Wednesday, 30 December 2009

HEIMAT - Take Me Home, Country Roads..........

to the place I used to know.

A discussion group on German language TV on the subject of ‘what is Heimat’, ‘what does Heimat mean to an individual’, reminded me of the many people I meet in blogland who are ex-patriates of some kind or other; who permanently or temporarily live in countries other than their native land. I would even include people who have moved from one state to another, as in the US, or from one geographical area to another, north to south, east to west, and vice versa, whether this is within a country or a continent.

Special occasions, like the festive season we find ourselves in at the moment, have the effect of re-awakening long gone memories in me, a kind of ‘nostalgia for no known place’, a sort of yearning for a time that ‘may have been’ but probably never was. Memories have become concertina-ed, all summers were hot, all winters snow covered and the mists of time have taken on a permanently golden hue.

There are many doctoral theses, scientific examinations and in-depth studies on the subject; but these do not concern me here. I would simply like to explore my own and other people’s feelings on the matter. The concept of Heimat was first explored by Pestalozzi, the Swiss educationalist. Before him, a 17th century Swiss medic, Johannes Hofer, discovered (invented?) the term Heimweh, or homesickness. It was considered to be a specific Swiss disease, a lethal condition, in particular, a disease of soldiers, until the 1930s, when it was simply re-classified as ‘depression’ or ‘feeling’.

And there we have it, the term Heimat describes first and foremost and probably exclusively, a feeling.

Chambers dictionary translates  ‘Heimat’ simply as home. There is the Swedish concept of hembygd, which comes closest to the German term. Home, homeland, fatherland, mother country, native soil, la patrie, all come close but, in essence, do not  entirely cover the meaning.

Heimat must remain untranslated, but the feeling is universal.

Heimat is the place where your conscious being was formed, the root of your existence, where you cried your earliest tears, smiled your earliest smile;
the place where you grew up, where you learned to speak, to express yourself, your feelings, your moods.

Heimat is the place where your identity was established, where you set off on the journey towards the person you are now

Heimat is the place where everybody understands the language you speak; language is a hugely important part of your identity; speaking a regional or local dialect immediately identifies you as a member of a very special and specific community. Nobody can ever learn to speak a dialect flawlessly unless they have learned it in childhood. The meaning of any phrase you utter in this language is immediately clear to your listeners, no explanation or translation is ever necessary, no matter how obscure the term.

Heimat is the place where, for better or worse, you are missed when you leave, where the hole you leave is you-shaped, and only you can fill it.

Heimat is the place where the culture is a given; music and folk music, literature, drama and storytelling, history, and the art of your native land have all been part of the natural experience of growing-up.

Heimat is the place where poetry needs no translation.

To be homesick is to yearn for Heimat.. It is a fact that once you have been away for a number of years, what you remember as Heimat no longer exists. As you grow and develop, so does the place you left; so do the people you left; the memory you have preserved is not the reality of the place you return to.

As I said at the beginning, Heimat is a feeling; smells, sounds, food, songs can all conjure up an immediate feeling of Heimat.  Hearing a song your mother sang, eating a dish you ate as a child, hearing the sound of church bells, seeing a certain kind of light, a sky, can all remind you and transform you instantly into a time traveller.

We can all create a new home for ourselves anywhere on this earth; our family is our home; for some people religion is home; we are at home in a circle of friends, we have a network of support, we live a full life ‘at home’.

But the moment we get back to ‘our roots’, hear the familiar language or dialect, walk down old-familiar paths and, if we are lucky, see the folks we left behind, we are back in a world where we become the person we were then. No matter how old and wise, experienced, famous, infamous, disillusioned or successful  we have become, when we return to the place we call Heimat, we are as old as the day we left.


  1. This is such an interesting topic for us who have lived in another country for the majority of our lives. Strangely enough, I have never known homesickness in my life - ever! Not when I was young or now. I've always been one to focus in the now. Even now, I feel nostalgia, but always in a very positive way.

    Heimat for me is my grandmother's baking, my mother's cooking, real candles on a Christmas tree, drizzly rain and fog. But more than that, there are certain smells that bring back images of my childhood immediately and strongly.

    Another interesting facet is if you didn't have a happy childhood. For me, my childhood was great, but my years as a teen were very bad. I find that those thoughts that make me feel nostalgic are the ones of my early childhood - very selective.

    In any case, I am always happy right where I am and I think I have found my Heimat within myself in among those I love...

