Blogging About Language, Part 2: How My Name Turned Me Into a Narcissist

When I first started learning Darija, everything sounded like this:

مشيت لقهوة و شفت صاحبتي  و گالت ليا علا نهارها، و من بعد فسرات ليا البرنامج.

(Since Darija is an oral language, I beg those of you who can read script to please forgive any spelling errors – I tend to ignore proper spelling when I’m writing Darija in Arabic script!)

As with most languages, what is spoken fluidly in the world can differ substantially from the sound of a word you’ve internalized in the classroom, so a lot of time is spent hanging onto each syllable spoken in order to discern anything recognizable. Of course, the word our ears are most trained to pick up and respond to, in any language, is our own name. Think of how many times you were tuning out a conversation in the background until your own name leapt out at you.

So for a while, I was hearing my host family say sentences that frequently sounded like this:

مشيت لقهوة و شفت صاحبتي  و گالت Leah علا نهارها، و من بعد فسرات Leah البرنامج.

Wow, I thought, they talk about me a lot. It made me a little extra attentive (…and paranoid) during family time. As they were CLEARLY discussing me in some way, or making decisions concerning me without including me in the conversation, I was constantly asking  “What? What? What???? I’M RIGHT HERE!”

Pretty soon, I realized that I was hearing sentences like the one above everywhere. And all the time. Gosh, I thought. Everyone’s talking about me a lot. Right in front of me, as if I wasn’t there. How rude!

Eventually, I started to get an inkling that my name might possibly be an actual Arabic word. Finally I realized that I was actually hearing this:

مشيت لقهوة و شفت صاحبتي  و گالت liya علا نهارها، و من بعد فسرات liya البرنامج.

Essentially, “liya” is the construction of “to” or “for” plus the pronoun for “me.” It’s used very commonly with “tell” or “say,” as in:

She told me yesterday. (Literally: She told to me yesterday.)

The imperative form is tricky too. I’ll transliterate it so you can get the full effect:

Tell me: Gul liya
Tell Leah: Gul l Leah

As you can imagine, it is very hard for me to distinguish that doubled “l” sound which is the only clue that the preposition is being used with my name as opposed to the pronoun construction. So even when people were having conversations with each other, completely unrelated to me, I would be obsessively trying to follow along, convinced that someone was about to tell me something.

Almost equally devastating, “liya” is also used with “to be able to,” as in “may I.”

Can I go with you? (Lit: Is it possible for me to go with you?)
I can’t go outside. (Lit: It’s not possible for me to go outside.)

And it’s also used with:

Explain to me
Send to me
Bring to me

(Boys playing soccer in the street also loudly scream it to each other a lot, and I’m not sure exactly what word they’re using it with, but I can guess it refers to passing the ball.)

All this was a major oy vey. Even after I sorted out the issue, I would twitch significantly whenever I heard “Leah/liya,” while my brain sluggishly replayed the sentence in order to discern if it was my name or the pronoun construction that was being used. My host family LOVED this and would giggle with delight every time I had to ask for clarification: “Did you mean me, or to you?”

So what did I do?

I changed my name!

At least, I tried to. Several of my fellow trainees were given Moroccan names by their host families, but my host family loved my name. “Leah, such a pretty name!” they would say, even as I related to them the difficulties it was causing me. (I neglected to mention that Leah is only one syllable off from Aaliyah, the toddler’s name. They’re so similar that she never comprehended they were different names at all, and as a result still calls me by her own name, “Aaliyah.”)

Luckily, moving from my training community to my final site gave me the perfect opportunity to start fresh and rename myself from day one, forever shedding this pesky Leah/liya conundrum.

But what to change it to? Aaliyah was off the table since it was already claimed by someone close to me. Most Moroccans approved of “Layla” since it was close to Leah, but that was dashed when I found out that the PCV one town over from me (with a hard-to-pronounce L name) goes by Layla, and I figured it would be inconvenient if we ever collaborated together. I wasn’t crazy about the other “L” names I had heard of, so I started casting afield. I wanted something meaningful, and I liked the idea of a name that would have significance in both cultures, or represent a shared history. (As some of you know, I do have some experience in giving myself new names, although I still find the act a little hubristic.)

