You can’t ever go back home again

At the start of December, I took the boat from Newcastle to Amsterdam. I was in Amsterdam for a conference, but it is also true I used to spend a lot of time in Amsterdam – Holland in general – both for private reasons and for work, between 2010 and 2016. Then, after a while, I took a train to Berlin. Then another, sleeper train, to Budapest. Then, a bus to Belgrade.

To wake up in Eastern Europe is to wake up in a context in which history has always already happened. To state this, of course, is a cliché; thinking, and writing, about Eastern Europe is always already infused with clichés. Those of us who come from this part of the world – what Maria Tumarkin marks so aptly as “Eastern European elsewheres” – know. In England, we exist only as shadow projections of a self, not even important enough to be former victims/subjects of the Empire. We are born into the world where we are the Other, so we learn to think, talk, and write of ourselves as the Other. Simone de Beauvoir wrote about this; Frantz Fanon wrote about this too.

To wake up in Berlin is to already wake up in Eastern Europe. This is where it used to begin. To wake up in Berlin is to know that we are always already living in the aftermath of a separation. In Eastern Europe, you know the world was never whole.

I was eight when the Berlin Wall fell. I remember watching it on TV. Not long after, I remember watching a very long session of the Yugoslav League of Communists (perhaps this is where my obsession with watching Parliament TV comes from?). It seemed to go on forever. My grandfather seemed agitated. My dad – whom I only saw rarely – said “Don’t worry, Slovenia will never secede from Yugoslavia”. “Oh, I think it will”, I said*.

When you ask “Are you going home for Christmas?”, you mean Belgrade. To you, Belgrade is a place of clubs and pubs, of cheap beer and abundant grilled meat**. To me, Belgrade is a long dreadful winter, smells of car fumes and something polluting (coal?) used for fuel. Belgrade is waves of refugees and endless war I felt powerless to stop, despite joining the first anti-regime protest in 1992 (at the age of 11), organizing my class to join one in 1996 (which almost got me kicked out of school, not for the last time), and inhaling oceans of tear gas when the regime actually fell, in 2000.

Belgrade is briefly hoping things would get better, then seeing your Prime Minister assassinated in 2003; seeing looting in the streets of Belgrade after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and while already watching the latter on Youtube, from England, deciding that maybe there was nowhere to return to. Nowadays, Belgrade is a haven of crony capitalism equally indebted to Russian money, Gulf real estate, and Chinese fossil fuel exploitation that makes its air one of the most polluted in the world. So no, Belgrade never felt like home.

Budapest did, though.

It may seem weird that the place I felt most at home is a place where I barely spent three years. My CV will testify that I lived in Budapest between 2010 and 2013, first as a visiting fellow, then as an adjunct professor at the Central European University (CEU). I don’t have a drop of Hungarian blood (not that I know of, at least, thought with the Balkans you can never tell). My command of language was, at best, perfunctory; CEU is an American university and its official language is English. Among my friends – most of whom were East-Central European – we spoke English; some of us have other languages in common, but we still do. And while this group of friends did include some people who would be described as ‘locals’ – that is, Budapest-born and raised – we were, all of us, outsiders, brought together by something that was more than chance and a shared understanding of what it meant to be part of the city***.

Of course, the CV will say that what brought us together was the fact that we were all affiliated with CEU. But CEU is no longer in Budapest; since 2020, it has relocated to Vienna, forced out by the Hungarian regime’s increasingly relentless pursuit against anything that smacks of ‘progressivism’ (are you listening, fellow UK academics?). Almost all of my friends had left before that, just like I did. In 2012, increasingly skeptical about my chances to acquire a permanent position in Western academia with a PhD that said ‘University of Belgrade’ (imagine, it’s not about merit), I applied to do a second PhD at Cambridge. I was on the verge of accepting the offer, when I also landed that most coveted of academic premia, a Marie Curie postdoc position attached to an offer of a permanent – tenured – position, in Denmark****.

Other friends also left. For jobs. For partners’ jobs. For parenthood. For politics. In academia, this is what you did. You swallowed and moved on. Your CV was your life, not its reflection.

So no, there is no longer a home I can return to.

And yet, once there, it comes back. First as a few casually squeezed out words to the Hungarian conductors on the night train from Berlin, then, as a vocabulary of 200+ items that, though rarely used, enabled me to navigate the city, its subways, markets, and occasionally even public services (the high point of my Hungarian fluency was being able to follow – and even part-translate – the Semmelweis Museum curator’s talk! :)). Massolit, the bookshop which also exists in Krakow, which I’ve visited on a goodbye-to-Eastern-Europe trip from Budapest via Prague and Krakow to Ukraine (in 2013, right before the annexation). Gerlóczy utca, where is the French restaurant in which I once left a massive tip for a pianist who played so beautifully that I was happy to be squeezed at the smallest table, right next to the coat stand. Most, which means ‘bridge’ in Serbian (and Bosnian, and Croatian) and ‘now’ in Hungarian. In Belgrade, I now sometimes rely on Google maps to get around; in Budapest, the map of the city is buried so deep in my mental compass that I end up wherever I am supposed to be going.

