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Edition #1
Origins and Birth

Anja Radonjic
Edited by Shanti Lara Giovannetti-Singh

Where am "I" in identity?

I am always filled with inexplicable dread when November comes. Part of it comes from the incessant rain and naked branches indicating the long dark winter is coming. But mostly, I find myself melancholic about a year on the verge of its end, and like a black-and-white film, my memories of the past twelve months play out over and over again. I long for those blissful, mundane times silently. This year, the usual melancholy came with the introduction of a new lockdown here in Austria, a place still so unfamiliar to me. As I listened to the press conferences, frustrated by the rustiness of my German, I wished to pack my bags and return home for lockdown. Strangely, I did not think of the cerulean sea I grew up next to, nor the cafes in old town Kotor, but I thought of the stuffy, box-like room in my old flat on Cantelowes Road. This is the first time in five years I cannot simply fly back to London. I still keep the expired residence permit with my passport, if anything, as a reminder of how I have changed, and who I have become. There is great pain—and perhaps a childish sense of injustice—that the self-made home, the lasting friendships and the very life I built amounts to almost nothing once this expiry date has passed. In my stories I always get tangled up between “us” and “them”, lost for which culture I belong to, which society will have me. I am no longer Montenegrin enough, but nor will I ever be considered British. I wonder, which “tribe” will have me?

The first time I noticed a change within me was upon first return to Montenegro, back in the winter of 2016. Not only was I losing the ability to catch on to the jokes and nuances of the brutal humour I once adored, I also became an “other”, jokingly referred to as ‘the English one’. With every return, that impalpable gap between my family and friends and me slowly widened—where I was becoming a guest, a visitor they knew to expect every once in a while. In honesty, their distance was not unfounded. I could only empathise, but I could no longer relate to the excitement of the latest gossip, nor could I intrinsically understand the joys or pains of daily life in Kotor. Like a pendulum,I’ve oscillated for the last five years between a sense of displacement and perpetual longing, never fully content at being either in London or in Kotor. My mindset was neither Montenegrin nor British, but rather a peculiar amalgam of the two. Entirely different in their routines and rules—or lack thereof— I felt the impulsivity and impassioned behaviour of one culture, and the reservedness and politeness of the other. There was an incredible sense of freedom in knowing, or at least thinking that I understood both. But as time goes on, I am becoming increasingly uncertain about my own identity, about what intrinsically makes me who I am. But, whilst at UCL, meeting people of all walks of life and complex family histories, I came to realise that for some the struggle over identity is a perpetual challenge, one that people struggle with their entire lives.

Living in London was an eye-opening experience : to be exposed to such diversity amongst people, to be inspired by its modern/industrial architecture, and to embrace ambition and different career possibilities, when these were quite scarce as I was growing up. Being in the city exposed me to a world in which working did not mean comfortable living, as I watched the exhausted people on bus 73 going back and forth between jobs, hustling to afford extortionate rent or pay countless bills. But I also felt incredibly comfortable in this city, I was free. I was no longer in a small town, where I knew each individual, or they knew me. Finally, I existed outside of the gaze of my family, my friends, colleagues, or random locals that liked to gossip and embellish the truth. In this sensation of freedom, I was not alone. When I look back at the conversations I had with strangers whilst queuing for coffee on campus, or at the simple student dinners we hosted, what I recall being first struck by was the overwhelming diversity of experiences, cultures and customs of those whom I met. And yet, we were united in our shared experience of young adulthood. Many had grandparents who fought wars with one another, or parents who came from completely different upbringings, and yet by a strange turn of events fell in love and had a family. Now before me stood a testament of a changing world, that for better or for worse, seems less homogenous and less conditioned by national sentiments than before. Through casual conversation, these people slipped seamlessly between two to three languages, revealing the complex nature of their own identity. Some associated their childhood with beaches in Dominica, or to a secluded village in Greek islands, but as adults, they grew into the people they longed to be, existing firmly between the corners of Gordon Square and Gower Street. There is no measurement or predictability on how a place might affect us. The realisation comes only later, once the suitcases and boxes of your life are packed, waiting on the next chapter.

On the whole, our daily lives do not permit us to think too intensely about self-identities. We are taught to fear nostalgia and avoid the uncertainty that such concepts evoke. At university, I came across many people who refused—whether intentionally or subconsciously—to internalise British culture, or to even integrate with communities other than their own. These people only inhabited restaurants and cafes that served the cuisine of their homelands, their friends were from the same countries or even cities; there were no cultural or language barriers to cross. In London, finding shadows of my native culture was a rare and infrequent occurrence. Despite this, there was incredible sweetness that emerged from being able to share a few words of my own language with someone else, a language that morphed into the countless other noises in the streets of London. Once in a Mediterranean shop, I squealed with joy when I found overpriced plazma and domacica, biscuits that I associated with home. The unexpected happiness reminded me I will always have an intimate connection to my roots—whether they show through the smells and flavours of childhood home, or the language I first learned— the visceral connections which can never be unlearned . Of course, there are those who long to know more about their ancestors, carefully saving up for a trip across the world to meet their cousins for the first time, or to feel the weight of their grandparent’s embrace, after years of this connection being filtered through devices and screens. How we all grasp for roots and for a sense of home, each in our own ways, hiding the homesickness from one another. Defining who you are, who you have become is an impalpable and ongoing process. Something excruciatingly out of reach which stretches beyond the realm of your control. Many do not even have time to think about it. And still, it fascinates me— whenever I am close to finally putting my finger on what my identity truly is, I see that it has already changed. A metamorphosis anew.

The pathway of an individual and their experiences along the way are never orderly and linear, as biographies, or autobiographies would wish us to believe.The roadmap is rarely straightforward and consists of many physical and internal changes. Migration in particular, as I came to realise through my History degree, is a ubiquitous part of humanity and our existence. Like the forces that battle within me, we as humans find ourselves constantly obliged to move and explore further, whilst simultaneously seeking to settle, to find your very own place to lay down roots. Some have spent their lives strengthening borders they have created, others want to tear them down. Today, migration is as much about exploration as it about escaping the dangers and inhabitability of a place once considered home.

I have been wondering lately what our role is in this space, as those that had the opportunities to interact, to be perplexed by, or to love people from all over the world. I sometimes felt like an unofficial ambassador for Montenegro, knowing that my words about this unfamiliar place could affect the narrative of my homeland, the images and the perceptions people could have about the region. There is incredible power in tailoring the story of places you inhabit. This is how myths and stereotypes were crafted. It is how we still perpetuate them today, the expectations we place on one another. But I still think—and I say this cautiously—we are more interconnected than we were before. Although not all, many young people have to reinvent themselves or to gain a better understanding of themselves as they navigate their futures, often in new places away from home and constraints of social upbringing. What role do we have in a deeply polarised world, where reinstating division and clear boundaries is more valuable than a human life? Do those of us with such privilege and opportunity to freely travel and experience places far from home, have any responsibility at all? My mind circles around these ideas on a snowy November day, slightly tormented by personal unanswered questions and lack of a clear direction of what the future holds and where I belong. And still, I feel free, I am still interconnected with people from all over the world, again reminded – I am not alone.

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