A love letter to Colombia, Part IV

eternally nostalgic

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece.Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based roles in conflict-affected areas to being here in an academic capacity, with asking questions without being able to immediate use the answers to implement an initiative that responds to needs. I asked myself what the service of academia is, and whether it is immediate enough and close enough to the source of the need for me to feel that it can be a true service. I watched my communities shift and the often-solitary-occasionally-lonely rhythms of academic fieldwork give way to a group of thinkers who would proofread my every word, assess the effectiveness and ethics of my every interview question, and give my Spanish translations their correct subjunctive forms. I will miss spelling my name on the phone. In Colombia, I am Rossan, as Roxanne is too untenable. I will miss the workers at Auros, my neighborhood copy-scan-fax store. They, too, are part of the routines of my research, and I can tell they are perplexed by the formalities of the process. I credit them with having taught me how to say 'stapler' in Spanish and with having helped assemble my every consent form.

And then I was silent. When the questions died down and the music quietened, I found myself sitting alone on the Cartagena city walls. Colombia can be uncomfortable with solitude, and Cartagena is a city that demands affection. It is a country of two and many, one in which you can always squeeze in an extra seat at the table or an extra person in the airport line to say goodbye. This summer has blurred the lines between solitude and loneliness, raised the cost of distance from loved ones, and lowered the barrier to entry into becoming a loved one in the first place. This country is full of loved ones, my loved ones. It is full of love.

I have felt small this summer. It is the kind of smallness I crave, the kind that emanates from being humbled and cannot be corrected by high heels. I have felt lighter too. I have laughed more easily, stumbled more confidently, made mistakes less shyly. When I'm abroad and alone, unshielded by familiarity or company, I say yes more. I dare more, especially after midnight when the words fall out of my mouth without fear of the Spanish subjunctive.


I sometimes feel about Colombia like a photographer who only wishes to capture her lover's dreamier side, all the while aware that another side exists, having pushed up her fingers right up against the underbelly. I cannot definitively reconcile my memories of Colombia, those of almonds and rainbows, with the memories Colombians have narrated to me. I know they exist side-by-side, almost unfolding in parallel universes. I understand that the differences in the hues of these narratives partly emerge out of my biased eyes: those of a Colombia-loving foreigner whose multiple layers of privilege circumvent many glass ceilings and shield her from some of the challenges of life and work here. I do not wish my fondness for this land to render me blind to its injustices or to push the many conflicts that continue to unfold away from the capital to the periphery of my own vision.

At the same time, I am hopeful -- not out of ignorance or bias, but by choice. I choose to be hopeful because I have met so many Colombians who are, who believe in Colombia, who have dedicated their life to peace. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: "We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can't see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing."


By the time you read these words, Roxanne has returned to Boston, which she (also) calls home. Her field notes from Colombia may have wrapped up, but her adventures will continue, in life and on this page.

A love letter to Colombia, Part II

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I  

I will miss the jasmine tree, whose scent transports me back to Jerusalem and to every home I have loved.

My favorite moments under the jasmine tree unfold around 7.30 PM each night, when the security guards of the K-9 teams allow the bomb-sniffing puppies to run around the park. For ten minutes, if you are lucky, you can catch dogs sniffing each others' butts and wagging their tail as a sign of affection, not violence. There are more such dogs now than during my last time in Colombia, or maybe I am more attuned to their presence. This realization makes me cherish the whimsical butt-sniffing even more. When the security guards notice me smiling, they will sometimes oblige and give their German shepherds a cuddle. I know they are performing for me, but in so doing, they unite my Colombian universes: a single gesture blends a reminder of the conflict with unbridled affection.

The affection is unavoidable here. Desire is one of Colombia's many currencies. This is a country that touches and stares and whispers 'belleza' as you walk down the street. This is a country of princesas, and preciocas, and amorcitas. All these epithets are gendered in ways I cannot bear to ignore and, in the same breath, I cannot be cynical about calling someone mi vida. My life. When my assessment of the culture of affection becomes too rosy for my Colombian friends, they remind me of how fleeting and broken love can be here. They remind me of the men who are perros -- literally, dogs -- and of the men who cheat and of the women who cheat and of the ones who don't call and of the ones who call you princesa for two weeks before they disappear into thin air. They speak of rigid expectations, often crushed, that define the reality of a challenging love, that render longevity in romance difficult. On a rosy day, I will remind them that these quandaries of life and love are not confined to this land.

On a keenly aware day, I, too, feel choked by the rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity. This is one of the countries in which I most notice the performativity of gender and how narrow the expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman can be. On a flight to Cali, I noticed every single woman had her nails done. On the same flight, a passenger asked me if this is my natural hair color. When I nodded yes, she asked me why I don't like to go to the hair salon to get 'this beautiful hair' straightened. Sometimes, I feel as though I provide Bogotá with its only messy curls. Sit at Juan Valdez long enough and you will observe there is a uniform for women here, one of many: leggings, tucked into boots, topped off with a leather jacket. And straight hair, of course. I am torn between finding these expectations suffocating and appreciative of a type of beauty, between finding them endearing and superficial.

