In ‘Imagine a City,’ pilot Mark Vanhoenacker flies around the world: NPR

imagine a city

Many people are taking to the skies this summer, planning an exotic vacation after more than two years of being largely grounded by the pandemic.

Even if you’re not ready to face crowded airports and long lines at the TSA just yet, you can still visit some of the world’s greatest cities from the comfort of your armchair, with Mark Vanhoenacker as your guide.

Vanhoenacker, a commercial airline pilot, wrote lyrically in his previous book, Skyfaringabout the joys of soaring above the earth at the controls of a jumbo jet.

His new book, imagine a city, goes from journey to destination – the distant places that Vanhoenacker once dreamed of and can now see up close when the plane lands. The book also chronicles the author’s own journey from a lonely kid in western Massachusetts to a confident London-based globetrotter.

Along the way, he takes us biking through Brasilia and birdwatching in Kuwait.

Like the jet trip itself, the visit is confusing at times. You go to bed reading a chapter on Jeddah and wake up to find yourself in Delhi. But Vanhoenacker is a confident navigator, filling in the gaps with history, poetry and lots of local color.

Although he may lack the kind of insider knowledge that comes from spending his whole life in a city, Vanhoenacker has the advantage of making short but frequent visits to many places, with a pocket of hard currency. strangers and a backpack brimming with curiosity.

It takes us on a stroll through the snowy streets of Sapporo, Japan, and flying over shipwrecks off Cape Town, South Africa, listening to the noon cannon from the top of Signal Hill. (Or its social media equivalent: a daily tweet reading “BANG!”)

“I like to think it’s important that these worlds are better connected,” he writes. “Increasingly, they are: by history and stories; by immigrants and travellers; by computers and – if it’s not too proud to say – by airplanes.”

Throughout the book are stories of Pittsfield, Mass., Vanhoenacker’s childhood home and the place he dreamed of escaping to. He would sit in his room, build model airplanes and imagine the far off places they might take him. He would study the illuminated globe on his chest of drawers and draw plans for a model metropolis, where a young man like himself could find a home.

“When I was young and struggling with being gay, and with my speech impediment, and with everything going on then, it was almost life-saving to be able to travel to my imaginary city, or to m ‘imagine in a real city far enough away to feel safe,’ he wrote.

While many people find liberation in the impersonal bustle of a big city, others unfortunately fall through the cracks. Vanhoenacker writes of stops spent in San Francisco searching the anonymous streets for Henry, a family friend from Pittsfield, drug-ridden and despairing.

“Henry’s life reminded me of what else it can mean to get lost in a town so far from the first,” he wrote. “I would be shocked to realize how easily I would forget to examine the faces of the middle-aged homeless men we pass.”

The book was written in part during the pandemic, when so much air travel was temporarily suspended. For months, Vanhoenacker didn’t fly anywhere. Some older pilots took early retirement while younger ones were laid off.

When flights resumed, they often carried more cargo than passengers: “pets, bags of letters, enough gold and pallets of cash to remind me that the global financial system is not yet entirely virtual , tens of tons of Scottish salmon and medical supplies whose technical descriptions my colleagues and I were reading from the cargo manifest with increased interest and a new kind of pride.”

Pandemic travel restrictions are easing now. The United States recently dropped its COVID testing requirement for international visitors and passengers are lining up for extended trips.

Vanhoenacker notes that historically, many large cities that once walled themselves eventually became more welcoming:

“As cities grew – and survived partly on their ramparts, in times when sieges and invasions receded – they tended to tear down their walls. The stones could have been useful for other structures, while the paths of demolished walls often became roads, especially ring roads.”

Vanhoenacker compares the ring roads and railroads around Moscow and Berlin and Raleigh, North Carolina. He drives the last of them in his father’s car, affectionately known as the Minivanoenacker.

Another famous ring is Japan’s Yamanote Line, an overhead railway that loops 21 miles through central Tokyo and has six of the ten busiest stations in the world. Vanhoenacker takes readers on a tour of all 30 stops, with names like “All-Day-Long Village” and “Sacred Rice Field.”

When he returns to New Post Station, where he started the loop, Vanhoenacker knows better than to use the automatic turnstile. The transit card reader might not recognize that he had gone somewhere.

At the end of the trip, the well-traveled author is back in Pittsfield, which he gratefully finds far more welcoming than he ever imagined growing up. Once again he has come full circle.


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