’s, my fridge will not hold that much butter, my syrup doesn’t make that sound. Yet, in the scheme of all the other losses, in the scheme of the world into which my parents launched me even when they cannot bear witness to it themselves, these losses are livable. These may just be the holidays marked by presence, not absence.

In Northern Ireland, unaccompanied by grief

If you asked me what one of the greatest paradoxes is in processing my work in the humanitarian sector so far, it is that the settings of the disaster or violence are often stunningly beautiful places. There is a dissonance to interviewing people who experienced wartime sexual violence one day only to make finding a waterfall your greatest driving force the day after that. Ancient ruins and modern ones, side by side. Giraffes and refugees. Crystal clear beaches next to injustice. The urge is there to shout from a hilltop atop I perched that Colombia (or Egypt, or Syria, or Uganda) is unequivocally beautiful – if it weren’t for the critical voice that remains in my head and remembers to ask “for whom?”

I have never quite known how to process the beauty or our hunt for it in those environments. Can one truly apologize for beauty? How can we take it in, draw hope from it, without romanticizing what is at the foreground? Is this beauty accessible to all and, if not, what are we to do with the somewhat dubious privilege of parachuting in and out an emergency and its beautiful backdrop?

These are some of my thoughts as the bus weaves through the Northern Irish countryside. “You can’t possibly be going for work – that’s the safest place you’ve professionally traveled in years!,” a friend remarks. Technically, she’s right. According to my very proud guide, Belfast was recently rated the second safest city for tourists. The Troubles ‘ended’ in a highly publicized peace process, though many are holding their breaths for the kind of ending that does not invite quotation marks. What does an ‘ending’ truly mean for the people who experience(d) violence? Who decides when we have entered the ‘post-conflict’ and what does the pronouncement of an era as the ‘aftermath of violence’ do to the narratives and memories of violence that linger?

“This is not a political tour. Today is not about violence,” the driver declares over the microphone, triggering my every skepticism about what counts as political and the various stakes at play in the conscious act of depoliticization.

***

I am seated next to a young couple, likely college students. They are most definitely a couple, they exude couple, even though they do not touch. I wonder if they met studying abroad here.

“I don’t have time for fun,” she says emphatically. “I have too much work for that!”

“Mmmm,” he replies.

“By finals time, though, I’m not stressed. I’ve been working all semester. That’s when I’m most chill.”

I wonder how long they have known each other. They do not know if the other’s parents get along, but they know how many siblings the other has. There is a lot of exposition. “My dad is like this…” “My mum named her Kindle, that’s how much she loves it.”

I remember the days of ceaseless exposition, trying to make up for the fact that you didn’t know each other your whole lives. You have those conversations meant for private spaces in public, but the public itself melts out of your view. I have been there – at sheesha alleys near Tahrir, at Horreya, which served only beer and cigarettes and whose ‘bathroom’ was square in the middle of a room full of men, with only a curtain around it. Or at the Odeon, a rooftop near Elijah’s then apartment, where I bought my only bottle of wine in Egypt, and paired it with backgammon and exposition. In those moments, you do not care who is listening. You just want your stories to intertwine already.

“I think I’m going to write a story,” he says with a confidence that makes you think he just does that. He writes stories, and it’s not ‘a thing.’ (Northern Ireland is rich in the quotation marks, as it turns out). I wonder if he will include the odd girl sitting alone, curled up into a ball by the window, looking at the sheep.

***

I have never seen more sheep.

The driver points everything out: this hospital built the first wind turbine in Northern Ireland. This is where a famous golfer lived. This is where a curler lived—you don’t know what curling is! Look at the mural on the wall, then. On the right-hand side. That’s curling. This is where a race car driver lived.

“Folks, there are no strangers here.”

He means that, as his tone alternates between pride and self-deprecation about this place and its journey through time.

There are no strangers here. That sounds like a home to me.

“If you live here, folks, you were born here. You would never ever choose to move here,” he says, reading my mind. This village has 25 houses. That one has 16 and everyone is related. I wonder how 13-year-olds find someone to kiss here. Do you have to move out of your 16-home town once the urgency of kissing registers with you?

“By the time you reach the upper years of schooling, you must move. There simply aren’t schools here for the older kids.” Well, that answers the kissing question.

