Getting Etymological

Guest blogger Sini Matikainen reflects on the origins of nostlagia and its place in Berlin, as our version of the project, 'You can never go home again,' forces the artists to confront their concepts of identity in relation to place. Above, the Trabant has become a symbolic East Berlin correlative for the GDR days.


Can you ever go home again in Berlin?

The word “nostalgia” was born in 1688, created by a Swiss scholar to describe a condition afflicting homesick youngsters. The condition was characterized by “meditation only of the Fatherland” and “disturbed sleep.” The word itself is composed of two parts: nostos, Greek for “return to the native land,” and algos, the word for pain. This was more than traveler’s anxiety or sighing over a photo album: it was believed to be potentially fatal.

Today, “nostalgia” and homesickness are considered very different concepts: while homesickness is place-specific, nostalgia is “a longing for a lost time.” It may also include “a yearning for home, but it is a home faraway in time rather than space.” Homesickness can be cured, but nostalgia cannot – and the kind of home people are nostalgic about is seriously unattainable, existing only in the past and romanticized memory.

Berlin is especially suited for a project focusing on the unattainable past, since its own history has left its share of orphans and homeless. From the 1930s onwards, Berlin has had a long history of changing in such a way that some of its residents can never really go home again. From those forcibly and tragically expelled during the 30s and 40s to families divided by the wall in the 50s, Berlin created a number of homeless and heartbroken individuals who would never find the city again as they remembered it. Berlin itself, as a divided city within a divided country, had an uneasy place within Germany and the world as a whole.

Post Berlin Wall, the GDR still has its nostalgic fans. The Ostalgie movement of the 90s (another invented word, combining the German word for east with the word for nostalgia) reflected a generation still mourning some aspects of the GDR, as exemplified by the film Goodbye Lenin. The movie shows a young man desperately trying to recreate East Berlin, ostensibly to prevent his ill mother, who was in a coma while the wall fell, from dying of shock once she realizes what has happened. It quickly becomes clear, however, that he’s working equally for himself – because his memories of his mother are tied so closely with the GDR, he hopes that preserving the GDR means preserving her.

For generations of Berliners, memories of the GDR are still inextricably linked with those of childhood. The still-present GDR fascination – from widespread Communist kitsch for sale to tours in a tiny Trabant – allows tourists and Berliners alike to experience some of the authentic Ost Berlin experience. Some GDR-era foodstuffs have even been brought back due to popular demand.

Berlin, then, is an ideal location for meditating on the idea of home. How German artists view their GDR-era childhood homes? How do people newly moved to Berlin view the city – do they still long for their birthplace or hometown, or has the city that’s constantly changing become a new home? What kind of image will arise from the collaboration – universal underlying themes about the nature of home or a highly individualistic picture of what home means?

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