Recent writing: Leave to Remain

I have a new essay up at Vela. It's about the process of acquiring indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and becoming a permanent resident - though really it's more about the process of waiting for this to happen, and the sense of feeling somehow trapped during this extended period of application and not-quite-residency. It's also (perhaps as everything I write ends up being) partly about what I've called "the wild in the banal", the way everyday life can seem so strange if you look at it closely enough:

When I was younger I used to fantasize about having a button I could press that would pause the world around me while I caught my breath, had a nap, figured out a solution, came up with something witty to say. My current situation is the opposite of that fantasy – someone has pressed the pause button on my life, and I am suspended, watching the rest of the world go by.

The pause button on my life was pressed by the UK Border Agency. Three months ago I applied for indefinite leave to remain here in the UK, where I have lived with my British partner for the past seven years. I have held, over the course of these years, a student visa, a post-study work visa, and an unmarried partner visa, and I am now, at last, eligible to apply to settle permanently.

The application process is like taking a leap of faith into an abyss. You take the “Life in the UK” test (“Is the statement below TRUE or FALSE? Getting to know your neighbours can help you to become part of the community”). You fill out a 50-page application form. You send a large envelope containing bank statements and pay slips and utility bills and your passport and, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, a photocopy of every enclosed document. You pay a £1,051 fee. And then you wait.

Read the full piece...

February

Post-run
Post-run

February: a month on the edge of hope - sharp, bright, cold, short. A kind of counterpart to Keats' "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness!". Daffodils are exploding in the garden in what seems to me to be a fit of unseasonably early optimism; we haven't even had our annual dusting of snow yet. But meanwhile time marches on. The morning routine is soothing and rhythmic. I know almost to the minute how long the ride to the pool is, when I'll be done with my swim, when I'll be home, when I'll be having my first cup of coffee.

***

On night I cycle out to Horspath via the Cowley Road and Hollow Way. This is unfamiliar territory. Out by the Mini plant it's pitch black and deserted but for a few cars whizzing by, and the road suddenly becomes unwelcoming. I find a bike lane, eventually, on the other side of the road, and teeter in almost complete darkness towards, I hope, the athletics track. At a certain point the blinking light of a cyclist ahead of me is the only thing that stops me turning round in fear of dropping off the edge of the earth, but once there the journey feels short again; I know where I am on a map of Oxford and it's not very far from home at all. I enjoy the sensation of being somewhere unfamiliar in a familiar place. There's always a moment of almost dreamlike disconcertion, followed by fizz of excitement and possibility: it's good to still be surprised by a place, to still find new things, and the longer you are somewhere, the stronger your habits become, the more likely it is that these new things exist just on the edge of your consciousness, close by but hidden, and you have to make an effort to see them.

I haven't been on a track in years. I quit my high school track team halfway through my first season because one morning I woke up and realized that the feeling of dread I carried with me all the time had a cause, and that cause was daily two hour sessions at the track, and that in spite of all the motivational speeches I'd heard in movies, quitting really was an option. At the time I was proud of myself for making this discovery, for getting my own way. Now I wonder if maybe I should have toughed it out. I probably could have learned a thing or two. I would never have been a star, but I wasn't an awful athlete; I was certainly capable, in theory, of doing everything that was asked of me. We all warmed up at meets in matching t-shirts that said, in black block capitals against a red background: "TRACK AND FIELD: THE ONLY TRUE SPORT. EVERYTHING ELSE IS JUST A GAME" (I held on to mine for years, as a reminder of my two months of toughness, but eventually it became the casualty of a breakup, which seemed a fitting fate). There was a certain pride in being a member of this group of people, even if I was a straggler, an outsider, still, at 14, largely uncomfortable in my own skin. But I didn't tough it out. I went to play a game instead, and for years thereafter my relationship to the track as a place was characterized largely by the memory of pain: physical pain, yes, but also another, less tangible kind of pain: the pain of not winning, or even being in the vicinity of winning; the pain of learning your limitations; the pain of giving up.

That was almost fifteen years ago. Tonight the air is cold and clear - no rain, for what feels like the first time in weeks - and the darkness, the chill, the floodlights, the heavy breaths of the serious runners as they pound past, lend the evening an electric atmosphere. Like February, which is so close to the mania of springtime, so ripe, so carefully balanced on the edge. And true, there are moments, tonight, of intense boredom, moments of intense discomfort, moments of intense frustration. I'd forgotten that the thing about running around a track, as opposed to running through a city, is that there's really nowhere to go to hide from boredom, discomfort, and frustration. It's much more an exercise in meditation than an exercise of the heart or lungs or legs, in some senses. But there are also pleasurable moments, too. The way I feel light and unfettered (not, for once, running with keys, and iPod, and headphones, and more layers than I need, not distracted by indecision about which route to take or jolted out of reveries by aimless pedestrians veering into my path or whistling men in vans stopped at lights). The color and texture of the ground, the coolness of the air on my arms when I take my sweatshirt off. Yes, I am slower than I'd like to be, but I will always be slower than I'd like to be, and there are moments when this seems okay: I have nothing to prove.

On the ranch

West
West

This is the view from my run yesterday. Out for 24 minutes, towards Government Point; back in a determined, if somewhat labored, 22. I can guess, but I don't know how far I ran, which is a new experience. In Oxford, or any other city, I can look my route up on Google maps after, calculate exact distances; here it's not possible - this is just a stretch of sand on the California coast. There aren't even any obvious landmarks, until you get to the point itself. I didn't get all the way to the point; I turned back near a craggy line of rocks that looked pretty similar to another craggy line of rocks up ahead and a few craggy lines of rocks I'd already passed. I want to say it was liberating running like this, but actually I found myself obsessing about it, wanting to know precisely how far I'd gone (this is a bad habit I've gotten into - not quite Quantified Self-levels of tracking, but recording how far I swim, making sure I research exactly how far I run). I think next time I might use an app.

It was also hot! It hadn't occurred to me, packing late at night with a winter fog resting over Oxford and temperatures unseasonably warm but still uncomfortably cold after dark, that I would want to run in anything other than leggings, with tall socks underneath to keep my calves warm. But now, in those same leggings (with short socks, luckily), and a heavy grey Emerson Athletics t-shirt from my brief stint as a volleyball player in college, I was way too hot. I'd borrowed a pair of lightweight sunglasses, at least, but as I ran further and further away from the small cluster of cars and surfers, as if heading out into the desert, I became sweatier and hotter and increasingly uncomfortable. In contrast, the ocean, when, after the run, I plunged in, was so cold it felt like it had only recently been solid ice.

On the other hand, this was a very pleasant way to spend some time. I headed west, based on the logic that I'd see fewer people if I went that way, and it's true, I saw not a soul, except for a couple of surfers hanging around a particular wave, and one boat heading up towards Cojo, but they may as well have been figments of my imagination. It was a funny change from the last run I'd taken - Oxford, at about 6 o'clock on Saturday evening, the city seeming to seethe with pedestrians, all of them walking seven abreast or staring down at their phones, oblivious to their surroundings.

***

Today I drove down to Goleta and went for a swim in the pool. The water was cold. "What does it feel like to you? 75?" the woman getting into the lane next to mine said. I didn't know. She pulled on a second cap. "Well," she said, "we'll just have to see what we can do." It was cold, but it wasn't uncomfortably cold, or maybe I'm just not used to swimming outside, maybe I was too distracted by the novelty of the situation. I slid into the lane with the most sunlight for the final 500 meters, so I would have pretty patterns to look at on the bottom of the pool and warmth on my back.

***

Now, post-sunset, I'm having a pre-dinner beer at the kitchen table, with Django Reinhardt playing in the background (a change from Friday night's soundtrack - "how did we come to be listening to Nirvana at dinner?" said my mother; "because I put the 90s grunge playlist on," said my father). I'm writing mostly to avoid reading: I don't want The Goldfinch to end quite yet. When it gets dark here it gets very dark, and the innocent rustling of wind in the macadamia trees sounds potentially threatening, because unknown, wild things happen after the late fades. But I guess that's one of the nice things about being here, that element of the unknown, even when it's familiar. And really, what difference does it make, to me or anyone else, to know the exact length of an impulsive Saturday afternoon run? There are other ways of measuring.

Geographer-self

Over at the Landscape Surgery blog, I wrote a post about what being a cultural geographer means to me. This is part of great a series of posts by fellow students and researchers in the department of geography at Royal Holloway - "The Self Portrait series is a project designed to highlight the missing ‘I’ within geography." (And it was Freshly Pressed today!) Here's how it begins:

The truth? I’m still not sure I am a geographer.

Over the last year I’ve become more comfortable claiming to be one, or at least marginally less fearful of being exposed as a fraud. But at parties my go-to response to the dreaded question of “what do you do?” is: “oh, I’m a writer.” If the conversation survives this admission, and I happen to mention that I’m doing a PhD, and I happen to mention that the PhD is in cultural geography, I might make an attempt at explaining how these things are linked. I might say, “I write about geography.” This is not really an explanation, but if you say it confidently enough, it almost sounds like one.

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A day spent working in the library

Fish in fountain
Fish in fountain

Taking a rest. Reading is like exercise to me: I have to stop to catch my breath sometimes, and I can tell when I'm really enjoying it, doing it well, because my pulse actually quickens, or seems to, anyway - or maybe I'm just thinking this because of the subject matter of the book I happen to have just put down. I glance up at the pink ceiling, and then out the window at the blank white sky. Yes, we've reached the time of blank white skies. Soon all of the leaves will have fallen (in our garden they are stubbornly hanging on, which at first was admirable but now feels desperate) and the whole world will be in black and white until March.

The smell of the Upper Reading Room makes me nostalgic. I used to come here when I was casually employed as a research assistant, and I can't help thinking that, at least in terms of work, that was the most purpose-filled time of my life so far. I came here with such a clear sense of what I needed to accomplish. I flipped through books and old periodicals, trying to find forgotten short stories or columns or even just a mention, a review, a reference - something. I was always searching for something. What pleasurable, simple work. True, it was not my purpose, exactly, not my project, but just being part of it felt good. I know I glorify it - some of it was little more than mindless copying-down, photocopying, confirming, stuff a child could do. But all work is like that, made up as much of small bits as big. I just wish that I could figure out how to replicate this sense of serenity and trust in my own work. I guess the trouble now is that I'm almost wholly responsible for where it goes, which is a harder thing to negotiate. I have to make the decisions about what to look for, and then look for it, and then decide what it means when I find it - or don't - and that takes some of the pleasure out of the looking, because there's always a niggling sense of doubt. What if I'm wrong? What if this isn't the right direction? What if this is purposeless work?

And anyway this, today, is illicit work: no one is paying me for it, or expecting me to do it. It's invisible, which is what writing has become to me. I worry about this often nowadays: is it true labour if there's no remuneration? Am I not just here playing in the library?

***

In Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur, I read of the poet Rupert Brooke that, "When working at the Bodleian he would get up in his country cottage long before dawn and bathe as he walked down to Oxford in the streams among the Cumner [sic] hills once favoured by Clough."

I think about these young white men, striding across the land (land they seem to "own" as soon as they step on to it, whether or not they actually own it), suddenly having an urge, stripping down, getting wet, communing with nature: "bathing". I think: to read about the (romantic) history of swimming, as rendered by Sprawson, is fascinating enough, but it doesn't really get close to why I find it such a compelling subject. True, I've been known to plunge semi-impulsively into bodies of water - ice-melt lakes in the Sierras during camping trips, oceans, rivers, reservoirs - but I don't have quite the same reverence for these encounters that I do for the highly regulated experience of going to the pool. For me immersion is not the same thing as swimming, exactly, though there's obviously shared territory there. And surely man-made pool environments are as varied and compelling as the ponds and streams of the British countryside. Even ugly, reeking, creaking municipal buildings have their own particular charm. If nothing else the inhabitants of these environments invite interest: here the elderly, the very young, the fit, the fat, the disabled, the old pros, the just-learnings, are all united by a desire to transcend the apparent limitations of the human body. They're here to float, to breathe. This is where the fizz of excitement is, to me. Who are these people, how have they come to be here, what brings them back, again and again and again, repeating the same old routine in the same old ugly, reeking, creaking building?

The other thing, if I'm honest, is that sometimes the nature-ness of nature alarms me. The thought of fish or reeds brushing up against me as I swim makes me shudder. To read some of Roger Deakin's accounts in his "swimmer's journey through Britain" is a difficult exercise: "Reaching down, I felt soft mud and ancient fallen branches, and sensed giant pike and eels".

