Home to Me: A German Student Finds Home in a Foreign Land

Today I’m thrilled to host a guest blogger whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years. Svenja Zimmermann was an exchange student living with family friends of ours in 1997, and she’s remained part of their family ever since. We’ve seen each other a handful of times over the subsequent years, including That Time I Rang a Stranger’s Doorbell and Found Family.

These Walls - Svenja ZimmermannSvenja is a 34-year-old wife, mother of three boys, and high school teacher (in German and English) on parental leave. She lives with her family in a small town near Hannover in northern Germany.

I hope you enjoy Svenja’s contribution to our “Home to Me” blog hop.


When I first thought about what home means to me I wondered what exactly the definition of home was in a dictionary and whether that captured my notion of home.

Some of the definitions the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives are: (1a) one’s place of residence, (1b) a house, (2) the social unit formed by a family living together, (3a) a familiar or usual setting, (3b) habitat, (4a) a place of origin, (4b) headquarters, (5) an establishment providing residence and care for people with special needs.

To some extent, I thought, those definitions were right. Obviously number five. Whether the inhabitants of those establishments feel at home – we still call it that. Definitely number four! The place of origin will probably always be some kind of home to people. In my case number two is also correct. I live together with my husband and my three sons in our home, which leads me to number one, because it is a house. Our house.

So Merriam-Webster is right. All those definitions are definitions of home. But still, I am not really satisfied with them. Something is missing. The definitions are ‘lifeless’, unemotional. They don’t suffice.

So, what is home to me then? What is the determining factor? What would I write if I had to define home?

There are three places that are home to me.

Number one is easy. It is my parents’ house. The house my parents built and I moved to when I was three months old. I moved out when I started college in a different city (where, by the way, I never really felt at home). In this house I grew up. I learned to walk and talk, I went to kindergarten, I started elementary school, went on to high school. I found friends, I lost friends, I found new friends, had my first boyfriend (and some more).

Number two is also easy. It is my home. My and my husband’s house. We had it built the way we wanted it. We chose every bit, from the color of the roof to the floor tiles in the hallways, even the socket-outlets. We definitely love our home. Our house. We are raising our three children here, we enjoy spending time on the street chatting with neighbors. We are a family. A mom, a dad and three little boys, living in their house. What else could be more of a home than this?

But then there is a third place I call home. And it is not that I only call it home. Because it was my home for a period of time, I feel it is my home.

The first time I ‘came home’ was in March 1997. I was in 10th grade here in my German high school and went on an exchange to the United States. It was just three weeks, not far away from Washington D.C. with a day trip to New York City. How exciting! I was 15 years old at the time, about to be 16 on March 29th. I celebrated my 16th birthday in the U.S. Back then, long before the real globalization as we know it now, the U.S. was a country so totally different from mine. Of course everybody had an idea of what it would be like from movies and TV shows: Beverly Hills 90210. This was what it was going to be like in the U.S.

When I got there I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t quite like Beverly Hills, but it was still nice. After a long flight our group landed at Washington Dulles International Airport, where the exchange group waited to pick us up. My host sister and I sat next to each other on the bus and we chatted all the way back to school. I immediately liked her although she obviously was not a lot like me (on the outside). I liked tight jeans and make up. She was in her school uniform, not wearing any make up and definitely did not seem to care much for such things. But still it felt like we had known each other for a long time already. When we arrived at the school, her parents awaited us. They were so nice. They weren’t at all like my parents, but they seemed to honestly be happy to get to know me. They were so lovely and cute and I immediately felt very welcome and well taken care of.

Time flew and faster. Sooner than I expected, the exchange was over. I had had a great time at this family’s house. I had spent a lot of time with them: the parents and the two daughters. I hadn’t missed a thing, even though it was not like I had imagined it to be (Beverly Hills 90210) and it was not at all like my home in Germany. My parents were very liberal. I went to parties on the weekends, slept in ‘til noon. In the U.S. I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t sleep in as long. We went to church on Sundays, something I never did at home. Nevertheless, I liked it so much, I wanted to come back. For longer. And that summer I came back, for one whole semester. I came back home.

My American parents treated me as if I was their own daughter. They made no difference. They went to parents’ day at school to see how I was doing, they hugged me, they gave me way too many gifts for Christmas, they planned a surprise vacation to Niagara Falls, they cared for me when I had the flu. But most of all they made me feel loved. And I loved them. I love my American parents, I love my American sisters more than any other people that aren’t part of my ‘real’ family.

According to Merriam-Webster this place in the United Stated can’t really be my home. I am and was not a resident. It isn’t my place of origin. It is a house, yes. But does this fact make it my home? Surely not.

What is it then that makes it home to me? If I look at those three places I mentioned that are home to me, it is obvious that there is one common factor. And that is love. I love my parents unconditionally and they love me in return. I am their child. I love my husband more than anything in the world. It feels like we were made for each other. We can trust each other and rely on each other, we chose each other. Our children are my life. There is no love like a mother’s love for their children.

And then I love my American family. So much. This semester with them changed me, made me another person in a good way. And they made that possible, because they made me feel loved.

Of course Merriam-Webster’s definition isn’t wrong. But one vital aspect is missing and that is love. Just as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said:

Where we love is home.

Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.


This post is part of the “Home to Me” blog hop, hosted by Julie Walsh at These Walls. “Home” can been elusive or steady. It can be found in unexpected places. It is sought and cherished and mourned. It is wrapped up in the people we love. As we turn our minds and hearts toward home at the beginning of this holiday season, please visit the following blogs to explore where/what/who is “Home to Me.”

November 13 – Julie @ These Walls
November 14 – Leslie @ Life in Every Limb
November 15 – Ashley @ Narrative Heiress
November 16 – Rita @ Open Window
November 17 – Svenja, guest posting @ These Walls
November 18 – Anna @ The Heart’s Overflow
November 19 – Debbie @ Saints 365
November 20 – Melissa @ Stories My Children Are Tired of Hearing
November 21 – Amanda @ In Earthen Vessels
November 22 – Daja and Kristina @ The Provision Room
November 23 – Emily @ Raising Barnes
November 24 – Annie @ Catholic Wife, Catholic Life
November 25 – Nell @ Whole Parenting Family
November 26 – Geena @ Love the Harringtons

These Walls - Home to Me

3 thoughts on “Home to Me: A German Student Finds Home in a Foreign Land

  1. Very sweet story. I have a similar story of an exchange student from Montreal, who came to stay with our family when I was a junior in high school. We loved her dearly and love her still 43 years later. We refer to each other as sisters and she calls my mom and dad….mom and dad. Over the years she has come home on a pretty regular basis, bringing her husband and three boys, who all became family as well. Now my sons and her sons are grown and have children of their own. So our international family grows in love.

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