Ekaterina Petrova (Bulgaria) is a nonfiction writer, literary translator, and editor, working in English and Bulgarian. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa, where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship and helped edit the Exchanges Journal of Literary Translation, as well as an MSc in European Politics and Governance from the London School of Economics, and a BA in International Studies and German Studies from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Originally from Sofia, where she is currently based, Ekaterina has also spent time living, studying, and/or working in Kuwait, New York, Berlin, Cuba, Northern Ireland, and the south of France. Petrova is the author of the Turnupstuffer column in the Capital Light weekly magazine (2012–2016), the travel writing and photography blog The Ground Beneath My Feet (2009–2016), and the documentary project If We Only Knew in 2002 (2012). Her essays have been included in the anthologies My Brother’s Suitcase (2015) and Our Fathers Are Never Gone (2017), among others.
Where the Heart Is
by Ekaterina Petrova
I am homeless, because there are
so many homelands that make their home in me.
A few months ago I stumbled upon my first international passport, issued by the Interior Ministry of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in 1985. At first the passport seemed merely like a useless document that had expired long ago whose current value was purely sentimental. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that the passport also documents and provides a way to tangibly measure how things have changed. The past three and a half decades have obviously seen many transformations, both global and personal. And yet—two political regimes, the substitution of one union in favor of another, a dozen or so international passports, and hundreds of trips to dozens and dozens of countries later—I am surprised to discover that some things have actually remained unchanged.
The tags in my old passport (for such things as first, last, and middle names, date and place of birth, etc.) are in Bulgarian, Russian, and French. In my current passport, these same tags now appear in Bulgarian and English. These superficial changes reflect significant political and historical processes that are, of course, much bigger and more important than myself. But in a strange way, the change also reflects my personal story with languages. My first passport was issued so that I could join my mother, then a PhD student, in Paris. As soon as I got there, she wasted no time before enrolling me in a French kindergarten, either unfazed by the fact that I didn’t understand a word of French or simply unable to do anything about it. The experience left me so revolted by French that I spent the next 25 years resisting the constant familial pressure to learn it properly, let alone speak it. My resistance suddenly weakened when, at the age of 31, I met a guy from New Caledonia and moved to France in order to be with him. I spent the better part of three years there, and had no choice but to brush up on my high-school French. Russian, by contrast, left my life permanently in 1991, when the fall of the Iron Curtain meant it was no longer mandatory for everyone to study it in school. English, by contrast, became the most important language in my life. I don’t just feel, think, and express myself with greatest ease in English, but my occupation as a translator also depends on it entirely. Just like in the passports, Bulgarian—as my native tongue—has remained a constant.
When I got my first passport at the age of five, nobody could imagine the dizzying amount of travel that lay in store for me. Considering the political, social, and economic realities of the time, it must have been unthinkable—not just to me, but to the adults around me—that in the next 35 years I would set foot in over 60 countries on five continents, that I would spend significant amounts of time living in six of them, and that I would be both blessed and cursed by a constant and insatiable sense of wanderlust (or, for that matter, that I would even know what the word wanderlust means).
But in hindsight, that first passport turns out to have documented my earliest steps as a constant traveler. The dozen or so passports that came after it were filled with visas and stamps from undreamed-of-in-1985 places, such as the US, Cuba, Mexico, Ireland, the UK, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Lithuania, Slovenia, Cyprus, Israel, Kuwait, Dubai, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal, and many others. It’s tempting to take all these travels for granted; to think I was somehow meant to embark upon them and visit all these places, that this was my kismet, which my first passport unleashed. In reality, of course, this extensive traveling has been far from predestined—all these journeys were actually made possible by a combination of fortuitous circumstances, both global and personal, such as the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria’s European Union membership, and the opportunities initially provided by my parents and later by my own personal and professional endeavors.
But this is a topic for another piece. Here, it seems interesting to compare my two selves: the five-year old from back then and the current adult, 35 years and countless journeys later. At first glance, the difference is enormous. It’s as big as the difference between the raggedy, typewritten, Communist-era passport (on whose front cover, above the old coat of arms with the red star, the words “People’s Republic of Bulgaria” are written in Bulgarian only, with no translation) and my new, considerably more polished biometric passport, which has a bilingual cover that says “European Union” and “Republic of Bulgaria” and features a new coat of arms with three lions and a crown (though it actually dates to the period before communism). If I compare the miserable-looking child in the crookedly glued, black-and-white analogue photograph in the first passport to the smirking adult woman in the digital, hologram-covered color picture in my newest passport, I see a whole world of difference. Quite literally, too: the woman has already travelled through much of that world, while the child is on the verge of stepping out into it for the first time.
