Cities and Reflections
Essay on Perception
Published in Pif Magazine, Issue No. 262 ~ March, 2019
Sometimes, it takes hours of staring at a white page or a grey skyline of Seattle (viewed from my co-working office on Lake Union) to get the words flowing. Sometimes, thoughts, still unformed into words, burst into my mind to haunt me, uninvited and insistent. Haunting thoughts scream as loudly as my daughters when they start a fight over a thing that they both want at the same instant. The words “want” and “instant” now resound in my head; the echoes guide my fingers to the keyboard, and the words appear on the page.
I glance away from the screen to find out that Lake Union and the afternoon sky above Seattle have taken on the same shade of grey – a dull metallic silver, similar to the one they use to paint inexpensive cars. The grey today is impenetrable even for the mighty Sun, so the water surface does not reflect the city as it does on a bright day. As it did yesterday. A reflection of a city in water is my favorite kind of image.
During my last visit to Los Angeles, I thought about cities: their geography, colors, shapes, attitude, character. And whenever I think about cities, I reach for Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, the book that I might have read as many times as a priest read the Bible. And in three languages to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood a word or overlooked an image.
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else,” wrote Calvino.
Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, I repeat. And Los Angeles, more than other cities, seems made of desires, grown and sustained on promises.
With my eyes back on the page, now I comprehend the two words. They didn’t appear uninvited, I brought them from my trip. “Want,” and “Instant” are the echoes of Los Angeles.
L, my Seattleite friend I traveled with, wants to move to LA. Her “want” is momentous and urgent. She, an impulsive and candid woman addicted to the infatuating feeling of joy, saw Los Angeles, in all its brightness and vastness, a perfect answer to her life’s questions. She expressed her desire to move there the instant we arrived, the instant the Californian sun caressed her skin. Our daughters (four girls in total), baffled and overwhelmed by the new experience, wanted random things every moment. Snacks, ice-cream, lollipops, roller skates, apple juice, chocolate milk, princess dresses, sparkly shoes, sea shells, YouTube on the phone, playgrounds; they wanted to be picked up or let alone, they wanted to swim in the cold Pacific but feel the summer warmth, they didn’t want to wait in lines in Disneyland but wanted the experience of the rides, they wanted to go home but not to climb into the car, then coming out of the car, they argued about who was going to open the door, everyone wanted the same at all times, no one wanted to take turns. Their desires seemed as big as the ocean. And very very loud.
I desired to find a water surface that mirrors the city, sit quietly for half hour, and take that alternate look at Los Angeles to see the city’s depth.
However, in Los Angeles, regardless of all the fortunes the city has been blessed with, I didn’t find a water mirror. Desiderius of my missing view, I ended each day (when all the little girls quieted) reflecting on other cities. Those that reflect in rivers, and those that reflect in lakes. The port towns huddled in bays that with all their anchored boats reflect in the sea’s shallow waters. And the towns that, like Venice (in Italy), are built on canals, duplicate. Every inch of Venice is mirrored. Also, I thought of how New York reflects in glass, the kaleidoscopic city charms travelers, questioning their perception.
People observe cities differently. One friend looks from the ground up, another from the top down. I look for reflections, my friend L pays attention to the city’s movements. She embraces or rejects places; I meditate on them. Perhaps, all these thoughts came to me as the result of L’s sudden urgency to relocate to Los Angeles. Perhaps, I am envious because I didn’t find that seductive sentiment of belonging that I sometimes see in other places away from home. That grounding, earthly sense that takes over my body in New York, pulling me deeper and deeper into the city. Is this the fault of the city’s geography, colors, shapes, attitude, or character? None or all of the mentioned?
This visit wasn’t my first time in the city of dreamers, and it wasn’t my first time to feel indifference instead of imagined delight.
There is a sentence in Invisible Cities saying, “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds a past of his again that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
As I repeat the words “the foreignness of what you no longer are,” I understand why I am not attracted to this city that dazzles millions.
I am no longer the same dreamer I used to be. I grew to become a thinker.
Dreamers see images in their mind’s eye of the life they envision, of all they want to create, possess, or experience. Those images incite in them the feelings that get as real as if their dreams have already realized.
Thinkers live with a traffic jam of interconnected thoughts. Thoughts crashing upon one another, ideas reflected in one another. Each new thought is a reflection of a previous one, and a starting point of the one that follows. Quickly, in the mind of a thinker, a river of thoughts is formed. Because of the fluid character of their minds, thinkers need to live close to the water.
Although the parts of Los Angeles are on the shore, the swells of the waves, wild and impetuous, restrict reflections.
I hold homes in two cities that reflect. Belgrade, my birth town, stretches along the banks of two rivers that come together at the heart of the city allowing the city to breathe in them, day and night. When a river enables a city to mirror in its water, the city grows deep and profound, wise and thoughtful. The river, having adopted the city’s reflection fills up with its secrets. This I call the water mirror effect. And no thinker, having experienced it, can ever settle in a city without reflections.
Seattle is a city that mirrors in lakes. In Invisible Cities, we can read about Valdrada,
“on the shores of a lake, with houses all verandas one above the other, and high streets whose railed parapets look out over the water. Thus the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat.”
When I travel, I like to steal a moment to sit quietly and stare at new water mirrors, noticing the lines of cities changing and twinkling among the molecules of water. There, I let go of my thoughts, reflection after reflection until eventually, I reach the bottom of the pool. Of a river, a lake, a sea.
“You take delight, not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer, it gives to a question of yours,” wrote Calvino.
To find answers I need depth rather than vastness or height, to find answers I need an alternate view rather than an immense view from a hill’s top that proudly shows how a city was imagined and built to perfection in straight and parallel lines. From the viewpoint of Griffith Park, one can witness how efficiently and tidily Los Angeles stretches from the hills towards the ocean. If we trace the stripes of the boulevards, we can cut the entire city into squares and rectangles. Or, if we bend it by its avenues, maybe, we can fold and fold and fold until the city is neat enough to be stowed for safety. Recalling my ever-favorite hill’s top view, I conjure the contours of Paris from the top of Montmartre, and I understand what is that the city of dreamers is missing.
A delight of a surprise, of the unknown, of the unexpected.
A thrill that a curving road bestows upon us as it stretches ever so narrowly in front of our eyes, then disappears around the bend, into novelty.
Angular shapes, dead-end streets, misshapen boulevards across which tram trails have to meander like rivers, neighborhoods that cannot be diagramed in squares, and water mirrors safeguarding cities’ different faces. At times, distorted and deceitful. At times, more authentic than the cities themselves.
A city that doesn’t have water to be seen in is not livable. A city without water is a city without bridges. Bridges make connections. A city without water mirrors is a city without depth.
Grey as it gets, Seattle surrounded by water, still finds those magical breaks of light during a day to reflect its soul in lakes. To reflect my soul in the lake. To pull me into the deep where the answers are.