We fall in love with places, just like we do with people. Maybe you worship Chicago or Bangkok or Buenos Aires – or all three. Regardless of the locale, certain corners of the world feel like they belong to us, so profound is our sense of attachment to them.
Some of these spots we adore because of their aesthetics, while others are tied to memorable experiences – where you had a romantic first kiss, or swallowed that disgusting bug to prove your backpacker mettle.
And then there are those places beloved because they are settings for what I call the “traveler epiphany.” It’s that moment (or moments) when you realize travel is not merely a take-it-or-leave-it hobby but rather that you must travel. It is an Urge with a capital U that cannot be ignored. Wherever you realized this, whether on an elephant in Thailand or at a barbeque in New Jersey, you no doubt remember the revelation as a powerful one – and fondly – and this is probably how you remember the place where you first experienced it, too.
But recently I returned to Australia, one of the countries that helped solidify my identity as a traveler, and was surprised by how unfamiliar it had become in my absence. I hadn’t visited in eight years, when I briefly lived there. I was biding my time back then, a new college grad, when an Aussie friend invited me to stay. We had met the summer before in Ireland, where I had started entertaining the notion that I might like not just to travel but to settle in somewhere foreign – and digging my heels into the Sydney sand for a stretch felt like an excellent plan.On that first trip to Australia, I lived with my friend, Carly, and her parents, Pete and Muriel, who quickly became a surrogate family. Carly was the sister with whom I had the kind of dangerous, youthful adventures easy to glamorize after you’ve lived through them. Pete and Muriel’s happiness was a revelation, and they single-handedly restored my faith in the institution of marriage. Sydney itself came across as a land of good cheer and good times, like Ireland without the bad weather. Every Aussie was beautiful and free-spirited. We went to the beach every day. In sentimental hindsight, even my dead-end waitressing job was a joy. If you had asked me then about my soul mate, I would have named Sydney, and I would only have been half joking.
Immediately upon arriving back in the United States, I began infusing my time in Australia with nostalgia, like a baker carefully injecting cream into pastry. For years after I visited, I proclaimed to friends and family: I would move to Sydney. I would. I treated the country like a dead boyfriend, one who I desperately wished to see again but who was now, sadly, entirely inaccessible.
Upon returning to Australia this past June, my old notions of the place were put to the test – from the moment I landed, in fact. I remembered everyone in Sydney as tan, good-looking surfer types, and distinctly recall how even the passport control agent was crush-worthy. This time around, though, the immigration officials seemed just as pale and beleaguered as in the U.S. (though not quite as miserable as in the U.K.). The points of difference didn’t stop there. My Sydney had been cheap but this new Sydney was expensive (an effect of the devalued American dollar). In my Sydney, the stunning Opera House had an almost angelic glow but in this new city it was reduced to a dull aluminum block on certain rainy, winter days. Even my second family had changed. Carly was pregnant and no more able to replicate our hard-partying youth than I was (on my 30th birthday I had made the unhappy discovery that hangovers now lasted two or three days instead of one). Pete and Muriel were still the loving couple I remembered, but had they always nagged each other like that? My time in Sydney started taking on a surreal quality as I processed this new reality, scanning my archive of material from eight years prior in order to make sense of these new impressions.
Was I seeing this altered Sydney because of some inherent change in the city itself or because I was different? Probably a little bit of both. Surely we cannot expect places to stay exactly the same. Just like us, they evolve. But I had also changed as a person and as a traveler. I wasn’t a wide-eyed backpacker this time around. Like realizing the difference between loving someone and being in love with the idea of loving someone, I was no longer throwing myself at every country I visited. I was more investigative, more circumspect.
Once I realized this, I put less pressure on Sydney to conform to the ideal city of my past, and was able to see a more balanced view of the place I still adore – even more so because of this new understanding.
People seem to be happier when they look back on their lives through a nostalgia lens, filtering out the unpleasant and keeping its opposite. But is it good for travel?
Returning to Sydney was an unsettling lesson in the ways we can warp places to suit our memories of them. But ultimately I’ve learned that I like the exercise of returning. It’s nice feeling your way around somewhere for a second or third or fourth time, when you’ve already done all the greatest tourist hits and are now relieved of any particular duties besides absorbing the place.
Australia is no longer just one of the countries I discovered myself as a traveler. It’s now also where I learned something about the way I want to travel. And I’m grateful to Sydney for showing me this new piece of my traveler identity – and for having the best coffee in the world. But that might just be the nostalgia talking.