Among the myriad English-language travel blogs, you’re likely to come across two specific words of German origin. The first, more common word is “wanderlust.” Though the German origins of the word are more concerned specifically with traveling by foot/walking in nature, the word has lost its specificity and is now more or less associated with a “strong desire to travel.” The second word is “fernweh,” the antonym of the German word heimweh (homesickness). It implies a longing for far-off places, literally a “farsickness.” In his essay Far Away From Here for The New York Times, writer and photographer Teju Cole attempts to distinguish between the two with the following: “Fernweh is similar to wanderlust but, like heimweh, has a sickish, melancholy tinge. Wanderlust is rooted in the German Romantic tradition and is strongly tied to walking out in nature. […] Fernweh is a bit more imprecise. One simply wishes to be far away.”
If you Google fernweh, the first result is grouped together with wanderlust—that fernweh is only a more dramatic form of wanderlust, that it “elevates an urge to a need.” Sometimes, fernweh is simply translated as wanderlust. Wanderlust becomes in English what the Germans meant by fernweh, and fernweh is only an intensified version of wanderlust (this means that wanderlust’s specific connection to walking on foot is all but lost).
If you continue to poke around the Internet, you’ll also find that legitimate definitions of fernweh also diverge slightly from the original German meaning of the word (setting aside the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Google images where people have created their own definitions for both fernweh and wanderlust that seem more loyal to their view of the world rather than to the words themselves; haphazard definitions of wanderlust are often edited together with attractive, impeccably-dressed young people in front of sprawling mountainscapes and seem better-served as the cover of a self-help book). For his word of the day series on Twitter, English New Nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s definition of fernweh is “‘far-sickness,’ a painful longing for distant places, a consuming compulsion to travel or escape home.”
Macfarlane’s definition seems to be saying two different (albeit obviously related) things: a “painful longing for distant places” and “a consuming compulsion to…escape home” are two definitions crammed into one word: feeling compelled to escape from one’s heimat (a German word that roughly translates to home, but implies a more profound sense of belonging and social rootedness) and feeling compelled to go out into the world. But the means to this end are distinct from one another. Does the traveller inflicted with fernweh travel because she wants to see distant places and be out in the world, or because she simply can’t bear the thought of being home? If the answer is the latter, is it her home specifically or the notion of home (rootedness) in general that she finds repellent?
If fernweh is indeed the opposite of heimweh, it’s important, I think, to understand the implications of heimweh. Heimweh is not the generalized, low-level homesickness that an exchange student feels for her friends and family around Christmas time, but as Cole calls it, sickish. When the term was introduced in German, it was thought to be an “intense psychosomatic disorder.” The term homesickness no longer carries such weight, but there is still something explicitly psychological about the term fernweh, something that supersedes adventurous and creeps towards compulsive. Francesco Petrarch, one of the early Renaissance’s key early figures and a self-described “citizen of nowhere” was one of history’s earliest compulsive wanderers. Fernweh’s compulsive nature, I think, is best captured in a conversation between Petrarch and his secretary. “What is this strange madness? This mania for sleeping each night in a different bed?”
Perhaps this is why (sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly) we assume that drifters are fundamentally unhappy, that there exists some past trauma they cannot shake themselves of. At best, they are restless. At worst, they are psychologically in shambles. Regardless, I return back to my question: Is “home” fernweh’s collateral damage, or the reason for wanting to be away in the first place? How long before a new place becomes deserving of the title of “home,” and becomes repellent purely because of its label? If heimweh is a longing for home, then fernweh must be the opposite. As Cole is reflecting on his time in Switzerland months after leaving, he writes, “I wasn’t homesick for Switzerland, I was homesick for the feeling of being far away that Switzerland elicited in me.”
It is this feeling, I think, that’s at the heart of fernweh, the mix of jumbled anxiety, wonder, and exaltation that can only be felt when one is thousands of miles away from home.
Cole later states that the term “at home” describes both a location and a state of being. You can stay at home or feel at home, and often those two notions coincide. But what about when they don’t? When home as a location and state of being begin to diverge, I think the culprit is temporal rather than topographical. One may feel aversion towards their topographical (i.e. literal) home because for the last, say, five years it has been an imposter, geographically one’s home but emotionally devoid of what home means to them. Perhaps this is where Petrarch’s fernweh-induced mania comes from; an itching, feverish desire not to flee from home, but to flee from what is no longer home in order to preserve what remains of one’s memories of home.
This is why travellers generally resolve themselves to leave a place before it begins to feel stale, before it has become temporally displaced. In my home state of California, I left too late—I went to university in a nearby city. By the time I was 21, home was no longer my childhood, but something I associated with my undergraduate years. Positive years, to be sure, but devoid of the emotional charge that childhood has, that heimat has. When I came back to California for six months to do a fellowship after having lived in Edinburgh and New York, I felt this sort of temporal disconnect even more. When I think of home, it’s hard for me to not think of those six months rather than my childhood years: my childhood is continually being painted over and replaced with somewhere (or rather, somewhen a point in time) that has little of the emotional resonance that my formative years had.
In every place I’ve lived, I’ve made an effort to return there at least once and see my flat/apartment/house. What was a place of personal significance is now just a place, a physical dwelling next to the other physical dwellings that surround it. Perhaps the door has finally been replaced; perhaps the grass has been replaced with a particularly lifelike kind of AstroTurf. In any case, the building in question is both the site of important memories and emphatically no longer a memory-making site. It is utterly familiar but clearly different, and as a result, capable of provoking the same kind of revulsion that the uncanny valley provokes in us upon seeing something lifelike but clearly inhuman. As robots can be humanoid but never human, home half a lifetime after the fact can only be a dwelling and not evocative of heimat.
To those who have been displaced against their will, who are involuntary migrants or economic migrants or no longer have a home to go back to, homesickness is more real and more acute than any abstracted sort of fernweh can be. To those who have chosen to travel, however, who, in the words of Bruce Chatwin, have the luxury of wandering with a base, there is always a sense of rapture about being away from home. At the end of Cole’s piece, he writes about himself in the third person: “This is a man in a room […], far away from home, not completely happy, but happier perhaps than he would be elsewhere.” The elsewhere that Cole refers to, I think, is home. This is the consequence of fernweh, the extension of a particular type of feeling that only arises in a state of absence.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.