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Travel and Nostalgia 2[1]

Travel and Nostalgia 2[1]

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Published by alhoyt
This essay details the expropriation of my German family's Mecklenburg estate at the end of WWII by the Soviets, and the ensuing nostalgia for that lost home. I explore the themes of expropriation and exile through the memoirs and essays of Nabokov, Rushdie, Heine, Kundera, Barthes, Benjamin, and Naipaul.
This essay details the expropriation of my German family's Mecklenburg estate at the end of WWII by the Soviets, and the ensuing nostalgia for that lost home. I explore the themes of expropriation and exile through the memoirs and essays of Nabokov, Rushdie, Heine, Kundera, Barthes, Benjamin, and Naipaul.

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Published by: alhoyt on Apr 10, 2009
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05/11/2014

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ON TRAVEL AND NOSTALGIA:
 An Exploration of an Expropriated Past 
I: THE FRAME
Gross Gornow, as it hangs above our library couch.
“Nostalgia,” writes Svetlana Boym, “is a longing for a homethat no longer exists or never existed” (xvi).
Both intimate andforeign, my version of that home
hangs above our library’s
sofa. Thehouse
 — 
daunting, yellow, baronial
 — 
lurks behind trees and hedges. Today the landscape looks lush, the sky blushing with sunset, but as achild I remember a darker scene, lorded over by roily, premonitory clouds. Such is the contrast that the painting seems to have been
recently restored, though it hasn’t been. I admittedly know littleabout the painting’s provenance and its painter
. My father claimsthat the artist enjoyed significant renown in his time. This might betrue, though he has also claimed that we are direct descendants of  Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleo
n’s brother), that Gilbert Stuart painted a
family portrait hanging in our living room, and that I am closely related to the man who lent Paul Revere his horse. My mother hasalways disapproved of these apocryphal stories, as well as the
painting’s
gloomy Teutonism, but has tolerated them nonetheless. It
 
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is fitting that the two are related: the painting depicts his
grandfather’s house,
Gross Gornow 
.
 The painting doesn’t
fit in our house, not for the size of itscanvas but the size of the nostalgia it bears. Throughout the years
 we’
 ve moved it from room to room, yet it
’s
never lookedcomfortable among the languid watercolors and Hudson Riverlandscapes and Hogarth prints. Like a birthmark, it both obscuresand dominates the faces of our rooms, and though it disrupts the
 walls’ aesthetic continuity, to remove it would seem a hideous and
scarifying procedure.In my childhood, my father and I would reconstruct
Gross Gornow 
from memory with legos in the basement. The level of detail we achieved
 — 
mansard roof, porticos, cupolas, clocks, chimneys
 — 
exhibited, I think, a desire to repossess the house, which somehow did not belong to our family anymore, though the details were notthen conveyed to me. Living in a world of good and evil, Ireconstructed the narrative through my readings of 
Tintin 
and
Babar 
.I knew that my father came from Germany. I knew that the Naziscame from Germany. I knew my father and his family were good,and that the Nazis were bad. I knew that the house was taken from
us, and that taking things that weren’t yours was bad, and I thus
concluded that the Nazis had taken the house, a fairy tale I blissfully and embarrassingly believed until my middle school years.II: THE ROOTSNostalgia derives from the Greek 
nostos 
, or homecoming, and
algia 
, longing 
 — 
a definition recalling the archetypical nostalgic,Odysseus returning from the Trojan War. In the 17
th
century, Swissdoctors conceived of nostalgia as a disease, often afflicting soldiersstationed abroad, that was
curable with “opium, leaches, or a journey to the Swiss Alps” (Boym xiv). By the nineteenth century, it had
progressed from a curable disease to an untreatable social ailment, a
mal de siècle 
” better diagnosed by poets than doctors. Today we
think of nostalgia as something more positive, or at least harmless;nostalgics are dreamers, wistful Romantics, doting mythologizers
 — 
acommon species on liberal arts campuses, especially among the morebohemian enclaves.For me, the house has existed orally, through stories of 
Tante Ruth 
and
Tanta Vera 
, chauffeurs and stag hunts and stables of Mercedes. Visually, it has existed in the simulacra of the oil painting and many assembled and dissembled Lego miniatures. I have neverbeen to
Gross Gornow 
, and thus my nostalgia for it presents a paradox.How can I miss something I never knew? Of the myriad answers,the first is childhood amnesia. Because few of us can remember
 
3
anything before the age of five, as adults we look back on the
tabula rasa 
of our first half-decade. Our impulse to reconstruct thosememories leads us to fabricate a past. From memories, stories, andphotographs, we stitch together an idea of our early childhood thatneeds only to be true in our minds. This principle applies not only to our amnesiac infancies, butalso more broadly to our formative years. Memory operates likepainting. Rather than try to recapture nature in absolute verisimilitude, painters highlight its most affecting features. Similarly,our minds, rather than remembering everything, retain only ahighlighted selection of experiences. As Emerson writes, man is ananalogist; those things which resonate with us must relate to us.
Because we can’t relate to everything, g 
aps emerge. We fill themimpressionistically, often eliding our experiences with things we would like to have experienced. For instance, the past seems to me a wonderfully raucous party for which I was put to bed too early, orborn too late. Yet by second-hand experience I have incorporatedthe personages of the past into my stories and references as if I hadmet them at that party, as if I had conversed with them and not aboutthem. Today I wonder if my nostalgia is for
Gross Gornow 
or thepainting hanging in our library.
Have I inherited my family’s
homesickness through some annointment of loss, or do I merely yearn for a bypassed childhood, symbolized by the story of thepainting? Have I sat
in Plato’s cave
for twenty-two years, nostalgic
for a light I’
 ve never seen? Does my nostalgia have anything to do with a grand historical narrative, or do I merely long for my ownGreat Illustrated Childhood, in which
Gross Gornow 
played asromantic and fabulous a part as Camelot? I traveled to Germany tounderstand not only the nature of my family, but the nature of nostalgia.III: RESTORATIVE NOSTALGIAIn 1945 Zhukov and his troops were making their way acrossGermany. Hitler was dead, and the German admirals had moved thegovernment to Flensburg, an independent town situated on theDanish border. As the Soviets marched west, they slaughteredlivestock, razed barns, raped women, ransacked estates, and oftenshot their owners on their doorsteps
 — 
a fate that befell one of 
Grosspapa’s 
neighbors. By midsummer every estate over 100 hectares(approximately 250 acres) was seized and parceled unto communaltenants. Many estate owners who had not fled were led on a deathmarch to the isle of Rugen in the North Sea.
Grosspapa 
lost his house

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