Sunday, August 28, 2011

TOM, DICK OR HARRY: IF YOU COULD PICK YOUR OWN NAME, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Hi, I'm Abraham. But you can call me Al.
Pietro was not my first love, but he was someone nearly as notable in my life and times: my first boyfriend. We met in New York City in the early '90s, when I was beginning my journalism career at People magazine, and he was an aspiring model from Italy looking for his big break. Pietro, whom I dated for only a month or two before we settled into a solid friendship, was almost perfect, if not yet almost famous -- sweet, affectionate and incredibly handsome. He was tall with olive skin and piercing green eyes, and he was always impeccably dressed.

If you overlooked the bathtub in the middle of the kitchen in his East Village apartment, there was pretty much no downside to dating Pietro -- except for his name. Not Pietro. I thought it was a beautiful name, and it suited him as perfectly as those eyes. If only he didn't insist that everyone call him Peter. He was so desperate to make it in New York that he wanted an American-sounding name to go along with his aspirations, so he switched from Pietro to Peter, which is sort of like Paulo becoming Paul. Nothing against Peters and Pauls. Both are perfectly fine names if you're born in the U.S.A. (Pietro, Paulo and Maria just wouldn't have had the same ring on the 1960's New York City folk scene as Peter, Paul and Mary), but why go there when Pietro and Paulo are so exotic and sexy?

At least Pietro -- whose death from a heart ailment several years later was one of the toughest blows of my entire life -- had the good sense to stay in the same name neighborhood when he was coming up with an Anglicized version of his name. (So did Per, a Swede I briefly dated in the mid-'90s who also went by Peter.) That's more than I can say for Emir and Ephraim, two students from Turkey whom I met in Bed last night. I was excited to talk to them because they reminded me how much I loved Istanbul when I visited last year, but I was disappointed to hear their sour take on Manila. They had nothing nice to say about the city I was slowly but surely coming to appreciate. To them, Manila was nothing to write home to Turkey about and Filipinos were even worse.

That didn't stop Emir and Ephraim from pandering to them, desperately trying to fit in, going so far as to change their names to make it easier on the Filipinos they met. When we started talking, Emir and Ephraim introduced themselves to me as Martín and Sam, respectively. I thought both names were highly unlikely, but after meeting a super-WASPy Brit in Bangkok with the surname Lopes two weeks ago, I knew that anything was possible. It wasn't until about 30 minutes into our conversation that Martín and Sam revealed their true identities.

"Of all the names to choose, why'd you settle on those?" I asked. I was completely perplexed. If I were going to trade Jeremy for something else, I'd at least shop around for something with a bit of pizazz. Nathan? Lucas? I couldn't understand why Emir would go for what must be the most common male name in Argentina, a place he'd never even been to. Or why he was adamant that it be pronounced the accented Spanish way -- Mar-TIN -- as opposed to the common English way -- MAR-tin?

I prefer the Spanish pronunciation myself, but wouldn't the locals have an easier time with Martin? Accents always seem to throw people when they're speaking English. Several months ago, I met an Irish guy in Sydney named Tomás who complained about people always getting his name wrong. (Come on, folks, how difficult can it be? Toe-MAS.) To Tomás's credit, he refuses to settle for Thomas, which would be like Sophia (so Italian!) letting Sophie (how British!) slide.

As for Sam, I couldn't believe that the cute dental student across from me (who did lose a few brownie points for his turned-up collar) wouldn't opt for something with a bit more flair. He didn't even look like a Sam. I would have guessed something hotter and swarthier, like Francisco or Ismail.

I don't understand why they went with the names they chose, but I can relate to their need to fit in in a strange land. For many years growing up, I went by Jerry instead of Jeremy, because I felt it would make my life easier. Coming from the Virgin Islands, which most kids my age had probably never heard of and certainly couldn't locate on a map, and living in Kissimmee, Florida, with my funny accent, I wanted to be like everyone else. Being Jeremy wasn't exactly like being named after fruit or your city of conception or birth (thank you, mom and dad, for not naming me Charlotte Amalie), but Jerry was much more Southern-style.

It wasn't until I was about 16 and working as a bag boy at Publix Supermarket that a colleague named Mike set me straight. "That sounds like a redneck name," Mike said to me when I told him that my name was Jeremy, but he could call me Jerry. "You shouldn't let anyone call you that."

And nobody has since -- though in Argentina, I did allow at least two guys I dated to call me Jeremias, but less to fit in and more because I think the Argentine version of Jeremy sounds pretty cool. I'd like to say that last night was similarly eye-opening for Martín and Sam, but I doubt it. When Ephraim gave me his phone number later on, I noticed that he didn't include his name. Identity crisis or oversight? I'm not sure, but I do know that if I end up calling that number, there's no way I'm asking to speak to Sam.
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