Yet, beneath the surface, there are some surprising similarities. My mom often says, half-jokingly, that in the black-and-white photo I look like a homeless orphan. That’s probably not too far off from how I must’ve felt, having been left in the care of my father and grandmothers while she was away in France. In the color photo of my newest passport, by contrast, I look confident, well traveled, at ease, and like I belong.
What’s not visible in the recent picture, though, is that in spite, or maybe because of all these travels and times spent living in different places, I am (still? once again?) homeless, albeit in a very different, much more manageable, significantly less painful, and sometimes quite pleasant way.
By 2004, when I finished my first Master’s degree and came back to Bulgaria, I had spent more than half of my life living abroad: I graduated from high school in Kuwait, then went to college in Minnesota (my undergraduate studies also included exchange programs in Berlin, Cuba, and Northern Ireland), then spent a year working in New York, and then went to London for graduate school. I came back to Bulgaria, expecting to find the one place where I belonged completely and I could finally settle down. In the decade that followed, I was based in Sofia but continued traveling on a regular basis, and I gradually realized that my expectations were unattainable: there was no place in the world that could belong to me completely or that I could completely belong to.
My Bulgarian passport is still the only passport I hold, but the nationality to which it attests does not overlap, or at least not neatly, with the multitudinous facets that comprise my emotional sense of home. In my case, the ingredients that make up my idea of home—people I love and who love me, old souvenirs and new memories, cozy languages, favorite views, sentimental objects, familiar scents, tastes, and sounds—are scattered in so many different places around the globe that I am in fact, to use Vilém Flusser’s expression, homeless.
The view I have over Sofia as I write this essay is home, but not entirely—missing from it is the small pivoting window of the attic apartment, through which I used to look over the roofs in the old part of Montpellier until a few years ago, when I was living and writing there. The pleasure of riding the tram along the same route I used to take to my English lessons in the late 1980s is not complete because it automatically excludes the possibility of getting on the subway in Harlem and running into my roommates from Brooklyn from fifteen years ago. Regardless of how much I love it and how many important meetings and conversations it may have witnessed, Hambara, my favorite bar in Sofia, can never be my favorite bar of all time, because that position has also been taken by the George IV pub in London, the Turf Club in St. Paul, and the Fox Head in Iowa City. On any given day of the week, I catch myself craving Berlin brunches, Belgian fries, American marshmallows, oysters from Brittany, or madeleines from Lorraine, and no matter where in the word I happen to be on the last Thursday of every November, like Pavlov’s dog, I invariably have hallucinations of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. These culinary longings were at least partly compensated for by my grandma’s stuffed grape leaves while she was still alive.
The things I miss can sometimes be terribly and annoyingly pedestrian: a favorite coffee mug, a soft plaid blanket, a special spoon for eating grapefruit, or a painting by a friend—some of the countless things that didn’t fit into my luggage and had to be left behind during my numerous moves and relocations. When it comes to people, leaving them behind is even harder. Nor does it get any easier with time.
I do realize, of course, that these symptoms of “homelessness” are also signs of enormous privilege. It’s an incredible luxury to feel content and like I belong, more or less, in so many different places; to have a cozy place of my own, filled with the coffee mugs, soft blankets, and paintings that did make it through different moves (still no grapefruit spoon, though!); to be able to leave whenever I want, so that I can cross continents and oceans and go to places where, even without an actual home, I can feel at home; to make my way around the world by only staying with friends and sleeping on their couches, and to then come back to an apartment located within a few blocks’ radius of my family and my friends from the first grade.
I have given up trying to find the place that completely belongs to me and that I belong to completely. I now realize that this place does, in fact, exist, but not as a geographical location—it exists inside of me. As the years go by, it has become almost tangible. I bring it along with me, always, as I return to familiar locations or discover new ones, as these places become mine and I become theirs, sometimes for a while, other times only briefly. Like a passport, it allows me to venture out, to cross borders, and to explore new territories, secure in the knowledge that I belong, that I won’t get lost.