Fiction– hopefully one of many short stories inspired by my travels and work over the past few years dealing with themes like identity and cultural exchange

My name is Nina Madeleine Zamora-Perez. In a previous life, I was Claudia. Before that, somewhat hesitantly, I was Joaquina. In my family’s eyes and in the eyes of the French bureaucracy, I am Joaquin Jesus Zamora-Perez. To my family, I am still the little boy with the bowl cut and striped shirts who imitated the llamas on our farm in the Andes; the little boy who spat on rocks and pretended to eat the grass. To the French bureaucracy, I am another name of another immigrant, hidden beneath a growing pile of paperwork. To be anyone other than Joaquin Jesus would break my family’s hearts. To be anyone other than Joaquin Jesus would make the French pull their hair out.

 

I’ve been in Paris for about four years now and started working here not long after I arrived. Everyone assumes that I work au Bois to save up to get a pussy, to be Nina in everyone’s eyes, including on paper. If I’m being honest, I like my dick—sometimes, anyways. I like that I can pee standing up in the woods or in a dirty bathroom in a seedy bar. I like that I can get hard for someone, even if I can’t get it up as often as I used to (estrogen’s a hell of a drug, let me tell you). The truth is, I mostly work here because of the sisterhood and, you know, to be able to make ends meet. Paris isn’t cheap you know. I also like the rush of seeing grown men at their weakest, most pathetic. With every blowjob or ass fuck, they have the brief delusion of being in charge, when deep down, they know it’s not the case at all. They’re the ones spending money they could be spending on food or clothes on a quickie in the woods in the middle of the night. They’re just a slightly older, slightly hairier, slightly richer version of the thirteen-year-old boys jerking off to porn in their parents’ attic.

 

Yet there I am, trying not to inhale, with my nose pressed to their smelly, wiry pubes and my chin centimeters away from their lopsided, discolored ball sacks. I have the power to get them off and take their money. I also have the power to reject a client, which isn’t the case in every service job.

 

Of course, the guys who come here aren’t always awkward, adorably pathetic twerps. Sometimes, they’re raging assholes that’ll try to hold me down or scream at me saying that I charge too much, or that I look like a man, or that I’m unnatural. Sometimes, the guy will get really creative and call me a pute. (As if he isn’t just calling me a not-so-nice synonym for my job title.   What did he think I was selling, balloon animals?) One time, I called upon the spirit of that little kid in the Andes and spat in the man’s face and ran.

 

“I told you, girl. You need that pepper spray. You never know when one of those cabrons is gonna pounce. “

 

Claudia was the first woman like me I’d met in Paris. I’d seen her sitting in a café terrace in the 19th. I was instantly drawn to her long, flowing icy blond hair, her face framed with large Aviator sunglasses, and her ruby red dress with peasant sleeves and a plunging neckline. She slowly took a drag from her cigarette and gently tapped the ashes into the cendrier. In front of her were a lipstick-stained, half-empty espresso cup and an open copy of Le Monde.

 

Viens vers moi, ma fille.”

 

Her voice was rich with cigarette smoke and more than sixty years of a constant cycle of grief, pain, and moving on. I could also hear her accent right away.

 

Hablas español?” I asked

 

Si, chiquita,” she faced me and smiled.

 

Claudia beckoned me with her cigarette-less hand, her lilac acrylic nails like shimmering daggers in the piercing sunlight.

 

I took the seat across from her.

 

“What’s your name, honey?” she asked

 

“Claudia.”

 

My new acquaintance tilted her head back and laughed.

 

“What is it?” I felt as if I had said something wrong.

 

“Well, what a coincidence. That’s my name, too!”

 

The even bigger coincidence was something that, to this day I haven’t told her; that she wasn’t the first Peruvian transgender sex worker named Claudia I’d met. The name seemed to follow me like a shadow.

 

“Well, Claudita,” she began, “how are you making it in this city?”

 

The whole story, in Spanish, had been living inside of me like magma. Now, it was time for me to erupt.

 

“I heard that someone like me—like us– could make it here. I had enough to get a plane ticket and to sleep at a hostel for a couple of nights, but after that I was on the street, sleeping in benches, in alleys, wherever I could. Then I finally went to an LGBT resource center but no one there spoke Spanish, but a boy who knew a few phrases said that I could stay with him and his boyfriend. I’m still with them now but I feel bad about taking up space and…”

 

Claudia placed a hand on my shoulder and cracked a smile.

 

“Slow down, honey, slow down,” she gave out a sigh. “Believe me, I know how you feel. I spent my first few nights on the street.  I knew no one. I don’t know how all those Americans in the 20s did it. But once I found my way to the Bois be Boulogne, the cash started flowing in. Girls like us, we ain’t exactly a dime a dozen in Paris, but in those woods, we’re fucking queens. After just two weeks—two,” she held up two fingers in case I somehow hadn’t heard her, “ I had enough for my own place. Over the next few years, I got enough for this…” she tapped a finger on her petite nose “this…” she drew a finger across her full cheeks and lips “and for these bitches.”

