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Fantasy And Childlike Wonder Are Among Common Themes In Places People Long For

Apr 17, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 1:43 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over spring break, maybe you went someplace lush and beautiful that you've always dreamed of. Or maybe you just dreamed of going to someplace like that. In German, there's a word to describe that feeling of longing, sort of homesickness for a place you've never been. That word is...

ERIC GRUNDHAUSER: Fernweh.

SHAPIRO: That's Eric Grundhauser of the website Atlas Obscura, a guide to the world's hidden wonders. The literal translation of fernweh is far-sickness. And Atlas Obscura asked readers to describe places that made them feel this sense of longing for somewhere they've never been. Grundhauser says the responses shared common themes of fantasy and childlike wonder.

GRUNDHAUSER: The feeling itself, this feeling of far-sickness, I think brings in an element of mystery or possibility in the same way that homesickness correlates to that feeling of, say, when you were a kid and you had a place that you knew really well, but it was still full of hidden mystery and potential.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of responses did you get when you asked readers for the places that give them this feeling of longing?

GRUNDHAUSER: Our readers responded very enthusiastically. We received hundreds of responses that ranged from places all over the world to made-up places like Middle Earth or Narnia. In terms of real-world places, overwhelmingly we received responses related to Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, the U.K. - anywhere that seems green and mysterious.

SHAPIRO: We asked on social media for people to tell us the places that gave them this sense of longing, and Scotland came up there as well.

KEN JOHNSTON: It's a family heritage place. My family name goes all the way back there.

SHAPIRO: This is Ken Johnston (ph), who's an artist from Texas.

JOHNSTON: Whenever I see pictures of Scotland or movies that have Scotland in it, it calls to me. I feel it in my bones almost - the scent of the air, the moisture in the air, the sound of the wind. It's amazing to me how real those places are.

SHAPIRO: A lot of people, like Ken Johnston, talked about some place their ancestors were from, imagining walking the streets that their great-grandparents walked.

GRUNDHAUSER: A lot of this feeling does have to do with a want to connect with a past that you can't tangibly connect with. But place itself, even if you can't visit it, if you can dream of visiting it or want to visit and know it exists, it's a very real and concrete connection to...

SHAPIRO: People who are no longer with us.

GRUNDHAUSER: People who are no longer with us. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: The world is such a varied place. I know you got a lot of responses about Scotland, England. Were there people who dreamed of parts of South America, Africa, Asia?

GRUNDHAUSER: We received multiple responses for eastern Asia, a few for the plains of Africa.

SHAPIRO: Seems like people long for openness.

GRUNDHAUSER: Yeah. Many of the responses have a similar geographic makeup, often almost a mental landscape grafted onto what they think is a real landscape.

SHAPIRO: One person who responded to our call-out on social media described in great detail a place that she doesn't know whether it exists or not.

MARY CAROL PERSUTTI: It's a very specific feeling that I have. And I've had it since I was a little girl.

SHAPIRO: This is Mary Carol Persutti, who lives in New York's Hudson Valley.

PERSUTTI: It's somewhere in Massachusetts or Vermont. There's, like, an old house and a lot of property and grasses. And it's kind of in the fall.

SHAPIRO: Do you think it's better for people to leave these places unvisited, that the version of it in their mind will always be better than the reality that they would experience?

GRUNDHAUSER: (Laughter) I would never counsel anyone not to go out and experience the world and learn about it and enjoy it and dig into those fascinating mysteries. But maybe, because sometimes...

(LAUGHTER)

GRUNDHAUSER: Sometimes the mystery is better than the reality.

SHAPIRO: Eric Grundhauser of the website Atlas Obscura talking with us about fernweh, or the sense of longing far-sickness for a place that you've never been. Thanks so much.

GRUNDHAUSER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUUTSU'S "LONGING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.