The more he insists that you wouldn’t want to live here, the more I see the parallels between these views and my alternate imagined life in Vermont. Vermont has captured my imagination since I first drove through it – not in the way that vacationers say “oh I could move to Aruba! I could get used to this!,” about the sun and cocktails. Rather, Vermont represents a more community-driven, more present, smaller life for me – for us – , and I wonder if we will ever truly make it our own.

“Wait till you retire, Roxanne,” said one of my favorite mentors, when I shared this quiet dream with him. I thought that he must have been joking. I couldn’t possibly wait until retirement to live in the woods. The more time that passes, the more I realize that he was not.

***

We arrive on the Atlantic coast, and this is where our paths split off. This is where we walk. Off the bus, there are more sheep and a hotel perched on seemingly both a hill and a cloud, which immediately makes me think of Niki, a favorite co-pilot in all matters that require wandering. Niki would know which jams to eat here, and that the British and Irish and Northern Irish love jam and marmalade, and everything else there is to be known and shared.

I am, however, walking alone.

I study the maps behind a crowd of college students. One of them tries to take charge and plan the itinerary. Another interjects: “Let’s just see the cool stuff.”

I set out to see The Cool Stuff too, trailing behind couples this time. I am a rather strange sight, if I may say so, in my pristine ivory wool coat made for the work part of the trip, not the climbing of hill after hill, and the Colombian sneakers with the bright pink shoelaces, made for a 7-year-old with my size feet. The coat, the mark of my incongruity, keeps me from giving up on the slippery bits (all the bits, then) and scooting down the mountain on my butt, as I am wont to do. This restriction, given my relationship to gravity, is a very good thing.

***

I’m crouched photographing puddles of mud catching the light. Every time the wind blows, I have to fish my pashmina out of the photogenic puddle. “This is why we can’t have nice things,” Elijah would say if he were here. A group of hikers walks past, while I am crouched in a misty bush in my too white coat and pink sneakers and we all exchange a look and a smile in acknowledgment of the oddity of the moment.

Up the hill, down the hill, and up again. I graduate from a puddle to a bench. Every so often, a group of men will amble past. “Picture? Picture?! PIC-TU-RRRRE?!,” they say slowly and loudly, as though I either don’t understand English or that my photo should be taken here.

***

Grief has fueled so many of my own journeys, but not this one.

I sit on my bench and gaze at the spot where “the Irish sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.” I am transported to a different bench, near Khartoum, where the White Nile meets the Blue Nile. Even though I do not have the heart to tell my guides, whether in Sudan or Northern Ireland, I can never tell where the intersection is, I can never see the water blending. I know it is meant to be a seminal marriage, but all I see is blended water.

November 17th marks a Yahrzeit, a memorial of loss in my life. And because life experiences tend to layer atop each other, it is also a day that marks all the other breaks in my life, from the literal – ankles, feet – to the metaphorical – mothers, spirits, optimism.

And here I am. A year ago, I was condemning myself to immobility and heartache alike. Here I am, breathing fully, scaling slippery hills steadily.

Yet, this is not a story of “how much things change in a year.” (Or seven. Or fourteen.) This is not a pep talk to my slightly younger self. It is not even a moment of communing with the clouds to honor the loss.

Rather: I feel no pain in this moment. Not in my bones, not even in my memory. This has only happened once before and it was charged with the anxiety the absence of pain brings with it. I remember thinking then, with horror: Am I starting to forget?

The calendar reminds me of just how seminal mid-November has been for me. Today, though, I am unaccompanied by grief. Perhaps more surprisingly, I am unaccompanied by the guilt of its absence.

 ***

I know better than to think it’s gone forever. I’ve known surprise grief, triggered by a stray smell or, worse, by nothing at all. I have lived with it for enough that I’m not sure I would know how to fill the space occupied by it if the grief had left me forever. This is not that moment. This is not a portrait of ‘recovery’ or ‘healing’ – more quotes, more ambiguously definable words – beyond the bones.

It is, however, the first ‘anniversary’ when I have not felt the need to mark the occasion. That was then, this is now, and I can’t tell the Atlantic water from the Irish Sea water, the Blue Nile from the White. It’s all a blending of the seas, and I can’t see the seam.

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 camp? Not even at camp?”
“No. I stuck to marshmallows there too. I had my first marshmallow at camp.”

I still watch for bears, and I stare into the distance with the kind of intensity that might fool you into thinking I actually know what I’m watching for.” I feel like we have done this before,” Elijah says.

