Slippery words of another tongue

eternally nostalgic

Every so often an article catalogues untranslatable words from around the world. For example, as this Matador Network piece tells me, mamihlapinatapei means "the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start" in Yagan, an indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego. According to the same article, the word 'tartle' in Scottish refers to "the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you have forgotten their name." And then there is my personal favorite: saudade. Not quite nostalgia, not quite longing or yearning, not a blend of both. There is more to saudade---and perhaps its magical grip lies in that untranslatable space the other words do not quite capture. I grew up in a word-loving family, with Greek as my mother tongue. Tallying up the score of Scrabble games with my father exposed me to double-digit addition and to the perennial "is that a word?" any game of Scrabble inspires. Studying for the SATs as part of the process of admission to an English-speaking university in the United States exposed me to a whole other family of potential Scrabble words. While I excelled at the questions that required knowledge of words with a Greek root, I struggled with the ones that required test-takers to pair an animal and their young. What do you call a young lamb in English? What do you call many doves flying together? The kind of knowledge that one acquires in her childhood when English is her native tongue was foreign to me. And so at the age of 16, I scribbled on flashcards: "An ewe is a baby lamb." "A calf is a baby cow." "A constitution is a group of doves, a pride is a group of lions, a pack is a group of wolves."

The realization of my own English fluency sank in when I began to dream in English, when the English words started seeping into my subconscious, displacing the Greek ones. When I started learning Spanish, or German, or even fledgling Arabic and Hebrew, I noticed that there came a moment when the precious few words I had mustered would find their way into my dreams---or, indeed, my nightmares, as that one night in Bogotá when I dreamed that I could no longer speak a word of Spanish in front of a room of 750 ex-combatants would attest to. I still maintain my connection to my mother tongue and actively try to cultivate it, even when there are few people with whom I can speak Greek in my daily life at present. I read the Greek news, and I return to my favorite book of Greek poetry by Odysseas Elytis when I am homesick for Greece or hunting for inspiration. And still---I can feel the words slipping away as soon as the language of my dreams shifts away from Greek.

It is not just the words that slip; it is also the fundamental functionalities. For a long time, I spoke 'professional Spanish.' You could ask me to lead a conflict management training and I would produce polysyllables comfortably. Put me in a bar surrounded by Spanish speakers and I would be effectively mute. The casual rhythms of a language often lag for me. I long for familiarity with those words that break the stiffness. When I aspire to fluency in another language, I hope for those words of wit and smiles, the teasing words or casual words you only learn by living somewhere and listening closely for motifs and idioms. The more of those I accumulate in a language other than my mother tongue, be it in English or in Spanish or otherwise, the more the informal Greek slips away from me. Put me in a bar in the Greece of 2013 and I would struggle with not having the ease of conversing naturally like a young person who knows she can find the word that best describes what she wants to express---the perfect word for saudade or mamihlapinatapei.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, I felt the impact of words in Greek. "I'm sorry" was a concept I understood by relating it to its Greek iteration: συγνώμη. "I love you" was Σ' αγαπώ. It was as though I experienced the full weight of those words only if I uttered them in my mother tongue. "I love you" did not feel intimidating in the way that saying 'Σ' αγαπώ' for the first time did---because I associated the nerves of young, unuttered love with Σ' αγαπώ and not with "I love you." Saying 'I love you' in English initially felt like performing in that way that speaking a second language often does, thus robbing the words of their full power which only existed in Greek in my mind at the time. After living in Guatemala and Colombia, I became conscious of the many linguistic iterations of "I love you", of the difference between Te deseo and Te quiero and Te amo. Despite the beauty and benefits of multi-lingualism, I never quite want the impact of αγάπη to fade---I never want the Greek iteration of words to feel more foreign or distant to me than the English word 'love.'

Every time I arrive at a new country for my job, there are words I am immediately curious to learn how to say. Empathy is one such concept, as are the words that express gratitude or respect or compassion. English is the default language in which I think now; every new word learned in a foreign language gets translated in my head to English before it's fully comprehended. And much as I celebrate fluency and linguistic curiosity, a little part of me grieves for the Greek words that quietly slip away.

*If you have a moment, look up my favorite untranslatable Greek word: filotimo -- φιλότιμο, as telling of my mother tongue as it is of my people.

Imaginations of a different life

eternally nostalgic

I was between places, which is increasingly where I think I live. Between Guatemala and Bosnia, between two different worlds of heartbreak and solitary immersion into the work that makes me come alive. Between the confusion of fulfillment and immense human tragedy inhabiting the same universe. There is a level of experience that comes with floating in the in-between places and it comes with a dance of transience, reflection, and anticipation.

A dear friend asked me during that in-between place if I ever imagined a smaller life. "Can you do away with it all? Kick it into the sea?" We all like to think that we can. "No, really, I'm serious. Small house on a Greek island. White house, blue windows. That is your life. All of your life. Can you do that?"

There is exhilaration to living in the privileged overlap between the life you imagined and the life you are inhabiting. As a guest lecturer in my Processes of International Negotiation class yesterday, former Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad posited "sometimes, real life is more imaginative than imagination." So what if that imagination shifts? What if, enamored as you are with your current life, grateful as you are for it, you also harbor a parallel imagination of a different life?

In that life, you wake up on a Greek island. You are blessed to call that your homeland.

Your hair smells of salt, your eyes breathe of sea.

Your days are sun and waves, white-washed and bright. Your breaths are deeper, your fingers slower when they type. Or write. Maybe they remember to write, pen intertwined between them.

You remember what slowness feels like. You smile more easily, you drop your shoulders to their intended height, well below your ears.

