Language, Desire, and the Places We Are From

The English Patient (1996)

illustration by Tom Ralston

By the time The English Patient begins, things have already been fucked up beyond all repair—literally, figuratively, morally, geographically, globally. It’s 1945, the final days of the Second World War, and the titular character, who will become our narrator, has been in a plane crash that leaves him with full-body burns so severe, it’s a miracle he’s still alive.

He lies in a bed in a bombed-out Italian monastery somewhere north of Florence, tended to by a Canadian army nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche). He allegedly cannot remember his name, hence the moniker, but as Hana cares for him, he slowly begins to recount his memories from before the start of the war. This is how we get The English Patient‘s woven timelines, which are so intrinsically interconnected it’s often difficult to remember where in the film certain scenes take place. There’s a fluid, unmoored sense of time and space, and not just because so much is told through memory. It’s a film steeped in desire—which is its own kind of delirium—and there is, at least at the beginning, a gauzy aesthetic of romanticized colonialism that obscures temporal and spatial specificity. It’s also a film set in the desert, a landscape which literally shifts beneath one’s feet, where the wind continually shapes and reshapes the topography. 

But The English Patient is less a haze to stumble through and more a map of deliberately confounding design. Rather than giving you a compass to orient yourself and a legend to guide you, Anthony Minghella (the film’s writer and director) and Michael Ondaatje (the author of the original novel) instead reproduce the experience of getting lost. Or, if not lost, then at least of finding yourself somewhere so unfamiliar that the process of knowing it will change you irreparably. It’s a fundamental inversion of, and an elegant fuck you to, the maps that will become central to the unfolding of the film’s plot—maps that symbolize power, ownership, armies, empire, death, and destruction. 

As I rewatched The English Patient for the first time in many years, immersing myself in what I remembered to be a film of arid, tailored beauty and feverish, ill-fated passion, I was surprised to discover that I could actually locate pieces of my own experience in this Borgesian map of a film. There was something in its echoed layers of language, history, literature, and landscape that reflected the narrative labyrinth of my own life—and, almost like a palimpsest, it seemed as if my circuitous academic, creative, and geographical paths had been inscribed into the thematic landscape of the film. I was also surprised to discover that there was a whole other plotline beneath the romance—one I had entirely forgotten—that was concerned with nationality, borders, and the politics of belonging and place. Rewatching the film was a pleasant reminder that sometimes the essential questions that come to shape our lives have origins that predate our awareness of them; however, it was also a disquieting experience, realizing just how completely memory can let go of what we consider irrelevant or unimportant, and what that process of selection reveals about our own origins.

The first timeline presented is the ‘current’ day, 1945, which observes the lives of Hana, a Sikh sapper named Kip (Naveen Andrews), and Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a thumbless Canadian with an unclear past, as they linger about the monastery in the waning light of the war. The second timeline is comprised of the English patient’s memories, which deposit us in Northern Africa in the late 1930s, at the start of an expedition into the Sahara Desert. In this world, the English patient has a recognizable face (Ralph Fiennes), a name (Count Almásy of Hungary), and a job (cartographer for the Royal Geographical Society). He’s also something of a renaissance man, albeit a rather austere one, and his multifaceted skills seem to place him at the heart of the expedition team. As the group is preparing to set out, a small plane appears, bringing two more additions to their party—an English couple, Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife, Katharine (Kristen Scott Thomas). Initially, Almásy objects to their arrival, calling them “tourists” and claiming they’ll rot the expedition from the inside out, but another member, Madox (Julian Wadham), insists they’ll be useful. Geoffrey has a new plane to help them make aerial maps of the desert and Katharine has “read everything,” presumably meaning that she’ll liven up their evening discussions and generally not be too much of a bother.

This quickly proves true; cut to some five minutes later and Katharine is recounting a story from Herodotus around the campfire, one that seems to presage the trajectory of her relationship with Almásy. As Katharine tells the story of Candaules and Gyges, she’s framed in a slow, drifting medium shot that eventually becomes an over-the-shoulder on Almásy as he watches her across the campfire: “She [the Queen] goes to the chair, removes her clothes one by one until she’s standing, naked, in full view of Gyges…and indeed, she was more lovely than he could have imagined.” The camera pulls focus to the fire-lit profile of Almásy’s face as he lowers his head and averts his gaze. It’s a subtle gesture, but a telling one, and Katharine seems to read him like a book. “But then the Queen looked up…and saw Gyges concealed in the shadows,” she continues, drawing his eyes back to her. “And although she said nothing, she shuddered.”

