why do humans have this desire for possession, and why do we grow savage when we cannot satisfy it? (bae suah, a greater music, 60)

i find that there are two kinds of cities:  the ones i explore and the ones i settle into.

the latter is the rarer city, the kind of city that embraces me and makes me think, “hey, this feels familiar. i think i could see myself here; i think i could feel whole here.” it’s the kind of city i’m not frantic to see, the kind of city that discourages lists of things to do and foods to eat and neighborhoods to visit. it’s the kind of city that encourages slowing down, sitting in a cafe with a book and pastry and cup of coffee, absorbing moods instead of simply passing them by or walking them off. it’s the kind of city that says, “you have time. you’ll be here again, so slow down.”

it’s the kind of city that feels like it could be home, at least for a little bit because nyc will always be home. so far, i’ve only come across two cities like this:  sapporo and boston.

ultimately, “learning a foreign language” is too simplistic an expression for a process which is more like crossing a border; similarly, an individual’s development as a human being is only possible through language, not because language is our only means of communication, but because it is the only tool precisely calibrated for the application of critical thought. but to me, these thoughts of m’s were nothing but phantoms. a mother tongue isn’t a border that can just be crossed, not even with the strongest will in the world. even after fully mastering a foreign language (if such a thing is ever possible), your mother tongue still acts as a prison for your consciousness — this wasn’t a view that m ever expressed in so many words, but i knew that it was true. the fact that my mother tongue was different from m’s caused me unbearable grief. (61)

i took one book with me to boston because i didn’t want to carry more than one because i was traveling with friends and didn’t anticipate much down-time to read. on our second (and last) day, though, we split ways, and i found myself back in beacon hill, at tatte with a pear tart and a latte, exhausted and starving from walking and not really wanting to do much more city-seeing and/or touristing.

i spent the afternoon reading and finished this slim korean novel, a greater music by bae suah. two weeks ago, i went to hear deborah smith, the translator, speak at AAWW (that write-up is coming soon), and she’d briefly discussed a greater music and the language within — the narrator is a korean writer who returns to berlin to house-sit for her on-again/off-again boyfriend, and there’s a sense of the novel being in this in-between place language-wise because the narrator is in a foreign country, learning a foreign language, and feeling the frustrations of that linguistic barrier.

it’s been a few years since she’s been in berlin, and much of the novel is spent in remembering, in thinking back to her previous stay in berlin as a student. much of those thoughts, in turn, circulate around her former lover, m, whom the narrator hasn’t seen since she was last in berlin, though we meet m more as a ghostly figure who’s both central and peripheral to the narrator’s thoughts.

m views the world through theory. she’s clearly intellectual, and she thinks a lot, but there’s a sense through the novel that she’s removed from the world, not only intellectually or emotionally but physically, too, because of her health. this isn’t to make it sound like m’s reclusive or closed off to the world because she works, interacts with people, and so on; it’s more to say that i recognize her way of thinking, of thinking so deeply about things that everything is broken down into theories and nothing is simple or grounded.

the narrator is rather aligned with m’s ways of seeing the world, which leads to the thinking presented in the quote above. and it’s not that i have a problem with theory or that i don’t appreciate these deeper, more abstract ways of thinking about things, but here was (and is) my constant gripe with theory — that it often gets twisted up in itself and exists on its own self-elevated planes and eludes intersection with reality.

if m’s soul was with me then why did erich need to be a problem, if mere flesh, limited and inconsistent, really did amount to nothing, then why did i have to suffer on account of their one-night stand, why couldn’t i break free of this permanently unsatisfied desire for possession, when i was only too aware of how utterly base it was? i couldn’t come up with a single word of consolation or justification for myself. when its corollary is a hunger to monopolize m’s gestures, her shadow, her voice, love soon becomes a hell. (97)

you’d think that, given that this was the first time i was in boston, i’d be eager to try all these different restaurants and cafes.

instead, i went to flour for breakfast every single morning (read: three mornings) — and, then, i went back for cake and cocoa on saturday afternoon. i went to tatte twice, once for lunch, a second time for a pear tart and an iced latte. if i’d gone to the salty pig on saturday night as i’d hoped to, i likely would have gone back on sunday night, it was that good.

i am a creature of habit, and that’s also the thing about cities you settle into. there’s no frenzy to try everything, no need to cram everything in, no guilt at going back to somewhere you like and maybe ordering the same thing (i did that) or trying something new (i did that, too). also, there is nothing like a bowl of noodles and a plate of dumplings late at night.