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

Next: Wherein, amidst the rigid expectations, I find hope.

The art of staying

eternally nostalgic

For Kate and Erhardt

In what is perhaps a twist of irony, I am writing these words as I sit on the floor next to a packed suitcase and a printed boarding pass. By the time you read them, I will be in Colombia,  where I will be spending this summer conducting the kind of field work and research that has made 'leaving' so rewarding for me in the past.

On August 5, 2012, I landed in the United States after four years of near-constant motion. From Sudan to Guatemala, from Egypt to Uganda, from Colombia to Jerusalem, from the Jordan-Iraq border to the Lebanon-Syria border, I cherished the many lessons that stemmed from conflict management, gender analysis in conflict-affected settings, and mindful presence with a generous side of faith in humanity. The past year required that I put the suitcase and boarding passes away and learn lessons of groundedness, emerging from libraries and owning a permanent mailing address alike.

My friend Kate has been an invaluable companion on this journey. Hers was the home I would always visit between stints of field work. My every transition was marked by sitting at her breakfast table, with each of us in the same seat every time, as though they were assigned. There were crepes and endless cups of coffee and whispered daydreams of living a mere walk away from each other. It was through glimpsing into Kate's life that I first realized that some of the images of permanence began to resonate. I loved her pantry---never mind that I do not cook unless there is an emergency. I loved the idea that one can be rooted long enough in a place to fill a pantry. I loved her shelves, carrying all the books she had read. Even though I have always been an avid reader, my books would either nest in my Kindle or would be gifted in paperback form to other traveling professionals I'd meet along the way. Permanence allows one to own books and anchor them in bookshelves.

On August 5, 2012, Kate and I did get our wish, as Elijah and I moved a mere 15-minute walk away from Kate and Erhardt's apartment. The breakfast table became a fixture in my new Boston routine. It held pistachio muffins and macadamia nut coffee, red wine after a particularly bad day and ice cream once the healing had started. We gathered there to share our anxiety and fear, our anticipation and hope. We gathered at Kate's place to recover from the Boston bombing, to cheer the Boston Bruins on, to eat popcorn 'just because' on a Sunday evening. I have had a lot of practice in the art of leaving, the art of transition, and---recently---the art of returning. It is through Kate that I have slowly learned that staying is, indeed, an art.

On the weekend before my departure for Colombia, friends came together to celebrate Kate and E's engagement party. In many senses, for me, this was not only an ode to love, but also an ode to Boston and to staying. There was lobster, which all but one of us had no clue how to eat, thus flinging it clumsily on hair and fishing pieces of it out of our bibs. There was clam chowder---or, as Elijah corrected me, chowda. You can't live in Boston and not be tempted to pronounce it like that. There was wind in hair. Courtesy of said wind and my own clumsiness, I spilled red wine at least twice and nobody cared. More giggles. The evening capped off with a walk through the North End, Boston's famous Italian neighborhood. There was a table of rotating desserts. The table could hold no more than 4, but we managed to park all seven of us there, as well as our gelato, tiramisu, limoncello, and array of cakes.

Thanks to Kate and Erhardt, and their love, I now know this: The art of staying tastes like rotating desserts, dug into with the same spoon, with your friends affectionately shoving bites of gelato in your mouth.

By the time you read this, Roxanne is in Colombia. Follow her journey there on Stories of Conflict and Love. She promises she'll be back in Boston in the fall, as she feels accountable to her friends, to love, and---naturally---to chowda.

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.

Boston: Stories of compassion


Earlier today, explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, resulting in deaths, injuries, and widespread fear through the city I now call home. I have never quite known what to say in the wake of a tragedy and my inclination has always been to say very little and, instead, to watch, to hope, to hold humans in my heart.

As phone calls and text messages started pouring in, the irony was not lost on us or on most of our friends that we have had to do this before: The shock after a bombing, the cycle of calling and texting, the confusion, the indignation at injustice. The brain has a way of linking these experiences together and every image of the blasts in Boston calls back the sounds of blasts in Uganda and Gaza and Bogotá and Jerusalem.

We are safe, and blessed with love---and, as we heal, we count those blessings.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that the Red Cross blood banks are full, only hours after the events transpired.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that some marathoners ran straight from the finish line to the hospital to donate blood.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that Bostonians are opening their homes to stranded runners, spectators, and their families who may need a place to stay for the night.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that in my graduate school community, within minutes of the explosions, students created a spreadsheet to track down runners and spectators, offered one another rides to get out of the blast zone, tracked down those who were momentarily unaccounted for, and held one another in kindness as we struggled to process what happened. Boston is a home full of humbling compassion.

The Atlantic is compiling these stories of kindness here today, and it is to these that we turn for hope in the wake of tragedy.

