On Homesickness and Heimweh

The German language has the most appropriate word for homesickness: Heimweh, from “Heim” meaning home and the verb “wehtun,” meaning to hurt or ache. The English equivalent just doesn’t quite convey the same intensity. Even now, parsing out the difference between homesickness and culture shock is somewhat of a challenge. Culture shock is, as defined, a sense of anxiety, a lack of direction, the feeling that you don’t know what’s appropriate and what’s not, not knowing what to do and/or how to behave in a new environment, but the experience is different for everyone. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, so it seems. The best case scenario is that you grow to appreciate aspects of your home and host cultures. I didn’t experience much culture shock when I first studied abroad in Rostock, Germany, but I remember one distinct moment that I had Heimweh, so much so that I considered going home for a visit. I think, at least in general, homesickness is a part of the process of culture shock and, when left “untreated,” can lead to a much more serious experience of culture shock.

Not quite the family Christmas tree, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria, Christmas 2008

Not quite the family Christmas tree (Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria, Christmas 2008)

I booked a one-way ticket to Germany, not intending to come back to the States until the following summer. For some reason, I wanted to prove to myself (and everyone else) that I could be independent and survive on my own for an entire academic year abroad. I also didn’t want to burden my parents with the cost of a plane ticket for such a short visit at one of the peak traveling seasons: Christmas.

Christmas was the first time I remember feeling so sad and I was just three months in to my 10-month study abroad in Germany. But it was to be expected; Christmas 2009 was my first Christmas spent away from my family. Most of my friends were able to hop on a plane or train and within hours be at home with their families. I, on the other hand, traveled to southern Germany and Austria with a few friends who likewise couldn’t afford to go home for Christmas or who wanted to use the opportunity to travel.

The hostel we stayed in didn’t have Skype and I’d left my laptop back in Rostock for fear of it being stolen (and because my backpack was heavy enough), so I bought a phone card to use in a phone booth not far from the hostel. According to the card I had 30 minutes of talk time, but in my excitement to hear from my family, I didn’t look at the time when we started talking and I couldn’t gauge how long we’d been talking when I finally though to look. For fear of being cut off mid-sentence, I said my “I love yous” early on in the conversation and repeated them often. I started to cry well before the phone card’s minutes expired and after the line went dead I stood in the phone booth crying for a few minutes longer. I felt silly, because I knew then as I know now, millions of people don’t get to spend Christmas at home with their families for a multitude of reasons. And there I was bawling inside a phone booth because I was studying abroad and supposed to be having the time of my life, but all I wished for was to be at home in my pajamas, snuggled up by the Christmas tree with the rest of my family.

There's no place like home.

There’s no place like home.

I think if I’d anticipated that reaction I wouldn’t have done anything differently; I wouldn’t have asked for a ticket home, though I know my parents would have booked one in a heartbeat. Partly because I’m stubborn and I wanted to prove I could be gone for such a long time and partly because I really did want to use that time off from university to travel. Now that I’ve experienced a holiday apart from my parents, I am so much more appreciative and thankful for the ones I do get to spend at home. By the end of my trip I was happy to be back “home” in Rostock. In fact, while chatting with a friend and trying to make New Year’s Eve plans, I mentioned that it felt good to be home, which led to some confusion because he thought I was back home in the U.S. But actually, Rostock felt like home too.

My second bought of homesickness occurred not long after. In Germany, the semester system is different from the one in the U.S. Winter semester runs from October to the end of January/beginning of February. Then there’s an exam break until the beginning/middle of April when the summer semester starts, which runs until July. After my first semester I had only an exam and a semester paper to write (which I of course put off for a while). The break seemed never-ending – most German students have exam after exam or complete internships during the semester breaks.

After I finished my exam and before I even started thinking about my paper, my friend and I took a two-week trip to England and had a blast. After we got home, my friends and I spent the days in cafes and parks and the nights in the clubs and bars of Rostock, watching episodes of Absolutely Fabulous on YouTube, and sleeping in. A couple friends from home visited while they were studying abroad and I showed them the sights of Berlin and my newfound home in Rostock. A lot of my new international friends headed home for good because they only had funding for one semester. There was an endless string of goodbye parties and grill parties on the still frigid beach in Warnemünde.

I spent long stretches of the cold, rainy winter days on Facebook, checking in on my friends back home in Athens, GA and around the U.S., jealous of all the pictures they were posting. I skyped for hours with friends at home and spent a lot of time wondering what some of my closest friends were up to because we hadn’t been the greatest at staying in touch. In short, I felt like I was missing out. Missing out on the annual Twilight Criterium bike race through the streets of downtown Athens, missing out on friendships, nights out and nights at home with friends.

Of course, if I’d stopped to think about it instead of clicking on the next photo album with pictures from a friend’s birthday party, I would have realized that my friends were missing out, too. Missing out on becoming fluent in a language, traveling and navigating foreign countries, and learning so much about themselves and the rest of the world. And eventually I did.

I have always wanted to travel and see the world and experience new things, but it wasn’t until I left home for such an extended period of time that I was able to appreciate my hometown, the state of Georgia, the U.S., and all my friends and family there. Experiencing homesickness in these two very different ways enabled me to value where I came from as well as recognize the amazing opportunity I had been given to study abroad.

Emily Caskey is an intern here at Study Abroad Spotlight and a notorious over-packer  She studied abroad in Rostock, Germany for 10 months and interned in Berlin for two summers. To learn more about her experiences abroad, check out her spotlight and follow her on Twitter @emilcask.

Sparky wants to hear from you! How did you experience homesickness while you studied abroad and what did you learn from it? Do you have any tips for dealing with homesickness to share? Tweet us @SparkySpotlight, post on our Facebook wall, or leave us a comment below! You might even consider sharing your experiences in a guest blog post for Sparky!

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