View from Rue Saint-Georges

Strangely Familiar

Some places live in the imagination long before we visit them

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | October 3, 2018
Ștefan Jurcă/Flickr
Ștefan Jurcă/Flickr

Somewhere in my mind, the platonic forms of certain streets and interiors, silhouettes and even facial expressions glimpsed in cities I have not yet visited jostle with lived memories, as if they are equally authentic parts of my psychic furniture. The beautiful tree-lined boulevards and vast cavernous spaces of Vienna’s UNESCO-recognized coffeehouses are one salient example. So when I arrived in the Austrian capital for the first time this past weekend, I experienced the uncanny feeling of remembering something deeply important about myself. (On a side note, I want to say unequivocally that the Viennese coffeehouse is superior in numerous ways to the Parisian café, let alone the American diner or coffee shop, a just and thorough explication of which will require a separate post.) Some of my mother’s ancestors were Austrian, but I do not believe that has anything to do with it. The revelation in Vienna is something I have felt acutely in many other places to which I have no connection—Mexico City and Buenos Aires, for example.

I have searched in vain for the precise German formulation that can express a related feeling I sometimes have when visiting a new place: the desire not merely to be there but to be from there. I think it must stem from the self-affirming memory-like images of the city that existed in the mind prior to arrival. When I asked about this feeling, one person on Twitter suggested I’m getting at the concept behind Fernweh, or roughly what we mean by wanderlust. Another suggested Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács’s transzendentale Heimatlosigkeit, or “transcendental homelessness,” a literary term indicating “the urge to be at home everywhere.” Yet another friend ventured an expansive Heideggerian interpretation of Heimat, or homeland, that would imply not just where you are from but where you feel from. This last one is closest, but none of them captures the fullness of the longing, the overwhelming sensation of the encounter with the plurality of inner selves—the simultaneously pleasing and jarring realization that a single lineage or background can never suffice.

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