Perhaps mine is a "girly" reaction: perhaps I need to man up, strip down, learn to happily glide "downstream, brushed by fronds of water crowfoot that gave cover to trout". But I remember, as a child, paddling a surfboard across a saltwater pond that had formed near our local beach, and feeling the rush of a scaly fish-like creature moving against my submerged arm, and screaming, my body rigid on the board. My father came to the edge of the water with something like concern on his face. "A fish!" I wailed at him. "Help! There's a fish!" - and it wasn't so much the presence of the fish (I wasn't afraid of it in a conventional way, I wasn't worried about what it might do to me) as the thought of the encounter, a visceral memory playing over and over again - the way it slithered, the way it was unlike me. My father wandered away, down the beach again, bemused, and I paddled frantically to the sand and pulled the board out of the water. I don't much like the squishiness of riverbed beneath my feet, either - you never know what you might encounter. I remember walking in the shallow part of a river near a friend's house and treading on a dead fish; there went the same shiver of unknown fear down my back, the same sense of the body of water as haunted.

For swimming "in the wild", I prefer the ocean, my native habitat, the kind of open water with which, growing up on the California coast, I'm most intimately acquainted - but I respect it greatly, its fickleness, its waves and tides, and I'm not sure I can ever be a swimmer in the sea in the same way that I'm a swimmer in a pool. In the ocean I'm just briefly part of something much bigger. I'm intensely aware of the danger, and therefore of my self in relation to that danger. I'm treading lightly, paying constant attention to my (physical and emotional) limits. It's good, it's important, but it's different. (Though maybe not so different: what did I say I liked so well about the pool? Partly the limits, the controls…)

***

While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way. However far his excursions may take him, the simplicity of the architectural object enables him to pick up the thread where he left it, leaving no room for confusion, bombast, or contrivedness. The architectural part - the artifact - is, from the outset, easy to define whereas its contents - the natural part - are highly complex. The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.

(From Thomas A P Van Leeuwen's The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool)

***

I stay in the library until seven. I could go on like this, probably for hours, but I'm ravenous, and at the back of my mind I'm aware of the cold ride home I have ahead of me, which diminishes the pleasure of staying here somewhat. Darkness fell fast at about 4 o'clock. About an hour ago the library began emptying, but there are still quite a few of us here, at our little desks. I'd forgotten how nice the unspoken, unacknowledged camaraderie of this is, and, though perhaps just because this is what I've spent the last few hours reading about, suddenly liken it in my mind to the unspoken, unacknowledged camaraderie of swimming laps. Everyone's there for the same purpose, putting the work (or the play) in. It's similar here. We look up every once in awhile and almost catch each other's eyes, but mostly we're in our own weird little universes. Sometimes it's enough just to be surrounded by others, to be near human bodies.

So I dread the exit: the sudden imposition of real life, whatever that is, the cold air, the struggle with my bike lock, the stop at the grocery store, the nagging yelps of the self-checkout machine: "Unexpected item in bagging area. Please insert your card into the chip and pin machine. Please take your items. Please take your items. Please take your items."

The other problem is that, once I got going, I was really enjoying my work this afternoon, and this seems to happen rarely enough that I don't want to let it go. But you have to - otherwise you burn out. You have to stop, and take a break, and then come back to it. That's the only way it works. So out I go.

On a Run

Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs

Gardening on Sunday led to sore hamstrings on Monday, which led me, in the evening, to consider attending a yoga class. But I dawdled, until I was running almost irrevocably late, and I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to run to the yoga class. So I stuffed some cash into my fleece pocket and laced up my shoes and started running. At two minutes to seven, I was there, or nearly there; I could have made it, I could have come in out of the cold and paid my five pounds and borrowed a mat and quietly tried to soothe my hamstrings and feel in touch with myself, or summon some hidden inner energy or whatever. But I was having such a nice time running that I just kept going.

It was cold but not too cold - not chest-achingly cold, just cold enough to make me feel like I had to keep going, or else. The sidewalks were wet, and the reflections of streetlights winked in shallow puddles. I was going at a really good pace, for me - down the Iffley Road and over Magdalen Bridge before I even knew it, and onto Longwall Street, and then Holywell, past the King's Arms, where a lone young man stood shivering outside with a cigarette, and up Parks Road, where it was dark and quiet. It was only here, on the edge of the night-black expanse of the University Parks, that I began to realise that my right hand, holding my phone, was numb from cold; I felt a twinge in my right calf; I slowed a little. Outside Keble, a boy and a girl and a bicycle stood. She was crying. He was holding the bicycle upright, saying very little.

***

I used to run quite a bit - never far, never seriously, but out of habit, and, to some extent, out of some fairly intense and persistent need: it felt like a regulating force, a way of maintaining congruity, balance, identity. One summer I worked down in Orange County. It was a hot summer, the sun trapped by chalk-white parking structures and grimy strip malls that all bled into one another, but I had a regular running route, along wide residential streets, across the train tracks, looping round the blessedly shaded center of old Orange. I suffered from bad anxiety that summer and sometimes, trying to ward off a nighttime panic attack, I would close my eyes and start to imagine the route; I would run it in my mind, and it would help. My first summer in Oxford it was a way to get to know the city, but it was also a way of maintaining a sense of other cities; sure it wasn't the Charles, but running along the Thames was not so different. They were still my feet carrying me down riverside paths, my eyes glancing up at other runners.

I run less now - a lot less, as in, hardly ever. Last night was the first time I'd run in - oh, six months, maybe, give or take. This is mainly because of aches and pains that weren't there five or six or ten years ago, and because as an activity necessary for the maintenance of my sanity, running has been supplanted by swimming. But every once in awhile the irrepressible urge takes me to run. And because I'm so used to walking places now, the first few minutes of a run always strike me as miraculous: how can I be moving this fast, on my own two feet? How can I feel so light and comfortable? The last few minutes always strike me as miraculous too: how can I have thought, not that long ago, that I could do this indefinitely? How can I have never noticed that part of myself, that particular complaining muscle?

***

On my way back home last night I paused in the center of town, under the Bridge of Sighs, to take a photo. I love this particular bit of Oxford and I love it perhaps best at night (but ask me tomorrow, I'll say something completely different), when people are only ever passing through, not loitering, when the shadows come alive. I've been thinking about this a lot lately - I've been thinking, having spent the last six years or so here, that thing that's great about living in Oxford is being on the outside, looking in. It's taken me awhile to come to this conclusion, but here's what I think now: better not to be one of the fresh-faced students, full of energy and desire to be elsewhere. Better not to be someone clinging on to a past, to glory days played out here. Better to be the person watching. What's special about this place is the energy that comes from all that hopefulness and angst. What's special is seeing it happen, being amongst it but not of it.

So I took my photo - not framed very carefully, because I was in a hurry to keep running. On the other side of the bridge a man was crouched with a bigger, more complex camera, setting up a far more elaborate, deliberate shot. And what does that shot look like? Are my feet, briefly planted, in it? (My own image, blurred and manipulated and Instagram-ed, isn't detailed enough to reveal the crouched photographer, though he is, in theory, somewhere there). Queen's Lane was full of cyclists, some of whom were whistling as they rode, perhaps as a way of asserting their presence before blind corners. The High Street was full of pedestrians, mostly alone, carrying backpacks and briefcases, on their way somewhere. Iffley Road was full of other runners, all of whom I was simultaneously in cahoots and in competition with.

On six years of being here

We moved from north Oxford to southern California in 1964 - when I was seven - and suddenly I noticed that living in the future tense could be as treacherous as living in the past; it was ideal so long as you were young and on the move, but it could be exasperating if ever you wanted to lay foundations underneath your feet. Small places were more conducive to enmities and smugness, I came to see, as soon as I was in the devouring open spaces of the Far West, but they were also home to idiosyncrasy, a sense of fun and to privacy.

- Pico Iyer

Six years ago, give or take a few days, I arrived in the UK after a red eye flight from Boston. In the departures lounge I'd watched people line up to board; towards the end of the line was a couple, youngish, holding hands, tall and tanned and athletic-looking, the sort of people you imagined went running along the river together every morning, and I surprised myself by feeling envious of them. I was six months single after two years of a college-intense relationship and, I'd thought, enjoying every minute of it, even the slightly abashed mornings-after, the avoiding of phone calls, the hoping for phone calls, the stumbling end-of-night kisses. But here was this couple, and I wanted to hold someone's hand. Maybe it was a reaction to leaving the city I thought I loved behind just as it was at its most glorious and carefree - the start of summer, the warmth not yet blossomed into unbearable heat, the bars full and spilling out onto the sidewalks at night. It occurred to me, too, that I would miss the friend I'd been casually sleeping with; in the next instant it occurred to me that maybe I didn't feel as casually as I was acting. So probably it was a good thing, flying off into the unknown: before I let the friendship dissolve or devolve or evolve, before my experience of being single turned messy, or messier, off I went.

When I arrived in London it was morning and raining. I hadn't been in England since I was twelve, visiting with my parents, and I was ill-prepared. I had no map. My shoes, brand new, purchased for a planned summer of unplanned backpacking around Europe, didn't fit properly, and rubbed blisters on my toes as I dragged my suitcase out of Paddington. Although I knew my hotel was nearby, I had no sense of how to get there. When I did get there - after about an hour of walking in grey, puddle-filled circles - the woman at the front desk told me there was a problem with the plumbing in my room and I could not check in. So I changed my shoes and sloshed down Oxford street and found my way, by memory or luck, to the British Museum.

And anyhow it all worked out in the end: the hotel gave me an enormous suite to compensate for any earlier inconvenience, and I slept heavily, and I threw the new shoes out, and the sun was shining the next day when my train pulled into Oxford.

The thing is, six years starts to feel like a significant amount of time. It's approaching a decade. To commit to anything for six years is to show a significant degree of passion, or doggedness, or, ideally, both. In six years your face changes; so does your body. You look demonstrably older. No one asks you for ID anymore, and you can no longer stay up all night drinking cheap cider and then wake up and go for a run and do it all over again the next night - or maybe it's just that you don't want to, which means that your demeanor, too, has changed. In six years people have come and gone, and you're someone who stayed, and this fact starts to define you.

The face of the city has changed, too. By dint of having known them for a long time now, you start to feel ownership of particular street corners and buildings. You like to say, well, I remember it before this place was here, I remember the way things were, I remember the unsavoury old carpet and the pool table and the jukebox - I'm not saying I feel nostalgic, I'm just saying I remember it. In six years two cohorts of undergraduates have done their degrees, been doused with eggs and champagne and shaving foam, gone away, got jobs. Countless barmen and women have become comfortingly familiar and then vanished. The things that haven't changed start to seem like the only things out of place: the café with the red sign, the summer-evening sound of church bells and ice cream trucks, the arrangement of furniture in your bedroom. The cherry trees and the ground elder have taken over the garden; the ivy has wrapped itself around the old Dutch bicycle that you used to ride everywhere; the landscape, the view from the study window, is simultaneously unrecognizable and unchanged.

Which isn't a problem: it's just time, doing its thing.

"When I saw the Charles River again, a desire to run swept over me"*

There are, Andrew Cohen writes, "millions of men and women wandering around America today who spent some of the best years of their lives in and around Boston…Even if we can't say we are 'from' Boston we surely confirm when asked that we are 'of' Boston. It remains in our blood".

And now all these little love letters to the city are cropping up (and not just from men and women wandering around America; "I loved that city," writes one Australian) - blog posts, articles, tweets. I too have been thinking about Boston, all week, obviously, but especially today. I know it's basically meaningless to express affinity in a time of crisis or distress, but as someone certainly not from Boston and equally certainly of it, I'm glad nevertheless to see people expressing a kind of indiscriminate and generic affection for a place, for this place particularly. I like the shared ownership it implies, even when everything is still happening and confused. Even if, like me, you left, and the city's just a network of distant memories now (not all good, but all essential), they're our memories.

I have nothing new to add. I lived there between September 2004 and December 2007, my tenure framed by two big Red Sox wins. Sport was casually central to my life there; I spent countless hours in the gym or at my boyfriend's tennis matches or studying against the backdrop of televised baseball games. I used to hang around on marathon Monday, watching the post-race runners all wrapped up in silver blankets. I watched them eat, drink, laugh, cry, vomit, hug: messy, noisy, leaky enactments of humanness. I used to think they were pretty stupid, actually: who would want to do that to their body, to train it and test it like that? But I admired them, too, more than I care to admit.

I used to run in the city myself. One hot summer I lived alone in a cramped apartment near Fenway, across from the Fens and Clemente Field, where there always seemed to be people playing cricket (I'd never seen anyone play cricket before that summer). When it wasn't so oppressively humid that I couldn't stand to be outside I'd run around the track, or else through the shaded park - often at dusk, when everything was blushing pink. Once, running stupidly at midday, when the heat was at its worst, I was struck in the side of the head by a passing bird, which left a smattering of down feathers smeared across my cheek; I was revolted and cut the run short to return home and shower. Another time, I was wearing a grey Harvard t-shirt that someone had bought for me and a man shouted as I ran past, "you don't go to Harvard!", and he was right, I didn't, and I hated that he could tell, or that he'd made a lucky guess. When I played volleyball we used to have dawn workouts, running circuits around the Boston Common, falling to our backs on the damp grass and doing sit-ups, followed by squats, followed by this or that, admiring the serene old men doing Tai Chi while we sweated and struggled for breath. When I lived in Kenmore Square I used to run down Beacon Street or Comm Ave, up Beacon Hill, just seeing where things took me, finding convoluted ways to lengthen the route. I liked this run because I could do it in the dark, and it was heaven on a cold late-October night, with the smell of decaying leaves and smoke heavy in the air, and a warm glow coming from the kinds of Back Bay townhouses I dreamed of someday inhabiting but knew, deep down, I never would.

