“Aren’t you homesick?” people ask when they first note my German’s British shades. “What do you miss most of all?” they continue, adopting a sympathetic tone. I take their questions seriously and think hard about what I could say. A series of frivolous consumer products and old favourite, high street shop fronts flickers through my mind – Cadbury’s chocolate, Yorkshire black tea, a preferred face cleanser, the shoe shop on London’s Bond Street where each shoe fits like it has been made especially for me – all of which seem far too superficial to be worth mentioning. I hesitate some more.
See, the truth is I am still too much in love with Berlin for any of my idle fancies to count as homesickness. Expat life here, two and a bit years and a pair of twins later, remains charmingly novel; Berlin’s prominent and more hidden gems are mine to discover and then proudly revel in with our many visitors.
It is a love affair that began when I came here as a student: my first complete immersion in a language that fascinated me; my first taste of living in a capital city; my first real understanding of the destructive powers of war. It was Berlin’s shattered past and optimistic building for the future that opened my eyes to a world beyond my immediate experience in a tactile, fast-moving, chaotic, late night early morning, dusty library, smoky bar, slick, glass-fronted office way.
Though many of these firsts are themselves history and we live now here, as a family this time, in a more routine way, the affair still continues. Every day I marvel at the stupendously conflicting architectural styles on most street corners, take delight in the heavy loaves of dark bread we slice and spread thickly with unsalted butter for our supper, pull enthusiastically at the handles of the elaborate, green-painted water pumps our children love, let my mouth water at the tray of freshly baked apple cake which gleams from the bakery window, drink in the dewy air of the gentile park, a dedication to nineteenth century urban idealism, with its fountain of fairy tales at the end of our quiet road.
All of which infatuation is not to say that I am entirely immune to the frustrating expat feeling of being a fish completely and utterly out of water. Before living here, I liked to think of myself as mildly amusing; my current tally of successful jokes in German is a paltry one. When I tell people my first name, they invariably ask me to repeat it at least twice, so strange is my pronunciation of the word to their Germanic ears. My measured enthusiasm for homeopathic remedies has left me with few friends in our local chemist. But these occasions mostly leave me laughing (in the end) and appreciating yet another facet of German culture.
Maybe I can write this way because friends and family are only a one hour time difference Skype call, a short, cheap plane journey, or an upcoming frequent visit away. Perhaps if we move to the lonely, densely wooded Brandenburg countryside in the hope of providing our children with a garden, I shall grow wan with longing for my native gentle rolling hills. But, being a romantic, I am inclined to believe that home is where your heart is, and when I think, as I write, of my slumbering children and my German husband at a local book reading, that bite of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk can wait.