I love my name. But it took a long way to get here. Years of people singing “Eleanor Rigby” and telling me their grandma’s name was “Eleanor” fueled a hatred in me for my name so strong, I forced my friends and family to call me Ellie. Well, at least for a while. But over time, I learned to love my name and was a tad upset when I learned that I would be given a new name in my host family in Senegal. I was determined to keep my American name somehow in Senegal– that is until I got to Senegal. Then all I could think was “God. Bless.” Because Eleanor is so not a Senegalese name.
Which is mostly because my name is impossible to say due to the Senegalese accent. It comes out “All-ugh-noel,’’ as opposed to Eleanor. And no matter how hard anyone tries to say my name in a way that sounds like “El-ah-nore, the Senegalese pronunciation would make my mom ask, “Ki kan la?” or, in English, “Who is that?”
Luckily, the moment I got into my house, sama yaay (my mom) renamed me Adja. Adja Adama Lô. It’s after her 103-year-old mom who lives just down the road and still takes care to dress-up as if she is leading a Senegalese fashion show every day. So, knowing that she was in my family, and knowing who my host mom was, I went out to try to figure out who else I’m related to here. But that was no easy task. The term “family” in Senegalese culture is very loose– looser than I can put into words. I’ve been here for three weeks, I still don’t know who I’m related to, and I’ve just figured out who lives in the house. And to be honest, I’m not even sure if I’m right about who sleeps where. In or outside my house, everyone new I meet is somehow connected to my family, and they will make sure you know their name. Even if you have only met once and forget it the next time you see them, they’ll look at you with a face so sad that I now keep a journal with me at all times so I can write any new names I learn down.
Because everyone here is just so kind. Because no matter how many times I forget their name, they always seem to know mine. They always know to call me “Adja,” even if we met on the street two weeks ago as I was going to drop off dinner at someone’s house. And having everyone know my name, in general, is great. But, as this is a truth-telling space, let me acknowledge the two slight issues I have with my name and lack of one.
First of all, when I walk down the street I don’t get called, “All-ugh-noel,” or “El-ah-nore,” or “Adja.” Instead, I get called “Toubab,” or foreigner, every time I see kids or someone new. But having kids running after you chanting “Toubab,” isn’t an insult in Senegalese culture– no matter how frustrating it can be. Instead, kids screaming “Toubab” aren’t trying to insult you, they are just stating a fact. It’s like pointing at a female (who identifies as a female) and saying “female.” There’s no harm done there because it’s a fact. And I can’t even get that annoyed, because when they call me “Toubab,” it’s only because they don’t know my name. Once I tell them my name is Adja, a new issue arises: everyone loves to scream my name, all the time.
Walking down the street or sitting in my room, there is one thing that I always hear: “Adja!” It is a constant chant throughout my house, throughout the streets, and, as it seems to be a popular name on billboards, throughout all of Senegal. I swear even the goats behind my house chant “Adja!” as I’m trying to sleep. And I have no right to get annoyed. But emotions don’t have rules; something I’m trying to teach myself slowly this year. I mean I’m smack-dab in the middle of an entirely different culture, and it’s completely okay to get frustrated. But then you need to learn why others don’t. So after many days of politely smiling while internally screaming when I heard the familiar “Adja “ or “Toubab” call, I realized these words were Senegalese proof that the people of Tabia Ndiaye cared, cared about me.
So, I guess these issues aren’t actually problems. More like situations I need to work out with myself. I mean, I’m from the South! I thought I would be used to the “teranga” (openness) of people, but culture shock is real, and it’s taking me some time to adjust. Now, when I hear “Adja” called by a stranger, I no longer feel creeped out or grip my water bottle as I get ready to strike if they come close. Instead, I swallow my hesitations, and I walk over there. I allow myself to realize that it’s just the culture. It’s just the people caring, them wanting to get to know me. Instead of turning into survival mode as if I’m alone in an alley, I trust my gut. And when I don’t know what to do I ask one of the many, many people in my extended family here.
And while hearing “Toubab” or “Adja” screamed from all directions still may get on my nerves some days, more often than not, it’s started to make me smile.
As my first month in Granada draws to a close, I am so grateful for all of the amazing places I’ve visited and excited for what’s to come. Yesterday, I visited the Alhambra for the first time and can now safely say that photos do not do it justice. I have never seen such a beautiful collection of incredible palaces, historic ruins, and picture-perfect gardens.
Over the last month, I have run into the typical obstacles expected of studying abroad. I still get hungry in the afternoon and then quickly remember dinner is not until 9:30. I’ve had days where I can hold a conversation with a native speaker without missing a beat. I’ve also experienced times where I can’t recall a word in Spanish or in English.
I am so glad I chose to live with a host family, instead of in a dorm or apartment. In my host home, I get to see the day to day experiences of a typical Spanish citizen. Additionally, I get to constantly practice speaking Spanish. After only a month, my host mom says my Spanish has drastically improved. Initially, it was definitely very strange to be living with a family that was not my own. However, as the weeks pass by, I find myself participating more in conversations and joining the fun whenever a soccer game is on. As a huge soccer fan, I was lucky to see Granada, the clear underdog, defeat Barcelona. The four of us in the living room could have been mistaken for an entire stadium as we yelled at the TV whenever something exciting happened.
So far, I have had no doubts about my decision to take a gap year. I can’t imagine another time in my life when I could study and intern abroad for an entire year and I’m glad I took advantage of the opportunity.
