My home in Pittsburgh lies now 3000 miles across the ocean. Siegen, the German city of my childhood, surrounds me, and I walk the places that are inscribed into my memories. I have always loved the trek up the steep hill into the upper city, even though it does not have much beauty: just a busy road flanked by houses and trees leading to the heart of the town. The easier way to go would be around the mountain, through the flatlands and the newer wide urban streets, but as a child I always felt it my duty to walk across the hill, no matter where I headed. Perhaps it was the anticipation that made this road so attractive: on top of the Siegberg are two castles, the market square, city hall, a small remnant of the old medieval city, and the shopping street. My hometown prides itself to have been built on seven hills, just like Rome, and the Siegberg is the central point around which the city grew. Siegen has been a city for almost 800 years, and before that there were Germanic and even earlier Celtic settlements which mined the rich ore and tried to eke out a living growing food on the steep slopes and the barren soil. There are dark forests everywhere, and even the edges of the city lace into pine or beech woods and are the foreground for the hazy blue stretch of hills in the distance. From the top of the castle fortification you can see villages, fields, and forests for miles around. The Siegberg was always my home, but I lived at its foot, in its shadow, in a three-story house with my parents, grandparents, and uncle and aunt. My grandfather had bought the house in 1936, and my father grew up there and still lives in the ground floor apartment with my mother. Our house, our street, our quarter was very urban, plain, and dark, and built over a drained swamp. In my childhood it was still called “Schlaemmchen”, which means “little muddy place”, and the springs from the Siegberg ran under it to the river Sieg a quarter mile away. To ascent to the top of the city was liberating: the light became brighter, the sounds lost their echo, the air was less heavy, and the houses receded and left room to see into the distance.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard said once that the house in which we spent our early years is not merely a place in the past. It is present in our gestures, inscribed into our bodies, inhabits our imagination, is part of our chiasmic heritage: “But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits”. The word “habit” does not quite satisfy Bachelard: “the word habit is too worn a word to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house” (Poetics of Space, p. 14). Yet it is not only the height of the steps leading up to the attic or the location of the light switch in the hallway that our body remembers. My body also has a passionate liaison with the streets it roamed almost everyday throughout my childhood. Sometimes, far away in America, I have an almost physical longing to feel that unremarkable sidewalk up the hill under my feet. The Siegberg is my organic habit, my unforgettable place. My inner refuge.