I was offline while visiting the city of my childhood, Vienna, and introducing my own children to the delights of Wiener Schnitzel (received with enthusiasm), Sachertorte (even more enthusiasm) and Apfelstrudel (less so). There were fewer old classmates at the school anniversary than I expected, but it was nevertheless exciting to be back. Missed flight on the way out, additional expenses, lack of internet access, endless construction sites and tired feet (which led to complaining children) did not dampen my ardour. I’ve written about my love for Vienna before, which even extends to its crime fiction.
And yet… I was reminded how difficult it is to recreate the city that once meant so much to you. That city is lost forever, no matter how hard you try to fit the sparkling fragments together. Here is something I wrote a while back about it.
I started musing how my whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them. I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine. When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind. With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave. Does anybody else feel like that?
It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent. I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time. But the experience is unrepeatable. Even if I go back with the best of good intentions to that country, it will never feel the same again. If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely. Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more. It will certainly never again feel like home.
I was very lucky a few years ago to return for a couple of months to Vienna in almost exactly the same conditions I had lived there before during my childhood. I stayed with a friend who had known me since I was three, she lived just a few streets down from where I had grown up. Vienna itself is a city that changes subtly rather than rapidly, so I found myself remembering even the tram routes and little shops. I met up with old friends and slipped easily into dialect. And yet… I am not that same person, I am not the same age, I do not have that same attitude and innocence. Vienna was lovely, welcoming, filled with nostalgia for me… All the externals were right, but it was no longer home.
People do ask me: ‘Don’t you feel bad about having no place to call home?’ and I often laugh it off, saying: ‘But I feel at home anywhere!’ And I certainly do believe that and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to call so many beautiful places home. (Also, any place that is home becomes beautiful, even if it didn’t look so promising to start off with.)
But sometimes I do wonder if, by leaving little chunks of my heart in so many different places, I will end up in smithereens. And why I couldn’t spend more time in those places where I have been happiest.
What place do you call home? Do you feel you can repeat your experience of living in a certain place, or is it best to just wallow in unfulfilled nostalgia?
23 thoughts on “Going Back or The City of our Dreams or, Simply, Vienna”
What a lovely post, Marina Sofia. It’s true, isn’t it, that even a much-loved place isn’t really home in the same way after you’ve lived somewhere else. You’ve changed, the place has changed, and so on. Keeping those places alive in our hearts might be the best way for them to live on, if I can put it that way.
I like the sound of that – the best way to preserve places (the only way) is in our heart and mind!
I spend so much of my life feeling torn in two: my parents and brother and friends across the Atlantic, and the family and friends and life I’ve made for myself in England. It was no better when I lived in America—the feeling of missing something, endlessly, always, was the same. I don’t know that there’s any solution to it, really, other than sometimes to marvel at the differences between the places I’ve been, the millions of tiny but vastly disparate experiences I’ve had. And to understand that we travel in time as well as in space, and that nothing is ever the same twice. It’s a tough one, but it’s sort of soothing to know that life can be so full, that it can stretch without wearing out.
You can never step into the same river twice, if I remember correctly! Thank you for your very thoughtful comments and for sharing your own experiences. It seems to be something that resonates with a lot of us ‘global children’.
Nice to know we’re not the only ones.
I don’t think the experience of living somewhere can be repeated. I had to go home for a funeral a few weeks ago and took pictures of the important places in my life. There were some things that looked the same, and others, well, they were different. The church where my husband and I got married 24 years ago has a different name now and is connected with a school. It felt strange. But, I think we can be grateful for the influence a place had on us while we were there and keep our memories of it alive. Those memories will never change.
You are so right, but Vienna changes so slowly that I thought I was safe. It made me feel a little weary to see all the construction work going on and lots of the old pubs closing down to make way for overpriced blocks of flats etc.
Weary, I think that’s a good word. Seeing the changes made me feel old too.
Home is still Edinburgh for me, even though I left when I was 6. And I felt immediately at home there when I went back last year after a huge gap. Maybe because I left when I was so young my reactions are different. I think I’d like to return there at the end too – it felt like I belonged.
I’d still secretly like to retire to Vienna… although the constant stream of tourists and the corresponding tourist traps may grow tiresome after a while.
I feel similarly every time I visit the city where I went to Uni. In a way it still feels like a second home and like I’ve never left. But in others it doesn’t, mainly because the people I shared that experience with are not there anymore.
Very true. I had the same feeling in Cambridge the previous week – it would have felt different if my friends from back then had been there as well!
Your post resonated with me (all the more if you end up in smithereens 😉 !). Visiting my home town now that no one in my family lives there is a strange experience. I also have proprietary feelings towards Paris, Hong Kong, Beijing, and even Vienna (by marriage). Nothing made me glow more than a street hawker in Beijing telling me this summer that he could see I lived there while I was bargaining (it probably softened my negotiation skills). I called it my home almost 15 years ago but somehow it still is. On the other end, I don’t know anyone anymore who is born someplace and lives his/her full, whole life there. We are wandering creatures and it’s great to have several almost-homes, even if it tugs at your heartstrings, isn’t it?
I like that phrase ‘almost-homes’ – and yes, ultimately, we are lucky to have so many close fits!
What a beautiful, plangent post, thoughtful and touching
Thank you – and what wonderful comments and impressions it has provoked, too!
I lived in Venice for 6 months in 2009, and I’ve been back a few times since – it’s always a little bit happy and a little bit sad. The thing is, people still ask me for ‘insider tips’ when they go there, but I feel a bit like a fraud giving them out now because that was 10 years ago and it is surely not the same city any more. I still adore that place, but it’s a weird feeling to go back.
Oh, agree so much with the ‘insider tips’ thing! People ask me about Bucharest all the time, but I only knew it ages ago as a student and it’s changed tremendously since.
Lovely post, Marina. I know what you mean about that feeling of leaving a little piece of yourself behind whenever it’s time to move on. I felt the same way when I left my original home in the south and my University home of Nottingham. It can be wonderful to go back but also poignant too, especially if the people you knew there have also moved on.
As a slight aside, a couple of friends of mine moved from the UK to Vienna just over a year ago for J’s job. They love it so much over there that I’ve started to wonder if they’ll ever come back! It really does sound like a wonderful place to live.
It is indeed a wonderful place to live, especially if you have children, although perhaps more so if you are part of what is perceived to be the expat community rather than the immigrant community.
My home is where I spent my childhood. Our home is where we live now. I usually refer to those places as “chez moi” and “chez nous”
When I visit a city, I always wonder “If my employer told me, “you’re transfered to XXX”, would I go?” Seen from the tourist side, with the meringue buildings and the overdose of Habsbourgs, Vienna wasn’t one of these cities contrary to Vancouver, Melbourne or Lisbon.
But playing tourist and living somewhere is not the same, so, what do I know?
I’ve never lived abroad and that’s an experience I’d like to have someday.