Fernweh: A German Ache to Travel

A woman in a straw hat and carrying a brown leather backpack stands on a empty train platform looking into the horizon

The German language is notorious for providing compound words that perfectly encapsulate feelings, sensations, and concepts that are otherwise hard to describe. For example, wanderlust is a combination of the German words “wandern,” similar to wander in English, and “lust,” which translates to desire.

We previously covered waldeinsamkeit on the CultureReady blog: "On the surface, 'waldeinsamkeit' is a compound word with 'wald' meaning 'forest' and 'einsamkeit' meaning 'loneliness.' However, this translation of 'solitude in the forest' doesn't fully encompass the enlightened, blissful feeling that comes from being alone in the woods." 

Another German word capturing a specific experience is fernweh. This compound word brings together “fern,” meaning distance, and “wehe,” meaning sickness. Roughly, fernweh translates as an ache to travel and visit faraway places – think of it as the opposite of homesickness.

Prince Pückler-Muskau introduced fernweh to the German lexicon in 1835 in his books regaling his travels across the continent. The word found broad usage in the 20th century when German travel companies employed it in convincing German citizens to visit the world abroad. Where the term wanderlust finds its roots in exploring the German forests, fernweh refers to foreign locations farther away from the doorsteps of German citizens. 

Ilona Vandergriff, a German professor at San Francisco State University, feels that fernweh may not only be an ache to travel to a new geographical location but to experience a society that is less rigid than German social norms. “I think fernweh for Germans refers to a longing for warmer and sunnier places, palm trees, lemon trees but also a different way of life, more carefree and less ordered,” says Professor Vandergriff.

We have likely all felt fernweh in the recent past, with health and travel restrictions of COVID-19 keeping most people close to home. Hopefully, people experiencing fernweh can soon experience new locations and new cultures.

Learn More:
The Travel Ache You Can't Translate