Personal reflections on home, heritage and Heimat

Just over a year ago, I moved back to the south of Germany, and specifically the Swabian Alps, where I was born and grew up. One unexpected aspect of this has been my awareness of the landscape and culture here, and their impact on my experience of home, heritage and Heimat.

Home

I haven’t lived here for the better part of 20 years, and yet I felt immediately at home. The landscape played a big part in this: it was familiar, with practical implications. The land has been shaped by agricultural practices in ways that I know and understand. This in turn means that my expectations about how paths cut across the land are generally correct, and I can find my way around. In contrast, when I lived in the north of Germany, I got lost regularly because my chosen direction was blocked by ditches or boggy ground. I had the almost physical sensation of rebalancing once I was back on the rocks of the Swabian Alps.

I also felt immediately at home among the people here: they speak my dialect, and they do things in a way that I recognise and appreciate. I felt immediately in sync with them.

Now, I have felt at home in other places, too. Whenever I think of Scotland, for example, I feel homesick, I miss it so much. And still, it had a different quality that I cannot quite put my finger on. Perhaps it has something to do with the next two concepts.

Heritage

I don’t come from the field of natural heritage. The way in which the heritage aspect of nature has generally been explained to me was in terms of the study of the natural world – ecology, geography, zoology. I have always struggled to see why this is considered heritage, for I understand heritage as a human process. Now that I am back on the Swabian Alps, however, I suddenly do have a sense of heritage that is connected to nature. I feel connected to this landscape in ways that are shaped by my own memories of people and events against the backdrop it provides. I cherish it, and derive comfort from it. It is a factor in how I experience my own identity, and how it is established by others. In fact, I remembered a term that was applied to people like myself at my first university: someone who ‘has come down from the Alps’. It was meant as an insult, but I now take pride in it: yes, I hail from this beautiful place. Isn’t it awesome? [1]

Although I felt a similar sense of identification with the Scottish Highlands, I would hesitate to call the Highlands my heritage in the ways that I am experiencing the Swabian Alps. Maybe, after a few more years, that might have changed: heritage, after all, is also created and evolving.

However, I am not entirely sure, and that’s because of the last concept I want to explore.

Heimat

Heimat is of course a German term. There is no agreed translation into English. I used to think it’s similar to heritage, but now that I am back here in the south of Germany, I no longer think that’s correct. My experience of Heimat is largely constituted in a sense of instinctive familiarity, about place, about people, their customs and their mentality. I need no explanation. Just as importantly, I also feel that those around me view me with the same instinctive familiarity. As I recognize myself in them, I feel they recognize themselves in me. It is this mirroring, this element of belonging to each other, that to me make this place Heimat.  

Mind, none of this necessarily means that I identify with what I am familiar with here, or that I like it (although incidentally, I do). But it is, still, my Heimat, undeniably so to myself and to others [2].

Fluid stages of being human

Home, heritage, Heimat: I described these concepts as separate, but there are many overlaps, and indeed perhaps one leads into the other. As time passes, and we spend time in new places with new people, we may move from home to heritage to Heimat. We may even have been gifted those places and people through our families: our parents and grandparents.

The point is, the last year has been a very personal experience of these concepts that I have spend much of my professional life considering. And it’s been such a wonderful and healing experience.

Notes

[1] I do feel reminded here of a conversation with my doctorate supervisor, Rodney Harrison, about his concept of the ontology of connectivity. The landscape here is, of course, the non-human actor that plays such an important role in creating heritage.

[2] In fact, when I lived in the north of Germany, my being from the south was always a topic of conversation raised by others. It was clear that ‘the north’ was not my Heimat, and that the people around me weren’t prepared to pretend otherwise either.

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