 

Without giving a damn who was watching, Claudia grabbed her large breasts—G-cups, I’d later learn- and moved them around. She gave a mischievous smirk.

 

“In a few months, I guarantee, you’ll have enough to get some tits yourself. Maybe get rid of that big honker of yours. Before I started, my nose looked like yours.”   I should probably mention that Claudia isn’t exactly one to hop on the moving-past-internalized-sexism-and –racism- and-you-know-common-courtesy-bandwagon.

 

Any further criticism of my appearance was postponed when she got a message on her phone.

 

“It looks like my date just got off the metro. He’ll be here any minute. In the meantime, let’s exchange numbers.”

 

I was relieved to make a new friend in a strange city, someone who really understood what I was going through. I felt a rush as my phone buzzed, and I saw the name we shared pop up on the screen.

 

I couldn’t keep from smiling as I began to walk away.

 

“Don’t get used to the sunshine, honey,” she called after me, “It don’t last long ‘round here.”

 

That night was my first night in the woods.  It was a balmy summer night, but I was trembling. I stayed glued to Claudia’s side as she introduced me to her friends, each of whom making some sort of joke about us having the same name. I saw the other women come in and out of the trees with their clients. I also saw men come in and out of white trucks parked on either side of the road. If you stood in the middle of the street, those two rows of trucks looked like they went on forever. Seeing those camions made my stomach drop in a way I didn’t think others could ever understand. I never really got to know any of the mysterious women in the camions, as most of Claudia’s circle worked on foot.

 

“But,” as one of my new friends so eloquently put it, “ma fille, in the winter time, what I would give to have the luxury of humping some hairy dick in a nice, warm camion.”

 

After a week or so, I had gotten a good lay of the land and some experience getting laid on the land (sorry, puns aren’t my strong suit). Every few minutes, some drab looking guy in a knock-off brand sweatshirt or faux leather jacket would come up to one of us. I remember one of the first full French sentences I could understand was “Combien tu prends?”—How much do you charge?

 

At the time, I had only memorized how to say the numbers zero through ten.

 

sept cinq,” I would respond—seven five—seventy-five.

 

Over the next couple of months, I’d made enough to start paying Léon and Nico, the couple I’d been staying with, rent. I was afraid to find other roommates or an apartment by myself, and I already felt like I spent enough time with the women au bois. With Léon and Nico, I felt safe. The two of them had also recently gone backpacking across South America (what is it with bourgeois white people backpacking across South America?) and could speak some Spanish, so it wasn’t all blank stares and miming between us.

 

As often as we could, we cooked and ate dinner together. I introduced them to papa a la huancaina (substituting ajis amarillos with the closest thing I could find to chilies at Simply Market) and they introduced me to tartiflette.

 

Around the same time I began paying the two of them rent, I learned that Léon was trans too. I’d woken up in the middle of the night from the sound of him walking to the bathroom. He was dressed in a pair of briefs and nothing else. I could see the scars on his chest and the slight hourglass shape of his small frame. It wouldn’t be for another year or so that we would have enough shared language and comfort with one another to share our stories.

 

 

 

When it was time, Léon and Nico would learn that I’d run away from home to Lima, when I was 18. They’d learn that I wandered the streets, having sex with men for a bit of cash and maybe the chance to sleep in a warm bed. They’d learn that on the corner, I met a woman, named, you guessed it, Claudia, who let me stay with her and became like a mother to me. Claudia told me she knew some girls who’d to come to Paris and made a better living and that she was planning on moving there, herself. All either of us knew about Paris was what we had seen in pictures or movies. It seemed like a distant fantasy.

 

“Things were getting really rough for me,” I told Léon and Nico as they nodded along “but, over the next few months, I saved up enough to get a one-way ticket to Charles de Gaulle. Claudia had gotten a ticket too, for a plane that was due to arrive about an hour and a half before mine; she said she was going to meet me in the airport. I didn’t see her the last couple of days in Lima. She never answered any of my texts or calls. I figured she was busy with last-minute travel arrangements. When the big day came, I hitched a ride to the airport, dressed in baggy clothes and stuffed my hair under a baseball cap. I wasn’t on hormones at the time, so as far as anyone knew, I was just a guy going on vacation. After a full day of travel, I finally arrived. Claudia wasn’t there. I waited. And waited. I tried calling her at least a dozen times. Finally, I did get a call, but it wasn’t from Claudia. It was from another girl who worked on the corner. She told me that they’d just found Claudia’s body in the back of a client’s car; she’d been strangled to death.”

 

For a solid minute, all three of us were still. The next minute tears were streaming down my face. And the next, the two of them moved over to where I was sitting and put their arms around me. After that, I lost all account of time.

