Surrounded by stone dated back to the year 1214, I gaze out over the Neckar river and a city that has captured my heart. My feet stand upon cobblestone once traversed by knights on horseback and maidens in long dresses. The history of this place has great depth, but for me it holds more recent memories. Memories of my little ones chasing pigeons down the Hauptstrasse and the smell of hot Glühwein wafting over the Christmas market. The familiar sound of the bells from Church of the Holy Ghost brings me a feeling of peace and tranquility. I make my way down the 300 stairs to the Altstadt, the “Old City”. As I reach the bottom, I turn to look back upon my previous perch — the Heidelberger Schloss. Heidelberg, Germany is tucked in along the shore of the Neckar river and the Königstuhl hill. Not only is this little city full of history, it is full of beauty and diversity.
For two years of my life, I called this city home. Yet somehow, even though I am no longer a resident, it still has a way of welcoming me home each and every time I visit. It’s almost as if it knows– it’s almost as if it knows that I belong there. My little ones that once chased pigeons are now grown. The merry-go-round that they once played upon in Karlsplatz has been removed and replaced with a tree. The owner of the local crepe stand bears a few extra wrinkles and has earned some grey hairs that shimmer in the sun. Time has lapsed, yet this city continues to call my name.
What is it that makes this German city more special to me than another? Belonging. I am an American, but hands down feel more connected to Europe. I’ve always said that I was born on the wrong side of the pond. It’s hard to explain other than to say that when I land back in Europe after time away, I exhale. There is a peace and a joy that only comes from belonging. This is my home. Heidelberg is where that belonging was birthed and will forever hold a very special place in my heart.
If I close my eyes and allow my mind to wander, I can take a virtual trip through the city. I am a creature of habit and park in the same place just below Karlsplatz. As I emerge from the garage, I am immediately aware of the majestic castle above me. I take a moment in the platz to admire its grandeur. I notice the mamas by the fountain watching their children play as I had done 15 years ago. As I move towards the corner of the platz, I am greeted by a smell that lures me into my favorite little bakery– Bäkerei Gundel. I slip inside for my cup of coffee and whatever baked treat catches my eye. As I hold the blue paper cup in my hand, I once again feel a sense of home– as if I had just stepped into my own kitchen to fill my mug. I continue down the Hauptstrasse passing little shops, new and old. I find myself drawn to the ones that I have been in a dozen times before– they beckon me. Though I know what I will find inside them, they are somehow still of interest and I am physically unable to pass without entering. I soon come into the center of the city. The church bells are chiming and people are bustling across the square in all directions. I join the bustle, but in a very contemplative sort of way. I don’t want to miss anything. I soak in my people. A university student scurries to class. An old woman carries a small bag of groceries to a small door that calls her home. A mama pushes her baby in a stroller while her toddler– chases pigeons. These people bring character and life to this place. Without them, the city would be empty. The smell from Gundel’s wouldn’t exist. The music from the street performers would be silent. The pigeons would be still. I continue on and take a sharp right turn down one of the smaller cobblestone streets. It’s in these side streets that you can see the layers of the city. Small shops below. Balconies above them where residents eat their morning croissant and drink their coffee. And finally, the peaked roof tops where just maybe you catch a glimpse of a nest. The nest that answers the ever aggravating question– where do all the pigeons go at night? The small side street leads straight to the river where people come to walk, to eat, or to simply be. Riverboats line the shores. Paddle boards and kayaks meander through the water. I walk under the arch of the Altebrücke, the old bridge, and make my way to the center. From here I can see the Neckar stretching out into the horizon on both sides. I can look back on the city with it’s protective castle looming over her. She is beautiful and she is forever mine.
When you consider the entirety of a place and your belonging to it, you are able to envision a future within it. For, I am a dreamer. I dream of a residence along one of the sidestreets I spoke of– one with a balcony where I would sip my morning coffee. I dream of waking up to the bells each dawn. I dream of truly knowing the old woman with the groceries. To one day reside in Heidelberg, this place I call mine, is a dream that I will forever pursue.
I return to the wholeness of place as a concept. Heidelberg wouldn’t be the place that it is without the entirety of itself. Wholeness of a place is wrapped up in the human senses which, in turn, make up the human experience within a given place. The sights, the sounds, and the smells of a place can bring you back to memories from years past and at the same time, create new ones. The tastes of local eateries linger and draw you back time and time again. The feel of the cobblestone beneath you, the crisp air biting at your face come winter, and the warmth of the sun when you enter one of the open squares all fill you with a sense of presence. Your senses make you aware of where you are and whether or not you belong. Do the sights and the smells draw you closer or do they send you running for an alternate location? Do the sounds bring you comfort or do they cause your soul to be anxious? What do you feel standing in the center of its wholeness? For me and this beautiful city, the answers come quickly and if I were to sum up this place with one word it would be, joy. I am filled with joy as I linger in this place.
The history of a place provides depth, but your specific piece of that history provides belonging. Heidelberg is filled with rich history dating back to 1196. People have been coming and going from this place for well over 800 years– each one leaving their mark on its soul. My history dates back only 25 years, but the experiences within its reach have left their own mark. My family has been a part of making Heidelberg the place that it is. And that place is beautiful — pigeons and all.