Friday, August 31, 2012

Youthful exuberance

Beirut's drummer started grinning the second he set foot on the stage of their Boston concert. He did not stop until the end. Neither did I.
I remember eras by the music that permeated them. "And in a year, a year or so, this will slip into the sea" was the musical carpet to Cairo and novelty, to young love and friendships that grew in alleys. Beirut's music was the soundtrack of arms sticking out of car windows in Lebanon and Syria, of cheekiness and youth, of an unbridled desire to breathe in the world in its entirety.

"Good evening, Boston!", said Zach Condon into the microphone.
"That's us!" I told Elijah in a fit of obviousness. This is our city in which he is performing, our home point to which he is referring. In the disorientation of transitions, I have forgotten that we are not transient here. We are budding Bostonians, just as we once were aspiring Cairenes.

It feels like Beirut and our love provide the only consistent narrative threads between then and now. In late summer of every year, I think back to those firsts... the first day of Ramadan, my first day in Cairo, my first time working with the UN, my being every shade of beginner there was. Our chance encounter on a boat on the Nile that very first day, the day that became the first chapter to a story longer than a moon cycle of Ramadan, longer than our time in Cairo, longer than that UN placement. It feels like many selves ago.

The selves we are now walk along the Charles River, instead of floating on the Nile. We listen to Spotify, not an infinite loop of Cat Power-Beirut-David Bowie-Amr Diab. We drink chai with milk customized to a flaw, instead of "shay masboot," the only option of (excessive) sweetness that ever felt available. All of Cairo was masboot to us.
We have counted many clocks of love, but this one is new to us: we have never celebrated our anniversary together. He in Kentucky, I in Kosovo. He in Israel, I in Greece. He on a plane, I on a different one. In a fit of synchronicity, we are moving into the place we will call home for the next few years on the same day we celebrate years of love. This anniversary will taste like U-Haul and sweat, cardboard boxes and parking permits. Neither of us quite knows how to be here; permanence remains an elusive concept and Boston feels like a curiously foreign home.

I have felt the need for a digital away message to explain my absence from this space, like the ones shopkeepers in Greece scribbled on lined paper to let aspiring tyropita-buyers know they will be back in ten minutes. Except on mine I would scribble something like this: I am in between stories at the moment. Between the silvery fluorescent lights and the forms with new logos on them, I am squinting to take in information. I am squinting for my place amid all the change. I am learning in leaps. I am learning giddily, learning and forgetting. Forgetting names, forgetting what I thought would be and learning what will be. I am overwhelmed and inspired, depleted and energized, ready and vulnerable.
On the morning of the Beirut concert, I was a beginner again, seated among other newcomers at my graduate program. The Academic Dean was explaining the curriculum with an exuberance more often associated with leisure, not academia. "Start with what you want to learn," he counseled, "and you'll figure everything else out. You'll figure out how it fits with the requirements, you'll find your way into the system. But start with the learning." Rarely has the learning itself been so alive, so full of possibility. 

Later that evening, I was standing in a packed concert hall, in the arms of my love, bearing witness to the grinning drummer. In many senses, that image sets the standard of vivaciousness in my mind. The following morning, we had to complete the sentence "Career success means........" To me, it means being the giddy professor or exuberant drummer. An exuberant learner, for whom knowledge still holds possibility and work is grin-worthy. 

Beirut played Nantes that evening, and Sunday Smile, and Postcards from Italy, and all the songs I associate with love and Cairo, with being a beginner and feeling alive. As we wandered home past the Prudential Center and CITGO sign and all the other landmarks that used to feel like home, we could not deny all of Boston felt a little more like home too. Courtesy of a grinning drummer and of the exuberance of being in one's element, we made a memory again. 

I may not know much here yet, but I know it all starts with making memories.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Telling a new story

Imagining a new life, in color.

“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.

This is an excerpt from my Equals Record column today. Wander over here to read the rest.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The middle of the story

Sometimes you have to start at the middle of the story.

And that middle of the story has me squeezed somewhere between Heavenly Jade and Aquatastic, Edwardian Lace and Peachy Kiss. I weigh how a Dew Drop trim would look on a Water Sprout wall.

