Sunday, March 6, 2016

The tricks our memory plays on us.


Two weeks ago to the day, I found myself in the company of friends, in Athens Greece. We have all been students of the same ΕΜΠ class (National Technical University, or Μετσόβιον Πολυτεχνείον) with graduation year 1976, 40 years ago. The get together took place in a posh bistro, south west of the Filopappou hill. The Filopappou is opposite the Acropolis rock.

A few months ago I was approached by Yianni, one of us, asking whether I’d join a planned 40 year reunion sometime in 2016. He and another one of us, Niko, volunteered to do all the necessary. I said "yes" in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Would be my unique opportunity to do right this time.

In the past 25 years, I never managed to meet anyone from my class since graduation day. I almost grabbed my diploma at the end of June 1976, and off I flew to the place that was to become my new home. There has been one single exception to this however. During one of my trips to Athens ten years ago, Nikos, one of my closest pals during school, paid me a memorable dinner near my hotel, at the then famous Athens Hilton fish restaurant. We spoke about the usual, health, career, family, our kids, and, it goes without saying, we smalltalked about those we commonly knew from the past. I was starving for news. Sort of thing like, «What is X doing these days?», or, «Did you hear about such and such?». After all these years it seemed like we had never separated. Nikos was a good kid and graduated top of our class. Humble, extremely intelligent and a hard worker. It was a fun evening and I was ecstatic about meeting each other, even after so many years of separation. Unfortunately Nikos passed not long ago, before he could turn 60. R.I.P. pal. See you soon.

When I came to this country, I literally switched off my past, emotionally and factually. At least, I thought so. Much I knew then. It was so bad that I hardly spoke my native Greek anymore. For months and years to come. Only during infrequent and brief phone conversations with family members I spoke and thought in Greek. I don’t know why I've done this to the extreme. Thinking back, I do feel shockingly ashamed about my arrogance. It’s almost against the laws of nature to cutoff one’s roots like this. Of course, one can’t turn back the clock and undo the wrong! Like convicts serving time for the crimes they committed, I’ll have to live with it for the rest of my days.

Closing down to the event, I tried my utmost best to remember names and faces, but I repeatedly failed miserably. Yanni offered me some consolation during our occasional email exchanges, saying I was not alone in this. But still, something in my mind couldn’t find peace. I accepted the fact that I would have hard time recognizing faces, as time does continuously change people’s looks, and 40 years is a very long time. Like Yanni put it, with the amount of facial hair we all carried back then, it would be an impossible task to recognize anyone after 40 long years. I was OK with that. The one thing I couldn’t logically grasp though was that I had somehow forgotten most of their names. To the point I saw a list with names and realized that I didn't recognize many among them, far too many indeed... Didn't ring a bell, at all! Of the 35 student class I could hardly remember 5-6 names. Of whom, two had unfortunately passed. How could this be humanly possible? Cold sweat ran over me as I took the taxi to the venue. How foolish would I look?

Almost everybody who was invited came, including our three emeritus professors and their still professionally active administrative assistant, Katia. We all seemed somehow to have the same problem. Recognizing faces. As they eventually saw me in their mind's eye as I used to be, most told me I’d taken up weight, which is fine, but some seemed to have not been able to recognize me at all. Staring at me like it was their first time. And that situation was apparently mutual. Neither the face nor their name was I able to consciously recall too. Many still knew me though. One among them, Sofronis, told me a hilarious story about an incident that happened between the two of us back then and he made me ROFLMAO! Of course, I couldn’t remember a single bit of that event, cross my heart. I must admit, after all is said and done, there are still a couple left that I have great difficulty reconciling their current looks with how they looked back then and also with their names. One or two sound like I have never come across 'em in my entire life before. Never ever. It is terribly unfair to them, I understand. How could I possibly forget so much? Alzheimer’s symptoms that I am not yet aware of?

During the course of the event, Yanni showed us a video he prepared about our life back then. The enterprise proved fabulously emotional as it's been equally humorous. Seeing each other after so many years, flabbergasted about “the way we were”!

And then it started happening to me. Gradually, watching Yanni's video, looking at pictures of the past, connecting people’s names with their faces, gradually but steadily kept blowing away the fog. I leaned over and half hugged Yanni, mumbling something like “great job, brother!”. Couldn’t keep my tears. My neurons kept waking up in the millions from their 40 year long winter sleep, dusting the accumulated fat off their synapses (as a figure of speech), and like an old engine that has just been lubricated, my latent memory started bringing back the vistas I had long forgotten. In lightening speed pictures were formed in my brain and I ‘saw’ them fellow students like they used to be. Names and faces became one again. I couldn’t help smiling by facing the heavy tricks the deplorable time had played on some of them, but I am sure many felt the same way by looking at me. I could say by their facial expressions when their eyes crossed mine.

The recollection process did not complete that evening alone. The weeks that followed I have worked hard to reconcile names and renewed visual impressions from the reunion event. You see, I promised them to shoot pictures during the evening and make a slideshow about the venue later. Therefore, I wanted to know for sure “who's who” eliminating any shadow of doubt right before I started putting the slides together.

A few weeks later, I apparently seem to have recovered most of my “lost” memory. Maybe I am still having some difficulty with one or two. But growing from hardly remembering 5 to 6 fellow students before the event to remembering faces, names and anecdotes of more than 30 today has been quite a triumph. Agree?

2 comments:

Serge said...

Very interesting Vassily this accurate description of the surprising storage process of our brain, it's fascinating to see long forgotten memories surfacing from our inner deepest with all fine details. It often happens to me at night when the brain is half on idle and wandering around, gives sometimes a strange feeling in the morning...

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