Friday, August 31, 2012


Home. (Burlington, VT ).

My Dear Readers,

Below you will find the final report I just completed for the Watson Foundation as well a few photos from the last quarter of my year.  It's a good deal longer than the other quarterly reports I've written this year, so brace yourself.

I think this report will serve as the bittersweet ending to this blog. I have enjoyed sharing stories and photos with you all so much, that I doubt it will be the last time I keep a blog, but I think it's the end of Names Across Nations. I will, of course, post here and let you know if I continue on my research on names in a different medium, or blog about my life in general somewhere else. If you're finding this blog after its completion and have questions about the Watson Fellowship, or suggestions, comments, or ideas about research on names, you can always send me an e-mail at

It is sad for me to say goodbye here because I have been so very grateful for the support and encouragement of my readers. Despite the complaints about the overwhelmingly tech-heavy world we live in, having a way to communicate with the people I care about (as well as strangers-turned-friends who stumbled upon this), was not only a gift but a necessity on such an independent year. You all have been the most supportive, thought-provoking, and dedicated readers that I could have hoped for. Thanks to this blog, I was able to be connected to a couple at a Pastor Training College in Zambia who invited me into their home, and I was able to be connected to my grandparents in Massachusetts, who read my entries aloud to each other.

It's been such a gift to share this journey with you all. As you'll read in my final report, I've been saying a lot of these lately, but seriously, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

With love,

Currently on display in my backyard (Thank you, Uncle Per).

