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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.


OneLifeLiveIt said...

Lovely post - Home is hard to define for many people, particularly those that travel a lot and live in different locations. NZ is home to me even though I haven't lived there since 1997.

Jelica said...

Thanks for this super fast comment :)

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

It is hard when you have moved around so much but there will always come a time when you do want to belong and call a place "home". seems like Budapest is a good choice.

Jelica said...

i would love nothing better than to call budapest home, but linguistic and cultural barriers are simply too high.

Dumdad said...

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

Good questions and when I first came to Paris in 1992 I would have answered the first with "two or three year". It's now 18 years and counting!

Question 2 is more difficult to answer as the years have gone by. Britain is still my homeland. But my children were born here and I've lived in this house longer than anywhere else. I feel in the back of my mind that I plan to go "home" one day but I don't really know. And would "home" disappoint after all these years?

I love going to England with my family in the summer for two weeks but that always feels good becuase we're on holiday.

I am confused!

Delwyn said...

Hi Jelica

I can see that you are feeling as if you need to have some roots, a sense of connection to a homeland.
I grew up in New Zealand and came to Au in my mid 20s. After having two of our 4 children and loving the life here we became naturalised knowing that this was where we would put down our roots and settle.
But NZ still stirs my heart, although I would not live there it tugs at me.
Lately we are in another transition, now moving to Hawaii for an extended period for business and semi retirement. But I cannot imagine that, even though we love living in Kauai, it will ever have that deep sense of being home. With all the similarities, the culture is too different and the values dissimilar.

This is an interesting topic Jelica. Where would you like to live?

Happy days

Ayesha said...

Its a big question and a really difficult one. We struggle - not just with where is home but for the kids 'sense of identity'. Where will Boris and Andrej think of as home? Or do they view themselves as hungarian? If not Budapest then where?

Jelica said...

Dumdad--confusion is the word over here as well. If you want a positive spin, you could say that you simply have two homes. Lucky you!

Delwyn--in my heart of hearts, I would love to go back to Bulgaria (Ruslan's homeland) because I spent my best years there, because I have friends, I feel close to the culture and I speak the language but there are also a million and one things that drive me nuts over there, just the same as in Serbia (official "homeland").

Ayesha, I'm so glad you left a comment! The kids are a big part of this dilemma. I don't think ours have any sense of identity yet, although they do realize they are different that their Hungarian classmates. But, when asked about her nationality, the 5-year-old daughter of our Bulgarian friends recently said: "My parents are Bulgarian but I am Hungarian." That's scary!

spudballoo said...

Oh this is very interseting and, you know, until I got in to the detail of it...I thought it was R writing not you!

I can't begin to imagine how it feels to be you, with ties everywhere and nowhere, where everywhere and nowhere is home, with roots in once place and heart in another. It's incredibly complicated.

It's not a topic I've much considered as I'm rooted very much in the UK. But I was born and bred somewhere I've not lived since I was 18. I still hanker to live there, even though there's nothing for me there anymore (no family, friends etc). I think it's just in my blood. Somerset born and bred, Somerset til I die.

Where will your boys call 'home' I wonder? Does it even matter?

Home is where the heart is, no truer words spoken.


I_am_Tulsa said...

Jelica! Interesting post! I get the same two questions often as well. I always say "I don't know" to the second one because I really don't know what life has in store for me! Living in Japan for over 20 years was not on my "to-do-list" yet that has happened! lol

I guess defining home can be hard especially depending on the country and politics these days. My mother likes to say that "home is just a thought"...

B said...

I've had those questions asked many times. The first 5 years my answers were always: Next year, and Of course! Now, my answer to both is I don't know. I do think about it, though, a lot! Where do I belong? Where is home? I do want to have one: a place to return to, and a place to keep my books! :)

Jelica said...

Spud, I have no idea what the boys will call home, but I hope they will feel this kind of attachment so some place--any place--rather than feel rootless.

Tulsa, I like your Mother's succinct definition!

B, I can wholeheartedly subscribe to home as a place that has all my books in it. Just need to fine big enough place :)