Mainly, though, I used to run along the river. I usually just did a nice easy three or four mile loop; I could do it in the mornings before class, or on the weekends, even if I was wickedly hungover and dehydrated, because I was still so young that my body hadn't yet learned to protect itself from its own abuse. There was something pleasurable about doing that run when I was hungover, actually: it made me feel unreasonably defiant and able.

It was only a few months ago that I first encountered this passage, from Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

As I'm leisurely jogging along the Charles River, girls who look to be new Harvard freshmen keep on passing me. Most of these girls are small, slim, have on maroon Harvard-logo outfits, blond hair in a ponytail, and brand-new iPods, and they run like the wind. You can definitely feel a sort of aggressive challenge emanating from them. They seem to be used to passing people, and probably not used to being passed. They all look so bright, so healthy, attractive, and serious, brimming with self-confidence. With their long strides and strong, sharp kicks, it's easy to see that they're typical mid-distance runners, unsuited for long-distance running. They're more mentally cut out for brief runs at at high speed.

He's describing a run he took in October 2005 - so I could have been one of those girls, maybe. Except that I'm not blond, I was not a Harvard freshman, I was not particularly used to passing people, and was fairly used to being passed. Still, I was there then, running then. I tried to run all through the year, but couldn't manage it in the depths of winter, when it was simply too cold to derive any pleasure at all from being outside, and anyhow I liked it best in early Autumn, when the leaves would start to fall and the wind came off the river and made you feel like this really was the prime of your life, anything was possible, anything might happen.

Boston always made me feel like that; it's why I moved there. I didn't care much about what university I attended, or what I studied, for that matter - I just wanted to be there, in that city.

I haven't been back since the winter I graduated. I left in a rush, in the frigid aftermath of a blizzard; my English boyfriend helped me pack up my studio apartment in the North End and ship all of my things to England over the course of a weekend, and I took an uneventful final exam, and handed in my senior thesis, and that was it, I was done. To celebrate our early graduation, some friends and I took a cheap bottle of bubbly down to the Boston Common and drank it waiting in line to go ice skating; a few days later we all left the city for good, or for now. But we are of it; it remains.

*Haruki Murakami

Sifting through the temporal tangle

There's an episode of Doctor Who in which the eponymous time-traveling Doctor finds himself in an alternate timeline, where it's always 2:02pm on the 22nd of April, 2011. Other things are amiss too: pterodactyls are chasing children through the park, the War of the Roses has just entered its second year, and on TV, Charles Dickens is explaining the plot of his upcoming Christmas special: "All I can say now is it involves ghosts and the past and the present and the future all at the same time." Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill, evidently feeling disquieted, summons the Doctor.

"Something has happened to time," he says. "That's what you say, what you never stop saying. All of history is happening at once. But what does that mean? What happened? Explain to me in terms that I can understand: what happened to time?"

***

In the 21st century that you and I live in, pterodactyls are extinct, the Wars of the Roses happened in the 1400s, and Charles Dickens never got the chance to appear on television. But Emperor Churchill's question feels no less relevant: what happened to time? Or, rather, what's happening to time? And, since ideas about time and place are so integrally linked, what's happening to time and place - time in places, places in time?

It's not necessarily that time and place have changed their (slippery, shadowy) shape. It's that our view of them is shifting - or, more specifically, our tools for viewing them are shifting. Take Facebook, which, as Nathan Jurgenson writes, "fixates the present as always a future past." Or take the Fitbit, a device that tracks every step you take, feeding back data on how far you've walked, how many calories you've burned. It's just a fitness tool - ostensibly an intensely personal thing, a thing about you and your relationship to your body, your bodily relationship to the world. But, as Malcolm McCullough writes, "[p]lace begins with embodiment. Body is a place, and it shapes our perceptions" - and the Fitbit is part of a larger context, too, a proliferation and assimilation of devices and applications which fix us always in time and space, which force questions about what it means to be able to freeze time, excavate the layers of a place, make memories as they're happening.

Craig Mod writes about this in a piece on "the Data Mind":

Walking is different than biking or driving down a street. Heads stuck in smartphones, we miss the humanity of the scenes we pass. Yet using that same technology we can call up with atomic granularity the time and place of a meeting with a dear friend years back. Sometimes those two spaces collide - technology creating an almost psychic, projected awareness of the here and now.

The language we use to describe the uses and implications of this kind of technology is heavily couched in temporal and geographical language. The here is affected by the now, as the now is affected by the here. And place, as the cultural geographer Doreen Massey writes, is "here and now. It won't be the same 'here' when it is no longer 'now'." It's crowded by ghosts and memories, complicated by what James Donald describes as a "simultaneity of past, present, and future", a "temporal tangle that defines the 'now' that we inhabit."

So what exactly is technology creating an awareness of if "the here and now" is so slippery? What's here? What's now?

***

It's a good time to be thinking about this, maybe, given all the recent interest in the app Snapchat, which allows users to share pictures and videos which disappear from the recipient's device, irrevocably, after a period of time. I still don't understand what the point of Snapchat is, exactly, or why I would want to actually use it, but perhaps that doesn't matter: perhaps its point, if it has to have one, is to act as metaphor, or as catalyst for conversation. Certainly there's been a spate of good writing about it recently, so I think it's probably earned its keep in the lexicon of essayists and theorists (and, in the case of this post, amateur bloggers). "A photograph is made of time as much as it is of light," writes Nathan Jurgenson:

- a frozen shutter-speed-size gap of the present captured within a photo border. There's always the possibility that the next photo you take will one day be lovingly removed from a box by some unborn great-grandchild; the Polaroid developing in your hands might come to be pinned to someone's bedpost in posterity. To update that to more contemporary terms, your selfie on Instagram might be a signpost for the future you of what it was like to be this young.

On Snapchat, images have no such future. Fittingly, its logo is a ghost.

The symbolism of the ghost is loaded; I'm reminded of Steven Conner, writing that "[a] haunted place has become stuck in time, or time has been scored into it", or, for that matter, of Edward Thomas, writing about Oxford in 1903: "The past and the dead have here, as it were, a corporate life. They are an influence, an authority; they create and legislate to-day…as I walk, I seem to be in the living past." It's a reminder that although something may disappear (and everything disappears eventually) it isn't necessarily erased: that's what memory's for. The temporary photograph may lose its form, become disembodied (or re-embodied), but it may still leave an imprint. The temporary photograph was made to be shared, and sharing has the potential to be a form of remembering, or at least a form of noticing, a way of heightening "awareness of the here and now".

Jurgenson writes:

The photograph, for all its promised immortality, always hinted at death…Documenting the present as a future past, as conventional photographs do, asserts the facts of change, impermanence, and mortality. The temporary photograph does the opposite: It interrupts the traditional photographic fixation of the present as impending history by posting a present moment that's not concerned with the past or the future. As such, the temporary photograph is necessarily less sentimental and nostalgic. By being quick, the temporary photograph is a tiny protest against time.

Is it fair to extrapolate all this from an app which, according to its creators, is primarily about "the beauty of friendship - […] the lightness of being"? Maybe not fair, but certainly possible. Of course, the temporary photograph is concerned with the future: it's concerned with evading it, concerned with being gone before the future arrives. What's happened to time, maybe, is that we've dared to think we can somehow manipulate our perception of it. But we're still left with this uncomfortable fact, this understanding of the temporary photograph as a moment in time and therefore - tiny protest though it may be - very much of time. "The past is a projection as well as a determinant of the present," writes James Donald - and every future will be a present and a past.

***

Place is the convergence of not just past, present, and future, but also of "past as projection and determinant of present", "present as future past", and so on: it's the form that the temporal tangle takes. That is to say, as Malcolm McCullough writes: "Life takes place". Life takes place: it occurs, and it occurs somewhere specifically - the kitchen, the city, the hillside, the library, the field. Place is also, as the geographer Patricia Price writes, "a processual, polyvocal, always-becoming entity". It's subject to shifts of mood, memory, and other equally unstable processes. It's subject to the same pressures of time that human life is. Places age; they show cracks in the ground or erosion of cliff-faces instead of wrinkles under the eyes, in gleaming new buildings where once lay the buried dead or a fallow field - not erasing history but building on it, literally - but they do age. The temporary photo doesn't age: the temporary photo attempts to train our attention on an isolated present, if such a thing exists - the here and the now, coexisting, on the verge of disappearing (it's possible, too, that we ascribe more meaning to what's fleeting than less). The Fitbit turns our understanding of mortality on its head: all that data collected, all those healthy miles logged, and for what? For the hope, maybe, that we can be briefly free in the city, briefly and powerfully in place - never mind the future, the weight gained and lost, the breath quickening and slowing. We're doing it to improve ourselves, but also to be ourselves.

The question, then, isn't so much, "what is technology doing to our sense of time? - it's, "what is technology allowing us to say about our sense of time?" If technology has the power to create a "projected awareness of the here and now," or to fixate "the present as always a future past", what does a future-past-present actually look like, geographically? How much of the here and now is actually neither here nor now?

I don't know - "All I can say now is it involves ghosts and the past and the present and the future all at the same time."

Haunts

I.

Here’s the thing: I’m a serial re-visitor. I like to chase my own tail.

I’ve made this list of all the places I want to see. I add to it all the time. But then instead of booking a flight to Cairo or wherever I suggest we go back to Fez, say, where we’d been three years earlier, on our first holiday together. We had a nice time then; we drank a lot of black coffee and walked round and round the medina until we’d earned the beginning of a sense of direction. At night, after a too-big meal and a final coffee, we’d climb to the rooftop of our cheap backpacker’s hotel and watch the lights glinting. We’d flick through the photos we’d taken on our digital cameras, reliving the frozen moments, assimilating them.

It was a good time to go on holiday: we had no shared past and no particular compulsion, yet, to speculate about the future. I remember that at the end of the trip, on the bus back from Luton, I made a list in a little leather notebook of all the things I needed to buy when I got back to Boston, things I needed to furnish the new studio apartment I was moving into. I had this excitement-tinged-with-sadness feeling, but I made the list anyway, and then fell asleep on his shoulder like we had been together for years and would always be together, like we weren't from opposite ends of the world. I think this is maybe what people mean when they talk about being present, about inhabiting the present. We were there and that was it: we were there, and still unbothered by the logistics of living, or living together, or making a living, or making a decision about our future. I had a semester left of college to complete, so life was full of invisible possibilities - I trusted implicitly that they were there, even if I couldn’t identify what they were.

You can’t return to that time; you can’t return to any time. But you can return to a place. So I return to places. So we go back to Fez, or New York, or the same village in Wales, over and over again. A poor sort of time-travelling, but there it is: it’s the best we’ve got.

In most cases I trick myself into believing that it’s because these are places that need revisiting - they’re complicated, demanding, worthy of a relationship. They’re marriage material, not one night stands. I say there’s too much to Fez to be found in a single visit; we need to go back, give it the time it deserves. Upon second visit I find that I am comfortable enough here, walking in my own footsteps; I am someplace familiar, deliberately seeking out familiar landmarks - squares, cafés, that restaurant we really liked. But this sense of familiarity is more disquieting than calming. At one point I find myself fighting a panic attack. I pretend it’s the heat, the travel, the heady smells, the crowded dusty streets, the donkeys pushing past, the chickens waiting patiently to be slain. We climb up out of the fray and sit on a low wall at the edge of the medina and I identify at last the strange feeling, the disquieting feeling: the feeling that I am haunting myself, following my own ghost, inhabiting the space she inhabited three years previous in an attempt to somehow be her again. It’s the feeling that I am jealous of myself as I was then: that I am both with myself and outside myself. I’m not unhappy now, in this present - far from it; I’m in love and it’s summer and things have turned out okay. But I know more about the me in that previous present: I know what happens to her, I know how she gets from there to here. Whereas I don’t know how I get from here, now, to there: I don’t even know where ‘there’ is.

So we sit on a wall and I feel simultaneously right and wrong. That evening we have a beer with a friend and watch the nightly migration of birds cloud the sky. Later in the week we take a taxi out of town and hike to a waterfall, where the air is clear and cool. And then we go home again. Three more years elapse. I consider another trip.

***

Notice that to write about this, I use the language of the supernatural. Familiar, as in the familiar spirit, assisting witches. Ghosts. Haunts. I do this instinctively but also knowingly. A few years ago, a friend sent me a link to a paper by Steven Connor. “As a term, ‘haunting’ has an almost disappointingly innocuous past,” Connor writes:

Well into the eighteenth century, a ‘haunt’ could be simply a place to which one had frequent recourse...As a noun, a ‘haunt’ signifies not exactly a home, but rather a sort of second home, a place to which one has periodic recourse from one’s regular home...Over the last couple of centuries, it seems to have become more common for places to be haunted than persons...A haunted place has become stuck in time, or time has been scored into it.

***

Oxford always seemed to me a haunt of long-dead phantoms, living off its past and alien to anyone with energy and a mind on the future; now I walk among its ghosts and see them as my own.

- Pico Iyer

We are always sharing space with ghosts. "All landscapes are haunted by ghosts,” the geographer Patricia Price writes. Sometimes the ghosts are versions of ourselves; sometimes the ghosts are people we never knew, people who never even existed except in the minds of others or the pages of books. When I moved to Oxford I finally read Jude the Obscure for the first time. I’d tried before and always abandoned it about two pages in, but now there was a shared geography, and certain passages and sentiments stayed with me, particularly as Autumn took the city in its wicked fist, shook the trees and turned the stone grey with worry. The city became Christminster, Hardy's University town - and I, I suddenly came to understand, had moved here, like Jude, to be close to something that I wasn’t quite a part of.

I took long walks after dark; I felt very Hardy indeed, walking in the cold abandoned nights: "There were poets abroad, of early date and of late, from the friend and eulogist of Shakespeare down to him who has recently passed into silence, and that musical one of the tribe who is still among us..." One night, on St. Giles, wide and empty, a woman with a black eye came lilting towards me, as if she was walking on a ship in stormy waters. We stood under a streetlamp while she asked for change and I refused to give her any. I don't know why I refused: I was broke too, but broke in a different way; I could have reached into my bag and discovered a few coins. But I walked on, I guess because sometimes the things we imagine we see somewhere seem more real than the things we actually see. I’m not proud of this, but it’s how I spent a lot of time feeling when I first moved here, I think: like if I tried hard enough I could make every ghost manifest itself, like I could literally build my own version of the city.

I stopped in a café for a glass of wine. It was warm and smelled of salt and onions inside. Jude Fawley had lived in Jericho, I remembered. I had read a lot - too much - about this city. I knew what fate awaited Fawley, as I knew what becomes of the sorry lovesick undergraduates in Zuleika Dobson’s Oxford. Through the fogged café windows I could just make out all the doomed heroes, phantom figures slouching home on twisted roads. I loved this place, but I never knew if I belonged to it or if it belonged to me; never knew if I haunted it or if it haunted me.

"We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places," writes Robert Macfarlane, "-- but we are far less good at saying what places make of us."

***

So I revisit places. At least once a month, maybe less in the winter, and often by accident, I find myself in Christ Church meadow, sitting on a particular bench near the bridge to the boathouses. I sat here the week I first arrived, nearly six years ago now. It was a hot, clear day, the start of summer, the VIIIs in full swing, the banks crowded by spectators. I wore a sleeveless dress and sucked on a zinc lozenge, trying to ward off a cold that was threatening to ruin my plans to meet my new almost-boyfriend for drinks later. And now, whenever I find myself nearby, I like to mark the spot, acknowledge the memory, so I pause midway through a run, or on a chilly January walk. I have no idea if the view has changed, if the trees nearby have grown, if the shape of the river has changed at all, if the path ringing the meadow is more worn than it once was. I don’t notice the surroundings at all: I only notice myself being there, again and again, year after year.

II.

We go to New York again and again, too. I didn’t like New York at first; it took me maybe a dozen visits to warm to it. This is another argument for revisiting: sometimes you have to give a place another chance, or another dozen chances. Sometimes the relationship needs to be nurtured, requires great patience.

We go back to the same Brooklyn bars, claim some kind of ownership. We feel the half-memories we made here (too much whiskey, popcorn strewn across the floor, frantic, heavy conversation with friends we only get to see once a year) bind us to the physical location in which they were made, even though the physical location, if it had the capacity to remember, would have long forgotten us by now. Do you know how many people come here every night? And you show up two times in as many years and think, “this is our place”! So fine: our place and everybody else’s. It belongs to us, and to the girls communing with the toilets, and to the dudes sliding off barstools, stumbling away, holding up the doorframe, dissolving into the shout-infused night. It’s ours, to share.

We go to Coney Island. I know: us and every other hip young thing with an SLR and a pair of Converse. The first time I visited it was April, and I was 12 years old. My mother and I had come from California via a hazy layover in Las Vegas. I think I must have slept, but when we arrived, I didn’t feel like I had slept; I wasn’t yet accustomed to the sensation of trans-continental travel, hadn’t learned how to overcome the particular weariness that follows a red eye flight. So when, in the early evening, after a day of aimless wandering, we took an F train to Coney Island, I fell asleep and woke up disconcerted, wondering if this was a thing you were allowed to do on subways. Did grown-ups fall asleep on the subway? Later, living in Boston, juggling schoolwork with jobs and internships and long nights of drinking, I would learn the art of sleeping gently between stops, slipping fully awake at just the right moment, disembarking like an automaton. But then it was a new sensation, and the time spent asleep gave Coney Island a kind of magical property: I couldn’t identify exactly how we’d gotten here, I didn’t know how long the journey had taken, I didn’t know, geographically, where we were in relation to where we had been. All I knew is that it was a place my mother had visited in her youth; she’d spoken often of it, of New York in general, and now here it was.

There are a few photographs of us on that evening, taken by a friend. We’re silhouettes against the backdrop of the sea. I’m wearing a leather jacket and a pair of ugly khaki cargo pants. I have a pimple on my cheek. What I remember is being cold and windswept and reluctantly having a ketchup-slathered hot dog from Nathan’s, hunger overriding my erroneous and newly developed adolescent desire to preserve the child’s waiflike figure I’d previously taken for granted.

***

Years later I came in December. We’d been out too late the night before and we sat mutely on the train, shifting through stations. The journey seemed to take forever, it seemed to take longer than the journey from England had taken. I observed a man across the aisle from me reading a book, the title of which was obscured by his gloved fingers. I looked out over the frosty rooftops. The air grew cold as the doors hissed open, then hot again as they steamed shut. And then we were there, at Stillwell Avenue, crossing the street. My partner had never been here before and, like I said, my memory of it was mostly not my own at all: the photographs, the stories my mother had told me, about being here as a teenager and being compelled to ride the Cyclone even though she hated it, telling her boyfriend after that he could ride it again, if he wanted, but it would have to be alone. Not my memories at all. My memory was of the limp hot dog, the wind and the cold, and here again was the cold, only ten, a hundred times more ferocious. My face went pink and hot and then numb. My fingers in their thick gloves were burning, then numb. Outside Nathan’s a wedding party posed for photos. The bride wore a long strapless white gown but stood stoically while the photographer, encased in a heavy duffel coat, attacked the scene from a dozen different angles.

We went along the boardwalk, taking our own photos. As I could no longer feel my fingers or my toes or my nose, it didn’t seem to matter if we stayed the whole afternoon. We passed one or two other people, drifting along, but they looked unconnected to the rest of the world, like maybe they were imagined figures. I took a photo of a plastic palm tree, planted in the sand near the ice-grey Atlantic. When the cold became unbearable we sought refuge in Nathan’s. We ate hot dogs with onions. Outside it grew dark and when we left, pulling our scarves up over our mouths to try to take some of the bitterness from the wind as it shot down our throats, the neon signs lit up and we took blurry photographs of the way they glowed.

***

We were back the following year. This time it was hot, 84 degrees at midday. I wore shorts and sandals and tried to take photos as we had before, but found that everything looked washed out, dull. Even though the weather was good and it was a weekend, the place was sparsely populated, mostly by shiny sun-bronzed old men on bicycles who had left their shirts at home. We watched some friends ride the Cyclone; I got a photograph as they came down one of the lesser slopes, hands in the hair, faces aghast or delighted or perhaps both. I stood at the frothing line of the Atlantic, watching two swimmers gliding up and down, completely parallel the shore, admiring their strokes.

Although it felt and looked like midsummer, it was nearly mid-October, and everything had been decorated with ghouls and goblins and giant spiders and bloodied zombies in anticipation of Halloween, of cold nights and warm scarves and the smell of rotting leaves and sickly sweet smoke machines. I posed for a photo in front of a zombie-like figure with blood down his shirt and at the corners of his mouth and his bloodshot, perfectly round eyes. My own eyes were shrouded by the Ray-Ban aviators I’d bought off eBay a year or two ago, when I had been working full time in an office and felt like I could finally afford to be frivolous (now: a full-time freelance writer with no clients and no projects; this trip felt like something I’d stolen, but it was the best we could do: meet my parents in the middle, spend a week in someone else’s Brooklyn Heights apartment, have beers on the rooftop looking out at the skyline, imagining that things would soon be different, easier, clearer). If you looked up you could see the shredded witch-figures hanging from lampposts. Everywhere was the eerie, the haunted, the haunting. A place to which one has periodic recourse from one’s regular home.

For lunch we went to Nathan’s and had lemonade and hot dogs outside in the sun.

Berlin, October, 2012

Stadtbad Mitte, Gartenstraße. Built in 1930. Survived the bomb raids of the second world war. Renovated in the 1990s. The roof and the walls are covered in squares of glass, and even on this grey day the light comes pouring in and the big room is warm and inviting.

This is the first time I've been in a 50-metre pool since I was a kid, when we used to spend long summer afternoons at the Coral Casino in Santa Barbara, practicing our dives and our cannonballs, making up games, peering through the sauna steam at the naked old ladies, their skin folding and drooping, fascinated and horrified by this glimpse of what we would, if we were lucky, someday ourselves become.

I enter at the deep end, standing on the ledge that runs around the perimeter of the pool. I press my goggles against my face. The seal is weak and soon I'll need to replace them. I push off from the wall. For most of the length, it seems as if I'm not moving at all: then, suddenly, I'm approaching the other wall. The pool is shallow here, so shallow that my knuckles are practically grazing the floor, and I am moving, and I have no sense of time; it might have taken me seconds or years to go from there to here.

I think about the particular and universal language of the pool. It's a relatively recently acquired language, for me, but I feel fluent here, even though the only German word I know is the one for thank you. Thank you, I keep saying to everyone, even when what I really want to say is, "sorry" or "excuse me" or "yes" or "no" - as if hoping to somehow convey a kind of gratitude for being allowed to bumble along.

Anyhow, once I am dried and clothed again and out on the street I am back to being a foreigner. We walk towards the S-Bahn station. The day had started out cold and wet but now, in the early evening, it has brightened, and the shadows are long on the grass.

"Located right next to the border, the Nordbahnhof building formed a spatial link between the eastern and western parts of the city," I read on a sign outside the station.

***

One day we walk for hours with no particular agenda. That evening is soft and light, like September. We walk through Charlottenburg, which feels village-still, calm and mild. We eat early, after a stroll near the glistening lake, like pensioners on a package holiday.

***

Because I don't want to pay for data, I spend a lot of time in the mornings, on trains, in between doing things, studying maps: the fragmented for-tourists map in the back of my guidebook; the U-Bahn map, the map on my laptop where I've marked all the places I want to visit (swimming pools, streets, cafés). Usually I would consult my phone on the fly: now, because I can't, I'm confined to the limits of my own imagination, my own ability to interpret and navigate.

"Augmented space is the physical space overlaid with dynamically changing information. This information is likely to be in multimedia form and is often localized for each user," I read.

***

Laid into the sidewalks all over the city are brass bricks, rubbed smooth by footsteps, commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

***

I begin to feel immune to physical geography. We are staying in the apartment of an old family friend, whose youngest daughter was my best friend growing up, and there is something profoundly familiar about the rooms and the furnishings. In the bathroom I have pleasant flashbacks to the farmhouse bathroom, the exotic European soaps and creams, the bright towels. In the bedroom I remember visiting my friend after she'd had an operation on her knee; it was a hot California-summer day, the sky woozy and blue, but we stayed indoors, on the bed, watching bad films.

The night before we fly home, we have dinner in Kreuzberg with another of the daughters. We reminisce a little, and we might as well be anywhere, residing, as we do for an hour or so, almost wholly in a shared past. The wall to my right is painted bright red and has a texture like corrugated iron, but it seems to dissolve for the duration of the meal, the background neutral, the beautiful girl with the long blonde hair at the next table a phantom or a placeholder, not an inhabitant of this very real city.

***

At Stadtbad Neukölln, the water is very cold. In the shower room, middle-aged ladies stand under hot water, all lobster flesh and happy sighs. I stand wilting under a heavy stream of cool water, enviously watching the steam rise from their corner of the white tiled room. When they leave I step over and enjoy the remnants of their hot water.

But the pool itself is cold, too. I go down the steps and crouch, water up to my waist, then my armpits. The room is grand - pillars, marble, spitting statues flanking the staircase, but the water is darker and murkier than I'm used to. And after so many laps in rigid lanes with other stressed, serious adults, all of us eager not to transgress, eager to ignore each other even when we stand inches apart, breathing hard, barely clad, spitting and sucking in the same water, the lack of order here alarms and delights me. I watch a woman - in cap and goggles, like me, though no one else wears either - plow up and down the pool amidst the frivolous bathers, the slow, relaxed men with their paunches and the chatty girls in bikinis. She makes a space for herself in the calm, the chaos, and no one collides, no one seems bothered; it's like watching ducks flitting across a pond, their paths erratic but deliberate.

