Lance Brett Hall

Stories Make Meaning. How Do We Make Stories?

Home and Heimat As Seen from a Pickup Truck Crossing the Mississippi


Last week, I got back from a trip to Iowa City, Iowa, where I presented at The Examined Life Conference (there’s a whole post of my thoughts on the conference over at my medical narrative blog, MeaningWell).

I traveled to Iowa City via Chicago and Princeton, my hometown(s). Not only was it cheaper to fly though O’Hare than it was to fly through Iowa City’s airport, it was a nice chance to be in Chicago and visit my family.

Since my last post when Megan and I were in Los Angeles for her interview, she got the job. Then I got shingles (there are some thoughts on that over at MeaningWell, too) and when I was mostly recovered from the shingles, we moved to LA. Illinois has been home for most of my life, except for four years in Ithaca, New York, and a year in Rastatt, Germany. Even then, I always knew I’d be coming home to the prairie. Chicago has been home for eleven years.

I knew it would be an adjustment moving to a new place, and I knew it would be an adjustment moving from my Midwest home to the Pacific coast, even if I was moving from the third largest city in the US to the second.

I don’t know if I knew how big an adjustment it would be.

Los Angeles is nice, don’t get me wrong. Megan and I live pretty close to USC where she works, so Megan is the one and only person in LA who doesn’t drive to work. We can hop on the Expo line and be downtown in a few minutes, or stick our toes in the Pacific Ocean within 45 minutes, which isn’t something I’ve ever been able to do before.

Between the stress of finding an apartment in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets, the bewildering paperwork necessary to get a California driver’s license, the traffic, the unfamiliarity, the unchanging weather (nice as it is), I’ve been longing for home. I wouldn’t call it homesick, exactly, but I viscerally miss my City of Broad Shoulders and my big, open Prairie.

The Examined Life Conference came at exactly the right time: about a month and a half after we moved here. I flew into O’Hare at night. There’s nothing like seeing The Grid of Chicago at night, and seeing downtown’s skyscrapers laid out, like little lighted miniatures below.

I stayed with some of Megan’s long-time friends, then took a train to Princeton. I saw my family, went back to my alma mater, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, to see the completed IN2 and some old friends. Then, a day later, I took off — for the full Midwest experience — in my Dad’s pickup truck across the Mississippi to the conference.

When I returned, my sister and I went camping on our farmland with her dog, Bo. As nice as the eternal warm sunshine of Southern California is, there’s no comfort like a campfire on a cool autumn night. Yes, there were marshmallows and hot dogs around the fire.

After a train back to Chicago and a night on the couch of an old IMSA friend, I left the grid behind me, and am back in LA, where my wife and I have explored Hollywood and Little Tokyo.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre
The two of us at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

Los Angeles is a fun adventure, but it certainly doesn’t feel like home yet, if it ever will. I suppose the fact that everyone is excited for the Dodgers, who are going to the World Series instead of my Cubs, who cubbed themselves and collapsed under pressure, doesn’t help. This has made my wife a little edgy (the fact that it doesn’t feel like home, not the Cubs being eliminated). Living apart from my wife isn’t an option, and she now works at USC. It brings up an interesting question, which my wife — in her own way — has asked: “Isn’t home wherever we’re together?”

It is. But Home and home are two different things. German can help with this. There are two different words for “home” in German. A physical building, a “house”, in German is a Haus. Then, if you’re “at home”, you’re zu Hause, which, as a noun, is your Zuhause, your home. There’s also a completely separate word for one’s childhood or ancestral home, often translated “native land”, but it’s much cozier than that: it’s your Heimat. There’s an entire genre of German cinema called Heimatfilm, all about that person who left the country for the city, and who returns to their cozy, rural home. I never thought I could really relate to a German made-for-TV Sunday movie, but here I am. A corn farmer in LAX’s flight path.

So my wife is right.

I like our home, our little LA apartment. The boxes are thinning out, we’re finding a place for everything, and we’re enjoying exploring the diverse neighborhoods around us. Wherever we’re together is home, because that’s likely to be several different places, cities, states, or regions of the US before we finally settle down. That’s a comfort.

Sunrise over rural Illinois
Waking up from camping

It’s also a comfort that I have a Heimat. My x-times-great, Revolutionary War veteran grandfather is buried in North Central Illinois. My grandfather’s ashes are spread over our Illinois farmland. I met my wife in a café at North and Damen and Milwaukee in Chicago, and I proposed to her at Montrose Harbor looking out over the skyline. We were the third generation to be married in Kasbeer Community Church in Kasbeer, Illinois (which is about the smallest village you’ve ever been in, and about the prettiest little country church). No matter where we go, no matter where our family home is, I can still have a Heimat to love.