So I settled on Meryem (or Maryam, or Mariam – as usual, English transliterations are all over the map). Meryem is the mother of Jesus in the Qur’an; she’s actually the only female referred to by name in the entire Qur’an, which devotes a whole sura to her. Meryem is also the sister of Moses and Aaron (non-Muslims spell it Miriam), a story shared by all three monotheistic faiths (there’s even some funny lineage confusion in the Qur’anic text because both women have the same name). Anyway, it fit, I like how it sounds, and once I’d visited the girl’s boarding school in my final site and nervously announced my new name to a few dozen girls, there was no going back. Now I hear my new name called to me during games, shouted from windows, and comically mispronounced by the toddler I live with.

I still twitch at “liya.” But it’s getting better. And at least now whenever I do hear it, I know, every time, 100%, that it’s not about me.

Just for fun, here’s my favorite song about a very special Meryem/Miriam:

 

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Blogging About Language, Part 1: Why I’m Afraid of Cucumbers

(This one’s a little late – I wrote it while during Pre-Service Training and never had enough internet to post it!)

Dozens of Moroccan middle school students stand in an uneven circle behind the youth center. They’re intently watching a short foreign woman – maybe French, maybe Spanish, they’re not sure – as she attempts to teach them a game. Everything about the woman and the game is new and different and exciting.  “Ready?” she says (in Darija). “Everyone look at me. PENIS!”

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We wisely abandoned the penis game for a rousing round of Duck Duck Goose.

…Yep. That was me. So it goes! One of the many hard things about Moroccan Arabic (also known as Darija) is how many gosh darn shameful words there are that only fractionally differ from some very banal, everyday words. I’m blessed with being skilled at the Semitic “kh” sound, but those poor Arabic learners who struggle with it had best avoid the word for “empty” lest they seriously curse someone out!

It’s a fascinating process to be learning a language full-time. Of course, if you know me then you know that this is my DREAM situation – and I relish the speedy standard to which we are held (conversational competency after 2 months!). My training group has Arabic class for at least half the day, six days a week. It’s a serious intellectual workout, and one that I enjoy immensely.

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Studying hard! And shivering. It’s freezing in our classroom.

Every day more and more words fall out of the long strands of babble and into clarity and meaning. It feels a bit like I’m adjusting the lens focus of part of my brain, veeeery slowly – or as we say in Darija, shwiya b shwiya. Not all days see exponential growth; some days I get a lot of words, some days I barely scrape a few new ones into my memory. As an organizer, I often talked about finding and appreciating the “small victories” along the way to the larger goal, and I have definitely had to put that philosophy into practice here. I would feel very discouraged if I did not treat every successful verb conjugation as a small personal triumph!

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Almost against my will, my French has turned out to be very helpful. For one, Darija is littered with French, and a significant number of nouns have evident roots in French. I would actually hazard that French is more helpful than Modern Standard Arabic, which several of my classmates have significant experience in, because of how frequently and significantly it diverges from Moroccan Arabic; but I expect they would disagree with me. At the beginning of our time here I spoke more French than I probably should have with my host family, but the tradeoff to my language abilities was that I was able to be a person with humor and opinions, instead of a lump who zoned out during family time. Now that my Darija is much better, I’m trying to insist to my family that we only resort to French when I need a direct translation for a word we can’t act out.

Of course, my host family has been an integral part of my language learning, and each member has a different approach to helping me along. Some are very didactic and authoritative about it, and (to my great annoyance) make a big show of teaching me verbs they seem not to have noticed I’ve been using correctly for weeks. Others simply (and gleefully) point to things at the dinner table and say, “Leah! Leah! What’s this? What’s this?” As a result, during most meals I sit there and sporadically spout random nouns in between bites. “Knife!” “Apple!” “Bowl-designed-for-carrying-soup!”

Unfortunately, the “what’s this” line of questioning is a particularly dangerous one, as it can lead to this sort of exchange:

Family: Leah, what’s this? What’s this!!?? {brandishing it in my face}
Leah: Ummm….. Oh I know this one, I know this one…. [*&!$#@]!
Family: {dies laughing} No, Leah, cucumber!
Leah: [*&!$#@]?
Family: No, cucumber! CUCUMBER! CU-CUM-BER!
Leah: Isn’t that what I’m saying? [*&!$#@]? Isn’t that it?
Family: {literally on the floor laughing at this point} No, you said – well we won’t say it, it’s shameful. But you said something naughty!

