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Identity and the City
Reflexions on the fluidity of who I am and how where I chose to live shaped my way of being
They say that you should know who you are. And that, if who you are is clear to you, you should be able to put it into words. Ideally, simple words. But how? How could this possibly be done without writing a whole encyclopedia? How could you distill your identity in a paragraph or two without missing a great deal? I’m a curious, generous, progressive, hard-working, compassionate person; a non-observant catholic and athletic and impulsive and impatient and meticulous; but also independent, caring, lovable, and understanding; wait, I’m also a good listener, I like ice cream and dogs, and love skiing. And music: I love music. Hold on, can I cram my love for pizza in there?
See? You end up vomiting a hodgepodge of traits and features and stereotypes that amount to nothing coherent. A collection of over simplistic, boilerplate attributes that could be common to a gazillion other individuals. Or, even worse, listing whatever looks good on you right there and then.
Identity is complex to define and not a box-ticking exercise. It is a cauldron of big, highly visible things like beliefs, demeanors, reactions, virtues, and fears, but also small, microscopic, imperceptible ones that scream and wave at you but don’t get noticed if you don’t pay attention, like your favorite window view, the font you feel comfortable writing in, or a smell that puts you in a good mood -- subtleties that contribute to define who you are as much as (and maybe more reliably than) a religious credo or political ideas.
When I’m trying to understand someone, I don’t like to do it off big things, or (God forbid) their job. I’d rather collect many little pieces of fabric and stitch them together in a patchwork that’s going to reveal who I’m dealing with delicately and slowly. Or maybe it’s not going to reveal anything; maybe I won’t know who I’m dealing with but I’ll still feel good in their presence. The truth of the matter is that I never put much effort in these types of exercises and still struggle to see their meaning.
I for one don’t have total clarity on who I am. And I’m not sure having certainty on, and being able to define, who I am is even one of my objectives. I am who I am: why do I need a description? Are people going to decide whether they feel good in my presence beforehand, based on a definition of me? If that were the case, the one not wanting to be in their presence would be me. I kind of like keeping things fluid and shapeable, ideas and beliefs attackable and subject to change. Maybe that’s who I am: someone who shuns dogmas and orthodoxy and listens and changes his mind if there’s enough corroborating evidence or gets convinced. But then again, that may change. The idea that I can be different things to different people or different things at different points in time fascinates me, and makes self-discovery and social interaction interesting. I find it exciting and energizing.
Does this sound surreal, Kafkaesque? I have hardly anything in common with myself, wrote Franz Kafka well over a century ago about his inability to fully understand himself, his struggle to maintain a sense of personal identity -- one of the most Kafkaesque lines he ever conceived.
And Miles Davis famously said, at the beginning of a well-known recording, I’ll play it and tell you what it is later. Don’t define; just listen to, observe, experience, touch, spend time with, think of. And you might get some answers. It’s not that I don’t know who I am; it’s that who I am is too complex to get a grasp of, too vast to confine, too unstable to pin down, too animated to photograph. It’s the blurred image of a galaxy that moves with changing colors. This is not exclusive, we’re all like that.
Who we are is not innate and immutable. It gets shaped by experiences and people and love stories and places. And what we like to do with these people, and in these places.
I live in Milano and like to walk anywhere or use public transportation because the city is flat and not that large. And when I walk or am on a cable car or on the subway I think of why I like it here, and how this place shaped my thinking and actions and habits in ways otherwise unimaginable. A recurring series of thoughts.
And I draw recurring conclusions, ones that I’ve drawn so many times. The people, the Milanese, are gentle, concrete, composed, and respectful, and they have this elegance to their ways that’s not evident, not straightforward, not ostentatious, not linear or plain, yet it’s there and you feel it in the words and the voices and the gestures and the gazes, and this whole unique personality is reflected in the hidden beauty of the city’s architecture, its discreet stylishness, its overwhelmingly beautiful private courtyards, its creative pulse, its geometric nobility.
