On Travel & Memory


I was on the train yesterday. I haven’t been on the train much in the month since I got back from travelling through Europe, but my bike’s been in the shop, and I’ve got places to be I guess. Plus: I get to read on the train. I was reading Briohny Doyle’s new novel, The Island Will Sink, and there’s a lot in there about memory, and about how we archive everything—outsource our memories to corporate technologies, in a way—and the book’s main conceit is that its protagonist Max can’t remember anything unless he’s looking at these futuristic recordings. And so I have this moment, reading the book—and it’s 5pm, golden hour, and I’m at Indooroopilly station—when I can’t remember a fucking thing from my Europe trip.

And the moment hangs.

And I can’t remember a thing.

And I freeze, because all these thoughts I’ve been having about, you know, being different, and about having maybe gained something valuable over the time I spent travelling—all those thoughts felt devalued by this single moment where I couldn’t find a connection to any specific imagery or notions from a whole two months of my life. I felt sick. I started scrolling back through photos.


I remember a lot of things now. The Berlin Biennale opening event; the Icelandic highlands vanishing behind clouds; smoking hashish with a retired harmonica player in the rain before Kamasi Washington took the West Holts stage.

I mean, regardless of memory, those things did happen. And part of me wants to say that the certainty of this occurrence is enough, but I know that’s a lie. Knowing something happened is not the same as remembering it. This feels maybe like an arbitrary distinction but it isn’t. I know there was a time when I was younger that I could not walk but I do not remember it.

Almost none of my photos have me in them.



An idea I’ve always attributed to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is the concept of travel as negative space. The idea that, in many ways, when you travel somewhere new you gain more understanding about the nature of where you’ve been, rather than where you currently are. It’s a delay, a buffering of thought and consideration—a function of comparison and contrast as a human process for distinguishing between and categorising things. We take things for granted until they’re directly challenged, and there are some things that won’t or can’t be effectively challenged except in a specific set of contexts or times, and one of those contexts is travel. And that’s okay. Taking things for granted only becomes a problem if you refuse to have an open mind, and if you refuse to stop taking said things for granted in the face of your own worldview expanding.



The moment I got to Australian customs I began greeting everyone with G’day, and I never really dropped the habit. Maybe after I left London about a week or so into my trip I dialled it down—but even then. Even then, for those two months overseas I was more ocker than I’d ever been—and honestly, even being back here now I feel it stronger than I used to. The laid-back energy, the longing for summer, the cultural cringe. I feel all of it as a part of myself more acutely—or, at least, I notice it more: travel has let me recognise my usual, limited scope on the world for what it is. 



I see the holes in our society more clearly now, too. I don’t think you can talk about Australia without mentioning the holes.


Angus Stone released his new DOPE LEMON project while I was in Germany, and I remember this strange sunset period I spent listening to it while riding my bike in circles around the concrete square in front of Konzerthaus Berlin, and I remember not feeling homesick but rather feeling like home was a tangible thing where I was not but which I was, in some intrinsic way, connected to. Travel—solo travel specifically—illuminated that connection. It made me weary of where I wasn’t and harkens as a far cry from my sense of identity on a previous bike ride, a couple years back, with my talented friend Isha, in a different set of circles around the Graceville netball courts, where we had the most important conversation I’ve ever had.

He’d read a piece of my writing, and he’d liked it a lot. But, he told me, I had to write about Australia.

The story in question is called Isjaki, and I’m gonna release it soon in an audio format, and it is set on the high seas, and the couple it features are vaguely British at best. I wasn’t good at utilising location when I started out.

I said: But I don’t feel very Australian.

But you are though, he said.



After that it snapped. Instead of anonymising Brisbane in my work, I started to be specific. I remember the first time I gave myself permission to add ‘on the M3 out towards Logan’ to a story of mine, and it felt good; it wound up becoming my first piece of published fiction. Through my writing I was connecting—or recognising pre-existing connection—to a place and culture I maybe never felt connected to but now do. And travel only accentuated that feeling of connection, largely by placing it in the context of a thousand other, new feelings—made special exactly by their unhomely nature—which I had not had before and do not wish to forget.

In another failure of memory, I can no longer remember a time I didn’t feel Australian. Retroactive recognition, or something. Compare and contrast.



Anyway, what Invisible Cities actually says about negative space is the following:


By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts await him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.

“Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”

And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognises the little that is his, discovering much he has not had and never will have.”


Which is funny, because that's not even close to what I remember. 

Jonathan O'Brien