Recently someone asked me what my favourite city in the world was. Without thinking, I said “London”. But since then I’ve thought more deeply about this question and realise that it’s loaded with ifs, buts and maybes.
London probably was once my favourite city. I lived there happily for a couple of years, on and off, in my twenties and then more briefly in my thirties. But cities change, and one’s attachment to them is affected by other factors such as people, events and connections. AJ, a Londoner born and bred, returned briefly a decade ago and found it changed so profoundly that he felt a stranger in his home town. And with time to think, I, with no home town at all, would no longer put London at the top of my list either.
Sydney would be up there somewhere. I lived there as a child and have visited often since. It has of course changed over time, but somehow has always been familiar and accessible, lively but unthreatening, friendly and explorable. The humidity, however, is diabolical and I could never live there. Is that what a favourite city is – the place you want to be above all others? One you admire or enjoy visiting? One where you feel truly at home?
There’s a nostalgic element in the mix. There are cities I would like to see again, not because they were impressive or beautiful or exciting but because I lived there: Teheran or Rangoon for example. These cities too will have changed, in most cases out of recognition – not only as a result of progress but also because of wars and revolutions. Interesting to revisit them – but they wouldn’t be the same, and memories are often best left undisturbed.
There are cities I would like to have known but seen only in pictures. Obvious ones, like Paris and Rome, Madrid and New York. Impressive ones like St Petersburg, Beijing and Prague – the most beautiful city in the world according to a cousin who has been everywhere. Exciting ones like Tel Aviv, Algiers, Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans. And mysterious ones like Petra, the “rose-red city half as old as time”. Cities I’ve lived in but was too young to remember: Dairen, Yokohama, Tokyo. Cities that my ancestral family made their own, like Shanghai, so that I could “place” them there in my mind.
In the end – no favourite city at all. Shallow-rooted people like me develop no home-town bonds and smile a Mona Lisa smile when asked where we come from. “Nowhere,” we say. “Nowhere.”