So now we wait. We share meals and feed one another. We watch TV together because companionship alleviates pain, and we turn it off when solace and quiet serve us better. We resist the inclination to judge or to jump to conclusions or to spread rumors. We photograph the beautiful sunset, or walk our dogs, or fold the laundry, in search of beauty or normalcy in the face of injustice. We shower our first responders with gratitude, and we are thankful for those who keep us safe and informed under these circumstances. We hold the wounded and those whom we have lost in our hearts, and open our hugs to those still in shock or grieving. We mourn together, as a community. We look for the light in our collective home. We ask questions, with patience through the slowness of the answers. We extend compassion. We love. We keep our hearts soft, stirring for hope and for the stories that will continue to fuel our faith in humanity.

This essay was originally posted on Stories of Conflict and Love.

The homes that inspire nostalgia

eternally nostalgic

We first met when I was on the cusp of nomadism and she was on her return voyage. I was about to embark on my first true field work in conflict management. I did not know it then, but that year would hold memories of Egypt, Uganda, Colombia, and Guatemala. Her journey stretched from Liberia to Indonesia and Boston to the Hague. We both swam in the pool of conflict management professionals, spoke with our hands, loved every baked good we met, and shared a passion for wander and wonder. In many ways, she inspired my own path with her courage, whimsy, curiosity, and attachment to service and to making impact. Meeting her kindled my faith in humanity---and sparked my consequent overuse of the term.

We are now sitting at her dining table in Washington, DC, five years later. She and her loved one built the bench atop which I am perched, and everything else in the house too. Even if she hadn't given me her house number, I would have picked it out among its companions. It is the most colorful house in the street. Everything in it is a colorful product of love too, carved with care out of wood, nailed together, splashed with the hues that matched their personalities. "We built the bed in which you are sleeping," she says smiling. People dream better in home-made beds. They ought to.

She is a different kind of adult than I am, I think to myself. A whole other league of adulthood, the kind that comes with one's own photographs hanging from her walls (in frames, I should clarify, since my own amateur photos hang frameless and in disorder). I scratch her cat's belly, as we talk about the conversations we used to have when we first met. We are still connected by those same threads, by conflict management and service, by a wanderlust for Iceland and the Bolivian salt flats alike. We joke about our loved ones' addiction to cycling, we revisit talks about neuroses that field work in some of the world's most active conflict zones could not mitigate. Peeking into her life makes me nostalgic for permanence and leaves me longing to caress wooden surfaces with an appreciation for the art that transforms them.

I used to live here too once, but the girl I was when I lived in Washington is different from the girl who returned to it now. It was the before era: before field work, before I knew that a lot of my life would unfold on the road or in conflict zones, before I grew attached to cameras and stories, before I had discovered much of what I now consider my life's work---in many senses, before I experienced what I now consider my life's many blessings. When I left Washington, I left with excitement, not out of frustration with its admittedly elevated sense of self-importance, but out of a craving to leap to the next phase of life and the novelty it had in store. And much as my memories of Washington were full of light and merriment, I did not consider it the kind of home that would inspire nostalgia.

Teetering in heels outside the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I recognize bits of the self I was then: I was an obsessive list-maker, and I still am. I was the kind of girl who could write down thirteen to-do items, and cross them all. Part of me still enjoys ticking the boxes, literally and allegorically. In other senses, I have shed layers of skin since I left Washington. I have embraced uncertainty and developed a new comfort for it. I have appreciated vulnerability; in brave moments, I have deliberately put myself in vulnerable places with an understanding of their merits. I have marveled, marveled ferociously, demanded marveling. I have made more room. I have not carved furniture, but I have carved out space for loving, dreaming, and marveling.

And now that I am back, this time for a career trip with fellow graduate students interested in conflict management, I am marveling at a home that inspired more nostalgia than I thought it could. In between career panels and site visits, I duck into my old neighborhood bookstore. I used to stop there every single day on my walk home from work, even if nothing in the shelves had changed. The bookstore was a ritual I kept, a nostalgia-inspiring ritual that planted the seeds of marveling. Between a lunch and an informational interview, I pop into Teaism, wanting bubble tea. I giggle when I remember that they call it 'pearl tea' here. My memory had edged this lexicon out. Taryn and I sit side-by-side at Hello Cupcake, devouring cream cheese frosting. Dan and I have breakfast at Busboys and Poets. Halle and I share an almond croissant and cappuccinos at Dolcezza, which was not there when I last was. Some of the women by my side have been constant presences, on email and in teahouses, at a distance or side-by-side. Some of them are new to this memory, having sprung from shared field experiences, correspondences, school orientations, or serendipity.

This marriage of the worlds feels less foreign than I had anticipated. I practiced nostalgic eating, nostalgic bookstore browsing, nostalgic walking, nostalgic subway riding. Life was not Instagrammed when I had left Washington; all of it looked less romantic. It was not yet possible, as Cheri Lucas would say, to "enhance the mundane", "to disguise the mediocre." Surprise nostalgia is a privilege because it is as though a former home springs from the depth of your memories to claim its place in your life, to demand to be remembered lovingly. Or, at the very least, to be remembered---which, in my life, is by definition a loving act.

