Here’s a topic I’ve been avoiding.

prince gun mic

This was the poster on my bedroom wall for most of my childhood

If you know me, or even if you just know the earlier version of this blog, you know I’m all about Prince. Since the earliest of my days, I’ve been moved by Prince’s funk. Long before I knew what he was talking about, I was choreographing song-specific dances in my bedroom for an audience of none. Before I started choosing my own controversies, I lived for all of his.

Oh, Prince. Continue reading

Register? Who, me?

Immigration matters? Uh, no thanks. Not interested.

Well, that’s been my approach pretty much the entire time I’ve been here. I was a student back in 2011. So when I moved from the U.S. to the Netherlands, the University handled everything with very little input from me. Aside from a bunch of fees and a delay when I first arrived, it was a pretty mindless process. From my residency status to my city registration, they had it covered. I received my registration details in the mail. I barely understood the purpose. And I just had to show up with my passport and smile (or not) to receive my residence permit card.

DSaxon NL Permit_front-001

For once, I was basking in the glow of privilege.* Continue reading

Fears, doubts, inspirations and pink Cadillacs

I may have made some mistakes. But isn’t there some sort of saying about life being about taking risks, making a mess of things, and somehow coming out on top – or happier – or wiser – or some shit like that? If not, such a saying should exist.

I was in the U.S. for a couple of months a little while ago. I traveled quite a bit while there, getting to see lots (though not all) of the important people, including my Mom. It was at my Mom’s when I started to have some doubts about returning to Amsterdam. In a safe refuge where I was fed, emotionally supported, and understood the language spoken, I wondered if it was time to close the chapter and wrap up the fantasy of living in the Netherlands.Perhaps all signs were directing me back to a stable and U.S.-based reality.

Continue reading

Con: not having a home

One of the major disadvantages to this quirky lifestyle I’ve created for myself is home instability.  When everything else is up in the air, not having a stable address just might be the worst part.  It’s probably the thing that would deter most people from choosing this route.  And I don’t blame them.

Occasionally I look back on some of my former apartments and try to remember what it felt like to be at home.  Places where I could have stayed for much longer.  But they rarely kept me for more than 3 years.  There was the cute, oddly-shaped Oakland  apartment with the red door.  I had a sliver of a view of Lake Merritt, a private entrance, and a back door, all of which made me think I was doing something.  In Philadelphia I had the nicest and cheapest (in retrospect) apartment, with a huge porch, two floors, a gigantic bedroom, and a view of one of my favorite Ethiopian restaurants.  Forget about everything else that may have been upsetting me at those times…they were the good ‘ole days!  I had a lease, some keys, and immediate access to all of my belongings.

Today, well, not so much.   Continue reading

Ups and downs of starting up

I haven’t been doing much traveling recently. I’m pretty much staying still in my modest, rented apartment in Paramaribo, Suriname.  Having placed myself on a tight weekly budget, and with lots of work to do, I figure as little movement as possible is my best option.  Now you’re probably picturing me locked in a room, trying to turn straw into gold.  If so, you’re not far off. It’s just…where’s Rumpelstiltskin when you need him?

So I’m here working on the nonprofit startup, Ancestors unKnown.  Maybe you’ve heard about it?  Introducing young people to family history research and the commonly overlooked history of the African Diaspora.  That’s the vision.  And it’s definitely becoming a reality, beginning here in Suriname and Charleston, S.C.

comic reflections

(from facebook)

Continue reading

Quiet return to Amsterdam

Some time has passed since I returned to Amsterdam.  And the dust is beginning to settle.  Or maybe it’s not dust and more a misty rain – not the weather you hoped for, but somehow still refreshing and welcome.

Before I left Suriname, I told some partial truths.  My emotional state (I only cried in front of a couple of people, don’t worry) and abrupt plans to leave required some explanation, of course.  But the actual explanation did not necessarily fit into Surinamese cultural norms.  A place where dogs never go inside and cats are mainly misunderstood street wanderers, Suriname was not as sympathetic to the needs of my ailing cat as you may have hoped or expected.

