The Persona of Places

No one believes it, but a place is a lot like a person. Some cities are lovely in the still of morning, as the day breaks and all is quiet. Then, as the day progresses, they lose their magic. Other cities are nothing to look at. The buildings are boxy and bland; the trees are feeble, barely holding up their branches in the air. Nothing much happens there, other than the small quotidian tragedies. A child skins his knee. A wife cries somewhere in a freshly swept room. A man comes home to a cold dinner and a warm TV set. The days stretch out in such places like a long uninhabited road. Then one day you notice that, in spite of yourself, you’ve fallen for the rhythm of the place, for the hidden metronome that marks the hours, for the pace of the inhabitants, the up-down calm breath of their longings and reveries. And then you leave, and you remember only later, in another town, far away, sitting sipping hot coffee and idly looking at the faces of the passers-by. It’s only then that you realize how much you miss the former place. From that point on you long for it, you yearn for its hot breeze and the sound of the children frolicking in its playgrounds. You long for its streets, cobblestone or pavement or plain dirt trails in geometric journeys to nowhere or in coordinated paths to the zoo, the post office, the city square or the house with the broken shutters and the vine clinging to its stone walls.

You yearn to breathe the air, that particular blend of bread and sage and exhaust fumes. You never tell anyone about this yearning. Or, if you do, they promptly remind you that happiness is not any one place — that it resides in you. You’ve heard these homely analyses before. You know they’re wrong.

In the dead hours of the night, you think about that place you’ve abandoned, as you listen to the swoosh of the traffic outside. Or when you’re alone in a hot room, after a lonely meal. You never forget. You dream of it. You may never return.

Other places exert a pull, a fascination, that leads you to them inexorably. At first the very air vibrates with promise. Your head swims, your skin tingles. You’re imbued with surfeits of energy that have you waking up at five in the morning just to catch the sun making its way up on the horizon. You notice little signs that seem to welcome you: the way the greengrocer recognizes you after only a couple of days. You find shortcuts longtime residents are unaware of. You might dream of something, like a tall glass of lemonade just like the one your mother used to make, and you get it the next day. Everything clicks into place and the future looks bright like morning. And then, just as suddenly, your life spins out of control. For every easy accomplishment, there are two setbacks. You look up one day and you don’t know yourself. You feel like a ventriloquist, making up lines for someone else’s benefit. You don’t know who you are or where home is and the city is eating you alive — starting first with the coils of your brain. There are some places as enticing as a Venus fly-trap, from which there’s no escape. You notice it in the lifeless eyes of the city-dwellers; in the resonating rumble of the train as it passes through the bowels of the city.

This is restlessness. This is the travelogue of the forever homeward-bound for whom home has become a memory; of those who look into the warm amber glow of strangers’ windows as the train they’re on sends them headlong into a new and unknown destination. This is the fate of the displaced cosmopolitans who know the native customs but who can barely comprehend their mother tongue. For them, home is the fleeting aroma of just-brewed coffee, the evanescent scent of lavender on recently scrubbed tiles, or the distinctive accent of a stranger from the forgotten homeland, of someone they can’t bring themselves to approach in spite of a strong urge and when they’ve finally made up their minds to do so, just as suddenly, the stranger’s gone.