Like many others now living in Canada, I was born abroad. My summer vacation is not just a time to disconnect from work or explore new countries. It also provides me with opportunities to reconnect with my extended family and the places where I grew up. With July approaching, I am ever more excited to visit my home and enjoy the faces, flavours and voices dear to me since my youth.
I was born in the German small town of Herzogenrath. My mother’s family had their roots in Wallonia, Belgium and Westphalia in northern Germany, but with her many siblings raising their own families in the area, they were firmly established. For her, it was never difficult to belong, which also transferred to me. From early on, I had a clear sense of home: it was my parents and siblings and the house we were living in.
My notion of home also included the bed I slept in, my friends, my church as well as the bread and cake that my mother baked. As the youngest son, I was the most attached and never considered leaving. But when the time came to go on to university, I moved to Trier, about two hours south. I was convinced I would come back after my studies but Trier eventually became my second home. The new roots began to thicken when I started a family there.
Tears were shed in Herzogenrath and Trier when we moved on to Waterloo a few years later. And yet this seems little compared to the pain that my father had felt when I had left for Trier nearly two decades before.
He hails from the Sarıkent in central Turkey. As the oldest son, he effectively ran his father’s farm at 13 and provided for his parents and siblings. As a young man, he wanted to escape a predetermined life, found work in Germany, married my mother, made a family. He was as concerned about us as about his family back in Anatolia. While we were living under the same roof, he missed much of what was going on among those closest to him while trying to fix uncountable problems afar. He constantly over-expended his financial and emotional resources without ever achieving a lasting satisfaction. As long as his own children were at home, he endured the pressures, with much help of my mother and a sense of purpose.
Seeing his children leave home hurt him so much that he could no longer reconcile his pains, demons and desires. He was pushed into early retirement, which worsened his situation.
Even two of his three children moving back did not appease his stress and he established a house in his native village. But there he encountered an incredible amount of adversities. He had to fight hard for his share of the family’s inheritance, the small plots he purchased over time and the simple, beautiful house he built.
I never understood his courage, endurance and stubbornness and constantly advised him to let go of aims if achieving them comes at too high a price.
It took me decades to understand the incredible force of home. Over time, I learned to acknowledge that every early spring when he sets foot on his home soil, he undergoes a metamorphosis. From the retired migrant worker, he turns back into the Anatolian farmer who ploughs his native land. Now 83, he is too fragile to travel, but he cannot be kept from spending about seven months in the Anatolian countryside under most basic conditions. When he reconnects with his home turf, he miraculously regains strength and happiness. He reminds me of the giant Antaeus, the son of Gaia, the ancient Greek Earth goddess, who could only be defeated by his enemy Hercules when he was lifted off the ground and lost touch with his endless source of energy.
The notion of losing, seeking and recovering home always evokes in me my father’s tortuous life, and so am I reminded of him when packing my suitcase for my next visit to Germany. With every step towards my destination, I become more and more excited to embrace my mother and siblings – and this time even my father who will be interrupting his stay in Turkey for me. Old memories will be revived, new memories be made in Herzogenrath and other places where relatives and friends will be waiting for us.
But then, a couple of weeks later, we will return to Toronto Pearson International. My children will be most excited as my buddy will be driving us up the driveway of our cozy Beechwood house. Kids from the neighbourhood will be running by to hug them. I will see that our (typically messy) front yard will be in good shape, because one of our friends has mowed the lawn to make us feel welcome. And there may even be a cake waiting for us in the fridge that another friend has baked with lots of love. If I should still be hesitating, I would then be no more. I will know for sure that I am home.
Some readers may still be waiting for a clearer conclusion, perhaps one that facilitates a comparison with their own stories of migration. Many of my reflections seemed to be preparing messages about what ‘home’ is and how the sense of losing, building or regaining it defines a major part of who we are and how we feel.
But not only does ‘home’ mean different things to different people, its meaning also changes for the same person depending on the situation. A home may be gained or lost without moving, it may also be maintained despite or regained after moving.
Although so much is just not in our hands, we have some control over giving and maintaining room in our hearts to our new and old relations, to our new and old spaces, to our new and old homes. There is even more that we can do to make others feel at home by making them feel belong no matter how complex their relation to home may be.
Altay Coskun is a professor in Classical Studies at the University of Waterloo. He is interested in constitutional and legal matters, interstate and intercultural relations, imperial policy and propaganda, as well as the status of migrants and foreigners. Every third Wednesday, he hosts the Seleukid Lecture Series with guest speakers.