We have, in fact. It is our anniversary and anniversaries are built on repetitive memory — on being able to say “we have done this before.” We have worn all our clothes before, regretting it when we wake up and everything we brought smells like fire smoke and tent floor. I have ruined whole nights of what could have been camping sleep before, watching for bears or other monsters in the night. But the ‘this’ on the night ofmyfirsts’more was memory-making in the faceofliminality.

***

Thessaloniki, somewhere between the ages of 5 and 6 or 6 and 7 – or whenever you learn to multiply

My father was a big believer in repetition. “Repetition is the mother of learning,” as the Greek proverb would have it. When I returned to my home in Greece earlier this year, I was confronted with the relics of that early childhood repetitive learning. In the attic that holds our Christmas decorations and old suitcases, I found my elementary school notebooks (because we are all apparently repetitive sentimentalists). Multiplication tables brought back memories of lunches that would go on forever, prompted by my father’s single word: “Again!” And there we were, pushing soggy fries around the plate, until he could be convinced that I knew the value of 7 times 9.

Sometimes, when I count in my head, I still do it in his voice.

Over twenty years later, a friend insists life keeps giving you the same lesson until you learn it. By her Buddhist tenet, I must be a bad learner. One round of surprise grief, then another, then the reverberating waves of loss. One round of injury, then another, echoing with fragility.  Ten migratory years, punctuated by applications, waits, passports-in-the-mail and days of hoping against hope that they will return intact. Cast in this light, when you stare at your childhood multiplication notebook, you ask what the lesson is. You ask how to signal to the world that you have learned it, how to raise your hand and say you are ready to move on.

***

Athens, Greece, what feels like every second summer 

I did not use to be this sweaty.

The country is clad in denim shorts. When I walk through a protest to get to my embassy appointment — a commute rife with the irony and incongruousness of my worlds – I get catcalled by the riot police. I keep walking and hear them whistling behind me.

“Κοπελιά! Εσύ, με τη γκρίζα φούστα!”

“Leave her, she’s not from here,” says one riot policeman to the other.

There is a repetition to my migratory routines, and it is unperturbed by grief and recession alike. Every few Julies, I line up outside the embassy in Athens, ready for my visa appointment. The protests are the same. The riot policemen. The street harassment. The denim shorts. The tears of relief outside the embassy, and the embarrassment at my telenovela-esque display of relief in the next breath. Only the sweat is new.

***

Our Boston attic, August 2014

My passport with its brand new visa sits on my desk. My work permit, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen. The details are not essential to this story and they are the kinds of details that begin to fade into the background once the relief of resolution sets in, but the repetitiveness of the routine of migratory uncertainty doesn’t evaporate quite as easily.

You track your application online. Read the message that your application is “under review.” Read it every day, even though it was the same yesterday. Tomorrow, you will read it again, and you will start to notice the words. Was that word there yesterday? It did not feel quite so weighty then. What might it mean?

You catch yourself. You acknowledge your own repetitions. Once you have your 12-digit application number memorized from logging in to the site ritualistically, Elijah takes you camping. You pretend to read other things in between the ‘Under Review’ messages, but none of them quite register.

This will have been the first August when you do not remember a single book you read.

***

September 2014, somewhere between a porch, a terrace, and a wine glass

One day the words on the screen change to “request for further evidence in support of your case.” The screen does not, however, clarify what the requested evidence is, stating instead that a letter is on the way.

This marks a rupture in the routine. You wait. Staring at the postman becomes part of your sequence. You joke that this is how people must have felt in Victorian England or in a Marquez novel when they were waiting for their lover’s letter to arrive, but that’s just part of how you tell the story. It is part of the narrative that keeps you from unraveling.

There are moments of presence in between, but you can’t shake the consciousness that they are, indeed, moments-in-between. Immigration anxiety has that effect: it suspends life in mid-air.

The moments in between are filled with the kindness of friends who cannot imagine you facing all this uncertainty without a glass (or six) of Malbec. You cannot start your new job or earn money until your work permit is in your hands. You can’t help but think that the work part of your brain, the part of you that is ready to be back in the humanitarian sector as soon as immigration lets you, would think that buying Malbec at this juncture would be a “maladaptive livelihood choice.” Your friends keep you from making it and, on an optimistic day on the cusp of fall – on the cusp of everything really – you think that maybe this is the era of wine and walks, of friends feeding you while you wait. Or rather, that this has been every era of your adult life so far, and not even the uncertainty of this particular limbo can rob you of it.

