I was staring at a foreign city in the half light of early morning, through a gauzy curtain, from the 26th floor. I tried to go back to sleep, I tried to read. My family was somewhere else in this city. They know their way around. Friends’ houses are neighborhood anchors and markers of time. Street names and menus in their native language. They have places to be, especially on this wedding weekend. But I do not. I have nothing to stop me from watching from my hotel room as the swimmers drift down the Limmat. It’s hot and humid in a mild but constant way. My cousin tells me of the Frauenbad, so I go swimming with young professionals on their lunch break, Swiss hipsters (if there is such a thing), old women with nothing to hide. It feels so civilized, cordoned off from the rest of the river and from view. The water is freezing but regenerative. It dissolves my jetlag. Either that or the Ambien.
Reisen ist die zukünftig erinnerung an sich selbst.
A German saying that I can’t find online or remember where I heard. It says that traveling is the future memory of oneself. Sounds hazy, like the way you see yourself, especially in memory. The photo of the church where your cousin was married, which you saw as a photograph and, years later, stood in. But it’s also distinct, like the memories you lay down while traveling. Acute, sharp in a way that normal life can’t render or recall. I think that’s why I always fall a little in love when I travel. That sense of feeling things so strongly, enjoying yourself so much, is something that fades upon return, like jet lag, like a sickness. So that when you’re back, when you’re ok again, it all feels like a fever dream, like something that maybe you read about, something that happened to someone else.
London is not a city I know well. But sometimes the places I know only slenderly, the places I return to, have a way of collapsing time, of creating memory overlap. Probably because, as a tourist, I revisit the same places. Staying with a friend on Brick Lane felt so much like staying with a friend on Graham Road, four years prior. So what I sense, more than the place itself, is the ways I have changed, the ways I’ve stayed the same.
We walked around Trafalgar Square, thinking of Turner in the National Gallery, and I remembered that if you walked down to the water, toward Embankment, you would come to Gordon’s Wine Bar. It was a lovely day so we sat outside, but four years earlier I sat inside with my hostess and her two friends. One, a blonde Australian working at a local university, had, I’d heard, moved to New York.
We took our cava and cheese to the table and watched people. Farther down the lane there was a group celebrating in suits and summer dresses. A young blonde woman got up and walked by, the Australian from four years ago. I didn’t know her well enough to say hello, and assumed what seemed like a great coincidence to me would feel commonplace to her, just one of her regular haunts. I hadn’t made her appear.
So it is, visiting places you know just well enough to predict what comes around a corner. Certain familiar landmarks are hard to find; happening upon them feels like pure luck. But a tiny restaurant, that seems like a secret known only to you and the friend who took you there, is magnetized, and you know the way by heart. You retrace your own steps out of order.
Zürich & Engelberg, Switzerland