This is what makes the city your own. Flow, like the Danube, massive as it meanders between the city’s two halves, which do not exactly make a whole. Like that book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is a Hungarian name, btw. Like my academic writing, which, uncoupled from the strictures of British university term, flows.

Budapest has changed, but the old and the new overlay in ways that make it impossible not to remember. Like the ‘twin’ cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in the fictional universe of China Miéville’s The City and the City (the universe was, of course, modelled on Berlin, but Besźel is Budapest out and out, save for the sea), the memory and its present overlap in distinct patterns that we are trained not to see. Being in one precludes being in the other. But there are rumours of a third city, Orciny, one that predates both. Believing in Orciny is considered a crime, though. There cannot be a place where the past and the future are equally within touching distance. Right?

CEU, granted, is no longer there as an institution; though the building (and the library) remains, most of its services, students, and staff are now in Vienna. I don’t even dare go into the campus; the last time I was there, in 2017, I gave a keynote about how universities mediate disagreement. The green coffee shop with the perennially grim-faced person behind the counter, the one where we went to get good coffee before Espresso Embassy opened, is no longer there. But Espresso Embassy still stands; bigger. Now, of course, there are places to get good coffee everywhere: Budapest is literally overrun by them. The best I pick up is from the Australian coffee shop, which predates my move. Their shop front celebrates their 10th anniversary. Soon, it will be 10 years since I left Budapest.

Home: the word used to fill me with dread. “When are you going home?”, they would ask in Denmark, perhaps to signify the expectation I would be going to Belgrade for the winter break, perhaps to reflect the idea that all immigrants are, fundamentally, guests. “I live here”, I used to respond. “This is my home”. On bad days, I’d add some of the combo of information I used to point out just how far from assumed identities I was: I don’t celebrate Christmas (I’m atheist, for census purposes); if I did, it would be on a different date (Orthodox Christian holidays in Serbia observe the Julian calendar, which is 10 days behind the Gregorian); thanks, I’ll be going to India (I did, in fact, go to India including over the Christmas holidays the first year I lived in Denmark, though not exactly in order to spite everyone). But above and beyond all this, there was a simpler, flatter line: home is not where you return, it’s the place you never left.

In Always Coming Home, another SF novel about finding the places we (n)ever left, Ursula LeGuin retraces a past from the point of view of a speculative future. This future is one in which the world – in fact, multiple worlds – have failed. Like Eastern Europe, it is a sequence of apocalypses whose relationship can only be discovered through a combination of anthropology and archaeology, but one that knows space and its materiality exist only as we have already left it behind; we cannot dig forwards, as it were.

Am I doing the same, now? Am I coming home to find out why I have left? Or did I return from the future to find out I have, in fact, never left?

Towards the end of The City and the City, the main character, Tyador Borlú, gets apprehended by the secret police monitoring – and punishing – instances of trespass (Breach) between two cities, the two worlds. But then he is taken out by one of the Breach – Ashil – and led through the city in a way that allows him to finally see them not as distinct, but as parts of a whole.

Everything I had been unseeing now jostled into sudden close-up. Sound and smell came in: the calls of Besźel; the ringing of its clocktowers; the clattering and old metal percussion of the trams; the chimney smell; the old smells; they came in a tide with the spice and Illitan yells of Ul Qoma, the clatter of a militsya copter, the gunning of German cars. The colours of Ul Qoma light and plastic window displays no longer effaced the ochres and stone of its neighbour, my home.

‘Where are you?’ Ashil said. He spoke so only I could hear. ‘I . . .’

‘Are you in Besźel or Ul Qoma?’

‘. . . Neither. I’m in Breach.’ ‘You’re with me here.’

We moved through a crosshatched morning crowd. ‘In Breach. No one knows if they’re seeing you or unseeing you. Don’t creep. You’re not in neither: you’re in both.’

He tapped my chest. ‘Breathe.’

(Loc. 3944)

Breathe.

*Maybe this is where the tendency not to be overtly impressed by the authority of men comes from (or authority in general, given my father was a professor of sociology and I was, at that point, nine years old, and also right).

** Which I also do not benefit from, as I do not eat meat.

*** Some years later, I will understand that this is why the opening lines of the Alexandria Quartet always resonated so much.

**** How I ended up doing a second PhD at Cambridge after all and relocating to England permanently is a different story, one that I part-told here.

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