Have you ever fallen in love with a city? Been sucked in for pure curiosity and developed a strong passion for a place? I’ve been in several city relationships in my life. I’ve been attracted, beaten, and turned on by many cities in the world.
Officially – according to me – a city is a place with a cathedral, at least seven McDonald’s, three Starbucks, and one Irish bar. There’s something about them (cities not Irish bars) which pulls me in, fills me full of mush, and spits me back out. I rarely go to visit deserts, mountains, or small ponds at the bottom of people’s gardens – unless they invite me.
It’s the cities that do it for me.
My first ever trip on my own was to a city (actually it was to the end of my grandparent’s garden to visit their pond, which was more like a well to be fair) known as Brussels, in Belgium. I had a few days between jobs back in my twenties and no one else was about, so I went on my tod on the Eurostar to Paris, got a connecting train, and walked out of the station in Brussels holding a huge map.
I might as well have run out shouting ‘Mug me, I am a twat and I don’t know where I am going.’ Within seconds a kind lad, who didn’t actually look kind, rather dangerous, offered to show me where the bus stop was. Foolishly, like a fool, I followed, still holding my map as I tried to get my bearings; supposedly the centre of town was within walking distance. The ridiculous thing was that I didn’t even want to get a bus.
I soon realised – I’m not that much of a dipstick – that he was leading me to his lair of hungry cubs, who were dressed as thugs from a 70’s movie in New York. They were lurking over the other side of an avenue, looking like experts at chopping up tourists and selling them for ingredients in Brussels pate.
So I told him I didn’t need a bus, thanked him for his time, and turned back towards the train station, now with my map scrunched up in my pocket. I kept checking over my shoulder, just in case, but I managed to get to the station in one piece, and caught a cab instead of walking the short walk up a different avenue, the one which actually led to the centre of the city, not to the pate making criminals.
Apart from the rain, Brussels was fab; at least the range of beers they had were. I remember walking about the place stopping for small cups of coffee and larger glasses of beer. I don’t remember much about the people I spoke with in the evenings, and didn’t make any friends, but I do remember a huge climbing-frame thing and an ornament of a small kid peeing in a fountain.
For me, that trip was about being brave enough to brave a city, on my own, and start my long relationships with them. I’ll always remember Brussels as my first. It wasn’t true love though, at least not powerful enough love to drag me back.
The next foreign city I fell in love with was Mexico City. How many other countries have capitals named after their countries? I just couldn’t imagine a city called England, or China, or Italy, but some can get away with it, like Mexico. I suppose it’s like the parents who name their child with the same name, just to keep the tradition going. Maybe the Mexicans did it in fear in case someone would change the name of their country in the future and no one would remember what it used to be called.
Mexico D.F had me at Hola. It was sort of like a penfriend relationship, where we had been writing letters to each other for ages in a romantic way. When I arrived it was totally not what I expected. There were no huge great fiestas, and mariachis shooting birds out of the sky, and it was quiet, civilised, and dull. But it was at 1am.
For some reason, I actually felt pretty safe in the capital. The only thing I was scared of were the white and green beetle style taxis, which I avoided – not because they looked frightening, rather because the guidebook had warned against them, saying the drivers were all mafia workers set out to control the capital’s population rate.
I stayed just up from the Zocalo; the most magnificent square I have ever had the pleasure to walk around- roughly 14 times during my 10 days. There was just so much going on. Aztec dancers, market stalls, people selling stuff, so many people, so many smells. As I write I can still smell that gross eggy sort of smell, which bemused for me days until I ordered some fajitas/tacos, which were revolting and nothing like the ones they do in Chiquito’s in Leicester Square. That was one of the reasons I went to Mexico, for the fajitas, but there they were known as tacos, and were about as edible as green cardboard – because blue cardboard is edible.
My main diet was hot dogs anyway. 3 for 100 pesos, which was a bargain. I lost a few kilos in my first 10 days, just because I was walking so much and scared to ask for food in a restaurant. It was so much easier to point and smile at the innocent hot dogs burning on the grill than face scary waiters who might try to rip me off.
Speaking of being scared, I was also reluctant to go on the subway. Someone in the hostel told me that anyone over 5ft 8 would be robbed, mugged, and probably kidnapped. Were there a bunch of gangster dwarfs parading the subway then? One afternoon I’d walked half-way across the city to find a language school that didn’t exist. Anyway, I was so knackered I just had to get the subway back. I saw no dwarfs, but most people were shorter than me, and no one tried to stick their muggy mitts in my pockets.
My love for Mexico lasted for about 9 days, then turned to hate. I became sick of the chaos, the noise, traffic, and people asking me ‘Why have you been here for so long?” Everyone was right, and since I couldn’t find a job teaching, I went off to Oaxaca, a small town in the south, where I continued my journey.
But as cities go, I’d definitely like to go back one day, just to say Hola, and flirt for a bit, you know, like everyone does with the cities they pass through.
