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Friday, 22 January 2016

What does it mean to leave your “Heimat”?


Odenwald, Germany, 20" x 24" acrylic painting

Blog 4


When I put together my blog schedule for the year 2016, I decided to write about the question “What does it mean to leave your “Heimat”? As I did not know the English translation for “Heimat”, I checked online and was surprised when I found many articles on the subject. I never considered how much interest and interpretation the term has caused.

The translation suggestions were home, homeland, native land, home country, native country. However, these are only one part of the term “Heimat”. For me, “Heimat” is so much more than the place of birth. It describes more a feeling than a place. “Heimat” is not only a reference to a person’s ancestry, and the place of birth, but also includes the mother tongue, traditions and attraction to a certain community which influenced a person’s identity. The word contains a deep sense of belonging, a feeling of security, familiarity, comfort, and carefreeness of childhood. If you have a strong bond to your “Heimat”, you can even get home-sick when you are away because you miss it very much. A move to new territory (not only in the sense of location) might even be the first time you sense how deep your longing for your “Heimat” is. As with many things, we take it for granted and only really appreciate it when it is not in reach.

Many Germans are still reluctant to show their pride for their country due to the Second World War. The word “Heimat” got really tarnished because Hitler and the National Socialists used the feeling of love and attachment to their homeland to create an ideology which rejected anything foreign as a treat to a the survival of a superior German society and economic prosperity.

Many also cringe when they think about the tacky side of “Heimat” which is related to the images related to the very popular “Heimatfilme” which appeared in large numbers after the second world war to satisfy the longing for simpler times. The plot took part in rural areas with healthy forests, and big mountains, where the idyllic perfect world was still preserved. The main characters are young handsome men who held court for desirable young women. There were always hurdles to overcome but in the end the good side won. These movies were meant as a distraction from the difficult post-war years.

Today, with terror and ecological threats, people are yearning for the good old times, and are trying even harder to recreate their “Heimat” by holding on even tighter to traditions. It is no surprise that the interest in traditional dresses (Trachten) and customs has increased. Every society is looking for a place of safety without acts of terrorism, economical, ecological threats and natural disasters.

In Germany, this revival was also due to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Germany was faced with the integration of 16 million East Germans which came from a very different cultural background. It was important to concentrate on the common heritage and values to bridge the gap.

After all this research, the best word to “Heimat” is probably the word home. I felt this sense when I just saw the musical “The Wizard of Oz” with my daughter. I feel that Dorothy sums it up after all their adventures when she says "there's no place like home... ".

If you leave your community, you have to build up your life again. In the case of the move to a different country, there are even more hurdles. You have to get settled in a new city, a new apartment or house, find a job, make new friends, get used to different customs and a different climate. Everyone is a stranger, and you cannot even express yourself properly due to the language barrier. 

When I came to Canada, I already spoke English, I even was a certified foreign language correspondent for English and Spanish. Nevertheless, putting it all into practice is a very different story. With a country like Canada which has residents from all over the world, people have different accents, plus you learn a specific vocabulary, in my case it was quite business oriented. Suddenly, you are in all kinds of situations where you completely lack the words.

I found it very difficult at the beginning to follow a conversation of multiple people and felt intimidated because I was (and still am in some areas) not able to express myself as I could have in my mother tongue. However, after living all these in Canada, there are now also situations where I am lacking the German vocabulary due to the fact that I never was in situation where I needed the German words (e. g. less common illnesses, toys, and technical terms).

For me personally, the hardest part about leaving my “Heimat” is not related to moving away from a certain location. What I truly miss are my family and friends. I still have strong ties to them because these relationships are very important to me. Through a monthly newsletter that I started in 2002, phone calls, emails, and social media I stay in contact. However, I have missed out on most of the bigger events like Christmas, weddings, birthdays, reunions, and funerals. You might wonder about my inclusion of funerals, as they are a very sad occasion. As my children and even my husband hardly know the people who have already been a steady part of the first 30 years of my life, they cannot relate to my missing out. They never had the opportunity to connect except on our short visits. When my uncle died last year, I was all alone with my grief while my family members in Germany were able to support each other in this difficult time.

They problem is, that after more than 20 years in Canada, I would also miss my Canadian friends if I ever went back. I wish I could just commute more frequently between Canada and Germany. I am certainly looking forward to my March trip to Germany.

What is your “Heimat”? Is it a certain place or do you feel that “home is where your heart is”?

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