Arrive. Feel incredibly inadequate all of a sudden — one never realizes how much of their confidence is based on familiarity with their surroundings until they are thrust into a place where they recognize nothing. Everyone seems to dress better, to talk faster, and to make you feel as though you are a child who has suddenly been allowed entrance to the grown-up table at Thanksgiving. Everything you do seems to be a faux pas, a way of revealing yourself as the new kid in town, the tourist. You discreetly check maps and ask for help, not wanting to seem as lost as you are.
And everything is foreign. The signs don’t make sense, the public transportation seems designed to throw you off, and no one is friendly. The locals seem to have this calculated cool, a certain kind of immunity to the frenetic pace of their city, to the noise and the dirt and the pushy pedestrians. Everything passes around them in a kind of hum and they remain undisturbed, crisp in their freshly dry-cleaned clothes and dignified haircuts. It’s as though you have shown up for a test that only you haven’t prepared for, struggling while the rest of the class breezes through the multiple choice questions.
Every now and again, though, the city itself extends a hand to you — reminds you that you’re not as alone as you think you are. There are nooks and crannies everywhere willing to take you in and make you feel as though you are still love by the people around you. You find a nice coffee shop with a friendly waiter who is happy to give you directions and recommendations for a good place to dinner that night, your port in the storm of a life that won’t slow down for you to adjust to. A warm, smiling face holds open a door for you, starts a small conversation waiting in line in a store. The tendrils of local life begin to reach out and wrap themselves around you, from the merchants who know your name to the neighbors who say hello in the hallway, to the familiar people in line for their morning coffee.
The city begins to take shape, to feel less an amalgam of experiences and noises and more a functional map within your mind of places and people you have a connection with. You take long walks at night, exploring small streets and allowing yourself to think only of where you want to have dinner that night. As you become familiar with geography, so you become adjusted to what it means to live here. In every city, we are different people. We allow ourselves to become infused with the people and foods and habits of our surroundings, taking on a regional charm that can’t quite be recreated elsewhere. “She’s from New York,” someone might say, “You can tell he’s from London,” they’ll remark. You seem almost stamped with the bar code of your zip code.
And you realize that the attitude you may have initially mistaken for harsh indifference is actually camouflage-like adaptation to your surroundings. Without realizing it, the residents melt so completely into the bakdrop of their city that they are no longer fazed by any of its petulant mood swings. The loud noises, the arguments, the smell of cooking food, the pedestrians and their constant battle with the short-fused drivers — it all becomes a kind of soft buzz in the background of daily life, and you, too, have learned to tune it out.
When you tune out the chatter, you find, there is so much about the city to love. There are your tucked-away corners with friends, places that you seem to have almost planted your flag in and claimed for yourself. There are familiar faces and quiet hideouts that provide a much-needed pause between the frenzied running around demanded by such an expansive urban layout. You are soon able to recognize almost every street corner and building front, intimately acquainted with the way everything works, able to help the waves of newcomers who shamefully analyze their map and GPS in the middle of the sidewalk. They’re cute, you think — made all the more cute by the fact that you used to be them. You remember feeling so new, so scared, and then suddenly completely comfortable, inextricably involved with what you consider to be your city.
It is your city, you think. It’s all of ours at once, every last local you pass on the street with a kind of understanding look of amused exasperation at the tourists. It’s ours because we each have a slightly different version of it, a varying angle on an unfailingly beautiful view, and no one ever loves it in exactly the same way twice.