Featured in Colorado Review
Home at the HeartNonfiction
Published Fall 2015
After twenty years of living as an expatriate in the United States, my German husband, Stefan, announced he wanted to go home. And by home he meant the village where he’d grown up, a hamlet of two hundred households tucked into the northwestern edge of the Black Forest, a slice of southern Germany with undulating valleys and heights. He raised the idea of moving one afternoon after I’d put our toddlers down for a nap. He had hinted at the idea before, but always in the abstract; this time he wanted to discuss it in earnest. We sat in the dining room surrounded by toys and dirty dishes, the morning’s detritus frozen in place and waiting for the next round of busy hands. The table was tacky from spilled juice, and there was a small lake of it on the high chair tray. Across the floor was a light sprinkling of Cheerios. You didn’t notice them at first because they blended in with the hardwood, but once you started to look closely, you realized they were everywhere. I took a seat at the table and cleared away objects on the floor with my foot: a sandal, a Matchbox car, a pacifier. When Stefan said, “I want to move home to Germany,” I had been planning for the afternoon. What did I need to take the kids to the park? Now, sitting opposite him, I struggled to shift gears. What would we need to move the family to Europe?
Stefan leaned back in his chair, reached around the counter for a sponge, wiped the sticky spot on the table, and cleared a place to rest his hands in front of him. Just a moment before, the clutter had been little more than a reflection of our daily routine, a snapshot of how quickly chaos can penetrate a household with two children still in diapers. I knew I could wrangle things back into shape by dinner, but when I considered the mess through the lens of moving, it took on a heroic scale. Getting us from one day to the next required tidying and stacking, but getting us from one country to another meant sorting, repairing, cleaning, wrapping, and boxing all of the jam-flecked, crayon-marred wood and plastic bits and pieces of our life. Not again, I thought. Or at least, not again so soon. We had only recently moved into the new house in the new town to be closer to the new tenure-track teaching position Stefan had landed. And before this house and this job, there had been others; we’d relocated four times in three years, each time spanning the continent, from the West Coast to the East Coast and back, packing and repacking our lives in cardboard U-Haul boxes. When we finally landed in New Hampshire, the location had a tribal logic that made us think we could put down roots. For the first time we were only a few hours from my family in New York and (although it still involved a trans-Atlantic flight) were closer to Stefan’s family than we had ever been before. The thought of pulling up stakes again, just as we’d broken down and recycled the last box from our last move, stunned me. When I asked Stefan if he wanted to go back home because he was homesick, he said the feeling was more diffuse than that, more like an imbalance in the air, in his blood, or in his memories.
“It’s not Heimweh. It’s Heimat,” he said. “If you know what I mean.”
But I didn’t know.
The German word for “homesickness,” Heimweh, translates literally from Heim, meaning “home,” and Weh, meaning “woe.” The compound word is from Swiss dialect and originally referred to a longing for the mountains. According to its etymology, Heimweh was first introduced into the German language in the seventeenth century by Swiss mercenaries who pined for the sight of the Alps as they battled their way across central Europe fighting for foreign armies with their signature pikes. The English use of the word, according to the American Psychological Association, is neither about home nor sickness in the way we typically think about a sense of place or a disease; instead its definition describes distress caused by an actual or anticipated separation from the people, objects, locales, and customs that make us feel loved, protected, and secure. Homesickness can flare at any age and is as likely to afflict an eight-year-old at summer camp as a forty-year-old on a business trip. We learn to stave off its effects by re-creating familiar patterns: we eat foods that remind of us home; we seek out people who either know something about where we are from or are willing to listen to us describe it; we keep track of our surroundings, noting how similar or dissimilar they are from what we miss. In the two decades since he’d arrived in the United States, Stefan had married and started a family. He sang the kids songs he’d grown up with and read them his favorite stories. At least once a week we ate dark bread, boiled potatoes, herring, radishes, and hard cheese for dinner, a typical evening meal where he’s from. In winter he cross-country skied whenever he could and came home windburned and elated for having had time in the woods, which were not quite like the woods he knew in Germany but were close enough to stir his memories. Sitting across from him now at the dining table, I watched him absentmindedly poke the beads of water left behind from where he’d wiped with the sponge. He seemed a lifetime away, or maybe he was just lost searching for the best words to tell me why he thought we should leave.