 

At that point, I’d been thinking a lot about my name. I’d adopted the name Claudia when I got to Paris, as a way to honor the woman who had given me so much, and who I would never see again. She was such a big part of me and I wanted to carry something of hers wherever I went. And yet, something about the name didn’t quite sit well with me. It felt a bit clunky, and, if I was honest with myself, too matronly and traditionally feminine. I was obsessed with women like Frida Kahlo, Josephine Baker and others who weren’t afraid to defy societal norms. But it was Nina Simone who I found myself particularly drawn to. She was tall, with dark skin, a prominent nose, and a deep voice, all things that I had learned and learned again were things that a woman should not have. And yet she was amazing and undeniably herself. I took her first name to pay homage to all she was, all I wanted to be, and all I was becoming.

 

I chose Madeleine as a tribute to the city that I’ve called home for the past four years. Yes, as in the orphan pelirrojita in the old house covered with vines. And yes, as in one of those little French cakes that kind of look like duckbills.

 

No one could learn my name without them seeing how I truly felt on the inside. I knew that Léon and Nico would be the first to know. Even though the other girls au bois meant the world to me, it was with those two young men that I had made a home. And that fateful night, in our home, in front of the bathroom mirror, I cut my hair. When I was done, it was almost identical to the bowl cut I’d had when I was little. I scoured through my drawers to find every piece of black clothing I owned and put them all on. For make-up, I put on dark blue lipstick and liquid eyeliner without foundation, hardly giving a rat’s ass if it was even or not.

 

I stepped into the kitchen where Léon and Nico were washing and drying dishes. Nico nearly dropped the plate in his hand and gasped when he saw me; Léon smiled with half of his mouth and both of his eyes.

 

“Hold on, there’s something missing,” Without skipping a beat, Nico slid the plate into the drying rack, ran through the living room, jumped over the couch, and bounded into the master bedroom. The moment would have been worth it just for how adorable he was, but what happened next made it even better. He came out of the bedroom with an old faux leather jacket, like a lot of the guys au bois would wear.

 

It wasn’t exactly easy to put on. The thing was so old and cheap that the sleeves were peeling.   It smelled like incense with a hint of weed.

 

I loved it.

 

“You look great, Claudia,” whispered Léon, his head resting on Nico’s shoulder.

 

I smiled, shaking my head.

 

The words I said next came out of me so easily, you’d think I was speaking my mother tongue:

 

C’est Nina, maintenant. Nina Madeleine.”

 

 

 

Ceci n’est pas une fille: maitresse à maestro

2016 was the most adventure-filled, excruciating, tragic, and eye-opening year I’ve ever lived through. I crossed off a lot of my bucket list as far as places to visit, including the week of my birthday spent in perhaps the most important city in terms of queer and trans history. Three of music’s (and my) biggest idols, who showed that there’s no one way to be a man, passed away. The nation, and the world, saw just how disposable queer and trans lives are to some people. And like so many other aspects of my life, such as work, illness, or heartbreak, 2016 was something with a distinct beginning and an end. I realize now that there are some parts of life are an ongoing journey rather than a simple chapter or footnote.

In a parallel universe, these past few years, especially the time spent in France, would have unquestionably been the happiest time of my life. My teenage self would have been so happy had “she”’d been able to glimpse into the future, seeing what I saw and doing the things that I did. I would see myself similarly to how friends, family, and casual acquaintances see (or at least saw) me—as a young woman privileged enough to travel the world and go on amazing adventures. The person on my resumé certainly seems like someone who has made it. But had the old me been able to take even a small glimpse into my mind, it would have been a completely different story. The constant swirl of anxiety. The descent into emotional volatility and toxicity. The distinct feeling of wrongness and guilt with every “elle,” “américaiNE,” or “belle” used to describe me. I’d innocently hoped that being in a different environment would change things, but the truth is your mind and your body follow you no matter where you go.

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L-R: A parting gift from a student in Clermont-Ferrand April 2016, a card from a student in Baltimore December 2016

On the other hand, the time that I’ve spent away from home and in a foreign country has been what has helped shaped my identity and my sense of adulthood the most. My first experience with transgender advocacy was at the internship I completed during my semester in Paris. Some of the most important friends in my life, including the first genuinely close male friends I’ve ever had, I met in France. During my time in Clermont-Ferrand, I even became a sort of self-appointed ringleader and organizer of a group of fellow LGBTQ language assistants who became quickly known as “the Queermos.” France is also where I experienced paying my own rent, phone, and Internet bills for the first time. I learned that I can accomplish so much by being resourceful and persistent. Of course, it took me a while to fully accept that there are some battles you have to lose.

 

One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from people living in France, and rightly so, is that it’s a bureaucratic mess. Everything from taxes to immigration to housing can be enough to make anyone’s hair turn gray.   Thankfully, I lived in a young people’s residence that was very helpful and reliable with necessary paperwork and I didn’t experience too many snafus during my stay. I almost see my time in France as a learning experience as the French administration pales in comparison to the bureaucratic mess that my life could very well become over the next couple of years.

