Metro, Column

The Smell Of Six Cities: Across The World And Back In One Summer

Cities are a lot like assholes—everybody has one and they all smell a little funky.

Okay, so that’s a slight deviation from how the saying goes but it isn’t too far off—cities are an integral aspect of every city’s social and economic fabric because of the environment they create and the circumstances they foster. For their good and their bad—their smiles and their assholes, if you will—cities define the experiences of residents and visitors alike. They are as characterizing as a person’s obvious qualities, can establish immediate and assumed notions, and foster both interpersonal camaraderie or irritation. Cities—most simply a cluster of people and structures, loosely affiliated by proximity—create a culture that surpasses the barriers of race, religion, and stereotype to somehow unify people simply based on the notion that they share one, geographical facet of their own experience. This summer, I was fortunate enough to share the experience of six of the world’s most delightfully funky cities.

Six cities, six winding metro systems, six different cuisines, six conflicting team affiliations—six nuanced and intricate ways of life unique to each metropolitan center. In the 10 short weeks of summer, I ate, drank, and sightsaw my way through these six destinations—each worthy of an entire summer in their own right. From scanning the crowded halls of the Smithsonian’s during tourist season to rollerblading across the beautiful Retiro Park, I have spent a lot of time doing a lot of things in a lot of cities this summer.

Boston, Washington D.C., Madrid, Paris, Barcelona, and New York.

(Note—I did spend a night in Atlanta after slurry of canceled flights en route to Madrid, but I don’t have the heart to try and equate the horrors of the Atlanta airport to the above. It just wouldn’t be fair.)

Twelve flights, six cities, four different languages, too many late nights. After struggling through tapas menus in Catalán and gazing up from the feet of the Eiffel Tower, I left this summer with new memories, a more vibrant passport, and a souvenir or two. The problem with being a tourist who likes cities is that it makes them that much harder to leave, and leaving becomes an inevitable inability to prolong the sharing of an experience, a culture, that you just almost grasped.

I will never be a Parisian or be fluent in Catalán. My house is 20 minutes outside of the city limits of the Nation’s Capital. I may be an expert at navigating the Madrid public transportation system, but I will never be able to appropriate the Madrilenos’ favorite slang, “vale.” I was too impressed with Grand Central to be a normal, commuting New Yorker, and I would never be so inclined as to name my future pet after a baseball stadium.

On paper, in the realm of the everyday, my six cities of summer owe me nothing. I was stripped of whatever ties I may have managed to create as I boarded planes, drove across state lines, and unpacked suitcases in the suburbs. I left their sights, and smells, with not much more than a few crumpled ticket stubs and museum maps left in the bottom of my backpack.

But you know what they say about cities—

Everybody has one.

Well, now I have six. (Okay, so the simile stops there because I don’t need anyone questioning my anatomical normalcy or, frankly, discussing the intricacies of my digestive system despite how much I may have, or have not, prompted it for literary cohesion).

The solution to being a tourist who likes cities is that when you leave, you can always come back. Though I shared an experience while abroad and away, now I take and steal and snatch any remnants from my cities that are still available, trying somehow to maintain some sort of commonality from across an ocean. Regardless of how suburban my normal is, this attempt to latch on to these six cities somehow works, manifesting itself in my reevaluated perceptions and perspectives.

Cities have a way of sticking with you no matter how many miles away you are from their overcrowded clusters of blocks and boutiques. Though I will most likely never own a membership to the Met or make a Tinto de Verano as well as a Spaniard, this summer I was able to share, to immerse myself within, and learn from six different cultures and customs.

Cities are a lot like assholes, and as far from my smelly cities as I may be, I know that I will always retain a little bit of their funk.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic

September 3, 2015