Love for Charleston

I was in Charleston, SC last week.

A road trip that my friends and I planned with half an effort was meant to end in Charleston. But weeks before the trip, our plans started to waver, and we began throwing out other options for our domestic exploration. Making matters less enthusiastic, my work efforts in Charleston had become challenging and started to hurt my feelings. So I may have been the first to suggest alternatives to our road trip itinerary.

Then, a week before we were to begin our journey, nine people were murdered at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Charleston was attacked. With few words exchanged, we agreed on our destination. We might find no more important time to show up – just to be present. And since we were in a position to do so, we had no choice but to be in Charleston. Continue reading

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Pro: Freedom to roam

I complained in my last post about not having a stable place to live.  Well, technically I’m still homeless.  And I stand by my complaints.  But sometimes the bright side of a bad situation turns out to be the point of it all.  In this case, once I was able to recognize that bright side, I realized it’s what I’ve been wanting all along: freedom.

Stability would be cool.  Eventually I want to have all of my stuff in one place.  And I’d like to eliminate that uncertain pause when people ask me where I live.  But in the meantime, what have I been complaining about?  This is the perfect time to take advantage of my life with no leash.  As you may know, I thrive on opportunities to pick up and go wherever, whenever.  So I trashed that rising anxiety and purchased another plane ticket.

Continue reading

A (city) love affair

I think it’s strange that we’re expected to choose one city, settle there, have all of our accounts there, and call that place “home.” Some people question the legitimacy of monogamy – one person for the whole of forever.  Now I’m questioning the legitimacy of this “home” concept.  What if I don’t want to choose just one place? What if I fall in love with multiple places?  Various places offering unique benefits, challenges, and lessons – loved differently, but equally.  That doesn’t sound so unreasonable.

Yet, it seems these expectations of location monogamy have gotten to me.  With questions like, “where are you from?” and “where is home?” invading my space on a nearly daily basis, I thought I had to choose, settle even – make a commitment and stick to it.  I figured if I can’t commit to a person, I should at least appease the public by committing to a place.  And for the last year or so, Amsterdam has been that place.  We hadn’t made anything official (beyond a temporary residency permit).  But I was pretty sure we were moving in that direction.

But now I find myself tempted to cheat.  I care for Amsterdam no less.  But as I sit on my porch in Paramaribo after midnight, sipping tea, with a warm breeze blowing through the mango tree beside me, I find myself toying with ideas of an open relationship.  Maybe I could settle in Amsterdam and have a vacation home Paramaribo.  Maybe I could split my time equally between the two cities – summer months in Amsterdam (for the winter weather) and winter months in Paramaribo (for the summer weather).  Maybe I could just make Paramaribo my home.  Oh my, this is becoming a love affair.

My feelings for Suriname began to emerge when I started working with NiNsee back in 2011 on the genealogy project.  Having done some extensive work on my own family tree, I was sensitive to the gaps and injustices that stand in the histories of those who descend from the survivors of slavery.  So the common challenges of Black family history researchers from Suriname strongly resonated.  And once I narrowed my thesis research on matters of family history and identity for Suriname’s Black population, I learned more about the country’s rich, fascinating (and oftentimes f’d up) history.  It’s made for some great reading and learning.  And now that I’m experiencing the place first-hand, the limited academic perspective has been put to shame .  It makes me so glad I came.

The passion with which so many people talk about their families and their ancestry is both heartwarming and inspiring – especially since I’ve become accustomed to that glazed over look in people’s eyes when I start to talk about genealogy research anywhere else.  And since I’ve made it a habit of sparking the conversation with just about anyone in my path (granted, my path has been paved with some bias), I’ve found myself in some incredible conversations about oral histories, spiritual practices of the past and present, and the persistent mysteries of ancestry that continue to baffle.  During one of my meetings earlier today, as the man proudly told the story of his family tree, he insisted that we stop for a moment so that he could call his mother to verify the names of her grandparents.  I hadn’t asked – he just wanted me to know.  This is what I’m talking about! The passion, the pride, the love for family and where we come from — yeah, I’m starting to feel at home.  And this isn’t even getting to the sunny (hot, hot) weather, warm and welcoming people, and tasty (usually veg-friendly) food.

