I live in Sydney Australia, but my memories roam the world; memories of places visited, memories of reading about places I want to visit, memories that resonate from the first encounter and others intensified by experiencing it again. A forlorn glimpse of the still intact Berlin Wall and unkempt Brandenburg Gate, on a day trip to Berlin in 1988, is a stark contrast to the brushed glamour of 2016, the modern Adler Hotel, a resurgence of earlier glory and later decrepitude. Cities thrive on landmarks in different eras not just of their initial building but of re-mouldings that eventually typify their city home.
Similarly, experiences that pierce from the moment you live them can become so redolent of the city’s atmosphere they engrain your mind.
Singapore’s street stalls, for a long time now in food courts and shopping centres, were a far more haphazard transaction when I first visited the city-state in 1978. Every night at six o’clock a flotilla of wiry men in white vests scurried around a carpark, after it had shut for cars, to ready it for incoming street stallholders.
They unfolded tables and tumbled out chairs to prepare for the rapid-fire turnover of locals and travelers who ate at this famous food area within prime real estate. Gas-fired cooktops unveiled for their dancing woks, funnels of oil, spatulas and chopsticks, mountains of vegetables, sliced protein and noodles dunked in boiling water and unraveled for diners in this crackling testimony to taste and inventiveness.
The Orchard Road carpark. I cannot remember whether it was listed in Lonely Planet’s, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, the obligatory guide back then, but it mesmerised me night after night, my love affair with the vivacity, skills and final product of these conjurers. I ate well and became addicted to fried banana (pisang goreng). It was short-lived but I loved the crispy exterior and mushy inside, surprised at how I couldn’t resist a fruit I normally avoided. I have since read that South-East Asia has many of its own banana species; these must have been some of them. It blew me away.
Cities – a constant in my life
I have always loved cities, even while recognising how fraught they are, crowded, often impersonal and unfriendly, tiring and expensive. Yet, turn around these characteristics and you have what makes cities so magnetic: the variety of people, their push and energy, the possibilities of an unlikely, intimate smile, as well as the choice of café, bar, gallery, museum, library, college, a pulsating mix that smaller places cannot match in number and scope.
Even when frustrated by the shoving and insolence and people rushing and focused on their mobile phones; even when lost and walking miles to catch public transport or driving round and round to find a parking spot, the chance of spying the unexpected, a laneway, expansive park or lake or harbour beach, or fantastic shop window, grand sandstone column, fluttering festival banner, expressive graffiti, makes it worthwhile. I may not go to most of the performances and films showing around the place but I enjoy knowing they are on and attracting audiences who will sit back and like them or not, bums on seats, mind somewhere else.
When choosing a university to go to, for a North of England lass like me, London was it. Seeing Europe on interrail, travelling through Asia to Kathmandu, across North America, South and North-East Asia, working in Hong Kong, settling in Australia, all this was driven by a preoccupation with cities. My heart still leaps at images of Shibuya’s intersecting zebra crossings, infuriating to cross in one sense, exhilarating in another. That is the city combo, a quintessential part of liveable cities, not always pleasant but dynamic, amalgamations of past and present, culture and politics, amalgamations that will continue every day because that is what life is about.
How do you capture a city? its essence, its personality, its problems, its places where people live and work, have fun and rebuff sorrow? Cities are about people who care about the city and inspire others also to do so: city makers, city off-beats, city thinkers, each with stories to tell.
Cities are also about magnetising potential visitors. Everyone has their Barcelona, the city they want to visit but travel arrangements or family commitments thwart them. When we emerge from this COVID-19 world, I want capturing this city, elusive to me so far, to head my pipeline of hope.