“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.”

~Judith Thurman

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.

Gentoo penguins on Cuverville Island, Antarctica. 2017.

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.

My Egyptian fernweh. 2019.

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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.

8 Comments

  • Such a perfect description of these times for so many of us who would be taking advantage of finally having the time to travel. Yet, not yet! :o)

    • Thanks so much, Ann! When all of this is behind us, I’m convinced we will be looking at travel with renewed appreciation and gratitude and a huge amount of fernweh!

  • Thank you, Mary, for a new word. I’ll have to try it out on my German-born friend this week. 🙂
    As my husband is 17 years older, we’ve been following our travel dreams since we got married 36 years ago, knowing there may not be a chance in the future. We started with a road trip in Ireland, because he said he’d always wanted to go. I looked at him searchingly and said ‘what’s stopping you’? You set a date, you plan and save, and you go! And we’ve been doing that every since, starting with Windjammer Barefoot cruises in the Caribbean, because that’s what we could afford. Great adventures! We have purposely chosen to live in a small house, acquire no debts, and save for each trip. Over the years we’ve upgraded, most recently disembarking from our second Panama Canal cruise, on Regent Seven Seas Splendor, on March 11. I had to cancel a French River cruise, planned with a college friend, for this October, but dreaming about the next cruise with my husband, September, 2021, New England and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
    Here’s to dreaming! Robin

    • Robin, what a wonderful strategy for making your travel dreams a reality! Many thanks for sharing that here. I love your question, “What’s stopping you?”
      I hope you will be able to impress your German friend with your knowledge of fernweh, and I also hope you will be happily sailing the St. Lawrence Seaway a year from now. Here’s to dreaming indeed 🙂

    • Robin, I envy you. I was supposed to board in the cruise after yours but…..

      Mary, thank you for yet another interesting and enlightening post. Just now my fernweh is drawing me to…..justaboutanywhere!

  • Thanks Mary for telling us about this intriguing concept. I have lots of “fernweh!” Also your point about not putting things off is such an important one. We need to find a balance between “staying safe” and living our lives as fully as possible. IMHO nothing is risk free and the only certainty is that our time is limited.

    BTW – maybe I should add this to your recent SF post, but I recently stayed at the Parker Guest House and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for the recommendation! As you mentioned, it was very quiet which I liked. I felt like I had the place to myself. I wonder if you’ve stayed there during “normal” times and if it was equally satisfactory when there were many more guests? Thanks again. Love your blog!

    • Welcome to the fernweh club, Bill! I’m happy to have provided some food for thought. Finding a balance is a perfect way to describe these challenging times.
      I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed the Parker Guest House! It’s also an equally great place to stay in non-Covid times – less quiet, but still a calm and inviting environment.
      Thanks also for the kind words about the blog 🙂

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