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What I Wonder When I Wander: Can you ever really go back?

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On Friday morning here in Santiago, Dani and I were both being yanked along by our dogs chasing after some smell or another when I asked her if she missed Buenos Aires.

Her reply is what sparked this week’s musing.

She said that she couldn’t believe that we’d already been gone over a week, but that no, she didn’t miss Buenos Aires because she knew we would definitely be back someday.

Amazingly, I don’t miss it either, but began wondering if part of the reason I feel no pangs for the place we fell head over heels in love with is because we are in the middle of a perfectly happy rebound romance with our housesit here in Chile. In the end however, I realize I feel the same as Dani about the fact that we will always be able to return to Buenos Aires and live comfortably for a few months at a time.

buenos aires argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina


The question is whether Buenos Aires will be the same.

The ornate Parisian buildings of Recoleta and the cobblestone streets of antique San Telmo, the culture, the pizza, the Tango, the wine – these things will all be there as they have been for centuries. And barring complete political upheaval or demise of the airline industry, we will be able to buy plane tickets and fly back to Buenos Aires. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can go back to the city you remember.

I don’t relate this to the way humans tend to glorify the past, shining a golden hue over our memories to create something that never was, like the way Instagram annoyingly makes yesterday’s dinner look as though you ate it in the 1950s.

What I mean is that when you travel, the places you experience are not just points on a map, but rather an intersection of place, time in your life, time in history and the people you meet when you are there.

What if returning to certain places we love feels for us the way a college sophomore might feel stepping back into their old high school, surrounded by the same teachers and traditions, but all those years wiser (please read some sarcasm into that) s/he is aware that this experience is entirely different to the one he or she had within these same walls.

Buenos Aires was not our first flirtation with semi-permanence. Our spontaneous three-week stint in Lisbon locked in the first place on our travels I thought we could return to live in. Portugal’s capital city seemed the perfect balance of grit and stylish flare, old world Europe with a millennium of sea-faring world exploration creating a mix of African, Middle Eastern, European, Indian and Asian cultures making up a relatively small population of 500,000 placed along miles and miles of sunny coastline.

Lisbon Portugal
Lisbon, Portugal

We felt so free in Lisbon, with its cheap, delicious seaside restaurants, even cheaper strong coffee, modest, breezy fashions and a language we could just about grab onto and understand. But until we return, I’ll never know if part of the reason we loved Lisbon was, in part, because of the sense of whimsical serendipity in the way we just happened to end up in Lisbon by chance before flying to our housesit in Canada.

After all, not everyone loves Lisbon. Some people call it too gritty. After living in Central America (and East London for that matter) maybe we are both just attracted to gritty?

Of course, part of the charm of Buenos Aires, too, is that crumbling European grandeur, and we accordingly spent the first few days comparing the city to Lisbon (and half of Western Europe). However, as Buenos Aires revealed itself over those six weeks, this unique city seeped into our bones as a place to which, like Lisbon, we could always return for three months or so.

When I take a closer look at Buenos Aires, however, I realize that it was that intersection of time and place and people that created what we have taken with us as ‘our’ Buenos Aires.

While living in our BA apartment, we finished the two-month Insanity workout program we started in Costa Rica, and were (and still are) in the best physical shape since leaving travel. We were also pushing hard toward the goal of finishing our housesitting book, so that sense of accomplishment was a huge boost for us professionally, too. These successes must have had an effect on our mindset and the lens through which we viewed the city.

Not only were we fit physically and professionally, but socially, our calendar hasn’t been that full since we left to travel. Buenos Aires is filled with like-minded people and we formed great friendships while in town. Suddenly we were squeezing in coffee at 6 with one friend before dinner at 9 with another, and declaring to each other privately on the way home that we had to take tomorrow night off or we’d be out every single night of the week. Everyone we met, both Argentine or foreign, had been an expat or a traveler and was filled with ideas and creativity and was bringing one project or another to life.

I don’t talk about this often, but I am pretty obsessed with the idea of 1920s Paris, when Ernest Hemingway moved to the City of Lights from Chicago with his first wife. There he went from a budding beat journalist to world-class fiction writer. His literary accomplishments (and fascinating real life) were due in part to the inspiration and passion reverberating between him and the dozens of incredible artists and writers who had made Paris theirs during this time. Now, realistically, we were only in Buenos Aires for a little over a month, and I am fairly sure we didn’t lunch with the next Picasso, but there was a magic of great people coming together and us being at the top of our game which were then amplified by the release of happy hormones created by the Dolce Vita trifecta of pizza, empanadas and gelato.

buenos aires food favorites
Gelato, Pizza Napolitana and a variety of empanadas, Buenos Aires

Will Buenos Aires ever be that Buenos Aires again?

Will I be as enamored with Lisbon now that I expect to be?

Or is it just as much about the moment as the place? Can we ever really go back?

There are obviously places you return to that haven’t changed one bit, a fact you’re either relieved at or disappointed by, depending on how you feel about it.

But I always feel this anxiety when I have found somewhere that makes my heart swell, somewhere that clicks with my soul and I know I can pull up and park it here for a while.