September 1, 2012
To the Watson Fellowship Office,
                It is so lovely to be writing to you now that I can finally envision who will be reading it on the other end.  Hello from Burlington, Vermont, where, after a month of trips to see friends and attend weddings, a family vacation in Prince Edward Island, and of course, the fleeting and somewhat magical Watson conference, I am finally settling back home. Some things are taking longer to adapt to than others. Having two people who willingly feed me and don’t charge me rent has been an easy adjustment; overwhelming American grocery stores and the size of my closet, not so much.  I’m also getting used to being here without my family’s beloved dog, Cally, who died while I was on the last few days of my Watson year.
                The places where I sat down to write my other quarterly reports (Hyderabad, India, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Dublin, Ireland), feel a far cry from my parents’ couch.  When I last wrote one of these (what feels like ages ago), I had just begun my time in project country #6: Ireland.  Soon after I wrote, I moved to Belfast where I lived with a wonderful woman, Tricia, and her seven year-old daughter, Gaby, and spent four weeks looking into the role names play in religious conflict there. Tricia works at the WAVE Trauma Center in downtown Belfast, a cross-community care organization that offers support to people who have been bereaved, injured or traumatized as a result of the Troubles.  Her students at WAVE, who were from Protestant and Catholic families, were a great resource for me.  Several of them had stories from their childhoods about casual name changes they would undergo on a daily basis at their parents’ encouragement. A boy named Terrance, for example, went by the more Protestant-sounding name of “Billy” when walking to school through certain neighborhoods in order to avoid trouble.  It was distressing to learn about Belfast’s recent history especially because it happened  in a place that, in some ways, felt so much like home.
                I used my rainy days in Belfast to meet with professors at Queen’s University about these questions and even had the opportunity to meet with one of my favorite all-time poets, Medbh McGuckian, and talk to her about names. I was continually surprised by the role names play in the Irish tourism industry as well. I met with several historians who explained that because of the remarkable size of the Irish diaspora, tracing names and researching genealogy are large draws for many visitors and present commercial opportunities.   I used my sunny days there to go hiking and bouldering with Tricia and Gaby. Being in the mountains made me feel the closest to home that I had been all year.  I used Gaby as an excuse to explore the city and participate in kid-centered events like the outdoor Festival of Fools and visiting the new Titanic museum.   In exchange, Gaby gave me the title of “adopted sister” on day one and filled me in on all the Lady Gaga songs I had been missing for the last nine months outside of the United States. She was surprised (and perhaps slightly disappointed) to learn that I didn’t speak exactly like the American teenagers she watched on the Disney Channel.        
I spent my last few weeks in Ireland in the western part of the country. Galway felt the most stereotypically “Irish” of any place I’d been to so far, and I took in the great music, friendly populace, beautiful language and seaside. A highlight was meeting with members of the Irish Traveling community while I was there. They told me about their own naming traditions, and how Travelers have specific surnames that are passed on and have become a basis for discrimination.  They also told me that the custom of passing on first names in families was so common a practice within their community that they have an expression for it: getting “titled.”   The stability that “getting titled” provided in uniting generations seemed especially important when in the midst of a fluid lifestyle.  Interestingly, they told me that “Nell” was a common Traveler name, and they had never met a settled person who wore it before.
On June 5th, I took a short flight to Reykjavik and began to make a home for myself in what would be my last country of the year. I was rendered speechless by Iceland’s sheer beauty and between the gorgeous weather, colorful houses and remarkably safe streets, I found it to be one of the easiest places to be a traveler that I’d been to thus far.  It’s also a great place to study names. Similar to what I found in Germany, names in  Iceland are governmentally regulated. An official Naming Committee  approves the names of all babies born in Iceland and follows strict rules about how names are conjugated to fit with the grammar of the language. Names are also regulated based on gender of the child, spelling, and meaning.
Because I had plenty of time in Reykjavik and language wasn’t a challenge, I was able to meet with a wide variety of people about the topic. From Guðrún Kvaran, the former chair of the Icelandic Naming committee, to Pastor Sigurður Árni Þórðarson, a priest who baptizes babies and is figuring out his own personal and legal responsibility in terms of the names he baptizes them with, to young parents I met through friends. Some of my most interesting conversations were with immigrants to Iceland who were trying to make a place for themselves in a homogeneous place. Before 1996, immigrants were required to change their names to Icelandic ones in order to gain citizenship. Even today, babies born in Iceland must have Icelandic names regardless of where their parents are from. As you can imagine, with increasing numbers of immigrants to Iceland, it’s a controversial policy.
It would be a waste to be in Iceland without sampling some of its magnificent landscapes, so in addition to my research, I did my fair share of traipsing around volcanoes and glaciers, never quite believing my eyes. I spent the two months I was there trying to work on my knitting skills like the rest of the population, and trying to adjust to the disorienting 24-hours of sunlight.  I was also the lucky to meet Sarah Brownsberger, a poet and Watson Fellow of the class of 1981 who was currently living in Iceland and who invited me over because, as she put it, “you should always feed a Watson.”
The last month in my Watson year was, counter-intuitively, one of my hardest.  Because, on the grand timeline of the year I was so close to home, it felt hard to be forming new relationships I knew would soon end.  Constantly investing in new places and new people felt more exhausting than it had before. My emotions seemed to swing wildly between aching for home, feeling like I needed to take advantage of everything while I still could, and already anticipating the loss that this year’s end would be.  The last three months of my year was the only chunk of time that was spent exclusively in Europe, and the slightly more familiar systems and foods made me feel much closer to home (psychologically and geographically), than I had been up to that point. Because issues of personal safety and health were less at the forefront of my mind than they may have been in other places, in some ways, it was harder to keep my mind busy and not worry about what I’d face when I got home. Finally, on July 27th, the date I had occasionally counted down to but never believed would actually come, I flew home.
In retrospect, my first few days home in Vermont between when I arrived back in the states and attended the Watson conference were spent in a bit of a haze. I kept myself busy stuffing old clothes into bags for Goodwill, while rapidly trying to hang onto the “Watson year self” I had developed; one that was slipping away at an alarming rate now that I was back in my adolescent bedroom. The conference provided some much needed closure, a refreshing reassurance that this experience would forever be a part of my life, and the chance to be surrounded by some of the most interesting, kind, and passionate people I had ever met. Above all, I was so profoundly humbled to be in their company.
As evidenced by the fact that I still can’t get through more than thirty seconds of the Watson conference video without tears running down my face, the experience is still quite raw. I can’t really believe I’ve already been back in the states for over four weeks now.  I am just beginning to process what a gift this was, how, perhaps in ways that are only obvious to me, it has rattled, shaked, and transformed me to the core.  Burlington, Vermont feels, in some ways, like an entirely different city than the one I left, but I think it might just be me.   
