Friday, November 30, 2012

Scenes From the City

I. November Fog

The air is heavy and wet, and you can almost smell the Baltic sea in between the layers of petrol and exhaust. Trees drip, a few last brown leaves still clinging stubbornly, but their branches are mostly bare. A thick white fog covers everything, diffusing the weak winter sunlight into a pale pervasive glow, as though the entire sky were frosted glass. It's warm enough, but a thin layer of condensation covers everything from the tress' bark to the iron gate of the central park.

Morning traffic is muffled and the cloud creates the illusion of isolation; a woman in her sixties with a black turban-like fur hat and a plastic shopping bag materializes suddenly out of the whiteness before dissolving back into it again. Every now and then a trolleybus clatters over the cobblestones, its electric poles sparking along the net of wires overhead, red tail lights fading into white. Somewhere a church tower tolls ten-thirty. This is Europe.

It is half like Christmas and half like fiction -- temporal surrealism enforced by the insulation, a conviction that the cloud has dissolved our bond with time. Only this small circle of a world exists, floating in an opaque bubble until it collides with something more solid, more real, and ends in a wet pop. A flock of pigeons pecks at the stones around my boots -- half have black claws, half have white -- before something scares them and they take flight together with the percussive whit of many wings.

II. Central Market

A light rain falls on the corrugated metal roof but is inaudible over the babble of hundreds of conversations and transactions, all echoing off the high rafters with the ersatz camber of a lofty railway station, open to the weather. Four long counters run the full two hundred yards, laden with the best of autumn produce and staffed by surly attendants in market aprons over their puffy winter coats. Each row is a checkerboard of fall color in piles of cucumbers, oranges, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, beets, horseradish, kiwis, squash, and persimmons. Jars of amber honey abut high mounds of dried apricots and walnuts still in the shells. Artfully opened pomegranates skewered on sticks look like exotic flowers or dragons' maws.

On one side, the smell of fresh fish wafts in from the seafood stalls nearby, and on the other, the faintly sour metallic scent of raw meat leads into the adjoining butchers' hall. The tinny voice of a loudspeaker plays advertisements and jingles on an endless loop, but the words themselves are lost in the rafters between the pigeons. Underfoot, a wet layer of sand and mud grinds on the pavement, glistening slightly in the filtered light. A few errant leaves have been trampled into pulp under the shuffling heels of old women in long coats. And behind each booth the bundled clerks weigh their produce on sets of blue metal scales, exchanging weights and potatoes until both come into balance.

III. Victory Square

The first of three buses clips the corner puddle, splashing grimy water from the inland sea on one side of the curb to the series of small ponds on the other, starting a chain of tiny overflows between the depressions in the sidewalk. Flotillas of soggy cigarette butts and discarded advertisements make waterlogged wreckage in the puddles. A crowd gets off the bus and navigates the archipelago, umbrellas slung over forearms under the grey sky. The two or three people standing safely behind the crosswalk quickly swell to a couple dozen, all jostling and chatting while the traffic light counts down in red LED numbers.

The counter reaches zero and transforms into a little green man with a stream of electronic chirping. No longer bound to land, crowds spill over the curb from both sides of the street, meeting between the tram tracks before dissolving through each other en route to their counterparts' distant shore. It's a chaotic game of leapfrog from one cobblestone to the next, caught up in the momentum of migration.

One girl, long blonde hair in a loose bun, clutches her bag over one shoulder, umbrella over her elbow. Her thigh-length black belted coat barely covers the hemline of her skirt, leaving a stretch of bare leg before the flange of her boots begins just above the knee. She moves with a series of delicate hops like an exotic bird, balancing on platformed soles and golden stiletto heels as wide as a drinking straw. Almost to the other side, one heel goes awry and she wobbles for a long second before springing to safety.

The little man chirps three last times and turns red again.


  1. Breathtaking. Thank you for this beautiful pause in my day.

  2. Ella, this is great! Thanks. Niko

  3. Replies
    1. I'm working on it, I'm working on it!


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