Whenever I first get into a new city, I gleefully notice the windows and doors on houses. One of the first things I learned to draw when I was a kid were houses, of course. I always thought windows to be the eyes and doors the mouth of those houses. The nose was a bit of a problem, but chimneys and water drains worked as ears.Tales behind windowpanes.
Houses are one of those huge symbols open to many interpretations. They can be boxes – my eternal source of inspiration. They can be heads, books, cities and the whole world. I used to make my Barbie dolls houses out of shoeboxes, and matchboxes were furniture.
Nevertheless, when I grew up I resisted being a Barbie doll in a shoebox. That’s why I enjoy endless gallivants and never stay in the same place for too long. Whenever I visit a new town or city, I explore it excitedly, wishing I could stay there as long as possible and then I leave in even higher spirits. However, subconsciously I keep looking for a place I’d settle in, and so I observe the houses imagining one of them was mine.
I envy the citizens of each town on their security and the sense of belonging, while lamenting the dullness and humdrum they must be going through. The very syndrome of being a citizen of some place grew out of this paradox, because, there are no maps of cities and countries for me.
They are all mere conventional illusions set up to help those who cannot find their feet in a borderless world. And the world unravels before us who are borderless. And so, there is a town made up of all the places I’ve ever visited. All the houses there have mysterious windows, and if you peeked through them, might be able to discern the plot unravelling behind the curtains swaying in the wind. That is because each house writes a novel of its own. Yet, I still crave home and peace, which is why I keep looking for a place I’d find them and look at houses, imagining them as mine.
There are whole novels playing out in those houses, and if you take a better look through the windows, you might be able to discern the plot unravelling behind the curtains swaying in the wind.
I reckon any person who likes writing and photography is a bit of a voyeur. Personally, I don’t care much for people as real beings, I’m more interested in them as archetypes, imaginary characters from the novel I keep writing in my subconsciousness. When I do spy on them, I don’t do it because I want to intrude their privacy and learn about their lives, I do it because I want to learn about humanity. I give most of my attention to trifles people use to fulfil their lives and I yearn to understand them.
I’m endlessly amused by the colours of the walls and wallpapers, coffee cup design, the patterns on pillowcases and bedsheets (and if they match), the fabric on the curtains (handmade or store-bought), the needlework on woollen sweaters, contents of female purses, books on the shelves, pencils in pencil cases, pictures in wallets and so on. If I cannot see the house from the inside, then I analyse its exterior. You can deduce all sorts of things from the shape of the windows only. Windows are gateways to an endless, limitless world behind them.
My favourite windows are scattered all over the Mediterranean, hidden among the maritime towns. My favourite window needs to have blue or green panes, out of which at least one needs to be open, for the sake of mystery. And hand-embroidered lace curtains should be peeking behind them, dancing as if wind was playing just for them, luring them into a jig and sways inside and outside, just enough to spark the imagination of passers-by. Flowers sit in handpicked pots on windowsills. An occasional cat may stop and take in a bit of sun before stretching and scurrying away at the sound of the window being opened by some woman with rollers in her hair, who is out to water the flowers from a handpicked blue polka-dotted bowl.
The woman then glances up and down the street, takes a deep breath and disappears behind the curtains she may have, and hopefully did, made herself. And then we, who have been furtively observing her, are presented with yet another mystery. Where is she now and what could that woman be doing? If we wait long enough, she might bring smiles to our faces again, by pulling another performance, such as hanging the laundry to dry on a wire, which I had not even noticed before, because, dear me, that window has that too up above it. Depending on the colours and sizes of those colourful clothes, we can guess how many people live in the house, how old they are and their genders too. There are even babies sometimes, so we can be in awe of different colourful onesies hanging there, exuding the smell of laundry detergents.
And then, of course, I would wonder what kind of a detergent this woman sues. Some of them are equal in quality, but some are more expensive, like Lenor, which makes me inclined to believe that various wannabes buy it, only to appear fashionable. I, for one, only buy it on discount. I cannot understand why it’s so popular, when it smells exactly the same as some others. You can’t even hear the word detergent anymore, it’s only Lenor, that’s how popular it’s become.
