On a youth hostelling holiday along the Rhine in the late 1970s, I planned to spend a night in Düsseldorf, in what was then West Germany. However, I got lost in the maze of narrow streets in the Altstadt (old town) and was unable to find the accommodation. In my bumbling German, I asked a passer-by for directions to the hostel: “Wo ist die Jugendherberge, bitte?’ The stranger politely replied in near-perfect English: “Zat’s an easy question. Just cross ze bridge, turn left, and it’s second on your right.”
That brought to a crashing end my German-speaking efforts although in later years a fascination with the language led to noting intriguing words. One of them came from A Time of Gifts (1977), Patrick Leigh Fermor’s first volume of his walk across Europe in 1933 at the age of 18. One morning, when recovering from a hangover, he learned from some girls in Stuttgart that he was suffering from a “katzenjammer”. He decided that while hangovers may cause a sore head they are not always harmful: “If they fall short of the double-vision which turns Salisbury into Cologne Cathedral, they invest scenery with a lustre which is unknown to total abstainers.”
For more than two years our horizons have been reduced as we missed out on new discoveries and have suffered what is known as “experiential poverty”. The lack of travel meant no opportunity to try out foreign words and phrases, although in expectation of future trips, online language courses experienced an upsurge of interest. But there are many foreign words which convey a hankering to be somewhere else. This wistful longing has a German expression: sehnsucht, as well as a word for wanting to be far away: fernweh, meaning “far sickness” or “wanderlust”. Add that to weltschmerz (sadness at the imperfect state of the world) and schadenfreude (taking pleasure from someone’s misfortune) and a collection of evocative words starts to build up.
The romantically inclined Welsh refer to a yearning, wistfulness or for something that is indefinable as hiraeth, which can also mean a longing for the past, for lost youth or a former lover. The Portuguese sum up a complexity of feelings in saudade – a sense of nostalgia or an ache in one’s soul. The Turks too have a word for this sadness: buzun, which roughly translates as “melancholy”. In France the happiness of meeting a friend again is summed up in the word retrouvailles, meaning “reunion”, while a group of Germans getting together has the expressive zusammenkunft.
During the pandemic many locals explored the delights of what Ireland has to offer, although there remains a pent-up desire for the missing hint of foreignness, an escape from the humdrum, for new sights and flavours, a longing to breathe in the unfamiliar and experience a world beyond our comfort zone. But also for the belle époque facade of a train station, the fin de siècle café, the charmingly brusque waiter, the greasy menu (now morphed to your smartphone) and the blast of the off-key busker blaring out Für Elise clashing with the clock tower’s chimes.
The terrasse of the square is where the French excel in art de vivre, where the hubbub of chatter was described by the American writer Julien Green as “this race of interminable talkers”. It is also where the craving is strongest for a Pastis or a glass of Sancerre from the comfort of a rattan chair while you survey the surrounding statues, noted by Thackeray on his continental travels in the 1850s: “There is scarcely a capital city in this Europe but has its bronze pompous statue or two of some periwigged, hook-nosed emperor, in a Roman habit, waving his bronze baton on his broad-flanked brazen charger.”'
Consolation about missing out on foreign climes led to the former US poet laureate Billy Collins pondering on the silver lining of the cancellation of his trip to Italy. He wrote about being able to go to his local café and not do the strange things that people do while on holiday: “And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone / willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner./ I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal / what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.”
Some writers have reached the conclusion in their cancellation poetry that the acronym Fomo (Fear of Missing Out) has been replaced by Jomo (Joy of Missing Out). Bill Bryson, who retired from writing in 2020, once described the beauty of going to a strange land: “I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.”