Feeling Homesick for a Place You’ve Never Been

Exploring the German concept of “fernweh.”
Doo Lough, Ireland
Doo Lough, Ireland(Vittorio ZamboniPublic Domain)

While listening to NPR last night, I heard Ari Shapiro discuss this Atlas Obscura article about the German concept of fernweh. Fernweh translates as “farsickness” and refers to “feeling homesick for a place you’ve never been or could never go.” (Sidenote: Germans really do have some of the best words for strange, random, and abstract concepts.)

Atlas Obscura asked their readers to submit places that make them experience fernweh, and the responses ranged from fictional worlds (Narnia and Middle-Earth) to earthly locations including Cape Cod, Ireland and Scotland (some of the most popular responses), and even Victorian England.

All of this makes me think of C.S. Lewis’ many writings concerning the topics of nostalgia and longing. In my experience, no other writer has explored those concepts with quite as much poignancy. Consider this beautiful quote from The Weight of Glory, which moves me every time I read it:

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you — the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

And for the record, Ireland and Scotland frequently fill me with fernweh (I mean, just look at that photo above). So much so, in fact, that I almost don’t want to go, lest the reality turn out to be less than what I see in my heart and mind. Then again, I felt that way about Japan and Japan turned out to be so much better than I’d imagined.

And of course, there will always be Narnia.

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