Next on my list of cities which have stolen a piece of me – literally – is Rio de Janeiro.
I was on a high when I got to Rio. It was after 4 weeks of travelling from Ecuador, and I’d been looking forward to the buzz of Rio ever since I watched Brazilians play in the World Cup 1986.
Land of beaches, bums on beaches, volleyball on beaches, and blue towels on beaches. Did you know that while I was on the Ipanema beach there was a guy sat next to me with exactly the same blue towel? I guess you didn’t, either know, or care. But that blue towel meant so much to us both, it gave us a bond; a blue towel is hard to find on Ipanema beach. Luckily I knew the chap who the towel belonged to, he was a mate of mine, at least he had been for about 12 hours.
Rio was just how I imagined: fast paced, fashionable, sexy, there was a beach and a city in the same place. A dream! A city with a beach. It was like London, but with a beach, slightly better weather, and at least one more blue towel.
The guy was Nish, we bumped into each other at the hostel, and realised we’d gone to the same uni. We both had an affair with Rio. We saw the main sights together, strolled about sipping on coconuts together, and of course, sat watching the waves crashing down and sun sets while on our blue towels.
We both loved Rio, but I think because we both enjoyed each others company and were able to take the piss out of each other while experiencing the delights of the city. The views from the top of the Christ, and the Sugar Loaf were some of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever seen. I could imagine living in Rio, chilling on Ipanema beach with a string of blue towels.
Rio didn’t only steal my heart though. As I was waiting for my bus to go to Bahia, Salvador, a little thug with a blue hat tricked me and stole my bag, with my camera, diary, and bus ticket. So I have no photos of my relationship with Rio. It was a mere 3 nights stand, but one that will always be close to my heart, and yes, I’ll be back, but I won’t let my rucksack out of my sight, or my kids when they are old enough to go.
The next city I fell for, and perhaps changed me in many ways, was Bahia, Salvador. We didn’t hit it off well because I was still bitter from the incident in Rio. This wasn’t helped when someone ripped my watch of my wrist a week or so later.
I arrived just before the carnival, which was one of the main reasons I chose to teach English in Brazil. I found a job teaching English in three different academies, and also found a place to stay with twelve different people. That wasn’t my intended plan, but nothing ever is when you travel.
It was an experience though, and each morning when I wake up and find there are no cockroaches, ants, or lizards in my room, I thank my lucky stars. I share a bathroom with 4 people now, well technically 3 as my youngest is still in nappies, and it’s so much nicer than 12.
But living with so many people was fun, entertaining, and bloody cheap, so I stuck at it and enjoyed life. I’ve never been physically fitter than I was in Bahia. I used to run 4 mornings a week, to the gym, do a work out, and then run back. It was the only time in my life that I had a six-pack, rather than a one pack, and I’ve not been able to get it back since.
The reason I loved Bahia so much though was because of its character. There were so many contrasts: the poor, run down areas, rich pompous areas, shopping centres and markets, beaches were a plenty, rolling down the coast like a huge yellow snake. It was cosmopolitan as well, and you could never get bored there.
But, as in Rio, it was all about the people, mainly my students. I still haven’t taught such an energetic, motivated bunch of people as those of Salvador. Their positive ways were contagious, and I couldn’t help but feel alive.
Seeing the sea every day, and treating myself to a trip to the beach every Wednesday morning, was a dream come true. The funny thing was that I was absolutely skint. I learnt to scrimp and save and led a simple life. I had fun with my students by meeting up with them at the weekends, during the day, and just chilling and chatting.
Bahia gave me strength to become a stronger person. It pushed my boundaries, or rather the locals did. The rough ones were always asking me for money. But as I learnt the language and built my self confidence, I saw that they were just ordinary, but desperate people, looking for some help. I began to appreciate their position and helped when I could. Once they saw me about more, and realised that I wasn’t just a tourist, and that probably I had about as much money as them, they started to greet me each day, say hi, and give me respect.
Bahia taught me how to respect myself too. It toughened me up, like an optimistic boxing trainer, keeping me on my toes, always asking more from me. Add that to how my students opened my eyes to the world, and showed me how to be happier, then you can understand why I fell in love with Bahia. The name will always bring music – drum banging music – to my ears.
The highlight of my week was probably Saturday nights, like in most countries. I’d buy some white rum and lemons, and make my own version of caipirinha. I’d share it with any of the 12 house mates who were about. Then I’d stroll up to the centre, either meet fellow teachers, or students, or sometimes just on my own, looking for some fun. I normally ended up dancing round Pelorinho behind a band practising already for the next carnival.
I actually extended my visa for one month. I think I did it illegally, or was lucky to have got in somehow. I had to tear myself away from Bahia though. I wanted to stay, and could imagine having a life there, maybe getting married and having kids, but a friend of mine said it was tough, working conditions weren’t great and visas were a problem at the time. I’m not sure how it is now.
