On a nondescript day, when I was nine years old, I walked the few steps home from my school, the école Française in Montreal, and found my dad bouncing around in the middle of our living room and hugging my mom. The reason for the excitement was a new job. I had been completely sheltered from the fact that my dad had been looking for a new job, but I hastily joined in the bustle anyway. I learned, in rapid-fire fashion, that we were moving to a new country. It lay across a great ocean I had crossed twice before, though hardly remembered it. I had never lived in one place for longer than three years. I don’t remember being overwhelmed by the news that we were moving again. But I was excited. My only disappointment was that the new destination was called the Netherlands, and not Neverland, as I had understood at first.
My confusion deepened as I could not comprehend if we were moving to the Netherlands, Holland, Pays-Bas, Nederland, The Hague, Den Haag, La Haye, or, as it turned out, all of the above. What I did know was that there was something there called the TGV, a bullet-fast train that would take us to Paris in just two hours. I had heard a lot about Paris at school, and my dad is obsessed with trains and planted this thrilling image in my head. I went on to tell all of my friends about the speed of a bullet heading towards Paris, of course. They listened in awe, which was exactly what I wanted.
Our apartment became a Tetris game of cardboard boxes. I was in favour of giving most of my toys and books away. Even at a young age, I found comfort and order in clean beginnings. My mom, however, convinced me to keep my Barbies, which I was later thankful for. On our last day, my mom’s best friend, Mira, threw us a going-away party. For me, it was like any other backyard picnic. Half of Montreal’s community of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims — everyone who had run from the war — was present. There were tables with food, and gaggles of kids playing and making noise. After the party, there was no tearful goodbye on my part. I was completely oblivious to the fact that this was the end of a significant phase in a life already charged with the fantasy of adventure reinforced by the reality of change.
The car’s rear window framed a postcard of what my life had been during my four years in Montreal: A potholed pavement fringed with heavy, tilted sidewalks and wooden utility poles. Petroleum heat radiating from the asphalt, the smell of North America. Summer green lawns, standalone brick duplexes. Water sprinklers and fire hydrants. Baseball diamonds, swimming pools and parks swarming with kids speaking French, English, and their mother tongues — Vietnamese, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, Chinese, and about 50 other languages. Here and there, a car parked in a driveway.
My feet dangled off the edge of the seat as we taxied towards the runway, guided by yellow stripes painted on the tarmac. My dad, hunched over me, pointed at something out of the window. The last time I had been aboard an aeroplane was exactly four years earlier. I was just a dinky pioneer then, taking off from Serbia — and our little French school — to discover the New World of Montreal. Now, leaving Montreal as we had left Belgrade and New York and Belgrade again, I was ready to adjust to a different life filled with different people. Like a chameleon, my environment would force changes in me. I would adapt and grow. Soon enough, novelty would become routine. And routine would bring comfort. And new routine would summon something within me to cry out and beg to be uprooted again. What a gift it is to give little children wings. My last glimpse of Montreal was a cluster of orange lights in a sea of pitch black.