I will admit that writing this final report was somewhat of a struggle for me. On some subconscious level I knew that once I wrote it I’d be closing the book of this year, even though, as many people reassured us at the conference, the Watson experience will be a lens through which I look at the world for the rest of my life.  Beyond this fear of letting go, however, was also the knowledge that I’d never be able to adequately express all I had to say to the Watson Foundation. How exactly do you thank someone for giving you an experience that most people never have in their lifetimes? For having the trust to give me some a generous sum of money and such enormous freedom? To have supported and encouraged me so very much along the way? There is a sense of guilt that comes with having this experience at 23, one that others only dream of, and also from being in so many places where people have so few of the opportunities, and even basic living conditions that I take for granted.  Life can be profoundly unfair sometimes.
Only when sitting down to write this did the irony dawn on me that this was a challenge I faced all year long.  When strings of old Indian women would hand me coconut after coconut to drink, when a stranger in Berlin said I could live with her for a month, free of charge, when people welcomed me into their homes and offices and market stalls with open arms to talk to me about their names, and in doing so, about what they held dear. I faced this challenge over and over again. I feel I’ll never quite deserve all of the incredible goodness the world has offered me, but time and time again as I left each place, I learned to accept it, with open arms right back. To smile and say “thank you”  and make a mental note to pay it forward somewhere, somehow, and accept that giving is a gift too.  This year has left me feeling deeply indebted to the world, and guilt aside, I’m thinking this might not be a bad way to go about my life in it.      
In some ways, it was a year of discomfort. My first night back in the U.S., climbing into my bed, it was as if a physical weight had completely dropped off my chest. I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying around this weight of responsibility, of being slightly on edge all year, until it had evaporated.  I came face to face with many realities that I hadn’t come to terms with before, and it took being there to realize my own power to do so. Things that I would never have done voluntarily arose out of necessity, and I recognized that they were within me all along. I found the language to console a man after his father had died.  I rode on the backs of motorcycles because that was simply how I needed to get around. I went to dinner parties where no one spoke my language and I laughed when everybody else laughed and nodded as if I understood.  I learned to elbow my way to the front of lines, to deal with taunts and stares, when to cheat the system to get a visa extension, when to go to a clinic.  I learned how much I loved to be alone. I learned that relationships were worth having, even when you had to walk away from them too soon. I learned to feel patriotic about where I came from. I learned to give myself structure in an unstructured world; to redefine productivity, the true meaning of independence.  
Words were a theme for me this year. As I studied names and their meanings, and got wrapped up in informal interviews and conversations, these thoughts would swim around in my brain until I would go home and write about them. I feel like I rediscovered myself as a writer while simultaneously realizing I could find a common language without words. I learned many new languages this year; not just bits of Indonesian and Moroccan Arabic and Icelandic, but also more metaphorical languages. I learned the complicated language of travelers discussing options for malarial pills, and the language of aggressive bargaining in market stalls and medinas.  And most of all, the meaning of names.
I loved my research. I’m proud of some of the writing that came out of it. I’m not sure if I’ll try to continue on my exploration of names in a formal way or not, but I might, because I think what I found was interesting and unusual, and, at the heart of it, so very human. I loved hearing stories. I loved seeing the light in people’s eyes when they told me about how they named their children. I loved making people feel like what they had to say about it was worth telling and worth being listened to.  I loved the family stories passed on, the cultural traditions, the strings of syllables that formed the sounds they called each other by and that somehow, regardless of literal meaning, always meant love.  
When people ask me how this year was, the most honest response I have yet to come up with is “full.” Every moment of sadness felt miserable, every moment of happiness was exuberant.  I was laughing with some fellow Watsons at the conference that at times it seemed like our emotional lives were akin to those of an extremely hormonal pregnant woman. I would cry or laugh all the time, seemingly for no reason. When the simple task of finding & buying a new bottle of shampoo is overwhelmingly difficult, the successes are all the more powerful.
 I’m hesitant to talk about the idea of being full because “living life fully” is such a cliché at this point. But the definitions I created for myself of living a full life this year were complicated and deliberate. It wasn’t just about saying yes more than I said no (though that was certainly a part of it), but also about addressing things head on. A full life is one that is full of discomfort and extremes as much as it is about seizing the day.  It’s about being mindful and sitting with uncertainty but also about being unafraid to talk openly about race and gender and politics and religion, even if you’re scared you might not have the adequate language to do so.  
And perhaps because I had the knowledge that I was living a full life, somehow the extremes of emotions created a kind of balance; discomfort turned into comfort.   I wrote in my last report about the invincibility that arose in realizing I could land anywhere, and be just fine, (metaphorically or physically). This year I learned to create a kind of sustainable happiness. This is not to say that I didn’t have bad days, but that I knew I could create for myself a life that was worth living and that I was holding on to fiercely and gratefully.  Maybe I would have arrived at this point, so free of anxiety, so full of wonder about the world, the people in it, and myself, at some point in my life, but the Watson gave me the gift of reaching this peak while I still have a lot left of it to live. I’ve learned to listen to myself, to figure out what defines me, even (or especially) when everything around me is changing.  I’ve learned my contributions are worthwhile, my head and my heart are full, and I can belong anywhere and everywhere.
My parents are amazed that I am home, with no plans set, and stress-free. I have the confidence that when I need to move onto the next thing, whatever it may be, I will.  I know that whatever decision I make about what to do next, I will somehow turn it into the right decision, at least temporarily, because that’s just how we keep moving through our lives day after day.  There is an immense feeling of liberation that comes from seeing that there are so many different ways to live a life in this world. You realize you can’t really get it wrong.
For now I’ll keep writing, haphazardly applying to jobs in east coast cities that look interesting, enjoying the beginning signs of fall in Vermont, and replaying the Watson video until I’m ready to move on. I know my journey is not over.  I know that these experiences will, somehow, keep unfolding and surprising me. Sometimes the year feels like a dream, or something that happened in another lifetime. At other moments things come back to me so strongly; the taste of a Balinese coconut pancake, the hot beads of sweat on my forehead in a forest in Kerala, the lights of the Berlinale film festival.  I am savoring these memories, knowing they’ve somehow transformed me into a person who is in and of this world. I’m not sure how this year will continue to affect and transform me, only that it will inevitably continue to do so. As to what I’ll answer when people ask me what I’ll do with this experience, I’ll quote a favorite author, Cheryl Strayed, who once said to respond to questions such as these by saying, Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”  
It’s mattered quite a lot.
            Thank you for everything. 

