3 August 2020

How I cured my “fernweh”

As a boy growing up in a quiet suburb of Rotterdam in the sixties and early seventies, I had what Germans call “fernweh”: an intense longing for places I had never been. The depth of that longing was equal to my desire to escape from an environment in which I felt ill at ease and lonely. Fernweh is the opposite of homesick, which I never was.


I dreamt of visiting faraway cities such as Karachi, Beirut, or Montevideo.

I had no image in my mind of what they looked like but was intrigued by their unfamiliar sounding names when I saw them in the KLM timetable booklet I studied so assiduously that I knew many routes by heart, particularly the long distance ones. I saw myself strolling over wide boulevards with stately buildings and visiting countries where I could hear the call to prayer from the minarets.


Whatever I fantasized, there had to be palm trees, because a palm tree was for me the ultimate symbol of far-off lands.

Its elegance was the antithesis of the gnarled oak in our back garden. What’s more, palm trees only grow in warm climates and warmth was what I longed for most.


The fantasies I had as a young boy became reality when, the day after I finished high school, I left the Netherlands to take a summer course in Nice.


Seeing the Promenade des Anglais with its white buildings and graceful palm trees gave me a jolt of recognition even though I’d never been there. I was overwhelmed by the expanse of the Mediterranean Sea and its blue was of an intensity I had never seen before. The sky was more radiant than in my daydreams and the sun sparkled like a brilliant gem on the waves.


At that moment I decided that I was not going back home. Ever.


Over the last forty-six years I’ve lived in France, the United States, and Mexico, and now for many years in Spain. I keep on fantasizing about places I haven’t visited. I’d like to see the Imam Mosque in Isfahan and the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. I want to go to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, because of all the a’s in its name and because I know so little about it.


The difference with when I still lived in the Netherlands is that now I travel to new places out of curiosity, not because I have a deep yearning for a distant place that will give me a warm feeling. That warmth I have here at home in Barcelona with my husband Felipe, our dog Lucy, and our friends.


When I have an urge to see palm trees, I take a walk along the Passeig Marítim from the Barceloneta to the Villa Olimpica.


While ambling along that seaside promenade I can spot the planes taking off over the Mediterranean Sea. I can’t help wondering where they’re going.

Karachi perhaps, Beirut, or Montevideo?

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