I begin a gentle breaststroke, occasionally lapsing into a subdued crawl. There is no room here for the private competition I regularly engage in back home (can I beat her, in the next lane over, the faster lane, even if I give her a head start?). I don't count how many times I swim up and down the pool. I don't look at the clock. I don't feel out of breath.

At My Desk

I am sitting at my desk, like I do nearly every day, with a cup of coffee in an orange-striped Penguin classics mug (The Pursuit of Love). I am watching the rain fall on the rainforest garden, now so overgrown, so wild, that I generally avoid it, because to spend time there gives me anxiety: I think instantly and obsessively of all the things I could be doing, and am not doing, with that space. My old retired Dutch bicycle, chained to the garden shed by ivy (and, secondarily, an actual bike lock), rests where it has been resting for a year and a half now. I'm unable to give it up, although it's not in very good shape, and it's unusual enough that even the most ambitious repairmen seem to think that sourcing parts for it would be all but impossible. I keep thinking that someday, somehow, I'll be the one to fix it up, but it was already well-used when I got it, and I don't really know anything about bikes, even though I probably should (my father was recently inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, after all).

Anyhow, pretty much every day for the last year I have spent at least a few hours sitting here, doing this. Sometimes all I manage to accomplish is to stare out at the greenery (or, in winter, the bare branches, the cold ground). Since nobody pays me to do any of this, I don't have to feel guilty if that's all I've accomplished at the end of a day. When people do pay me to do things (not very often, to be honest, but it does occasionally happen), I do those things instead.

Writers are always talking about, or writing about, or reading about, how they work, or so it seems to me. Maybe it's an avoidance tactic: because it's related to the act of working, it's almost the same thing as actually working. It's tangentially useful. Maybe. But who was the writer who said you have to sit there at your desk no matter what, put the hours in even if you're not working at all? That's the other problem with all these writers talking and writing and reading about how they work: sooner or later they all blend together, become this one figure, The Writer At Work, who has all the traits and habits of all writers, even when they contradict each other. So I don't know who said that, about having to just sit there. I do know that it was Hemingway who said the thing about always stopping before you've exhausted your supply of ideas and words - stop so that you'll know how you need to begin the next day. I guess like how some food critic or chef said that the perfect meal leaves you wanting one more bite. Except that in addition to Hemingway saying this, someone else also said it, or agreed with Hemingway, anyway. Murakami, I think, though it could have been anyone. Other people will say the opposite. It strikes me that we read these little bits of advice and observation not because we actually care what circumstances led to the birth of our favourite books, say, or what kind of discipline our favourite writers have, but because we are seeking to affirm that we're not alone. We're always searching for reassurance that we're not doing it wrong. We keep reading until we find someone whose methods or outlook match, more or less, our own, and then we breathe a sigh of relief, and stop searching quite so frantically, because our own particular habits have been validated. We're doing it right after all!

Anyway, the writer who said you had to sit there at your desk no matter what would, I think, approve of the way I structure my days.

Anyway, what I'm thinking, as I'm sitting here today, on a Sunday, clocking in, putting in my hours, is that I want to start increasing the distance I swim each day. I don't need to spend more time at the pool, I think; I just need to spend my time more efficiently. Often I take long rests so that I can watch the other, better, faster swimmers, to really think about things before I push off again. I think this kind of observation has helped me improve fairly drastically over the last few years, but probably it's time to think a little less and do a little more.

I'm also thinking about how next week I'm going back to school for the first time in a long time, and up until quite recently all I felt was unbridled excitement, but now, all week, I've had this terrible sense of inadequacy: I'm sure I'm going to be found out, deemed unqualified even to begin.

Sometimes I interrupt my own thoughts to read someone else's thoughts - an article I've been meaning to read all week, for instance, still open in a tab. I like to get all my tabs closed on Sunday, in preparation for a fresh week full of frantic clicking and saving-for-later and not-reading. Sometimes I discover that something I'd been putting off reading is not something I want to read at all, or is only a paragraph long. There's a certain satisfaction when that happens, though I'm annoyed with myself for not taking the time to find out sooner. It's like a certain amount of energy was reserved for that particular tab, that particular article, and now I have that energy spare, to play with.

***

Yesterday I spent a few hours in the front garden. Gardening is thankless work. I always enjoy it very much up to the point at which I straighten my sore back, wipe my muddied hands on my ripped jeans, and assess the results of my labour, and realise that nothing looks much changed or much improved. Sure, there are fewer weeds, the rose bush is no longer drooping over the wall and into the path of pedestrians, but essentially, everything looks the same, just a little bit tidier, almost imperceptibly tidier. If you didn't know what I'd been doing and you walked up to our house, you wouldn't notice anything at all, though at least you wouldn't necessarily think, gosh, what a mess!

I know that's kind of the point: gardening is an investment of time, like writing, for instance. But while I don't have a problem with the way writing a book is - you're always thinking, I've worked all day and I've made no progress at all! until suddenly, one day, you find yourself with a finished manuscript - I do have a problem with the way gardening is. I guess I want instant gratification sometimes. Which is probably why we've never managed to tame our garden, why we've never managed to really grow anything, in an organised sense (we've certainly been very good at letting the wretched ground elder take over, and the cherry trees have gotten substantially taller in the years that we've lived here).

But I do like doing something physically difficult, and I like getting dirt under my fingernails. The other day I painted my fingernails, for the first time in about two years, with some nail polish I found lurking on my desk under some papers. It's a funny purple colour, and it chipped almost instantly, for which I was relieved: I'd like to be somebody who wears nail polish, but the reality is that it made me feel a little too much like not-myself. Maybe someday, I think, and idly chip some more away as I sit on the couch reading.

***

Sometimes whole days go by when I don't talk to anyone. It's quite easy to do: if the Man is in London and the postman doesn't need me to sign for anything and I don't need to go to the shop around the corner for milk or bread or butter, and I don't have plans for the evening or money to go to the pub, who would I speak to? Sometimes people will come by trying to sell us things, or at least trying to sell us ideas. One day a man came to the door, wanting to tell me about how he could insulate our loft for free.

"I'm not trying to sell you anything," he said.

"I don't think you are," I said, although it was obvious that I did think he was, and moreover obvious that I was not prepared to be persuaded to think anything else. I looked at the card in my hand: FREE!, it said. It had a URL printed across the front, too, but I knew I would not look at the website, even though our house probably could do with some more, or better, insulation. I leaned against the doorframe, as if to take up more space, to assert my place, and told him I'd have to ask my landlady. He promised he'd come back later, but he never did, I guess because he knew I wasn't going to ask my landlady.

***

We have lunch and listen to The Archers. I return to my desk. It's still raining. I haven't been outside yet. I was planning to mop the kitchen floor today, but I think maybe the rain gives me an excuse not to, though I would no doubt have found an excuse anyway. I don't think we'll ever be tidy people, really. We'll never have pristine white carpets or the kind of house where everything has its place and then resides, meekly, obediently in that place. Here everything is always spilling out, spilling over. I've spilled red wine on my yellow slippers from Fez. The sauce has bubbled up and stained the stovetop red. The books spill off the shelves, slip off the mantlepiece. When it hails, the hailstones come down through the chimneys, invading, transgressing. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the neediness of a house, all the things that need doing, maintaining, but today, and most days, this effort seems like a small price to pay for shelter and warmth, for being able to sit and watch the rain.

When I was growing up, I used to like climbing the hill beside our house. From halfway up you could look down and see the human face of the house, the jagged staircase-nose and the uneven window-eyes.

Rilke, as quoted in Bachelard:

(House, patch of meadow, oh evening light Suddenly you acquire an almost human face You are very near us, embracing and embraced.)

Akiko Busch, in Geography of Home:

When one of my sons first started to color pictures, the house he drew as an imprecise shape, between a circle and a square, with two windows hovering near the top and a door floating somewhere between them. The resemblance of this outline of a simple house to the human face was unmistakable. […] And it occurs to me that this primitive rendering captures the way we imprint ourselves on the places we live.

The Home State of Mind: Addendum

No 'What I Read' post this weekend, but I did just came across this while flipping through Yi-Fu Tuan's Space and Place. It's a quote from nine-year-old Jim Hammer, whose family had lived in the same county in Illinois for six generations, and it ties into what I've written about here. Hammer is responding to a question about what his mother had taught him:

What did Mom teach me? For one thing, she taught me how to mow the lawn. She showed me how to tie my shoes…And she tries to teach me to live decent. Like some people don't have a very good life because they don't settle down in one place and don't stay very long. They could live in Illinois for a while and then move to California. I like Illinois; it's just my home state.

The Home State of Mind

Sunday evening, Oxford, mid-July. I've made dinner uncharacteristically early, and I'm not hungry yet, so I take my glass of wine outside into the garden. My boyfriend and I have lived here for five years, and we don't own it, but we do have some sense of ownership over it. It's a little run down, partly our own doing (we should have done more to stave off the ground elder when it first appeared, we should hoover more regularly, sweep away the cobwebs), though also the doing of time - the ever rolling stream, barreling right through our backyard, cracking plaster, staining the black and white ceramic tiles on the kitchen floor. I sit on a wooden table at the back of the garden, near where I've often thought we would put a writing shed if we were ever in a position to put a writing shed somewhere. There's a scrap of sunlight coming through the clouds, illuminating the bright leaves of the cherry tree, and I can hear the sounds of dinner being prepared elsewhere, and the students next door making loud girlish noises of glee tinged with dismay (I imagine them scrolling through the Facebook photos from last night's party, though I suspect that admittance dates me: I suspect the kids these days, who are hardly any younger than I am, already find that sort of behaviour passé). I can hear church bells ringing; when they stop, I realise I've been unconsciously counting. Eight o'clock.

Things are green and, momentarily, mercifully, dry - no rain today, though I hardly dare look at the forecast. A wet British July. The air is warmish. I follow the line of rooftops with my eyes; I feel unusually detached from the neighbourhood, or at least semi-detached - unlike the houses along our road, which are terraced, snuggled up against each other, sharing walls and secrets. Terraced was not even a word I knew until I came here; I grew up in a place where your nearest neighbour was liable to be miles away, or at least safely down the road. There we knew everyone who lived nearby; here, I don't know the names or the stories of any of the people with whom we share walls, except that some of them are undergraduates. One of them, a blonde girl, locked herself out one afternoon and asked to use our landline to call the university so that she could get a spare key. Sometimes I see her in the mornings, having a cup of coffee and a cigarette on the doorstep, wearing a dressing gown, and we exchange pleasantries. "How are you?" I'll say. "A bit hungover," she'll say, and I'll smile knowingly or sympathetically, depending on how I myself feel. But that house has been ominously quiet for some time now and I suspect the students have all gone home, or travelling. A new group will move in eventually. I'll see the parents unloading sedans or Land Rovers; we'll share a few uncertain looks - I guess they can never tell how to judge us, two youngish people, home in the middle of the working day, fully clothed and bright-eyed, stepping out for some fresh air with a cup of coffee, watching the procession of duffel bags and drumkits and whatever else these kids have deemed necessary for the construction of a familiar space in an unfamiliar place.

***

California. June. I've been listening to this song on repeat: "We were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair. When we get bored we like to sit around, sit around and stare at the mountains, at the birds, at the ocean at the trees, we have fun, we have fun, we have fun when we please." I have never felt as Californian as I do now, now that I've been away for so long. I wear a crumbling sunhat and my old black bikini; I take a yoga class at 9 am on a Saturday morning, facing the shore, watching the lazy waves roll in, yearning to be out there, in the sea, on a board. 17-year-old me, reading a book, desperate to leave, proudly eschewing the traditional pastimes of her home state, would probably have a hard time believing such a transformation could be possible.

I'm surprised to discover that my memory of this as being a lonely place is false. And it strikes me, perhaps for the first time, that of course I'm not the only one with childhood memories of these hills and beaches. Other people were here too, then, doing people things - and if I ignored them, whether willfully or ignorantly or both, that was my own doing. There was a much stronger community here than I acknowledged, and now I find myself on the periphery, looking in, questioning what I used to perceive as my indelible right to be here. I never thought of it as entitlement before, but that's precisely what it is: fierce, proud entitlement, to a place I didn't really earn the right to feel entitled to. Birth, or growing up, is a way of possessing someplace, but going away is also a way of relinquishing it. By leaving, I gave away some of what I earned over the years. So I feel simultaneously entitled and unworthy; somehow both at home and at odds with my surroundings. When a bat flies into the bedroom I cower in the hallway, with the door to the room shut fast, wondering what to do, although once I knew exactly what to do. I wonder if it's impossible to feel truly fluent in multiple places: if, in my effort to be comfortable in the uneasy, uneven suburbia of Oxford, I have sacrificed some of the knowledge of my youth; if the survival instincts I once had have been replaced by others, different skills for a different situation. How much can we really hold in our hands or our heads before something must go? I don't mean that things have been lost forever: just placed on a different, dustier shelf, somewhere higher up, somewhere it takes a little longer to reach.

