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Tuesday, March 30, 2010


If home is where your books are, I either have two (half-full glass approach) or none (half-empty), since my books are divided between the temporary home in Budapest and my childhood home (permanent, but not really mine anymore) in Lazarevac. But the best thing about this is that when I go to Serbia I have a great library--mostly from my university days--at my disposal.

This time I rediscovered an interesting collection called "A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation," which I must have acquired for one of my English major courses. It contains mostly poems and an occasional short story. Three of the women on the list of featured writers have Kerouac as their family name--Jack must have been quite a catch.

But back to the topic of home, inside the collection I found a poem that I liked; it's called "Homecoming," written by someone called Fran Landesman.


The birds sound the same
When waking from a dream
In London or in San Francisco

The cats on the street
Are just as mean or sweet
In London or in San Francisco

So is the smell
Of morning coffee
But the color
Is different

The grass is the same
It gets you just as high
So is the gossip and the blues
And the boys taste the same
They get you just as high
The only special thing
Is the color of the sky

I'm not even sure about that color of the sky but I know that, when I decided to move skies, I took "that little sun"* that my friends and I gave to one another and it still gives me warmth on cold, overcast days.

*Mihailo Lalic, "Lelejska Gora"

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Go Down by the River

After rubbing gently off a tram on a crazy Belgrade intersection on Thursday, Jelica and I finally went to the theater after several years. What a shame!!! We saw the Hanoh Levin's piece Requiem based on three short stories by Chekhov. The actors were fantastic with beautiful minimalistic staging and music with pretty much nothing on the stage but a bench (a bit of a Chekhov cliche) and a moon that watches over everything.

There are several topics that touched me and that I would like to single out.

At the end of his wife's life (and close to the end of his own life), the old man realizes the terrible loneliness of their common life. Time has just passed in the little poor hut in the little village on the way between Paris and Shanghai without they even kind of noticed each other lost in survival cares and petty-mindedness. As the man said with regret - we didn't even go the beautiful river that is in our village, we just didn't dare and stayed in the hut watching the world through the window. We could have gone there, caught some fish, we could have opened a restaurant and served people with a smile instead of making coffins and hoping that more people would die to make a bigger profit. These are two separate topics and could call them *so close and so faraway* and *fear of life, fear of breaking free*.

While taking his wife to the doctor in the nearby village, they traveled with two local prostitutes lamenting the lack of style of local men, their stinginess and poverty. Things are so different in Paris.....While they were travelling the horseman kept asking them to be a bit quieter and respectful as his son died the week before. Obviously no one cared and at one point the saddened man collapsed and confided his grief to his horse who understood him the best. This reminds me another post of mine on the loneliness of man in his noble ambitions - a Splash Quite Unnoticed. This was the topic of the *loneliness of man in his grief*.

There was also the issue of stinginess. After having to make his wife's coffin for free, the hero concluded that life is associated with losses and only death is linked with profits. Life-losses, death-profits.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage

I would like to follow up on Jelica's interesting post and share some thoughts of mine. Home, homecoming, nostalgia for home is something that is a part of my life. The intensity of feelings varies from persistent longing to a certain degree of detachment. At times I have felt a compulsive need to return, other times - I bathe pleasantly in relative rootlessness.

I was thinking today that home is mostly a reference point, a beginning and an end., the 0 of the coordinate system. To use the metaphor of the famous Cavafy poem Ithaca (and Jelica's photo) - it is the port we return to or will potentially return to. The boat may sail the oceans but wouldn't it be an endlessly lonely boat if there is no port to shelter it (not only in storm)?

It seems to me that there are different types of home-shelter. The most premordial one for me is the one offered by parents. Going back to my mother's place and to my father's grave is the ultimate return - there is nowhere I can go any further, it is the absolute zero. Losing the parents is losing the 0 and the beginning.

For me the place where I spent my childhood (coinciding with the above) is also the home. Like they sing in the song: Douce France, cher pays de mon enfence..... Je t'aime dan's la joie ou la douleur. There is no place in the world that can replace the town where I spent those endless childhood year. Everything is first then, that's the place where we build all smaller coordinate systems: first friends, first school, first books, first self-consciousness....That is why the attraction is so big.

A third type of home is the linguistic home. There is no need to explain that there is no language like our mother tongue because of the above two reasons. No matter how comfortable we feel in a language acquired later, childhood has not been spoken in it.

