“The cockpit is a tightly-packed, technical place, but in the air, it can transform into an alcove of wonders. “The engines fall back to their idle setting and now, as we start our descent,” writes Mark Vanhoenacker, “the goldenness is on all sides of us.”
In Imagine a City, we take off and touch down with Vanhoenacker, a commercial pilot, as he steers us through some of the world’s great metropolises: Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi. Lights and colours are the first introductions, as Vanhoenacker gazes at these cities from miles above, rhapsodising about their “bioluminescence”, their “glow”, their “bright pastel hues”. These are cities that Vanhoenacker has flown to so often as a pilot, even if he just stays for 48-hour spells. They feel both deceptively familiar, yet cracklingly new. How do you view a city afresh as a repeat visitor?
This is Vanhoenacker’s third book after Skyfaring and How To Land a Plane, the earlier two also broadly set in-air. Imagine a City is replete with lyrical descriptions of views from a cockpit, but is less flight-view, and more street-view. It’s an account of the pilot-as-flâneur, walking and jogging through places, brimming with curiosity and finding new layers to old cities. Vanhoenacker frequently experiences “place lag” too, a coinage that captures a mix of “bewilderment and astonishment” that comes from quickly moving between places; like jetlag, it requires readjustment.
Nearly all the cities featured would be familiar to readers. There is little left to surprise a visitor to Delhi or London or any of the world’s great cities. And Vanhoenacker does not seek to. His approach is contemplative; his writing sprinkled with histories, poetry, and references to ancient texts. Calvino and Ghalib are just as much waypoints on the journey as the Red Fort and Table Mountain.
But for all its wanderlust, Imagine a City is also a memoir of home. Before he became a globetrotter, Vanhoenacker grew up in the small eastern town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The gay younger son of a speech therapist and a priest, Vanhoenacker navigated childhood, dreaming of distant places on his revolving globe. And it is to nostalgia-drenched Pittsfield that the book periodically returns.
Those who enjoy meditative accounts of place will savour Vanhoenacker’s leisurely, meandering approach. The writing is always elegant, even if the book teeters into indulgent pondering at times. The segments I enjoyed most were about Kuwait City and Jeddah, capitals that may not be typical destinations for a tourist but in Vanhoenacker’s loving hands turn into receptacles of culture, history and marvel. Even something as banal as Kuwait’s heat, which is “sauna”-like but also “marvellous”—in the literal sense, it is something to “marvel at”.
There is a welter of fun facts sprinkled in too. Did you know that we smell more clearly in warm weather? Or that there is a waypoint marked “ISLAM” on the computers so that when a passenger asks which direction they should pray in, the crew has an answer? The writing captures a quaint, pre-modern romanticism familiar in the genre of travel writing. But it is leavened with the reality of modern tics: slapdash visits, long hours in hotel rooms, airports, lots of airports.
There can be a disorienting effect, as Vanhoenacker steers us quickly from one city to the next. Chapters are not divided city-wise, but more broadly along themes; City of Gates, City of Signs, City of Rivers. Like global citizens, we can expect to move from Cape Town to Calgary in the space of a page. The place lag that Vanhoenacker writes about can afflict the reader too. But that circularity and loopiness, a kind of spiralling across the globe, is a feature, not a bug.
Imagine a City: A Pilot Sees the World, is published in India by Vintage, Penguin Random House (Chatto & Windus).
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