-City Hall & Downtown Belfast
-At the top of Cave Hill, Belfast
-Cave Hill, with Gaby and Jack the dog (Belfast, Northern Ireland)
-Saying goodbye to my new Irish family; with Tricia & Gaby in Belfast
-Seaside & Houses in Galway, Ireland
-Cows in Connemara, Ireland
-Downtown Reykjavik (arrival in my last country!)
-In Reykjavik next to a wall of Icelandic names!
-In my backyard at MIDNIGHT in Reykjavik (please note how amazingly light it is outside AND my new Icelandic sweater).
-On a hill in Vik, Iceland.
-In Reynisfjara black sand beach (Vik, Iceland).

Monday, August 13, 2012

Watson By Numbers

 Greetings from PEI, Canada, where I've spent a sliver of every summer since I was five.
     I just realized I never posted a 12-month Watsoversary. There was a lot going on.
                During my 11th and 12th months abroad, I saw a free outdoor performance of Of Monsters and Men. I picked lupines on the side of the highway and figured out the Reykjavik bus system. I ate roast lamb at the homes of two different Icelandic families, I met with the former chair of the national naming committee. I stayed out until 5am and discovered eerily sunlit nightlife, went to a gallery opening, rode Icelandic horses. I received an Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa) as a gift and interviewed Iceland’s first female priest. I visited a summer home in Thingvellir that was full of red wine and patriotic singalongs.  I visited the Blue Lagoon, tried (and gagged on) rotten shark, said my goodbyes. I came home.
                I’m now somewhere between month 12 and month 13, because, as we learned/realized at the Watson conference last week, your Watson begins when you start applying and you’re on it for the rest of your life. The only difference is that after a year, the money runs out.
                The returning fellows conference in Wisconsin made for some of the most wonderfully intense days of my life. I was humbled to be in the company of such smart and innovative people; so caught up in the warmth and kindness that emanated from every room I walked into. Between the forty of us, we covered seventy-one countries this year. Since the founding of the fellowship in 1968, there have been over 2700 Watson fellows--we are now in their midst.  I got to see some of the faces behind the foundation, learn more about how the fellowship works, and hear about Thomas J. Watson, Sr. himself.  I met many former Watson fellows and listened to how this experience has continued to affect them (some in more direct ways than others) throughout their lives.
                I was deeply honored to be in the company of such incredible people. 

 This is the ONE photo I remembered to take during the conference...right before the opening cocktail reception with 2 of my roommates: Jessica Emory & Keren Yohannes. 

                 I think I can speak for all forty of us when I say that the conference helped us talk about our experiences in a way we hadn’t really wanted to (or knew how to) before. We were surrounded by people who not only understood the last year, but had lived it. Conversation topics ranged from digestive problems and bodily fluids to romance to language slips to serendipity, to the guilt that a lot of us were carrying. Guilt that comes from being a person of privilege meeting and living with people without many of the same privileges, and guilt that arises in our own country as we realize we had this $25,000 experience for our own personal development, and aren’t quite sure what to do with this gift. 

 After the conference...a group of us killing time at the Appleton airport. What a joy it was to travel WITH people. 

One of the things we gained from the conference (besides great conversation, shirts and water bottles), was a little red book with each of our photos and project descriptions. At the front, the foundation writes about the Watson as a year of “transformational exposure, intellectual entrepreneurship and experiential learning that contributes deeply to their [fellows] becoming more humane and effective participants in the world community.”
                We talked a lot about what this means and how we’ll all arrive at our own, individual, and often ambiguous answers.  People are always somewhat shocked when I tell them there is no pressure to “produce” anything from the Watson; but in some ways, I wonder if the lack of this requirement makes us more thoughtful about defining one for ourselves.  This might mean writing more about our research, looking for jobs with international aid organizations, or just living more thoughtful, examined lives in the U.S.  I know even if I do nothing further with this name research, my Watson experiences are going to profoundly shape how I see the world for the rest of my life. I will be a different kind of thinker, a different kind of writer, a different kind of daughter, a different kind of parent, all because of the journey I was lucky enough to take. 

Reunited with my beloved friend, Hadley, who came to visit me on PEI. She is a person who understands me like no other, and who is about to take a year-long journey to Amman, Jordan. I can only hope I can be as transcontinentally supportive, loving, and hilarious for her as she was for me. I am so excited for what lies ahead. (But in the future let's work on being in the same country at the same time).

                I’m still working on coming to terms with the past year, with what a gift it was, with how I will somehow merge who I am at home with who I was over the last twelve months. I’ll be home in Vermont with my parents over the coming weeks (months?) going over these questions and making lots of trips to see the people I’ve loved and missed. I’m taking it one step at a time. I have a final report due to the foundation in a few weeks that I’ll share with you then. I’m sure it will be full of more reflections and conclusions than I’m capable of making right now (I have, after all, only been back for 2 weeks—a good chunk of which has been spent at the returning fellows conference and, now, in Prince Edward Island, Canada…) Here is what I do know, some broken down pieces of a monumental year: 

Watson By Numbers: 

Days spent outside of the United States: 365

Blog posts: 163 (this makes 164)

Project country where I spent the most money on food: Ireland

Project country where I spent the least money on food: India

Visits to the hospital: 1

Broken kindles: 2

Broken cameras: 1

Packages of stuff mailed home: 7

Items Stolen: 0

Number of Project Countries: 7 (8 if we count Northern Ireland as the United Kingdom)

Longest Time in a Project Country: 55 days (Tie between India and Morocco)

Shortest Time in a Project Country: 35 days (Germany...if I count Ireland and Northern Ireland as the same country). 

Number of Countries Set Foot On: 16 (USA, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Germany, Denmark, Turkey, South Africa, Zambia, United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland).

Number of Countries Where I Spent at Least a Night: 12 (Singapore, Indonesia, India, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Germany, Denmark, Turkey, Zambia, United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland). 

Number of Different Rooms I Spent a Night: 60
  (I’m trying to figure out a way to phrase the above that makes me seem more worldly and less promiscuous).

Number of these rooms I stayed in for free: 23 of 60
Number of these rooms that were on trains or planes: 7 of 60
Average number of nights in each room: 6
Number of Different Airlines Flown:  14 (+1 mircolight flight above Victoria Falls)

Number of Dramatic Haircuts: 1

Number of Journals Filled: 4

Number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites Visited: 15

Total pageviews of my blog: 30, 673

Number of names encountered: Too many to count. 

