The subject of home has served as inspiration for great art and music from Monet’s gardens to Bonnie Raitt’s ballads to Chopin’s Mazurkas. Ideas of belonging and alienation were central to the German Romantic movement, most famously represented in Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. “Heimat” is the German word that roughly translates to “homeland” in English, though its meaning has long been a matter of debate. The German language is wrought with beautiful words that lack proper English translations (there’s even a word for the weight gained from emotional eating after a break up: Kummerspeck - literally, grief bacon!). I just love these crazy words, but I also wonder if this style of expression is a sort of cop-out. What’s worse, to label a steaming pile of complex human emotions with some combination of letters or to not label them at all? My love for the economy of expression that is so distinctly German is likely derived from my own tendency towards over-condensing the messy emotional bits. So, in an effort to parse out a lack-of-home feeling I’ve been having recently, I want to delve into the concept of “Heimat” that Germans hold so dear. For the purposes of this post, I won’t be dealing with the negative historical connotations of “Heimat” associated with Nazi Germany and, more recently, with border issues in Europe.

Around this time of year, I find myself reflecting on how many homes I’ve managed to accumulate: Boston is the new (for good?) home, Colorado in the summer, Florida is the family home...not to mention what seems like alternate lives lived in Ohio, Indiana, and Texas. I asked my friend Corey when he feels most at home and he said “When I’m totally alone staring out the window of a train.” This resonated with me. We can also feel at home in a song, in a face, in a painting. I love Dalí, but I could never hang one in my apartment because I don’t feel at home in his work. I love walking in Brookline, but I would never run there because I would miss the smell of goose poop at mile four on the Esplanade. 

So, is “Heimat” a geographical location or an emotional state? Rather than settle Justice Potter Stewart-style circa 1964 (“I know it when I see it”), let’s dig a little deeper. My favorite definition of “Heimat” comes from German philosopher Hermann Bausinger: “Home functions as the close environment that is understandable and transparent, as a frame, in which behavioral expectations are met, in which reasonable, expectable actions are possible - in contrast to foreignness and alienation, as a sector of appropriation, of active saturation, of reliability.” Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. If most family homes satisfied Bausinger’s criteria, a whole lot of therapists would find themselves out of a job. 

This morning in this rented house in Snowmass, I think about my rented apartment in Boston and how many of my newly-hung frames have probably fallen off the walls - the Scotch mounting tape is engineered to hold everything in place for now, but when I inevitably move, my home will dissemble easily and fit neatly into boxes. Take it from me, if you’ve got ten dollars to spare, I’d recommend upgrading to Command picture hanging strips. Alternatively, you could save yourself the headache (I know you don’t own a level!) and listen to some Schubert.

Schubert’s setting of Johann Gabriel Seidl’s poem “Der Wanderer an den Mond” (The Wanderer’s Address to the Moon) is a poignant commentary on the search for home. The wanderer contemplates their journey in relation to the movement of the earth and the moon. The folk-like tune is imbued with unexpected melodic leaps and twists of harmony that depict the wanderer struggling in real time with a feeling of “Heimatlosigkeit” or “lack of homeland”. Schubert’s piano writing lends an inexorable quality and at the same time trivializes the wanderer’s plight with its lightness. The wanderer realizes that he or she must cultivate a sense of home from within.

The other night, I was driving back from rehearsal on a mountain road. Django Reinhardt came on the radio. I was headed to a borrowed home in borrowed car, but the feeling of “Heimat” was all mine. I thought of “Der Wanderer an den Mond”. Sometimes revelations come in the form of a cosmic wink. Cosmic wink...there’s got to be a German word for that.

Ann Schaefer

Performers: Ann Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg

Song: “Der Wanderer an den Mond” (The Wanderer’s Address to the Moon)

Composer: Franz Schubert

Poet: Johann Gabriel Seidl

Translation: Richard Wigmore


Cover art: Wanderer by Jamie Wyeth