To All the Cities I've Loved Before
“You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t.”
Midnight in Paris (2011)
My love affair with cities began from birth. The quote above is spoken about Paris, a city that – I hesitate to admit – I don’t actually like all that much. But with a few exceptions, it’s rare for me to find a great city that I don’t like (for I won’t argue that Paris isn’t a great city, just that it isn’t the city for me. But that is neither here nor there, really).
Born into a big city, perhaps it’s in my nature to gravitate to the fast-paced metropolitan buzz of a city, with scores of buildings crammed together and people from every walk of life living side by side against the relentless thrum of city life. It’s true that I remember very little of my early years in Manchester but I have been back enough to know that it is truly a great city.
But it was my first visit to New York City that opened my eyes to what would become the greatest love of my life. That I was already enamoured by the city before I even arrived speaks volumes although with a city like New York, this is not so unusual. New York is the city of cities, the backdrop for countless books, movies, television shows, and of equal importance to any of the physical characters within them.
My first night in Manhattan, aged thirteen with braces and all, I lay on my stomach by the sloped glass window of our riverside hotel, just across the way from the United Nations building. I gazed at the lit up high rise buildings and I felt the rush of love at first sight. The feeling didn’t lessen in the days to follow – if anything, the opposite, with every honk of a yellow taxicab horn and rush of the subway train passing below.
I would return to New York several times over the years. A wild four day tour with some girl friends for the sake of a charming young actor and his Broadway debut, my first time in the city without my parents. An entire two weeks spent, alone, undertaking a brief film course and tying in my love of film to my love for the city. Commuting back and forth from my hostel with its ever-changing roommates and pretending, just for a moment, that I was a real New Yorker. And then, again, just last year, with one of my best friends to ring in my twenty-third birthday.
One night of that most recent trip, me and my friend ended up in Grand Central Station at around one o’clock in the morning on a weekday. Contrary to how most people see the iconic landmark, it was deserted. We walked through the station, our footsteps echoing on the marble, and tears nearly came to my eyes for how special a moment it was. For how I’d always remember it, in this city that I loved.
In between these various trips to New York, I moved to Edinburgh for university. A city steeped in its history and grand old architecture. A city that is warm and gentle enough for taking those first steps into adulthood but vibrant enough to feel as though one is truly experiencing life in a city. Festivals came and went, trams were built, and the foundations of my life as it is now grew into place. Of all the cities that I love, Edinburgh is perhaps the one I have the most to be thankful for.
And in all of this, London – ah, London. I had been many times over the course of my childhood and teenage years, before I finally moved there myself. That my brother lived there, too, for some of those visits only warmed me to the city more, as though it didn’t already have enough going for it. For my love of theatre, London was the top dog, not to mention a wealth of shopping the likes of which my bank account resented but my heart adored.
By the time I finally moved there, a brief three month interlude in what has been an extraordinarily busy year, it felt so familiar as to not incite the typical just-moved panic. I became a Londoner, a Commuter, with a monthly travel card loaded onto my Oyster and a trendy office in Dalston. It came time to say goodbye all too fast but even then, it seemed more of a see you later than a goodbye. I wondered on that when I moved to Toronto but, then, having visited just a few days ago, I am more sure than ever that I will be returning to London one day.
And before Toronto became my home, a quick stopover to my Nordic roots. Helsinki, such a beautiful city that I return to time and time again, that reminds me of summer’s days and eating fresh berries down by the water. Briefly, too, to Stockholm, a city that I had not visited in many years, and a city that I promptly decided I would, too, live in one day – although where I will find all these days, I just don’t know.
It is funny, then, to think of what it is that I love. For some of these cities are so very old, like Edinburgh, like Stockholm, and some so very new, like New York, like Toronto. They look so very different but it is the feeling of the city, more than the look, that I seem to fall in love with.
Finally, then, to Toronto, although my love for this particular city I have perhaps gushed already too much. Toronto may well be as close as I get to living in New York but with all the things I love about New York, minus just a little of the overwhelming urgency of the Big Apple. With every day, I find something new to love about Toronto, and so I suspect I will continue to in the months to come.
Some people might be amazed by sculptures or paintings or symphonies. But nothing will ever be as beautiful to me as a really great city.