Is two weeks long enough for a new city and you to decide whether you would make a good team?
Well, two weeks is all I have.
The fog was so thick, this morning, it had swallowed up the Cathedral spire. In a city where I do not know a soul, it was unnerving not to see the familiar landmark. In a new city where everything and everyone seems strange and alien, buildings become your first friends. The winding cobbled street with the Teddy Bear shop. The unnaturally white, unnaturally square Norman castle that looks like a sugar cube; or a sandcastle come out of a mould. The large, late Mediaeval church dominating the market place.
As soon as I got off the train, last Tuesday, I smiled. I kept smiling even as I discovered, whilst dragging my two heavy suitcases, that – contrary to my previous notion – this is a place full of hills. I wanted to introduce myself to this new city with a smile. I wanted to make a good impression.
The city smiled back. A shy smile, through the bleak grey sky and the grey stone buildings but, I think, it was a smile.
You prepare for so many possible problems and hurdles, when you go to an unknown place. I thought I had anticipated every difficulty. One thing I had not anticipated was acute physical pain. Sharp, burning pain in my back where the cold and damp air had penetrated, grabbed a muscle in its fist and twisted. Let’s see what you are made of. Let’s see how determined you are. Let’s see if I tighten my fingers around your shoulder blade. What if I dig in my nails? What – not smiling? I hope the sun – that looked like a brilliant white china plate behind the grey clouds, today – elects to smile at me, soon, and steps out in its golden glory to warm my chilled back.
When I pack to go to a new city, I choose the most neutral clothes. Nothing to attract attention. I want to be able to spy on the city before it notices me. My tweed flat cap is not suitable, I told myself, choosing, instead, the dark brown beret. It is too striking, too bohemian – too London. Then, at the last minute, I put it on my head. That flat cap is me. In this new city, I thought, I want to remember who I am.
It is a beautiful little city. I can walk across it in an hour. Passers-by smile when they meet your eye. They stop what they are doing to show you the way. A glint of amusement flashes across their faces when I tell them I am studying the city, as a potential new home. “We call this city ‘the graveyard of ambition’,” someone told me, this afternoon. It is the second time I have heard this, in three days.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we have all these high-flying big city people coming here, taking a look, loving the place so much they decide to stay here.”
I have been to cities with much worse reputations.