He shivers, hunched in the underground walkway between Berlin Schönefeld Airport and the train station, holding up a sign, an A4 sheet of paper that has been folded and unfolded one too many times. A lower corner is making a bid for escape, only held in place by frayed paper threads. Large block letters scribbled on it in blue biro read: I’M LIKING A TICKET PLEASE.
“Home,” I hear him whisper in English as I pass, “please, I need to get home.”
Me too, I sigh, I’m liking a ticket, too.
At his feet, a shoebox contains a handful of scattered coins in different currencies. There’s not enough change in there for a meal much less a ticket. He babbles in a language I cannot make out. His words catch in the whine and whir of the nearby jet engines and run away on the wind.
The icy air weaves its way into my bones. I pull my hat down to my ears and squeeze my gloveless hands into little fists deep inside my pockets, the crook of my elbow hauling the wheelie suitcase along behind me. My boots scuff the concrete as I drag my feet towards the terminal. I don’t stop to ask where’s home. I have no money to help. But his words continue to haunt.
Home. I’m liking a ticket, please. I need to get home.
Home, I scoff at the idea, what is that anyway? I’m more than 10,000 miles away from where I live but that isn’t home either. Not by any metric you’d normally use to gauge these things. ‘Home is where the heart is’ according to the adage but my heart is a restless wanderer. An aching nomad. Rootless.
My best friend from high school lived in the same house from the time she was born until after she graduated from university. If a house was supposed to be home, I had none. By the age of ten, I’d lived at seven different addresses. Mum and Dad renovated houses, doing almost all the work themselves to earn some extra money and just when one started to feel familiar, they’d sell it and buy another cheap dump in need of repair. At two in the morning, I’d find myself squinting into a dark kitchen with bleary eyes wondering where the toilet had gone before my sleepy head would register that we’d moved again. I’d bump into walls where there used to be doors. Do a double-take when I saw windows that used to be walls. Even after I moved out on my own, I couldn’t stop. Twenty-eight houses and three countries in thirty-one years. Each relocation a reorientation.
The first question you’re often asked when travelling is “where’s home?” My reply is always the same. “I don’t really have a one.” But always present, a feeling of searching, seeking, wanting, needing. The Germans have a word for it, the inconsolable longing for something unidentifiable; sehnsucht, they call it, the desire for a far familiar land one identifies as home. I’d felt it, sehnsucht, staring at the stars on a clear night. But my heart is an itinerant with no fixed address.
It is a warm sticky evening at the end of summer when the nights are beginning to cool. I am seven and a half years old, sitting on the back steps of the latest house my parents are renovating, with my dad and a pair of binoculars. We are looking for Halley’s Comet. In my memory, I see it clearly, a soft warm-white incandescent blob with a fuzzy tail alone in the black void of space. Without binoculars, it looks almost the same as all the other warm-white blinking blobs that surround it. Dad has borrowed the binoculars from a friend. We don’t have enough money to purchase our own. But he wants me to see it. “You’ll probably still be alive when it comes back,” he says, “I won’t.” I can’t imagine what seventy-five years means, to live ten times longer than I already have. I can’t imagine being an adult in my own home because every time I look at the warm-white glow from other people’s windows all I feel is sensucht.
The thin concrete path that runs from the laundry of the house to the clothes line is warm. The heat it’s absorbed during the day seeps into my skin as I lie on my back staring at the sky. More stars appear as I watch it fade from a deep midnight blue to black. It is almost summer and I’m in yet another house in another part of the country. They’re catching me; thirty-two houses, thirty-four years. And none of them home. I’m waiting for the warm-white of the shooting stars; every year in October, Earth passes through a stream of particles that Halley’s Comet dumped into our inner solar system on its last orbit to give us the Orionids meteor shower. Every time I look at the stars, I am reminded of my father. He instilled my love of the sky, incited my curiosity of the cosmos. And every time I look at the stars, I feel more at home than I do on this planet.
I am thirty-six when I move into my thirty-fifth house with G. A few years later, we stand together in a friend’s driveway in Angwin, California staring at the sky. We are at her family farm for her wedding. Howell Mountain rises in front of us, the oaks and conifers silhouetted against the deep blue. Silver pinpricks appear above the treeline.
“I don’t know which one is the North Star,” I say, scanning the skies, “do you know what it’s called?”
“Really?” he replies, squeezing me as he wraps his arms around me from behind.
I can’t see his face in the dark but I know his expression from the tone of his voice. His eyebrows will be raised wrinkling his forehead, a half-smile spreading across his lips, a small curl in the top one. I know all the lines on his face.
The night sky is different here. I recognise Mars, bright and orange-red but I pull out my phone, hoping for cell service and Google ‘What is the North star called?’
“We need to find Polaris,” I say.
“Yeah, sure,” he chuckles, “that makes it easier.”
As it turns out, we are staring right at it. “That one.” I point to a group of trees, “the one above the third tree from the left. On the end of the little dipper.”
He squeezes me again pulling me tighter, burying his face into my neck and for the first time while looking at the stars, instead of feeling sensucht, I feel safe.
Six months later, when the electrician replaces all the lights in our home prior to our wedding and asks what type of bulbs I want, I don’t need to think before answering warm white.
Perhaps home is not the length of time in one place as much as it is knowing all the lines on someone’s face.
The stars belong in the deep night sky, and the moon belongs there too, and the winds belong in each place they blow by, and I belong here with you.
M H Clark