The past is a foreign country

Este post va dedicado a un amigo muy especial. Ya sabe quien es.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. – L. P. Hartley

Sometimes I’m not sure if with this blog I’m teaching Spanish or writing my memoirs. Paragraph after paragraph, line after line, my writing is heavily steeped in my memories of two short but piquant years of my life. I’m the first to admit that those years were far from perfect, but somehow despite it all (all being my depression, my negligence, my isolation, my cycles of guilt) I was surrounded by a great deal of beauty, some of which I was even able to appreciate at the time. With time and the buffering effects of memory, it’s only that beauty that remains. I love this about memory. I know better than to try to futilely recapture the beauty of the past, but beauty is so fleeting and I don’t want to forget any of it. In the end, all we are left with are memories–I insist on having mine be good ones.

Last summer when I traveled around Argentina and Colombia for five weeks, I ended up seeing Woody Allen’s two latest films. I saw To Rome with Love in a theater in Buenos Aires and Midnight in Paris in Medellín. I didn’t pick the movie either time. I was too distracted to really be able to concentrate much on Midnight in Paris, but now that I think about it I realize that its central theme is nostalgia. The main character lives in the past, obsessed with the idea that the golden age was Paris in the 1920s. But as he magically travels to that era every night, he falls in love with a girl from the period who is convinced that the true golden age was the Belle Époque–the days of the Moulin Rouge in the late 1800s. And on and on it goes. Beauty seems omnipresent in earlier times and as scarce as hen’s teeth in the present moment. Funny how that works. Where is today’s beauty? Surely it abounds, but where? If only we could have tomorrow’s hindsight today.

Nostalgia New Yorker

Ahh, nostalgia. They mean the same thing (I think), but for some reason I have the impression that nostalgia is used more in Spanish than in English. I seem to hear it more; I know I say it more. And maybe I feel it more, too. It’s very common to use poner with this idea, either reflexively or transitively.

¿Será que la lluvia me pone nostálgica?

Could it be the rain that puts me in such a nostalgic mood?

Mi papá se puso nostálgico al escuchar la canción de U2.

My dad got all nostalgic when he heard the U2 song.

My friend Jisel wrote a post a while back that began, “I woke up today feeling inexplicably nostalgic for Colombia.” See, this girl feels me. She then proceeded to take a trip down memory lane complete with pictures. It got me wondering whether memory lane stretches down to Latin America. Is it like the Pan-American Highway, extending from Alaska to the tip of South America? Is it as well transited as it is here in the States? How do Spanish speakers revisit their memories, anyway? I needed to make sure I was going about it the right way.

My attempts to find a translation for memory lane were less than satisfying. Predictably, I found many translations that were a combination of words like viaje/paseo/camino/sendero/jardín/mundo + memoria/recuerdos/nostalgia. Take your pick–it would seem that there’s no universal standard phrase like there is in English. One I like is el baúl de los recuerdos to figuratively represent that mental space where we store our cherished memories. My favorite, though, was this one: carril de la memoria. Now, in my book that’s way too literal. A carril is a lane on a road, as in changing lanes. A carril de la memoria, then, gives me the idea of a highway where one lane is just for memories. You know, right next to the HOV lane. I can see it now: HOV lane for fast cars, memory lane for those drivers who just want to amble and take their sweet time. When you have to get somewhere but don’t want to interrupt your wistful reverie, take the memory lane and keep pining at a comfortable 5 mph.

Image by pepeltenso via Flickr Creative Commons, used with permission

I’m rather fond of my past and grateful for it (indebted, really), but I’m not nearly as interested in it as I used to be. Sure, there are things and people I miss, but I’m much happier now. Happier, healthier, more in harmony, more interesting. And more successful, going by my personal goals and dreams. Thankfully, I’ve finally stopped indulging in nostalgia like it were my full-time job. I want this time in my life to also be one that I’ll think back on in twenty years and yearn for, thinking, man, those were really good days! But not the good old days . . . just like you can’t truly know who the love of your life is until you’ve reached the end of it and consider and rank all of your loves, I can’t really know what the good old days are until I’ve lived them all. This is just the love of the moment (and maybe all the moments to come, if I’m lucky), and I’m content so long as I can say that these are good days. Which they definitely are.

Working in health care, I’m reminded daily how fragile life is. Just yesterday, I interpreted for a family whose two-year-old son (number five out of six) almost certainly has metachromatic leukodystrophy. He has three cousins who died of the disease while toddlers, and now he will as well. The mom burst into bitter tears as she recounted how he has been regressing in his motion abilities, and I struggled to not start crying myself. I’ve seen a baby be stillborn; I’ve delivered terminal cancer diagnoses and had to ask people about their hospice preferences. Life is so very short. I can only suppose that all the smaller losses along the way somehow prepare us for the final one. In the end, what do you have? You have your relationships and the love and meaning they give your life, and you have the memories of all the love you gave and received in earlier relationships. I’m so grateful for all of the loves of my life even if, at least romantically speaking, none has lasted so far. If only I could think of a way for “thanks for the memories” to sound as sincere as I mean it. Maybe we had a few weeks, maybe a few months, maybe a year–whatever the length, thank you for loving me.

(PD: For the life of me, I can’t figure out if the quien in that first line needs an accent or not.)


