`Suddenly the great market square loomed up before me'

I have collected cities the way others collect stamps or coins or even buttons. Some I have added to my collection unexpectedly, others I have dreamed about for years before ever reaching them. And some -- celebrated cities at that -- have remained alien to me, apart. It can happen that in a single casual glance one may be captivated by a city, sensing a oneness with its inhabitants that Jules Romains within his Paris called Unanism. An embracing word. I remember coming for the first time to Krakow in the fading light of an October twilight after miles of driving through the empty Polish countryside. Until I arrived there I had never been particularly aware of the city. Then suddenly the great market square, the Rynek, loomed up before me, the 14th-century Drapers' Hall in its center, and under the arches of the hall's arcade a radiancy of lights. People were sitting casually at caf'e tables in the arcade, the autumn chill held back by overhead electric heaters. That moment remains fixed -- the square, the s hadowed hall, the lighted arcade, the men and women at the tables.

Such instant awareness came to me similarly some years later on a warm and lingering August afternoon in Leningrad as I walked along the Nevski Prospect, most stupendous of thoroughfares. In that northern latitude the summer had already begun to wane. Perhaps it had something to do with the poignancy of the shifting season, but as I walked, the city seemed beyond time, not Leningrad at all but Peter's city, Catherine's city. Under the arching sky I somehow felt a oneness with each person I passed or saw . Like Faust I wanted time itself to stay. The sun-drenched moment passed and yet did not pass. Twice I have seen the Russian city, walked along the boulevard that I shall perhaps never see again and that I took for myself one August afternoon.

Cities like Krakow and Leningrad I have met unexpectedly. Others I have carried in my mind for years against the fallow thought that I might one day get to them, cities as varied and various as Vienna, Strasbourg, Toledo, and the English Boston.

I came to Vienna because I had once read Eichendorff's ``Out of the Life of a Good-for-Nothing'' and felt the need that he had once felt to see the city. Strasbourg echoed the old soldier songs, the long bridge ``where my sorrows began.'' Yet for me, the city where I once lived for half a year was haunted by the rococo figure of the young Goethe, who came there as a student in April 1770 and at once made his way to the cathedral -- the Monster, he called it in his autobiographical ``Truth and Poetry'' -- whose single spire he had seen from so many miles across the Alsatian plain. That passage stuck in my mind ever since I read it in an intermediate German course. Someday I knew I must go to Strasbourg. I had to wait 15 years, but finally I arrived on a biting winter afternoon and stood at last in the cathedral square looking up at the soaring tower that was indeed the symbol of Alsace. ``O Strassburg, O Strassburg, du wundersch"one Stadt -- you wonder-beautiful city.'' As I stood there in the cold I caug ht the echo of the old song.

Boston in Massachusetts was the start of my collection, the first city I became aware of even before I knew what a city was, seeing it from the hill of my childhood five miles away, the gilt State House dome -- which I thought real gold -- flashing in the sunlight; the Custom House Tower, Boston's then highest building, soaring up 28 stories as if it would touch the sky. Below those focal points the tentacular city spread out, the mysterious place my father went to each day on a mysterious activity cal led ``business.'' But the earlier Boston, the prim Lincolnshire market town across the ocean, held a more nebulous consciousness for me through the long-forgotten Victorian poet Jean Ingelow, who had lived there and whose ``The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire (1571),'' read to me by my Aunt Amy when I was 5, first made me aware of that other Boston: Play uppe, play uppe, O Boston bells! Play all your changes, all your swells, Play uppe ``the Brides of Enderby.''

Those Boston bells echoed in my mind. Someday, I sensed, I must go there, though it would be a generation before that child's thought became an actuality.

I did arrive in the Lincolnshire Boston, on the milk train from Peterborough at 7 of a bright, chill Sunday in May. The ancient market town seemed to be asleep, streets empty, the tidal Witham at ebb. But there was the church tower of the bells, the Boston stump, ready I thought to play up ``the Brides of Enderby'' as I stood there on that Sunday morning.

London I had visited several times but never really known it as a city until World War II, when I spent half a year in one of the more redundant sections of the War Office. My arrival coincided with that of the flying bombs, and I left some two months after the rockets, the V-2s, began to land. One lived then in a tenseness that made even the most inconsequential moment seem precious, and in this heightened period I came to understand London as a city.

London and Paris are harder to know than most cities, and I think it takes several months to begin to feel at home in either of them. Paris I recall most vividly from my arrival in the autumn of 1947. The effects of the war were evident. No heat, few repairs, electricity off and on only four hours a day. There were no taxis, and the M'etro had shut down. I walked from the station to my small hotel near the Luxembourg through dim streets, the shop windows lighted mostly by candles. Yet walking through Pa ris I was inconsequentially happy. A good place to be on such a misty night.

Sometimes an aspect of a city is underlined in an intuitive flash. I remember walking up New York's Fifth Avenue on a fading afternoon as the lights were just beginning to flick on. Ahead of me, marking some new building, I saw a red neon sign with the apocalyptic numbering: 666. Equally, I remember arriving in Berlin the morning after the second 1932 presidential election when Hindenburg had at last defeated Hitler. The gutters were still clogged with discarded political pamphlets and there was a huge sign, W"ahlt Hindenburg, above the Brandenburg Gate. Next day the headlines of the Tageblatt announced ``The Triumph of Reason.''

I once heard Howard Mumford Jones announce offhandedly in a Harvard lecture that he thought the most interesting cities of the United States were Boston, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Because of that remark I once hitchhiked to New Orleans, exploring it one hot summer week with the help of a WPA guide. Professor Jones was right, as indeed he was about San Francisco, when seen from across the Golden Gate Bridge most magical, a sea-girt alabaster city on its hill, with any incongruities of recent archit ecture transfigured by distance. But I think he should have included Charleston, the city I should most like to have been part of, although I think to live there one has to be born to it.

So much for my collection of cities, like a stamp album, with blank pages for the East, Far East, South America. Yet incomplete as they are, I like from time to time to turn the pages of these old memories. The oddest item in my collection is the Polish Wroclaw that I once knew as Breslau, where I was a university student. A third of a century later I visited the Polish transformation. If one can imagine taking a city about the size of Boston, Mass., removing all the inhabitants and replacing them with others of a different nationality and tongue, demolishing all monuments, renaming all the streets and public places, changing all the signs -- that is what happened to Breslau.

Again I stood in the baroque hall where I had once matriculated and had my hand shaken perfunctorily by the rector. Then I walked through the once-familiar streets. Crossing the cathedral island, I reached the Monhauptstrasse, where I had roomed. Its new name was for me unpronounceable. Yet there was my old house, and somewhere my old self. I stood looking at it for several minutes, caught up in the past. But Breslau had become Wroclaw, and I knew beyond knowing that I was there for the last time.

Mr. Russell's second book on the historic Sacco-Vanzetti case, ``Sacco-Vanzetti: The Case Resolved,'' will be published in March.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK