Breakfast at the Paramount in Boston meant a 45-minute wait in the standing line to order, a subsequent fight for a table and an inevitable shouting match between Conversation and Noise. “Izvini sto kasnim!” I yelled, “I’m sorry I’m late!”
She waved at the air to both forgive and beckon me to her table. Her other hand reached up to brush a strand of curly hair out of her face and secure it behind her ear. However, upon realizing that there was no strand there, moreover remembering why there was no strand there, she smiled to herself. Her hand instead continued to reach above her forehead and rub at her platinum blonde and newly shaven scalp. This is Kaja.
As is supported by video evidence, Kaja and I have known each other since my third birthday. An encounter the consequence of a tight-knit immigrant community, this was a mere five months after my family and I had migrated to the United States from Serbia. From babbling toddlers with enlarged heads to babbling 20-year-olds with enlarged heads, we remained close friends to this day, 17 years punctuated by the laughs, tears and heartache that mark time in between. Mirroring Aesop’s fable “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” we would exchange tales of urban and suburban life—my stories often requiring substantial embellishment to keep up with her cosmopolitan charms. She was my friend with whom I’d grown accustomed to dreaming, musing and debating. This past summer was a reunion for us.
“When was the last time I saw you? This winter? For a day?”
“Well, YOU’RE the one leaving now!”
Kaja had just finished the first two years of the dual degree program at Sciences Po in France, returning to the United States to complete her next two years of undergraduate studies at Columbia University. I was leaving for Stockholm, Sweden in two weeks for my semester abroad at the Stockholm School of Economics. We were switching places.
I reached over the table to rub at her head. “God, what did Danica think of this?”
“She said I look like a bald eagle.” A smirk. “I ordered us two breakfast specials and a chocolate chip pancake. Oh, and your pot of coffee.”
My old friend and I just sat for a moment looking at each other, unsure of where to begin. What do you say, after that much time? She had changed.
It was expected. She moved to France having never studied the language in the United States. At Sciences Po, she was expected to take political science classes in the French-style of lecture and, with no cultural background, live in a small French town. She spoke of the first time she had gone to the doctor and had burst out crying when she realized that she couldn’t explain what was wrong. The next time, she brought a friend with her.
While abroad, she came to the realization that while she enjoys critiquing political systems, she didn’t want to be another Ivy-League cog in the political machine. Instead, upon returning to the United States, she switched her major from political science to film and media studies, potentially adding another semester to her undergraduate degree. In cooperation with Parisian designers, she spearheaded a fashion show on the Sciences Po campus her sophomore spring—the first of its kind, drawing inspiration from mythology. She keeps her Medusa headdress, a trophy from the show, in her room.
Kaja had visited the Netherlands, France, Serbia, Croatia, Italy, Greece, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, England, Slovenia, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Hungary and Switzerland in those two years. She noted her favorite memories. A picnic under the Eiffel tower. A concert in Berlin. A snowball fight in the Alps.
“Did you ever feel at home?”
“I think, and I’m sure that you’ve felt this too, that with being an immigrant there’s a sense of rootlessness. You sort of fall into the crack between two cultures. Neither really fits because you’re too timid to embrace one fully, trying to make it make sense. Fact-checking. So, equating home to a place, or a nation, wasn’t ever a concept I embraced. I see home in my friends and family—and isn’t that more fun? I have bits of home that walk and talk and breathe, writing their own story in the times we’re apart! Walls can’t tell stories.”
“Just travel. Comparing two cultures is like seeing the world in black and white. You need a third, fourth, fifth, to realize that there’s grey. Be curious. You have to look for it. Use the little moments—conversations with taxi drivers, subway passengers, waitresses, bartenders—to start.”
Kaja waved her arm at the waiter with our food going to the wrong table. Peeking out from underneath her shirt, I saw the Serbian word “opusteno” tattooed in cursive writing. Directly translated, “opusteno” means relaxed, but more than that, it implies a Bohemian way of living.
“Wow, I missed this.” She said looking down at her plate of bacon, eggs and home fries. “How about you? You’re going to get a taste of all this too, soon.”
“Jos uvek nisam bas razmisljalja o sebe.” I haven’t really thought about myself yet. “Videcemo.” We’ll see.
This column is called Postcards. Kaja has served as my living postcard, first from the city and then from her time abroad. From her stories and our conversations, I’ve been forced to question the origins of my own perspective and evolve my worldview to consider my place in both an American and international context. Postcards—symbols of place, for the photographs emblazoned on their faces and symbols of stories, for the accounts scribbled on their backs—are my inspiration for this column. Postcards are also incredibly portable! So bring the postcard to the dining tables in Moulton or Thorne, to the classroom or to the quad. Look for the grey.