What’s in a Name

"Alexandra" written in cyrillic.
“Alexandra” written in cyrillic.

As I was sitting in a room full of French high-school students yesterday, I got to thinking about names.

Midway through the English lesson I was observing my colleague teach, a student had a question. He raised his hand, but Jean-Philippe didn’t see him. “Monsieur?” the student then called out to him, finally grabbing the attention of the teacher.

In English calling someone you know sir, mister, or madam sounds archaic and unnatural. Yet in France, monsieur and madam (without first or last names following the title) is the natural form in which students address their teacher.

Names are significant. They so easily transform from simple words, into representations of complex ideas, emotions, and memories. There are names you’ll adore, having once belonged to a first love or favorite literary hero.  Then there are the names you’ll detest, having once adorned a boy or girl who broke your heart, or a friend who betrayed you.

Names can appear static and unchanging. For some, perhaps they are. But as my student called out to his teacher in class yesterday, I realized how many times my name has transformed over the past few years.

A hippie-philosopher friend of mine once voiced the opinion that everyone’s favorite sound is the enunciation of his or her own name. Do you think that’s true? I know I love hearing my own name. But which one? Alexandra, Alex, Alejandra, Sasha, Miss Sasha, Miss Alexandra, Oleksandra Georgivna, Ms. Angel, Madame…all of these are calls I’ve answered to. Alexandra in the States, Alex by people who don’t know me well, and Sasha by my Ukrainian or Peace Corps friends. My students in Ukraine called me Miss Alexandra or Miss Sasha, sometimes arguing amongst each other as to whether Miss Sasha was too informal. Some students used to jokingly call me Oleksandra Georgivna, presenting me with the patronymic that would have been given at birth had I been born Ukrainian or Russian.

I’ve always loved my name. Alexandra is classic and versatile: typical yet noble in English, and timeless in French. It translates well into Spanish. Even in Ukraine, people would ask if I had Ukrainian origins. “Alexandra is a good Russian name,” they’d tell me.

Last week, during class, a student had a question and addressed me as Madame. It was the first time a student has done so. It was formal and new. But I’ll take it. I’ll treasure it and view it as another nuance to my name. As the moniker “Miss Sasha” became a symbol of my time as a teacher in Ukraine, being called Madame will add a new French history to my name and identity: another name to represent my experiences and the person I am.

A Nomad’s Thanksgiving

cos of pc-19

I have not spent a Thanksgiving in the United States since 2009. C’est fou, hein! That’s totally crazy! Even crazier: in the last eight years, I don’t think I’ve had any two Thanksgivings in the same city.

Just another example of this nomadic life I lead.

This past weekend, I celebrated a belated Thanksgiving at the home of my flat-mate’s cousin, an American who has been living in Brussels for about three years. As the seat of the European Parliament, Brussels is one of the most international cities I’ve ever visited. Walking down the street, it is perfectly normal to hear French, Dutch, or German (the three official languages of Belgium), but also to hear people speaking Spanish, English, Portuguese, Italian, or Russian—citizens of the world all transitionally calling Brussels home.

Our Thanksgiving was similarly diverse: two Americans, one Colombian-American (me!), a Chinese-American-Belgian, a Belgian of French decent, an Irish woman, a man from Holland, a Dutch-Iranian-American, and a Frenchwoman. You’ll think it’s strange, but I think this diverse crowd actually provided me with my most traditional American Thanksgiving yet!

As a first generation American on one side of my family, and as a member of a very spread out American family on the other side, Thanksgiving was rarely a major event growing up.  It was an annual day off school, but only an occasional cause for large celebration. I remember one year volunteering at a soup kitchen, several quiet Thanksgivings at family friends’ houses (often also homes of mixed-nationalities), a couple years eating at fancy restaurants, and several Thanksgivings celebrated abroad (mostly as an adult). Thanksgiving was always spent somewhere new, traditions were barely existent, and appreciation for the holiday didn’t have much opportunity to grow.

It is only as an adult, and an American living abroad, that I’ve really come to love Thanksgiving. Far from home and from family, I miss Thanksgiving’s beautiful excuse for families to gather together at table, laughing, talking, joking, sharing, loving, and yes, eating, for long hours of the day and night.

It’s a dash of melancholy and a pinch of longing that makes this wanderer value Thanksgiving. However, I’ve also learned to love expat Thanksgivings. Although Saturday was the first time I’d met any of the people I celebrated this holiday with, it didn’t feel like sitting down at table with nine strangers. For, since holidays are for family, and our blood relatives were far, we created our own family. Over the years, that hodgepodge family of mine has been a whole host of crazy characters: sometimes my family was a roommate; sometimes it was a host family; sometimes it was Europeans who learned to love Thanksgiving through an American son- or daughter-in-law; sometimes it was fellow Peace Corps Volunteers; and sometimes it was the random Ukrainian met in a hostel who helped make a last-minute-decision pumpkin pie.

This Thanksgiving felt more typical and traditional than any I’d ever celebrated. This was due partially to the large group gathered, partially to the enormous table laden with traditional dishes (Of which I partook this year. As a former vegetarian I used to reach only for green beans and salad, avoiding the turkey, stuffing, and gravy.), and partially for the very honest feelings of gratitude I felt this year.

Sometimes expat life is difficult in a way that most people don’t realize. Living abroad is not all romance, as it is often stereotyped to be. Life abroad is just life, with all its ups and downs and twists and turns. But it is also life made a little harder by not having family or familiarity close by. Yet this Thanksgiving, I remembered the wonderful parts of this nomadic life that I lead. I felt thankful for the blessings that come with wandering, wondering, and travelling through life. I spent a day with a wonderful new set of friends; I found family among strangers; I heard the most interesting stories; I got to experience a little more of the world. And for all of these things, this little nomad is truly thankful.