Was Every Place Better Five Years Ago?

Michael and I don't have a home -- we're indefinitely traveling the world, even as we keep writing our books.

But everywhere we go lately, people say the same thing: "This place used to be so much better five years ago." It's starting to feel like a joke. It's also hard not to feel like we've missed out on something truly special.

We heard it in the island country of Malta. "This place has changed so much in the last five years," people told us. "It's on the verge of being ruined."

We heard it again in Matera, Italy. "Matera has changed so much lately!" people said. "Five years ago, it hadn't been discovered yet." 

Now we're in Bansko, Bulgaria, and we're hearing the same thing again. "Five years ago, this place used to be so different!"


And you know what? There is truth to all these statements. Malta is in the middle of a tech boom, and the government has been pushing itself as both a tax haven and a tourist attraction. Matera has been named a European Cultural Capital of 2019 (a big deal), and tourism is already flourishing. And Bansko, which is a ski resort town, was trying to turn itself into a summer vacation destination even before a group of clever entrepreneurs turned it into a hub for digital nomads, who have since descended en masse. 

For different reasons, all three places are experiencing big-time growing pains. Things really were different five years ago! We thought all these places were great, but sometimes it's hard not to feel like we've missed out on something truly special.

At the same time, these sentiments capture a fundamental truth: the past can seem a lot better than the present.

Was the past really better? It's remarkably easy to romanticize it. And five years seems like a length of time where it's really easy to remember the good things, but forget about the bad.

Meanwhile, in the present, we're constantly confronted with day-to-day annoyances: high prices, heavy crowds, congestion, increased crime. We also take for granted things today that didn't exist before -- better, more reliable infrastructure, for example. Reliable wireless is nice, not to mention hot showers and decent toilets. It's also nice to be able buy stuff like soy milk in the stores.

Which isn't to say a wistful look at the past is always wrong. Places do change, often for the worse. As a traveler, I know there's definitely something to be said for the more remote corners of the world, the less frequented places, even if there are also more inconveniences involved in traveling there. The more predictable something is, the less exciting it is too.

And let's face it: tourists suck! [Said the guy who is, in some ways, a permanent tourist.]

So which is it? Are Malta, Matera, and Bansko romanticizing the past, or are they justifiably annoyed with the changes of the present?

I guess the only way to know for sure is for me to return to each of those places in five years, and see if they're still saying things were better five years ago when I was there.