How To Belong
“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or, perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
The sun was falling asleep when I arrived in Essen. I had forgotten how many days I was entering in Europe, but the trip was a seamless transit from city to city. In each city, I stayed long enough to memorise the train routes, but short enough that I didn’t become particularly attached to any of them. Underneath the somnolent sky, the car drove gently down the highway while the rest of the passengers listened to the classical music from the radio, and I took the last sleep I would have before falling completely in love. A few hours later, we arrived. Everything was dark, cold, and closed for the night, except for a little bookstore bathed in light at the end of the block. A few hours later, I fell in love.
Cities contain its own rule of conduct and morals, along with intrinsic aesthetic values, told through buildings and streets. When we exist in a city, we attempt to imprint ourselves into its consciousness. We take photographs, write in journals, collect mementos, we create proper manifestations of our version of the city. Because we are foreigners to the city, we do not possess the desires, the fears, the secrets that create the city. We are not privy to the memories and emotions are concealed within the landscape we traverse through. We find it easier to fall in love with the people we encounter, instead of falling in love with the city itself.
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a dialogue in which Marco Polo describes to the distant and contemplative, Kublai Khan, visions of the cities he has conquered yet never experienced. Marco Polo hovers in these cities momentarily. He does not stay long enough to portray a complete city. He understands that this is how we become part of the cities we inhabit, while the cities itself, remain unattainable to us. He divides these cities into poetically didactic themes, such as Memories, Desire, Signs, Skies, even Death. He describes Diomira’s crystal theatre, Zaira’s prodigal prince, Maurilia’s postcard landscape. These cities are perfect but it is in the absence of flaws that we are reminded of our entirely human dimension to belong.
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I have fallen in love in every city I’ve been in. These acts are immediate and thoughtless, especially because it happens in a city that I was occupying temporarily and I will probably never return to. The procedure is a mechanical and almost ritualistic approach to immerse myself in these foreign landscapes I will never be able to precisely capture through words alone. It could be a playwright in San Francisco, a photographer in Cologne, an art collector in Amsterdam. It doesn’t matter. I loved them for the cities they existed within.
Falling in love is, at the same time, the most personal and the most impersonal act of exploration we can devote ourselves to. It is only because of the spectrality and finitude of love that it is effortlessly used as a method of remembrance. We do not need tools such as pencils, journals, cameras, or film rolls. We do not need the patience of a collector who looks for postcards or other modern forms of mass-produced paraphernalia. The only thing we would need, is a fully-functioning heart. This way, falling in love becomes a replacement for our inability to feel like we belong.
“The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind. Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.”
––Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
The sun was waking up when I left Essen. Remarkably, out of all the cities I passed through, Essen was the briefest stay of all. I stayed from 7pm to 7am. During those 12 hours, I experienced Essen. I watched a literary discussion in the bookstore, I walked down numerous city blocks, I sat under a blanket in a bar discussing Schopenhauer and Sasha Grey, I smoked cigarettes, I drank absinthe, and I fell in love with Max. In the morning, I left his apartment and went to the train station. Underneath the coruscating sky, the train passed through field after field, while the rest of the passengers read their newspapers, and I took the first sleep I would have after falling completely in love. A few hours later, I arrived in Frankfurt, the last city. Everything was bright, cold, and open. I memorised the routes and the roads. I went to museums, galleries, art cinemas, bookstores, restaurants, bars, and parks. I explored the city, sometimes with new friends, sometimes alone, but somehow, my heart was set in Essen.
There will be times when cities seem to coalesce together, when we mistake one city for another, when we relief a city from expectations and handle it as a memory should be. Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Essen. However, my memories, once they are fixed in words, are infinite. Perhaps I was afraid of losing Essen all at once, if I speak of it. Or, perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little. It doesn’t matter. I will love any city that he exists within. And that is how I learned to belong.