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Nr.79 Getting home after 4.7 years is not an easy task

Sep 4, 2018 | Blog, Europe, Germany

I was now eight months in my homeland. Eight months trying to get to know my old home again. A world I thought I knew by heart.

A country that has become a stranger to me. It’s cold and hectic. Where speed dominates and people hardly have time to breathe. And it’s noisy here and congested.

A world which is tough to deal with.

And yet I associate Germany with something very special. Like probably everyone with their homeland.

But let me start from the beginning.

At Frankfurt Airport I stepped on German soil for the very first time after 4.7 years in mid-Dec.2017.

Recently, you are no longer controlled by a border police officer, but by a scanner and a camera that are built into a sliding door. Passport is scanned, face as well. The door will open soon if you have a clean slate.

Despite modern technology, however, a border official still lingers behind it. And as always at borders gives every newcomer the first impression of Germany.

What I experienced on my long way around the planet, I now got to feel at my own border. What do they always say? First impressions count. Right? Yes, that’s right! So, there was this completely bored and annoyed border police officer, who with his body language taught everyone that his working world wasn’t his cup of tea.

Nice welcome like in other countries? Far from it! No eye contacts. No hello. No nothing.

If this had been a foreign country, I would have only thought – oh no this won’t become cheerful, the Germans probably go to their basement to laugh.

Instead, I finally knew I was home again.

I told my people I didn’t want to be picked up. I wanted time alone. I needed the first few hours to catch my breath.

When the rain pelted against the window of the train and the lights of Frankfurt lay behind me and everyone around me spoke only German, everything seemed to me like in a movie. The emotions went on a roller coaster and I couldn’t hold back the tears.

I can’t tell if I was scared or if I just felt so strange. I was happy too, but somehow it had all been too much for me.

Two women were sitting opposite me in the bicycle compartment of the train. One said to the other. “Surely it was all too much for the woman. The box and the bike and then the backpack on the back, how can you get all this on the train, no wonder the woman is crying”.

I almost had to laugh out loud, because that was certainly the least of my problems that day. And so, I gave them the answer: “No, that was not the reason. But today I am back in Germany for the very first time in 4 ½ years. I arrived about an hour ago.”

“4 ½ years – but that’s really long. No wonder, didn’t you ever get homesick?” I even got a tissue and was very happy about the sympathy the women gave me.

The conductor came and like it was planned for me, he started to complain to us cyclists. Of course, we hadn’t parked our bikes in the right place and everything was a huge German drama. Discussions took place and at the end a cyclist said to me: “Welcome back home. As you can see, nothing has changed.”

In the last train from Weinheim to my home village Großsachsen it had almost torn me apart. I was only five kilometers away from my mother. Suddenly I got scared. Afraid that something might have happened to her and I’m late and she’s gone. Even though I had talked to her on the phone just yesterday.

As if delirious, I saw all the new buildings. I couldn’t believe how it all of a sudden looked like. Hardware and media stores and so on. New traffic lights and other traffic routes. It felt like a big city and no longer like my little home town.

With a welcome poster on the front door and with the most joyful embrace you can experience, my mother greeted me and served me my favorite mother’s dinner. Minced meatballs with potatoes and leek. But I was so excited that the food didn’t really taste all that good. Somehow everything was so familiar and yet so terribly strange.

When I went to bed I thought of Heinz Stücke, the bike-globetrotter, who only returned to German soil after 51 years. How terrible it must have been for him, when after 4 ½ years everything seemed so different and strange to me.

As I almost expected, everything here at home, at least with my mother, still seemed to be the same. Like I had never left.

But one thing I soon decided for myself. I’m never staying away from home that long again. Next time I’ll come home in between. I had been on the road too long after all.

The next days, weeks and months were not easy. Of course, I saw all my people. My father, brother, my friends, but I also realized how much I had changed. Basically, we didn’t have much to tell each other. It separated us worlds.

