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April 2019
Vienna, AUSTRIA

I am launching 'What You Call Home' with my personal story. I went back to the place where I grew up 14 years after I’d left it. Born in Belarus, I moved to Austria with my mother when I had just turned 13. This is a journey through encounters with the past, a story about facing the forgotten and coming to terms with the inevitable, which is our human urge to belong.

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16 October, 2018 - The Arrival Date

My hands were shaking when we took off, but it wasn’t for my fear of flying. I was going back to Belarus, the country where I was born, for my grandmother’s 80th birthday. I hadn’t been back in almost 14 years.

My mother and I left Belarus when I was 13 years old. We moved to Austria, a mountainous place with beautiful landscapes and delicious food. I was exposed to a whole new world, filled with unfamiliar things that with time became my reality. Last October I was ready to go back to my roots to meet friends and family I’d lost touch with.

All my life I’ve been consistently asked one question: ‘Where are you from’? But the notion of identity is never straightforward. I have always struggled to answer in a way that would accurately convey how I felt about my background. And in today’s globalised world where being bi- and multicultural is common, getting sense of who you are becomes more and more difficult.

With this piece I try to redefine the meaning of “home” as it goes beyond the place where you were born. I talk about what it felt like to be confronted with the past and how the experience has impacted me since. This is a story of identity and belonging, and what it means to have your heart torn between places. I think a lot of people can relate to that. Thankfully, I got to share this with Thomas who will narrate the story with me.

This is Impressions from a Foreign Homeland. Welcome.

 

17 October, 2018

Thomas: The first stop on our journey was a small town called Masty, the home of Niki’s maternal grandmother. Close to the Polish border, it is a five-hour train ride from Minsk. On our first day we walked through the town, diving into nostalgic memories of her summers spent here as a child. There were many things to talk about so we looked for a quiet place to sit by the shores of the river Neman.

How did it feel to finally come  back?

I didn’t really expect to remember much, but when we entered the town, all memories came flooding in. So, for example, we passed this church, and I immediately remembered the time when I went to church on Sundays with my grandmother. There were these two towers, I don’t even remember what they are for, but I when I saw them, I immediately recognised them. Yeah, but everything remained the same. It feels like going back in time. What I hadn’t realised before coming back here is that it would be so easy to fall back in. Not only because everything remained the same, but because people are so accepting and welcoming.


"When you are young, you have these isolated, IDYLLIC memories of your childhood. I didn’t want to lose them so I was definitely scared that things would be different and that a part of my identity was GONE."


"When you are young, you have these isolated, IDYLLIC memories of your childhood. I didn’t want to lose them so I was definitely scared that things would be different and that a part of my identity was GONE."

Did you have any fears or doubts before going back?

I had fears about things changing. You have these isolated, idyllic memories of your childhood and when you are away for so long, you are very protective of those memories. I didn’t want to lose them so I was definitely scared that things would be different and that a part of my identity was gone.

Why did it take you so long to go back?

I think my mother’s motive was to offer me a better life in a country with brighter future prospects. Belarus had always seemed very gloomy for her. But ultimately, when you are away for a few years, it gets more and more difficult to come back. It was also a coping mechanism for me  - repress my old identity to find acceptance in a new country.

Why did you finally change your mind?

Going back has been on my mind for a long tme, but three years ago something significant happened. My grandfather passed away. I had lost touch with my father and his side of the family so I didn’t know that my grandfather died and only found out months later. Realising that was just a catalyst for trying to understand my situation. It took me three years to make sense of my emotions until I was ready to go back.

Did you have any fears or doubts before going back?

I had fears about things changing. You have these isolated, idyllic memories of your childhood and when you are away for so long, you are very protective of those memories. I didn’t want to lose them so I was definitely scared that things would be different and that a part of my identity was gone.

Why did it take you so long to go back?

I think my mother’s motive was to offer me a better life in a country with brighter future prospects. Belarus had always seemed very gloomy for her. But ultimately, when you are away for a few years, it gets more and more difficult to come back. It was also a coping mechanism for me  - repress my old identity to find acceptance in a new country.

Why did you finally change your mind?

