My friend and I are having a vegetable bowl and guacamole in one of the notoriously busy gastronomic establishments in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district. We are leisurely discussing the idea of fleeing the city.
For many reasons, the situation is paradoxical. After all, we are eating a trendy brunch at a place whose menu is the outcome of international and intercontinental connections between cities – the result of an osmosis of knowledge and lifestyles. We are enjoying our meal, but together with our marinated beetroots and sesame salsa, we are also chewing on some new thoughts. That we can do it simpler, more locally. That the city may not be our future and that, even though it gives us so much, it also takes a lot away – especially in the currency of time, which we are always lacking. Even though cities, convinced of their omnipotence, continue to grow, there are things they can never offer.
The city is the antithesis of nature. It is an artefact that attempts to offer us a hyperexistence: life condensed, a life that creates ersatzes and substitutes, building up a sophisticated artificiality. The city is a kind of amusement park where, in a limited space, a multitude of attractions is served to us in a concentrated form. We just keep hopping from one attraction to another. To be sure, I love many of those artificialities, such as jazz, libraries, or reading a newspaper with my breakfast at a café. And yet I am slowly but seriously contemplating living without them, somewhere else. Somewhere where there is no city. But this is increasingly hard to find, as urbanity – understood as a set of aspirations, values and mores – has successfully infected the countryside, which, by the way, is an artificial construct, too. The countryside came into existence as the city’s food supplier and logistical base, a new form of settlement functioning in close connection with the city. Life in the countryside today is not that different from city life. The internet, media, fashions – they flow freely from the cities deep inland and successfully evict country people from their rural culture, spelling the end of identities resulting from a connection with the land. The more that cities become facts of civilization, the more hologrammatic the countryside becomes.
If I were to leave the city, then, it would have to be to an in-between zone, where I could, without denying my urban roots, try to experience a new understanding of myself. A new ‘self’ better connected to nature, powered not just by the arbitrary and symbolic currencies of civilization, but also by the light of the morning and the scent of the soil. Somewhere where time is not money. In a place where there is nothing more important than being in rhythm, dependent on phenomena that do not depend on us. It would be a relief – a break from constantly holding the reins, remembering to take my phone, my keys, my wallet. A break from the obligation to perfect what already exists. Then I could buy a wall calendar. One with photos illustrating every month, where, instead of a sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge and the night lights of the Champs-Élysées, there would be pictures of marigolds, bunches of currants and snow-covered fields, next to their respective months. Maybe these pictures would even correspond to my actual experience: of flowers in the meadow and snow on the path.
In the city, November is about overdosing on Netflix, promising to ourselves that this time next year we are going to be in the Cayman Islands, reading books; it is about different ways of pushing through to December, when we will succumb to the yearly consumerist mania, and before we know it, will have pushed into January. I am not that young anymore, so the idea of just ‘pushing through’ something has become radically uninteresting. I care about every day. About every good day. Good days do not have to be nice, but they need to be lived mindfully. I am not pushing through my days, they cannot just go by. They mean something to me. That is why I am seriously turning over in my mind the thought of giving up the artificiality.
I have spent years researching metropolises and urban organisms on several continents. I have seen those that have ruthlessly made their citizens deeply unhappy. Cruel and inhuman cities, as well as cities improvised or newly born – suddenly inundated with needs, ambitions and movement, though still lacking the infrastructure to accommodate these elements. In other words, cities that are only going to happen. I have been to metropolises unjust and segregated, but also to those that generously share their charms with everyone. I have seen cities that are good and supportive of their inhabitants’ self-fulfilment. Such cities are few, a fact that never ceases to surprise me, since organizing them is not any more difficult than producing harmful, damaged spaces. The crucial differences lie in two dimensions: the intention of the city’s creation and the city’s relation to its inhabitants. The intentions differ, ranging from perfectly cynical (e.g. the need for a port for duty-free commerce between sea powers) to bureaucratic (it seemed fitting that the new capital city should be in the country’s centre) to entirely mundane (the lie of the land was right, there was a convenient bay or a mountain range providing security). And then life grew, not innocently or ‘naturally’, contrary to what it may seem like from the distance history provides.
