Have you ever gone back to a place that you loved and found that it had changed? Or that your experience of it was very different?
Two years ago I was planning my first return to France in over 10 years, and I was nervous about seeing Paris again. Paris had defined travel when I was in my early 20’s; it was the place I’d always wanted to go to, and the place I traveled to the most during my year abroad in college. I’d imagined that it was a beautiful, magical place, and my actual experience of it didn’t let me down: Paris did feel magical. Being there made me feel alive and so full of hope and possibility.
I was young, and I hadn’t traveled overseas before. I learned- in small doses- how to be brave in Paris, and it was something I didn’t even really think about because I was desperate to see as much of the city as I could. So I would set my alarm for 6am and wake up before the other students in my program. I’d wander through the streets with my camera in hand, then return to the hostel and join my friends for breakfast. I learned how to ride the metro, I learned how to find my way around cemeteries and museums, I learned how to drink coffee.
When I returned to Paris, on the eve of my 33rd birthday, the city felt different. The buildings still seemed to glow, Notre Dame was just as majestic as I’d always remembered, but something was off.
I still wandered through the streets, taking photos and drinking cafe cremes. Weaving through the tombstones of Pere Lachaise, I tracked down Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. I slept in the same hostel that I had when I was 20, I ate the same baguette breakfast. Climbing up the 400-odd stairs to the top of Notre Dame, I put my face up to the wire fence and looked out over the city.
This was still Paris: beautiful and enchanting and foreign.
The changes that I noticed? It wasn’t Paris that had changed, not really.
It was me.
Drinking my first cafe creme was probably the biggest tip-off. It’s difficult to explain how important cafe cremes were to my year in France, when I was a college student: I’d never really drank coffee regularly before, and I’d never made ‘sitting in a cafe and watching people and spending hours talking about life with my friends’ an everyday thing. As I moved through my twenties and looked back on my time in France, the cafe creme became symbolic. It was France, and it was travel, and it was me, at that time.
So when I returned to Paris and sat in the basement room of my hostel with my red breakfast tray spread out before me, a cup of creamy, hot coffee in my hands, I smiled before taking my first sip.
I took the first sip, and then I frowned. This was what I had been waiting for, all of these years? This was a cafe creme?
From 20 to 33, I’d changed. It wasn’t just about the coffee, although that was part of it. Back when I was 20, I didn’t know what a really good cup of coffee tasted like. And I suppose I didn’t know what the world tasted like, yet. I still haven’t traveled all that much, and there’s still so much more life I need to experience. But I’d grown in 13 years. I still have a somewhat childlike sense of wonder and innocence, but it’s very different than what I had at 20, when it defined so much of my life and how I saw the world.
Recognizing these changes, as I wandered through Paris, was a little unsettling. I walked through the city and wondered what I was looking for. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find the 20-year old girl who had been here that first time.
As the days passed I realized that these changes were okay. On my 33rd birthday I walked into a cafe that I’d remembered being in with my friends on that first trip to Paris. On that night, years ago, we’d crammed around a table on the terrace of the cafe, drinking hot chocolate and giggling about life.
On this night, I walked into the cafe and I asked for a table. I was seated outside, with a view of the Seine and the spires of Notre Dame. After ordering a glass of wine, the waiter complimented my French. I’d made several mistakes- fumbling over the word ‘boisson’ (which means ‘drink’)- and we laughed. I wasn’t self-conscious in the way that I used to be; my French was more rusty than ever, and yet, I was more confident about speaking than when I was 20.
I’m thinking about changes and how we experience the same place in different ways because of my upcoming Camino. I’m nervous about returning for a 2nd time, even though only a year separates my two pilgrimages, whereas over 10 years separated my visits to Paris. I haven’t changed all that much in the past year, and yet, I know that my second Camino will be very different from my first. Will my return to the Camino be like my return to Paris?
Will I be more confident? Will I relax a bit about my fears? Will I use the knowledge that I gained on my first trip and hit the ground running on my second? Will I be able to work on the lessons that I feel I was just beginning to learn as I ended my first pilgrimage?
Will I still love the walking? Will I still avoid blisters and still make some friends? Will I still love the cafe con leches??
I’d love to hear about your experiences of a place or an experience that you returned to- whether it was the Camino or something (somewhere) else. Were you disappointed? Did the return exceed your expectations? Will you continue to return again and again?
Same smile darling!
