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Category: yo yo yo yo yo

still

Émotion: la douleur de voir partir ainsi pour toujours quelqu’un qu’on a aimé éperdument, ne serait-ce que l’espace de 12 secondes et 3/10.
 [Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer]

A year and a half of nonstop bouncing between geographies has left some marks. Six weeks lost in New York’s wounds, two weeks of sighing over Toronto’s halting flakiness, eight weeks floating though the light and open longing of Lisbon, seven weeks of tender patience and uneasy alertness in Port-au-Prince, plus handfuls of lovely or bewildering stops elsewhere thrown in between. Lather/ rinse/ repeat, for the nineteen months since I left my last home (temporary, still) in the Caribbean.

You can get good at packing and unpacking. That’s not hard. You can rise above the physical exhaustion of constant motion to let those motions become normal. Everywhere, deflecting the same questions on loop — Where do you live now? How long are you in town? — automatic, ritual, white noise. The hardest adjustments are internal. The spaces between people are not the same everywhere, our connections linked by different inputs/ outputs, and you are the international travel human adaptor. When you don’t have a single default or home, there is no normal to disappear back into after a particularly rattling trip. The trip doesn’t end. Everything feels weird all of the time — most of all, you.

One week you’ll greet everyone you meet with a kiss on the cheek, smile warmly, accept the dried fruit or steaming coffee offered, answer thoughtful queries from near-strangers on the health of family members, on the health of your heart. The next, you’ll be in a place where people you’ve met twenty times will pass without a nod. You’ll remember, slowly, that this snub is normal here, back in the place of fickle moods and ritual ghosting of friends and lovers. Here, spaces between people can stretch so far, the waters between them can run so cold. Adapt your touch accordingly.

(Once, freshly arrived from that place and not yet warmed to the new vibe, I breezed past an ex and his friends at a bar without a glance. I did it without thinking, cool walls still up. He confronted me later, face imploringly close — Why didn’t you say hi? — and I felt shame. I couldn’t be this way here, with him, and didn’t want to be this way anywhere, with anyone.)

“We’re going to the beach.” K pings me on WhatsApp mid-morning on a Sunday. The roads were clear, a blessed, temporary opportunity for escape amid weeks of blockades. “Call J to pick you up. He’s leaving his house.” Fifteen minutes later, afternoon plans pushed off, bikini on, towel rolled, ready for a day with the sea. Late afternoon on a Tuesday, a source calls to say she’s stuck in traffic, or there’s been a breakdown, or someone was shot, and could we meet across town in an hour or two instead? Time, space, mortality, everything fluid and unfolding, shifting according to the tides of the moment. That place, full to bursting but always flexible. Then a connecting flight brings you, like a space ship, to this other place where time is rigid. It’s FB invites and advance guest lists, emails that begin apologetic for the late notice, but are you free a week from Friday? R.S.V.P. Interested in attending? Maybe. V busy. LMK. Time flows through spaces differently, and vice versa. Adapt your clock accordingly.

Passport stamp from a teeming city of openness and eager ease for exchange to a smaller city of territoriality and fragile selves. Both, my cities. From here, where you listen tense and watch wary for danger before you turn the corner, to there, where other women walk carefree and alone at night with headphones on ten. Another plane to another place, where male gazes are predatory and pointed, and then off again, to where males are too nervous to give their feelings away with anything intimate as a gaze. The spaces between bodies, inviting or dangerous or confusing. Adapt your heart accordingly.

Adapt, adapt, adapt.

There’s a way you come to know yourself in motion: limber, unchained, unsupported by the usual pillars, a guest and unentitled, at mercy of the winds, carrier of changing skins and privileges, torn-out pieces of self buried lovingly throughout. It feels nothing like the exiles I threw myself into during my twenties. With exile, you’re always confronted by what and where you are not, existing in contrast.