The scene goes on for a short while longer, but this is the moment that lays out their fate, presenting the possibility that they may choose differently, even though we know they won’t. Their affair is cinematically inevitable, though it’s a credit to Fiennes and Scott Thomas that this inevitability never crosses over into obvious or heavy-handed. The two play Fated very well, opting not for the wide-eyed existential awe of unwitting soulmates, but rather the practical matter-of-factness of two people who’ve recognized that their vehicles are going to crash into one another whether they like it or not. This recognition seeps into every look, every gesture, every word spoken between them, from Almásy’s first distrustful glance toward Katharine as she steps out of the plane, to the way she’s already teasing him with her first line: “Geoffrey gave me your monograph when I was reading up on the desert, very impressive. I wanted to meet the man who could write such a long paper with so few adjectives.” Like a hook into an eye, from this moment, these two are linked. 

Rewatching the film, what initially struck me was just how much their relationship is rooted in language. Before Katharine meets Almásy in person, she meets him in writing; when she does meet him in person, her first comment is about the way he uses adjectives. Adjectives! The entirety of his (clearly prodigious) intellect, and she goes for adjectives. “A thing is still a thing no matter what you place in front of it,” Almásy argues. “Big car. Slow car. Chauffeur-driven car.” “Broken car?” Madox offers, playing along. “It’s still a car,” Almásy replies. “Not much use though,” Geoffrey adds. Adjectives are superfluous, Almásy means, and they say more about the person looking at the thing than the thing itself. So what do his lack of adjectives say about him then—that he’s neutral? Objective? Rational? Katharine knows that’s horseshit and she’s going to call him on it. “Love?” she counters. “Romantic love…platonic love…filial love. Quite different things, surely.” We don’t get to hear Almásy’s response, though, as Geoffrey cuts in with a 50-cent word to diffuse the tension, “Uxoriousness, that’s my favorite kind of love. Excessive love of one’s wife.” 

Why introduce the characters like this? Why debate a question of language as the sun beats down on them, when something like “Welcome to the desert, here’s how not to die” would be a more realistic, practical greeting? Because this little exchange tells us exactly how Almásy and Katharine perceive reality—and how they will ultimately perceive their affair. It reveals exactly what each character values, how they organize reality: For Almásy, there’s only the thing or not the thing; for Katharine, there’s nuance concerning the circumstance of the thing. We never get to know Geoffrey very well, but the way he interjects with “not much use, though” seems striking when mirrored with how he ultimately responds to the affair. Perhaps each is a person born of their environment, the spaces around them giving rise to how they make sense of the world. Though we know that he comes from Hungarian aristocracy, Almásy is functionally and temperamentally a man of the desert, where there is only alive or dead, sand or a precious canteen of water. Katharine, on the other hand, comes from the south of England, where there’s rain, mist, fog, and dew. Lakes and rivers, oceans, puddles, bogs. Water isn’t just water; it depends on how, where, and in what form one encounters it. Almásy knows that language doesn’t alter reality. Katharine knows that it does. In time, they’ll come to realize that both are true, but by then it will be too late.


In September of 2020, I moved to Luxembourg to begin a two-year master’s program at the university here. It was a decision that made perfect sense to me, and perhaps to my close family members, but has largely baffled everyone else, COVID circumstances notwithstanding. People generally want to know how I went from living in Los Angeles, studying film production and working as a set designer, to living in Luxembourg, studying…what, exactly? My program is officially titled Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts, which is a mouthful in English, much less trying to translate it into French or German, the other two official languages of the university. If you want to locate that within a field, it’s basically sociolinguistics, or the study of how language functions in society, but with a specific focus on what it means to be multilingual and multicultural.

When I tell people in America that I’m studying in Luxembourg, they usually run through their rolodex of L countries—Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Latvia, Luxembourg?—trying to figure out which obscure part of the world I’m in. They’re often surprised when they look at a map and find Luxembourg nestled rather centrally between France, Germany, and Belgium. When I meet people in Luxembourg and they find out I’m American, they often ask, How did you possibly end up here? Or, my favorite, How did you even know this country existed? I have my go-to answers, but sometimes the question catches me off guard and I find myself spinning a little, searching for an answer that can tell the story concisely, while also allowing for the fact that it’s driven by a handful of unanswerable questions. It’s not especially helpful to point them towards a nearly three-hour movie, but somehow The English Patient is able to better explain the current trajectory of my life than I can. 

