In German class the other day, my teacher and I were discussing the word das Heimatland. Google translate will tell you it means homeland, a simple enough translation. Type in Heimatlos and, unsurprisingly, if you’ve ever studied German, you get the translation homeless. However, taking a detour from the course book (ironically, given that we were studying travel and directions!), my teacher and I discussed the more philosophical meaning of the word: stateless or without homeland.
Then she asked me the question that every expat gets asked at some point: Helen, where is home for you?
Well, I live in Heidelberg. I have a home here. It’s a flat that I share with my husband. My belongings are in the cupboards, and my photos are on the wall. We chose the furniture, we sleep here, we have friends over, and most of our mail gets delivered here. Home is the the only word I’d use to describe it.
And Heidelberg in general? Of course, it’s a place I love. It is a place where I feel safe, where people I care about deeply live, and where I come back to and feel, well, at home.
Home, though, is not geography. It is not four walls or a postal code.
Home is a call in the middle of the night that makes you want to teleport out of wherever your head was resting to the side of a loved-one. Home is the sound of your phone signalling news from afar, with photos and updates that bring a smile to your face and a heaviness to your heart, a deep regret at being so far from home.
Sometimes the place that is usually home ceases to be so homely. When my thoughts are almost 1000 km away, home is by my best friend’s side, with her family, our family, safely together.
Home is where your heart travels, figuratively reaching out to the people you love. And when my heart travels without me, my physical home and my life here become alien and upsetting. I feel foreign and detached from my roots.
Because that is the nature of home; it is a matter of balancing where you are with where you’d rather be in time and space. It is a matter of having heart, body, and mind all in one place.
Perhaps that’s where the world homesick comes from. You feel homesick because you find yourself torn. You find yourself physically in one place and mentally in another. This tear in your self results in emotional illness, sadness that feels like sickness, and the isolation of being in one place and feeling like you’re in another.
Because when heart, body, and mind aren’t in one place, you are Heimatlos.