Carrie Pomeroy says
Your post reminded me of my own fondness for cafe cremes when I was in Paris at age 24, and I realized, I, too, might be startled to find what they taste like now! One of my most vivid experiences of going back home again was when I went back at age 25 to visit the house in upstate New York where I’d lived from ages 9-12. When I was a kid, the house sat next to a creek on the edge of a dense forest of huge oaks and maples. My friends and I spent hours playing in the creek and ranging through the woods–big adventures! When I went back at 25, I was shocked by what I found. The creek was paved over with a new road. The woods had given way to a vast new subdivision. It was impossible to tell what had once been there. It still feels a little like all those experiences in the forest must have been a dream. Quite an experience with “you can’t go home again.”
Nathan Mizrachi says
well that sucks.
Mani (A New Life Wandering) says
I love the last two pictures.
I think I already commented about this very subject before, but in answer to your question: yes I returned to the Camino. I did the Camino Frances in May 2014 and loved it so much that I wanted to experience it again in the autumn. I returned in September 2014 to walk just 5 days. Of course it was different. Significant places like Paris or the Camino offer such a depth of experience that each time can be fresh and different. To me the cafe con leche tasted even better second time round, and I have no doubt that I’ll be back to do it again…and again, God willing.
Nathan Mizrachi says
I’m surprised to hear that you’re 33; I don’t remember you mentioning your age before but I assumed you were in your late 20s. I mean this in the most complimentary way possible, but the tone of your writing comes off as youthful. And also, you definitely don’t look your age; you look closer to 25 than 35.
Anyways, enough with the flattery! In just under 2 months I will be back in the USA for the first time since I left to walked the Camino in August 2013, and I’m beginning to wonder how coming home will be different. My favorite English professor tells me that fruits and vegetables in the states are bigger than ever, but I will probably encounter profound changes beyond what I see in the produce section in the grocery store.
Ha, thanks Nathan! I’ve always looked a bit young for my age… and while I know that will eventually change, I’m hoping youthfulness stays on my side awhile longer!
Returning home after nearly two years abroad… I can’t even wrap my head around that. What does this mean for your travels? Are you taking a long break? Returning permanently? Or just a quick stop home and then back on the road?
Nathan Mizrachi says
Well, as long as you do what makes you happy you’re likely to always look younger than you are. I’ve met a fair number of long-term travelers who look 5-10 years less than their actual ages. Not that travel is the key to unlocking youth though; when I was living in Split I attended yoga classes taught by a women who is probably in her mid-60s. Apparently she’s been practicing since the 1970s, and–no surprise here–she looks not a day over 50. The key to this has to be doing something purposeful that makes you happy.
As the Dalai Lama has famously said: “Man [. . .] sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived.”
Anyways I haven’t dreaded my homecoming–it’s something I’m excited about. In theory this is supposed to be a summer-long pitstop. I haven’t enjoyed a summer in California in years and I’ve invited a bunch of my friends that I’ve made from my travels to spend it with me at my parents’ house. Then I might go back to Europe for a few months; I never made it to Florence or Siena and I took several courses on Renaissance art in university, so I want to live there a couple months and appreciate the art while I still remember things I learned in my college courses (it’s already been 4-5 years but I have a very good recall). Then if a friend of mine from San Francisco gets her preferred Peace Corps placement in Cameroon I might take a detour south and spend the end of this year in West Africa.
This might all change though–I agreed to help my dad out with his business which he runs in Tijuana, Mexico (laundrymats, nothing exciting like drugs, which is what people always assume). I also have an uncle who wants me to secure real estate contracts for him and that could be very lucrative. The money doing this is much better than what I can achieve right now as a freelance writer, so I might delay my travel plans and work so I can fill my pursestrings.
So basically, the future looks rather unpredictable and I have no idea where I’ll be six months from now–which is just how I like it!
That was quite the essay–but you did ask 😛
I have no excuse for this incredibly late reply… but I wanted to say that I had a big smile on my face when I read this comment (and the smile grew bigger the further I read on). Your “plans” for the summer and beyond sound perfect… and by that, I mean that I love that it’s all unpredictable. Every scenario sounded pretty ideal: a summer with traveling friends in CA, western Africa (oh man, I would LOVE to read those posts… Africa’s going to be a place I travel to at some point), a few months in Florence (also pretty envious on that one…). I’m excited to see where you’ll be at the end of this year… you’d better keep blogging so we can all follow along!
Nathan Mizrachi says
I am–and you are–too young to live a predictable life. Rest assured, the blog will go on.
