Fonder for the absence

Sometimes being away from a place reshapes how we remember it

Recently, at the school where I work, a couple of new teachers have joined the staff. As is the norm in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) world, introductory conversations turn into lists of countries we’ve lived in and visited.

Someone asked one of the new teachers if she had been to different places around Vietnam, having lived there before as well. She admitted that whenever she had vacation time, she just wanted to go somewhere new to get away from it all for a while. My first reaction was to think of the missed opportunity, but then I thought, she’s not alone in that need to get some space and distance in order to feel like it’s a true break, in every sense of the word. In my travels, I’ve felt exactly the same many times. Surprisingly, the countries I’ve spent the most time in are the ones I’ve seen so little of. For those of you who live a less wandering lifestyle, you also use holidays to get away from it all. Why do we need that distance? What does distance offer?

Memories and their absence

Back in the cobwebbed bookshelves of my childhood memory, there are indicators that I was destined for a life revolving around language. I don’t have many visual memories from when I was a kid, but there are stacks of sentences that I read or heard somewhere along the way, and those were the memories that stuck. As a kid, I remember watching a Disney film that featured the old proverb: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” To which the talking fox replied, “Or forgetful.” And it was this response that burned itself onto the pages of my mind. As a young lass, absence and forgetfulness made me afraid to grow old and lose connections with people and places. It never occurred to me that I could find it comforting, and could use it as a coping mechanism. Absence has made me forgetful, and in some cases that forgetfulness has made me very grateful.

Time tends to act like the best kind of photo-shop around, intensifying colours here and air-brushing yucky stuff there.

Sometimes the anxiety of constantly being in a new place, of deciphering the endless challenges of being a “foreigner”, is so overwhelming that you lose the ability to see what’s in front of you. I admit feeling some regret for not having travelled around Korea and Spain more when I lived in those places, and similarly the Middle East these days. But if I look back with an ounce of honesty I know it would have been wasted on me anyway. Having been away from Spain for seven years makes me remember all the lovely things I miss now that I don’t live there any longer. The absence of having to spend much of my day running around the city makes me yearn for the Sundays I spent in my friend Faye’s kitchen, drinking cups of tea and waiting to see if the Thai curry was going to be disastrous (it never was). Thanks to the absence of the boss who never paid me on time, or another boss who decided not to pay me at all, my heart is now fond and full of memories of people like the café owner who knew my coffee order (saving me from embarrassing myself by speaking my butchered Spanish). It’s the lack of those stressors and anxieties that makes me want to visit again and to see what I missed the first time around. Most of the time I was living in Madrid I thought about ways to escape to France for long weekends, where I wouldn’t have to worry about any of those things.

Nostalgia’s great colour-wash

Memories are complex things. Time tends to act like the best kind of photo-shop around, intensifying colours here and air-brushing yucky stuff there. If I think back to particular days when I was really stressed out and unhappy, I can remember saying or doing things that reflected that feeling. But I can’t remember the feeling itself. This is an absolute victory as far as the inner workings of the human brain goes. I could never consider the possibility of going back to visit Korea if I remembered how it felt being followed around a countryside village, where grandmothers avoided me and little kids pointed and yelled all the English words they knew.

When you live in the desert, memories of Newfoundland winter take on a different quality. Photo by Nancy Cater.
When you live in the desert, memories of Newfoundland winter take on a different quality. Photo by Nancy Cater.

I often read blogs about a place that used to infuriate me, and realize I can’t remember those little annoying things anymore. All I can remember are the aunties who made the best fast food in the world, and the hours my friend Jo and I spent in coffee shops. It doesn’t matter that I felt like I was on a treadmill for the better part of six years, or that I constantly had to deflect stereotypes about myself that ranged from laughable to hurtful. The space in my mind where these things used to exist has been filled with memories of picnics in the park, and some very cute faces that I miss every day.

Newfoundland has not escaped the great colourwash of my nostalgia, either. The small-town boredom of my youth, the jobless frustration of my early adulthood, and the more recent struggle to feel at home when I was “home” – these are the memories that fade into the background with each passing year. They’ve been replaced with flapping summer clotheslines, quiet winter snowfalls, and finding everyone in the kitchen no matter whose house I visit. The absence that I worried would turn into forgetfulness has thankfully done just that. And my heart has grown fonder because of it.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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