Reflecting on milestones: 2012

eternally nostalgic

This column first appeared on Stories of Conflict and Love earlier this week. I have always been attached to the process of documentation and the rituals of recording memories. Different notebooks have held disparate thoughts across eras of my life, with their pages threading together class notes on violent conflict in Africa to poetry to to-do lists to workshop outlines to endless nights of worry. For the past four years, I have lived out of a suitcase, shedding belongings and an attachment to 'stuff' and hoarding memories instead. The notebooks have been the only possessions of mine that have traveled everywhere, truly everywhere, stretching suitcases till they bloat. And even though they now sit neatly on a shelf in Boston, there was no arrangement or system to how they were organized. The only rule was that every page had to be filled before a new notebook was commissioned to be my wandering companion.

January 16, 2012 was the beginning of a new notebook, for no reason other than its predecessor running out of pages. On that day, I copied down Mary Anne Radmacher's poem, "Living Eulogy:"

Under that, inspired by Katie, I started making a list. Every year, Katie tracks goals she'd like to meet before her next birthday. Page 1 of this new notebook mirrored that format and, below Radmacher's poem, I started outlining my own hopes for 2012.

Some were laughably simple, almost thrown in there the way you write "laundry" or "grocery shopping" onto a to-do list: for the painless joy of crossing those items off. #12 on my list was "throw a party." There had been plenty of parties in my nomadic life. There was the table dancing in Guatemala---ceaseless dancing on tables, it seemed. There were the nights in Cairo when we all gathered in that penthouse apartment and sang our lungs out to Queen. I remember the night Elijah walked me to Tahrir to hail a taxi and I could still hear Bohemian Rhapsody in the background. But then the moving, the ceaseless moving, took its toll and the parties were mostly farewell parties, for me and for others. #12 on the list was not (just) about buying Solo cups and cheap wine. It was about being embedded in a community long enough, feeling its grounding enough, to host snippets of it in my home "just because." Not because anyone was leaving, not because it was a birthday. Because it was community.

And there were parties. #12: done.

#15: Take a night photograph I am proud of. You see, this one correlated to #25: Learn to shoot my camera on manual. I "knew" how to use my camera on manual. I taught photography workshops for crying out loud. But it always felt a little foreign. The photos always felt nicer on 'automatic'---as though anything nice in life ever came out of automatic. The night photos, in particular, always felt shaky. All of me felt shaky at times this year. Shooting the camera on manual, dragging it along and having the weight of its strap tug on my shoulder at night, was a challenge not because of its mechanics, but because of my own wobbliness. And then Milos happened. Greece and I have the kind of relationship that melts anxiety, such that this photo can be taken, such that elbows can sit steady and skirted legs can plant themselves firmly on salty ground and hair can billow in the wind and I can hold my breath long enough to defeat the blurriness.

#15: Take a night photograph I am proud of. Done. It is not a particularly original image. Add a cat into it, a skewer of souvlaki, and some cheesy reference to "Greece is for lovers", and it's a generic postcard. But it is clear, unshaken, and taken by me, and that makes it a cherished first. Done.

Then there were the trickier dreams. #21: Create a home. This is not a to-do item of the "laundry" and "grocery shopping" variety; it is not the kind of goal one can fulfill by focusing hard enough or trying harder or by finding the perfect rock on a Greek island onto which to perch her elbows to take a not-blurry night photograph. The irony behind this wish is that I did not expect it to be fulfilled until the fall came, and the suitcases were unpacked and put away, and I lived in Boston with the ability to firmly derive my identity from being a graduate student. Jerusalem snuck up on me. It insisted on not being ephemeral. It demanded lasting love. It required commitment: the purchase of the space heater, the unavoidable conversations with everyone on the street from the baker to the laundromat operator. The evaporation of any desire to avoid conversation. I did not think 2012 would hold two homes, but it did. Some would argue that the very existence of multiple homes speaks to the lack of a solid, meaningful one---but, in this case, I'll take the polyamory.

I cannot pronounce #21 done; no home is ever 'done', the process of making one is never complete---let alone the process of creating and sustaining multiple homes in one's heart. But #21 is the kind of item I would never like to cross off a list and pronounce 'done' in the first place. I simply wanted to know it was possible.

Some of the items on my 2012 wishlist stand unfulfilled, but I am determined to give them another try. See #14: Keep an ideas notebook. I have a noisy brain, the kind that I am trying to make peace with, rather than silence. Particularly in moments of euphoria, ideas zoom through it and most of them remain uncaptured, evading me in the moments of calm when I try to revisit them. When Kim sent me a notebook with "Ideas" scribbled on its cover in February, it seemed like the perfect moment to slow down and start jotting down the thoughts born out of elation or enthusiasm before they become too fleeting to ground. The pages of that notebook are still blank. I still want to try in 2013, because I want the mornings after ideas to be just as alive and enlivening. #14: not done, decidedly not done. But still salient enough, necessary enough to stay on the wish list for another year.