Regarding the actual conversations and progress I’ve made related to the genealogy studies, as well as the project I’m developing for young people to research their Surinamese ancestry, I have lots to share in posts to come.

But before we get to that, I thought it might be helpful for you to know a bit more about this country that may turn me to place-polygamy.  Because you can feel free to admit if you don’t know much about it (like, for example, it’s not in Africa).

Location: South America – north of Brazil, between the two Guyanas (in fact, it used to be referred to as Dutch Guyana); not far above the equator. For the time zone, it’s one hour ahead of NYC, 5 hours behind the Netherlands.

Population: 550,000+. It’s super diverse, with folks from India, Indonesia, China, and (of course) African ancestry all claiming a Surinamese identity.  But I still haven’t seen many white people. (I came across a group of 3 white people today and they turned out to be peace corps volunteers from the US.)

Language: Mainly Dutch. The local language, Sranan Tongo (often just referred to as “Surinamese”) is described as a pigeon English. This is what you’ll commonly hear on the street, spoken between friends.  But when it comes to speaking to elders or in professional settings, apparently Dutch is considered most appropriate – with Sranan Tongo even considered disrespectful (issues pointing back to the everlasting and damaging effects of colonialism).

Capital city: Paramaribo. The center of the city is small, with most things clustered on a few streets. But it makes for crowds and a bustling feel, with everyone in one place at the same time. The city does go far beyond the center, which makes transportation by car, taxi, or bus pretty essential (some people ride bikes – but with the climate, I think I would pass away prior to reaching my destination).

Does that cover the basics?  I feel like I just introduced a new lover.

(Ahh, if only I could fall in love with a man as easily as I do with a city – but that’s neither here nor there…literally)

Plane tickets and pressure

It’s official that at the end of September I’ll be heading to Suriname. For two months. That means I have one month to get myself and all things related in order, then two months to tear into some serious research and writing, and altogether three months to ponder options of stability upon my return to Amsterdam.

I’m 80 percent excited.  The excitement includes the opportunity to experience a new country – a new continent, actually.  I’ve never been in the vicinity of South America.  So the visit feels overdue.  And since I’ve been discussing and reading about Suriname’s history and identity politics for months now, I’m looking forward to digesting some of it firsthand. On a more shallow level, I’m looking forward to trading the Dutch chill for some Surinamese warmth (feel free to interpret that as a commentary on patterns of weather and/or social graces).

I’m 20 percent nervous.  I considered writing “anxious” here.  But I just looked up the difference between the two words.  According to wiki answers, anxiety comes into play when you have no control over a situation that may or may not happen.  And that’s the opposite of what I have going on at the moment.  The outcomes of my time in Suriname are entirely under my control. Whether or not this trip turns out to be a trailblazing success or a complete waste of time is up to me.  I can do it right.  Or I can do it wrong.  And when I give that nervous 20 percent any attention, doing it wrong feels like a legitimate possibility.  Two months in a completely unfamiliar place, with completely unfamiliar people, under the guise of completely unsettling circumstances called academic research – I wonder if I can pull this one out of my ass.  Yeah, I think I can.  I have every reason to believe I can.  But sometimes I’m not so sure.

As this blog indicates, I have a habit of jumping around, from place to place, looking for something that feels right and pursuing my own happiness by any means necessary.  But as I approach yet another big journey, and as I watch my age increase almost as quickly as my money decreases, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve mistakenly chosen a life of instability and uncertainty.  I wonder if the simpler and more straightforward path that I’ve walked away from (more than once) would have been the better option, even if a bit less thrilling.  Could this crazy, fun, and exciting path be leading from the Netherlands to Suriname to nowhere?

Well, regardless, I have no time or patience to start over again. So to verify the validity of my somewhat questionable life choices, I need to leave Suriname with some solid research, a solid (hopefully almost finished) thesis, solid personal and professional connections, and a solid plan for launching my organization shortly thereafter.

Okay, so perhaps I’m 25 percent nervous.  And perhaps I’m placing undue pressure on the next few months.  But as I’m taking these immediate next steps quite seriously, perhaps I can be forgiven for not being 100 percent thrilled about an opportunity to do (and be) something incredible.

