The Heart of the City

How entering a new city is like falling in love, and how one world traveler found her soul-mate.

“If she were to perceive their true form, they would seem more like architecture than organism, like huge structures composed of intelligence and feeling.”

  — Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

To begin with, it’s how you get there.

Some journeys are longer than just the time spent in the air, or on the road. There are those that require permission — visas, parental, or otherwise — and those that require lessons to be learned before one is allowed to leave the last place.

In some ways, this is like love. If might be a straightforward, headlong fall into each other’s arms, there might be objections from friends, there might be the debris of old relationships to clear away — or maybe to cling to.

I think all this as my train stops in cold, dark Aberdeen, taking me away from my London, my beloved.

The name of a journey is important, too, I decide. Some train routes in Britain have odd, compelling names: The Northern Lights; The Flying Scotsman; The Golden Arrow. As a result of this (and, for the sake of completeness, I will admit that my fear of flying has something to do with it) I am more kindly disposed to cities I have reached by train or car than those I have reached by aeroplanes and their unwieldy letter-number combinations. I remember how I never loved Sydney like I did Adelaide. There was something hostile about the nameless, faceless falling-away of the earth as I left for Sydney (I could have been going anywhere), but in Adelaide I always knew what direction I was facing, because I knew I got there by driving through Ararat, Bordertown and Keith.

And this, in a way, is like love. I will never be able to like a Vivian or a Simon, I will never be able to hate a Catherine or a Paul. All this from impressions formed by the time I was 17, and no less a product of conditioning than my sudden and stubborn phobia of being high in the air.

The view as the traveler arrives might also have something to do with it. Airports are ugly, as are bus stations — there are no two ways about that — but train stations are capable of containing grand feats of architecture, arches and buttresses and acres of glass. I recall how my train paused under the wide roof of Newcastle train station, as I prepared myself for the rail bridge breaching the astonishing, yawning chasm above the Tyne. These are the relics of a past age of transport, when journeys were hefty and awkward.

It might seem there’s nothing to compare to love, here, but the internal grace of the human mind is comparable to the inward beauty of buildings and bridges, their support structure similar to the strength of a body under duress.

I know the first few days in a city are spent simultaneously wide-eyed and blind. The newcomer has only a short while before she becomes caught up in living again, and is once more too busily sober to catch the twists and turns of small alleys that lead into Chinatown or other worlds. I had perhaps three weeks of that state in Amsterdam, and then my mental map of the city suddenly snapped into focus. Suddenly I was disenchanted, and perhaps that was similar to love too. It can leave, suddenly.

The lucky few have a friend on the inside, a benevolent spy who takes care of them while they stare in giddy wonder at buildings and parks, enabling them to lengthen this glorious halfway state of discovery and surprise. I never knew exactly where I was in Berlin — Ulrich always took care of that — and in my head it changed its roads and buildings at whim. This was love-by-proxy, though — the city belonged to someone I loved, and that love clouded everything else.

That’s where the metaphor stumbles: People are eternally surprising, as changeable as the sea, and no one can ever know or understand the whole; but once a traveler has lived in a city and left it, there is no return to the mad wonder of those first weeks, the honeymoon, the limbo.

Except, perhaps, in London.

After all these places, I know now that what I wanted all along was the one city I can never remember arriving in, the one city I will only ever half-know.

Though I no longer live there, I love London in a way I have never loved another. It breathes and pulses around me, so alive that it creates fantasy versions of itself in the minds of writers, little chaconnes and counterpoints to reality. When I think of home, I see the skyline from Waterloo Bridge.

This is not how I thought I’d fall in love — but, then, what about love can we ever predict?

Article © 2008 by Clare Jonas