A few weeks ago I found myself back in the city of San Francisco, surprised that not much had changed in the two years since I’d last visited. It still has the wonderful big city feel with its tall buildings and crowded streets, yet its soul is still clogged with hipsters and hippies, grunge and garbage—and of course that damn windy cold.
But a city is never just a city—a mere geographical pinpoint on a map. Every city consists of its people and its past, mixed with their influence on each other. And so, too, is a traveler’s perception of a place.
When I return to cities that I’ve visited several times this becomes blatantly obvious. The way Grand Central Station in New York City transports me back to my first trip there, ready to take on the world at 17 years old. Or the mundane bench near the Lincoln Center that reminds of a late-night conversation that confirmed that I was, indeed, in love with my travel companion.
Now when I walk past those places and the hundreds of memorable others strewn all across New York City, it’s as if I’m walking down a literal memory lane, journeying through the 10 trips I’ve taken there and the feelings I’ve experienced during each time. Past the cafe in Little Italy where my girlfriends and I laughed til we cried during a wine-infused lunch, past the plaza in Rockefeller Center where my family finally understood my love for the great city, past the Brasserie on 57th Street where I met my then-boyfriend’s entire family and his grandmother whispered, in her thick New York accent, that I was “a keepah.”
San Francisco, too, carries the weight of hundreds of memories and then some. But it doesn’t just define a moment in time, it is the physical representation of a period of my life when a past relationship fell to pieces. Where most people have a break-up song that reminds them of the period in their life of getting over their ex, I have a physical place, a city. San Francisco is the geographical pinpoint where our once-aligned paths crossed, tangled, then promptly untangled themselves to be forever separated.
Walking along the city’s steep streets, there were many reminders of times that once were. The first place we ever had Korean food, the steep hill near the hotel we once stayed that I complained each and every time as we hiked up, the bakery we visited every time I was here with the most delicious lemon cream tarts. Some of the places even remembered me, like the hostess at Roxanne’s, who has consistently remembered me every time I’ve been there, whether there was a six-month lapse in my visit or two years.
But therein lies the beauty of a city :: it’s never static. As I explored San Francisco with three of my closest friends by my side, I began to see it with fresh eyes and together we made new memories. Like the dim sum place in Chinatown where I introduced my friends to the staple Chinese food, tricking them into climbing that steep-as-hell hill known as Hyde Street, and drinking beer and watching baseball together at the Giants game.
These memories would never overwrite the wonderful or the painful ones made here years before, they would only add to the story—my story—of what San Francisco is to me, creating another dimension of this city’s past and my perception of it.
And that, too, is the beauty of travel :: it’s an evolving story that never stops being written.