Random acts of kindness: WAY too many to count. 

Books Read:

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Slow Man, J.M. Coetzee
Life Before Man, Margaret Atwood
Flesh and Blood, Michael Cunningham
An Equal Music, Vikram Seth
Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat
The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
The Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks & Heidi Pitlor
The Good German, Joseph Hanon
Insomnia, Aamer Hussein
Molly Fox’s Birthday, Deirdre Madden
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Light on Snow, Anita Shreve
Midnight Missionary, Kleinboer
Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver
Dubliners, James Joyce
Imperfect Birds, Anne Lamott
A Matter of Taste, Stanley Lieberson
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The Likeness, Tana French
Independent People, Halldor Laxness
Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I'm still putting the pieces together, but I feel so very whole. 

  Photo above: reunited with my grandmother. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


It's really good to be here.

I really love this place.

It feels strange, but good. I've forgotten certain things. I wandered around our kitchen for ten minutes this morning trying to remember where the toaster was. I did a sink full of dishes by hand before being reminded we have a dishwasher. I text like someone many decades older than I am. My closet feels overwhelming.

As the mom of a dear friend said to me the other evening, "there is no in between." You're either there, or you're here. I went from being so on my own, on a long year in places so far, to being completely and utterly home. You're either away or you're not. There is no in between.

 Downtown Burlington
I was worried everything would feel  the same when I got back, and that this would bother me because I wanted more tangible proof that this year happened. But I'm finding that actually everything feels really different, even just the way I move about these familiar spaces. 

It's been a nice few days. Driving around Vermont with my Dad, satisfying culinary cravings at farmers' markets and berry farms, painstakingly unpacking boxes I had sent home throughout the year, folding old clothes from high school and driving them to Goodwill.


I hadn't realized until now, being home and in a different mode, just how much energy the whole Watson persona took. Even when there were moments I felt comfortable and relaxed, you can't "turn off" in the same way when you're traveling solo and responsible for everything. I hadn't fully realized what a different norm that was. Merging these different ways of being in the world is my new challenge.

I'm in Burlington all too briefly. Early Thursday morning I fly out again, this time to Wisconsin, for the returning fellows conference. I'll get to meet the 39 other Watson fellows who have had their own journeys and experiences and adventures. I'll be back on Sunday and then early Monday morning, I'll head up to Prince Edward Island, Canada to join the rest of my family (and my beloved friend Hadley) in our traditional summer setting.

I'm not quite sure about the fate of this blog, but I will say that (for your sake, and mostly for mine), I'm not going to quit cold turkey. I'll let you know how the conference goes and how settling back in here feels, but posts will be more sporadic.

In the meantime, I have a lot of catching up to do.

Postcards my parents put up.
 Pile of things I acquired

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Homeward Bound

Today's illogical itinerary:

Reykjavik --> Boston --> Philadelphia --> BURLINGTON, VERMONT.

It's going to be such a long day.

It's going to be SO DAMN GOOD.  

I'm gonna get back home tonight...

I did it, guys! I really did it!!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


                Everything feels big right now.
     Come to think of it, “big” might be the best word to use when people ask me how my year was.
                Geographically. Emotionally. Calendrically.  
                I have less than 48 hours left in Reykjavik and less than 48 hours left of being “on my Watson year.”
                The joyous return I was already envisioning from a porch in Bali twelve months ago feels a bit more complicated. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so excited to go home that most nights I can’t sleep, but as it comes closer and closer to being a reality, I also have been realizing more and more that going home will also be  a loss.
Processing this ending has also been made more complicated as I try to mourn another loss. I’ve been having conversations with my parents over the last year about the health of our beloved family dog, Cally, and the end is, unfortunately, quite near.  They were hoping she would hold out until I was home so that I could see her one last time, but we’ve all decided that she’s in a lot of pain, and it makes the most sense to let her go before then.
I wasn’t sure whether to write about this turn of events on here or not. I don’t generally advocate for grieving through forms of social media (“RIPs” on Facebook statuses somehow diminish the sentiment, no matter how well-intentioned they are), but this is the way I’m able to talk to people this year. I wanted to let you know that this is the reason my countdown to home has become a bit more thorny.  
In a kind of cruel irony, Cally is going to be put to sleep on Friday, probably some time while I’m flying over the Atlantic Ocean.  My countdown to home has also become a countdown to losing her. 

The Watson Foundation has a rule about us not returning to the United States.  They even specify that the only reason they’d make an exception would be the death of a parent or a sibling. The rule seems irrational and ridiculously harsh, but I think I’ve begun to understand it more as I go along. I took it into consideration when I first decided to accept. I worried that something big and terrible would happen at home while I was abroad. I hadn’t thought about my dog.
                Talking about the loss of a pet is a difficult thing. We don’t really have the language to do so. I’ve been in places this year where people would have laughed if they had seen how upset I was about the death of a dog. We don’t have the language for grieving over animals; we want to acknowledge a loss while simultaneously acknowledging that there are bigger losses people face.
                It reminds me of when we first got Cally. My sister and I would melodramatically cling to her, proclaiming our love as if she understood us, and felt welcomed into the family through words alone. I remember countless conversations with my Dad where we tried to get him to say that he loved Cally. He would say something along the lines of being fond of her, or that she was a great dog, but there was a difference between the way he cared for Cally and the way he cared for us.  We would listen patiently but then wail, “But why don’t you love her?”
                We wanted absolutes. We didn’t understand that there can be different kinds of love, that she could be a part of our family even if we loved her in different ways than we loved each other.
                She has been a part of our family for the last fourteen years. She joined a home that was then the home of two girls, ages eight and eleven, who opened up a box on Christmas morning to find dog food and a leash and put together the pieces, hysterical with joy.  She had been painstakingly waited for, counted down for, loved before she even arrived.  I remember training her on snowy mornings, a clumsy ball of fur with black paws skidding on our kitchen floor in New York, small enough to stand on the top of the dishwasher while we were loading it and lick the plates. I remember being furious at her when she ripped up the pages of my new American Girl book, terrified when we took her to walk in the woods at Sugar Pond on a February morning and she slipped through some ice. My Dad put his coat on the ice and laid down on it, stretching out to distribute his weight and pull her out. That’s when we knew he loved her. 

She was a great dog.  She barked too much and was sometimes snappy with other dogs. Sometimes she chased cars, even if we’d run after her, yelling. But she was with us as we grew up, as great dogs should be. She was there for my parents when my sister and I went off to college. She was gentle with children and obligingly wore a pair of antlers when we’d walk her every Christmas Eve on Church Street. In periods of high school angst, if I was upset in my room, and my Mom knew I wouldn’t put up with any kind of consolation from her, she’d open the door to let Cally in instead. She’d wander over to my bed and lick the tears off my face. She adored her time on Prince Edward Island every summer as much as the rest of us, she learned to be a lover of water, chasing countless sticks and Frisbees through the waves, running on the beach.  She was agile, fast, beautiful. On Christmas mornings she opened her own presents wrapped up with tissue paper. She was remarkably good at it.  She was smart.
I can’t remember a time in my life before my family took walks together almost every evening or afternoon. I’m not sure if we’ve always been that way, or if it started with Cally. She gave us a reason to, to escape the house for a while as various combinations of the four of us would take time out of our separate lives, emerging from different rooms to walk her together.  I hope we still do that.
My mom says that Cally hasn’t been eating for a while now. She carries her up and down the stairs every day.  She asked me if I want to skype with Cally before Friday, to say goodbye to her, but the idea of skyping with a dog seems ludicrous and laughable. And maybe I’d rather remember her running on the beach anyway. 

I went jogging this morning down by the water, on what will probably be my last run in Reykjavik. It all hit me for the first time, because, apparently, when you’re miles away and hearing about a loss through gchat, it takes a couple days for it to sink in.
I finished my run and began crying, walked to a nearby park, red-faced and sweaty. People walked by and I tried to cover in some kind of elaborate stretching routine that would hide my face. I thought about the day I had ahead, of coffee dates and meals with people who are lovely and generous, but whom I barely know. I don’t want to talk to them about my dog. I don’t even want to talk to them about this year. Everything feels too personal, too impossible to even begin to describe. I don’t want their faces to be the ones at the other end of these particular conversations.  
I’m ready to go home. 

I walked back to my apartment, snot and sweat and tears blurred on my face, put on a smile, and opened the door to meet three Austrian tourists who had just arrived. 
Much as I can try to mentally prepare myself,  I have no way of knowing what it will actually feel like to be back in the U.S., coming to terms with my own ending, coming to terms with Cally’s. All I can do is go through the motions. Saying my goodbyes in Reykjavik cafes. Laundry. Passport. Flight confirmation. Packing. Then board a plane, take off, and trust that somehow, I’ll figure it out when I get there.
Just like I did a year ago. 

 ...There's a time to let it go.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Name Post: Voices of Iceland

I think I just had my last interview of the year. It’s the last one I have scheduled, anyway, and I want to keep it that way and hoard these last few days all to myself.  I still don’t know what (if anything) is to come of all of the conversations of this year or of my own relationship to this research and to this topic. I seem to fluctuate wildly between thinking I should go home and write a book with all of it immediately, and wanting to shut the cover of my black notebook and lay it to rest as this year comes to an end.
                And it has. When Katie and Isa were visiting me at the very beginning of my time in Iceland, we talked about how this topic is impossible to study without talking to people. You can’t (usually) learn someone’s name through observation alone. It requires a conversation, and, if the conversation is to be at all interesting or revealing, it requires a connection.  Studying names has given me a reason to talk to people, and a reason to travel. Even if those were the only reasons for studying names, they’ve made it a worthwhile topic.  
My last few weeks in Iceland have been filled by a steady flow of these conversations. I’m still working on how they all fit together, but I also think that in some ways, that’s what the Icelandic naming committee is currently figuring out too--how these different aspects of a changing Icelandic population work, where the lines are between cultural insularity and cultural acceptance, what it means to carry a name that breaks linguistic and grammatical rules, and if that even matters. I’m breaking down my recent interviews (the ones I haven't written about yet) into brief descriptions of what I think were their most interesting moments below.  Hopefully this gives you a sense of the questions that arise in discussing what constitutes an Icelandic name in 2012. 
Outdoor art in downtown Reykjavik

 Monument to civil disobedience outside the parliament to commemorate the protests following the 2008 economic crash.