At the sight of my nephew and my niece, who were still little children 4.5 years ago, I had to pull myself together. They had matured into teenagers. They were children I didn’t know. Although I had seen some pictures of them over time, I would not have recognized my niece on the street.

I was above all very reserved. I didn’t want to push myself into the foreground. I asked questions and kept the conversations going. I knew the part very well.

They were all curious to see me, but almost nobody asked me any questions. Almost nobody was interested in my trip. Not even the occasional traveler. I felt a little like a troublemaker. A person who holds the mirror in front of their eyes and they had to justify working where they had always worked.

But I tried my best not to give anyone the feeling that I had lived a more interesting life – quite the contrary. At times, however, I did not know how to behave. I couldn’t help it that I went off and they didn’t.

And let’s be honest, most of them didn’t want to live like me and that’s good the way it is.

Some also told me clearly, “I never wanted to live like you.”

I was also reproached “You don’t have to believe that the others want to experience such freedom”. Or “You only made the trip to receive admiration.”

I really didn’t know what to say sometimes. In principle, I just wanted to be part of it again. But that feeling never came back. Not until today. Not even after 8 months.

Before I rode home, my main desire was proper conversation. I wanted to find answers. Answers to questions I’ve been asking myself over the years. But I soon realized how busy people here were with their everyday life.

I always thought we Germans were cosmopolitan. Interested. Inquisitive. Questioning and wanting to understand. We certainly are in part. But unfortunately, everyday life has people firmly under control.

Hectic pace. Time pressure. Appointments.

Some told me about their Mallorca, all-inclusive trips. Others of their Namibia car rental experience and managed to tell me every single moment of it. But they didn’t ask me any questions about my trip. To my life. To my mind.

Why?

Not that I was anxious to tell my whole journey. I was just surprised that people didn’t want to know what it was like in China, Iran, Taiwan or Mexico.

It didn’t take long and the interest ebbed away to see me again, they hadn’t learned much so far, except that I probably came home healthy again.

But one thing helped me. They didn’t press me. Everyone knew I’d go out again. No one came up with the question: “And where are you going to work again?”. I didn’t feel like they expected anything from me either. I think I was just too exotic, too different. What I had done was beyond their imagination and so they didn’t know what to think and ask. According to the motto: “You’ll do what you want anyway.”

The question I was asked the most was – “How do you actually finance all this?” Because most people just can’t understand how little you can get by with in the end.

Such a journey is above all an abandonment, sacrifice and release. You limit yourself to what you need and that gives you a lot of freedom. If I don’t spend any money, I don’t necessarily have to earn much. Of course, I have expenses, that’s no question, but much less than someone who has to pay rent here, drive a car and sweeten his life all the time through consumer behavior and shopping frenzy. I just make my life on the street exciting by meeting people and the magnificent nature, by the time I have and the experiences I get. It’s simply much cheaper.

Being different and swimming against the current is not always easy. Even though I never want to turn the clock back, I have to say that it has been exactly as I had always imagined. Returning home is the hardest part of the journey.

In principle, the first few months I realized how alone I felt. Far more than on the road. I missed the connections.

There were also rays of hope. When I met people I didn’t know before, curiosity was much greater. People who met me the way I am today. Gave me a chance to be the way I feel today.

Because after all, the journey has changed me – period.

I talked to other long-term travelers who confirmed many of my thoughts. They all said that the first-time coming home after a long time is the most difficult time, after that you will know what you are in for the next time.

I believe that right away.

Of course, I wasn’t sure whose fault it was? Did people perhaps have expectations of me or did I have expectations to them? Or a combination of both?

Did I neglect people because I didn’t care enough about their children’s school problems or the new furniture they bought? For their job problems that sounded the same five years ago as they do today?

Nor could I expect anyone to understand what the problem would be like if I had no more water in the Gobi Desert or had to pitch my tent under the motorway, because otherwise there was no other place to find.

I also had other interests about global contexts that I would have liked to discuss. I am much less interested in German politics. I see myself more of a cosmopolitan than just a German. My area of residence is not only here and our behavior always affects the whole world.

