Sense of Place, Memory and Identity

I’m definitely in Melbourne.

I’m sitting in a dark and moody hipster pub drinking a surprisingly good ‘house red’. The billboards out the front still advertise live bands on different nights of the week, not just ‘steak night’ or ‘kids eat free’ on Sundays. There’s no gaming room, no Keno, no gambling at all. It is a pretentious bar simply because of the fact that it’s trying so hard not to be pretentious… but it is warm and friendly.

So, here I am, gazing out the window at what is a very foreign scene compared to what I’ve been used to lately… Rigid, boxy trams rasp along cold steel rails before stopping abruptly. Their double-doors then squeal open as passengers spill like billiards at the break across busy streets before the tram convulses into motion again.

Skeletal trees, void of leaves, sprawl upward towards chrome skies as pale bartenders pour craft beers in dark alleyway bars aside dumpsters.

University students recline on retro velvet lounges pouring cold, ‘happy hour’ draft beer from plastic jugs into small glass ‘pots’.

The manic-depressive weather throws you sunshine amidst hail as the wind cuts through you while you stand on a street corner in diffused light.

It really is another world compared to Sydney or Brisbane.

My three your old daughter keeps pointing at the trees and asking me “daddy, what happened?”…
She’s obviously never seen trees in a winter before. We didn’t have any in Manila or on the Sunshine Coast.

I think that we often take the idea of a sense of place for granted in that we don’t fully understand the impact that physical environment has on us psychologically.

I used to live in Melbourne when I went to university. I lived here for 5 years, while I did my arts degree, acted in (mainly amateur) theatre, DJ’d weddings and parties on the weekends, rode a Vespa and drank a lot of beer in hipster pubs and laneway bars before there was such a thing as hipsters (ah, they were the days…).

Cruising around on my Vespa back in the day…

But, I left here over 10 years ago and I haven’t been back to visit many times since. Yet, being back here, it still feels familiar and old memories that were previously long forgotten are surfacing as if triggered by the physical landscape in which they were made.

I’ll be driving down the road and suddenly remember a conversation I had with someone at this very intersection. A conversation with someone I forgot even existed.

 

I know that music, and particularly smells are powerful triggers for evoking old memories, however, I don’t think I realised just how much physical place can also manipulate your subconscious. Since I’ve been back in Melbourne my mind keeps belching up my old mental movies of bad fashion, bad decisions and college days.

Perhaps, attachment to physical environment is also why we get trapped in places. Stuck in a rut surrounded by familiar landscapes of old memories made. As if, like DNA, you shed part of your identity on the streets making each corner and each place a sentimental stage where your life plays out in a familiar and personalised landscape.

This is why sometimes, we find it hard when we move to new environments. When we move on, we lose the physicality of our memories. We feel that we’re abandoning the landscape of our psyche and leaving behind part of us.

No wonder I always get depressed after moving house.

But, familiarity can be good and bad. It’s good in the sense that it physically grounds us in a narrative and puts us on a timeline of our lives. It gives us a reference to our past as well as some way to measure our progression into the future.

However, going back to a familiar city you lived in when you were younger, a place where you went to university, lived with ex-girlfriends and worked in shitty college jobs, can give you a sense of going backwards. As if you’re regressing to a place that you had moved on from.

Familiarity and routine can be tiring…

New and strange places can also have positive and negative effects. They’re good at clearing your mind and inspiring you to think creatively without the baggage of associations with places and old memories. At the same time, they can feel sterile, depressing and daunting for the very same reasons.

I think this is why travel is so important. It places you in a foreign landscape that, by default, forces you to create new experiences. It encourages the pressing of crisp and fresh memories and automatically shifts your mindset as you wander streets and landscapes void of personal associations and stories.

Wandering the foreign, exotic streets of Chennai, India.

This makes you more present and objective. You tend to live in the now and just experience rather than recall, judge and feel emotions that familiar places tend to seep out.

New places become blank canvases to start a new personal story or forge a new identity. When you travel to foreign places and cultures, those places become incubation sites for new memories and vivid experiences that aren’t tightly tethered to our past.

Meeting new friends at an ancient temple in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

Maybe this is why some people can’t stop moving from place to place. Perhaps they’re running from their past identity that’s shed on familiar streets and looking to create themselves anew in a fresh landscape free from associations of the past. The problem is, it doesn’t take long to forge new memories in new places and soon what was a new and foreign landscape becomes a familiar storyboard where our life events unfold.

Eventually, all landscapes can begin to wreak a stagnant and pungent stench of familiarity and associated emotions.

Does this mean that in order to keep creating genuinely new experiences and be present we need to keep moving? I feel like that’s what I’ve done these last few years! Or, maybe it’s just a matter of the ‘grass is greener’ and thinking that another place, another landscape may offer you more opportunities so you tend to not settle down in any one place for long for the fear of missing out on something better?

Maybe travel isn’t really the silver-bullet answer to expanding our mindset. Perhaps we need to find better, more internal ways to continue to grow and develop without needing to run away from our past and use new places as our catalyst for change?

If we don’t look internally we’ll simply end up creating the same situations and memories but just in different physical places. It’s less about the external landscape and more about our internal thought patterns that dictate the experiences we have.

Interestingly it seems that this pattern is a cyclical process. We tend to yearn for new and foreign experiences so we can create experiences and grow but, as we get older, we long to return to the familiar landscape where we grew up. We want to be surrounded by physical places that are tethered to our old memories and emotions. It’s as if these places are essentially part of us and we return to them to complete ourselves before leaving this world.

I guess the best thing to do is to travel and experience new and foreign cultures that open our minds but, at the same time, we need to have an awareness of our inner landscape and tackle our internal monsters head-on, allowing for genuine transformative experiences to occur. If we have one without the other, we will either sit and fester or run from place to place as history repeats itself in every landscape we find ourselves no matter how foreign and exciting it may appear to be.

Want to share your thoughts, questions or feedback? Leave a comment below!