These are the Home Depot dilemmas I live with now. I was a snob when it came to these questions. I thought they existed just on Pinterest, that real couples do not have a 15-minute conversation in front of a "hue specialist" about whether Contemplation would look too dark on a cloudy day. Real couples do not debate whether Peacock Feather or Mermaid Treasure would go better with the kitchen cabinets. Or, at least, non-Pinterest humans would pause to ask themselves why Edwardian Lace refers to a wall color and not lingerie. Why they would ever want to live inside Peachy Kiss.

The colors start to blend in, as do the roads on the map. After three years of working in conflict and post-conflict communities, the wiring of my mind is having a difficult time adjusting to the American notion of intricacy. For three years, navigation involved figuring out whether to go North or South on the one road that connects the two points in the country -- or picking one of the unmarked lefts to be our left, only to be wrong, turn around, and take the next one. "Take the sixth exit off the rotary" was not a command I had had to process.

For three years, choice had shrunk. Fewer consumption choices did not mean our preferences were any less informed or fixed. We still debated the "fluffier mousse" or "tangier yogurt" and missed wasabi peas and muffin tops. What made all the difference was that we could wrap our mind around the choices - they were limited and finite enough for us to experience them.

Two nights ago, we stood next to each other in a Walgreens aisle. The giddy novelty of it all made it feel like a date: a giggle at all the flavors of ice pops, a stop to marvel at vanilla blueberry almond popcorn (no, really, pause to think about that), awe at all the ice creams. Then it was time to buy face wash. There was an aisle of it: Pore Cleaning Face Wash, Blackhead Removing Face Wash, Face Wash To Remove Shininess, Face Wash to Make Your Face Shiny. And, my favorite, "Stress Reducing Face Wash." I could feel myself breaking out just contemplating the options.

Perhaps this is what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls "the paradox of choice." In a TED talk by the same name, he introduces his hypothesis: "choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied." This debate between Aquatastic and Peachy Kiss, between Pore Clearing or Pore Clogging Face Wash, between Edwardian Lace and Dew Drop wall trim is a debate of deeply privileged choices. Nobody's survival hinges on the color of my kitchen cabinets or the size of the blackheads on my nose. I'd even venture that nobody's well-being or happiness hinges on the clarity of my pores or the soon-to-be-"pastel jade" bedroom.

After three years lived inside suitcases, painting the wall trim above our kitchen cabinets feels at once overwhelming and small. I hyperventilate in Home Depot, I am paralyzed in Walgreens. The magnitude of making a home, from the logistics of it to the decisions about wall trim and bathroom tile, chokes me to the point of silence. And at once, so does the fact that I have not used the word "impact" since landing here.

In a sense, I have landed in the middle of a story. I have catapulted out of field work and parachuted into Boston, sliding straight from asking questions and measuring impact and hopefully making some impact too to making a home and grappling with a magnitude of permanence my mind cannot yet process. Edwardian Lace is my reality now -- or, at least, the reality of our soon-to-be new and freshly-painted staircase. Gem Turquoise? That's the kitchen wall. We did go with Dew Drop for the trim. Vermont Cream for the den. Peachy Kiss never left Home Depot.

My schedule for tomorrow reads: "Post-project impact assessment. Write closing report. E-mail mentorship curriculum handbook to new scholars. Start painting new house." The worlds are blending into one another, but to me, they are still separate colors.

I am slowly realizing I do not know the first thing about being here, or about making a home. I knew how to imagine one -- I imagined one enough to want it, enough to be here staring at it. I know how to design, implement, and assess the impact of a post-conflict development curriculum in communities worldwide... and I could not tell you the first thing about paint primer. I had not thought about paint finish before today. "Eggshell, flat, semi-gloss or satin?" was not a choice I had ever contemplated. I always imagined that when the time came to inhabit this world, to make these questions my own, I'd tackle them the same way I do my work: I would research and learn and understand it all and then show up at Home Depot all prepared and knowledgeable and ready to face the "hue specialist."

But, here I am, in the middle of the story -- in between stories, really. This time last week, I was wrapping up my last field work in Mexico City. This time in two weeks, I will be sitting at orientation for my graduate program. And between the past and the future, I have to sit with the paint swatches and stirrers and rollers and learn about the difference. I have to make this new story my own. And, apparently, it all starts with Pastel Jade.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

When memories collide

You could have fit five people in the front of this car.

