When I was about 8 or 9 I renounced Romanian and began to think and dream exclusively in English. To renounce my mother tongue was an active decision. I remember the day that I said to myself, “English is my language now and I must learn it and embrace it.” I said this immediately following a spelling test in which I misspelled “Dad”; I wrote down “Dod.” I had just started school. What was I thinking? I was overthinking, in the wrong language. For me North America was a new world—and in this new world English was the key: the key to community, the key to networks, the key to sociality, the key to friendship, the key to culture, the key to citizenship, the key to everything.

And besides, I could not write well in Romanian; I struggled with grammar and felt as though I was always behind. I was only 7. People would tell me that Romanian “is an easy language because it’s phonetic and it has very strict rules. You just need to memorize the rules.” I could not memorize the rules. Nevertheless, I could speak it fairly well and it was the language I used to think and articulate my thoughts. I recall taking private English lessons with a pleasant man sporting a Tom Selleck moustache. He would have me watch cartoons and we would translate words together and my parents would pay him and I gather they thought I was well on my way to mastering the language; they did not know at the time that I would go on to misspell “Dad.”

I embraced English as the language of my thoughts and dreams, but there are times when English continues to be a foreign language to me. Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel as though we are completely estranged. It is often a bitter struggle and it’s why this blog exist (but if my publishing rate is any indication…) Why is every paragraph a fight, every essay an internal scrap? Would I have a mastery of the metaphor had English been my mother tongue? Would I still need thesaurus.com and Google tabs at the ready to help me find the correct word to articulate a thought? Would I still consider my prose prosaic and flat, neither elegant nor sophisticated?

There is another consequence to abandoning a mother tongue. Yiyun Li recently wrote a moving personal history for the New Yorker titled “To Speak is to Blunder.” It’s beautiful and delicate, and you should read it. In it she describes what it was like to abandon Chinese and embrace English as  her “public and private language.” The following excerpt struck me: “Over the years, my brain has banished Chinese. I dream in English. I talk to myself in English. And memories—not only those about America but also those about China—are sorted in English.” Renouncing a language affects the way that you recall memories. What does that mean? When I recall a memory I build the scene in English. There was a chair and a table and he was there and she was sitting and they were talking and music was playing. Romanian memories should be remembered in Romanian but I build them in English, too. “When one remembers in an adopted language,” writes Li, “there is a dividing line in the remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction.” What happened before, then, is mediated by this other language that is at once mine and not mine. I’ll let Li have the last words because they are perfect, and I wish I had written them: “One’s relationship with the native language is similar to that with the past. Rarely does a story start where we wish it had, or end where we wish it would.”

 

After the body of his three-year old son was discovered on a Turkish beach (what is now an iconic image), Abdullah Kurdi’s fears were realized; his entire family, including his two sons and wife had drowned after their boat had capsized whilst on the Aegean. Abdullah then had to make an unimaginably difficult telephone call to the relatives that he was ultimately trying to reach in Vancouver, Canada. Abdullah’s sister, Teema, had tried desperately to sponsor the Kurdi family, but her efforts could not sway Chris Alexander’s Ministry of Immigration. Following these events, sources described Teema as “completely upset and heartbroken.” At once an understatement and curiously accurate; yes, perhaps imagining a heart literally tearing in half — one made of fibrous tissue, not of paper, and gushing blood — is the only way to go about imagining what Teema must have felt. 9,993 kilometers of land and sea separated her from her family — the moon seems closer at night.

Regardless of their country of origin (im)migrants face an array of challenges. Complex bureaucratic measures impede their movement across borders while precarious travel arrangements across seas and war-zones put their lives in serious danger. Other elements, like language and ethnicity, erect barriers that require time and patience to hurdle. Despite these challenges (im)migrants continue to leave, hopeful to find greener pastures. I’d like to suggest by way of vignette that we consider long distance grieving as another one of these challenges.

