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The Nomadic View of Place

Thinking about where one is in geographic terms

While the pasturing is good, you stay in one place.

A key value of travel is, in essence, shopping around for better spaces and patterns in which to live. When you live somewhere for many years, there's a value in that, to be sure. There's a groundedness. But you internalize and forget the shapes of the spaces through which you move on a daily basis. I don't notice the shape of the street where I live, the trees that frame it, the setback of the houses from the sidewalk.

When one travels, one has to pay attention. Part of the force of Times Square or the Piazzo San Marco is that, unless you live there, you really *see* it when you encounter it. You can't miss that Times Square is hopelessly jagged and utterly not a square. You cannot miss the way in which the Piazzo creates a great, theatrical rectangle but denies you a stage, so that the Piazza itself becomes the stage.

There is also a broader, cultural element. There are different scenes and a different feeling in different cities. There is great intelligence and nuance in both London and Singapore, but the two could not feel more different, even if Singapore was originally built under the control of Londoners.

And travel encourages you to pick your spots. If there is a place in the world that speaks to you, why not live there, at least for a while?

After all, we live in a time when, for those of us who are lucky enough to be born in the right place, and lucky enough to work within the right economies, it is possible to pick your spots to a large degree. If you are hell-bent on spending most of your time in Argentina, it's something you may well be able to arrange (not without some sacrifices, but all the same). And even if Argentina isn't your idea of the perfect spot, there are almost certainly things to be learned there, things that you can, perhaps, bring back home with you.

There are, at any given time, unique communities of shared interest in specific cities. It's perhaps easiest to see this from a historical perspective--consider the artists who congregated in Paris at the turn of the century. I suppose it's mostly artists that we're talking about here, by which I mean to include writers and thinkers and musicians and architects. But if there's an artistic moment that speaks to you and you're lucky enough to live at the moment when it's happening, then wouldn't you seriously consider spending as much time as you could in the city where that constellation had assembled itself? I think Berlin is such a city now; Prague is such a city.

For various reasons worth exploring in other entries on other days, I don't presently happen to live in one of those cities. And, at least as I write this, these clusters of artistic energy that interest me seem to be things of the past (fin-de-siecle Vienna, for instance). But it has occurred to me that it is time to do the research, poking around the world with an eye out for the grouping that I'm missing, going where these things seem to be happening and checking them out in real time. One thing that absolutely speaks to me is architecture -- and nothing could be more about specificity of place an architecture, could it?

Everyone knows what you're supposed to see in the major tourist destinations. A lot of it boils down to big hunks of architecture. London Bridge, Empire State Building, the Sydney Opera House. I'm all for seeing them, I suppose. Occasionally the big ones don't seem worth the effort and then you get there and suddenly understand what the fuss is all about. The Eiffel Tower is, for me, the ultimate proof of this. It's actually completely worth it, though I'd suggest trying to catch it sometime when it's less crowded, like a rainy morning when it first opens.

There are ways in which each discreet culture pieces the elements of life together in ways that, taken as a whole, create order and meaning for the people who are its inhabitants. TK TK TK Mediterranean cultures eat very little for breakfast but have generally eaten late in the evening the night before, and often sumptuously. These aren't things that necessarily wind up discussed in travel guides. They aren't anything that it ever occurs to anyone is worth mentioning.

And of course, there are cultural events happening all around the world, some of them truly exceptional, potentially life changing. If you aren't looking for them and you don't live in the city where they are happening, you may very well not be aware of them. As I write this, there's an opera called Champion having its premiere in St. Louis. Opera's not for everyone, of course. My point is, though, if you aren't in St. Louis and aren't a real opera aficionado, you won't know about this. Is it worth going out of your way to be in St. Louis at the right time to see it? It would require a little more investigation to find out. But maybe. It's possible that being there would be something you remembered the rest of your life.

Some people feel this way about sporting events--national championships and the like. I like sports and, heck, might consider going to see an NCAA women's basketball championship with my daughter some year soon. But at the end of the day, I think there are things that it is perhaps more important to experience first hand. There are masterworks to be seen, piazzas to be experienced. Things that have changed cultural history. Things that one should take every opportunity to see first hand.

I should also say, lest you get the wrong impression, that I'm not advocating a big-money lifestyle where you jump on a jet and fly out anytime anything fun happens in LA or Vegas (two places I have to confess I'm not keen on, though LA is growing on me). But these things are happening, you are aiming for a lifestyle where you have more control over your time and your whereabouts -- it would be scandalous not to at least figure world-class events, museums, and restaurants into your equations, right?

So at least a small part of this site takes a look at the elements that make places unique, with a bit of luck not dishing out the stuff everyone already knows (there's a cool tower in Paris, for example -- though in point of fact it really is worth the trouble and tourist clutter to go and see), but looking at the things that are happening right now. Where are the emerging artists in Berlin, who's an overlooked artist whose work can be found in Vienna, and so on. And we'll also look at the literal shapes of things -- how does the shape of a street influence what goes on there, not in the abstract (city squares are nice) but in the particular (why is there so much activity on the streets of Aspen in the evening?). In my view, these things are always, always, always worth exploring.

From here:

Most recent place I've covered in terms of it being a place: Aspen, Colorado.

If you're going to be mobile, your desktop of choice may well be an iPad--and working on an iPad without feeling underserved is covered here.

Robert Richardson is the principle nomad here at the Mode.
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