Fernweh: When You Feel Homesick for Places You Have Never Been to

I am writing this even as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world, destroying lives and livelihoods. The world is literally at a standstill, with billions of people confined under some form of lockdown, and entire economies virtually brought to a halt. Some countries, it seems, have seen the worst of the pandemic, having already ‘passed the peak’ of infection, as it is said, though at a great and terrible cost. But in many other countries, the disease is still raging at its fiercest, with no signs of abating any time soon as the death toll mounts and the days march on into uncertainty.

However, there are some countries that have begun to ease restrictions, allowing their citizens to step out of their doors for the first time in a long time, and permitting some businesses to resume their operations. All these, in the hope of returning to normalcy, or at least a semblance of it, for this pandemic, it appears, has rendered the word ‘normal’ as we know it due for a redefinition.

Three face masks

But despite relaxing some aspects of the lockdown, it is all too likely that leisure travel – travel taken primarily as a vacation from everyday life – will not be allowed any time soon. And even if it somehow is, then most of us would still be cautious about setting out beyond our doors. We would most likely remain within our homes still, for a few weeks or even months, for fear of the so-called ‘second wave’ of infection; and venture outside only for food, medicine, and other essential supplies to tide us through these dire times. Leisure travel would probably be the last thing on our minds.

Still, being confined for weeks now within the four corners of our houses, it is but natural to feel bored and anxious, to long to be outdoors, in some pine-clad mountain trail, perhaps, or in a white sandy beach beneath the summer sun. Our yearning right now to be in a place other than our home is likely in feverish heights.

A man stands upon a ridge staring at the mountain peak before him, perhaps a depiction of fernweh

What we are feeling now, that strong desire to travel, some would call wanderlust, a word that in recent years has been on the lips of nearly every self-professed traveler. In most cases, wanderlust would suffice to encapsulate our current urge to be outdoors. But what if our desire to travel stems not from simple boredom or weariness of confinement in our houses, nor from the basic human urge to go outside? What if our yearning to see the world, to journey to far-off places, to places that might only be but figments of our imagination, arises from some indescribable, deep-seated, long-harbored hunger or restlessness within our souls? What if we begin to feel homesick for places we have never even been to?

For that the Germans have a word, as they seem to do for every imaginable – and sometimes unimaginable – thing under the sun. Fernweh, they call it, a combination of the words fern, meaning ‘far’, and weh, which can be translated as ‘pain’ or ‘woe’ or ‘sickness’. Taken together, fernweh literally means ‘farsickness’, which can then be interpreted as an ‘ache for distant places’ or ‘longing for far-off places’ or even ‘feeling homesick for places you’ve never even been to’. How and when the Germans thought of such a word I can only imagine; but it is not to be wondered at, for the Germans are renowned as great travelers and adventurers.

Now, however, in the midst of this pandemic, it is not only the Germans that are experiencing fernweh. Being cooped up in our homes for weeks on end, it is all too certain that most, if not all, of us, regardless of nationality and ethnicity, are also feeling fernweh in varying measures. Even those who have not felt it before are likely starting to feel it now, and in their minds begin to yearn to return to places they have been, or wish to journey to places they have never been.

A woman sits on chair and stares at window, perhaps in the midst of grappling with her fernweh

In my case, my fernweh dates back to the days of my childhood. I was born a bona fide citizen of the Third World, into a poor household with no radio, no television, no electricity, and scarce little opportunity for betterment. The concept of leisure travel was wholly alien and incomprehensible to me.

But in contrast to the poverty we were mired in, we had a wealth of reading materials, for my family was, and still is, largely a family of readers, something that I take pride on even now. And so in those days, when I was not out in the neighborhood playing with other children in my village, I stayed indoors, busy poring over dusty and worn-out paperbacks and pocketbooks; old editions of Reader’s Digest magazines with yellow and brown pages that seemed to disintegrate at the merest touch; stacks of Awake! magazines with matte pages and colorful illustrations; other magazines; comics; newspapers; brochures; catalogs; even dated or photocopied school textbooks; and any and every reading material I could get my hands on.

I would read as much as I can, as often as I can, until my eyes grew too strained and I could no longer endure the throbbing pain in my head, and I was overborne by the distinct and potent smell of books – by biblichor, as it is now called; or at least until daylight lasted, for come nightfall we only had an old, makeshift kerosene lamp for illumination, which we used only limitedly, for we had precious little fuel for it. But on those rare – and happy – occasions that we somehow had a bit of fuel to spare, I would then read far into the night, in the feeble yellow lamplight, until sleep eventually overtakes me; or until the lamp, after having burnt through the last drop of kerosene, dims, dulls, and finally dies.

