Bright eyes that reveal her heart
There’s a new Bücherregal in Neugasse now. The old shelf was narrow and made of wood; it matched the street’s character. The new one is taller and wider, a piece of metal under slick grey paint, modern like the new Hallhuber store opposite. Even the wooden bench next to the shelf is new, a piece whose wavy back reaches the shelf’s eight-feet. The combination looks designed, not accidental. This end of Neugasse seems as though it wants to escape into the Hauptstrasse, all glitz and chic.
I cross the shelf on my walks into the altstadt, and sometimes, if my return route leads me into Hauptstrasse, I take the perpendicular Neugasse back home too. There’s always someone standing at the shelf browsing books, but of late I’ve spotted, on three or four occasions, an old woman who mutters to herself while she goes about arranging the books. Not with a librarian’s tic for semantic organisation, but a stickler’s instinct for physical order. She picks up books left behind by careless passersby, large and small volumes lying horizontally or stacked in a pile, and sets them vertically in a row, the way they ought to stand in a bookshelf. Unused spaces are anathema to her: only when a row is packed does she allow a new one. She displays the manner of an impatient mother tidying up her son’s unruly desk, and not until she is done do I gather courage to scan the titles myself.
The other day I found her standing on the bottom shelf, which is wider than the others, reaching for books on the top one. Dressed in jeans and a half-sleeved embroidered jacket over a shirt, she seemed like someone who cared about appearances. Her white hair, sightly ruffled, was held in place under two plastic hairbands and a pair of sunglasses. A black leather handbag, slung over the right shoulder, reached her waist. She was muttering as usual, and I waited, as always.
The Greece experience
Some months ago, during the Easter break, my wife and I traveled to Greece. The first three days we spent in Athens, following which we took a bus to Delphi, two and a half hours away, and spent half a day among the ruins and in a museum. Athens turned out to be yet another Western European city flaunting its historical sights to tourists, most of whom were white, and amidst those scores of tourists I found it hard to summon the interest and enthusiasm that grips me when I read about the ancient civilisation that began in this region. We skipped the Acropolis; the queues were too long. Instead we spent time walking the old part of town, absorbing the atmosphere, taking photographs and, on one morning we visited the Acropolis museum. It was a sunny day, ideal for an outdoor trek, and indeed the hordes were at the site on the Acropolis hill, but we walked inside the beautifully designed museum looking at stones culled from that site. I found moments of inspiration here, looking at the pieces that formed the Parthenon frieze and also other sculptures in a large hall bathed in light streaming from one side through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The beauty of the building (I can’t remember another one as astonishing as this one) lies in its setting and in the way this setting is exposed to someone inside the museum. Through those windows one can view the Acropolis hill and also the low-rise houses of Athens that hug the foot of the hill. On the hill a section of the Parthenon is visible too. Nowhere have I seen this proximity — spatial and visual — between an object in a museum and the place it was recovered from. In between pieces of stone in the museum and stones on the hill were stones that formed the structures of modern houses, separated from each other by three thousand years. This juxtaposition created a strange effect I was unable to shake off, and I walked around the floors in a daze, wondering, at times, how this hill and its surroundings would look three thousand years from now, how humanity itself would look like, and how that race would view this museum, or whatever remained of it, gathering, through the fact of this museum’s existence, clues about our own civilisation and the way we looked at antiquity. My reflections did not lift my spirits. Given where we are now and how we are progressing, I cannot conceive of a future in positive terms; but three thousand years is a long time.
At the Frauenbad
A middle-aged woman sits on a sofa, flipping through a book. A large photograph of a decaying indoor pool hangs behind her. It is a simple picture, but I cannot take my eyes off it. Why?
The photograph was taken during the launch event of Sabine Arndt’s new book, ‘Das Alte Hallenbad Heidelberg. Ein Tempel des Volkes’ at the Frauenbad. The Frauenbad, a public swimming pool for women until 1981, is now a party arena with a bar and a dance floor. We stood there on a Sunday afternoon in May, listening to speeches in German describing the building’s history and the making of the book. Later the crowd milled around the hall looking at the exhibition of Sabine’s photographs. Many stood drinking and talking. A few sat on sofas lining the walls. I was on my way out when I noticed this woman.
We know these moments. A real world scene jumps out as a photograph. It demands to be framed. Would the iPhone capture what I saw?
It did. The photograph works, although I’m not sure why. Colour gives it character and the seated woman appears striking. But there is something else: the inner photograph.
The woman stood out that afternoon among all the Germans, and she seems an odd figure in the photograph too, more a part of the inner photograph than the outer one. The colour of her skin, her dress, her hat, her handbag: they blend into the interiors of the old Frauenbad. There is an understated elegance there, in her dress, the tilt of her head, her leisurely manner of leafing through the book. She belongs to a different time, the era of the Frauenbad bathers perhaps. And I cannot help wondering if the page she is looking at holds the same photograph that hangs behind her.
