“Mummy, where are we from; where is our home?” asked my 10-year-old daughter Natascha in perfect German in the car on the road from Cape Town airport. She had just returned on her own from Hamburg, spending five weeks’ school holiday with her German granny. Tanja, her sister and one year younger, also looked at me enquiringly. I was so surprised by this question, I blurted out, “What do you mean?” Then, I remembered the saying “home is where your heart is”, except that I did not say it quite that bluntly. It took me some effort to explain this idea to a child’s mind.
I had recently separated from my husband, who remained living in “our” house; the children and I moved into a 1920’s Victorian terraced cottage, which I had lovingly redecorated. Each child had her own room, and we had guinea pigs to feed, a dog to take for walks, birds in a cage, and a back yard with a plum tree to climb. It was our new home. Were they questioning this?
I wondered if our life style as parents, all these irregularities in their young lives, could have totally confused them. We had been travelling for two years, living in a Volkswagen bus, country-hopping through Europe, India and Africa. Then it was straight into the rigours of starting school, leaving the family overseas, and now moving again. Their question was a real challenge for me; I had to come up with a good explanation!
I suddenly realized that it did not make it any easier for the children to find their identity or “home” when being born into a multi-cultural country with two official languages (English and Afrikaans). Not to mention the different languages and attitudes of the grocery man (Portuguese), the restaurant owner (Italian), the bakery lady (French), the vegetable man (Greek), the butchery staff (German) as well as the two main native languages spoken by the gardener and the nanny! Both girls were enrolled at the German School but their friends’ parents came from Switzerland, Austria, Germany, England and South Africa.
This led me to draw on my own experience; what does “home” mean to me? I was born in a city called Königsberg in Eastern Prussia, as a three year old fleeing from bombs and the Russians, who later re-named the city Kaliningrad. I had gone to school in Weimar in the East (Germany was still separated by a wall), a city I left when I was fifteen and lived in Hamburg for six years before getting married. Then it was “honeymooning” for six months through Africa, settling in Cape Town. This was now home to me. Never before had I lived anywhere as long as here. This city had become the centre of my life, and the girls were born here.
Reflecting on these thoughts, I could explain to my daughters that you had to find your “home” in yourself, that it does not have to be restricted to a place. A place can change, you may have to leave a place, a place can be destroyed. But as we need something to FEEL “at home”, to have a place where we can be at ease, I assured them that a loving family around you is the best way of feeling “at home”. I encouraged them to believe in the strong bond within the family and to rely on each other, explaining that Cape Town is our home now but that they may also feel at home with Granny on the other side of the globe.
If now, years later, I had to give them an answer I would not reply differently. In the meantime, they have grown up, have made their various experiences and lived in other countries. Both are married, have their own children – and had to find the strength to build their own homes on different continents. When I want to see my daughters, I have to travel many miles, feeling welcomed and “at home” in their surroundings, far away from my own little nest.
Looking back on my advice given years ago, I can only confirm these feelings about home, now that situations have changed. Hamburg has become “home” and Cape Town a place to visit and feel the warmth of good old friends. Germany has become a place with new friends and new possibilities to be explored. I may still feel sentimental when remembering certain smells or dishes (like melktart, Malay curry, chocolate-chip cookies). When lazing with closed eyes on the lawn beside the Alster Lake, the movement and sound of anchored sailing boats can transport me back to Cape Town’s yacht harbour and put a happy smile on my face. Walking the small sandy beaches on the Elbe and watching the wind churning up the water can make me feel at home and homesick at the same time. After all – home is where the heart is.
originally published in Currents Aug/Sep 2008