 ***

That optimism no longer comes easily. In its darkest moments, the immigration process wipes out the capacity for gratitude. It wipes out a lot, in fact: it occupies space by clearing away the nooks that used to be filled by other emotions. One of the first to be edged out is the ability to imagine the future. As Miranda Ward put it in a beautiful essay on immigration limbo in Vela, “if the decision is not in my favor, then there is a great blank space where our future used to be. All of the assumptions we’ve made about our life […] will have to shift. At the moment those assumptions are greyed out, un-clickable, just out of reach, but I can still see their frail outlines.”

Once immigration uncertainty and worry fills all compartments, it becomes a single, dominant narrative that squashes all others. It is also a narrative that is conducive to hierarchies of suffering and competitions of privilege. It is impossible to think of immigration, transitions, and uncertainty without thinking of the other migrants in line — some of whom are migrants without my privilege, facing different challenges and prospects. Again, in Ward’s words: “The freedom of choice, of mobility. You have to be in a pretty privileged position even to be able to consider it an option. This uncomfortable period of powerlessness is actually a direct result of my privilege.”

When one places Ward in conversation with Roxane Gay in the recently-released Bad Feminist, the spotlight shifts to the uncomfortable balance between expansive compassion for those facing uncertainty with even less privilege and acknowledgment of how privilege can ebb and flow in the same moment in one’s life. Gay writes (emphasis mine):

“In online discourse, in particular, the specter of privilege is always looming darkly. When someone writes from experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege. How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or the lack thereof? We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege.”

***

There is an ‘untellability’ to some stories and the veil of silence against which Roxane Gay cautions permeates narratives of immigration. In the beginning, when your whole life is under scrutiny, the very consciousness of that process propels you into silence. You do not want to look like you are complaining or criticizing, like you are ungrateful or blind to privilege. You are caught between patience and impatience, between wanting to meet yourself where you are and wanting deeply to be the kind of person who can go through this process without holding her breath till she turns blue in the face.

Soon enough, repetition sets in: the 12-digit code, the same message on the screen, the same anticipation for the time the mail comes. Everything is measured and you are on the wrong side of the measurement. “Please do not contact us before 60 days have elapsed.” “You will hear within 3 months.” There is a choreography to these prescriptions and it is so uniform that it is at once soothing and infuriating. On some days, you tell your friends that you just want to talk to a human on the other end of the line who can yank you out of your static place and press play on your paused life. But even that, the talking to a human, has to wait — until you have received your letter… or until thirty days have passed since the day it was mailed.

“We have done this before,” Elijah says, and he is right. The ‘this’ is the yanking — the yanking ourselves out of uncertainty, out of the anxious unknowing place, to go camping of all things.

Camping! Camping feels like a defiant act, “considering everything,” and just like that, you watch your definition of defiance shift a little.
Look at me, I’m eating my first s’more.
No mail, no cell reception, no bears (he swears).
The only way to yank yourself out of stasis, as it turns out, is to keep making memories, even when uncertainty narrows the bandwidth of your imagination.
On most days, that’s too much to ask, but you have a hunch that you will remember this anniversary as the time you were anxious about bears, and not the time-in-between. At least that is the memory you want to will into posterity.

***

By the time your work authorization document arrives, you are so sick of living in this story that you cannot tell it again. You thought you’d want to shout this moment from the rooftops. In reality, you are simply ready to live in a different narrative. Hanif Kureishi claims “others only have the power we give them. The immigrant is a collective hallucination forged in our own minds.” Perhaps that version lives on because many of us in the middle of a process succumb to its voicelessness, and many of us who have crawled out of it are too grateful, too exhausted, too tired of the story to tell it again. And thus the silences perpetuate and multiply…

The glaring complement to this interpretation is, of course,  that the story itself is not a rewarded narrative, it is not a prized trope, it is not welcomed or celebrated or encouraged. In Judith Butler’s terms, we need to ask: “When is life grievable?” Which lives are grievable? And where do migratory lives and narratives fit within this scale?