I’ve been reading Dany Laferrière (L’Immortel!) and Mia Couto together this past week, sinking into their respective exiles in 1980s Montréal racism and lust or wartime Mozambique bush imaginary from my still-temporary bed in Toronto:

The cycles of light and of the day were a serious matter in a world where the idea of a calendar had been lost. Every morning, our old man would inspect our eyes, peering closely into our pupils. He wanted to make sure we had witnessed the sunrise. This was the first duty of living creatures: to watch the creator’s star emerge. By the light preserved in our eyes, Silvestre Vitalício knew when we were lying and when we had allowed ourselves too much time between the sheets.
— That pupil’s full of night.
At the end of the day, we had other obligations that were equally inviolate. When we came to say good night, Silvestre would ask:
— Have you hugged the earth, son?
— Yes, Father.
— Both arms open on the earth?
— A hug like the one Father taught us to give.
— Well, go to bed then.
 [O Afinador de Silêncios]

I admitted (finally, again) to myself that I’d like to try to sit still somewhere for a little while (again, finally), at least longer than it takes to finish a TSA regulation mini shampoo. A default home base, a combination launch/landing pad filled with books and artwork liberated from their boxes, my notes and files all in one place, a mailing address, a single normal to relax into between overlapping worlds. Sitting still will help me think, I told myself. I’ve been wanting so badly to write, to read, to just be, without the consuming distraction of booking flights, organizing sublets, shipping, visas, exchange rates, negotiating which shoes to bring, recalling which belongings I have stored where, keeping track of my SIM cards, or swapping out slang and pop culture currencies so damn often — operational code switching ramped to an international scale. (How I managed a transition from news to longform through all of this is baffling.) More than anything else, I’m tired of mourning the distances that matter. I’ve missed some important goodbyes, and it’s hard to forgive myself for those. Friends doubt that I can sit still anymore, and say so to my face. No no, I insist, it will be a relief to give myself freedom from movement.

Beginning to plan for stillness, just considering gig offers and longer-term sublets and imagining alternate lives in a couple of cities, has thrown me into the worst creative block I’ve experienced in years. My active bouncing fighting mind, panicked, held itself hostage through most of December. Come on, I coaxed, we have deadlines to get through. It, too, will have to adapt.

 

a lot of questions, no answers

The last time I talked to James was November 21st, 2012. The day before he was kidnapped.

It was midday Haiti time, evening Syria time, when he popped up on Skype — that moody pixelated avatar that looked like he’d snapped it in a foggy bathroom mirror.

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, Susana Ferreira wrote:
> homie. where you at? how are you?

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> Hey you!

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> what’s the word Doggg???

We’d met earlier that year when we participated in the first RISC training, an intensive medical course for freelance journalists, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center. By day we’d learn about tourniquets, head trauma, spinal injuries, and shoved bloodied gauze into a plucked chicken as practice for packing wound cavities. By night we’d drink pints, eat greasy New York slices, and trade stories about our respective corners of the world. It was a great, friendly group of people, and I was in awe of the cross-section of talent, camaraderie, humility. On the last day of our training, April 20th, we gathered at The Half King on 23rd and 10th to toast the memories of two journalists who had died the year before in Libya, Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros.

James had been to Libya. He’d been kidnapped in Libya, too, and watched as his friend, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces and his body abandoned to the desert. He’d seen the ugliness of war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, too, but he didn’t carry that ugliness with him. He had a youthfulness to him, a tremendous light behind his eyes. Every other eulogy I’ve seen since the news broke makes mention of Jim’s lady-killing grin, but that giant smile started way up his face, behind his eyes. Then again, it could be that my memory is fuzzy — we’d been drinking the last time we crossed paths, after all. Most of my Blackberry photos from that night at The Half King are a gleeful mess, war reporters and photojournalists mugging goofily, flushed, caught mid-joke or mid-giggle.

I kept in touch with some of the extraordinary colleagues from the RISC training, but none more closely than James. He added me on Skype right away and we talked frequently over the next months as I went back to Haiti and he pinged between the States and the Middle East.

