Follow Harriet on Twitter
Different Movements of Bodies in the City
Part 1: On Opacity
“In the memory of a woman there is always the memory of several others, as if to be woman and to be memory were one and the same thing.”
– Etel Adnan, Of Cities & Women
I moved to the Netherlands last year, and since then, people often ask how I am adjusting to life in a new country. Is it very different from life in America? My answer usually runs along the same path, although where I decide to stop depends on my intimacy with, or assessment of, my questioner:
“It’s been fine! Daily living isn’t so different here from the U.S. And everyone speaks English, so it’s pretty easy, in that sense . . . ” [STOP 1]
“and Utrecht is a university town, just like Cambridge, where we used to live, so the basics are the same: nice cafes, lots of bookstores . . . ” [STOP 2]
“but it’s strange, because even though everything looks the same, the infrastructure is the same, pop culture is essentially the same, I still feel certain fundamental, latent, almost inarticulable differences . . . ” [STOP 3]
“such as how people move around, how they share spaces. It’s often completely counterintuitive to me, and just going from one end of Utrecht Central Station to the other can exhaust me . . . ” [STOP 4]
“for example, if I’m about to walk into someone, I will stop and let them go first. But what I regard as yielding is seen by others as being slow, confused, stopping the traffic, and so everyone behind me pushes into me or past me, or says something mean . . . ” [STOP 5]
“and so I get angry. I think, ‘These Dutch people are so rude!’ I wonder why, for the Dutch, politeness is seen as a weakness. It confirms everything I find wrong with Dutch culture, how they are so comfortable and entitled, how difference is always a shortcoming, why there are people here who vote for Geert Wilders . . . ” [STOP 6]
“but then again, how would they know I am just trying to be polite? Why do I expect them to be watching me, reading and deciphering me, recognizing my gestures, acknowledging my singularity, when they are just trying to get home after work? Like I am.” [STOP 7]
So I stop.
Think about how you move your body around in a city.
Do you stop to yield, or do you maintain the flow of traffic? When someone walks slowly (or just slower) in front of you, do you pass around them, not to disturb them, or do you say, “Excuse me,” and let them move aside for you? When someone walks closely behind you, do you begin to feel nervous? Do you stop and search for your keys or study some fascinating spot on the wall, waiting to see if they will pass? Do you wonder why, in one section of the city, all the streets converge, are narrow, and circulate in perplexing ways, while in another section the boulevards are wide and straight? Do you wonder why the entire city center was built after the 1950s?
When you enter a subway car, do you look for a seat that has an empty seat next to it? Or a seat that has the least threatening looking person? What is your criteria for less or more threatening? What race, what gender, what height, what weight, what kind of clothes, what hairstyle? Do you find me threatening? Would you rather just stand? And if you stand, and if the car suddenly pulls to a stop, will you grab the metal pole above or below my hand? And if our hands touch, will you or I acknowledge it? Will we apologize, or will we smile, or will we wince in disgust?
If I wince, will you feel shame? If I smile, will you be nervous? If I apologize, will you regard it as weakness?
And if we respond in kind, will we recognize each other as two bodies, lost together, in this strange and opaque city?
“I like to walk in the city and I prefer to be lost. As Rousseau did in certain of his promenades, I’d like to dissolve into the diffuse perceiving of a multiplicity. It’s a pleasure to submit to arbitrary directives, to let something outside of one’s person determine a route and a mode.”
– Lisa Robertson, Nilling
Every month, Lyn Hejinian and I go on a 15-minute walk together. On these walks, Lyn is usually in Berkeley, CA, and I am usually in Utrecht, The Netherlands—although one time I was in Assen, seeing an exhibition on North Korean paintings with my family and Benjamin Moser; and another time I was in Paris and had seen poetry etched into tram stops.
In fact, Lyn’s and my first walk, the “ur-walk,” occurred while together at the same place and time, in Paris, November 2014, although we only began scheduling and recording our walks in the new year, January 2015.
I suppose (no, I must know) we’ve walked together from one place to another before—in Berkeley for years, and of course that time in Cambridge—but now we were walking in a foreign city, a city that may have felt familiar to us in our minds, but not at all so through our bodies.
Paris is not the City of Love, at least not as I know it. I’ve been to Paris with lovers, but they were companions rather than the main attraction. Paris, really, is the City of Walks: historic walks, revolutionary walks, radical walks, pointillated walks, mythological walks, strategic walks, tactical walks, public relations walks, musical-number walks, touristic walks.
I could never live in Paris, just as I could never live in New York, because it both beguiles and intimidates me, because I can’t imagine Paris without its impermeable opacity.
Robertson writes in Nilling, “I arrived at a prosody. The rhythmic opacity of noise or the body or the city fails or exceeds its measure.”
In this strange and opaque city, with Lyn as my companion, I started to observe how both of us physically negotiated with the crowds, the manner in which we placed ourselves on public transportation, how we navigated sidewalks that differed in width and height and even material from the ones we were used to. I started to observe how both of us observed each other, how we waited for each other, how much space we gave each other, how we assessed or accommodated each other’s comfort. I started to see how often, even inadvertently, we rhymed. Our bodies, so different in many ways, nonetheless expressed their affinity.
Every month, wherever each of us might be, Lyn and I go for a walk together. As this year began, we set up appointments that would take us right through to its end: Wednesday, January 28, 9-9:15 am; Thursday, February 19, 10-10:15 am; Friday, March 20, 11-11:15 am; Saturday, April 25, noon to 12:15 pm . . . For one, fixed 15-minute increment per month, we think about how we move our bodies around in our cities, and we think about how we’re connected to the other bodies around us. Afterward we send each other our accounts of the walk. This is how, halfway around the world, we can keep our bodies connected to each other, how we can set time for each other, how we can still invite each other into our spaces. In reading our accounts, I’m always struck by our rhymes, just as I‘m struck by the things I could now go on to notice.
“The other that will guide you and itself through this dissolution is a rhythm, text, music, and within language, a text. But what is the connection that holds you both together? Counter-desire, the negative of desire, inside-out desire, capable of questioning (or provoking) its own infinite quest.”
– Julia Kristeva, Desire and Language