My friend B. gave me a gift card for a coffee shop chain, for Christmas. He said it would allow him to buy me a coffee or hot chocolate if I ever really needed one, and he was not there in person. I figured that if I were in London, he would want to buy me a birthday mugful, to celebrate. So, in a way, I had him with me, in this new city where I am still a stranger, as I ordered a gingerbread latte. Half a shot of espresso but double ginger. No milk froth. Take away. “There you are, young lady,” said the barista. Young? I had not heard that in a while. Lately, in London, men have been offering me their seats on the Tube. It made me smile, as I followed the winding streets towards the market place and the now familiar sights. The Big Issue seller with the jester hat, guaranteeing “no horse meat” in the magazine. The market stalls with their bright stripy canopies. The imposing, stern Norman church, rising at the top of the slope, dominating the square. The rain seeps through me in spite of my umbrella. It generally rains on my birthday, even when I am in a Mediterranean country. I think I was born on a rainy day.
I take a sip of my gingerbread latte. For me, it will always be a taste of New York. The memory of Broadway shows, of sheared rabbit earmuffs, of strolls down 42nd Street, of the Chrysler Building soaring hopefully into the sky, and of Billie Holiday’s voice blasting from a kiosk on Union Square on a snowy Sunday morning. I fell in love with New York whilst still on the bus from JFK to Manhattan. It is for me the city of Optimism.
Every city I have visited, so far, has greeted me with a predominant feeling or impression within a day or so. Sometimes, within hours. In Cambridge, it was the self-assured individuality of every building, and that unmistakable, moonbeam sound of King’s College evensong. Cambridge, for me, is the joyful and blood-stirring Pursuit of Perfection. The grey, majestic, Norman towers of Durham instill in me a desire for Reading and Research. An echo of Ancient Knowledge. Venice, with its Moorish arches and murmuring waters, advocates the Pleasure of the Senses. Brugge, another favourite city of mine, with its crow-stepped gables and minutely crafted bas-reliefs, evokes the love of Precision, and Pride in One’s Work.
It is this predominant feeling that has not yet come upon me in this new city I appear to have moved to, that I am seeking. Without this impression, I am lost. I need to know how I feel about this city – an identity with which my mind can match it – so that I can have an anchor. Only then, will I be able to decide whether or not to drop my anchor here. Until then, I am like the unsettled Flying Dutchman. When I close my eyes, at night, I cannot remember the arrangement of the streets and seek, in vain, to picture a specific landmark – even though it is a city rich in ancient and beautiful buildings. I like the Cathedral spire that plays hide-and-seek with the fog, and its atmospheric monastic cloisters. I am slowly befriending the odd-looking, cubic Norman castle and its promise of sinister tales. My heart, lungs and thigh muscles are learning the rhythm of walking up the deceptively steep hills (when Noël Coward described this county as “flat”, he clearly had never been here, or was using heavy sarcasm). I can recommend going to sit in Lady Julian’s cell, to enjoy the peaceful silence and collect one’s thoughts. My inner urban rat natural distrust is easing into accepting the genuine friendliness and willingness to help of the local folk. Their obvious love for and pride in their city make me feel welcome. When I say that I am trying to move here, they reply that I could not have chosen a better place. I guess there is no better place, for a writer and translator, than England’s first ever UNESCO City of Literature. A city with a unique history of contribution to words.
I just need to find that feeling. That impression. A sign. Please, Norwich, won’t you give me a sign, as a birthday present?