I Love Cities

Those who visit here with some frequency know that I am mighty fond of the rural landscape and its many, many charms, but it might not be quite as obvious that I am equally smitten, often enough, with the joys of urban life. Some of my happiest times and most exciting and meaningful adventures are attached to various wonderful and fabulous cities where I’ve been privileged to live or spend time.photo + text

Whenever anyone asks me to name my favorite cities where I’ve visited or spent any little amount of time, the first places that come to mind are truly lively, astoundingly adventure-filled places. I’m not big on bravery or constant busyness or the unknown, as you may well know by now, but I always manage to find myself energized and passionate about what these fabulous environs have to offer at every turn. It turns out that there is no shortage of urban places that fill me with dazzling delight. In addition to my hometown of Seattle, there are so many other magnificent cities for me to love wildly, places like Stockholm, Boston, Vienna, San Francisco, Munich, Cincinnati, Oslo, San Antonio, Vancouver, New York, Prague, Chicago, and London—for starters.photo + text

I will always crave my quiet time, and often that’s best found in the sweet, laid-back grace of the countryside, removed from cities’ bustling pace. But besides that it is possible to find moments of peace right in the middle of any major metropolis, if one only knows how and where to look, there is the inherent buzz and boisterous beauty of urban life to enjoy as well, and I am not at all immune to that kind of happiness when I can bask in it. I suppose the root of the whole equation is always, quite simply, to seek my well-being wherever I happen to find myself.

Treasure Knows Neither Time nor Place

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A memory-driven image by my great-uncle Rolph Bolstad . . .

I have been scanning and digitally restoring a number of photos out of our family’s trove, a heap that resembles the disorganized and neglected stores of many other families. I make a small dent in the stack from time to time, then get distracted by everyday life and often don’t revisit the project for quite a while again. While many of us obsess over parting with beloved memorabilia of any kind, the truth is that the majority of us don’t do much with it when we have it.

All good things are that way, I suppose: love, joy, peace and happiness of both the material and the intangible sorts are seldom given their full respect when we have them, only mourned when we think they’re out of reach. And from what I’ve seen and heard from friends around the globe, this is a foolishness that transcends all sorts of differences and makes us more alike than not–no matter what our location or culture, our beliefs, hopes, and dreams, we all seem to wrestle with this forgetfulness about appreciating what we truly value that we have right in hand, and the minute that we suspect we’re about to lose our grip on those gifts, whether by our own decisions or perforce, we get panicked and become certain that it’s a sign of apocalypse. Surely the end of our own self and sanity, and very possibly, that of the universe as we know it.

I come across that box of yet-to-be-scanned photos from time to time and get a pang: what if I don’t get back to this project before I forget who’s in the photos, where the shots were taken, before the images are too faded or decayed to be rescued at all?

Well, what if?

Honestly, I know full well that it will not be the end of the world. Not even the end of my pleasurable revisiting of those memories–what’s more significant than retaining this flimsy physical repository of memories is whether I use the versions of them in my head and heart while they last (head, heart and memories, all three). Once gone from there, the data held in a picture is only cold, meaningless data after all, and it never contained the warmth and soul of anyone or anything depicted in it. It’s merely a shadow-play version of the husk that is my human form and will no longer be me when I die.

So I’ll keep leafing through these paper and binary mementos of mine as long as it pleases me to do so, remembering mostly that what is seen therein is always more beautifully carried inside me. Change is indeed the only constant, yet in the photograph my great-uncle took, probably in Johannesburg, around sixty years ago there is the ephemeral prototype of the photograph I took in New York less than a decade ago. Fifty years or fifty centuries, it matters little if we learn to respect and rejoice in what remains true and crosses the boundaries of place and time as long as we keep it alive inwardly.

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New York City lives in my own memory as much as in a physical place . . . its beauties, like all things loved and valued, lies in me, in others’ hearts, far more than in itself or any image we can conjure of it . . .

Wish I were There

memento assemblageMuch as I adore where I am at any given moment, I’m not above reminiscing about and longing for other places I’ve enjoyed, or fantasizing about ones I’ve yet to try even in the midst of the current Happy Place. It’s not a matter of comparison, of course, just that persistent tickle at the back of the mind that everyone suffers who has ever been two places–opposite ends of the couch or of the world–that are both pleasing and desirable for their own reasons.memento assemblage

So I can sit in a ray of gilt sunshine, in a high-backed soft chair, sipping cool water and feeling quite contented–yet my brain keeps flitting around, from Praha to Portland, from Boston to Berlin, from San Juan Viejo to San Antonio. In my heart, I may be tucked up in a mews in Wexford or striding along the West Side to find a small concert venue after dark in New York. Perhaps inhaling the dazzling steam of glorious Indian food in a surprise find restaurant in Oslo, watching the koi slide through their semi-tropical pond under the snow-frosted glass pyramid of the conservatory in Edmonton or testing the tenderness of lovingly handmade pasta in a cozy family ristorante in Bolzano.memento