***

In a class on fiction in college, the professor said: “Don’t tell a story unless you know why. What is your purpose in telling it?” I can file that away under tenets I am violating, apparently right under “life keeps giving you the same lesson until you learn it” and “repetition is the mother of all learning.” I do not fully know what the purpose of sharing the process of four months of uncertainty and immigration-fueled anxiety is. Yet, I do know that I cannot tell the next story until I tell this one — and I am ready to tell the next story, so I must tell this one. Call it a clearing of space, an attempt to be honest about the moments-in-between. Obscuring them would feel like an act of insincerity.

I do not know what the lesson is, or even that there is one. The abundance of lessons makes the experience read almost like a horoscope, in that you can pick and choose which vague outline of a lesson most fits the prescription you want to take away. Friends have joked that perhaps the lesson is that I should stay put somewhere – anywhere at this point! – and not put myself through the uncertainty of transitions through which I can preserve very little agency. Others have suggested that perhaps the lesson is to sit less clumsily through the agency-less times, to fidget less through the uncertain waters, to embrace the powerlessness. There are also lessons about love and care in the face of uncertainty, about making memories, about exhaling a little, even if you know that what will come out may not be a full breath. The lessons I keep coming back to, however, are questions: How do we make immigration a kinder process? How do we design a policy and process that takes people’s lives and livelihoods into account and treats them with dignity? How do we make the story more tellable and the lives more grievable?

And, selfishly, how do we move our own personal story along, signaling that we get ‘it’, that the lesson has been learned, that repetition is indeed the mother of all learning? How do we avoid another round of repetition? And if that is our goal… have we learned anything at all?

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 always quite so… pink? You were as tall when you left this home at the age of 17 as you are now, but everything feels miniscule.

You notice how carefully curated your lives here had been. Your mother had always loved the details. You open a drawer and it is filled to the brim with tablecloths. Each one of them is gleaming white and smells like soap, because she always hid soap between them. It was her fragrant curating. Your grandmother had hand-stitched designs onto the fabric in the era in which tablecloths were part of a woman’s dowry. Your mother had asked you once to take them with you. You didn’t know if you should tell her that you don’t quite have a dinner table — one that would be worthy of the hand-stitched grape patterns and soapy smell, anyway. Or that sometimes you do not eat dinner at a table at all. You just wave her off for now, but ten years later, you are filling your return luggage with tablecloths full of grapes and soap. You will find a table worthy of them and you will eat dinner at it. You are an adult now, filled with the nostos of your revisited childhood.

All those years of change and migration and grief and a robbery later, and everything still feels like it belongs in space — like it was placed there deliberately, with care, and with thought, probably because it was. The blue and white lanterns sit on the balcony where you had last left them, with unburnt candles waiting to be lit. Homes keep us honest, one of your wisest colleagues had said.

The balcony is your honest place. It is the view to which you remember waking up every day. You will return to America and you will instantly miss having a balcony onto which to step barefoot and stare at the sea. You will miss the mother too, who would have told you to not dare climb back into the clean sheets with those now dirty feet. It did not matter that neither was the balcony dirty nor were your feet. You wouldn’t dare.

It is on this balcony that you memorized IB Biology for your high school exams and that you read every Nancy Drew book that made you want to become a curious, mystery-solving girl with auburn hair, even when you didn’t know what ‘auburn’ meant.

You sat here on the summer days when the beach felt too far — call these #Greekchildhoodproblems of the most privileged kind. You dangled your legs over the railing. At 4 PM, like clockwork, those legs would be attacked by mosquitoes. Your mother would soon emerge holding what Greeks call a “tiny snake,” named for its coiled form. The mosquito-repelling aroma it emits is one of your smells of summer. Every Greek balcony has a ‘tiny snake’ of its own and the smoke it releases shares Greek summer with us, with the mosquitoes who love us, and the cicadas that interrupt our afternoon naps. Home is where the cicadas are.

On this balcony you had kissed a boy who had flown across the world to see you. You took a teary photo together — on film — when he left. Many years and loves later, you dragged another boy onto the rocking chair. It didn’t matter that it was Christmas morning, that it was not ‘balcony season’, that the shiny new Kindles you had brought with you felt like incongruent balcony reading, or that you were each wrapped in a bathrobe, two scarves, and three blankets to be able to tolerate the balcony at all. He loves you. He needs to sit at your honest place.

You still feel that not having brought him here in the summer is robbing him from some of the honesty.

Your honest place is conducive to many emotions: nostalgia, remembrance, hope, grief, anticipation, celebration. There is a noted absence: worry. Where did you learn how to worry? How did you get so good at it?