This is the first time that I've been here and thought, well, we could live here, maybe, for a bit. It's a very tentative thought, and not at all a logical one: what I'm really thinking is, we could live here just like this, on holiday, with little obligation to work or even partake in the difficult business of keeping the place up, except as a novelty - wandering up the hill behind the house to admire the new water tank, for instance, while knowing that someone else actually installed it and knows how it works and will do all the hard bits. The reason it felt lonely when I was younger was that to have to take care of things here really is a lonely business. Even to get anywhere is a bit of a lonely business; half an hour, an hour, in a car, isolated. You have to have a lot of resolve to get where you want to go. It feels less lonely now, because there's a frivolity about everything, a novelty, a light-heartedness you only really get at the start of something. But I do begin to feel like at least I haven't renounced this particular homeland, or even emotionally abandoned it.

These days my parents talk occasionally about leaving, or at least about the possibility of leaving, the idea that age and logistics might someday necessitate leaving. They talk about where they would live if they didn't live here. I can't remember them ever discussing this when I was younger; I assumed they would live where they live forever, that this was what being settled meant. I think, too, that because my parents had actually built this home - and so, as a child, I saw its miraculous birth, saw it in all its unfinished stages, explored its crevasses before they even were crevasses - there was something about it that meant it could only ever really be ours. I was still in elementary school, but I knew about the impermanence of houses; I had friends whose houses had burned down in summer fires, others who moved regularly; I myself had lived in two houses before this one. But I assumed you wouldn't give up something you'd built yourself. And when they talk about the distant but not too distant future, about the prospect of not holding on to this land forever, I'm struck by the realization that I can't imagine a world in which I don't have periodic reason (and, of course, the right!) to at least visit, let alone the underlying knowledge that, unlikely as it may be, I could, theoretically, settle here one day.

But it turns out there is never an end to the big decisions that one has to make, which comforts and daunts me in equal measure: imagine having to decide again and again, periodically, where and how to settle, where and how to live? But then again, the freedom to be able to do so is good. All you have to do is decide about things, one way or another, and stick with that decision.

This year has been mostly a period of waiting - for nothing in particular, but waiting nevertheless, and the sense I have of impotence or diminished importance has been no doubt intensified by the apparent decisiveness of everyone else around me; everyone else is in motion, getting married, having babies, changing careers, moving out, moving in - and here we are, still, quiet, calm, but very unsure, or maybe very afraid. But I'm starting to suspect that decisions are not usually as hard as we make them out to be.

***

In moments of desperation or irrationality, I've worried that my relationships, and particularly my Relationship, might be contextual, might not survive being transplanted elsewhere. For five years we've lived in the same house, slept in the same bedroom, made coffee with the same cafetiere. We've changed jobs, travelled, been flush and humiliatingly poor, been unhappy, happy - but always against the same backdrop, with our feet planted on the same weary floorboards. What if we had to move - to a new house, a new neighbourhood, a different city, a different country? I thought maybe it was geography that ultimately tied us together. I guess what I meant was, what if we're different people in different places? I'd seen it happen, after all: I'd seen how fluidly I transitioned from being one way to being another depending on my surroundings. Obviously I was not accounting for all that stays the same, even if external features shift a little; obviously the idea that we could not be ourselves in a house down the road in the same way we are ourselves here is nonsense. And the more I think about it (and the older and therefore supposedly wiser I get), the more I like the idea that we could move anywhere, even if we don't want to, even if I'm profoundly attached to the view of this house, our house, from that spot in the back garden where I'd put a writing shed if I could.

California - Notes (1)

I've been traveling. Or at least this is what I tell people. The truth is that when we arrive at LA neither of us feels different or amazed in the way you feel different and amazed to discover yourself someplace entirely new. The air is warmer and heavier than it was in the place we left; in England there was a summer wind, blowing big clouds across a narrow sky, whipping my freshly-washed hair around my face. But we have a history here - if not here specifically then here generally, in this part of the world - and the pleasantness of familiarity borders on mundanity. We take a shuttle to the Hilton and check in. Everyone is cheerful, and the mirrored elevator whisks us up a dozen floors. Our room looks out over a parking lot. Anonymous lights flicker and blink in the distance. We're in a no-man's-land. Hard to believe this place ever had any other purpose, though it must have, once. We fall asleep with the TV on - a film with Russell Crowe, I think, or someone like him, playing a cop in 1970s America. He's yelling at a junkie in an ambulance when I nod off. We wake very early; no spectacular sunrise, just a dark grey that lightens as the invisible sun moves behind a curtain of June clouds. I ride the elevator to the pool. There are two men splashily attempting laps as I swipe my card and enter the gates, but they soon leave and I have the place to myself. The pool is shallow, and so small that within six strokes I can cross it lengthways. But the water is warm, and the air outside is cool and the overall sensation is soothing.

***

Orange County is a source of perpetual amazement. In Garden Grove, Anaheim, Santa Ana, I think: people made it this way. But how would you ever know that it was people and not robots, that it was meant for human inhabitants, that it was deliberate at all? Do you see any humans? Do you see anything that's human-sized? No. You see the drive-thru ATM, the drive-thru coffee shop, the strip malls, the six-lane streets, the parking lots. Even the Crystal Cathedral, with its garish screen announcing services and its spires pricking a white sky, is too big, meant I suppose to contain multitudes but destined, I fear, to look comically (or tragically) like a cartoon version of itself. Where they exist, the sidewalks are hot and narrow, stained by chewing gum and spilled McFlurries, interrupted every few feet by curb cuts. We pass hamburger joints, hospitals, hotels. Nothing seems particularly busy, but there are always cars pulling in and out and people must be inside the cars, compelled to keep moving by some obscure motive or other - errands, lunch breaks, breakdowns. There are people behind counters and cash registers, taking money, making money. We repeatedly seek respite in the old part of Orange, where antique shops and cafés and wide shady spaces make us feel welcome, even a little nostalgic. I fall briefly and irrationally in love with a vintage 1940s swimsuit, made of thick navy blue wool with red straps, "a really rare piece," the girl in the shop tells me, smiling encouragingly but understandingly; it belongs in a film, or a frame. So I pretend that if I had lots of money, or even any money, this is the sort of thing I would impulsively spend $250 on.

***

I watch episodes of Friday Night Lights and feel nostalgic for small town Texas, even though I've never set foot in Texas, even though I've never been to a high school football game. My high school mascot was the earwig, which inspired very little spirit in anyone, and all the boys played lacrosse, although certainly not well enough to be state champions. People weren't really from there, anyway: it was mostly a boarding school, and everyone scattered at the end of each year to go home or to college. I flip through old yearbooks; I note that in my senior year, I was voted 'most likely to succeed', alongside a male counterpart. As I was never sure, and still am not sure, what it is I'm supposed to succeed at, I doubt I've lived up to the challenge yet. (My primary achievement so far, apart from moving far away and finding somebody who continues to love me even though I never put the bread back in the bread bin, seems to be writing a book centered largely around the idea of changing definitions of success). The boy voted most likely to succeed now, I believe, works in finance, which sounds much more like something approaching success, particularly if success involves being able to pay your rent on time.

I revisit the valley where I went to school. The uncertainty of my relationship with the place now is based on the understanding that I know almost no one here anymore: there's little chance of a chance encounter, one of those movie scenes where you're standing at the counter picking up your mother's prescription and someone taps you on the shoulder and says 'oh my god, I can't believe it's you!'. I keep thinking about how different everything is - none of the places that used to be here are here anymore - but at the same time nothing's really different. It's not the same salon, but it's the same old story, or a version of it - this time it's the hairdresser's husband, not the hairdresser herself, who was born and raised here.

I drive home, listening to a mix CD I must have made in high school - Jimi Hendrix juxtaposed with Dashboard Confessional. I always did like to be contrary. The sights are familiar and so are the sounds. I turn the volume up, blaring Weezer like I'm 17 and pissed off at nothing in particular but nevertheless enjoying the freedom and the speed and the inherent understanding that all the big decisions are still somewhere on the horizon, not yet made.

As it happens I'm not pissed off at anything and am feeling pretty mellow, driving slower than I used to, pulling over to take bad photos with a borrowed cell phone, momentarily at peace with the big decisions that have already been made. But I still remember the time I hit the squirrel on this stretch of road and the time we discovered that the cows had escaped their pasture on that stretch of road. I've been thinking a lot about memory lately and I wonder why these are things I remember particularly.

Homelands

In a love affair, most seek an eternal homeland. Others, but very few, eternal voyaging. These latter are melancholics, for whom contact with mother earth is to be shunned. They seek the person who will keep far from them the homeland’s sadness. To that person, they remain faithful.

— Walter Benjamin, One Way Street

***

"Birds in flight, claims the architect Vincenzo Volentieri, are not between places, they carry their places with them. We never wonder where they live: they are at home in the sky, in flight. Flight is their way of being in the world." (Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage)

I first read this in flight: between England and California, via New York. I re-read it on the deck of my parents' house, resolutely bathing in the cold winter sunlight, the faint glitter of the Pacific to the south (not the west, as you might expect; this sliver of coastline is geographically contrary). There were probably birds passing overhead; somewhere, too, the rumble of a jet engine, the symbol of the ease with which we can now cross continents, slide through time zones, make new places for ourselves.

I read it and it first comforted, then worried me. What if home is just a memory that we carry with us? I wrote in the margins of the book. It seemed like a nice idea at the time - taking attachment to place, to land, soil, buildings, alleyways, something physical, and making it portable, memorializing it, putting it in a pocket. But memory doesn't always serve people very well, does it? Even now, retelling this story that is not even a story, I have falsified things - some deliberately, but others no doubt without realizing. I will never realize. What if home is just a memory that we carry with us? Well, then, home is more fragile than I ever imagined. Then we really do live, like our documents, the invisible archives of our digital existence, in the cloud(s).

***

"This profound attachment to the homeland appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. It is not limited to any particular culture and economy. It is known to literate and nonliterate peoples, hunter-gatherers, and sedentary farmers as well as city dwellers. The city or land is viewed as mother, and it nourishes; place is an archive of fond memories and splendid achievements that inspire the present; place is permanent and hence reassuring to man, who sees frailty in himself and chance and flux everywhere." (Yi - Fu Tuan, Space and Place).

***

A few months ago I went to a talk at the School of Geography and the Environment. I went as a member of the public - that is to say, in this case, as someone not affiliated with the University, an observer rather than a participant. I had emailed someone in the department the day before to ask if it would be okay for me to attend. I've lived here for five years and only now am I starting to feel comfortable enough to assume that I even have a right to ask these things - or maybe it's that only now am I starting to feel uncomfortable enough in my own city-skin to want to push the boundaries, expand my map. I think in some sense I was seeking validation - I mean that although I was and am intensely curious about the subject of the lecture, on both a personal and professional level, I also attended in order to remind myself that I belong here, if I allow myself to.

"In a place where everybody is known from birth to death, identity is pregiven," I read. "It is only the mobile strangers arriving en masse that provoke the need to be certain of who someone is."

***

Whenever I try to talk about my own homeland to people - about the USA as a whole, that is, the vast place to which, according to my passport, I belong, the place where I am a citizen - I discover that I don't have a vocabulary for it. This is just another way of saying I don't really know much about it. Some of it is memory again: how much do you tip a bartender for opening a bottle of beer at a dusty counter in some midtown dive? I can't remember, if I even ever knew. I'm useless when friends, visiting the country for the first time, want advice. I haven't even seen most of it. My mother, I believe, has been to all 48 states in the continental US. I've been to fewer than 20. I'm not from there, I can confidently say about most of the country I'm from.

But there's also a sense in which I have willingly closed myself off to understanding. I seek to embody the role of the outsider. At 17 I moved away from home, left California, the only place I had ever really known in the flesh. It wasn't because I was particularly excited about the university I'd chosen (in retrospect, I had much better options). It was because I was attached to the idea of Boston itself; it was because I wanted to be an outsider there. I wanted to know what it felt like to not be from somewhere.

***

And now I find that the borders of My City have shrunk. I have this view, this window, and my slice of City is just an overgrown garden that I rarely venture out into. The ground elder has spread. The cherry blossoms have fallen and the trees are big and green. Last weekend we walked into town. It was cold out, almost uncomfortably so, and worryingly empty: a lone violinist on Turl Street, persuading his instrument to sing Vivaldi, a few cyclists on tired-sounding steeds, shopkeepers with cigarettes, a family strolling through the pale light near the entrance to Exeter College. In the covered market, the shops were mostly shut. In Radcliffe Square, the tower of St. Mary's had been obscured by scaffolding; its spire was just visible, emerging as if from a winter cocoon.

