The view from here
"Travel, by its very nature, is not permanent. In this transience, we collect beautiful memories… but, when the memories are so good, how do we look back without feeling a little blue?"
By Jess O'Connor
Last week I received a message that nearly broke my heart in two. It was a cheery, lovely message from an old acquaintance looking to reconnect. But it flooded my soul with a fierce nostalgia, a yearning for the past. I desperately wanted to turn back the clock, to experience my cherished memories all over again.
The message was from the mother of two young boys I used to babysit when I lived in Lyon, France, in 2010. Six years ago, but it feels like yesterday. She wrote to tell me how much the boys had grown, that Mathieu is now “beau, grand et intelligent” and that my beloved “bébé Jean” is no longer a baby, but 7 years old. I tried to picture them both, 6 years on, but all I could see was the faces I knew so well, unchanged. As if time had stopped for them.
It’s ridiculous, I know. Of course they’ve grown up, and bébé Jean is out of nappies and Mathieu is a tall, intelligent, handsome teenager. Of course! What pained me is that I don’t know these boys at all anymore. Their mother’s message was a stark reminder of how transient some experiences are. For a small pocket of time, six months in 2010, I was their friendly babysitter from New Zealand, affectionately called “Yassica” and lovingly teased for being a complete pushover (Mathieu once compared me to a Care Bear while mocking my inability to discipline bébé Jean, who ran (crawled) circles around me from the moment his mother left the house). To them, I was one of many babysitters who would walk in and out of their lives. They had no idea how much I appreciated being part of their small family when I was so far from home.
I’ve never been great at email – I love writing, but how can words possibly sustain the many relationships you form when you travel? I was never particularly close with the mother, but she invited me to stay for dinner every few weeks or so and, as my French improved, we were able to have some relaxed conversations without me reaching for the dictionary every five minutes. We laughed a lot, mainly over the boy’s affectionate teasing of my terrible French accent. But by the time I felt truly settled, I was off home again. And just like that, the three of them were out of my life. We wrote a few emails, back and forth, but what else was there to say?
Sometimes I feel guilty that I haven’t been a better pen pal. But our relationship was never based on what we talked about; it was circumstantial, and we didn’t have a lot in common. The mother didn’t take the lead by sending pictures of the boys, or regular updates – she was an extremely busy woman – and I didn’t want to push. We liked each other a lot, and I know she appreciated the short time I looked after her kids, but well… that was that.
I adored my life in Lyon. When I wasn’t babysitting, I was at university, trying desperately to make sense of complicated literature lessons taught in French (my class on Kafka remains a complete mystery to me – The Metamorphosis is gibberish in English, let alone a foreign language). I made new friends, fast and easily, as you do when you’re all visitors in a foreign city. I drank cheap wine by the riverside, rode rented bikes around pretty parks, shared raclette (the best potato-cheese combo known to man) with my French flatmate and woke up every day with a renewed sense of awe that I was living in France.
This was my first experience living overseas, and it was near perfect. I was 19, bright eyed and blown away by nearly everything I saw. I have hundreds, if not thousands of photos from my six months abroad, because I felt the need to record every moment… it was all so special. I felt free and full of optimism. I imagined this trip was but a glimpse of the future that awaited me at the end of my university degree; a nomadic lifestyle, spending each year in a different city, making fast friends at every turn. But life didn’t unfold in the way I expected… and in all the magical travel experiences I’ve had since, I haven’t been able to get that ‘first time’ travel feeling back.
Whenever I think about my time in France (which is often), I feel a strong sense of loss – a kind of ‘post-travel grief’, fond memories tinged with sadness. I can’t be alone in this? Travel is, by its very nature, not permanent. In this transience, we collect beautiful memories… but, when the memories are so good, how do we look back without feeling a little blue?
In the hours after I received that message from the boy’s mother, I was withdrawn and contemplative. I kept thinking of ways I could ‘go back’ – not just physically, but emotionally, to that youthful, free-spirited headspace I was in when I lived in Lyon, and my only responsibilities in life were attending a few classes and looking after a couple of cute kids two afternoons a week. I feel this often – this desire to wind back the clock to my university days. The freedom, the variety, the independence… I didn’t realise at the time how hard this would be to recreate in the ‘real world’ (I could write thousands of words on this… another day).
As I lay in bed contemplating the meaning of this crazy life (a futile task I waste far too many brain cells on), I had a lightbulb moment. I turned to my partner and said – only fully realising the truth of it as I articulated it out loud – “I’m never going to be that girl I was in Lyon again. She’s gone”. It sounds tragic, pessimistic even – but as soon as I spoke those words I felt a sense of clarity. I realised it’s absolutely futile for me to try to turn back the clock, to try to get back to a particular moment or headspace – that’s not how life works. You learn, you grow, you adapt… every new place you visit, new person you meet, they shape your future and your identity. The lens through which I view this world is constantly changing based on the new information I absorb.
Even if I packed my bags today and moved back to the exact same flat in Lyon, I would not be the exact same girl. I would not be able to ‘recreate’ my experience… but more importantly, would I want to?
I realised that by trying to recreate old memories, I’ve been holding myself back from creating new ones. There’s no such thing as re-creation – there is only creation. Nothing I do will bring the past back into the present. By trying to wrangle the past into submission, I waste energy feeling sad and frustrated that something is over, instead of happy that it happened (to paraphrase Dr Seuss).
My ‘lightbulb moment’ might not be news to you, but for me it was a game changer. A simple shift in perspective allowed me to accept that I’m not going to be able to time travel back to my 19-year-old self. I have to let her go, and celebrate that time for all that it was without letting the waves of nostalgia distract me from what’s most important: creating kick-ass new memories as my 25-year-old self.
I shook myself out of my nostalgic stupor, removed my rose-tinted glasses and re-read the message with happiness instead of frustration… and penned an enthusiastic reply. I’m yet to hear back, but for once, I’m okay with that.
Have you had a similar travel experience that you find it nearly impossible to ‘let go’ of? Do you compare nearly every other trip to that special first one, hungry to recreate a past headspace? It’ll always be etched on your soul, but try this one little thing that helped me move on… and replace recreation with creation. We might not be able to wind back the clocks to our youth; but we can create some amazing new memories moving forward. Travel on.