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Finding a heimat of one’s own

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Essay | 11 minute read
In its German original, 'heimat' has two clashing meanings of home. For one writer, it has nothing to do with nationhood or patriotism. And Brexit Britain might even learn from it

‘Do you consider this home?’ my mother asked me. She looked quietly devastated when I answered her. We were near the village in Swabia, a region in south-west Germany, where she lives and where I spent my teenage years. We had gone for a walk to digest our Christmas lunch and we were looking over the valley of the Neckar – a river that runs on to Tübingen and Heidelberg, high grounds of German Idealism and Romanticism. My mother was born there; both my brothers were too. My grandparents had a small farm there and my uncle still runs it. It is also where my father is buried.

The question hadn’t come out of the blue. Our walk had taken us to the Sebastian Blau trail, named after a local poet, and we stood by the plaque inscribed with his poem called ‘Heimat’, the same word my mother had just used. In the poem, written in the Swabian dialect, Blau describes the valley, the vineyards, the hop gardens, the villages, the passing days and the weather; he talks about boys growing into men and men into fathers; and he concludes that nothing about it is special, except ‘that I can call this little place “heimat”’.

I thought for a long time about my mother’s question but I could not, in all honesty, answer in the affirmative. She didn’t respond but I could tell that the word ‘nein’ broke her heart. I still think it might be the most hurtful thing I’ve ever said to her. It must have torn through her own sense of home, one that included me; perhaps my ambivalence made her feel as if her – our – family memories were threatened and would somehow vanish.

It wasn’t that I disliked going back. The Neckar Valley is beautiful and every time I stand on the bridge in Tübingen, I stop to bask in the view of the medieval façades and of Hölderlin’s Tower. From there, my mind wanders back to my past, up river. I also love our family house, the garden, the downstairs bar we built with my father, the fireplace, the silence at night, the memories good and bad. Still, unlike one of my brothers, who has not moved away, I don’t feel Blau’s affinity for the place. I cannot call it heimat.

Why not? What’s missing? After all, I lived there for the longest part of my life, went to school there, kissed a girl for the first time there, played volleyball for the local team and helped smash our way into the top division. But I was born in France to a French father and we moved back and forth a few times. I never developed strong roots – perhaps, subconsciously, to avoid the pain of being uprooted once more. After school, I went to live in California for a year, travelled for another year after I graduated from university, lived in Paris, Berlin and now London. I wasn’t a Swabian. I had become a kind of nomad. Did I even have a heimat?

Heimat is a German concept and, like many other untranslatable German concepts, it lacks a clear definition but is somehow implicitly understood by Germans. However, among scholars there is a debate about what it means.

Bavaria, Germany

In broad terms, there are two schools of thought. While they differ on a fundamental point, they share the importance attributed to place and our emotional connection to it – though place, here, is taken to be a neighbourhood or a region. Heimat is never just a house. To the first school of thought, heimat is where the individual feels safe, comfortable, at ease; where the self is free to fully actualise. It is where we have our daily rituals, like grinding coffee in the morning, or sitting in a favourite tree to let the mind roam. It’s where we know the shopkeepers and the loveably odd characters, the streets and the shortcuts. It’s where our relationships are alive, not dormant. Here, heimat stands in opposition to the ‘strange’ and ‘unfamiliar’. Seen from this angle, it is dynamic, and a ‘neue Heimat’ – not necessarily one’s place of birth – can be acquired. This is a notion that comes close to the English idea of ‘home’ as in, ‘Home is where the heart is.’

The other school of thought is more nativist. It sees heimat as where the earliest formation of identity takes place and so lastingly affects a person’s character and even world view. It involves a strong connection to the land – a feeling of being a part of the land and of the land being a part of oneself. For this school of thought, heimat is a point of origin, immutable; not acquired but innate. This, as Blau’s poem suggests, is what Germans commonly understand as heimat: one is born a Swabian or one isn’t a Swabian. Or, to use an English idiom, ‘You can take the man out of Swabia but you can’t take Swabia out of the man.’

In that latter sense, I don’t have a heimat. On paper, Swabia could easily be it – should be it – but to my fellow Swabian school pupils, I was always a Frenchman. Earlier, to my fellow French school pupils, I had been German. And now, to my British neighbours, I am French-German. When they ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ they don’t ask me as they would someone from Lincolnshire, or as they would an ‘immigrant’. They ask me as an ‘expat’. They omit the telling word ‘originally’ (‘Where are you originally from?’) or, even worse, ‘really’ (‘Where are you really from?’). The tacit expectation in the way the question is phrased is that I am only a sojourner who will, surely, one day go home.

I tell them that it is on coming back to London that I feel the pinch in my chest, the warmth in my heart, the comfort most people associate with home. This is where, in Taiye Selasie’s word, I am a ‘local’ – the locus of my significant relationships and life rituals is here. I explain that I moved back to this city from Berlin because I missed the English language, that I only write in English – not in French, not in German – because English is my emotional language. It is not my father’s, it is not my mother’s, it is my own. Growing up, I watched films in English, I listened to English music. I studied English Literature at university. The first time I moved out of my parents’ house, I went to California for a burst of personal growth and identity formation – all in English. In many ways, being so nomadic, perhaps the English language is my heimat.

