In our December 2020 newsletter, the Free Private Cities Foundation announced a story writing competition. We asked writers in our network to imagine what it would be like to live in a Free Private City, and what dramas might ensue. An excellent batch of submissions was received and Sebastian A. S. Grell won first prize. Here is his story.
La Façon De Vivre
by Sebastian A. S. Grell
The façon de vivre of the French has always attracted Geoffrey to Paris. If only the bureaucracy there did not take his breath away and criminals did not take over the city piece by piece. The pragmatic yet socially sophisticated nature of Londoners drew Geoffrey to London. If only the overcautiousness of the British, with their omnipresent prohibitions, did not take away all his room for manoeuvre. The easy-going and creatively inspiring atmosphere of the Westerners drew Geoffrey to San Francisco. If only the smell of affluent squalor did not make this place more unattractive day by day – they put chains which threaten to nip creativity in the bud. The reaching for the stars of the Easterners drew Geoffrey to New York City. But the scaffolding mania there is only one of many symptomatic problems plaguing this city, Geoffrey thought to himself.
Even if he could make up his mind, there is Josephine. Each of these cities shines in its own way. But he knows that’s not enough. They could never channel both all their enthusiasm into one of these aspects that makes any of these cities special. None of these aspects alone would satisfy them both. Perhaps the typewritten note he found in one of those old bookstores will help them. One of those stores which only still exist because the owner can afford it – and not the other way round. Be that as it may. This was symptomatic of the passion with which the note was written. “What if I told you that there is a place where you don’t have to choose which of the dreams that someone else has to live out, but where you can shape your life the way you want to: not just small-scale but partout! We put only one condition on your desire to realise your dreams: do not stand in the way of others when they want to realise their dreams. This may sound simple, but you would not be the first to fail. Do you see yourself rising to this challenge? Then come and visit us and see for yourself. One more thing: we will only accept your request for an invitation if your request is typewritten and stamped with 5 blue stamps – no matter which ones. If you are now wondering why all this, I make you this promise: you will understand when we meet in person – soon. Believe me! Warmly obliged in pax and libertas, your Customer Inquiry Service from Liberpax.” Geoffrey hasn’t read such an unusual and slightly awkward message in a long time – perhaps never. But this place could possibly be the solution to their problem and might finally satisfy them both. Was this too good to be true? It was worth a try – all the same!
Grandfather’s old typewriter was dusty. Geoffrey took it out of the old box which was stored at the very back of the storeroom. He blew hard. This enveloped the small chamber in a cloud of dust. He had to cough. As soon as the dust cloud had settled, he pulled out a small stool and placed the small wooden boat folding table in front of it. He started typing, “Dear Customer Inquiry Service of Liberpax, I found a note from you in an old book in the bookstore near me. I don’t know how long this note has been there and hope to – still – reach you this way. My wife and I are in search of a place that can unite what we cherish about Paris, London, New York City and San Francisco – and perhaps beyond – without being plagued by their downsides of bureaucratic paralysis, interventionalist over-regulation, and institutional decay. Your message suggests that not only do you know such a place, but that you have co-created such a place to make it what it is. I fervently hope that the place you describe still exists – if it ever did. My hopes may be the expression of someone desperate to believe in a dream while living in a world of decay. Possibly, I am just writing to you to use your dream to keep my hopes alive. However, should it not be just daydreaming, and should you and this place really exist, it would be a great honour for my wife and me to be allowed to visit you. It desperately hopes that it may not have been only a dream, sincerely and with affection for a place dreamt of, your Geoffrey X.”
The old keys of the typewriter had made the table tremble with every stroke. The trembling stopped. The clacking sound of the stroke died away. In the envelope. Stamp. Blue. Five times. Franked. Into the letterbox. Mailed. Now he had to wait and see.
Weeks had passed and Geoffrey had almost forgotten about the five-stamp blue letter when a man dressed in all black caught up with him in the middle of the pedestrian zone, then kept pace with him and asked: five blue stamps? Typewriter friend? Geoffrey didn’t know what hit him at first and suspected to deal with a confused man. He looked at the man in amazement. The man hesitated for a moment, then quickened his steps again and was about to disappear into the crowd once more. Then the scales fell from Geoffrey’s eyes. “Wait!” he shouted and quickened his steps to catch up with the man, who wordlessly handed him an envelope and then added: “Be on time.”
Geoffrey was at one of the counters of Terminal C. Slightly distressed, he addressed one of the stewardesses, “Listen… I can’t find this gate. Can you help me?” The stewardess eyed the boarding pass for a while and asked him back, a little puzzled, “You do know you can’t board here for your private jet, don’t you, sir? Would you like me to call you a taxi to take you to the private terminal?” A little later he was above the clouds. Two other gentlemen and a lady were flying with him. They all seemed to know each other – superficially at least. Geoffrey gazed out of the window. The clouds cleared to reveal a paradisical headland. The plane began its approach to land.