 

It is strange looking back on the first few months of 2016, when I still told myself that maybe, just maybe, all the difficulty I was going through would somehow just go away. I tried so desperately to grab hold onto an image, an image that objectively was nice, just as objectively my time in France seems as if it the happiest, most fulfilling, time of my life, and just as I can objectively see the young woman that looks back at me in the mirror or in photographs, is attractive, even beautiful. But the reality is that you can’t only look at things from the outside– in order to truly understand something, you need to start from the inside and work your way out. When I suddenly and unexpectedly began questioning my gender identity in July 2012, sparked after reading an article about gender fluidity, mental health professionals, my parents, and even myself to some extent initially expected that I was dealing with a symptom of insecurity, anxiety and internalized misogyny and not the cause. Now I see it as the opposite. Of course, this brings up a plethora of questions. Why did I go through something like this later in life? How did I go from the kid who carried around a sign that read “No Boys Allowed” (because boys were dumb and smelly of course) to being a guy? How did girl who was all tutus and belly-dancing who was not only fascinated by but excited by the development of their body who dressed themselves in clothes to reveal their shape suddenly get bombarded by images of binding their breasts and presenting more masculine? How did the person who got miffed if people asked if they were a boy or a girl or looked like a man, turn out to actually be one? How did the person who felt that their girlhood and femininity was an unshakable part of them even if the world around them was chaos? Did my brain go through some biological change? Did my hormones rearrange themselves? Did I need to first focus on the other aspects of my identity –being biracial/Black, being on the autism spectrum, being an INFJ/empath etc.—before moving onto something bigger? Did I ignore the signs of being drawn to seahorses, androgynous clothing, drag queens or other examples of so-called gender nonconformity? Or is it that, as I believe more and more to be the case, my brain simply wasn’t ready for that information? Sometimes our minds do things to protect us. My overall “girlness,” love for all things feminine, along with my wild imagination, kept me safe from myself and the harsh realities of the world around me. Between my height, race, and, especially social difficulties due to PDD-NOS, my girlhood and femininity was my last scrap of normalcy to hold onto. I saw the world through rose-tinted glasses.  It also happens that I’ve experienced many milestones, with the exception, almost ironically, of puberty, more or less as epiphanies. From finally learning to tie my shoes as a second grader, to learning to ride a bike as a third grader, to accepting that spoiler alert Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy weren’t real as a fifth grader, to realizing my gender as a nineteen-year-old, something just clicked after a lifetime of not getting it. As I continue to say good-bye to all that I once thought I knew about myself and the world, I gain a much deeper understanding.—I’m in a constant process of unlearning and relearning. Some would call it enlightenment, others would call it growing up (with a twist).

*Content warning: OCD/intrusive thoughts mention, addiction mention dysphoria, suicide mention*

I also now realize that life really isn’t easy. The world may not be my oyster as I had hoped it would be while I was growing up, but I am still privileged enough that I do have choices. I’ve been extremely lucky to have so many things more or less lined up for me. Just being able to go to an expensive liberal arts college and go abroad is a tremendous privilege that many people never get to experience.   But, again, no matter how “right” something may seem on the outside, doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles. One of the biggest things that confirms my gender identity for me is that I did do “everything right.” I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I became involved with different organizations, I never experienced any significant weight gain or loss, I never abused drugs or alcohol, and I never self-harmed. I did what you’re supposed to do when dealing with intrusive thoughts—act as if they weren’t there and do the things you would do if they weren’t there. And so I went to class every day, even if I could barely concentrate on any of my work. And so I played the part of the ideal Solo Female Traveler with her flowing scarves, skirts, and lipstick, her camera at the ready, her fingers ready to type beautiful musings about her adventures. She would continue to travel the world, explore people, places, and things, and grow to be an elegant old woman with eyes shaded by the brim of her sunhat and a string of pearls or coral adorning her neck. She was a lovely image of a person, but it was clear that she was not me.

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Playing the Part (feat. exposed tube sock) Annecy, France May 2016: As the late, great philosopher Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou once said: Sometimes the clothes do NOT make the man

 

 

It became very apparent, especially moving further into winter and into spring that I needed serious help. Returning from France this past spring, I made a vow to do whatever it took to make myself happy, even if it meant sacrificing connections with friends, family members, and even if it limits the sorts of opportunities I may have.

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On top of the Puy-de-Dome January 2016: Look(ed) like the road to heaven, but it fe(lt) like the road to hell

