some fresh (and hopefully not false) starts

havana hotel pool

A couple of months ago, I tried and failed to read a sign in Hebrew that I passed in the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. I realized that I was forgetting the alphabet, or rather, the Alef Bet. This filled me with horror, since I’ve known how to read Hebrew almost as long as I’ve known how to read English, and I thought the ability to do so was an unshakeable feature of who I am.

Then I realized that I had already forgotten how to read one other language that I used to know fluently. Three decades ago, I could play sheet music on my clarinet, effortlessly. (I mean, I could read the notes effortlessly. I could not play the instrument to save my life.) Continue reading

Cote d’Ivoire: Korhogo and vicinity

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I had never heard of Korhogo, the fourth biggest city in Cote d’Ivoire, prior to a few months before my work trip. It is a city full of artisans, in a region full of artisans, and I’m excited to show you some of the beautiful handicrafts I saw while there. Continue reading

speaking of kennings…

windowweather

…I was deleting some photos from my laptop yesterday and found one that I took of a page from Iceland Air’s in-flight magazine on the way to Reykjavik. On the page were a bunch of facts about the Icelandic language. At the time, I thought I would share some of them when I posted my Iceland pictures, but by the time I got around to that, I had forgotten about it.

With the passage of almost a year, there’s only one fact on the page that I still find interesting. And I just realized that coincidentally, it is a fact about a kenning, whose definition — a compound word with a metaphorical meaning — I just learned.

“Icelanders have selected their favorite word in a national referendum: Ljósmóðir (literally, ‘mother of light’) is the Icelandic word for midwife.”

Isn’t that such a beautiful word and a beautiful sentiment? It reminds me of the Spanish phrase for “to give birth”: dar a luz (give to light), which I only know because I spotted it on a sign in a hospital waiting room.

It would make sense that Icelandic would be kenning-heavy, since kennings originated in Old Norse (and Old English), a precursor to Icelandic. And according to Wikipedia, “Since the written language has not changed much, Icelanders are able to read classic Old Norse literature created in the 10th through 13th centuries with relative ease.”

I’m not sure whether this counts as a kenning, but I also just discovered this Icelandic word that I love: gluggaveður, which means window-weather (weather = glugga; window = veður). It refers to “weather that is nice to look at through a window, but not nice to be out in.”

Oh words, you delightful poetic things!

Cote d’Ivoire: Abidjan

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It’s been so long since I was in Cote d’Ivoire that I need the photos to jog my memory. I went in late November / early December and spent most of my time in Korhogo, bookended on either side by a few days in Abidjan, as well as a day trip to Grand Bassam. Here are some brief Abidjan highlights…

Continue reading

making my way back

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It’s been awhile (again). I’ve been busy in the non-virtual world with things that felt much more timely and urgent than writing blog posts. But today, for the first time in months, the day stretched out ahead of me with nothing in particular calling for my attention. So I’m using the time to share just a few things I’ve found particularly entertaining, fascinating, and/or inspiring over the past few months of being homebound. (I’m working back up to speed before sharing, at long last, my pix from Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal in December and from Austrai-Slovenia-Italy in February.)

“Mysteries of Vernacular” is a beautifully animated short video series that explains the etymology of interesting words from A to Z.

I learned the word “kenning” from the Mysteries of Vernacular video about the origin of “window,” which led me to search for a list of kennings, some of which are exceptionally beautiful.

Resources for learning a new language from home.

Six virtual train rides you can take from home.

Window Swap invites you to “open a new window, somewhere in the world.” It is so meditative, life-expanding, and wonderful. And it also helped me to realize that my geographical sweet spot is grassy alpine mountains. (I would move to the spot in the window above in a heartbeat.)

Finally, a nonsense-English song that is so catchy, I had it in my head for WEEKS after listening to it.

I found it via Atlas Obscura, which delves into the fascinating history of writing in nonsensical languages.

