Monday, January 17, 2005

Albuquerque Album

I’ve lived in Albuquerque now for more than two years; it’s the type of place that grows on you. If you are not a native of the place, you cannot prevent yourself from viewing the city through the filter of your own origin. I’m from New York City. Oh the ideas people have about that! In New York, I have little discernable accent, but here my speech patterns mark me. I only speak this way for the same reason you speak the way you speak: it was the way people around me spoke when I was a child; I imitated them. There’s nothing else to be read into it.

Albuquerque is called the “Duke” City. This has nothing to do with Edward Kennedy Ellington or the former Edward VIII, but rather with the Duke of Alburquerque, yes note the extra “r,” who was Viceroy of New Spain back when. If you have no familiarity with the region, Albuquerque serves as little more than one of those funny town names like Kalamazoo or Walla Walla; once you live here, the four syllables roll off the tongue with the ease of a “San Francisco” or “Kansas City.” The two “k” sounds are particularly definitive, functioning as a double cadence to the initial “l” and “b.” English speakers tend to pronounce the first “u” as a short “a,” but my French friends use their distinctive French “u” with pursed lips, and only accord the city name three syllables: “Al-bu-kairk.” This phonetic spelling harks to something Arabic; it may well be they liken the place to an oasis in North Africa, where they once had influence.

When you make homebound airline connections—and you usually must since we have few direct flights to any major city that doesn’t also function as a hub—you just by habit look to the upper left of the cities list on the “Departures” screen. You feel important then, especially as the length of the city name gives it such impressive screen presence. The real shame is that most eyes scan on to better known names: Denver, Phoenix. Speaking of those two western cities, it’s a fact that areas of Albuquerque—such as my neighborhood at 6,000 feet—are indeed higher than the so-called “Mile High City.” Phoenix, a huge agglomeration, is only half the altitude of Albuquerque and hence often fifteen degrees hotter in summer. Albuquerque is a high desert city; mountain chains surround the city, and the daily sunset is…forget adjectives.

The crux of Albuquerque, beyond the physical beauty and marvelous climate, is the city’s variety. It’s not a coincidence I get to speak French here with some regularity. There is a large and proud Hispanic presence here. I meet people who trace roots directly back to Spain, 500 years ago. There is a cowboy Albuquerque, a Native American Albuquerque, a hot-air-balloon-enthusiast Albuquerque, a military Albuquerque, a Route 66 Albuquerque (the storied road bisects the city), an Asian Albuquerque, and there are a lot of scientists here who are rarely allowed to tell me what they do (our minor league baseball team is called the “Isotopes,” if that’s any clue). It’s easy to drive by a strip shopping center and think it’s no different from any other, but these hyper-American icons never cease to surprise me. Of course we have a Turkish delicatessen; it goes without saying that we have an English tea-shop. Of course there’s an Alliance Française and an Irish-American Society (I’m a member of both). There are plenty of places to get your electric guitar fixed, or to hear real jazz (in small rooms). Other people—not me—point out that the city is filled with art galleries and studios, but my legs have little tolerance for shuffling around those kinds of places. Ditto with Neiman’s, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s or Saks, which we also lack, and which have never motivated me.

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