The place where I’m staying here in Berlin is an apartment block that was originally part of East Berlin. It’s an interesting building, five stories (travel tip: the first floor doesn’t count, so if someone says they live on the third floor, you walk up four flights) with a neat art-deco trompe l’oeil motif in the foyer, covered with the happy graffiti that so liberally covers the buildings on this side of town.
While talking with my host Matthias about the history of the building, he told me an interesting story about when they moved in.
There’s no lift, so the boxes of their belongings needed to be lugged up the stairs by movers. One of them had been born and raised in East Berlin. He carried a box through the door, reached out his hand to flip on the lightswitch, and froze.
Apparently during the communist era, all the lightswitches were manufactured in one place, and shipped to all the buildings. When unification happened, most buildings had their electrical replaced, but apparently my friend Matthias’ flat still had the original.
“He put down the box and leaned over, staring at the switch,” Matthias told me. “He had this look of wonder on his face as he bent over and looked at it. ‘It’s an original!‘ he whispered.” My friend smiled. “That one touch took him all the way back home.”
A Sense of Belonging
It reminds me of the advice a friend of mine who travels and teaches even more than I do gave me. I had asked him how he kept from feeling dislocated.
“Sensation,” was his unequivocal answer. “I rely on my senses like smell, taste, and sound. An iPod playlist, incense, the taste of my favorite chocolate…these connect me back to my feeling of home.” His advice helped me find my own rituals that root me, if not to a place, then to myself: a pen and a book to write in, the taste of old whiskey, dark single-origin chocolate and a maduro cigar, the feeling of a porcelain cup in my fingers as I lift an espresso to my lips in a cafe no matter what the town.
In the past it has been firing up Dr. Who on my iPad, though now it’s diving into a Reacher novel on my kindle. It is the little thing that belongs to you, in your memory. For some lucky ones, it is some characteristic of their partner, their child, their beloved pet. I’m not talking about the whole person or pet; I’m talking about that one part of them that you happen to notice, that you may never even have told them about. For me, it’s things like my Dad’s laugh, or the way my middle daughter smirks. It’s the thoughtful gaze my grandson Harvey gets in his eyes when he’s figuring something out. It’s the way my little sister’s fingers curl over the keyboard when she plays piano.
Those are things that remind me, if not of home, at least of where I came from, of what is mine. They are the mortar that keep the bricks of memory in place as life builds on itself.
Notice them. Remember them. They come in really handy when you find yourself in strange Fall places…and all it takes is a touch to bring you all the way back.