    What a great post, Friko!! Love, Silke

  2. Nebel, eine Wolke zu Fuss.

    Heimat - well, what to say, guess the 'heavy-weight' memory is family. Followed by smell of Heimaterde after autumn rain. Also, meeting same people while walking through the streets, on one hand stangers, but already known enough, to lift me hat.
    Having senses in mind, taste isn't allowed to be missing: food, one of the strongest memory ever. Discovering together with my son the 'all-of-a-sudden joy' music brings leads me to a sixth sense: thinking - about Heimat is a corner stone as well, building a life around, far from home.
    More than a heart-felled thank you for this post, which did move me more than I'm willing to admit.
    Please have you all a wonderful Wednesday.

  3. Friko, I as well was moved by your post. I have mixed feelings of my childhood. It was not happy. I seem to stop at my life before I married and my Heimat is my husband and my children and grands. Maybe that is because I don't really want to remember before that time. But from what you have written Haimat is not a memory.Is is buried way deeper than that to be brought up by a smell, a song or something we least expect. Blessings

  4. Your last paragraph was particular literature, Friko.

    Yes, though i live now in Hawaii, the child in me stares at images of snow....and remembers...

    Aloha, Friend!

    Comfort Spiral

  5. My intuitive and un-scientific answer is that Heimat combines Home/Heim and Habitat. Does that make sense?

  6. What a meaningful, tender, evocative piece Friko. Just reading your words stirs memories of a time and place uniquely mine. I don't think it could be described better than what you have done here. Perhaps there is sadness when we realize 'you cannot go home again' in reality, but all those feelings and memories are so alive in our hearts and minds...they are sweet places to visit in daydreams.

    Our very cells, our heart, our bones carry the memories of the time and place where we were formed, where we discovered life and who we wanted to be in it, where there was still hope.

    Thank you for conjuring up all of these sweet recollections for me.

    (P.S. 'Kind' of prooving my point from a previous comment.....don't you think??)

  7. Your post has really gotten me thinking and I wanted to add this. Growing up in Germany, I always felt out of place, like I didn't belong. The first time I set foot in the US at age 19, I knew I was "home." I met my husband that same day and had the same feeling when I saw him for the first time. Isn't that odd?

    Still...what I get nostalgic about are those early comforting memories from my childhood in Germany.

    Hugs, Silke

  8. What a beautiful post. You said it so well. Heimat can also sometimes be imagined more beautifully than the real thing. I left mine and lived in the South for 6 years but that feeling drew me back to the North where I have lived ever since. But I didn't live excatly where I grew up..but in my desired version a few miles and a few lifestyles away.
    I came here because I saw the word on someone else;s blog list. (I was addicted to the TV series,) but found your post intriguing.

  9. A very nice post. Conjures up so many thoughts! I no longer have strong feelings for 'home.' I have moved so many times that my home is just the memories and the pictures. But that is okay, because it does not make me sad...just nostalgic.

  10. This is a wonderful post Friko, both fabulously written and fascinating. Welsh has a word "hiraeth" which roughly translates as longing and is normally used for longing for the mother country but in Welsh is a far more layered and complex thing that mere nostalgia and includes the idea of longing for something which might never have been. I think it should somehow be combined with your heimat!
    We have deep snow here. Hope you are warm and safe where you are.

  11. friko - this is excellent! i have experienced homesickness throughout the course of my life having left england at the age of eight (in 1966). i have been back many times although not for the last twenty years. i miss the idea of england that is based on my childhood experiences. there are tiny pockets of that idea still available in england but they are far and few. this is in large part why i no longer return. elizabethm's description of "hiraeth" probably comes closest to describing my experience. have a lovely day. steven

  12. Jepp, bin schon da.
    Habe fast alles verstanden.

    Nun, meine Heimat ist da, wo ich jetzt bin.


  13. Silke - Lucky you, I think, never having been homesick in spite of having spent so many years away from the childhood home. My longing for home get stronger as I get older, particularly because home no longer exists. My memories are probably totally unrealistic as well. Like you, my 'real life' with beloved and my family here are much more 'handfest', I certainly would not want to give this up.

    Robert - I have never read or heard 'Nebel, eine Wolke zu Fuss - (fog, a cloud on foot) before. It is a lovely expression, which I will use from now on.
    I am glad, you understand completely what I am saying; I also love the smell of Heimaterde after rain. Smells and taste are very important constituents of memory.

    QMM - Heimat is indeed buried deep within us, that's why it hits you when it comes up, out of the blue. Of course, the memories can also be unwelcome.