I was still clinging on to a diagnosis of OCD from four years back. And that’s what I told people the problem was. And that’s what I kept on telling myself the problem was. And, yes, it is a common theme of OCD for a person to obsessively worry that they are of a sexual orientation or gender identity other than the one that they intuitively know that they are. In a lot of ways, the diagnosis was a very reasonable explanation as to why my mind was constantly occupied with the same thoughts over and over again as if my head was inside of a wasp’s nest or a Moby song was playing on an infinite loop. It was a very rational explanation as to why to every “à quoi tu penses?” there was only really ever one answer. But OCD couldn’t account for all the internal wincing, feelings of wrongness, only really feeling comfortable when I was part of a mixed-gender group. It couldn’t account for the rush I felt when I stuffed socks in my panties for my Dr. Frank-n-Furter costume or for feeling like the George Caputo-lookalike douche bag on the tram was looking into my soul when he asked one of the other English assistants if I was a man.   Nor could it account for me half-expecting to find chest surgery scars if I drew a finger across my chest. Nor could it account for the feeling of awkwardness and, frankly, pity I felt when straight men came onto me. Nor could it could count for the relief I had in having a gender-neutral first name. Nor could it account for why felt like I was forcing myself to fill out documents with my full legal name and circling the letter F, or forcing myself to going to the women’s restroom. Furthermore, I never had any other real “manifestations” or “themes” of intrusive thoughts. I never obsessively worried if I had cancer, or if I was a pedophile, or if I was going to cause a natural disaster. The write-up from the psychological evaluation was thought out, but between the fact that I’d left out some important details and that the write-up contained more grammatical and syntactical errors than even this essay probably does, I took the diagnosis with a grain of salt. Giving myself the benefit of the doubt and because the reality of being trans was much scarier then simply being a poor girl who has a bully in her brain telling her she’s a boy 24/7 I decided to go ahead and reach out to different professionals and people with personal experience with, as it’s appropriately nicknamed in French, la folie du doute. I’d been accepted to a position as a pre-K literacy tutor in Baltimore for the 2016-2017 school year, so I had a few months to get myself together before moving onto the next step. Once back in the states, I went to a few sessions of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), but at that point, I’d accepted that “she” was never coming back and I’d even warned the therapists that I actually had accepted my transness (at the time as genderqueer/nonbinary especially as I didn’t feel too much in the way of body dysphoria and would it really make sense that I’d be a guy?!) and that I’d mostly use the techniques they would be teaching me to help deal with gender dysphoria. I greatly appreciate the work that people in the field do and it is work that can genuinely be lifesaving, but I had a strong gut feeling that they didn’t represent the exact help that I needed. A gut feeling that no amount of rational thinking could combat. About a month in, I told my therapist that I felt it would be better to take a more therapeutic approach with someone with a lot of experience with transgender issues. She supported my decision, which both relieved me and scared me. No! Shouldn’t you tell me that I should continue working with you until I’m not obsessing all the time? I thought. But I knew I made the right decision, one that was confirmed when, not too long later, I began to see a trans-affirming therapist and the idea of being a man came back screaming.

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June 2016: Posin’ for another picture everybody’s got to sell

Changes rolled from there pretty quickly. I went through a pretty intense “grieving” period, I cut off the majority of my hair (for passing and liberation’s sake as well as the fact that my hair was nearly completely dreaded due to compulsive hair-tugging and lack of upkeep) got rid of some old clothes, got some new ones, ordered a couple of chest binders, mastered the ankle-on-the-knee sitting position and came out to some close friends. Looking in the mirror, with my hair being the shortest it’d been since I was about two, and my chest the flattest it’d been since I was about seven, I saw an outline of the person I needed to be. Finally, it felt like I was moving forward. Four years ago, imagining myself as a man gave me far more distress then the mere idea of how family, friends and others would react. I saw myself as a sad, strange wormlike thing drifting through life, the complete opposite of the spontaneous, imaginative kid in awe of the world that I’d once been.   Now I could imagine myself as being happy, and complete after social and physical changes took place. Like I was starting to loosely weave myself together into a new person. Of course, this now meant I had another pretty big decision to make, one that remains one of the, if not the, hardest but most important decision that I’ve ever made in my life, so far. Was I going to be “Miss” and “she” at work and risk a complete downward spiral, while simultaneously staying “safe” or did I take a huge leap of faith, risk my safety, and be “Mr.” and “he?”

 

I chose the latter and informed the program staff by e-mail.

 

And it has made all the difference in the world.

 

The four-and-five year olds I work with, as well as the majority of staff and parents, have accepted the tall, ethnically ambiguous, hairy, deeper voiced, awkward person who’s in their classroom all day as Mr. Max. Every day, I go to work feeling like I’m in a safe haven and that I can truly be myself. In a way the school as a safe haven makes a lot of sense the majority of students are from lower-income Latinx immigrant households and nearly all families live within walking distance of the school. Families and staff are, generally, very progressive and would do whatever it takes to make the support and nurture their fellow community-members, no matter what may be going on in the outside world.

 

On that note, I couldn’t write this without at least mentioning the results of the U.S. election and what it means for the future. My already powerful anxiety increased nearly ten-fold in the days following the results. As immigrants, women, LGBTQ people and others are highly encouraged to get things in order over the next few weeks, it does ad extra pressure to take care of any complicated, expensive, life changing processes as soon as possible. But, these are huge changes we’re talking about and ones that I may not know the consequences of further down the line. I know that, especially in a liberal area like I live in, I’ll still have at least some access to whatever process(es) are most appropriate to my needs, but it’s also a matter of how long I can stay in the loop that I feel that I’m in. I have a hard time fully diving into work. While my fellow tutors may worry about issues more closely related to work, I feel that the fall-out I’m preparing myself for doesn’t hold a candle to the more day-to-day worries.  As a tall, ethnically ambiguous/biracial/Black, autistic, queer transgender man who looks like a girl, I am scared for my life. Over the past few months, I’ve experienced fairly normal periods of dissociation and intense moments of suicidal ideation (with no intent to carry through, thankfully).

