The recent spate of terrorist attacks and the horrific Grenfell Tower fire made me realise just how much I still think of London as ‘my city’, despite leaving it some twenty years ago. I felt anxious and eager for news of how it was coping. My poor London, I thought. That may be sentimental but it speaks of the emotional energy we put into cities.
I left London to live in Sydney and while there’s much to like here – especially its proximity to nature and those rays of sunshine – I don’t think I have ever experienced a moment when I’ve thought, “Gosh, I really love this place.” Why do we love one city and not another?
Much of it might be down to one’s experience. London was the city of my twenties and that meant lots of firsts. It’s where I found my feet as an adult, loving and losing and loving again, and where I suffered the highs and lows of work. The city was my refuge, my support, my party place. Now, when I return, every corner of it holds a memory, and I can find myself suddenly ambushed by an intense feeling of belonging just by walking down an ordinary street. The last time I was there it felt a grubby, grungy place with its streets dug up and crowds pushing along its pavements, but it also felt so full of life, luring me in every direction. I like how easy it is to feel anonymous there, to simply observe, to never be sure what will happen next. It has always felt like a city filled with potential.
But that doesn’t explain how one can arrive in a city for the first time and be immediately smitten. That happened to me in Chicago, in Marseille and even, to some extent, in Beijing. To quote a famous Australian film, it’s the vibe. It’s like catching a whiff of your favourite perfume or favourite food and sensing something you recognise and adore. Even in Beijing I thought: I could live here. And yet in other, often beautiful places you can admire them but feel no real connection.
The idea of the happenstance of cities crops up in a beautifully written book called ‘Insomniac City’ by Bill Hayes. Leaving San Francisco after his lover died of a heart attack, Hayes wanted change and found it in New York, eventually meeting and falling in love with neurologist Oliver Sacks. It’s a tribute to New York as much as to Sacks. Here’s his description of waiting for a Subway train in the morning: ‘The air was soft, as if unfinished dreams still emanated from everyone’s skin.’ Golly, that’s good. He writes about the chance encounters he has with various people – the little conversations, the revealing of other lives. I remembered that from London, too, where I would be waiting for a bus and the next moment listening to someone telling me about how his family was driven out of Poland in the 1930s. Or sharing a smile with someone who was watering a forlorn window box and who shrugged and said, “We live in hope.” It was a reminder, too, of a time when people didn’t automatically pull out a mobile phone the moment they sat or stood anywhere. In the Tube I would gaze at people and make up stories about their lives.
Cities repay observation. Simply looking upwards will always reward you with an architectural treasure or an old faded sign for some product long vanished, and London has so many of both. Cities are particularly easy for people-watching. No one blinks an eye at anyone sitting on their own to watch the world go by because everyone’s in their own little bubble. And yet for all the time I spent sitting and watching in its famous cafes, it took me years – decades even – to finally fall for Paris. It felt uptight and prim after London but now it feels just right. So maybe our love of cities changes with age.
All cities are filled with history and Sydney’s is a jagged sort, from its raw beginnings. It’s a city formed by migrants, wave after wave, from the first white invasion that trampled what was here before. It’s a diverse place because of that, but not especially integrated, spread thinly over a wide area. I have a theory that its famous harbour is also symbolic of its insecurity, its wateriness reflecting a perpetual sense of a city still in a fluid state, not quite sure of itself. (Although for a brief period before and during the Sydney 2000 Olympics it felt wonderfully confident.)
Our feelings for individual cities might be purely subjective and yet that vibe thing is present when a place has a confidence in what it is doing, culturally as much as financially. That’s often expressed in its buildings and how its heritage is preserved and respected, even when it feels threatened by a swanky, skyscraping skyline. But more important is how a city is glued together by the character of its inhabitants, like the amazingly friendly people I constantly encountered in Beijing and Chicago. Then these cities soar.
A soaring city is only strengthened by its tragedies and terrorism, just as New York was after 9/11, absorbing the new stories into its make-up. And just as my poor, lovely London is doing at the moment.
What cities soar for you?
Hello Colin from beautiful Budapest, the birth city of my father and his forebears. Loved reading your article. So much of it resonated with me, especially the part about looking upwards… and the mention of the scent/smells in a city. Two nights ago we toured Budapest at sunset in an old Russian jeep, and I wish I could bottle the smell of the air… the sweet summertime trees; the smell of food coming from the many restaurants we passed; and even the occasional smelly drain! Canberra is my home city, my birthplace. The destination chosen by my parents after they fled their homeland in ’56. I do love Canberra, but I really don’t like that practically everything old there is torn down. It may be all shiny and new, but it certainly lacks the charm of those beautiful old cities that have preserved their heritage, despite centuries of trauma. Thank you for a great article.
