7 days into 2012, and I find myself preparing to travel again. This time, it’s back to London for a short stay, four months after I packed my bags (and my life) up and said goodbye to it.
It’s weird returning to a place you used to live in, particularly so soon after you’ve left. It’s like you’re still living there… almost. You slip effortlessly back into the day-to-day routines of going to the supermarket or to the pub. The friends you used to live with or hang out with are still there and going about their business as usual. The entire city continues to trundle along as normal, except for one significant difference: you’re not part of it anymore.
When one decides to move away from a city, part of one always fancies that one’s absence would be felt acutely, or at least remarked by one’s friends and acquaintances; that one leaves indelible traces of one’s self in the city which, upon returning to the city years later, one can then take great pleasure excavating. We’ve all seen this scenario played out in novels and movies – where the main protagonist returns to an old haunt (Paris, say) to find traces of himself and his old love affairs etched onto the faces, the walls and the alleyways.
When I left Berkeley in the early 2000s and returned 5 years later, I thought I would be able to relive some of the scenes of my student life; that I would feel I was part of the city (and the university) all over again. But I was wrong. The city had completely changed without me there. Places I used to hang around no longer had the same vibe; the students themselves looked completely different – more mainstream, more studious (dare I say). Some of my close friends were still living in the area, but it just didn’t feel the same when we were catching up over a coffee. I felt strangely alienated in a place I used to be so familiar with, as though the Berkeley in my mind existed in an alternate dimension from the one that held the cafe I was sitting in there and then.
You might say, “Well, what do you expect, Kennie?! You returned after 5 years! Surely you can’t expect things to stay the same! Next week, when you return to London, you will find that everything has remained more or less the same since you only left London 4 months ago!”
I have a nagging suspicion, however, that the minute you leave a place, that place is no longer the same place you left. Traces of you on your usual routes to school or to work are erased by the footprints of hundreds of other people within minutes. Soon after, traces of you at your old rental place would be whitewashed and postered over by a complete stranger. And then, the ghostly traces of you at your favorite bar would be exorcised by somebody else that has replaced your spot in the social circle you exited. The city bulimically purges itself and regenerates completely, wiping away all traces of those who have left soon after they leave.
It may seem to me like I’m still living in London, since I only just left. When I get to London next week, I will most certainly still be capable of performing the act of living in London. However, the reality is that that London – my London – no longer has any relation whatsoever to the London that I will find myself in next week. I will see this fact most starkly (and heartbreakingly) in the overly warm hugs and excited voices of the friends whom I will hang out with at the usual pub and bars, who will talk about the usual things we would talk about, except this time they will have to try very hard to fill me in. I will feel it in the strange out-of-place feeling I will have when I re-visit my old neighborhood (and home) as a tourist and not a resident.
Everything will seem to be the same but different, as though, like in a science fiction movie, I’ve somehow crossed into a parallel universe – LONdon or LoNDoN, instead of the London in my mind. As I laugh, chat and sip at my drink next week in London, I shall be exceedingly conscious of my being in reality an alien visitor, or a visitor from another time.
In an earlier blogpost, I wrote about how travel is almost always a form of time-travel. We all know, from books and movies, how time-travelling is frequently a disorienting and disappointing affair. Next week I shall (time-)travel in search of London circa Aug 2011, only to find myself hopelessly stranded in LoNDoN circa Jan 2012.