Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Seven Month Watsoversary

I hope you'll all forgive me for posting this a day late, and for the funky formatting. (I will remind you that I am in Zambia, and technological differences are one of many things I have yet to figure out).
I'm writing this from outside a hostel in Lusaka. The last two days have been somewhat of a roller coaster, and I'm still too tired from my flights to really process a lot, at least without getting overly emotional.
I flew from Istanbul to Frankfurt to Johannesburg to Lusaka. On my first flight I was surrounded by the Azerbajan Goalball team and a group of Italian senior citizens going sightseeing. On the plane to Johannesburg I sat next to a German woman who had heard of the Watson Fellowship because she had mentored some Bryn Mawr students in Costa Rica who were thinking of applying. I've said it and I will say it again (and again), it is a small world, my friends.
Zambia is beautiful. The bright blue sky somehow feels closer to the ground, and the inescapable dust and mud that covers everything at this time of year gives off a reddish tint. It's the end of the rainy season here and everything is green. Sean, who is one of the owners of the hostel I'm staying at, picked me up at the airport and asked if I'd ever been to Africa before. When I told him I'd been to Morocco, he told me that didn't count. 'TIA,' he told me, 'this is Africa.'
Unfortunately, due to a large and very unfortunate miscommunication, the hostel did not give me the long term accomodation I requested here. (Serves me right after I tried to far to get something worked out before arriving). Upon hearing that as of March 2nd, I'd be homeless, I was thrown into a sleep deprvied panic--one that has not quite ceased.
Starting on March 13th, I can be back at the hostel (though moving from the long term accomodation room to dorm rooms to private rooms) but I need to figure out my first two weeks. I'm trying to be as calm as possible as I wrack my brain for all possible options (yet again). I'm thinking of going to see Victoria Falls (and soon) even though originally I had planned on going at the end of my trip, after I settle into Lusaka and do some research.
Many e-mails later (when I can find internet, of course), I'm making some progress and I know something will come up. This is all to say that this Watsoversary finds me in a funny and quite unsettled place. It's been a big month. I began it in my second cousin's Copenhagen apartment, moved onto film festival tickets and too much espresso in Berlin, to a birthday celebration with my sister in Istanbul, and then to this morning, which started with the sound of chickens and a cold water bucket shower.
These transitions are hard, and there were definitely times in the last month whereI felt a little burnt out. I was worrying about this before I got to Zambia--am I just too tired at this point in the year for this? But then we landed, and I saw a huge sign saying 'Welcome to Zambia' and I looked around and couldn't help but smile.
The excitement IS still there. Despite the number of times I have done this now, it never ceases to amaze me when I think about the fact that it is possible to get on a plane, sit in that small space, and then come alive again in some place that is so entirely differnet from the one I just left. It amazes me that these places are always there, existing all at the same time, only a plane trip away.
Though I am in far from an ideal position, housing in Zambia for the next couple of weeks WILL work out, somehow. Seven months have taught me that.
In the past month I have:
-Caught a glimpse of the Danish crowned prince.
-Met my Danish relatives for the first time (including the amazingly talented up and coming Danish pop singer and my second cousin, Kamilia Amelie).
-Went to a restaurant that has my surname as its name.
-Nerded out on Hamlet at Elsinore castle.
-Seen my grandfather's grave.
-Eaten my first Danish smorrebrod.
-Watched a changing of the guards.
-Waited in lines at the Berlinale film festival and saw the world premiere of two diferent movies.
-Walked down a red carpet.
-Got really stressed out and cried in a few Berlin starbucks. Got over it.
-Took an acting masterclass with Andie MacDowell.
-Written my 100th blog post.
-Eaten currywurst for the first time.
-Visited more museums than I probably had in all the months of this year leading up to it.
-Watched a show at Brecht's Berliner Ensemble Theater.
-Had the near experience of having my wallet stolen at a church in Berlin. (This was the closest I've come this year to having anything taken from me...oh, the irony....)
-Attended several parent/child classes in Berlin. Talked to a lot of moms about names and a few Berlin professors. Got really excited by my research.
-Broke my camera, bought a new one and felt really guilty.
-Stopped feeling guilty.
-Mastered the Berlin public transportation system.
-Watched the entire first season of Downton Abbey. (Officially addicted).
-Turned twenty-three and felt so much love coming at me, transcontinentally.
-Seen the Hagia Sofia & the Blue Mosque.
-Eaten the best meal(s) of my life at Ciya restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey.
-Took a cruise on the Bosphorus strait.
-Drank my first ever fresh squeezed pomegranate juice (I'm never going back).
-Climbed to an old castle in ruins.
-Been to Asia, Europe and Africa in a time span of less than 24 hours.
-Been in touch with several readers of this blog worldwide who had previously been strangers. It is thrilling to get your comments, have your support, and to find a community through writing.
-Set foot on three new countries: Turkey, South Africa & Zambia.
(Normally you'd see my photo here. Just scroll up, let's pretend together).

