April 8, 2013

The Return: What Happens When You Revisit a Memorable Place?

  • By: Priya Chhaya

I recently spotted this great piece about re-reading books that we loved. Author Guy Gavriel Kay says, “There's an anxiety I feel when picking up a book I loved when young, preparing to read it again. I think it has to do with how we define ourselves, in part, by what we've loved. Books (not only books, of course) that reach deeply into us at twelve or seventeen or twenty-two shape the person we see ourselves as being.”

Substitute “book” with “historic places,” and his words still resonate. Some of my first experiences with history went hand-in-hand with family vacations. We would always take a two-three day stop in a European city on our way to Mumbai, or embark on road trips around the United States. I know for other people that these memories sprouted from post-college graduation escapes, the last summer before work and life kicked in. These were the trips that helped fashion our opinions about the world beyond the comfort of our hometowns.

But what if you had a chance to go back? As Kay says, there is a measure of anxiety. On one hand, it affords an opportunity to see something you may have missed in the first place; on the other, your expectation and anticipation is lined with an uneasy feeling that it just won’t be as great as it was before.

This week I've just come back from the first of two return trips. I was in to Paris, a city I first saw as a sixteen year old when we visited some family friends. At the time I was enraptured with the Napoleonic Era—something about finally realizing the connections between his story and the War of 1812 in America -- and it was the first time I ever saw history as a bigger picture rather than a series of isolated events.

A gargoyle made of stone sits surveying over the city of Paris in 2013. The sky is slightly overcast and the buildings below are a speckled color of brown and gray.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

A gargoyle sits on the roof of Notre Dame (2013).

A sign made of beads that welcoming attendees to the 2013 Main Street's Conference. It reads Lousiana Meet the Neighbors on Main Street.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

A sign welcoming us to the 2013 National Main Street's conference.

My only goal on that trip, which I accomplished, was to see the enormous David painting depicting Napoleon’s coronation. Otherwise, somewhere between the magnificence of Versailles and the enormity of the Louvre, the whole trip sped by in a whirlwind. My strongest memory, in fact, is of what I didn’t see -- the Notre Dame, when the kids, wanting one day away from the parents, chose to sleep in and go to Euro Disney instead.

In four days I’ll be hopping on another flight to the city of New Orleans to attend the National Main Streets Conference. This year's theme involves looking at the cultural economy—seeing how history, food, music all come together to give you a sense of what it means to be in a particular place.

I can't remember how old I was on my first trip to New Orleans, but it was our last stop on a three-leg cruise that went from the Cayman Islands to Cozumel Mexico and then up the Mississippi for a quick stop in Louisiana. I remember seeing Jackson Square and thinking about his role in the Battle of New Orleans (the last battle in the War of 1812), and walking through a large farmer’s market. I even remember standing outside Preservation Hall and being told I was too young to go in.

For both these places, my return means more than just seeing the things I missed. It means exploring with fifteen more years of life experience, including the ability to see nuance and transformation where I normally would have just been awestruck.

My reading of these magnificent cities (with their linked history) is already different. I now can see the lines where architecture and the past align, sense the layers of fingers that shaped neighborhoods, and grasp the textures that see beyond the romance and idealized visions from my memory.

What about you? Tell us about a time that you experienced a return. What was different? What did you see that you missed before?

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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