You call yourself a writer. A photographer. A creative soul. The labels matter less; they become easier to claim. You create. You put the whole force of your soul behind your creations.

Your senses become more acute, and so does your memory. Greek islands are for nostalgia and remembrance, for making memories, for sometimes forgetting them.

You know that Greece, or the islands, is not the only place where you can do all of this: where you can claim the labels, and create, and drop the shoulders, and inhale deeply. But you also know that Greece gives you permission -- and permission is what you need to set yourself on this trail...

You fill your palette with wine and feta, with warmth and embraces.

You love. Amply. The only way there is to love.

You call that your life.

[gallery columns="4" exclude="6217"]


The privilege of a return ticket

eternally nostalgic

For reasons I do not quite understand, Barbarossa keeps recurring symbolically in my life in Greece.

I first became familiar with this historical figure when I was about ten years old and a new convert to the Age of Empires strategy game. That Barbarossa was a 12th century Holy Roman Emperor and the particular objective of that game scenario was to claim dominance over other European Duchies. It was apparently still the age not only of empires, but also of prizing dominance over compassion. At 10, I was fascinated by the concept that you could make digital people forage, build homes and fight just by clicking something in a computer.

The break-down of the dominance paradigm began during my encounter with another Barbarossa: operation Barbarossa during World War II, the name for Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. Every time my favorite history teacher recounted the horrors of that war, I couldn't ignore the memories of the glorification of combat in the first Barbarossa I had known through Age of Empires.

Nearly a decade later, and after I have born witness to the kind of violence you cannot unsee and the kind of compassion you revere over dominance, I was standing in the cave of another Barbarossa. This one was a notorious pirate in the Mediterranean in the late 1400s. The bay in which he used to hide exists to this day and is aptly named Κλέφτικο in Greek: bay of thieves.

Κλέφτικο is a series of cliff formations on the island of Milos, Greece. Behind them, pirates used to hide to observe the shipping route to Crete. Today it is the site of sailboats and snorkels, sea urchins and sunscreen. I have always been intrigued by how history and the passage of time transform places from battlefields into tourist attractions. Two years ago, my love and I had camped in a field overlooking the Horns of Hattin in Israel. Those towering rocks had provided the backdrop for one of the fiercest battles during the Crusades. Now they are the stuff of wheat fields and hiking boots. As we pitched our tent, Elijah noted: "A crusader probably died here."

I am currently in Mexico City and for the first time in a while, there is a TV in my room. At night, I watch images of brutality in Aleppo, Syria parade through my screen. I remember my Aleppo of the car breaking down on the Syrian highway, of the kind man in the tow truck stopping to give us a three-hour ride to safety, of him refusing our money because "you have to help a traveler." I remember leaving at dawn alone for the bus station and being shielded from street harassment by the rest of the women there who glared at any men who dared to make eyes at the foreigner traveling solo.

The tragedy is not that I have lost the ability to return there for now; it is that I am able to leave in the first place. Being a foreigner, even if you are a "conflict specialist", especially if you are a "conflict specialist", gives you a parachute. You arrive at your liberty with a return ticket that you will use when you wish or when the situation necessitates. The Aleppo I saw then came with hotel floors that were less dusty than my own body. The Aleppo I witnessed was a direct reflection of my own privilege. My ability to parachute in and out is an outcome of that same privilege. I am ensconced in another hotel room with clean floors, watching the violence from afar, thinking of those without plane tickets out of it.

Grief, love, and Joan Didion

eternally nostalgic

As far as thieves go, grief is the greatest one. She robs us of the people we love, but—perhaps most achingly—she zaps our ability to imagine the future. Lose a place, a person, or a love and, suddenly, measurements of time become irrelevant. Grief warps time; she renders our plans for next week and dreams for the next vacation incongruous. As Joan Didion put it in The Year of Magical Thinking: 

"We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all."

For the grieving, imagining a future day of being is a triumph over that "as we will one day not be at all" that Didion describes. Imagining the future is an act of boldness. Didion herself, in a description of her husband's desires for their shared trip to Paris, associates the wishful imagination of a future with being alive:

"He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them, but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living."

My discontent with grief comes from its blocking my boundless want. By drawing strict lines between the living and those whom they lost, grief casts the world in harsh light. She makes it impossible to believe in forever. Instead, she injects a heinous pragmatism into sentiments that would rather be unadulterated by it.


My only antidote to that has been love -- the kind of love that floods every crack and fills the vacuums of loss with the promise of togetherness. I do not know Eleni and Stamati. I do not know anything about their love. All I know is that 46 years ago, on April 28, 1966, they felt something strong enough to carve it onto a brick on top of Lycabettus Hill, with all of Athens below serving as witness.

Maybe Eleni and Stamatis are now divorced. Or grieving. Or maybe they have been best friends all along. Or siblings.

What happened on April 28, 1966 on Lycabettus Hill is of little importance to me; rather, I am intrigued by Eleni and Stamatis' audacity. They left a bit of their heart printed so permanently onto a site in Athens that future travelers would have to experience it. That is the triumph of love over loss, of affection over grief, of dreaming over pain.


Like a band on its farewell tour, we loaded the car with wafers and pretzels and drove nearly 2,000 kilometers to say farewell to the country we called home and the home that housed our love. There are still wafer bits encrusted onto the map. Those were not the only tokens of the journey. Near the waterfalls of Banias, close to the Syrian border, he found a patch of wet cement. "E ♥ R" is still there.

I want us to go to Banias in 46 years. Or 32. 11? Next year? I want us to go to Banias at an undefined point in the future because love is the imagination of a future without an end point and, in that, it is a triumph over grief. I want to find us at Banias. If not the literal us, if not the "us" carved onto the cement, then the selves we once were.