It’s as if Lenor is byword for detergents, a common noun, rather than a proper one. Then I notice that water is still dripping from the freshly-hanged laundry, but the woman from the window does not appeared to be perturbed by this, as she does not reappear. Maybe she’s making lunch right now? Although I cannot smell any food, I can imagine what’s being prepared there. If our lady is one of those wannabes who buy Lenor at full price, then she’s most likely to be preparing broccoli soup, and if she buys some other detergents, then she’ll be making beans with lots of onions.
My perfect window has never really been mine. Wherever I lived, I never had beautiful windows. This is why I’m carefully preserving the idea of the perfect window for some future ventures. One day, when I’m no longer a vagabond, but some “common” woman in bathrobes and rollers and kids and kitchen, then I’ll have that window.
I’ll paint the windowpanes every spring into a different colour, and I’ll always scrape the final coat of paint a bit, so that the old colour could also be discerned. I’ll make my own curtains on my mum’s old sewing machine and if I ever learn to sew in a zig-zagging pattern without breaking the needle, I’ll crochet lace on the bottom of these curtains which will reach the potted flowers. I’ll water my flowers regularly, careful not to let Lenor drip all over them. Sorry, did I say Lenor? I meant some cheaper detergent. And of course I’ll make sure that broccoli soup doesn’t spray my windows. Sorry, it’s beans, not broccoli soup, and they’re bound to burn anyway.
One day, when I’m no longer a vagabond, I’ll move into a small house by the sea, and watch the world go by from my windows, the eyes of the house I drew as a kid. The windowpanes will be eyelashes.
Right now, while I’m still a vagabond with a notebook and a camera, I kinda envy those women behind the windowpanes. I envy them on their security. Once I become one of them, I’ll envy young girls with cameras passing by my house and admiring my flowers, curtains and laundry, envying me in return. The smell of my lunch might attract some of them. I might even invite one to join me for lunch.
She’ll then tell me how beautiful my curtains are and I’ll brag about having made them myself on my mum’s 30-year-old sewing machine. “What about this lace?”, she’ll ask. “I made it myself too”, I’ll proudly say. She’ll then ask me about my cactuses, and I’ll tell her each of their stories and how I re-pot them every spring into ever so big pots.
“But, don’t you get all stung while you’re re-potting them?”
“Yes, but whatever you love will sting you.”
“What do you mean?”
“These cactuses did not choose to live in my pots. Their ancestors were long ago brought from the desert, and these ones here are now carriers of genetic information about their homelands, and they still crave their homes through those subconscious memories. And I made an artificial home for them, I encaged them in these lovely pots full of sand and dirt, which should remind them of home. Only because I love them.”
“Aren’t you then “being evil towards them? – she’ll ask in confusion.
“I am”, I’ll respond calmly. “We’re all evil towards what we love, because we want to own it, to possess it, to tame it and take away its freedom. And they sting us in return.”
“That’s an interesting theory”, she’ll add thoughtfully before asking: “Is it even possible to love someone without doing them harm?”
“Of course”, I will then hurry to make my point.
“By letting them be.”
And then a strange silence will fall before she finally continues: I do understand your cactuses. I would also prefer to live freely in the nature than in such a lovely pot, like the one on your windowsill.
“Don’t you think I understand them too?”, I’ll reply. “Don’t you see that this house is like that perfect pot?”, I’ll probably think, but won’t say it out loud.
“Why don’t you set them free then?”
“It’s too late for them, they wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves out there in the wilderness. They have picked up some new habits now, forgotten their roots and can no longer live without their pots or me.”
“And yet they still sting you?”
“It’s just their subconscious revenge. I can take it.”
And then I’ll probably feel a bit awkward and I’ll change the topic quickly: “Why did you decide to stop and take a photo of my house?”
“Because I’d love to live in a house just like yours one day.”
“One day will come too soon.”, I’ll murmur, but then I’ll realise I’m broaching a dangerous topic and change the subject again: “Go on then, show me the picture.”
We both agree that the photo had not come out great because the house seems somehow crooked, just like all object usually do in pictures. I tell her this phenomenon is called distortion and it can be fixed in Photoshop, but I won’t be showing her how because I myself have no idea. She’ll be evidently disappointed in her photo and keep telling me that she cannot capture the beauty of it and everything she had felt and experienced when she’d seen it. I’ll tell her not to worry about the fact that the photo cannot convey the impression well as long as her memory does it. “People care more about photos than their own memories and emotions, probably because they cannot show the latter.”