“You’re CAT?”  This was the reaction from the first two or three people to hear the true reason for my return to Amsterdam.  They had this way of emphasizing “CAT,” perhaps hoping I actually referred to my AUNT named Cat.  Or as if I had said, “I have to return to Amsterdam because my blankie got a tear.”

“Your BLANKIE?” – now that reaction I would understand.

But I didn’t appreciate the judgmental responses that implied my CAT was somehow less important than whatever I could accomplish during those remaining weeks in Suriname.  And though I may have been overly sensitive and took the reactions of people with genuinely poor hearing too personally, I decided my bleeding animal-lover heart should stand on guard.  So I  started telling others that a family member was gravely ill.  And I just needed to be in Amsterdam for her.  No one asked questions beyond that, for which I was thankful.  Because as I left it, I hadn’t lied.  I just, uhh, shaded.

And since I’ve been back, I’ve barely told anyone I’m here.  Not that it’s a secret.  It’s just easier if things remain quiet for a bit.  During this time when I was supposed to be in Suriname, accomplishing all types of magical, thesis-related research and writing, I have gone somewhat underground, off the grid, minding my own, re-grouping.  Living a comfortably homeless life until my apartment is available again (I was able to infringe on Zora’s accommodations when my lovely friend and her daughter were also willing to take me in), I have been going from the guest room to the library almost every day.  Rates of productivity may still waver.  But my focus has been brand new.  This quiet return has been good for me.

As for Zora, she’s not graceful yet.  But her recovery has been.  We’re both adjusting to her new circumstances.  And the future on 3 legs looks quite bright.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all of the well-wishes that have been sent our way.  It’s helpful to know that not everyone thinks I’m a hot mess with a torn blankie and poor judgment.

As for my apartment, I move back in tomorrow.  And all I want to do is sleep in my bed for 23 hours.

As for Suriname, plenty of stories were lost in my poor time management and bad news shuffle over the last couple of months.  I just have so much more to say and do related to the subject.  And I will share, I will.  But for now, I’ve realized that the month I spent in Suriname blew some major doors off their hinges.  And the direction of this already complicated life path has shifted yet again.

As for this new path I’m on…I see sunshine ahead. Lots of it.


The unexpected

I’m sitting in a corner of the Miami airport.  And I just paid 8 bucks for internet access. It was worth it just to see Zora on skype for a few minutes.  But I can’t deny that paying so much for the internet feels like a violation of my human rights.  Maybe this is something Obama can deal with in his (optimistically presumed) second term – universal obamanet.

Anyway, I digress.

The point is that the last two weeks have been full of surprises.  And with every unexpected turn, I’m reminded that we have less control over matters than we hope we do.  Apparently plans are just for naïve chumps.  Or maybe they’re better seen as an outline of a preferred path.  But if we’re not willing to shift, adjust, or entirely scrap our plans when changed circumstances require, we lose.

Exactly a week ago, everything went according to plan.  My sister, my niece (the youngest of my sister’s brood), and I stood in my mother’s sister-in-law’s house – in Chicago – waiting to surprise my mother for her birthday.  We have lived in different cities for so long that she doesn’t expect to see us without months of advance planning.  I’m obviously all over the place – on some other continent, with little money and selfish priorities.  My sister is busy on the east coast, working nonstop, supporting her family, and raising her (abnormally attractive) children.  But this time, taking ownership of the unexpected, we decided it was time for our Mom to have her (lack of) birthday plans changed.   So when she saw us standing there, yelling “surprise!” in her face, she looked as if she was seeing ghosts with a family resemblance.  The moment was priceless.  And in an instant, we tossed her into a weekend (or a week, considering I stayed for much longer) of unexpected plans.  Once the initial shock wore off, which took about a day, she made our plans her own.

