A Place that Belongs to Us | Daniel Trilling | Granta

A Place that Belongs to Us

Daniel Trilling

I’ve been a journalist for about fifteen years, and I’ve spent a lot of that time writing and thinking about displacement. I have listened to people describe how they were forced from their homes by war and observed them trying to make new homes. I have reported on communities whose sense of home was being undermined by the ebb and flow of capital. I have written about people who have tried to assert belonging through nationalism, and about people who were the target of nationalist violence. I have also written about the way these sorts of events are remembered – or forgotten – in official memorials and in everyday life.

The longer I’ve done this work, the more I’ve felt that there are things I’m failing to capture. Are there ways to express what has been squeezed out of conventional narrative? The pieces below come from notes I’ve kept while reporting in the UK, Europe and the former Soviet Union. They come from interviews and from journeys, including to places members of my own family were forced to flee. Some notes were taken at the time, while others were written later as memories came back to me. I’ve deliberately mixed up the elements, so that images and voices from one place blend into others.


Sentences like walkways that stop in mid-air.

Gold lettering to thank you for your contribution to the war effort.

A house looks like a home until you see straight through it.

We met at the entrance and couldn’t decide which way to go, but it didn’t matter because the paths formed a triangle and would lead us to the same point. It was easy to find our way through the building, since it was a standard design that existed in many different places. You could have walked it blindfolded if you’d been there – elsewhere – before. We walked on through, passing doors thrown open in invitation, and out the other side. There, we saw plots of rough land guarded by hoardings. Pictures on the hoardings told us that what was being built there would be unique but exactly the same. We walked on to reach a grassy bank, and suddenly the land felt familiar. Was it the way the breeze came off the river in this spot that reminded us of what was here before? A mountain of century-old dirt, possessions spread out for sale on blankets and sheets on a Saturday afternoon, homes built in the spaces the inhabitants had dug out from the waste. Would you believe there was once a canal here, carpeted in water lilies? I asked you if this was the spot and you said no, they dug it all up and reshaped the soil, it can’t be.

She went back and they laughed because she spoke a language out of dusty old books.

She went back and the market was selling fruit and veg and meat, it was an ordinary day, you’d never have known.

She went back and it had moved, there had been a flood and nobody was sure where exactly it was any more.

Anyway, they had bigger things to worry about, the flood had caused a lot of damage.

She went back and they had built over the cemetery, they said they were going to move it somewhere else, were going to.

She went back and said nothing’s changed, I thought it would be good to see them again, but nothing’s changed, I shouldn’t have come.

In the museum they told her story, but didn’t mention her name. She tried to tell them it was hers and they said, Ours too, this is a concept around which we can unite.

The carved figures and the mosaics are still there, they’ve just been covered over with plaster.

At first, she said, I got caught up in the patriotism of it all. I saw it as a way of making a break with the past.

Our youth came to follow us, he said, and the paths they took told us they had given up on the world we imagined for them. We saw them escaping and to us it was like liquid running from broken skin.

They bring the country to the city, driving their animals with sticks along the lane. They put birds in cages and photos of fields on the wall to remind themselves of what came before. They leave their traces on faded tiling and painted signs that hang from first-floor windows. Others take their place and fill their rooms with light and heat.

We took jobs as taxi drivers, he said, in factories, as chefs, as teachers, in shops, to tide us over until the time came to go back. We waited to live, and we didn’t realise until too late that the waiting itself was the living.

At first, she said, I was into taking selfies with soldiers. But then we started to find out.

You and I sat there and watched the mother and the baby stand in tableau behind the cake and the father hurry around and offer drinks and ask if we were enjoying ourselves. The father had waited three years for the mother, the mother had waited three years for the father. They put on music and asked us to dance.

He sent the story to me line by line:

My mother told me I should go.
They took us into the marshes at night.
We stood in swamp water up to our necks.
There was a rope to pull ourselves across.
I got a terrible kidney infection from the water.
It was fifteen years ago.

Arrive while it is still dark to get good seats on the train. Bring food for the journey. The fifth paragraph, your nationality. Everyone must have one.

The moving of the earth. In barrows. From one place to another.

A cushion of cloud presses damply down to smother the sky, to say we are nowhere and everywhere. She looks out of the misted window of the bus at the half-finished buildings and says, They’re making this a desirable place to live.

Daniel Trilling

Daniel Trilling is a journalist and author who writes for the Guardian, the London Review of Books and others. His book about Europe’s refugee crisis, Lights in the Distance, won Italy’s ‘Libri contro la fame’ literary prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing.

Photograph © Mari Batashevski

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