Every so often I go out on a Friday night to remind myself how much I don’t like going out on Friday nights. My excursions are seldom ever internally motivated – usually I get persuaded by an exuberant friend starved for the thrills of urban nightlife. But I always immediately regret it.
To me, nightlife is suffocating in a mass of sweaty bodies, drowning in the inescapably oppressive noise of over-amplified music, reluctantly being held hostage by social decency as I pretend to enjoy myself as the night ticks away into the wee hours of the morning and the bar tab crawls higher and higher. Often I wonder who else is only pretending to enjoy themselves.
And thus encapsulates my feelings towards cities in general. What is it about the thrill of urban possibilities that so captivates my fellow man? My existence in geography is a battle to find the open road and stretch my arms into space – to escape the crowds and the noise and enjoy the peace of desolation, wherever it may be. I recall my travels abroad, a school trip in Italy; we went from city to city to city, museum to cathedral to museum to cathedral, and it was all stunning, but it wasn’t until we reached the remote countryside that I let out a sigh and thought to myself, “Yes. We have arrived.”
Too often I see tourists follow urban itineraries seemingly unaware that a world exists outside of the concrete jungle. Of course there are the usual London -> Paris -> Rome -> Berlin tourists (throw in Amsterdam or Barcelona perhaps), and the country is passed through via train for a brief taste. Some people even go to the Alps or the Riviera, which are definitely lovely. But there’s something to be said about stepping into some sleepy town and dedicating a piece of yourself and your time to what it has to offer.
Allow me to quote a passage by Antun Šoljan, from his short story, A Brief Excursion. In this story, a crew of scholars are reluctantly walking through the Yugoslav countryside after their bus breaks down, and they stumble upon a small village.
“[This is] a place that owes things to you with this noble, old-fashioned courtesy for the attention you pay it. The place feels noticed, honored, and it returns the honor to you in kind. It gives what it has to give. We must value that, because it is giving what it has. Maybe all that it has. A house in the distance. A stone wall. A little field.
Take Paris, for instance. I have been all over the world, but it was clearest to me in Paris. What did Paris actually have to offer me? It did not deign to notice me at all. It did not return my attentions, if you see what I’m getting at . . . Now, it isn’t that I was indifferent to Paris. I was not. Quite the contrary. Who could be indifferent – sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine et nos amours, and so forth, or as one of my uncles, a globetrotter and old rapscallion, used to say:
When I was in Paris
I saw the Mona Lisa
and he’d always end it with the vulgar part of the song in a whisper in a close duet with my old man, so I don’t know those last words to this day. Maybe I did come to Paris ignorant and naive. But I sure was not indifferent. Still, Paris was indifferent to me. That is one whore of a place. It takes you in a way a whore takes her clients. Everybody trampled it like a plucked hen. It takes in everybody the same. A whore, I tell you. It flirts, true enough, but it flirts impersonally, commercially, with anyone who comes along. It picks your pocket completely asexually, to get your wallet. Whore.
This is a place, you see, which is like a woman in love. It knows you are there. It takes you into account. It waits for you gratefully, because it knows that you are coming to see it and nothing else. It accepts you. That, my friends, is not flirtation; that is love. It awards you with its modest beauties, but it gives them only to you. A person can get rich that way. It isn’t the money, or the knowledge, or the slyness, or anything that make you rich – it is the love and the belonging. Only a place can give you that. Only a place like this.”