Imaginary folksongs without an accent

“It doesn´t feel like living abroad. It feels more like I´m moving inside people and places.”

Photo: CreativeCommons/dpbirds

A very clear and vivid picture lives in me about us driving home with my parents and my brother from the city and me spelling road signs to pass the time. I was a very proud five-and-a-half-year old being able to spell words even before getting into grammar school. I was spelling that night “pića” with a Serbian accent on the C, which reads “ass or cunt” in Hungarian. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn´t figure out why such a swear word would end up on a huge road sign. When I asked my parents, they burst out in laughter: in Serbian it simply meant “drinks” and was probably advertising an alcohol shop or such. Little did I analyze as a child what it meant to be born in a city where I didn´t even understand the signs. And yet, I felt absolutely OK and secure. And I felt home.

Today, I live in Cologne, Germany and I understand (almost) every single road sign or newspaper headline. I cannot read undisturbed on the subway as I used to, because I understand every shred of conversation (what a pity! – the language stops to be pure music as the meaning is attached). I have no problem making a scene with the customer service on the phone or expressing my fears to a psychologist in German. However, I am not that certain anymore where home is.

Six years ago, when I first arrived to Germany, I was literally starting a protest against learning German and was speaking English everywhere – not to pick up, even by accident, any German word. Not exactly sure why I did that. Maybe subconciously I was trying to ignore “learning a new mother tongue”. Well, I didn´t fight enough. Now I even dream in German. Still, after the first minutes of any conversation, between the sweet introduction and the smooth jokes, I always have to face the question: but where do you originally come from, my dear? It´s my accent – I guess; in Hungarian you stress every word on its first syllable. Pretty hard a habit to break.

Even harder to answer the question, though. I decided to give different answers every time based on the possible outcome and duration of the conversation. I mean, why would I care to explain to a complete stranger – who didn´t even really mean to find out every little detail about my origin – that I was born in Yugoslavia, nowadays running by the name of Serbia, into the Hungarian minority, so my mother tongue is Hungarian and I did live in Budapest for several years, but still I don´t consider myself a real Hungarian, as I was not raised in the mentality of Hungarians, however, I know more Hungarian folksongs than Serbian ones, and I don´t speak Serbian fluently, so I couldn´t possibly call myself Serbian either, and …

I hated this question every single time. Sometimes I answered with a simple “I am from Budapest”. Full stop. Which was mostly a very satisfying answer, but was in fact a lie. A successful conversation-keeper, though, earning me extra smiles, as people tend to have a romantic nostalgic-Eastern-European-flair-vision of the Hungarian capital.

When I went for version B and said I was from Serbia, their eyes were flushed with sympathy and I instantly became the poor Balkan-girl with a stamp of exotisicm. So there were times, when I just went for Budapest.

Today, I am more careful of what I answer. Hungary might not be the best choice after all… Anyway, if somebody seemed really interested, then I gave the extended version of being a Vojvodinian, originating from the Hungarian part of North-Serbia, called Vojvodina (Vajdaság).

But it never really felt right to limit my answer to a geographical explanation. I can state with very firm certainty that this simple, almost naive and deeply innocent question brought me to serious thinking about my identity. I was angry about the question, as for a long time I myself didn´t know the answer.

Being more than 1500 kilometres away from my parents´ house and the apple tree garden where I grew up never really troubled me. Leaving the country during my university years seemed the most natural and the next logical step. We all wanted to grow and growing can only happen through moving, touching, experiencing. In the 2000´s, almost everyone packed their bags at least once and went on Erasmus.

We were the lucky generation who were encouraged and financially supported to travel. We didn´t really plan long ahead. I arrived to Berlin with two suitcases and my electric piano. I was not planning on staying. Just wanted to visit, but I hated being a tourist. As the years passed and I found myself still living in Germany, I gradually had to sort out the answer to this question. I started an honest and deep research on where I am actually from and where my home is. The distance and the years helped me gain an outsiders´perspective.

I became aware of the fact that for being able to define myself I had to go back and rediscover my roots. I started getting into composition at that time at the music academy, so it was a necessary recherche to do anyway. My very first own lyrics were written in Hungarian resembling folk poetry and I started to re-sing old Hungarian folk songs, did a month-long research on a Bartók song to find the original text and was passionately reading in my mother tongue again.

But I didn´t perform or record folksongs – that wouldn´t have been authentic to me. Back home, I was living next to this culture, not with it, so it never really went under my skin. Instead, I began creating my own imaginary folksongs, which were a mixture of the memory of folksongs I might have ever come across and the impressions of the moment and place I was at. Not long after a year, I was already using imaginary words and syllables, where nobody could tell if I am accentuating them right or wrong.

That was my own language and it didn´t belong anywhere. Only to me. I could take them with me anywhere. I believe that´s how I slowly re-founded my own home independent of my actual coordinates.

After having lived in Bácsszölös (Serbia), Szeged, Budapest, Boston (USA), Berlin, Lucerne (Switzerland), Hanover and Cologne, I still don´t consider myself an immigrant. I don´t feel like living abroad. I feel like moving inside people and places. And I feel more home than ever. If I really have to define my identity today, than I feel mostly European. And I don´t give up on or leave my culture or country, but I take it with me and mix it with myself, with the person who comes out of all these endeavours at the end.

The question “Where do you come from?” is really not the question to ask in 2016. Immigration is much more than only a change of place, it´s the travelling of different minds and hearts, the transformation of tastes and aspiring aims. It´s the meeting of perspectives and the mixing of the road signs. So next time you meet someone with an accent, don´t only bother to figure out where they come from, but also find out who they´ve become since they arrived. The memories of my cultural heritage are an essential and organic part of my personality, but only get a meaning through the “me” who is living here and now under all the current impressions and impulses.

They are not tattood outside my body or are to be defined by a city or country, nor are printed into my passport. They are integrated into my way of listening to languages whether I understand them or not, into my way of writing music, my way of singing in phantasy syllables and speaking broken German, into my way of thinking free and without borders, into the spirit I truly wish to once pass on to a generation who will have a different meaning of the word “immigrant”.

Cologne, January 2016

Thea Soti

Thea Soti

is an improvising musician, singer and composer, combining avantgarde jazz, surreal poetry and experimental contemporary music. She works closely with the Hanover-based label “quadratisch rekords” and is the co-founder of the European composer´s collective SUNG SOUND.