The truest words to describe my childhood are comfortable and safe. For twenty-three years, I lived in a bounded social mold, leading a life that, for the most part, was shaped by the circumstances of my existence. As I approached my 24th birthday, a longing to break free of everything I knew, or thought I knew, began to emerge. I often found myself sitting at home, daydreaming about living outside of my element, as a stranger in a distant land. This unidentifiable yearning consumed me—for I didn't know what I was looking for or where I longed to go, but I knew I had to get on my way. So I travelled across the earth alone, carrying few belongings in my backpack, and leaving behind the confines of my secure and limited reality in search of something, somewhere else.
I now know the ambiguous feeling of the German word, fernweh; a word with no equivalent in the English language. When broken down, fernweh literally translates to, “farsickness,” and is often unsatisfyingly paraphrased as, “an ache for distant places.” Despite the translational shortcomings, and whether explained in German or English, the word remains difficult to grasp, perhaps because the feeling fernweh aims to describe is inherently ungraspable.
The best way to understand fernweh is through analyzing exactly what it is not—homesickness. A familiar term and common feeling many have experienced at some point in time, homesickness is an acute longing for one’s home during a prolonged time in its absence. While homesickness can lead to distress and suffering, it is nonetheless, in most cases, a mendable ‘sickness’—we can always return home. Fernweh, or farsickness, is also a suffering, but is less clear cut and rectifiable. It is a consuming longing to be somewhere you’ve never been; an aching to be in a distant and unknown land, an ambiguous yearning for anything, anywhere else, as anyone else. But how do we go about searching for a place we’ve never been? How do we assuage a yearning, the source of which is unknown to us? And the most pertinent question remains: why do we ache for places we’ve never known?
When we are homesick, we long for a place known to us, a place of safety, comfort, and stability. On a surface level, we miss a physical structure with walls, a front door, a place filled with objects, memories and people whose faces are as familiar as our own. Home is a place we can touch, smell and see. Fernweh is an ache for experiences never had and sensations never felt. Where homesickness is a yearning for the familiar, fernweh is a yearning for the complete unknown—a place free from the limiting confines of our familiar society and home. It’s a purposeful desire to recognize nothing and no one. Instead of longing for a physical structure, it's a desire to discover home under the wide open sky in a far away land, where the front door is the expansive sea and the bedroom, its sandy shores.
But the question remains: why do we yearn for unknown experiences in unknown lands? The unknown is a place for reinvention. It’s a space of limitless possibilities and, as such, an opportunity to wipe our slates clean and begin anew. It is a chance to relinquish confining mental constructs of the self—how we view ourselves and how others view us. The formlessness inherent in fernweh allows us to re-conceptualize and re-create our being in any way we choose.
But, in the end, homesickness isn’t really about home at all. When we are homesick, we miss the feelings and comforts that the physical environment inherently provides. We miss the feeling of belonging somewhere. The root cause of fernweh is also fueled by a desire to be somewhere you belong—the somewhere that allows you to be the truest expression of yourself. Fernweh is also about finding home inside of us, anywhere in the world—on a mountain peak or winding road in the middle of the earth, recognizing nothing, but being part of everything.
We can come back home, but how do we amend fernweh? Maybe it can never be permanently relieved because when it strikes once, it will strike again, perhaps even harder the second time around. But fernweh is a feeling for dreamers—where we imagine endless possibilities and realize how limitless the conditions of our existence really are. And the world can always use a few more dreamers.