THE difference, for the traveler, between a first and repeated visit is crucial. To “go back” is not “to go.” Yet old, familiar places retain a kind of magic, and all the more so when the memories are shared. For our 40th wedding anniversary year, my wife, Elena, and I returned to the place where our marriage began: the South of France. We planned to visit old haunts, the area we’d once called home. Then, we had had all the time in the world; now we could spend a week. Too, there’s a difference between 20-somethings living on a shoestring and tourists “of a certain age” who stay in fine hotels.
“Let’s do it right this time,” I said. “Let’s fly to Nice and stay where we couldn’t afford to before. Let’s ramble down Memory Lane.”
As newlyweds, on a year’s extended honeymoon, we’d lived in the gatekeeper’s cottage of a beautiful old farmhouse in Opio, near Grasse. The mailman would arrive on a motor-scooter, sputtering up the switchbacks of the driveway; the farm plow was horse-drawn. When the mistral blew in winter, the view past Cannes revealed the peaks of Corsica; the coal stove in the kitchen yielded little hot water or heat. Now Opio boasts a Club Med with a spa, and a supermarket has displaced the butcher and the baker; a golf course has replaced the olive groves. And “our” property belongs to the Earl of Spencer, with locked gates and well-tended lawns and a swimming pool.
It’s difficult to know, in the wake of Heisenberg and Einstein, what is absolute, what relative, and why. Do we change as witnesses, or does that which we witness change, or both; does it alter because of the viewing, and is our estimate altered by the consciousness of sight? Think of a train track and moving train; does the world pass by while we sit still, or is it the reverse? These problems of philosophy and mathematics are personal riddles also; was it always just like this, and did we fail to notice? For we have changed more than the landscape, no matter how the locals complain that the landscape has changed.
Read the full piece:
Other work by Delbanco that might be of interest:
Anywhere Out of the World, Essays on Travel, Writing, Death. New York, Columbia University Press, 2005
Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France (nonfiction). NewYork, Atlantic Monthly, 1989