Home, identity, new diversity

Portofrei: Nora Bossong und Igor Levit in conversation
Graphic: Bernd Struckmeyer

Is your place of origin synonymous with your homeland and with your sense of identity? Or is globalization truncating all of our roots? Nora Bossong, author, and Igor Levit, pianist, debated this point of intersection. Their digital correspondence was postage-free – and is still open for your opinions, rebuttals and questions, in the comments box on this page or on Twitter and Facebook under the hashtag #freepost. Geraldine de Bastion, who moderated the debate, included audience comments in the exchange.

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Geraldine de Bastion: Home is where the Wifi connects? Home in the digital world. Home. It sounds like an embroidered image that gradually fades. Yet the concept of home is more relevant than ever in many respects: many people who are driven from their countries by war find a new home in our countries. Others feel unsettled by change – be it modern architecture, digital innovation or people who look different – and cling on to a nostalgic image of home.

I am a person who moves freely in the digital and analogue world. My window to the world is provided by social media and a video chat screen that connects me to my loved ones. I have my most important memories, favourite pictures, books and photos in the Cloud, with me at all times. “Home is where the WiFi connects” is not a joke but reality.

Many people in my world live the privileged life of the digital nomad: our personal frame of identification encompasses a wider area than the geographical region in which we live. Yet I too feel a sense of emotional attachment to the city in which I live, an attachment that goes beyond my ties to the people who live there. Berlin is my home. And the Internet is too.

What different meanings can the word home have nowadays? Does it mean something different if you are one of these privileged digital nomads? Or if you sit on the sofa at home, looking out at the street from a first-floor window? What does home mean to you?  

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Nora Bossong: Home is the place you yearn for all your life, but want to escape from five minutes after getting there. That is what I think every time I arrive in the city of my childhood and take a look around me: I see the dark green rhododendrons, the old city fortifications, the bare-breasted sphinx outside the museum. Old memories are awakened that seem deeper and more important than all of the memories I have collected in subsequent years. Home is a vague sense of wanting to establish a kind of connection, a connection to ourselves. Anyone who fails to achieve this may sometimes use the word with apparent ease to shut something out, as if isolating oneself could be a substitute for something that really has to come from inside – the ability to produce something.

I walk on to the next street, and the beauty of a sheltered childhood is overlaid with the sensations of my first loss. Then there are moments of yearning again. Simultaneously there is a sense of having outgrown this city and this time, because I am no longer the person I was back then, and because this city is no longer the city it was back then, with its people, relationships, roads and buildings.

And I feel this despite my home town not having been radically changed by all of this in the last thirty years: it was not located in a state that ceased to exist. It was not destroyed in a war. It is not ruled by a regime that makes returning to it dangerous if not impossible. Must not the sense of loss be far greater if that were the case?

Yet home, however fragile or protected our places of origin may be, is never simply a fixed point, but a fictitious point, a make-believe place; not somewhere you spend just five minutes, but somewhere you try all your life to create. It is not something that defines us but something that we wish for, or as Ernst Bloch writes, “a place glimpsed in childhood, a place where nobody has yet been.“

Igor Levit: Home is a difficult concept to pin down – difficult in the sense that it always has a restricting, a confining aspect. That’s how I always felt in the past, at least. The sense of being confined to a particular place or relatively narrow area. These days I have a rather different definition of home, however. Home means people. People that I love, people I avoid, people from whom I learn, people who ask for my advice, people who help me and people who I help. It has probably always been like this, but the one thing that has inspired me more than anything else in my life is people.

I feel understood by and with them, I feel comfortable and safe with them, and therefore feel at home. Ever since I was a small boy, I always wanted simply to travel; not to see nature, landscapes or architectural masterpieces, but to get to know people. And it became increasingly clear to me that it was through and with the help of others that I was able to find myself. With the help of my family, my friends. That is what home has come to mean to me – encounters, togetherness, people.

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Geraldine de Bastion: The notion of home is a construct that not only confines but also excludes us. Aspects that can be comforting for some people, such as permanence, constancy and the dependability of the familiar, may provoke feelings of claustrophobia in others.

