Going Back by Anita Lekic

It was April, 2002. I contemplated my impending flight to Zagreb with Croatian Airlines with a sense of foreboding. Would I speak English, which I tentatively think of as my native language, or the language we routinely referred to as “BCS” (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian—a politically correct alphabetical acronym used by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal where I worked)? I hesitated at the Croatian Airlines counter at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and, handing over my well-worn US passport, I lapsed into English. Once I reached the gate, I ventured a Dobar dan [Good afternoon] with my Belgrade accent that inevitably brands me, falsely, as a Serb. I received a polite smile. I wondered whether my anxiousness over which language to choose had been necessary at all; for all I knew, I may have been, and probably was, addressing Dutch employees.

At Zagreb airport, I had an hour and a half’s wait for my flight to Pula. By this point, I was quite nervous but I decided to go ahead and speak Serbian. The passport officer merely noted, politely, that I would need to get a new passport because there was barely any room left for an entry stamp. Maybe Serbs were not a rarity at Zagreb airport. But they had to be, I thought—why would they be flying into Zagreb? En route to where?

For years I had attempted to respond to the oft asked question of where I was from by saying that I was an ex-Yugoslav, only to be pestered to identify the ethnic origins of my parents. Reluctantly, I would be forced to admit that my father was a Montenegrin and my mother a Bosnian, but would add, as if seeking exoneration, that they had declared themselves as Yugoslavs — that in Tito’s Yugoslavia you could declare yourself a Yugoslav just as you could declare yourself to be a Slovene, Croat, Muslim, Serb, Montenegrin, Macedonian, or the man in the moon. Whoever had asked the question would then look away with a knowing glance, concluding that I was, in fact, a Serb, since my father was a Montenegrin and the whole world knew at that point that Serbs and Montenegrins were one and the same (but to all those who prefer to simplify things, a caveat: as I write this, the Serbs and Montenegrins have declared themselves separate nations and have constituted separate countries). Fed up with explanations of my genealogy and Yugoslavia’s history, I had decided that starting with this trip, I would firmly insist that I was an American (the land of my birth) and put a stop to further inquiries. If asked about my parents, I would just say that they were dead, which was true.

At the airport, I saw several soldiers in camouflage uniforms with European Union insignia. I struck up a conversation with a soldier who turned out to be Dutch. He was flying back to Bosnia for another six-month stint. He told me he was paid twice as much for serving in Bosnia as part of the Peace Implementation Force (IFOR), the new European Union force which has replaced the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR), which at some point in the past, probably after the Dayton Agreements, had replaced the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). It was enough to make your head spin. Where had Yugoslavia vanished? The Dutch soldier was either of Surinamese or Indonesian origin. Having lived in the Netherlands for quite a while, I felt a closer kinship with him than with the people around me, the people of what was once a single, united country that I had left a quarter of a century ago.

I had come to Poreč, a small resort on the northern Croatian coast, in search of an apartment to buy. As I sat in the hotel lobby skimming real estate brochures, a middle-aged man seemed eager to strike up a conversation. He told me he was from Zagreb. I said: “You’re the first Croat I’ve met in this town today.” His friend, sitting next to him, jumped in: “Poreč is still a small Yugoslavia. There are people from all over the former Yugoslavia, and they all get along extremely well, regardless of their origins or religion.” “Why is that?” I asked. The man across me replied: “Because they’re normal.”

I spent three days in Poreč and the anxiety over what I would declare my national identity to be and which language I would use has vanished. I avoided watching the news. When I began working for The Hague-based International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1998, I stopped following political developments in what used to be my country, a country in which I had lived briefly and sporadically and which I left, once and for all, in 1980. Earlier, when the Yugoslav wars broke out in 1991, they caught me completely by surprise. I was living in the US with my husband, a naturalized US citizen but a Yugoslav by birth. We were completely oblivious of the nationalist confrontations tearing the country apart at its seams. Every morning, I would see my six-year-old daughter off to school and then sit down to plod through the extensive New York Times coverage. I read every single book that came out in English, beginning with Misha Glenny’s classic, The Fall of Yugoslavia. I immersed myself in books on the history of the country, which I knew little about and didn’t quite identify with, but which I came to care for immensely at the very moment when it crumbled before my eyes, disappearing into the recesses of history. I began teaching courses on the Yugoslav wars at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. I squandered four years of my life in an attempt to establish the truth and understand why the country had fallen apart.

Paradoxically, the International Tribunal, set up to try war crimes, changed all that. There were objective reasons for my fading interest. The war had stopped. The Dayton Agreements had been signed. I had moved from the U.S. to the Netherlands to take up a new job, and my marriage ended after twenty-four years. So I had other things on my mind and thought little, as I translated one document after another, about the indictments that had been issued and after a while, I stopped linking the names with the crimes. The whole region became, in my mind, a hideous morass where unimaginable things took place, an area of ambiguity for which I could only feel revulsion.