I’ve been thinking about this too, Nadine. For the last six months, I’ve been actively, deliberately resisting the call I feel to do the Camino again—we’re talking fists clenched, eyes squeezed shut, loudly singing I CAN’T HEAR YOUUUUUUU!-level resistance.
For me, it’s fear about reliving the regret I felt at the end. I so do NOT want to go there again. It almost tore me apart the first time around.
But if I can set all of that aside for a moment, what I realize is that I must remove the word “again” and “second” and “repeat”. Because answering a call is answering a call. The first is for one thing, the second is for something else. And as I walk, every circumstance (including the setting) will be different. I will be different. The towns may be familiar, but yours will be an entirely new journey if you let it.
What I love about your Paris story (I’ve been there twice and can relate) is the acknowledgement that you expected one experience and got something completely different the second time. If you/I go on the Camino expecting a different experience, I suspect there will be less friction and fewer “waitaminnit…” moments.
What I wonder about is the role of reminiscence is. That’s a whole ‘nother blog post. 🙂
I love this, Jen: “… the first one is for one thing, the second is for something else.” That’s what I’m feeling, too- there’s no way that a second Camino will be anything at all like my first. In fact, on that first one, the first half of mine felt radically different than the second half… almost like two separate Caminos in one.
So, are you letting yourself hear the call of a second Camino, even just a bit? I’ve been wondering if it’s something you would return to do. 🙂
Why *resist* the call to walk it again?
I know it takes a bit of planning and money and all, but if it’s calling, why even deny it?
There are a gazillion things in life that will never call you (playing golf or learning how to dispose of battery acid, for example) but here’s something that’s jumped up, waved its arms, and shouted: “Over here! I’m right here!” You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on life coaches or therapists to find one of your passions in life – so the fact that it’s announced its presence without you having to search for it puts you in this delightfully sweet spot!
If it makes you happy and it’s not hurting anyone else in the process, then I say follow it, grab it, and run with it as best you can! This is the magic and sparkle of being alive and Lord knows, we’ll be dead long enough – may as well go out there and enjoy things while we can!
Great post, Nadine!
I tend to be nostalgic by nature so this kind of thing has knocked me sideways in the past. Thing is, we all know it will be different but you get the benefit of incorporating your learning from last time round. That’s a great position to be in.
If it were me, I’d probably want to wear different clothing, footwear, etc. just to *really* separate the trips and my memory of them. And of course, so my photos would demonstrate that I do, in fact, have more than two changes of clothes to my name!
Whatever the case, you’ve been itching to do this so now you get to go scratch that itch. If you didn’t go, you’d find yourself feeling frustrated and antsy in your regular life so you’re better off going and see what’s in store for you. And I’m sure it will be fulfilling in a host of new, wonderful ways.
Sorry for the late reply to this! But I wanted to say that I really loved this comment, and I love the last part: that there’s a reason I want to do this walk again, and that I need to just go and figure out what the experience will be like for me, this second time around.
I laughed about the different clothing thing, and it’s so true! I definitely need new t-shirts, at least 😉
Sometimes She Travels says
I’ve been asking myself the same questions about my upcoming Camino. It will be fun to see how it turns out…for both of us!
I am so worried about disturbing good memories that I would be hesitant to return somewhere or to something that seemed perfect or magical on a prior visit. It is the reason I will never re-read A Separate Peace or the Great Gatsby. I have such good memories of them both, I’m afraid to do so would completely ruin them.
Having said that, the times I have done it (Athens, my parents village etc.) have been amazing because I am experiencing it at a different age or stage in my life. And so while I’m going back to the same place, it never really feels like it because of how I have changed and how I view or perceive it as the Angela who is seeing it at that particular time (it probably helps that I am going to places that NEVER change.) I have been to the Parthenon more times that I can count (as a kid, in college when I had immersed myself in the study of Greek art/architecture, as a single woman traveling through Greece alone, and then when I took Char after we got married) but I will go again (and again). And I know it will be amazing, because one of the best things ever is to see the face of someone seeing it for the first time.
Very late reply to this… have you and I ever talked about this before? If not, I think we should, I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts (you might know that I LOVE re-reading favorite books… and I sort of have this thing with ‘Little Women’ where I try to read it once every year or two, and sort of examine how my experience of the book evolves/changes with each reading. Sort of like what you do with the Parthenon!) And speaking of the Parthenon, I think it’s incredible to have this place that you can measure different milestones of your life by (in a way)… I think seeing it with your kids might top them all.