Later:

Leah: Teacher, please tell me what cucumber is in Darija. Earlier I tried to say it, and I ended up saying a shameful word.
Arabic teacher: There is no shameful word that is similar to cucumber.
Leah: [*&!$#@].
Arabic teacher: Oh, why yes! I guess there IS a shameful word that is similar to cucumber!

Even though I now know the word for cucumber, I’m still a little convinced that I’m going to end up saying the shameful word. (Spoiler alert: I was saying poop. GET OVER IT MOROCCANS. POOP IS JUST POOP.) Anyway, these days I call cucumbers “zucchini” and let Moroccans hysterically correct me. Better they laugh at me for calling cucumbers zucchini than for calling cucumbers poop, right?

Cucumber_and_cross_section

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Ten Ways Moroccans Show Their Love

Love makes the world go around, right? I’ve encountered a lot of love in Morocco, freely (and occasionally overwhelmingly) given.  Here are just a few of the many ways that the Moroccans I have met express their love for the strange, random Americans who are dropped into their homes by an international development organization for months at a time.

1. They nudge food into your wedge

Moroccan meals happen around a communal dish that everyone digs into with utensils bread. But don’t go thinking this is some gastronomic free-for-all! On the contrary, there are RULES. The wedge in front of you is designated for your consumption, and it’s bad manners (and, frankly, unhygienic) to root around in other people’s wedges. If there’s something in your wedge that you don’t want, you can casually toss it into the middle of the heap so that others can help themselves (the center is fair game for everyone).  However, parents can blatantly collect particularly delicious morsels from anywhere in the tagine and unceremoniously dump them in your wedge, indicating that they are now yours.

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This is a bad example because couscous is the one meal in the week that we do eat with spoons… Everything else is bread, I swear!

2. They yell at you to “Eat! Eat!” even when you are in mid-chew

I never know how to respond to the admonition to eat when I am so obviously in the very act of eating. I tend to respond by shoveling it in faster and faster. Of course, the hard part is convincing Moroccans that you are in fact full and cannot possibly eat anymore. Often my host families will dramatically exclaim over how little I have eaten since there’s still so much food left in front of me (due to them shoving food into my wedge all meal, faster than I can consume it). Very sneaky, Moroccans. I usually end up stuffing myself to bursting at every single meal, of which there are many.

3. They refill your tea many times

Moroccan tea is very, very sweet and mildly strong. In the north I typically had it with mint or with shiba (which is…absinthe…I believe?), but in the south they load it with all sorts of herbs and it sometimes tastes a bit like what the apothecary would give you for an upset stomach. As soon as you’ve gotten down to the dregs of the glass, someone will spirit it away and refill it for you. I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining that if I drink a lot of tea, especially late in the day, I won’t sleep very well, but as usual your mileage may vary when it comes to how much Moroccans will respect your wishes concerning victuals. (I’ve had to get pretty graphic about the symptoms that will result if I consume milk.)

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My most scenic tea-drinking experience.

4. They give you LOTS of sweets

Someone told me that sugar is heavily subsidized in Morocco, which might explain a little about the Moroccan sweet tooth. As I’ve mentioned before, Moroccans have very few qualms about eating candy at any time of day. It’s also rude not to share anything you’re eating, so chances are that if you happen upon a Moroccan who’s eating some candy (which you will do a lot), you will be forcefully offered some. However, when I try to share candy I’ve been given, I usually get rebuffed; candy given as a gift to the foreigner should be consumed, in its entirety, by said foreigner.

5. They never leave you alone

When I was in my training site, I was accompanied almost everywhere by my host family. Even if I simply had to go to the end of the street (a few hundred feet) in broad daylight to meet someone – someone who, if they were waiting for me, I would be able to see from the moment I left the door – then one of my family members would be sent to walk with me. Whether they were concerned for my safety in the small distances I was required to traverse, or if they were convinced I would be lonely for those three minutes, I do not know.

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I never walked this street alone.

6. They’re concerned about your place in the afterlife

They want to make sure they’re going to be with the people they love forever. Makes sense.

7. They give you their clothing

My first host family got a HUGE kick out of putting me in various outfits, both outlandish and traditional. I grew very attached to my host sister-in-law’s fleece djellaba (dubbed by a fellow trainee the “Soviet Prison Guard Djellaba”). When I packed up to leave my training site, I had to explain several times that my space was very limited, and I could only take one or two shirts as presents. (Unbeknownst to me, a few extra snuck their way in, which I discovered when I arrived in Rabat the next day.) My current host family lent me some pajamas that have already been proclaimed to be mine, forever more.

