Good-bye Britain, Hello Germany, or: On the notion of ‘home’

I have left Britain and relocated to my native Germany. Most Brits nodded knowingly when I told them I was going back to Germany, telling me that ‘Of course, you want to go home’. And in many ways I have indeed ‘gone home’. But in nearly as many other ways, I have also lost my home.

 

The idea that ‘home’ is (solely, exclusively, even at all) the place of origin seems unjustifiably simplistic. I have spent nearly half of my life outside of Germany. Why should Germany automatically be more ‘home’ to me than the places where I deliberately chose to live? And yet, this definition of ‘home’ as ‘country of origin’ and, to a lesser degree, as ‘citizenship’ is widespread, not only in politics but also in the cultural sector. It fails to appreciate the complexity of ‘home’, and how intrinsically it is linked to people’s identity, their well-being, and their very lives.

 

That, to me, has been the true tragedy of the EU referendum debate in the UK. I didn’t leave Britain because of Brexit. Rather, I realised over a year ago that in the eyes of my chosen home, Britain wasn’t – and would never be – home to me at all. This clip, and the suppressed tears of the couple, should give everyone an insight into the impact of a country’s refusal to acknowledge that it is unqualifiedly ‘home’ to people that were not born there [1].

 

As I drove from Scotland back to Germany, I heard this poignant piece about ‘Heimat’, the German term that encompasses ‘home’. The professor [2] explored many different levels of ‘Heimat’ and how it is constituted; how it relates to where we are now, and how it can change and adapt. He suggested that ‘Heimat’ is ultimately about ‘feeling at home’, in his view mostly because of people, with place acting primarily as a symbol and anchor for that feeling, rather than constituting it per se. I would personally stress the role of place in certain instances a little bit more, based on my own experience, but nevertheless, as I was leaving one home further and further behind and approaching my old/new home, I thought that here was a way of thinking more dynamically about ‘home’ that was more appropriate and useful.

 

Germany has never ceased to be ‘home’ to me. But Scotland was also home. For many years, I knew more about Scottish and British history, politics and culture than I did German. I have adopted Scottish ways of thinking, I already miss tea and scones, and then there is that undefinable sense of connection to the Scottish landscape, the music, the dances and the stories, that perhaps more than anything else made Scotland home to me. However, I still scoffed at the suggestion that I should take British citizenship to secure my status in case of Brexit [3]. I am also German, in the stereotypical sense (inefficiency and being late drive me crazy) and in all the ways that Germany inspires me with its stories and landscapes and culture, and the fact that my own personal history started here. My point is that home wasn’t one or the other, it was both.

 

Policies and practices that stubbornly insist on a view of ‘home’ as rooted in ‘origin’ and ‘citizenship’ in the end will fail us. They divide people, and they reduce them to assumed traits that may or may not have any meaning in who they think they are and how they relate to where they live. We need something more complex. Today, we live in a world where people move around in varied circumstances, and we must acknowledge their right to ‘home’, and not simply their right to residence. If we fail to do this, there will be further repeats of what has happened in Britain to people like me [4].

 

 

Notes

[1] Please remember that these folks had come to Britain and still are in Britain perfectly legally. The fact that Britain to this day – more than two months after the referendum – still refuses to unambiguously grant their right to stay is frankly the starkest confirmation that the country still does not recognise their claim to Britain as ‘home’.

[2] At one of the universities in what will be my new home, no less!

[3] I never would give up my German citizenship, but as far as I’m aware I wouldn’t have had to. However, I resented that Britain asked such a huge step of me like becoming a citizen just to acknowledge my already evident commitment to it, and to give me security. It felt like being my German self who loves Scotland wasn’t good enough, and that a part of me was meant to be suppressed. I won’t have that.

[4] To push someone like me, who loved the place, spoke the language, earned her own money and was fully integrated, to the point where leaving seemed better than staying would be something I would really want to think about if Britain were my country. But then, that’s also very German of me.

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5 thoughts on “Good-bye Britain, Hello Germany, or: On the notion of ‘home’

  1. Hi Nicole – thanks for this personal and thoughtful response to post-Brexit Britain. I was born Australian of all British-Irish ancestry (in one case via NZ) – my ancestors came to Australia from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales between 1830s – 1924) and came to UK temporarily in 1995. I ended up staying. Ironically I was born a “British Subject” in Australia in 1950s but that was stripped from us with the Common Market. I finally took “back” UK citizenship some ten years ago, paying a lot for the “privilege” because as a sailor and avid traveller, I found getting back into UK with my Australian passport and “indefinite leave to remain” status increasingly difficult and unpleasant and I liked the idea of being a European citizen. I would never have given up my Australian citizenship. I regard myself as Australian and European not British. I now seriously question whether I want to have citizenship of a country with which I am so much as odds. If I wasn’t loving my HLF work and also my ability to travel around Europe so easily (still but for how long?) I would pack up and go back to Australia tomorrow. I completely understand how you feel and feel much the same way. I hope your new opportunities in Germany are great.

    1. Thanks, Lesley, for your kind words and for sharing your own experience and thoughts. And good luck to you – I know that losing that ‘official’ connection to Europe is hard on many in the UK, and I empathize with how devastating Brexit is for those who feel European in more than just a vague geographical sense.

  2. Hi Nicole

    I have read your blog for quite a long time now… not sure how I found you, or if I have ever commented before… but I felt I really wanted to today. I felt the last sentence of the first paragraph coming as soon as I read the opening words of your post 😦

    Although I don’t currently work in a museum, I have an MA in Museum Studies and have often enjoyed and admired your interesting discussions and explorations of different ideas here. You have often challenged me intellectually… but today I am responding emotionally.

    I do not know you personally, but I have read enough here to know that you are an extremely intelligent, thoughtful and hard-working person. I wish I could think and write as well as you do! And I feel deeply saddened that you would ever feel that you were/ are not wanted or welcome in the UK.

    I was furious and upset by the narratives around Brexit, and the way that many people in this country have treated and described immigrants over the years. It frustrates and confounds me that people in the UK voted for the Tories (who treat the sick and disabled like ‘benefit scroungers’)… and voted to leave the EU. It shocks me that so many people seem willing to say that political parties are ‘all the same’, and so waive their rights by not even casting a vote. So many people seem so easily brainwashed.

    I feel sullied by a decision I adamantly disagreed with, and ashamed to identify with a country that has led you (and others like you) to feel like this. I am so sorry.

    I wanted to write more on this… but I am not so talented as you in talking about these things… and I am falling asleep on the laptop because I am so tired! I cannot find the right words… so for now I will just wish you well. I very much look forward to reading more of your writing here soon…

    Again – I truly wish you had not been made to feel as you have. Even if the politics and bureaucracy are ugly and clumsy and crap… there are people here who value you and who you are… the whole of your soul.

    1. Hi Willow,
      Thank you so much for your comment – for your kind words about my blog (blushes), but especially for sharing your views on what has happened in the UK, and its impact on people. I fully appreciate that for individuals it is difficult to change a tide, both political and social. That’s why it’s so important to let people around us know how we personally feel. I’ve tried to explain that to British friends and colleagues, and maybe if more of them had acknowledged my experience rather than talk down the causes of it, then it would not in the end have felt so insurmountable. We live in challenging times, and I hope that all of us will take something useful from what we’ve experienced and how it has made us feel. I’m lucky I had a country to also go home to. I will now be in the same position as British people: this is ‘my’ country, but I may not agree with everything that happens here. What will I do to make a difference to those around me? Best of luck to you.

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