Does your city inhabit you?

What a silly, inverted question. And what could possibly make me ask it?

The answer is this anecdote at the end of Aharon Appelfeld’s memoir Table for One: Under the Light of Jerusalem:

“It’s hard to persuade people that a city is, among other things, a private matter. It holds everyone differently. Sometimes it’s actually the man in the street who instinctively picks up what journalists and professors don’t see. The taxi drivers in Tel Aviv can immediately spot the Jerusalemite in me. Many years ago, in New York, I hailed a cab.

The driver turned around to me and said in Hebrew: “You’re from Jerusalem.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Your bag, and the way you’re holding it. It was a taxi driver in Jerusalem for ten years. I know who’s from Jerusalem.”

I was glad that he recognized the city in me at a distance of thousands of miles.

I love this little story. I also believe it’s true and deep. Jerusalem, of all places, is saturated with particularity. “These reflections,” Appelfeld concludes his memoir, “have been a kind of confession about specific places and people: in other words, a religious attitude to life. When I say ‘religious’, I mean seriousness and a sense of obligation to art.”

This attitude is “the city in him” and so much is it in “in him” that he carries it even as he carries his bag – in a certain, subtle, discreet, yet identifiable manner.

I recall also these lines from Rilke’s “For the Sake of a Single Poem“:

For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

What would it mean for a place to so inhabit us, whether we live there or not?

It is in the realm of necessity that we inhabit a place. It is in the realm of freedom and leisure and prayer and poetry that a place inhabits us.