“My first attempt to return home was close to disastrous, and stayed my last. At the age of twenty-three I moved to Moscow, and back in with my father. After only two months in my old bed I couldn’t pack things fast enough to return… home again.”

Take It With Me

Tom Waits

Phone’s off the hook
No one knows where we are
It’s a long time since I
Drank champagne
The ocean is blue
As blue as your eyes
I’m gonna take it with me
When I go
Old long since gone
Now way back when
we lived in Coney Island
Ain’t no good thing
ever dies
I’m gonna take it with me
when I go
Far far away a train
whistle blows
Wherever you’re goin’
Wherever you’ve been
Waving good bye at the end
of the day
You’re up and you’re over
and you’re far away
Always for you, and
forever yours
It felt just like the old days
we fell asleep
on Beaula’s porch
I’m gonna take it with me
when I go
All broken down by
the side of the road
I was never more alive or
I’ve worn the faces off
all the cards
I’m gonna take it with me
when I go
Children are playing
at the end of the day
Strangers are singing
on our lawn
It’s got to be more
than flesh and bone
All that you’ve loved
is all you own
In a land there’s a town
and in that town there’s
a house
and in that house
there’s a woman
and in that woman
there’s a heart I love
I’m gonna take it
with me when I go
I’m gonna take it
with me when I go.

Take it with me is my favourite Tom Waits song for many reasons. Not least for the gentle nod to the fans of a famous Russian playwright, but mainly, perhaps, because next to being a beautiful love song, it is also a perfect hymn for the homeward-bound traveller.

A homeward-bound traveller – that’s me. Although I have long since unpacked my suitcase, and am now spending more time moving between school drop-offs and pick-ups, work appointments, and grocery stores than on the open road. And to be honest, after two life-changing moves – from Moscow to Berlin in my early teens, and from Berlin to Amsterdam in my mid-twenties – I am not in a hurry to move on.

Still, while keeping it down to short distances, in the back of my mind I am perfectly aware that I am a long-distance runner, moving towards a vague point of closure. I can vividly imagine how it should feel like, that very moment when I will know that I crossed the final line. For no apparent reason, I picture it as an illustrious baseball win: in front of a cheering crowd of my inner demons, I am finishing a run and returning to the home plate. Not in geographical terms, of course, as my actual point of departure has as little to do with the present me as the fact that many years ago I used to eat meat. But more of a point where “wherever you’re goin’, wherever you’ve been” fall into singularity and start to make perfect sense.

Anyway, moving around in space does not necessarily make you homeless. If anything, then I am home-full, looking for a place to link all those bits and pieces of my collaged self to a physical place that has enough storage room for my baggage. It is a bit of a magic trick really, where under the perfect circumstances a little paper-cut house unfolds into a magical castle.

Disney’s Elsa building her own snow palace, somewhere far away from the place she was born and grew up, touches a familiar string. Right there, she unfolds her own idea of a warm and nurturing home – never mind her visitors will be crisp and frosty in its icy guest beds. And, frankly, in place of “Let It Go” I could easily hear her sing, “I was never more alive or alone”. Certainly, there are some issues with her new home, but its random geographical location clearly isn’t one of them.

I tend to think that it’s rather the movement in time that gets us confused. Because, while luckily many of us have a chance to go back to the geographical starting point of our journeys, most will probably realise that after they have parted once, they cannot return – not to the way it was.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, known for his doctrine of eternal change, has wisely pointed out, “…no man can ever step into the same river twice, for it won’t be the same river and he won’t be the same man.” As such, we come to realize that while it’s true that ain’t no good thing ever dies – once you slightly move, it has already left the realm of your reality.

This life philosophy rings true but can at best cause a mild depression if you start to dwell on it. The constant leaving behind without any hope of return seems grim, and is probably the reason for each generation to try and stop that passing of comforting moments with some version of Goethe’s famous “Stay awhile, you are so beautiful.” Rest assured, it never works.

And surely, same sort of nostalgia for a simple and unequivocal unity of a specific geographical, cultural, linguistic, and social stability, while more obvious in migrating individuals, is equally present in people who have not moved once in their whole life but have to keep up with the ever-changing surroundings.

Nevertheless, I do believe that a return is possible even if we relentlessly move forward in time and space.

My kids were born in Amsterdam where their multicultural background is old news. Having a German father and a Russian-born mother does not make them any more special than any other kid in their school. Of course, cultural and linguistic diversity does not come with fewer difficulties. However, it does have a comforting sense of normality, which being a migrating kid myself, I have not experienced in my youth. The quandaries of having to pin down my identity along national borders were dominating every moment of my upbringing. With the theatricality of an angry teenager, I could not grasp why, of all people, I knew I was singled out by history to leave behind home, family, friends, and all things familiar.

My first attempt to return home was close to disastrous, and stayed my last. At the age of twenty-three I moved to Moscow, and back in with my father. After only two months in my old bed I couldn’t pack things fast enough to return… home again.

Not sure whether I lamented my paradise lost, but soon I had a German passport and a German husband, suddenly finding myself on the move further west. As it turned out, I am not so much of a nostalgic kind, but I kept wondering whether I was burning all the bridges for good.

A few years on, I discovered an interesting detail in our family history:

During WWII, my grandfather worked in an ordnance shop in Moscow. As part of civil air defence, he broke up raids, and received a Stalin Certificate of Merit for inventing a special sight to improve the accuracy of anti-aircraft guns.

At approximately the same time my husband’s grandfather, a young Wehrmacht pilot, died on duty, brought down by a well-aimed shot.

A coincidence? Of course. But I do love a well-composed story. So when my daughter was born, I could not but fall in love with the beauty of her existence. To be sure, she was every bit as wrinkled, and spotty, and funny as any other baby might be. But beyond being a desired addition to our happy marriage, her long-awaited birth closed a narrative circle, bringing a story of two men on different sides of history to a common link of love and reconciliation.

In extricating this little happy ending from the random succession of plotlines that have steered my life, I have not necessarily given into the belief of predestination or mapped-out fate. Rather I have closed a narrative circle that restored the connection between my current reality and the point of my departure. And what is closing a circle, if not returning? After all, home is where your story begins to make the most sense.

Coming back to the song, I feel it touches all the familiar strings: the feeling of disconnection, the nostalgia, the longing for evidence that the supposed continuity of your self does not dissolve in a randomness of moments… But above all it manifests the belief of you owning every little bit of your story: It’s got to be more than flesh and bone /All that you’ve loved is all you own.

It seems we are carrying a library of our life around with us, and HOME is not to be discovered at a certain place but rather brought to a safe environment to be taken out and spread around you. So what we are ultimately searching for is that safety net of other stories where ours can be woven into a new context.

And then taken with us when we go.


Cover Image cred: Xenia Bordukowa Pattberg