Genius loci

[Genius Loci] February 2021

1 February 2021

“It is at this hour,” Vernon Lee wrote about Verona in the early evening, “that the genius of old cities seems to gather himself up and overcome one’s heart.”1 I suspect the same could be said about any place that calls your attention during the transitional moments of the day or the seasons.2

I had one such experience.

One cool October morning, when the sun was still hiding behind the red-roofed buildings of Madrid, I stepped off a train at the station and walked up Atocha Street. It was my first visit to the city, and I only had the vaguest sense of I was going. I had a few hours to kill before the archives opened, so I resolved to wander around the city aimlessly. But suddenly, on grubby Atocha Street, something swept over me and I fought to keep back the tears. Did my heart love till now?3 I felt as if I had been admiring someone, rapt, as they slept.

There is nothing special about Atocha Street. The street is, in fact, rather ugly. Parts of it were under construction when I first walked down it. Dubious haunts like gambling houses, sex shops, and old man bars flanked the street. There is little to love about this utilitarian and purely functional artery that connects Plaza Mayor to Atocha Station and divides the posh Barrio de las Letras neighborhood from the multicultural and migrant Lavapiés. But, as they say, love is blind. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.4

I know, I know. How sentimental! How mushy! But if you have ever fallen in love with a place, you know this feeling well. It is a powerful, sentimental attachment to place that is hard to articulate but easy to feel and know.5

And now, as I pressure wash my porch on a spring-like February afternoon in a place I hardly love, the tea olive flowers are in bloom, the sun sets behind large oak trees, and I wonder if the “genius” of Orlando is now calling on someone as the “genius” of Madrid called on me ten years earlier.

Do you think Vernon Lee was right, that transitional moments—evenings, mornings, autumns, springs—make us more susceptible to a place’s magic and charm?

Field Notes

Florida has a special ecosystem: one can pass through a pine forest, a scrub, a sandhill, and a swamp within a 30-minute hike (I’ve posted some of these photos on Instagram). We’ve been able to capitalize on our pleasant weather to visit a few parks and a beach.

But others are capitalizing on our pleasant weather in other ways. Florida also has an endangered ecosystem: development in the Central Florida area is going gangbusters with strip malls and cookie-cutter housing developments seemingly appearing ex nihilio. Yet, ex nihilio nihil fit: nearly 1,000 people move to Florida per day for the past few years,6 a number that has only increased during the pandemic, and these people need places to live. Florida is a big state and there still is a lot of space, and I understand economic opportunity and imperative, but it is sad to see the pine forests and scrub that I played in as a child become a suburban hellscape of drugstores, strip malls, and housing developments adorned with “Tuscan” faux stone veneer.


  1. Violet Paget used Vernon Lee as a pseudonym when writing those words in her nineteenth-century book Genius Loci: Notes on Places↩︎

  2. Pico Iyer recently wrote about this in his book Autumn Light↩︎

  3. Romeo says upon first seeing Juliet. ↩︎

  4. Sonnet 130, Shakespeare. ↩︎

  5. Perhaps this is not unlike religious knowledge. ↩︎

  6. ↩︎