This is not such a far-fetched thought: language is often the first indicator of origin. Our accents communicate where we’re from; we naturally gravitate to other speakers of our own language abroad. We feel comfortable when we hear our local dialect, and we feel lost when we can’t understand the foreign tongue. Nor does that invalidate the connection to the land that is essential to the German concept of heimat: the land and social environment shape our language and, through it, become part of our being. My peculiar, unplaceable, faux English with a pinch of an accent, which is, weirdly, often mistaken for Scandinavian, is the result of all my experiences. Because all identity is experience.

Heimat has been, and is being, exploited to political ends. In times of war, even before the Roman Empire, it has become the patria in ‘the old Lie: dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori.’ Nation states, those artificial constructs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, used it to foster what Benedict Anderson called ‘imagined communities’. It was, and is, an easy justification for fascists and xenophobes to reject anything foreign. Nationalist parties throughout the Western world are calling voters to take back control over their borders, to stop immigration, to reclaim sovereignty over their land. All of them turn the positive emotions of warmth and comfort into a fear, as though heimat were fragile, somehow threatened by others, in need of defence.

But I would argue that heimat itself has nothing to do with nation and patriotism. To me, no matter what your own understanding of heimat is, it is emotional and personal, not political. If it’s about values, then it is our affinity to whichever values we choose; if it’s about place, then it is our feeling of belonging; if it’s about language, then it is our love for it. What matters is how these things affect us and how we engage with them.

This is not to deny that a sense of displacement can arise when one is kept away from home. But I would argue that that a heimat cannot be defined by the arbitrary borders of a country, nor even by one’s birthplace alone. A second-generation immigrant born and raised in south-east England can be at home in Kent and have a feeling of belonging elsewhere at the same time – as the journalist Samira Shackle comes to understand when she first visits her parents’ country of origin, Pakistan. In her essay, ‘My Other Half’, she writes, ‘[Karachi] may not be home, but there is a place for me.’ This is a sense of heimat, too. Conversely, much to my mother’s sadness, I cannot be forced to feel at home in Swabia – the mentality, the values, the pace of life, all of which are too different from mine – but I may choose London as the place where my sense of self can be fully actualised.

This is incompatible with the political appropriation of heimat. I am not allowed to vote in national elections in the UK, nor was I allowed to vote in last year’s German elections. It is as though, democratically speaking, I were neither an expat nor an immigrant, but homeless (or French, for the French allow citizens abroad to vote in both parliamentary and presidential elections, a fact that, interestingly, was contested during the electoral campaign).

While it has unduly been made political, heimat justly bears a legal dimension. Some lawyers see the ‘right to homeland’ (based on the ‘Recht auf Heimat‘ which applies in varying degrees in Germany, Austria and Switzerland) as a universal human right. It stipulates that ‘everyone has the right to remain in, or return to, his heimat, and not to be expelled from it’. This throws us back to the two varying conceptions of it: the nativist one which sees it as an immutable point of origin, and the ‘dynamic’ one that sees it a matter of personal choice.

‘It is perhaps not surprising that the more rural regions of England voted for Brexit and the cosmopolitan cities voted to Remain’

If the right to heimat is guaranteed, how do we (re)define it in a time when digital technology disrupts our relationship with place? When ever-more people are moving away from their birthplace, home town or country of origin? What will happen to me, and to the thousands of other Europeans living in the UK, after Brexit? I am speaking of those who chose to move here, not the people who came out of necessity.

I have friends in London who truly feel Athenian, Auvergnat, Castilian, Cracowian and are here because they could not make a living at home. They are expats in the literal sense who feel a homesickness that I don’t. The way the Brexit negotiations are going, I might be expelled from the place that comes closest to home, that I see as my neue heimat. All because of two clashing notions of what ‘home’ means.

It is perhaps not surprising that the more rural regions of England voted for Brexit and the cosmopolitan cities voted to Remain, for they may broadly reflect the ways heimat is understood. Cities, by their size and nature, attract people who see home as the place where they can most feel like themselves. Their sense of home is not threatened by others because heimat, to them, is a moveable circle, whereas those who live in rural areas (though we must be careful of generalisations about city and country) tend to conceive of home as a community built on the same place of origin. Their home cannot tolerate an influx of others. That is a view that comes close to the nativist German idea of heimat.

There is of course no right or wrong understanding of heimat but, as a crucial element of our personal identity and with such strong cultural, social and political implications, it should take a more prominent place in our debates. Brexit is much more than a political issue; it is a heimat issue that finds its parallels all over the world, as digital technology, online avatars and frequent moving disrupt our ties to place.

The nativist concept of heimat may be felt less and less by the younger generations, but the idea of ‘home’ remains a core part of our identity. We must be clear to ourselves what we mean by it.