The street I live on has two blocks and one intersection. It is lined with American hackberry trees which turn verdant from spring through fall, and then go bare. At its eastern end, it meets another street, where my mother lives in my grandmother’s former flat.
When my grandmother was still alive and for a few years following her passing, I spent many hours in her rickety old kitchen, packed with tacky bric-a-brac – red and black castanets from grandfather’s only trip abroad, an off-white baby shoe hung from a dusty string, blackened pots that once held my granny’s varivo, peasant bean stew with bits of charred bacon.
I left Zagreb in 1993. The war raged on and the environment was stifling. It felt impossible to grow. But I was not a refugee from Yugoslavia. I chose to leave.
All the same, as my country splintered, I suddenly felt rootless. It seemed as if war had led to wanderlust. I drifted, becoming a professional wanderer. It took several continents, more than 70 countries and two decades for my profound sense of displacement to dawn on me. When it did, I decided to go back to where I started.
During those two decades away, I lived and received mail at the following addresses:
31 Regency Place, Canterbury, England
Yskruid 2, Oosterhout, Holland
10 Grimshill Court, Park Wood, University of Kent, England
Rendićeva 29, Zagreb, Croatia
48 5th Ave, Brooklyn, New York, USA
Bergen Street 48/III, Brooklyn, New York, USA
190 6th Ave, Brooklyn, New York, USA
85 Sutherland Rd, Brighton, MA, USA
15 Dusty Lane, Wethersfield, CT, USA
241 South Winooski St, Burlington, Vermont, USA
Rua dos Mouros 37, 4 Esq, Lisboa, Portugal
Armenia 1973 1º Depto 4 Buenos Aires 1414 Argentina
These were all once home. Some briefly, others for extended periods. Some addresses are missing – in Madrid, London, Barcelona… Of these I have no records.
And so I changed my street view frequently. And then I had a baby boy, and my big life shrunk from planet to pea-size. Or so it felt. Walking around with Kweli, whose name means “truth” in Swahili, felt like a reckoning. Over these last three and a half years since he got the lead act on the stage of my life, I have felt at turns imprisoned and liberated. Imprisoned in a life of attachment I couldn’t get out of. Liberated with a new perspective.
There were many aimless walks with the stroller around the same neighbourhood, just to get some fresh air and an alternate point of view. As Kweli grew and began to notice the world around him, shaping his observations into words, I felt a liberation of sorts. Finally, I was seeing the world through eyes other than my own – a relief. What he noticed as we strolled was so different than anything I ever did: A box of discarded Legos sticking out of the garbage can, a broken umbrella, muddy puddles he just had to jump into and get himself all wet.
The street I live on now has two blocks and one intersection. The life I live in now has two people, a mother and a son.
In the four years since my return to Zagreb, I moved four times, all in the same neighbourhood. The radius of my life shortened quite suddenly.
I strolled my street twice last night. Up and down. I tried to find a grip, a sense of belonging, but there was only a random collection of memories. An empty storefront that once had a petite grocery where my grandmother used to buy packaged edibles. A corner café-bar that’s always smoky and has at least one drunk man crushing on the bartender. A hair salon where grandmothers and old-school housewives go to perk up their grey buns, sitting under giant dryers that could fit three heads. A park where dogs run loose. Lots of scribbled walls, with graffiti proclaiming Smrt fašizmu – sloboda narodu (Death to fascism, freedom to the people), a former motto of the post-WWII resistance movement.
Two doors down from my current building, in a grey early modernist residential block from the 1920s, I used to stop by my best friend’s grandmother’s flat for Turkish coffee every day after high school. With a wise, all-knowing smile on her face (for she knew it all), her grandmother would read the coffee grounds from the bottom of our tiny cups, the shapes the grounds haphazardly made always revealing something earth-shattering about our lives, such as the first letter of the name of a boy we fancied.
As I stroll, these recollections culminate into a lovely nighttime wander. Without them, this street view could be similar to street views in a number of European cities. Memories make it mine.
I have two peculiar and very personal obsessions. The first one is the overwhelming need to unpack my entire bag the moment I arrive to my destination, be it a friend’s place, a hotel, a tent or a new flat I just moved into. I do this even if I’m staying for only one night. I take all the things out of my suitcase, put my toothbrush in the holder, place the toiletries in the bathroom and put my book and glasses near the bed or sofa where I am to sleep. Then I am home.
How little it takes to feel that comfortable yet false sense of belonging. It follows me around the globe, this compulsive ritual of setting up a temporary home the moment I arrive. It’s as if I have to put those roots down, if only for a day. I compose this semblance of home through the careful placing of a few random objects and – voilà! – I’ve arrived. One way of surviving exile – for I belong neither here nor there – is by nurturing the idea of home. I keep my home alive by creating temporary shelters around the world.
My other curious obsession is the excessive collecting of bags. Bags of all sorts – from colorful woolen totes I picked up at Andean markets, swag bags I got at New York parties and large backpacks to designer handbags, sport sacks and even plastic bags.
My ex-husband said to me once: “You do realise we can’t open our closet anymore because bags keep falling out of it?”
I said I was going to get rid of some. But I never did. I keep moving them from flat to flat. Then the other day it occurred to me: I hold on to these bags as if my life depended on them, because somewhere deep down I think I may have to pack up and leave, fast, any day now.
Sometimes I wonder whether this is a side effect of my life in self-imposed exile. I used to have one home, which history wiped off the world map. Then I had to make do with another home, and another, and many more to come. On days I am feeling strong and grounded, I think to myself: what a blessing to have so many homes. But with any weakening of spirit and a change of mood, all I want is one home, with all my earthly possessions in it, in one place.
The other night, approaching a peak of anxiety about my life as a single mother of a high-energy toddler, an impending deadline and a pinched nerve, I looked at my bookcase. There, on the white Billy from Ikea, which a friend passed down when I recently moved apartments for the third time in just over three years, was a collection of books and random jumble.
The new to-be-signed lease to my Brooklyn apartment that I’ve had since 2004. The Artist’s Way, which kept me writing morning pages for a few solid years in my Brooklyn kitchen, and led to a fruitful phase, the creative fireworks of my life. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, a bible of sorts for any woman immigrant from these parts. Antipoems by Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet I adored who for a period of time inspired me to no end. Povijest Filozofije (History of Philosophy), a textbook I’ve been carrying around the world with me since high school. The blue-spined 1999 Pushcart Prize, a gift from the first of my two ex-husbands during the time he thought I would go on to write something important. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Communism, a book that I copy-edited during my first freelance editorial stint in New York. Inside, a gorgeous tome on the art inside Hotel Adriatic in Rovinj, Istria; a friend designed it and I wrote much of the copy. African Mythology from A to Z, a gift from an ex, a Jamaican artist who lived in a Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn loft that for a while felt like a home.
My many fragmented lives were displayed on one shelf. I looked at these books, pieces of a rich life, and then wandered onto the kitchen balcony. A nearly full moon shone bright at nearly midnight. I could see blue lights of televisions and computer screens glowing from the flats across the leafy courtyard. In that moment, I felt like I stood on my own tiny patch of the planet.
My life has been marked by departures. Journeys have punctuated all I have done. To make sure I can leave within minutes, I obsessively keep every bag I ever get; I hold on to all of them, in case of an emergency. Always on the brink of departure, I want to make sure I can pack up my life into the bags I own. Perhaps it’s a side effect of living life at the crossroads, bound by the cartography of a country that was once home, then wasn’t, and now is again. I chose to leave decades ago, and I chose to return.
For this street view could soon become any street view, in any city, country or continent. My bags are ready.