“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” – Paul Fussell
In my last post I stole a lyric from The Smiths which asks “Has the world changed, or have I changed?” That was partly trying to be clever, but partly a serious question. I approached coming back to Germany like the anticipation of meeting an old friend you haven’t seen for a very long time and had a lot of the same thoughts running through my head: Will we still get along? Have the paths our lives have taken made us such different people that we no longer know, or want to know, each other? Was I going to be able to move past my idealized, nostalgic version of Germany and be able to accept the reality?
It’s been said that you can never go home again, and of course that’s true. But despite this I think many of us still hope that when we return to a place we can bring back our glory days, even just a little bit. But those days are contained in our hearts and memories, and it’s no use to seek for them in the places where they happened.
Of course both the world and I have changed. As it turns out, Germany and I still get along. It’s very much like when you finally meet that old friend for the first time in a long time, and you find even though you have both changed; you have grown in directions that make sense to you both, and you pretty much pick up where you left off. I was surprised to find that Germany had changed in very good ways, but it had also stayed the same. Even though I had changed, the ‘new’ Germany still suits me fine. And while it was poignant to go back to places I had haunted as a young man, I am not sad about the ones that are gone or that are different. Despite all that had changed, it felt in a way like coming home. It was good, and I feel that I now appreciate Germany in a way that I was not mature enough to before, but still keep faith with that silly kid who did foolish things in that country so long ago. The seeds that were planted back then have borne fruit, and from that comes a strong sense of continuity. It’s a feeling of contentment like an itch I had had for a long time has finally been scratched.
There are many things that impressed me deeply, and I am going to write about them more fully, but here are some brief snapshots:
- The absence of the wall in Berlin is a powerfully positive thing, and to listen to how our guide was moved when he talked about celebrating the anniversary of its fall moved me as well.
- The stillness of the courtyard at Bendlerblock in Berlin on a Sunday morning, and thinking of the men who walked out into it to die early on a July morning in 1944.
- Laying a stone on a memorial at Dachau, and though I knew what happened there it was hard to picture in my mind. It still is.
- My first glimpse of a street in Mainz I had walked down a hundred times 25 years ago, and the flood of memories.
Most of all I am simply grateful to have the time and the means to make this trip, and to have done so with my wife.