I think I can finally say it wasn’t me or the others. It was the worlds that separated us.

Even banal things were suddenly different. I now had a key to the house. A shower. A loo. And I had appointments. Yeah, all of a sudden, I had appointments!

When I walked through my village just before Christmas and rang the bell at several houses without an appointment and said hello, I wasn’t really aware at first that this was anything but usual. But nobody took me wrong, on the contrary people were happy that I visited them.

And it was just nice to walk through the village and to know so many people. I hadn’t had this kind of familiar contact in 4.7 years.

I unpacked my clothes from my boxes which I had left in my mother’s basement. But left most of the things packed where I had put them many years ago. I didn’t need them anymore. I can’t do anything with all this stuff any longer. But look what I found 🙂

The speed on the streets was a problem for me in the first weeks. The hectic pace of society. Everyone runs from one place to another.

My first car ride with my brother frightened me. I just wasn’t used to that speed anymore.

I left my bike in my mother’s garage. And there it stayed for the first six months. I was sick of cycling. I walked everywhere now. No matter what the weather was like.

I was a nerd there too. Because who walks kilometers after kilometers in the rain or in freezing cold weather? But if you’ve lived on the road for so long like me and you now have the luxury of drying your clothes somewhere in the evening, where should the problem be walking in the rain in the end? Besides, I had time.

I hiked a lot in the forest with my buddy Miriam. I remembered the forest differently, it was more beautiful than I thought. I tried to learn yoga from my brother’s girlfriend. With other friends I did things like going to the cinema or cooking together. I just tried to get along and get back on my feet a little.

I also met with many people who contacted me and wanted to get to know me. This was interesting on the one hand, but also very strenuous on the other. Especially since these people thought they knew something about me because they had read my blogs. I knew absolutely nothing about them. In the end it was mostly like they told me their life story and I just listened.

At some point, however, it became too strenuous for me. It had been much more exciting with people I contacted and wanted to meet. Often, I had very nice encounters there, which were really good for me and very important for me too.

But it was also clear from the beginning that I would not stay long. But funnily enough I even started to like it in the end. I never thought I’d last so long at home.

The food was delicious. I stayed in the basement of my mother’s home and it was very convenient. I had my peace and quiet there and from time to time also shut myself off a bit. I’ve had my ups and downs and I think that’s normal after such an enormous change in lifestyle.

I worked on a camel farm for three weeks. A social project that I really enjoyed. I tried to see if I would walk from now on, perhaps with an pack animal.

Then I tried a hiking trailer (Benpacker)  in the Black Forest, then with the backpack.

I was convinced for weeks that I had to do something different from the bike. In the end, however, I woke up one morning and decided to cycle again. My next trip started to form in my mind.

Together with my mother I visited Iran for 14 days. I showed her what I thought was worth seeing. We had a great time together.

My brother got married and I got to take the wedding pictures. It had become a really great day and was also important for me to be there.

Actually, my trip should have started again afterwards. The wedding had been in May. But at first nothing really pulled me back onto the road. I wanted to stay a little longer.

Because somehow, in the course of time I began to get used to my old, new home.

I started to see the positive sides of Germany. And tried once again to make clear to the often nagging and negative thinking people what kind of paradise they were actually born in. How privileged we are, and the great cost of our consumerism and how people have lost the touch with how people have to live in other countries.

There is talk and complaints about health care, low pensions, bad teachers, disfunction in politics and criminal refugees. Many simply do not understand how well they are doing here.

In principle, it is often the case in Germany that it is difficult to satisfy people. They always find something negative.

Apart from the many regulations and the often-stuffy attitude to life, Germany has a lot of beautiful things and in the end, I stayed almost the whole summer because I simply liked it. Or maybe because it was practical and pleasant. And certainly, also because I was still tired. Tired of wandering around.

