Wednesday, 5 March 2014


We are waiting to go.

Once, twice, three times in a year, this is what happens. There is some happiness, and  a good deal of sadness too. There are hellos and goodbyes, in rapid succession. There is travelling by plane and by car, and travelling within soul and through time. New and old places are reached, in reality and in memory. Two worlds collide. Everyone is richer from it, and no one escapes completely unharmed.

I go to where I originally belonged, before I started belonging here (although, perhaps, I don’t belong anywhere – we can call that being a citizen of the world, or it might just mean that too many changes have taken place for any one identity to accept them all).

The journey from here to there is more than just a flight away. To actually get from here to there, it takes more than two suitcases, my and Ana’s and Sacha’s passports, more than knowing the flight times and return dates. To get from here to there takes a great leap of faith. It takes a trust that what I leave will still be here when I come back (and life offers no such guarantees – as I have seen in my past; any goodbye can be the final goodbye, without anyone knowing that yet). And it takes a belief that what I am about to find, there, is actually what I am looking for (and already I know that, if I look long enough, it is not – it’s a mirage in the sky, it’s a vision from the past, a place that doesn’t exist any more; still, I go searching).

I leave behind the English people and way of life; the separate taps for hot and cold water, the inexhaustible topic of the weather, the joys of a real, functioning democracy and the pains of broken Britain. The supermarkets full of mass-produced food which only looks perfect, the clean streets and the tidy, inviting gardens. The children’s playgrounds in which the swings are never broken, the churches which hold playgroups for toddlers, with tea and biscuits for the worn out mothers. The good schools, the bad schools. The north south divide, the confusions over what is one’s tea and what is one’s dinner. The accents which make life’s paths tougher, or smoother. The people and their politeness, their civility; their warmth and also their distance which can’t be crossed.

Most of all, I leave behind my husband, I leave him, and then I miss him badly. Is that so terrible, you say, a little holiday away, absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that? Of course. But missing is still missing, and the reward you anticipate at the end makes it no easier now.

And then I immerse myself in Serbia. Serbia doesn’t begin when we land. Serbia starts when we board. All those voices, the words, the language. I know where I am, straight away. I am in Serbia, although we haven’t taken off yet. Serbian people take the air around them and change it. You can tell that something’s become thicker, sweeter, a bit heavier at times. You just have to nod your head and embrace it.

All these Serbian people on board! I remember a time, not so long ago, when only the very lucky had the papers to travel anywhere. And they travelled into the world as if they were just swapping villages. Carrying big bags with freshly roasted chickens which would make the whole airplane salivate. Never trust foreign food, those Serbs. Bring your own and bring the best. Show what you have. Always fighting with immigration control, waving the invitation letters from cousins long emigrated, putting money on the counter (no, not bribe – although that would make things much easier to understand, for us – no, this is just to show that we are for real, we can afford it, we are not here to beg. Atlhough often, in reality, we are).

Nowadays, a bit more sophisticated, the plane hasn’t quite touched down yet and everyone is already on their mobile phones, their conversations are urgent, a true Serb never waits, patience left somewhere in the Middle Ages.

That doesn’t sound good, does it? All that, just doesn’t sound so good, really.

But how does this sound.

The family I said goodbye to twenty years ago, still there, not even aged much (although not in full numbers; those who are missing, have left behind their energy embedded in every object they’d ever touched;  my mind draws their shapes in the empty spaces). The family, who I can make happy by asking them for something. By giving them a chance to give something. You can never have that elsewhere.

My mother, and her hands, who still want to cook favourite childhood meals or fix my buttons – mum, I’m almost forty! I say. But no good, she knows I can’t sow to save my life. We hug a lot in Serbia, and I always start with my own mother, first.

But there are many more in the queue.

I step outside my mother’s flat - my old home - I look around and here it is again! That third dimension. It’s back. The world is in 3D again and it looks glorious. The colours are more vivid. The sounds are sharper. I realise I had been watching a black and white film all this time, and I confused it for my life. It hurts, and it makes me deliriously happy to be here at the same time.

The trees smell different - what is it about this place, do the flowers have more pollen? Are the bees here faster, harder working? Is the wind here milder, spreading the scent molecules more gently? Is the sunshine more golden, warming the ground more thoroughly?

In the morning, I walk to the shops, listening to the sounds of life around me. A dog is barking somewhere (there are lots of dogs roaming freely in Serbia – I can’t really call them stray – they are street pets of their towns), through an open window I can hear a telephone ringing, someone else is listening to their TV a bit too loud, a woman is putting out her washing on the squeeking line which stretches between two blocks of flats. The comforting, ordinary, magical sounds of life happening in every place and in every moment, but nowhere more hungrily so than here.

Serbia has been through a lot. The people have been through a lot. An average Serb’s favourite historical fact is that our king used to eat using knife and fork at a time when the English king still used his fingers. A lot of very muddy water has passed under the proverbial bridge since then, unfortunately. Still, the Serbian hunger for life, their skill for survival, their sheer life force, remains undiminished. And everyone who comes here catches that illness too, the illness of the Slavic heart that beats to a different rhythm.

Even my children feel it, when we’re they’re here. They seem to come out of themselves in completely new ways. Even my husband feels it, on occasions when he joins us for a few days. But then, everyone here has always called him “foreign, but our own”. This mild-mannered Englishman and this strange land seem to have their own connection, the nature of which isn’t completely clear even to me.

When the time comes for goodbyes, I am never ready. My life in England is my real life as I spend most of my time  there. It is the life of my head, a life of events and doings. My life in Serbia, where I spend so little time, is the secret life of my heart. It is a life of memories and pictures and flashbacks and fantasies, impossible and heartbreaking fantasies.

One is not better, or more important than the other. One is not more valid than the other. It’s just that one goes deeper, much deeper, all the way into the blood that makes up who I am.

Those are my thoughts these days, while we are waiting to go.