So, I left Bahia, a changed man, and will always miss that city as it opened my eyes in a better way.
With Bangkok, it was love at first sight. I didn’t fall in love with the first person I spoke to because she was a 5ft nun, and as hard as nails. Imagine a lady from the Philippines, with balls of steel, and a face like the little friend of Danger Mouse, Penfold. She was my boss, and did my head in at times, but towards the end of my time there I had a lot of respect for her.
The city I did fall in love with, but as most places, there were times when it knocked me for six. I loved the vibe, the food, the smells, and the fact I was a foreigner; learning a different culture, trying to learn a different language. But it took a while for me to settle there, mainly because I was trying so hard to get into the Thai way, but I couldn’t do it. I attempted Thai, but I was useless. I made some friends, but that jokey banter wasn’t there; I couldn’t get their humour, or they couldn’t get mine. So I ended up making quite good friends with other teachers, and expats.
Bangkok never failed to surprise me though. So many weekends I spent just walking about, getting to know the place. I’d often find myself down Khao San Road – the travellers haven. Mainly because I was missing being on the road. I lived in a small town on the outskirts, only about 15km, but enough to feel I wasn’t in the centre. Every Friday night a large group of us would meet up, get drunk, and chat about our crazy weeks as English teachers. I’d often stay in a hostel, or hotel, at the weekends and just explore the wonderful place.
My favourite part of the week was early Saturday afternoon. After my parents had come to stay in a plush 5 star hotel, I would sneak in and sit by the pool, read a book, or a copy of the Economist (I studied Economics and was perhaps feeling guilty for not reading anything in the last three years). No one ever questioned me, no one ever noticed, and I loved those solitary moments; just sitting by the pool as if I was gatecrashing a party, being naughty, being free.
Yet again the people made it for me though. I think I became a real teacher in Bangkok, thanks to a challenging group of 9 year olds. They were so kind to me, always happy, and I tried my best to teach them. For me, it wasn’t just about English, but giving them some fun in their restrictive days. The nuns in the school were demons, and it seemed as if the kids lived in fear. So at times I felt like I was the rebel there too, letting them have a few games, run about, and go wild.
I was younger then, and more of a rebel. Now it’s me being the strict one, keeping the students on their toes by pushing them. Back then I felt like Luke Skywalker fighting against the Dark Side. I didn’t win, but at least I let them have some fun with a lightsaber or two. I’d love to go back and see the kids now, who are more than likely at University. They were great people, and taught me about generosity, respect, but most of all – Karma; be nice to others and nice things will happen to you.
And now comes to my final, and last love, for now anyway.
My relationship with Seville has been a roller-coaster one. I was just planning to come here for a bit, you know, as you do, but somehow it got it’s claws into me and wouldn’t let me go. I wanted to escape, really I did. At the start I hated it here; it was so dull, so hot, and nothing much to see. The adult students were ruthless and demanding, so different to any I’d taught on my travels. I now know that it was because of my lack of knowledge of teaching, and the English language, why I felt so out of my depths.
If I hadn’t met my wife, I wouldn’t have stayed. No way Jose. I would have been gone after about 4 months. But I was in love with her, not the city, so I battled against my cravings to leave until I felt integrated and part of society, as much as can be expected, anyway.
So much of Seville has grown on me though. Now that I live out of the centre, in a part of Sevilla called Mairena, connected to the centre by a mere 20 minute metro ride, I’m actually starting to miss it, or, even, become more curious about the city I call home.
It’s like when I was a lad, so keen to go off and travel the world, but I didn’t know London. So I got to know it, and that’s what I intend to do again.
In a weird way I feel as if I have been forced to love Seville, but I want to do it for real. You see, my relationship with Seville is directly related with my wife, but there’s more to it now. I have a base, a home, and two kids. I know so much about the city; it’s festivals, it’s cuisine, it’s history and it’s religion. I even got baptised here. I became a brother in one of brotherhoods because I wanted to take part in a procession in Semana Santa.
There must have always been love there, somewhere. But I think I was living too intensely, in the centre for 10 years and it took it’s toll. I began to get tired of the noise, of the locals, getting ripped off in restaurants, not being understood. It’s like living at home with your parents after Uni, you love them, and want to see them, but need your own space.
But I think I’m ready to get to know her better, go back and explore more. That’s my plan, anyway, once term starts again and the kids are at school, I’d like to spend at least one morning a week doing trips to the centre, taking some photos, sitting, writing, chatting with the locals. I used to be so scared of chatting to locals in Spanish; can you believe it used to scare the hell out of me just to ask for a carrier bag. Now I don’t need to be, I can converse more, I know how to ask for a plastic item to hold my shopping in, and I can find out more about the city I call home.
Perhaps you’d like to join me on this new journey, to get to know Seville even more? I’m keen to get to know the city that I currently love, and fall in love with it some more.
Which cities have you fallen in love with?
Here are a few other articles I’ve read answering the same questions.