Belonging

I gradually became aware that my interiority was inseparable from my exteriority, that the geography of my city was the geography of my soul. Physically and metaphysically, I was placed.

In the Sarajevo I knew, you possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher; the landmarks of your life (the spot where you fell and broke your arm playing soccer, the corner where you waited to meet the first of the many loves of your life, the bench where you first kissed her); the streets where people would forever know and recognize you, the space that identified you.

Because anonymity was well nigh impossible and privacy literally incomprehensible (there is no word for “privacy” in Bosnian), your fellow-Sarajevans knew you as well as you knew them. If you somehow vanished, your fellow-citizens could have reconstructed you from their collective memory and the gossip that had accrued over years. Your sense of who you were, your deepest identity, was determined by your position in a human network, whose physical corollary was the architecture of the city.

Aleksander Hemon

 

There’s a fountain in Sarajevo that bestows upon all who quench their thirst from its waters, the destiny to return to the city.

I was taken to drink from it at some point in my dozen or so years in Bosnia and Hercegovina (spanning the early ’90’s through mid 2000’s) and my fate was sealed.  Though I have no family history in the Balkans, I belong to Sarajevo as much as she to me.

My friend Tina’s brother, Aleksander Hemon, writes eloquently and poignantly about  “mapping home ” in his piece (excerpted above) in the New Yorker exploring identity and place.

I went searching for the article this weekend after having consecutive and equally visceral responses to seeing  this video on scenes of Sarajevo (“Toj je moj grad” = this is my city)…

and hearing Alicia belt out the lyrics to “Empire State of Mind”

at the Barclays Center on Friday night (apologies for crap video quality, was too rapt to pay attention to iphone).

And I wondered, how is it possible to have overlapping geographies/communities/social & physical infrastructures determine the contours of one’s soul, one’s identity?  How is it possible to belong so completely to two such disparate places and cultures (yet be a citizen of neither of the affiliated countries).

I’ve made myself at home in many places during my peripatetic life – but this is about something else.  It’s not just about learning languages and making friends and feathering nests; that’s the easy part.  It’s about creating landscapes of experience that define and are defined by you.

We laugh that in a city as vast as New York, we frequent the same handful of favourite bars and restaurants, partake of what’s on offer at the same go-to cultural institutions and venues for art/music/theatre/natural beauty; that it might as well be a village in which we live.  But I suppose that in these circuits and interactions, we are establishing the landmarks of our “personal infrastructure”.

And for me, that infrastructure spans more than one place. Two (+) ‘homes’, one soul.

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