Going back has been on my mind for a long tme, but three years ago something significant happened. My grandfather passed away. I had lost touch with my father and his side of the family so I didn’t know that my grandfather died and only found out months later. Realising that was just a catalyst for trying to understand my situation. It took me three years to make sense of my emotions until I was ready to go back.

"What I remember VIVIDLY and strongly is my longing to be accepted and understood. [T]here're various ways in how children [react] when they are put in new, unfamiliar environments. I was one of those who suppressed the life I'd known to be accepted in a NEW place."

"What I remember VIVIDLY and strongly is my longing to be accepted and understood. [T]here are various ways in how children [react] when they are put in new, unfamiliar environments. I was one of those who suppressed the life I had known to be accepted in a NEW place."

Tell me a bit more about what it was like to move countries at a young age?

It all seems like a blur and I only remember snippets of it. But what I do remember vividly and strongly is my longing to be accepted and understood. I suppose, there are various ways in how children’s reactions manifest themselves when they are put in new, unfamiliar environments. Some turn rebellious, others seclude themselves. I was one of those who suppressed the life I had known to be accepted in a new place.

Ever since I moved countries I have thought about human identity and belonging. I wanted to find answers on where I, as an immigrant, truly belong. I didn't want to be known as an immigrant when I was younger, because I never wanted to be different. I despised my name for sounding so random among those of others in my class, because teachers stumbled upon its pronunciation. I also hated class trips. Once, we went to France for a week with my French group and I was the only one whose passport was being brutally examined at the airport counter. I also often refused to say I was from Belarus, and said it was Russia (where my mother and her family are from), because no one really knew where Belarus was. Which to me, at age 13, meant that they’d never really know me. That really scared me so I found myself a defence mechanism. And at some point, once I managed to get rid of my Russian accent in German, I made one significant decision, which was to stop saying I was born somewhere different than Austria. It was easier that way.

Time passed and things seemed to be going well, but I always felt this melancholy, that something was off. This is what cross-culture experts call unrecognised and therefore unresolved grief. As Ruth van Reken put it, no one asks you “What did you lose with an airplane ride?” Going places means discovering something new, meeting new people. But for someone like me, it meant losing the things that I identified with for 13 years. It meant losing my identity. And because the cut between the two worlds happened so quickly, there was no time to mourn. And I think that was very crucial in how I perceived myself in the following years.

"No one asks you 'What do you lose with an airplane ride?' Going places means discovering something new. But for someone like me, it meant losing the things that I'd identified with for 13 years."

"No one asks you 'What did you lose with an airplane ride?' Going places means discovering something new. But for someone like me, it meant losing the things that I'd identified with for 13 years."

Thomas: Masty is a spacious town, home to over 17,000 people. The wide roads and the Soviet style residential buildings transfer you back to the 1980's where people still rode Lada cars, wore vintage jackets and covered their rooms in old-school wallpaper. Besides an orthodox church, a cathedral and an oversized Lenin-statue, the main attraction of Masty is a suspension bridge, the longest of its kind in Belarus. It leads over the river Neman into a brightly coloured forest, a testament to the autumnal beauty of this country.

Niki: The crisp late October air was laden with the scents of pine trees, mushrooms and notes of mud. The ground was coated in golden coloured maple leaves, gently pirouetting down at an occasional breeze. I watched my breath rise above me towards the deceptive warmth of the sun, shining brightly in the clear blue sky. I was back in my grandmother’s town where I spent all my summers as a child. Memories kept flooding my restless mind, distorting the spooky silence of the place.

"People have expectations and they want you to adhere to this idea that they have of you in their heads. So it's a tricky thing to [remain] AUTHENTIC and true to who you are and make them happy [at the same time]".

"People have expectations and they want you to adhere to this idea that they have of you in their heads. So it's a tricky thing to [remain] AUTHENTIC and true to who you are and make them happy [at the same time]".

The reason why we are here is because your grandma is celebrating her 80th birthday. How do you feel about that?

Around 30 people are going to come. It's mainly family and friends, but at the same time I'm a bit scared because when you are away for so long and then you suddenly come back, you turn into this person that everyone wants to see and talk to, so you are on this pedestal sort of thing. I don’t like this sort of attention put on me. People have expectations, especially when they haven't seen you in a while. Subconsiously they want you to adhere to this idea of what they have of you in their heads. So, it’s a tricky thing trying to stay authentic and true to who you are, but also remain present at the same time. When you're quiet and don't say much, people might think you feel uncomfortable or that you're not happy to see them, but it's actually not true. It's just a very overwhelming expierience. And sometimes it's difficult for people to see past their own reality. But hey, I am sure it’s going to be a nice time and it’s definitely long overdue.

