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.

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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

That Time I Rang a Stranger’s Doorbell and Found Family (Part One)

Or… one of the times. I’ve actually done it twice.

As my best friend Catey says, “Only you would show up at random people’s houses in foreign villages and find out that you’re related to them!”

Both situations rank high among my favorite party stories of all time, but today you’re just getting the first one. It begins in the summer of 2000, when I was a fresh-faced (rising) senior in college, studying German at a Goethe Institut in lovely Prien am Chiemsee, Bavaria.

My maternal grandmother, who is the historian and genealogist of our family, was pressing me to visit the small German village from which one of my ancestors had come. He, a Hessian soldier named Johann Philip Fiege, was the great-great-great-(can’t remember how many ‘greats’)-grandfather of her husband, my grandfather.

Grandmom had discovered the name and general location of Johann’s home village in an old court record: The Hessian-soldier-turned-prisoner-of-war-turned-American had testified as a witness regarding some milling technology that he was familiar with from his home village of Oedelsheim, on the river Weser. (Obscure, right?)

That’s all we had to go on. I had no idea where this village was, other than that it was along the (long) Weser. And to be honest, I didn’t even recall where the Weser was. (WERMS, fellow German students, WERMS. All I knew was that the Weser was the first in the handy – literally – acronym of the five major rivers in Germany: Weser, Elbe, Rhein, Main, and… I forget.)

But I had some German friends! I had a few young German friends – Civis, for those of you who know what that means – who worked at my Institut. One of them helped me look up maps of the regions around the Weser so as to locate this random little place. (This was before the internet was what it is today. Obviously.) After what felt like forever, we finally found it: Oedelsheim looked like a pinprick. It was situated near the source of the river, in central Germany, about 45 minutes from the University city of Göttingen.

And I was in luck. (1) My grandmother so badly wanted me to visit Oedelsheim that she offered to buy this poor college student a train ticket to get there. (2) The German friend who had helped me locate the village was from a city not so far past it and he (Matthias) was about to head home for a weekend. He could accompany me part of the way. (3) I had another German friend, a girl I’d known when she was a high school exchange student living with friends of ours, who lived about an hour’s drive north of the place I sought. I could stay with her overnight.

(By the way, this friend, lovely Svenja, will guest post on my blog this coming Tuesday. Her post, like this one, will be part of my “Home to Me” blog hop. Svenja is still very much a German living in Germany, but she’ll write about the sense of home she found during her studies and visits in the United States.)

So it was set. One weekend I traveled with my Civi friend Matthias from Prien aaalll the way up to Hanover. There I met up with Svenja (and, ironically, the two American friends from my hometown with whom Svenja had lived in the U.S.) I stayed with one of her neighbors because Hotel Svenja was all booked up, and the four of us young ladies had a great time together. Early Sunday morning, I hopped on a train to head back down south. First stop: Göttingen.

When I arrived at the train station in Göttingen, I stowed my stuff, bought a local map, and walked up to the ticket counter with my finger on the Oedelsheim pinprick.

“I want to go here,” I said. In German.

(Allow me to note that this trip out of Bavaria was the first time I realized that – hey! – I could actually speak German! Bavarians are a proud people who tend to speak their strong Bavarian dialect – or at least a heavily-accented version of proper German – as a matter of course. So here was I, a month into my intensive studies and seven years into studying the language altogether, thinking that I couldn’t really speak German because I couldn’t make out what passersby were saying on the street. But all I needed to do was leave Bavaria! Up in central Germany, I was fine.)

Anyway. The woman working the ticket counter looked at me like I was crazy.

“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, that’s in the middle of nowhere. And we don’t have a train line to get you there anyway.”
“Just get me as close as you can. I’ll figure it out.”
“The closest station is three miles away.” (Distance provided in miles for the convenience of my American readers.)
“That’s okay; I walk three miles all the time. I’ll just walk it.”
“You cannot walk from here to here.”
“Yes, I can.”

Eyebrows raised, she sold me the ticket and emphasized the last return train of the day. If I didn’t catch it, I would be stuck.

So I found the right platform and boarded the train. And my memory might well have exaggerated things for me, but that was a rustic train. In contrast to the shiny, comfy German trains that I’d ridden through the rest of my summer in Germany, this one looms large in my mind as having been outfitted with nothing but wooden benches. And no doors. (Again, probably a gross exaggeration, a trick of my mind.) I know for sure that when I arrived at the station to which I was bound… there was no station. There was simply a concrete platform with a bench. I’d had to tell the conductor where I wanted to get off so that they didn’t pass it by. Now I understood why the ticket agent had been so reluctant to send me here.

But off the train, and off the platform I stepped into a pretty little village. I don’t remember seeing any people at all. I looked at my map and the street signs, got my bearings, and took off. I walked those three miles with a sense of wonder and a spring in my step: this was my homeland. (Well, one of them.) My ancestor might have walked these very roads more than two-hundred years before.

The landscape was beautiful – rolling green hills, fields, streams and woods – not unlike the central part of Maryland where my Hessian soldier ancestor ended up. I wondered whether the similarity helped him feel at home in America.

As my walk neared its end, I found myself up on a rise overlooking Oedelsheim. It took my breath away. Hundreds of red roofs sprawled outward (the village wasn’t as small as I’d assumed), a ribbon of blue river wound just beyond it, and gentle farmland and hills surrounded the lot.

These Walls - That Time I Rang A Strangers Doorbell and Found Family Pt 1 - 1

I was home. For the first time since Johann Philip had been loaded onto a ship and sent across the Atlantic, one of our family was back in the place from which it had come.

This concludes Part One of my story. Now I’ve got to get dinner in the crock pot, breakfast on the table, and boys out the door to the dentist’s office. Please come back later today for Part Two.

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This post is part of the “Home to Me” blog hop, hosted by yours truly. During the two weeks from Friday, November 13 through Thanksgiving Day, more than a dozen bloggers will share about what the concept of “home” means to them. “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

These Walls - That Time I Rang a Stranger's Doorbell And Found Family Pt 1