You know when you’ve been away too long. You find yourself feeling a bit wistful for the comforts and familiarity of home, or you get a knot in your stomach when you think about the family, friends or pets you left behind. Known as homesickness, this sensation can be one of the inevitable results of travel for many people. It’s easily cured, as almost everyone eventually returns to the place where they started.
But there’s another kind of malaise associated with travel, one that balances out that craving for home. There’s a German word for it: fernweh. It comes from fern (meaning “far”) and weh (defined as “pain,” “misery” or “woe”). Fernweh, then, is “farsickness” or a “longing for far-off places,” especially those you’ve not yet visited.
The remedy for fernweh may not be quite so simple as it is for homesickness. Then again, you may not want to squelch it.
Recently, the website Atlas Obscura asked readers to describe places that made them feel this sense of hunger for somewhere they’ve never been. Overwhelmingly, they chose Iceland, Ireland, Scotland or the United Kingdom—locales that seemed green and mysterious in the imagination. People on social media were also polled, and Scotland scored highly there, as well.
If we’re going to name our dream destinations, it’s not surprising to me that most people choose green places. The health benefits of forest bathing and being amid greenery are now well-known. Nearly 40 years of research results confirm that being in nature, including forests, gardens and parks, enhances human health and wellness. Among a long list of benefits, being in nature provides stress relief, increases social interactions, encourages physical exercise and even helps alleviate mental illness.
Some respondents in the Atlas Obscura survey described feeling fernweh for imaginary spots, such as Middle Earth from author J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous book series that includes The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, or Narnia, the setting for The Chronicles of Narnia, seven fantasy novels by C. S. Lewis. These survey participants wished they could visit these landscapes that had been configured in their heads, as if they were grafted onto real landscapes.
A lot of the desire for fanciful environments had to do with connecting to a place that you physically wouldn’t be able to go to or wanting to reunite with a past that you tangibly can’t. For example, if your ancestors came from Norway, you might visualize yourself walking streets that look the same as they did when your great-grandparents walked there.
For me, that type of fantasy “farsickness” is tied not so much to an unachievable location as it is to imagined roads not taken—what life could I have lived if I had physically lived “there”?
There are other German words that invoke poetic notions of travel. Here are just a few of them:
Gemutlichkeit—the perfect mix of comfortable, cozy and warm.
Kopfkino—when you picture scenarios in your mind; literally, the word translates into “head cinema.”
Luftschloss—a castle in the air or an unrealistic dream.
Sehnsucht—a yearning for far-off places and indescribable goals.
Sprachgefuhl—being particularly good at learning new languages.
Torschlusspanik—a fear that time is running out for achieving your ambitions.
Waldeinsamkeit—a compound word from wald meaning “wood” and einsamkeit meaning “alone.” Therefore, waldeinsamkeit defines the feeling of being alone in a forest. It also encompasses the sensation you get the moment you stop and think about the beauty of the world around you.
Zeitgeist—this word relates to time travel. Zeitgeist is when you capture the emotions of a certain decade or era, or the vibe of a specific moment in time.
So, should we leave the places we feel fernweh for unvisited? Would going “there” risk the loss of a well-loved dream if your mind’s-eye version isn’t matched in reality?
Perhaps. But I believe in what American novelist and playwright Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “Between the wish and the thing, the world lies waiting.”
And, I’d add, whether you travel for beauty, for love or for wisdom, that world out there that’s ready for you will definitely deliver.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,