Also, my friends felt I was beginning to feel more comfortable again. A friend said to me: “With such a crowd of people you wouldn’t have been able to deal with a few months ago” when I really had fun at a street party. That was exactly right. I guess we humans can somehow adapt again.

The friendliness has improved in Germany. “Service desert Germany” is no longer quite as present as it used to be. But we are still far from the easiness and warmth of other nations. But I had many positive encounters and still say hello to everyone who walks past me, even if this is often unusual for many.

As we all know here in Germany, you don’t usually say hello to someone you don’t know. But I’m doing this. And you know it’s surprising how often a smile comes back.  In principle, we Germans are nice folks, only a little withdrawn.

I couldn’t sleep well. Surrounded by walls and the noise I could often not fall asleep. The confinement and not being busy were probably not really my thing after all.

Every day I had too little sleep, which made me dissatisfied and very sluggish in the long run.

The wind has changed in Germany, there used to be a lot less here in my area. Meanwhile the storks are on their way in droves on the fields. That was unthinkable before I left. Things have also changed in other respects. Small details, but in total a lot. I had to find my way around again. I’d missed so many things.

I could not participate in conversations about quite normal topics, because I had no idea what they were about.

I missed nature. The nights around the campfire. The solitude. The thoughts that no longer wanted to flow. My freedom, my urge to discover was not satisfied. None of that was there now. It had come to a standstill.

But the break and my home did me good. In the end, it is my home and the piece of earth with which one connects the most. Whether it makes you happy in the long run or not, it has shaped you whether you want it or not.

Basically, I felt like a visitor all the time and that made it much easier for me in the end. If I had had to start working here in a regular job, I would have certainly escaped sooner, because I would have most certainly been totally overwhelmed with the work structures.

Cycling Cindy, a Dutch lady and also cycling around the world like me, is currently stopping in Germany. So, it was clear to both of us that we would see each other. We had a great time together with many long conversations about God and the world. A real traveller meeting.

Now it was time to say goodbye again in August and that was not easy. Arriving and departing are simply the biggest hurdles of a journey.

I’m already on my way again. I’ll tell you where I’m going with the next report, but this time you will get an update much earlier.

In the meantime I cycled the first 1000 kilometers. I’m back on the road and that’s a good thing.

 

34 Comments

  1. Hi Heike,
    I enjoyed your ‘being home’ blog. I enjoyed it in a sad kind of way.
    I identified myself with your situation 100% – I had been away for 7 years.
    Your adventures are part of you and will always be a part if you, they can never be part of other people’s experience.
    That is why others cannot speak meaningfully or identify with anything you have done. They have no common reference point to compare with.

    Your experiences exist in a fantasy world for them, to be read about or view on tv or at the movies.
    Whilst I soon learned that it was best not to speak of my travels, I also found it very difficult to speak of common day trivia. I therefore became a good listener.
    I suspect that you are by now ‘back on the road’, which is fine for a while, but you cannot do that forever and remain safe.
    A year or so ago I suggested you throw yourself into a business when you get home and profit from the many skills you acquired whilst travelling. I hope you will do this and I wish every success.
    Stay happy, stay focused, stay safe.
    Best wishes
    Roy Romsey

    Reply
    • Thanks Roy for sharing your own experiences!
      Yes being a listener seems after all the easiest way to be part of other people’s life.

      All the best for you…..best greetings Heike

      Reply
  2. Hello, Heike,
    I always appreciate your honesty and candor about how you felt while traveling, and it’s very interesting to learn of the challenges of coming “home.” Thanks for sharing so much of yourself on your blog. I hope that your resumption of riding will bring you more of what you seek, and I’ll continue to wish you the best! Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Hi Heike, what a nice and honestly story you have written.
    I will follow you again!
    And yes we live in a very comfortabel area.
    We do a short cycle- holiday for 4 weeks and than you see how less you need.

    Lot of succes and strength for you, Dory

    Reply
    • Hi Dory, yes after all we need so little to survive……
      Best greetings Heike

      Reply
  4. Wow! Thanks soooo much Heike for making the big effort to share all this with us. So appreciate it!!

