I arrived in Germany in late 2015, with nothing and no one, save my suitcase and backpack, by my side. I was beginning my exchange, a six month university experience that saw me grow from a little, troubled bean of a person to a slightly taller sprout with a few of different troubles.
I remember arriving in Frankfurt and looking out over the trees there, struggling to realise that it was all real. It just didn’t seem possible that these trees, so familiar and so green, had grown on the other side of the planet and that I had joined them for a short time. I guess spending 23 hours in transit can mess up anyone’s sense of time and space. Since that communication with the trees, my life has been in a bit of a flux; caught between many different worlds running on different clocks. I found myself floating, without anchor, for some time after that. I’m sure anyone who’s been on exchange, worked overseas or been in a long-distance relationship can understand this.
Surreality is what exists between homes. It’s beautiful, sublime at times and disorientating at others. Travel between these homes is exciting but the homesickness begins to attack you on many fronts, not just from your birthplace.
This week I returned to one of my homes. I returned to Germany and to some of the things I left behind there. Was it closure or an opening of closed wounds? Who knows. It was a bit of a laugh, either way.
Trains and the Places They Take Us
Our first port of call on this journey home was Germany’s most famous port: Hamburg. Hamburg is a far cry from Murcia, Spain. It’s cool, damp and grey while Murcia is warm, dry and golden. It’s also, obviously, quite a bit bigger.
Hamburg isn’t impossibly huge but it is definitely a city to be take by train. Taking the U- or S-Bahn through the city is cheap and easy. Germany, if nothing else, knows how to run a train line. The U-3 train became a small-home within our home-away-from-home for Bonica and I. It ferried us around the city enough times to make us dizzy.
The German train system is, of course, important to the story of Electric Holy Road. Without it, I would never have been able to travel as widely or deeply as I did. It’s a system rife with bureaucratic pain and time-table stress but it definitely gets the job done. Deutsche Bahn is thus a huge part of my German nostalgia. The sleek white and red trains, the little blue signs above the tracks, even the way the ticket collectors walk through the cabins… all these things take me back to a time of tremendous personal growth and adventure. To relive these simple parts of everyday German life was a fantastic feeling. Even more so because I managed to figure out the right train to catch most of the time.
Hamburg is yet another patchwork city. It has a cold, hard core of high-fashion and big-business, surrounded by rings of anarchic and artsy suburbs (like Sternschanze and St Pauli). In these places you’re likely to run into all manner of jolly punks, packed pubs and clubs, hipster stores and comic shops. Like Bonica and I, you may be lucky enough to witness a bit of burning garbage and walls of Polizei keeping order as the blaze is put out (no joke, this happened). These rings and little patches of colour are the most interesting places to visit, without a doubt, but there is also something to be said for Hamburg’s clean-cut side.
HafenCity’s stylish red-brick walls, tinged green roofs and mathematically precise canals make it an industrial marvel. It hardly matters that the place is so cold and treeless. It’s an example of what can be done with brick and mortar… and a lot of money. That’s not evening mentioning that inside this half-city is the only place I’ve ever marked as “favourite” on Google Maps (a big move, I reckon): Miniatur Wunderland.
I won’t bore you with too many details (which you can actually read in my first blog post about Hamburg, published almost two years ago) but I will say that the impact was not lessened on my second visit. Wunderland is still one of the most impressive displays of craftmanship I’ve ever seen. Worlds have been built there, in that city within a city. Here, Bonica suffered her first bout of Stendhal Syndrome of the trip. Even I couldn’t keep up the energy for long. There’s just far too much detail, far too much beauty… far too many sweaty people.
One final suburb of note is Altona, an ex-Danish area near the port of Hamburg. This is a quiet little town among concrete and steel. With bright yellow houses and some of the most impressive statues I’ve ever seen in a public place, Altona is a vibrant flower growing on the waterside. It escapes the hustle and bustle of central Hamburg but is just close enough to be in reach of everything.