More common: I found out that my grandmother passed away through a Facebook message on 12 February 2014, an hour before an exam. “My condolences. I feel awful, and I’m beside you.” I answered with, “What? What happened?” A lull, but I knew. By then bunica, the woman that raised me until the age of 8, had been battling with pancreatic cancer for almost a decade. I could not make the funeral, but these things happen. What I didn’t think about then, and am most certainly thinking about now, is how difficult it must have been for my mother to deal with it all from a distance of 7,840 kilometers, rooted in place. Her support network made up of only a son and husband. How can we possibly apply theories of bereavement to these scenarios, where traditional family structures and support networks are anemic at best or non-existent, and immense distances deny the immediate closure that we so desperately seek? How do we mitigate the guilt that one might feel for missing births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, or the beautiful minutia of everyday life?

I’ve framed this in the context of (im)migration, but ex-pats, and those otherwise estranged from their family deal with this form of grief, too. This post was inspired by a colleague’s telling of her father’s experience with long distance grieving, as well as my recent return ‘home.’ It was not until I walked into my late grandmother’s bedroom that I began to feel comfortable without her. A two year delay engendered by circumstances and decisions, largely out of my control, that will continue to ripple, always.

In a few days, on 13 June 2016, I’ll be traveling back to Romania for a three week stint. But one cannot return if one has not first left a place.

Here’s what I can recall:

The soundtrack to the memories of when my family and I emigrated from Romania is overpowered by four repeating bars of weeping. A nondescript white sprinter van, already filled to capacity with other destined emigres, pulled up to the apartment building where my family and I were waiting. We were overwhelmed by bittersweet nervousness. Two honks. I was weeping in the lap of my weeping mother. My grandmothers weeped as they embraced their children and their grandchild; my grandfathers shook my father’s hand and wished him “noroc.” They did not know if they’d ever get to see us again. They never would see us again; not those versions of us. Those versions, when asked “what is your citizenship?” would only have answered with, “Romanian.” Those versions, when asked “where do you live?” would only have answered with, “Suceava.” Those versions of us said goodbye to their families and travelled eight taxing hours  to Bucharest— one final tour of Romanian infrastructure — only to die in an Henri Coandā International Airport terminal.

993030_10151900090610759_902436840_nIs it coincidental (or serendipitous? What say you, John Cusack?) that in the summer that I decide to return to Romania the Romanian national football team decides to get it’s act together and qualify for Euro 2016? You see, for as long as I can remember the Romanians have not been able to qualify for any serious international competition. As a result, I’ve rooted for the English, and the Dutch, and then the English again, before giving up all hope; at every pub I went to I was an imposter, and everyone could tell. What is the point of nationalism if you can’t perform it every once in a little while?  I will perform this coming summer.

We jettison versions of ourselves. Some experiences, like emigration, trigger the process and force a refashioning of the self. But I expect that when I land at Henri Coandā on June 14, I will be greeted by a version of myself and I will welcome his warm embrace. I will ask him if he’d like to join me on my vacation, and if he’d like to root for the tricolorii together.

Jesus Christ, is Lake Como ever beautiful.

In late February a colleague of mine asked me if I’d be interested in attending a week-long conference on humanities data visualization in Como, Italy. The answer was an immediate and resounding “yes,” for who turns down such an invitation? I’d never been to Italy, and I had started to develop keen interest in data science and information visualization (despite not knowing exactly how these fields interacted with the humanities). We rallied to transform our unstructured data (Word and Excel files, loose-leaf notes) into structured spreadsheets, and we made a case for why our project was vitally important to Renaissance historiography, information visualization theory, our parents, the world, and the galaxy. The application was thorough enough to warrant an invitation.

In trying to articulate Como’s appeal and charm I’ve realized that I’m awful at describing beautiful places. But I will try. Como is an old-new place, and it depends on it’s old-newness for survival. Old buildings and less-old buildings serve as orientation points throughout the narrow streets of Como’s city center. “Turn left at the old house. Yes, the 13th century one that’s now a bookstore.” New money walks its cobblestone streets; new boutiques sell new, expensive articles of clothing to newcomers; new cars squeeze through tight cobblestone roads interrupting everything. Outside the city center – and you know it’s the city center because the original walls still stand to remind you – Como is rather pedestrian. It could be any place, so long as that place was surrounded by picturesque mountain ranges and was adjacent to a lake.