At my high school graduation, my philosophy teacher Mr. Concilio gave a piece of life advice that has really stuck with me through my first week in Spain. The simple version of the advice that he gave is that when you have two different life choices, make the decision that allows you to tell the better story later in life. I think about this advice because this August I had the choice of either matriculating at the university that’s been my dream since I first set foot on campus, or I could live in Spain for seven months. I chose the latter, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Every day I think about if I had chosen to begin my freshman year at Duke and how much easier it would have been logistically. I wouldn’t have to open a Spanish bank account, change my phone plan to a Spanish one, or fight for an appointment with the police to get my application for residence officially approved.
Of course, if I had chosen to begin my freshman year, then I wouldn’t have gotten to see a castle built on top of a boulder (a scene of Game of Thrones was filmed there!). I also probably would never have known about the region that it’s located in, Alto Tajo, which combines the classic plains of Southern France and Spain with the wind beaten rocks of Arizona. Nor would I have gotten to know my incredible host family, and had the privilege of meeting their incredible friends, who so far include a talented Spanish chef, and a man who raises most of the bulls that are fought in Spain. I also, most obviously, wouldn’t have the incredible opportunity to become fluent in Spanish, which would let me talk to 450 million more people than I already can in English.
Day to day I am having an incredible time. But the fact that I am going to be in Spain for the next seven months constantly looms over me; it’s scary. Whenever I start having doubts and thinking that I just want to go home I try to remember what Mr. Concilio said. Next summer, when I am getting ready to start my freshman year at Duke, I am going to be so happy that I took a gap year. I will have incredible stories to tell and I am going to be much more prepared for life as a college student. After all, if I can live a year in Madrid, Durham should be a piece of cake!
I was blown away by my experience on the Greek Summer program. From climbing Mount Olympus, to learning about Greek culture and language, to a ten day stay with a Greek family, to sailing through the Greek islands, I never could have imagined the heart and beauty I discovered in Greece.
My father and all his cousins participated in Greek Summer when they were my age and I feel like I have been hearing about Greek Summer all my life. My great grandparents came to the United States from Greece when they were young. My grandfather is extremely proud of his Greek heritage and Greek Summer was an opportunity to learn more about where that part of my family came from. I decided to go on the program with my cousin Lilly Brooks, who will be a freshman at Duke this year.
I really had no expectations of the trip at all, but Greek summer surpassed everything that I had been told. Greek Summer is run through the American Farm School in Thessaloniki which is in Northern Greece. It is a month long program with several different experiences within the program. There were nine participants, including me, from the United States and one from Korea. This program is unique in the way they have six students from the American Farm school join us for the first ten days of the program to help us learn more about Greek culture and to feel more comfortable in a foreign country far from home. In that first week we learned a lot of things that would help us throughout the summer. We learned about Greek food, some basic Greek words and Greek traditional dances. The Greek students showed us some of the things they are studying in school such as aquaponics, snail farming, and dairy and vegetable production. We also toured Thessaloniki learning about the history of the city and the country. We saw the ruins of the multiple different empires that had control of Greece throughout the centuries. It was really interesting to see how empires would recycle and destroy buildings and create new ones with their architecture and culture.
Our group next faced the challenge of hiking Mountain Olympus, a mountain which is said to be the home of the Gods in Greek Mythology. In the three days it took us to hike up and down the mountain we became close in a way I never would have expected. The hike seemed like it would be an impossible task, but the fifteen of us pushed through and encouraged each other to continue climbing. We all made it to the top! As we hiked the difficult trail, we shared stories and played games to keep our minds off the physical challenge of putting one foot in front of the other. Through the experience, I learned new and interesting things about each person. After hiking each day we played cards, teaching each other games from our countries. We got to know each other in a whole different way. I found that I had a lot in common with people that I didn’t think I would. Looking back at the hike now it was one of my favorite parts of the trip even though it was the most strenuous. Sadly the Greek students from the American Farm School had to go home after our hike. I made bonds with all six of them and I miss them terribly, but I know we will stay in touch.
I was so nervous for the next part of our trip because I would be living with a Greek family for a week. I had learned a few words and expressions in Greek but I was so scared I wouldn’t be able to communicate with my family. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We lived in the village of Stavroupoli with our host families in the very northern part of Greece close to Bulgaria. I had a host mother who spoke some English and father and two cute host siblings. My sister was eight and had begun to learn English in school but only knew the words for some colors. My brother was three and did not speak any English. Despite the language barrier, I made a deep connection with my family and I found it so hard to leave them. My host mother was amazing as she was always asking if I was okay and if I had everything I needed. Most people call that Greek Hospitality. My host siblings and I found other ways to communicate and connect such as through music and hand gestures. My host sister and I bonded over a TV show called Mr. Bean and my host brother who loved Spiderman and I played with his action figures for hours. Even though I was sad to leave, I know we will stay in touch and I will find a way to visit them at some point.
While in the village we ran a summer camp for children so they would have something fun to do during the day. We also painted the basketball and tennis courts for the kids as they we desperately in need of refurbishing. After the home stay, I realized that I had nothing to worry about, but most importantly that language barriers do not matter. If you really want to get to know someone you can do it without even speaking the same language. Overall my stay in Stavroupoli is definitely an experience I will never forget.
When we got back from the village we had a few days at The American Farm School before we went on our four day sailing trip through the Sporades Islands. The sailing trip was a special way to end the trip just being together and exploring a very different part of Greece. A highlight was visiting the island of Skopelos where the movie Mamma Mia was filmed.
This summer has honestly been the best summer of my life. At the beginning I wasn’t really sure what Greek Summer was all about. In the end, it was about friendship, adventure and self-discovery. I have found friends that I will never forget and who were so hard to leave. I also know that Greece has become my second home and I definitely will be returning at some point in my life.