The flame of an oil lamp

And from reading, fernweh was awakened within me, a secret flame that was kindled and that slowly and steadily burned brighter and hotter as it was fed, nourished by the tales and stories I was ceaselessly consuming. For I read of faraway lands, foreign peoples, and strange customs and philosophies. I became engrossed with the histories and mythologies of my own country, and of other countries. Even as I read, I was borne back in time, to the white marble temples, august pillared halls, and paved avenues lined with carven figures of Ancient Greece and of Ancient Rome; to the wondrous cities and edifices of Ancient Egypt and Ancient China that were built and wrought in days now beyond the reach of memory. I learned of the sagas of the fierce Norsemen who sailed the bitter northern seas; the romantic tales that told of the majesty of kings and queens, the valor of knights, and the beauty of damsels in the days when chivalry flowered in Europe; and the epics of Asia that recounted the glorious deeds and feats of gods and heroes.

Ancient buildings built atop a wooded hill

And by the skill and craft of the authors, and by my own wild and fanciful imagination, I was even transported to other realms, for did I not sail to Treasure Island with Jim Hawkins, and fought bloodthirsty buccaneers over buried gold? Did I not go on an unexpected adventure with the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, in the company of thirteen dwarves and one wizard, over ranges and rivers and into the far East, and thence, after a ruinous battle before the Lonely Mountain, journey back home, only to travel again after several years, this time with Bilbo’s cousin and heir Frodo Baggins? Was I not admitted to Hogwarts and there studied magic and wizardry with Harry Potter and took part in all his travels and adventures?

Without spending anything nor stepping beyond my doors, I have already visited the lonely glens and mist-clad moors of the Scottish Highlands; the rain-washed fields and flowering vales of England; the mighty castles and fortresses of France and Germany; the remote and rugged landscapes of Iceland shaped and sculpted by Mother Nature in the deeps of time; the dark, snowy forests and spectacular fjords and glaciers of Scandinavia; the vast plains and prairies and the lofty mountains of America; the wild, untamed beauty of Patagonia; the autumn woods and crystalline lakes of New Zealand; the pagodas and temples and the cherry blossom-mantled streets of Japan; and even the ivory shores and turquoise waters of tropical isles beneath a balmy sun, including those of my own country, the Philippines.

Lonely rocky and grassy landscape before the sea, which is often associated with fernweh

But even as I read, I grew increasingly restless. For now I wanted to truly set foot upon those places, and behold their beauty with my own eyes, if only to see if they are as I imagined them or if they are as words made them up to be. My home and my life now seemed very small and cramped and insignificant, while the world outside appeared exceedingly wide, and it called, awaiting exploration from modern-day wanderers and wayfarers. I began to long for travels and adventures, and to ache for distant places. And I began to dream, too, of one day writing tales and stories about my roaming and roving, in the hope that some people may want to read them.

I grew up wanting to be bold and adventurous, but throughout my childhood – and beyond – I was actually timid and reserved. Lacking both the funds and the nerve and mettle for adventure, I retreated more and more into my books, both to nurture and assuage my ever burgeoning fernweh. And though in recent years my family’s economic conditions have improved, if only by a little, and we finally have had some chances to travel, even abroad, those trips did little to cure my homesickness for faraway places: they only served to feed the ravenous fires of fernweh that wildly raged within me.

And so my fernweh grew day by day, year by year, becoming almost an obsession, until finally, I resolved to start my own travel blog, in the hope – a vain hope, maybe – of being able to travel and make a living out of it, and in doing so be able to follow a lifelong dream of adventure. I decided that this is something I must do, partly in fulfilment of childhood yearnings whispered in a dying lamplight, yearnings which then, in the backdrop of abject poverty, seemed so futile and hopeless. And I had it all planned out perfectly. I would start with local excursions, here in the Philippines, as often as my minimal funds would allow, and as I begin to earn money, so also would I begin to venture further and abroad.

A stream flows through grassy and flowery banks beneath woods and trees, a scene often associated with fernweh

But alas, here we are: 2020, thus far, is not a good year to start a travel blog, not a good year to heed the lure of fernweh. And with no vaccine or cure to this pandemic just yet, the world might remain shuttered for some time. Travel, especially leisure travel, will all too likely be the last thing to return to normal.

Nevertheless, I am grateful. I am well and alive, with a roof over my head, ample food, and fairly fast and steady Wi-Fi. The same cannot be said for the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their lives to this virus; for the millions of people struggling to cope under the lockdown measures; and the millions more on the frontlines of this veritable war. To the first, I extend my deep-felt condolences; to the last, I can only offer my sincerest gratitude – if it even has any value – for by their labor and sacrifice the worst of this disease is averted, and we might yet hope for an end to this at last.

Still the wide world calls, and I can no longer ignore it. But I must bide my time. In the meanwhile, I will continue to stay at home, and nurse my raging fernweh as I have done before, by turning to books and reading, and now and then visiting other travel blogs and watching travel videos on YouTube.

It will be a long while before I truly set foot upon the lonely glens and mist-clad moors of the Scottish Highlands.

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About the author

Hi. I’m Jared Jeric dela Cruz, the creator and author of this blog. I'll help you start your own blog, work from home, and make money online. Also travel. Maybe. We'll see. If you find my work helpful, please donate so I can keep doing more .


About the author

Hi. I’m Jared Jeric dela Cruz, the creator and author of this blog. I'll help you start your own blog, work from home, and make money online. Also travel. Maybe. We'll see. If you find my work helpful, please donate so I can keep doing more .

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