    Bonne route! Drop by if you happen to be in central France! 🙂

    Reply
  5. Wonderful, so honest!

    Reply
  6. Hi, we liked so much what you write in this chapter!!. It came directly to our souls and we got fully identified with the situations you describe, although we have never made such a long trip… yet 😉 … Beautiful pictures too…

    We wish you the best on your new journey …

    Ps: We just returned from the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, so wonderful! … but really hard too, your chapter describing your trip there really inspired us, thank you very much! 🙂

    Fernando and Anne Maria

    Reply
    • Glad to hear from you fellow cyclists and thanks for your support…..enjoy the road! Best greetings Heike

      Reply
  7. Dear Heike,
    I think it is true that only a fellow traveller can sympathise with your thoughts and feelings, it is also true that everyday issues are a bore and in some ways the lives of everyday people. You try to strike up a conversation on the things that are important and interesting to yourself but it is very hard work and especially if you are with a group of friends and their talk is so banal, things that rule their lives , football, politics, work all the things I find tedious in the extreme, and then i’ve had enough and want to reach out and be on the road again, searching for a quiet secret camp spot for the night.
    But I am glad you are turning your wheels again, because that is where you belong, sweet dreams dear lady,
    Mike the bike Thompson.

    Reply
    • Thanks Mike! Yes….very true words! All the best and thanks very much….Heike

      Reply
  8. Hi Heike
    It’s me again.
    I have thought some more about your comments of the difficulty of fitting back into normal life

    Peoples lives are based upon routine, – regular routine – unwitting repetition.

    So for the people you left behind, four and half years seemed a very short time, made up of basic routines that varied very little from week to week or month to month. Time was marked by how quickly the routines repeated themselves from one week to the next.

    But for a traveller every day is full of unique and unpredictable situations and experiences, each is unlike any previous day or any future day. Consequently there are no repeatable markers against which to measure time.

    Therefore a travellers time is a continuum that seems to go on forever, full of unknowns and being constantly aware of the moment.
    Four and half years for you was like several lifetimes in length.

    No wonder you ( we, travellers ) feel a disconnect when we return home.

    Fitting back into society requires the acceptance of routines and trivia of suburbia life – probably the very things we escaped from and rejected in the first place.

    So what is the answer? I’m not sure there is any single answer.

    People will never be able to identify with what you have done, so don’t expect it.

    I seldom speak of my travels, but when I do, I find it best to give people only a short taster, and to speak from the perspective of a “ third person” I NEVER speak in the ‘first person’ – the “ I “word is a big No No.
    No one wants to hear about me, but are happy to hear about a third Party, as in ‘ Women in Guatemala villages have an interesting way of cooking sago, they use ….’
    The reason is that we all like to think that we relate to each other as equals, using the “ I “ word puts the other person at a disadvantage because their knowledge cannot compete with ours, but by using the third person technique we distance ourselves from the situation which allows people to comment without having to compete.
    I hope that makes sense.

    You are an achiever, tap into it now before you drift or are dragged back into the mundane routines of life.. Maintaining your curiosity and go-getting attitude will always keep you ahead of the game.

    List all the unique skills and knowledge acquired from you travels and then think of the 100s of ways you could use this as profit centres. It could give you a very interesting and profitable career.
    I look forward to hearing how you get on.
    Good luck,
    Roy

    Reply
    • THanks Roy for your thoughts and ideas – there is a lot of truth in it! I will think about it!
      Best greetings Heike

      Reply
  9. I think so many long-term travelers can relate to your article. And am not surprised to hear that you’re back on the road again!

    Wishing you the best with your upcoming travels and am looking forward to following your trip via your blog.

    Reply
    • Thanks Grace – happy to hear I am not the only one who had those experiences! Happy trails! Cheers Heike

      Reply
  10. Tja! All gone what I wrote. Damn it. Shorter version now: wishing you peace of mind, a full heart and wisdom X Cindy

    Reply
  11. Like Gulliver, after our travels we feel most at ease out in the stable,talking to our horse.

