What is Heimat? - A contemplation about the notion of home for Thüringer Literaturrat

What is Heimat? – A contemplation about the notion of home for Thüringer Literaturrat

Original in German: Contemplating about Heimat

Raw English translation:
I have lived in Switzerland for more than twenty-six years and always on the border. In Basel it was still a few hundred metres to France and Germany, but for sixteen years the river passing by the house has been the only thing separating me from Italy. The bridge over it is a border post.
Until a few months ago, of course, special entry and exit regulations applied here too because of the pandemic. Since time immemorial, borders have been lines where the differences between the spaces behind them collide. The bridge in front of our house was the site of the so-called Sushi War last year.
The trigger for the fortunately bloodless conflict was shrewd Chinese restaurateurs with a focus on raw fish who had settled on the Italian side in recent years, and their devoted clientele, who reside almost exclusively in Ticino.
Anti-corona measures on both sides of the border had brought the sushi business to a standstill, but suddenly transactions were taking place on our bridge, with packages of salmon and euros (or francs) changing hands. Punctually and every day towards evening, the Ticinese queued up at the border crossing. Our mayor, who incidentally had kindly welcomed my Singaporean wife to the wedding ceremony, spoke on the radio of an unacceptable situation, of chaos at customs and that these gastronomic incursions from the neighbouring country were undermining entrepreneurship in Ticino.
The cantonal police and customs administration were called upon to impose order. But the desire for Italian-Chinese sushi was stronger and the Italian authorities turned a blind eye, so that the queue only dissolved when the border was opened and the sushi war came to a silent end in the rush of Swiss customers to the Lombard shops.

In the last sixteen years I have often been asked why I live in this area of all places. After all, I had also lived in Berlin, London, Dubai and Hong Kong at the same time. Nevertheless, I am now even entitled to call this Malcantone village home. Why?
I tried to find out the answer last year while shooting a documentary film, it’s called Outland. Together with friends and acquaintances who may ask themselves the same question because they find themselves in a similar situation. For all of us, Ticino has become a new home.
As it turned out during the filming, none of the protagonists has become truly and completely at home. All of us who have at some point decided to pitch our tents here permanently are familiar with this state of limbo between belonging and remaining foreign, which is perhaps the basic mood of every emigration.
Those who voluntarily leave the country of their birth often renounce certainties that they did not know existed before they left. For example, the previously unshaken conviction of being there because one has always been there. Even if one later obtains a new right of residence somewhere far away, this conviction is quickly lost. You get used to a new realisation: the fact of not being a native.
My story with Ticino begins in the mid-1970s. The teenager in the GDR that I was at the time discovered in the early prose of Hermann Hesse, UNDER THE WHEEL for example, an anarchist spirit that rebelled against authoritarian systems such as school and the world of work.
In the socialist school system of those years, pupils were already assigned to so-called brigades in primary school in order to internalise in good time the drill that would come to them in the following years. The unforgiving reading of Hesse offered an antidote to the brigade regime.
Although the author was little published in our East during this period, my grandfather’s library had survived the war (which had taken his grandfather) and communism intact. In one of the books in it, I came across a photograph of Hesse that seemed to me to epitomise the independence of the artist in a world of dependencies: the poet in the garden of Montagnola above Lake Lugano, the mountains in the background. Others might dismiss this pose as kitsch. For the teenager behind the Iron Curtain, the photo seemed like the encouraging symbol from a freer and, moreover, somehow fantastic world.
Although my interest in Hesse had long since waned, I made a stopover in Montagnola on my first holiday trip south. Naturally, this trip to Italy (which was probably obligatory for Germans) could only take place after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The GDR brigade system had finally had its day. I was young enough to start over again. The view over Lake Lugano seemed to confirm the teenage dream of yesteryear. The fantasy of the landscape, the freedom of being an artist. In the nearby churchyard of Gentilino, I visited Hesse’s grave and happened to find that of Bruno Walter, the conductor of the century, and of Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball, the co-founders of Dada.
This first stay in Ticino, filled with idealistic fantasies of the kind that seem to occur frequently among visitors, was at the same time accompanied by a strange thought, absurd in itself. After the unloved GDR homeland had just fallen and while a new Germany was forming in which there would apparently be first- and second-class Germans, the landscape around the lakes beyond the Alps seemed to offer a counter-world in which I could imagine living. To be there.