“Why are people always so happy when they collide with someone from the same place?” the English patient remarks to Hana early in the film, when she tells him that Caravaggio, a fellow Canadian, is going to stay with them in the monastery. “What happened in Montréal when you passed a man in the street—did you invite him to live with you?” he snarks. I chuckled this time at his comment, thinking about the small, leaping glee I feel whenever I run into another American here in Luxembourg, a sense of shared identification that never used to happen in the States. “There’s a war. Where you come from becomes important,” Hana replies. I never used to give much thought to where I was from, in a national sense. The word “American” was a non-entity to me. To put any emphasis on being American while living in the United States seemed to evoke the kind of flag-waving, gun-toting patriotism that I had always been skeptical of. Why are we so sure that we’re the greatest country in the world, I remember thinking while growing up. And why do we keep using that phrase? What does the greatest even mean? It’s vague, unspecific, sweeping, entitled, exceptionalist, hollow. 

I spent the summer of 2016 studying in Madrid, and suddenly the first thing I was to anyone was “American.” I’m sure it was my accent that gave me away, the English that I spoke to my friends on the train, but it seemed to be everything else, too: the speed at which I walked to the metro station, the sandals I wore too early in the season, the yellow dress that I stopped wearing because it felt like it turned too many heads. People were perceiving me in a way that I had no control over, and the word—the adjective—they kept using was “American.” I was well aware of American traveler stereotypes going into the program, and I had worked meticulously, painstakingly, to avoid them. I kept my voice down in public, never wore sneakers, carried a shoulder bag rather than a backpack, never asked Spanish speakers to switch to English for me. I wasn’t that American, but I was still an American, and I couldn’t even begin to wrestle with the question of what kind of American I was, and whether that made any difference, because I still had no real concept of what the word “American” even meant. The whole experience was disorienting in both an acutely physical and profoundly abstract way, and I spent that summer in a state of hyperawareness, trying to calculate the relative Americanness of everything I said or did. One afternoon, an old woman in my building asked if I was Swedish, and I wanted so badly to say yes, because even that—the nationality of a country I had never been to—seemed clearer to me than my own. I left Madrid with the sense that I had experienced a small, ripped corner of something, but I had no idea what it had been torn from.


About halfway through The English Patient, Almásy and Katharine wind up trapped in a car together during a sudden sandstorm. After they’ve scrubbed the sand out of their eyes and are waiting for the storm to die down, Almásy reneges on his strict rules of classification, telling Katharine about the different kinds of winds in the desert: “There is a…whirlwind from southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. And there is the ghibli, from Tunis.” She’s leaning against him in the tiny cabin of the car, the physical boundary between them lost to the chaos of the storm, and he moves gently to touch her hair as he speaks. The winds seem to be his oblique way of acknowledging that she was right about the adjectives, though it’s worth noting that here, each wind has a different name, and names and adjectives are not the same thing. This cyclical echoing of their dialogue becomes a pattern throughout the film. While lying in bed together in his room in Cairo, he touches the hollow at the base of her throat and remarks, “I love this place. What’s it called? This is mine. I’m going to ask the King permission to call it the Almásy Bosphorus.” “I thought we were against ownership” Katharine wryly observes, echoing his answer to her earlier question about what he hates most. The next day, they walk through the market and Katharine asks whether they will be alright. “Yes,” he tells her, “absolutely,” calling back to her comment during the sandstorm that “‘Yes’ is a comfort. ‘Absolutely’ is not.” Towards the end of the film, when he tries to convince the English army to let him take their jeep to rescue her from the cave, he calls her his wife, both in an attempt to win their sympathy, but also in an echo of her comment in his bedroom, “‘This is a different world’ is what I tell myself. A different life. And here I’m a different wife.” 

