You can never go back

As a graduate student, I had reason to travel to many places abroad for conferences, research administrative meetings and such. This means that I have a deep and intimate knowledge of airport departure lounges and university seminar rooms, but haven't in fact seen very much of “the world”. What I have seen has been due to the ticket structure that made air travel cheaper if you stayed away the night between Saturday and Sunday. This has all but disappeared with all the new low-fare airlines, but it was an important factor in travel budgets in the 1990s. So, when I had tickets of this kind and there was no work planned for the Saturday I would have a day in which to wander around strange cities.

On this particular day, I was in Geneva with two colleagues, O and K, it was a warm summer day, O's birthday as it happened, and we had the day all to ourselves.

Geneva has this strange topology where, no matter which direction you start out in, you soon find yourself on the same skewed square in the Old town, so we often came back there. When we first arrived there, from one of the other streets ending up on the square came a large group of youngsters chasing a huge red rubber ball. During the day we would run into them in other places around the city, still chasing the ball. We never found out how this crowd had assembled or if they had any other purpose than just playing with a big ball, it was just one of those mysteries that not necessarily have to be solved.

Around the slanting square and adjoining streets were all kinds of posh shops, and we ducked into one of them because K was interested in the rattan furniture in the shop front. It didn't take me long to see that anything beyond their smallest pillows was beyond my financial reach, so I wandered further into the shop. I found a door opening on the inner yard. I stepped through the door and the feeling was as if I had ended up in Tom's Midnight Garden or just the Centre of the Universe. In the small yard was a chair made of steel bands and I went and sat in it. It could have been uncomfortable but right then it was just right to sit in and watch the vines creeping up the surrounding walls over which I would see the inner walls of the surrounding houses, a half-open tap was letting a small stream trickle through the moss on the paved ground to a drain in the other end of the yard. I just sat there, feeling no need to do anything but just sit and be. I don't know how long I sat there, but eventually I remembered my friends who had been patiently waiting for me. We continued on our way.

Presently we found a little art museum. It was like the home of a rich family with artwork everywhere, so you could sit down in soft leather armchairs to admire the paintings and I and K nodded off for a quarter of an hour or so in a room where the incoming midday sun made you pleasantly sleepy. We had lunch in a restaurant somewhat off the main thoroughfares and I was introduced to salmon carpaccio.

We talked about many things and of course we also discussed our current research project and while strolling around we developed new ideas for computer-supported communication. In a toy store (O had never had a model train as a child and was thinking of getting one for his birthday) we had new and heady ideas for message passing. We stopped at an ice-cream bar and got huge bowls of ice-cream and started writing down all our ideas on whatever scraps of paper we had, including a shopping bag that K had acquired during the day. Very pleased with ourselves we walked on as the afternoon fell. As sun set we found ourselves by a restaurant by the city hall (naturally very near the sloping square) and looked through the menu for Swiss specialities. Cultural differences and expectations clashed: O, born in Southern Europe, said: “It's my birthday so the dinner is on me.” K, well-bred Swede, was aghast: “You can't pay—it's your birthday!” Both were adamant on what their honour demanded of them. K attempted a coup while O was in the lavatory and quickly asked the waitress for the bill. She went all haughty: “A woman pay for a man? Never!” I guess I could have intervened to complicate the situation further, but I was laughing too hard to think of it. O prevailed in the end.

As the night went on, O and K disappeared to some shady night club that one of K's friends in the UN was running, while I, who suspected it would be a smokey affair, retired to the hotel where I sat up late with my laptop and wrote a draft paper based on our notes of the day and, you know, I think I had as good a night as my friends had. (And so I guess this in the end had been a work day after all, but why not?)

These are pleasant memories of places I visited, perfect moments as it were. And they cannot be repeated. Even could I go back to that furniture store and they just would happen to still have their inner yard in the same state, I could not experience that same feeling of peace and inner calm because the precondition was that it was unexpected, it couldn't be created consciously. Some things can never be as good, or even good at all, as the first time. (On the other hand, the first time I tried to bicycle down a hill was a painful disaster, it has been much more pleasant on later attempts.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


It's true that you can't experience that same day again. But unless you've had the misfortune to become paralyzed, I can't see that anything would prevent you from having an even more magical day tomorrow.