    Reply
  12. Heike,
    Thank you for being the beautiful crazy haired adventurer you are!!
    Love you,
    Nicole from Canada

    Reply
    • Nicole…..oh how I miss you 🙂 So you think I don’t need a proper Canadian haircut again?! Haha…..
      HUGE hug…Heike

      Reply
  13. Hallo Heike,

    Du schaffst es mit wenigen Worten, Gefuehle zu schildern. Nichts zu wenig, nichts zuviel. Grosses Talent! Und dein Bruder hat Glueck, so grossartige Hochzeitsfotos zu bekommen. Alles Gute und Kraft fuer deine neue Reise!

    Reply
    • Ganz lieben DANK für Dein riesen Lob Ingrid und Danke fuer die lieben Wuensche! LG Heike

      Reply
  14. You could write an essay. The title could be something like “Fifty reasons to leave again”.

    Reply
  15. Dear Heike! Thank you for sharing these thoughts with us. I’m glad you are off on the road again since I think it’s making you happy, grateful, it’s the way of life that fits you. I know it’s not always simple, but the freedom it gives you must be unappreciative. I would like to listen to your story. I’m glad I can read about it. I wish you all the luck and courage you need to enjoy on your journey. If one day you travel through Slovenia and need anything, fell free to contact me. Nataša

    Reply
  16. Heike, I am always in your side.

    Reply
  17. Dear Heike, I loved your post about home and just reread it; so many of your observations echo with me! I’ve been thinking about Pico Ayer, such a wise man about this subject. He says, “Where you come from now is much less important than where you’re going… And home, we know, is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.”

    Reply
    • Dear Catherine…..thanks very much for your comment and support 🙂
      Very wise quote indeed !
      I hope you are still happy – even if you are back home.
      Sending you some sunshine – I bet there isn’t all that much of it in Vancouver this time of the year.
      Happy days for both of you….Heike

      Reply
  18. Liebe Heike,

    To be honest, I didn’t read your blogs for a period of time. Today you came in my mind so I looked at your blog again.
    I just finished your getting home blog, wow very impressive. I am happy for you you are on the road again were you belong!
    Curious to read the next one…..

    Reply
  19. Hi Heike, I’m reading your blogs backwards through time because i just discovered you recently. I own 10 acres of land not so far from Moab, Utah, so i enormously enjoyed your Utah posts. And now I’ve plunged into your homecoming post.

    My oh my, how i so much relate to your description of people wanting to tell you their travel experience which you instantly know pales compared to what you have done, but they don’t ask you a word of your adventures. I have traveled to almost 100 countries, but like you, I smile and silently listen.

    On your Gambia blog, I posted a link to a travelogue i wrote attending a Gambian wedding. Allow me to say, that I did not share that link as a way of talking about MY experience over yours. No. I sent you the link because I believed it would interest you to read a Western traveler’s experience in Gambia in 1977, over four decades ago. I believe the time factor makes for a nuanced difference than just sharing another personal travel narrative with you.

    regards, colleen

    Reply
    • Dear Colleen, I really very much appreciate your comment!
      So lovely to hear that you are enjoying my blog and that you can relate to my experiences at home.
      Utah is one of the most amazing areas on earth. Lucky you to be able to see those natural wonders every day!
      Oh and I am happy you linked your blog post from 1977. I am sure a lot of readers will be interested including myself/
      Best greetings from Africa…..Heike

      Reply
      • I don’t actually live in Utah — but I try to get to my land near Moab as often as possible. I live in Greece and own a bicycle tour company called CycleGreece.

        I read your Greece blog and was sad to read that your experience here was not optimum. I sense part of it was that Greece was just a transit country for you in your excitement to get eastward.

        I know Greece’s rural regions and islands enabling me to introduce cycling visitors to legendary antiquities, pristine nature, hospitable locals and delicious Greek food.

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