The wonderful German word that sums up the way we're all feeling

Who is not dreaming of open roads and far horizons? - getty
Who is not dreaming of open roads and far horizons? - getty

The German word “fernweh” describes a debilitating “longing for distant places” – which avid travellers suffer more than most

Frequent travellers – and travel journalists – are wont to suffer homesickness from time to time, especially on long and lonely journeys to remote, rugged places.

But the pandemic, of course, has grounded us and curtailed even the making of future plans to escape. Consequently, many of us are beginning to feel quite sick of home – of the kitchen and cooking, of the television blaring bad news, of the neighbours and their infernal strimming machines and, now that autumn is upon us, leafblowers.

As the nights draw in, thoughts inevitably turn to sunnier climes – just as further restrictions threaten to come down like dark blinds.

Who is not dreaming of open roads and far horizons?

When lockdown began, I promised myself to make the most of this unusual situation. Compelled to stay put for an unknown length of time, I resolved to explore fully my immediate environs and see what a low-mileage, low-carbon lifestyle felt like. I sky-bathed under the contrail-free blue dome that hung over England from March through May.

I ignored the easing of rules allowing some travel; just as well, given the continually changing government rules around quarantine and flight corridors. My passport, due to expire this week, stayed in a drawer.

But, of late, the urge to spin a globe and consider something epic has resurfaced with a vengeance. Good old Wanderlust – derived from a German term for “to enjoy hiking” – doesn’t quite cover it. Another German word Fernweh is far more apt. While translators often render it as “wanderlust”, it literally means “faroffsickness” or “longing for distant places”.

The idea of Fernweh has its roots in German Romanticism. In his play Mary Stuart, Schiller shows Mortimer, “led by irresistible desire/For foreign travel”, leaving behind his puritanical country, while the imprisoned Mary has raptures over the “fast fleeting clouds” she sees in the heavens above.

Looking at a river, Goethe says a “feeling of flight (Fluchtgefühl) seized me again. I would like to call this a reverse homesickness, a longing for space instead of tightness.”

Schubert’s Winterreise takes the idea of a “winter journey” as a metaphor for an existential quest.

Fernweh has its roots in a notion of transcendent longing central to the German brand of Romanticism, says Dr Simon Ward, who runs a course dedicated to the subject at Durham University.

“While you don’t see the word frequently until the 20th century, there are instances going back to the 1850. The idea of longing – Sehnsucht in German – for a distant elsewhere is present in Romantic poetry, in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting ‘The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’ and in Goethe’s typically German desire to travel to Italy.”

He says German thinkers were more prone to penning speculative poetry and philosophy than their British peers.

“The ‘pain’ element expressed in ‘Weh’ speaks to a melancholic side of German culture that yearns for the unattainable, whereas Wanderlust, with its Lust – pleasure – is much more about being out and about and bouncing through the daffodils, Wordsworth-style, singing Schubert songs as part of a group of ramblers.

“Do you know the land where the lemon-trees grow?” - getty
“Do you know the land where the lemon-trees grow?” - getty

“I think it also has something to do with the idea emerging from a Germany that was largely landlocked. Germany was barely a seafaring nation, so the sense of being imprisoned and, prior to the railways, within a poor infrastructure,  is central to having to imagine an inaccessible elsewhere.”

Which makes me wonder if our island status in the age of the train makes Britons more prone to Fernweh these days. Certainly, our tortuous relationship with the European mainland these past five decades, culminating in Brexit, might lead some of us to feel cut off. Arguably, Covid-19 merely exacerbates this sensation – cutting us off from the whole world.

Fernweh has became something of a cliché in the German press, with almost every newspaper piece on Italian tourism from Germany quoting Goethe’s famous line “Do you know the land where the lemon-trees grow?” The travel section of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit is called Fernweh. Travel advertisements use the term to drive consumers to satisfy their inner Romantic yearnings by shelling out on exotic holidays. Not for nothing is Germany one of the great travelling nations.

But when I glance up at the few contrails now criss-crossing over my Devon home, I no longer think how lovely for the skies and the birds; rather, I see heavenly white roads leading across the Atlantic. It’s not that I don’t love Britain; I’ve just had my fill of sheep-shorn moorlands, ice-cold seas, busy car parks and the intensively farmed quilt that is the English landscape. If a local “circuit break” comes down like a clamp, I can see myself climbing to the top of High Willhays – my nearest summit, a bracing 2,039 feet above sea-level – and screaming “Fernweh” at the heavens.

Nor is this all arty-farty daydreaming. Lots of studies have demonstrated the tangible benefits of holidays. A 2019 study by Syracuse University professors Bryce Hruska and Brooks Gump found is that people who holidayed more frequently over a 12-month period had a “lowered risk for metabolic syndrome and metabolic symptoms. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of risk factors for cardiovascular disease.”

Other research indicates that the prospect of travel as well as the holiday itself are good for wellbeing, at least in the short term.

But no one needs academics to tell them the world is big and fascinating and, until recently, waiting to be discovered.

My new passport arrived last week. For now, it sits there like an illicit drug, a risqué little book waiting to be opened and indulged in. The pandemic is certainly putting the “lust” back into Wanderlust.

But if a second lockdown is imposed, I can see Fernweh spreading at viral speed through the travel-loving population. Will it be a polite poetic longing in the manner of Goethe and Schubert – or will we all become travel-mad, travel-desperate, travel-angry? I’d bet there are German words for those states too.

Sprechen sie compound nouns?

Kummerspeck – “grief bacon” – excess weight gained by emotional overeating

Verschlimmbessern – “kill patient with cure” – making something worse as you try to improve it

Luftschloss – “air castle” – unrealistic dreams

Torschlusspanik – “gate-closing panic” – when time is running out to fulfil your goals

Schnapsidee – “booze idea” – an outlandish proposal made when drunk

Spätimperialistischer Oxfordschnösel – late imperialist Oxford snotty-nosed brat, aka Boris Johnson

Backpfeifengesicht – “whistle-cheek-face” – a face begging to be slapped

Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft – Association for Subordinate Officials of the Head Office Management of the Danube Steamboat Electrical Services