1 Word Every Traveler Should Know

by Ruth Kluge Mar 11, 2014

I LISTENED to Isa Lei again. The Fijian farewell song is still stuck in my head, and my heart, since my first time visiting in 2007.

When three Fijians sing together, it sounds like a whole choir. With only a guitar and a ukulele, they produce sounds that immediately bring me back to Galoa, the tiny island where I spent a few weeks with a wonderful family. It’s my second home, a place I’ll always remember, and long for. This longing, yearning, craving — in German, you can easily call it Fernweh. In English, there’s no appropriate word.

I could call it “wanderlust,” or “itchy feet,” which are the official translations, but that’s not what it really feels like. Wanderlust means something like the desire or tendency to go somewhere. It’s connected to a joyful feeling or delight, it’s energetic, passionate. Itchy feet gives the impression of a slightly irritated, fidgety feeling. The “travel bug,” or “gypsy bug,” are also related ideas, describing an intense feeling or need to see and explore. But none of this can really describe the concept of Fernweh.

Yes, Fernweh can be passionate and joyful. It can be annoying, like itchy feet. It can be a general need or desire, like the travel bug. Fernweh can be a delight, the excitement at wondering what might happen in your future, the joyous anticipation of what there is to come. But in its most intense manifestation, it’s a strong, gloomy, silent feeling. Often it’s a certain kind of sadness, or melancholy, a craving that won’t stop, and it often is accompanied by heartbreak — the heartbreak you get when you long for a place you’re not sure you’ll ever see again.

Have you ever been homesick? That awful feeling to be somewhere you’re not, the longing for home and your loved ones, the nausea that goes along with it? Take all the emotions from homesickness (Heimweh) and flip them. That’s what Germans call Fernweh: the straining, craving, painful desire to go to distant places, to travel, to see the world.

Literally, it could be translated as “farsickness,” but that still wouldn’t be right. Sickness is still something vaguely different from the German -weh. Sickness usually refers to a feeling in your body, while -weh is more a pain in your soul.

Right now my soul is in pain, because I feel I really should be somewhere else. I miss the distance, the places I don’t even know yet, the uncertainty and adventure that go along with travel. But I also miss my second home in Fiji, as well as many other places I’ve been that are important to me.

Do I have Fernweh or Heimweh? Or a mixture of both?

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