Leaving the First Place I Called Home After Leaving Home
In German, there is a very useful differentiation between the home you currently live and reside in (Zuhause), and the home in which you were born and grew up in (Heimat). Although there is some debate as to how exactly the two differ, there is relatively widespread agreement that the former, Zuhause, is fluid and can change over the course of one’s life – for some, many, many times. The latter, Heimat, is static; no matter where you might feel at home at any given point in time, the place where you were born remains the same. Of course, simply using two different terms disregards that for many people, the question about where one comes from, where one feels at home, and where one belongs is not as clear-cut and easy as the words suggest. Additionally, and important to know, the term Heimat was used by the Nazis and is still employed by right-wing extremists to connotate a fascist, nationalist understanding of an idealized white people roaming around the pristine nature of their Vaterland. Accordingly, you should use the word with the appropriate caution and historical understanding. With that in mind, I always say Heimat when I talk about going back to Munich; the city I was born in, the city I grew up in, the city I spent most of my life in. Munich is my home and will remain my Heimat forever. Amsterdam, on the other hand, has been my home for the last three years – even if it took a while until it turned from being a home on paper into a real Zuhause.
As my time in Amsterdam is coming to an end and I’m getting ready to leave the city behind for now, I realize that I look back on my time here through rose-colored glasses, glasses that gloss over some of the city’s downsides. Because even though the city looks polished from a distance, there are many blemishes that hide just beneath the surface – ranging from mere nuisances like the never-stopping rain and bike traffic jams to big, systemic issues like unaffordable housing, organized crime, and racism. Fortunately, as I am privileged enough to have been spared from most of the latter, I look back on my time here thinking of all the amazing things Amsterdam has shown me, all the unforgettable moments this city has given me, and all the wonderful people this city has introduced me to. So, this is a letter to the first place I called home after moving away from home. And if it reads like a love letter, it’s because it is.
It wasn’t love at first sight, and maybe not even at second or third. That maybe had to do with the fact that I lived in Diemen in my first semester. To begin with, Diemen is not Amsterdam. Additionally, the student accommodation which I lived in at the time sucked me into a vacuum of weed which I hardly ever escaped from. Apart from the biweekly borrels in the center of Amsterdam, I didn’t see too much of the city. As the start of my second semester approached, I set my mind on changing that – I wanted to explore Amsterdam, I wanted to learn Dutch, I wanted to experience the city, experience my new home. Covid put an end to all of my ambitions. The little spark that had been kindled between me and the city slowly died down as I spent the first lockdown in my childhood home in my Heimat, Munich, in Germany. Moving back to Amsterdam at the beginning of my third semester was potentially even scarier than when I had moved there a year before. This time, the move was accompanied by the fear that none of the friends I had made were actually still my friends – the lack of a place to live didn’t exactly help to ease my worries either. But luckily, the love story between Amsterdam and me wasn’t over just yet and we were granted a second chance: I found an amazing apartment, I moved in with two friends from uni, I realized that half of my neighborhood consisted of people I studied with, and most importantly, my friends were still my friends. Slowly but surely, the apartment turned into a home, and the neighborhood into a place where I felt like I belonged. It took about another year and the lifting of the Covid regulations for Amsterdam to become more than the mere accumulation of my friends. I first got to know the city during the lockdown, and I fell in love with it after. Only then did Amsterdam itself begin to feel like a home – extending beyond the walls of my apartment and the streets of my neighborhood.
There are many things I will miss about this city; some are so mundane that they seem almost too trivial to long for. Like the special type of perfume that only the city center of Amsterdam can sport, an unrivaled mix of weed, sweaty tourists, and poffertjes. Or like my almost otherworldly ability to immediately find my gray swapfiets in a row of ten other bikes that look exactly the same – the fact that I somehow always managed to unlock the correct bike on the first try almost felt like a motherly instinct, like I was subconsciously drawn to my little bike child. Finding my gray swapfiets in a sea of equally gray bikes was as much part of my day as hoping for a ray of sunshine that would disrupt the ever-cloudy skies over the city. I will miss the different shades of red, brown, and green that surrounded me everywhere I went, the colors that dominate the cityscape of Amsterdam. Red, the color of the charming brick houses that line the grachten of the city center; brown, the color of the countless – but also dirty – canals that interrupt the busy streets of Amsterdam; and green, the color of the trees and plants that seem to be almost taking over some of the city’s sidewalks. And then there are things that are not as easy to come by in other places, things that will make it difficult to get over this city anytime soon: Stepping out of the door and being consumed by the depths of Amsterdamse Bos; watching the sunset by the Amstel; being only a short bike ride away from jumping in the water at the Nieuwe Meer; passing the cows and wallabies on a run through Amstelpark; grabbing the only cheap coffee in all of De Pijp at Mezzave’s; breathing in the fresh air of Amsterdam’s beautiful surroundings; spending an entire day at Sissi’s, my favorite study spot, café, and bar…the list goes on. Nowhere else has the balance between intimacy and anonymity struck me as perfect as here. In my neighborhood, I’m surrounded by friends, I’m close to university, and I’m only five minutes away from the best roti rol in town. It’s not uncommon that I leave my house and meet one of my friends on the street. At the same time, I know where I have to go if I don’t want to bump into someone at every corner I turn. This city has allowed me to be who I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do. I would have never thought that I would find myself so at peace with my surroundings so soon after moving away from Germany.
In the past three years, Amsterdam has seen me experience some of the best, and some of the hardest moments of my life. I’ve messed up and grown in so many ways – this city has taught me to make a life for myself, it has taught me to build a home away from home, it has taught me to make friends when I least expected it, it has taught me to stand up for myself, it has taught me to go after the things I want, it has taught me to say no. For that, I will always be indebted to Amsterdam. But the thing that made me fall in love with this city once and for all was the life that I have built here. I carved a little space for myself, a space where I felt like I belonged, a space that was surrounded by some of my favorite people on Earth. So, this is also a love letter to my friends – Amsterdam would have been like any other city without them. I know I’m neither the first nor last person to realize this but it’s truly the people who make a place.
My very last day here is marked by a steady downpour of rain that is so typical for this city. But for once, I don’t mind. It feels like the sky is doing the crying for me. As I pack my last moving boxes into the car, I don’t know if I’m happy for the time that I spent here or sad for the chapter in my life that I’m leaving behind. I decide that I’m both. Before finally turning onto the highway just behind Amstelpark which will lead me out of Amsterdam, I realize that while I might be ready to leave the city, I’m not ready to leave my Zuhause – the first place I called home after leaving home.