Print Edition - 2018-06-02  |  On Saturday

A tale of four cities

  • Tolstoy is supposed to have said that all literature is one of two stories: A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. The story of my past two years has been a combination of both
Homecoming is always bittersweet. On the one hand, there is an indescribably deep pleasure in being back home. On the other, there is the anxiety of having left. But then again, leaving is always easy when there’s someplace else you need to be, and I must be in Kathmandu

Jun 2, 2018-September 2016, BrusselsI am living in hip Ixelles neighbourhood of Brussels. Though I am in Europe for the first time, I find myself seeing similarities. The city feels lived-in, like a comfortable bed with a recess for your body. Unlike cities like Bruges, with their unseemly façades, Brussels is often run-down and incongruous. There are parts that feel like they don’t fit with each other, inconsistencies and anachronisms. It makes for a decidedly interesting experience, where expectations are routinely subverted and there is always something new around the corner.

A ten-minute walk from Ixelles is the neighbourhood of Matonge, possibly Brussels’ most colourful area, with its abundance of African stores and restaurants. There, the air smells different, peppered with the aroma of cooking spices. Men lounge by the entrance to the mall, drinking Jupiler by the can and women stand outside their fabric stores, bedecked in the most dazzling array of colours. You step into a restaurant for some Senegalese or Congolese food, rich in flavour and sauced with peanuts. Music spills out of every store.

In Brussels, diversity and difference are everywhere. There is globalisation-from-above, in the form of the affluent Europeans that the EU institutions attract, and then there is globalisation-from-below, in the form of the many African entrepreneurs and migrants who gather in areas like Matonge and Molenbeek. Brussels is coming to terms with its past but seems to be doing a better job accommodating its present. Brussels taught me that a city doesn’t have to be aesthetically beautiful for it to be an interesting and vibrant space. Incongruity is often much more interesting than similitude.

April 2017, Vienna

I now live in Vienna’s ninth district, Alsergund, along the Gurtel, which is a ring road that encircles the inner city of Vienna. The building I live in is old and massive, with wide stairs lined with wrought-iron balustrades. Two blocks down from me is a brothel and another two blocks down a stand that serves one of Vienna’s best kasekrainer, a cheese-filled sausage.

Everything is monumental in Vienna. There is an unabashed celebration of the high point of Austrian history, namely the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Walking around the city, there is a palpable impression that this was once the heart of an empire. In Vienna, the buildings are not tall, they are large. Often, a building will occupy an entire block and each floor will be staggeringly high. This gives the impression of monumentality even where there are very few skyscrapers around. One of Vienna’s charms is that from the roof of a relatively tall building, you can see out across the city and its variated rooftop patterns. Whenever coming home after a particularly long day, the rising twin spires of a church right behind my building always fill me with a sense of comfort.

The Viennese are eminently sensible and hence, have one of the most ‘liveable’ cities in the world. Vienna has an abundance of parks and greenery. Viennese parks are beautiful in their landscaping and their upkeep. During the summer, it is customary to take a bottle of local Viennese white wine and simply lay out on the grass, soaking in the sun. There is also the canal and the Danube, both of which are ideal on summer days for lounging around. In Vienna, I learn the pleasure of sitting by a moving body of water and contemplating essential life truths in its moving depths, like in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.

Vienna shows that a city must serve its citizens and not just corporations. Making cities liveable has more to do with creating parks and public spaces than with constructing high rise towers to sell to the highest bidder. Vienna, like many other European cities, is turning more roads pedestrian-only and pushing out cars, boosting commerce and making for an eminently more enjoyable city. Meanwhile, we in Kathmandu continue to believe that wide roads make great cities.

November 2017, Copenhagen

Every day, I walk up four flights of impossibly narrow stairs to my room in the Vesterbro district of Copenhagen. I live five minutes from the central train station and five minutes from the hip Meatpacking district where former industries have been repurposed into chic bars and eateries. Vesterbrogade is a busy street, filled with tourists on any day. At night, the howls of drunken men reach me through my window.

I cycle everywhere in Copenhagen. To do otherwise would be foolish. Copenhagen privileges the bike

over every other form of transport, even the pedestrian. Public transport is fair, in that there are buses

that go most places, but only two metro lines that don’t go very many places and railways that are expensive to take. Instead, the bike gets you around. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow prevents Copenhageners from bicycling. I witness men and women biking in the beating rain with barely a hat to cover their heads, and also men smoking cigarettes and women in impossibly high heels, all while biking.

Hilly Kathmandu might not be able to adopt bicycles to the extent that Copenhagen has (to even think of Kathmandu becoming a cycle city makes me wonder if I am delirious or crazy). But what we could learn is that cities do not always have to follow the path of the American suburb. Investing in personal means of travel does not always mean motorcycles and cars. The bicycle is a great leveller; it cuts across social class. Instituting bikes lanes and allowing cyclists the right of way would impress upon the citizens that Kathmandu does not need to be a smoke-filled dust bowl where every other resident suffers from a pulmonary disease. Cycling frees the body from its limits.

March 2018, Madrid

Right off Calle Mayor, a two-minute walk from the iconic Plaza Mayor, is where I live in Madrid. This street is tourist central and at any time of the day, there are always men and women with fanny packs and large cameras ambling about. I live in an old building in a room that is as wide as my armspan. There is one window, which looks out onto the inner courtyard around which the building is built. An external elevator makes its rounds every time I poke my head out. There are also numerous washing lines strung with wet clothing. Madrid is sunny and no one invests in clothes dryers.

Madrid is a city that exists in its own flow of time. Lunch is at 3pm and dinner at 11pm. Everything is slow and easy. There is always time for a siesta and everything is a disorganised mess. It reminds me of home, even the manner in which locals dart across the street in incoming traffic, dodging cars like matadors dodging bulls. It is a welcome respite from the strict monotony of Vienna and Copenhagen, where rules were respected at all times and politeness and courtesy always implied. In Madrid, people yell at you in Spanish, but it is not malicious, it is just the way of the Mediterranean.

In Madrid, like in Kathmandu, the social safety net consists of the family. Tightly-knit and pervasive, the family is the institution that takes care of you when something goes wrong. Spaniards do not depend on their government in the same way other, mostly Western European, countries do. In Copenhagen, I was assigned a doctor who lived in my neighbourhood. In Vienna, the rents were capped. In Spain, you fend for yourself. Perhaps this is one reason I find Madrid to be most like Kathmandu. Its chaos, its irreverence and its lethargy all remind me of Kathmandu. Why do today what you can put off till tomorrow?

June 2018, Kathmandu

Tolstoy is supposed to have said that all literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. The story of my past two years has been a combination of both. I was a man on a journey and I was that stranger come to town. Travelling has been a catalyst for the mind and there are countless spaces, places and experiences that I bring back with me. Now that I have bid au revoir, auf wiedersehen, farvel and hasta luego to Europe, I am back where mud and grime clogs the streets and wires hang like rats’ nests from the telephone poles. Homecoming is always bittersweet. On the one hand, there is an indescribably deep pleasure in being back home. On the other, there is the anxiety of having left. But then again, leaving is always easy when there’s someplace else you need to be, and I must be in Kathmandu. 

Published: 02-06-2018 07:32

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