The Sound of Home

When I feel homesick, I take the subway out to the airport. Not to look at the announcements of flights going back home because there are not that many; only one a day in winter and two in summer. I go there to listen to the sound of the rolling suitcases. Those little plastic wheels moving on asphalt, on concrete, on cobblestone—that is the sound that reminds me of home. The sound of Frankfurt, Germany.

I have been obsessed with the rolling cases since I was eight years, eleven months and twelve days years old. I know that down to the exact day because it was the Christmas before my ninth birthday. The miracle of being given such a grown-up present blew my mind away.

These suitcases were still a very new thing in 1980, and only frequent travelers had them back then. My father did because he worked in a different city and was gone from Monday morning to Friday night. And every Friday night, I would wait to hear his cab arrive from the train station or airport. I would stand at the window while the driver unloaded his case and he rolled it across the sidewalk to our front door and came in. The sound of his suitcase was the promise of a present he would have for me, every single Friday.

My first wheelie was one of the early Samsonite models: medium-sized, white, with red stickers for the initials you put next to the locks. I fell in love the moment I saw it under the Christmas tree. It was so much more than a case on wheels; it was the promise of a future with exciting trips to all the fascinating places my father talked about. The places in the photos he showed me when he was back; him in front of the Kremlin or on the Chinese wall. The places where he bought souvenirs or dresses for me that me and my friends had never seen before; a scarabaeus on a golden necklace from Egypt, a babushka from Russia or a brightly colored dress from Morocco.

With my suitcase came the promise of a very special trip: My first trip on an airplane. My excitement was endless. Unfortunately, that trip was still months away. But there was no way I would let my parents store my new suitcase in the attic along with their entire luggage. I kept it in my room, stuffed it to the max with my most cherished treasures, locked it and rolled it up and down the long hall of my family’s Art Nouveau home.

When that was not exciting enough any more, I took the wheelie outside—first to the big patio in front of the house, and later to the street. There was no public traffic on the little alley behind our house, so I let my suitcase roll down the steep hill just to drag it back up again, over and over, always imagining that I was about to start on an exciting journey into the unknown or returning home from such a journey. Our neighbors, who immediately called my mother in a fit the first time they saw me and my suitcase walk down the hill in direction of the main street, calmed down when they saw me come up the road again. They probably thought it was a weird thing to do, but eventually, they got used to the sight.

That time was when I fell in love with the sound the wheels made on the street, the sound that would become the soundtrack of my life. The wheels of my first suitcase had to be exchanged due to wear and tear, even before I took it on its first real trip.

Luggage fashion changed over the years. The stock of bags and cases in my parent’s attic grew, and I added some new pieces too, but I never gave up my white Samsonite. As a teenager and student, I dragged it all over Europe. To the great amusement of my friends, it even accompanied me on a four-week camping trip to Greece. New floor surfaces were added to its sound portfolio: grass (very low and irregular), tiles (high and a bit screechy), and wood (deep and reassuring—one of my favorites to this day).

When it was only 17, my travel companion died a very unfortunate death. To make matters worse, it was death by my own hands. It took me days to bring myself to do it, but then I went ahead and murdered it.

It was in the US. I had just moved there for my first job. Back then, the baggage limit was still a generous 140 pounds, so I had acquired two bigger cases to take along. But 140 pounds did not seem remotely enough to hold everything I thought I would need for a year abroad. When a friend came to visit a few weeks after my arrival, she brought my white Samsonite along, filled with more stuff that seemed incredibly necessary at that point.

I met her in New York City, in a shabby hotel in the Village that still offered cheap weekly rates despite the fact that Madonna had had her photo shoot for the Sex Book there. I had long been in bed by the time my friend’s flight arrived from Germany. It was past two in the morning when I woke up to a familiar sound: My suitcase was rolling down the hotel hallway toward the room we would share for a week. I recognized it as mine, just like other people might hear the sound of a car engine and knew the exact make or model.

