The city personified

So much of what we think of a place comes from what we think of its people. What we think of the people comes from the myriad random encounters we have on the sidewalk, at the bus stop, in restaurants, on the tube, at the pub. Some of those encounters—getting a train ticket, ordering a pint—are necessary transactions which can either end right there or become bits of ornamentation on the fabric of the city. Last summer the British press was following the US presidential primaries closely and almost every encounter included some unsolicited comment. I remember getting a transit pass from a man, hair wound up tight in a turban in the Sikh manner, who asked if I was an American. He smiled broadly and said as if in one word, “howaboutthatObama!” He then checked himself: “Is it okay I say that?” Yeah, it’s okay. That’s why we travel.

I met a group of artists last year at a pub in Chelsea where they had just taken down an exhibition of their work. As often happens the picnic tables outside the pub were full so my husband and I welcomed them to share our table. We kept in touch over the last year via the miracle of email and so this summer I took a gang of eager and curious students to the Guerrilla Gallery on Brick Lane to an opening of their work. This year’s encounters included an American ex-pat on the canal boat, whom we ran into later that evening, implausibly, at a pub across town; Pirate Girl in the queue for the loo (note mastery of local language) who kept talking about my hair; and Officer Jenner who responded to our witnessing--again, implausibly—a young man climb up a downspout to break into a 4th floor apartment. He turned—implausibly, again, implausibility being a trend by now—when my husband called out to him and he snapped his picture. “Brilliant!” said Officer Jenner, “what…is he Spiderman?” She showed her partner who said, as if on cue “what…is he Spiderman?”

The city becomes literally personified. One student loved Paris because her interactions with strangers were warm and hospitable. Another had the exact opposite experience in the same city, the same weekend. Were they in fact in the same Paris? One student finds Londoners rude, and therefore London rude, because she’s been bumped and jostled on the street without the expected pardons and excuse me’s. The contrast between London and Blacksburg, which most of these students call home-for-now, is too jarring for some. But we’re all like that, living at the very center of a pre-Copernican universe, where everything revolves around us. I am the center. Every I construct a perfectly plausible, internally consistent model of that universe. Travel to a city like London displaces us, pushes us to see our own orbit and the full scale of the system which depends on productive collisions to spark new live forms. That’s why we travel.

Here in London are piled up millennia of I-universes, some invisible but audible, inaudible but sensible, insensible but visible. Each of us constructs our own city dragging the thread of our experience behind us like Theseus and tying knots at certain places. I’m still working on my London. Even as I prepare to leave, patching a few holes and whip-stitching places together, I’m wondering if my Washington needs some mending, if I’ve begun to take it for granted. I have to remember to keep the needle threaded as the after image of initial strangeness begins to fade at home. That’s why we travel.

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