75 percent excited and 25 percent nervous.  Knowing myself, if not for the presence of some nervousness (and fear and anxiety and whatever else), I may not even realize this is worth doing.  So I’m not allowing the jibber jabber in my head to get the best of me.  And I’m certainly not denying the fact that I’m absolutely, positively, without a doubt 100 percent grateful for the path I’ve chosen and the life I get to live.

…gone on planes and trains

Barcelona was refreshing and quite charming.  Athens was challenging and (retrospectively) rewarding.  Oakland was fun and welcoming. New York was familiar and confirming. Rome and Capri were simply lovely. Amsterdam has begun to feel like home. And I’m just plain exhausted.

I love to travel. Perhaps that’s obvious. And last year I regretted the careful and conservative approach I took to planning trips – by not planning them. Allowing my depleting bank account to become a state of mind rather than simply a state of inconvenience, I rejected the notion that I could afford even the shortest getaways.  And even if the money was there, who had the time? I certainly didn’t think I did.  With all the studying I was doing (mostly in my mind, granted), finding time to spend away from Marx and Durkheim felt nearly impossible.

Crazy talk. By the start of a new semester in the fall, I was ready to abandon my oppressive reigns.  Having convinced myself that travel was too costly, both in money and time, I was being ridiculous, confining myself as if I was still working full-time, not living just hops, skips, and jumps away from a bunch of places I’d like to visit.  That life of an oppressed, working person sucked. And it was time to appreciate the new circumstances.  So I started saying yes more often.

Barcelona

I started here in November.  It was a long weekend with a couple of friends.  We walked, we ate, we biked. I stayed an extra night and walked and ate some more. I loved it. Though the staring of Spaniards reached a level of note-worthy, and though it’s not an ideal location for a vegetarian, I would be happy to spend more time there. It’s a beautiful city.

Greece

I pretty much stayed put from Thanksgiving through the new year.  Studying and things of that nature took priority.  In fact, I was working harder than most, preparing to be away for most of January, completing a course on African migration to Europe – in Athens.  I jumped at the opportunity to apply, and (let’s just say) happily worked my ass off to create the time to complete the additional class.

Shortly after the holiday, my time in Greece began in Komotini, staying with a friend/classmate and her family.  A lovely, charming city in the country’s northeast.  I could have stayed there the entire time, eating her mother’s yummy, and generously provided, food.

But I had to head toward Athens. In the midst of a heated and quite visible economic crisis, the city felt tense and unhappy. My course focused on the cruel – essentially criminal – treatment of African people living in Greece. Coping with political invisibility and extreme sentiments of nationalism and xenophobia, African people shared horror stories of denied freedom, a lack of human rights, and uncertain futures. The city’s tensions and frigidity were palpable.

I frequently was greeted with rude treatment and dirty looks, if eye contact was made at all. I wasn’t happy or comfortable there. Matters were not helped when I was chased wildly by a bloodthirsty dog when riding a bike in Nafplio on one of my last day’s in the country. I can’t prove the dog chase was race-related. But at that point in my Greece adventures, it sure felt like it.

I wrote this after returning to Amsterdam: Confronting inequality in Greece.  The beauty parts aside, I don’t see a return visit to Athens in the near future.

Back to the U.S.

All visits to the U.S. are welcome and appreciated.  But they’re difficult and tiring. Wanting to see a lot of people, in a short period of time, over a range of cities, on a limited budget, and with limited access to a phone.  It’s just too much.  So I never get to every city or person I wish I could see.  But this year my visits were to Oakland/San Francisco and NY/NJ.  Perhaps my next visit can be longer. It’s never enough (well, actually, let’s not get crazy…).

Italy

After playing host to a number of visitors in April, a friend/house guest and I took a plane to Rome. I embraced the trip as a vacation (from what? you may ask – to which I would have no reply). And it was easy to enjoy. A beautiful and historically exciting city, combined with yummy, veggie-friendly food (especially if you’re into the cheese game), and free-flowing wine.  Yeah, that was a good time.

And Rome was only defeated by Sorrento, and then again by Capri.  But those weren’t really fair contests.  I’m attracted to water and mountains. So…ya know.

Okay, but now I’m back. To Amsterdam and reality.  Travel is fun. Absolutely. But perhaps it loses its appeal when it’s not balanced with a little work every now and again. Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t reached that point yet. But I expect to at some point, I guess…that it might be likely…maybe.

If you care for more photos…

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…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.