As her family saw it, my mother’s life in London was one of comfort. But she also struggled. Both of these things were true.
My mother’s small, parquet-floored apartment is noisy. It looks out over a busy intersection in Belgrade. When her balcony door is open, her living room fills with the blare of car horns being hammered by impatient drivers. As she chops onions in the kitchen, music bubbles up from the bar downstairs. It is the antithesis of tranquility, but she doesn’t mind one bit. She likes being in the heart of things, being surrounded by the thump and rumble of city life.
I’m not sure at what point my mother decided to go back to Belgrade. For months, she would talk about it, as if testing out the idea, seeing how it sounded out loud. But at some point her thinking solidified and, in 2015, she decided to leave England, the country in which she’d spent the entirety of her adult life—half a century—and make a new start in a city she had not lived in since she was a teenager. She knew it would not be easy, that you can never really go “back” anywhere, certainly not after fifty years. This would be true of anywhere, even if the country in which she grew up had not ceased to exist in 1992.
My mother was born in Yugoslavia in the 1940s, in the city of Kragujevac. She first lived there, then in the capital city of Belgrade until the 1960s, until her parents’ never-stable marriage finally collapsed. With little notice or warning, at the age of sixteen, she found herself traveling across Europe to live with family in the United Kingdom. Her mother’s parents had been displaced after the Second World War, and, along with many immigrants from the region, they had made a home for themselves in West London, in Notting Hill. My mother did not speak any English. Her knowledge of England was shaped by the books she’d read—by Thomas Hardy and the Brontës.
The Notting Hill she arrived in was not the wealthy enclave it is today but a combustible neighborhood in which a number of immigrant communities overlapped. My mother’s family ran a café on Portobello Road, serving a mix of fry-ups to barrow boys from the local market and Yugoslav dishes to those in search of a taste of home. There was a brothel across the street—the women who worked there used to pop in for a coffee—and men would often come by flogging dodgy knockoff jewellery, which my mother’s grandmother, who loved pretty things, was happy to take off their hands.
Fights sometimes broke out beneath her window, and she was frightened to venture outside at night. She found her new home overwhelming. The unfamiliar voices, the harsh weather, the mixture of deprivation and abundance. She remembers wandering wide-mouthed around the fashion boutiques with her grandmother, seduced by the beauty of the clothes but also the life they appeared to offer. She became smitten with a deeply impractical purple coat and her grandmother bought it for her.
Life got hard for my mother fast. She’d not been in the UK all that long when her mother passed away. Her grandparents followed soon afterward. She found herself alone in a way I have never experienced and struggle to imagine. She met a man, who also had cause to leave his home behind, and though they were incompatible in many ways, they married. They moved away from West London and its Yugoslav community, putting another layer of distance between herself and the country from which she came.
Over the years, my mother has learned to navigate the difference between being from a place and being of a place. When we visited family in Bosnia and in Belgrade, she was accustomed to being asked by wary hotel receptionists and curious waiters where she was from and to being smilingly charged twenty-five euros by taxi drivers, an obviously inflated figure, to take us from the airport.
Partly, it was a result of her accent. Fifty years in the UK has shaped her speech patterns. She might speak what was formerly known as Serbo-Croat, but languages are not static; she’s missed out on half a century of slang, cultural references, linguistic drift. As she was a teenager when she arrived in the UK, she never wholly lost her accent there either.
Visiting Belgrade in later life, watching people’s faces flicker with interest as she spoke, it dawned on her that, wherever she went, her voice always sounded foreign to people. My mother has always stood out. “There’s nowhere in the world where I don’t have an accent,” she would sometimes say, while sipping a glass of rakija—sadly, but with a degree of resignation. “Nowhere where my voice fits.”
In the UK, she was a single mother raising a young child on her own and working for low wages; money was a constant source of worry. But in the eyes of her family, she was a wealthy Westerner with her freedoms. My mother had a job; for them, work was hard to come by. She had the luxury of space; they lived in a small apartment. As her family saw it, my mother’s life was one of comfort. But she also struggled. Both of these things were true.
“There’s nowhere in the world where I don’t have an accent. Nowhere where my voice fits.”
Yugoslavia—which consisted of six republics (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Macedonia) and two autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina)—is remembered as a bold, socialist utopian experiment. It was a bridge between the East and West, built on principles of “brotherhood and unity.” Its citizens could travel. People from the West holidayed on its islands. But the reality was more complex. Reality always is. The ideals of brotherhood and unity did not extend to Albanian and Roma communities. Soviet sympathisers and dissidents were imprisoned.
Marshal Josip Broz Tito, a Yugoslav communist revolutionary, didn’t just lead the country; he bestrode it. Cities were named after him. His image was everywhere. His face was displayed in every home, on every wall. Growing up, I too was familiar with his face: pouchy and stern, with slicked-back hair, his jacket laden with medals. There was a picture of him in the book from which I learned to read the Cyrillic alphabet, staring out at me from the front page. But by the time I was born, Tito was dead, and, in the country he had held together, nationalism and ethnic tensions were on the rise.
