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Travel and the Transience of Memory

SmarterTravel

“Wow, none of this looks familiar at all,” I told my travel companion as we walked through downtown Oslo, Norway, on a recent trip. “I have no idea if I was ever in this neighborhood. No, wait — I think I remember that fountain!”

It had been 12 years since my first and only time in Oslo, a quick two-day stay in the midst of a longer European trip. My memories of the place had come down to a few hazy impressions — the striking cleanliness of the city, a few statues in Vigeland Park, the facade of the Royal Palace on a gray day. But when I returned to Oslo after so long away, I was surprised by how much it felt like I was visiting for the first time.

The same happened on a different trip to Barcelona, also after a dozen-year gap. Yes, the famous Gothic cathedral looked familiar, as did the bustling Rambla promenade, but it was the places between major landmarks that seemed to have slipped away over the years — the shops and squares and side streets, the connecting fabric of the city, the bits that fill the gaps between the highlights that we usually remember from a trip.

As I wandered like a wide-eyed newcomer around Barcelona, I thought back to a conversation I once had with a friend about how little we remember about the books we’ve read. “Have I even really read the book if I can only remember one good line or an important plot point?” she asked me. “What if all I can recall is that I liked a book, even if I don’t know why anymore?”

I discovered this year that the same goes for travel. Unless you visit a place regularly — the way you might reread a favorite book — only your most powerful memories of it seem to stand the test of time. Psychologist Daniel L. Schacter labeled this transience one of the “deadly sins of memory,” according to the PsyBlog.

So why do we spend thousands of dollars to travel when all that remains of a trip a few years later will be some pretty photos and a misty impression of a place (“So beautiful” or “Ugh, I got violently ill there!”)?

To me, the answer is that the memories I do retain from my travels are some of my most visceral and personal — my first sight of the Duomo in Florence (which literally took my breath away), the warm smile from a woman in Greenland in response to my halting attempt to say “thank you” in her language, the rosy color of the Moroccan sand dunes at sunrise. I don’t believe my most important travel memories will ever fade.

As for the rest, in many ways traveling is about living richly in the moment. Even if some of those moments may someday slip away, maybe it’s enough that we lived them at all.

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