Refuge and Reimagination
The Bitterness of Exile
- I have a return airplane ticket which I must use in the next few months – the young woman with a melancholy voice told me the other night.
I felt uncomfortably, almost shocked, and – not hiding any of these feelings – I asked her:
- Why did you buy a return ticket? Didn't you, and your husband, come just two months ago to live here in Toronto?
- We did, but I have not come here with an idea to stay forever in Canada. Besides, it would be impossible for me not to see Belgrade, my friends and relatives for a whole year... – the young woman replied. In a way, my inner being was painfully hurt by her sincere nostalgia and the feeling of belonging.
Then I told her that I have not crossed the borders of what's left of my former country for more than four years, that - as far as I'm concerned - I have no intention to cross them ever again, and I have come to Canada with one-way ticket.
- You're something else – the young woman pointed out, expressing understanding for my attitude. – You left Belgrade for political reasons, but we came here in order to make and save some money, and to go home after that. I don't even have any plans to have my baby here.
After our telephone conversation, her words continue to echo painfully inside me. The young woman, just like her husband, is of the same age of my older son, still living in Belgrade. This young couple came to Toronto because they could not bear the pressure of economic and financial hardship. Neither can my son, but he is still there...
Since that young woman is my older son's age, it makes me almost twice as old as she is, and at the same time she is twice old as my younger son, who lives with me in Toronto and already feels like a «proud Canadian», thinking that his only home is our small rented apartment in Davisville Village.
What is the secret of difference between that young woman and myself? Why does she feel nostalgic? And why there is no nostalgia in me at all? It must be the bitterness that enveloped me when I had to leave my former country.
The moment I left my home, I also left and lost any feeling of belonging. I will never know where the bitterness of expulsion ends, and where the bitterness of exile begins. The question of what we gain and what we lose by emigration eased my pain. The book on that subject, which I began and never managed to finish, is still in the memory of my computer.
What has happened inside me? How come that I have never been moved by nostalgia during these four years of being a stranger?
I am using the word «stranger» deliberately, although I do not want to feel like a stranger, and do not accept that role given to me by the world theatre of alienation. I understand how right was Albert Camus when, in his novel «The Stranger», he wrote: «We are all strangers, strange to ourselves and to the world around us!» And that explains why what I wish and dream about represents one side of things, while there's reality on the other side, the reality in which I'll always remain a stranger, an immigrant, somebody who has an accent while speaking the language of people who are descendants of immigrants themselves but have forgotten, or don't want to remember, that fact.
When some time ago a Canadian reporter asked me whether I planned to return to my former country once the old regime - which expelled me - was gone, I gave him a negative answer. At that time I still believed that the country of my choice would also be my new intellectual homeland. Today I have its citizenship, but I still do not have any sense of intellectual belonging. To belong you have to be accepted first, and I still have not been accepted. I am a person from a margin, who has to listen to many objections due to my years, bad accent (although I speak English even in my dreams, but then, just like in reality, I do not hear my bad accent), my weight, not enough qualifications for certain jobs, and overqualification for other jobs... I am a person without a regular job, working part time when a movie production team needs a character looking like me. My mind is not important anymore, just like my experience and education, but I spent my life nourishing my mind, not my looks. A path leading from a TV star to a movie background performer was a thorny one – although it would be natural for that path to go the opposite way...
If you expected me to say that this is the best country in the world, then I have failed your expectations - although I do not know whether there is a better one! I am thankful for it gave me, and regretful for what have been taken from me by it.
I am saying this because I do not have a return ticket. My only homeland has vanished from the map of the world. This is – by my own will – my adopted homeland, yet I am in the process of searching for the answer to the crucial question: «Does my new homeland love me as much as I love it?!»
At his time, Leonard Cohen wrote: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Following Cohen’s thought, I would say: We all need more light!
I had to tell you the truth so that you could confront your own truth. If that confrontation is painful, then there's still some hope both for you and me. We can still have the word which is a word of obligation, not an empty word which gives one a false hope.