One of the many interesting tidbits in Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love occurs in the first section while she’s in Italy. She loves Rome, but can’t figure out why she feels she doesn’t belong there. One of her Italian friends tells her a theory of his. He says every city has a one-word motto that describes it; it’s the word that most of the citizens are thinking about at any given moment. Rome’s word, he says, is sex. Gilbert feels that this explains her out-of-place feeling because she is avoiding romantic encounters at the moment. Then she muses about what words fit other towns. New York is achieve, she says, and Los Angeles’ word is succeed.*
This got J and me thinking. What words would we use to describe towns we knew? I thought long and hard about Denver, and the word I came up with was activity because that’s what people here care about most. Denverites ski, golf, hike, ski, camp, raft, ski, play sports, go drinking and ski. One never hangs out with people in Denver; one always must do something (I hate this fact, by the way). I asked J what she thought Denver’s word was, and she said–completely independently of me, mind you–active. I think we nailed that one.
After that, we thought about Cedar Rapids, IA, where we grew up. This was much harder for me, and I couldn’t think of anything. J suggested work, which I initially objected to. However, she pointed out that in CR, everyone views work as a necessity. If you don’t have a job in CR, people wonder what you’re doing.** Cedar Rapidians go to work, they come home and work on their houses, and their hobbies require work. All of which has made the wonderful citizens of CR durable, dependable and pragmatic people. Pragmatic was the second word J suggested for CR.
I really like the idea that one can understand any given place if one knows the mot juste. Like all abstract, metaphorical and fun ideas along the lines of this one, I’m not sure how important or valuable the perfect word theory is, but it made me wonder what other people would say about their towns. If you feel like it, I’d love to hear what word you’d use for your hometown and why.
*I apologize that I couldn’t use quotes in this section, but I have Gilbert’s book on CD only.
**This may have changed with the recent economic recession.