Cities are – successful or not – creative acts, the results of planning or a lack thereof, the effects of imagination: someone thought something, started something and with time the form was filled with content, events, human fates. We might want to think about it while experiencing the joys and woes of city life. Because as artificial creations, cities are subject to our interventions (we can improve them), but also because as living beings with traits of biological organisms (they grow, fall ill, bloom, consume resources), they do not stick to human designs. Thanks to this, they are both flexible and anti-fragile – resilient to currents of history, changes in demography, shifts of political borders, technological turbulence and the short-sightedness of politicians. While remaining a fascinating phenomenon in its own right, their changing nature guarantees them longevity.
I love the city, yet something inside me has changed. I am curious about the world beyond it. A science fiction world that has something else. What? Perhaps something we have not yet tried. Something that, if it existed, was only in novels that have never been taken seriously by any established milieus, because going beyond the common imagination and staying ahead of one’s times has never garnered praise in time. The outstanding American writer Ursula K. Le Guin called sci-fi writers the “realists of a larger reality”. I would love to meet such a narrator at a meal of the future in which Middle Eastern bowls are already out of fashion, and sorrel cocktails even a little funny; in a kind of alternative room, where everything that I am now, very seriously and 100%, could be deemed not that important and not that serious. And thus possible to change.
I am walking around Warsaw after the pandemic break and I can see a city that disappoints in many respects. In its geographical centre, it has vacant buildings emanating sadness; some lacklustre bars intermingled with banks and pharmacies. It has littered parks whose visitors clearly do not love the place they live in. It has mowed meadows and lawns, even though the city authorities know that without the insects living there we are all going to die. It has parking lots where squares should be – those spheres of equality, both nobody’s and ours, places of unselfish interactions, innovations and the miracle of coexistence of people with different beliefs and political sympathies. I am following the news on how much is going to change: promenades in the centre, trees and grass instead of concrete. I can see how much has changed already: skyscrapers in the Wola district punctuate the sky, former factories turn into centres of consumerist gloss, with a gallery and a bookshop added to keep up appearances.
I am walking among the new and among that which has disappeared. Am I still home? And what does being home mean in a city whose existence equals constant redefinitions, a moving of centres of ambition and prestige. According to the demands of contemporary culture, life here is dependent on metamorphoses. Could I stay in the city and just be? Could I not give a hoot and remain myself?
I wend my way through a city that does not inspire awe. Is inspiring awe its job, though? Yes, to an extent, because cities were created to realize a dream of greatness. Ever since we started to build them, humans have desired to outdo nature – or at least equal it in its wonder. As products of architecture and culture, cities have their aspirations and are never disinterested. They are not amoral either. They manufacture good and evil. Those that produce more of the first quality come first in global surveys for the best place to live. I have seen many different cities, so for me Warsaw is a deeply mediocre place, landing in the middle of global rankings. It neither terrifies nor impresses; sometimes it moves you. It gives us some reasons to feel comfortable and satisfied – it is quite green, public transport is efficient, traffic is not so bad. It also gives us some serious reasons to be worried – the extremely bad air quality, the pathetic bragging about building the highest skyscrapers in Europe (because we should be quickly moving away from the highly unsustainable high-rise construction), and the obsessive fencing of every space, which shows how classism and a dislike of strangers governs our daily lives. This place is simultaneously changing for the better and for the worse. This is what the urban game of life is about: the probability of a million catastrophes that do not happen. About an unflagging presumption of the kindness of strangers, despite the routine acts of indifference and selfishness. About the belief that everyone’s dream can come true here, even though most miss their luck or get the discount shop variety.
Today rather than wonder how it will change, I ask whether the city can cease to be. Is the city, a relatively new discipline in the history of humankind, still indispensable? So many of us have recently experienced firsthand that the city can also mean confinement. So many fans of the urban lifestyle have invested money in plots of land by the river or in the woods – in other words, in lifeboats. So many of us have already pictured life without the city. Even if it was only a momentary, dystopian or post-apocalyptic vision, it was born. Perhaps somewhere inside us a brave new world is sprouting, and the narrators of a larger reality are drawing plans. The visions of tomorrow have the tendency to come true – usually partially and not literally. Yet Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have recently gone into space, announcing interplanetary plans for the expansion of the masses. As for me, I would rather travel in the opposite direction – inwards and, preferably, on foot.
Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski
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