My love affair with the world – Tales of three cities.
As Caroline showed with her love letter to London, clearly the idea of being in a love with a city like you would be in love with a person is not an unknown concept. I too, have at least in my mind written love letters to or thrown plates at cities at one point or another. If you look at my track record I am not quite promiscuous, but I am definitely not married with a white picket fence either. Not that there is anything wrong with either scenario. Let’s just call me a serial city monogamist with a thing for holiday flings and weekend affairs getaways. As I have just returned to live in Hamburg, I am thinking a lot about the concept of Heimat. What it is a about certain places that made me feel home and why do I seem to outgrow my concept of home every few years like we sometimes outgrow relationships?
I first fell in love when I was sixteen and came to Cape Town. Besides it being my first big international trip I was immediately smitten. A holiday fling par excellence and parents’ worst nightmare: a charming surfer boy with charisma, a cheeky smile, and sparkly eyes. A city that promised adventure when the living was easy and with a bikini body to match. Of course I fell for it head over heels and got my heart broken when I had to leave and no, I couldn’t move and live there immediately, stomping my feet as much as I wanted to.
Fast forward a few years and I was grown up, or so I thought, and had forgotten all about my sweet sixteen love. I was ready to be in my first adult relationship and Hamburg was the name. Hamburg was mature, considerate, and taught me how to fare in this big wide world. Here I had my first job and earned my first money, went to restaurants and ordered wine without my parents and felt truly grown up in a good way. It felt good to be free and to come into my own right, but committed to and supported at the same time by this wonderful city, which was neither unwelcoming nor too overwhelming.
But sometimes relationships are so free of drama and sane we tend to get a bit bored. At least girls like me who need a bit of drama adventure in their life to keep going. Sometimes, even the unadventurous get so bored that we want out and immediately need to find the opposite of everything that was dear to us on a Sunday afternoon or on a long rainy day. And so I booked my very first long distance ticket on my own to the one known antidote, the epitome of adventure, and flew to New York.
They call it a New York minute and it took as long for me to fall completely and utterly in love with it. After a week it was clear to me this was where I was meant to me. New York was mine. I did the decent thing and broke things off with Hamburg in person, packed my bags, cried my tears, said my goodbyes, and then never looked back.
New York became my everything. They say that you immediately become part of the city and that you will feel as much as home within five minutes as you will within five years and it is true. I immediately felt at home. It was a melting pot not only of people and faces, but of ideas, thoughts and stories, shared by the mutual common ground of calling ourselves New Yorkers.
In true New York fashion my first apartment was the size of a shoe box, but my friends and I were the proudest when told a cab driver to drop us at the corner of 63rd and West End and tell him We live here! Call us nerdy, but to us the thought of being integral part of this city was something to be really proud of. Every weekend we tested how many people could fit into our little shoe box and how quickly the police would come by to tell us to turn the music down. Weekends were spent in Central Park or window shopping in Soho. Every Thursday evening we would all sit on my friend’s tiny twin bed and watch the newest episode of Friends and every Saturday we would be the twentysomethings in a club the women from Sex and The City always frowned upon.
New York and I went through the highest highs and the lowest lows together and never for a second did I doubt our relationship. Even when September 11th happened, I did never consider leaving. To this day the memories hurt like when something really bad happens to a person you love dearly. But you know you gotta stick with this person, because you cannot imagine being without them. We huddled together and again made it through with the knowledge that we were New Yorkers: a big family that is strong and resilient.
I never strayed, my eyes never wondered, New York was simply my life.
But eventually I got tired. New York was taking everything from me and it became exhausting. I needed the literal breath of fresh air and time to smell the roses, not that there were many around in the city. As it often is with relationships that are so energetic and enigmatic, so all-consuming, they actually start to consume a part of you. You don’t notice it immediately, because part of it feels so fun and so exhilarating and that part doesn’t get less. But eventually you realize you got a little less you and a little more…tired. But haven’t we all been there, in this relationship you want to hang on to, because you cannot imagine anything better with so much love, so much passion?
After many trial separations, anxiety and panic attacks, I finally knew I had to do the next step and leave. Leaving because the only thing worse than leaving was staying. That’s why I left New York and the answer to this day still makes me sad. New York is the One who got away and to this day I am still surprised by how much I miss it sometimes.
Once the decision was made all there was, was to figure out where to next and luckily faith came along. A warm summer wind one evening reminded me of my first crush Cape Town and randomly started looking for jobs, researching visa requirements and such. The next morning I got a call from my mother who told me that she had thought about my situation and wasn’t there this nice boy beautiful city that I knew and had liked back then and wouldn’t it be great to visit – Cape Town. I took that as a sign that South Africa would be the ideal next stop for me to get over my broken heart. Easy said and easy done and a few weeks later I had packed two bags and was on a flight to Cape Town.
Cape Town was everything that my soul needed. The one word to describe the South African spirit it is ubuntu, which can be defined as „a quality that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity“. To me it meant family, air, light, warmth, ocean, nature and of course wine. All of a sudden I felt free again; life and living it became easy. The charming surfer boy managed to enchant me the same way he did when I was sixteen and so did the lifestyle. Weekends were spent on the beach or in the mountains, there was always a bit of sand on my feet, and even in the city the air would smell of the sea. I perfected the art of doing nothing, of just chilling and of going with the flow.
While I worked, I didn’t pursue a career, working became a means to live and not the other way around. In the height of summer I walked around barefoot at the office – if I was there at all; the whole of Cape Town had become my work place. With views over the Atlantic or of Table Mountain, driving to and from work became a road trip and not a commute. I, who was once so in love with the big city, learned to appreciate the outdoors: I climbed mountains, sang Christmas carols in the park, learned how to read a map and drive a car too.
This country with its warm ubuntu spirit was to be my home, when I looked at my nieces and nephews, a rainbow family within a rainbow nation, I knew if I had children, this was the place I wanted to raise them. Cape Town became my African Pleasantville and I loved it, I wanted to settle down.
This time it took me longer to realize something was missing, because really, if you live in paradise what can possible be wrong? I couldn’t put my finger on, I just felt it deep inside. People don’t often ask you if you are happy in the relationship you are in. They just presume, because why else would you be in it if you weren’t happy. But while I was in Cape Town I started to cheat. I went to other places – exotic, foreign, alluring. I was intoxicated with Morocco, longed for Bangkok long after I left, and felt wonderfully out of my comfort zone in Cambodia. And wherever I went people asked me – are you happy? Do you like Cape Town and will you stay there? While I was happily cheating away, I had actually not ever contemplated leaving for good, but with these questions in mind, I started too. And with that came the realization that once again I needed different and more. What was more? I guess just more of the world in general.
With that in mind I went back to Hamburg. Not with my tail between my legs, but with a new appreciation for this city. The German order feels wonderfully familiar and calming, I feel safe here and this feeling now makes me feel free. I am in the centre of Europe and with that comes access to the entire world. Hamburg will be my base camp, my haven to return to, my home. Because now I look outside my window on a quiet road on a grey summer’s day and I like what I see. It doesn’t make sense, but pieces are falling into place here, though I never wanted to believe they could.
I am well aware that maybe tomorrow they won’t. Maybe tomorrow my mind needs a new adventure and my heart will again long for something different, something more. And that will be alright, because the world has much to offer and why can’t I see it all? When it comes to countries, places and homes, I will always want to have my cake and eat it too, be a traveler and make my home wherever I go.
Surfer and Climber Image by Fredrik Clement via Sport up your Life
All other images by Annika