The loss of Yugoslavia, whatever that idealized notion of a country may have been, instilled a deep sense of homelessness in me. When I was a teenager living in New York, I thought of myself as American. Years of living in the suburbs of large cities in the US, when I was older, made me feel my distinctness — I was no longer an American, although few people could tell. The sense of having no roots became more acute in the Netherlands where I was surrounded by a language I had not attempted to master. When everyone I worked with went “home,” a prospect that was somehow hurtful since there was no home for me to go back to, I took my daughter on distant trips around the world.

With the Tribunal scheduled to wrap up its work in less than four years, I began to give serious thought to where “home” would end up to be. I didn’t know where to begin. The U.S, no longer felt like home. I would eventually have a limited pension to live on and my qualifications were so specialized that it would be hard to find work. The situation in the former Yugoslavia was no longer front-page news. I looked at a map of the world and thought: “Where will I begin again, with no roots, no family, and not very much money?” And however much I resented the thought, the former Yugoslavia came to mind. I would be among my own people, even though they would not consider me as one of their own.

So I found my way to Istria. Istria was on my short list because of its proximity to Europe. Perhaps some lingering fear influenced the decision — if war were to break out again, and on these territories there had been three devastating wars within the span of one hundred years — maybe I could make it across the border just in time. The people just seem warm. Somehow I imagine that if one were to need help, they would help. We were renowned for our hospitality before we turned into killers.

But this did not turn out to be the case, and I am glad that I walked away. Ten years have passed, and it is down the sun-bathed streets of the Portuguese town of Monte Estoril that I now walk. One day, on a short visit to Lisbon, I read about Cascais and took the train to see it. It was pretty much love at first sight. The Atlantic here was a deep blue, not the dull grey of the eastern US seaboard. The coast brought back memories of California, with its steep golden cliffs and blue Pacific waters. The Portuguese spoken around me, even though I could not understand it, reminded me of my early childhood in Brazil. No wonder Portuguese is such a soothing language — it is the language of my early childhood. I felt as if I was coming back home.

I bought an apartment in Monte Estoril and, when my stint with the UN ended, I retired here. It may have been beginner’s luck, but I don’t think I could have chosen a better place. There are so many things that remind me not of one, but of the many different homes I’ve lived in in my life. The bougainvillea take me back to my teenage years and the summers in our house in Herceg-Novi, on the Montenegrin coast, which my father planted and assiduously watered until they grew to full height. I love the old villas of Monte Estoril, especially those that have been worn down by time and neglect, with successive generations of heirs unable to shoulder the burdens of maintenance. I peek into their overgrown, abandoned gardens. They summon up the gardens of my youth — the garden in Rua Joaquim Nabuco in Brazil, where the lush vegetation provided perfect cover for the secret hiding places of my childhood.

And, of course, I realize that in the abandoned villas I pause to look at — and they are the ones that touch me most profoundly — I am, at some subliminal level, looking for traces of my own homes scattered worldwide, old homes which by now have surely succumbed to decay or have been razed to the ground to make way for new developments.

I am also comforted by the fact that at this stage of my life, I live in a place that was the last safe haven in Europe for exiles and refugees in World War II. Lisbon was the westernmost point of Europe, a refuge and safe harbor in a continent buffeted by the storms of war and a doorway leading into an uncertain and precarious future. The refugees are gone but I still feel them as a palpable presence. From my window, I can see the Grande Hotel of Monte Estoril where some of them stayed, their lives in paused abeyance, like the images I look at in books on this period, preserved in perpetuity in photographs of the era. I share their sense of homelessness and loss. I am right at home in the suspended temporality of the Espaço Memória dos Exílios in Estoril. I love how the sense of history wafts through the present here at every corner I turn. This is the place for me, where the journey finally ends—where all the loose knots come together, where the circle comes to a close.


BIO: Anita wrote, I have a B.A. and an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures. In the nineties, I taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook as an adjunct professor and later moved to The Hague in the Netherlands to work as a translator for the UN War Crimes Tribunal. I now live in Portugal.

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1 Comment

  1. I found this article very interesting as I am a US citizen who has been living in Pula for the past year. As someone who doesn’t deeply comprehend the war, it has been hard to believe what happened in this area just a few decades ago. My apartment manager is from Bosnia and his family found refuge in Istria during the war. The people here for the most part are warm and open-minded. Thanks for an insightful and helpful article.

    Liked by 2 people

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