We went to a few pubs we had not been to very recently: our old haunts. We spoke of people we used to know. It wasn't that some things seemed like a very long time ago, it was more that some things seemed like they had never belonged to us at all - these things had happened to people who looked like us and talked like us but were just impostors in a parallel universe. It's hard here to know if the ghosts are haunting us or if we, in our constant presents, are the ghosts, haunting our own pasts. Something about a small city invites this kind of thinking. The passage of time is what makes it three-dimensional; the history, even if it isn't our own history, the lives and deaths of fictional characters who have also crowded these pavements, are all as crucial to its makeup as stones or sewers.

***

Five years ago I arrived in Oxford for the first time. It was hot and I walked from the train station into town. I had no map but ended up by the river, at Christ Church meadow. This day is just like that day: no clouds, no threat of rain or evening chill. Coincidentally I find myself at the train station again, walking through town, in the vague direction of home. Now of course I don't need to ask for directions or pause every so often to get my bearings, but even the familiar can feel devastatingly unfamiliar when you feel weary or out of sorts, and there are days when I recognize almost nothing here.

As I walk, I listen to music. A woman is singing, "I build it up…I dream it up…I build it up…I dream it up…it's easy living inside my head, it's hard to live without pretend." We construct our own cities, write our own maps - we build them up, dream them up, often long before we've even visited. I remember crossing a bridge five years ago, looking down at the green ribbon of canal, the trees bent thirstily towards the water. Everything I knew about this place was fiction - either my own or someone else's, Waugh's or Beerbohm's, say - but already the fiction had begun to mix with experience. Here's a place where everything and nothing is always changing: it's known for being rigidly adherent to antiquated traditions, and yet there's this constant flow of people, arriving, leaving, all the time.

Downstairs in my study it is cool, as if it's trapped the chill of spring. In the late afternoon I walk to the pool, which, like the city, is empty - just a few other dogged swimmers crawling their way up and down the lanes. When I pause for breath at the wall and look to my left, out the great window at the side of the building, I can just see the tower of Magdalen College above the green of the trees. I feel slow. It seems to take me a long time to get from one end of the pool to the other. It seems to take me a long time to walk home.

Later, we listen to music in a room that smells like a church but isn't a church. The heat is heavy, almost foreign. "Home is only a feeling you get in your mind/From the people you love and you travel beside," the band sings. After the gig, we drink pints on the pavement as people pass by on bicycles, in sportscars. I say things I don't really mean, I guess to be contrary, but later I wish I could keep my mouth shut sometimes. As we cycle home the skirt of my dress gets caught in my bicycle but it's nice to have bare legs finally. In the morning, the way the heat smells and the still air feels and the birds sound remind me of waking on an island off the East African coast; the smell of the mosquito coil, burning in a tiled bathroom; the oppressive net, draped over our disheveled bed. The smell of cigarette smoke on a hot morning or a balmy evening always makes me think of other places, other climates, Paris or Fez on an aimless summer morning, café hopping, dropping cubes of sugar into mud-brown espresso.

***

If I acknowledge that it is five years sine I first arrived in Oxford I am also acknowledging that it is five years since I first met the person with whom I share my life now. I think of the film Away We Go, which is a film, in a sense, about finding or making a home - about having the freedom and the burden to choose a place. There's a scene, I think towards the end, when Burt and Verona, who are searching for somewhere to live before their baby is born, are talking about their situation. "No one is in love like us, right?" she says. "What are we gonna do?"

Cheri Lucas writes of a long-distance relationship: "In between these meetings, we've created a space for us, just us, online: a portal through which that flow sustains. A borderless space that transcends geography, that exists somewhere only we can access." That borderless space is the home, perhaps, even if you live in the same city, the same home; even if you live alone. It's the overlap of person and place. Mobility creates the illusion of rootlessness - as long as we are mobile, carrying our places with us, able to communicate via portable devices, it seems conceivable that we might float forever, that there might be no need for a sense of belonging to anything more tangible than an idea. But the truth is blurrier. We may carry our places with us, but our places carry us, too.

Notes from New York (I)

In New York, it was hot. I forgot to be amazed that we'd just crossed the Atlantic ocean in seven hours. I wore shorts and sandals a lot. We went to Coney Island, enjoying the air conditioning in the F train all the way to Stillwell Avenue. The last time we were there we saw a pair of newlyweds having their photo taken outside of Nathan's. It was December and almost unbearably cold; the bride wore a long sleeveless gown and stood motionless, her shoulders bare and her face frozen into a smile, while the photographer, in a heavy coat and fingerless gloves, darted around the wedding party. Then the place was photogenic; now it was sort of eerie, all set up for Halloween but inhabited by sun-seekers, shirtless men on bicycles and girls in bikinis lying on towels or splashing at the shoreline. I stood in front of a zombie-like figure, blood on his plastic shirt, trying to get some shade. This place was becoming a haunt of ours, I thought.

***

We were staying in a Brooklyn Heights apartment, up six flights of stairs. A few doors down was a café with a bench shaped like the Brooklyn Bridge; at the end of the street was a playground, at the other end, an Italian restaurant. At breakfast I re-read Hemingway because I'd just seen the latest Woody Allen film. There was a good desk in the corner of the room from where you could look out at the Manhattan skyline, but the chair had wheels and the floor sloped, so you couldn't sit there for too long without sliding away. There was a roofdeck, and on the hottest nights we went up and watched the sun set over the buildings and had a Sam Adams. I'd had an apartment like this in Boston, a tiny, well-lit 2 bedroom apartment with access to an empty roofdeck. I couldn't tell if I was nostalgic about it - even some of the smells reminded me of that place - or grateful to be somewhere else now, metaphysically I mean. I remember once coming back late after serving drinks at some swanky function (I was a temp for a catering company; I owned a polyester tuxedo, complete with clip-on bow tie and trousers with an adjustable waist) and wanting a beer - it was spring, quite hot out. My roommate had left some Harvest Moon pumpkin ales in the fridge, so I opened one and took it up to the roof where, not very long ago, we had made snowmen during a St. Patrick's day blizzard.

***

Later in the week, when the weather had turned (not cold and Autumnal, but wet, humid, the skyline shrouded in a queasy mist), we went to the Brooklyn Museum. Somehow I found myself in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, although I had no particular interest in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. I stood in a dark room. On one wall was a gilded mirror; on the other, a large screen, onto which was being projected the image of a room. In the center of the actual room was a chandelier, lit up, upside down. And into the projected room a woman in period dress walked. She entered, looked around, exited. A few moments later she reappeared, standing on the ceiling, upside down. She began to recite a speech, or perhaps a series of speeches. I was alone in the room with her. Then I was joined by a woman in a leather jacket. She looked around, took a flash photograph of the exhibit, left. She was not part of the exhibit. I was not part of the exhibit. On the wall outside the room I read: "In The Spirit and the Letter, the viewer enters as space where sculptural elements, including a softly glowing crystal chandelier balanced upright on the floor and a framed mirror hanging upside down on the opposite wall, invert physical assumptions to produce an uncanny sense of dislocation." I did not know what this had to do with feminism, exactly, though I had to admit that later, looking at my photographs of the exhibit, the image of the woman standing on the ceiling made me feel a little disoriented.

Do I See Myself Living Here?

About a month ago I went to London for an errand, and after it was done I had a few hours to kill so I figured I might as well walk around a bit. And as I walked around I tried to understand why I never go to London and feel like it's a place I could live. In fact I go there and I feel like it's not a place anyone could live, let alone me, even though I know lots of people live in London and lots of people love it. I just don't see anything there that suggests living on a human scale. The architecture is all mixed up - beautiful things, monstrosities that should never have been allowed to be built, but nothing really stands out, so your impression is never one of either beauty or ugliness or even of contrast, just of some big grey slab that's muddy and muddled and doesn't make any sense. The buildings are big but of course nothing is big inside, so you get the impression it was built for giants to look at but dwarves to live in (the opposite of the Tardis, I suppose). And it's just so disparate, so desperate, so empty even when it's crowded. In my two mile walk from Pimlico to Chelsea I saw nothing charming except at one point a broad tree-lined avenue which turned out only to be leafy and green because it bordered a hospital, and the lovely garden I could see through the fence was not for public consumption at all. Leafy London. Except most of it seems sterile and shoppy to me. Everyone is shopping, in a way.

***

So I tried shopping, too. I went into a shop, I bought nothing, I went back out again. It's not that there weren't plenty of pretty things; it's that nothing suited me in that moment. I was a traveller; I wore stained jeans and an old flannel shirt and carried a heavy, sweaty rucksack.

It's funny that even though I have a home I'm still window-shopping for places to live all the time. Every place I visit, even London, is a possibility. I only think of this now because I came across this piece by John McIntyre on André Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, which I haven't read but would like to read. "Aciman," writes McIntyre, "views the places he visits not with the wondering, landmark-seeking eye of a tourist, but with the speculative, assessing eye of a potential resident...He examines this habit at length in “The Contrafactual Traveler,” and concludes that, “I ‘connect’ not by saying, ‘Isn’t this lovely, picturesque hill town beautiful?’ but ‘Do I see myself living here?’”

***

The tube was crowded and on the way from Sloane Square to Paddington, an Irish group played live music in my carriage. They were good. They made me smile and think I could get used to that sort of thing. I guess in a way it's why people live in places like London, it's why people live in cities, because that sort of thing might happen and make you smile, whatever sort of thing "that" is, whatever makes you smile.

But anyhow I didn't have any change to give them because I'd spent the last of my change on an artichoke and egg sandwich on artisan olive bread on the King's Road. So I couldn't show my appreciation and then they were gone, on the platform, and we were left alone, sweating and close. I did not really want to listen to my music anymore, although my headphones were still in and as it turned out my music had been playing the whole time, but very quietly, so I hadn't noticed.

***

On the train back to Oxford I fell asleep accidentally, slumped against the window with my hand on my almost-full cup of coffee, my second weak, pointless latté of the day. I had tried to read Hemingway, well, I had read Hemingway, for a bit, but something about the way he described Gertrude Stein as having "immigrant hair" had started to grate on me, even though I had read the book before, and that particular story, in fact, many times, and knew I liked it. But it grated on me and grated on me, and I just sat there and read it over and over and over again - immigrant hair immigrant hair immigrant hair - wondering what does it mean, why does it bother me so much? Until I fell asleep slumped against the window, train crowded at midday, people everywhere, my weak latté still clutched in my hand.

I woke up and it was a muggy day in Oxford. The train station was ugly and for a moment, as I stumbled through the turnstile and stood remembering the way Paddington always makes you feel like you're on the edge of something, that something new or big is just around the corner, it felt provincial. But I see myself living here anyway.

In My Country: Notes on Hearing Geoff Dyer speak about Americans

Last week I went to London to hear Geoff Dyer speak about Americans. I didn't have any particular desire to hear Geoff Dyer speak about Americans, but I did - almost desperately - want to hear Geoff Dyer speak, and I did want to know what The School of Life's secular sermons are like, so I travelled from the Cowley Road to Conway Hall early on a Sunday morning. It was one of those lukewarm September days. I sat at the front of the hall, perhaps wanting to be noticed, to be (perceived as) bold. A woman in a red and blue military-style jacket (like a drum major's uniform, perhaps, if I knew what a drum major's uniform looked like, or even really what a drum major was) stood before us. She wanted us to sing; this really was a sermon, and there were hymns. She said she had changed a little bit of the first hymn - Sinatra's "New York, New York", lyrics printed in our pamphlets - and invited Ed, her small blond pianist, to play a few bars so that we could practice the modified verse.

We sang. It still sounded like a hymn, like an English hymn sung in an English church on a rainy English sunday. It had that hymn-rhythm; which is to say, no rhythm at all. I don't know much about singing, but I'm pretty sure that the way the English sing their hymns makes virtually no sense unless you've grown up singing them that way.

After we sang, I felt good; singing in public always makes me feel this way, as if I have achieved some kind of victory (in preschool I was once admonished to the point of tears for mouthing the words to a song rather than singing them out loud). But there was something unnerving about the whole thing, too. There was something strange about this woman, in her drum major's jacket, with her Shirley Temple curls and her peppy voice, imploring us to loosen up a little, shake our limbs a little. I did not want to shake my arms or my legs like a chicken; I certainly did not want to do so repeatedly, and I most certainly did not want have to pay the bald man sitting next to me a compliment, not because I didn't think he was worthy of a compliment, but because the compliment would inevitably be forced, even if meant - I like your shirt, I like your blazer, you have a nice smile - and therefore quite meaningless. Moreover, the first thing that had popped into my head was, "I like your hair," which was definitely not something you could say to a bald man you had never met before. So I just looked the other way; it was easy, I pretended I was on the tube, trying to avoid looking at the person across the aisle whose knees were touching mine.

And the bald man turned to the curly-haired man behind us and said: "I like your hair." And the curly-haired man said to the bald man, "That's a great shirt!" And it was a great shirt; I hadn't noticed before, but it was a great shirt now that the curly-haired man had mentioned it.

