on language & finding home


EUDie Suche nach einer bewohnbaren Sprache in einem bewohnbaren Land”*

The last time I travelled back from Germany to London – my Wahlheimat (which my dictionary translates with ‘adopted home’ but that doesn’t really convey that sense of warmth, choice and voluntariness of the German phrase) – was in late November, just over a week after the devastating attacks in Paris. I travelled with my friend Katharine; we had to change trains in Stuttgart and after a week in deepest Bavaria we were almost dazzled by the effortless trilingual service on the TGV to Paris. Somewhere after Strasbourg we got evacuated from our coach – Coach 18 – though the staff were far from using that word. In fact, they did everything to make this seem like just another part of their exclusive on-board service and led us down the corridors with big smiles and without our luggage. Prior to that they had been looking for the owner of a small battered folding bike decorated with bright plastic flowers around a faded basket that had been left outside of Coach 18 loaded with bags. This must have been such an unexpected occurrence that the trilingual service shrunk instantly to French-only and it took me a while to patch together enough of my remaining Français to make sense of the announcement. That might have been the same for the owner of that bike because despite repeated French announcements nothing happened until we were told with that smile to leave Coach 18. We hadn’t even found new seats yet when we were all of a sudden asked to go back to Coach 18: the owner of the bike had been found and there was no longer a need to remove it from the travelling train… (shorthand for: it’s not a bomb in disguise).

Years ago when I worked at Munich Airport I first came across the acronym PAX for passenger; it continues to fascinate me that pax is also the Latin word for ‘peace’. Currently, travellers in Europe seem very much affected by the absence of peace and seem to balance along an ever so fine line drawn carefully with pencil around the validness of someone’s reason to travel. Back on our journey Katharine left me in Paris where she stayed over at her sister’s who’s made the French capital her Wahlheimat. I continued with a German newspaper for company and happened on the speech by Herta Müller on receiving the 2015 Heinrich Böll Price for Literature. Interestingly, in German she held a Dankesrede – a ‘speech of appreciation’ – but my various dictionaries only offer ‘acceptance speech’ for it in English. I would have really appreciated an English translation of her speech to share with friends because I found it a powerfully thought-provoking, reflective and moving story of growing up in Eastern Europe during the Cold War into a collective psyche obsessed with ‘fleeing’, of feeling homesick for safety and peace, which she equates with ‘feeling homesick for the future’. She weaves in some of Heinrich Böll‘s own reflections on the search for home: he’s said to having asked young students in his university lectures in Frankfurt in the 1960s where to find a bewohnbare Sprache – a ‘habitable language’ – and whether it would ever be possible for the young generation to transform this war-desolated country, Germany, into a State that one could feel homesick for. Herta Müller also shares his astonishing and astonishingly simple observation: that the German word Elend – meaning ‘misery’ – is an ancestor of the German word Ausland – which means in its most neutral sense ‘foreign country’ or, more literally something like ‘outside this land’. He made this observation in a speech** as PEN director when the only word he could think of ‘for the international sameness’ of the experiences of displaced people was the German word Elend. And the connection with Ausland for Heinrich Böll was very clearly not that of going abroad in a touristic sense but that of being in der Fremde which doesn’t translate easily: Fremde being the noun of ‘foreign’ though not for the person who is a ‘foreigner but the place s/he is foreign in, the place that’s unfamiliar, where s/he feels estranged from everyone else. It’s the emotional opposite of home. It’s misery.

Herta Müller and Heinrich Böll have both experienced Elend and homesickness for a future in a very profound way which explains why when they speak about travelling they mean it in this very specific context: there’s no voluntariness in it, no warmth and no choice. It’s a resignation, a running away from a place that no longer is home, no longer safe and welcoming. It is a Flucht – like ‘flight’, the noun for ‘fleeing’. Which also sounds appropriately like ‘plight’, misery. In the same way the German Flucht resembles Furcht – fear – almost too closely to be coincidence.

