Cities represent, for me, the other end of a spectrum I hadn’t realised I was on until I came to university. I come from a small northern town that had fifteen minutes of fame in a Tinie Tempah song, but is otherwise lost in a saturated map of British place names.
If I wanted to, I could walk to the nearest grocery shop, but if I wanted to go to a shopping centre with any substance, I would have to take a bus to the next town, and then a train to the next city, and so on. It’s isolation, but in a way that makes you unaware that you’re isolated, because you have lived like this for 18 years and you don’t know any different.
Coming to a city made me realise that I’d been living in slow motion; simple things like food delivery and my proximity to a Waterstones were suddenly forced under a magnifying glass. The world was shifted into an entirely different focus for me—everything was bigger and closer. And the people were different. You don’t want to admit it, but when you come from a small town, the diversity of a city throws you off at the start. I’d never met anyone my age who hadn’t attended a state school, and most of my friends had been born at the hospital fifteen minutes from my house.
Oxford isn’t exactly a metropolis in its geography and architecture, which is probably why I feel more comfortable living in it, since there’s this sort of shelter that the historical buildings provide as you walk down the streets that is not as suffocating as the churches in North Lincolnshire can be. However, what it lacks in physical size, it makes up for in the sheer amount of people who walk the streets. Oxford is pulsing every day, in a way I had never seen before, and which made me very uncomfortable in the beginning, but which now makes home feel eerily quiet.
So, this is how cities affect me. I’m at both ends of this spectrum, but I don’t feel like the ends will ever meet. It’s as if I am split into two halves, hopping from one state of being to another when I move from north to south. For the first week or so, I feel like the middle of a Venn diagram: slightly out of place and yet, at the same time, as though I belong to something plural. Marcel Proust talks in his novel Combray (or Swann’s Way) about memory: how the very essence of a memory is its ability to propel us into a state of recollection, back to the ghost of a situation we seem to remember but cannot quite grasp. “What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself” (“Grave incertitude, toutes les fois que l’esprit se sent dépassé par lui-même”).
This in some way reflects how I feel about the polarity that living in between a city and my little northern town causes: when I feel something that I have only ever felt before in the city or my home in a new environment, it feels strange, uncomfortable, and misplaced.
At home, it might be a sudden jolt of liberation that I feel walking down the street to catch that bus into town which reminds me of walking down the street to a lecture, where I will be right next door to a city centre with which I needed nothing more than my legs to reach. In the city, it is when I am walking by myself at night and I remember the panic of walking home from a friend’s house as a pre-teen, but with the shattered armour of realising that I am in one of the cities my mum warned me about walking home alone in.
I have only lived in a city for sixteen weeks, in this city, and the others are foreign to me: friends’ university homes that I would struggle to recollect because they bring to me with their towering buildings some sense of non-identity, so that I adopt the faux-hedonism of a character like Nick Carraway in a Gatsby-esque burst of energy that leaves me just as alienated from the city as before. And so, it is as if it might be possible that my city—Oxford—is becoming a middle ground which has the recognisable buzz, but lacks the dizzying height of the bigger, more concrete-skyscraper cities. As I take a journey academically at university, it also feels like I’m on a journey of which I’m unsure about the destination: is it me? Am I changing? Is it the motorway I took to get here that is triggering this change?
Perhaps I was wrong about the line of my spectrum being totally unmalleable. Maybe the middle of the Venn diagram won’t seem so alien in a distant future.