But as the Chicago surprise plans went off without a hitch, in the back of my mind I was dealing with some major unexpected events unraveling back in Amsterdam.  Backing up another 4 days, when I was still having one incredible and productive day in Suriname after another, outlined plans were finally going from blurry hopes and wishes to concrete next steps and partnerships.  But just overnight everything shifted – my focus and priorities included.

The morning after one of my best days in Suriname, I found out that Zora might be dying.  A healthy cat when I left Amsterdam (though the doctor wanted her to work on her abs), she was in good shape to stay with our friend while I hopped around the globe a bit more.  Well, certainly not as pleasant as a birthday surprise in Chicago, but cancer also gives no warning.  It just shows up – uninvited.  And rocks whatever plans you thought you had.  It took my Dad.  It took my grandmother.  It’s taken so many. And now it was threatening Zora.  I fucking hate cancer.

Zora’s unexpected health concerns immediately took priority.  She’s the only family I have in Amsterdam (people often ask: “do you have family here?”  And I almost always respond: “It’s me and my cat.”). So once I recovered from the panic, and the tears became less frequent (took the better part of a day), I had to make some decisions about where I needed to be and when.  The Chicago trip was days away, during which time Zora was having more tests and little could be done other than waiting.  So I decided to proceed with this trip.  Plus, when I found out Zora’s prognosis, I would be with my mother, which would be helpful.  But the day before leaving for Chicago, I went to the Suriname Airways office to change my Amsterdam return date.  And just like that, two months in Suriname would become one.  And this would just have to be okay.

As for Zora’s plans, she was expecting to have an easy couple of months without me all up in her face.  But when tests came back to confirm that her leg tumor was malignant and growing quickly, suddenly the only concern was saving her life.  The doctors did not want to waste any time.  And they certainly couldn’t wait for me to return to Amsterdam next week.  So yesterday, just like that, before the cancer could reach any other part of her body, they rushed to amputate her leg.

So here I am, in Miami, heading back for my final few days in Suriname.  Having just spoken to a healthy, alert, highly-medicated, three-legged Zora on skype (she’s staying with and being cared for by more than one dear friend in Amsterdam), I can finally breathe.  Unexpected events may have turned some things upside down. But just like we’ve adjusted to every shift, turn, and stumble in the past, Zora and I will adjust to her prolonged life on three legs.  And as my Mom said, Suriname will still be there when I’m ready to go back.

Thanks to all for the kind and well-wishes sent Zora’s way over the past week.  I hope she felt them.  I certainly did. I’ve also learned that Zora and I have a lot more family and love in Amsterdam than I realized.  I owe her life to my friends who have cared for her so well.

…gone to Greece

December ended with two weeks of paper-writing self-isolation, resulting in only 75% completion of necessary tasks.  The new year began with war-zone resembling, firecracking chaos in the streets of Amsterdam – a terrifying good time.

And now I find myself in Athens, sadly yearning for Amsterdam.

I was here more than 10 years ago while I was in law school – a shocking revelation about my age and the unforgiving passage of time.  In 2001, I spent nearly two months completing an international law course at the University of Athens, and traveling a bit around Greece.  Every weekend I went to a different island, enjoying beautiful views, kind people, and yummy veggie-friendly food.  But somehow, over the course of these 10+ years, I forgot why I was leaving the city every weekend.  It turns out I didn’t – and apparently I still don’t – like this city.

I’m here for just over 2 weeks to complete an intensive course with the University of Amsterdam on the relatively recent rise of African migration to Athens.  I jumped at the opportunity.  Fond selective memories of Greece and a desire to escape winter in the Netherlands would have been enough.  Access to leading scholars in the field, interesting course materials, and the opportunity for daily fieldwork among African migrants sealed the deal.

The busy days that are filled with lectures and fieldwork appear to leave little time for much else (including the 25% of work I didn’t finish before I left).  But since the fieldwork is literally in the “field” of Athens, I’ll spend plenty of time out and about in the city.  Perhaps it will grow on me.  And my impressions will change over time.  But after the first day, I already was wishing for a summertime escape to an island.