When Yugoslavia broke apart, it happened in the most brutal way imaginable. From 1992 to 1995, war raged in Bosnia. Tens of thousands died; the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia put the probable death toll at 104,000 and the number of people displaced at over two million. Sarajevo endured the longest siege in modern history, and Srebrenica was the site of the worst genocide to take place in Europe since the Second World War. Then, in 1998, war erupted again in Kosovo—then still part of Serbia, though with a largely Albanian population. This time, the West intervened; in 1999, NATO unleashed airstrikes on Belgrade; during the Bosnian conflict four years earlier, they had resisted taking action.
My mother and I watched all this play out on the news every night, sitting on our sofas as newsreaders issued solemn warnings that “viewers may find the following scenes distressing.” They were right. It was terribly hard to watch. There was a strange disconnect in watching this horror from afar, a sheen of unreality. How could this be happening? How could this be true? When we were finally able to return in 1996 and visit family for the first time in five years, we had to cross a border where before there had been none. It was a tense and frightening experience. A man in uniform took one look at my mother’s and my UK passports—documents that grant us an ease of movement not available to the rest of our family—and demanded my mother hand over all the money she had on her for “a visa.” In his eyes, she was an outsider and thus a suitable subject for extortion.
My grandparents’ apartment in Bijeljina—in what became the Republika Srpska, the newly created, predominantly Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina—still smelled the way I remembered, of soup and cigarette smoke coupled with the faint bodily aroma that comes when several people share a one-bedroom apartment. But the place had changed in many ways. There was a kind of dazed numbness to people; it clouded the air. My grandparents—a Serb married to a Bosnian Muslim, as was common before the war—had been lucky in many respects. They had survived. They still had their home, but they were not unmarked. No one was.
My mother felt shock and grief at what was lost. But she had not lived through it, as they had. The collective trauma was palpable, but she did not share it. She had not been there. Nor was she there for the protests that culminated on October 5, 2000, when thousands of people gathered outside the parliament building in Belgrade to finally force out the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic; nor was she there in 2002 when the Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated, an event that, for many Serbians, extinguished the hope that the country could move forward. My mother was cushioned by distance, protected.
I’m not sure I took her talk of moving to Serbia seriously at first. She’d lived in the UK for so long. Though we visited with increasing frequency over the years, she was essentially a tourist. We both were. We did the things that tourists do. We walked round Kalemegdan, the old fortress at the center of the city, overlooking the point where the Danube meets the Sava River. We sought out kafanas serving daunting portions of traditional Serbian food, where the waiters inevitably asked us if we wanted menus in English.
It eventually became clear, however, that she was very serious about moving. She started packing up the house she’d lived in for over thirty years, all my life. She stopped saying “if I go” and started saying “when I go.” This wasn’t an idle fancy. The prospect of a quiet retirement in the London suburbs filled her with alarm. She wanted more. She knew she could not time-travel. She knew she could not return to the Yugoslavia of her youth. And yet at the same time, when she finally moved to Belgrade in 2015, she found traces of her old life everywhere she went: the cinema she used to visit with her friends to watch Elvis films, the market she walked past on the way to school. Her younger self haunted the city in which she now lived. Her childhood home in the suburb of Žarkovo was still standing, though the surrounding neighborhood had changed beyond recognition. There were shops and apartment blocks that—though not new by any means, having been built in the 1970s—were new to her.
She took me there one afternoon, the taxi driver excitedly peppering his English passengers with questions about Arsenal F. C. and the sitcom Only Fools and Horses. It took her a while to locate the old house, but eventually she did. It had stood still while the city around it had changed. She showed me the garden where her grandmother grew tomatoes and the steps on which she used to sit as a girl.
“Do you want to knock?” I asked. “See if they’ll let us in?” My mother considered this for a while and shook her head. She’d seen enough. Some doors are better left closed.
Serbia is not an easy country in which to live. Its administration shifts between nationalist bombast and the politics of victimhood. There’s a weariness that comes from living under such a regime. You can see it in people’s faces. It chips away at their spirit. My mother’s been spared some of that, and she’s very aware of the fact. Her friends there all worry about their children’s future in such a country, but these things do not press as heavily on her. There are privileges to displacement.
And the waiters in my mother’s local café, the cashiers in the local shops and bakeries, the woman who cuts her hair, they all know her. She is part of a community, perhaps for the first time. “My life is more interesting here,” she observes as she lights a cigarette. They still ask her where she’s from. Sometimes she answers “from here,” and sometimes “from London,” and both these things are true.
Natasha is a writer and critic based in London. She writes about theatre and the arts for The Stage, the Guardian, the Independent, Exeunt and Kosovo 2.0