I was born in a village in Bosnia called Velika Kladuša, but my claim to the place, like my language fluency today, is shaky. I feel strange and out of place when I visit.
I’ve devoted a lot of time to learning about the region’s history and politics, including a master’s thesis, internships, language classes, and several pained, wandering essays. But still I never feel fully at ease embracing relatives I haven’t seen since I was young, or even going to the store and speaking to the cashier. (At the same time, my discomfort is probably the most “Balkan” thing about me; liminality, migration, and cultural mixing, etcetera!)
The clearest and truest sense of “connection” I feel to my birthplace is to its natural beauty. Being amid the wonderful rolling hills, especially, that surround our little corner, feels “right” in a kind of spiritual way that I’m not sentimental enough to articulate. Little verdant ones that tumble down into valleys, large ones regal enough to carry their own names, hillocks and knolls and, deeper in the heart of the country, full-fledged mountains.
Which is what makes the flatness of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, what I would consider to be the best approximation of “a hometown” I really have, to be so unfortunate. This city, where I lived from ages thirteen to eighteen, and which I have visited every few months since, is wide and flat and smoothly paved. You roll right into it without any friction at all.
In all of Southern Ontario, due to some glacier long ago, you’ll hardly see a proper hill until you hit the Niagara Escarpment three hours north. The one exception in Windsor is the large, conspicuous hill in Malden Park, built on top of a former landfill and looking onto a series of what appear to be flare pits beside a petroleum storage facility across the street.
Like the village in Bosnia where I was born, Windsor is a border town. It sits on the Detroit River, with Lake Erie to the south, and Lake St. Clair to the north. The Detroit skyline, taller and denser, sits right across the river from our skyline, which is smaller and somehow obviously more “Canadian” looking. Both cities chug factory and industrial smoke into the air and river.
From the top of the hill at Malden Park you can see the flare pits across the street, then the Ambassador Bridge to the north, and Detroit in the distance.
Street and road names can be an interesting poetic shortcut to the character of a city. In Windsor, there’s E.C. Row, an expressway cutting Windsor in half, and Sixth Concession Road, in South Windsor, were I used to live. There’s Walker and Dougall—generic enough—but also a slew of French names, pronounced with a severe Windsorite Anglicization: Pelissier (peh-LISH-er), and Goyeau (GOY-oh), and the main downtown drag, Ouellette (oh-LET).
Downtown is now mostly filled with vape shops and nightclubs and a handful of Middle Eastern restaurants. Some of these, notably Shawarma King, can be counted among the gems, other shops less so. In high school we made do with what we had, and walked around downtown zig-zagging between the handful of now-closed cafes and music venues.
(Eventually I learned is that this is not the best way to experience “going out” in Windsor. Though there is no “nightlife” qua nightlife, there are affordable, un-intimidating bars where the chicken fingers are fresh and plentiful. This option, if you’re of legal drinking age, is the best option, unless you have enough friends to have a quiet, suburban house party in the comfy wood-paneled basement of a friend’s parents’ house.)
The city is marked in my mind by the location of all the major high schools which correspond to the city’s different neighborhoods: Massey and Holy Names in South Windsor, Kennedy downtown, Sandwich in Sandwich Town. Massey, where I went, was considered the top public high school in the city. It attracted high-achieving immigrant students, like me, and I felt understood by my classmates in that regard.
Windsor is not completely without natural beauty. There are parks, and nature reserves and gardens. There are a few architecturally interesting buildings. But these are few and far between. Still, I wouldn’t call Windsor “ugly.” It’s sturdy, a good size, functional, the sort of place you could buy at Costco.
“Where are you from?” is a normal question to ask, and, because I have an unusual name and sometimes hint at some vaguely foreign background, I’ve come to expect it. Still, I’ve always had difficulty answering. If you’ve lived in five different places for roughly the same amount of time, which should you say? The last place I lived (Montreal), the first placed I lived (Bosnia), where I currently live (Toronto)? Now, I tend to say Windsor, to make things easier, and because, it feels, increasingly, true. Even as I’ve moved apartments and cities and come back from long trips, I’ve enjoyed returning to the city’s bland, comforting sameness more and more as I’ve gotten older.
I like the wide streets and huge sky. The exceptional quiet at night. The shockingly short wait times at the walk-in clinics. The quaint excitement with which a food court renovation is anticipated. The local pride for “Windsor Pizza,” which is, simply, regular pizza where the pepperoni is shredded, rather than sliced.
Windsor is exactly the opposite of the dynamic, cosmopolitan, adventurous city life I want, and in that way, is an antidote to all the ills of that kind of life. It’s a nice place to return to when you need it.
During my last visit, my fiancé took me to his favourite fish and chips restaurant. We ate extremely greasy fried halibut in a nearly empty restaurant on a lonely strip of Tecumseh Street.
My fiancé is very much “from” Windsor. He is Canadian of Scottish-German heritage. He took bagpipe lessons as a child. He is well-adjusted. He speaks only one language. We met in Windsor, and will have our wedding in Windsor. There is a simplicity to all this I didn’t think life was capable of.
There is a hymn to Kladuša that we sing at nearly every major family event. The lyrics (which I translate here with only middling confidence) say: “I’m coming back home to you, with love and hope, I’m returning to my warm home, Oh Kladuša , my birthplace.” It’s actually a very beautiful song, and, singing loudly with your family members all gathered in one place, collectively reminiscing about war, and being lost in the world together, is a special feeling. But do I share in the idea of a one true “home”? Honestly, the word itself means so little to me.
What feels more comfortable is to embrace being from nowhere and everywhere and to find a home wherever I can.
Seila Rizvic, My Hometown