Then there were the wishes that remained unfulfilled, but I am willing to let them stand as such. They either became less relevant as the year passed or I grew readier to live without them. I never entered a contest (#7) with my writing or photography in 2012, nor did I send 12 handwritten letters (#25). I wrote new columns in 2012, including this one, and I published photo-essays, but I never quite went through with clicking submit and having my work evaluated by a panel of seriousness. I penned endless cards and thank you notes and Christmas wishes and Congratulations on your marriage, but 12 handwritten letters never quite happened. I could dissect why that was, I could investigate the desire behind those items in the first place, but they do not burn brightly enough any more to necessitate that. As such, #7 and #25: unchecked, peacefully so.

Unlike those items, there were those at which I failed abjectly, and disappointingly. #1: Worry less. In my final Gypsy Girls Guide column, on January 3, 2012, a mere day after my birthday, I wrote that I wanted 2012 to be the "year of the exhale." I knew then, as I know now, that a human being cannot go on worrying at the level and meticulousness that I do. I was aware that it was time to let go of some of the anxiety, of the post-traumatic stress, of the grief, of the intensity of conflict zones, of the emotional minefield of work that I did not know (or want) to do unemotionally. I wrote then:

It is not journeys I long for this year. It is not novelty or fireworks I crave, though I welcome all of this into my life and am open to it if it comes. In 2012, I am willing a quiet mind. In 2012, I want to banish Ray LaMontagne for Damien Rice and his belief that I can “look into my eyes and see that noone will harm me.” Some former smokers say that months after quitting smoking, an exhale comes and they breathe deeply, making it all worth it. In 2012, I am living for the exhale.

2012 endowed me with journeys, novelty, fireworks---and some exhales, too. But I was naive to think that those would come without more moments that cut an inhale short, trigger a gasp, or make me hold my breath till I turn blue in the face. Exhaling was beautiful and needed, but if I am to keep writing, and reflecting, and living with intention---as Mary Anne Radmacher would have it---then I need to learn not only to wish for the exhale, but also to master creating it myself and living patiently with the moments that render it elusive. I failed at worrying less this year. In the scheme of life, this is a more costly failure than having failed at other items on the wish list. I am slowly realizing that in my life, item #1 from year to year will continue to be Worry Less, until it, too, is rendered unnecessary. Until this wish has been scratched off the list, edged off by other priorities, sufficiently conquered, or---perhaps more realistically---until I make peace.


Kitchen Meditation


The potatoes are cold in my hands, imbued with the chill of the refigerator. My husband will only peel potatoes after they’ve been sitting in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes, but I prefer to do it quickly and go on to other things. Dusty brown peelings curl off into the trash can, the little pile growing fast as the white flesh of the tuber is revealed. When the potatoes are chopped and placed in boiling water, I raid the crisper for other vegetables: Carrots, onions, fresh garlic (a staple in my kitchen), celery, corn. I have a method for chopping each different vegetable—the carrots are sliced in half long-wise and then diced into half-moons; the onions are gently scored in both directions across the top, so that when I cut off an inch from the onion’s face, I’m rewarded with a shower of evenly-chopped pieces falling to my cutting board.

I vividly remember a conversation I had shortly after getting married, when I was still part-time in college and struggling to get the degree I knew was out of my reach for the time being. “I want to like cooking,” I had said into the phone. “I feel like it’s the kind of thing that I should enjoy, that I could enjoy. I feel like it’s something that could bring me a huge amount of satisfaction. But I’m always just too tired.”

And I was. Even with a light class load, by the time I got home from my one or two classes in a day and finished my homework, I’d exhausted my slim supply of energy for that day. I made dinner each nigth with my husband because I believed in good, home-cooked food, and I loved eating the fruits of our labors—but I rarely enjoyed the experience. Always, I felt that frustrating sense that the true joy of cooking was just out of my reach, the kind of thing I ought to feel, but didn’t.

I baked bread, and ended up so tired I could hardly enjoy the finished product. I made muffins, and thought that cleaning the muffin tin might be the death of me. I cooked soups and puddings and even, on occasion, things like pasta from scratch, reveling in the knowledge that I could identify every ingredient that went into our meals—but ultimately, feeling utterly spent by the task.

Two years later, when I began the true transition from part-time studenthood to full-time homemaking, I was surprised to discover that suddenly, I was beginning to love cooking. All at once, as I began to spend less time in the classroom and have more time for the kitchen, I was feeling all those things I had thought I should feel before. Baking became a celebration. Chopping vegetables became a game. Doing the dishes afterward became a meditation.

Now, as I sweep a neat pile of onions and carrots from my cutting board into a pan for sautéeing, I think about that time of transition. Cooking still tires me, of course; it’s a physical task, one that requires time spent standing up, and often one that demands strength in the kneading or rolling out of dough. But in my life as it stands now, that’s all right. I may be tired afterwards, but I have the liberty to spare a few minutes for rest and recovery.

It is, I think, a perfect example of the unexpected joy the last few years have brought me—my adult life in a microcosm. For such a long time, I was frightened of my plans being changed, terrified of being forced to find something new to define myself. And yet, when that change did come, it wasn’t meaninglessness that lay on the other side—it was just a different kind of purpose, a different shape to my days.