Monday, February 27, 2012


"Ausflug" by Quint Bucholz.

I've posted this painting before. At my Swarthmore graduation, my parents gave me a card with this on the cover. They wrote the following inside:

"The title of this card is "Ausflug" which translates from German to:

side trip
pleasure trip

hope your year is all of the above."

I've been carrying this card around with me because I like the image so much. (My parents know this and in Morocco they told me that as a Christmas present they got a copy framed for my room at home. Because they're rockstars). I have it as the desktop background on my computer, and in Germany, several people recognized it and asked me about it. Apparently it is a pretty popular image there. I learned that in German the direct translation of "ausflug" is actually "out fly."

At the Sanssoucci castle in Potsdam, Germany

Today it's time for another ausflug.

Sometimes I think this year is moving really slowly, but at the same time, I can't quite believe I've now completed my time in four out of my seven project countries. Unlike in Bali, India and Morocco, I broke up my seven weeks in Germany with a couple side trips: a week in Copenhagen and a week in Istanbul. I did this in part because I found a lot of the logistics were easier for me to figure out in Germany and as a result I was able to be pretty efficient with my research, but also because when you're in a European country that's so centrally located, it's hard to resist the urge to travel.

This photo has nothing to do with leaving today, but I realized that I never posted any photos of Andie MacDowell in the acting class I took with her, and I definitely couldn't move on without taking care of that.

If all goes according to plan (and the strike at the Frankfurt airport doesn't get me down), in about 27 hours from now, I'll be arriving in country #5. I will get into a taxi and go to the guesthouse in Lusaka that I finally found; one that's willing to negotiate price and has one room left in a shared cabin that's available for long term accommodation. I am excited and a little scared and, as usual, am getting on a plane without quite knowing what I'm getting into.

When I was living in Leipzig with Emma's family, her four year-old daughter, Hannah, and I had a conversation about how I was going to be going to Berlin for a few weeks. Leipzig is about an hour from Berlin so Emma and I had talked about the possibility that her family could visit me there. Hannah was upset that I was leaving, and I brought this up as a possibility.

"Berlin isn't too far away," I told her. "Maybe one day you can come visit me there."
"I don't know." Hannah said, "I have to ask my parents."
"That's probably a good idea." I told her.
I thought we were done with the conversation, but a few minutes later she said, "I don't know. I don't know what it's like there."
"I don't either." I told her. "But I think it will be a big city, like Leipzig. With a lot of shops and museums and cars."
She thought about it some more.
"Will there be rocks there?"

I'm in Hannah's boat right now. I don't know what it's like there, and I have a much foggier picture of Lusaka in my mind than I did of Berlin. But I'm realizing that often the idea of not knowing is enough to keep you from going in the first place. Hannah's only four, but I hope that one day she will go to Berlin and that she will remember it. I hope one day she'll be able to retrace her photos and writing and souvenirs and will then be able to say, "I know what it's like there." I hope she finds rocks. But most importantly, I hope that she doesn't let the fear of not knowing keep her home.

It's a big world out there and there is so much to do and see. So many jaunts and getaways and sashays and forays. So many pleasure trips, so many excursions.

Here we go again.

Photos from a last 36 hours in Istanbul:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Name Post: Germany Retrospective

Taken on a trip to the Sanssouci Castle in Potsdamn

It is a gorgeous day in Istanbul. Bree just got on an airport shuttle and I’ve spent the morning wandering around, alone again, but completely content that it’s the first day in months where I don’t need to wear a jacket. Sundays feel a little quiet here, despite the size of the city. The grand bazaar, as well as many smaller shops, are closed and the only people out seem to be tourists and a small crew filming a Turkish TV show by the café where I’m currently sitting.

I’m not quite sure where the time has gone, but tomorrow I’m transitioning to my fifth project country. I thought that as I look ahead to names in Zambia, it might help to do a little looking backwards at Germany as well, to (at least try to) form some conclusions before I head out again.


Germany was, undoubtedly, the country that has been easiest to do my research in (at least in the way that I’m used to doing research). This is partially because out of all the countries I’ve been to so far, the academic structures and institutions in place are the most similar to those I’m used to in the states, and also because naming is a big topic of conversation there. It was thrilling to get to meet people who are in the field of onomastics (only after learning that it’s even a field to begin with). My research in Germany included a lot of interviews with professionals in this area, translating articles from the University of Leipzig, and time spent with parents and children in play groups and churches in Leipzig and Berlin.

