Fernweh – A Longing for Travel and Places Unseen

I came across an interesting word the other day: fernweh. Fernweh is a German that has no exact English translation. The closest equivalent would likely be wanderlust – a desire and longing for somewhere else. The full translation would be something like this:

Fernweh, noun, pronounced “foun-vih” – A longing for far off or unseen places.

The antonym of fernweh has an English equivalent: “homesickness”. A longing to be back somewhere familiar and comfortable. In that way, a translation for fernweh would also be the made-up word “farsickness”. “Wanderlust” itself is a German word too, which makes me a lot more interested in learning German than I’ve ever been before.

Mountain and lake

Fernweh is a feeling, an emotion. Putting a name to an emotion is a way to help better understand it and bring it into the light. One of my favorite podcasts, Invisibilia, focuses on exploring these unseen forces in our lives.

This got me wondering – what “far-off places” do people dream of going to? What do I think of when I feel fernweh?

Communing With Nature

I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t long to spend more time in nature. Sure, after some time there we might feel a sense of homesickness or the longing for a soft bed, but the desire to spend time in nature quickly becomes nostalgic and builds up again.

There are physical and mental reasons for this too. In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams dives into the many ways time with nature helps us. A few of the most important ones are so familiar they need little explanation:

  • Smell – The smell is trees has been proven to lower blood pressure. Coniferous oils mitigate stress and asthma.
  • Sound – Soldiers returning from war zones can find much-needed peace in the silence of the outdoors. City dwellers can rake similar benefits for time away from the hustle and bustle.
  • Feel – The textures of nature are oddly relaxing. Running a hand along a large tree, dipping your feet in a river after a hike or bouldering up some rocks on a trail has a distinct feel when you’re away from the city.
Thayne Canyon Trail
The bottom of the Thayne Canyon Trail here in Utah

The entire book is about the benefits of time in nature. Spending time there makes us happier, healthier and more creative, so it’s no surprise that a part of us feels drawn to it.

Dreaming of Travel

Aside from nature, a common fernweh/”farsickness” dream destination is the unknown, or the known but still exotic has a strong pull.

When you think about “far off or unseen places” what comes to your mind first? Your favorite vacation spot? The most pretty pictures on Instagram? A place you read about in a book? An adventurous spot you saw on a travel show?

All of these (and more) fall into the category of fernweh if you’re dreaming of them.

One thing that stands out to me is that in today’s culture, there is so much travel porn. Curated versions of trips that only highlight the best parts while completely ignoring areas that aren’t fun or click-worthy.

For example, Antelope Canyon in Arizona is one of the most beautiful places (so I hear). The light hits the canyon in a way that just lights them. Just

Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon with light reflecting off the sandy air

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s also completely an illusion. Fstoppers, a group of photographers who create a ton of great content on YouTube, put together a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on to get this great photo.

I still dream of traveling to unseen places, some I’ve been to and some I haven’t been to, but I try to curb that with a realistic image of what to expect from the experience.

A similar experience is visiting Versailles in Paris. There’s even a term for it – Paris Syndrome.

Paris Syndrome – A condition exhibited by some individuals when visiting or going on vacation to Paris, as a result of extreme shock at discovering that Paris is different from their expectations.

Wikipedia Article for Paris Syndrome

It’s easy to build up a place to be “perfect” when all we see are the perfect parts. Dreaming of travel to places is beautiful and healthy and exciting – but it helps to stay grounded with your expectations. Read about the place from locals, check out the 1-star reviews and educate yourself on what to really expect – not just what you want.

Whenever I’ve done this, it’s helped my self control a bunch. I’m much less likely to make rash financial choices when I’m fully informed.

The Desire for Time

Fernweh doesn’t need to be a physical location. It can also refer to a longing for a future time in your life. Maybe that’s early retirement, your kids going off to college or completing a major project.

Many (myself included before I retired) have a longing for that unseen place where you’ll have time to explore, grow and do everything you want.

When you’re stressed out, looking forward to a time when you can relax can give you overwhelming calm.

There is a counterpoint to this though – busy people always find ways to be busy. Kids and launches aside, it’s important to find a balance in your life. Learning how to find that balance now, whether you’re working or not, pays off long-term.

My Idea of Fernweh

I’ve never had the opportunity to try “slow travel” – the type of vacation where you might buy a one-way ticket and return home when you’re ready. It’s a luxury that is only possible with financial independence or flexible job hours.

adam rome
Me in Rome for 7-days; our longest stay in a single place.

One of my long-time desires has been the time to try slow travel. The idea of calmly exploring a new city or country a bit at a time, without the need to do it all within the few weeks of vacation time allocated for a year.

Going to grocery stores rather than restaurants, having days where we do nothing but wander around the local neighborhood, being OK not seeing a single noteworthy sight on a given day – that luxury is one that’s much easier for me to handle if it’s part of a longer trip.

We don’t yet have plans to try “slow-travel” (Mrs. Minafi is still working, and we have an 11-year-old dog) but this is one that I’m dying to try giving a shot sometime.

As for where that might be? There’s no shortage of places on my goals list that we haven’t been to New Zealand, Spain, all around Asia – just to name a few. Even slow travel around the US would be a lot of fun.

What is your idea of fernweh? When you think about a longing for some unseen or unfamiliar place, what image comes into your mind?

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I'm , a full-stack product developer in Salt Lake City, UT. I love enlivening experiences, visualizing data, and making playful websites.

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