On being away from home – Nostalgia and closeness through distance

What is nostalgia to you?

There is always a moment during each party when the sun starts peeking out of the darkness and some heartbroken soul is putting on their favorite suffering song from they were in high school and their crush went to the movies with another girl. In a different corner, we listen to 2000s mixtapes as we scream at the top of our lungs; they aren’t particularly good songs, but there is a feeling that rumbles old artefacts within us, and with them, awakens a desire to express our ardor – our foreheads harrowed, a passion in our falsettos.

Now during covid times, how many times have you looked back and reminisced over what used to be the simplest of things, like sitting in a lecture hall, the shitty coffee at PCH, or a concert hall singing in unison?

The feeling of nostalgia has always fascinated me, from a young age, and while now in my 20s I experience these feelings with my fellow 90s and 2000s kids, there is another, more poignant side of this feeling, the lingering melancholia that you feel when walking past your primary school or maybe the café where you had your first date or first break-up.

A new home

When I moved away from home, I was 18 and I jumped straight to leaving to a foreign country – a really big deal for someone who wasn’t allowed to have a sleepover until 17. At first, I didn’t notice what I was doing, just going through the tasks and challenges of moving countries quite chaotically and without much introspection. Now, almost three years later, I feel like I’ve settled – I feel like Amsterdam is my home, I feel a sense of belonging and I have weaved strong connections with people here. So now, whenever it’s silent, whenever I walk to the grocery store for bread, or I enter a friend’s house after a while, I feel, quite intensely, that what I call home has shifted.

The pandemic played its part in my estrangement from ‘back home’. I had the privileged possibility to stay in Amsterdam, so I didn’t have to move back in with my parents for an indeterminate amount of time. I now have spent more than half a year without seeing my family or city, which to me is the longest I’ve gone without it in my life. Paired with outgrowing negative patterns of attachment and being focused on myself, the result was a general distance growing between me and my birthplace. This fact is neither positive nor negative – it is equally both. The perk of having the space to reconfigure my inside and outside world measures up to the feeling of estrangement I have towards my ex-home.

Distance from the self

Ariel Dorfman, in an article for The Atlantic, writes about what Americans can learn from immigrants during a period of social distance:

“Immigrants already know how it feels to stay away from those we love, unable to visit the stores and streets that not so long ago embodied something constant and durable, the solid ground beneath our feet. […] Immigrants understand the agony of not being able to comfort faraway friends and family who are sick or alone or distraught. Immigrants have been gripped by anguish when funerals go on without our presence, making death even more unbearable. And immigrants are aware of the perils of how excessive grief can lead to a sort of indifference that numbs our feelings.”

While my experience of moving countries cannot be compared to the one of an immigrant to the United States (as my privileged position allows me to visit my home quite often), there is something to the last sentence that hit close. The numbness builds up as the days pass without the warmth of a family member’s embrace, the tail-wagging of one’s furry friend, or of a mother tongue that used to be present at every step.

Closeness through distance

There’s a Romanian proverb that goes this way: Ochii care nu se văd se uită (’Unseen eyes are forgotten’). Many other cultures have similar insights, like the Russian С глаз долой — из сердца вон (‘away from the eyes, away from the heart’) or the English variant of out of sight, out of mind. Some people might believe that the numbness that is created as a result of leaving one’s home might happen as the saying goes, and maybe for many, their cultural background slowly fades away as the years fly by. In my case, the distance from my country, which I had (and still have) ambivalent feelings about, left space for my nostalgia for cultural identity. Paradoxically, the moment I broke off from it was the moment I felt most in touch with my culture, as the lack of contact drove me to get closer to things that I might have taken for granted back home. Sometimes, distance actually provokes growth. 

Being in a city such as Amsterdam greatly helped, as most of the people around me are internationals, so we share very similar experiences. While before I wasn’t particularly interested in my country’s history, literature, linguistics or social issues, soon after moving, a brand new thirst for knowledge was born. In my social life, hearing Romanian in PCH (the Romanian population in PCH is, according to my knowledge, approx. 3 people – I know one and I have faith that there is at least one more) is a rare occasion, but when it happens, my numbness is cured.

Cover pic: ©Carnation Studio


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