Wehmütig

There is something about going back to a place that used to be home. It’s as if, by having called this place home, you are never a visitor but someone who has simply left for the time being. As if this place you once called home is still saving you a seat, whether or not you ever fill it again and regardless, should you fill it again, if it is for five years or five days. I suppose it is a case of once a home, always a home. You mark each other, a transfer occurs, like wet ink to skin or a thumb print to paper.

In an impulsive moment, brought on by the suggestion of my German parents, R&B, I went back to Münster last week. It was to coincide with my German brother’s birthday and saw him coming home from work to find me lounging on his couch with a glass of wine. It was payback, really, for this part in orchestrating my 26th and 27th birthday surprises with his girlfriend, my former (wonderful) flatmate, who seems to have an extraordinary knack for getting people across oceans and countries and into the same room for that one, heart pounding moment. It was also the last chance I had to get back to Münster before leaving Germany and seeing as Münster was where it all, really, began, it felt necessary to walk its stony streets once more.

And it was absolutely lovely to be back. Lovely and rushed and rainy. The city had saved me a seat and I slid back into it, having coffee with familiar faces, playing on the seesaw with Silke and the kids, dancing all night with people who made me feel so welcome way back in the beginning, drinking a wine in the corner of my favourite pub with two of my favourite women. Münster turned on its finest weather and produced four days of grey skies and drizzle. I didn’t wear my summer shoes once. Somehow, had I worn my summer shoes, it would have felt wrong. Münster and rain belong together. It is how I got to know the city and it is how I will always remember it.

The day before I left, I went to have tea and cake with R&B. B is three weeks from retiring and I asked him how he felt. His response was, ‘wehmütig.’ We translated it, after a lot of pontificating and hand gestures and ultimately Leo-consulting. Wistful was offered up, as was nostalgic and melancholy.  ‘Looking back,’ Bernd said, arms waving, ‘looking back and thinking.’ I asked if one eye was laughing and one was crying and he said yes and we decided he wasn’t really wistful or melancholy, he was more nostalgic. Nostalgic for the past, for his present that was weeks from slipping into the past, for the long, happy years he spent working in his castle.

The Germans have the word ‘nostalgisch’ as well, and ‘melancholisch’. But wehmütig seemed to differ, seemed to express far more in one word than the others. It sat with me, that word, through tea and cake and in the car on the way home, I asked my German brother about it. I wanted to know how it differed from the German ‘nostalgisch’ or ‘melancholisch’, what it really meant to be wehmütig. He gave me a beautiful explanation. He said, you have to pull it apart. Your ‘gemüt’ is your mind, your soul, your most basic, essential feeling. The one that sits deep within, that alerts you to both your wellness and any imbalance that may be disrupting it. Weh is woe or grief and also soreness, an ache. Children, he said, use ‘weh’ when they hurt themselves, when something is sore – ‘aua, es tut weh!’. So wehmütig is when your sense of wellness, your balance, that innate feeling within you, is hurting. When it is undergoing grief, when it is aching, perhaps, because of change or loss.

I thought about wehmütig all the way home. Hungover and at the mercy of the Deutsche Bahn’s endless delays, I watched the green, neat German countryside roll past my window. I thought about everyone in Münster, about driving out of it, months ago, SG at the wheel of our big moving truck and what that move did to my gemüt. I thought about it as I felt that change as my train headed south, that soft kick of familiarity as we hurtled past the red villages clustered around the lone church spires, as the hills began to swell. I thought about it as I sat waiting at Nürnberg, feeling closer to home, feeling more gemütlich. I thought about how leaving these hills soon is making me feel wehmütig, is making my gemüt ache, just like leaving Münster did, and Sydney before it.

And I thought about it as I lay in bed that night, pleasantly exhausted, relishing the feeling of being in my bed, in my home. I thought about how gemütlich – comfortable, appealing to my gemüt – I felt and my thoughts wandered to my bed in Sydney, to how it will feel to, exhausted from flying, crawl into it. And as I fell asleep, I thought about how Sydney is saving a seat for me, keeping it warm, ready to soothe my aching gemüt.

I thought about change, about nostalgia and how fortunate I am that the changes of the past that have imbalanced me have simultaneously produced the only antidotes to feelings of wehmütig; the people and places I will always call home.

24 Replies to “Wehmütig”

    1. I love it when people are able to break apart words for me and tell me where each component comes from. Makes it so much easier to really comprehend!

  1. You are very original – language never gets in the way between you and your reader – I’m never thinking that’s a cliche or that’s a bit pretentious – and the structure of your piece is neatly intricate – a pleasure to follow your thoughts and experiences!

  2. An absolutely wonderfully written post!
    As to my experience: whenever I have the chance – which is not too often with me living in the US now – I go back to visit my native town of Krefeld-Linn in Germany and I really enjoy wandering around the streets, looking at the house I was born and raised in and re-living childhood times. But I can’t ever say that I really feel “wehmuetig” about it.
    Best regards from southern Texas – where I now really feel at home –
    Pit

  3. Well written. I think the words «nostalgisch», «melancholisch» and «wehmütig» don’t differ that much.
    «Wehmütig» allways refers to the past: You can be melancholisch without viewing the past, but you can’t be wehmütig without remembering something from the past. And «nostalgisch» doesn’t have the strong connotation concerning negative emotions the word «wehmütig» has.

    All three words differ just slightly. Your German brother found a nice explanation.

    1. Good point. “nostalgisch”often occurrs with transfiguration of the past, a tendency to particularly higlight its positive aspects. Often you end up with the phrase – “Früher war alles besser!” Compared to this, i think “wehmütig” is much more honest, it expresses the pain of leaving some place, sitaution or person behind.

What do you think?