    Cloudia - I envy you your even-tempered weather, but sometimes I need the changing seasons; I stare at pictures of the ocean, or broad, slow running rivers; we all have dreams and that is very good, without dreams life would be sad.

    English Rider - That is very clever, very logical and partly true; but only partly; there is so much more to Heimat and the yearning for home; something that defies logic.

    Bonnie - I knew I could rely on you to understand. I am also glad that you seem to share these feelings; there is no harm in them, I am not advocating dismissing the reality of everyday life for the sake of going back to some dreamland that only exists in memory.

    Jackie - thank you for visiting. Of course Heimat is more beautiful than the real thing, that's the whole point. It is an idealised picture, that's what makes it so irresistible.

    Tabor - Nostalgia without the tiniest touch of sadness? Teach me, please.

    Elizabethm - your comment is fascinating too, em, the way you have described the meaning of 'hiraeth' covers pretty much the meaning of Heimat. Isn't it amazing that the Welsh should have a word for the same 'feeling'.

    We too have had plenty of snow; we had an electricity cut from 1 to 3 today. The first thing I worry about is always the freezers, bursting at the seems with winter stocks, being without power to melting point.

    steven - thank you steven; the inability 'to go back' is what pains me most too. I can never understand how things can have changed so thoroughly during my absence and, besides, how dare they!

    Murgelchen94 - Danke fuer den Besuch; wie schoen, dass es immer noch Leute gibt, fuer die die Heimat der Alltag ist. Nimm sie nicht auf die leichte Schulter, sie muss behuetet werden!

  14. How well you explored the almost inexplicable aura that surrounds the word. A thoroughly enjoyable read, and the previous comment sums it up beautifully, I think:-

    Jepp, bin schon da.
    Habe fast alles verstanden.
    Nun, meine Heimat ist da, wo ich jetzt bin.

  15. Jinksy - your German is good! I didn't know how good.
    Thanks for your generous comment.

  16. I think deepown we have all yearned for Heimat, though until now I had not heard the word and didn't even know it was a place. Thank you so much for that very moving post. Haave a great New year.

  17. Heimat ist mehr.
    Mehr als Heim,
    mehr als Heimstatt,
    mehr als Heimatstadt,
    mehr als Heimatland.
    Heimat ist eigen, konturlos, verschwimmend in Farben und Formen, ausufernd und ungreifbar wie ein Traum.
    Und doch ist meine Heimat dort, wo ich im Moment bin, in einer Hütte zwischen hohen Bäumen am See.
    Vielen Dank für diesen herrlichen Artikel zum Jahresausklang.
    Happy New Year!!
    - Cheers from Canada,

  18. Brilliant! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and understanding the German in the comments, which is thrilling for me. I immediately thought of Charlotte Bronte, who went to Belgium and nearly died from homesickness, and had to be brought back home. I went to Howarth a couple of years ago, and could totally understand why. For myself, I find I am subconscioiusly recreating, not my mother's home, but my grandmother's, which intrigues me. A desire to live in a time gone by, I suppose, but I find I cannot help myself. I only have to smell mint, and I am transported. Funny, isn't it? And Heimaterde, what a beautifully evocative expression.

  19. I have only just discovered your blog - really enjoyed reading it - beautifully written

  20. Well Friko I had just read you post and I don’t know what it touched in me but after reading it I started crying. Don’t really know why, so I tried to understand. I usually don’t get that sentimental – but sometimes, unexpectedly, it will happen. I’ll see an ad on TV with the Eiffel Tower and I’ll get a lump in my throat, or as they say in Portuguese “saudade.” . People here think Paris is a great tourist site, but it was my home, where I grew up. It is also hard because of my French accent – it’s not too heavy but everyone notices it and I am asked all the time where I am from. I have lived in the US for decades but because of that accent I am still considered a stranger. Plus Georgia is really not the same as Paris – the attitude, the values, etc. The language is a big thing for me. I know no one who speaks French here; I only read French comments on my blog. I miss the language. I miss so much now that I am retired and have more time to think about all these things. I never realized what an imprint Paris had on me – to have been born in France, gone to schools and worked in Paris – I took it for granted really. Now I am in an isolated area where people are so different. Last week my sister in law said to me “aren’t you used to living in this country yet? This is the way we are, and this is the way we act and believe – you should understand it by now.” (I wish she would take a course in “diversity”…). I do understand the American ways, but I am still sensitive to many of them. I wish they would understand some of my ways. So I miss my country of origin, my town, my arrondissement, looking up and seeing the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre, the bread, the coffee, the food, the jokes, the walks along the Seine, looking at all the roofs from our living room window in Paris, my friends there. I’ll always be a foreigner here. I understand the concept of Heimat totally – I just did not know the word.