In his essay “Cities and Ambition”, Paul Graham says that great cities are magnets for ambitious individuals. And these cities package their strong identities into subtle messages that urge their inhabitants to continuously do more of what they’re there for, to satisfy their ambitions. New York’s message is that you should make more money, Boston’s is that you should be smarter, Paris’ is that you should do things with style, London’s is that you should be more aristocratic. Each great city sends out a specific message that speaks to the ambition of those who choose to live there.
I’m not sure I agree with Graham’s view, but I think it’s interesting and made me think. When I lived in New York, the idea that I was there to make money surely resonated, but my strongest ambition was to live a unique experience and learn as much as possible to export that body of knowledge back to where I came from. When I lived in London, I couldn’t care less about being more aristocratic (what does that even mean?) as my ambition was similar to when I was in NYC: enjoy the ride and learn a ton. In Paris, I could certainly observe people doing things with style (not everywhere), but I was there to do my job, which was selling a company as effectively and quickly as possible, and I really wasn’t interested in doing it “with style”.
And based on this framework, what’s the message that Milano sends out to its ambitious people? I’d say, without hesitation, to be more elegant in a concrete, pragmatic way, to be usefully and naturally and effortlessly elegant. This is a gross generalization, of course. But it helped me understand how Milano shaped my thinking and way of being. What I like to do here, my preferences and urges and desires aren’t even close to what they were in New York or London or Paris.
They are inspired by a longing to see beauty everywhere, to stop and think and notice the little things, to add pragmatism and selflessness to my thoughts, to be an all round better human. And good taste and food and the quest for the best ingredients and not wanting to settle for anything lower. And a collective understanding that good things take time and there’s no rush and we’re all people with families and interests and private lives that have priority over work and the general, widespread intrinsic elegance of a centered, well-balanced existence.
I’m not saying my life is better now than it was then, even though it’s human to have a bias for the present. I think the interesting idea here is that, in many ways, the strong identities of the cities I lived in -- and what I was there for -- did shape my identity, whatever it may be, at different points in time. And I’m glad they did. I’m glad my identity was shapeable. I’d even venture as far as to say that, had my identity been rigid or closed or insusceptible to change, probably I’d have never been able to leave my hometown and discover so much about myself.
Music, for example, has always been visible and vocal in my identity. That’s the one part of who I am that I’ve always had clarity on, the one I wouldn’t lose sight of in a lightless, foggy night. There’s no better place in the world than New York City for someone who likes guitars and music and jazz clubs and going to concerts and record stores. And I love all these things. Yet, paradoxically, when I lived there I never played music, never went to a guitar store, never seriously cultivated my love for jazz and live performances, as I was too focused on what I was there for, and what I was there for (working on Wall Street) wouldn’t really leave much time and brain space for anything else. In hindsight, I could have lived more of a music-inspired life, even a little bit more. But back then I believed in what I was doing, and I sort of liked it, and that was my ambition. In Milano, certainly not a place as sophisticated as NYC for music and guitars and jazz, I like to play and go to live concerts and hang out at my luthier’s store and forget about time while talking guitars and setups and pickups and wood and amps.
And I love to move around in these old little trams full of humans seated in front of each other on wooden benches, and observe and hear their thoughts as if they were visible and audible. And forget to get off. And when I finally remember to get off, it’s in a totally different part of the city but it’s ok cause I don’t mind walking and something else grabs my attention as every corner of this place guards a memory and I remember what I did there or who I was with or what song I was hearing and who says that I always have to hurry, no way, I’m gonna take my time.
Did Milano turn me into someone else? Not really. It just created the conditions to let some of my passions resurface and take the stage and claim my attention back. Maybe that’s something natural that comes with age, no matter where you live. But I wouldn’t trade this city for any other place; the balance I found here would be hard to reproduce somewhere else. Yet, sometimes I entertain the idea of moving to a country I’ve never been to, like Iceland or Chile or New Zealand. And settle down there just to see what else of me comes out.
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