Freedom of the City

by Maria on May 12, 2017

Two nights ago, I got back from a work-dinner, kicked off my heels in the hall and hung up the smart jacket that went with them, pulled on docs and a coat to walk the dog. Which is worse; a half-mile walk in a too-tight dress now, or a long-cold shit on the kitchen floor in the morning? Walk it was.

Half way round the walk – which has gradually lengthened from ‘don’t stop walking right after the dog shits because he’ll learn to hold it in to maximise the walk’ to ‘sod it, may as well do the mile’ – the lolloping pace of the docs, the cool and the dark, and a sudden realisation that with a medium to large sized dog I feel somewhat impervious – it came to me. I felt free. Free in a way I haven’t felt since Jerusalem in 1996, I think it was.

Rolling back a little. My first ever holiday alone. The Greek Islands. Black sands of Santorini, a night spent sleeping on the deck of a ferry and waking up with the sun. Actually, that’s all I can remember. After Santorini I couldn’t take any more of all the same and got a flight to Israel to do some real traveling. I got there a day or two after Benjamin Netanyahu had won his first election. I saw him on the street, actually, in the middle of a dozen or two people bowling along the pavement, then careening from the footpath to cross the street and spin back again, like primary school boys in a moving melee around the ball.

I stayed in a youth hostel somewhere central-ish in Jerusalem.

“Hi Mum,” I couldn’t resist calling home. No point being a rebel unless you let the establishment know. “Guess where I am.”

She couldn’t, so I told her. There may have been a sharp intake of breath on the other end, but history doesn’t relate. History does relate that on the out-breath she said; “Oh you must look up Declan Meagher. He delivered you all and he runs the maternity hospital in Bethlehem, now.”

In the daytime, I would go to the refugee camps to visit various people the Irish network put me in touch with. They weren’t camps, just unofficial towns on the other side of checkpoints. I went to buildings with UN signs on the outside and not much to do inside. The men would leave the classroom and the women would all suddenly grin. Scarves would come off. I would write English words on the board or just chat and listen through an interpreter.

One afternoon a woman invited me home. I sat on a huge, mushroom-coloured armchair, facing three or so generations of her extended family. We smiled and nodded at each other for at least an hour. They offered me food and to be polite I accepted everything. A bowl of what I took for half-cracked monkey-nuts was put on my lap. Someone made the ‘eat’ sign. I crunched the first one for a couple of minutes, and washed down what seemed to be basically twigs with water, smiling all the time. Behind the sofa a boy of maybe five grinned at me and held up what I now know was a pistachio. He cracked it out of the shell and ate it, laughing. Aha.

In the evenings, I would go to bed from ten till midnight, and then get up and lollop through the old town with an ex-East German whose name I don’t remember. There were other long-termers at the hostel and they knew him, but he didn’t seem to have close friends. He asked me out to walk with him one night, and I went, so I could see the town after dark.

This is the bit of the story that, when it’s a proper story, with an ending and a moral and everything, is the hinge of a cautionary tale. Except it doesn’t, and like almost every woman who’s ever done a mildly risky thing in the company of a man she didn’t really know, in a city she didn’t really know, Nothing Happened. (Nothing is normally exactly what happens, by way of reminder to the ever-present apportioners of original blame.)

So this East German guy and I strode about the city for two hours each night. Not quite together. He had earphones and a Walkman and listened 24 hours a day to techno, even when he was asleep. It calmed him, he said. He felt a strong need of calming. He nodded to his techno and walked twenty per cent faster than my pace, and I trotted along beside or behind him. He was about 6’8”. I remember him as having a shaved head but it’s possible he didn’t. He had the broad physique of a rugby-playing friend I knew then, who bucked the sporting cliches to also play base in a post-rock band.

I remember so little of Jerusalem at night. Nothing magical. Bus shelters, barking dogs, ring roads, the odd patrol. If we passed a monument or a famous hill, I’ve lost it. We never stopped. We just walked from midnight to two a.m. He knew the city implicitly and followed a random-seeming route of his own. Sometimes people nodded to him, probably less out of recognition than appeasement. There was no talking to him, but that was the beauty. He seemed troubled, but he was always kind, or at least neutral.

When we got back on the second night, he came to my bunk in a shared room off the dorm and propositioned me, almost as you’d ask a fellow traveler if they wanted help with a rucksack. I thanked him and said no. He said no problem, but he would have if I’d been interested, and I should let him know if I changed my mind. I said I’d be sure to.

The next morning I woke up late. A much younger guy from my bunk-room was trying on my favourite short, blue, swirly dress. I’d never heard of anyone our age doing something like that. I think if you’d asked me back then about cross-dressing, I would have said it was for older men who’d missed their chance to be gay. (Bear in mind, I was someone who’d never seen a pistachio in the flesh, either.) His shoulders were too broad and I worried he’d split the back seam. It was an unusually lovely dress, cut on the bias, and I wasn’t surprised when he asked if he could keep it. East German guy nodded past, headphones on. He took in the scene but kept going. He had some sort of job that kept him busy in the day-time. I pulled myself up to full size and got the dress back. I wore it for years till I got a bit too fat and sad for it. I still miss that dress.

