Tuesday, August 3, 2010

À la recherche du temps perdu (or, Same Same but Different)

It's the strangest thing, coming back to a place you once knew so well, after a long stretch of time. The streets, the shops, the bars and restaurants, the faces of the people, the smells and tastes, the air itself -- it's all somehow so very familiar, yet brand new.

The language comes back to you in spurts, at once known by your tonuge but a stranger to your throat. Some things have not changed at all -- the bartender, Fred, in your favourite hangout, the dog poo everywhere, the waft of cigarette smoke in the air. Some things have changed utterly -- the dingy ancient railway station has been replaced by a gleaming architectural construction like a sweeping spider's web, your favourite pizza place has closed down. And some things have changed only slightly -- the décor in a cafe is new, there are more boutiques and fewer beggars, people wear cool clothes not skinny jeans and chunky shoes.

You convince yourself that that bar, that restaurant, that café, that gym you used to go to have all closed down, and then you turn the corner and realise that they have been there all along, it's just that your memory has failed you. The streets are so familiar, yet you get lost. The neighbourhoods are so familiar, yet you can't remember where you were that one time when that thing happened.

It's the strangest feeling, being back in a place you once knew so well. You want to keep saying "I'm not a tourist! I live here!" But you don't live here anymore, you are a tourist. You find things you never knew existed -- museums, roman ruins, alleyways full of ancient churches and old houses with stone fences and cats among the flowers. You realise that despite all the time you spent here, you never strayed from the same familiar path. Suddenly this place seems so much bigger than it ever did before, and at the same time so much smaller.

You want to come back not to this place, but to that time, that life, that other you. You want not the nostalgia but the reality of the life you once lead -- the people who are now spread all over the world, the feeling of having all the time you need, the knowledge that if you ever felt lonely you could go to that one place and find someone there you know. These are the things you can never get back. You may have the same meal, the same beer, in the same place, but you are not the same, your life is not the same and nothing will ever make it the same again. Not even coming back.

You can never really go back to a place you once knew. All you can do is find a new place. You can reminisce with old friends, you can exclaim with delight over the things that remain the same. But at the same time you can taste that new beer, eat in that new restaurant, make new friends. The past and present can exist together and you can appreciate all the things you know now that you didn't know then. All that you have now that you didn't have then. The old friends remain -- you may not see each other as often as you'd like, but they will always be your friends.

At the same time as everything is changing, nothing changes. I am still the same person, here, in this place, as I was before. I am still the same as I am at home. But I am also new, I have found new things in this place that I once knew so well, and I have found new things in me.

(I have found that I am still capable of staying out drinking until 9 o'clock in the morning).