Like the word Heimweh, Heimat has a sense of home at its heart, but there is no direct translation to English. For the student of German looking for a quick definition, Heimat means “home” or “home country.” But search beyond a pocket edition of a Langenscheidt dictionary and the meaning quickly grows complex. Some translations relate it to national identity (such as fatherland and nation), whereas others emphasize a person’s individual and emotional ties to their origins (as in birthplace or homestead). The word connotes a relationship to the earth (like in native soil and habitat). Germans use Heimat as a substitute for the word “Germany,” Austrians use it to mean “Austria,” and the Swiss to mean “Switzerland.” Even more curiously, and perhaps the greatest testament to its intangibility, Heimat is sometimes translated as “paradise.” Put aside any ambition to pinpoint a single, concrete meaning, and you open up a broader discussion of Heimat in the linguistic and psychosocial traditions of the Germanic people. Stripping the word bare of its connotations of region, landscape, environment, and purity, Nietzsche called it the mythical womb of the mother, and Freud referred to it as a key to unlock the feminine and sexual underpinnings of the uncanny. With no context for the word in English, the interpretations are dizzying.
“So, what is Heimat, then?” I said.
“Heimat is Heimat,” Stefan said. “It’s home, but not a place.”
“Is it where you grew up?”
“It’s everything about where I grew up but nothing in particular.”
I felt as if he were reciting riddles.
“Then,” I said, with more condescension than I intended, “what’s the point in going?’
The longer we circled the definition, the clearer it became that he knew, and had always known, something that I might never understand. The historian Peter Blickle writes in his book on the critical theory of the German idea of homeland that all native German speakers think they know what Heimat is, but as soon as you ask them to explain it, they struggle. Had I known that from the start, I might have skipped the semantics lesson and spent the sacred quiet that is nap time thinking about a more relevant question: Could I leave the United States for good?
One of Stefan’s favorite stories is how he came to the United States. When he tells it, he begins with a confession of academic failure. After barely passing his high school exit exams, Stefan’s parents supported his decision to do an apprenticeship while he figured out whether he wanted to go to college. He hired on with a strawberry farm and learned the business from the ground up. He fell in love with the land. After the apprenticeship he decided to go to college to study agricultural science and returned each summer to the strawberry farm to till and plant, tend and harvest. The shortest version of his emigration tale chronicles his apprenticeship, university studies, and an opportunity to study abroad. But Stefan rarely follows this straight tack and instead almost always detours to tell how, in early 1990, the year he left Germany, he worked one last summer on the strawberry farm alongside a crew of Serbian and Bosnian migrant pickers. At that time, tensions were rising as Muslim Bosnians and Orthodox Serbs positioned for independence following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Within two years, the region would erupt into a bloody war. The atmosphere on the farm that season was bewildering: one moment the Bosnians and Serbs reminisced about the homeland they loved and shared, and the next moment, in voices edged with anger and anticipation, they described how they might be killing each other in the streets within a few months’ time.
There was nothing magical about the work on the strawberry farm; it was hard labor from morning to dark. But for those few months, the workers moved shoulder to shoulder in the rows, fingers stained red from the picking. In the fields of someone else’s farm, on the land in someone else’s country, the tinder of politics never ignited as the workers toiled toward a common purpose: to pick enough strawberries—tens of thousands of them—to earn enough money to send home and create new opportunities. It is easy to miss the reflective leap in Stefan’s story, the tenuous bridge between this last summer on the farm and his decision to leave Europe. He never says that he was searching, like the Bosnian and Serbian workers, for new possibilities in a new land. He never says that the workers reflected his ambivalence about leaving the ground he knew best. He never says they demonstrated how soberly such a decision should be made. And yet he almost always mentions them whenever he talks about the time he left home. Over the years, I have watched Stefan walk the rows of his research fields in the United States, bend down to pick up a clod of earth, and roll it in his hand until it falls through his fingers. It’s as though this sifting is a search for something elemental in the earth beneath his feet, something he can’t quite grasp.
