A popular song in German radio last year had a catchy, twangy hook: “I got no roots but my home was never on the ground.” I heard it every time I got in a cab, in stores, in coffeeshops—and inevitably, it became what the Germans call an ohrwurm, or earworm. It was stuck in my head, feeling the perfect summary of the years since I left home at 17. But the question has always been, do I have no roots? Or do I have strong roots that allow me to grow far away from the trunk’s thickness, flourishing in cold and unlikely places?
Today marks the start of my third year in Germany, which seems as impossible as it does normal. Two years, two cities, two jobs. A revised concept of what home means, and where it is located. A post from the New York Times two days ago said we should all be embracing the German word, heimat, pronounced, high-mat, as the go-to word for our globalized world. “Heimat describes not just a geographical place, but a state of belonging. It’s the opposite of feeling alien,” says the Times. “Heimat is about the landscape that left its mark on you, the culture that informed you and the people that inspired you.”
Where is home? is a topic frequently brought up in my expat groups and forums. We post often about things we love about our new countries, but also about the myriad of ways that it drives us absolutely insane. We celebrate the arrivals of care packages stocked with goodies from home, we sympathize with cross-cultural in-law troubles. I watch these dramas unfold on my screen and wonder why it is that we do this—pick up our lives, our jobs, our loved ones, and drop them into these alien situations. It’s hard, it’s easy, it’s exhilarating, it’s frustrating as hell. Where is home? We answer in the form of what look like emoji equations, little formulas of flags in a line.
I am sentimental about the concept of home. For me, it will always be the microcosm of the Bay Area. I identify as a Californian, not an American, when people ask where I’m from—not because the national mantle of being an American abroad is a heavy one to wear right now, but because it’s the only answer that truly occurs to me.
Berlin feels more like home after just four months than Hamburg ever did. The mix of languages, the international bohemian vibe, the grittiness of the streets, the defiant progressiveness—all remind me of the Bay Area of my childhood. As San Francisco slips into techdom, it feels further and more foreign. Is Berlin meant to be home? People ask all the time if I plan to stay in Germany, and my truthful answer is that I can’t imagine going back to the States right now. It feels charged and sad to admit that.
Tim and I have snaked down tentative roots here: a proper apartment with room to grow, a sweet dog, new jobs based out of the capital city. As good as it feels to settle down somewhere, to stake our claim, I have to admit, I’m happiest in the in-between. Not quite gone, not quite there.