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8. They send you lots of texts throughout the day telling you they miss you

I’m pretty bad at transliteration to begin with, and Moroccans transliterate Arabic into text in a very different way than Peace Corps does. So whenever my host sisters send me “I miss you” text messages, I have to furrow my brow and phonetically read the words out loud in order to hear myself say – hopefully – some discernable Arabic. For a while I couldn’t send outgoing text messages, I could only receive them, but this certainly did not deter my sisters from letting me know, every so often, how much I was on their minds.

9. They come into the hammam, fully dressed, just to scrub your back

Now, the hammam is not a chilly place. It’s not even a warm place. It’s a HOT, STEAMY SUB-TROPICAL SAUNA. It is not a place where you want to have anything on. I can’t imagine walking in there in several winter layers, including a headscarf, and hanging around JUST SO SOMEONE YOU CARE ABOUT IS NOT ALONE WHEN IT’S TIME TO SLOUGH THE DEAD SKIN OFF THEIR BACK. Really, the dedication and devotion behind this one still bowls me over. It’s frickin’ inspirational…and a little awkward, since there’s a fully clothed person standing over you as you bathe, waiting for you to hand over your kis so they can flay you alive get you squeaky clean.

10. They cry when you leave

I grew very close to my Pre-Service Training host family, and there were a lot of waterworks in the weeks leading up to my departure. The morning I left, the entire family got up early to see me off and cry some more. I plan to visit them a lot while I’m still in country, and I feel incredibly grateful that I was embraced by such wonderful and generous people. As I do everywhere, I feel lucky to be loved by people I love. 

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Life in the House Without Doors

I present you with Leah, circa 2008, elaborately bedecked in the traditional dress of the far away land in which she resides, about to attend a wedding with her host family, while her host sisters wear stylish Western outfits (only one sister pictured).

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Here I display the traditional Tamil practice of never smiling in photographs.

Now I present you with Leah, circa 2013, elaborately bedecked in the traditional dress of the far away land in which she resides, about to attend a wedding with her host family, while her host sisters wear stylish Western outfits.

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It’s fascinating to me how the only cultural capital greater than wearing Western dress to a community event is to bring a foreigner with you who is wearing your country’s national costume – the very thing you are disdaining to wear because it’s just not that cool.

Or perhaps it’s just that everywhere I ago, my wardrobe is found abysmally wanting! My two host sisters, ages 16 and 22, are routinely disappointed by my lack of skinny jeans (“They are SOOO big!” said one sister of my jeans as she unpacked my belongings). Happily they have discovered that I’ll pretty much wear anything they put me in, so I’ve shown up to Darija class in a few interesting outfits: a Minnie Mouse shirt with incorrect French writing, a panther print tunic, and an asymmetrical striped thing that was a tad tight for my taste. As always, I am zwiiina bizef! 

I have had some less than stellar host family experiences in the past, so I approached the host family element of Peace Corps’ Community-Based Training (CBT) with some apprehension. Of course I’d heard of the famed Moroccan generosity and hospitality, but I also firmly believe that people are people are people and there are all kinds to be found – even in Morocco.

Imagine then my ongoing delight at having landed an extraordinary family that I feel genuinely emotionally attached to. Yes, there are still the awkward moments – I left my slippers outside of my room again, OOPS – but these are absolutely eclipsed by the general environment of merriment and fun. My two host sisters are over the moon to have me around, and my 12-year-old host brother loves to trounce me at UNO (guess how Leah learned her colors and numbers). My host sister-in-law and her daughter, 2 1/2, also live with us. The little one is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen and I want to devour her on a daily basis. Moroccans don’t seem to have compunctions about feeding their kids lots of candy – even before breakfast – so most of my camera’s memory card has been taken up with documenting my host niece’s absolute zaniness while she’s on a sugar high, which is pretty much all the time.

My host mother told me that the moment she saw me at the Youth Center in our town she knew I was her daughter, even before I was introduced. When I heard that I thought, lucky I turned out to be the one, otherwise she would have been very disappointed! But as the days pass I’m tempted to regard it, as I believe they do, as fate. I especially love how expansively Moroccans use their family terminology; I believe they would be truly saddened by the number of times I’ve used “host” in this post. They constantly say, “My beautiful sister” or “Now we have three daughters” or something along those lines. My host father said the other day, “You have a black father! How strange!” (Speaking of which, no one has spoken to me about race in Morocco, but if my parents were in America they would qualify as an interracial couple. I want to know more about the politics – or lack there of – of race in Morocco!)

