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Cities of Belonging: a Calvino Tribute

Of the many who seek Trilagos, only the mid-life traveler knows she is doing so. By the time she sets out, its name will have brushed across the tail end of her dreams for the better part of forty years, until the morning she awoke and plucked it from the ether.  Finally, she has something: a name, a city-state, an idea. It won’t be much to go on.

No one discovers Trilagos by accident, but the elderly traveler and the young traveler who accompany her will both believe they are merely passing through as tourists: collecting experiences, taking in the sights, idly keeping time. They will not know they are seeking anything. No traveler without two such companions, however, can pass through any of its gates, let alone come upon them in the right order. Alone, she would never find her own true entrance to Trilagos. No map marks it.

Conditions must be right.

The three must arrive together in the dead of night, in the very heart of winter, hours after a storm. Tires must crunch beneath them, over a snow-packed road barely a car’s width across.  This road will be bound on both sides by snowdrifts higher than the young traveler’s head and within arm’s reach of the windows.  The three of them must split this whiteness like Moses.

Lib2012- 3586Drive too fast, and she risks sliding out, lodging sideways into one or both banks.  Too slow, and she risks spinning out, losing traction, staying in place.  They’ll all hold their breath in silence, this close to frostbite and disaster.  It will take a while to get it right, to feel the tires in her hands.

Then she will–and it will feel like coasting, like floating.  That’s when she’ll realize, astonished, that they’ve breached the northern border.  They have stumbled onto the wintry hinterlands of the place she seeks.  This portion is not the whole of it, not by half, but still… something in her knows: they are within the borders of Trilagos now.  And when the name of this place


comes back to her, she won’t have time to wonder where it came back from, because one side of their white ocean will then drop away from the car like a wraith—for three heart-stopping seconds, the blackness of the gap will seem to loom up and roll above them like a solid force. This is when she must remember, for one frozen moment, what it is to fear the dark. And this is when the young traveler, having not yet forgotten, must subdue his primal urge to run.

Lib2012- 3573Just an approach, he must remind his skittering little heart, just a long country driveway. Rising up out of this ordinary darkness: just a red-flagged mailbox, numbers benignly peeling—rising up out of those shadows: only the reflective pupils and curled, wagging tail of a pale-eyed Husky, trotting down to greet them. The rental’s owner waits on the porch, an elbow flung up to shield himself from their high beams, a lanyard of keys dangling from his mitten.

In daylight, the snow curling off the eaves will seem to the young traveler aggressively bright.  The cerulean sky will feel alien: too big, and faintly crackling in the cold. His eyes will squint against the Svearikan landscape’s palette, but the sunglasses she loans him to go walking outside with the old traveler will prove unwieldy. He will pout and stay within feet of the veranda, banging his boots together in the shadows and eventually abandoning her proffered protection in a snowbank.  The sunglasses will be lost.  She will yell.

Later, her wind-burned face and icy eyes, her chapped lips bleeding around the words… this will endure as his sole memory of Svearike.Lib2012- 3731

The old traveler, by contrast, will not seem to feel the cold. That very first day he’ll spot a hare, ears flat in submission, which no one else will be able to make out beneath the fanned, snow-coated branches of a nearby spruce.

Each day of their seven in Svearike, he will walk down the slowly melting road at first light and come back to them with reports of this animal or that. A fox, trotting along the south treeline, white as the snow itself–practically invisible, save for his black-tipped tail!  A moose and calf in the distance, down the long west hill. A thin coyote digging at the muddy roots of a tamarack, scolded by two grey crows overhead.

Soon he will be ranging farther, gone longer.  He will describe for them scenes more fantastic by the morning: a small brown bear, itching his back on a stump. An old silver-coated wolf, chasing his tail and playing in the snow. A ragtag herd of reindeer down by the iced-over slough, dozens of hooves all pawing for water at once. A tuft-eared lynx who looked him straight in the eye for ten whole minutes.

He will seem a boy again, pink-cheeked and playful, eager to greet the weak northern light of a thousand more Svearikan mornings. He has forgotten how to dread the day.

He will not want to leave.

