Beyond theory and beneath tales (cities and me)

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Cities have much in common with stories. There are stories you keep going back to and cities that remain perpetually undiscovered. There are tales you tell others the way you were told as a child, and cities that feel familiar at first sight. There are treasure-hunt cities, those you live through what you have learnt in books and on maps, cities that don’t exist till you step in them, like scribbles that all of a sudden become a story. Narrating a city is not just a matter of taste, of ideas, of facts or of sudden illuminations. It is about what one’s eye, fingertips or nostrils like to wander about, how distinctive the pavement of a dozen different cities feels when you step on it, and for how long a moment anything around you feels your own. Random moments are to cities what like riddles are to stories.

A good stratagem to narrate a city is lists. Delhi, for example, is made of thin dust, ever layered over everything, of the rugged metal joints of every handrail welded too quickly, of cement shaped with tangible human approximation (the irregular volumes of staircases, the giant beams of metro stations), of pollution that sits thick in your nostrils and of pale sunsets, when you can fix the sun, large and white like nowhere else, with no pain. Delhi is made of noises that pilot your way through traffic, of smells that feel like sudden flashes of light in your eyes, of elbows carving their way through people centimetre by centimetre, and of the Bollywood ringtones of mobile phones. Delhi is what you hear and touch more than what you see. It’s the mind’s refuge from permanent sensory overload.

London, in comparison, is made of the short fur of bus seats that anywhere else would be plastic or wood, of empty sidewalks on which house gardens overflow, of dodged glances and hysterical laughter and the distinct ticking of heels on the tarmac late at night. It is made of endless road signposting, of tarnished jewellery and clothes too old to be ever in fashion again, of long, endless walks from one back lane to the other, through gates and arches, and of the tart smell of pubs beaming with voices and friendly pats. Things shine everywhere and people are after them. Everybody always has a plan in London, a mission that separates you from everybody else and makes you one of them. The city is the means to that end of yours. It makes anything possible and your days short and hard at the same time.

I spent the last seven years moving every year between these two cities, but I still struggle to answer the questions everybody asks: which one do you like better? How long will you stay here? Where are you moving next? I don’t know. I don’t have my own theory of what a city is. The truth is that I cannot bring myself to compare them, because I just keep looking for the thin thread that holds all the stories I run into together, here and there, mine included.

phrancesco o.

Author: phrancesco o.

I am a researcher in international politics and development aid. I am drawn towards exploring organisations, institutions and urban spaces for the way people make their way in and out of them, engaging with (or simply living through) their diversity and complexity. After years of moving between London and New Delhi, I now happily live in New Delhi.

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