Why do you go away? So that you can come back.
Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
– Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
One of the greater literary tragedies in recent times is the condensation of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken – from a beautiful four-stanza poem into a two-line Thought Catalog quote:
Two roads diverged in a wood
and I took the one less travelled
It’s certainly alluring – even if it misrepresents the poem, or, at the very least, misses the original point. But it fits with our notion of travel today: one is continually encouraged to seek out new places; explore hitherto undiscovered spaces; and, above all, never commit the cardinal offence of being a tourist.
Every instance of travel signals a departure from the familiar, comfortable, and a venture into the unknown and foreign – always opening possibilities of something new. Though, strictly speaking, this is only true for new shores we choose to land upon. Because there’s something strange about assuming the character of the revenant and going back to places we’ve left footprints on. Places that are quite certainly not anything like home, yet still possess a measure of familiarity. Spaces that place us firmly on the fence between foreign and familiar. And as anyone who’s ever been firmly placed on a fence would testify, presumably whilst grimacing: it’s more than mildly uncomfortable.
Whenever we revisit a place, we inevitably recall past sights, sounds, emotions, companions. Yet, as precious as they all are, they remain nothing more than mere markers of a time. It is we who imbue them with meaning, and turn them into reminders – allowing us to call to mind our past experiences in that space; more than that, we call to mind ourselves. The difficulty is that, often, it’s a call that remains unanswered. This is the trauma we immediately recognize, and identify with, when Colonel Chabert returns to Paris seeking to prove his identity after years away ; and even as he recognizes familiar old haunts, and people, he finds they don’t return that recognition. Perhaps this is why going back is so unsettling: it ultimately becomes a reminder of whom we used to be – whom we no longer are – ghosts of ourselves past.
On its own, this could well be sufficient to lead one to start drinking gin at nine in the morning; but we find ourselves continuing to stray down this troubling trail of thought – for the corollary problem is that reminders trigger memories – which are themselves quite fallible, and altogether unreliable. Primarily because one cannot honestly say one has not forgotten. For, to know one has forgotten, one must first know what one has forgotten – a gesture that would already bring the object in question back to mind, and render it most certainly not forgotten anymore. Which is why ‘Have you forgotten anything?’ is quite possibly the most sadistic, if not certainly the most ironic, question one could ever pose to another. (An exasperated ‘How on earth am I supposed to know?’ is therefore not only warranted, but also the most appropriate, accurate, and sincere response one could provide.) And thus, the impossibility of articulating what we have forgotten, or whether we have forgotten – and, by extension, whom we used to be.
And maybe here we need to go further; admit a more radical notion: not only is the shadow of forgetting possibly always hovering over any act of remembering, remembering itself is forgetting. For as much as we try, we can never recapture a moment in its concrete entirety – we must make do with mere abstract traces of the moment .
Travellers have always attempted to capture these traces through writing. Increasingly, instead of merely writing with ink, we also find ourselves write with light – photographs, to be neatly curated in albums, digital or otherwise, accompanied by their relevant captions and hashtags. But in spite of our best efforts, we continue to fail; journal entries and photographs only foreground how we rely upon our memory to regenerate past experiences. And as we open this dossier of images, we find ourselves slipping into the waters of imagination and imitation, triggering questions of reality. Because an image is never real – it is, by definition, always an imitation of something. This is why we’re always warned to beware false idols – one can never be entirely sure what it’s representing, or supposed to represent; the much greater danger, of course, is of the image replacing the thing itself. Much in the way the Cartographers’ Guild ended up creating a map that was precisely the size of the Empire  – to the extent one could no longer tell which was real.
In some sense, neither can we.
Every journal, or photograph, contains a meaning of its own, a meaning we wished to convey when we authored it. Never forgetting, of course, that the audience we had in mind at that point might well have been ourselves, making this an exercise in individuality; which doesn’t change the fact that when we look at these reminders from the past, these attempts to communicate, we’re compelled to interpret them; attempting to understand what the author of the note was trying to say; attempting to – for a moment – become the author. Bearing in mind the danger that accompanies any, all, hermeneutic movement of this sort. For, Hermes, whilst the messenger of the Greek gods, was also the god of tricks, and the messages he carried were never quite what they seemed – they were cloaked in deception. As it is with all interpretation: we can never be entirely sure of any particular one, nor say with much certainty what was intended.
Besides, reminders are useless without their accompanying context. That’s the lesson of the life of the very eager, but ultimately unfortunate, Vladimir Clementis . Effaced from history, the only reminder of Clementis’ existence was one photo in which a fur hat sat atop the head of then-Bohemian Communist leader, Klement Gottwald; yet, without knowing the context – it was Clementis who had placed the hat on Gottwald; Clementis had in fact been up on the balcony alongside Gottwald as he addressed the crowd – the hat remains devoid of any significance.