He is no longer a traveler. He is no longer “old.”

Later, from the cozy seat of an outbound plane, she will bundle those realizations with the memory of his clear-eyed reassurances, and accept his decision to stay.  She has no choice. She and the young traveler must head east, into the sun. Guilt will nip at her, but somehow it won’t be nearly as sharp-toothed as her memories of the pitiless Svearikan cold.

Lib2012- 3825

This is by design, of course; the moment she and the young traveler step onto the tarmac in


they must shed those fur-lined coats like so much extra skin.


Arriving by night, they will catch their first sight of Ciṅkappūr from the air.  Each of them will be strangely stirred by its neon palette, the way its clustered lights shimmy like thousands of colourful bees gone to hive.  Despite how very different from Svearike this place feels already, she will know they are still inside the borders of Trilagos.  It will take her fourteen days, in fact, to realize this impressive city is not its capital.

Upon landing, she will recognize the living swarms as reflections, a visual buzz rippled right off the surface of the city’s many waterways and cast skyward. Whether the strange sense of life and movement this produces is intentional or mere coincidence, she will never know–but from the ground, softened by the canals, it will strike her as beautiful: an electric energy, harnessed for the delight of the people.

And they will be delighted.  The young traveler especially will revive, as if their touching down here was his coming up for air.  That first evening’s air, hot and skin-pricklingly moist to her, will settle on him like a second skin.  From then on, the young traveler will glow with a sheen that never seems to exhaust him, or dry him from the inside out.  She will drink enough water for them both.

In the day time, the sunlight that glared so blue-white in Svearike will hold its true yellow tint here.  On overcast days, when the humidity cuddles close to the ground, the city’s haze will flare across their vision in wet pinks and peaches, clouding camera and sunglass lenses alike.  They will not stay outside often or for long.  The city’s true attractions wait inside its skyscrapers and markets, on the plates of its restaurants and in the treasure-filled corners of its specialty shops.

singcity-mallYou can get anything in Ciṅkappūr, they will discover.  The fabric she won’t know she’s been longing for will find her, its satiny turquoise lengths at home between her fingers.  One restaurant’s whole menu will consist of the fat noodles he’s always begged her to prepare, the very ones she’s never been able to make quite right.

Within days, the two of them will range farther and farther from the centre, his eagerness driving them on.  One morning he will flag down a three-wheeled contraption before she’s even locked the apartment door, so eager is he to get started earlier and be gone longer, the better to inch their way along the map he studies every night.

By the fourth day, she will realize that the routes he devises are leapfrogging them from point to point along banks of the city’s biggest waterway, its only natural river.

On his map, the river loops almost fully around a particular district, carving from the city its keyhole-shaped almost-island.  To the same degree that this district mystifies him, it will appear to her, on all their forays along its perimeter, to be like every other.  It bulges out over the water toward them; it teems with temples and tech offices, campuses and fast food.  There was a time, she will remember dimly, when such things enchanted her, too.

singcity-scapeShe will decide to indulge his not-so-secret fascination with this district, and so will laugh, every day, charmed by the concentrated way he prowls this river’s banks.  If there are bridges across it, she will assume they exist in the cool air of the underground.  He has not yet suggested they burrow down to find one, but it will not surprise her if he brings it up.

His desire to cross over the river will seem to grow stronger by the day, and his awareness of her dimmer.

At night, the two of them slip into dark theatres, where heroes and ghouls and wise men battle up on the screen. Night after night, the young traveler will lean into these tales, pupils dilated, one hand stilled over the popcorn.  She will smile and disguise a yawn, and often give in to the pull of a twenty-minute nap.  The spicy food, the heat of each day, the bright primaries of every indoor space: these will exhaust her tomorrow, too.  And if she does not quite share his unflagging enthusiasm for this glittering pocket of Trilagos, no matter.  She will believe herself content to remain in Ciṅkappūr until the young traveler’s energy is spent and he is ready to move on.  It will take several days for her to realize she’s got it backward; the city feeds him.

