A Yearning for Faraway Places Can Feel a Lot Like Homesickness

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Some foreign words pull us far from the margins of our guidebook glossaries. One such word is the German compound noun Fernweh. While its antonym, Heimweh, translates neatly to “homesick,” Fernweh is more elusive. It combines distance (fern) with soreness (weh). In other words, Fernweh means “farsick.” But since the calque has yet to be added to the dictionary, it’s more often described as the “ache for distant places” or the “call of the faraway.” Whether lost or found in translation, it raises the question: Can you feel farsickness, too?

Homesickness is characterized as “a feeling of intense sadness and longing caused by absence from one’s home or native land,” by the American Psychological Association dictionary. It’s the mini grief you feel on your first sleepover that wells into night sweats and long-distance phone calls from summer camp, that catches you off guard on campus, or leaves you crestfallen after a big move abroad. Unlike separation anxiety, which can strike pre- and post-departure, homesickness tends to be temporary and is not categorized as a mental disorder, though it can be tied to depression and anxiety. While much clinical attention has been given to this minor malaise, far less has been extended to its not-so-distant counterpart.

September 30, 2020
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“If one can feel homesick, it’s quite possible to also feel the opposite of that – a longing for faraway places,” says Marianna Pogosyan, a lecturer in cultural psychology at the University of Amsterdam. Symptoms of the opposing afflictions are similar. But where the cause of homesickness tends to be straightforward, the source of farsickness is harder to map. Pogosyan suspects that those who’ve had a taste of travel are likely to be most susceptible, especially those who enjoy the thrills of exploration. “Ultimately, underneath the longing to see and experience new places lies the quest for self-discovery,” she says.

For Karen Stein, author of Getting Away from It All: Vacations and Identity, the tug of Fernweh may be weighted by connections people have with specific destinations. “If these places are tied to meaningful identities, a person could experience a strong desire to be in them,” she says. Someone who traces their family lineage back to Ireland, for example, may harbour a deep desire to one day visit the home of their ancestors. “Travel to these far-off places can be a way of engaging with this salient facet of self,” she explains.

In that sense, Fernweh isn’t much different from homesickness. Both summon a deeper appreciation of who we are and where we come from. Both call us home. But one home takes a little longer to get to.

Found in Translation

A few foreign feelings travellers are likely to find meaning in.

  • Resfeber (n. Swedish) — The heart-pumping anticipation that hits travellers at the start of their journey.

  • Waldeinsamkeit (n. German) — A quasi-magical sense of solitude that can only be felt alone in the woods.

  • Hiraeth (n. Welsh) — Grief for the places of the past you can’t return to, that are lost, or that never were.

  • Saudade (n. Portuguese) — Profound nostalgia and melancholy for an absent person, place, or thing.

  • Prostor (n. Russian) — A desire to roam freely in limitless space, void of any constraint.

  • ‘Akihi (n. Hawaiian) — The lapse that allows you to listen to directions, then promptly forget them.

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