Every summer we left at different times. Sometimes at dawn, sometimes in the evening just after dinner, sometimes at midnight. No matter what time it was, the only thing that really mattered was the direction: Kosovo.
Every year we were enraptured by this magic that made us forget the length of the journey, one that sometimes took up to 36 hours. Endless waiting at the borders, nights spent trying to sleep in the car, everyone sitting in their own seat. One summer, having grown, my legs needed more space, so I slept on the ground in a parking space next to the car. I did it with pleasure. We did everything with pleasure because the only thing that mattered to us was to get to Kosovo as fast as possible.
I grew up near Milan, in Italy, and just getting to Trieste at the border with Slovenia would have been enough of a journey. 500 kilometers is a long way. But that was only the beginning.
Once we entered Slovenia everything tasted different. The language changed, the signs on the road were different and my mind was filled with anticipation. Then came Croatia and that endless coastal stretch before leaving the highway and entering Montenegro.
Driving through the mountains of Montenegro we tried to eat up as many kilometers as possible. These mountains were the point when happiness began to take a concrete shape, even if there was still a long way to go. And so, as we toured those mountains, I began to imagine what that summer in Kosovo would bring.
The football matches with my cousins and my friends, the evenings playing hide and seek, all the delicacies I would eat every time I visited a relative. I would lean my head against the window, smile and ask mum and dad to confirm that we weren’t far away.
“Almost there, almost there,” they would say.
After Montenegro, a slice of Albania, with just enough time to enjoy our language, and then finally Kosovo, where we immediately went off to visit uncles and cousins. Their happiness to see us and ours at finding them. My joy at people pronouncing my name correctly and the excitement about the next month of fun.
And so began the most wonderful time of the year, the one we had been anticipating for 11 months. Sometimes I think that the life of an immigrant is just that, survival in the country where she/he has decided to go, just waiting for the moment of the year to go back home. Especially if she/he is as lucky as we were, being able to afford going home to Kosovo every summer. And after all, it was not so far away.
Only during that month, once a year, did I see my parents happy. I have never seen them smiling like that, except in Kosovo. I never saw them so relaxed, so full of life. I saw them living and breathing properly during those summers. But they could do it only one month out of 12, and believe me, that’s not enough for a person.
As a child I didn’t understand, but as I grow older, I am starting to get what it meant to live as they lived, and how fundamental those summers were for my parents. How crucial for their health it was to go back and see their parents, siblings, relatives and friends. To touch, smell and breathe what used to be their life.
But those summers were also important for me. They meant freedom, running in the country fields, climbing trees, playing football until dark, being with my cousins, hugging my grandparents and having someone of my own to share my life with, even if only for one month a year.
Growing up abroad, you’re rarely lucky enough to have a few relatives by your side. You see your friends going to their aunts, uncles and grandparents, celebrating birthdays and holidays with houses full of relatives, and you know that you will have to wait until summer to enjoy just a small part of it.
But most of all, now I can say how crucial those summers were in shaping my identity, and in helping me understand parts of myself and who I am. This is especially true after having decided not to go back for several years, a decision that I do not regret at all. I might be wrong, but to understand what something means to you, you have to deprive yourself of it and see if you can live without it. It may sound incoherent and weird, but the less I went back, the more I felt I belonged there.
The real sign of what those summers meant to us are all the tears we cried. We cried when we arrived, our happiness was enormous and our bodies could not contain it. And then we cried even more when it was time to say goodbye. I was always the first one to start, both as a child and a teenager, and then everyone followed behind me.
The sadness I felt was too strong. I didn’t want to leave, for any reason in the world. I didn’t want to go back to Italy, I wanted to stay and play with my cousins and be around people who pronounced my name correctly.
Every summer I would tell mum that I wasn’t going to go back to Italy, I would ask my aunts if they were okay with having an extra child. Every summer I tried to come up with a plan to hide somewhere. One summer I thought of disappearing into the fields, I thought that they would never find me, that they would get tired of looking for me and go back to Italy.
I was so sad in the days before returning to Italy that I could hardly wake up in the morning. I started crying days before the return and tried to hide away, like I’m doing now; I’ve been crying since I started writing this piece and luckily there’s no one at home to see me.
I miss those sensations, those smells and that magic that took shape in those summers. I didn’t grow up waiting for Santa Claus, as my Italian friends did; instead of Santa Claus I had that highly anticipated journey home each summer.
I have a feeling that the concept of happiness for a person changes as they grow. You focus much more on yourself and personal goals become your highest aspiration. You become happy when you get a good grade at university, or get a job, or date someone you like. Yet I have the distinct feeling that the happiness I felt during those summers in Kosovo will forever be the highest point.
I miss feeling that explosion of joy in my heart, I miss living through that 11 months of anticipation, knowing that happiness would arrive in August. I don’t think happiness as an adult can be compared to what we experienced as children. No matter how lucky one may be to have the opportunity to achieve remarkable personal goals, to have a person to love and enjoy good health, nothing compares to the joy one experiences as a child.
In 28 years of life, nothing has made me as happy as those yearly summer returns to Kosovo. Even though I’ve been lucky to have a wonderful life so far, in the end I think it’s okay for this to be the case, because Kosovo is where I was born and people say that the attraction of your homeland is the strongest thing you will ever experience.
I would just like to go back for a couple of days and relive those moments, when my life, looking back at it now, was so simple. I was constantly waiting for that journey, because Kosovo represented my idea of happiness and I didn’t need anything else.
At the same time I’m so proud and happy to be able to write about those moments, about the fact that the happiest moments of my life were related to my roots and the place where I was born. Is there anything better? I don’t think so.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.