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A city’s word

20 July 2010

At times, in her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert annoyed the hell out of me with her whining. But this is a particularly poignant moment that I really loved:

He said, “Don’t you know that the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn–what is the word of the street?”

Then he went on to explain, in a mixture of English, Italian, and hand gestures, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be–that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.

“What’s Rome’s word?” I asked.
“SEX,” he announced.
“But isn’t that a stereotype about Rome?”
“But surely there are some people in Rome thinking about other thing than sex?”
Guilio insisted: “No. All of them, all day, all they are thinking about is SEX.”
“Even over at the Vatican?”
“That’s different. The Vatican isn’t part of Rome. They have a different word over there. Their word is POWER.”
“You’d think it would be FAITH.”
“It’s POWER,” he repeated. “Trust me. But the word in Rome–it’s SEX.”


Giulio asked, “What’s the word in New York City?”
I thought about this for a moment, then decided. “It’s a verb, of course. I think it’s ACHIEVE.”

(Which is subtly but significantly different from the word in Los Angeles, I believe, which is also a verb: SUCCEED. Later, I will share this whole theory with my Swedish friend Sofie, and she will offer her opinion that the word of the streets of Stockholm is CONFORM, which depresses both of us.)

I asked Giulio, “What’s the word in Naples?” He knows the south of Italy well.
“FIGHT,” he decides. “What was the word in your family when you were growing up?”

That one was difficult. I was trying to think of a single word that somehow combines both FRUGAL and IRREVERENT. But Giulio was already on to the next and most obvious question: “What’s your word?”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Allie permalink
    20 July 2010 14:18

    What do you think is Chapel Hill’s word? Boston’s word?

    • Patrick Burrows permalink*
      20 July 2010 15:24

      In mulling over it, I think Chapel Hill’s word is THINK. It’s kinda metaphysical: thinking about thinking all the time. But at the same time, it has something to do with the increasing globally-consciousness, etc. of the town.

      I’m not sure what Boston’s is…give me a few months.


  1. What’s Rome’s word? | Tuduunee

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