Then I’ll tell how well I still remember one water drain from Kotor, from which the clouds cried and no picture of mine had managed to preserve its despair. I also remember one small chimney from Ohrid, a cute little ashen construction which smoked in its modesty, while some elderly people, possibly, might have been sparking the fire under it, making tea on some old stove. I also remember how none of my pictures could ever quite catch the cough of that little chimney as it cramped in sad Ohrid winter.
“It might be for the better if we didn’t even try to take such photos”, she’ll say, referring to the fact that failed photos can discourage us from recalling the true beauty of some sight, because the ugliness of photos tend to contradict the virtual beauty. “If it weren’t for these photos, we could always dream away about these little sights and embellish them in our imagination. The taken photos are a proof against the case of beauty.”
“It is still better to risk it, because those photos which are not taken have a way of getting back at us.”, I’ll call upon the words of some poet, whose name is long-forgotten. I’ll tell her not to worry about the fact that she cannot afford a “big, professional camera”, because her “tiny amateur one” will take more passionate photos because the very word “amateur” originates from “amor”, which stands for love.
She’ll then take a look at the photos I’d taken with a “big professional camera” and yearn to take some like those too. “And you will”, I’ll try to mollify her, “but you’ll be more fond of any bad photo of the indisposed chimney”.
I’ll then tell her about the beauty of the plaster castings decorating old buildings around Europe and the ash sticking to their edges. And how we try to imitate that ash whenever we paint something. Then I might even teach her how to make that ashen effect herself from her own makeup, once she decides to stop using it. “But I’ll always use makeup”, she’ll respond. “You won’t”, I’ll tell her in a calming and reassuring manner before showing her some used-up samples which used to be new and pretty. She’ll recognise them at once.
Then I’ll talk at length about wonderful plaster castings on balconies in Sydney, curious mailboxes in the US and Welcome signs on every house, black painted buildings in New York, gardens like those from the movie about Edward Scissorhands and the hills in Australia, where cows amble in even greater numbers than here in Serbia, and how those cows are always drowsy because they keep getting high on eucalyptus leaves. And I’ll mention also how surfers are not as good-looking as they are made out to be in the movies.
“You’ve really travelled a lot”, she’ll say.
“Yet you’ve seen far more than me.”
“How come when I’ve never even left the village?”, she’ll asked confused.
“It’s because this village is the whole world.”
And then the coffee will finally be ready, so I’ll dock into the kitchen and she’ll keep casting glances after me and seize up my wallpapers.
“I have to go, it’s getting late.”, she’ll say.
“But the broccoli soup is not ready yet, why don’t you stay for lunch?”
“Honestly, I’m not much of a fan; we don’t have broccoli in my village.”
As she is about to leave, I offer to hail a cab for her.
“Don’t worry, I can walk, it’s not that far.
“But it’s getting dark outside.”
“I’m not afraid of dark.”
“And it’s about to rain too.”
“I’m not afraid of rain either.”
And then she’ll dash out of the house, leaving me to look after her from my window. She’ll look back only once. She’ll take another look at the open windowpanes, painted in blue with yellow and green tones protruding through it. She’ll admire the old curtains my mum had crocheted and I finished when her hands got to shaky. Her eyes will trail all the cactuses and along them the road to Srem, Belgrade, Tivat and all the sandy deserts in the world. She’ll then look at me, and see herself leaving for Europe, Americas, Australia, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Moon and Mars. She’ll start out of her reverie suddenly and call out for me to close my windows because it’s about to start raining. And then she’ll start running, barefoot, as fast as she can without ever looking back.
“I’m not afraid of rain either!”, I’ll call out to her, to the night, but she won’t hear me because she’ll already be too far.
“I’m not afraid of rain either!!!”, I’ll cry out even louder, struggling to overpower the sound of rain, which will keep pelting down as my stings rise into the sky.
And then I’ll stay at the window for a long time, looking into the darkness where the girl had disappeared as clouds keep coming down all over me, my stings and my cactuses, as we all keep getting drenched in the rain and in our own pots.
Author: Mirjana Vasiljevic