You can go back, but…Part 2

by Steve Brock on March 18, 2014

Freiburg Baechle (mini-canals)I hadn’t planned on having a Part 2 to the last entry on my return – my re-visit – to Freiburg, Germany. But Cathie’s comment to it triggered a thought worth exploring more.

The question was, can you go back to a place you spent a lot of time in years ago and do so with fresh eyes? In general, I would say yes, given that enough time has gone by and that you’re aware of the need to see things anew.

So why wasn’t I able to do that in Freiburg? Because it wasn’t the place itself that created the nostalgia. It was the people I’d known in that place that made it almost impossible to re-visit the same location in an objective manner.

When we have deep emotional ties to people in a place, that place is forever affected in our thinking. As a sad example, we have some friends who recently lost their infant child. Now, they feel compelled to move from their apartment because just the walls of the building remind them of their departed son.

Some places stick to us like that and remind us of the people we can’t help but associate with the locations. I can’t look at the river in Freiburg and not think of times lying on its bank with friends talking about dreams of the future. Or see a particular street and not recall quiet walks with other friends, discussions that today seem both naively idealistic and yet somehow lacking in my busy “adult” life.

I think of racing with other friends late at night, crisscrossing the many Baechle, the water runnels/mini-channels that line the old streets of Freiburg. Or hanging with German friends in a crowded pub whose owner seemed to have an odd obsession with German punk and, curiously, the music of the American singer Steve Winwood. Or enjoying a piping hot bratwurst on a cold afternoon staring up at the cathedral as a friend shared a more private side of himself than I’d ever known before.

All these people, these memories, are tied to this place. So to see it with fresh eyes is not only difficult, but something I may not be even willing to do. Seeing the place anew – creating new memories – runs the risk of erasing or at least diminishing the old ones.

Memory is such a fickle thing that I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk. Too much good – too many memories of wonderful friends – are tied to that place. I think the older we get, the more tightly we clasp these memories – nurture and protect them – even as we realize how ephemeral and even unreliable they are.

As someone who constantly harps on living in the present, I find this idea of clinging to memories hard to admit. But I think it’s true and it explains why we can’t – or don’t want to – see some old places in new ways.

How about you? Ever been to a place so connected with friends or family you care about that it is hard to separate the place from those people?

We tend to travel to experience the new. But sometimes we find value in the old as well. How we balance these two desires is one of the joys – and challenges – of traveling…and of being human.

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