They say “once you leave home, you can never go back.”
When you come back, you aren’t the person you were. The place isn’t what it once was. The people who were your world have left, passed away, or they themselves have simply changed.
Do you think it’s true?
Sure, you come back and try to feel that strange sense of place, you try to recognize a sense of comfort coming from within yourself, but the streets have changed and that voice inside you knows when you’re lying. What once was a grid of welcome mats to one-and-a-half storied postcard homes is now the bearer of bad news in the form of sprawling apartment buildings, Starbucks, and gas stations. What once was a phone full of contacts ready to go at a moment’s notice on a Saturday night is two friends with an hour to spare before they go home to their kids. What once was your oasis as a teenager, your haven from parents, authority, and the man, is just another sticky movie theatre ran by pimply, bowtied teenagers with smartphones sticking out of their vest pockets.
But stay with me here. Somewhere across the globe, maybe you get a jolt.
You find a town, a neighborhood, a city block where the hair stands up on the back of your neck. Where your stomach churns a little in skeptical recognition. Your adrenaline starts pumping as you experience a feeling you haven’t felt in decades: the sensation of belonging. Of being home. Of knowing that at least geographically, you’re doing something right.
For myself, I didn’t think it was possible. I had searched teeny villages in the south of Vietnam. I had moved from Midwestern farmland to concrete jungles to the Bible Belt to the sea and back again. I had spent years uprooting myself, convincing my brain that wherever I landed that the feeling of home would develop as I made friends, formed routines, and settled my bones. A sense of comfort certainly grows from nothing eventually, but never a sense of home.
That jolt for me was Sternschanze, a neighborhood in Hamburg, Germany. I want to call it vibrant and colorful, but those words lead the imagination down too mundane of an avenue. They’re not good enough. They’re not good enough because while the neighborhood certainly is vibrant and colorful, there’s something completely shitty about it, too. Something completely shitty, yet totally mesmerizing. It’s not shitty like San Francisco – a city I always wanted to like, but at my core felt was too dark and too dirty to deserve its idolization – Sternschanze is shitty and vivid in a thousand different colors. Vibrant. Endearing, even. If Paris were a rainbow, Sternschanze would be broken shards of rainbow-colored glass forming an unintentional mosaic in the gravel of some dark, dingy alley behind a tandoori hole-in-the-wall. Sternschanze feels like a reflection of myself and all of the people I love. It has flaws. It is raw and gritty and falling apart, and it’s creative and hopeful and deserving in its humility and lack of pretension. Posters advertising various degrees of artistic expressions overlap on already cluttered walls, street art takes over the grounds of common areas, and boutiques built on artsy business ideas and a prayer line the cracked sidewalks. One block on one tiny street takes you from the Persian scarf shop with three concrete walls and one of pashminas to the second-hand vinyl shop where peeling wallpaper gives away the building’s past to the Italian shop that only sells expensive leather shoes and red wine. All of these are scrunched underneath massive white Edwardian-esque buildings that seem lucky to have avoided demolition. You can feel the characters oozing beyond their doorsteps, into the air, and onto the page. You can feel the opening movie title sequence unfurling as it pans down the street, eccentric characters weaving in and out of view, yelling mouthfuls of “hallos” and “genaus” to each other between bites of falafel and oddly-flavored sips of tea. It is a world churning with ideas and opinions unblemished by gentrification, unconcerned with status, and alive.
Just thinking about it makes me aware of my arms. My blood pumps a little harder and my adrenaline starts flowing. And while this strange infatuation with a starving artist of a neighborhood made me realize that this sensation of home can exist anywhere, the thing that I find even harder to believe is that it opens the door for it to exist elsewhere, too. Imagine: the sensation of home in three places. Half a dozen. Twenty-two, maybe. I don’t know.
It was just Sternschanze, too. Just a few too-short blocks. As I walked past petite mothers with exhausted children sharing sidewalks with tight-jeaned hipsters sharing sidewalks with suited businessmen, leaving behind my own dreams of starting an Edwardian falafel shop, the city started immediately changing. Sternschanze turned into the Reeperbanh, the neighborhood notorious for sex, cheap bars, and discotheques. In midday, it’s a bit less lewd: it reminds me of a kitschy Vietnamese theme park. Massive signs in colors dulled by daylight, full garbage cans the most evident signs of life, and sighs of desperate commercialism in bits of rust, flecks of missing paint, and burned-out colored lightbulbs. At night these signs glow neon, happy, young voices fill the stagnant air, and stories are lived and either rarely remembered or rarely forgotten. Then I passed the miles of green in the gardens of Planten un Blomen; the Jungfernstieg, the stylish promenade where parents once paraded their daughters on Sunday afternoons; and the Rathaus, the gorgeous town hall. These other worlds sandwiched inside Hamburg — from the lascivious to the political — made that feeling I recognized more meaningful, and not just because it was fleeting. It confirmed that it’s a feeling not easily recreated, and second-hand imposters won’t do.
I want to ask others if they’ve had this sensation, but I’m not quite sure if I’ll be understood. Most people have roots that are undeniable, and this sense of home is not up for questioning to them. Some might mistake it for meaning “hometown.” Still others stay put for decades forming one, forcing one, leaving the argument for spontaneous feelings of home subject to quizzical looks, furrowed eyebrows, and uncomfortable coughs.
But if you’re a traveler and you understand, debate aside, here’s to second homes. Maybe even third, fourth, and fifths. They may be far away, but they're always there.