“Fernweh is a longing to be away from home, a desire to be in a faraway place,” writes Teju Cole in the essay “Far Away from Here.” As a writer-in-residence in Switzerland, he’d found himself ruminating on this idea of “fernweh,” of being not homesick but farsick.
I’d been back from Germany for a week when I read this, and “fernweh” was already (and improbably, given the appalling state of my German) in my vocabulary. Farsickness. I yearned to be back in Germany, far away from home.
But Cole’s words did something else: “I was most at home in Switzerland precisely because I wasn’t,” he says. The farsickness he describes is defined in part by having a home to come back to, by being able to identify those roots that hold you close.
Oh, I thought, and yes, and well, that torpedoes the thesis of the essay I was writing about fernweh. I had considered the farsickness end of things, the longing for somewhere that is away, but not the ties that give one somewhere to run away from.
As both a student of writing and somebody with an entrenched interest in “far away from here,” I spend a lot of time asking myself what distinguishes a good travel story from a travel diary. I might ask the same thing about memoir more generally: what makes it transcend the diary genre? “Reflection,” my professors tell me, sometimes with a sigh that conveys that I am again using too much scene and not enough connective tissue—and also, perhaps, that I am mixing my metaphors.
I defer to their collective experience and wisdom, but I’ll add, too, thinking. The pieces that stand out to me, the ones I read and reread, are the ones that make me think, whether or not it’s in the way that the author intended. My farsickness is not in itself so interesting; it is bog-standard restlessness. Cole’s essay, though, gave me a new spin. As a piece of travel writing, “Far Away from Here” did not take me somewhere new or introduce me to the wonderful (or terrible) parts of Switzerland. Instead it asked me to rethink a small part of my perspective. It’s a piece I’ll turn back to.
Tamzin Mitchell is the Nonfiction Editor for Barnstorm.