Don’t look backward.
That’s my advice for all the nostalgists who long to return to the scene of an early, life-changing overseas adventure. That first whiff of exoticism, the shivery thrill of unfamiliar smells and foreign accents, the picturesque dilapidation of the Old World — all of it intoxicates in a way no successive trip will.
And should there be a successive trip, disappointment is all but inevitable.
This happened recently to a relative whose Israel teen tour, followed by a college trip to the Holy Land, left her with a deep connection to the country and an unqualified passion for everything she saw and tasted. Twenty years later, my relative had the opportunity to go back… and instead of being shocked at how fluffy the pita was, she was shocked by how expensive Tel Aviv has gotten.
Crumbling walls in the old quarter struck her as grungy rather than charming. Little things she takes for granted at home, like security-free museum entry or cream in her coffee, were more complicated in ways that felt frustrating to an American. A generation later, both my relative and Israel had transformed considerably, and finding a new connection was a challenge — though one she eventually overcame by making friends with locals in cafés, discovering hip shopping districts and exploring attractions that weren’t around in the ’90s.
As we evolve, so do societies — in ways that can be delightful, intriguing or troubling. To enjoy the return trip, acknowledge that reality with an itinerary that revisits a destination, but from a different angle. Here, some tips for avoiding disappointment the second time around:
1. Don’t try to replicate the maiden voyage. Your instinct will be to revisit each of the specific places that left indelible impressions. Ignore this instinct and include those places, if at all, on an itinerary with plenty of contemporary distraction. If you fell in love on a Venetian gondola, my advice this time around is to gaze at the canals and then turn around and do something else — like eat dinner at a restaurant you could never have afforded at age 20.
Put at least one major new element on the agenda. That way, if your charming hilltop town is overrun with bus groups or the museum is a throng of lines and ropes, you can look forward to touring a spacious new modern-art gallery or a nearby winery. Instead of feeling bitter about how the Louvre has gone corporate or how overrun Santorini is with Americans, you’ll come back with stories about that new Jewish museum that nobody else has seen yet — which, after all, is a far better tale.
2. Revisit the same country or region, but pick a different home base. If you came of age in Barcelona, by all means go back to coastal Spain — but consider staying in Málaga or Valencia this time around. Make Barcelona a side trip and explore neighborhoods you didn’t fully appreciate as a college student – neighborhoods that may not have even been on the map back then. That way, you savor the culture you fell in love with, but the comparison won’t be direct enough to invite disappointment.
3. Go for comfort. Few 18-year-olds care about rickety, vertiginous stairs, tepid showers, or having to stand for hours in cramped train compartments. But most 40-year-olds find those concepts mighty unpleasant. It’s a fact of life: Even the lowest-maintenance among us have more needs a few decades on. We also have more perspective, so that run-down motel or dodgy neighborhood looks far worse now than it did in the ’90s, when all we noticed was the cool vibe.
The antidote: Travel a little more upscale. Select your neighborhood carefully; splurge on elevators and air conditioning and a first-class train ticket (or a rental car). You’ll have less to complain about, and more energy to notice what’s still nice about the destination.
4. If you’re visiting old friends, make a point of including newer social connections. You may cherish memories of the long study sessions or wild nights out with a teenage buddy, but 20 years on, there might not be much to talk about. By all means look him up — but reserve a night out with college acquaintances, friends of friends, or professional contacts in your destination as well. Just like the first trip, you’ll come home with memories of friendships newly made.
5. With apologies to Proust, don’t hunt for madeleines. Remember that cuisine changes faster than just about anything else these days; hummus and pizza are on the menu everywhere, and mediocre, mass-produced fare has invaded countries with proud culinary traditions (Italy, I’m looking at you). Conversely, the foodie movement in America has raised standards to the point where we may eat better versions of foreign cuisine in New York.
The best plan: Keep an open mind, research modern dining options, and explore what locals are excited to eat nowadays — not what thrilled your taste buds as a teenager.