After the apprenticeship and three years of university in Germany, Stefan applied for an exchange program in the United States. It was a chance to pursue a passion for sustainable farming and the practices he thought were essential to feeding the world. When his American professor offered to extend his sponsorship, Stefan stayed for two years to complete his master’s degree. And when the same professor suggested he remain to do his doctorate, Stefan stayed longer still. He always thought he would eventually go back to Germany, but when he met and married me shortly before his doctoral defense, those plans were shelved. “I came for nine months and never left,” he says as the punch line to his story. During the three years it took to finalize his permanent residency status, we moved four times and had two children. Stefan’s parents never imagined that his path to an agricultural apprenticeship would end in his pursuit of advanced degrees in an adopted land. To make up for the separation, we committed to spending our summers in Europe. His parents helped us buy plane tickets, and we sought only teaching and consulting jobs with nine-month appointments. Every time we moved somewhere new, we considered proximity to airports and gradually mastered the art of long-distance air travel with infants.
Each summer, emerging into the smoke-filled concourse of Frankfurt Airport, Stefan was a man transformed. He didn’t change in bold strokes; the shift was more understated. He didn’t have the clean-shaven face, smart glasses, or red jeans that German fashion always seems to demand. Even still, with his five o’clock shadow, low-slung chinos, and faded T-shirts, he always fit in. It was not so much about how he looked as how he carried himself, how his body moved in the landscape like a creature in its natural habitat. I think because of our everyday intimacies—because I knew the rise and fall of his breath at night, the scent of his skin when he held me in his arms—I noticed something unfamiliar about him each time we arrived in Germany. In Germany the small of his back had a more delicate tilt, which translated up his spine and made his chest and head ease forward. The end effect was a faint alteration in his expression—a change so quiet that it was easily missed, and yet it made him look to me like a completely different person. This realignment was most noticeable when he spoke to friends and family in Badisch, his regional dialect. Badisch was the language of his boyhood adventures in the woods behind his father’s house; it was the language whispered before his first real kiss with the girl whose name he later forgot; it was the language of his hot-headed arguments with his brother and the loving coos from his grandmother. When Stefan speaks Badisch his voice is deeper, and he smiles more in conversation, even when he is not talking. I have often wondered: If language can change the shell of a body, does it also change the nature of one’s personality? When I asked Stefan whether he thought that he not only sounds different but also is different when speaking in dialect, he shrugged and said, “How should I know?”
When I first met Stefan, he still made small mistakes when speaking English, saying things like “You better don’t” instead of “You better not.” But such slips were rare, emerging mostly when he was in a hurry. In our day-to-day lives, listening to him negotiate the price of the cars we bought and then resold when we moved, discuss the details of apartment lease agreements, or wrangle with utility companies to open and close accounts, he sounded American. I heard subtle hints that reminded me that English was not his first language but never suspected that there might be a better way for him to say what he meant. That is, until the first time we traveled to Germany, and he slipped into dialect and used words and phrases that made sense only in his region, to his people. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that the essence of language is rooted in dialect, and that through dialect speaks the region and, therefore, the ground beneath our feet. The body and the mouth, in the sounding of words, belong to the earth and its growth, and from that growth we derive a sense of indigenousness—a sense of Heimat. The combination of voice and ground conjures an image of Stefan on the strawberry farm, filching berries from the picking baskets, berries still warm from the sun and coated with a silt so fine it is undetectable to the palette. I imagine that that combination of sweetness and grit must have tasted like his childhood, and the childhood of his father, and of his father’s father.
Nap time was just long enough to start a list of pros and cons of moving to Germany. This was always our first step. Before we had a chance to get attached to a particular opinion about whether to stay or go, we tried to pull together an unbiased list of considerations. We were familiar with these lists because of the many relocations under our belts. Stefan got up from the dining table to get a pad and pen. I anticipated the first questions: What kind of job could he find? What about my consulting work? How much money would we need for the first few months? Would we take a financial hit selling the house? Could we find a place to live near Stefan’s parents? Did we want to? This list would be the first of many, rewritten and reconsidered over several weeks as we inventoried our various issues and concerns. Then we would make a matrix to further dissect our options. The matrix would keep the decision-making process, or at least the appearance of it, objective. Whether we agreed or disagreed about what we wanted to do, we liked to think that the matrix prevented us from making choices based solely on emotion. Although it didn’t strip away our prejudices, it at least helped us see where they were strongest.
