Jan 12, 2011
At a certain point it occurs to me that I am always looking for somewhere to live.
I don’t need somewhere to live. I already have somewhere to live. I have a house, and a pub where people know me, and a corner shop where I buy cheese and sliced white bread and tinned soup for lazy meals. I have a history with my city, a relationship with it. I have a sense of belonging.
But when I visit other places, I don’t want to see museums or monuments or the street where someone famous once stood naked on his head for twenty minutes or the spot where tourists always get their photographs taken. I used to think that this was because I was more sophisticated than that, or else that a sense of place is not in these things but in the way that people interact with pavements and cafés and in the architecture, the landscape, the things you can see sitting in a park or strolling down any arbitrary street.
Now I see that it is because what I like best when I visit a place is to wander aimlessly through neighborhoods in the evening, peering into the bright windows of other people’s lives, trying to picture myself there. I never liked New York City until I discovered the parts of it that I could conceivably, without too great a leap of imagination, exist happily. Now I say I love New York City but it’s really only because I can see myself living in Brooklyn and running in Prospect Park on the weekends and then having prolonged, bloody mary-fueled brunches. I don’t necessarily want this life, I’m not seeking a change, but “home” seems to be the way, ultimately, that I relate to places.
Last year, on a flight to Kenya, I watched Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go”. And I guess I am doing exactly what Burt and Verona are doing, except without meaning to, and except without any need or even conscious desire to.
I guess maybe I don’t know how to visit a place. Only how to react to it.
I’m in San Francisco. I’m never sure what my relationship with San Francisco is. I came here first with my parents when I was little and it was summer and unseasonably (everyone said) warm. We walked through Chinatown to the City Lights bookshop and yet I did not perceive how this place was much different from any other I had been. Still California, still home. Later I came back and bought a silk robe with an embroidered dragon from a Chinese lady and that night got food poisoning from a Vietnamese restaurant and a few weeks later became a vegetarian, for a bit. Later I came back and wandered around the SFMOMA taking photographs of the way the light – a hot springtime light, though the air itself was cool – came through the building fell in ordered lines on the floor. We spent a lot of time in a Yoko Ono exhibit. There was a telephone, painted white, and the placard said that once a day Yoko would call and speak to whoever happened to be standing there, whoever had the courage to answer when it rang. But Yoko did not call while we were there so instead we wrote wishes on little pieces of paper and hung them on a tree with tiny clothespins.
Now I do not know if the sum of these experiences equals a comfort and fluency with this place or not. Geographically I know nothing of the city; I feel adrift in each neighborhood, not able to picture how it connects to the next, not knowing where north or south is or what I would even do with this information if I had it. But I know that there is a patchy history, which must mean something.
We revisit City Lights. I put my hand on the spine of a book in the Architecture section. Someone says, “excuse me,” pushes past, and it occurs to me – quite suddenly, in a way it has not really occurred to me before -that I am Californian, that I am not an outsider here in the way that I am an outsider at home, in Oxford.
I guess the paradox of this is, in a way, why I like to live abroad. Geoff Dyer writes about the same thing when he moves back to Oxford (of all places!) after a spell abroad: “Back in the land where I belonged, back among my own tribe,” he writes, “I immediately missed not belonging, missed that strange home you can build out of homelessness…And at the same time, coexisting easily with the feeling it apparently contradicted, was the feeling that I did not belong here.”
So do I belong here or not? Maybe every visit is simply a quest to answer that question. And maybe the answer is, at least metaphorically speaking, actually in the wallpaper:
“We are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper,” Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness. He is writing about our houses, the structures that surround us, the buildings we love and abhor – but isn’t this also true of places? We are as inconveniently vulnerable to the metaphorical color of the metaphorical wallpaper of our cities or towns or countrysides as we are to the actual color of the actual wallpaper in our bedrooms. Which in part explains a seemingly arbitrary whim to move to England, for instance, or a sense of belonging in an unfurnished Park Slope apartment overlooking a quiet street. “The tiniest details can unleash memories,” de Botton writes. “The swollen-bellied ‘B’ or open-jawed ‘G’ of an Art Deco font is enough to inspire reveries of short-haired women with melon hats and posters advertising holidays in Palm Beach and Le Touquet.” True too of the details in our surroundings. If “insofar as buildings speak to us, they also do so through quotation – that is, by referring to, and triggering memories of, the contexts in which we have previously seen them,” then also this is the way that whole neighborhoods, whole cities, whole countries, speak to us. Through nostalgia, even if that nostalgia is not fully understood, even if we have never before visited somewhere and so – logically, though this has nothing much to do with logic any longer – cannot be nostalgic for it.
So am I actually asking myself, each time I visit a new place, each time I wonder if I could live here, do I feel nostalgic here?
Somewhere near Nob Hill, we sit in a café and watch people passing by. It is late afternoon. The sunlight is coming through the windows at such an angle that makes concentration on anything but idle speculation impossible.
A girl in a rust-coloured cape and a mustard beret walks past, carrying a bag of shopping. What if I was the girl in the rust-coloured cape and the mustard beret? Walking to my apartment on a sunday afternoon. Unpacking my groceries. Making a cup of tea and looking out of a narrow window to the street below, watering a house plant, stroking the head of a tabby cat, sitting on a red sofa and reading a book and chatting occasionally to the Man and feeling the weight of a sunday afternoon, the pressure to squeeze joy out of the last hours of the weekend. What if I was?
I guess this is the question I am asking of myself every time I go anywhere.