Fernweh, homesickness, and the ever-elusive Here-and-Now

The Germans have some smashing words, Fernweh being one of them. Fern = far away, distant, and Weh = pain or woe. It means that you’re homesick for a place you haven’t necessarily been. Very Sturm und Drang.

I experience something similar, or in between, with England and Wales. Neither of them is my country, and yet… Gah. If Britain were a person, it would be “the one that got away”. It’s always there, like an evil siren, pretending to be something it’s not. Calling to me with memories whose silver nitrate sheen has nothing to do with truth. I know my image of the place is very different from the reality of living there, but there’s no accounting for childhood impressions. You feel what you feel.

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But I can also get homesick for the place I actually am. Filled with yearning for the present moment. When something is so overwhelmingly good in a banal sort of way, and yet impossible to handle or reach or know what to do with, because feelings are unwieldy beasts and my brain is too small for their limitless nature. How many times have I asked myself when I’ve actually been in England or Wales, “How do you wrap a whole country in your arms? How do you hug this sceptered fucking isle?” And the answer, of course, is that you don’t. You can’t. A country is vast, and you are small. We’re not built for it.

Except… we are. Humans, for all their flaws, have one redeeming feature: artistic expression. Through this one divine spark, we can touch something like the truth.

Which brings me to this little gif. I know posting it borders on creepiness, since it depicts such vulnerability. But it’s also the perfect illustration for what I’m trying to say in this post. How do you embrace something that’s a thousand times bigger than you? The only way is through music, through writing, through art. You don’t try to hold it for longer than it takes you to play it, describe it, or paint it. You accept it, and let it wreak its havoc with you because really, there’s no alternative unless you want an ulcer. Life is a fleeting moment of euphoric dread. Those who feel it deeply can touch fingertips through the very best of us who have the gift to make it tangible.

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”Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” (Much Ado About Nothing, 2.iii).

In this case it’s Sibelius who provokes the reaction, but for me it’s always Elgar. The man whose auditive paintbrush is dipped not in the darkness of a Finnish forest, but in the misty green of rolling English hills. Who somehow looked into my soul before I was born and wrote the music that described my homesickness for a place I can never call mine.

And they say INTPs are emotionless machines!

I’ve written a few songs myself that try to embrace the full scope of the heart-bursting present. Some of them about England, others about peope – and this is one of them: Next Year Jerusalem. The inspiration for it came from a group of students I taught French. I don’t think they ever knew the impression they made on me. How they were the reason I got up in the morning.

Because INTPs are good at pretending to be emotionless machines…

Next year Jerusalem
we will not die
’til we’re through with life
Here on the other side
skies are bright
and breathing light

Sweet Jesus
I never thought I’d see the day
Sweet baby
you have saved me

This is where we ended up
This is where we’ll drain the cup
This the fountain of youth
Maybe we were meant to be
Straying in the wrong alley
only to see
that we are essentially free

Next year Jerusalem
we have time
even though we’re dying
We’re on the road today
here we’ll stay
’til we’re ta’en away

Somehow we found
water from the holy land
flowing like wine
through the desert sand

This is where we ended up…

3 thoughts on “Fernweh, homesickness, and the ever-elusive Here-and-Now

  1. fernando

    hi Ingela, wow, you describe nostalgic states very well, really these things only feel, the language disfigures it, because it is never the real description, only a slight approximate idea, the music is really a universal language, and your example described it’s very good…

    Is the child in the photo a family member?

    personally there are several composers or artists that connect me with an internal state, to name one, for example, Richard Wagner, there is a huge work of it, called “The Ring of the Nibelung”, and there are countless melodic passages that really go Exalted to nostalgia and trembling recollection…
    also a collection of works for piano and orchestra by Thomas de Hartmann, (The Music of Gurdjieff / de Hartmann). with them something happens to me like what you describe with the German word “Fernweh”…

    I have never been in Europe, but I would love to know countries like Spain, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and some other that I forget the name, to those strange places where one feels that internal connection, is strange, as you say, I can never call mine to those places, because I do not speak Swedish, Nor Iceland, nor Norwegian, less Russian, and very badly English, there you discover that really somehow we are all inhabitants of the same house It is our own ignorance of ourselves that makes us isolate ourselves, with ideologies, conditioning, stupid customs or beliefs…

    Thank you for sharing this theme with your lyrics, now I clearly understand what I wanted to say, there is always a story behind or some impression that moved us to do it, it’s something magical…

    greetings from afar.
    fernando.

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  2. Ingela Bohm Post author

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply! Music can really do wondrous things, and it’s interesting to know that you experience that connection with certain countries as well. A friend of mine heard from a professor of hers at university that “You’re the nationality of whatever country whose national anthem you like”. 🙂

    The child is me! Couple of years ago…

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