Hamburg has become the home for a number of friends, both on Bonica’s side and mine, so we had no trouble finding ourselves welcomed. In such a big city, it is incredibly comforting to have familiar faces around. These little bits of familiarity ground you and help you realise that you are actually standing on solid ground alongside them. They can act as tour guides, hosts, lunch-mates. Friends, or at the very least friendly faces, are one of the most important parts of feeling at home anywhere. Try sending some of yours in a big AirMail crate before you go anywhere.
(Disclaimer: Do not actually do this. Australia Post doesn’t ship live mammals).
After a fine few days of drinking beer, eating huge plates of food (a massive shock to the Spanish stomach) and spending far too much money in Hamburg’s unique artsy stores (like Druck Dealer, Under Pressure and Yuki Fish) we found our time had run out. Bonica and I had a train to catch early in the morning; a train to one of my homes. I was quite anxious to catch it.
Ich bin zurück
Rereading old posts of mine, written in those first Mannheim months, is an strange and almost embarrassing experience for this blogger. It helps me see how far I’ve come, not just personally but in my writing as well. The months spent in that city between the Neckar and the Rhein allowed me to explode out of a shell I didn’t even realise I was wrapped in. They opened me to an external world to art, culture, people, society, politics and to an internal world of mindfulness, concentration, creation and love.
And so you could imagine how weird it was for me to return to that city.
I knew that, maybe one day, I’d return, but I never suspected it would be so soon. Ascending the stairs at the Hauptbahnhof and entering the city proper, I found my jaw clattering and my mind stirring about all sorts of possibilities. Had it changed? I wondered. Would I recognise it? Would I feel at home?
In the short year since my departure, Mannheim had changed… but much less than I expected. There’s a new shopping mall, for one, and a new tram line. The atmosphere I remember remained, though. It was still Mannheim, I could feel it. It still had that fine balance between grey and green, between safe and unsafe, between home and far-away. I managed to slot right back into my “place” and feel part of it all once again. Sure, I didn’t have my bike, any of my classmates/international friends or as solid of a grasp of the language as I once had, but I still felt like I’d come home.
Again, I don’t think I have to put down many words about Mannheim here. I’ve already written more than enough about my experiences in this city. What’s important is the return itself.
The Important Bit
This time I didn’t go to Mannheim alone. I was with Bonica. Showing her this home of mine, acting as tour guide and annoying pointer-out-of-things-I-remember, I finally got to close some small chapter that had been left open since the exchange. Bonica never got to see my German home until long after I had left it. To be able to show it off, hand in hand, made the cost of train and plane tickets worth it. A circle had been closed, a chapter written. Something that we missed had been filled in, at least a little.
The student dorms at Ulmenweg, converted from army-barracks which had served as my house and home for so many months, still stood on the edge of town. In the Spring sun, their yellow and orange walls shone bright. Trees all around bloomed and in the air was the scent of much work being done, lives being led, food being cooked. To get off the bus at my old stop was like stepping back in time.
I managed to get as far as the door to my hall, a clean place filled with an all-too-familiar smell, before I found myself blocked. Locks, rules and common-sense stopped me from barging into my old room. Perhaps it was for the best. Perhaps I circled a bit too close to a sentimental whirlpool.
Perhaps it was better to escape, to leave Mannheim behind for a second time after only two days. The second good-bye is never as bad, either way. You’ve already proved you can come back together by that point. Who says you can’t go back to that home again, sooner than expected?
PS: The Other Home
After my return home, it was time to return home.
The south of Spain has become yet another shelter in the storm for me. I have decided to open myself to golden sun and hectares of olive trees. I found it strangely hard, at first, to dig in my roots here. Perhaps it’s the time-table full of siestas and late starts, the language or even the food. Perhaps it’s the simple contrast of colour between the vivid greens of Adelaide and the dusty golds of Murcia.
But I’ve come to love it deeply. I’ve opened my heart and let a little bit of Murcia in, hoping that it might let me in as well. Through trail and error, a lot of map-reading, language learning and a whole mess of citrus fruit eating, I’ve found a little place for myself here. I’m sure that, some day sooner than I can imagine right now, I’ll be returning to Murcia the same way I returned to Mannheim: filled with nervous excitement and caught in nostalgic day-dreaming.