In Alexandria, maybe even eight.

In the early days of knowing one another, before love, we crammed into a 6-person van to see the other side of the Mediterranean. Having grown up in Thessaloniki, Greece, the Mediterranean always faced south of me. Watching the waves crash with an awareness that more sea lay north was a sight I needed to behold. Accomplishing that involved cramming 11 foreigners in a car that was designed for 6. My first glimpse of Alexandria took place while I was sitting on a woman’s lap with my head bumping up against a sticker of Hannah Montana. Next to me, there were two men in the driver’s seat. One of them was holding the door open. Or closed. Whichever way you look at it.

Those early days of Hannah Montana and two drivers and a stranger on your lap set the precedent for our driving excursions in the years to come. There was that one car we rented with an engine so loud that we would have to shout directions to one another to be heard. There was that other car-like vehicle with seats so small that our fingertips touched as he steered and I unfolded the map.
And now we are sitting in a car named Valor. A car with front seats so wide that you could fit our whole Egyptian clan between him, the driver, and me, the recently-arrived passenger.

“It feels strange to have you so far away,” I tell him, aware of the irony that he feels far one seat away from me when we have just spent two months of summer a continent and a half away from one another.

“I know,” he responds. “It’s not a rental car if we are not practically sitting in each other’s laps.”

This is the kind of car that lets you plug in your iDevice of choice to fill the space with music. I fumble with the cables and remember driving through Kentucky with a car that only accepted cassette tapes, through Israel with the car that would not read CDs, through a desert with a car that would only broadcast Galgaalatz FM.

Beit Habubot!” I scroll through his iPhone and find the music that provided the soundtrack to our last road trip, to what we had then nicknamed The Farewell Tour. Music pours out of Valor’s sound system and all I hear is the sound of waterfalls in May, all I see is a green scarf tied around my hair and droplets forming on his forehead as we hike. Higher. Onward.
Widener Library reflected in a puddle in Harvard Yard
Beit Habubot continues to play in the background and I struggle to catch my breath as he drives through Harvard Square. I am not used to experiencing this space from behind a windshield. There are no one-way streets on foot for foreign freshmen walking to get their first burrito, or for sophomores slipping on ice, or juniors getting their heels caught in the cobblestone. By senior year, I had driven a U-Haul through here. I had already put a layer between myself and the site of memories, reinforced by the rage Boston driving inspires and the need to shelter oneself from cold and farewells.

In a minute, Harvard Square is behind us. We are past it. It is neither our final destination nor our shared one. This was Home for me before I had ever heard of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Before “home is wherever I’m with you.” Before him, and us, and love. Redrawing this memory to carve out space for him, and us, and a car named Valor feels like worlds colliding.

Read the rest of my memory collision at The Equals Record today.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

With the salt on your back

[For Part I -- Milos: the alleys, wander over here.]

This is why I nearly boarded an international flight in a bikini.
There is nostalgia to the sun on your back and the sea in your hair, the slightly damp clothes from the last dip into the Aegean. These waters are gravity to me: they envelop me in a hug I do not want to break, they pull me in and feed my reluctance to leave. The afternoon of Friday, July 27th found me on a sailboat in Milos, Greece with the Aegean sea-foam splashing onto bare legs. That evening, I was due in Athens. The next morning in Rome, the next evening in Atlanta, the morning after that in Mexico City.
This is the story of how I brought my salty hair across the world, of the Greece I carry with me.

Take the cliffs from Ein Avdad in Israel and place them in Milos, and you have Sarakiniko. Synchronicity. 

On the road to Firiplaka


Not pictured: the hike down to Tsigrado...

Through the netting of the sailboat, at different times during the day.

Approaching the cave of Sykia, whose roof has collapsed, letting the sun color the waters.

Entering the roofless cave of Sykia

Kleftiko, the former hangout of the pirate Barbarossa. More about it in my column at the Equals Record.

The last swim, with the colors as they were. I did end up leaving with the salt on my back.

For the darker side of the story of Kleftiko and the privilege of a return ticket, visit my column over at The Equals Record today