What is it about our honest places that keeps the worry away?

You have weathered all the storms here. Here is where you learned resolution, relief or loss. Here is where you learned that potatoes and feta and melitzanosalata are the food that will remain palatable even when you are too worried to eat. When in doubt, add wine. In severe crisis, add tsipouro. Here is where you learned what comes after worry. Here is where all the “after’s” have dawned. A place that holds all the memories of afters is inhospitable to worry.

No longer a native in the city’s eyes, you are a guest here now. Luckily for you, in Greece, “guest” is a term of art. “Guest” comes with glasses of wine refilled, and food shoved down throats, and a bed made for you by your friend, with instructions on how to close the balcony door if there are too many mosquitoes. It comes with questions about the life you now lead, questions based more on how others imagine “America” or the conflict zones you’ve called home. The reality rarely registers and is rarely the subject of truly curious inquiry. You trade imaginations.

You grit your teeth when someone comments on your weight, your vacant uterus, your unadorned engagement ring finger. You are appalled when you realize you don’t quite know how to explain “gender analysis” in Greek. Surely in a language so rich in words, there must be a term for it, but for now, it eludes you. You end up telling people you work on ‘women’s issues,’ even though you once had a 45-minute conversation with a border officer who thought “gender and conflict” means “women and war.” It mattered to you then, standing at an international border as the passport holder of a different land, to explain that gender does not ‘just’ refer to women and not all conflict necessarily looks like war.

Here, though, on your own turf, you shy away from the fight. Embarrassingly, you lack both the words and the stamina. You remind yourself how many feminist battles and social movements alike were born in the home and find it cowardly and condescending alike that you don’t feel like these, here, are yours to fight. You vow to find the words for “gender analysis” next time. What would Cynthia Enloe say if she were Greek? In the meantime, for good measure, you point out every narrowly conceived idea of masculinity on a TV ad. “Πολύ ξενέρωτες οι γκόμενες εκεί που ζείτε,” reacts one of your guy friends when you do that. Just like gender analysis, you can’t translate that.

By the last week, you are no longer a guest. You are at home here. This is where you belong, next to the soap-fragranced tablecloths and the macho commercials and the glasses that get refilled because the recession robbed Greeks off many things, but not of their hospitality.
You move easily between the rooms.
Everything is right-sized.
You no longer bruise your calves by bumping into furniture at night (or, as an aunt notes, “maybe you’re just not as anemic with all the meat we’ve fed you!”).
You know just what time the mosquitoes will appear and when the hot water will run out in the shower.

You have amassed enough intimacy, enough familiarity, enough memory to tackle the basement. The trove of all Memory. In one of your favorite poems, titled “The Plural form,”  Kiki Dimoula had the following to say about memory:

Memory:

noun, proper name for sorrows,

singular in number,

singular only, 

and indeclinable.

Memory, memory, memory. 

 

You open the door and remember that when you were little, you thought the basement is where burglars come from. How could you ever be Nancy Drew after fearing burglars for so many years? You open the door to the basement regardless. You are assaulted by the smell: cigarettes, books. You hadn’t been here in years, perhaps since the day after your father died.

You leaf through the books. His chemistry manuals, her Simone de Beauvoir. Your copy of Love in the Time of Cholera — that first one, the one that taught you how to read, really read–if not how to love.

Next to the books, you find the cards that you used to send your parents from camp and those little wooden boats that you used to “buy” them as gifts from summer vacation. You feel compelled to pack it all up and bring it with you, along with the tablecloths and the balcony, but you also want to leave it as is, undisturbed. A moment in time.

You are part of this moment now. You are here, at home, in your honest place. And yet you find yourself watching these weeks unfold as though you have floated up above your body and are observing your life from the ceiling. You’ve lost your narrative “I,” ever so present in your stories and you are instead observing — at once the storyteller and the interlocutor.

***

This is not a full story. If homes are our honest places, part of their honesty lies in being able to hold a piece for ourselves. Like all stories of memory, it is marked equally by its absences, by its silences and erasures.

You will soon find yourself at a border again, carrying more luggage than you have ever traveled with. You ask yourself how ‘people’ can travel like this. You are carrying a briki and a frappe maker because somehow you cannot leave the country without at least four different nationally-appropriate modes to make coffee in the morning. You tried to pack the memories and the silences. And a tsoureki too, because everything becomes more surreal at a border when you are holding what amounts to a nationalist, nostalgic pie.