 

When people are surprised that I’m back in the states, or ask me when I’m going to go back to France, I have to pause and remind myself that they don’t see what I see– they can’t hear the force inside my head that is screaming inside of me, no matter how loud and obvious it is to me.   There’s at least some point of every day that I wish that it would all just go away. That my mind was playing tricks on me all along. That I’ll become a stronger, more enlightened version of my former self and that I will be the prodigal young woman/daughter/granddaughter/niece/sister that people have expected me to be.   That I’ll magically no longer feel like I’m being misgendered more than Tweety Bird. That it won’t feel natural or right every time I’m referred to addressed as Mr. Max or he or as a boy. That I’ll get to the appointment to begin taking hormones and realize that no, this isn’t what I want! This wasn’t the problem! But I need to have faith in myself, even if the truth is hard to swallow.

 

It’s often the most unexpected journeys that life takes us on that define us the most. I may not have turned out to be the person I wanted to be or even expected to be growing up, but, at the end of the day, I am still me.   This year has affirmed that I am passionate about languages, travel, justice, learning about new cultures, education, the arts, working with children, and being a guide to those who need it. I may feel like in a way I’ve become thirteen years old (the age when I’d initially expected that my base identity, body, and style had more or less settled itself) again, rather than twenty-three, but I suppose that makes sense when you need to re-examine your life and begin to build a new base for yourself.   As I go forward in life, getting closer to stability and feeling like a full person again, I am scared and I do experience a lot of doubt, but I know that, regardless of where or who I am in the world, there are people who will love and support me no matter what.

In a letter I wrote to my future self when I was an innocent wide-eyed freshman in college, some of the biggest goals I listed were to travel the world, to be an active member of the Baltimore community, and to go through some sort of positive change. I managed to accomplish the first two goals and, while it certainly didn’t seem that way at first, I think I’m finally going through the third. Sometimes, in order to make a necessary, sustainable change, things have to get worse before they get better. Sometimes, parts of you need to die before you become alive again, and the things that once made you feel the most alive may are the things that would kill you now. My main goal now is not only to stay alive, but to live, at all costs. Will I return to France some day? I certainly hope so! But, for the time being, heading into a scary future full of uncertainties and changes that could very well threaten the existence of millions of Americans, I need to stay and fight for others’ lives as well as my own, in the country that, as flawed as it is, will always be home.

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Me and my good friend Razzie 2 (also my ex was right about a lot of things but they were wrong about my hat) December 2016: May not be what you want from me. Just the way it’s got to be.

Another lazy blog post

So…. it’s been a while.  The last time I posted was probably the most physically, mentally, and emotionally drained I’ve been since I first came to France.  The world and my mind still aren’t the peaceful things in the world, but they’re definitely start to look up if for no other reason that there are people out their who are working hard to make things better.

 

A few announcements:

Some of the other assistants and I had a lovely potluck-style Thanksgiving  celebration (I brought salmon).  We ate a lot of yummy food and really got to know each other better (get your mind out of the gutter!)

I got my hair done on Wednesday after managing to find a salon that knows my kind of hair well– yay!

I bought a new camera to replace the old one.  I’m gonna treat Razzie Two much better than I treated Razzie One.

Christmas spirit is all around!!  Oh how it makes me happy!  I’ve been to Le Marché de Noël three times already and even rode the giant ferris wheel.  Eee!

On that note, I will be spending winter break in England with a family friend!  I’m so excited for mincemeat pies and crackers! Also, also, I’ll be staying at her neighbor’s house where I will be cat-sitting.  Miau!

I’m starting to learn from my mistakes and (very, very, very) slowly starting to accept the fact that mistakes are fine especially since I’m still pretty young in the greater scheme of life.

I’ve learned to stand up for myself when men are being sleazy in clubs, online, or even in my residence.  Of course, it would be ideal if men weren’t sleazy, period, but, c’est la vie >:(.

The kiddos are starting to warm up to me a bit more and the other teachers are well.  *Real talk— French people take a long time to warm up to people.  TBH, that’s part of the reason that I relate to French people.  Also cats.  And, let’s face it, French people are a lot like cats.*

And and and, I finally got my long-term visa approved by the OFII office.  I can officially stay in France and get CAF!

Well, don’t have much more to offer as far as news or words of wisdom, so I’ll just leave you with this image of Place de Jaude I took with Razzie.  Oh, how’d I missed having an actual, factual camera.

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As you can see, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

 

A bientot!

 

 

P.S. I really need to stop using I so much in this blog.  I’m afraid it kind of makes me sound narcissistic and bougie.  But, I don’t know how to stop.  I just can’t.  I I I I I. Aye aye aye.

 

 

 

I am tired

I am tired of the killing of innocent people.

I am tired of innocent people being targeted as killers on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.

I am tired of feeling like there’s nothing I can do.

I am tired of being unhelpful.

I am tired of the sicknesses and pain that have ailed me physically, mentally, and emotionally this past week.

