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Monday Postcard #39 – What is Heimat?

Monday Postcard #39 – What is Heimat?

Monday Postcard 39 What is Heimat

Heimat – no week goes by without noticing the word when I read the Austrian news online. “We have to be true to our values.” “We need to protect our homeland.” After more than six years of living abroad, dating someone with a completely different background, I always ask myself what we actually mean by talking about “Heimat”.

I tried to look up the English equivalent of the word. I also asked my partner, an English native speaker, which English term I should use. I noticed during our conversation that it seems to be a word or concept linked to the German language and there is no exact translation for it. In English, we would probably use “country”, or, in an old-fashioned, or even populist sense, “homeland” or “motherland”.

According to the German dictionary Duden, “Heimat” has two dimensions: it can either be the country, region or the location where we were born or where we grew up; or, it is the place where we feel home because of spending a significant amount of time there. Recently, the word “Heimat” has been instrumentalized by populist right-wing politicians. I sometimes feel that their understanding of my “Heimat” is wearing the traditional Dirndl-dress or Lederhosen, eat Schnitzel everyday, listen to commercial folk music and ski.

Since 2012, I have lived in six countries. Even before that I studied abroad and did internships and language courses abroad. While I still have a lot of Austrian friends, a big part of my circle of friends is international. Because of my relationship and living abroad, I only use German when I talk to my family or friends in Austria on the phone. I dream in English and German. And very often, I forget German words or sentence structures. I might wear the Dirndl once every two years. Actually, the region in Austria where I grew up does not have the tradition of wearing this traditional type of clothing. My name Elisabeth may sound very Austrian. However, I was actually named after one of my mum’s friends who was Italian. While I do enjoy Schnitzel, I hate commercial folk music à la Andreas Gaballier. (I am really jealous of Non-Austrians who might not even heard of this guy.) And I absolutely hate skiing. What does this make me? Am I not an Austrian “true to our values”?

Speaking of values: our current government loves to use the term “our Christian-Jewish values”. I am agnostic, what about my values? And sometimes, when I come home, I see that I have changed and sometimes do not fit in anymore. If I look at populist arguments, do these “values” also implicitly mean being “white”? I am dating someone with a completely different cultural background – a hybrid of Indian/American/British influences – and a different skin colour.  Will my partner never have the chance to be Austrian then, even if he learns German, integrates and contributes to society?

Repeatedly, we have been told to be proud of our country, our “Heimat”. During the soccer world cup (where Austria usually does not participate), skiing tournaments or when we read about Austrian success stories in the entertainment industry or business. I am talking about the Arnies, Christoph Waltzs, Peter Pilottos and Marina Hoermannseders. What do these have in common? Their success stories were made abroad and only then their success was celebrated at “home”. Can we really be proud of something which is purely linked to the location where we were born or what our passport says? Birth places and passports are most of the time mere luck. And, most of the time, we do not directly contribute to the success of our soccer or ski team or celebrities.

I tried to look at “Heimat” from six perspectives: Firstly, in a pure geographical way. But already this first step is difficult. Austria used to be a massive empire with influences which are still obvious until today. Look at “our” food: a lot of it is from Bohemia, today Czech Republic, Hungary or other Eastern European countries. Secondly, there is the cultural dimension. I think the same applies as to the geographical dimension. So many values, customs and traditions we consider Austrian today were influenced by other cultures. Today, people come to Vienna, Linz, Graz, Salzburg or Innsbruck to study and work, thus, contributing to a “mélange” of cultures.

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We may look at “Heimat” from a time perspective: does it only cover the time we grew up in a certain place? Or does it refer to the longest period we lived in a certain place? The fourth and social dimension, is related to language: is home where people understand my native language? In that sense, regions like Bavaria could then also be considered my home because our dialects are very similar. But I do not feel Bavarian. The fifth dimension is the social sphere: home is where we know the social structures and how to behave within that system. But is it not possible to know social structures of other countries well enough to fit in?

In my opinion, the last dimension, the subjective dimension, probably is the one explaining it best. Where do I feel at home? Which people can I relate to? It may be a feeling we cannot explain rationally. While I will always love Austria and enjoy spending time there, I think I have become a kind of hybrid. I do not think that I can answer this philosophical question here. But what I do want to say is that it is 2018. And even though the current headlines sometimes make me feel beamed back almost 100 years, I do hope that the importance of limiting concepts like “Heimat” will be come irrelevant. Next time you eat pizza, gelato, curry or kebab, think about it if it really was that great to only stick to “our” values and let nobody else join us.

Well, that was philosophical but I really needed to get this off my chest. Have a great summer week ahead!

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