When I decided to leave New York City and return back to Kosovo after 15 years in the U.S., I bunched my greatest fears into what I so dramatically liked to call “the Aftershocks.” I naturally anticipated some re-adjustment difficulties, since it had been seven years since I had been back in Kosovo. But I believed that I had the perfect solution for dealing with my “reverse culture shock” — to just take it easy, a day at a time and to see how things would go. And that’s what I did.
For more than a year after my return, I indulged myself in things I had missed during my stay in the States. Simple pleasures, really. Being able to go on prolonged lunch breaks during work hours and meeting up with friends for midday coffee might seem just like any other Tuesday for someone from the Balkans, but for me they were a NYC luxury.
Of course, my late summer nights from one bar to another and my ever frequent trips to the beach were merely manifestations of my intentional and self-imposed state of blissful ignorance in order to delay having to face reality. I tried to stretch for as long as possible this sense of honeymoon period of my return.
Of all the fears I had about returning, none of them turned out to be significant. It is always the ones you never considered that do you in. And one such thing — perceived only upon my return — was the realization that time has an effect not only on people (this I was able to predict), but also on things. I did not expect — and was not ready to face — the state of disrepair that had befallen my home and “property” while I was away. Until I read Homer’s Odyssey, that is.
What really drives Ulysses to cross stormy seas, battle monsters and seduce goddesses in order to return home is the realization that his property has fallen into disrepair and that his wealth keeps diminishing day by day. It is how his oxen and sheep and fat goats are being decimated by the suitors who keep throwing feasts, as they dance and recklessly drink his wine at that neverending party at his court, in their attempts to win over Penelope.
That first summer, struck with hints of this realization, for about two months I avoided entering my home in Prizren, where I spent a great deal of my childhood. This I did possibly because of the fear that my room might not be the same as I remembered it and that seeing something different would tarnish my precious memories of childhood — memories that I used to return to over and over again in times of difficulty, memories that had served me as an anchor of peace and stability and safety whenever life in the Big City would throw me a new one.
“I can’t believe you still haven’t set foot in your own home,” said my friend Muja, whom I chanced upon one day in Prizren. He couldn’t hide the surprise when he found out I was staying at my friend Burim’s for the weekend instead of my own home. “Don’t you miss just seeing your old room? I mean, you must, right? I miss it, so you must too.”
(While my family lives in Prishtina, we spent the ’90s in Prizren. Those might have been the most difficult times for my parents, but to me it was a magical period that I romanticize and long for. But now, we visited Prizren at increasingly less frequent intervals, maybe every three to six months and even then we would stay at our cousin’s, trying to avoid the hassle of staying at our home.)
I wanted my childhood room frozen across time and space. And to some extent it still was. The blue sofa was still there, still slanting diagonally when I slept on it. The writing table was still too big for the room and was claustrophobically jammed in the corner behind the sofa. The top drawers of the dresser were still locked even though empty, just like when my mother would store all the firm’s important documents there. And I still couldn’t stick my head out of the window because of that stupid mosquito net.
But there were some subtle changes. It just took some time for me to remove from my eyes that veil of idealization and see my Prizren house for what it really was — a monument to time’s eroding properties. A huge crack span along the wall of my room as if some invisible earthquake had tried to secretly tear away the windows and the balcony door. The layers of dust covering the furniture were like sediments preserving records of what the house was up to while the people were away.
Outside, the grapevines hung downward, tall weeds broke through the floor tiles, and the narrow garden was a tunnel of an unkempt jungle leading you to the monster’s belly. And you could feel the monster’s breathing, every 30 seconds or so, as the water pump screeched and screamed through the old rusty pipes.
The rest of the house was an architectural Frankenstein, as if natural selection was playing a trick to create a mutant out of brick and mortar. Over the years, each room had accumulated various modifications and had been retrofitted so many times that it would make a great research project for any scholar of interior design. And don’t even get me started on the mismatched furniture, or the staircase full of books and random materials, or the claustrophobically narrow bathroom.
But I had almost forgotten that the majority of these changes in the Prizren house had in fact happened during my childhood years. The dark living room, for example, once upon a time boasted windows with a view of the blossoming cherry tree outside, but had been covered by various impromptu structural expansions during the ’90s. Now, you could climb the window to access a strange balcony that begins at a half-level, which in turn has access to one of the two attics.
I know, just saying it, it sounds crazy. Trying to describe these architectural marvels is like trying to untangle the many different cables that run across the walls of the living room. Left over from various time periods they look like the monster’s veins and arteries, which in fact, at one time or another, carried either telephone, or internet, or TV signals, or even electricity from different providers intended to counteract neighborhood blackouts.
But I didn’t really grasp the extent of the deterioration of the Prizren house until a year later, during the second summer after my return. It was during a documentary film festival that I told some friends they could stay at my place. Big mistake. I successfully managed to permanently traumatize several of them. They were scarred for life.
But that is what it took to open my eyes and comprehend that even though I lived through many of the Prizren house’s modifications, those changes did not take hold in my mind. This could be attributed to the inherent flaws of memory, and how it is constructed out of pieces of our own choosing. My version of the Prizren house was in fact a composite of several different time frames mushed together into an ideal one. Even if I could travel through time, I could never return to the Prizren house of my mind. Because it never really existed. It too was kind of an architectural Frankenstein.
This text is part of Artrit Bytyçi’s ongoing creative nonfiction project called “Aftershocks” that explores themes of homecoming and return.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.