Rome, before the crowds

Rome

Rome is still asleep. The morning air smells different, untainted as yet by pizza and tourists. A few workmen amble along the fountain, sharing a cigarette and a joke. Their laughter bounces against the old discolored stones before fading away. In the background Neptune stands tall, his muscles perfect, held in tension and plaster. His entourage hangs around him, playing it up in the fresh morning light. I follow their every curve, dent and detail in quick greedy movements.

In an hour everything will change: floating sunflowers, umbrellas and backpacks will flood these streets. Tacky souvenirs will push the fountain in a corner. Vendors will set up their knock offs under the eye of a concerned Madonna. Somewhere in the crowd a wallet will be misplaced; and Rome will be lost in a swirl of clichés.

The Street Performer

Performer

It must take him hours to get ready for work. I imagine myself in his shoes: first some protective ointment – a lotion or skin cream, followed by the costume, a metallic skirt, the false chest and boots. Then the layers of paint; the green is the colour of evil intentions, but it’s the yellow and black that brings this character to life. The look is completed with a circular shield and the green-gold helmet.

He works in a competitive field. He has to outshine the Star Wars characters, the Marvel comic heroes and villain and a host of magical beings. It means he has to get to the square in good time no matter what the weather. It’s the only way to find the right spot, one that enjoys the best tourist foot-falls, and set up. He also needs to have his papers in order. More than once the cops come rolling by, on their government issued cycles, and demand to see paperwork. If they are satisfied they roll on. If they aren’t, they shut the act down.

He is an artist, but also a businessman. His work –hours and hours of posing – can be enjoyed for a price. For the camera-wielding tourists who want his picture but don’t want to part with their coins, he lifts his shield and covers his elaborate make-up in one practiced swoop, blocking the shot. If you drop the coin in his hat, he poses, playing it up for all your money’s worth.

He stands, usually pretty still, for hours during the day. But every now and then you realize he is just another bloke trying to make a living. I’m lucky to be around for one such moment. When a cluster of kids leave, waving lingering goodbyes, he puts down the shield and pulls off his helmet. He reaches into his black trunk for a juice box and what looks like a sandwich. He takes a bite and a sip, and then he turns to Darth Vader, who stands a few steps behind, and makes a comment. They both laugh. They laugh for a while.

Keeping Warm in Stockholm

stockholm-11

It’s pitch dark outside, even though it’s barely 3:30 in the afternoon. I am bitterly cold. My heavy scarf feels like an amateur in this Scandinavian winter. My ears are covered and my coat collar is stiff, pulled all the way up to keep the cold out. It doesn’t work. I feel the ice settle down in my chest, creeping through the gaps and falling in place with a painful thud.

“You’re lucky, it’s still a warm winter,” the lady behind the counter tells me as she wraps my wooden bookmark in a soft white envelope with the Swedish flag, “usually by this time, we are much much colder, under snow.”

I’ve been walking around Stockholm’s old town, Gamla Stan, all day, conflicted: should I leave my hands stuffed in my coat pockets, or do I pull them out, along with my camera, to take pictures? To keep warm I walk into the stores that line the old quarters. I am not picky. When I feel my face is about to fall off, I walk into the nearest one. As a result, I’ve spent a fair bit of today with reindeer and moose masquerading as kitchen towels, fridge magnets and candle stands, and the Swedish Royal family, smiling from cups, caps and cards.

What I’d really like to do is step into one of the cosy candle-lit restaurants serving lunch. The candles stand right by the window, the flames are sturdy, strong, tempting the cold to come in and try something warm. But I’ve never learned how to squeeze in a second lunch, so I settle for a compromise. I go for fika.

Fika, as I gather, is a sort of Swedish mix between high tea and coffee break. It involves something warm in a mug and something sweet on a plate. And given the weather, they are both had in a warm, comfy place. So I fika.

I fika, I take a photo, I look at plastic moose. I fika, I take a photo, I look at reindeer hangers.

I try the tea in a kitschy cafe, with a cinnamon bun, a Kanelbulle – I think it’s called. In an airy cottage-type cafe, I opt for black coffee with a gigantic fruit studded muffin. In the third, I sit on a bench with a pastry and a glass of water. In each, I open my guidebook, and plot tomorrow in Stockholm.

