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?