11 responses to “The past is a foreign country

  1. Beautiful. (And I vote for no accent on that “quien”.)


  2. jackbutterworth

    Thanks as ever, Katie. Thought for the day, totally unrelated and yet somehow related to to your post. When I think back to my time in Colombia (got back 4 weeks ago, sniff), I always seem to translate things into English – I’ll be daydreaming about a conversation I had and realise that I’m imagining it in English, because that’s the language that I’m speaking 100% of the time now (and obviously my mother tongue.) Yet when I was in Colombia, I’d catch myself doing the same in reverse – thinking of meals with my family at home and realise everyone was chatting in Spanish! (totally impossible.) I was just intrigued to know if it happened to you – that when experiencing that ‘nostalgia’ your brain just seems to store the memories and transplant them into whichever language you’re processing in. Maybe it’s just me! I had a hilarious English teacher friend with whom I’d switch languages every sentence. I remember jokes she would tell, but NO idea in which language I heard them…


    • Thanks for reading and supporting me.

      How interesting! That makes a lot of sense. Me, I couldn’t say. I really don’t remember conversations, although it may seem like that at times because I’m always blogging about words I heard. But conversations, no. Or maybe a line or two, but still in Spanish. So much of my memory is tied to my ex-boyfriend, and those memories are more of things written than things said or done. He’s a writer, I’m a writer, and I seem to have more of those written lines emblazoned on my memory than anything else, the written descriptions and interpretations of events more than the events themselves. Everything lasting seems to have come through that filter– how I remember things is how we wrote about them. And I’m obviously still writing about and re-interpreting them here.

      What are you doing now? Good to hear from you!


      • It’s a pleasure! I haven’t really ever written stuff down, apart from directly to other people. Never kept a diary or anything, so a lot of my memory is very visual. I adore reading as well, but struggle to remember plots and even characters’ names just months after I’ve read a book – but images from films etc. stick a lot better. The deputy head of my school in Colombia would say something very interesting about our being different types of learners, but I couldn’t say exactly how.

        I’m bumming around England right now, doing concerts and things to occupy myself before university in September.


  3. What a great quote. If only more people would adopt your attitude the world would certainly be a happier place –
    . . . . “In the end, all we are left with are memories–I insist on having mine be good ones”.
    You wonder if you are writing your memoirs or teaching Spanish – it looks to me like you are doing both at the same time and that makes for quite an interesting blog. I for one enjoyed a browse through a number of your recent posts.



  4. Usted es una escritora hermosa. Estoy obteniendo un título
    de español y estoy muy contento que encontré su blog. Entiendo completamente la nostalgia. Tengo buenos amigos en Escandinavia y siento un dolor en mi corazón cuando hablo sueco o noruego. En sueco, hay una palabra “längtan”. No puedo describir la emoción en Inglés, pero es básicamente un profundo anhelo de algo que ahora se ha ido. Me encanta su blog, y aprendo algo nuevo en cada post. (y lo siento, yo sé que mi español es muy malo jaja!)


    • ¡Hola! Muchas gracias por tus palabras tan lindas. Tu español no es malo, al contrario es muy bueno. Te lo digo muy sinceramente. Le eché un vistazo a algunos de tus posts, y me parece excelente que estudies español. Anhelo, sí: por las cosas que eran y que no son. Y por las cosas que pudieron haber sido y que nunca fueron. Muy interesante lo de tus amigos de Escandinavia. Creo que el dolor que se siente indica que había mucha belleza. Con el tiempo, todo ese dolor va a quedar en el olvido y solo quedará la belleza.


  5. Thanks for the reference Katie! I think I’ve lived most of my life thinking and living in the past or the future and I also feel like I’m just starting to learn to live in the present. In a way, it’s a much happier and less anxiety-provoking place to be, because you aren’t wishing you were somewhere else. Honestly, I sometimes feel like I enjoy my memories of things more than I actually enjoyed whatever I was doing at the time. For example, I felt pretty miserable my last year in Colombia, but looking back now, I actually find myself occasionally missing those cloudy days, the rain and even the chaos and disorganization.

    When I lived in Colombia, I felt like so many from my grandmother’s generation lived in the past, always believing that whatever happened in their childhood and young adulthood was infinitely better than what is happening now. This may be the case in the U.S as well, but I don’t really have any elderly relations with deep roots in the U.S., so even my grandmother who lives in Maryland looks upon the good old days in Colombia, not the U.S. I can still remember writing this blog post,, after a family visit with my grandma, and understanding that it can be so comforting to believe that whatever came before was better than whatever lies ahead. When I’d hear my grandma talk about the past, I figured it was because she was so secure about her place in the past; she knew the past, she knew her place there, she understood who she was and how the world worked back then, but when it came to the future, she knew her time was limited, finite and her comprehension of the world seemed to decrease ever so slightly every day. Things changed and she was in a place where all she wanted was for things to stay the same or go back to the way they were, when things (with her old woman hindsight and wisdom) made sense.

    Anyway, as someone who has struggled with nostalgia I enjoyed reading this post.


    • That’s great that you’re so content in the present, Jisel. Quite an accomplishment. I think I’m halfway there. Sure, I also remember things as better than they were. Well, I choose to focus on the positive things because I’d rather cherish those beautiful memories. But I’m just as mindful of the negative things and how very real they were– those are just the things I’d just as soon forget, or at least not dwell on. I don’t really want to dwell on any of it, but if I have to indulge in a little remembering, I’m going to remember and appreciate the good things, you know? :)

      Everything you shared about your grandmother makes so much sense. Let’s not be that way! Surely our best days lie ahead, making each new day better than the last. The only thing to do is to just enjoy each day as it comes.


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