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.