On their thirteenth evening, he will propose they visit a certain park across the city, a four-storied concrete wonder teeming with greenery that he’s sure she will like, and is best viewed at night.  He will have found this novelty on the Internet; he’s already verified the location, booked a taxi, paid their entrance fees.  She will not know what to do with this, his newfound navigational skills and streak of independence, his ingenuity.  She will have felt especially sluggish that day, overwhelmed by the city’s unrelenting movement, and so will find herself glad for his guidance.

singcity-nightbridgeNeither of them will reach the concrete park, of course.

The night will seem especially warm, the air especially thick.  They will trundle through the haze together, along this now-familiar river walk until, halfway to their bus stop, he will crow with delight and point at something up ahead.  Something cabled and lit every few steps, something spanning this moat of a river as if that was nothing remarkable.  A bridge.  Access, they will realize in the same moment, to the young traveler’s latest dreams.

She will hesitate; she must.  The young traveler will leap ahead, of course, whooping and cartwheeling.  He will seem to fly to the anchoring cables of the bridge, his hands sweeping light along its railing, feet skittering him out onto its surface.  Halfway to the middle, he will stop to bounce, to jump up and down on it with every pound of his growing body.  The bridge will submit and bounce him gently in place, the novelty of its suspension slowing him just long enough for her to reach the bridge herself.

From the banks, it will seem as if the humidity rising off the black water is thickening around him.  When he reaches the middle, he will stop and look back at her for just a moment.  He will laugh, and wave–his unfettered joy so contagious she will laugh, too, and she will wave, too–and then turn away and trot off over the arc of the bridge. She’ll lose sight of him in the shadowy now, engulfed by Ciṅkappūr’s thick, neon-tinted haze.

At that first step out onto the bridge, she will shiver.  She will feel the vibration of every footfall travel up her spine and settle near the base of her skull, into a quiet, electric hum.  She won’t want to linger, and yet the haze of humidity will prove disorienting; at the top of the bridge, she will lose sight of both bases.

That’s when she will feel it, that sensation of waking in an empty house, and realize: she is alone.  She is truly alone, for the first time since the three of them began their seeking. The young traveler has released her… and he has taken Ciṅkappūr with him.

When finally she moves, puts one uncertain foot in front of the other, her entrance to


will feel both abrupt and inevitable: an expected serendipity.

tbilisi-purpleshirtwomanvinesOne minute she is on the apex of a bridge; the next, she is descending onto the wide, dirt road path of a park, under the half-mile of green branches laced overhead.

No one can enter this part of Trilagos by car, by plane, by any traditional mode of transit. Its gateways are as individual as the travelers who find their way here; Sakartvelo’s entrances share only this quality of unexpected rightness.

The rightness of an entry point does not guarantee instant orientation within a place, however.  And there are no declaratory signs; she will walk its large perimeter for months before she will learn its proper name.

The traveler arriving in Sakartvelo will not even notice, at first, that her lungs have found their altitude.  She won’t feel how her skin no longer sweats in torrents, or stings from the cold. At first, she will not catch that she no longer squints, that the colours of this place—deeper and more nuanced than the tiresome primaries of Ciṅkappūr, less stark than the burning, snow-blinding whites of Svearike—don’t hurt her eyes.

tbilisi-catchurchSakartvelo will seem alien to her: both city and wilderness, a confounding marriage of contradictions. Concrete and stone reign here–yet vines and greenery claim every building, every telephone pole. In her wanderings, she will come across castles and churches, shacks and sewers.  The gargoyles will push her to pet them.  The horses will shake harnesses garlanded with tiny, tinny bells; she won’t hear the sound as music.

The vegetables will strike her as assertively bland, the fruits oppressively neutral. Someone will explain to her that they won’t always taste this way, but she cannot believe that to be true. And anyway, she’ll tell them (so many of them! so many people!) in the beginning—she won’t be here long enough to find out.

She still thinks she is a traveler, that responsibilities will accumulate without her constant pruning.

For days, perhaps weeks, she will lie to herself about Ciṅkappūr. She tell herself that steel skyscrapers and tall palm trees were her favourite landscape. She will wish herself back onto that bridge, one hand on her youth; she will waste hours trying to will time and fate backward.

tbilisi-menshakinghandsThe willing and wishing is futile, of course.  She could no more find her way there than she could to Svearike now… though the day will come when she’ll be driven to those hinterlands once more.

