Transitory Tales: Cities as Friends (and perhaps something more…)

In architecture we learn about deconstructing and understanding a city. A bevy of man-made forms, natural growth, olfactory events, moving forces of different speeds creating a comforting balance between reliable, fixed points of reference and that fine tissue of new, unfamiliar and changing. Architects like to understand how cities can function more efficiently, and as such I find myself trying to understand which characteristics best serve different needs, whether a city-dweller desires comfort, perspective, guidance, quiet, or activity. Though undetectable for a tourist, there exists a tangible spirit which we call genius loci, perceived and shared by it’s residents once they’ve earned it, over time, like any other relationship depending on the intensity of each encounter.

The tying together of memory and place transform the city from a fling to a friend.  To reflect on my experiences, there’s been the mouthy Greek men that spill from the pastry shop on High street, the immense purple carpets appearing at the base of the Jacarandas in autumn in St Lucia, the cyclists forming a thread of activity around the Brisbane river as the sun warms the morning, the church on the hill that you can spy from any point in Paddington to reorientate yourself, the smell that wafts from the XXXX beer brewing factory around the time children are exploding from their classrooms bound for home, the offensively ball-like form of the Pearl tower illuminating the Pudong skyline and the tram that runs North to South through Melbourne collecting and depositing people with divergent destinations.

Brisbane was my first, and a companion I’ve often returned to. From my country hometown I fled, and it took time to establish a sense of home within the seemingly dense city grid. At first, I was lovingly smothered by the brick walls, buffet lunches and organised events of an all-girl institution. In retrospect, a worthy adventure for the independence I gained, rebelling to such a meticulously orchestrated social calendar. I found the quiet anonymity within the city immensely soothing, so disparate to the thick incestuous college network.

Three years later, I was starting anew. Both fear and excitement plagued me as I rode in a taxi from the Shanghai airport with my sister beside me, though I hoped Shanghai and I would become close, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my expectations and anxious I wasn’t what it desired.

My bike, legs, and the transport system were all tools for enabling a choose-your-own-adventure. Then orientating devices. I’d found the river of Brisbane consoling – if I could get to its edge, I could reassess and find my way. In Shanghai there were the familiar thick veins of car and bus traffic to orientate me. In Melbourne now, the city like a herd of lean, shiny buildings is surrounded by a fringe of lower density, which is where I find myself most often. In the network of narrower streets more conducive to lingering, that are coloured in hues of vine, brick, rust and graffiti you can almost hear the buildings teasingly whisper ‘I’ve got a story for you’.

During our first week in Shanghai, my sister and I wandered the same neighbourhood for hours in our thongs (flip flops) in the freezing cold, trying to find humour in our misfortune. While both our hunger and fear escalated, being aliens in this coded universe paralysed us.  We eventually stumbled into a restaurant with comforting English words on the menu, however fifteen minutes later I was inconsolably weeping for having hungrily devoured strips of bacon disguised as carrot, despite employing my months practise in how to explain my vegan diet in mandarin. I felt some urge to tragically strip the bacon from the noodle dish, even though my sister wanted to order me a replacement. I thought this would add to the drama of eventually bonding with Shanghai after the inevitable, seemingly unbearable, belittling experiences that would ensue.

And it was something I felt suddenly. After some time I knew I’d settled, as if Shanghai was a couch I’d found warmth in after a period of fidgeting. I’d strut down Xiangyang lu, arms carelessly swinging, flowers in tow, wine tucked somewhere in the layers I’d swathed my body with, after a quick lap of my local veggie market, past my bike man (we’d bonded after he giggled at my brakeless hipster bike), my pomello lady (who unfailingly offered to slash the thick skin for me), circumnavigating the children playing on the path, past the shop with the flattened pigs faces (now without dry retching) and arrive home, greeted by the Shanghainese ladies that always admired my outfits and made me twirl. They were my things that I had collected, my image of Shanghai. It wasn’t an unchanging one, just reliable in a sense, and it felt earned. Simple, yet incredibly loaded experiences enabled a normal rate of breathing after a month or so of complete insecurity.

Once home I would peer down into the lanes and windows below, then out over Shanghai roofs and feel incredibly alone and incredible empowered by it. And I became hungry to feel that again. But first there will be fear and hopelessness and complete emotional exhaustion, so that when I feel it, the intimacy is earned.


  1. Amy says:

    Love this Gem, and it’s a feeling I identify so strongly with. I’m about to head off to Scotland (4 weeks), Sweden (1 week) and Atlantic Canada (4 weeks) for research and am dreading that feeling of new-city-insecurity. Fancy taking some time off to come for a break? ;)

  2. Angie says:

    So much of this made me realise……… oh yeah, I have felt this ……but I have never put those feelings into words……… you presented an exquisite use of the English language to tell of experiences that I now envy. I applaud your zest for finding the joy in the small things. What an amazing and enlightling piece of work.

  3. Terry says:

    Really great post Gemma. I love how you tell your story through the eyes of an architect. Mine will be similar in that I evaluate my international experiences from a historian’s perspective. Good job!

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