At the moment, the weather is no better than Holland – cold and rainy.  The unapologetic staring is out of control.  Ciggarrette smoke is absolutely everywhere – bars and taxis alike.  And the number of homeless dogs and cats (although they are well-fed and many are given shots by the city) is just too much for me to bear.  But it was last night when I almost reached my breaking point.

We were going to a performance of a Greece-born African rapper.  Since I would be interviewing him later in the week, this was going to be an opportunity to chat briefly and enjoy some of his music. While I waited outside in the cold rain for my colleagues to arrive (for 30 minutes, which admittedly contributed to an incredibly shitty mood), a black man walked by.  I’m black – he’s black – no one else is black.  So of course I smiled to acknowledge him.  He ignored me.   Okay, I get it.  We’re not all on the same team.

The performance was at a bar/club that appeared to be for relatively affluent locals (7 euros for a beer).  The air was filled with smoke and the dj played Biz Markie.  And among the Greek crowd, I saw the same black guy whom established earlier in the evening that we were not going to be friends.  The Greek professor I stood beside motioned to him to join us.  I knew immediately that this was the dude I was supposed to interview.  He was cordial in the introduction, offering me his hand to shake and stating a Greek name by which to call him.  Okay, I thought.  I guess he’ll offer some interesting insight about the experiences of a black man living in Athens.

Before any conversation could begin, two of my Dutch classmates approached.  Oh, the joy on his face.  The taller of the two got most of his attention.  He smiled widely as he introduced himself with a different name from the one he offered me – his rapper name, perhaps.  His body language excluded me from the conversation.  And he proceeded to ask them about the research they would be doing with second generation migrants, indicating his excitement to speak with them/her about his experiences.  Oblivious to the insane rudeness of this interaction, my Dutch classmate corrected him to indicate that I would be the one focusing on 2nd generation migrants, pleasantly turning to re-include me in the conversation.  Oh, the disappointment on his face.  He said something about maybe being able to speak with me later in the week before quickly ending the conversation.

Needless to say, I have better things to do with my time than spending it in a smoke-filled club, listening to an asshole perform to a crowd of white people that echo shallow, insincere tributes to Africa (based on a description of the performance from one of the admired classmates).  So I left.

It wasn’t a good night.  And it exacerbated the negative feelings that were already starting to brew.  But instead of packing my bags and fleeing back to Amsterdam, I decided to be a big girl and stick it out (after a couple of frustrated tears and a skype call to my mom, of course).

On a brighter note, I was wise enough to bookend my time in the city with side trips to other parts of Greece.  When I first arrived, I spent a weekend with a friend and her family in the northern region of the country, in Alexandroupolis and Komotini, which was delightful.  And after the program is completed, I’ll spend another weekend somewhere else pleasant.  My opinions of Greece will not be measured by the weather or the people in Athens.  But in the future, I need to be more careful about this whole selective memory thing.

Criminal Activity

When I was a teenager, I took the train from Philadelphia to NYC to visit my sister.  At the conclusion of my trip to the big city, I found myself at Penn Station, smushed in an unacceptably large group of people as we all tried to avoid a single-file line at all costs.   I carried a bag in my hand and another on my back, shuffling along with the crowd.  Down the escalator, onto the platform, and eventually onto the train.  I thought I made it out of the city unscathed.  But alas, when I went to the front pocket of my backpack for my ticket, I saw that it was already wide open.  And although my ticket was still there (some mercy was had), my wallet was gone.  Long gone.  All I could do was sulk for a couple of hours as I sat in angry train silence.

That was my first truly lesson-teaching theft experience.  I’m pretty sure this girl in my 5th grade class stole some stuff from me back in the day.  But this was the first time I can remember falling victim to and being outwitted by a complete stranger.  Traumatic, yes.  But I learned two lessons: 1) Sometimes thieves win – can’t sweat it too much; and 2) front pockets are not meant for wallets…or maybe backpacks aren’t meant for wallets.