The next night, we went walking again. I suggested a couple of turns, followed my nose. He walked beside me in his ten league boots, shortening his stride a little but keeping his techno pace. We did five or six miles and said goodnight. The next day I flew home, after a long delay at the airport explaining over and over again why I’d visited my mother’s obstetrician on the West Bank and explaining why no, I would not leave my camera behind to be disassembled and trust it to be posted on to me at some future date.

I’d taken stupid chances with my personal safety in the West Bank, ones I’ve not mentioned, and I took another couple hitching a lift to the airport in Crete. But nothing happened to me. In the non-story of most of our lives, nothing usually does. Those nights, walking with perfect liberty through a Jerusalem almost unrecognisable to that of today, I felt free. I took long strides through the cool air with a meaty man who could handle himself in a fight, and so rarely had them, and who had only the most cursory sexual interest in me. That’s a sort of freedom.

I thought about him the other night, for the first time in twenty years. What happened to him? He had not long left the former GDR and didn’t wish to go back, but I wonder if he did in the end. When you have nowhere particular to go, you often end up where you began. That may be some sort of freedom, too.



LFC 05.12.17 at 9:57 pm

You should put some of these lovely pieces (perhaps not the one about your dog’s shaven rectum, but some of the others) into a book. Freedom of the City and Other Essays. I’ll take a small fee for having suggested the title. Preferably in dollars, not pounds. As one of the CT front-pagers, you have my email address. ;)


Jared 05.13.17 at 3:19 am

This is the most utopian thing I’ve read in a long while, and of course it took place in the 1990s. Thank you.


Hickory Bow 05.13.17 at 10:34 am

Maria–Did you look up Declan Meagher, the doctor who delivered you?


Maria 05.13.17 at 3:43 pm

Hickory, I did indeed. I should tell that story, one of the days.

(Thanks, LFC. Do you take bitcoin?)


JRLRC 05.13.17 at 6:08 pm

Keep writing…
Greetings from México.


LFC 05.14.17 at 2:32 am

Do you take bitcoin?

But a good try. ;)


bad Jim 05.14.17 at 7:45 am

Nothing Happened is the history of the world, with notably rare exceptions.


Belle Waring 05.14.17 at 12:53 pm

Maria come back to Singapore to stay with us, and have jet lag, and just walk around at 3 am all alone in the velvet blackness with your headphones on! You can go to a park in the jungle! Say what you will about etc., you can damn sure be free as a woman who wants to not be hassled by anyone, or wary, or looking ahead for dubious alleys. +1 would move to spot furthest on globe from my beloved family again. Also, this is really lovely, thanks.


Maria 05.14.17 at 6:16 pm

Oh wow, Belle. You are making me nostalgic for it! For some reason, last time I was there I went around taking pictures of those signs about not leaving standing water around (malaria, not that I need to tell you). I mean, there’s something to be said for a nanny state that really REALLY cares about you that much. I would go back to visit in a heartbeat, too. But only if you guys were there.


Ingrid Robeyns 05.14.17 at 7:08 pm

This is really beautiful. I so much recognise the Freedom of the City (at night) you’re so beautifully capturing. Though it’s a special kind of Freedom when it’s in a big city – a metropole, isn’t it? It really is different in Berlin or London, compared to Göttingen or Cambridge. Give us more of this, Maria!


Meredith 05.14.17 at 10:36 pm

Wonderful. Captures much of my youth, from early childhood into my twenties. Things I (or we, with friends) did that I guess were kind of dangerous — well, some were stupendously so — but we just felt free and were fortunate that nothing did go wrong. And I second that you should publish more widely (I think I have suggested this before).


Andrew Brown 05.15.17 at 12:50 pm

That was lovely. Thank you


Barbara Roseman 05.15.17 at 11:28 pm

When I was applying to graduate schools I drafted a personal essay that began, “My favorite semester at Mills College was the one I spent going to Barnard/Columbia.” After a friend pointed out that it was a little unseemly to say that it was the best to be away, I rewrote the whole thing. But that Spring semester, for which I arrived a couple of weeks early, was one of the most exciting times of my life.

Aside from all the usual things about intellectual life in NYC and the wondrous food adventures I had, I found an apartment share somewhere in the West 70s and would walk to College every day. Taking a job in the computer lab to have a little spending money, I would often be walking home very late at night, after midnight several times. I would walk down Broadway and feel quite comfortable because every few blocks was a bodega with flowers on display in front, bright fruit behind that, and open all night for whoever needed to buy tulips at 2am.

That freedom to walk the streets without anyone with me, but with people all around me was part of what made me apply to Grad School in NY. I never quite captured again the carefree nature of those walks with the weather turning from cold and sleety to warm enough for the plastic entry alcoves of the bodegas to come down in May. Part of that was probably my initial naïveté in trusting the streets of NY to be safe because they were lit and occupied, but part of it was the year (1986), and the time of year, and things took a pretty dreadful turn in the City after that for awhile. But it was a glorious semester of freedom, intellectual stimulation, and physical well-being that I treasure having had.


Aardvark Cheeselog 05.16.17 at 5:34 pm

I like it.

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