Heimat und Zuhause

The more German I learn, the more I find myself using German to explain new words because the English translation isn’t quite what the word is going for. The feeling or mood of a word can be just slightly different, and this difference can matter. Where this gets interesting are the situations in which German has multiple words to describe an idea that exists quite differently in English, leading me to understand the concept differently in different contexts.

A recent example is that of the word “home”, a favourite theme of mine on this blog. The English “home” variably means house, geographic location, and where one feels a sense of belonging. In German, das Zuhause refers to the place where one lives and feels, as we would say in English, “at home”. I’ve been asked, using this word, where I feel at home, and I often struggle to answer. Based on my understanding of home, in which I am comfortable with “my people” in many environments, I am at home in a lot of places. This explanation causes some bemusement among my German friends, however, because my definition of “home” does not quite match theirs. (Though I’m not certain my definition of “home” matches many definitions at all.)

The other type of German “home” is das Heimat, often considered an untranslatable word. It refers to where one grew up and the connection to place, roots, or culture that exists there. This is an emotional concept, as I understand it, and I’m not sure a similar idea exists in English. Perhaps the closest is “home town”, by which people refer to the physical location where they grew up, regardless of how they feel about it. (I believe this is an American term; my Canadian parents never used it.) A while ago I saw a quote painted on a building (we have a lot of that here in Weimar) that summed up das Heimat really well:

Heimat is da, wo man sich nicht erklären muss. – JG Herde
Heimat is where you don’t need to explain yourself.

Given this definition, the place that immediately comes to mind is indeed the place where I grew up, but more importantly the people with whom I grew up. With these friends, much can go unsaid between us because the context is implicitly understood. This is the beauty of old friends and old relationships. On the other hand, when I am with people I have met in places new to all of us, there is a shared understanding in the way we talk about that place. We are not “from there” but we lived there together, providing a common context.

This can be true of any place where we live. We learn how to get along with the place, how to function within it, and how it works. My first overseas job was in Malaysia and I used up so much energy fighting the system that my attempts at integration were truly limited. Where I felt most comfortable was in the badminton hall once a week with expat and local colleagues. This is where we had common context (outside of work) and understood each other, and this is how I came to understand what it could mean to be part of Malaysia, though I never went beyond that point. I’ve approached all subsequent experiences with a much more open mind as a result and as such, I have become much more accepting of, “This is just how it is here” and directed my energy towards living with what is rather than trying to create what I left behind somewhere else.

To describe how I feel here, I like the German word wohl, which basically means physically or mentally well. I’ve been asked, in relation to this question of home, where I feel wohl. And again, it depends. This is always around people and less tied to a physical place, perhaps because I’ve felt some sense of belonging in some way everywhere I’ve lived, though not always as part of the place itself. But in terms of my day-to-day, my interactions, the way my life is structured . . . I’m certainly not fighting the system the way I did in Malaysia, but I wouldn’t say I’m always fully confident about next steps here in Germany, either. There are some aspects of living here that I’m still learning and working through, though they are a source of curiosity rather than irritation (most of the time).

Wo sich dein Herz wohlfühlt, ist dein Zuhause.
Home is where the heart is.

I think the issue is that my heart is in a lot of places and I cannot always clearly articulate this. In English I can refer to “getting home” and “going home” in the same sentence (as in, “I just got home from work and wanted to ask you about going home this summer”) and refer to totally different places, which come with totally different feelings. The difference is implied and understood. German, however, has das Zuhause for the former and das Heimat for the latter, which overtly states my emotional connections. In my relationships here in Germany, I can appreciate that the English phrasing is hard to hear for people who very much want me to be at home where I am. And I, in turn, appreciate being able to choose from more specific words in these circumstances.

Years ago, I read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s insightful book, How Emotions Are Made and it helped me understand how language shapes worldview. Sometimes, we just aren’t talking about the same thing and it can take time and effort to recognize that. As I’ve been learning to go between languages, I’ve understood this more clearly. It has made me more sensitive to how my word choice might affect others, as well as the need to be direct and explicit rather than to assume shared implied understanding. It has also made me more aware of the nuance I might be missing when I understand certain words that don’t translate as directly as I had thought. There is, after all, much more to language than what comes out of a dictionary.

Heimat is da, wo man sich nicht erklären muss.
Wo sich dein Herz wohlfühlt, ist dein Zuhause.

Home is where you don’t need to explain yourself.
Home is where the heart is.

Both statements are true, as is much unsaid that lies in between.

Weimar, Germany – December 2021

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