Saturday, October 22, 2016

On Nostalgia.

My good friend Alex recently left Rwanda and was taking photos, a couple per day, of the commonplace objects and scenes of his everyday life here. We talked about it, and both realized that it’s only when one faces the prospect of leaving a beloved place that you feel the need to record the banal everyday glimpses that makes up our lives, like a fish living in water. 

My city, Kamembe, Rusizi District, Rwanda
As I face moving to a new home about three hours north with D’Assise in just two short weeks, I’m hit by a wave of nostalgia at the thought of leaving what has been my home in southwestern Rwanda for the past two and a half years. 

The Kamembe harbor, just down from my house
It is not the fear of leaving this physical space that hits me with a tidal wave of nostalgia; it is the memories contained within these walls over the past two and a half years that make the thought of leaving so difficult. It’s the person that I was while living here, that I won’t be ever again. I won’t ever be a 25 year old, high on living on her own for the first time and discovering all the triumphs and difficulties of complete independence (upsides: no one cares if I never wear pants in my own home, listen to the same dumb song on repeat for a month, or hog the hammock on my porch the entire weekend, downsides: the dishes don’t do themselves, when I hear scary noises at night there’s no one to either comfort me or to hope that the would-be robber gets to them first). I won’t ever be a 26 year old, feeling like I got this living-by-myself-thing (even though to this day I have no idea how to cook for just one person), exploring nearby Congo, and training for half marathons in the hills by my house. I won’t ever be a 27 year old new mom again, equal parts ecstatic and nervous, trying to figure things out. 

Mu rugo wanjye, my house
Each room that I’ll be leaving has a million memories. The kitchen where I’ve made countless meals to be shared with friends (those who have visited my house in Kamembe know that they can predictably expect cheese tortellini from Trader Joes shlepped in suitcases across the Atlantic and cooked with my homemade marinara sauce, a red curry miso soup with kale fresh from my garden, hummus made in my blender that is so loud you either have to scream or stop talking when it’s being used, or cacio e pepe with cheese that is either fresh from America or six months old, depending on how recently I took a trip to the States). 
The kitchen
The walls of my kitchen are lined with four blown-up photos from around the world, and I usually have visitors guess where they were taken (Zanzibar, the Amalfi Coast of Italy, Bujumbura, Burundi, and a pile of oranges in the convent where I used to live). There’s the ancient looking electric cooker that I inherited from friends leaving Rwanda that takes a pot of water up to an hour to boil (and leaves me eating exclusively raw fruit and salads when the power is out), and the fancy two-burner gas stove that my friends Kaity and Diana bought for me on my birthday this year (whether it was out of pity for me or frustration that meals took two hours to make whenever they visited, I’ll never know).
The old electric cooker. We had some good times together. 
There were the times that I spent all day in the kitchen with friends preparing food for one of my Kamembe parties (to my lime team: I owe you so much), and the time I tried out the new gas burner for the first time and went upstairs to go work for an hour (as was expected with my old electric cooker) and came back to find my meal burnt to a crisp. There are memories so clear they almost materialize in front of me like ghosts, of waking up to coffee already made, with a kind note nearby it left my Italian loving roommate Robin, cooking pizza or chapatti with my first roommate Lora, and the first time I brought D’Assise back to my house as my son and we made banana bread muffins. 

There are the hallways, lined with beautifully woven Moroccan rugs I bought on one of the best trips of my life with my friend Daniel, stuffed in rice bags that barely made it under the weight limit and brought back to Rwanda, and art I’d bought to liven up the bare walls. There are the two guest rooms, occupied at different times by two roommates, both painted in colors I grew to dislike but was too lazy to ever change. I had some lovely couchsurfers stay, from places far and wide, and I had good friends stay, sometimes three or four to a bed after passing out after a night of dancing. There’s the old wooden chest of drawers that came with the house and that I wanted to get rid of, but it was too heavy to move, even with my two guards and several of my neighbors. So it stayed. There’s the bathroom which has a shower I thought only ran cold water and in which I took only cold water showers for the first two or three months of living in the house, until my genius friend Abby visited and showed me that I just had to turn the faucet the other direction (in my defense, I had just gotten out of bucket bathing myself in Peace Corps and wasn’t used to these newfangled hot water running showers). 

My bedroom, with open windows that look out onto Lake Kivu, is upstairs. It’s painted a subtle yellow and the sunlight streams in through the windows in the mornings. When I wake up on a Saturday morning, the distant laughs and shouts of children playing at the youth center behind my house reach my ears. Photos of people I love are in frames around the room, and little trinkets from my travels line the windowsills. 

When I first moved in two and half years ago, the bed I got was too warped to put together so I slept on a bare mattress under a mosquito net for the first month. I’d both cried myself to sleep on that bed and sobbed from sheer joy after D’Assise fell asleep on my shoulder while I read him his goodnight stories on his first visit to my house as family, knowing that he was finally mine. I’d decorated my room exactly how I wanted it, and every time I went to sleep in my own bed, I had an immense feeling of satisfaction. 