Wherever I may be, my thoughts will always drift. It’s not the least a sign of dissatisfaction or discontent, but rather that I’ve found delight and happiness in such a wide variety of places that they all compete for attention even (or perhaps especially) when I am full of well-being. There is so much beauty to be enjoyed in the world and there are so many great sensory experiences to be had that the soul grows restless for them.memento assemblage

Much as I like my reminiscences and the memories of all of those fantastic places I’ve journeyed, the astonishing and dear people who have welcomed me there and introduced me to each place’s peculiarities and pleasures, and the thought of all of the songs, foods, walks, sights and adventures that have enriched every one of those times, I am always hungry for more. The sweet sense of something marvelous that’s yet-to-come is as poignant and piquant as the promise of any other sort of romance, and my wishes always lean toward the more-ish, especially when the outing is made hand in hand with my dearest companion. Though the old-fashioned postcard tradition for travelers may have been to write to friends and loved ones saying ‘Wish you were here’, the truth is more often that I wish I were nearer to them, wherever they are.memento assemblage

I Left My Car in San Francisco

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Edmonton

Many cities are best appreciated on foot. No matter how plush or sexy a car you have, sitting in it immobile in ugly traffic is just as unattractive as ever–maybe more so, if you’re thinking that somewhere in the next six blocks, if you can ever traverse them, is the bling-swinging pedestrian, high-speed messenger’s bicycle or runaway shopping cart with your pretty car’s number on it, and nowhere in the next eighteen blocks is there such a thing as a parking space for under $40, should you negotiate the next six unscathed. Life in a car is rough enough.

But there’s so much you can see and do on foot anyway that is unattainable or at least seldom noticed from inside a car. Window shopping while driving is no safer or more successfully accomplished than texting at the steering wheel. People watching, one of the best entertainments and learning tools known to observant persons, is at best a fleeting glimpse while driving past, not like the pedestrian’s opportunity to slow down and say hello or, more covertly, sit on the nearest bench and watch the whole human show parade along its way. Some cities, like San Francisco and Prague, Seattle and Stockholm, have enough narrow hilly streets that you can’t see halfway along the block, let alone what’s up over the hill’s crest or down around the next curve.

But if you were trying to operate automotively anyway, how would you be close enough to smell the smoke of a wood-fired oven drifting out a cafe window, to peer in and notice a gilt coffered ceiling behind the revolving door of an old bank building, to catch the eye of the shop proprietor who winks at you out of the dim interior so slyly that you can’t resist going in to see the hand-woven silks so ravishingly gleaming under the curved glass of that ancient mahogany display cabinet? What chance would you have of getting ever so slightly jostled off your straight walking path so that you notice that in the almost invisible gap next to you, between the bent copper drainpipe on the left and the broken rusty post-box on the right, a narrow cobbled alley appears, with sunlight spilling into it in ragged patterns created by its tiny balconies swathed in brilliant yellow and red and purple flowers?

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Denton

I’ve always preferred in-town meanders of the bipedal variety over wheeled ones, especially those exploratory ones in a new town or just a new part of a familiar town. If there’s not too much ground to cover, I covet the freedom I have to stop and gape, to slow down, take sudden unplanned tours and detours, to take pictures of the quirky oddity that almostescaped my eye. The fitness that comes from walking certainly beats that of planting my posterior in a car seat, no matter how tensely city traffic might make me perch there, and if I do get weary there are not only refurbished old trams, pedicabs, monorails and water taxis to deliver me from my exhausted state to my actual destination if necessary, or better yet, a nice leisurely cafe break at a sidewalk table with a sparkling mineral water in hand and dark sunglasses on so I can see all of the action nearby without appearing to stare too disconcertingly while I catch my breath and give my aging parts a little welcome recovery time. I’m just grateful to have two functional legs, no matter how modest my fitness level happens to be.

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Casco Viejo

Since my dyslexic gifts (yes, I just spelled it dsylexic before editing) include complete lack of an inner compass, one of the particularities of strolling wanders for me is that I must always allow plenty of time, and assume a fair likelihood that I will be well and truly lost at least once per outing. Including in my home town. Possibly in my own yard. But so far I’ve always found my way back again, like the proverbial Bad Penny, and remained alive and unharmed. I’m reasonably canny about not going into dicey areas alone or after dusk, taking off without an emergency cell phone (now that I finally have one, though it really is strictly for emergencies thankfully), or going for a genuine who-knows-where expedition without telling someone. But beyond that, plus some welcome good luck and guardian angel accompaniments, I can say with a certain amount of pleasure, surprise and/or pride that many of my best adventures have happened as a direct result of just staying close to the ground and taking advantage of the fortuitous events that occurred along the way, embracing the goodness of the fun and fascinating people who cross paths with me in those fine and serendipitous ways that happen when you let them. They can’t put that stuff in tourist guidebooks.

So I’m glad that I got out and left behind any car in so many grand places, or I’d never have loved them so well. Munich, New York, Verona, Chicago, London .. . would any of them have been a tenth as lovely from a car as on foot? It’s possible, I suppose, but I wouldn’t take back a single pair of my worn-out soles to find out for certain. I suspect more truly that it’s because I get up and leave my car in all those wonderful, fantastic places that I end up leaving my heart in all of them too.

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Boston