Does home have a different meaning for someone from a rural region or place that changes little than it does for someone from a big city that is in a state of constant flux? The face of my home – Berlin – is changing constantly. It is a “face full of freckles”, as Hildegard Knef once sang. My home is an imperfect home that is characterized by change rather than constancy – which is quite different to the way Daniela from Upper Bavaria feels about her home in our Twitter Chat: Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Geographically speaking, or in terms of the people who live there, how big is your home? And how constant is it?  

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Nora Bossong: An acquaintance told me what home meant to our Stone Age ancestors. The area they inhabited could change within the radius of one day’s walk each generation. If they went any further, either for reasons of protection or to find food, they would take not only pack animals and crop plants with them, but also ornamental plants and pets. If it is possible to talk of a “home” in this context at all, it would seem that home is not only a place that is useful and in which we can survive, but also things that conjure up a sense of familiarity for us.

Nowadays we can cross the whole of Germany by car within a single day; in fact, in a day we can even get quite a way into neighbouring countries too, while a direct flight can take us to virtually any place in the world within 24 hours. It is absurd to talk about a radius when it essentially encompasses the entire globe.

Perhaps that is partly why I cannot come up with a geographical definition of what home means to me. Admittedly, I do have memories of places that I associate with home, yet these produce more of a contradictory mosaic rather than a clear or unambiguous picture. My home changes continuously; perhaps the only constant is that it is always places and encounters that are not only useful, but also allow me time and time again to feel a sense of trust and familiarity.

Igor Levit: Home for me has always been free of boundaries, in geographical and above all in emotional terms. It has been and remains an inner state. An emotion, an idea. When I was about seventeen years old, I suddenly felt that the piano was alien to me. Not the music itself, but the instrument – my form of expression, my “home”. I simply no longer had the feeling that I could use my instrument to express what was important to me. I felt like I was in a dead end. Bach sounded wrong, Beethoven sounded wrong, everything was “wrong”. My inner artistic “home”, if you will, was simply in the process of disappearing.

By chance I met two extraordinary musicians during this period, Lajos Rovatkay and Frederic Rzewski. The former a genius of old music, a polymath par excellence who became a kind of guiding spirit for me, the latter a maverick, a composer of contemporary music, a communist, a politically-minded man, incredibly alert and even rather exhausting, an American, a great composer. Both of them such polar opposites, and yet so close.

And suddenly my “home” changed, the two of them becoming my home. Independently of each other, they gave me new air to breathe. They gave me inspiration. It would take far too long to describe this in detail, but these two people fundamentally redefined what home meant to me. 

That is what I was referring to in my first text. My home was never a place, never a nation. Never a city or a flat. It was always … people. It has always been and remains a matter of connecting, exchanging, being together and doing things for one another. It is defined anew every day. Thank God. My home is as big as it could possibly be. It is as free as I can be free.

My family is my home; my closest friends Georg, Julia, Sonja, Frederic, Annette, Simon, Maren, Kristin, Martin, Thorsten, Thomas, Oliver and Sam are my home; my last teacher Matti Raekallio, who became such a wonderful friend, is my home. The memories I have of Hannes Mahler, who has passed away and was like a brother to me and is still in my heart, are my home. The pain I feel now that he is no longer there, the pain that sometimes tears me apart, is part of my home. It will accompany me for as long as I live. And music is of course my home. 

I find it difficult at this point to write any further.

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Geraldine de Bastion: Some initial conclusions: home is not necessarily the place you come from. Home is something that is familiar, a place where you feel secure, something you take for granted. People, language, music – all of the things that can constitute your emotional home. 

The cheap hotel on the corner of my street has been housing refugees for the past two years. The children of the families living there play in front of the hotel. Last week I noticed that they were mainly speaking in German to one another, and no longer in Arabic. “It’s my turn, let me ride the bike.” These children lost everything that was familiar to them all at once. What must their first impressions have been of this foreign land that has now become their home? Of this country that they knew nothing about before they arrived here? The country whose language they now speak and in which they are now at home – albeit in a hotel room.