What a fabulous experience, Liz – sounds like Budapest is in your soul! I’ve loved seeing your photos on Instagram, and it definitely looks like a city with plenty to look up to. In many ways we’re so lucky to be able to experience all the great things of the new cities of Australia and the old ones of Europe. Thanks for your lovely comments.
I can only agree, Colin, that some cities just make you feel that ‘vibe’ while others leave you cold. London does it for me, but so do Zurich, Berlin, Edinburgh and Lisbon. Paris took a great while to grow on me but now it really wends its magic. Great post!
Thanks for turning my mind, Mel, to Portugal – I keep hearing that Lisbon is brilliant (along with Porto) and really must get there. And interesting to note that Zurich is vibier than Geneva (the Dadaists obviously thought so, too).
What a beautiful post, Colin. I have a similar love for London and I would guess for similar reasons. Having made the mistake of going to university in the town of my birth, moving to London was the first time I felt I could really breath and be myself. I found it an incredibly exciting place in the my twenties. Funnily enough the only city I’ve ever thought I could live in other than London is Sydney. What a fantastic city that is, the opera house, the bay … I envy you!
Thank you and thanks for making a really good point – cities that allow one to be oneself. I think London was precisely that whereas in Sydney I never feel quite like me – odd, eh? It’s the comfort zone, and I think my feelings for Paris have developed from being a clumsy outsider at first to suddenly ‘getting’ it and liking the confidence I feel there. But yes, Sydney puts on a good show with lots of amazing spectacles (not just the hipster sort, ha).
What a heartfelt post, beautifully expressed. Thank you.
I am not a big city person, and exactly for the reasons you find them so exciting – anything can happen(!). I never really liked London, even when I lived there in my 20s. I much prefer the seaside town that is currently my home.
It was you who taught me to look upwards! And I did a lot of that during my recent visit to Brighton. Now there’s a place with a frenetic energy …
Cities that make me soar … Well, of course, Italy will be at the top of my list: Florence, Rome, Arezzo and the unbelievable Venice.
But a place that has been in my soul since I visited it over 30 years ago is Dubrovnik. I remember wide, white stone streets, great elegance and that unmistakable Venetian influence. This was of course before the terrible war. But I gather it has been painstakingly restored and we intend to visit it later in the year.
Thank you. Ah yes, the importance of looking up! I’ve yet to visit Dubrovnik but I’ve always heard good things about it – not simply its beauty but that all-important vibe. Venice lost its place in my heart on my last visit when it was simply so packed with tourists (just like me) that it felt like walking into a busy museum on a Sunday afternoon and I couldn’t wait to leave. Florence will always remain special. Maybe I’m a fickle city lover!
You should try Venice during the Carnival (!)
In a frock, perhaps? 🙂
Great article, Colin – that Hayes quote gave me goose-bumps. Perhaps because I have felt that feeling a few times myself, and so often in unexpected places.
Cities do require protection of those details that gives a sense of the souls that have gone before us. Whether by intent (i.e. heritage listings) or by the unintentional (people not bothering to remove the old signs, etc). Is this why modern shopping malls are so typically challenging to experience?
One thing I think a city must have is some space to rest your eyes. Hong Kong doesn’t have this. But Beijing, where I also lived for many years, has this. The mix of new and old (although endangered) really resonates enough that I call Beijing my second home. For now, however, Melbourne will continue to buffet me with other’s soft hopes and dreams, and every now and then a small serendipitous glimpse into the past experiences of others.
Thanks, Matthew, for your great comments.
Yes, the footprint of the past is so important. I remember visiting Valletta in Malta and the narrow stone streets are simply littered (and some might view them as litter, too) with old British shop signs, very 1950s many of them, which gave a wonderful sense of its odd history as an old British outpost. It’s signage heaven. But layered over buildings far older and with murkier stories to tell.
And space to rest the eyes. I wonder if Sydney has rather too many. It’s all a question of balance, as the Chinese (used to) understand.
I often come back to this article as I feel completely identified. And surprisingly I have the same opinion of the cities you described. I live in London now and it’s amazing, in the same way Chicago was. The summer I lived in Shanghai resembles very much of your feelings in Beijing. Reading these words bring me confort and I will continue coming back to this post 🙂
I’m not at all surprised. You’re a city lover par excellence, Virginia, and you do so much to help others experience the wonder of so many cities around the globe, thanks to your lovely writings (and book!). And yet I’m sure you have real favourites among the many places you have visited. Dare I ask, is there a Number One favourite?