“A place belongs forever to whoever…remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image,” Joan Didion writes.
Falling in love with a new city, with a new idea of home, is easy when you know that it has an expiration date. You can call it love knowing full well it’s just a crush. You know that its impracticalities will eventually overwhelm the pull of cobblestones and coffee shops and the hazy stillness of its sun-drunk riverbanks. You know you’ll never claim it, or if you do, that you can’t claim it hardest.
I arrived in Cambridge on the last day of September. It was Indian summer but I was wearing a fleece winter coat that hadn’t fit inside my checked luggage. When the bus drew up by Parker’s Piece — the park, I’d later learn, where modern soccer rules were born — I was mainly thinking about where I could find a shop to turn my dollars into pounds. But I still remember that first glance of lazy punters on the river. I remember wondering whether any part of this place would ever let me remake it, reshape it with my own attachments of scribbled pages and half-remembered conversations. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. A new home? Or maybe just the opposite. Some space far removed from the textures of belonging and laying claim, some space so romantic that it stayed forever in the realm of cold detachment. Or just something in between.
As I moved my bags into the dorms, I told the PhD student next door that I was from New York City but hadn’t actually lived at home for at least four years, so I had nothing in particular to be homesick for. Maybe the bagel stores on Broadway, or the doormen who knew my name on West End. Still, I was ready for some other home, one detached from the many versions of myself that I’d tried on in adolescence.
On the first day in Cambridge, I walked to the main street pharmacy to buy shampoo and tried to imagine what it would feel like to retrace these steps in a few months, when the baristas would know my order. It all felt too unfamiliar. Maybe it was the accents.
That night I reread a William Blake poem a former English professor had emailed me as I had boarded the flight. I listened to Van Morrison’s “Summertime in England” before I fell asleep. It was still early autumn but it was already nippy so I slept in all my layers. The stucco walls were thin and I tried not to think of the impending winter cold.
If California meant sepia-toned sunsets and New York meant the feel of sticky summer subway seats, Cambridge hadn’t meant to me much of anything at all. Maybe Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing, names I’d read in textbooks so many times that I’d given up on clarifying the exact codes and numbers they were known for.
The city of Cambridge feels almost Disneyfied — remarkably different from the sort of place that might’ve inspired the laws of motion or the Logico-Philosophical Treatise. Yet there, in the Botanic Garden, is the very tree that Newton’s apple fell from. In Trinity College’s Wren Library there’s a shelf with Wittgenstein’s original works. Am I doing it wrong? I asked myself in those first few weeks. It only started to make sense when I found the floor of the archives with A. A. Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh. There was a shelf for whimsy, after all.
I’d never lived somewhere that wore its history with such self-assurance, draping it around like a vintage shawl whose owner pulls it out again in April to collect a few last compliments. Oh this old thing? It’s nothing. It’s the barstool where Watson and Crick discovered DNA. It’s the garden that shelters Oliver Cromwell’s decapitated head. New York, I’ve always thought, seems to continually refresh itself with new layers of graffiti. Cambridge doesn’t ask you to leave your mark. You’re told to stay off the grass.
Throughout late October I started to wonder if it was all about power, about men who wanted their words made immortal and boys who thought they just might one day be prime minister. The city is built on a river, but really it’s built for the river. It’s built for the Cam, and for the nimble boys who shake their boats awake at 6:00am, pressing body to blade in a show of anatomical grit. “The boaties,” they were called, with a tone that carried equal parts resentment and respect. Cambridge is a place that prizes muscle — broad shoulders, well-articulated points.
Over glasses of Malbec, we debated Hegel and Marx. We smoked on rooftops and I learned the intricacies of dialectical change. It was an intellectual high. And I was relieved. This was a place I could love, but it was only temporarily. I knew that eventually the temperatures would drop. It would no longer be rooftop season. We’d have to shelve our discussion of Kant.
Somehow, though, there came that moment when I realized that it still wasn’t mine but it also wasn’t just a fling. I found myself walking the streets more confidently. I found myself spending early mornings rowing on the Cam. The barber at the King Street salon knew my name. The shopkeeper at Le Patissier knew that I drank skim milk, not cream. I started to call New York less often.
And I realized that Joan Didion might not have been entirely correct. A place does not always belong to whoever claims it hardest — but one morning, or one purple twilight, you might wake up and realize that the place has laid its claim on you. It has wrenched you from yourself obsessively, remade you in its image. It isn’t yours, but you belong.
Looking back, it’s hard to point to the particular moment when the city laid its claim. It might’ve been the first sunny afternoon in February when we sang Tom Petty and laid out by the river while someone played the guitar. It might’ve been in a garden, which for just that moment I thought that I’d discovered because it was 2:00am and we were barefoot and nursing a bottle of champagne. It might’ve been a musty library corner napping in the late afternoon light. The earnest conversations over McFlurries and fries. The memories all feel hard to pull apart.
Was I attaching myself to the city or the moments? It’s almost too easy to fall in love with a place when life takes on that giddy quality of things coming to an end, of knowing that pretty soon you’ll be on some other train line and in some other time zone, somewhere where you’ll have to trade in currency other than nostalgia.
I moved back to New York in July. I tried, perhaps too hard, to fall in love with lower Manhattan, with a New York entirely different from the one that I’d grown up in. But the magic of place and of home, I learned, is that it isn’t within our control. I’ve lived in New York for a year now, or maybe 23, and it still doesn’t feel like it’s laid its claim. I’m still waiting for that moment of purple twilight.
People ask me if I’m happy to be back home and I explain that I’m still figuring it out. But you’re home, and home is New York. Home is “the city.” Why wouldn’t you be happy? They look at me like I’m missing the point. And maybe I am missing the point, or maybe there was never any point to begin with.
The other day I got out of the subway on West Fourth Street and Washington Square and passed someone by the park entrance playing an off-key rendition of “Summertime.” I caught a stranger’s eye and both of us smiled. Nearby a gangly teenage boy and girl were holding hands, each silently enjoying a cone of chocolate soft serve. It was almost 7:00pm but still light outside and I realized that it actually was close to springtime, that a year had gone by somehow and I hadn’t been remade but I was starting to adjust.