Hope you’re well :).
Last weekend my parents came to visit, and we did London as it is supposed to be done: walking, eating, and visiting all of the free (!) museums. London’s starting to feel familiar in the same way that I love Boston— comfortable in how to get around and the major hubs, belonging to me as a resident and not a tourist. I wonder if I’ll feel such affection for all cities that I get to know… I doubt it in some ways.
In Boston, I love walking through Kendall Square at night and feeling safe but slightly out of depth amidst the smokers and bars; I love seeing people reading academic papers on the buses and hearing the conversations in the Boston Commons. I like the screeching subway stop at Boylston and the new Boston Public Market and Chinatown; I like the street performers at Haymarket and the long rows of gardens and brownstones along Beacon Street. I like the mélange of people from different walks of life and I like how I can drift from being in my comfort zone to mildly unsettled within the span of a couple of blocks. I like the students from innumerable colleges and that there’s always something new. I love that I’m always safe in Boston but on the cusp of being uncomfortable.
(Who knows when I’ll go back to Boston? Maybe a post-doc far in the far future. I’d love to live there someday.)
I love walking along the river in Boston. I love moving through the crowds at sunset, I love the ornate lampposts along the river, I like the rush of suits that flood the City, I love the public markets famous and not. I adore the Tube and all its people—tweens and rugby players and a swaying guy with two black eyes, mothers with out-of-control children, people texting and people in sneakers and couples and chatting friends and tourists. I love the busy-ness and the gawkers and the efficiency of people who have places to be; I love the multitude of parks and the often rain and often sunshine. I love the languages—constantly flowing, and now I startle if I don’t hear languages I don’t recognize as I pass by.
(It’d be far too expensive to live in London, and when I speak everyone knows I’m American. It’s a lovely place to wander with your mouth shut, though. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the Tube.)
I loved Berkeley as soon as I stepped out of the train station. Before that, even: I give disproportionate credit to cities that have public transport from the airport (reading the above paragraphs over, I see I’m just a public transportation kind of girl.) But I was riding up the escalator in the Berkeley station, one step above two conversing professors, and I stepped into the sunlight amidst a medium-side rush of people. Students were waiting to cross at the street corners; small bright storefronts lined the street behind me. I walked purposefully in one direction before I realized and had to turn around; I only had to watch the waves of students to know which direction campus lay. On my way to the hotel I walked between two homeless men, and four were chatting it up around a bench on the next street. My hotel gave me a sheet of paper that told me I could get a free beer or a snack pack if I forewent daily towel cleaning, in the pursuit of environmentalism. (A pack of cookies appeared the next day.) The campus itself was green and walkable and filled with tall white-stoned buildings and students in every direction. I said at the time that it felt like “home” in the immediate way that Wellesley’s campus had five years ago. I don’t know that I would like have liked Berkeley as much five years ago, but it fits me now.
(Though isn’t it funny that I regardless of what I say I end up at places like Edina (my hometown), Wellesley, Cambridge, Berkeley’s campus: safe, enclosed, generally affluent spaces with academic focuses. Or really not unusual at all…?)
Cambridge is beautiful, and I will always miss the people and communities here. The internationality and open-mindedness of especially the graduate community never fails to astonish me. The architecture especially of the old Colleges is stupendous. I was biking home and looked over to my right and a multiple-century old church suddenly materialized. Academics have been working in these buildings for centuries.
There are a few things about Cambridge that don’t work for me, but that’s far more a reflection of who I am and what I value than to say this city isn’t “home” for many people I know. Note that at least in its city centre, Cambridge is dominated by University culture, and this is the culture that I am familiar with. It is an astonishing privilege to study here, and I only mean to discuss how I personally feel about the city, as I have been discussing my personal reactions to the cultures of other cities where I have lived.
One of the idiosyncrasies that don’t let me appreciate the majesty of Cambridge is that I do not value history. It is unfortunate, but I don’t value history for its own sake, and worse, I don’t often value artistry, two huge pillars of strength in Cambridge. I do value status, but my definition is slightly misaligned from the norm. I do not value tradition. I’m fine with rules and hierarchies but can get frustrated when I feel they are arbitrary; and though I know I neglect so many instances of inequality in my daily life, I admire when resources are broadly accessible. I also tend to larger cities, with their ability to host many stores and late hours.
I have been speaking with others, who love Cambridge for so many reasons, many of which actually list the same traits I describe. Its smallness, its history, its power, its beauty, its traditions. I adore the fact that everyone bikes here, and I love its migrant population. We are all different.
(As long as you’re happy to call a place your current home, I suppose it doesn’t really matter.)
I often wonder how many of my preferences are particular to me, and how many of them are influences from American culture. I’m still in search of what makes me American—before I left the country, I was hardly patriotic, but I’m now firmly aware that I am from the States and want to be. It’s frustrating that I can’t articulate why I like the US despite its problems, or when I don’t know things about my home country when I’m supposed to be an expert. It’s strange to me that after almost seven months, I’m still as in the dark about this as I was my first month.
There’s so much implicit in our daily happenings and behaviours— and the urge to lay down rules and structure, do dimensionality reduction, explain things, is just as human. No one seems to have the answer to this one, or at least no one’s been able to explain it to me—what it means to be from a certain culture. It’s too large, too much unconscious, just something that is vaguely known.
So many questions to answer, and that’s just in regards to figuring out who we are. The Neanderthals existed for almost 2 million years apparently, and we’ve only been here for a few tens of thousands, and will almost certainly burn ourselves out before a million. Fleeting musings about fleeing cultures.
Do you have favorite cities?