Nostalgia, another name for Europe

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, March 16, 2011

There is a teenager sleeping in the room where we once slept. He towers over both of us, though he was only five-years old the last time we were in Vienna. He's nineteen now and that's exactly how old we were then. His door is always shut with only muted German phone conversations and video game bleeps to let us know he's in there. It occurs to me how far on the other side of that disquieting gulf between youth and adulthood we are; in looking at this teenager we no longer recognize anything of ourselves, our own pasts. We aren't his cool American cousins. He invites me to a soccer match and I am sure I embarrass him into regretting it. We are further from this part of our past than we are from it as our future. Teenagers. The last time we were here he was younger than our kids are now. It was March then, too. I have never seen this city green.

Back then, my girlfriend and I were living together in Dublin. She went off to visit family in Austria for a holiday. On their invitation, I grabbed a last-minute flight with an unavoidable eight-hour layover at Heathrow and left Dublin to join her as soon as I could. Whatever trouble Ireland is in today, it will take a long time for its capitol to slide back into the pit it was in when we lived there. That city was dirty and everything was old in a way that didn't impress. The streets were full of urchins in tracksuits and the Celtic Tiger was still a mewling kitten. The only truly grand buildings in Dublin were unscrubbed relics of colonial rule. I grew to love it that way. When I got to Heathrow for my layover, I took the train into the heart of London and emerged to gawk at the pomp and grandeur of so many piles of Portland stone. For six hours I walked around looking for all the things you're supposed to see in London if to say, "I've seen London. . ."

When you're a nineteen-year-old traveler it's hard not to be a superficial collector of sights. I had friends who did the whole backpacking thing: Eurail grand tours with Let's Go checklists and reports of Swedish girls in every hostel. It seemed important then, to be able to say you'd seen something important. Why do we value so highly the experience of being herded through these places with others just like ourselves? Every time I saw something important, rather than feeling exhilarated I felt dead inside. Yep, there that is. This was a London that ordinary Londoners had little occasion for, one where the past stood in your way everywhere you turned, where history itself blocked out the sun. It was hard not to be pummeled into fatigue by relentless grandeur. I looked at all those Regency buildings and steeled myself against their splendor. The mortar of all this is the blood of empire. And at 4:30 GMT I hopped onto a plane to another capitol of a dead empire, one I knew virtually nothing about.  

Over the next few days in Vienna, we did our tourist duty. We saw what we were supposed to see on canvases covering the walls of palaces built for princes whose names we'd never heard. I saw paintings of battles between countries I never knew were enemies. "Wait," I said to my girlfriend in the Belvedere: "When did Sweden invade Austria?" Christ, these people have been fighting each other forever, I thought. More battles, more Christs on crosses. She yawned. "Museums are exhausting."

Her Austrian relatives left to go skiing somewhere deep in the Alps; for the rest of the week we were on our own. We were two teenagers who hadn't even been dating for a year with a 300-year-old house to ourselves a short walk from the subway in a city we never imagined could be so beautiful. Vienna won us over with its undeniable charms. We stood in front of The Kiss and agreed it looked better in person than it does on dorm room walls. We learned all about Egon Schiele. Maria Theresa. We drank beers where Sigmund Freud smoked cigars and ordered hot chocolate where Leon Trotsky wrote newspapers. We saw Mozart performed at the Staatsoper. We struggled to order dinners and mastered the subway and streetcars. But mostly we just walked around, seeing a beautiful city together. 

This would become part of our history, the mortar of shared experiences that help hold us together, impenetrable to everything but time. 

* * * * *

The teenager sleeps late and when we reveal where we're going he says he's never been there. Some days we don't see him at all before heading out to revisit the places we saw when we were his age, our kids seeing them for the first time. I expect my daughter to be excited by the architecture, impressed by the baroque buildings or at least giggle at the bare-chested caryatids and topless telamones holding up pediments everywhere. But she is more worried about where we're going and whether there will be snacks. Our midday adventures become exercises in nostalgia, memories whispered over their chattering: The Naschmarkt. . . remember when we bought a watermelon because we hadn't seen one in six months? Of course, the kids are more interested in creating new memories than reliving ours. We do things today we never would have done then: We enter zoos. We linger at playgrounds, and buy souvenirs at toy stores. We attend dancing horse performances. And every afternoon, we abandon the tourist stuff and return to our family, to the kids' seven-year-old cousin who has come home from school. Playing with her is what my kids look forward to most about each day in Vienna. They disappear to a room full of toys while we try to come up with something from this foreign cuisine that they'll actually eat. Do you think we can can convince them that käsespaetzle is mac&cheese? Instead of hitting the town once they're asleep, we stay in to drink beers and catch up with family, telling stories. Much has changed since the last time we were here.

This is what I find most interesting about nostalgia; not just the cunning gloss of hindsight, but the actual act of returning to a place. For all the value of going somewhere you have never been, I also find value in being reminded of who you were once and and how far you've come. Without this type of nostalgia, you can lose perspective on how much you've grown, or changed. Of course places change, always, and yet they don't change it all. And maybe too you've changed less than you think. Your wife still yawns in art museums. You still hold her hand along the Ringstrasse, even if your other one is already taken. 

* * * * *

A good friend from my wife's stint in China now lives in Cologne, and they travel to Vienna to see us. Her one-year-old daughter looks just like her. While they relive decade-old memories of sipping horse milk in Mongolia, her German husband says to me, "I love coming to Vienna. It is like what German cities might have looked like if they hadn't all been destroyed." He says this without blame. It sticks with me, the idea of a transplanted nostalgia for a baroque past obliterated by bombs. A place where you can almost forget it ever happened. There is a gap to the history here, like a chapter torn out of a book. We pass a bomb crater in the Schönbrunn Tiergarten with our strollers, only a sign to tell us what it is in both German and English.

"Cologne was rebuilt," he says. "But it's not the same."

We pass the Ruin of Carthage, built in 1778 to resemble a classical ruin, statues and inscribed bricks stacked up against each other, artfully. "Your mother and I stood here fourteen years ago," I say to my daughter. "It was cold just like today." My eyes scan the ruins and it is like I am seeing it for the first time. I remember none of it, only being there.

Soon my daughter is crying. She doesn't want to leave Vienna. She doesn't want to say goodbye to her cousin. I know then, that despite all the complaining, this has meant something to her after all.

"Don't worry," I say. "We'll come back."