It seems that this experience of homelessness – of fleeing the home country to find a safe home elsewhere – is somewhat valid in the current debate about refugees which is held along this very fine pencil line where the term ‘refugee’ stands for people who are forced to flee, who’ve lost their home and who’ve got no choice. And ‘migrant’ for people who choose to find a nicer home for themselves than the one they were given by birth. Migrant always sounds a little bit like ‘vagabond’ to me. ‘Travelling’. There’s the German word Wanderlust: the joy of being a vagabond, of walking instead of settling; I would translate Lust with ‘to fancy doing something’ which is very different from the English ‘lust’ and yet there’s almost something frivolous to this idea of travelling for the sake of it. I wonder why to this day so many people in Germany and the UK find the notion of ‘traveller’ so challenging, almost suspicious – and why migration is okay as long as we talk about birds or herds of antelopes who follow a prehistoric instinct. But it doesn’t easily allow for people who might be born with a similar instinct – like my Dad who, when a job had reached its limit for him would find himself another job and if that meant moving across the whole of Germany with his family in the Schlepptau – ‘tow line’ – he’d happily do so. He followed his own instinct and knew when it was time to move on. He passed that gene on to me: I only stopped travelling when I arrived in London ten years ago after having moved home over twenty times which took me across three German states, four countries and two continents. When I moved to London my first instinct was to choose a job that waLondon bikes all about travelling – in the same way Herta Müller remembers people in Eastern Europe ‘who chose the possibility for an opportunity to flee as a job’ e.g. by studying Orientalistik in the hope for a work trip abroad that would present an opportunity to flee into the West. My first job in London was with an international relief organisation and involved regular trips to Darfur and Kabul. So regular that I very quickly grew extremely exhausted and realised that travelling by instinct is a fundamentally different experience to travelling by demand – and stopped.

In German the word ‘homesick’ is actually a noun:
Heimweh which literally means the painful longing for home. So I have Heimweh instead of I am homesick. Making it a noun somehow gives it a bit more gravitas, I find. Like we’re taking this really serious and it’s more than a fleeting moment of feeling sick. To my great joy we also have a word for the opposite, the pain or longing for being ‘away’: Fernweh. For many years that felt quite like a force to me which kept me moving – until I got to London where I suddenly felt a real pang of Heimweh: but not homesick for a particular place in Germany (which would have been a bit difficult given all those many places I called home in the past) but for ‘arriving’ and settling. We’ve got a saying Ankommen heisst: warten, bis die Seele nachkommt: to arrive means to wait until the soul follows. So over the past ten years I’ve made London my home and slowly let the soul follow; I’ve found pax – peace – by stopping to travel and allowing to settle. I often think of London as the city of people that make it their Wahlheimat and bring a bit of their warmth and soul here. In that sense it can be a city of peace, a city of people that are in peace with impermanence, at home in homelessness, that find a sense of belonging in a community of travellers.

It strikes me that ‘settling down’ in German means to become sesshaft – and sess is literally just two letters away from the German word for armchair – Sessel – and then there’s haft which among others translates to ‘imprisonment’. Being prisoner to my armchair. Funnily, one of the first things I did when I realised that I had found a home in London was to get my old armchair delivered here all the way from Southern Germany…

The armchair says it all and I totally appreciate how being a migrant – a traveller – is a ‘fancy’ position in comparison to being a refugee. Though I don’t quite understand why following an instinct is somewhat less valid than fleeing a threat. Why choice is less valued than force. Why there’s no word for Gastfreundschaft in English – which literally means ‘extending friendship to guests’ but gets translated as ‘hospitality’, a word that for some etymological reason is based around ‘hospital’ – and that I’ve more than once and to my great horror confused with the word ‘hostility’.

Some 20 years ago, when I still was at home in that part of Bavaria which Katharine aAngel Wing 1nd I had just traveled back from, somebody once pinned a postcard with a Bible quote on my door, “Vergesst die Gastfreundschaft nicht. Denn durch sie haben manche, ohne es zu wissen, Engel beherbergt” –”don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares”. It was meant as a friendly joke because we had in fact ended up hosting someone in our house that none of us knew but who’s friends used to live in that same student house years ago and it was the only place she could remember when she got stuck on a trip South. She’s still a good friend of mine now and planning to come and visit me in London for the first time next summer.

When my train finally rolled into St. Pancras and I was released into the London Underground I felt a real warmth for my
Wahlheimat with all its lack of logic, its impermanence, its frantic pace, its busy-ness and its many travellers. I also felt a real determination to never forget that I’m a migrant – because knowing this is reassuring and humbling. And also a reminder of one of my core values, Gastfreundschaft.


* The Search for a Habitable Language in a Habitable Country is a title of a book about Heinrich Böll’s writing that has been taken from a quote he’s credited with in a university lecture he held in Frankfurt in the 1960s.

**Literarische Begegnungen: Romanistische Studien zur kulturellen Identität, Differenz und Alterität, Festschrift für Karl Hölz zum 60. Geburtstag, Berlin, Erich Schmidt, 2002


The Author

Writer, Photographer, Craftivist, Facilitator, Founding Director of deep:black. Passionate about learning & discovery. "Immer noch offen"