“Every dreamer knows that it’s entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.”
A few days ago, I ran across a word I’d never seen before that literally stopped me in my reading tracks.
Fernweh: (noun) An ache for distant places; a craving for travel.
It’s a German word – pronounced “fairn-vay” – that has no English counterpart. Translations range from the literal distance ache to the interpretive feeling of longing for a place you’ve never been. The German antonym is heimweh, or homesickness.
Fernweh personifies our travel desires, giving a voice to the invisible yearning we may feel but have difficulty putting into words. We may understand the feelings of a headache or a heartache, but the English language doesn’t have an expression that describes an ache for somewhere faraway – especially if that somewhere is a place we’ve never been.
This marvelous word got me thinking about why we’re so deeply drawn to travel and why we seek out the destinations we choose. I remembered someone I knew in Minnesota who once told me that she couldn’t stop thinking about traveling to Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s most eastern provinces. She couldn’t explain why she had to go there – just that she knew she had to – even joking that maybe she had lived there in another life.
I thought about the places that have found their way into my own little fernweh and the wonderful emotions they tap into. Antarctica always was at the top of my list, but I can’t tell you why the desire burned so deeply. It wasn’t a feeling of homesickness or a past life experience (unless I once was a penguin!). Had I known the word for it, I simply would have said it was fernweh.
And Egypt! Looking back, my blog posts from our November trip were as much an ode to my impossible case of fernweh for that ancient civilization as they were a travelogue of our time there. I think that’s what I love most about discovering this new word. It puts a framework around our feelings, providing a definition for an abstract concept that at first glance doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Fernweh is the dream behind the dreamer.
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As the Covid pandemic continues to press the pause button on our travel plans, it has reminded us rather harshly not to put things off whenever possible. Maybe it’s also telling us to pay close attention to our inner voice, set our priorities, and when it’s safe to travel again, listen to our fernweh.