Notes on Memory and Context (and the Decontextualization of Travel)


I have a terrible memory. When I actually stop to think back on my life, to specific moments or sequences of time and events, I often draw a blank. Or if not a blank then a whole bunch of fuzzy blotches punctuated by non sequential images or impressions that may or may not be accurate.

You know that thing I wrote in my bio, about doing all this writing because after X number of years it gets hard to remember where I’ve been?  That wasn’t a throwaway comment. I really can’t remember. It’s like I have early onset Alzheimers or something.

There was a throwaway comment in Bill Bryson’s book, The Lost Continent, where he says something to the effect that when his father died, he had been taken by surprise to find that a part of himself had gone with him. All of the memories his father had held were lost. Memories of his childhood. Memories of people and places and events they had known together.  Those memories made up part of who he was, part of a very complicated puzzle of identity. He wasn’t just himself alone but rather a collection of other people’s memories. When his dad died, he took a chunk of that with him.

When I first read that book, I was in my early 20s and hadn’t spent all that much time away from home. I was still a part of the collective memory of Vancouver Island, of my rather large extended family, of things I’d known for a long time.  I don’t think that line even registered with me. I felt rooted, secure. Everything and everyone was still around me to tell me who I was and where I’d come from.

I reread it recently and it resonated. Not that anyone died recently, no. But I started thinking about how much self, how much memory is held outside the body, in other people, in places, in contexts. When you grow up, you make associations with sounds and smells and tastes and when you meet them again, your memory is jogged. When you know people a long time, you are continually reminding each other of where you’ve been, who you have been, what you have done.

I’ve been travelling a lot for the past couple of decades. New places every year, people coming and going– mostly going. My memories are spread waaaaaaaaay out in so many directions. I have no idea where half those people or places are.


I think I was once in Cairo but I can’t be certain. I did write it down so it must be true.


This morning I discovered that our hotel had face cloths in the bathroom. Facecloths. I hadn’t seen or used a face cloth in years. I squirted some of the lovely lavender bath gel onto it and gave my face a good scrub. And with that I remembered the feeling of the facecloths I had used as a kid growing up in the forest, of the wood frame around our bath tub, of the little window that looked out at the forest at shoulder height.  I remembered chainsaws and howling dogs, gravel roads, trails I cleared in the forest, drawers where certain Archie comics were kept. All those things I had pretty much forgotten about because I hadn’t been anywhere near a face cloth to jog the memory.

There are a lot of other cues and contexts that I haven’t had much of in a long time, things that would keep and build my memory: family, colleagues, friends that stick around longer than a year or two, landmarks, tchotchkes, certain foods, certain sounds, certain smells.

There was a time, a long time ago, when I suddenly found myself in a cafe somewhere in Amsterdam late at night, completely and rather frighteningly decontextualized. I realized I had no idea how I’d got there, where I was meant to go or who I was. That moment passed eventually (space cakes don’t stay in the system forever) but the memory of, well, total memory loss, total decontextualization, stuck with me.  Every so often a similar though less intense feeling hits me when I’m traveling (or when I’m in Shanghai, but tired).  Nothing around me is capable of reminding me of any of my previous incarnations.


I’m pretty sure I was here, because I have photographic evidence.


And so there’s the idea of writing to hold onto those memories when you are away from home, unrooted. I write a lot to tether myself to something. But I’m not to be trusted. I exaggerate. I minimize. I edit. I don’t say things that might hurt people. I don’t talk about people who hurt me. I avoid certain issues. I try to convince myself that things are far better or far worse than they really are.  I make shit up. I once sent home a series of now famed mass emails, detailing the glittering wonders of London at Christmas, with the lights of Oxford street and the loveliness of the decorations and the parties. Not one word in those exuberant emails let on the fact that I was in the middle of a rather horrific break up with my then boyfriend and had spent many days curled up on the floor of phone booths around the city, crying and waiting for it to be morning in Canada so I could call home and be comforted. I cannot be trusted to record my own memory.

My memory, it seems, is made up almost entirely of hyperbole and omission.

For those of you who travel a lot, do you feel anything similar? Or is it just me?


More from the Context series:

Age and the Decontextualization of Travel

Identity and Decontextualization 



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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.