Which is precisely the problem whenever we regard photos. For we must never forget: the one interpreting the photo is not, no longer, the one who took the photo. In the most banal sense, this is plainly absurd – you are obviously still you; yet, in another sense, you, now, are not you, then. Because human beings are also dynamic beings – we evolve, we change, we are continually in flux. And whilst the photo, the reminder, in itself hasn’t changed, the one interpreting the photo is always doing it in the aftermath – in a different context.
Perhaps then the photo is merely a means to an end; perhaps what we’re ultimately doing is attempting – all we’ve really wanted to do is attempt – to recapture a past self.
Every time we cast our minds back, a sense of nostalgia lightly washes over us. Which is as much about the longing of returning to somewhere familiar, returning home (nostos), as it is about grief (algos). Because memories are of the order of the past; memories are not reality; and every memory – no matter how perfect – is a sobering reminder, in and of itself, that it can never be experienced nor lived again. Here, the bells of irony toll: the closer to perfection a memory is, the greater the agony it brings, for it only serves to accentuate one’s sense of loss.
When one revisits a space, one is confronted by this loss, forced to accept that this time is not that time – and cannot be even if one were to try. This is often further compounded by spaces’ capacity to themselves change – sometimes before our very eyes. Take, for instance, Wensceslas Square of Prague. In the day, it’s a lovely place lined with shops, major and minor; street performers dot the square, performing all sorts of tricks to enthralled crowds; groups of teenagers and adults alike wander about, engrossed in little pockets of conversation. There’s verve: the space is very much alive.
Then night falls, and it changes – a very different sort of atmosphere comes alive. Street performers are replaced by performers of a very different ilk – even if they still promise to provide a memorable experience; where there used to be a sketch artists, there only remain sketchy characters; parents who would’ve taken a carefree stroll through the square in the day warn their children against passing through it after dusk. There’s an entirely different vibe now: the square is no longer bright and welcoming; now it’s dark, brooding. Anyone who goes by Wensceslas Square in the night after having been there in the day is left slightly bewildered, wondering if they hadn’t lost their way and ended up in a completely different place. Of course, Wensceslas Square isn’t unique at all in this sense. Places like this exist everywhere, all across the globe, changing with different degrees of time . But they’re all teaching us the same thing: what one might experience one time is not necessarily what one will experience the next time.
Perhaps one way to console ourselves would be to admit that the very fact one experiences nostalgia points towards a beautiful moment already having occurred. And whether one wishes to recreate that moment or not, it can never be changed nor taken away. Though, upon reflection, the final clause isn’t entirely accurate. For we are always already potential victims of the vagaries of memory. Such was the fate of Orpheus: he loses Eurydice precisely because he forgot – and thus could not heed – Persephone’s warning not to regard his wife as they ascended from Hades; the fallibility of memory doesn’t discriminate nor sentimentalize.
And Persephone’s words continue to echo: don’t look back.
Maybe this is something we ought to treasure rather than bemoan. This ephemeral nature of memory that always brings with it the risk of one waking up having lost one’s precious experiences completely – and, cruelly, without even, ever, realizing it. Which is precisely what implies we must defy Persephone; that, in order to appreciate anything, we must look back. And perhaps it is only in, with, algos that we might find some sense of nostos . The thing about nostalgia – the important, perhaps heartrending, thing about nostalgia – is that it’s equally about coming home, and then realizing, almost immediately, it’s a home we no longer inhabit. It is as much about the familiar as it is about the haunting pain when we come to find what is familiar also belongs firmly in the past.
But we find ourselves admitting in a whisper, to ourselves, more than anyone else: we’d do it again. Purely for those fleeting moments before the agony consumed us; those little moments where we revelled in our homecoming; those beautiful moments in between …
 Honoré de Balzac. Colonel Chabert, 1832, translated by Carol Cosman. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1997.
 Milan Kundera. Testaments Betrayed, translated by Linda Asher. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1995: 126-7
 Jorge Luis Borges. ‘On Exactitude in Science’ in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley. London: Penguin Books, 1999.
 Milan Kundera. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, translated by Aaron Asher. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1996: 3-4.
 The ideas in this paragraph were developed during the seminar Reading Prague taught by Hynek Zygmund at Charles University in Prague, June 2014.
 This notion owes much of itself to a conversation with Jeremy Fernando at Tembusu College, Singapore in 2015.
Photo by Antonio Cinotti