The robin’s egg blue living room upstairs was probably one of the least used rooms in the house, not because I disliked it but because it was overshadowed by my favorite part of the whole house right outside of it: the massive porch that overlooks my most beloved view in this whole country. I’d always heard that people who live near beautiful vistas eventually get used to the view, but I never did. Every morning, I’d drink my coffee overlooking the blue, clear waters of Lake Kivu and the metal roofs filling the mountains and valleys of the city of Bukavu in Congo across the lake, and pinch myself because it seemed too beautiful to be real. 

On this porch, my former roommate Robin would gather to watch “the nightly show”, the stunning orange sunsets over the Congo mountains. We’d drink wine in our “front row seats”, and talk about our days. Sometimes she would give me advice on boys or my career, and other times we’d decide to head down to the lake for a dip while the water was aglow in silver and gold shades from the setting sun. There were my annual Kamembe 4th of July parties on this porch (it’s both America’s Independence Day and Rwanda’s Liberation Day), when the occupancy of my house would swell with friends and colleagues, Rwandan and international hits would blast from the speaker we’d borrowed from the youth center, I’d wear my American flag dress and burn sparklers, we’d drink warm beer because my fridge is super tiny (and normally crammed full of cheese from America, anyways). 

There’s the colorful hammock where I spent many a lazy Sunday buried in a good book, and the collection of Rwandan pottery full of flowers I could never keep alive. There was the time I hosted an arts and crafts day for D’Assise and four of his friends, went downstairs to cook lunch for them, and came back to something similar to the aftermath of a hurricane (#rookieparentmove). 

At night, the view from my porch is equally as breathtaking as during the day, with moonlight glittering across the dark, deep waters of the lake, and the million twinkling lights of Congo spread before me. There were the evenings I spent gazing out onto the lake to catch a glimpse of the distant fishermen’s boats illuminated by kerosene lanterns or looking up at the billions of stars. 

Even though my childhood was in the U.S., I feel like I became an adult in that house along the lake in southwestern Rwanda, and that’s hard to leave behind. I know that I will miss Rusizi so much. At the end of my Peace Corps service, we talked a lot about “readjustment” and I think a lot of my fellow volunteers were going through what I’m feeling now. I avoided a lot of those feelings by simply moving 40 minutes down the road from my village, in the same district. But now all of that readjustment is hitting me full on. Like my friend Alex, I’ve begun documenting the small moments and banalities of my house here in Kamembe: the way the sun hits the small colorful baskets I bought in Kenya on my wall, my beloved porch, and even the terrible linoleum lined floors on the second floor of my house. 

As I was documenting all of these nooks and crannies, it reminded me of being a senior in high school in Omaha, Nebraska. A few weeks before graduating, I meticulously photographed the halls, classrooms, lounges, lockers, and courtyards of my all-girls Catholic school (making girls into women of conscience and confidence since 1881!), knowing that it would change and I would change. I knew I was grabbing fistfuls of sand, trying to hang onto the place where I’d spent every school day dressed in my red, black, and grey Fairmont plaid uniform for four formative years, knowing well that my hands would eventually give way and the grains of sand would pass through my fingers. And yet, I still treasure that album full of photos of the Academy among my most prized of possessions, though I haven’t been back to the school in years. 

Even fifteen years ago, when my family moved from our small town in northeastern Nebraska (the Swedish capital of Nebraska, no less) to the “big city” of Omaha when I was going into junior high, I remember feeling an overwhelming sadness as a twelve year old about leaving the only house I’d ever known and our sloping street lined with oak trees and friendly neighbors. I had been hit by the nostalgia wave. 

I remember being terrified about moving from a town where I’d known nearly everyone and everyone knew me to a city where I’d be anonymous. I had this same feeling of trying to soak up the memories that had happened in every single room—the swingset and tree fort where my siblings and I spent our summers, the kitchen table where we’d have family dinners every night, the bunk beds my sister and I shared and told stories until we fell asleep, the raspberry patch where we’d collect juicy fruits and few pricks after August evening walks, the dog bed where my brother insisted on sitting and drinking his milk every morning. 

I think this wave of nostalgia that seems to hit me is more than just wanting to hang onto memories. It’s also a moment for reflection about whether I’ve left a mark on the places I’ve been, if they’ve been better or worse because of my presence there. I took this literally my senior year at Notre Dame, when I carved my initials onto the boathouse wall with two of my best friends, though a) I had zero connection to the boathouse and b) they’ve probably painted over it by now (sorry, Fr. Jenkins). I again felt those grains of sand slipping through my hands and my time in college running out, and clearly I felt that doing the ol’ initials on the wall carving was a salve for that wound. 

In my case now, I more or less know what I’m getting into moving to the new place. I have already moved a lot of my things into my three room house in Rubengera, and I’ve tried to make it feel more like home. D’Assise and I will have our own bedrooms with a small kitchen/living area in between. There's a beautiful view of rolling green hills and Lake Kivu, distantly. There's an awesome community of friends and colleagues, and so much to be excited about. But I haven’t really made memories in that house, yet. It’s my house, but not yet my home. 

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