A different shape, but a good one.

I pour extra-virgin olive oil over my pan of vegetables, letting the rich, fruity scent of the oil assail my senses, hearing the crackle and pop as it hits the bottom of the hot skillet.

And in this quiet kitchen moment, I know what it is to feel peace.

How To Live Out Of A Suitcase

eternally nostalgic

I have always resisted "How-To" musings. Their prescriptive confidence tends to oversimplify life and obliterate its intricacies. Everything would feel manageable, if only you'd buy into Steps-1-through-5. Everything comes in neatly ordered bullets or numbered lists, always in increments of 5. The first time I read a "7 tips to a healthier closet" in a magazine, I nearly fell over at the violation of the increments of 5 bit. I used to love the structured life: the healthy closet, the happy living room, the robust plants. The magazine how-to's always paired adjectives and nouns in unusual ways that made me think that "if only I could follow the steps, I, too, could have a giggling patio or a witty sink or a resplendent relationship." Somewhere along the way, I met a wonderful man who refused to think in tight increments or in standardized measures. He sets his alarm clock to 7.03 AM or 8.57 or 9.14 because "life does not need to unfold on the dot." There are few subjects for which I'd change my feelings on How-To's. When Kim said "I'd like to commission a post on practical matters about living out of a suitcase," I knew this would be the How-To corner of the internet I could call my own. This is less a "pack pashminas-they are so versatile!" guide (though do! they are!), and more a reflection on how to navigate the emotional turmoil inherent in transitions.

Know your anchors. The are few life transitions that require one to live with one T-shirt, two pairs of underwear, and some jeans. If you are embarking on one of them, there is something grand enough ahead that makes the stinkiness worth it. Nobody ever uttered "I am so moved by the world right now but gee do I wish I had all my life's belongings with me!" If you are embarking on a different kind of transition, make peace with that which you cannot let go. It may feel silly to lug a stuffed panda bear across what used to be the Uganda-Sudan border, but if it is the connoter of memories, it gets a passport to travel. Some are attached to their cooking spices, others to their stationery. Figure out what will become part of your gratuitous weight and let it come along. Minimalism for minimalism's sake is a powerful way to glide through life---but it becomes more powerful if you figure out how to violate its tenets to make them more resonant and viable.

Put down (some) roots. For a book lover, keeping books on the shelf is one of the pleasures of a semi-permanent life. Nobody ever left in the middle of the night with tomes of the complete works of Joan Didion in her one carry-on bag (though if that happens, World, let me be the first one.) Walking past used bookstores with the knowledge that "we do not have room for books" or that we must resist everything that will weigh us down creates weight in itself. So, buy the books if you need to. Find a way to receive mail temporarily if seeing your name on an envelope brings you glee. You will find a way to pass the books on to someone who will love them, and to forward the mail, and to move all of yourself and your memories. Put down (some) roots in the meantime; transitions need not be mere parentheses in the narrative of life.

Method to madness. Google Reader is as embedded in my morning routine as coffee is in other people's. It does not matter if I am waking up in Boston or Jerusalem, if I have to go to work in an hour or class in thirty minutes. Browsing the morning headlines and reading my favorite blogs helps me feel connected to the world as it was before transition. It may feel small sometimes, or downright trivial, or such a hassle to hold on to routine and ritual when the rest of life is spinning around you. But it is those very routines that make it all slow down. If you are a runner, find a way to go for a run early on in your transition to a new environment. Do you write in the morning? Then, write, even among the boxes. Write your heart out. Do not let your camera gather dust in a box if its shutter clicking will make you feel more mindfully present. And, in the same breath, make room for the new routines that emerge out of a new life.

Carry the lightness with you. I used to think I excelled in transition, if that is the sort of experience one can master, until I set foot in my new apartment in Boston on September 1st. After three years of work in conflict and post-conflict areas worldwide, the possibility of staying in one (secure) (exceedingly comfortable) place for two years was intoxicating. I turned into a Nesting Monster. In the build-up to this move, I had lived out of the same suitcase for months on end, but the second that suitcase entered our new apartment, everything had to be unpacked. Immediately. And the furniture had to be built. And the boxes had to be recycled. Immediately. It was as though I had become allergic to transition overnight. Elijah humored me and assembled the dresser and the desk and the shelves in one afternoon.

Last night I asked him if he feels that our space is cluttered. Let me be clear: it is not. But, compared to our couch-free Jerusalem living room, the furniture feels imposingly permanent. Compared to the luggage I had in Guatemala, the knit sweaters feel bulky, even if Boston requires them.

As someone who failed at this, allow me to urge you to keep the lightness as long as possible. The transition will be over one day, and suddenly you will own 13 different pieces of Tupperware. Ask yourself where that came from, ask yourself if you need it. The fact that you have space to fill and time to do so does not mean that the roots of stuff will be the roots you thought you were craving. So hang the beautiful string lights you had been wishing to have in your space ever since you dreamed up permanence. And if it all starts to feel heavy and much, remember the time all of life fit in one suitcase and try to bring some of it back to that beautifully lit space you now call home.

