Is your ‘home’ where you grew up or where you live now?
Any emigrant will tell you that you can have - and love - two homes, but with it comes two versions of you
‘Is home always where family is?’
When I returned to Ireland for Christmas after living in Germany for four months, a friend asked: “When are you going home?” They were referring to my “home” in Germany. The question felt like an accusation that Ireland wasn’t my home anymore, that my leaving the country I grew up in to live elsewhere had revoked my claim of being from here.
Any Irish emigrant will tell you that you can have - and love - two homes, but with it comes two versions of you. It is as though your heart breaks in two and there is a part living in both locations: The you of here and you of there, and with it the lives you could live there, and the one you actually live wherever you are now.
Here, in Ireland, you are a culmination of everything you have ever been, from the schoolchild to angsty teen to adult, it can feel like there is no escaping your whole story.
Living away from Ireland, you are solely who you present yourself as. Unencumbered by history you can be the adult Ireland sometimes forgets you are, no longer solely X’s sibling or Y’s child.
These facts don’t change, but how you feel about them does. Home, and what you want from it, is fluid. Anonymity may be what you look for, why you leave, but familiarity may be why you come back. The constant tug and pull of wanting to be anonymous, and wanting to be seen, of yearning to be new and different, but also comfortable, the knowing your given place versus creating it from scratch.
One of Ireland’s most famous emigrants, James Joyce, wrote in Dubliners: “I felt a ton better since I landed in dear, dirty Dublin.”
When I first moved to Germany for Erasmus, I was enrolled in a “welcome” class in an attempt to prevent culture shock.
In what seemed like a concentrated effort to encourage resilience - or tears - they asked what “home” meant. They implored us all to talk at length about our native countries, our friends and families.
They introduced the word “heimat” into our vocabulary, but struggled to explain its meaning. If you look the word up, they said, it’ll tell you: “home in a geographical context”. But the way they described it, was more like a feeling: what, or who, feels like home to you? I’m from Co Meath, but at the time, I empathised with Joyce, “There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away, you could do nothing in Dublin.” The rest of the class’s answers came down to family and geography. (The other Irish girl in the class piped up with “tea!” and we have been firm friends ever since.)
Is home always where family is? Sometimes it is family who cause “heimweh” - an aching for home. Adult children and parents living at home - not implausible given the average age for Irish people to move out is 26 years old - can be difficult. Parents may feel more like bossy roommates, which is worsened if you’re still financially dependent on them. Strained tensions and opposing opinions can further sour relationships and dilute the meaning of family as home.
This concept of home becomes fraught, when you’re trying to work out where or what it is.
Those who leave Ireland know that geography can have little to do with the feeling of “heimat”. Leaving means a personal definition of “home” must be created, no matter where you go or the reason for leaving.
The little things that made up original home can be mitigated while away– Dairy Milk can be replaced with Milka, groups of other expats can be found, your favourite tea can be sent over.
The meaning of this elusive “heimat” became clearer to me over the year, as the heartaches emerged. Although not surprising, it is extremely difficult to be a flight away when you hear bad news, or even just “I wish you were here”. Skype and Facetime help but fail to bridge the gap of distance.
Home came to be defined in surprising ways. The Hill of Tara, a short drive from where I grew up, is something I actively missed while away, as the German countryside just couldn’t replace this idiosyncratic version of home for me.
If “home” is a solid place, then “heimat” is a feeling of being utterly “at home”, away from the world and its harshness, encompassed in a world of your own design, of belonging, safety and free from judgment. Maybe, the definition of home is as flexible as us, and it is a mere extension of our lives, an indication of how we are feeling in our current environment or situation.
Perhaps “heimat” is the place that houses who we are at that exact moment, and the most we can wish for is that we accumulate as many of these moments in our lifetime as possible.
However one defines it, for me at least, “níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin”.