Last Tuesday a friend I haven’t seen in eight years left a comment on my Facebook wall. We had met in the summer of 2007 in Prague, the two of us participants in the same study abroad program. I would often see her in between classes on the steps of a building at Charles University. We occasionally went out in the evenings, but always with other program members. We had closer friends that summer, ran in different circles. We parted ways that final day without the long goodbyes and tears we spared for others. Today, more than eight years later, she’s one of the people from that summer I recall most fondly.
There are others too. Their names are impertinent, fleeting. For every place there is a face, and a country of origin. A German in Venice. She is thin lips, gray eyes, and Margherita pizza on a patio in a quiet alleyway. A Finn on the ferry from Stockholm. He is peace and politics underneath stubble and eyes the color of the Baltic. An Italian on the train to Bolzano. A sly, knowing expression on top of legs, long and tanned as they stretch over the seat. An American in a bar in Granada, Infinity 2008 on the radio. His is one of sunglasses over a goatee as we share mojitos. Others, so many others. On the overnight train, at the sidewalk cafe, the hostel, the trattoria… a face I’ve forgotten tonight will pop into my head tomorrow and I’ll remember all over again.
Then there are those who are named after cities. Tallinn, Vilnius, Falköping. Helsinki, Berlin, Copenhagen. Athens, Izmir, Florence. They were significant in my life, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
With some I was lucky to spend more than a train ride or a day or two. Rome, Polignano, Casablanca. And Prague… always Prague.
Don’t we all have a Prague, a Venice, a ferry crossing from Stockholm? The intensity of the encounter is often the same, only the duration differs. Whether we met on a study abroad program, in a hostel, or on a train, that contact can still be felt through the fabric of the years that come after. It is rare to realize it then, at that moment, but sitting alone at a cafe two, four, or eight years later you’ll think of them. You’ll think of you, of the person you used to be.
Is it better to stay in touch with your fellow travelers through the years, to exchange messages or meetings, or to preserve them, to keep them forever in the sacred depths of memory? Will Prague feel the same next time? Are Berlin’s walls and laughter best left to the unforgettable past?
It might be that our experiences are like wine. We only realize their true value long after they’ve passed. But in the attempt to reopen the past, might we get vinegar instead?
You’ll remember the scene in Casablanca. Rick sends Ilsa off, forever, but not before uttering those famous four words.
“We’ll always have Paris.”
She couldn’t come back. No one wanted that sequel.
As difficult as “goodbye” is, perhaps not saying it is worse.
In a life as fleeting as ours, sometimes “goodbye” means never being forgotten.