The Places You Can’t go Back To

“We’ll see it next time,” is my common refrain, not matter where we are in the world. We missed that museum in Milan? Next time. Never made it to a coffee plantation in Colombia? Next time. Missed some signature dish in Vietnam? We’ll definitely be sure to try it next time.

No matter where I go in the world, there’s always the promise that I’ll be back again at some point. After all, life is long and for a serial traveler like myself, there’s always at least a chance I’ll find myself in a position to make up the difference.

This is basically a fallacy though. I may make it back to Vietnam (I really hope so), or Australia or even Fiji someday, but it won’t be the same. Time keeps moving on and not only will the places I go back to be different, I’ll be different too.

There’s a small town in Central Massachusetts where I spent nearly every summer as a kid. My mom grew up there and my Italian grandparents still lived there in a big yellow house surrounded by forestland. For months every summer my brother and I would live there; playing make believe with our cousins, riding our bikes to the General Store and attending vacation bible school. We’d go swimming in the lake, camp in the forest and march in the tiny town’s Fourth of July Parade.

We never went to camp, this was our camp, and it felt as much like home to me as my parent’s house. I haven’t been there in almost a decade and I can still vividly picture every inch of that house, the old barn, the winding roads of small town New England. I remember vividly the smells of fresh pine and clean air, of old wood and oil, of meaty tomato sauce simmering on the stove.

I can remember it exactly and for that reason I will never, ever be able to go back to Harvard, Massachusetts. My grandparents are gone, my cousins have moved away and a few years back I’m told the big yellow house was torn down.

I can’t bear to see that, to have my memories contaminated by the big empty field that mus be there now. My memories beat strong in my head, and I want to keep it that way.

I feel a similar trepidation about London, the city I love so much. I’ve been dying to go back with Mike, to show him my old haunts, the things that made me fall in love with the city, to walk along the Thames in the early evening and feel the power of the city.

A part of me knows though that it will never be the same. That so much of what I love and miss about London has to do with who I was when I lived there. For me London is about being young and away from home, single and independent for the first time. It’s about the possibility of stumbling on a hidden street, about drinking cider until 3 am in a dodgy underground club and a hungover breakfast of bacon and eggs. It’s about being abroad for the first time ever and basking in the wonder of new discoveries and a budding love of travel.

When I go back, it will be as someone older, someone with a career and a husband. Someone who has traveled across many continents and countries and seen places far older and far prettier (although nowhere quite as wonderful). I’ll be looking at London through different, older eyes, and while I hope I’ll still love it, it won’t be the same city for me anymore.

No matter how many times I revisit a place, there’s certain things that just can’t be recaptured. Feelings, experiences, memories. Nothing is ever the way I left it. Try as I might, I can’t go back in time.

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26 thoughts on “The Places You Can’t go Back To”

  1. I think it’s important to keep the mindset that you enjoyed that place to the absolute fullest…and when your journey takes you to a different place, you can look back and know that your experiences where real and amazing, and hopefully that will be enough to not have any regrets!

  2. I’ve found I have to tell myself that I’ll have a chance to go back to places – otherwise I drive myself crazy trying to do EVERYTHING, and get so anxious I can’t enjoy any of it.

  3. My apologies for bringing math into the equation (see what I did there?) but I looked at how frequently you’d have to travel to see the whole world, depending on how long you’d be in each place, and even the speed-freak backpackers that sightsee from dawn ’til dusk would have a hard time seeing the same place a second time with only a minor interval. It was something like a one-or-two-decade gap, given a frequent, moderately-paced travel itinerary. Which means that if you saw the Soviet Union back when you were young, it would be a new country. Several of them, in fact. Imagine how quickly China has changed in the last 20 years, or how quickly Egypt is changing right now. The world is changing much faster than life allows us to experience it. But then again, that’s part of what makes it so exciting.

  4. Great post and I can so relate! My summers as a child sound very similar to yours. My memories are so vivid of my grandparents and cousins, it makes me smile just to think of them. As an adult I returned to my grandparents home only to see that the entire home was gone with only vacant land remaining after a hurricane destroyed everything. It made me cry then and makes me sad now. As far as revisiting destinations with the intention of seeing or eating something we missed, there’s always the possibility that we might find something better the second time around!

  5. Ok I admit it…i was about to cry when i read the story of your grand parents’s yellow house in Massachusetts. I can relate so much. I also had a similar house and i spent all my summers in there. When my Grandma died 6 years ago, the house was just abandoned. I came back once and it was heart breaking.
    As for the places i didn’t visit.. i have an infinite list, and i feel the same as you. London in particular. I spent 6 years there and if ever i’ll be back it wont never be the same. I am sure of that. Whenever i go back to the cities i’ve lived, i feel a sense of “abandonment”: Is not about the place, is about how the place made me feel. And since i’ve changed, my feelings will never be the same. Before reading this post, all these connections were buried in my subconscious, now i can clearly see what you mean. I guess this is one of the downsides of having a nomadic spirit.

  6. I thought your article was beautifully expressed.
    I also lived my carefree and happy mid twenties in London and they are special memories. Last year I went back after 10 years for the first time – for a wedding. It was quite a rushed trip and I didn’t have the chance to revisit favourite old haunts. It was different and I experienced it for what it was at the time. I hadn’t travelled overseas to somewhere very different for a long time so I enjoyed the novel experience it was. It didn’t take away the good experience and memories I had from my 20s. I never avoid a place because I fear it will tarnish earlier wonderful memories. This doesn’t happen to me. I’m lucky that way perhaps. Liz

  7. You might not feel the same way once you re-visit a place that meant something special to you… but don’t close yourself up, and the place might just surprise you all over again, even if in a different way!

  8. Steph, I love this. I’ve been telling myself ‘next time’ a lot on this trip that I’m on right now. Some places, I’m sure I’ll go back to. Some of my favourite places, though? They hold very specific memories and, like you, I’m worried that a repeat visit wouldn’t be wise. Every summer when I was little, I used to go with my mum, brother, and two sets of grandparents to a seaside town in Devon. I kind of want to go back, but at the same time, it just wouldn’t be the same. Likewise the first city I lived in in Korea – I love going back there, but I don’t think I could live there, as it represents so many things about my life that have changed since then.

  9. I love this article – it resonates deeply with me. I feel that way about a lot of places; for example, I spent months of every year in Maui when I was a kid, and when I went back as an adult it felt so different. It some ways I wish I had never gone back, so that I could have preserved the memories of it. I often say, “I’ll do that when I come back,” but, you’re right, it will be different and I will be different.

    I DIDN’T have a lot of positive memories of London from the past, despite being there a few times. Then, after spending two months there this spring, I totally fell in love with the city. Sometimes it works in the opposite way, I guess. I’m so happy that I’m moving there this August, I’ll have to review your blog for tips!


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