  21. Sometimes regrets for what might have that sadness?

  22. Heimat ? well Heimat isn't really a place for me it's the yearning for being at peace with my self belonging where you live no matter from where you originate. I still live in the same city I was born in , even moved back to the same district but Heimat? Heimat is the feeling I had in granny's kitchen, the walk by the pond feeding ducks feeling protected something irretrievably lost. Living in an other country makes it more explicable but you can be Heimatlos in your native town if the setting is disturbed.

    Heimat ist kein geographischer Begriff. Man trägt sie in sich selbst.”
    Andrej Sinjawski

  23. Well, my my.
    So that's what my "Memories of what I have not known" was all about!

  24. Liebe Ursula,

    am schönsten finde ich:

    Heimat is the place where poetry needs no translation.

    und zwar in dem ganzen tiefen Sinn dieser Aussage. In dem Boden der Galerie der Gegenwart in Hamburg steht:
    Heimat ist nicht der Ort, sondern die Gemeinschaft der Gefühle.
    und auch das finde ich trifft genau den entscheidenden Punkt. Sie hat mich sehr beschäftigt und bewegt Deinen philosophische Betrachtung zum Jahresende und ich danke Dir von Herzen dafür.

    all meine guten Wünsche
    für das neue Jahr für Dich


  25. Hah! Friko! thank you for coming over to see, but I fear you looked at the wrong page. This is the post I referred to:
    If that doesn't make it make sense, then I've failed to grasp Heimat altogether!

  26. The link, Friko.
    Copy and paste the link since it doesn't seem to work as a click-and-go:
    I worry your cyberfeet will be worn to little cybernubbins!

  27. Or perhaps 3/22/09's "Roots and Shadows" is more

  28. Dave King - very much a universal feeling, indeed.

    guild-rez - danke fuer deinen Beitrag, Das ist Heimat.

    Autumn Mist - Heimat is within all of us. It may mean slightly different things in a practical way, geography, history and life changes come into it, but basically we all share this yearning some of the time.

    molllygolver - strange isn't it, we shared a 'home' site for quite a while. thank you for visiting.

    Vagabonde - I am sorry if I made you sad; but for expats this can easily happen. It happens to me a lot.

    Tabor - yes, it is; but also the wish to re-experience something which either never was or, if it was, has gone beyond recall.

    Ivy - Having only experienced the feeling while away from 'home' I never thought that it can be felt even 'at home'. Of, course, as it is not tangible, it must exist outside of geography too. Man traegt Heimat in sich - Heimat is carried within oneself.

    veredit - Danke fuer deinen Beitrag. Dein Zitat ist genau passend, ich werde es mir merken und in meine Schatzkammer legen.

    June - you have got it right!
    And yes, I am on my knees by now, even the stumps have been worn away!

  29. Was ist Heimat? Ahhh, doch eine sehr schwierige Frage, meine liebe Friko. :-)

    Heimat joins that group of words that cannot be semantically explained away like more totalitarian-minded ones. The Portuguese 'saudade' is part of that rebellious brigade.

    I have just read this beautiful post at almost the stroke of midnight and I feel sad and euphoric at the same time. As you aver in your wonderfully written column, you are in regular contact with other expats and I guess that together we make up that 'Heimat', that 'saudade'.

    Ich wunsche Ihnen und ihre Familie ein gutes neue Jahr.

    Greetings from London.

  30. I've come back three times to read this post and until now have been unable to comment. I may have to come back again, or address the topic in my blog at a later date. I don't think that Heimat can really be described or delineated, but you've done very well in building the feeling - because that's what it is. I agree with Ivy, that one can be heimatloss at home. I sometimes wonder if I am crazy at the number of diverse smells, sounds and locales that call to me, but then I have to remember that by the time I was ten years old I'd lived on an island on the Altantic where the air smelled of salt and coal dust; on the prairie of western Canada where the sun shone hard and bright all winter and where everything was bigger and more colourful than anywhere else; on a hill behind the Kurhause in Baden-Baden, so that chestnut trees and winding paths along small canals say 'home'; in the fertile, rolling hills of southwestern Ontario where summers were hot and winters so wild that we could dig forts into the drifts. I've been back to all of these places, even living for a short time in a couple and I can say that the wonderful feeling of 'home' is often followed by a terrible feeling of loss. Those places are all part of me but I know, most certainly, that I don't belong in any of them.

