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Driven to Wanderlust
You're on the autobahn, not zipping through the countryside at illegal stateside speeds but crawling along at 25 mph. Far from Fahrvergnügen ("the pleasure of driving"—remember the Volkswagen commercial?), this is Stau: complete gridlock.
The facilitators of today's wanderlust, that German passion for hiking and traveling, are cars, complete with heatable upholstery and that roll of toilet paper perched on the rear window shelf, often covered by a little knitted hat. Wanderlust gains momentum when BMWs and Mercedes accelerate to a staggering 180 mph. Herein lies the true idea of wanderlust: to move freely through the countryside rather than to arrive somewhere.
Wanderlust has been a cultural leitmotif for centuries. Living conditions were fairly harsh in Germany until the mid-1800s, and the political system and tightly organized society usually repressive. In an empire strongly defined by provincial regions, wanderlust came to represent a rebellious departure from one's homeland. In the 19th century, romantic literature and art idealized the image of independent travelers. Back then, it was mostly young and confused men, such as the famous Taugenichts (ne'er-do-wells) of Joseph von Eichendorff's novel, who traveled the world with the navel-gazing intent of finding their inner selves. To those who did not belong to the affluent noble class, wanderlust was a means to practical training. Even today apprentices of many professions, most notably carpenters, might need to travel the country for several years, offering their services along the way, before they are considered qualified to settle down and start their own business.
The aspiring middle class in the early 19th century coined the phrase Reisen bildet (travel educates)—a saying many German teenagers today, dragged through museums while on vacation, cringe to hear. Goethe, the Humboldt brothers, and others like them set a precedent by earnestly exploring wherever they traveled. Based on the number of Germans chasing tans along beaches around the globe, it appears that wanderlust as cultural exploration may have dropped off. Still, you'll encounter organized groups of Germans at any sightseeing spot in the country. They might even be on a Bildungsurlaub (educational vacation), a uniquely German social institution. It's a paid "vacation" an employer is obligated to grant employees so they can travel and "improve" themselves. German companies (and the German state) also encourage forays by forking out up to six weeks of vacation a year and a month's extra pay to be spent during wanderlust season—even if it's spent on the autobahn, for that matter.
But wanderlust also stands in sharp juxtaposition to that other German passion, a longing for being settled. For many, wanderlust is a brief departure from that well-kept little house tucked away snugly behind that wall or fence. Germans love to say that the best part about traveling is the return home.
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