Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Living in the city (but which one?)

Flying in, yesterday, from Los Angeles I went from a city where the air is usually so dry and hot that I forget how close I am to the ocean, to a city where the salty sea air is so ever present you can actually see it, for a few hours, until the fog burns away. Approaching the bay area, I saw many waterways, manmade and otherwise, and the dark, leafy green of vegetation in abundance. Leaving LA I mostly saw the pale, muted colors of parched earth and concrete dotted by the occasional bright blue swimming pool.

I've been thinking a lot, lately, about different cities. At least the one's I've been fortunate enough to have lived in or visited. And playing one of my favorite mental games (less a game than a necessity these days)---which city will I live in next?

First, San Francisco and the bay area. I love it here. Most of the best and the worst things in my life have happened here. I love how pretty this place is and all the distinctly different neighborhoods it has, like North Beach with it's bad coffee and overprice food balanced out by the colorful characters and bars full of free entertainment. The Mission where you never have to speak or hear a word of english if you don't want to. Alameda (where I live) with its quiet, small town cuteness, where I can walk around late at night and still feel perfectly safe, where every street I know by heart. Then again, I hate it here too. How, despite how close things are here, because of traffic and parking, it still takes forever to get to most places. How everything here is too familiar, too close. How too many relationships have soured in recent years. How ready I am for change.

Next Los Angeles. For most bay area natives LA seems like another state altogether. We have a lot of bad things to say about it. We bristle whenever we hear them say, Frisco. But on my most recent visit there I had time to reconsider some of my opinions. For one thing Los Angeles has amazing museums, places worth spending an entire day or more exploring. Since most people have to drive long distances to get there I suppose it has to be. And driving in LA, over the freeways and through different areas, after seeing mile after mile of unimaginative sameness which would lull me into some kind of eyeball stupor, I would then be struck, more times than I once thought possible, by the beauty of the place.

That unimaginative sameness, that cheap, quick to build architecture is, I think, justifiably poked fun of and disliked. Human beings need beauty and all those plain box buildings and nothing facades cheats viewers out of the pleasure they might have experienced had the builders spent a little more care and thought towards their neighbors. Then again you can choose to see all those plain buildings as blank canvases. How many creators have been drawn there to let their imaginations loose? (Hmm, didn't Steve Martin mention as much in some movie?) No wonder LA is known for its street art. I just wish everyone would get in on it, leaving no wall untouched by an artist, trained or not.

Next, New York. The Met, the Society of Illustrators, the history, the theatre, the shopping, the food. I would live there if I could afford it. Nuff said.

Ditto for London. At least, thank God, the museums are free in both cities.

Next, Vancouver B. C. and Seattle. They're both prettier and cheaper to live in than the bay area. Then again they're far too similar as well for me to consider moving there. Unless, of course, I got a job in either city.

Next, Toronto (and Quebec City, Montreal and Ottowa). All very nice cities, all very livable, cheap, pretty and interesting places to live or visit. But, again I'd have to get a job there to consider relocating to anywhere in that part of that world.

Next, Tokyo. My first impression of it, from my sister's high rise apartment in the American Embassy compound, was that it was indeed Blade Runner massive, gloomy and grey. After some exploring I saw it was also the cuteness and orderliness capitol of the world. Brightly lit signs, anonymous voices politely giving you directions, awe inspiring toy and electronic shops, quiet temples, perfectly manicured parks, weirdly dressed teenagers giving you the peace sign, the ubiquitous Beatles (in shops and in bars like Abbey Road and the Cavern Club. The tribute bands there sounded exactly like them, btw.) Course I didn't have to worry about rent in Tokyo and I made up to fifty dollars an hour teaching English, but I found I could get around, eat well and shop whenever I wanted to without spending a lot of money if I went to the right places. They have, for example, what has to be the best dollar store in the whole world. Four floors of diverse and surprisingly well made stuff. If you shopped no where else you could still get everything you needed there. And I could go to a sushi boat or noodle place and have a large, filling meal for less than ten dollars. If I had only less than five to spend, I'd go to the 7 eleven (which was everywhere in Tokyo, and full of much better, far more edible items than here in the states) and get a couple of seaweed wrapped (hopefully) tuna filled rice balls, a drink, and sometimes a dessert.

Not sure I'd ever want to relocate to Tokyo, though. Hard to say why. Same goes for Beijing which, though a wonderful place to shop, explore and eat in, as well, had tap water unsafe to drink and a constant, at times oppressive smell of burning tires going on, even indoors, all day and night. Not surprisingly, my oldest nephew developed asthma there and my two older nieces, little at the time, often got sick from the milk.