You are here. Again.

You will walk out of this front door and instantly miss the Aegean.

You start your day with tsoureki. You make frappe. Your mornings are consumed in recreating.

You unpack, you hope the smell of all the books you hauled back can linger a little longer.

You must find a dinner table.

Hereditary travel neuroses of a Greek childhood

DSC_0851

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, cousin Neni and I would spend hours on the phone exchanging packing lists for our dolls. “Are you bringing the pool or shall I?” “You have a bigger bag, you take the pool, and I’ll bring the outfits,” the conversations went. When our respective mothers were not yelling at us to get off the phone (“do-you-know-how-much-it-costs-per-minute!”), they would shuttle our dolls’ pools and shoes and luggage from my house to Neni’s until my cousin and I could come to some sort of agreement about who is packing what. Over the course of this process, Neni and I would have at least three fights, at least one of which would involve tears and threats not to go on the trip, even though we always knew that she and I and our two dolls both named Artemis would be squeezed into the sweaty back seat of my mother’s 1992 Volkswagen on the way to Platamonas.

In retrospect, the fact that we had dolls that shared the same name and that the name was one of the goddesses of Olympus and that we put that amount of time into making travel itineraries and packing lists for them explains a lot about my later life of wander and neuroses, but at the time, it was just ‘cute.’ [Yet another reason that ‘cute’ should worry us.]

Neni and my litany of preparations for those trips could never match up to my mother’s. First, she would pick out the outfits for the entire family, given that ‘the kids’ were picking outfits for the dolls, not themselves, and my father never successfully dressed himself in his life (despite many unsuccessful efforts to ‘match’, whatever that meant to him.) Then she would meticulously wash the clothes that were obviously already clean because they would not have been allowed entry into the closets otherwise, and then she’d iron each of them, even though Neni and I would proceed to sit and sweat on our shorts within five minutes of getting into the car (and then for the entire summer). Then she’d ask me to pack the bags because she had a unique talent for making them swell like the back of a hippopotamus — and, let’s be serious, all those years of packing Artemis’ toy pool and ten pairs of shoes really taught me a life lesson about how to live out of a suitcase.

And then — then! Then she’d clean every single corner of our already spotless house. It was drilled into me from a young age that there were two prerequisites for trips: (1) We can’t leave until Neni and I have picked at least three fights and (2) We can’t leave until there is not a single speck of dust left. The latter was always a bit of a mystery to me. We swept and mopped and dusted every day of my childhood. We washed the dishes. We shook out the sheets (which mystifies my American friends, but if there are any Mediterraneans reading this, you’ll recognize the ritual of hanging the sheets from the balcony and then hitting them with an object whose name I obviously don’t know in English so you could “tap the dust” out of them). We did the same to the carpets, but luckily, there were no carpets on the floor in the middle of July.

It was explained to me that our house always had to be clean, in case someone decided to stop by without calling, or in case something unexpected happened and we needed to come home with people without having a chance to straighten up. It will surprise nobody, therefore, that when I broke my ankle and foot on a particularly terrible day this year, a panicked Elijah met me in the hospital to ask what I needed and I did not say I needed painkillers, a hug, help learning how to crutch around, help processing the sheer amount of now laughable tragedy that coalesced in one day, or help running one of the dozens of errands that piled up. Instead, I insisted in a very urgent tone that “you need to go home immediately and clean the house – people are coming over!”

Cast in this light, my mother’s insistence that we clean up extra well before trips made even less sense. Who would visit while we’re gone? “We’re cleaning the house for the burglars,” my father would grumble, but he knew better than to disobey the marching orders of mopping. You could say, as I do now as a still neurotic Greek adult in the diaspora, that we’re cleaning for our own return. Who doesn’t love coming back to a clean house? Ahh, though! Every time we came home, a new cleaning spree would commence, consisting of laundry and more ironing and dusting everything again because “you may be on vacation, but dust is not.” Looking back, I now know that we were cleaning for the sake of cleanliness, which was a goal and a character judgment and an aspiration in itself.

