Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cities and Ambition


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Most of the time when I try to talk about what frustrates me about living in Slovenia, it just comes out in a big blob of anger and resentment towards the country and its inhabitants, but that's not really what I want to say. What I really want to express is what programmer and essayist Paul Graham writes about so eloquently in his piece "Cities and Ambition".

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An excerpt:

How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you'd be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.

You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you've heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren't genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?

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No matter how determined you are, it's hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It's not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.

21 comments:

AmandaPants said...

Amen. AMEN. seriously.

ValeriesWorld said...

So true!

amanda said...

This was a great article. Very insightful, and really addressed some of the issues that have been at the periphery of many of my recent conversations. Thanks for sharing.

Camille Acey said...

glad this struck a nerve with others! i hope there is alternative to moving away in disgust.

Anonymous said...

although i somewhat agree with -- and have to an extend experieced the practical effects of -- the author's thesis, i remain firmly in support of team talent.
barbara

Anonymous said...

Paul writes towards the end of that piece:
"Even when a city is still a live center of ambition, you won't know for sure whether its message will resonate with you till you hear it."

Sometimes places don't sing our respective songs, and it can be a disorienting, jagged experience. I've also felt that disorientation.

You can rearrange Paul's words and find truth in them:
"When I moved to [Slovenia], I was very excited at first. It's an exciting [or another adjective!] place. So it took me quite a while to realize I just wasn't like the people there. I kept searching for the [insert your ideal locality here] of [Slovenia].

You're young, Camille; keep your chin up. Perhaps trial and error has just begun for you. The quotes you provided ring true to me as well. But you stopped before tackling what Paul ultimately realized: "You'll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have."

I suspect Paul didn't move away from New York in disgust. It simply wasn't his Cambridge.

Sorry for the length.

Despite all this, I'm not advocating a love it or leave it mentality. Just try not to blame it for not singing your song (or singing out of tune)!

Yours, very sincerely, Anja

Camille Acey said...

@Anja - While I couldn't agree more with what you are saying. It appears that -- perhaps unlike Paul -- I have other forces that are keeping me tethered here. Otherwise I'd surely have moved on by now.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should try moving from Radovljica to Ljubljana. I know it's not NYC but it might make a difference.

Camille Acey said...

@Anon - Feb 11 - It just wouldn't make sense. I live a half an hour drive away from Ljubljana in a HOUSE with a GARDEN, I wouldn't throw this away for a sub-par city like Ljubljana. Just wouldn't make sense. Frankly if enough was going on in Ljubljana people outside of the immediate city center should know about it. If it is so arcane that you have to be "right there" to know about it, there is no way it's that good. Sheesh, when I lived in Queens, my ride from there to Manhattan took longer but I always knew of good stuff going on.

Anonymous said...

Like I said you can't compare it to NYC (it's tiny for Christ's sake) but there ARE some (speaking in relative terms here) cool places in Ljubljana. My recent favourite spot is Kino Siska. If you haven't yet you should definitely check it out.
As to moving to Ljubljana, well, it depends on what matters to you, I guess. A house with a garden certainly is an advantage but for me living in a city, even if it's a sub-par city like Ljubljana, definitely makes a difference. But that's just me. :)

Anyway, I hope you find something you like about this place. It sure sucks having to live somewhere you don't really like.

Camille Acey said...

@Anon - Geez Slovenia is NOT the smallest country in the world. Iceland is only the size of Ljubljana and there is plenty interesting going on in Rejkjavik. Also Jamaica is only slightly bigger than Slovenia and that place is jumping. Size alone can not be blamed. It's just different values. Slovenians just go running straight home and to their families at almost every chance they get. Did you see Miha Mazzini's article in Sobotna Priloga a few weeks ago? Super illuminating, a good compliment to what I am saying/trying to say.
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Thanks for the Kino Siska recommendation. I know of it and will go some time, but nightclubs and stuff are not really what I exactly meant by the article. It is more BIG PICTURE.
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Enjoy Ljubljana!

Camille Acey said...

here's the mazzini article if anyone is interested (and knows slovenian) - http://www.podsvojostreho.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=27338&p=224456&hilit=

Anonymous said...

you live in a HOUSE with a GARDEN only HALF AN HOUR away from ljubljana.
my dear, how very SLOVENIAN of you. :-))

i read your mazzini, i raise you goran vojnović:
http://www.dnevnik.si/debate/kolumne/1042251427

back to your original post: i don't think being in sync with the vibe is always necessary. i find counterpoint endlessly more productive.
good luck.
b

Camille Acey said...

thanks for that b! as usual, you've trumped me!

Camille Acey said...

@b - of course, let the record show that i did not CHOOSE to live in this house or CHOOSE to live in this town....they all came with the territory and were decided LONG before my time.

if you saw the hovel i lived in in brooklyn, you would no longer question how committed i can be when i really wanna be "near the action".

Anonymous said...

