This was an entry for an essay writing competition about “the city of your dreams” for my university in the Dutch city of Tilburg. I ended up being a runner-up, and since only the winner was published, I can now freely post it on here. It’s also a sneak-peek into my writing of fiction I guess, because even though it was an “essay” competition, I decided that was too boring and turned it into fiction! 🙂
I hope you like it!
It’s strange how things that once seemed so normal can suddenly become so distant. It’s only been five years since the end of the war, but already I’ve forgotten what life was like back then. Studying for exams, evenings in front of the tv, the occasional night out with friends… they seem to be nothing more than a dream, figments of my imagination that are so unlikely they could never possibly have happened.
Just over a decade ago, back in 2014, I lived in Tilburg. I hated it there. It just wasn’t what I needed, not the place I wanted to spend the rest of my life in. I dreamt of moving to exotic places, as far away from the Netherlands as possible. I would live in a beautiful metropolis with giant cathedrals, romantically lit streets, high-speed trains taking me to the other side of the city in just a few minutes, and perhaps with a nice park close to my home. A city as big as Tokyo, as high-tech as Shanghai, as romantic as Paris and as historic as Rome, but at the same time with that familiar feeling of home and belonging that Tilburg brings. A giant city and a small village put together in one.
And I was sure it was possible. Technology was heading in the right direction back then, improving so rapidly that something considered high-tech one moment was outdated two years later. I was born in a time of wired phones and giant television sets but grew up in a time of internet and tablets, so the idea of such a city didn’t seem so strange. Anything was possible. But of course, things panned out differently. Technology brought new issues to light, and that led to disagreement. Disagreement that only needed a little irrationality to make that dream city go up in smoke and to leave me dreaming only of food and shelter.
But back then… back then my dreams were great. I imagined myself spending almost all of my time outside, lying in soft grass and surrounded by stunningly large trees while staring up at huge skyscrapers that stood right next to old cathedrals and monuments. Maybe I’d work at the top floor of one of those buildings, with a view that allowed me to see miles into the distance. I would be able to see the planes coming into the airport, and down on the ground, as small as caterpillars, I’d be able to see the trains going up and down through the complicated networks, transporting millions of people to wherever they wanted to be.
Trains… how I miss those. Five years ago, in 2019, I wasn’t at home when it happened. When they bombed the Netherlands in the war, destroying everything and everyone who happened to be above ground just because they lived under a different flag. Instead, I was in Amsterdam, a hundred kilometres away from my family, my friends, my entire life. If only I could have gotten onto a train back home and seen my family one more time. I would have done anything just to have that moment.
But of course, there was no such train. Not even an announcement that the Intercity Direct had been cancelled for some trivial reason, like a nation-wide power outage or a few hundred tons of metal that had fallen right from the sky and had exploded on the tracks. Instead, it took me two months of hiding and walking before I found my way back to what I think was my home. I’m still not sure, because it didn’t look quite the same. It definitely didn’t feel like home. There wasn’t enough left.
I never imagined something like this to be possible. Home was always there, regardless of where I was. I took plenty of time to explore places that came closer to that city I dreamt of, travelling across Europe, doing internships in far away countries, studying abroad for a semester just to be able to live in a city that seemed so much more beautiful than Tilburg. Cities with monuments and city centres full of people and stores, not places as boring as Tilburg, where the most exciting things a tourist can find include a museum about textile, the occasional event at 013 and that one international student trying to ride a bike. Funny, sure, but it doesn’t compare to the architecture of Florence or the nightlife of Las Vegas. Then again, those cities are now about as easy to find as my old home back in Tilburg…
I guess that’s just what war does. We dream of a perfect world, but then when we’re almost there and the improvement inevitably starts slowing down, we get impatient and end up destroying everything we ever created. Suddenly, gone is that city I dreamt of. Perhaps it had never been possible, but after the war, there’s no doubt left. Skyscrapers don’t exist, there’s no electricity for trains and there won’t be any more monuments for another 200 years, when the few houses that survived the bombings will be old enough to be considered monuments. And there’s nothing particularly beautiful about an apartment building that just so happened to not get flattened.
Still, none of that means that I don’t dream of cities anymore. I still have a dream city, it’s just a little different. An adjusted version, you might say. It’s a city with houses, some big and expensive, others small and cheap. A city that has streets with cars and buses, and bikes everywhere. It’s a city where people walk through the centre, going in and out of shops or bars, perhaps greeting each other, perhaps just stoically walking on with their earphones plugged in. It’s a city with trains, sometimes delayed, and with a university that requires way too much studying, but that is always there, even when I least want it to.
The city of my dreams only has to meet one requirement: it has to be a city.
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See you next Monday!
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