My whole life I have never been able to pinpoint quite where I belong, which sounds as though it could be a cliche from a teenage girl’s diary; born to Serbian parents, I was raised in the south of England yet always maintained a strong relationship with our roots. Serbian was my first language despite living on an island on the other side of the continent, my mother refusing to let me and my sister forget or even never know the language like so many others that we knew. I would spend 2 months every summer, and every winter break, in our hometown Smederevo, where I gained a large group of friends - some of whom were like me, living abroad and spending their summers in our hometown - and spent the entirety of my childhood and teenaged summers and winters outside with my friends, only coming home to eat and sleep. I truly found myself as a person during those times of freedom away from my school and my parents, and to me, this was what I considered to be my place in the world; England was somewhere I had to be only because it was necessary, to finish school and be done with. But the closer I got to my 20s, life began to happen. I went to university, I got a job, a boyfriend, I moved cities; I began to have less and less time to spend aimlessly taking in the smells and thrills of summer, to just relax and waste time in having fun. The last full summer I spent in Serbia was 5 years ago, in 2010, one of the best summers of my life; but the more time I spent away, the less I communicated with my friends, the less I was involved with their everyday lives, and the more I struggled to reintegrate. As a child, and arguably more so now as an adult, I struggled to really feel as though I belonged in one place; my Serbian upbringing meant I felt disconnected and different from my friends in the UK, but I never really belonged in Serbia either, where my funny accent and long stretches away encouraged teasing and losses in translation. But surely I can’t be the only one? How does a person stretched between two cultures, two countries and two sets of friends and family negotiate their sense of belonging, identity and reintegration into one or both places? This sense of anxiety I have felt since losing my place and sense of belonging in my childhood sanctuary has me wondering what the experiences are of other diaspora living a double life.
For many of my friends that are also part of the “Serbian diaspora”, they also felt the same love and longing to be back in Smederevo, a longing that now I can’t help but feel is evoked through rose tinted glasses and short lived experiences. I have now been in Serbia for several weeks, and without the haziness of teen spirit to distract me, I can see through the cracks of this society that I was either too young or too happy to notice before. Around the time I was born and growing up, several wars and critical events tore apart Serbia and has forever left it, especially in small towns such as Smederevo, in a state of not-quite recovery, no doubt one of the reasons my parents and many of my friends’ parents decided it was time to leave and not come back. There is no longer industry in my town, highly educated youths are left without chance or option for employment, moral is low and boredom and frustration are tangible. Those without jobs can only hope to band together and have a good time, and those that do finally find employment cling to any amount of income they can get, no matter how little the pay or rife the exploitation. Many will run to the capital Belgrade, or wish to run away from Serbia altogether.
So now, sitting in my garden surrounded by summer sunshine, plum and apricot trees and the sound of songbirds, I am wondering how it has come to be that such a beautiful country that once held so much of my heart can be driving away so many of it’s young people, and the events and subtleties that have led to such a cataclysmic erosion of the foundations that should be there to support them.