Saturday, May 30, 2009

Home Is Where The Height Is

It feels exhilarating being in a real city again, especially since we’re in a high-rise. There’s something about the altitude that opens up my head, like a fresh breeze blowing through my mind.

Can someone absorb culture by osmosis? Or do you have to be specially tuned to the cosmopolitan broadband, catching the waves of the city only if you’re already sensitised through previous exposure? Libraries and bookshops, museums, art galleries—these are trappings of civilisation, and I’ve always thought it was the mark of a civilised person to take pleasure in them. Likely this is a convenient elitism on my part, as these places are my particular haunts—I hunt them down in every city I come to, and judge the city by what I find.

Having learned to read before I ever saw a schoolroom, I can’t remember not being frustrated with my backwater surroundings, with the idea of people who saw a book as a chore—a deep, murky course filled with unpleasant swimming things, to be waded through only with an army of guides and special tools.

It was only when I was much, much older that I learned to love the outdoors of a city as much as its interiors. The joy of walking especially came late to me, but when I had discovered it, it became nearly as much of an addiction as reading, and for the same reasons. I admit I don’t love walking for its own sake—I hate marching along apace, intent on matching a certain speed or reaching a single destination at a marked time. When I go out I do it to take things in: I walk to see, and the more things I find to look at, the better. I also tend to stop or slow down when I see something interesting, which always defeats any physical benefits I might have gained from my little amble.

Public transport is another mark of a good city: I love the lofty heights of London’s double-decker buses and would often race and outmaneuver children, pregnant women and little old ladies for a front seat on the upper deck, especially on a sunny day. When you know a city well enough you can dispense with the tour buses and their pre-recorded commentaries or scripted guides, and take a visiting friend on their own tailormade (and much cheaper) guided tour: “If you keep looking left you can see the Tate Modern for two seconds. Quick, there it is! And now we’re coming up to the comics shop that I got locked into once…”

Today I come home to a city I lived in for several years and loved better than my own hometown even when I was only visiting. Manila is not a walking city, although parts of it are walkable enough on a cool day. Nor is it much of a public-transport city, unless you want to surrender all pretense of personal space on a jeepney or fork out a wad of cash to a taxi driver who will usually take you the long way round and charge you a rate that bears no resemblance to his metre reading. But it feels like home and always will, as long as it has my old haunts, my favourite bookshops…and some of my favourite people in the world.

After all, what is culture without friends to share it with? Civilisation is society, in the end.

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