Telling a new story

eternally nostalgic

"Roxanne Krystalli is a gender-related development specialist in conflict and post-conflict areas."

What do you do when the first line in your biography no longer fits?

I am between stories at the moment, a process that involves consistently living off the top two layers of my still-packed suitcases, debating the merits of paint swatches, and confronting the reverse culture shock inherent in returning to what used to be a home with the task of sorting out the disorienting dance between the unfamiliar and the too familiar.

And the first line no longer fits. Having worked in conflict and post-conflict areas, I know not to confound conflict and war. Conflict, human pain and strife exist in Boston and Colombia and Guatemala and Jerusalem and I have called all these places home at some point along the journey. Yet, you would hardly call Boston a "conflict or post-conflict area."

You would hardly call me a specialist. I have grown wary of specialists and experts. The longer I have worked with women affected by conflict worldwide, the more I have uncovered the boundaries of my knowledge. The universe of concepts I do not understand and of life I cannot make sense of keeps expanding. It would be out of step for the titles and labels to keep narrowing. "Specialist" and "expert" do not fit. Do not even get me started on "guru."

As I fill out the paperwork for orientation at the graduate program that is anchoring my return to Boston, I notice everyone is grabbing for story. The prompts might as well read "Tell us who you are . . . in 250 words or less. In a paragraph. In 140 characters. In a text message without emoticons. With bells and whistles, without embellishment, with enough intrigue for us to want to be your friends, roommates, or mentors."

Life stories evolve, and so do their 140-character biographies. I am slowly realizing that a bio is not the story of "is", not exclusively the story of here and now. It is a journey between points, a question about the axis on which you are traveling. The story of "has lived and has worked", not of "lives and works." And, perhaps most thankfully, it is the story of beyond "lives and works." On Twitter, in her own blog, in the Admitted Students Handbook, Roxanne Krystalli is - still - a gender-related development specialist who works in conflict and post-conflict areas.

In life, Roxanne Krystalli is in transition, perpetual transition. Her heart is in gender advocacy and conflict management, in the Middle East and Latin America. This is the work that feeds her faith in humanity, a phrase she overuses, right up there with "the universe is winking." Her mind likes to wrap itself around the concepts of remembrance and forgetting, nostalgia and grief, of storytelling as a vehicle of empathy and, shyly, maybe even as a vehicle of peacebuilding. She sees the world, really sees, through the viewfinder of a camera. She loves panda bears, everything that smells like vanilla, and the art of loving in itself---as an art.

This is not the stuff of LinkedIn, of student handbooks, or maybe even not of Twitter. But it is the story of now, the biography of a journey from elsewhere and a past "then" to a future that has yet to be painted.

The trips that weren't

eternally nostalgic

What they do not tell you about the Pyramids is that, grand as the monuments may be, the surrounding area smells profoundly of camel piss. I arrived in Cairo ungrounded: no apartment, no friends, no Arabic, not even my own luggage. I was anchorless to the point of adrift---weightless to the point of exhilarated. Over time, Cairo became filled with the buoyancy of firsts and the gravity of love. It was the first place where I worked with the United Nations and, in many ways, where my passion for gender advocacy and conflict management came alive. Cairo marked my first attempt to live mindfully in the present, an endeavor that ran counter to my inclination to wander in the memory of the past or anticipation of the future. And on the first day of Ramadan that year, I met someone on a boat on the Nile in the kind of way that will make it impossible for me not to consider the river blessed, the city magical, and my time there transformative.

We drank strawberry juice in a street alley across from his apartment building. Pronouncing "Mumkin asir faroula?" became a small victory. The strawberry juice gave way to tea and to coffee and to domino and when we ran out of non-alcoholic drinks and board games, he would deposit me into a taxi and I would employ the only other Arabic I spoke at the time: "Five pounds. The fare is supposed to be five pounds." The driver would argue, I would say no emphatically, habiiiiibiiii would bellow from the radio, we'd run a red light or five, and my head would hit the pillow just as the first call to prayer of the day echoed from the nearby mosques. The realm for a public romance was limited and filled with mines, so our budding love was rife with the kind of companionship that prepares you well for retirement: conversation, domino and tea.

And I had yet to see the Pyramids.

This was a point of contention among my friends. It did not matter that I was filling their inboxes with the cautious enthusiasm of a young love. Everyone would write back asking how Cairo is and "have you seen the Pyramids yet?" "No, but there's this little alley that I love . . ." stopped cutting it as an answer.

Four months of alleys and domino later, I had eight hours before I had to be on a plane to Uganda. I asked the cab driver to take me to Giza for the trip that almost wasn't: the pilgrimage to the Pyramids. The postcards create an impression that the Pyramids exist in a vacuum. They do not tell you that there are apartment buildings poking the air around the area of the Pyramids. The guidebooks do not mention the all-piercing smell of camel piss.

