To me, memories exist as a warm, blurry, slow-motion filmstrip. They live and breathe in the past, but I find it difficult to leave them in that spot, often remembering and comparing to my current life. I live in a constant state of nostalgia.
I did this a lot – too much – during my time in Portland. I had returned to Maine after a year volunteering on a farm near Edinburgh, Scotland. Though Maine was my home for 23 years before my trip, it was difficult to see Maine with the same eyes. In my head, Edinburgh was my home. Within that framed Scottish chapter, I found my confidence and independence. I traveled alone for the first time, easily made new friends, learned to salsa dance, and drank far too many Jagerbombs and tequila shots. I felt immeasurable happiness. It was the most creatively alive I have ever felt.
Also, within this chapter, I felt alone. I dealt with loss. I lived amongst people battling with mental health issues, thus stirring up my own. But when I let my mind drift back to the farm, to Edinburgh, I can hear the quiet apple orchard, I can visualize the expanse of medieval architecture, the Royal Mile, hear the mugs clinking in my favorite coffee shop on the Mound. I remember laughing till my face hurt, and dancing freely, and the genuine warmth of true happiness.
I’m aware of the highs and lows of my time there, though I can only extend my focus to the warm, golden moments. Edinburgh even replaced Maine as home in my brain. Why does the past have this quality to me?
One night nearing the end of my placement, my friend Diego and I were discussing the philosophical concept of returning to a place you once loved. Is it worth it? Or is it similar to the rule of never meeting your heroes?
I’ve been removed from that life for two years. Moved to a new city, became a teacher, lived alone in a tiny apartment, and fell in love. I’ve gotten married, packed a suitcase of my favorite things and moved to an army base in Germany. But, no matter where life has taken me, the Scott Monument stands tall in my recollection, forcing Edinburgh ahead of my current chapter.
With Diego’s words ringing in my ears, I had a fear of going “home”. Will it live up to my memory? Have I put this place too high on a pedestal, doomed to fall?
The Edinburgh that is shrouded by my rose-colored lenses is not the Edinburgh that stands there still. I have changed. Many of the people I loved in Edinburgh are not there anymore. But, I feel more drawn there than I feel drawn anywhere else. Perhaps this is for the sole reason to finally understand that my obsession with this beloved place belongs in the past.
Well, I returned to Scotland. Preparing for my trip and my actual journey kept beckoning this question: should you ever return to a place you once loved?
This question proved to be harder to answer than a simple yes or no, as most questions are.
I suppose we should start at the beginning.
After a stressful rearranging of flights, I landed in my favorite city late at night, the place I have been living in my mind for over a year, Edinburgh. I immediately felt comfortable because I already knew the airport, the bus routine, the money system. I had done it all before. I felt capable, a feeling I rarely experience in a foreign country.
As the bus drove into the city, I recognized buildings and neighborhoods that had been scrubbed from my memory, the details hazed over with time. It filled in the missing shadows and I couldn’t help but feel complete.
We entered city centre, Princes Street. The evening got the memo of how nostalgic I am, so the weather was windy, the dark clouds visibly rolling across the navy sky. Lights created the outline of old town. The castle appeared on the right, exactly where I’d left it. I was home.
I fully expected to cry when my feet hit the pavement, but my brain was in business mode, not allowing me to soak in the moment. It was chilly, and I was carrying about 50lbs on me. I need to get to Lena’s flat, about a mile walk. As I marched up the bending Cockburn Street, it was as if I could see a past version of myself frantically running down the cobblestones and laughing as I caught the last bus of the night. Echoes of memories rippled through the air. I passed St. Giles and remembered bringing Josh, my husband, to the cathedral, listening to an unexpected chorus and locking eyes, knowing how he felt about me. I continued on my mile to my friend’s flat, recreating memories that constructed my year there. I felt I was fulfilling an unsaid first step – to remember.
Now, desperately wanting to remember again, remember all of it, I began the journey of visiting my old stomping grounds.
True to form, my week in Edinburgh consisted of visiting favorite sites, favorite walks, and my favorite cafe. I had that fickle feeling that no time had passed at all, but also that so much had changed. I spent hours sitting in Cafe on the Mound, my favorite cafe on earth, writing and sipping mochas and remembering. During stressful moments in the year that followed my Scotland adventure, I often imagined sitting in this very spot, hearing the cups clinking and the steam from the espresso machine, looking out the window at the expanse of New Town and the National Gallery.
But, after a few days of physically existing in this spot, after a year of recreating it in my mind, something I wasn’t expecting became alarmingly clear.
With each memory that came, the majority was of Josh, the single weekend he visited. Two days out of about three hundred, and those moments were the highlights of my entire year. With each day I missed him more, and not just him, but our life together in Germany. I missed the odd familiarity of the army base, my few but loyal friends there, our home we share. I was back in Edinburgh, the place I wanted to be more than anywhere, yet I missed my regular life.
I didn’t miss Edinburgh anymore. I missed what I already had.
This iconic city that stood on a pedestal in my head didn’t change at all, it was me who had changed without realizing it. I discovered who I was while I was in Scotland, and it took returning there to realize I like who I am now more than ever.
This may sound like an expected response to some of you, but this realization hit me like a ton of bricks. Unknowingly, I had released the hold that this city had on me. It was freeing, but I felt bare. I couldn’t hide behind this idea that I belonged in Scotland anymore. I belong exactly where I am.
So, if I could time travel back to that fateful philosophic conversation with Diego, I know how I would respond.
Yes, return to the place you once loved, because it will make you so thankful for how far you’ve come.
About Emma McIlwain:
Emma McIlwain was born and raised in Boothbay Harbor, Maine and has found her passion traveling through Europe and writing. In 2018 she took the leap and moved to Germany with her husband, after working in New England as a 4th grade teacher. Now she leads and coaches a writing group in Bavaria, Germany and writes about her journey on her blog. Follow Emma. Learn more at https://thetrainridehome.com/.