Of course, maybe the most important home in daily practical terms is where we live at a given moment and where our family and friends are. That's the home we return to after business trips and it is written in our ID cards.

My conclusion (for tonight) is that our link to home depends on several things:
- our relations to our parents (no matter where they are);
- our relation to the physical space where we spent our childhood;
- our relation to our mother tongue;

And here I would like to remind you of a famous poem which speaks of home and which I have remembered in times of strong nostalgia.


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Warm bath of identity

When you live abroad, there are two questions people will ask you again and again:

1. how long do you plan to stay here?
2. do you plan to go back?

The answer to the first has been a standard "one or two more years" until I realised that we've been here much longer than that. So nowadays I am more likely to say that I have no idea.

The second one is easier, because the answer is a resolute "no." There is something terrifying in that certainty but I suppose it is better than deluding yourself that you will go back in some distant future.

When I left in 1997 I didn't mean to leave for good, I had some vague idea about returning when Milosevic is gone and things get back to normal. Maybe these were half-hearted ideas all along--my best friend claims so, anyway, and he is probably right. But that door that was ajar, at least in my perception, slammed shut in 2003 when our then prime minister was assassinated and any improbable return was taken off the agenda.

So do I still have a homeland? I grew up in Yugoslavia and then, without any choice in the matter, in Serbia, spent some great years in Bulgaria, had an exciting time in London, have fallen in love with Budapest and enjoyed it for years.

Legally speaking, I am Serbian, I have no other citizenship. And Serbian is my one and only mother tongue, even though being away from where it is spoken has taken its toll on my vocabulary and (embarassingly) even grammar. But I feel neither a bond nor particular loyalty to Serbia as a country. I feel closer to people who have grown up watching the same cartoons as myself, even if their native language is Slovene or Albanian, than to my own cousin who was born in 1989 and has only been Serbian all of her life. As Tony Judt so aptly put it: "This warm bath of identity was always alien to me."*

But while I have given up on having a homeland, I still need to have a home--a place to start from on all the journeys, a place to belong. An anchor, if you will, and not necessarily geographical, although that helps. Budapest is, for many reasons, not home and, while I always knew that, I have felt it more strongly lately and the realisation that I live in a beautiful bubble has seriously put me off balance. I got tired of not belonging, not understanding and not participating.

It is a little bit like a relationship--after so much time, you either commit or you split, you don't just drag on forever. But which way for the boat?

*"Crossings," published in New York Review of Books.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spring cleaning

We spent the whole day yesterday dusting, scrubbing, cleaning cupboards, washing, tidying, mopping. And then some.

It was a day off in Hungary because of the March 15 holiday and what better way to spend a holiday than getting your hands dirty? That reminds me of Christmas day in 2002 when I had a day off work (I had hoped to work but my boss had other plans for me, so I got a night shift on December 31st instead). I was all alone in London which, without public transport, feels like a ghost city, so I just cleaned and cleaned all day. I remember that I even cooked a meal for myself, which was a real feat considering that those days I mostly subsisted on Nutella.

I do enjoy an occasional day of purely physical work. When I used to work for Habitat for Humanity we would spend a day on a build site at least once a year and that was so much fun. It's a little bit like skiing: you are totally knackered at the end of the day but it still gives you a kick. It's just so much better than typing all day.

I feel like now is a good time to do some mental spring cleaning, too. You know, shake off the hibernation, get out of that unproductive waiting that julochka wrote about so well, leave behind all the melancholic winter thoughts and negative energy.

Perhaps also clean the dust that has settled on this blog and inject it with some fresh energy? I hope that the blog fatigue stays behind with the previous season.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


(I am in denial)

Dear Weather,

don't you think that we've all had enough of you this season? In fact, let me rephrase this: don't you think we've had more than enough of you for this season and the previous half a dozen at least?

I thought we had an implicit agreement that spring was in the air. Sure enough, it was pretty cold these last few days and the wind was very chilly at times, but there was a definitely springy sunshine and the air smelt of renewal. Until this morning, when I awoke to a snow blizzard and white wet stuff everywhere.

I feel cheated.

I just wanted to let you know that my patience with your quirky behavior is running out. This should better be the last we are seeing of you for this year. Or else...