The next day brought bad news: My friend who was not the most reliable person to begin with had lost the keys to my suitcase. We searched her bags for close to two hours before I finally gave in to the sad truth: I would have to pick the locks. It was the mid-1990s, so there was no YouTube website yet that could have shown me how to do it softly. I remembered from movies that bobby pins should do the jobs, but no matter how I tried the locks held firm. So finally, after I had given up on the pins and also broken a nail file, I said goodbye to my beaten up travel companion and grabbed for a kitchen knife. I took a deep breath, and then I pried the locks open. They gave way with a mean little sound.

When I unpacked all the contents that I had been waiting for so impatiently, they suddenly seemed irrelevant compared to all the experiences the case itself had been a part of. I was 26, and for the first time I fully realized that I cherished my memories and experiences more than the designer clothes I would not get to wear in a laid-back American town anyway.

I did not part with the broken case until I moved again. For another while, it once again turned into my treasure trove—now the storage case for scrapbooks, letters and photos of my old and new life. Contrary to my childhood, though, I could not roll it around anymore. It might sound pathetic, but I guess I would have taken a few rounds around the parking lot in front of the building if only the damaged locks had kept shut.

Two years later, I decided to return to Germany. And I knew there was no way my old suitcase could accompany me on this trip. It had to stay behind, so when my place was almost empty, I finally made myself take it out on the sidewalk to join the other bulk garbage. I put it down next to boxes of useless stuff, broken odds and ends; then I stood in the front door for a while, looking at the piece I had dragged around for so many years and started to cry. Leaving the US again after two years was the end of an era in much more than one respect.

It might be more than appropriate that after many years of wandering around, when I came back to my home country I moved to a city full of people who live a less stable life than migrant birds. Frankfurt is like a revolving door, always open to those who come and go—and not only at the airport. The entire spirit of the city seems to build on this feeling that a life in Frankfurt is a temporary existence. Those who decide to settle there join an exotic species: the migrant bird that decides to stay in a place. If you tell people that this is your intention, they will smile knowingly. They know you won’t, no matter how convinced you are of it when you say it.

In Frankfurt, the wheelies are omnipresent, but their true time is the early morning. You hear them when most of the city is still asleep, even before the street-cleaning crews come out to make people forget about last night’s party. By 6:00am every Monday through Friday, and hardly any later on the weekends, the businesspeople and flight attendants leave their homes and head out to Europe’s biggest traffic hub. Most of them who live in one of the downtown neighborhoods do so by public transport because it is the fastest way to get to Frankfurt Rhein-Main Airport.

A creature of the night, I would often come home only when the sun was about to rise. And while I was still busy taking my makeup off, brushing my teeth and drowning as much water as possible in an hopeless attempt to avoid the unavoidable hangover, I would hear the rumbling and clicking even when the windows were closed: The first irregular scuttling of these ill-equipped plastic wheels on the cobblestone that lined the street outside of my apartment. More would follow in due time, and I would fall asleep when the morning traffic of pedestrians with their luggage, passing my house on the way to the subway station close by, would reach its high point.

Many of them would be back by the evening rush hour. The sound of their suitcases would be almost the same late in the day, but only almost as a stressful day had taken its toll. No matter how much people are looking forward to their free evening, they still walk more slowly when they come home, and the turning of the wheels is just that little notch lower than in the morning. As if the wheels were tired too from their long day out and about.

Most of my times in Frankfurt were good ones, but how much I had grown attached to the sound of little plastic wheels on asphalt and cobblestone again, I realized only on one of my worst days in those ten years: My boyfriend of four years had recently broken up with me, and I had to move out of his condo to a small apartment of my own again. The weekend before I was due to leave his place, he went on a skiing trip to give me the privacy I felt I needed to box up my life.

I was packing up my thousands of books, pausing every once in a while for some wine and whine when I heard my favorite sound outside. Forgotten were the sentimental Billy Joel ballads I had played all day long as the background music to my goodbye from this period in my life. It was close to midnight, and the streets unusually quite for a Saturday night. There was only the faint, irregular grumbling of a wheelie on cobblestone, coming closer from the subway stop.

