By Anastasia Glaser
Last summer, I visited my hometown. While the sunburn has healed, I still struggle with that word. Am I referring to the place where I opened my eyes for the first time? Or is home the town where I spent twelve years of my life before moving to Essen? Knowing something well does not guarantee fondness.
This past year, “home” has been a prefix to our usual activities and a state of limbo. Underestimating the duration of this pandemic, I chose to commit to Essen. I used to avoid staying in this city longer than necessary. Now, this self-imposed exile has either given me Stockholm syndrome or true comfort. I could not quite put my finger on it and it bothered me. Somewhere along the way, I must have taken the right path. But just to be sure, I obsessed over the hows and whys of it all.
The first city I ever knew shaped my concept of home, beauty, and grime. Stralsund harbors boats and memories as pale as me. The story of me walking out of kindergarten by myself and getting into a stranger’s car is a personal favorite. But home is more than the setting of a few questionable anecdotes. And certainly more than a “live, laugh, love”–poster on the wall.
In this period of isolation, I tried to recreate whatever home has meant to me so far. Never in my life have I felt homesick, only nostalgic. As if home existed on an emotional plane rather than a physical one. The best things about my home of choice are the windows and the rooftop. Every cool cloud I see makes up for every not so cool day. You can imagine my joy when April showers spiced up the whole scenery. It might not have smelt like teen spirit but the rain did remind me of a song. Soon, I compiled a whole playlist based on the scent of this midday rain. The songs’ common denominator was no specific genre or era but language. A compilation of Russian songs which my parents used to play on weekends as well as my own discoveries; all of them smell like rain and fresh laundry. Some even smell like the clothes I used to wear at home once my brother grew out of them.
I thought there might be something formulaic about feeling at home. Once I know where the local ducks reside, once I have go-to spots for different occasions, once I can find my way without navigation, then I would feel like I belong. People on bikes always seem to know their surroundings. While I had no clue where I was going, I figured no one would suspect a thing if I just rode my bike fast enough. Fake it ‘til you make it, I guess. I have made progress on all of these fronts by now. Still, it does not make me more of a local; I am a mediocre city guide at best.
September brought windy rain and with it more epiphanies. You hear stories about it, but you never suspect it could be you who slipped and fell in the rain. Humbled by the physical properties of water on metal surfaces, I developed a newfound respect for rain. I also developed a scar on my knee. Like a natural tattoo with Essen as the artist. I felt honored. This is when the epiphany set in. To merge with another entity you have to collide with it. To feel at home is to recognize something familiar in the other and vice versa. The city’s air is a collective effort. The breaths I draw put down my signature as well. You do not interfere with the city’s flow, things will always flow in spite of you. But some pigeons feasted on the crumbs of your falafel and cars waited for you to cross the street. You have been welcomed into other people’s homes, you were fed and cared for. More than memories, this place harbors people who make space in their life for you.
I will always have my parents’ native tongue to hide beneath. But I have found new places that speak to me and a common language with people who are dear to me. My knowledge of Essen may be ever so little. But every echo of warmth I recognize. Home feels like jokes you do not have to explain. Like facial expressions that seem familiar. You do not go home. You come home. You arrive by accident.