Potsdam street.

I included Germany in my line up of countries because, before arriving, I thought that it would serve as my strictest example of name regulation from a governmental perspective. I think what I found when actually sitting down and analyzing the law (and interpretations of the law) with Germans was that in recent years, the law has come to mean a lot less. There is, I would argue, a lot of pressure to choose a certain kind of name in Germany, but I think the pressures may be more social than governmental. Although I do think it is easy to see the German law about names as a kind of national project (and I do think that it did originally fulfill this purpose), these days all parents have to do is prove that the name they want to use is a name somewhere. I wonder if there are any words or sounds left in the world that aren’t. I’m very curious to follow how the law may change in a few years, because, to be quite honest, I think it’s a law that’s unsustainable. When I was typing up the 2011 report on German names, I couldn’t help but wonder, for example, how there can be legal justification for the fact that “Pepsi-Cola” cannot be a name, but “Pepsi-Carola” is just fine.

To oversimplify where I’ve been so far, in Bali, names (first and foremost, anyway) seemed to represent your position within a family. They often represent who your ancestors are, and where you come from, and are imbued with religious purpose of what the gods and elders chose for you. In India, names come to represent stories. They stand for people but also for gods, goddesses, places, rivers and also, often, status. In Morocco, they similarly come to stand for different stories, for religious texts, for a struggle to define what constitutes a Moroccan (and I would add, Muslim,) identity, and who is and isn’t a part of this. In Germany, there seems a national struggle to place people based on name. Although you can give your child a name from any country, it is difficult and complicated to do this without also clearly indicating the gender of the child, which, according to the standesamts, is most clearly done with the addition of an obviously feminine or masculine (and therefore, most often German second name).

I wonder if in part, it is the German population, a population who is currently trying to figure out their own national and cultural identities in a changing world, that is fuelling this law. I was amazed that out of all of the parents I spoke with in Germany out of about thirty parents, only two felt that the law should be abolished and parents should have free rein to name their child anything they wanted. Most parents were concerned that without this law, people would give their children names that would lead to ridicule and/or be offensive in a German context. I think the question of what names are appropriate in a German context becomes very complicated, however.

One frequent comment I got from parents when discussing the German name law was that a foreign-sounding first name just “wouldn’t sound right” with a German last name. One of them used the example of a girl named, “Monqiue Chantal Müller.” One the one hand, I understand entirely what they mean. Despite my liberal biases, I sometimes question the naming decisions of American parents that often seem to exotify names from other cultures that they themselves don’t belong to. But I also wonder, in the example given, how many Americans actually would hear a difference in the name “Monique Chantal Müller”? How many of them would be able to articulate that the first two names were French, and the last name typically German, and together, and that together, the name was a strange mash up of cultures? Maybe that’s not giving Americans that much credit, but if I heard that name in the US, I wouldn’t think much of it. (After all, my own name is a strange mash up of old-fashioned English/Greek with an unwieldy amount of typical Danish thrown in there).

That most Americans (I think) wouldn’t question the cultural mash up of a name like “Monique Chantal Müller” is partially because, of course, most Americans are not as aware of linguistic differences in Europe as most Europeans are. But I wonder if this is also simply because most names in the United States are already cultural mash ups of some kind. We hear names like “Shanti Smith” and “Sheng Rodriguez” and for the most part, we don’t bat an eye.

This is not to celebrate Americans for their open-mindedness (although I have to say that nearly seven months out of the country will do wonders for cultivating the patriotic spirit), but to explain why, I think, in some ways I’m unable to understand these concerns. The idea of a first name “going with” a last name based on the criteria that they originate from the same culture or nation is an idea that I think is expressed in very few names in the United States.

I also can’t help but note that certain names, according to these parents, seem more “okay” with German sounding last names than others. One mother talked about how she gave her daughter a typically Scandinavian name, but in the next sentence, talked about how “foreign names” sound strange with German last names. I can’t help but wonder, how are we defining what names are foreign then?

This idea of foreign versus German names becomes even more loaded when we consider that so often we talk about if a kid “looks like” their name (“She looks like SUCH a Rachel”, You could be a Tess”, Well he was born and we just knew he wasn’t a Charlie after all”). When names cross cultures, questions of kids “looking like” their names get a lot bigger and a lot more complicated. If you meet someone whose physical appearance clearly does not match what you know to be the linguistic or ethnic origin of their name, you often have questions. But I shudder to think that this means this person should not have been given that name.

One German mother told me she thought that, “Some names would just looks strange on these kids…like an African bush name on a blond baby.”

