I love my city.
I love walking it. I love the neighborhoods. I love pedestrian sidewalks almost anywhere I care to go, though they may rise and buckle like a study in plate tectonics.
I love riding through it on my bike, flying across the city on the power of my own two legs. I love the graceful ease of pavement under my wheels, and the near-frictionless glide of the machine, despite its weight and whatever load I may be carrying.
I love the view of it from an elevated train track, rushing past little patches of people’s lives, laid out alongside fences and swingsets and patios. I love the snippets of conversations, teasers for stories I will never hear. (Three young men, all British: “Should we get a map? Or do you think we can iPhone it across the country?” “A map would be a good idea.”) I love the silence-over-modulating-hum when they turn off the engine and we ride forward on nothing but that barely-audible song and the force of what came before.
I love the tall trees and the broad streets, the little yards and the variety of people that live in them. I love the range of people and style and color, the diversity grown on the bones of rowhouses that once all looked the same.
I love the excitement.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked Zambia, too. I found it fascinating. I learned new things all the time. But for all its newness and difference, it cannot compete with this city that is my home, my stomping-ground, my familiar streets and well-known routes hiding something rich and strange around any corner.
The gritty roughness of the city gives me energy in a way that the wide-open spaces, endless blue sky, scrubby plants in red dust, and quiet community of the village cannot compete with.
When I traveled in Zambia, I looked out the window all the time, never knowing what I might see. Kids with kites made of a few sticks and a bit of string and plastic bags. Five people riding one bicycle. A woman carrying a live goat on her head. A girl, five or six years old, with a chitenge tied to her back and the flop-ears of a stuffed rabbit peeking out over her shoulder, in imitation of the older women in her life.
I found it endlessly fascinating. I saw all sorts of things in Zambia.
But I have realized that in Philadelphia, I might see ANYTHING. I cannot, at this moment in time, think of anything of which I can confidently say, “I would not see that in Philadelphia.”* And that, more than anything, is what I love about this city.
Before I left a year ago, someone who grew up in Macha, talking about the range of languages, said to me, “I know people who would need to speak five languages other than English in order to talk to all of the people within one day’s walk of where they lived.” At the time, I found that pretty impressive. I still do, in fact. But you know what? I am willing to bet that I would need at least twice that many to speak all the native languages of the people who use my train stop, or live in the catchment district of the local public elementary school.
This is the city. Keep your eyes open. You’ll see sparrows in 30th Street Station, Catulpa trees growing in drainspouts, drama worthy of soap operas acted out on the street, graffiti on abandoned warehouses and under bridges,** world-class musicians in the subway, farmer’s markets and community gardens, London Plane trees with diameters larger than their little patches of dirt, shih-tzus riding regional rail, and maybe, if you look at just the right time, a gal in a skirt with a chitenge handkerchief under her helmet riding an extra-long bicycle.
I don’t always see it. Sometimes the city is sticky and tiresome and crowded and it smells bad. But I think it’s always there, and I just need to remember what I’m looking for and how to notice.
*I was going to say a banana tree. But then I started thinking of situations under which I might encounter one, and now I’m not even sure about that.
**LAOS–> What does it mean? Is it a tag? A statement of geographic identity? A helpful navigational direction?