Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
My childhood hero was Richard Feynman, Nobel physics laureate and trickster god for science students everywhere. Feynman read at some point about a distant country called Tuva and decided that he absolutely had to go there.
Tuva was a part of the Soviet Union, nestled between northwestern Mongolia and Russia. And during the Cold War, the difficulties for an American scientist of Feynman’s stature to travel there were all but insurmountable. The Soviets would hardly grant him a visa, and the Americans would hardly let him go.
But Feynman was determined. He spent a decade trying to obtain the necessary papers even as he grew ill with cancer. His friend Ralph Leighton, who was supposed to accompany him, later wrote a book, Tuva or Bust!, chronicling their quest.
You might say that Feynman felt fernweh for Tuva.
Fernweh is a German word that literally translates as “farsickness.” It’s one step above wanderlust. It means to feel homesick for a distant place where you have never been. I was reminded of the concept — and of Feynman’s quest — recently when Atlas Obscura solicited its readers for submissions on places for which they felt fernweh.
The responses are lovely. But to my initial surprise, by far the favorite places for which Atlas Obscura readers feel fernweh are in the British Isles, particularly Scotland and Ireland, with Iceland also coming in high in the rankings.
I have been wondering about this. Of all the places in this great wide world of ours, why do the readers of Atlas Obscura, a website dedicated to exploring the lesser known but fascinating global destination, keep coming back to the relatively familiar British Isles?
Many of the responses hint at the answer. Most of them are from readers in North America. And I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that most of the respondents are white, upper-middle class, and well-educated. Some of the respondents allude to family connections to the British Isles. Others mention the influence of fantasy literature — places like Narnia and Middle Earth are largely inspired by the natural environment of the British Isles and the social milieu of medieval Europe — which nerdy upper-middle class white kids tend to read.
But what does that mean for the concept of fernweh?
It seems that, far from being a matter of poetic fancy, people really can and do feel “homesick” for places that they have never been. One way or another, places that we have never visited enter our consciousness, often through the stories we hear, whether in family lore or the books we love, and become “home” in some deep sense. The home in our dreams. The place we return to spiritually when we drift off even as our bodies remain hopelessly bound by the laws of space and time.
But then, doesn’t true fernweh require a certain kind of upbringing? I find it impossible to locate such an imagined homeland of the soul on a world map, probably because I moved around as a child. Different sets of symbols, of cultural referents, are commingled in my mind. I also never read fantasy novels growing up, and the British Isles, though lovely, strike me as a new place to explore instead of a home to which I may return.
For a while several years ago, I had a recurrent dream in which I would be trying to get to a special destination, this spiritual home of sorts. But it wasn’t located anywhere on earth. To get there, I would have to travel to a series of exotic locales that do exist on the map in a precise sequence before some kind of portal somehow opens to transport me to the place of transcendence. Never in my dreams did I actually get to open the portal. But I suppose what I felt was fernweh for a state of being.
I can’t remember the specific locales in my dreams that I had to visit in order to open this portal. But by now I have surely been to many of them, if not in the right sequence. And no portal has opened up.
Having visited so many places, I also often think of that “expectations vs. reality” meme — when you see a place in real life, it usually doesn’t quite live up to your photoshopped, Instagram-filtered expectations. Indeed, if so many people feel fernweh for the British Isles, why don’t they just go there? Scotland and Ireland aren’t difficult to get to. Perhaps because, just as it is often disappointing to meet your hero, visiting the physical manifestation of the idea of a spiritual home in your soul is terribly risky.
The abstract place of transcendence in my dreams doesn’t exist. The idealized Ireland or Scotland or Iceland doesn’t exist, no more than Narnia or Middle Earth. And Feynman never made it to Tuva. By the time the visas finally arrived, he had died from cancer.
But what fernweh we feel for them. What desire pangs our souls to return to the places we’ve never been and never can go. What longing for our true homes.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."