You’re crossing the four-lane road, two tram lines, and the gap of a bridge. Car exhaust and clouds of human smell in the throng moving against you are almost unbearable, but with that certain slant of wind from across the river you can bear it. The sun is glaring down; you turn to look at the face of your companion, thinking “whose idea was it anyway to leave the flat?”, your dripping sweat mingling on the hot sidewalk. And then you reach it: the other side of the river, the sunken park, the stone-cold library, the green trees carefully planted, the cafe exuding coolness in its tiles and cold beers and iced teas. You’re in New York leaving Grand Central on your way to Bryant Park to escape its hundred-headed compass. You’re in Budapest walking from the 13th to Gellert Hill, looking for respite from the heat and damp. You’re in Prague crossing crowded, crawling Old Town to meet a friend after a row of trams stop dead, a rarity and a contradiction to the city’s sense of timing.
Moving to a metropolis means you grow an unlikely set of antennae to help you sense the atmosphere of your new environment. These appendages may be more apparent to a newcomer, the foreign outsider. A blooming of awareness appears, suspended in the twilight zone of other-peoples’-lives, foreign in their contrasting appearances. If you’ve traversed the stepping stones of adulthood from small town life to the disorder of small, dirty cities to the flurry of larger, still dirtier cities, these epicenters can leave you wide-eyed and naively open. When I found myself in the capitol of Prague, and then between it and Budapest, both economic and cultural hubs of their countries; the flora and fauna of human beauty and ugliness took time to take root as the new normal. The monotony here is the same in origin as monotony everywhere, but the variety shows its many faces like young, wild shoots carpeting the forest floor, competing for light and moisture.
The time is almost exactly a year since the move. The contrast between my life now and just over twelve months ago is well-defined, a line in the sand. It’s marked by new work, the slow unfolding of a life’s dream, an intensely committed relationship, and the everyday acceptance of contradiction.
In such places as cities, what does one focus on? It’s remarkably easy for excited wakefulness to turn to the dull ache of exhaustion. There are countless images, sounds, smells, and interactions that seem part of an elaborate scramble for our attention. In fact they are simply layered lives breathing in close proximity: complex motivations, shades of desperation and wealth, sickness and health, green oases and choked intersections. They exist not for your devices, but reveal their curved and sharp-edged forms for you to analyze if you wish.
Vantablack, the darkest black discovered yet, demonstrates the limits of our visual perception. A color which absorbs so much light that our eyes cannot pick up information about the substance it is painted on; a flattened space in our three-dimensional sight. Without the gradations of light and shadow, we don’t understand what we are looking at. Everything we are able to see, we see because of the play between these two limits of our vision and the shades in-between. The dance of dark and light narrows our focus in the floating void of a language we don’t speak, prejudiced history we never learned, phenomena we’ve overlooked. It’s a lense through which we spot our identity so far from home.
Voluntary displacement, spoken of from a position of privilege, first tunes you in to community and isolation. Everyone belongs somewhere except you, flung into the space between intimacy and detachment, stitching yourself into a new home with borrowed thread. Small families speak their bubbly language next to a man long-homeless, aged with tanned skin and an army of worn plastic bags. Couples embrace by the young, freshly-shorn gangs sprinkling the pings of electronic life with honest, unhindered laughter. Fair-haired children sit peacefully with their mothers, looking out windows ignored by the stretched faces of laborers carrying a bag of bread and beer for a short night before another long day.
You trade a handful of coins for pleasure in the form of a drink, a hot meal, an ice cream, another shitty kebab. A small price for momentary relief, input that helps you recall your needs in a place that swallows observations and budding empathy whole. The big swaths of black and white have softened. Less-tangible contrasts fill the field: the slow drawl of older women chattering overheard near the clipped speech of graduates. The sourness of this line’s cashier to that one’s blank expression in hour eight of ten. The sport freaks whizzing by on roller blades under a row of local pubs populated by beer bellies engaged in another hearty, if less healthy, form of sport. Faces, all of them, lifting up to meet the sunshine after a long winter, some complaining but most silent in softness. So there is some sameness between you if you glance at just the right moment.
Living here is a choice between moments and the rejection of moments. It becomes easy after the first few months, and then almost necessary, to limit personal exposure to these displays. On your commute, nose in a book, or walking across the city, plugged into a podcast or playlist. Life takes on a quality like the weather, changeable but predictable. Close your world to protect your energy, your time, your investment in yourself. You’ve seen it, you can roll your eyes at the cornucopia of senses, turn up your nose at the fresh wonder in the eyes of newcomers. But don’t forget the surprise you felt at the kindness of the waiter who felt such easy affection for your boyfriend’s dog, he gave both of you a chicken carcass to feed her scraps at home. An unexpected smile from the bus driver you’ve now shared twenty-some rides with mumbling your poorly-pronounced destination under your breath. Or your marvel at the un-self-conscious ease of friends making music in the park, choosing you as participant and listener in the unwinding corkscrew of their daily stress. Beauty does not come in high contrast here. It shines as mica chipped and faceted in the dirt under your feet in this culture, and you take it as a gift. Prague is not the conversationalist of the west coast, the politeness of the east coast. Budapest is not the open door of your hometown. Their good nature is earned through a complicated ritual you’ll never quite understand. You doubt the locals ever do, and you accept the knowledge with a grain of salt. This is the sharp sweetness of your status as an outsider, a begrudged believer of hierarchy and the people within it.
Is this, then, the beauty of settling? Understanding that it’s all a grey area, the grey area of not-knowing, of anti-categorization. A weapon, a good one, against the structure of hate and existential dread, bitterness and cheap laughs. High contrast is a good teacher to the inexperienced artist. We learn to see by it, to create shape and form, to highlight what we think is important. But nuance is a cherished tool and teacher of maturity. Remember how limited you are, how little you still understand. Don’t flatter yourself with thinking you’ve seen it all. You’ve seen the ugliness of cynicism rear its head in every age of skin and address, disguise itself in the smoothness of jaded comments and unshakeable convictions. You are at contrast with yourself. And the tension between what you take as truth and the individual truth of everyone around you is where the richness grows, the antidote to monotony, to apathy.
You are crossing the river to find the shade, blocking the sun for someone behind you. You’re never really sure where you are and what that means to the multitude coursing around you, except that one more body is moving with or against them in traffic, one more face is open to study and comparison momentarily before glancing out the window, lost in a world self-contained and contradictory.