Place is not time

I can’t decide whether it is more jarring to come back to a place that has changed radically in your absence, or to a place that has changed little while you yourself have. This year seems to be an alternating series of changes and returns. Most recently, I took a weekend trip to Zaragoza, 11 years after I spent my junior year abroad there, and spent my two days trying to line up my memories of the place with the city as it is now.

It started with seeing my host family again, a couple who had made me a part of their lives for 9 months when they were only a few years older than I am now. To my eyes, they have changed little, but two new members have sprouted up in the family photo – their two daughter, 9 and 5, adorable troublemakers. This year, a new American host student lives in my old room. We have little in common, and yet there was a Back to the Future feeling of meeting my old self – or perhaps it was just nostalgia getting the best of me.

As we looked through the older daughter’s communion photos, catching up on years of milestones, my Spanish “dad” pointed out one the guests: his mother’s exchange student. I had a sudden flashback of Christmas dinner with my Spanish family, 11 years ago, in their pueblo – seafood stew, festive clothing, a room filled with extended family, and me, the sole American. Perhaps the nostalgia was for this feeling of being “adopted,” a fairy-godmother-like magic of being granted membership rights in a new family. I kept having to remind myself that I hadn’t lost that – here I was, still able to reconnect after so many years. I even had time for Sunday morning churros con chocolate with my Spanish grandmother, at her initiative. We chatted over our decadent breakfast, churrería windows steamed up against the cold, and I felt a bottomless gratitude for not being forgotten.

zaragoza muralsIn other ways, I fought the feeling all weekend of trying to squeeze into a much loved dress that no longer fit. Little has changed in this town – still the beautiful old center, extending out from the festively-tiled Basilica of Pilar, still the arches of the Paseo de Independencia and the looming Corte Inglés on my old route to school, the pastry shop I used to frequent still on its corner. I walked the streets as if in a Sunday paper spot-the-difference puzzle: a new tram, a few bright new murals, and, jarringly, a brand new Taste of America market (though surely I missed Russian food more, when I was here). How is it possible for a place to change so little and feel so foreign?

Time has a habit of erasing jagged edges, and I remember my year in Spain as a colorful montage: me in Aragonés dress at the Fiestas del Pilar, me in Romanesque churches and Gothic cathedrals, me hiking in the Pyrenees from fall foliage to snow, me digging into paella at elaborate weekend lunches with extended family. But it’s easy to forget all the time that linked the highlights. Many days, I was homesick, I felt like an alien, I couldn’t talk or explain myself, I was bored and lost. I idealize this year, I know, though I am not entirely wrong to. I was 16, and I had left my home and friends to live with a different family in a different language. The experience changed me. What is wrong is imagining that the feeling from my highlight-reel memory would flood back as soon as I stepped off the bus and into those familiar houses and streets. Place is not time, and I am 27, not 16, though I admit with some embarrassment that a part of me hoped that immersion in the place could recapture the time as well. The reality is banal: things change. For my next visit, it’s time to pick a new favorite bakery.