 Sara & Olga
               Sara & Olga are two sisters who live out in Hafnarfjarðar. I met with them a few weeks ago and they kindly gave me breakfast and some pretty adorable babies to hold (it was all in all a great morning). They have three daughters between them and we talked about how they chose their names. 
              Sara’s daughter, Rafnhildur Sjorn, is six weeks old. She was going to be called “Marta” or “Isabella” until Sara took a look at her jet black hair and fierce, determined eyes. Rafnhildur is an old Valkyrie name that comes from the words “raven” and “battle.” The name “Sjorn” is Sara’s mother’s name. 
                Olga has two daughters, four year-old Úlfhildur Sjorn (the Sjorn again after her mother, and Úlfhildur meaning “battle of the wolves”), and one year-old Salvor Vega (Salvor meaning “sun season”).  She told me it’s taken her a while to decide on both of her daughters’ names. (Úlfhildur wasn’t named until she was six weeks old).  She felt it was a great responsibility, she told me. She said that she kept wondering, if “a baby makes a name, or a name makes a baby.” 
               Sara and Olga spent a large part of their childhoods in Sweden, and they said that at times their Icelandic names posed challenges.  Like in most Icelandic families, their names followed the patronymic system, which meant they all had different last names. In Sweden, their whole family decided to go by their father’s last name to make things less complicated. Olga also told me that in school she was self-conscious about being the only girl with her first name. “I really hated it,” she told me. “But then I started realizing that teachers always remembered it. I was the only Olga, and I got to make up what that name meant.” 
                We talked a bit about the patronymic system and how it worked. It struck me for the first time that Iceland was a place where, if you took your mother’s name, it was quite obvious.  In the states, if you go by your mother’s last name instead of your father’s, it can easily go unnoticed (“Smith” and “Garcia”, for example, are genderless, and could have come from either parent). In Iceland, however, since surnames are derived from first names, and first names are regulated by gender, a baby named  with the last name “Helgasdottir” as opposed to “Jonssdottir” would clearly be going by her mother’s name. There may be some stigmas surrounding this (stigmas that are starting to change as more and more people are opting to use the matrynomic).  Traditionally, however, having your mother’s last name could be an indication either that you have a radical feminist for a mother, or, to the delight of the gossiping Icelandic countryside, the father’s identity is unclear. 
                I recently heard a story that during World War II when there were many American and British soldiers in Iceland, many babies were being born to Icelandic women with the last name “Hermatthson” or “Hermathsdottir.” In Icelandic, “hermaður“ is the word for soldier, so these invented surnames conveinently left the identity of their non-Icelandic fathers unknown. 
                We got on this topic because Sara is raising Rafnhildur Sjorn on her own. Her full name is Rafnhildur Sjorn Sarasdottir.  We wondered whether Rafnhildur would face people making assumptions about her based on her surname, or whether by the time she’s going to school, it will be more commonplace. 
                Sara and Olga are fiercely against the regulations on names in Iceland.  They think they’re arbitrary and feel that often the reasons behind the naming committee’s decisions are vague and illogical. 
“A society is only a living society if it is willing to change,” Sara told me. She foresees many changes in Iceland’s near future. 

                I’ve already written a bit about my conversation with Maria, a Columbian woman who has been living in Iceland for the last twenty-two years. I wrote about her parents emigrating from Columbia to Iceland to join her, and about the pumpkin soup and sunshine in her backyard on a Monday afternoon.
 She told me about choosing names for her three Icelandic-Columbian children that would work in both places (Michael Luis, Sara Isabel, and Gabriel).  Her Icelandic husband had many traditions in his family about passing on names, but he insisted that they break them. “He wanted the kids names to show that they weren’t only Icelandic,” she told me. “He wants them to be proud of all parts of themselves.”
One experience that was particularly interesting to her as an outsider was following the Icelandic tradition of not revealing the baby’s name until the baptism. “I didn’t get it at first,” she told me. “I didn’t see what the big deal was.” She told me that in Columbia, the baby is usually named in utero, spoken to by that name, planned for. It seemed so strange to her to wait for months after the baby’s birth to reveal the name. “But I loved it.” She told me. “I did it with all my kids. It was such a fun surprise. Everyone was just so happy, and that way, no one can say they don’t like the name. When the priest says it, it’s there.”
Like Lani, Maria arrived in Iceland before the law changed that forced immigrants to choose Icelandic names for themselves in order to gain citizenship. Unlike Lani, she was one of the lucky ones. “Maria” worked perfectly in the Icelandic language and is on the approved list of names. “Maria” could cross cultures.
Maria knows lots of people who decided not to get citizenship in Iceland before the law changed. She has a friend from Bolivia, for example, who only recently got citizenship after twenty-eight years in the country. Before the law changed, he would just continually get his visa renewed, rather than change his name.
She told me about one time when she was in line at a government office watching a Vietnamese women in front of her. The Vietnamese woman was asked her name and told the official at the desk, “one second, I have to look it up.” She started shuffling through her purse, and Maria realized she must have adopted an Icelandic name formally, but had to look it up to remember what it actually was. It was an identity that existed on paper alone.
Maria thinks the regulations about names have gotten more and more flexible each year that she’s been here. She has started an organization for families who are new to Iceland, and she always finds it interesting what choices they make in terms of changing or keeping their names. Many of their Icelandic-born children’s names are approved, names Maria thinks would never have been approved when she first arrived.
“More Icelanders are traveling and that makes them think,” she told me. “They realize that they can travel around the world with their Icelandic name and people will call them by it. It doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t do the same for foreigners coming to Iceland.” 