She will come to understand–though not accept, at first–that Sakartvelo is the third of her “three lagoons,” to realize that these wide streets and blind alleys and outskirts of long, rolling crop fields make up the balance of all that is Trilagos.  She will know Sakartvelo as a place dauntingly large, one covering more territory than Svearike and Ciṅkappūr would with the border between them broken.

Not that she can imagine such a thing, not yet.  Most travelers need several decades to recognize that boundary lines between the three are blurred.

For now, she will sulk–for months, if necessary–until the morning comes when her loneliness feels like an unnecessary hell. Until the people she has snubbed seem more familiar than not, their inability to help her navigate out of this place more innocent than intentional. There will come a day—and this, of course, needs must be different for every traveler—when she will look at a group of men sitting in the shade and see much more than the empty lot, the rough-hewn stumps they sit on, someone’s grungy wash hung out to dry above them. She will see the cup they pass around, and the crooked smiles they share; she will wish, finally, to be close enough to hear their banter. To join in.

tbilisi-friendsfruitShe will be able to see the patterns then: the carpet loom’s intricate weave, the harmony of its unlikely hues. She will wonder at the careful artistry of a spiraled chimney, the brickwork so high overhead she’d missed it before. She will hear the layered laughter between two travelers-turned-friends as they taste a vendor’s fruit, both of them black-skirted and bright-shirted, both bare-armed in the mild spring sun.

“Try this!” one of them will call to her, holding aloft something soft and purple and unfamiliar, and motioning her to cross the street to them. “You have to try this!”

So she will.


This short fiction was inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.  In an article for NPR, Eric Weiner describes the classic work as one that could easily be labeled travelogue:  “It was, in fact, the traveler in me that first fell under its spell. The places Calvino describes, though, don’t exist on any map. Technically, this is a novel, a work of fiction, but one without any storyline. The only characters are an aging Kublai Khan and a young-ish Marco Polo. They’re sitting in a garden, where the Venetian explorer is regaling the Mongol ruler with tales of the cities he has seen journeying to the far reaches of Khan’s vast empire. Each short chapter describes a different city, 55 in all.  These are fantastical, beguiling places, where things are never as they seem.”

I considered the stages of one’s life, the “places” we all fall into, inhabit for a time, and then pass through.  What would the embodiment of “youth” be like?  What about “adulthood?”  How would “old age” feel (we hope!)?

tbilisi-flybirdstencilWhile the name “Trilagos” is wholly fictional, the names of its “three lagoons” are the historical names of a few countries I’ve visited.  These ancient names–and my pictures of the actual places–inspired the idea for this piece:

Svearike is the 14th century name for Sweden, based on a Germanic word that means “realm of one’s own/self.”  Don’t we all hope to experience old age as a time to explore and enjoy a kingdom of our own?

Ciṅkappūr means “lion city” in Tamil.  It’s based on a story in which Singapore’s 13th century founder survived a shipwreck and, soon after landing, saw a large, wild cat in the brush; he named the settlement “Lion City” (Singapura in Sanskrit) in tribute and for good luck.  And that, too, seemed a fitting match for this piece: aren’t we often “lions” in our youth, seeking the bright lights and big cities of our dreams?

And finally, Sakartvelo is the name Georgians gave their region back in 800 A.D..  The country has gone by many names through the ages, complete with dozens of theories on origins and usages, and the question of which is correct is still debated today.  This seemed apropos for those long and often confusing (but potentially very fulfilling years) between youth and old age.  While some of the name variations mean things like “land of the wolves,” “earth,” “an enclosed place,” or even “a cattle pen,” the name Sakartvelo refers to “tillers of the soil/agricultural.”  I liked this metaphorical connection to the sense of grounding that adulthood affords us.  I liked Sakartvelo’s associations with work and effort, this reference to the tilling of our own soil until we’re comfortable enough in our own skin to be ready, in due time, to truly be ready for that “realm of one’s own.”

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