This is more than just good screenwriting, more than lifting lines from a Booker Prize-winning source novel. The way these two use language is half of their relationship. If the physical attraction between them is something elemental, kerosene that burns and consumes, then the way they speak to each other is the light that’s thrown upon the walls of every room, or cave, they inhabit. Their language reveals, and hides, the topography of the world around them, of the world inside each of them, and like some kind of temporal-linguistic map, the whole of everything they’ve ever said to each other seems to be constantly present. They’re always revolving throughout time and space, citing what was said months or a year ago as if it had just been uttered in the other room. It contributes to the unmooring of reality in this film, as the causality of their relationship seems not to tip forward in time like a line of dominoes, but rather outward around them in all directions at once. The destruction that their affair causes, too, seems to detonate around them concurrently. And while they can’t credibly be blamed for the start of WWII, the way that the ley line of their affair intersects with the geopolitical evolution of the war asks an impossible question of Fate. 

If we treat The English Patient like a map, then impossible questions seem to be the lines of latitude, and contradictions the lines of longitude. “When were you most happy?” Almásy asks Katharine as they bathe together in his room in Cairo. “Now,” she replies, shampooing his hair. “And when were you least happy?” he asks. She scrubs for a moment, a hundred thoughts flickering in her expression, before replying again, “Now.” She is being both evasive and honest with him, a pattern these two repeat, like a compass needle that can never settle on North. They’re always circling, always moving, always looking for direction and finding none except the direction in which they’re already moving. “Does K bother with a moral labyrinth?” Almásy writes on a scrap of paper that he hides in the pages of his Herodotus. It’s a throwaway detail that you have to pause the film to notice, which feels again like a wink from Minghella and Ondaatje, like, Fine. You want a legend for this map? There you go. Best of luck. It’s a dumbfounding question: does Katharine, Almásy, anyone, bother with a moral labyrinth? What is there to do with a labyrinth once you’re inside one? Does it make a difference whether the labyrinth is one of your own making or one you’ve been placed in? How can we know which labyrinths surround us?


For several years after Madrid, I was unable to name the feeling that had surrounded me during those hot and hazy summer months, unable to locate the source of the disorientation that characterized my time in Spain. I wondered if I had failed at studying abroad; I had improved my language skills, sure, but how was I a better, more interesting person for having lived—however briefly—in this country? I had no framework to compare my experience to, other than the standard American narrative of study abroad as self-actualization. There had been no summer romance, no quasi-adoption by my host family, no enlightened journal writing in cafes. I seemed to know myself less, understand the world less, and I spent many of my afternoons walking the shaded paths of the Parque del Buen Retiro trying to quell the feeling that my sense of reality was unraveling around me. The city was beautiful, yes, the paintings in the Prado extraordinary, the late-night culture of tapas and sangria delightful—but I had the sense that there were much deeper machinations at work beneath the aesthetics of it all. 

It wasn’t until late 2018 that I encountered anything that came close to articulating what I had felt in Madrid. In a moment that now feels a bit like Fate, I came across a long-read in the Guardian in which an American journalist named Suzy Hansen described her experience of living abroad in Istanbul in the years following 9/11. As I read her words, I suddenly felt the labyrinth of Madrid snap into sharp relief:

“For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.” 

In the rest of the article, which is excerpted from her book Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, Hansen goes on to unpack how living in Turkey forced her to ‘unlearn the myth of American innocence.’ She describes being confronted, for the first time, with the reality of the U.S.’s involvement in world affairs, and how she began to realize that not only her own journalistic sense of rationality and objectivity, but actually the “entire foundation of [her] consciousness,” had been shaped by growing up in the United States. I felt like I’d been struck by lightning. She was describing, with blistering clarity, things that had seemed so nebulous, I could barely articulate them to myself, let alone another person. 

I tore through her book, underlining or flagging something on every page. It was a revelation, one that paralleled, almost to a tee, her own awakening, which had been sparked by a few incisive lines of Baldwin in the basement of her college library. “Even now,” she writes, “I can remember that shiver of recognition that only comes when you learn something that expands, just a tiny bit, your sense of reality.” She quotes from Baldwin line after line, and I find myself wanting to do the same with Hansen whenever I am asked to tell the story of why I am where I am. Her book is packed full of vitally important and provocative observations that chip away, one after another, at the grandiose veneer of American mythology. Observations like this one:

“In school, we did not study world maps, because international geography, as a subject, had been long ago phased out of state curriculums. America was the world; there was no sense of America being one country on a planet of many countries.”

