Travel Journal

Divisible Cities

Cocktails are dazzling when surrounded by wilderness. I’ve brought shakers with me on canoe trips down remote rivers and love imbibe campfire-side. The contrast between the untamed and the civilized is pure, and drinks sing against the backdrop of the stars. In the same vein, one of my most memorable sips came after a death-defying flight into the Himalayas on a small Kingfisher plane that barely cleared the peaks. “This is why the British brought decanters with them,” I thought. “To face death in the unknown with good cheer.” Once on the ground in Manali, India, my cocktail acted like lembas bread for hobbits, conjuring comfort and a will to struggle on (luckily, easy to do in breathtaking Manali).

But despite the unique thrills of juxtaposition, the cocktail’s natural habitat is the city. It is, in fact, the urban drink — born of the city, tied to the fortunes of the city, perfected in the city. Gin, upon which the cocktail climbed to its giddy, global heights, is the urban tipple par excellence. The provinces might drink beer, the landed gentry their wine, but cities drink liquor —specifically, cocktails. That’s how it developed in urbanizing England of the 18th Century, anyway, and that is how it has stayed. It was gin that kept the urban masses mollified and dominated classic recipes.

Cocktails, once sufficiently codified, followed the spread of commerce. Ice and booze chased economic booms and burgeoning cosmopolitanism — and they follow what we, today, call ‘globalization.’ There is no dodging it: the cocktail is the drink of capital, and appears wherever and whenever the marketplace knocks on a city’s gates.

A current, non-historical, global cocktail tour, then, is a tour of big cities. That is where the action is. And this means a very specific kind of journey.

Often, we use big cities as points of departure for places deeper within a country. We fly into Rome, visit Pompeii, and head further inland. We land in London, visit Stonehenge, and toodle around the Cotswolds. On my trip, I’ll be landing, drinking, and then jetting off to the next major metropolis. This presents unique challenges, and forces me to think about city versus country, about city-ness, and about the limitations (or delight) of travel always against an urban backdrop. The city itself becomes a character on the journey. So I must ask: What is a city? What is it’s story?

We know cities can seduce us. That they have their own rhythm. Their own desires. We know that cities can punch us in the face or hold our hand. We suspect that cities dream.

To help with my investigation of the city, I’m reading a few books:

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A taxonomy of cities: Atlas of Cities by Paul Knox (editor)

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A fascinating exploration of a city’s guts. The trash. The phones. The transportation. The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

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Daniel Brook’s takes a look at four ‘instant cities’ — St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai — in A History of Future Cities

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Nigerian-American Teju Cole’s Open City follows a young doctor along the streets of Manhattan.

REQUIRED READING:

A couple classics I am revisiting:

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Mike Davis’ City of Quartz is an epic look into the creation of modern Los Angeles.

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Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar might seem like an odd choice, but his writing about Las Vegas is supreme. It captivated me so much that I had to return to it.

Honorable Mentions: Walter Benjamin’s ArcadesProject, Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’, Baudelaire’s Painter of Modern Life, F. Berkley Smith’s How Paris Amuses Itself. George Bataille’s Against Architecture

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A few books that are love letters to cities, or are explicitly set in urban environments that become part of the story: Ulysses, Lost Illusions, House with Wisteria, Hunger, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Manhattan Transfer, Sister Carrie, Bonfire of the Vanities, Bleak House, Master and Margarita, NW, The Dog, A Fine Balance, Post Office, Lost in the City, A Confederacy of Dunces, House on Mango Street, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tales of the City, Berlin Stories, Miami Blues, My Brilliant Friend, Aya, Lush Life, Up in the Old Hotel, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, The Devil in the White City, Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai, Another Country, Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles

Two fictional masterpieces: Dhalgren, Invisible Cities