When I was 13, my parents moved to Yerevan, Armenia, and lived there for two years. Armenia was one of five Foreign Service postings my parents had during my peripatetic childhood, and for me it was a vast territory of teenage resentment, a place of exile where my first boyfriend and my BMG music subscription couldn’t follow. What memories I have are flimsy and vague and colored by adolescent angst. I remember buying a bootleg Pink Floyd CD and lying sulkily on my bed to listen. I remember the breathtaking speed and depth of the escalators down to the metro, built in the Soviet era. I remember the milky waters of Lake Sevan; I remember the green hills, dotted with sheep and mist.
Two decades later, I’m startled to find myself yearning for Yerevan. It’s an impossible yearning; I have two small children and neither the budget nor the time to fly us across the world just to stand on a street corner and feel something. Idly, I looked on YouTube and was astonished to find I could watch the same streets, ride the same tram, see the same cars and people and a rainy gray sky, as I did in 1997. I was mesmerized for 13 minutes. I noted that the video has more than 17,000 views. “Nostalgia,” read two of the comments in English.
Nostalgia’s status as a painful pleasure is now a cliché, but knowing this doesn’t prevent me from seeking it everywhere. Where else — and when else — could I go on YouTube? I watched a grainy Fourth of July in my mother’s hometown in rural California. I watched scenes from Israel, country of my birth, which I left before lasting memories could form. I found the channel of a Canadian, now deceased, who has hundreds of videos of trips he took in the 1990s. I watched his long segments on Athens — another place I used to live — his humdrum narration in a soothing Canadian accent bringing forth the exquisite pain of return. He has a 23-minute video of Istanbul on a gray day in 1993, first on foot and then through a tram window. The top comment is in Turkish and captures something essential about the pain and beauty of YouTube travel: “I don’t see a single phone in people’s hands while walking on the street. Not a single fool with their head bowed, not looking where they’re going. Man, what wonderful years those were, years lived with deeper feelings, full of love.”
Nostalgia is often explicitly part of the framing of YouTube place videos. There is a whole genre of “before” videos showing street life — sometimes represented by women in miniskirts — for Tehran and Kabul. There is a genre of videos of places that in a more literal sense do not exist anymore. There’s Aleppo 2009, “Streets Before Civil War.” To watch these videos is to contemplate an ocean of loss.
The bizarre dichotomy of now: The greatest displacement of human beings in history occurs simultaneously with international leisure travel at stratospheric levels. Machu Picchu has visitors on a timed entrance. Venice has erected turnstiles as a desperate measure to fend off tourist hordes. Approximately 50 percent of my Instagram feed has gone to Iceland in the last five years. With this boom comes travel vloggers with GoPro Fusions and iMovie chops, whose videos proliferate on YouTube. With them you can ride a balloon over Bagan or see Victoria Falls from the comfort of your couch.
But if you search beyond these well-edited travel-video blogs, you find the unvarnished vessels of nostalgia, which can provoke feelings of longing even for places or times you’ve never been. Go on YouTube; type a place name and a year. Beijing 1970. Karachi 1990. Tashkent 1992. San Francisco 1995. Mumbai 1985. The algorithm will help guide your trip, the row of thumbnails on the right-hand side of the screen taking you back and back into the past. The videos I like to watch have minimal framing, minimal events and an unobtrusive gaze (although there’s always a gaze).
These journeys are often, curiously, facilitated by transit enthusiasts. The great YouTube time-travel videos frequently involve trams: You can watch trams in Astrakhan 1997. Trams in Baku 1999. Trams in Cairo 1997. Trams in Kazan 1997. Trams in Pyongyang 2014. (Many of them are uploaded by a single account, DaveSpencer32, who boasts of “the world’s largest collection of transport hobby films plus archive of social features worldwide.”) What moves me about these videos is the combined pointlessness and preciousness of shooting ordinary street views and putting them up for five or 50,000 people to see. I don’t think it’s incidental that transportation videos provide a unique opportunity to glean the sacred in the mundane. Public transit is the site of quiet everyday odysseys of moving from Point A to Point B, the periods of respite or agony between getting groceries or picking up children. Nostalgia is not about the extraordinary moments in your life, or any life, but about the ones that pass unnoticed — the collective poignancy of a crowd going about its business.
Perusing YouTube travel videos may be a destination for the broke, for the housebound, for the concerned citizen who read that one trans-Atlantic flight blasts 16 square feet of polar ice. But it’s also a way to fumble desperately toward the most impossible journeys — backward through time. It’s a peculiar gift: to spend 12 minutes in the grainy glow of another era, watching an unheralded moment as it recedes further into the past.
Lydia Kiesling is the author of “The Golden State,” a new novel published by MCD.
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