What gives a city its magic?

“The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.” said E.B. White in Here is New York.

I have not been to New York, but I understand that, because I have felt the soul of Kuala Lumpur. I cannot quite describe it, but it is there in the many details of ordinary life. In the brutal thunderstorms that engulf the entire city into a mass of grey. In the anger emanating from the mad blasting of the car horns. The far-off revving of heedless speeding cars slicing through the silent whirring of the bedroom fan. The exasperating, unexpected jolt as you drive over a pothole. The smell of curry mixed with damp from the drains drifting past as the mamak waiters whisk metal trays from one table to another.

Yes, KL is alive. Broken in some parts, shuffling along with a slight limp perhaps, but fully, passionately alive.

But Frankfurt? What of it? In my (mere) four months here, the biggest impression Frankfurt has made on me is that it is like an organisation – a managed office that is there for people to live in, work in, function in, but abandon with glad detachment at the end of the day because their hearts, the freest of their impulses, are likely spent elsewhere. People say Frankfurt is soulless. Apparently when Germans tell other Germans they are moving to Frankfurt, the response is “But why?”.

But there is the peace. Many people work but don’t live here. Housing less than 800,000 residents, Frankfurt provides a kind of non-intrusiveness that allows one to be alone with their thoughts. Solitude is there for the taking on the banks of the Main or the Nidda, where there is an ever-present supply of clean and empty benches, or in one of the available window seats on the S-Bahn. Some early evenings on weekdays, it is possible to stroll through the wood and stream and fields 5 minutes from my flat and see nobody but two tiny men doing a spot of fishing far, far away.

There is the mystery. The skyline is a hazy glass and concrete cluster of nondescript facades and pointy things – a sight that one looks out for when driving into the city or observes the city from a hike in the Taunus mountains. One imagines that such a stoic front must conceal little secret threads that bind the busy pedestrians to one another, or splay outwards to distant spaces and histories that we don’t know of as people come and go, as they often do here and have been since the days Gutenberg got his paper from Italy at Frankfurt’s trade fairs so he could print Martin Luther’s bible.

Submerged in the crowd of sightseeing and shopping average Joes milling about the Zeil on a Saturday afternoon, there is a kind of gladness that one is here, unheeded and unknown, invisible to everyone but yourself. And then in the desolation that comes on Sundays or weekday nights, when the only people who roam the area are the homeless and lonely tourists, one entertains the possibility that there are poignant stories to tell. Maybe not any great number compared to those compressed in the sprawling homes of KL and skyscrapers of New York, but there nevertheless.