Thursday, December 30, 2010

Love and the post-apocalyptic city

I know, I know: It's been a while. I'm so much taller than the last time you saw me. Unfortunately, finals, papers, travel and the holidays (hope yours have been happy!) have come between this blog and me of late. This means that I've had a lot of time to accumulate ideas for this post and become indecisive about which one to roll with. For example, I'm tempted to uncork a bottle of palabras reguleques about this charming development, but I'll restrain myself for the time being and turn instead to something I've been thinking about for a while and would be interested to hear others' take on.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about breakups. We discussed how the death of a relationship not only breaks hearts but also spills ink over maps. Faster than he or she can say, "It's not you, it's me," your ex sinks a scalpel into your city. Amputated are the place where you met and the restaurant where you had your first date, summarily extracted your favorite movie theater and the park where you used to people watch on weekends. As if watching an air raid from above, you stand by helplessly as entire patches of territory vanish into blackout. Simply put, there are places you can no longer bring yourself to go.

My friend and I agreed that this is nothing short of a travesty. Your ex already took your heart/your sweatshirt/the best three and a half months of your youth; he or she should not be able to take your city as well. So what do you do when you find yourself squinting into the smoking post-apocalyptic wreckage of your rose-tinted urban paradise? In my opinion? Reclaim it.

See, when I was studying abroad in Santiago, I liked a boy who took me to a plaza. My crush never amounted to much, but that plaza -- which I neither could nor wanted to avoid -- remained haunted by the Ghost of Infatuations Past. Until the day when I decided I'd had enough and ceremoniously crisscrossed the plaza on my bike. And just like that, the plaza was mine again. As silly as it sounds, the debris strewn across that bombarded square reassembled itself into a lovely fountain and one of the city's most breathtaking churches. The plaza was back on my map. In time, I introduced it to new people who helped me create new memories there. Take that, apocalypse.

It strikes me that making a conscious effort to reclaim lost territory may be especially important for those who are new to a city. Relationships -- romantic and otherwise -- are key to recent arrivals' mapmaking process: When you're a newcomer, you see what people show you, and your experience of your new surroundings is strongly mediated by the paths your guides map out for you. If one of these guides decides to leave the tour early -- carrying your pride and your favorite DVD -- chances are you'll simply never retrace your steps. Your map will spread like vines around an obstacle, creeping around the edges of the blackout zone without ever venturing inside. When you find yourself heartbroken in familiar territory, on the other hand, your roots may already penetrate too deeply into the fallout zone to be torn out completely.

Then again, maybe not. What about you? Have you ever exorcised a haunted plaza? How do you return stolen spaces to your map? Do expats/newcomers face a specific set of challenges when confronting the post-apocalyptic city? Which is worse: for someone to trample the landmarks you've known since childhood or to grind a sprouting map back into the ground?