It is afternoon. It is late November. You are driving a stretch of highway that seems endlessly straight and flat. The expansiveness of the world before you is as the flatness and emptiness of paper waiting to be filled. You imagine how weary the men who paved this road must have been when they finished. The way the steamroller must have rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled.
You realize, suddenly, that hours, miles have gone by one small yellow tick at a time and you haven’t bothered to take much notice. You search your heavy, clouded mind for any pieces of memory, any shard of evidence to prove to yourself how you arrived here from where you last were. But nothing turns up. No evidence can be found that you ever experienced the distance at all. There is only knowing that you are here now and the knowledge that you must have passed through somewhere in between.
I feel much like that right now.
I look through my computer, cleaning off articles and images from Salzburg and I wonder what it was like to pass through that somewhere. I have memories, but more and more I am convinced that the memories are simply a fabricated reality strung together from the context clues I have assumed from the pictures I see posted on Facebook. I want to be able to hit play in my mind and yet again be walking through the warmth of a summer night hearing the low babble of life reverberating throughout the old city. But all I can retrieve from the bland-office-beige file cabinet of my memory is freeze frame glimpses for which viewing is as effective as attempting to hold cupped hands filled with fine sand.
The people, the wonderful people, seem like those of a movie I saw quite a long time ago. I remember the characters, I remember the hour and a half in the theater when I thought the story would last forever but then the credits scrolled and the lights came back on and I was once again back in South Carolina.
People keep asking me “how was Europe?” and I can’t help but respond, “inexplicable” because there aren’t words for something like what I have experienced. No amount of storytelling will ever be able to bring 68 people back to a castle in the Austrian Alps. None. That kills me.
I remember when I first learned in physics that I had never really touched anything, but it had only been my atoms repelling against something else’s atoms. We can only ever know, feel an impression of something, never the real thing. That blew my mind. I remember slowly touching my desk and my chair and my book and my pencils trying in vein to make real contact with the items. It was impossible. It is equally impossible—however metaphorically—to touch this experience. I, we, all intimately know the shapes and shadows cast by the impression, like Plato’s cave, but it is frustrating because it can never be anything more than that.
I want to say that being home is like waking up from a dream, but that’s not entirely accurate because being back feels just as much a dream as being there felt real at the time. Maps confuse me now because I can’t quite grasp where on the planet I am.
Appropriately enough, given Salzburg’s cinematic history, it’s like trying to hold a moonbeam in your hand—impossible. A moonbeam is just light, real, visible, shimmering, vivid, frustratingly intangible light.
I know all of this and yet I continue to be disappointed when I open my hand and find nothing.