Those untranslatable words that teach us how to travel better
by Brian Johnston
Anyone who enjoys travel should appreciate the Dutch word voorpret. Literally translated as „pre-fun“, voorpret refers to the pleasant anticipation of a forthcoming event. Yet it’s more than just looking forward to something, in which the focus is on the future. It’s more about the here-and-now pleasure that comes in the preparation.
Surely there’s no keener manifestation of voorpret than preparing for a journey. Pleasure can be found in the turn of pages in a holiday brochure, in reading guidebooks, in planning what you’re going to see and where you’re going to eat. When I first started travelling, my voorpret would last for months. As a university student heading to Greece, I surrounded myself with maps and history books, read novels set in Greece, plotted which islands I was going to visit.
As my life became busier, the voorpret dwindled. And as travel information moved online and became ever more ubiquitous and readily available, I began to do my research on the hoof. It was easier to check out local restaurants online a half-hour before dinner, or details of the Parthenon’s architecture even as I sat beneath its columns. Eventually, though, I realised anticipation had been sacrificed. The pre-fun had been lost, and my life was a little less rich.
It was coming across the Dutch word that reminded me something was missing. Since discovering it, I’ve taken time once more for some old-fashioned preparation. I was in Greece again this year, and before I went, dug out my old history books. I reread Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and took the time to study the difference between Doric and Ionic columns. I enjoyed Greece twice, once in my head before I went and again when I was there.
There are other foreign words that might teach us how to travel better. They’re often described as untranslatable, which isn’t really true – although it might take a few sentences to explain their subtleties. Nor do I believe that foreigners are graced with special insights. The Japanese aren’t the only people who can appreciate filtered sunlight through trees, even if they have the special word komorebi to describe it. Such joys are universal.
Still, what strikes you when you travel and tune into language is the ways in which that language is used to shape thought. Paying attention to concepts that lack easy English words gives you an insight into another society’s philosophy and aesthetic sensibility, and the qualities it particularly values. In the last few years, whole self-help industries have arisen around concepts such as hygge (Danish cosiness), lagom (Swedish just-enough-ness) and Marie Kondo’s joy-sparking tokimeku, a word more commonly used to mean „flutter“ or „throb“.
Few people are associated with esoteric words as much as the Japanese. Their language abounds with clever philosophical vocabulary to make you marvel, such as wabi-sabi (the beauty to be found in impermanence or imperfection) and omotenashi, the philosophy of thoughtful, considerate acts that results in the country’s impeccable customer service. It could be that we all travel in search of ukiyo, literally a „floating world“ in which we live in the moment, detached from life’s worries.
But what can we learn from such terms? Perhaps to sit a moment longer in contemplation of the cherry blossoms, which erupt in such beauty yet die so suddenly. Perhaps to get up early, step outside and listen to early birds sing, an experience for which Swedish provides the word gokotta. Perhaps to indulge in spontaneous urban meandering that leads to pleasant discoveries, which the French call a derive or „drifting'“.
Certain cultures share certain concepts, and we’d do well to enfold ourselves in them while travelling. Only in dark, chilly northern nations can you really appreciate the almost existential nature of cosiness encapsulated in the German word Gemutlichkeit, hygge and a dozen others. This isn’t just the creation of a warm atmosphere of crackling fires, candlelight and wood-carved interiors. It’s about appreciating rustic simplicity, tradition, the company of family and friends. If you sit in a posh, minimalist Copenhagen hotel room watching CNN or checking your work emails while on holiday, that’s the antithesis of all that hygge stands for.
All humans understand hygge, but it’s hard to truly live it in a sunny climate. Similarly, there are Mediterranean rituals that just wouldn’t work on the Baltic, as you’ll discover if you join the passeggiata, the pre-dinner stroll along the main street in Italian towns. It’s a timeless ritual that involves dressing well, gossip with neighbours and aimless relaxation, and relies on a balmy climate. The Greeks call it the volta, the Portuguese passeio, the Spanish passeo.
The Spanish have the sobremesa too. It’s the after-lunch, mid-afternoon slump around cafe tables in sunny plazas, when the whole afternoon can drift away with drinks and conversation in the pleasant acceptance that life is about more than work. As a traveller, you can charge around all the cathedrals and palaces you want, but you haven’t soaked up Spain until you’ve wasted half a sobremesa day away.
Contrary to stereotypes, there are idle moments to be enjoyed elsewhere. The Germans have their Feierabend or „celebration evening“, a complete disconnect from the office for a moment of carefree, do-nothing wellbeing. The Dutch have their uitwaaien, a walk in the countryside that clears the mind. The Norwegians, admittedly, only occasionally get to enjoy an utepils, literally „outside lager“, a beer outdoors on a sunny day, especially the first sunny day of the year. It’s a niche word, but conveys all the particular joy of a blue-sky afternoon in a cold climate.
There are various niche activities that we all might enjoy, even if we don’t have a word for them. Who doesn’t secretly long to cast off their clothes in some uninhibited dancing? That’s mbuki-mvuki in Swahili, from which boogie-woogie is purportedly derived. Who doesn’t enjoy walking across warm sand (hanyauku)? That’s apparently a Kwangali word, though perhaps the Namibian who told me so was pulling my leg.
The Italians in particular must appreciate the pleasant drowsiness that overcomes you after a good meal, since they coined the word abbiocco to describe it. The Germans like the solitary feeling of walking alone in a forest, Waldeinsamkeit. And what is it about the Turkish mind that especially delights in light reflecting in water? That’s yakamoz, and can be used for anything from moonlight to the glitter of swimming fish.
Some words are ambivalent. I love the Swedish term resfeber for the fluttering mix of excitement and anxiety that might keep you awake before a journey. But is there a word for the sheer delight that sometimes overwhelms us after we’ve set off? Not that I know of. The upwelling of emotion encapsulated by the Arabic word tarab is usually used only in the context of music. The Spanish call it duende, the power of a performance to make your nape prickle or move you to tears. Such a feeling is what we want when we travel and occasionally find, whether at the Taj Mahal, the summit of a mountain or a wild-animal encounter.
Cherish those moments, though. The Italians may have a warning about attempting to recreate them. Going back to travel destinations where we were once particularly happy is a mission fraught with disappointment. The dismissive Italian phrase cavoli riscaldati (literally „reheated cabbage“), used to describe a doomed attempt to revive a love affair, might be applied. You visit a destination you loved in your youth but find both it and you have changed. You find traffic jams, a rash of souvenir shops and fast-food stores where once there were rice paddies and temples piled with pyramid offerings of fruit.
Who else but the Germans would have a word (Weltschmerz) for the feeling of sentimental sadness and world-weariness that seeps into you in such moments? The German language has all kinds of melancholy words for complicated thoughts. And some delightful ones, too. Like Fernweh, the longing for faraway places that might overcome you on a rainy winter’s day, and Sehnsucht, the yearning for something indefinable that can be evoked by anything, from the sound of waves on a shoreline to the lonely sight of birds flying overhead in a big sky. A lovely notion in any language.