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Ironically I look more like my host mother than either of her daughters, something everyone LOVES to point out.

I still enjoy a privileged position in the house – not only do I get fed the choicest pieces of meat at mealtimes, I sleep in my own room (Peace Corps encourages host families to provide their resident Trainee with a semi-private space). And like all the rooms in the house (including the bathroom), it has no doors! Curtains are hung in all of the doorways in the house and pulled away from the thresholds during the day. The effect is rather romantic, and it also facilitates the close family intimacy and lack of individual space that life here entails. It’s certainly been an adjustment to a life with hardly any privacy, but it’s been more enjoyable than I expected it would be given how much I take pleasure in spending time with the family. Even when I have been ill, it’s been unthinkable that I would want to rest alone. After all, why would I want to subject myself to the loneliness of being away from the chatting and dancing and TV soap operas that is evening life in the salon, on top of being sick?

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A demonstration of the curtains-as-doors philosophy of interior decorating. Bonus points if you can spot the Northampton, MA mug and the Tide pen, both gifts from the states!

Like nearly all buildings in Morocco, our house doesn’t have central heating, so our breath is visible inside (an odd sensation at first!). I wear multiple layers, sleep with a hot water bottle, and only bathe once a week in the hammam. In the evenings when everyone watches TV or does their homework, we cuddle on the couches under blankets, and I frequently receive admonitions to put a scarf or a hat on my head. I actually haven’t found the cold to be that bad, and we certainly have it better than those in the mountains. I haven’t started exhibiting any adverse reactions to the cold yet – we have a few cases of chillblains among my fellow Trainees, but so far I remain unfrostbitten, alhamdulillah!  

In short, I am happy. I frequently dwell on the reality that many cross-cultural experiences that are bizarre or befuddling to me actually provide endless amounts of hilarity and diversion for host country nationals. Count preparing for the wedding we attended high on that list! In this case, my makeup was done in the current Arab style (read: HEAVY on the blue eye shadow, big emphasis on the eyebrows), my hair was unsuccessfully wrangled out of its stubborn Western predisposition to curl, and I was strapped into a caftan five inches too long by four women speaking rapid Darija. My absolute inability to walk in high heels or perform any of these tasks by myself (to satisfaction) meant that the preparations evolved into a comedy routine for all observers. In the end, however, my family nearly peed themselves from the overwhelming BEAUTY of the end result, and that night the novelty factor of a foreigner in a caftan meant that I was a gigantic visual hit.

My take? I personally felt I resembled a middle-aged lady of the night. But hey – a lot of people laughed on my account, so I must be doing something right in the world!

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It’s a New Year! Time for some resolutions! And some snow too.

It’s that time of year. And by that I mean, the time of year when ginormous amounts of snow decide to descend upon New England and again make us question why we ever left the Gulf South. (That happens to everyone, right?) The result, predictably, is this:

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It’s also the time of year when most of us make earnest and short-lived vows to lose weight become more self-actualized people. In keeping with tradition, I thought I’d take this post to highlight a few of my resolutions, both for my blog, and for my general upcoming Peace Corps experience. Several were drawn from my experiences living and studying in India, which I think give me an inkling into what I will experience living – particularly with host families – in Morocco.

Resolutions for this blog:

  • Don’t always write about myself. Be substantive.
  • Avoid over-use of the words: rich, colorful, lively, exotic.
  • Never post pictures of myself carrying babies/surrounded by children, i.e. the “aid brochure photo.” Exceptions made for host family relatives and children whose names I will actually remember five years from now.
  • Be sure not to check the social justice at the door.
  • Don’t self-aggrandize during the highs.
  • Be honest about the lows.
  • Do my very best to post pictures. Blogs without pictures often make my eyes glaze.
  • Be funny, at least sometimes!

