I recently received an invitation to attend an event in Zurich to discuss the concept of Heimat, among other things. Heimat is a German word that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. It can mean home, homeland, native land and more.
When Swiss citizens fill in official forms, they are routinely asked to give their Heimatort (literally ‘native place’), the commune of origin of their family. This is passed down through the paternal line so that my husband’s Heimatort (and by extension mine) is the village where his grandfather was born, even though his grandfather left there as a small boy when he was sent to live with relatives after his mother’s death. This grandfather, who ended up working as a saddler in another village, never lived in his native village again and may not have felt any emotional attachment to the place but many Swiss are proud of their Heimatort.
The old function of Heimatort was that the commune (municipality) would provide for you in case of destitution. In the past, this was more about social control than charity. Somebody caught begging or drunk in public could be picked up and returned to his or her Heimat to be dealt with. Not a cheery prospect at a time when people who were classed as ‘work shy’ could be interned under the ‘administrative care’ legal provision (common up to the 1970s). Children who were taken into care were referred to their Heimat for a foster home placement – in practice to work as labourers or servants for farming families – which often meant a new life of drudgery miles away from where they grew up.
Now, thankfully, we have prosperity, social welfare payments and a professionalised child welfare system. The Heimatort is only relevant in a few minor, archaic ways, such as the right to graze animals on commonly held land. (Admittedly this is not minor if you can’t access the land your neighbours are using for free.) I don’t know of any other residual rights Heimatort grants but I’d be curious to know if anyone can enlighten me.
I have some Heimat issues myself in that I still feel the loss of my Irish homeland very keenly. Ideally, after fifteen years in a different country I should have transferred my allegiance and affections to my new location. But this has not happened, at least not to a convincing degree. Despite the fact that I have built a decent life for myself in Switzerland, a process that involved great effort, I still feel the inner tension of being pulled back to my place of origin. Meanwhile, my family is deeply rooted and happy here. It’s a conundrum.
A three-month stay in Ireland this year went some way to alleviating that tension. Apart from all the external trappings of life in Dublin that I enjoy (the sea, the sea!), there are two interlinked things the place offers me that I haven’t been able to replicate in Switzerland. One is a sense of community and the other is the ability to be myself. My German and French are good but I don’t feel truly myself when I speak those languages. I cannot be as genuine when I am working to communicate with a reduced vocabulary (and I seem to have hit a ceiling in both languages). But it’s not only about language; I have good relations with lots of people on an individual basis but it’s in a group that solidarity and shared experiences come into play. In this environment you can express a bigger range of your personality and find meaningful acceptance. I already have some ideas on how to respond to this problem and I’ll be giving it more thought over the coming months.
As for my book related activities, I am doing my bit to promote the French and German editions of The Naked Swiss (La Suisse mise à nu and Die Wahre Schweiz), which has so far notably involved a live television interview in Payot bookshop in Geneva on July 5th.
The interview was hosted by Patrick Vallélian of the in-depth Swiss news magazine Sept.Info, which is running an excerpt from La Suisse mise à nu in their latest edition and organising various joint events at bookshops in French-speaking Switzerland. More updates about these events on my Facebook page.
I was delighted to see the French translation reviewed in the Tribune de Genève newspaper and I’m looking forward to reading the write-up of the interview I gave 24 Heures newspaper later this month.
This time last year I was preparing for Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges at the beginning of September. This year the pressure is off as I will be attending as a visitor rather than a guest author. I have my ticket to see Maggie O’Farrell on September 2nd and will book more as soon as the full English programme is online. Especially looking forward to hearing Lisa McInerney speak. I loved her first book, The Glorious Heresies.
The photo above is the view from the top of the Kaiseregg mountain in Fribourg at sunrise a fortnight ago. The actual sunrise pics didn’t come out too well on my old phone but this one captures the dreamy beauty of the place. We had to get up at half past three in the morning to complete the climb in time before the sun came up. Tough going but well worth the effort, this was the best experience of my Swiss summer so far. I wish you all good times and safe travels this summer too.
8 thoughts on “Home is where the sunrise is”
Really interesting post! So all Swiss have a heimat? Is there a Swiss French equivalent?
Yes, they call it lieu d’origine. It’s on the identity card and drivers licence too. Quirky!
The feelings for the old country never leave and I say that after 46 years here. However with 5 grandchildren here and two sons all born in Switzerland I can say this is definitely where “home” is now. Plenty of opportunities to teach the dialect or native tongue. Most of the wee ones are fluent in 3 languages already before adding German at school.
I enjoyed your book and hope the cleggs and horsey odours added to a colourful hols.
Thank you, Robin. I’m glad you have found your true home. The holiday was great. Like stepping back in time.
Is the Heimatort always where the grandfather lived? They don’t go back to great-grandfather? Here in the US everyone is an immigrant, some more recently than others. And once they come here, people move around a lot. It’s hard for them to say where home is. Having lived in Asia for about 20 years, now that I’m back home, I feel more comfortable.
Your photo is breathtaking. I understand your longing for the sea. It gets in your blood.
Such a contrast. Heimatort can go back further, in my husband’s case his grandfather was the last to actually live in that village. Now I’m curious to find out when the category was introduced for official purposes. Could be a 19th century thing.
Coming up 3 years in and my Mancunian roots (Heimat) is as strong as ever. I go through phases of feeling ‘heartache’, which are usually cured after a long Mancunian weekend of drizzle, football, shopping and booze. Some of the homesickness is rose tinted glasses mind.
But two other things you said resonate – the personality change auf Deutsch is a factor. As much as my German improves, I’m just not me. Secondly, the Swiss culture is socially ‘different’. Yes, more reserved and sensible (a nation of insurers and bankers who spend their time calculating risk!) but I miss the Friday night down the pub after work with the whole office, or with really good mates. Attempts at Swiss recreations of the same always end with a subtle homesickness feeling and before you know it my Manchester music playlist is on and I’m singing Stone Roses / The Verve to myself (v quietly of course) on the train home.
As magical as Switzerland is, there will always be something missing…
Thank you for taking the trouble to respond with this thoughtful comment, Ben. I agree that some of the homesickness is based on a rose-tinted view of home. I just never knew what a creature of my environment I was until I left it! Keep on singing (quietly). 🙂