In the year 2000, Jeremy and I left Freiburg, Germany, for Brighton, England, with nothing but the money in our pockets and the possessions we could cram into a single station wagon. And four days ago, we made the quick hop from Gatwick to Basel and were whisked back to the heart of the Black Forest for the first time in over a decade.
Freiburg looms large in my psyche. I spent six formative years there; it’s where I first really set out on my own, where I realized that I could hack it in a foreign country after all. It’s where I met Jeremy, where we started playing in a band, where both of us gradually worked out what we wanted to do with our lives. The town played a big role in making me the person I am today. Freiburg is more a part of me than almost anyplace else I can think of; even after twelve years in Brighton, I’m not convinced Brighton has as much of a hold over me as Freiburg did—and perhaps still does.
In light of this, the idea of returning to Freiburg for a visit filled me with both wild excitement and a faint sense of unease. I wondered if I would feel a painful pang of nostalgia, or maybe even a longing to move back. I thought I might be dizzied by memory, and I feared seeing the ghosts of lost friends, or the ghost of my past self, wandering the alleyways of the old town.
I was certainly slightly dizzied when we first showed up. The sun was shining, the town was picture perfect, and I felt like I was in a dream, like the dream I had in Shanghai. I had the unsettling sensation that I was about to wake up and find myself still in Brighton—and when Jeremy said “What if Brighton was all a dream?” a chill swept over me because it was an idea I couldn’t dismiss out of hand.
It was such an odd feeling to be someplace I knew so well but didn’t have any direct connection to any longer. I recognized the buildings and I could find my way around the streets, but it was an abstract recognition, as if I were in a simulation I had run through countless times before. Everything was unnaturally sharp, everything jumped out at me: the way they wrap up pieces of cake in a café, the cadence of old women speaking dialect, the height of the forested hills around the city, the whack and thud of spiky chestnuts plummeting from the trees.
It was strange, too, to be a tourist in a town I once called home—and to be reminded of just how beautiful that town is. As I walked around taking pictures, I had the urge to say to the people passing by, “I’m not seeing this for the first time! I lived here, I know all of this!” I think I wanted to re-stake a claim to a place that was no longer my own and capture that place in a way I never did when it was my own.
After the dizzying rush of the first day, I started to settle in and my memories came back in snapshots, like the photos that pop up when you move your mouse across Google maps: that’s where I watched Jeremy and Chris busk, that’s where I waited for the tram to take me to a party, that’s where we had a conversation the week I was suffering badly from asthma, that’s where we dangled our feet in the Bächle on a hot day, that’s where we ate dinner and our friend first started to seem unwell. There were happy memories and neutral memories and sad memories all jostling for attention, coming into focus and fading out again as I moved through the city.
And yet, for the most part, I didn’t feel the pang I was expecting. I was only overcome by nostalgia once, on our last day there, as I walked down the main street and heard a busker strumming a guitar in the distance. It instantly snapped me back to 1995, when I would walk down that same street and listen out for the jangle of the bouzouki—and if I heard it, my heart would leap because it meant that Jeremy would be there, strumming and swaying in his waxy green coat and fingerless gloves, smiling through his song when he saw me. When I reached this particular busker (who was belting out Wish You Were Here, of all things), I scrambled through my wallet for some change while blinking away tears and the image of a Ghost Jeremy and Ghost Me. And then the haze of the past lifted, and I moved on.
In fact, I feel more of a pang now, writing about being back in Freiburg, than I did when I was actually back in Freiburg. I kept telling people that it was weird to be back, but it was mostly weird because it wasn’t that weird. The town was just as I remembered it. Things change in Brighton all the time; we go away for a week and come back to find a restaurant we liked has closed or a shop we used to frequent has moved. I’m sure a lot has changed in Freiburg over the past twelve years, but I mostly saw the places that were exactly the same: the same stores in the same spots, the same dishes being served at the same restaurants, the same trams going to and fro in the streets. There was something supremely reassuring about that; I didn’t need to try to recapture the past because it had been preserved in amber for me.
The much bigger change has taken place within me—or rather, in the situation that Jeremy and I now find ourselves in. While we were in Freiburg this time, several people asked us if we were revisiting all the places we used to go when we lived there. We laughed and told them, “No, we’re visiting all the places we couldn’t afford to go to when we lived here.” I suspect a lot of people who know Jeremy and me now have a hard time imagining us as a busker-cum-bread-seller and “starving student” respectively. But when we lived in Freiburg, we lived on a shoestring. We shopped at Penny Markt or would sometimes splash out on spaghetti bolognese or fried potatoes at a student pub for five German marks (about two bucks). We got all of our furniture second-hand or for free. We frequented the library and went to cheap movie nights at the university. We didn’t travel, ever (hard to believe now, I know). And we certainly didn’t sip sparkling wine on the terrace of the Greifenegg-Schlössle while watching the sun go down over the city, which is how we spent our first evening back in Freiburg this time around.
So this time around, we got to experience the other side of the city. We stayed in the hotel that we had previously only admired from the outside. We ate on the patio of the restaurant where I had watched Jeremy and Chris busk about sixteen years previously (and when buskers came around to us this time, we tipped them generously). We drank all the wines we hadn’t been familiar with back then, we lounged in beer gardens and ordered microbrews with abandon. We spent a considerable amount of time each day at the farmer’s market, gobbling down local tomatoes, berries, hams and sausages, our minds boggling at the abundance we never got to take full advantage of when we lived in Freiburg. And we sat together and talked not about “how far we’ve come”, per se, but about how lucky we’ve been, and how funny life is, and how much sweeter wine tastes after such long anticipation.
So with the exception of a few moments of sentimental reflection, visiting Freiburg after twelve long years was pretty much like visiting any other beautiful town—with one difference: Usually when I visit someplace, I walk around imagining what it would be like to live there. And when I walk around someplace I’ve really fallen for (like Amsterdam, or Brooklyn), I spend much of my time there with a faint feeling of longing for a life not (yet?) lived. But as I walked around the lovely streets of Freiburg in the glorious weather, I enjoyed it but I didn’t feel the frisson I was expecting—and I think it’s because I wasn’t imagining what it would be like to live there because I didn’t have to imagine it because I already know. That made it easier for me to visit, and easier to leave again as well. It’s not my town anymore, but at the same time it will always be my town, and that’s a great comfort to me.