It’s a word I used on my Facebook page this week, saying that I was suffering from a rather severe bout of it. It is a Welsh word that, as far as I can gather, doesn’t have an English equivalent, and it means, quite simply, a deep longing for home.
It’s not a longing for your house or any specific individual, and the only way I can explain it is in terms of its being a longing for one’s homeland: the place where you left your heart.
No matter how far you travel and how much you enjoy every new experience and people that you meet, hiraeth is the rhythm of your innermost being, always reminding you of the place from which you came and gave you life.
There is also, in my case at least, the inevitability of its returning there.
It came upon me suddenly this week, and although I described my sudden feelings of isolation in terms of homesickness to my non-Welsh friends, I could say “hiraeth” to my countrymen and know that they would know exactly what I meant.
I love LA. I love the sun, the easier pace of life, the lower utility bills, the great service in bars, restaurants, and at the end of the phone. I love the fact that you can eat out at a really good restaurant without having to take out a second mortgage; and I love being able to go to the gym and eat healthily with such ease and without being considered a bit of a freak.
In contrast, there is very little I miss about the UK. Appalling train services, expensive gas, electric and phone, rudeness pretty much everywhere you turn – on a point by point chart, LA would win over the UK every time.
But then there is that little corner of a foreign field that is, to me, forever Wales, and I am as attached to it now as the day I came out of the womb at Glossop Maternity Home in Cardiff in 1958.
I know how lucky I am to be living in Beverly Hills, where the sun rises in my living room and sets in my office. I know that for many people, this would be the trip of a lifetime, and that even to see the Hollywood sign on the hills just once, let alone every day, would be one of life’s great joys.
And I know that I am blessed to have a job that enables me to travel and meet new people all the time, and that I have been equally blessed to have the good health that enables me to do that.
All of this I know in my head. But then there’s hiraeth. That aching, longing, tugging of the heart that, this week, has seen me sobbing uncontrollably to go home – to my family, my friends, my homeland. To where I belong.
I’ve been looking at the languages of other cultures to see if they contain a word that conveys the same sentiment.
Arabic has the word “ghurba”, which is a derivative of the word for stranger, and in the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic is explained as: "absence from the homeland: separation from one’s native country, banishment, exile; life or place away from home.” it is also often translated as “Diaspora”.
Like hiraeth, “ghurba” also carries with it an intense, melancholic feeling of longing, nostalgia, homesickness and separation: of, according to the Canadian newspaper columnist Ghada Al Atrash Janbey (thank you, yet again, Google), “a severe patriotic yearning for a place where one’s heart was not only living, but . . . to a place where one’s heart danced to the silence of a homeland’s soul.”
There is a word for it in Portuguese, too – saudade – and it expresses a feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one loved but is now gone.
It also carries fatalist undertones and the repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return – or even, as one translation puts it: “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.”
Apparently, this state of mind has subsequently become pretty much part of the Portuguese way of life – a feeling of absence, something missing, and yet a desire for presence rather than absence – or, as they say in Portuguese, a strong desire to “matar as sauddasa” (literally, to kill the saudades).
I don’t know about you, but that kind of thinking isn’t going to put Lisbon top of my must-see holiday destinations next year.
My favourite word so far to describe my 6000 miles away from home hiraeth is the Dutch one, “weemoed”, which is apparently a “fuzzy form” of nostagia. Being Dutch, their definition means that we don’t have to guess for very long quite why it might be regarded as fuzzy, but I like the word.
The Fins have “kaiho” – a state of involuntary solitude, in which the subject feels incompleteness and yearns for something unobtainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain (I tell you: my Welsh hiraeth buddies and I are a veritable choir of laughing policemen among this lot).
In Korean, “keurium” is the closest to saudade, and reflects a yearning for anything that has left a deep impression on the heart – a memory, place, person etc. The Japanese word for a longing of the heart is “natsukashii”. While in Armenian, the word “karot” describes the deep feeling of missing something or somebody.
Different words, same emotion, but to me there is something about just saying the Welsh word hiraeth that pulls at exactly the part of your body from which the longing comes.
It’s the part I feel when seeing my friends’ names on Facebook late at night, and the pictures of my close friends Mary and Liam's first grandchild.
It’s my Mum’s voice, 6000 miles away on the phone, telling me about Maddie the bichon frise’s latest crimes (breaking into my old bedroom and opening the M & S biscuits, an aunt’s Christmas present).
It’s knowing that there’s a rugby game being played just a couple of miles from my house, and my brother calling me from my home to tell me who was asking after me.
I want to know how Sioned and Gareth’s wedding plans are going.
I want to see Leisha who, for my birthday when I went back home, decorated my table with flowers, bought a cake with candles, and reduced me to tears with her thoughtfulness.
I want to know what Liz and Ronw are filming and share with them the hysterical laughter than never fails to leave me uplifted.
I want to go to the Robin Hood pub, chat to Dave, and hear Gwerfyl and Heulwen's latest adventures.
I want to see the Tuesday lunchtime rugby blokes in Llandaff's Butchers Arms, still reminiscing about the Lions tour 30 years ago.
Although "hiraeth" is a word not linked to specifics, all of these people are inherently linked to the home I love. And each brings extraordinary qualities and joys to a life that, even as I look to the sun setting on Beverly Hills, fills me with a longing I haven't felt in many years.
It’s a longing for the warmth of the Welsh, the humour and laughter (oh, God, how I miss the laughter here), Sunday roast in the Cameo Club, the wet leaves in autumn – yes, the rain. I never thought I’d say it: but I really miss the rain.
I miss being among people who "get" me. The rugby team were shit against Australia, but I don't care. I miss being Welsh.
Whatever you want to call it in any language, it’s a longing for home. Like most clichés, "Home is Where the Heart Is" didn’t earn its cliché status for nothing.