Fernweh and other Travel Untranslatables

Video Creative Producer
Published 9/24/15
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I can remember watching Alice in Wonderland as a kid and thinking that Alice herself was a whiney, unappreciative jerk. Minus that whole Queen of Hearts, “off with her head!” stuff, here she is in this amazing, magical world that is so unlike her own and all she can seem to do is complain about not being home. Celebrating unbirthdays and singing with flowers, sign me up!

Yes, wanderlust is something that struck me hard, even as a child. As a kid, we did a lot of traveling. Granted, the kind of traveling we did was of the variety I would call “utilitarian” – mostly trips to visit family. However, my parents always inserted some off-the-itinerary adventures to keep my sister and I entertained along the journey (we were big on road trips). Submerging our hands into rust-colored earth as we searched for gemstones in Georgia. Pointing to a sign that led us to an off-the-beaten-path, subterranean adventure exploring caves in West Virginia. Feeling the spray released from a waterfall in Quebec. These forays became the spices that flavored our vacations, and ultimately our memories, culminating into a fully-fledged yearning to always be exploring.

I never realized how much my constant desire for travel permeated my personality until I got married. I know, I know, I even work in the tourism industry and still, I didn’t realizes just how much my desire for adventure is so much a part of who I am. It made its way into the ceremony, into the vows and even into the speech given by my bridesmaid and bridesman (yes, that’s a thing when one of your BFFs is a dude) at the reception. That desire to explore, we call it wanderlust; it didn’t occur to me until I was an adult that not everyone feels this way, that it’s unique enough to merit its own word to describe the sensation.

The derivation of wanderlust has its roots in the German language. Different languages are filled with similar words that have been coined to describe a specific feeling within the experience of travel. For instance, I’m pretty sure Alice was feeling intense dépaysement, a word coined by the French for a feeling that comes from being a foreigner in a place that is so different from one’s own that their foreignness feels amplified. Anyone who’s traveled and been given the room next to the ice maker has probably had lehitkalev, the literal translation of which is “to dog it” in Hebrew, and put up with less than perfect conditions. Or, perhaps, on a perfect fall afternoon, waldeinsamkeit, the feeling of solitude in a forest. Naturally, the Germans came up with that one also. For a condition to require its own word, it must be pretty powerful stuff.

Wanderlust is, for certain, a great descriptor for my intense desire to explore. Sometimes though, the German word fernweh is an even better one – because, sometimes it’s not about the discovery but about a longing to be in a particular place that drives the need to explore; a homesickness for a place I’ve never been.

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