And this one:

“Here’s the thing: no one ever tells Americans that when they move abroad, even if they are empathetic and sensitive humans—even if they come clean about their genetic inability to learn languages, even if they consider themselves leftist critics of their own government—that they will inevitably, and unconsciously, spend those first months in a foreign country feeling superior to everyone around them and to the nation in which they now have the privilege to live.”

Or this one, in which she unravels that old chestnut, the greatest country in the world:

“‘It is different in the United States,’ I once said, not entirely realizing what I was saying until the words came out. I had never been called upon to explain this. ‘We are told it is the greatest country on earth. The thing is, we will never reconsider that narrative the way you are doing just now, because to us, that isn’t propaganda, that is truth. And to us, that isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism. And the thing is, we will never question any of it because at the same time, all we are being told is how free-thinking we are, that we are free. So we don’t know there is anything wrong in believing that our country is the greatest on earth. The whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion.’

‘Wow,’ a friend once replied. ‘How strange. That is a very quiet kind of fascism, isn’t it?’”

Reading Hansen’s book was like realizing that the map of my life had actually been written long before I had ever picked up a compass or a pencil, and for a purpose other than my own navigation. Her words began to lace tiny golden lines across everything, unmaking what had previously been the topography of my assumptions, the elevation of my understanding. They offered no answer in terms of direction, but rather seemed to point towards the open space left in their wake. “I knew that my own confusion had to do with some central unawareness of the world,” Hansen writes. My Americanness was a map that had no borders; it was an entity whose contours I could not locate, but whose opaqueness obscured any kind of reality or truth. I could feel it looming, everything I did not know, could not know, if I continued living in the States. Even with my love for languages, my deep curiosity about culture, my appreciation for foreign film and literature, my desire to travel and become a citizen of the world—all of this I would do with the territory of America in my mind unless I tried to figure out what America actually was. 


Nationality is the theme that bookends The English Patient, looping one timeline back into the other and overriding Almásy and Katharine’s affair as the ultimate question of the narrative. The film begins with Almásy ‘becoming’ the English patient. As he sits on a beach in Italy, burnt to a crisp—a “bit of toast,” in his own words—a soldier notes down his accent. In the absence of a name or any official documentation, the way he speaks becomes his only identifying factor. He becomes English by speaking English; in this instance, nationality is a function of language. At the end of the film, after he’s walked for three days across the desert to get to El Tag, the British soldiers posted there ask for his name. “Count…Lazlo…de Almásy,” he replies, barely holding it together. “Almashy? Would you mind spelling that for me?” the soldier says mockingly, having immediately written him off as a foreigner, and therefore the enemy. In this moment, he effectively ‘becomes’ Hungarian in a way that he was never before. So what, then, is nationality a function of? Name? Family? Place of birth? Paperwork? Passport? Association? What does it actually mean to be Hungarian? To be English? To be American? 

I had initially intended to make something out of the way that desire leads to destruction in this film, to argue that Almásy’s desire for Katharine is what fucks everything up beyond all repair. I had pictured wrangling something broadly poetic and feminist out of it all, but as I rewatched the film, what dawned on me was how easily I had forgotten what The English Patient was actually about. My lasting impression was one of white linen and taupe, of hollowed collarbones and shadowed sand dunes, of Fiennes and Scott Thomas’s seaglass green eyes, luminous against the film’s sandy palette. I had entirely forgotten the historical context of the film, the greater sociopolitical implications, and I see that now as a direct function of my Americannessthe fact that I could watch this film and remember romance and not war, think beautiful before colonial

“History, America’s history, the world’s history, would slip in and out of my consciousness with no resonance whatsoever,” Hansen writes of her teenage years. I must have been 15 or 16 the first time I saw The English Patient, and I think I read the novel not long after. I have a vague memory of sitting on one of the benches in the History annex of my high school, the book open on my lap and one of Ondaatje’s phrases—perhaps “the breaking of moon into silver fish”darting about my consciousness, vivid and elusive. You could say I was too young to grasp what this story was really about, that I was distracted by the beauty of the language, but there are millions of 16-year-olds on this planet who understand what nationalities, borders, languages, and names mean, with real and pressing urgency, no matter what kind of aesthetics they’re couched in.