The Headless Statue in the Alley

Statue

The door and the step are plain. They open right onto the lane. Unlike the other addresses on this street, this one is off-limits to the public. Even the windows are latched in, the curtains drawn; it’s a warm day and I wonder if the room has air-conditioning.

The door is a dark brown wood except for the fixtures. Despite a few scratches, it  wears a shine that comes from weekly detergent scrub downs. Beside the cement step stands a leafy potted plant and a couple of shrubs. It lends a hint of softness to the otherwise rigid front. And between the plant and the step stands a seemingly content headless statue.

He is bare-chested and sticks out his pot belly without apology – in his defence it is very well sculpted. The cloth around his waist is held together in a tight knot; the pleats hold together in a stiff, disciplined flow. He has a portly and lively disposition, and I think if he had his head about him, it would be cheerful.

I wonder where it is and what happened. Maybe it was an accident – an exuberant bicycle, the training wheels tearing away the cherubic face; or a bag of groceries, cartons of milk and bottles of cola, smashing into the little man; or a tipsy party bumping into him, his head smashing on impact or ripping off in one clean break. Or maybe this is an artist´s vision, leaving him incomplete and forever fascinating.

The Classroom in Czechoslovakia

Cz

It’s a classroom, almost.

Three wooden school benches stand one behind the other, empty but holding the weight of their own history. The desks, old and tired, and yet free of adolescent engravings, hold open textbooks with lessons I don’t understand. The pages are yellowing, the print on the cover is relatively fresh, a blue base with yellow writing.

I am fascinated. These are the pages from cold war thrillers from my teens. These spaces have existed in my mind as narratives and fast paced prose – spies, jumping from pages in novels to blockbuster film scripts, Bourne style. And now, here they stands in front of me, real, raw.

I follow the invisible chalk trail from the blackboard to the ground, but the dust has been swept out. Charts are tacked on to the wall with bits of tape. But what catches my attention is a little above eye level, next to a propaganda poster: A grime coloured gas mask; hollow eyes and an alien snout. It looks down with a sinister expression, flushing the room with something cold and terrifying, these Dementors of the Iron Curtain.

“I remember the gas drills,” she says. Her curls are as steady as her voice, both anomalies. “We had to wear the masks and run out to the open ground. The mask was so heavy. It was really hard to run.”

Something shifts. It becomes real. Not a novel anymore, but harsh and difficult. We keep standing there, behind the exhibit ropes, lost in versions of that time.

A Window Frame along the Old Wing

Taj

I can taste the sea; the breeze is trapping grains of salt in my knotty hair. On the water, colourful fishing boats bob up and down, a bit more violently than the slow moving tourist ferries. Far off on the horizon, cruise liners and navy ships eye-ball each other, standing as still as a hot Mumbai afternoon.

It looks as it always has – regal grey stone, red roofing tiles, delicate lattice balconies, stained glass, white trim, and a flutter pigeons surrounding it. At the entrance a moustachioed guard welcomes visitors, his uniform is a crisp white, his turban is red.

The sun hits my eye, forcing me to squint, as I look for the cracks. I see none.

There’s a workman, maybe a carpenter, maybe a painter – a fixer of some sorts, at one of the windows. He has one foot on the window sill, and the other against the side frame, at a 45 degree angle. His clothes seem colourless, blending into the stone, but his hair is jet black against the white trim. I can’t see if he has a harness, but he works with the assurance of one.

It’s only when I pay (extra) close attention to his workspace that I can make out the new paint from the old. The difference is subtle, and will be lost in a few months of morning smog and a healthy monsoon – nature the great leveller, hiding scars and restoring colour.

When he hops back into the room and shuts the window, I try to trace the lines again, to find the restored window frame along the old wing. But it’s not easy. I find it, I lose it, I find it, I lose it. Soon my eyes hurt so I stop looking for it.

I had wondered if I’d sense a change, physical or emotional, or something entirely new and complex, but it’s how it always has been –the noise, the sea, the tourists, the crowds. The one visible difference, however, can be seen along the sidewalk, where vendors now sell miniature commandos – tiny moving plastic toy soldiers dressed in army fatigues; they crawl on their stomach, their bodies rubbing against the hard ground, their guns pointing towards a faceless enemy.