 

new and untranslatable words, for a new and untranslatable time

pasteis de nata place in lisbon

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Portugeuse word, “saudade,” encapsulates my emotional state during the COVID-19 pandemic — even though it is technically untranslatable. But, so is this surreal period we are living through. The fact that it defies easy English translation seems somewhat appropriate.

Wikipedia’s definition:

Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for or loves… Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again… It is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places, or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, and well-being, which now trigger the senses and make one experience the pain of separation from those joyous sensations.

If that doesn’t perfectly describe life in the time of coronavirus, I don’t know what does.

The Welsh word, hiraeth, is similar to saudade, I recently learned. One person describes it as:

…a combination of homesickness, longing, nostalgia, and yearning, for a home that you cannot return to, no longer exists, or maybe never was. It can also include grief or sadness for who or what you have lost, losses which make your “home” not the same as the one you remember.

Yup. I’m a bundle of saudade and hiraeth these days for sure.

Meanwhile, according to CNN, the Dutch have been fast and furiously coining new words to make sense of their novel (coronavirus) circumstances. The neologisms include huidhonger (skin-hunger) to describe a longing for human contact while in isolation, and hoestschaamte (cough shame) for a particular COVID-era genre of anxiety provoked by coughing in public and setting off a panic. The new lexicon is being collected in a coronawoordenboek — itself a new word.

Too bad I don’t know any Dutch. I’m sure that dictionary is a cathartic read.

P.S. I just looked through my Portugal pictures from 2016 to pick an image for the top of this post, and now my heart actually hurts, the saudade is overwhelming, and I’m going to bed.

Iceland

IMG_6445Writing about past travels during stay-at-home time may cheer me up or it may make me even more angsty… We shall see.

Onward! Onward backward, I should say.

This past October, I went abroad with six of my oldest, dearest friends, to enter middle age in a land where more than half of the people believe in elves. It was exactly what I needed. Continue reading

D.C. blues

anne calfo pillows

Hello from the end of another long, sad, scary week in lock-down. My brain feels like it has spent too much time in a milk frother, and that simile probably came to me because I spent the last hour going down an internet rabbit hole comparing moka pots for no discernible reason. Just before that, I wrote a group text to my sister, brother, and father to tell them we should have a surprise virtual party for my mom’s 75th birthday next week. Only I wrote the text to my sister, brother, and mother. For three days in a row this week, I didn’t feel like leaving the house even to get a few minutes of fresh air, so I didn’t. And I almost forgot to eat dinner yesterday. When I finally remembered, I boiled some spaghetti in boxed chicken broth and called it a night.

I am, of course, certain that I am not alone in my malaise and agitation. I know that I am alone together, as it were. That only makes me sadder. The weight of the world’s pain, and the sheer number of variations on that pain, is crushing. Continue reading

hello from D.C.

foggy new yorkI’m not in Washington. It’s just that COVID-19 seems so globally significant, so life-altering, so biblical, that the years ought to be ordered according to their relationship with the disease. Now we are in the D.C. era: During COVID-19. Everything that came before this novel coronavirus is B.C.; everything that will come after is A.C. Continue reading

My French was all over the map

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During my last work trip, I did a lot of bouncing around:

⁃1 week in Dakar
⁃3 days in Abidjan
⁃Nearly 2 weeks in Korhogo, northern Côte d’Ivoire
⁃1 week in Abidjan
⁃1 day in Dakar
⁃1 week in Saint-Louis, Senegal
⁃2 days in Dakar

 

Like my body, my brain also bounced around a lot – especially when it came to French. In a relatively short period – 5 weeks – my speaking and comprehension skills flailed about on a continuum between nearly nonexistent and reasonably proficient. My French was so inconsistent, and my brain’s see-sawing (in)ability  to speak it was so bewildering, that I spent much of my free time pondering what it all meant. A few thoughts, as haphazardly assembled as my French:

Continue reading