In retrospect, Como was a perfect location for a conference that brought together data visualization and the humanities. An old-new place hosting a conference on old-new things. The conference itself was not really a conference but a workshop. After a few hours of preliminary talks to set the pace, we were divided into groups of humanists, designers, and programmers. We were given five days (9am – 6pm, with intermittent coffee breaks and a prolonged lunch ‘hour’) to develop a proof-of-concept for a tool that would visualize the data that we had provided. At the end of the week historians were capable of asking critical questions about design theory, and designers and programmers could ask questions that were influenced by historical thought; in other words, each group became literate and could “read” each others’ discipline. It was an absolute blast, and a perfect example of how fruitful interdisciplinary cooperation can be.

image2Despite all of the talk of interdisciplinary in the humanities we have yet to really immerse ourselves in it: What is interdisciplinary about a group of scholars that subscribe to disparate disciplines getting together and feigning interest? What is interdisciplinary about embedding the word “interdisciplinary” in your funding application just because? Since attending this conference I’ve grown ever skeptical of “interdisciplinary work” in the humanities, and I encourage you to think critically about your own work, and the work of your colleagues, as well.

But for this early career researcher, the most striking result of the workshop is that it demonstrated, categorically, that the humanities and information science/design and technology could collaborate and produce remarkable things. And as I awkwardly navigate the liminal space between history and information science, knowing that there are groups that respect this type of work to such a degree is refreshing and inspiring.

Yesterday morning I woke up in my bed for the first time in almost a week. Upon waking to the sound of The National’s Apartment Story, I needed a moment to reorient. By the time I recognized the hushed gurgling of boiling radiator water spurting out of ancient pipe-seams and the cushioned prance of the terrier living in the apartment above me the malaise had already set in. “Why does time pass so quickly in Montreal,” I asked myself.

My story is a conventional one. I lived in Montreal for a year while completing my Master’s degree. With my studies complete, and with funding run-out, I had to depart. Financial pressures and language barriers more-or-less forced me to retreat back to the bridges I had built back in Southern Ontario. I think that I am happy here, with this slower pace of life, most of the time.

Montreal is a transitory place, and many experience it during a liminal period where transition is the only certainty. Despite being fully cognizant of the impermanence of it all, and even cursing its unforgiving winters and (sometimes) unfriendly citizens, I still developed feelings for Montreal. And when I allow myself to reminisce I feel as though I’ve been replaced. I think that another person is reading History at McGill, sitting in the same classrooms and having similar conversations in that room that overlooks Mont Royal. Another person is in my 300sq.ft. apartment, rearranging the the few pieces of furniture I sold to her for pennies on the dollar. Someone else is eating the Mustard Pork Chops at Le Grand Comptoir, drinking what would have been my house wine. Someone else is making plans with my friends, maybe to see the new collection at the Musee de Beaux Arts, or to hammer back a few subsidized pitchers at Thomson House (knowing my friends, probably the latter).

I took it for granted, naturally. There were days, maybe weeks, when I would question why people even settled in Montreal in the first place (did not engage with historical reasons). But over time, as autumn became a frozen hell and that hell became summer, that cold, cultural capital grew on me. I recall navigating the subway and bus network with a tap of the STM card and a mumbled “Ca va bien?”; my dwindling level of patience as I lagged behind groups of confused tourists; mastering the penguin walk across thousands of meters of icy sidewalks; falling on those icy sidewalks; the drinking, and the thinking.

Last week I spent five consecutive days in Montreal and I am grateful. Amid hanging out with dear friends—old and new—and participating in an inspiring conference, I found time to walk the icy streets of downtown and the Plateau. Much has not changed. I did not emerge from the McGill-College station at the exit that I had intended; and, as if preordained, I slipped and fell on the corner of Mont Royal and l’Esplanade, just like before. I suspect the soreness in my thigh will fade well before my longing for Montreal will. Onwards.