My Invisible Cities are cities shrouded in mystery.
For as long as I can remember I have wanted to travel as far away from my home as I could. As a child I dreamed of traveling to Italy and Greece, England and China. I’ve always had some of the explorer’s spirit, and I am convinced that at least part of me is a gypsy. In any case, since graduating from high school in 1987, I have been lucky enough to have traveled, if not extensively, than modestly through Europe and part of North Africa. Although I have yet to travel to Greece or China, I am working my way through cities I’ve always wanted to see.
Italo Calvino’s magnificent novel, Invisible Cities, details the stories Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about all of the cities he (Polo) has visited in the realm of the great Khan. Much of the action takes place in various parts of the Khan’s palace and gardens. What is really magnificent about this novel is that the reader (and Khan) is never really quite sure if what Polo is telling us is true, or if he is embellishing to the point of fictionalization. If this hypothesis is true, then the cities Marco Polo has visited have all been in his mind; hence the term “invisible.”
My invisible cities are those that I have yet to visit but hope to some day. At the top of my list are, in no particular order: Buenos Aires, Prague, Edinburgh, Dublin, Turin, Santiago, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Chicago, Alexandria and Cairo, Tangier, Algiers, Spit, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, Athens, Miami, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Mexico City, Mumbai, Istanbul, San Francisco, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Lima, Tehran, Bagdad, Heidelberg, and Palermo, to name just a handful.
Other than reading more, I always encourage my students to study abroad at some point in their careers, even if this means going into further debt. Study abroad is every bit as important, perhaps more so, than what we learn in the classroom. For example, as an undergraduate I experienced an incredibly difficult time in my Italian language classes. I aced everything else in college, but could not pull above a C+ in Italian. Yet, when I traveled to Italy for the first time in a study abroad program in 1996, I was surprised at how quickly I picked up the language. I was also surprised by how disappointed some of my fellow students were by the country. Over and over again I heard that the reality did not live up to the idea. Whenever one travels abroad one must be sure to bring his or her imagination—because nothing is really as it seems.
Perhaps the cities that mean the most to us can only ever really be those cities we visit in our dreams and not in our waking life. The cities of our dreams come to us on our own terms, rather than on those dictated by the cities themselves. If we suffer disappointment, it’s always because the cities we visit have not, somehow, lived up to the expectations we have carefully crafted in our minds. I have traveled a good deal in my 42 years on this planet, and not all of my trips have been pleasant. However, even during those unpleasant times (usually due to some sort of sickness), I would not have traded the experience for the world.
Calvino’s Invisible Cities begins with these words: “Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says as he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger of his.” Most of us are at the mercy of the storyteller’s whim when it comes to visiting cities of the world. We rely on these storytellers to inform us about the cities, and if the storyteller is particularly skilled in his or her craft, then in our minds we can imagine ourselves there, standing in the street. Everything I know about Buenos Aires I know from Borges. Everything I know about Cairo comes mostly from Naguib Mafouz. The cities I dream about have come to me from writers of history and fiction. It is really through their influence that these cities have come to mean to me what they do.
My invisible cities are really cities caught in the web of my imagination. It’s there that these cities have taken root and fueled what is now an almost all-consuming desire to keep moving across the planet.