On disembarking, Geoffrey exchanged a few words with one of the gentlemen for the first time. “Is this your first time here? Are you one of the interested parties?” one of them asked him. “I don’t know much about this place”, he admitted. “No one ever knows in the beginning. It’s all about a feeling and the hope that there must be more than the constant compromises elsewhere. And elsewhere we cannot even rely on the compromises to be what they seem usually, am I right?” the gentleman explained. “Perhaps.” Geoffrey replied, admiring the paradisiacal palm trees and beaches on either side as they drove to this yet unfamiliar place in something that resembled a hybrid between a jeep and a bus. “We’ve all been where you are. You’ll see: no matter what you’re looking for, you’ll find it with us. There are those we call the Techachievers, those we call the Nostalgists, those we call the Nature-lovers, those we call the Empireists, those we call the Creatives, those we call the Gamblers, those we call the Intellectuals, and many others. Then, there are still the Seekers – they haven’t found their place yet. But there are also hybrids who value several lifestyles and pursue goals of various groups. Most groups have come together in their own districts. However, some also appreciate living together in mixed districts with people who have other ideas about how to live well and who have different mindsets than theirs: in so-called Hybrid Zones. But even those who live in a Special Interest Zone (SIZ) rarely always keep to themselves – that would be boring, would it not? It is easier to agree with like-minded people on rules in the neighbourhood that suit everyone. In many cases, this leads to less compromise for everyone involved. That is why many prefer to live in an SIZ. Many things then are settled at neighbourhood level with people who think about life in a similar way you do. Because of the freedom to choose your neighbourhood, the services provided by the neighbourhood administration are very good in most cases. The services that are regulated at city council level benefit from the fact that much is outsourced to service providers who compete directly on the basis of merit. But arrive first. You will get to know the rest soon enough. I am sure that there will be something for you too. I must go now. Enjoy your stay in Possibilia.” So Possibilia was the name of this place then. An apt name, Geoffrey thought. What the gentleman had told him sounded exciting. He felt his heart pounding. It was racing. They had arrived. The gentleman he talked to was gone. They were in Possibilia.
They had arrived at a platform covered with large tubes, each leading to a different junction in the city. Geoffrey bought a ticket ‘Private Capsule – 1 person’. The capsule had a couch on one side and a table on the other. In the middle a large display on a telescopic arm. The capsule offered a 360-degree panoramic view. The tube itself was made of glass so that one could look through entirely. The window front could be switched to transparent on both sides, darkened on one side from the inside, or on both sides. The tube moved rapidly to the centre. Time passed quickly. The brief glimpses Geoffrey caught on the ride left him with an impression as if he was passing through a land of the future, the past and magical lands all at the same time – in an absolutely positive sense, he thought. He was filled with awe. These vivid impressions had burned themselves into his memory.
The centre seemed more conventional and more centrally planned than the outskirts he had just caught a glimpse of. A large avenue lined on both sides with modern elegant organically built glass structures ornamented the place. At the end of the large avenue was a large freestanding glass building with head-high metal letters spelling out the word “Possibilia” in front of it. Many green spaces surrounded the area. However, he was sure it would be more interesting to visit the outskirts. Will he find a little Paris, a little London, a little New York City or a little San Francisco there? Again, visualizing what he just saw on his tube trip, he was sure that he will find many districts that are to his liking and yet again quite different from the cities above: something completely new, something completely yet unknown to him, something that will captivate him in its own way. We’ll see, he thought, and climbed into one of the tubes once again – this time they were from a different operator apparently.
He had to write to Josephine and tell her what he had just seen and experienced. He thinks he found the place where they can both be happy, he wrote. First, he had been in a district of Nostalgists. The Nostalgists love districts with historical flair. Accordingly, rules in certain districts set a certain dress code and prescribe how the facades must look – sometimes more, sometimes less strictly based on the model of certain eras (sometimes it was rather fantasy which seemed to have influenced the code). In any case, Geoffrey was overwhelmed by the ingenuity and aesthetic standards displayed by the Nostalgists. Some told him that they had a second home here to escape everyday life. Geoffrey could relate. Indeed, it felt like a trip to a magical Wonderland that invites every seasoned man to daydream. After his visit to the Nostalgists, Geoffrey visited the Techachievers. The Techachievers are technerds who, seized by an entrepreneurial spirit, love technology and create their little futuristic empire. Many of these futurists are transhumanists and seek to compensate for weaknesses in their bodies, they specifically aim to increase the efficiency of their bodies and minds by means of a variety of tech add-ons. Other tech add-ons provide comfort or entertainment. Not only are their homes transformed into smart homes, but their entire respective districts – each of these districts has a different focus and implements different tech philosophies. While some of these districts focus on comfort, others focus on entertainment, on performance enhancement, infrastructure process optimization, or security. A visit to the nature districts, on the other hand, paints a completely different picture: the busy tech fascination is replaced by a simple, almost rural life. Naturalness, village flair, and deceleration are the keywords that characterise the lives of these people to describe them most aptly. The Empireists are not at all satisfied with simplicity. They love the pompous. They want to build their own trade empires and leave them to their descendants and posterity. They prefer to meet for a business lunch at the golf club to make big plans. They adhere to the style of classicism and the Victorian British Empire. But after visiting several districts of the Empireists, Geoffrey realised that here, too, no two districts are alike; no superficial description can do justice to the diversity of the fascinating ambitions of the Empireists. Also, here, some combine their ambitious Empireist life with a parallel life in one of the other districts. Many of the Empireist’s districts remind Geoffrey of London – though a London as it must have been in its heyday. The districts of the Creatives remind Geoffrey of Paris and San Francisco at the same time. The Gamblers seem to have reinvented Broadway and Las Vegas. The Seekers, in turn, share and divide their property and often enter into polyamorous partnerships. ‘Free love’ and ‘psychonautic travel’ are ubiquitous terms which are used here unceasingly. Intellectuals and Scholars find their home among splendid libraries and interdisciplinary campuses that, in a different façon, transform their districts into special places of learning and research.
Josephine and he will find their home here: Geoffrey is certain of this. He can’t wait to share all his impressions with Josephine. What would they not find here? What wish of the heart could remain unfulfilled in such a city? Nothing that cannot be dreamed of here; nothing that cannot be created here, he thought to himself. He had not been so in love since he met Josephine. His new lover is called Possibilia. And it is a Free Private City where everyone was allowed to live and be happy according to his or her own façon de vivre.