Jordyn Gracey: On Nostalgia and FulfillmentSome people have soulmates; they make their home in the heart of another person. I don’t think I’ll ever have that. I don’t fall in love with people so much as places. What I have is a soulcity. It’s a concept that can probably only be understood by fellow travelers; after all, those of us who live for the next Bon Voyage party are always seeking some sense of elusive fulfillment. Some people find that in another person; others, like myself, find it in a community, a culture, or a lifestyle. The irony is that we are often so focused on the next “somewhere else” that we don’t always recognize when we have landed in our haven.

For as long as I can remember, I have been defined by the restless stirrings of my spirit and an inability to stay put. My family calls this “itchy feet”; I see it as an almost unhealthy thirst for newness. The quotidian events that give so many people comfort drive me mad with boredom; in order to elude boredom’s grasp, I try to seek adventure in everything that I do and in small novelties, like in the way that thunderstorms vary in intensity from place to place, or in how traffic signs look so different in new places but can be so easily translated.

The side effect of having itching feet, though, is that they can often take you on a path that leads away from where you ought to be. My itching feet caused me to uproot myself and move thirteen thousand kilometers away from where I was born in South Africa to where I live today in the United States.

“Some people have soulmates; they make their home in the heart of another person. I don’t think I’ll ever have that… What I have is a soulcity.”

Cape Town has always been glorified in the South African narrative. Every citizen of “Mzanzi” knows that the Mother City is the ideal dwelling place. White South Africans parochially claim that this is due to the influence of the Democratic Alliance; young people proclaim that the radical political voices are the driving force of the city’s social embrace. Whatever the truth is, iKapa is undeniably magical. Whether I was hanging out in Observatory with my barefooted, dreadlocked scenester friends, or watching the sunset from Lion’s Head with a glass of local wine in hand, I was always overcome by a sense of belonging.

View from Lion's Head

The Capetonian lifestyle can be unapologetically lazy. In general, the citizens care about keeping interesting company, eating well, watching rugby, listening to any kind of music, and losing time. It’s a way of life that doesn’t appeal to everyone. But the moment I arrived there from Johannesburg, I felt like I could breathe. I met some of the most extraordinary people at the University of Cape Town and their common trait was how happy and fulfilled they all were – or seemed. When I was accepted by Duke University in North Carolina, I was naïve enough to believe that other university towns would be equally warm and cooperative spaces. That was why I left South Africa. And I was so certain then that I would never look back.

However, on several occasions I have found my eyes misting over a photograph of dry grass waving in the Karroo or choking up when hearing an American accent falter on an Afrikaans word. Nostalgia is an unrelenting force that I have to reckon with daily and it seems to be the price you pay for having a wandering soul.

“Nostalgia is an unrelenting force that I have to reckon with daily and it seems to be the price you pay for having a wandering soul.”

Since coming to the United States, I have become increasingly lost. It unnerves me how little of myself I recognize in moments of introspection. I cannot sit idly the way that I used to do. Every nanosecond of my time has an associated opportunity cost. Life is measured here in a way that seems abhorrently inorganic.

But then, I also like many of the parts of myself that I do not recognize. I am secretly proud of the way I pronounce my vowels in a distinctly un-South African way. I both love and hate how I feel like more of an American each day. But then I question whether it is even possible to feel “American”. The beauty of the United States is how different each locale is from its neighbor.

My time here has been an unprecedented period of growth. I have learned to acknowledge that my experiences in South Africa have a distinctly middle-class flavor. I am beginning to look back and see things that I had forgotten: things like the shame of my class felt when driving through streets lined by rusting shacks in Khayelitsha, or the automatic fear of being followed by a toothless stranger that comes with bar hopping on Long Street, or the sorrow of reading about another LGBT hate crime in the newspaper. Nostalgia can be an ugly thing. It tends to airbrush out the complicated aspects of one’s past. It dehumanizes one’s personal history.

Cape Town

I have spent so long lamenting the contentment that I left behind in Cape Town. I feel like I betrayed myself by leaving the place that made me feel uncomplicated and complete. But maybe I was wrong before. Maybe the traveler doesn’t start out with a need for fulfillment. Perhaps she is weary of being whole. Perhaps wholeness is what prevents her from understanding her humanity. Maybe what she craves is discomfort in a way that is difficult to articulate, not just to others, but also to herself. It might be that the most powerful awareness that she will ever have is that she has relinquished her rights to roots. She knows that she will not find safe-haven in another person or in a place or in a lifestyle. Her nostalgia deceives her: telling her opposite of what she knows, deep down, to be true.

Her home is the burning tarmac beneath her bare and aching feet and it is as varying as the lightning storms she will encounter along the way to the next somewhere else.


Words and photos: Jordyn Gracey