I am tired the constant war of my mind and my body against me.

I am tired of feeling ineffective and inadequate as a teacher and as a person.

I am tired of teachers at my schools giving up on their students and putting them into boxes.

I am tired of students who constantly put one another down.

I am tired of the self-hate that I can already see taking its roots inside of my students.

I am tired of feeling miserable.

I am tired and guilt-trodden when I put my problems in the perspective of the world.

I am tired of feeling so indulgent, when I should feel young, energetic and spontaneous.

I am tired of the world falling apart.

Two days after the deadly fusillade in Paris and Sainte-Denis this past Friday and  during the same few days of shootings and suicide bombings, that went mainly ignored or portrayed as “typical” in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Kenya, I came across an essay by Duke professor Omid Safi.  In the essay, Safi includes a poem “from the amazing Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.”

This poem instantly shook me to my core.  Just a few simple lines came as close to articulating what can never be truly be put into words.  Pain runs deep in every street, in every school, in every business in every place of worship, and in every household.

Everywhere people are walking a jagged line between life and death.  Even the most seemingly still waters ebb and flow between peace(?–mild tolerance may be more accurate) and war.  These wars are in the mind, the body, in households, neighborhoods, schools, streets, cities, countries, spanning oceans, time, and space (the space between us and the spaces we create).

The following is a post I shared to my family and friends this past Monday:

I’ve been very sick since Thursday night, but was determined to go to work today. The streets were somber, the schools are on lockdown. Once I finally got to the CP classroom (the French equivalent of first grade) the teacher was discussing with her students what happened friday night and what it meant. I’m very impressed with how she talked with them, and I immediately remembered being in school during 9/11 at age 8 and, perhaps even moreso, during the attacks of the dc sniper at age 9. I had 10 minutes with them, which I barely made it.through because of my health and was sent home afterwards. I told each of them to repeat the following:
I am beautiful.
I am special.
I am unique.
I matter.
You are beautiful.
You are special.
You are unique.
You matter.

I stand by these words.  Even when feeling unhelpful and helpless, I must remind myself that resistance and resilience is grounded in the fight for self-worth and determination.  Children, especially children of immigrants and refugees whose religious backgrounds, ethnicity, and races are often under scrutiny, need to hear that their lives are worthwhile and that their existence in the world is a blessing not a nuisance.  Over the course of the week, I have begun to create a personal affirmation, one that may very well be critical in the fight for radical, sustainable change:

I am tired, but I am awake. Even when I am not awake, I am alive.  That, within itself, matters.

 

La rentrée

Before a brief, critical analysis on my second week of teaching, shall I take a moment to gush about my multi-destination mini-vacation during the last week of October?  I think I shall!

My adventure started with a few-hours in traffic in a BlaBlaCar driven by a dad with a three-year-old son.  I sat in the back with the littlun on nounou duty, handing him his toys and books and, to my dismay,wiping the boogies off his face.  There’s certainly some majestic sites between Clermont-Ferrand and Provence, above all the mountains!  There was also a very nice German student in the car with us, who ended up being the copilote whilst we were stuck in traffic or getting lost.

After a few days in Aix, I can say that it’s quite a cute place, but definitely not as much to it as one might think.  I think of it as being part Bethesda, part European marketplace, part university town and…that’s bout it. But that’s ok! There are definitely some cool things to check out, above all, all things Paul Cézanne!  The sun and warmth are amazing!!

I also spent a day in Marseille!  It’s only a half-hour bus ride from Aix, with many students at the main university traveling between the two.  *Advice: if you are 26 or under, bring a passport photo and you can get a 24-hour bus pass for only 2 euros* I unfortunately, did not have a passport photo and had to pay the full the full price but it still wasn’t too much money!

Marseille is absolutely gorgeous!  The ocean!!!! Oh my God the ocean!  I’ve never seen such vibrant blue/turquoise/cobalt ocean!  *Le sigh* I visited Le MUCEM, Palais Longchamp, and le quartier de la Vieille Charité which are all amazing!

On Thursday I woke up early to go to Paris.  I ended up having a 3.5ish hour layover in Lyon, which is also gorgeous.  A really cool mix between really chic and industrial and elegant and rustic.  There’s super-modern architecture as well as Greco-Roman ruins! Aix is a small town with lots of charm a mix between university students,families, and old people (and Paul Cézanne’s studio!) but, I think I’ve seen what I’ve need to see, but if I ever get a chance to go to Marseille, Lyon, or Avignon, which we briefly passed through, I’d be one happy camper!

I spent two nights in Paris and definitely got a lot of rest during the day on Friday.  That night, my friends, including my host for the night, went to the birthday/housewarming party for our lovely friend Alberto!  A very sweet evening and a chance to meet a few new people as well as those who I hadn’t seen in over a year.
On Halloween day, I took a bus back to Clermont-Ferrand, getting back just in time to get dressed and unpack a bit (and scare my new roommate whose first image of me is me in full drag as Frank-N-Furter getting crumbs on the floor).  Before heading over to the Halloween/birthday party for an American guy who did the same program as us but is now still in town doing more or less the same thing at the university level, a few of us met up, put finishing touches on our costumes. My shocked roomie– bless her heart– even did my eye make-up!  Halloween was a fun night!  I got to meet some other assistants as well as a few  Frenchies, while also confirming that I’ve got a  solid “group” here, which is awesome!
And…. I GOT PAID!!!!!!  I think that I’ll be able to do a good job of managing most expenditures now and I definitely feel a little less jumpy.    Of course, most of it went towards rent and groceries, especially as we won’t get a full-salary until the end of November.