                On the drive to Thingvellir National Park last week, I interviewed Tryggvi, my landlady’s partner and the namesake of his grandfather, a former prime minister of Iceland. He passed on the Icelandic tradition of choosing names for your kids after your grandparents. His three children are called Hildur Jacobina, Guðrún Lillja, and Agnar Björn, all names from his family or his ex-wife’s family.

                The Icelandic tradition of naming your children after your grandparents was so popular in his family that he has five cousins who are named Tryggvi as well.  We talked about this tradition and how Tryggvi thinks that when he was growing up in Iceland, families were more like clans. The names indicated who was related to who, and how they were related, and everyone knew what family was known for what.  Traditionally in Iceland, these names became important for questions of inheritance and marriage and family relationships. “Icelandic families had their own little mafia,” he joked.  
I’m starting to get a handle on just how small the population of Iceland is. Its one thing to know the number, and it’s another to be here and see how people operate in a place where everyone is so inter-connected. I realized today for the first time that the population of the state of Vermont is double that of Iceland.
                Tryggvi told me that the tradition of passing on names from within your family is dying out a bit, something that he thinks is quite sad. He thinks that more people are traveling and coming back to Iceland, and choosing not to use names from their families for their own children.  He believes names should continue to be regulated here. He doesn’t want all of these traditions to die out.
 I tend to be skeptical about the Icelandic name regulations, but I sympathized with Tryggvi on the rainy drive. At the heart of it all is the importance of a sense of belonging and of community, of a big Icelandic family. There’s a sadness that comes from realizing maybe today people are less interested in where they came from, more interested in where they are going.  

Auður Eir
My last interview was with Auður Eir, who happens to be Iceland’s first female priest. She’s somewhat of a celebrity here, but it’s a small country, and it turned out she knew Steingurther, who put us in touch. Auður kindly picked me up at my apartment on her way to work and we went to the “Kvenna Kirkjan” ("Women’s Church"),  that she runs downtown.  She talked to me about her four daughters’ names: Dalla, Yrsa, Elin Þöll, and Þjóðhildur. Dalla was chosen because it’s Auður’s mother's name and the name of the wife of the first Icelandic Lutheran Bishop. Yrsa is named after her sister, Þöll is the name for a small tree, and Auður thought it was very pretty combined with Elin. By the time Þjóðhildur came around, her oldest daughter, Dalla, was reading Icelandic history in school. She wanted to name her new baby sister Þjóðhildur after Leif Eriksson’s mother. Auður told her, “that is such a big name for such a little girl,” but now, she loves it.  She thinks Þjóðhildur has grown into her name.
For Auður, the naming committee is a gift. She told me that before it formed, she had to act as an informal committee herself.  
 “Before, I had to be the one to tell parents yes or no about whether they could have a name. I had to read the law and decide whether I could baptize a baby with that name or not.”  She was ordained in 1974, 17 years before the foundation of the naming committee.  “It was really hard to face the parents and tell them I couldn’t baptize the baby with that name, but it was my responsibility as an official.”
A few times, if she refused, the parents decided to go to another priest instead (some of them tended to be more flexible than others). She told me that in a few heartbreaking cases, she had been baptizing babies in a family for years, but then when someone came to her with a name she thought didn’t meet the standards, she had to refuse them. There have been three cases that she remembers where this happened and the family stopped speaking to her. She remembers every one.
The committee makes her job easier. There is a higher authority that approves or rejects a name, and she can turn to them to ask whether a name will go through—it is not up to her interpretation of the law alone.  But when I asked Auður about if she thought names here should be regulated, she wasn’t sure.  She thinks it’s important for names to work properly in the Icelandic language, and to preserve a kind of cultural identity, but she wonders if perhaps, people would self-regulate. She wonders if the rules should be there or if, as she put it, they could just “let it be.” She thinks that right now more international sounding names are popular, but she thinks these trends move in a circular fashion. She thinks that maybe as people become more global citizens, they might actually choose more Icelandic names for future generations.  It might happen on its own.
Auður confessed to me that baptisms are her favorite. “Weddings and confirmations are nice too,” she told me. “But baptisms are smaller. You can be with the whole family, talking, singing hymns. And then of course, there’s cake and coffee.” She told me that she loves hearing names, of seeing the happiness in families as they learn what their newest member will be called. “You hear your name so many times a day,” she told me. “People need to love their name.” 

           These conversations all happened individually, in different contexts; a woman’s church, apartment buildings, a car ride. Most of these people do not know each other, but their words may be most interesting when put in dialogue with each other, like most of the conversations I’ve had this year. These names have become part of an Icelandic cultural landscape, and the onomastic landscape that this year has been to me.  
I don’t think this will be the last time I write something about names. I might try to write some more overarching, cross-cultural posts when I get home about what I’ve learned about names this year in general.  
Or maybe not.
It’s the last name post for now.  I’m so grateful I had a reason to meet these people, people who have now defined who a Tryggvi or an Auður is, who have showed me the ways a Maria can cross borders, how a Sara and an Olga think and behave, how we all somehow ended up in this place, introducing ourselves to each other by name, and all that they encompass.