City of Pain

In a powerful fable for our times, a traveler arrives in a strange city during a crisis

Teju Cole
Published in
16 min readApr 2, 2020


Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

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AAnd after one of those journeys that involved the drawing of an imaginary line across the Earth, a flight that brought her to the gleaming nowhere of an airport in the early hours of the morning, the traveler caught another flight, around noon, and continued her journey. She spent six hours on this second plane, or it might have been 16 hours; the difference between the two was difficult to tell in that airborne suspension. The traveler’s wristwatch made one claim, her calendar made another, and her jet-lagged body made a third. Finally, around midday, the plane began its approach for landing, and the traveler could see from the air what resembled, in almost every respect, a familiar metropolis: the same twisting highways, the same elongated parks, the same repeating towers. It reminded her, as aerial views always did, of what her mother had once told her about the collapse of enormous stars, which could shrink to a width no greater than that of a city. Judging only by distance covered, the traveler might well have just circled the globe and returned to the place where she had started. But there was something about this view that convinced her otherwise: The immense city was circular, and the tangle of highways in its center resolved neatly into several major roads leading outward, like the spokes of a wheel. This cartographic regularity was how she knew that she had arrived, for the first time, in the city of Reggiana.

In the terminal, she saw a signboard featuring the crest of the city, illustrated with three dolphins. She’d arrived in late winter, and the weather was inconstant. There were snow flurries one moment and the softest sunshine the next, and yet, she was soon to discover, no matter what the weather looked like on a given day, the temperature was always higher than expected. She who knew how similar cities could be was now interested only in their differences. When she discovered that all the citizens of Reggiana were refugees, recent arrivals from elsewhere, she knew she had come to the right place. The city had been rapidly constructed…