At about the same time that I discovered Hesse, I was following the Cologne concert in a small Thuringian town on the border to Hesse in the “black channel”. Not Keith Jarrett, but Biermann. The charm of the sixties, when West German television was still really forbidden, gradually gave way to an evening TV practice. But this time it promised to be exciting again. It was not necessarily a musical event. In fact, it wasn’t even really a concert. The man on stage talked and argued at length with the audience between defiantly strummed songs about things that were taboo here: Mao, the Prague Spring, 17 June 1953.
At some point it happened. The singer quoted Hölderlin, Half of Life. After the maybe one and a half minutes he spent reciting the fourteen lines in his sentimental dumpling style, nothing was the same for me anymore. “The walls stand speechless and cold”, he had said, “in the wind the flags clang”.
Truly, the walls stood speechless and cold. Was that half of life? And what would the other half bring? Whatever I had to say or even think about later, no matter the situation, no matter the language, these questions were always there.
That very evening, I looked for the Hölderlin volume in my grandfather’s library I mentioned earlier. I read Hyperion, which was the subject of the Cologne concert, read “Thus I Came Among the Germans” and in it the sentence about the status of poets who lived like “strangers in their own house”.
Their own house was at the haggard end of the Black Channel in that November of 1976. Hyperion and Biermann had left their own house – albeit involuntarily. For me, for the time being, there were only its cold speechless walls and the clanging flags on the roof. I wrote verses and worked my way through my grandfather’s library, from Hans Dominik to Thomas Mann and Gottfried Benn. My personal alternative to GDR Germany. The other half of life. A lonely counter-happiness in an officially neglected niche of real-existing socialism.
The niche of books offered what the GDR withheld: a home. A Germany that was free, exciting, tragic and sometimes even funny. So it was that my grandfather’s library brought me among Germans, in whose company I felt less of a stranger than at school, for example. I became familiar with Jakob Fabian and Tonio Kröger, with Droste and Gerstäcker, Zarathustra and Kara Ben Nemsi, among others. And the more often I stepped onto marble cliffs or wandered through the moors with the boy, in the gorges of the Balkans, on the streets of Döblin’s Kopfberlin, the more this landscape of poetic invention replaced the reality of socialism. In the end, the GDR was a stale legend, my grandfather’s library, on the other hand, enriched by the accesses banned in the country, which I had bought under the table in second-hand bookshops, the only convincing reality.
Then the speechless walls fell. Calculated in years, about halfway through my life so far. The angel of history only had to wink and the GDR fiction was gone. But the reality of the forbidden books and the homeland they promised also lost their persuasive power since all the splendour from Sigmund Freud to the Tibetan Book of the Dead was offered for sale on shop shelves. Since the forbidden was no longer forbidden, it became foreign. Thing-like. Cold and speechless. A commodity that was apparently not particularly sought after in general.
I can only speak for myself. The real discovery was the powerfully opening space behind the shops and their guardians. The new reality of the common Germany was more chaotic and tangible, more hasty and initially more intoxicating not only than the pale GDR, but also than home in the grandfatherly library. If books had already invited us to travel, now geographical paths as well as those of the senses and cognition soon led far beyond all previously imaginable borders.
Admittedly, the magic that the West had sent out through the black channel and that continued to work in the early days after 1990 could not hold its promise forever. After a few years, I left Germany, never to return, as would become clear much later. The main character of my first novel, Robert, called himself a non-native in the eleventh year of the second half of my life. At the time, Robert held my opinion on the matter.
But it was a polemical opinion. In truth, the homeland followed me, disembodied as a shadow. It did not remain Hyperion’s original idea or the one from my grandfather’s library. Rather, it became part of a contradictory catalogue of ideas that other people had about the Germans and this nation, which I could no longer avoid now that I had gone among the others. My idea of home became more sceptical, more modest. But it never lost its weight.
Outside, I had to learn how strange it was to be a German. For example, when I stood in front of the committee in the lecture hall of a Soviet university that had to judge my final examination in quantum chemistry, a professor, whose blouse was decorated with several Red Army medals, gave me the message to my compatriots on the way home that we should never forget that the Soviet Union was invincible. The city where I had studied for five years had once been occupied and destroyed by my grandfathers’ generation. It is only a two-hour drive from Kharkiv.
Ten years later, just designated as director of the Basel Theatre, I dissolved the classical ballet in favour of a modern dance theatre. The ballet lovers in Switzerland took to the streets in protest. And since the ballet had its day off on Mondays, the demos were held on Mondays and called Monday demos. From then on, I saw the German with two faces: the loudmouth from the north, from a Helvetic point of view, and the insecure easterner who had already met the loudmouth at home after 1989. Here, in the mirror on the Upper Rhine, I had both faces myself.
Ten more years later, an Iranian businessman explained to me in his Brabus during a heat-drenched drive through the Emirati desert why his country’s authorities held the German passport in such high regard than any other Western identity card: after all, my ancestors had done their best to abolish the Jews.
The neighbours near and far, in Ticino or in Singapore, each have their own idea of this nation. Some of these ideas are unpleasant or dangerous, but each one sharpens the senses for one’s own origins. The longer I am away from Germany, the more I see this successful, introverted country through the eyes of others. A few more years and half of the Germans will only know the time of division second-hand. A few more decades and no one will have been part of that failed experiment of a workers’ and farmers’ state on German soil. Although history is fading, it continues. How else can the current events in Eastern Europe be understood? – Fronts are marching again. And the despotic sound that accompanied the first half of my life is back: the clanging of flags.

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