Resolutions for the Peace Corps:

  •  Always be aware of my own smallness. I may be my own protagonist, but I am a crumb on the face of the universe and I am an eyewink in time to the history of Morocco, and my Americanness/whiteness/displacedness do not make me special.
  • Don’t forget I am participating in a system that may be treading the familiar paths of some older systems that I categorically abhor, although I obviously continue to benefit from them. Be aware of this so I can catch myself if I need to.
  • Remember why I love being Jewish. Hang onto that although I will be without a Jewish community for the next two years.
  • Use all that Peace Corps downtime to keep learning and creating. I have picked up some great hobbies to occupy myself with – you can do a lot with a new skill set through 27 months of honing.
  • Don’t forget what I learned in all those AVODAH self-care workshops!
  • Remember that a certain amount of privacy will come eventually. I just have to tough it out until then.
  • Learn that language. Learn the socks off it.
  • Try not to be psychologically or emotionally defeated by my treatment as a woman, and by sexual harassment in general.
  • Learn to be okay with feeling like I’m lying to host country nationals I become close to because I’m withholding certain things about myself.

And to return to the snow theme, let’s close with an oldie but a goodie:

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Differences Between New Orleans and New England, Round 4: Civilized Driving, Joey Tribbiani, and About 30 Degrees

People actually get out of the way of ambulances

Now, I went to Driving School when I was 16. I know what to do if an ambulance is in your vicinity: pull over immediately. You do this, everyone else does this, the ambulance speeds by on its way to save a life, and we all get on with our business.

Not so in Nola!

Ambulance

In New Orleans, I lived near one hospital, and I worked next to another. Suffice it to say that encountering ambulances on the road was a frequent occurrence in my daily life. The first time it happened while I was driving, I dutifully started to pull over. AND NO ONE ELSE DID. Suddenly I found myself practically creating an accident as every other driver attempted to get around me in any way possible, and stuck as I was at an awkward angle (on Napoleon, where the street dramatically slopes away at the sides) I could do nothing but sit and watch as the ambulance crawled by, dodging cars as best it could. Inside, I imagined, a weary EMT sat back, defeated, hands to his exhausted brow: “We lost him. Oh, if only we could have arrived at the hospital two minutes ago!”

It turned out this day had not been a freak incident. In fact, I was frequently the only car that tried to pull to the side when I heard a siren, and since it is often impossible to get over to the right if no one else is, after a while I had to content myself with slowing down and making a halfhearted tug at the wheel. I had become a New Orleans driver.

(This was all confirmed by my non-driving friend Rachel, who once got to ride in the front of an ambulance accompanying a post-fainting friend to the hospital. “It was crazy – no one moved out of the way for us!”)

Fast-forward to the first time I encounter an ambulance while driving in New England. I do my usual – slow down, look in the mirrors. And suddenly, all the cars around me have swerved to the side, creating a nice lane down the middle for the ambulance to whoosh past. Frantically I jerk my steering wheel over to the right, reminding myself that I am back in the land where drivers actually move aside for ambulances, and inside the speeding vehicle my imaginary EMT goes, “We’re gonna make it! We’re gonna make it!”

No one makes eye contact

Being from the Northeast, I spent most of my life knowing that when you pass people on the street, the appropriate behavior is to look a little beyond them, focus on a point several feet from the ground with great intensity, and not acknowledge their presence. If they are so rude as to make some sort of salutation, it is acceptable to glance over your shoulder at who they might be talking to. Because obviously, they are not addressing you. A perfect stranger.

Then I moved to New Orleans, where eye contact, “How you doin?”, and a brief nod are de rigeur, especially in the neighborhoods where I spent most of my time working as a community organizer. I worked really hard on my “How you doin,” until I had it down to a nice, casual, two-syllable drawl. I traded “How you doin?” with folks all day long, inside, outside, in sun, in rain. And pretty soon, it became inscribed on my brain.

Asking “How you doin?” is just such a great idea! It removes all that awkwardness from the dreaded social calamity that is Strangers Passing Each Other and allows you to acknowledge each other as humans! And it makes me feel like a friendly, good person.

Joey

Since I’ve come back up north, I’ve found the habit (along with saying y’all) a pretty hard one to break. Being in New York City helps – there’s just so many people, and they’re all moving so fast and so obviously uninterested in interacting with you, that “How you doin” is clearly uncalled for. But when I’m taking a walk, and there’s not many people around, and someone is approaching me from the opposite direction, I can just feel that “How you doin” rising, unbidden, ready to tumble from my tongue, as my eyes rake the other person’s face for that brief eye contact that will give me the permission to release my greeting.

