What is it with this nostalgia that refuses to leave us alone? I mean, why is it that we sometimes feel so unable to shake those feelings in our heads about times gone by and moments that will most likely never come again? I’ve heard it said many times that it is sometimes better not to see or hear some things because once they are inside your head, it is simply impossible to rid yourself of them. For travelers this is specially a problem, perhaps because once you get to see or hear of a glorious place, your life is never the same. The visions linger inside of you mercilessly, and before you know it, you begin to cherish those quiet moments in your life that allow you to sneak away into those faraway places from wherever you happen to be at the time. You are carried there by that classic feeling of nostalgia, by the “sentimental longing or wishful affection for the past.”
And that brings me to the “old world;” to the time, money, and effort travelers spend every year visiting all things old around the world. Sure, travelers also love the glittering lights of modern Tokyo, or the clinical modernism of a Singapore, but for the most part, their feet seem to take them to old Beijing, to Old Town Prague, and to the far corners of the well-trodden world in search of things that have been around for a long time. Dark, cobblestone alleyways around the world send our heartbeats into overdrive in a way that modern minimalism just doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not a value judgment, though, but rather an impulse lathered with nostalgia that seems to be the culprit. The modern, by virtue of its newness, will be around for a while, but the old may not be, and that alone seems to be reason enough for lighting a fire under our feet. We just need to “see it before its gone.” We just have to. And no, it has nothing to do with the logic of where it’s best to spend our limited resources. Rather, it has everything to do with the images that live inside our heads, with that feeling that can only come when strolling slowly in an old world whose silent history whispers in our ears the sweet, romantic songs of adventure and melancholy that make us the conflicted souls we all are. So here is to the old world, to nostalgia, and to a future that finds its highest expression in the past, for it is in that past that we so often find the windows to our future.
I find very few things as satisfying as walking around neighborhoods in Europe to find out what people are really like away from the tourist spots and the hustle and bustle of city center. I’m talking about those neighborhoods that never make it to travel brochures, but which are teaming with ordinary life like the one I leave behind every time I embark on a journey. Interestingly, I travel thousands of miles, spend more money that is prudent to spend, and put my joints through grueling day walks, just to observe and experience the lives of ordinary people like myself living ordinary lives like mine. Now, I grant you that this is not everyone’s cup of tea, or that it ranks up there with what most people would choose to do with their limited time and money, but for me, this relentless pursuit of “distinctive sameness” (how’s that for confusion?) is what has fueled more than 40 years of travel around the world. You could say that I am simply fascinated by all that is the common amongst the people of the world, but at the same time different. A narrow line marking the distinction between cultures and people, but for me, a demarcation zone that has fueled the pursuit of a lifetime.
In absolute terms, human behavior and culture, are rather similar. We all eat, enjoy art, labor, love, pursue happiness, experience sadness, etc., etc, etc. We just go about it differently, and that is where my insatiable interest lies: on the “unique” ways we all experience all these common traits of humanity as a result of history, culture, and geography. The Japanese people bow deeply with tears flowing down their cheeks upon seeing someone dear to their hearts after years of separation, while the Italians hug incessantly as if trying to fuse two people into one. Same feeling, different expressions. And it’s the same wherever you look, be it in what people eat, or what they do with their free time. A beautiful river with incredible landscapes invites contemplation and romance. An industrial city replete of square, concrete buildings, perhaps not as much. Thus, the factors affecting our adopted behaviors are indeed many and varied, and there’s no better place to discover these behavioral distinctions than in the neighborhoods where people disarmingly engage in them without a care in the world. In the process, I learn a lot about them, and without a doubt, a little about myself.
Today I would like to spend a little time praising the virtues of aimless wandering. I say aimless in the sense that such wandering is not constrained by any particular pattern of the type that leads to predictability of your course. No, the type of wandering I’m referring to has to do with selecting a general geographic area and then letting your feet (and curiosity) take you wherever they want to take you. Not for a moment, but rather for hours on end, and even full days in some occasions. It is the joy of day-after-day discovery, and a constant reminder that there’s a world out there that is both dynamic and exciting, not to mention the source of endless visions that will last a lifetime.
It was wandering that led me through a beautiful, ancient door and into a magnificent courtyard in Milan where lovers lazily embraced on a sunny summer day. It is wandering that has led me to discover the everyday lives of people in cities and neighborhoods that practically don’t exist in most people’s radar consciousness. Life reduced to a lover’s embrace, to a smile from a stranger, or to the asynchronous rhythm of a city coming alive in the mornings. There, between the silence which makes its last stand in the mornings and the inevitable noise of humanity mercilessly charging forward at the break of dawn, is where I find the tumultuous nature (and beauty) of living. Wandering, in small or large quantities, makes such discoveries possible. Drive or walk to work? Try taking a different route on a regular basis. Going shopping? How about trying that Korean store, or a farmer’s market for a change. Ditch the car and walk sometime, enter a restaurant where most people don’t speak your language, or hang around people who are not like you for a while. Visit a new city just because and get lost on foot for a few days. Travel and linger. Wander with a purpose, or without one, as places have a funny way of guiding your steps sometimes. Who knows, you may even discover that most people are alright after all.
Some travelers do not enjoy returning to places they have visited in the past, but I’m not one of them. Granted that with so many places to see around the world, it is perhaps advisable not to narrow your travel focus to a mere few of these. Nevertheless, there’s something nostalgic about visiting old stumping grounds after your feet have taken you far away from those familiar places, and for far too long. Strasbourg, France is one such place for me, and while it has been undoubtedly too long since I once roamed its streets accompanied by those happy days of youth, the magnificent sights of this great city still evoke the sense of romance and awe that was there when life was nothing but a long, uninterrupted spring.
During the month of December the city of Strasbourg, with its award-winning Christmas Market, dresses up for the holidays like very few cities in the world can. Anywhere you go in the Old Town there will be too much to see, too much to eat, and when it comes to that great, spiked wonder that is Gluehwine, too much to drink. And while in other places of the world people may complain about cold, overcast, and otherwise sun-deprived days, in Strasbourg these sort of days only add to the pure magic of the season. Small, cozy restaurants and cafes around the inner city will be beautifully illuminated and decorated, affording couples the perfect backdrop for conversation accompanied by a glorious Alsatian wine. Stopping during the blue hour on the Passerelle de l’Abreuvoir bridge to take-in the ancient rooftops surrounding the Cathédrale Notre Dame will transport you back to those days in the 17th Century when the cathedral was considered the tallest building in the world. And if it is your softer side you need to get reacquainted with for a change, just walk the narrow, twisting streets of La Petite France at night and you’ll be reminded that life is not just about speed, or about the eternal chase of golden mirages. Walking along these streets as if in a mindless drift, I could not help but think that the sheer beauty of this dimly lit city during the Christmas season had to be the perfect antidote to the many worries afflicting us these days. A beautiful city, lit by candlelight. An energy drink for the soul, and the stuff of which life’s most pleasurable moments are made of.
Who would’ve known, that in a city hardly ever associated with romance, you would find such a display of PDA (i.e., Public Display of Affection). That’s right, I’m talking about Washington, DC, the same place where sanguine bureaucrats like to play with your hard-earned money and where where sensitivity is not a word most locals would use when socially describing their ideal versions of themselves. But a few days back, there it was, out in the open for all to see. Love, affection, and obliviousness to the world around them. A cool day ushering in the short days of autumn, a lazy sun tired of its summer work, and a lover’s kiss. Who would’ve known, there’s hope for this city after all.