Transitory Tales: Rethinking Borders and Belonging

I dance on borders. As a dual American-Italian citizen with an immigrant mother and an African-American father, I came to understand early on that identity is a very fluid thing. I slip in and out of categories as easily as some people change their clothes. I have equally fond memories of donning kente cloth and reciting Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and of chasing bunny rabbits on a farm with my cousins in rural Italy.

Many people have asked me–out of curiosity or suspicion–how in the world I can simultaneously view myself as American and European, or as Black and Italian. The truth is that there is no contradiction in my mind, because these things are not mutually exclusive. I am immensely grateful for my transnational upbringing, and have come to view myself as a global citizen above all. Because of all that, living in Europe feels less like living “abroad” and more like living in a different sort of home.

Mala Strana

But why Prague, of all places?

I’ve been intrigued by Prague for a long time, entertaining a vaguely romanticized idea of the city. Even though I knew little about Prague before moving here, I imagined it as a beautiful, yet dark and mysterious place…you know, like those INXS videos! But although I always assumed that I would move to Europe one day, I never imagined I would call Prague home.

After graduate school, I moved to Washington DC to work in international broadcasting. About a year later, Prague–home of Radio Free Europe–beckoned. Finally, I could explore this city that had always lingered in the corners of my imagination. Needless to say, I leaped at the opportunity to move to to the Czech Republic.

Vaclavske Namesti

It’s a funny thing, though, living in Prague. Am I an American expat? An Italian living in the Czech Republic? I live in the European Union, but my Italian and Spanish fluency are useless here. (I get by with English and a combination of vigorous hand gestures and pictionary, since my Czech is rudimentary at best). Even though I spent my childhood summers in Italy and have traveled extensively through Europe, Prague sometimes feels very unfamiliar–dare I say, foreign?

So who am I, really? And where is home?

I’ve come to accept and embrace the sensation of not-quite-fitting-in. Living in the liminal space between insider and outsider affords a unique perspective on the world. It allows me to be an observer. And in a broader sense, I think that’s often true of the expat experience – the fact that you don’t completely belong can actually give you a liberating sense of anonymity, a freedom to explore unfettered.

Prague Castle

The irony of all this–of being asked to write a blog post about what it means to live in Prague–is that I have just decided to move back to my home state of California to begin a PhD program. (I plan to study similar questions of geography and transnational identity in graduate school.) Although I am saddened to be leaving Prague after just one year, having a clear end date has lit a fire under my feet. No more “I’ll see that next weekend” or “I’ll call her tomorrow.” I’m filled with a sense of urgency, a need to soak in as much of Bohemia as I possibly can before I leave in August.

I realize that, like most transplants, I have fallen deeply in love with this city. When I first moved to Prague, I would get teary-eyed on the way to the grocery store. The ridiculous bounty of breathtaking architecture that surrounded me, even when I was going about the most mundane tasks, seemed unreal. I couldn’t believe that I lived in a place with beauty hidden in every corner–a Cubist lamp post, a Romanesque chapel, an Art Nouveau stained glass panel tucked away in a quiet pasáž.

That sense of awe hasn’t faded; rather, it’s grown and matured. I’ve come to accept, and even laugh about, the maddening quirks of this place: the grumpy grandmothers on the trams, the endless bureaucracy (yes, Kafka’s Trial could be mistaken for a contemporary novel). I’ve developed a deep appreciation and reverence for this tiny city–this place that holds the world’s largest human rights film festival, this place that has been home to generations of brilliantly irreverent artists, from Kafka to Hrabal to Svěrák. This is, after all, the country that elected an aburdist playwright as its first president after 41 years of communist rule.

Prague will always hold a special place in my heart–for its beauty, its wit, and the way it has challenged me to think about place and belonging in new, radical ways.

***

Recommended Reading

Magic Prague by Angelo Maria Ripellino weaves together past and present, fiction and nonfiction to evoke the soul of Prague. It’s a beautiful, dreamy text and the perfect companion for psychogeographic explorations of the city.

7 comments

  1. Cindy says:

    You sum up beautifully in the first two paragraphs what I have such a hard time explaining to people! Prague is going on my list of must-visit places :)

    • Natasia says:

      She really couldn’t have summed it up better. Global citizens are breaking down the term of “home” as constrained by geography. We each have numerous homes.

    • Camilla says:

      Thanks, all three of you! Cindy, I hope you’re able to visit Prague soon. It’s such a beautiful, unique place. Isabelle – I’m looking forward to an Herb & Lace reunion in the Bay Area…

      • Melissa says:

        I’m so jealous of this Herb & Lace meet up in the Bay! I want to be there so badly!!! Maybe you can skype me in ;-) Anyways, this post was so beautiful, Camilla!

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