  31. Thank you, Friko. I know something (Heimat) now that I didn't know twenty-four hours ago. Must keep those synapses firing!

  32. This comment has been removed by the author.

  33. Friko, I've just discovered your blog (via Pondside) and will be sure to come back in the future. Like you I was born in Germany but have lived in Canada since the age of 9 so that is really "meine heimat". That having been said there are sounds and smells that take my right back to my younger years and I do cherish them. I've been back to the town I was born in twice and each time was disappointed - it really was not the same as I remembered. The quote in one of the earlier posts "Heimat ist kein geographischer Begriff. Man trägt sie in sich selbst.” is very true. Wishing you a healthy and happy 2010.

  34. I haven't read all the comments so someone may already have said this:- We don't have an appropriate word in English but the Welsh do - hiraeth which is best translated in English as the longing, or yearning for home.

  35. Oh my, what a post. I've never heard of the word Heimat before, although my parents grew up speaking German. But it completely describes the longings I feel for places where I've lived and even those places I've visited that strike something deep within me. They've all become part of me and influence who I am today.

    thank you for this,

  36. Friko - by way of Pondside, I have found your blog & have learned a new word - Heimat. What wonderful thoughts you have generated. I suppose I have moved and traveled a bit during my 65 years, but what is strongest for me is triggered by a smell - a cherry pie baking, & I am once again in my Grandmother's, secure & loved. I can still hear her singing old hymns as she baked. Never go back again? I wonder if I ever really left...
    Thank you so much for this posting.

  37. CarlaHR - thank you for visiting - I'd love to return the favour but your profile doesn't seem to give me the name of your blog. I'd also like to exchange more information so if you read ths please let me have your blogaddress.

    Scriptor Senex - thank you for visiting - somebody else had exactly the same thought as you. It is very interesting that Welsh should be the language that has an equivalent for Heimat. Somebody else said that there is also a word in Portuguese.

    Lorrie - thank you for your comment, you seem to have understood the feeling exactly.

    Taylorsoutback - You are lucky if you still carry the feeling within you to the extent that you feel you may never really have left. Heimat is so often the word for what we have lost. Thank you for visiting.

  38. Taylorsoutback - another comment from somebody whose blog I can't find. Please make yourself known if you can and I will visit your blog and say hello.

  39. Hi again - you can find me at
    where I usually am deep into quilting, when not vacuuming up sheltie fur or living in our gardens during our short Northern Wisconsin summers...which seem very far away right now!
    Come by for the visit!!

  40. Friko, I'm so glad you told me you had written this. I missed it because I was 'in transit' from Canada to France via Belgium. It's beautifully written and eloquently expressed - and had I seen this first, I wouldn't have written my own essay. However, because of reading the comments I have made the acquaintance of Pondside and Vagabonde, whose comment was heart-wrenching.

    I will always keep my roots in Canada, of that there is no doubt. I hope I didn't come across as being discontent or complaining about my situation - it gives me much pleasure, diverse experiences and is highly stimulating to be able to live in two such different places. It's just that there is a marked difference in how comfortable I feel in each place. And I always miss my kids, although there's something to be said for not knowing too much of what goes on!

    You write so well, and are so thoughtful in what you say. Very restful to read you. Thanks for pointing this post out to me - and for accepting the invitation to visit Maggie. i think she might be enroute now

  41. Deborah - I am glad you looked up this post; It seems to have a hit a great many buttons for so many of us.

  42. Having never blogged before, and having no idea what to expect, I found this blog and comments perceptive, moving and thought-provoking. I was pleased, for instance, to learn of hiraeth. For me as for many of the commentators heimat embodies something formative, evolutionary and developmental. For that reason it would be difficult for me to identify heimat with a particular place and preferable to think in terms of types of places. There is sense in which heimat tends to the static as distinct from the evolutionary. It is therefore, perhaps, possible to identify an internal tension in notions of heimat, a clash between the tendency towards assimilation and that towards differentiation. It is perhaps its integration of the static, the evolutionary, the assimilationist and the differentiational (ugly word - sorry) that explains the appeal of that mind-catching phrase - 'the things that have become a part of me and influence who I am today'. Finally, I found it striking how much of the comment was linked by a common but underlying concern with youth and simplicity. As for absences? I anticipated more preoccupation with both religion and music. If that reflects the balance, I wonder how it might be explained, and whether there are things that we exclude, not wishing to admit to influences with which we now find ourselves ill-at-ease?

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