Yearning for a Past we never knew

Does that ever happen to you? Does the strain of a particular song or a scene in a particular film, or perhaps the atmosphere captured by a particular painting, ever bring a kind of pang to your innermost being? A gush of nostalgia, longing, wishing you could be back there, or still in there, in that scene, that place, that time, that world you never knew, because it was before you were even born?

When I was a teenager, I would sometimes accompany my father to an old, elegant Polish restaurant in London. It’s still there, as a matter of fact – Ognisko, meaning ‘the hearth’. If any of you readers happen to be in London, it’s well worth a visit, if you want glamorous, pre-war elegance and top-notch cuisine. Shimmering chandeliers, lofty ceilings, crisp white table cloths, glittering cutlery and crystal, bow-tied waiters …. you get my gist? Like a scene out of War & Peace.

But getting back to my father. He would occasionally invite an old friend from his youth to join us for dinner, and I always loved it when that happened. After the usual greetings were out of the way, followed by enquiries about work and family, the menus examined and debated over, and at last the food and wine ordered, the best part of the evening would click into action. The two of them – two elderly but dynamic gentlemen from a world gone by – would plunge into reminiscences from their youth in pre-war Poland. Being of the landed gentry class, their memories were so full of colour, so abundant in Tolstoyan atmosphere, at times I could hardly believe that I hadn’t actually been there with them at the time. I mean – come on, I must have been there, I knew it all so well!

So there I would sit, beneath the gleaming light from all those chandeliers, star-struck, silent, listening to their tales of hunting days in the forests of Polesie (it was an entirely different generation, so do please forgive them …), the huge family gatherings on Christmas Eve, when the children would sledge in the nearby countryside before being summoned back home to sit down to a twelve-course feast, served up at the enormous dining table by a troupe of Ukrainian servants; the lyrical Slavonic carols they would all sing (which I myself was brought up on) … and then, as they grew older, the university balls in Warsaw they would attend, where bright-eyed young ladies in long gowns and dashing young men in tuxedos would dance in well-trained step to polonaises and waltzes and mazurkas … and later still, when they were fully-fledged adults, the taverns they would hang out in, drinking wine and smoking pipes and cigars and talking animatedly while violins played haunting tangos as though from an old black and white movie with Marlene Dietrich or Hedy Lamarr.

Oh, the magic of it! Oh, how I loved those old lilting melodies and that enchanted other-world they evoked. That invisible world I had never known, and yet did know. And still know, every time I hear one of those tangos, or see an old black and white photo, or find myself back in Ognisko, though with different people now, my father no longer being in the land of the living.

And now, when my daughter hears me relate stories from my own past – my childhood and youth and university days, my early loves and ambitions and heartbreaks and all the rest – she listens in a longing that I remember, her eyes wide, dreamy as she says, ‘Oh Mum, I feel so nostalgic for your past! I really feel that I was there.

Is that how it is with everyone? Longing for a past we never knew? Or is it just us nostalgia-addicts that are assailed with this weird narcotic craving? A craving I have no intention of ever being cured of.

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