Last year my work contract ended and I had the opportunity to find another job and, once again, explore a new city. Berlin sounded enticing. Seoul was beckoning – after all I had only spent a year in Suwon, a neighbouring city of the metropolis. Buenos Aires, like a land of my dreams, was a possibility. But I couldn’t make a decision about what city to move to. When I asked my mom, she simply said, “Stop moving and stay where you are.”
My constant state of flux must have worried her. And to be honest, I was tired of moving apartments, street addresses, packing, unpacking, meeting new people, not meeting new people, finding the best doctor/hairdresser/church in my neighbourhood, cancelling contracts, and changing my letterhead. Three years ago, I moved to Germany, and after exploring a few cities, Hamburg was my current home.
My romance with Hamburg has been a slow love story. The city is forever cloaked in rain, but I like to stroll along the grimy industrial harbour with its container ships, seagulls and foghorns. At night the lights shimmer on the Elbe river, it smells like the ocean and the city shows its offbeat beauty to those who dare look for it.
Travelling, moving, and anticipating new adventures has always given me a buzz. There is nothing more exhilarating for me than setting off on an adventure companionless, getting from A to B with little more than a diary, passport, and book. I have learned to rely on myself and listen to my intuition. I communicate with hands and feet, when vocabulary fails, decipher foreign subway maps and overcome any obstacles that come my way. At night, I dream about possible wonders that might await me tomorrow.
It is this imagined joy of future pleasures (in German, Vorfreude) of being catapulted into the unknown that feeds the hungry spirit of adventurers worldwide. A friend who was going off backpacking in California said to me that the greatest thing about leaving is the anticipation. For me, the build-up of nerves, dreams, and panic, before a big trip always result in adrenaline. Torn from your everyday routine, the weeks or days before your departure are spent daydreaming, living for another moment, another time. Naively, I imagined South Korea as endless rice fields with dilapidated houses, which was a great contrast to the densely populated, smog-filled, high-tech reality.
But after a decade of living across three continents, I long for a home. I want a place where neighbours greet me because I am a familiar face and not merely a visitor; where keeping a pet is a possibility; where a jungle of plants grows in my flowerbed, like my own roots slowly plummeting into the damp earth of this moody, windy city. I want to own furniture that I love instead of putting up with a musty foldout couch or lemon wallpaper in my furnished, temporary apartments.
Moving would have been so much easier for me. Setting off and leaving things behind was refreshing, like breaking out and setting my sights on new horizons. The real challenge was to stay. My mother is German, my dad is Namibian and I was raised in South Africa, but in truth, Germany is pretty foreign to me. I grew up with a combination of three countries’ traditions and staying gave me the chance to explore this heritage more closely.
Soon the adrenaline of living in a new city evaporated and I had to embrace its dents, smudges and cultural nuances. Staying meant taking of my rose-tinted glasses of a visitor in awe to go beyond the “Moin moin” every tourist learns from their guidebook. Staying meant keeping friends — the type who brings me chicken soup when I’m sick or organise a surprise birthday party.
My taste for adventure has not simply vanished. I still get “itchy feet” when I want to pack up and leave. When routine stifles me, I follow every whim. If I feel like visiting another city, I do. If I feel like wandering through the city of Hamburg, exploring nooks and crannies, I do. Spontaneity is my best friend. And my need for freedom is sated through exploration – my eyes or my camera, my only companion – as I wander along the harbour or past Altbau buildings as the sun sets and the wind whispers its secrets.
While my destination is set for now, the journey has not ended. Currently, I am still torn as to where my home is but there is more calm, more comfort. There are moments like today, when the air smells sweet and the sky shines true-blue, when my neighbour wishes me a nice day and I think – I never want to leave. Then sometimes when I hear the dull drone of an overhead airplane, I still long to pack my suitcase and head to a new destination, but when the quietness of rustling treetops returns, I am reminded of that calm.
Staying put, so to speak, has been both a decision and a gradual process. Recently, I bought myself a beautiful wrought iron bed. This purchase marked the beginning of my choice to stay in Hamburg. It marked the beginning of letting down my anchor in this here – my here.
Photo courtesy of Mareike Pietzsch.