A city can leave its mark in an instant. For former Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s parents, Rio de Janeiro was a happy moment on a perilous and uncertain journey in their migration to Canada from Hong Kong in 1942. (For more details, see her book, Room for All of Us.)
While the Red Cross’ Gripsolm was docked in Rio, her parents explored the town and found cafes full of couples dancing the samba. Her mother forever carried the urge to return to Rio and ‘really learn to samba’. I can only imagine the mark a festive dance in a festive place would make on a young refugee couple making their way from a way of life that put their existence in peril, still on a perilous journey heading to uncertainty. In my imagination, I see the young couple fearful for themselves and their two small children (Clarkson was two and a half), concerned about the family left behind, their well-being on the Gripsolm, and if all the effort to flee to Canada would be worth the effort. Perhaps this brief moment in a city that loves to dance reminded them of what makes them feel good despite the circumstances.
Cities are constantly inviting us to enjoy them. What is not constant is our reaction. Rio invited these young refugees to feel good, and significantly, they fully accepted the invitation. I imagine other refugees declined the invitation to explore Rio and did not step off the ship. Others will have explored the city and engaged in various degrees. Some will keep walking when they hear the music. Others will pause and listen. Others will go inside and see exactly what’s happening. Others will move to the front of the crowd for the best view. Others will take their turn on the dance floor. Others will take a turn making the music.
It is up to us to make a decision about what we make of the invitation. It’s not possible to take everything in, nor are we interested in everything the city has to offer. That is the beauty of the diversity of the city – there is something for everyone.
But it isn’t only about being invited, it is also about making invitations. In Rio, someone set and prepared the venue. Someone invited the musicians. Someone provided food and refreshment. Someones cleans up afterwards. Following what makes us feel good, we all play various roles in the myriad of invitations the city makes to its citizens and visitors.
Whether inviting or being invited, the choice at every turn is simply degrees of participation and finding one that suits. I am not a musician and I’ll dance a little. To fully enjoy, I am often happy to watch or walk by knowing that something compelling could be around the corner. In other instances I put myself on the stage or serve on the clean-up crew.
In cities, we each take our turns making invitations and being invited. We offer and we receive joy. The choice at every turn is when and how we participate in the dance that is the city, knowing that we will feel good.
As Clarkson puts it: some of the most frivolous things in life are the most important.