Relja was raised in a Serbian family in Canberra, Australia. He has always been fascinated by the migrant experience. Relja has spent most of his life in Canberra, but has also lived for extended periods in Canada, the Netherlands, and Serbia.
“I had meant no harm, I had simply climbed the tree for something to do”
– Mary Oliver, Hummingbirds
I’m scrolling through my social media feed, and come across the woman I met on a flight to Broome some years ago. Long since we last spoke, I’m taken back to the ease of the conversation – a kind of ease I’ve experienced a thousand times over the years. The Simpsons references, our shared (and not uncontroversial) joy at watching golf, growing up in this sunburnt country. Summers punctuated by visits to fine-sanded beaches with their cool, choppy waters, the violent push and pull of the ocean. The strangely intoxicating, briny smell of sea breeze. The manic sounds of bickering seagulls. The ridiculous claustrophobia of living on the world’s biggest island.
This sunburnt country, that has been looked after by so many countless generations of First Nations people who – living in rhythm with the seasons, taking only what they need and giving back more – had found a way, for some 60,000 years, to leave country in a better place than it was when they were born. Generation after generation. But with white settlement, we’d found a way to do the reverse. In a fraction of the time. How’s that for innovation! Swap lively, flowing rivers with dry beds and mass fish kills. Swap vibrant, blossoming wattle and the pensive, pastel wisdom of eucalypts for baking concrete plains and sprawling suburbia, now shimmering over the horizon from heat on heat on heat – so that every Jones can have three toilets in his house. How much shit does a man have to make to need three toilets?
I’m taken back to an afternoon that week in Broome, when I was walking back to my hotel and the Boab trees, rust-red soil, mud flats and crocodile warning signs had been on my mind all day. It’s such a unique and different landscape. The surprisingly ferocious mid-winter sun beat down my neck. I was in town for a workshop with the First Nations leaders from the region – the Yawuru people. Walking back to my hotel, I stopped and took a big fistful of rusty soil in my hands – right next to a main road. The sound of troopies and a gusty warm wind filled my skull. I squatted and played with the earth, sifting it from hand to hand. It was warm, and fine and so very rust-red. The thought of death by crocodile had me checking back over my shoulder. It was a sentimental moment, though. I don’t usually do that kind of thing. I’m more likely to rush onto the next task, the next meeting, the next email (the next tee time). I’m always subconsciously trying to squeeze time, as if it’s a lump of modelling clay I can force down into a shape I like.
How did I get there?
I often wonder how my migrant experience has led me to my current life – via the compounding randomness, and increased unlikeliness, of chance events. How the indelible impact of random violence brought on by war forced my parents to temporarily move to, then stay in, then fall in love with, this sunburnt country at the edge of the world.
Six months prior to the Broome workshop, struggling through a typical mid-afternoon brain fade in a central Canberra office building, I saw my former boss walking my way. I tried to look alive. He was all bald-headed, aluminium-rimmed glasses, single Windsor knot, and sky blue work shirt perfectly pressed. He cleared his throat and – in his endearingly prepubescent voice – said, “There’s a new job for you.”
Without thinking I accepted. It was the promotion I’d been gunning for for some time. I’d have felt less shocked if he’d slapped me across the face with an open hand. Well, almost. He nodded, smirked faintly, and walked off. Elation fireworks whistled and seared in my brain. A psychedelic, remixed Walking on sunshine. And Here comes the sun. And I’m still standing. Plus some Tupac and NWA anger layered on top for good measure. After three years, why now? What random allocation of footsteps, in and out of Canberra office doors, led to this opportunity for me specifically?
Rewind a little further back, and I’m on a plane (yet again). Leaving Australia (yet again). This time, who knows when I’ll be back. I’m chasing some phantom dream. The plane lands in Amsterdam. I don’t take a minute to wander or even wonder about wandering. The phantom’s escaping (yet again). I have to keep chase. Swap plane for train. Then another. I’m delirious, in the way that can only come from intercontinental travel. 24 hours, no sleep, miscellaneous gloop and mystery meat for food, and those cute little cans of Diet Coke. But every time the experience is slightly different, like the world has tilted a few degrees left. And then comes the familiar rush. A sort of well-rehearsed fever dream. I’m physically exhausted, but I feel so close to life itself. To existence. I’m floating.
But the phantom did escape (yet again). 90 days later, I’m on another plane. This time to Belgrade. The motherland. The mothership. It’s early March, and the city looks like it’s been hit by a virus and is still in bed. It looks worn down. The brown ice-sludge – looks like manure, smells about as bad – heaped all over its cobblestone streets. It’s struggling. March is that purgatory period. Neither here nor there. An identity crisis. It’s still snowing some days, but the buds are sprouting too.
But once I get over myself, and the city comes back to life in spring proper, I’m welcomed back, my soul is welcomed back home. Like a puzzle piece, effortlessly slotting into place, back into a vast tapestry of culture, and history, and family.
It feels like that jet lag daze, but this time it lasts the whole year. Sometimes I wonder if it even really happened.
What is the migrant experience? Can it be boiled down into something tangible? Something neat and tidy, that follows mathematical rules?! I wonder if us migrants, we live in our memories – if we live too long and deep in our memories, like exiles from mainstream society. Exiles from main street. Fugitives. But what’s our crime? What violence did we commit to deserve this exiled fate?
And other people? I love you. I need you. But I oscillate between recluse and a Jay Gatsby kind of party host. On any given day I’m one or the other, the transition sometimes like whiplash.
Before I went back to Serbia – what ended up being, quite simply, a very good year – my experience of the culture was through a kind of digital-like interface. I’d put my 3D goggles on, and the virtual reality experience would begin. It wasn’t real somehow. I’d see images, and hear sounds, but I wasn’t really part of it. I’d grab at the air like a madman. It was something outside of me that I interacted with. But I wasn’t even aware of how not ‘in it’ I was. Cheering and then crying for the soccer team, to a level of near martyrdom. Or doing Serbian dancing as a kid, sweat dripping and sneakers squeaking on the parquet floor of the Serbian cultural centre in Weston Creek – which has long since been knocked down. I hear there’s a fast food joint there now, and some apartments above. Living in Serbia as an adult, and experiencing the culture, was like something spiritual and shamanic and psychedelic. A deep jungle brew. Ahhh, so this is the migrant experience?
Back to mid-winter in Broome. I’m there thinking about the cumulative probabilities of my life to date. What are the chances? What if… I had caught the phantom? Or the 1990s Balkan war never happened and my family had stayed in Yugoslavia? Or I didn’t get that job? Or the insidious violence against Australia’s First Nations peoples hadn’t happened? The frames of an infinite number of realities cascade into memory. But the disconcerting, indirect flow-on impact of violence remains. It’s humanity’s history. Can’t escape it. And no matter the potential theoretical alternatives, that violence remains. It’s indelible. Maybe a different flavour of violence but violence no less. Not massacres but urban skirmishes. Or foggy November dawns in Bosnian mountains. The click clack of reloading rifle, the zip ziiiiip of tying up boot shoelace. The time-pausing moment a hand-grenade gets tossed. The senseless, throaty scream of ethnic hate. A million potential realities, but either way, that rust-red soil, still warm and fine, feels pretty good in my hands. And not a crocodile in sight.
© Relja Cvjetićanin, 2022