On 11/21/12, at 11:29 AM, James Foley wrote:
> I’m in Syria, just a had close call with a tank round yesterday so we pulled back to a safe town, nice to have a sunny day with no shelling

Our conversations often circled the same themes: we bemoaned the crap pay and lack of support we got as freelancers, laughed at ourselves for accepting that crap pay and lack of support with gusto, talked about upcoming assignments, enthused over dream assignments, made promises to move away from our respective regions and on to other parts of the world by year’s end, and lamented our mutual chronic indecisiveness in finding a next spot to settle. He wanted to keep bearing witness, but wondered aloud if it was time to step back from war. He forever downplayed his own discomforts and worried after my well-being to an extent I found comical, checking in post-Sandy or scolding me for getting dengue fever while he was the one wearing Kevlar, ears still ringing from nearby shell blasts. His regular pop-ups and pep talks were a comfort, they were motivating, often hilarious, and they were absolutely a blessing. Before we logged off for the last time, we talked again about a reunion in New York around the New Year. He’d be leaving Turkey and Syria by mid-December to spend the holidays with his family in New Hampshire, and I’d be flying to Toronto around that time for the same. A little freelancer career counseling and commiseration session back at The Half King was just what we needed to start 2013 and a year of fresh adventures off right.

478776_284503574966763_134493706634418_634211_135992285_o
James Foley is in the far back row, last on the left. Matt Power, wearing green and also in the far back to the right, passed in March. Photo by Ricky Flores.

A month later, as I wondered why his foggy avatar hadn’t popped up in so long, I found out from another journalist. Kidnapped. The new year started with a public countdown by the Foley family, marking the days since gunmen nabbed their son, their brother on his way back across the Turkish border with almost no trace and no news. The count ended yesterday, day 636.

I didn’t know James long, but I’ve felt his absence heavily. I can’t say how many times I tucked away an anecdote, usually about some goof-up I’d made, thinking: “When Jim comes back, I’ve got to tell him this.” I thought of him when I finally decided to move away from Haiti, wondering whether he’d be proud or laugh at me for dragging my feet for so long. I thought of him every time another journalist was kidnapped, or another journalist released. I thought of him as Syria spiraled, and I thought of him as ISIS rose up and swept through. When the headlines and stills from that video exploded across my timelines yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help searching the face in those images to see if it was really him. I have not and will not watch the video of his murder. I have a long list of questions about what happened to him during those 636 days, but I’m not sure I want to hear any answers right now.

I don’t know why I wrote this. It’s self-indulgent in a way that I’d normally find repellent — his kin and oldest friends could say so much more about Jim, the sound of his laugh, the flaws that made him infuriating and uniquely him, his goodness and humour and openness and curiosity. I suppose I just wanted to say something. That I feel grateful to have known him, even so briefly, and to have had his positive presence in my life during some trying months. That I admired and respected his commitment to following front lines, to documenting injustices, to bringing connection and friendship and light to some dark corners. I can’t tell him this any more, because I know now that his fuzzy blue avatar will never again pop up in a Skype chat, but I’m so glad James Foley existed.

Rest in power, homie.

 

interlude

 

I woke up
And forgot who I was
But remembered a thunderous dream
Of having to be someone.

/mia-skye sagara

 

It is a strange thing to feel in exile at home, rather than at home in exile.

My last real home, or closest thing to home, was Port-au-Prince. I spent nearly four mostly-consecutive years in Haiti, but a few months ago decided that I needed a breather. I wanted to be quiet and still and nowhere for a little time, to think and to write, before packing up again and either returning to the heat or moving elsewhere. Nap swiv.

And so I landed in West End Toronto for the summer. The friends who have gotten used to seeing me pop in a few times a year for short visits are not quite sure what’s up now that I’m hanging around longer. They are almost startled to bump into me on the street or at parties — Oh, you’re still here? Others, who I haven’t crossed paths with in years, are confused about where I’m supposed to be. How’s New York? they inquire. When do you fly back to Paris?

