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  • Writer's pictureKristen Hepner


I’ve spent the past 15 months trying to understand my thoughts and feelings. All it took for clarity to come, was one day back in the land that I gave my heart to. Serbia. It was the first time we had been back in over a year; the longest we had been away in 16 years. All I could think was “everything is so familiar”. Isn’t that a strange thought and feeling? Of all the reactions or contemplations that could have occurred, literally all I could say when I searched my heart was, “it’s so familiar”. And it was. All of my senses said so. The sights were familiar, the streets, the mountains, the trees, the traffic. Not only was it familiar, but I had vivid memories of each one. Not just one street, or one mountain, or one place…but all of them. I KNEW them. They were so familiar and a part of my conscience. They enveloped years of growth and life change. Of laughter, heartache, joy, and sorrow. The only feeling I can compare it to is curling up on the couch with a warm blanket. The familiarity of the place was cozy.

Breathing the air even felt…familiar. Peppers roasting, cigarette smoke billowing, baking bread, dumpsters. Everything. So friendly. Even the language that liked to kill me. The one I prayed to learn and hated most days felt like music to my ears. It wasn’t hard or complicated or frustrating. It was just sweet and felt familiar.

I understood the systems in this place that has my heart. How to meet up with people, where to go for coffee, what times worked best for different people. I knew how to greet them with a kiss…or three…and I knew that they loved me deeply and wanted to hear all about each one of my children and their lives. They knew each of them in ways that many do not. To understand your children and their personalities, what they like to do, and who they are as humans is special. That felt familiar. I did not have to explain or catch them up…I just told them where they were in their own little journeys, and they listened because they wanted to know.

Of course, there were changes in this familiar place, but they didn’t feel threating. It was OK that there was a new store where once was a field. There was even a new highway that confused us late one night after a long drive, but we quickly found the old way. And lo and behold, it was even OK that the home that holds my children’s precious childhood memories is now occupied by another. The bedrooms are now different, the walls painted, the firepit relocated…yet, it still felt familiar and like I belonged.

I never realized a place could affect one so deeply. But this place seeped into every inch of my heart and soul. And I am so very grateful that it did. I will be the first to admit that I was ready to leave…to return to America, the land from where I came…but I had no idea that it would feel so foreign. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. My Abby says that we are “hidden immigrants” …we look like we belong, but we sure don’t feel like it at all.

Since the trip back to Serbia, friends and loved ones have asked me more times than I can count, “how was your trip” and my heart is just so full that it’s hard to say. It was good and it was hard, and it was sweet and bitter all at the same time. And it was oh so familiar. It was wonderful to see my people and to be loved on in ways that fill my heart to the brim. To sit around tables and hear hearts of people I love… and to share mine is something that is most dear; something familiar. And the food. Gosh, I am convinced there is none better in the whole world.

However, closing a very long chapter of life is hard. It was hard sorting through 15 years of material junk just to throw it away. But God. We didn’t have to throw it away. The Lord was sweet in that He allowed us to bless lots of people with so many things. Clothes that once were worn by my babies, then toddlers, then young people; outfits we wore to recitals, ball games, and school; shoes that held us as we danced at weddings and cried at funerals all went to others who will continue to make memories. Our couch, where we watched countless movies, the tables that we sat around with so many people and heard so many stories now sit with new people who are hearing new stories. Toys, books, plates, linens, all the things that one accumulates throughout life are now in the hands and homes of others. That thought feels heavy and wonderful all at the same time. That part was hard…and not very familiar.

We were able to pack a crate to bring here to our new home full of treasures that would only have any value to me and my household. Stuffed animals that we’ve loved for years, baby books full of first hair clippings, and framed pictures of wonderful moments had. Our favorite books, a gifted table, and an engraved handmade rocking chair that may be missing a letter creating a misspelled word, which makes it that much more loved. Little pieces of a long season are on a boat slowing making their way to our home to help make this house feel a little more familiar.

It wasn’t until I got back and sat a little still to understand my obsession with the word “familiar”…and then it hit me. Nothing in the past 15 months of living life here in America has been familiar and that is what my heart is longing for. For you, those are just words you read…but me, the realization was pretty profound. It gave me so much insight to my heart and what’s going on inside my emotions. The highways are confusing, and I have to use a GPS everywhere I go. Grocery stores are overwhelming with so many choices and the placement of items are not where things go in Serbia. Friends are busy…and so are we…so meeting up for coffee has been a challenge.

To be honest, I know this place will become more and more familiar with time. I am sure that this beautiful house will feel like home. I pray that the streets my kids are running up and down will house memories they carry with them forever. I feel optimistic that the new rush of life with work and school and church and home will eventually slow to a manageable pace. And I feel hopeful that this place will indeed become familiar.

Until then, I will hold tight to the privilege that I have in this life to call two places on two different continents home. One place will be frozen in time; always welcoming, never changing (thanks for the line, Abby). The other? The place where I came from and for now, where I belong. The place where I am learning how to slow down and be present. The place where I am longing to become familiar.


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1 Comment

Nov 06, 2023

Beautifully, beautifully written, Kristen. Thank you for so intimately sharing your heart with us. 💞

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