Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 14, 2020

The world’s cities, like souveneirs collected

By KATIE B | October 9, 2014

As an avid globe-trotter, I almost always require a change of scenery. Happiness is the date and time on a plane ticket to somewhere far away. Every new place is intoxicating — but then comes the hangover. I don’t buy silly little fridge magnets; I try to keep the cities bottled as atmospheres, moods and characters for my growing collection. Fancy a sniff?

London: Londoners are mostly awfully polite, but my London was rude and rough, like “Time for Heroes” by The Libertines. I solved the Sudokus at the back of the free subway newspaper every day. “Victoria Station,” “Oxford Street” and, of course, the “Camden Town.” Before you get out the announcer will say, “Mind the gap between the train and the station” because the announcer cares that you don’t die, probably.

A lot of people kill themselves in this Karenina frenzy, though, so there are often train delays. Life in London can be tough, but Camden is always blissfully unaware. The earth would be a better place if it was one big round Camden. Goblins, goths, monsters, drug addicts, artists, hippies, hipsters and everyone else in-between feels at home here (Amy Winehouse’s favorite place). There is no such thing as “weird” there, unless maybe some form of “business professional.”

London was a myth: bloody historical revival of Sweeney Todd, Sherlock Holmes’s dusty flat and the best modern art museum in the world, where humans went from here to there and then around creating crowded directed movement as a form of expression. London was fedora hats, writing “rapture of vertigo” on a wall in the rain with someone you met through Omegle and endless green Jane Austenesque parks.

Venice: Even being in Venice felt like a goodbye. Maybe because we were already warned: “Venice is drowning. Quick! Steal what you can!” The tourists had fed the pigeons on St. Marco square too much, so they were so fat they could barely fly higher than human height. Venice was rain, mimes and masks. Some guy gave me a rose, and I said “Gracias,” but then he asked for money, thus thwarting our Lizzie McGuire-style romance. Italy has the most wonderful shade of blue as background for its soft skies. The tour guide told us some old legend involving lovers and boats. Because of it, whoever sat on the nearby staircase would fall in love. I think I decided against it. In Italy, I ate pasta with a billion different sauces and saw Boticelli’s “Spring,” which I guess is close to feeling immortal.

New York: Susan Sontag thought the beauty in modern cities is the contrast between ornate past and cruel present. New York was all future, future, future. I saw Woody Allen on Fifth pretty high on the New Yorkness scale. At times it felt like a crime to have nothing to do there.

Wandering in search of city definitions, watching Central Park dogs, alone in the MET with scary marble Greek sculptures right before closing time, having Alice in Wonderland-style tea with scones with another Broadway dreamer, etc., etc. All so trivial compared to the bursting, bubbling, circling energy of the city buzz and fuss and busy.

Paris: New York may be masculine, but Paris is the essence of femininity. New York may be science, but Paris is art itself. The art of food, the art of the dress, the art of life... People here wear colorful tights and scarves, fall in love forever every day and still smoke cigarettes like they’re in the 1940s. Paris was a daydream, an invitation and a farce. I still suspect French desserts are delivered straight from heaven.

A Frenchman told me Americans don’t stop to appreciate things. Before you drink, he said, twirl a glass of red wine like they do in movies — smell it, anticipate it, follow it. Don’t just consume. This is the secret to the joie de vivre, of all the casual Parisian reverie. It’s like walking through Rodin’s gates of heaven. Find anything at all: a sign, a love, a silly nothing on Champs Élysées and be amused, but then forget it. Be Marie Antoinette-y.

Moscow: When I say Moscow, I think beautiful, cold-hearted girls, the best ballet on Earth and the smell of old theatres. Read Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita to turn the city bizarre and surreal. Russia and America have a beautiful, complicated, love-hate relationship, and it shows when you talk to people. Everyone in Russia feels bad for secretly wanting some America, consumerism and galore. Everyone in America is also attracted to famous Russia, contrarian and tough. Czars and presidents make the best pairings.

Crans-Montana: Swiss air up in the mountains was so clean that breathing turned into a hobby. Jack Daniels chocolate in the stores, mainly white old people with dogs and lots of classical music is how I remember Crans-Montana. It destroyed all my wishes to be rich: Everyone there was very rich, and everyone was very dead, old and dull. Same café everyday felt like a nice tradition, but same faces every day seemed excessive. There was an inner calm and confidence about the town. One street, called Rue Centrale. No way to get lost, on the outside or on the inside.

Those infected with wanderlust should make sure they are running to something instead of from. After all, to quote Neil Gaiman, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

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