Feeling Comfortable In My Mother's Tongue
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Feeling Comfortable In My Mother's Tongue

For anyone who struggles to speak their parents' language.

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Feeling Comfortable In My Mother's Tongue

Nestled on the Adriatic Sea, Montenegro is a true gem. From its breathtaking beaches to its picturesque mountains, Montenegro is pure paradise. Montenegro is not my birthplace and it is not where I grew up, but it is where my mother and father were born and raised. It is where I have spent countless summers. It is where I have been happiest. Montenegro may not be my physical home, but it is most certainly my spiritual home. My head is thick with memories of this country. Some of these memories though, are shameful and embarrassing. For that I blame language.

In the summer of 2013, Stana and Milena had heard the news of my arrival and were quick to pick me up from Podgorica’s airport. They drove me to their house in Bar. I was to stay with them for two weeks. Those two weeks I can say, were exhilarating. Those two weeks were also isolating and uncomfortable. We basked in the sun on the beaches day after day. Night after night we took on the clubs and bars. We would regularly meet up with Sasha, Dejan, Marko and Petar, the local boys. I was free and I was unstoppable. I was the American girl that everyone wanted to meet, but I was also the American girl that wasn’t exactly fluent in her mother tongue.

This posed a few issues that hindered me from truly enjoying myself that summer and every other summer. When I met new people, Stana would always find a way to interject: “Fair warning, Melisa doesn’t really speak Montenegrin. So you should speak slowly to her.” I knew that Stana was trying to help me out, to make things easier for me. But, I did speak Montenegrin. I was sure of it. Of course I couldn’t differentiate between the č and the ć and my accent was slightly different from everyone else’s, as it had the undertones of an English language speaker, but I really didn't think it would make me a pariah. In America, I always thought that I was a true Montenegrin, with parents born and bred there. But in Montenegro, I didn’t feel like a Montenegrin anymore.

After some time, Milena and Stana stopped inviting me to go out with them, especially when they were to meet up with their fellow Montenegrin friends. Why did they need an American girl who pretended she was Montenegrin anyway? Why did they need a girl who couldn’t speak the language of the locals without a two minute pause trying to find the right word to say? They didn’t need a girl like that, a girl like that would ruin their fun. A girl like that would make everyone say, “Look at this dumb American girl, with Montenegrin parents though she cannot speak the language like we do.” Those who looked down upon me were of course ignorant to the place of my upbringing. They were haughty, vain, and ethnocentric. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be apart of a judgmental group anymore. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be around people who undermined me, who thought less of me, and who took me for a fool. Sure I didn’t live their ultra cool Euro lifestyle and didn’t speak their language with 100 percent fluidity, but that didn’t give them the right to treat me in an inferior way. But maybe, just maybe, it was jealousy that rang through their voices. They only have one country and I have two.

From the hands of Stana and Milena I was passed to my grandmother Ljubica. Ljubica lived in Danilovgrad at the time. Her house was two stories high and she had a garden of roses in the front yard. The white stucco was getting dirty, the blue windowsills were peeling, and some of the stones had come off the walkway. It was a very rustic, romantic home, but I could tell that its golden age was probably in 1988 as its charm was eroding. Ljubica offered me tea and slippers upon entering the house. Her gray hair was in two braids, and tied up with two red ribbons. Her white, long-sleeved baby doll dress was flowing and looked beautiful against the sun that came beaming out the wide window. Her turquoise earrings dangled exquisitely and her smile was pure and infectious. Her tablecloth was red and white checkered. I could see various jams from the open pantry and I began to accept that I would stay here in Danilovgrad with my Ljubica for another two weeks.

She suffocated me with kisses and exclaimed, “Dodji ovamo draga moja, zar si me ti blagoslovila.” I could easily process what she said. She told me to come here. She said that I was her dear. She also said that I had blessed her. But how would I respond? How could I come up with a response that showed my understanding, but also wasn’t too complex in that complexity would make errors very probable? So I simply responded by saying, “Da, hvala.” Yes, thanks. I guess that was good enough; no errors there. I was relieved. I made it past that hurdle and now it was time to anticipate the next one. But how simple was my response. How void of emotion it was. My response didn’t evoke how I really felt about my grandmother. What I truly wanted to say, was not what I said. I wanted to say: Oh Nana, I missed you so much. I am so happy to see you and I can’t wait to have fun with you for these two weeks. My fear of sounding like an idiot, however, took over me. I chose being correct over conveying my true feelings. Either way I guess I couldn’t win. To respond shortly I would be correct but inauthentic. To be detailed and flesh out my emotions, I would say something wrong and look stupid. It was essentially a Hobson’s choice. This was one of those times where I wished I could abandon my physical frame, and have that spiritual out of body experience. I wanted to be a detached onlooker, viewing myself from somewhere above, to see if I had really been embarrassing myself. Did I play it off well? How can I fake it from now on? How can I acquire that smug polyglot attitude?

My relationship with my grandmother was probably awkward; she spoke to me with words I had not heard of, words that my parents never taught me. I wanted to love my grandmother. I wanted us to have a common ground, but I could see that my lack of fluency had disappointed her. It built a wall between us. A strong and sturdy wall. A wall that would take years to knock down. When Ljubica’s friends would come over for coffee, they too would take me as the granddaughter of Ljubica, the girl with ripped jeans and highlighted hair who lost her culture and language in America. Though I could carry conversations with Nana Ljubica and her friends. I could understand almost everything they would say to me, but my accent wavered, and I sometimes could not find the right word to say. It put shame upon me. Montenegro wasn’t so familiar anymore. I began to think that my devotion and loyalty to my Montenegrin roots was destroyed, because I did not reach complete language fluency. I began to wonder about my identity: Am I living a lie? Was it a façade this whole time? Am I not as Montenegrin as I always thought I was?

As August 23rd approached, my trip came to an end. I said goodbye to the beautiful sunsets. I said goodbye to the stars and the moon. I said goodbye to the Bay of Kotor, to Budva, to Bar, to Tivat and to Herceg Novi. Stana, Milena, and Ljubica of course with her braids and a new blue sundress, all escorted me to the airport. What we thought would be a simple parting, turned into a 20-minute weeping session. I cannot recall who cried more. Suddenly the disconnect that I had felt with these people all summer had vanished, disintegrated. Everything was under the rug; a minor language barrier became so trivial. Our unspoken language of love had become more important. It had prevailed. As I walked to my gate I could hear Ljubica telling Stana and Milena to come over for dinner. The girls agreed and life seemed in sync again. They would spend the rest of the year in Montenegro. And I would be going back to America, one of my two homes.

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