When I cross Galway’s narrow Eglinton Canal, a sense of familiarity kicks in: The small bridge, the way the streets intersect, a glimpse of the River Corrib beyond the mishmash of shops and pubs along Raven Terrace. Twenty-five years after the first time I visited the damp west coast of Ireland, the paint on the buildings seems brighter, the businesses more prosperous, and the greenery better kept. But the streetscape itself, the smell of sea air, the light—it all feels right and like a part of me. And there’s the public telephone (rare these days, vital back then) that I used to call home on a whim. As a student backpacker, I had dared the expense of a long-distance call home to Canada just to say hi, and was told that my maternal grandfather had died the night before. It was an emotional moment, but not the sort one can capture with a photo. Still, standing beside the phone a quarter century later, looking across the canal, that painful conversation suddenly comes back to me like a recent memory.
The past, wrote British novelist L. P. Hartley, is a foreign country. But a foreign country also contains the past. The physical environment of our daily life changes routinely right before our eyes. For a while, a local restaurant is where we argued with a friend, then it’s the best sushi on the street, and then where we celebrated our birthday. The constant, gradual flux can smooth out our memories into eras rather than moments. But memories tied to places we visit—with our hearts and eyes open wide—nestle deep in our psyche, uncorrupted until we set foot in those places again. Then they spring open like an overpacked suitcase and the intervening years can melt away. Revisiting past destinations can be the closest thing we have to a personal time machine.
Returning to Kochi on India’s Malabar Coast after a 19-year intermission, I wanted to recreate a particular moment I had had, eating a pastry and listening to a mixed tape on my Walkman during a stroll down the main drag. It took me more than an hour to realize that not only had the bakery disappeared—or was impossible to locate—but that Shanmugham Road, which must have been that main street I recalled, had been transformed. It was wider, and built up with large-scale commercial and residential buildings, a wall against the backwaters and the Arabian Sea beyond. In its details, it was unrecognizable. Still, with an ice cream and an MP3 player as modern substitutes, I faced south on Shanmugham to where it turns into the much more pastoral Park Avenue. I could smell the sea amidst all the bus fumes and felt how the city radiated out from this spot. The present, not the past magic of the historic trading port, was now in charge and yet I knew I could find my way to the train station or the hotel I had stayed at in the 1990s by sheer instinct.
I first visited Berlin two years after the wall came down, when the wound between west and east was still very painful. Amidst all the brownfields, demolition, desolate Soviet-era buildings and the parts of the wall that had not yet been torn down, it was hard to get my bearings and I kept finding myself all alone in what felt like the middle of nowhere. The west had pretended the wall didn’t exist; the east had turned its ugliest face toward it. I was fresh out of university, completely naïve about geopolitics, and all I really wanted was to hang out with some of the more glamorous folks staying at my youth hostel. On my second visit to Berlin, 24 years later, I took a Ringbahn train to the Kreuzberg bar named Madonna after the biblical figure, not the singer, where I had shared pints with a half-dozen of my hostel buddies one festive night. Without Google Maps, this would have been an impossible feat. As a young backpacker, I had been too caught up in our conversations to make note of where we had gone or how we got there. I couldn’t even remember how long it had taken, just the name.
But once I entered the bar, my feelings were so sharp, it might as well have been my second home. The current version of Madonna perfectly matched the images in my brain: The smoke-stained walls, the worn tables and chairs, the cluttered bar, the religious mural on the ceiling, the purposefully grungy crowd. Sitting at the bar, I looked over at the table where we world travellers had talked all night. Three friends, regulars perhaps, were drinking beer. Maybe they knew what an illustrious spot they occupied. Maybe they didn’t. But I knew, and hoped they were creating as fond memories as I had two decades before.
Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Time After Time”.