The first time I ever had this ‘click’ was on a trip to Antigua, Guatemala while living in Costa Rica in 2000. My best friend and I got off the bus, looked around, and promised we would spend our last year at university making arrangements to move to Antigua in 2001. Which we did, and I lived there until 2003.

Much of my identity was wrapped up those first two years of my ‘adulthood’ spent in that adorable colonial city under the shadow of volcanoes and far from anything remotely similar to the Chicago suburbs where I grew up.

When Dani and I returned in 2010, it was really important to me to show Dani around, have her walk along those cobblestone streets and have breakfast in my favorite restaurants and see the house I had lived in. Even though we visited seven years later, I thought that in order for her to really know me, experiencing Antigua was as important as visiting my hometown or meeting my family.

Antigua Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala

Except for a lot more traffic, everything I cherished about the city was essentially the same and we did all the things I had always told her about. Much like that trip back to high school, however, the moment had passed, the people who made it special weren’t there. Instead, together Dani and I experienced the city in a new way. We discovered sophisticated bars and restaurants I could have never afforded as a 21 year old kid. We spent an afternoon in the gorgeous San Lázaro cemetery. I had lived just down the street from it back then, but couldn’t have cared less since it didn’t sell late-night pizzas or cold Coca-Cola to cure the hangover from the great party the night before. Instead, Dani and I made Antigua ours, and Antigua became real again, not just a golden memory.

As a pair of wandering souls, part of this epic quest is to find places fit for settling down. We have now wrapped up Buenos Aires and Lisbon and placed them in a treasure chest to be cracked open whenever we get tired of being nomads.

I just hope that what we have all wrapped up is tangible, that we are able to go back and love these cities, not for what they were at the time, but for what they become for us when we land there again…

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Tags : What I Wonder When I Wander

17 Comments

    1. Thanks Tom! I think it’s the same thing with going home to the place you grew up after moving away. You have these golden memories of childhood, but the place feels differently.

  1. Jess, this was so beautifully written, and the whole idea is quite sad, in a bitter-sweet sort of way. I especially like how you made Antigua your own again with Dani, in a completely new way. I totally related to that! And, again, you’ve really whetted my appetite for Buenos Aires: only 2.5 weeks till we’re there! Eee!

    I knew you guys lived in London, but didn’t know you’d been in East London; that’s where I grew up! Which part did you live in?

    1. Hey Sam – we lived in Deptford, so South East London, nice and gritty! We can’t wait to hear how you guys like Buenos Aires! We definitely miss it now a bit more 🙂 And thanks for your kind words about the post, feels good that you got my sentiment, I definitely feel bittersweet about it all…

  2. Great post. Made me think about places I have lived and revisited. i don’t think you ever go back and some places make you sad when you do revisit. I am thinking of my home town of Buffalo, NY which has fallen into sad decline with every year that passes. Other places like NYC and London get better with each and every return.

    1. Hi Joy – that’s actually an issue I have with the U.S. in general, because so many places have suffered such a massive decline/degeneration due to the recession and when we road trip or even visit some of the Chicago suburbs (the city itself is still pretty stellar!) it’s hard to believe that it looks more like some of the less developed countries we travel to. There were some towns/cities that were in such a state of disrepair! We only spent three hours in Buffalo in 2011, eating stuffed banana pepper, so unfortunately too blissed out on awesome food to notice if it was a bit sad looking!

    1. Aw, thanks! Glad it resonated with you, and also, it’s good to know that you know exactly what I am talking about with Buenos Aires. Because I do think that it has the magic to continue creating those awesome experiences again and again – as long as Argentina manages not to crash again any time soon!!!

  3. It probably can’t ever be what it was before. Timing is important, and your frame of mind will almost always be different. I haven’t done a lot of repeat trips, but there are some cities I’d love to go back to, like Lisbon and Buenos Aires. Not enough time in either. But I think if you go into a repeat trip knowing it was a combination of the place, the timing, and you, you’re less likely to be disappointed if it isn’t the same. And hey, maybe it’ll even be better!
    Ali recently posted..6 Countries for New Travelers

    1. Hey Ali, you’re exactly right. If you are aware while you’re having the amazing time that it’s a combo of all those things, you will be set up to love the city again the next time! And we don’t have many repeats, either, since we’re always on the move, so I guess that is partially what makes me so nervous about Lisbon and Buenos Aires both!

  4. Heraclitus once said ‘Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers’. I guess both we and the ‘waters’ change and any little change translates into a new and different perception of the place. I’m always somewhat sad when returning to a place it completely lost its magic… Maybe some places are meant to be experienced only once in a lifetime…
    Laura @Travelocafe recently posted..Ikebukuro Autumn Festival, Tokyo: A Photo Essay

  5. I really love this post Jess! I recently stepped back in time to a few of my favorite cities from the past where i had lived for more than a few months and was pleasantly surprised in one of those places (Amsterdam) that to see it with ‘new’ (adult!) eyes twenty years later was such a lovely experience. It was like getting to know an old friend all over again, but in a much different way if that makes sense?

    Your comment about returning to Antigua and eating in more sophisticated places certainly resonates – that’s how I felt in Amsterdam. While 20 years ago I was just a student looking for cheap beer and coffee shops :)…. now I’m in a much different space and was happy to fall in love with the city in a whole different way, and actually love it more now!

    Thanks again for these wonderful musings…

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