Heimweh vs. Fernweh

German is a very poetic language. Before you fall off your chair from laughing too hard, hear me out. German has its own kind of poetry, and it’s not the kind that relies on simple tricks like being melodic or pleasant to the ears. We’ll leave that to the languages that consist mainly of vowels, like Italian or Kiswahili. No offense.

The German language’s poetry stems from its conciseness. Yes, it’s true, we have monster compound words. But using those words gives us the means to convey exactly what we want to say. We don’t have to beat around the bush. And what could be more poetic than being able to put your feelings into words in such a way that everyone around you immediately knows exactly what you mean?

Take the following pair of words, for example: Heimweh and Fernweh. They may not look spectacular at first sight, probably a little heavy on the consonants. But when you understand their meaning, they will conjure up a whole world of beautiful associations.

Weh is an old German word for pain, sickness or suffering. Heim means “home”, and fern means “far”. A little bit of mix’n’match, and you’ve got two powerful words.

The pair refers to opposite concepts:

  • Heimweh describes the pain of being away from home, when you miss and think of your loved ones or even just the abstract concept of home. The closest English equivalent is homesickness, but that does not quite cut it. It’s not a sickness, it’s a proper pain, a knot in your insides.
  • Fernweh on the other hand is that very specific feeling of some mysterious force pulling you away from wherever you are at the moment. When you long to be somewhere else, the farther the better. It resembles Wanderlust (another beautiful German compound), but is much more melancholy.

Now that you know these two words, I can talk to you about that paradoxical state I am finding myself in lately. An in-between state whereby I am experiencing Heimweh and Fernweh at the same time. Maybe you’ve felt it before: a certain restlessness, when you don’t quite know how to be neither here nor there.

I have been living in Nairobi for about nine months now. I am subletting my apartment in Berlin. A lot of my stuff is still there, waiting for me in a 3 m³ storage locker. My life is revolving around Nairobi, but I am currently visiting Berlin. I still have so many good friends in Germany, and I am keeping in touch with them as best I can. But right now, I am chatting with my Nairobi besties every day, reassuring them I’ll be back soon.

I feel like I am constantly missing everyone. All the time. And I don’t know how to describe it. When I am in Berlin, longing to be in Nairobi, am I experiencing Heimweh or Fernweh? Homesickness or Wanderlust? Both?

I am in emotional limbo. One of these days, I am sure, I will decide for one or the other. Till then, I am just going with the flow. ‘Cause in the end, isn’t that, like, the only way to be anyway?



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