The View from the Window


When we travel to a new place for the first time, we are transported into a sea of fresh sights and sounds, a tapestry of rich customs and distinct mannerisms. We are tempted by novel cuisines, magnificent architecture, and heady cultural experiences. But even as you stop to snap a picture or hand over a handful of bills for admission to one of the many sightseeing attractions, you are surrounded by those who have made this place home. What is it like to be one of the many residents there? What are their routines? What sounds fill their offices? Where do they go, and when? While we may not all be fortunate enough to have an acquaintance at our travel destination, sometimes, we are given a fleeting glimpse into the lifestyle of those who have put down their roots in this new place. Here, we recount a couple of times we looked out of the window and connected with strangers and their possessions in cities around the world.

Buildings in downtown San Francisco

TRIESTE, ITALY

The train station in Trieste is a stately, if not time-worn, structure, resplendent with the high ceilings and windows of a bygone era, when railroads and steamships provided the main means of transport. When my shuttle bus dropped me off at the curb, the bustle that once flowed from the building had been reduced to a whisper from decades past. Being a Sunday, all of the booths and storefronts were shuttered. So too, were the grocery stores and corner shops, the pharmacies and the cafes.

Trieste is located on Italy’s northeast coast, a stone’s throw from the ocean. Due to its history as a major port of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until the mid-twentieth century, Austrian and Italian architecture comingle in the town center. As I wound my way through the town, the wheels of my suitcase clattered alternately on concrete, asphalt, and cobblestone-lined sidewalks. My lodgings were situated in a small set of side streets, a few blocks away from the administrative buildings and five star hotels. The main indications that I had arrived were a set of ornate glass-and-wood double doors and the curtain-clad windows of the single-room lobby, tucked into a street of mostly private entrances.

This was the kind of small hotel where you handed over the key and its one pound key fob to the receptionist when you departed from your room for the day, then picked it up again when you returned for the evening; this was how they knew whether you were out so that they could discreetly tidy your room. An extremely narrow elevator could transport me upstairs if I displayed enough patience, but the much wider staircase was the preferable option. On the first flight, the grand marble steps were lined with a heavy burgundy rug, held in place by thin metal rods at the junctions between each step. This extravagance was in contrast to the barren nature of the first landing, which was adorned by just two objects: a frameless wall-length mirror and a fluorescent light strip that turned off too early in the morning and too late in the evening, so that the few moments of dawn and dusk that filtered from the lobby enshrouded the entire first flight of stairs in near-complete darkness.

The next flight of stairs led to a landing that was wholly more welcoming. Windows stretched from the stairwell and down the hallway, connecting indoors and out. Summer had settled comfortably, unrelentingly bright and humid, and so the windows were often left open in place of air conditioning. There wasn’t much of a view, other than the adjacent apartment building pushed up alongside, but compared to a view of the sea or a distant hillside, this one was a reminder of the people who lived here. Laundry lines (a common feature, as I would soon learn), were strung up in the intervening space. Many were empty, but a few were crowded with assorted articles of summery clothing, limp and unmoving in the absence of a breeze to stir them. Most of the windows on the building across were shuttered, but in some cases, they were cracked open to let in the outdoors. In the early hours, the sounds of morning preparations floated across the gap. Water rushed from sink taps, punctuated by the clamor of pots banging on stove burners and pans sizzling over the heat. Sometimes, the unintelligible murmur of a radio or television hung in the background. Other times, men and women and children called to each other, perhaps over breakfast. These sounds were a welcome way to break the silence of my single-occupancy hotel room, and a reminder that while all of this may have been new to a tourist, this was everyday life for someone else.

On the other side of the building, from inside my room, two windows opened to a main street below. One window was wedged into the corner of the bathroom, and the other was cut asymmetrically on the right side of the bedroom wall. As is typical in many regions in Italy, large shutters, not drapes, were the preferred window dressing. These were made of heavy wooden planks, and manipulated by cranks on the windowsill; turn one handle, and the shutter slats tilted up or down for privacy; turn the other handle, and the panels folded open so that I could look out across the street. Directly across was a multi-level office building or school building, displaying a grid of glass panes that allowed me to look through and observe the rows of tables and chairs inside. Posters, rolled into tubes, leaned against the walls, and on one level, stickers and decals dotted the glass like decorations in an elementary school classroom. I could imagine people clustered around a table discussing a project, or a roomful of children fidgeting during a presentation, but no matter what day of the week or time of the day, I never did see anyone inside. Below, cars and scooters buzzed alongside a loose stream of pedestrians, indifferent to the lack of occupants in the building. Occasionally, the mechanical sing-song of a siren or the smoke-clogged growl of a motorbike would echo down the block. In the evenings, the chatter and laughter of restaurant patrons dining al fresco would rise beneath the moon, animated by bellies filled with good food and the heady effects of alcohol.

SHANGHAI, CHINA

The morning was still early when our overnight train pulled into Shanghai. I was a teenager at the tail end of high school, part of an unruly, 300-student gaggle that had flown to China for a series of marching band performances. The occasion was a product of once-in-a-lifetime luck and rare opportunity, and for some of us, the first time we had ever been overseas. We were herded by a battalion of alert, wary chaperones. They nudged us through stand-still foot traffic at tourist hot spots, fielded us across busy intersections across major roads, and ushered us in and out of buses, all without losing a single errant soul. On this particular morning, we were whisked to breakfast, then to the hotel, and with surprising agility and efficiency, we received our room assignments and were pointed to the elevators.

The hotel was a modern high-rise, the kind one can imagine along the affluent skyline of the Bund. Perhaps because of the building’s height, and the propensity for tall rectangular structures to create wind tunnels, the architects had joined the three faces of the hotel’s exterior into a triangle. This resulted in the hallways joining each other at disorienting sixty degree angles. At the end of each hall was a tall window, and I peered out to find myself a few floors above ground level.

The sight was not a romantic panorama of the skyline, or an enchanting view of a neoclassical façade, but rather a knot of roads and cars and buses, heading off in all different directions on underpasses and overpasses that were supported by columns clad in cement. The roads wove above and beneath one another, slipping between buildings and winding past billboards and signs that displayed Chinese characters of immense size. During the day time, the signs were dull in the haze and the cloudy monsoon skies, but at night, their multicolored lights would blink, pulse, and glow. The sound of automobile motors and honking horns would have been cacophonous, except that I was standing behind a thick pane of glass that muffled even the loudest of noises and immediately transformed them into a background hum. From where I was, I couldn’t find anyone walking. It was as if the whole city was packed into a parade of cars. No matter the time of the day or night, the activity outside never seemed to pause. I imagined the passengers inside, commuting to a meeting at the office, or heading to a dinner party, or returning home with a trunk full of groceries. Where were they going? Who were they with? But no cars ever stopped, and there was no one to ask, so I never did find out.

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