@Camille: I meant Ljubljana was tiny compared to NYC, sorry if that wasn't clear. :) And I know you weren't talking about night clubs and stuff. You are right about the big picture unfortunately (as are Miha Mazzini and Goran Vojnovic), but the reason I mentioned Kino Siska was to point out that there ARE places in Slovenia where interesting stuff is going on. It is true that most Slovenians prefer to go home and watch tv or whatever but if you want to, you can almost always find something interesting to do here. Of course finding someone to do it with you can be a bit more tricky and at times quite frustrating (speaking from personal experience:).

Anyway, I’ll stop rambling now.

Just one more thing, since you mentioned Jamaica I thought you might be interested in this: http://www.kinosiska.si/sl/dogodki/glasba/2010-02-23/tony_rebel_queen_ifrica_jamajka/87/

I swear I don't work for Kino Siska just making sure people living outside the city know what's going on over here. :)

Anonymous said...

no-no-no-no. you brought it on yourself. my wrath, of course :-)

"I live a half an hour drive away from Ljubljana in a HOUSE with a GARDEN, I wouldn't throw this away for a sub-par city like Ljubljana."

way to go, slovenian girl! you managed to: a)express the ultimate slovenian value (a house with garden in the country--and i am sorely tempted to use joe strummer's spelling here), and b) insult the capital by calling it sub-par, thus justifying your choice. you pack more "true slovenian sentiments" in ONE SENTENCE than my entire family manages in a weekend in the country. *keels over laughing* sorry, but it's just too funny to resist. i will be good from now on, i promise ;-)

comparing: you're missing the point; not all minutes are the same. a metro ride from queens to manhattan would equal a bus ride from tržnica moste to K4, even if it does take the same time as a car journey from radovljica to ljubljana. if you really want to compare, take a US city with pop. less than 300,000, then take another one in the same state, but NOT in the same metro area, pop. 6000. that's your gauge.

the vibe: small cities in small countries operate differently. no european country has 10 cities with more than a million inhabitants. in fact only four have more than one 1-million city. (that's if you don't buy into the romanian wisdom that bucharest is the paris of the east.) it is impossible for europeans to move the way the americans do. we have to make create our own vibe where we are. it's an acquired skill, can be really creative and way less stressful. yes, if you have a special talent, you'll probably have to move but interesting things pop up all over the place, just for the hell of it. pina bausch in wuppertal, hello? laibach in trbovlje. dadaism in zurich. have you ever been to zurich? and yet somebody thought it would be perfectly reasonable to perform at cabaret voltaire. it only turned to be one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century, inspiring everyone from surrealism to punk rock.

what i'm trying to say, i guess, in that the big picture and harmony are overrated. while acknowledging that one person only has x much strenght to go against the environmet, i remain, as i have already said, firmly in team talent. and team counterpoint.

i do not, by any strech of imagination, try to trivialise how you feel. i would channel my feelings in a different way, but it's not my call to give advice.

except these two: don't call ljubljana sub-par. it isn't. and don't set reykyavik as an example. it's ... really not on, given the situation.

hope i haven't offended you in any way.
barbara

Camille Acey said...

@barbara - don't worry i am in no way offended. i know your heart is in the right place. :)

also, in saying i wouldn't tride my "parcel" for a spot in a blok in LJU i am 1) being a former new yorker soaking in the best of all i DIDN'T have in the big city that i left and 2) practicing law #36: Disdain things you cannot have (see The 48 Laws of Power)

also, i am in NO way saying Europe should be like America or that Ljubljana should be like an American big city, I wouldn't wanna live in San Francisco or Boston either. i am just saying that I have yet to find a Slovenian town that is "singing my tune".

just one question, you keep repeating this term "team talent. and team counterpoint" and I have NO idea what you mean. please expound.

Anonymous said...

just quickly. couterpoint (from wikipedia): "In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent."
what i want to say, i guess, is that finding a city that sings your tune (or, probably, vice versa) is a noble endeavour, but a bit bland. interaction with harmony (or not!) as a result is a lot more exciting. think georgian chant vs. fugue :-) both beautiful, but oh, the difference!

as for talent: that also goes back to the article you posted -- i firmly believe that talent always wins. yes, i know that there is a whole history of evidence that go against me on this. i don't care.

MKL said...

I'm Slovenian, currently living in Taipei and every time I go outside my country, I realize how small we are and how boring it can be at home. Slovenia lacks masses of people. I see street food on every corner here, all the time someone's outside on the street, something's moving... All kinds of smells and sounds await you once you step out of the apartment. And I've seen the same things in Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. It just doesn't get boring. But sometimes I miss the house of my family in Slovenia. We're literally surrounded by forest, it's very serene and peaceful. I hope when I'm older, I can live there. But now I'm young and I need challenges. I guess we're just a very private and nature loving small nation and it's much harder for people who come from big international cities such as yourself.

But I admire you and wish you all the best. Just stumbled upon your blog by accident. I have no idea about your plans, but who knows, maybe Slovenia is just a stopover for you in your long thrilling adventure called life :)

toyin said...

so so true...quite deep!