They also do not mention that great memories are not always made in the shadow of historical grandeur. Future travelers should take note of the unmarked alley off the map (which, to be fair, also occasionally reeks of urine). After standing in awe in front of the Pyramids for a few minutes, and waving off the salesmen asking me to buy papyrus, I went back to my alley, for one last whiff of nargileh smoke, sip of strawberry juice, and exhale of gratitude for the memories that were.

In Guatemala, I failed to make it to Lake Atitlan. In Colombia, I never saw Villa de Leyva. In Uganda, I missed Murchison Falls. This was neither my criminal inability to traipse to remarkable places nor a snobbish rejection of the kinds of experiences that inspire universal awe. Rather, I learned in Cairo to allow myself to be attached to the alley---and, like Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale, to leave a trail of crumbs to come back to. "The trips that weren't" give me an anchor in a home that once was. They supply a reason to retrace the steps to a self I left behind. Seventeen conflict and post-conflict zones after Egypt, I favored the sites of memories over those in the Lonely Planet, saving the latter as collateral to the promise that I would return.

Jerusalem was meant to be the last stop for a while. After my work there, I would fly across the ocean to the United States to return to an academic study of gender and conflict. I would unpack the bags and own what is gratuitous simply for the sake of not worrying about how to pack it for the next trip. I would own wine glasses and more than one pair of sheets and I would get excited about things like latte art and permanence. This time, I was not interested in leaving any item unchecked. A month before our departure, I made The List: walks, food, experiences to have before we leave. We ate nostalgia for four weeks, stuffing our stomachs with all the food we thought we would miss and our days with itineraries. I thought we did a good job this time, that we did so much and saw so much and felt so much that we would leave Jerusalem with a sense of satiation---as though that could vaccinate us against future nostalgia.

Two hours before we had to hail a cab to the airport, we lit a coal for our nargileh and breathed apple-flavored smoke into the street. We had recreated the alley. Everything else may have shifted, but it was still him and I and the apple-flavored smoke. We looked over The List and realized that "the trips that weren't" had become the trips that were. I was afraid that we had done it all, that there would be no more Jerusalem to discover in the future. We had crossed off the items.

All except one: The YMCA was his favorite building in town. It became mine as well. We never made it to the top.

When the bookmarks change

eternally nostalgic

Kalomoira is pregnant with twins.

I imagine you want to know who Kalomoira is. She was the winner of Fame Story, a Greek talent show that came into being long after American Idol had solidified itself into the American pop culture conscience. In the ten years that have passed since then, I had thought about Kalomoira maybe twice.

And now I know she is pregnant with twins.


In making homes away from Greece, be it in Colombia or Egypt, I relied on a ritualistic consumption of the news. I was determined to assimilate and to do that, I had to know. So I read the local papers every morning until I had memorized the layout of the page and could rhythmically find my way to my favorite columnist or to the sports section. I had a favorite columnist. Everywhere, from Guatemala to Jerusalem.

There was no better home for my news-guzzling obsession than Jerusalem. My favorite radio station interrupted the music every hour for a brief news report. Without the kind of command over Hebrew that allows one to understand fast-paced news segments over the radio, the hourly report became a game. I hunted for words I recognized and matched them to the English news I had read about the region earlier that morning. "Hebrew Hebrew Syria Hebrew Kofi Annan Hebrew peace," the announcer said, and I knew she was talking about the diplomatic attempts to broker peace in Syria. Jerusalem radio may not have supplied me with news of which I was previously unaware, but it did teach me how to say peacekeeping and failure in Hebrew -- and it made me long for the kind of news and linguistic comprehension that would allow me to dream of peaceful co-existence and success.


I left Jerusalem for my homeland, Greece, 39 days ago and my news scouring habits have changed. Days can pass without my realizing there was a stabbing in my old neighborhood. 39 days ago, I knew about car accidents on highways I had yet to even drive through.  Even though the web broadcast of my favorite radio station is bookmarked in my browser, I cannot bring myself to click through, guided by the fear that "Hebrew Hebrew Jerusalem Hebrew Hebrew film festival" will propel me into an ocean of nostalgia.

Instead, I know that a local pop star I have not brought to the forefront of my mind in a decade is now pregnant with twins. Not only I have migrated, but also my bookmarks are shifting with me. I have the kind of wandering eardrums that long for Colombian salsa in Kosovo and Greek music in Guatemala. I have the kind of fickle tastebuds that long for arepas in Uganda and falafel in Mexico. All of me is punctuated by a serial infidelity to place; enamored as I may be with where my feet are currently meeting the ground, I will let the senses wander to the other places they once called home.

And yet, it is at bookmarks that I draw the line. The very newsy trivialities that help foster my sense of home when I am new to a place cause me painful wanderlust as soon as I have booked the departing flight. It is as though my brain can only handle one pregnant-with-twins pop star at the time: the local one. Any more than that, any more soccer team updates or festival schedules or a repaving of a street on which I once used to live, and my heartstrings are stretched till they tear.

There is indigestible irony to the realization that someone who has dedicated her professional life to international development and conflict management and aspires to understand notions that are far larger than herself needs to shrink her world to the news cycle of Here and Now, lest her feet want to carry her to all the Elsewheres she has loved.