The Place to Be

The storks have arrived from their African winter bases.

They are busy refurbishing their nest, set up on a pole near the old school building, using fresh birch twigs. The same two storks have summered in our village for years. Our storks, we call them.

Storks are often thought to mate for life, like geese – and some probably do. They return to the same nest every year, this much is true, but the two birds always migrate separately. If one of them is delayed by many days, the other will start looking for an alternative mate.

Last year, my neighbour tells me, the male stork got here early and waited for his partner for nearly two weeks. “He looked pitiful, standing in the rain and scanning the horizon for her – until she finally showed up.”

This spring, both storks arrived within a few hours. Heads bent over backward, they celebrated their reunion by clacking their beaks.

These are good times for carnivorous birds. The droughts of the past two summers killed many frogs but field mice procreated massively. In normal years, the storks stride across the fields in search for food. Now they simply remain in the same spot, standing on one leg, and wait for their prey to emerge from the holes in the ground. Looking distinctly bored, they do not even bother to pick up every mouse that scurries past.

Due to the lockdown, I have lived in this village for over a month now. This is the longest I have been here in years. It is very unusual. For most of my adult life, I just wanted to get away from here.

The reasons for this were complex but they often came down to an ambivalent relationship with heimat. It is one of those vague German concepts, insufficiently translated as home. It basically means the place, a region rather than a country, where we grow up and have our roots, shared collectively, and where we will always belong, supposedly.

Summer Resident

I always hated the inescapability of the heimat idea, and its conformist determinism, which left little space for individual personal development. Instead, I preferred to search for a zuhause, the place not of my origins but where I would find my tribe and belong in the future. What mattered to me was not where I was from, but where I was going.

In this search, I found inspiration in writers like Pico Iyer, author of the “The Global Soul”, who described one’s chosen home as both a real and inner place, social and spiritual at the same time – wherever that place may be on this planet. That sounded good enough to me.

For a long time, I was convinced that I could feel at home anywhere. New York or Hanoi, I could make any city my own. Like many of my peers, all self-styled cosmopolitan nomads surfing the wave of liberal globalisation, I simply needed a place to hang my hat and an internet connection. I preferred short-term rentals to a permanent abode, meaningful but fleeting encounters to lasting friendships.

As a place to write, my place in Germany was not an option either. Bruce Chatwin, who never wrote at his country house in Gloucestershire, once described this conundrum: “Those of us who presume to write books would appear to fall into two categories: the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move. There are those like myself who are paralysed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with writer’s block and who believe… that all will be well if only they were somewhere else.”

So I was always somewhere else, rarely content for long, thinking of the next place already. Things went on like this, with a few domestic breaks, for nearly two decades. For my social life, I relied on the kindness of strangers. A new home, a zuhause, I never found. It became a mythical beast.

My last attempt at settling down somewhere was Athens, this past winter. By then, my peripatetic lifestyle had become a bit compulsive. This malaise was very much a first-world problem, of course, and my moaning about it utterly self-indulgent. I was aware of that and even slightly embarrassed. It was high time to get my act together. After all, I had a book to write.

Where are you from? Greeks kept asking me. They love that question but it soon got on my nerves. As if the answer explained anything. My question was the opposite: where are you going, where do you really belong? I was still searching for a place that, in the words of the German writer Daniel Schreiber, “carried the possibility of arriving within oneself”.

But I was arriving nowhere.

I felt increasingly lost in Athens, attracting strange companions and drinking too much. It was impossible to find a healthy rhythm. Small routines were built one week and broken the next. I changed neighbourhoods but could not bear living in apartments anymore. In the end, I moved into a hotel, as a resident. I felt better there but my room was a base rather than a home.

“You said: ‘I’ll go to another country, go to another shore, find another city better than this one.’” The opening words of Cavafy’s poem The City perfectly described my mindset when I had left home. Now they sounded like mockery to me as Cavafy described the futility of the search for a new place to live: “You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere: there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.”

Then corona dealt a finishing blow to my search.

As Athens went into lockdown, all my friends started to self-isolate at home. Like most nations these days, the Greeks were closing ranks, and outsiders were just that, outsiders – always welcome during tourist season but not in times of a health crisis, when hospital beds were scarce.

A hitherto unknown feeling rose within me: homesickness. As push came to shove, my much-cherished personal autonomy suddenly mattered less to me than a need for security and belonging. Though I hated to admit it to myself, I wanted to be with my people.  

I was longing to get back home.

Fallow Deer

When I finally got here, I felt immensely relieved. It seemed like a homecoming, the end of a long odyssey. As Cavafy put it in his other famous poem, Ithaka: “Keep Ithaka always in your mind – arriving there is what you’re destined for.” This was my place after all.

Since then, as the lockdown has allowed us to reset our lives and revalue many things, I have reconciled heimat and zuhause for myself. I do not see the contradiction anymore, they are the same for me now. Now the grass is always greener where you water it the most.

When the storks return to their nests, at dusk, the deer emerge from the woods to graze in the fields.

They are fallow deer, mostly females and fawns, with only one antlered stag to protect them – against the wolves which have returned to our lands a few years ago. In reality, rather than the stag alone, it is the entire group that provides protection for individual fawns.

Deer do not have great eyesight. They mostly rely on their sense of smell for enemy detection. So if the wind blows in the right direction, away from the deer, one can stalk up on them. The other day, I managed to come within twenty metres, until they finally picked up my scent and fled. Grazing or running, they are graceful creatures.

Call it heimat or zuhause, home is the place that resonates most with your soul, emotionally and spiritually. For this, I have not found a better place than here.  And to my surprise, it is a good place to write too.

I had better start writing that book.

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