***

Then Geoff Dyer - who, even though he makes frequent reference to being tall and thin, is much taller and thinner than you imagine he is - was on the stage, at the pulpit, preaching, or, rather, speaking. He sounded a little like he might be suffering from the onset or aftermath of a mild early Autumn cold; occasionally he paused to sip from a tall glass of water. He told some anecdotes, about Americans, about the British, about the time he went to Big Sur and stood in silence on a bluff overlooking a bank of fog so thick it obscured the sea, everything, and thought how peaceful it was until an American man appeared on the scene and boomed into the quiet: "Sure is peaceful, isn't it!" I knew I'd remember that anecdote, not because it meant anything much but because I, too, have been to Big Sur and been impressed by the way the fog rolls in and covers the coast but allows you this God-like view over it, this view that makes you think that virtually anything could be going on below you but you are above it, on the sun-bleached hillsides, in the sun. Well, yes, I thought: that is my country.

***

But then, I don't really know my own country. I've probably seen more of England - percentage-wise, at least - than I have of the USA.

Last summer, on our way to Toronto, we had a layover in Minneapolis, and so, for the first time in a long time, I was in my country - though of course I had never been there before, to Minneapolis, to anywhere near Minneapolis.

I passed through immigration. The officer, who looked about my age, did not seemed inclined to interrogate me, but neither did he seemed inclined to let me through without at least making an attempt to understand the apparently complicated circumstances under which I found myself now here, in our country but his city.

"So you live in the UK?" he said, flipping through passport pages, looking at faded stamps and expired visas.

"Yes," I said.

"But you're going to Canada."

"Yes. For a wedding. But not mine," I added. I laughed, he didn't. Maybe he was thinking it was perfectly plausible that I was flying to Toronto via Minneapolis for my own wedding to an Englishman. For some reason I started to think, what would happen if I just made a run for it? Would they catch me? Would they detain me? Would I go to jail? How would I explain it?

"So you live in the UK and you're going to Canada and you're not staying in Minneapolis?" he summarized.

"Yes," I said. And he stamped my US passport, and I was home, geographically if not emotionally.

Thirsty in the departures lounge, I bought a bottle of Aquafina water with two stray dollar bills in my wallet. It reminded me of being in high school, buying bottles of water from the vending machine outside the gym during the long, hot volleyball season, which always began in an Indian summer. We would sweat our way through two hours of scrimmages and sprints and inspirational speeches. I was 14 on 9/11 and I remember that afternoon, though we'd spent all day in front of television screens, which they'd produced as if by magic and hauled into all the classrooms, it was business as usual. Drills and sit-ups and bottles of Aquafina from the vending machine. Sometimes it was so hot that we would go across to the pool after practice and leap in. Then I'd spend the long drive home wet, my t-shirt stuck to my sports bra, my hair smelling of chlorine and perspiration.

So Minneapolis is not where I’m from, but in a way, it’s part of where I’m from. The truth is that when I say "my country", what I really mean is "my parents' house," "the farm my best friend grew up on," "the bit of Boston I used to live in," "the other bit of Boston I used to live in." All of these tiny, disconnected places, forming a patchwork map, my map. I love my map. I love those places. I feel patriotic about street corners, particular coves and hilltops, parks and benches and cafés and long winding roads. But I don't know what Americans are like; I don't know what America is like. I don't know what to think of my country as a whole. I don't even know how to see my country as a whole.

***

I guess the trouble with being an American abroad is that you never know where you stand. Everything depends on politics, and politics cannot be counted on.

In his sermon, Dyer alluded to a period - four or five years ago, when the pound was worth twice what the dollar was worth, when animosity towards George Bush was at a high - during which Americans were treated with a much chillier, more patronizing attitude. I remember that period. That was when I first came here. I was defensive, yes, but I always imagined that people looked at you a bit differently if you were American. It was polite in those days (it may still be polite, in fact) to ask if someone was Canadian if you discerned a North American accent. I remember an aggressive and insecure compére at a comedy show, mistaking my sarcasm for genuine insult, telling me I was just another one of these Americans, spending a few weeks here, pretending to know everything, and why didn't I just go back to where I'd come from? And then, later, realizing his mistake, he was so apologetic ("the cult of the apology," Dyer called it, this unmistakably British instinct - "the human equivalent of birdsong") that I couldn't help but feel some kind of perverse sympathy for him.

But here we are now, and things have changed, and authors are giving talks in praise of Americans. And in a few years, or a few weeks, something else will change, attitudes will shift, and I, who has not moved, will stand somewhere else.

***

Then there is the issue of friendliness. The American smile. Updike's quip: "America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy". I started to think about this. As I thought, I realized that I was probably, even in that moment, quite happy to be in London on a sunny Sunday morning listening to one of my favorite authors dole out praise for my countrymen, scowling. I am nearly always scowling. When I work, when I sit, relaxed and reading or listening, my face contorts in a way that is comfortable for me but uncomfortable for everyone else; I'm often asked if I'm okay. Yes, of course I'm okay, I say, can't you tell?

Needless to say, I don't have an American smile. I was not invited to join the cult as a child, I missed the meetings where the mechanics of the smile were discussed and practiced until they became an instinct.

I used to work at a school in Oxford. About half of our adult students were Americans doing a semester abroad; the other half came from all over the world to study English. One of my many menial tasks was to print student photos onto ID cards. Even before you checked the files, you could always tell the Americans from the rest, especially the girls: they were the ones with shiny grins as big as the moon, wide eyes, flat hair, heads cocked at a flattering angle. They were not prettier than anyone else - very often the opposite - but they always gave the impression of being prettier than everyone else.

As I listened to Dyer speak about the charm of Americans, I wondered if maybe it wasn't real charm, not always; maybe sometimes it was the illusion of charm, like those girls smiling up at me from their ID cards, pretending to be prettier than everyone else and therefore convincing me, convincing all of us, that they were.

Even I am charmed when I go back to the US; I am always amazed that shopkeepers want to have such long and involved conversations with me, that cashiers want to make eye contact with me, that the girl at the bank is so genuinely curious about my weekend plans. But I feel like I don't know how to trick myself into being charming. I feel, frankly, like I'm not a very good American, with my scowl and my shyness and my sorries (I may not be part of the cult of the smile, but I am definitely part of the cult of the apology).

Lately, though I've been practicing being more American. I've been trying to accentuate my accent, for instance, or to raise my voice above a whisper in the pub. I suppose that the longer I'm here the more strongly I feel the compulsion to assert the fact that I'm from there, to solidify my standing as an outsider even while I feel increasingly like I am part of something.

***

After the sermon was over, after we sang a final hymn, I stood in line to waiting to ask Geoff Dyer to sign a book. I hate asking authors I love to sign books. I'm always hoping that, somehow, perhaps by looking deep into my eyes, they'll discern that I'm special, that my appreciation for their work is special, that we could be friends, even. At the same time, I know it's a pointless thing to do: I'm not trying to increase the value of my library, and I'm under no illusion that because an author has scribbled "to Miranda" on the title page, we have any kind of relationship.

But as I stood there before him, presenting my book and my nervous smile, I made a conscious effort to try to be more American than I might ordinarily be. I began to smile and to speak. I gushed about how much I liked his work. I said my name so quickly (perhaps, I hoped, so American-ly) that he had to ask me to repeat it. He signed my book. I said, "have a nice day!" And then I sped off with my heart thumping for no obvious reason, sure I'd made a fool of myself.

Later, waiting for the bus home, sipping a too-large chai latté like I used to do in college, the sun shining limply over Notting Hill, I forgot to care about whether or not I had made a fool of myself. I thought of this, by Jawaharlal Nehru: "But in my own country, also, sometimes, I have an exile's feeling." I figured that really, the only country I could claim any ownership of was the one that's made of memory.

The Future of Memory, the Memory of Place

One night I went for a walk, to dislodge some words that had got stuck at the very back of my head, in the least accessible place. I took my camera and walked down the Iffley Road at sunset. It happened to be a very fine sunset, with pink bleeding into the horizon and gold clouds over the track where Roger Bannister ran his sub-4-minute mile. I took a few photos. I thought maybe it would help if I tried to look at the city, or even the world, from a photographer's point of view, but apart from the sunset I was having a hard time figuring out what to take a photo of. It didn't help that the city was basically empty; it made everything feel static. Very few people seemed to be out enjoying the dregs of summer as I was out enjoying the dregs of summer.

Anyone who was outside, though, was also taking photographs. I began to feel a kind of camaraderie. A camera-raderie, maybe. On Magdalen Bridge a girl on a pale blue Pashley paused to pull a camera from her handbag. In Radcliffe Square, the big Camera dwarfing my little camera, bells began to ring, and I stood taking pointless beautiful photographs, listening to the bells ringing. A family wandered past; I got their silhouettes in some of my shots. They were also taking photographs, naturally: they were tourists, or at least, I imagined they were tourists, because they looked tourist-like, whatever that meant. But I had to stop myself thinking like this when I saw that I could also seem to be a tourist, and in a way I still was a tourist, even after four years, and I would still be one after forty, too. The family skirted around me and went to stand for a long time outside All Souls, though there is nothing much to see there; I have often looked through the gates of All Souls and never seen a soul.

Some girls were taking photographs under the Bridge of Sighs. Three of them stood in a line and jumped up obediently as the fourth took a photo, and then they changed configuration, so the one taking the photo could also be in a photo. I thought it was funny, and a little sad, that no matter how many times they did this, one of them would still always be missing from the photograph.

I went down Queen's Lane, liking the sound of my rubber soles on the street, which was notable for being the only sound I could now hear. When I first started riding a bicycle in the city I had crashed twice in the same spot, trying to squeeze through a narrow gate. Now I had been cycling for years, and I had forgotten what it was like to walk here.

***

Outside the Grand Café, I considered the cocktail menu. I did not want a cocktail. I thought about having a glass of white wine, though I can never see the point of drinking a glass of wine you don't love unless you've got food to go with it. I wasn't at all sure they would have a white wine that I would love, particularly when I didn't even really feel like having white wine. In fact I didn't know if I wanted to go in at all. Nevertheless I went in, and ordered a Kir Royal, and sat in front of a big mirror, on a wicker chair, and read from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. A party in Venice, cocaine, champagne, sex. I read for the duration of my Kir Royal and then felt obliged either to order another or to leave, even though it was still practically empty, just a couple sitting by the window and a pair of girls at the bar. I might well have been on my own, I thought. I did sort of want another, I could have stayed in Venice for longer, but in the end I brought my empty glass to the bar and left.

***

I crossed the road thinking I might like to take a bus home, but I had just missed one and I did not immediately see another coming, so I put some music on and walked home, where I finished the Venice section of the book and moved on to the India section: not just a change of scenery, but also a shift in perspective, a change from "he" to "I". I read:

"Every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth, so a temple built today looks, overnight, as if it's been there since the dawn of time. Every morning is the dawn of time, I wrote in my notebook. Every day is the whole of time."

I made a note of it, because in a way it corresponded to a thought I'd been having, or trying to have, about memory and place. It made me think, in fact, of the epigraph to another Geoff Dyer book, The Missing of the Somme:

"Remember: the past won't fit into memory without something left over; it must have a future"

That was something by Joseph Brodsky. In Jeff in Venice, Dyer writes that "Jeff had never read Brodsky" - but of course Geoff must have, or must at least have read that particular bit of Brodsky and identified it as relevant. I guess sometimes it's better to have a quote without context; it's more malleable, it's why epigraphs work. I love epigraphs in books, but in fact I rarely read them; I always think the epigraph is a representation of the private relationship the author has with a text, and kind of irrelevant to the relationship that the reader will develop with that same text. It's like saying, "hey, in my head this complements what you're about to read. In your head it may have nothing to do with it. Whatever."

***

Maybe it's like writing about place: the place is actually irrelevant to everyone else. I used to like reading about Paris, before I had ever been to Paris, just to see the names of streets and squares that meant nothing to me. I don't think it much mattered that when I first read A Moveable Feast I didn't know where the Place Saint-Michel was, hadn't yet sat in a café there with my lover, both of us poor and a little hungry, sucking down café au laits in the late summer heat. But then I went through a phase of thinking that context was paramount, that to really read a book, it was essential to know the place it was about, to have a map of memories in your head (to "anchor you", I thought).

But then every time I read a book about Oxford and came upon a passage about the Radcliffe Camera or the High Street or the Grand Café or the Cowley Road I would have to go back through my own catalog of experiences, find a corresponding situation, consider the gap or overlap between one writer's view and my own. And that can be tiring.

***

Every day is the whole of time - the thought I had been trying to have was simply this: places trap memory by accumulating it. Like rain collecting in a bucket with infinite capacity. Like Tennyson - "I am a part of all that I have met." And part of a memory is also the future of that memory. Places are haunted by ghosts, but also by those who are still alive.

Before bed I wondered how much of our description of place has nothing to do with place, and everything to do with the "I" or the "he". I've never been to India, but I've been to a place where "every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth". But maybe I haven't; maybe that is just a state of mind, a state of mind you could be in wherever you were in the world.