There are other intriguing symmetries. The woman’s hat and the lamp, similarly shaped and positioned at the diagonal edges of the inner photograph. The large rectangle of the inner photo, the small white rectangle below it to the right, and the (partially obscured) dark rectangle above it. The semi-circle of the table and the semi-circle of the exposed pool in the photograph. The inverted dome of the lamp, and the similar arc we see in the upper portion of the photograph. The shaft of light that angles down towards the woman’s face.
I’m still not certain what makes it work, but I now understand the photograph better.
The other morning, there was an incident on the tram. A hundred meters from the Hauptbahnhof stop, where streams of passengers bound for another city pour out each day, the tram stopped. Through the driver’s cabin I saw a bus blocking our way. We waited for the bus to move. It didn’t. Minutes passed. A tram went by in the other direction, then a bus. Our driver, a woman with short golden hair, spoke with the driver of this passing bus. Then she left her cabin and walked through the tram’s length, passing word that the bus ahead had stalled due to a problem. We had to return to the previous stop. Some passengers sighed, looked at their watches. A woman standing near me said, in a distressed voice: Lass mich aussteigen! — Let me get down! I have a train to catch! But the driver had moved on. She entered the cabin at the other end, and the tram began its journey to Stadtwerke, the stop we had passed a while ago.
The woman’s agitation grew. Where is this going! Why can’t they let me out? The others sat unmoving, unmoved. No one commiserated with her, nobody vented their own frustration. The woman, middle-aged, in a yellow overcoat, clutching a black suitcase, remained the sole campaigner.
It was a rainy morning. On the street umbrellas glided past, sprinkling much-needed colour to this unseasonal grey summer day. The tram windows framed blurry outlines of stately old buildings and misty hills in the distance.
Some minutes later the driver trotted back across the tram, toward the original cabin. The woman asked again to be let out.
I can’t do that, the driver replied firmly. I’m not allowed to!
I’m going to miss my train! the woman cried. Can’t you see that? She followed the driver to her cabin, wheeling the suitcase.
We are in between two stops — I can’t let you out! The driver stepped into her cabin and shut the door.
I’m going to miss the train! I have an important business meeting! Who’s going to pay for the damages? You? Why can’t you simply let me out? You have no right to hold me in here!
The rest of us looked on, like members of an audience watching a drama unfold on stage. No one shared this woman’s urgency, but her persistence got the driver to yield. She asked the woman to get off the tram from the small door inside her cabin.
And this is at your own risk! It’s not my fault if you get injured!
Yes, yes — I do it at my own risk.
The woman hopped across the track onto the road, with her suitcase in tow. Then the tram lurched forward, swiftly gaining speed, and half a minute later we were at the Hauptbahnhof. A man sitting nearby clicked his tongue: If she had waited, she’d probably have reached the station earlier.
We carried home a story that day, the woman, the driver, and the rest of us. Each a different story.
Living in Germany we’ve grown used to the concept of a pedestrian shopping street at the center of a city or a town. Cities here have an altstadt, with buildings a few centuries old, and the altstadt has a main pedestrian thoroughfare, often the Hauptstrasse, with shops lining both sides. Towns and villages with no distinguishable older sections are also organized (this is Germany) around a Hauptstrasse. The Hauptstrasse in Wiesloch, the provincial town I live in, is a kilometer long traffic-free cobblestoned stretch that features cafes, restaurants, bakeries, beauty salons, pharmacies (one of which claims to be the world’s first fuel station), a bank, a post office, and a variety of large and small shops. This is the town center. Locals come here to socialize, to buy the daily newspaper or brotchens, to chat with shopkeepers. On Thursdays a vegetable market springs up in a nearby square. During summer festivals spread their stalls in and around the Hauptstrasse. Nothing much happens elsewhere in Wiesloch. In Heidelberg, where the Hauptstrasse runs parallel to the Neckar for a couple of kilometers, the scene is metropolitan. Tourists and locals walk in droves all year, shopping, eating, sightseeing. In Mannheim, another city nearby, the pedestrian shopping street is called Planken, and it features a tram line.
This familiarity with the pedestrian shopping street leads us to seek similar avenues in the cities we visit. In Europe this is easy, but in the U.S., where the historical core (the “downtown”) of most cities is now a business district with high-rise buildings, there is no Hauptstrasse. (Moreover, the only pedestrian streets in the U.S. are all in Disneyland.) Indian cities feature commercial districts or famous roads (like the Marine Drive, or the ubiquitous M.G.Road), but I know of no main pedestrian shopping street through a historical center. What about Istanbul?