There is clearly an element of race in this. And power. In every country I have gone to, I have heard “American” names. It is no surprise to people to be reminded that it is often our celebrities, our politicians, our priorities, that are being spread worldwide. But it is a reminder that these are also being reflected in names. In Bali, I met one guy who named his two kids “Amanda” and “Yoga”, because he knew these were words that westerners in Bali liked. In India, some middle/upper class parents choose American names in the hopes that if their kids went to the states, they’d have an easier time. In Morocco, French and American names are in vogue for similar reasons, and in Germany, it seems that American names may be more acceptable than other names (these so –called “African bush names” for example), because of the question of race.

In other words, the message I’m getting from people is often that it is okay for certain names to cross cultures, but not others.

If I had had the courage, what I would have asked that mother is if she would have the same discomfort with an Indonesian baby being given the name Amanda, or a Zambian baby being named Emma. We are used to certain names crossing cultures, and I think this is (indirectly) reflected in the German name laws. If the name a parent chooses is a name from outside Germany, you need to go to greater lengths to prove that it is a “valid name”, and also figure out a way to make the name indicative of a specific gender to a German population.

Not to take this to a dark place, but these comments are particularly eerie to me in a place that has such a tumultuous history of figuring out who belongs here and who doesn’t. This is not to suggest that parents who prefer the sound of names to be consistent (keeping “Monique Chantal” with a French last name, and sticking “Müller” with “Birgit”, let’s say) are not well aware of this. I also don’t think these mothers are suggesting that names from different cultures don’t belong in Germany, but once again, I am struck by Professor Gerhards' idea that often our taste for names is shaped by so much beyond our control, and controlled by so much history.

Frozen river in Potsdam.

The line for what makes a name in Germany is already rapidly being blurred. I think exceptions to the German law are becoming the rule. When I walked down streets in Berlin I saw dozens of Turkish donner shops and signs for Moroccan fruit and Vietnamese noodles. There were social activists all over the city who are fighting for redefinitions of gender constructs and argue in favor of people who don’t want to define themselves within those lines. Right now the law about names in Germany requests that people are easily identified by these lines: by gender, by nationality, by cultural background.

I wonder how much the German naming law will keep making exceptions for names that are unusual in a German context, and when they may realize that their battle might be futile.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Istanbul Detour

My sister pointed out to me this week that of all the cities in the world, Istanbul (not Constantinople) is one that is famous for changing its name

Despite this, the last few days have had a lot less to do with my project and a lot more to do with celebrating my 23rd birthday. Istanbul has completely fit the bill. I feel enormously lucky to have had this week’s vacation before heading onto my next project country, and enormously lucky to have a sister who will fly so far to help me celebrate.

Self-proclaimed "birthday bread" on our first night in Istanbul.

And then celebrate some more.

At our favorite (i.e. out of this world kind of good) restaurant on the Asian side of the city, "Ciya."

Birthday "cake" part II (at Ciya) included candied eggplant, pumpkin with tahini, a pistachio & tree root pastry and oregano thyme tea. I kid you not.

Let me first say that Istanbul is a pretty spectacular city. It’s become a popular tourist destination in the last few years and I think it rightfully deserves this reputation. It has ridiculously chic streets with a huge international population looking for entertainment on Friday nights next to breathtaking ocean views and mosques turned churches turned mosques that seem to defy the laws of gravity. It is phenomenal to be in a place with such an incredible amount of history and what I like about Istanbul is that you don’t need to go to a museum to learn about it. It seems that every building, every street corner, and every person has some kind of story. I guess when you live in a place that’s been inhabited for 5,000 years and was the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, stories are not hard to find.

Not to mention the fact that Istanbul sure knows how to make a building.

The Blue Mosque:

The Hagia Sofia:

And a lot of other beautiful things:

We had a week of darting back and forth on the Bosphorous strait marveling at the fact that we could be in the same city, but in two different continents. In a ridiculous small world coincidence (which I've been learning this year are actually the norm), we ran into a woman who was in Bree's Swarthmore class in the cafe of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. (In retrospect, of course the cafe of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum would be the place to find former Swatties abroad). We spent a few days together exploring an old harem, hiking to the top of castle ruins on a hill, and catching up on Swarthmore gossip.

Bree & Kathy, both Swarthmore '07.

Recently, life has felt like a lot of logistics and planning and transitions, and this week has been a breath of fresh air and reminded me of the beauty of this year. It feels good to be an explorer here, to be constantly learning, seeing, tasting and talking. It feels good to be able to share even just a week with someone, especially someone who has known me since the day I was born.

Thanks for coming, Bree. It's going to be hard to say goodbye.

Pictured below: the trials and tribulations of putting on a headscarf before entering the Blue Mosque.