Fast forward 20 years to find me alone in Elijah and my attic, treehouse-like apartment on the morning of a transatlantic departure. I had spent the week finishing a journal article and book chapters and watching the World Cup and reading about my new work project and avoiding tornados and not sleeping out of anxiety and travel anticipation alike. And also doing load upon load of pre-trip laundry because you can take the girl out of Greece, but you can’t take Greece out of the girl. On Thursday night, after hours of writing about the politics of victimhood, I found myself in the stroller and baby car seat aisle at Target, which is where this lovely store decided they should also sell their luggage. Every carry-on bag insisted that it has the packing capacity for a “1 to 3-day trip,” and I scoffed, recalling my years of practice in packing my mother’s perfectly ironed summer dresses and both Artemis dolls’ six-changes-of-outfits-a-day.

Six hours before my flight, everything is as ‘done’ as it will be, which is a small miracle given the amount of sleep deprivation, bureaucracy, and mind-devoted-to-victims-not-ironing that this week held in store for me.

Except. Except! I woke up shaking my head at dust.

You see, I didn’t have time to vacuum. There were stray hairs on the bathroom floor, which are invisible to the normal eye, but I see them. I know they are there. Some of the laundry that is not packed in the “1-to-3-day-but-really-18-days-of-carry-on-luggage” was sitting on the couch and I had not put it away. There were dishes in the sink. It did not smell like chlorine in the house. I confronted all this with the same facial expression of shock and judgment that my mother put on when she called me on my first week of college and I reported to her, with joy, that “in America, we (we!) don’t iron the sheets.”

When I was in the shower, half-washing myself and half-inspecting the state of the bathroom around me, I had a few nostalgic realizations. I don’t know where all this fits in the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but to me, it is as close as you get to hereditary travel neuroses. My mother set a standard for what a peaceful home looks like, and apparently I’m incapable of peace as long as there is hair on the bathroom floor, however invisible it is to the human eye. This is particularly baffling, considering I have spent a good amount of my working life in the world’s conflict zones, where there is often not a functional bathroom and, if there is, it most certainly is covered in all sorts of things. This prompted the next realization: My mother set a standard for what home looks like – my home. I am much more likely to want to iron the sheets in my attic, treehouse-esque abode than, say, in yours (much to the chagrin of many friends who have jokingly sought to take advantage of my stealth ability to spot invisible hairs), or in West Darfur.

I also realized there was something very instructive about both the gendered division of labor and what constituted work in my household growing up. My father was not a traditional Greek patriarch by most senses and I remember him regularly helping with the cooking and other housework. My mother would self-identify as a feminist, and both of them were committed to raising a feminist daughter. By circumstance and choice alike, and by virtue of the fact that they were both older when they had me, both retired and were able to be at home for much of my childhood. In my father’s case, this meant he could insist that I redo my homework until the handwriting was perfect. In my mother’s case, it often involved chasing dust. The social expectation that our home be clean “in case anyone drops by” and that the sheets be ironed fell on my mother, not my father, highlighting the gendered expectations of femininity, motherhood, and housewifery. When my father left crumbs all over the kitchen, Hansel and Gretel style, he would be promptly reprimanded — but there was still something gendered to having the disciplinarian matriarch safeguard the spotlessness of her kitchen against all odds.

She imbued in me many of the same values and neuroses, but I have faced this mandate with mixed success. On the one hand, the first thing I did when I graduated from crutches to an orthopedic boot that allowed for greater mobility was to to get down on my knees and mop away the rubbery grey marks the crutches had left on our floors. I notice the absence of the smell of Chlorine in the air on the morning of a long journey. On the other hand, the amount and type of labor in my own day looks different… and it crowds out (not without some shame on my end) the chasing of the dust. It takes a small miracle (and, let’s be honest, all of Elijah’s patience and help) to bathe, feed, and clothe myself, without having expectations of culinary wonder, glimmeringly clean bathtubs, or crisp ironed shirts. On some nights, dinner is popcorn and wine and I feel the universe of disapproving mothers I have now acquired in my life shake their heads in unison. On some Sundays, we wake up to piles everywhere. Piles of the books and notes we dumped on the desk when we wearily came home for twenty minutes between meetings, the clothes we dumped by the bed, the life we dumped everywhere, instead of folding, creasing, and putting it away.

Then again, I would be lying if I did not tell you that before one last pre-trip breakfast with my friends and a mandatory trip to the bookstore, I could not resist looking for the Chlorox wipes. Just for a quick wipe, “just the surfaces.” The deep cleaning will have to wait till I am home again. Or maybe this is home. With just a few extra hairs on the floor.