Next, Paris. I know, it's a common American dream, especially among artists, to run off to Paris. And I've only spent, in total, about two weeks there so I may well be mistaken. But this city is so ridiculously beautiful, with every street and alley worth exploring, worth taking out one's sketchbook to try to capture it's charm. Then with its museums, galleries, cafes and history Paris seems to have collected so much creative energy over the years that it is now a vortex of creativity. What magic must flow out of your imagination in such a place. I would like to find out.

Next, Buenos Aires. Those who know me and/or have been following this blog know how I feel about this city. This place, more so than any other city (except maybe Paris), made me want to tear up my plane ticket and never leave. And yes it is called the Paris of the south but it only vaguely looked to me like Paris, or it looks like what Paris might have looked like after the war. The streets were dirty, the air smelled mostly of car exhaust and cigarette smoke, the sidewalks were cracked and uneven, parents with small children rifled through garbage, and many of its most beautiful buildings were empty, boarded up and crumbling, giving parts of the city this haunted, haunting forlorn quality. The Ghost Hunters team could probably spend an entire season there investigating.

Somehow, though, this was part of its charm (well, except for the parents with small children rifling through garbage). Most of the cities on this list, except for maybe Beijing, felt well ordered, more or less. Even a young city like LA feels well ordered. Buenos Aires, on the other hand (which is just as young, I believe) feels like someone took a big eraser to the surface of it and wiped a lot of it away. Or tried to anyway. And what's left is a rough kind of beauty and a feeling of possibility and openness. Like Paris in the twenties or New York in the fifties. What artist wouldn't want to be part of that? The cafes, affordable restaurants (even if the menus all look pretty much the same), old world streets and all the charming people doesn't hurt its case either.

One thing I haven't mentioned is the friendliness of the people (or lack of) in any particular place. Only because I find people to be as friendly in one city as the next. Everyone has bad days, everyone wants to be treated well. I've heard many people say Paris was the capitol of rudeness, but I only found that to be true in one particular instance out of all the many people I met there. And in LA I was tempted to write everyone off as not that open, until I met a particularly nice cashier who I ended up talking to for quite a while. Maybe it was me who wasn't that open. And true, people did seem, on the whole, way friendlier in Buenos Aires than anywhere else. But maybe that's because I was particularly happy the whole time I was there. And I did run into the rare a-hole there as well.

So I guess what I'm saying is everywhere has a certain, overriding feeling to it, certain smells, certain sounds, a certain look and light found only there. And it all depends on what characteristics I want to incorporate into my life. The rest, friends, family, up to me.


  1. We, I lived in LA and SF, I spent the last 30 years of my life in NY and now live in BA ... having spent a lot of time in London and Paris lol. So I will just agree with Everything you said.
    Especially the part about my new hometown, Buenos Aires.

  2. Oh ! I forgot to mention that my son lived in Japan ( Tokyo) for 7 years ... and my husband lived in Rome, London, Paris and India.
    I think we have the globe almost covered :)

  3. "Los Angeles has amazing museums, places worth spending an entire day or more exploring." So true.

    If I could live in Paris in the 20s and early 30s, or New York in the 50s, I would do so. If Buenas Aires makes you feel that way, that's a strong argument in its favor.

  4. Hi aBroad! Rome is another city I'd love to live in. So much art! And I've always wanted to visit India, even though I wilt in the heat. Not to mention Florence, Prague, Madrid, Barcelona...

    Hi Susan! Yes, it all depends on what happens with my work situation. I should know for sure in a week or two.

  5. How intriguing to have visited such a vast array of places and experienced so many cultures...I enjoyed reading all about them.

  6. Out of the place you mention, I never visited Tokyo nor Buenos Aires..., but as your description of the other cities correspond to my own feelings, I guess you must be right also about Tokyo and Buenos Aires! Yes, Buenos Aires seem appealing to me (also thanks to your drawings and paintings), but I can assure you, Paris is nice, confirmed after 38 years living there!! Welcome back here! :-)

  7. this post makes me wish i traveled far more. my wife and i grew up in the bay area and we went away for school in la and ended up staying. its been almost 12 years now and we are ready to move back to the bay to be closer to family. although, we have some friends that are moving and making a compelling argument for portland. but i agree, everywhere you go, you will have a mix of the good and the bad apples. it just depends on who you decide to surround yourself with. thanks for the read and great post...


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