I blame my blog name in part. I’ve used “nowarian,” a word born of the playful genius of Caribbean English, as my username, social media moniker, and blog identity for nearly a decade. In that decade I have moved house at least 22 times (that I can recall) in five countries. This has made me very good at packing and unpacking, a master at airport security lines, more graceful with goodbyes and heartfelt with hellos, and kept me from accumulating more than I can carry. My shoulders have never been stronger, my keep-or-toss decisiveness never sharper.

But lately, I’ve been complaining to friends, the word has started to feel like a burden. What if I want to accumulate things? What if I want to lay down roots? What if I don’t want to be from nowhere? After so many years away I’m a ghost in my own home town, a foreigner in my fatherland, and the last place I felt entirely in my element is a country that, even should I decide to live out the rest of my days there, will forever view me as an outsider.

Adaptable Otherness, in a way, is my jam. This is how I was raised in West End Toronto, crashed up against all these other kids whose parents’ life choices and migratory options forced us to grow together, all different skin tones and hair textures and cooking spices that seeped into our bargain bin, hand-me-down, and home-made clothes. I can’t recall if we asked one another where we were from. I’m not sure we cared at that age. At lunchtime we traded leftover curries, cured meats, greens, thick soups, beans and rice, spicy roasted peppers smothered in olive oil and garlic. We taught each other how to swear in our respective native tongues, played tiny interpreters at parent-teacher meetings, and developed a collective way of speaking that incorporated our many accents. Nobody stuck out as different, because we all did. I romanticise those days, though I know I shouldn’t. The poorest kids were sometimes shunned for being too fresh-off-the-boat, frayed fabrics, faces dirty, bruised. Mr McLean choked one of the Jamaican kids up against a wall after recess. The French teacher screamed at the Mexican kids, calling them gangbangers. I still sting with the memory of the school librarian taunting me, her British accent echoing, asking if I knew how to speak English.

In 2008 I called up Dr Winford James in Saint Augustine, Trinidad on a day when he was feeling “good and strong, good and strong” to ask about nowarians. He was as solid an authority as any, it seemed, as he helped write the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Dr James explained that the word has origins in Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Tobago, and Trinidad. There was no one correct way to spell it (nowarian, nowherian, nowhereian, nowierian), just as there was no single agreed-upon meaning. He walked across his office, found his copy of the dictionary, opened it to page 409, and read aloud an official definition:

no-wher-i-an 1. A person who is not connected with any church or who professes no religious faith. 2. [By extension] Sb who is not respectable; sb of no consequence. 3. [By further extension] [Derog] An unkempt looking knockabout; a person of no fixed abode.

Yikes, I said. Dr James tried to mellow the harshness: “It’s a term that has a kind of semantic potential,” he said. “It has shades of meaning.” Shades that can shift and migrate. If a nowarian can be from nowhere — disconnected from his or her roots and surroundings — then a nowarian can be from everywhere too. At the time, I found some comfort in this.

“I don’t belong here,” a friend said to me one night in Port-au-Prince before I left, as so many have on so many Port-au-Prince nights. This one was a blond American, a foreign aid worker. She hadn’t grown up questioning, in ways subtle or enormous, whether or not she belonged in her Northern California town. This discomfort was new for her, and no matter how long she stayed or the effort she made, she said morosely, she would never belong in Haiti. Of course she wouldn’t, I thought. Aloud, and naively, I wondered: why was that so awful? She looked at me, bewildered by the question.

*   *   *

 

[Because it needs to be addressed: Sorry for the silence in this space. I have drafts on drafts, accumulated over the past year plus, but none of them felt right. Like everything else, I’ll throw blame on the burden of that word, hungry for motion, nowarian.]

welcome to somewhere

Being away from West End Toronto for the bulk of Euro2012 made me terribly homesick. I’ve spent most of my adult life away, but that scrappy cement patch of autobody shops, faded warehouses and parkette drug deals will always be my most primary of homes. No one does international futebol championships quite how we do. The flags! The honking! The aggro traffic-stopping revelry! The drunken giddy shouting at strangers! My current home of Port-au-Prince appreciates a good match, and while I was warmed to hear the neighbourhood men yelp as though collectively wounded with every near-goal and near-save, this soccer crowd just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted excessive public rowdiness. I wanted to be home.