But before considering our future, I took stock of my present. I had two children under four, a house I could hardly keep up, and a consulting business that landed contracts in the nick of time to pay bills. I could barely predict the outcome of any single day but had assumed that whatever happened would happen in the United States. In truth, I didn’t want to make another list or another matrix, because it seemed that we had attained our goal of buying a house and settling down. Now, just as our lives were coming into focus, the suggestion to move to Germany had skewed the perspective. It was as if I were looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars—I could still see the same content of my life, but what had been near was now far away.
Stefan returned with pad and pen.
“Where should we start?” he said.
I leaned my forehead into my hands, spotted a scrap of paper under the couch, and crawled to collect it. In recent weeks our one-year-old had started eating paper. She scuttled across the floor whenever our backs were turned, hunting up envelopes, receipts, and gum wrappers to shove in her mouth. The pediatrician suspected pica—a craving to eat inedible objects—that was triggered by an iron deficiency. We started her on an iron supplement and kept mail, documents, and newspapers out of reach. I snatched the paper from under the couch and pressed it into my pocket, but instead of getting up, I stayed on the floor to appreciate the room from a toddler’s vantage point. Would our daughter miss this house? Would one place look like another through her one-year-old eyes? At what age do you develop a sense of home? Only this was clear to me: we couldn’t move before the pica was resolved. It would be impossible to keep loose paper off the floor while I packed. Before I had the kitchen dishes boxed, her belly would be tied up with wads of cellulose. I stood up and sat by Stefan, who had already started jotting down notes. I decided to put faith in our system: first the lists, then the matrix. No one was suggesting we start packing when the kids woke up. And yet, unlike the many other relocation decisions we had weighed and balanced, I sensed that something unique was at play. It had to do with ephemeral smells, elusive dreams, and muscle memories. It had to do with an ancestral call to reclaim what was at once familiar and intangible. It had something to do with our future as a family and everything to do with Stefan’s past. How do you catalogue that as pros and cons?
Over the course of the next few weeks, we started gathering information. Stefan reconnected with friends and old colleagues in Germany to explore potential job options. He called realtors to check out the rental market. I reviewed my client list to see what, if any, work I might be able to do overseas. I scanned real estate websites to gauge how fast houses in our area were selling and called our accountant to find out what our tax liability would be if we put the house on the market. I thought about what I would do all day in Germany if I couldn’t work and toyed with the appeal of being a stay-at-home Hausfrau. But really I spent most of my time thinking about what I would miss. I picked things up—ceramic bowls and vases, framed photos, coffee table books—and wondered: what would make the cut when it came time to pack? One afternoon I pondered the lamp that I’d had since second grade, the one that no longer worked. Would I miss it? And what about the glider rocker in which I nursed the kids or the antique highboy I bought with my mother for my fourteenth birthday? Surely we’d leave behind our collection of National Geographic magazines. It was one thing to cart them across the country, but quite another to ship them overseas. For weeks I was fixated on things—how much they weighed, whether they were breakable, if I could fit them in my pocket. One afternoon I remembered a conversation I’d had with Stefan during a visit to Germany. We were sitting at an outdoor café, when he said “I miss this.”
“What?” I said, darting my eyes around, trying to guess where he’d fixed his gaze.
I could have pointed out countless things: the waitress in a dirndl, the apple cake on the table, or the backdrop of rolling hills of Zwetschgen trees weighted down with plums. Or was it the scent of cut wood and manure mingled with the aroma of sugar and steamed milk? It was Kaffee and Kuchen time—the afternoon hour for coffee and cake in a café not far from a dairy.
What did he miss?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Just all of this.”
“This,” I learned over time, was not something that I could pack in our bags and bring back to the United States. “This” was not something I could memorize, purchase, or fabricate. From the first year of our relationship, I had looked for such tangibles, anticipating that one day he might want to return home. I thought that if I could make our home in the United States feel more like his in Germany, he might be satisfied to live the rest of his life abroad. But the things that he missed were not for the taking; they entered through the pores of his skin, filtered through his lungs, and wetted his eyes. What he missed was beyond my grasp; it wasn’t anything I could put on the mantel or hang in the kitchen. It wasn’t anything that needed bubble wrap and a box marked fragile. Stefan carried his sense of Heimat with him.
In 1984, German director Edgar Reitz produced a made-for-tv movie called Heimat. The fifteen-hour, eleven-episode production captivated the attention of twenty-five million West Germans, almost half of the country’s population. Reitz wrote that he produced the series to unite a nation that was still looking to understand itself in the generation that inherited the shame of the Second World War. No doubt, five years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, this same generation was scratching its collective head, once again trying to figure out its place in history. It is difficult to imagine what single portrait of the United States—past or present—would appeal to over 160 million Americans. Set your mind wandering across 3.8 million square miles of mountain ranges, deserts, plains, forests, and wetlands and try to describe the signature geographical feature; move back and forth through the cultural divide of north and south, east and west, and taste every region’s unique flair for barbeque sauce; read every story of immigration, slavery, genocide, up-by-the-boot-strap triumph and loss, and imagine how many stories have gone untold; ask a million people what the United States of America means to them and get as many answers. When I travel abroad and people ask me where I am from, I tell them New York City, which inevitably prompts them to say, “Oh, you’re American.” Yes, I nod, although I consider these two concepts differently. As a New Yorker, I know how yellow mustard on a hot salted pretzel makes my lips tingle; I know the acrid smell of urine in the subway station on a summer evening; I know how, in a snowstorm, taxis sound as if they are driving on compressed cotton. Such things might be familiar and ingrained in a New Yorker, but they hardly scratch the surface of what it means to be American. And while I couldn’t pinpoint what it means to be from here, I knew I didn’t want to leave.
A few months after he first raised the idea of moving, Stefan was invited to interview for a job he’d applied for that was near where he’d grown up. He didn’t have much time to prepare and busily made arrangements: he bought a plane ticket and a new suit, found substitutes for his classes, and researched the company. The day before he left, we talked about what it might mean if he got the job. In all the time we’d thought about the move, we’d reached an impasse, feeling that it would be impossible to make a decision until the moment one had to be made.
“If I get an offer, they might need me to tell them quickly,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
From the time Stefan first suggested we move, my focus had been more on whether I could see myself living in Germany than whether I could imagine myself leaving the United States. He knew how to be away from home; he had spent more than two decades adapting to life here. I worried that I was in for a rude surprise because I had had no equivalent training. But each time that anxiety rose up in my throat, I swallowed it back down, thinking about the months we visited every year, the friends I’d made there, and my fluency in German. Surely those things would smooth the transition. But something else ate at me, an uncertainty that didn’t come so easily to the surface and seemed to squat in my belly.
Some years before, on a trip to visit his family, Stefan’s father asked us to help him figure out how, after being cremated, we could get our hands on his ashes. At the time in Germany it was illegal to release cremated remains to family members because it was not permitted to scatter ashes on public or private land; they had to be interred. One evening around the dinner table we plotted an outrageous caper for smuggling my father-in-law’s body into France, where the rules for cremation are more relaxed. In France, his remains would be returned to us, and then we could smuggle the ashes back into Germany and release them in the Black Forest, where he had played as a boy and later watched his boys play as children. The conversation had been amusing at the time, but it came into sharp focus now as Stefan packed his bags.
“Can you imagine yourself living in Germany?” he asked me as he folded shirts to put in his bag.
“I can see myself living there,” I said. “I just can’t see myself dying there.”
Stefan stopped what he was doing. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
For the first time in our discussion about moving it seemed we were speaking the same language.
Dionisia Morales is originally from New York City but now calls Oregon home. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Hunger Mountain, Fugue, the MacGuffin, Cream City Review, Brevity, and other journals.