This week it was back to the grind!  While, yes, I only teach 12 hours a week and, no, that is not a lot of time, but preparing for lessons and dealing with rowdier classes can get a bit tiring.  As someone who is very self-conscious, self-critical, and afraid of what others may think of me, it can be hard for me to feel comfortable with the amount of work I’m doing.  Am I boring the kids?  Am I going to slow?  Too fast?  Am I bad at disciplining kids when they’re talking too much?  Should I even attempt to discipline them? Am I not using enough visual or auditory devices?  Am I relying too much on them?

Thankfully, I’ve only done two weeks of teaching, so there’s plenty of time to improve. God only knows the French sure like taking their time with things– I still haven’t gotten most of the stuff I’ll need for my visa, sécurité sociale/health coverage, etc. in order for me to, y’know, stay in the country.  Also still waiting on the CAF which should reimburse me for part of my rent for the year. In the meantime, I’ll continue to prep for lessons, live off of foyer meals, cheap grains, produce, and wine, and good company.

Vacances de Two Cent Partie Deux

We are now beginning our second week of our vacation, and in the past few days, I’ve made what I believe/hope to be some impulsive yet practical decisions!

On Wednesday, I went to Parc Montjuzet.  I had clearly overlooked the letter in MonTJuzet — Mont, as in montaigne as in mountain– so my calves certainly got a work out, but the view was definitely worth it!  Take a looksie below!  I also got a pretty good amount of lesson planning things done, so I’ll be ready for the kiddos come November.   I’m actually feeling fairly confident about teaching!

I also decided to go ahead and spend a few days in the South of France!  I’ve never been, so it was definitely high on my TAPIF bucket list of places to go, and with two weeks vacation where I’ll already be traveling a bit, I figured, why not?  Just this past Friday, after figuring out if I was going with a friend or flying solo, I booked a BlaBlaCar and from Clermont-Ferrand to Aix-en-Provence for Monday as well as 3 nights there in an AirBnB, a bus from Aix to Paris Thursday (with a brief layover in Lyon), and a bus from Paris back to CF on Saturday (just in time for some exhausted Halloween-ing).  I’ll also try to spend a day in Marseille, which is only about half an hour from Aix, for the beach, awesome, and overall multicultural goodness.  Thankfully, if all goes well, I should be getting paid Wednesday, which will take some of the stress away, even if at least half of my stipend will be going towards rent :/.

Here’s to spontaneity! Santé!

*Collective "aaahhh" from choir of angels*

*Collective “aaahhh” from choir of angels*

Les vacances de la Toussaint– more like les vacances de Two Cent, amitite?

Ok, now that you’ve either groaned or stared blankly at that awful pun, I’ll tell you what’s new!

I’ve finished my first week as a teaching assistant and it definitely wasn’t too bad as far as first weeks go.   I had to start at the beginning of the beginning for the 6-year-olds and definitely had to deal with some annoying smart-mouth chatterbox antics of the 9-and-10-year-olds, but as the classes were mostly just introductions, it wasn’t so bad.

And after a full 12-hour work week, I’ve got two weeks off for les vacances de la Toussaintand, honestly, I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing with most of my time.

This past weekend, I went out with a few fellow assistants, which was very fun, but definitely can’t be an everyday thing.  I also got another temporary teenage roommate who’ll be here until December doing a stage (when she’s not giving me or her parents passive-aggressive, moody, adolescent attitude) I’ll be cleaning and running errands.  Sometimes I’ll cook.  I’ll try to encourage myself to consider motivating myself to make actual-factual lesson plans.

It’s gonna be a long couple of weeks, especially with limited funds as I’m still waiting on my first paycheck!

I will, however, go ahead and splurge a bit for Halloween-ing; in France, they mostly focus more on the somber Toussaint part of All Hallows– (BTW laïcité is more or less a bullshit, islamophobic, nationalist, concept, especially since there’s so much time off for major Christian holidays– but that’s a rant for another day) — many of us Americans will be getting our déguisement on.  There’s also a very good chance I’ll be heading back to Paris for one of my closest friends whose birthday is today, but will be celebrated at another date.

It’s times like these where I really have to just take a pause and say to myself, “y’know what? You are so lucky to have this opportunity!  It is a complete and total privilege that you have the means to do a program like this!  Yes, it is going to be a very hard year with a very small monthly salary, while still needing to pay for necessities such as rent, groceries, and any stressful expenses that may come up, but at least you have enough to get by.”  And as long as I got what I need to get by, I can keep on keeping on.