Maybe distance has made me nostalgic, but I now look through love-lidded eyes at my old immigrant-enclave hood. I smile at the Portuguese sports bars (and the Super Bock-tipsy aging construction bachelors), recall the corner store where I used to buy patties after school, and take delight in the dilapidated discount strip mall that has slowly emptied over the years. I used to scowl at the noisy gino-mobiles, the ugly flat-top buildings, the dull desolation. The drug dealers made me furious for taking over the playground (also my shortcut to the bus stop), coming and going in a constant cycle of street, arrest, jail, street. I often had the feeling that I lived in an abandoned space, one where people were resigned to carry on because they didn’t have the heart to give up completely. Tired faces, low wages, drop-out kids. Our area didn’t even have a name, like the Annex or Corso Italia, presumably because no one could be bothered to coin one.

It was so depressing it became funny.

“This neighbourhood is where dreams go to die,” I would tell my brother, and he would crack up. “Yeah,” he’d say, forcing a straight face, “I went to the Galleria a few days ago, and I’ve been depressed ever since.” The strip mall was the apex of this mini-empire of hopelessness. My classic illustration: every December the mall would set up Christmas decorations and a modest throne for Santa to sit in —- to take gift requests and snap photos with little mall rats, as is the great mall tradition — but Santa never came. In the 20+ years I lived in the area, the Galleria’s Christmas chair was always empty. I laughed when I got older. Why would he come here, anyway? Not like anyone on this block was getting presents.

The neighbourhood is changing, though. The Zellers discount department store in the mall is slated to shut down this month, skeevy off-track betting joint PM Toronto is already boarded up, and the rest of the Galleria is to be demolished and built-over with condos. On recent visits I’ve started to notice people jogging, bike locks have sprouted, and there are now creative-class espresso shops and hipster bars up the block from the working-class bakery/cafes and sports dives, competing for new residents’ attentions. I have mixed feelings about this. Not bad, just mixed.

 

 

 

On my last Toronto visit, I spent time at the first official hipster bar on the Geary strip, chatting up one of the owners about his choice of locale. I had never bothered to hang at the spot’s previous incarnation — a decidedly manly bar named Copas, where the rare client who pulled up on bicycle had probably just gotten a DUI. This new space was beautiful, filled with art and vintage speakers, the pants tighter and beards longer than on the previous regulars. The new owner said that most of his friends now lived in the area, refugees from the increasingly pricy Queen West scene they had helped make popular, and that they were hurting for a decent hang out spot. So, it made sense to open up, he said, here in the middle of nowhere.

Hey, I said. I grew up here. It’s not nowhere. People live here. Families live here.

Both his words and mine fell awkwardly, because here we were — him, opening a front-line gentrifying bar, and me, sipping a pint of Steamwhistle while contemplating gentrification. I read through articles and blogs about this bar, rejoicing its arrival in “the middle of nowhere,” heralding a Williamsburg-esque transformation that by some is seen as inevitable. What?

I felt alarmed. I was pleased to have spicy mojitos within walking distance, but worried that these new residents would dismiss the area… much the way I had, growing up. Guilty. Would they be the kind of migrants who flush in, dismiss the working-class community, and go about re-paving things their way? Would they see the beauty in the brokenness? Would they compliment their new surroundings? Would they shop at the Mexican bakery, the Portuguese fish market, the churrasqueiria? Would they scowl at the Dufferin bus stop like a local, or wait with mild-mannered patience?