This week, one of our readers posted the following on Facebook: “I discovered that it is only when you have been away that you get a more acute sense of what it means to be home.” This has also been my experience. When travelling, you learn at least as much about your own culture as you do about the foreign culture. You learn to appreciate the small things – like being able to drink water from the tap – and to see your own idiosyncrasies in a more nuanced way, like the fact that we behave differently in public than people from other cultures do. You find out what you miss most – like cheese sandwiches, for instance – and what you don’t miss: for example the grumpy comments of your fellow passengers on local public transport rather than the smile that you receive in many other countries.

What did you learn about yourself and your home when you were last abroad?

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Nora Bossong: When I spend any length of time abroad, I begin as the weeks and months go by to reach out once again for all of the things that I normally reject, things from which in some sense I have sought each time to escape; any nuance of North Germanness for instance, which whenever I think of Bremen always appears in my mind’s eye as a kind of straitjacket, one fashioned out of Protestant ethics, bad weather and a mercantile rejection of anything wasteful, of anything beautiful and whimsical in the spirit, anything involving enjoyment and which cannot be turned into hard cash and accounted for. When I was living for a while in Rome, I spent every evening immersed in Buddenbrooks, not so much with a view to finally understanding the book, but rather so as to bring the characters and sentiment back into my life, thereby creating a kind of North German exclave in my shared flat in Rome. Doubtless this was because I did in fact feel somewhat lost amid all the lifestyle that I had chosen for myself – the Italian language, Catholicism, the streets of Rome – and because I gained a sense there of just how much we are indeed a product of our upbringing, regardless of whether or not we think of it with affection when looking back, and regardless of whether, given the choice, we would actually have picked that life for ourselves, or would never in a million years have chosen such North German parsimony.

Igor Levit: What is identity? Recently I was chatting to an Iranian composer – an extremely intelligent, inquisitive, bright and alert woman, and thus a quite wonderful musician. I asked her what role she believes that she plays in the society of which she is part. Her answer was as unequivocal as it was painful. “No role at all.” I asked her how she establishes an identity for herself, and the answer she gave was a very beautiful one: through travel, with the help of other people. She talked to me about her trips to the USA and to Europe, and how she had been enriched, changed and fulfilled by this travelling. And then she told me about the drama that so many of us hear about every day in the news: as an Iranian citizen, she was no longer allowed to travel to the USA, pretty much from one day to the next. It was as if this woman had been stripped of a large part of her inner home. She had had the most important door of all slammed right in her face. 
Why am I telling you this?
I travel a great deal and at times my longing for my friends and for home is just awful. I am essentially alone for much of the time I’m travelling, and phoning or Skyping or whatever simply isn’t the same as actually being together with another person. But I take it, I accept it. I rarely complain about my life, and my friends do not reproach me for it either. But no, my view of my home does not change when I travel. My conscious awareness of each moment, each place, each person becomes more acute, more awake, more inquisitive every day.
But home, my home, is always with and in me.

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Geraldine de Bastion: Only this weekend a friend told that when she was living abroad she started watching Tatort (a popular German TV crime series) and several other TV series that she would never have watched at home – just so as to feel closer to Germany. “I simply wanted to hear the language again”, she explained. Language: the feeling of being understood, of being able to make and understand jokes. It is only possible to argue and curse when you have properly mastered a language. Not having to give any thought to the language means feeling at home.

There has been some discussion in our Portofrei series about the best way to translate the word Heimat – as neither home nor homeland have exactly the same meaning. The terms have different connotations and provoke different associations. According to the theory of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the structure of a language also influences the world view of the speaker.

If we take a broad definition of the word “language”, one that also encompasses music, chess or programming languages, to what extent does your language influence the way you view the world?


Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Nora Bossong: During my first weeks in Rome, when I still had anything but a decent command of Italian, I felt when travelling by bus as if my fellow passengers must surely be chatting incessantly about Dante and Da Vinci, as if this beautiful, vowel-rich language – still unfamiliar to me – and the wealth of art and history outside the window were directly reflected in the conversations people were having. The better my understanding of Italian became, the more I came to realize that the conversations were often just as banal as they were in Germany. There was someone who had not got around to doing the washing up, another who was late, and a third who had argued with Lucca – because he was an idiot.
Of course it would be odd to assume that we could see our world beyond language. Our world appears in a strange kind of Now, an blank space between the past and the future. We cannot perceive either what came before or what will come after – we can only imagine it, remember it or put it into words. Our world is also evident of course in our mother tongue, however – and indeed in all its broad diversity, as there is no other language in which we have such ready access to secondary meanings, undertones and plays on words, though also in its narrowness, that familiarity which repeats eternally recurring perspectives, and that has become hackneyed as a result of the profane, everyday phrases that are hardly even paid any attention: “single, please.” “Hang on, I’ve got 60 cents in change” …
That is why I frequently move – or rather flee – to countries where a different language is spoken for a number of months, often with the notion in my mind of staying there forever. Of course, this is a luxurious exile that I have chosen for myself, not one forced upon me by any obvious existential emergency, and also one that can be reversed within a few hours by hopping on a plane. However, the exile – which is a linguistic exile in particular – normally becomes redundant of its own accord even before this is necessary: namely when I have become so familiar with the foreign language that I dream in it and think in it, when it becomes incidental to me and Dante features ever more rarely in it.

Igor Levit: It was the fourth of December 1995 when we reached Düsseldorf. Airport, runway, day one in Germany. A new world, new sounds, a big adventure. A kind of rebirth. Ever since, I have regarded my life in this country as endless good fortune, though not without always questioning and critically analysing it.
I found everything wonderful: the colours, the speed, the unknown, the expectations – but the thing that touched me most of all, the thing that I fell in love with the moment I arrived and still love with all of my heart to this day, was the language. I was crazy about the German language. When I began school, still in Dortmund at that time, I wanted right from the very first day to speak better German than all of my classmates. I wanted as quickly as possible to learn, understand, read and talk to others in German.
A few months later I was ready for my first book in German. My mother gave me a book by Joachim Kaiser entitled Great Pianists of Our Time. The language became my key to everything, opening doors to friendships, relationships, musical experiences, my own self-discovery, annoyance, frustration, happiness, love, confusion and understanding – in short, to everything. And it defined an essential part of something that perhaps was not a sense of home but certainly was a “return”, a return to myself. Even today I find returning to the German language after long tours abroad to be something extremely beneficial, something that is timeless and not tied to any specific place.
I was (and still am) grateful to my parents for taking the decision to bring me and my sister to Europe so that we could begin a new life here. It was language that became the most wonderful “tool”. It became and remained an essential part of my concept of home.

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Geraldine de Bastion: Home may not be such an outdated and irrelevant concept in today’s world after all. On the contrary, home is a term that for most people has positive connotations and is rich in meaning, full of memories and associations.
Over the past few weeks we have been asking how digitization influences our feelings about home, what role in this context is played by language, how feelings of homesickness and wanderlust are mutually dependent, and how people who move to a new place gradually make it their home.
We discovered that home is not always where we come from, but is rather a place where we feel at ease, one we are familiar with. Physical places are less important than language, food and, above all, the people we love. “Home is where the heart is” or, as Herbert Grönemeyer put it in his 1999 song Heimat (the German word meaning home or homeland): “Home is not a place, home is a feeling”. That is also what I think Igor Levit meant when he said that home for him is his love of the people close to him. What I especially admired in Nora Bossong’s texts was the playful and loving way she writes about her slightly bourgeois home background, one with which she felt only a limited association.
As I am writing this concluding text for our first series of Portofrei, I am sitting on a plane with Europe passing by beneath me. And once again I find myself thinking how lucky I can consider myself to have been born at the time and in the place I was. Not only am I fortunate enough to come from one of the world’s greatest cities, I am also in possession of a passport that allows me to regard an entire continent as my home, one that opens the doors to the world for me – meaning that I am among the privileged few who are able more or less to choose for themselves where home is.