Fast forward a few years and time zones, I found myself walking down a street in Amsterdam, delighting in the fact that I felt so safe walking alone after dark.  Maybe I didn’t want to walk down the street with headphones, but I was still impressed by the unfamiliar feeling of…




Although several people were around, the night was quiet.  Waiting for the tram, she was dressed up – skirt, heels, that kind of thing.  She was carrying a bright yellow clutch purse.  I heard him grab her purse in a quick motion before I registered what I was seeing.  He ran almost silently across the tram tracks in my direction, continuing down the street I had just crossed.  She chased him all the way – perhaps on instinct more than reason.  In English she screamed things like, “thief!” and “stop him!” But with the exception of one guy who was in the way and made a faux attempt at heroism, none of us helped.  Her frantic footsteps and screams just faded down the street.

I was shook.  Standing at that tram stop, that woman easily could have been me (though her style wasn’t exactly my taste).  And since I was in for a 10 minute wait for my tram, I stayed shook.

The biggest threats around these parts seem to be bike theft and pickpocketing/mugging – though no one else seems to have witnessed a mugging in such a way.  Perhaps I needed to witness that poor woman losing her yellow clutch purse.  Because although I carefully double-lock my (inexpensive) bike every time I so much as turn my back on it, I was getting a little too relaxed about everything else.  Now, whenever on the street, I try my best to stay conscious of what’s not strapped on and locked down.  The bike also helps me stay out of harm’s way, keeping me off the sidewalks and moving at a much faster pace.

Fast forward several more months, a new problem presented itself.  Sitting in a cafeteria, on campus, with three other people, among once trusted student-colleagues, I placed my laptop at my feet.  Okay, I’m absolutely certain I would have treated such a valuable item with far more care if I were in an airport or somewhere of the sort, keeping it in my sight and attached to me in some way at all times.  But I was at school, with school people, discussing school stuff, with laptops and large bags all around.  I felt safe.

Too bad I wasn’t…or rather, my laptop wasn’t.  I have no idea how it was done.  But although four of us sat at the table, someone managed to steal it from under me.  A sad story, I know.

A student may have been the culprit.  Or perhaps someone from outside of the school preys on careless and distracted students.  (But I think it was a student.)  Regardless, I need to get it together.  I’m just not secure anywhere, at any time, around anyone.  Got it.  And I really can’t afford many more of these tough lessons…literally.  I literally can’t afford this.

She’s Come Undone

I’ve been back in Amsterdam for over a week.  Actually, well over a week.  But something terrible is happening.  I’m unraveling.  Completely.

Initially I blamed it on exhaustion.  I had a terribly uncomfortable flight back to this side, involving a broken middle seat that would slowly return to the fully upright position each time I moved my head.  I slept so hard the following night that it almost hurt.  And then, for the next several days, I blamed jet lag.  I support the belief that everyone is allowed to feel a little “off” after traveling a long distance.  But a week and a half?  According to wikipedia, I should be recovered by now.

Wide awake at 4am.  Multiple naps getting me through a day.  Looking at outside like it’s a scary place.  Getting very little accomplished.  I have fully embraced my lazy, homebody, night-owl tendencies.

Since I first arrived in Amsterdam in January, I’ve felt pretty busy.  Even when I wasn’t doing anything, I had something to worry about.   But now, having graciously granted myself the summer off, I’ve got nothing to force me to be normal.  Apparently, the things that I’ve been trying to get away from all of these years, such as responsibility and deadlines, are the things that keep me functional…and normal.

Of course I still have plenty to do, particularly the genealogy research for my internship and identifying funding opportunities that will allow me to live life as planned after school.  And I still have plenty to worry about, most of which come back to money (why always?).  But overall, things are just pretty calm.  I live in Amsterdam, my rent is paid, my life is good…blah, blah, blah.

Is this what makes me feel like I’m melting into my couch? It’s crazy.  Are there support groups for people without real problems?