December 9, 2023
Nostalgia is a place in time
“There’s a certain nostalgia and romance in a place you left.”
― David Guterson
You know how people talk about ‘going to their happy place’ when the going gets rough? I bet most of those happy places are built on nostalgia and good times that were had in a place in the past.
One major reason I began to write my WIP, Heads or Tails is because of the nostalgia I felt for Barcelona. How could I feel longing for a period of my life that was relatively short?
The thing is, for an experience to make a strong impact, it only has to be meaningful, not necessarily long-lasting. Novelty has the power to make that impact and what better way to experience an immersive sort of novelty than going to a foreign country? If you ever have the chance to live abroad, I highly recommend it. It is one of the best ways to get you to pay attention, if for no other reason than the novelties you experience there.
What drives a person to idealize a certain place or time period over another? I loved my time in Barcelona, but to be honest, I had a hell of a time here and there. So what made it worth staying? Was it the romance of living in a different country with different customs, a different language, and a different cuisine? Was it the allure of being able to drop my personal history to a certain degree and just be who I wanted to present myself to the world as? Was it the pure rush of novelty and seeing with the eyes of a foreigner?
And would I have as much nostalgia for it if not for the novelty? Looking back, it’s hard to say. Hindsight is definitely not 20/20; there’s too much emotion involved to make memories accurate.
Looking back can be a powerful thing. There’s all this popular cliche commentary to live in the present moment, and there’s value in that, too. But if we never look back, we never gain a depth of perspective, appreciate how we got to our present state, or reflect on what worked and what didn’t work in various situations.
It’s all about how we look back: is it with curiosity or satisfaction? Regret or longing? Sometimes we can look back with objectivity and maybe even feel triumphant about it (with feelings of “I have overcome”), or maybe we look back with a sort of distant numbness, a subdued wonder that we can view certain life events as if they belonged to someone else.
The thing is, we were always someone else in the past, in a way….and we are usually on our way to becoming someone else in the future. Isn’t that the typical progression of things? I know, I’m oversimplifying this; there are definitely people who are more stable (static?) in who they are, but no matter how much a person changes (or not!), the world around them changes. That’s why we have phrases like ‘the good ol’ days,’ and ‘they just don’t make them like they used to.’
Why else would nostalgia be such a catalyst for strong feelings? It is just as much a nostalgia for our former selves as it is for places we’ve been, things we’ve done, people we knew, and time periods that have passed.
Saudade and the idea that a place has a soul
“The voice so filled with nostalgia that you could almost see the memories floating through the blue smoke, memories not only of music and joy and youth, but perhaps, of dreams. They listened to the music, each hearing it in his own way, feeling relaxed and a part of the music, a part of each other, and almost a part of the world. ”
—Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream
I wonder, is nostalgia a cultural construct, or is it a personal reaction? Do some cultures allow for more feelings of nostalgia than others?
Saudade is a Portuguese word that roughly translates into nostalgia or longing. I had heard that this word has no direct translation in English, though I keep wanting to label it as a sort of Portuguese brand of nostalgia. When I taught English in San Francisco, one of my Brazilian students came to me and asked how I would translate saudade. Nostalgia, I told him. He shook his head and said, no, it’s not just nostalgia. But he wasn’t able to say more on the matter or why it was different, but you could almost see the feeling simmering in his heart as he struggled to describe it.
Since then, I’ve heard the word saudade in bossa nova music. What better way to express longing than through music? Is it true that saudade is an integral part of the Portuguese or Brazilian soul? I came across this interesting article on saudade that speaks to the collective personality of the Portuguese:
“Portugal is a country full of poets and dreamers, and dreamers are easily disappointed when the reality doesn’t match to their high expectations. The word “saudade” is a word for dreamers.
This state of mind has become a “Portuguese way of life” that consists in a constant feeling of absence, the sadness of something that’s missing.”
Will I ever be able to really understand what saudade is? How can I ever know what a Portuguese or Brazilian person feels when they use that word? That is the limitation of words we use to describe emotions; they only make sense after so much life experience and when it comes to words in a foreign language, we may never be positioned to fully comprehend them on a visceral level.
The call to reminisce
“Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time.”
-Nick Hornby, Hi Fidelity
However each culture frames nostalgia, I believe there’s some value in it.
In her Ted Talk on nostalgia and hope, Elena Carrera speaks to the value of looking back with emotion and how that can fill a person with hope and help them feel more connected to others. She talks about the power of the imagination and how that imagining allows us to connect to our emotions about certain situations.
There’s some value in reminiscing, which to me, seems like a sort of nostalgia that is pleasurable. I have a handful of old friends that always do a sort of ritual reminiscing with me whenever we meet up. Sometimes it makes me feel old, like I have so much to look back on; other times it makes me feel younger as I recall some of the daring and curiosity I had in earlier years.
Either way, reminiscing is a branch of nostalgia and it can bring perspective and even rekindle feelings of warmth and connection. Of course, some people live too much in the past and end up idealizing it.
I did something else: I reminisced, wrote about it, twisted it around and fictionalized it. It made my experience in Barcelona unforgettable, but also, it helped me realize what the heck I got out of such a crazy time in my life.
I hope you’ll take that journey with me and read my WIP, Heads or Tails, when it comes out. Launch date TBA!