Most of the time I’m not too successful. But I persevere.

It’s frickin’ cold

There it is, folks. It’s COLD here. It’s really cold. Here is me in New Orleans and in New England at the same time of year:

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“But Leah,” you may protest. “You spent 21 years living in the Northeast (with brief forays in the tropical locales of the Bahamas and South India). You KNOW winter. You’ve lived through SO MANY winters. What’s the deal?”

Here’s the answer: I don’t know! I don’t know how it is that I can have lived through so many winters, and miss just a handful of them, and suddenly have no capacity for handling a chill of any kind. Particularly not the windy, face-numbing kind.

This is really bad news since Morocco – who knew? – is apparently a freakishly cold place with no indoor heating whatsoever.

At least I know that I do have a high tolerance for heat. That should come as a comfort next summer. (Look forward to my upcoming blog post in July: Oh My God Morocco Is So H0t What Am I Doing Here.)

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Differences Between New Orleans and New England, Round 3: Gay People!

Flag in front of Northampton City Hall

Flag in front of Northampton City Hall

Now don’t get me wrong. New Orleans is filled with gay people – several of them, thank goodness,  friends of mine. And the Quarter can be pretty…gay. Actually a lot of the time it is. But this does not compare to the sheer gay bliss of being in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts on a busy evening. It is just. So. Gay. And it’s not just a party scene and it doesn’t mean a special festival is happening that week that’s operating as a big Queer Magnet to everyone in the region. It means that people can be who they are, in public, all of the time, and they can even get married if that’s what they want to do. Being in downtown Northampton on a busy evening is one of the great pleasures of my life. And as much as I love New Orleans, and as much as New Orleans is a wonderful blue dot in a red state, there are moments when I realize how visiting Northampton can feel like a great sigh of relief for many people. And I appreciate that now, more than I ever did growing up there.

I want to mention one experience I had in particular that typified to me the social liberalism of Western Mass as compared to New Orleans.

I have previously mentioned my adventures in registering my car in Massachusetts. Not long after I left New Orleans, at one of the many occasions in which I waited for hours at the Massachusetts RMV (housed in a re-purposed brick factory building, natch), I witnessed something that made me a little verklempt with pride for Western Mass.

The RMV waiting area was crowded that day, with lots of people listlessly lounging around on benches and sitting on the floor, many clutching their tickets and gazing up at the little screen mentally urging the numbers to count down faster.

Since this was a former factory building, the waiting area was actually a very broad hallway dotted with pillars, and one woman’s two children – a boy and a girl – were making good use of the space, running around at top speed and careening into each other. They looked to be  twins, about four or five. The boy wore khakis and a blue and green striped shirt, and the girl wore a pink skirt with pink hearts, white pants underneath, pink sneakers, a pink hoodie, and a pink barrette.

Eventually they got tired of running around and started hanging out with their mother, or walking around the space interacting with various people waiting. At about this time I realized my mistake. From afar I had made several conclusions about the children’s respective genders  based on their stereotypical dress, but closer up it was obvious that the child in pink clothing was a biological boy. This child was making the rounds, approaching people to show them something. Eventually I overheard the mother, genially talking with someone else in the room, “Oh, sorry, hope he’s not bothering you. He’s just so excited to show off the hearts on his pants.” Sure enough, the pink hearts on the pants were being proudly shown to everyone within reach.

And here’s what was so remarkable. No one even blinked. No one appeared to mutter, or make comments, or refrain from having a pleasant interaction with the family. Everyone told the boy how much they loved the hearts on his pants, and he went happily off in search of his next audience. The people waiting at the RMV were not a crowd of academic elites or genderqueer activists. From appearances alone, they seemed to be a diverse group of people from many different socio-economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. And as I sat there I realized that I could not even imagine a child exhibiting such a nontraditional gender role in public in New Orleans. 

I want to be clear: I do not think this child is necessarily transgender, or gay. Maybe they will be, maybe not, maybe they’ll reject all cumbersome labels and be whoever the eff they want to be in whatever clothing of gender performativity they want to do it in. Good for them. And good for that child’s mother, for being simultaneously so encouraging and supportive, and so utterly nonchalant about it.

And I do think this child’s life will still be hard. I do not think it will be a walk in the park. But I also think that life in Western Mass, in that community and with that mother, will make growing up just a little bit easier. And that can make all the difference.

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