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Posts Tagged ‘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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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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