I am reminded of this regularly now, living in Luxembourg, where 47% of the country’s population comes from somewhere else. It only takes five years of residence here to be eligible for citizenship, and so many of my fellow students are here because the promise of an EU passport has the potential to radically change their lives. For them, a master’s degree isn’t an intellectual exercise or the chance to unravel a personal quandary, it’s the only fractional opening in a legal system into which they can squeeze a foothold. This is the confusion that often underlies the question, How did you end up in Luxembourg? What people are really asking is, Why would you come here when you already have so much? Hansen describes her years abroad as “not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance, the kind we see in movies,” but rather “a shattering and a shame.” I feel this shame every time another corner of my American ‘innocence’ is illuminatedwhen a classmate says she is from Albania and I realize I have no idea where that is, when a student from Iran lists the handful of countries he’s allowed to visit without a visa and I’m shocked, or even when I simply notice the size of milk containers and trash cans here and recognize the gross excess that is normal in America. Hansen equates the feeling of acquiring new knowledge while abroad to “a cavity filling: something drilled out, something shoved in, and afterward, a persistent, dull ache and a tooth that would never be the same.” 


In the wake of the sandstorm, Almásy and Katharine realize that the other car has been buried in the sand, and they frantically try to get their team members out. “Am I a terrible coward to ask how much water we have left?” Katharine asks as she digs. “A little in our can, we have…water in the radiator, which can be drunk. And…that’s not cowardly at all, it’s extremely practical,” Almásy replies. “There’s also a plant, I have never seen it, but I believe you can cut a piece the size of a heart from this plant, and the next morning it will be filled with a delicious liquid.” “Find that plant,” Katharine says, “Cut out its heart.”

If American means patriotic and patriotic means love of country, then something of America lives in my heart. And it is true that there are some things about America that I do love bone-deep—the Blue Ridge Mountains of my home state, driving the open expanse of I-40 West and watching the topography of the country change in front of my eyes, the smell of pumpkin pie, the taste of southern sweet tea, tiny trick-or-treaters shrieking gleefully on Halloween, the warm, melodic embrace of “all y’all.” But there is another America in my heart, too, one I was hardly aware of, and it’s the one that allows me to think that any of that might be better than what people have anywhere else. That is the America that I am in the process of cutting out. I can’t do it overnight, nor over two years, but the liquid that has begun to trickle into the space left behind, while perhaps not delicious, is vital in its clarity. It burns, not because anything has been added to it, but because nothing has. 

In Katharine’s dying declaration, which closes the film, she writes of wanting to enter a world without maps. “We’re the real countries,” she scribbles into the pages of Almásy’s Herodotus, which he has left with her in the cave. “Not the boundaries drawn on maps, the names of powerful men.” In one final echo, which seems designed to tell Almásy, in their own mercurial way, that she really did love him, she writes, “I know you’ll come carry me out into the palace of winds. That’s all I’ve wanted, to walk in such a place with you. With friends. An earth without maps.” By invoking the winds in her final moments, she essentially elevates the power of names over that of adjectives. In the palace of winds, where every breeze that blows through has its own name, the two of them can walk freely with friends, each person only and entirely themselves. I initially thought that Katharine’s invocation of a world without maps was a bit naïve, especially coming from a rich, white woman in colonial Africa, but as I considered the last year and a half of my life, and the bonds that I’ve forged with my classmates here in Luxembourg, I’ve realized that, in a way, we’ve created our own palace of winds.

At the beginning of our program, we were each American, German, French, Portuguese, Colombian, Brazilian, Turkish, Romanian, Russian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Luxembourgish, New Zealand, Greek, Hungarian, Armenian—nationality was a way of succinctly telling the story of who we are and how we got here. But now that we know each other better and understand the complexities of each person’s journey and individuality, we have moved on from the territory of adjectives. We know each other by name now, and we are each an ever-changing map of our lived experience, becoming and unbecoming all at once. Our landscapes rise and fall with the languages we are learning, the places we have been, the books we have yet to read—“tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers, fears we’ve hidden in,” as Katharine writes. We are always producing, from within ourselves, new ways of making meaning, of understanding the world, of revolving and evolving throughout time and space. Our maps are constantly reconfiguring themselves in and out of all the impossible cartographies of being, and perhaps for this, we need not a compass, but rather, as a classmate recently taught me, una rosa de los vientos, which translates literally as a rose of the winds.