Are you afraid you are going to steal your grandma’s thunder?

I am sure this is never going to happen. My grandma loves her thunder and she knows how to keep it.

20 October, 2018

Thomas: People were singing and dancing from the beginning to the very end of the party. Toasts were made, games were played, memories were shared. The dinner table was set with traditional meat and fish based dishes and the one ingredient Belarus is famous for: potatoes. And yes, potatoes can be super tasty.

I was impressed by how fast I was included into the celebration. Even more so since I was the only person unable to speak any Russian. It felt perfectly natural how everyone I hadn’t met before communicated with me in all possible ways. Mainly on the dancefloor and through the vodka glass. We all love to party after all.

22 October, 2018

Niki: In the morning we set off to the next stop of our journey down memory lane: Grodno, the town where I grew up and where I would meet my paternal grandmother. The experience was too personal to record, so here are a few highlights of a conversation between Thomas and I after I’d met her. 

So you just met your grandmother, your dad’s mum, who you hadn’t seen in 14 years. What was going through your mind when you saw her?

Quite honestly, I felt relief. I had heard rumors that physically she wasn’t fit anymore, so I was scared to see someone very old and fragile. I was relieved when it wasn’t the case. Selfishly so, because I felt “okay, I might still have some time left with her to make up for the time we’d lost”.

Unfortunately, your dad couldn’t meet you, because he was out of the country. But he offered us to stay in his flat, which is also the flat where you used to live.What was it like for you?

It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I saw photos of me hanging on the walls and there were still my books and jackets stored in his room which showed that despite So I suppose people never know what other people are going through.

What I have learned from this entire experience is that people tend to think their suffering is the worst kind of suffering. But even culturally speaking, there are certain ways in how people deal with things, obviously, it’s entirely personal and individual but we do get influenced by our cultures. We tend to think that we know what people are going through, judging by what they say or what they don’t say, their silence or their anger. It’s easy to make assumptions that ultimately turn into misunderstandings. And then time passes and you catch up and don’t really know why you stopped talking in the first place. I think most of us know this in theory but when you are affected it’s like your immune to it.

She was quite emotional. Do you remember what she said when she first saw you?

Солнышко моё, which means ‘my sunshine’ in Russian.

This past week we’ve had dinners, drinks and encounters with the past. We started in Masty, by celebrating a long and fulfilled life. Grodno, was where our journey ended. It meant going back to where you come from, facing the forgotten.

For me, I understood the power of human interaction. I went to Belarus with no expectations but the people welcomed me with open arms. And now, I am more convinced than ever that an open heart and a smile is all it takes to connect us. If we focus on what unites us, such as our need for love, friendship and community, rather than what divides us, we can be more empathetic and understanding of those around us.

Thomas

Enculturation is a process that takes a lifetime, meaning that we are constantly adapting to new surroundings. Conceptualising the definition of home is very difficult, impossible even as there are more individual factors involved than just being born and raised in certain environments.

I used to think my background collided with the life that I am leading now, but I have realised there are so many things I am grateful for because of my bicultural background. I have grown to be very empathetic, learned to be aware of and try to refrain from judgement. I spent the last decade travelling the world and living in various places and I believe this was possible because I was open-minded enough to do so.

I call many places my home now. Belarus, where I spend my most formative years. Austria, where I laid the groundworks of who I am today. Costa Rica, where I truly understood the meaning of pure, whole-hearted love. Leipzig, Germany, where I met the coolest, funnest people. London, where I became my most authentic self and explored the highest levels of creativity as a writer. And, Madrid, where I truly enjoyed life in all its shapes and forms.

Home is the memories that you make and the people you meet along the way. For me, there is no one meaning of home. And if you are anything like me, I think you can call yourself lucky.

Thank you for reading!

Niki

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What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.

What You Call Home is an audio series, exploring the meaning of home through personal memoirs of people like you and me.