With a fresh glass of red, I stepped outside on the small balcony facing the street, lit a cigarette and watched the woman and her case approach. She was one of the armada of flight attendants, probably back from a long-distance flight, and as she came closer I could see that she looked as exhausted as her rolling case. They both sounded exhausted too as they made their slow way up the street which would soon not be my street any more.

I continued to watch her after she had passed, imagining that an ex-lover, a pilot, had just forgotten this case at her place when he came to gather his stuff, and that she used it now to remind her that she had known love and lost it. I was in a dramatically sentimental mood.

I continued to watch her until she had reached the next corner where she took a right on the main street, the corner behind which apartments became smaller and less expensive. When the sound of the wheels finally drifted off, I saw a vivid picture in my mind of her dragging up her suitcase to an old place with a small bedroom and shabby little bathroom on the third floor, unpacking it, throwing the laundry into the washer together with her creased uniform, and put the suitcase in its place next to the front door, where it would remain until it was time for her next trip. In my imagination, I could see her place in every little detail: a one-bedroom apartment with the original old doors and windows, so often painted over that they were hard to close, an apartment full of old furniture with some new additions from Ikea—the kind of place you had when you wanted to live in a very central and popular neighborhood despite being on a tight budget. A place like the one I would have less than a week from now.

The next Friday, when the truck had unloaded my belongings—sparse apart from the 52 wine boxes filled with my books—and my friends had helped me rearrange my worldly possessions, I spent almost an entire day on my couch, with the living room window open, absorbing the sounds of my new surroundings. It was louder here—a far cry from the elegant silence of the tree-lined side street I had grown used to, which would only occasionally be interrupted on busy summer weekends. Here, in my new down-to-earth neighborhood, my street was lined with bars, cafés, pubs and Thai take-outs. There was a constant buzz of people coming and going, growing louder by the hour, in keeping with the amount of alcohol consumed by the regulars and those enjoying the nice spring weather.

It was in the early evening when I heard my sound again. The end of the workday, of the workweek, brought me the familiar rumble of wheelie suitcases, and suddenly I knew that I could feel at home in my new apartment too. That my happiness did not depend on the man who did not want to live with me any more, not on his fancy place and not on our extravagant trips. It was the people who had stood by me in the time of crisis and who would remain with me, who would share new experiences with me and make this period a good one.

I had finally found my way home. And this realization was a Friday night present as cherished as the little knickknacks my father would bring me from all over the world when I was a child.

Though I only spent a brief period in this new place, I have taken the spirit with me. I travel lighter these days, and I don’t mind at all any more if my suitcases have as many scars and dents as I do now in my forties.

Now once again, I have crossed the Atlantic, and this time also the entire continent, to start a new period in my life in Seattle. Half a world away, I think of the little girl and her first rolling suitcase, about her excitement to get to know the world—and about the woman she has become. The woman traveling all corners of the world, looking for adventure and home, preferably at the same time.

Seattle is much quieter than Frankfurt. I live in a downtown neighborhood again, but you don’t hear much outside in the early morning or at the end of the workday. Of course the entire city is newer than the last building I lived in in Frankfurt, and the windows here only open a fraction. You might hear an occasional police siren and the constant low buzz from the thoroughfare close by, but that is that. Nobody here drags a trolley suitcase around for a longer distance than from their apartments into the elevator and through the lobby out to the town car waiting in front of the building’s entrance doors, ready to take them to their meetings or to the airport. And if you run into someone with a wheelie on the way to the elevator, you still don’t hear a thing. It’s the carpet in the halls that absorbs all but the most ear-piercing sounds. All that quiet, all that privacy is still weird to me.

I miss my Sound of Frankfurt. Those wheels, with all their promise of travel and adventure that have long ago turned into the comforting sound of home for me.

So in the late Friday afternoons, you will see me on the subway train to the airport, longingly staring at people’s luggage. You will see me strolling through the arrival or departure hall, eventually sit down and have a coffee, close my eyes and listen to the suitcases making their way to some unknown city or foreign country for the weekend, or arriving back home after a week away for work, all of them singing my song of belonging.

Then I take the train back downtown, and I take this warm feeling with me.

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