It’s a strange thing to slip between classes and social groups. I thought I would be used to it by now, but having multiple worlds collide on my home turf has been weird, particularly because I don’t even live there anymore. So every visit will make me feel like more of a visitor. The rest of the city, the people who ride bicycles by choice, do yoga, and pay too much for watery coffee, is creeping up. I suppose am one of those people, minus the bad taste in coffee, but I sprouted from this space. The bargain stores will close. Warehouses become rehearsal spaces become lofts. More immigrants will leave, pulled to live with their children in the suburbs. I’ll fly back to see my parents, and before they sell their house and move on, I’ll get together with friends at a bar around the corner, where they play 45s and screen vintage cartoons, for cocktails and fish tacos to wax nostalgic about how my neighbourhood is gone.

takeoffs and landings

Tomorrow marks 10 years since peace returned to Angola. From 1961 to 1975, the war of independence. Then, nearly three decades of cold, cold civil war. But stretched out before either were hundreds of years of Portuguese occupation, colonization, slavery. A successful ceasefire agreement between former nationalist-guerilla-groups-turned-civil-war-rivals on April 4, 2002 changed all of that. This is the simplified version of events, in any case.

It’s been a very long road.

If you know me, you know how badly I wish I could be in Angola right now. My family’s history is tied to that place, tied to those wars. But for lack of finances, and at least a few unlucky missed opportunities, my time to visit has not yet come. In the meantime I read things like Judith Matloff‘s “Fragments of a Forgotten War,” a warm, beautifully written memoir of Angola’s false peace ten years earlier, in 1992. It took months (and at least two unscrupulous eBay sellers) to track down a copy, but it was well worth the effort. Matloff, a former Lisbon correspondant now based in Apartheid-era South Africa, arrives in post-ceasefire Luanda. Roads, railways and buildings had been obliterated during the wars, vast swaths of the country were littered with slumbering landmines, but offshore oil infrastructure remained intact. The ceasefire brought with it a frenzy of activity, new hopes, old demons, opportunism, and an uneasy chaos that I’m well familiar with in my own corner of the world:

Suddenly, small shops were opening and people were plastering over the bullet holes and painting their houses. Foreigners were coming in, looking for good business deals. Suddenly, too, there was a proliferation of cars–and traffic jams.

Bars were opening everywhere. The favoured one at the time was the Bar Aberto, or Open Bar, which was on a rooftop and played the latest techno-rap music from New York. I never ceased to marvel at where all these trendy people in tight black outfits appeared from; you never saw such hip well-dressed characters on the streets during the day.

The optimism that followed the Biçesse accords led to talk of physical reconstruction. Consultants and experts flew in to calculate how much it would cost to repair the shattered country. The World Bank estimated it would take a decade to fully rebuild the roads, bridges and other infrastructure. One of the more ambitious projects was reviving the Benguela Railroad (estimate: $340 million). Portuguese citizens visited factories and farms that had been nationalised with a view to buying them back.

Another negative side of peace, for the MPLA at any rate, was that it could no longer blame the ills of urban life on the enemy. Earlier it was UNITA which had thrown the city into a waterless dark by sabotaging electricity pylons and water tanks. But now that the rebels were in Luanda the MPLA had to assume responsibility for the deficiencies of city life.

These deficiencies were myriad. The MPLA as administrators embodied the worst of Portuguese bureaucracy, African lack of training and Marxist-Leninist inefficiency. Luanda had become a monster of a city.

For most of the population — and one-fifth lived in Luanda — there was no proper health care or education. Public services had all but broken down. I saw this most clearly at the city morgue, which I visited by accident. I was suffering from symptoms of malaria and a friend took me to the military hospital to be tested. I was advised to take my own clean needle to avoid the possibility of contracting Aids from the used ones they had at the hospital. When one entered the clinic one became keenly aware of one’s mortality: it was right next to the morgue. The building emitted a terrible stench. As the Cuban doctor pricked my finger for blood I heard what sounded like a small explosion.

“What’s that?” I asked. Another noise followed.

“Oh, it’s probably a body at the morgue,” the doctor said nonchalantly. “When the electricity goes off the refrigerators go warm. Then the bodies swell up and pop.”