tiny sidewalks

November 25, 2013 · 2 comments

in Belgium

This is what I saw while out walking one day, standing in a perfectly normal spot in the center of the sidewalk:

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I could almost pet this cat.

I’m a bit shocked by the closeness of European cities. All of the houses are smushed up against one another; sidewalks are barely a few bricks wide. It means that when I’m outside, I’m always inches away from someone’s living room, kitchen, whatever. I see their cats, their faded, plastic flowers, their questionable design decisions and what TV show they’re watching. Is it weird to stare? Sometimes I can’t help it, especially at night when the lights from inside the house project the inhabitants’ actions like a movie screen. Oh, I see you’re preparing dinner now. I see you’re enjoying some football (ahem, that’s soccer to you Americans). I see you store your bikes inside. I see you have tacky wallpaper.

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(I can’t fit on that side of the street with Darwin’s stroller.)

Bishkek felt a bit more anonymous and guarded, with its looming, concrete Stalinkas. Dozens of inhabitants wrapped up in the same outer walls, usually situated far back from the sidewalk. I could stare at the windows, but the only thing to differentiate them from each other would be barely noticeable wisps of curtains or the different colored light bulbs each owner used to illuminate their apartment at night. Some cool blues, some warm yellows. The distance gave me some anonymity too, I could gaze at a specific window without anybody being able to pinpoint exactly what I was looking at.

Not here. It makes me feel like a voyeur to even turn my head for a quick glimpse. Suddenly I feel embarrassed, like I need to hurry past an exposed window, eyes looking down, apologizing for practically intruding in a stranger’s living room. I’d be inside their house with no effort if not for this thin pane of glass.

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I guess it’s something I’ll have to get used to here, but for now I’ll just use Darwin as an excuse to shamelessly gawk and point at all the cats in my neighbors’ windows.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michele November 25, 2013 at 10:22 pm

It was pointed out to me when I visited Amsterdam (another famously compact Northern European city) this summer that the Dutch are socialized from infancy never to look through windows into people’s houses. It’s true: When you walk along the narrow canal houses, it’s amazing how many ground-floor inhabitants don’t bother to close their curtains, confident that no polite person would stick their nose in other people’s business. (I’m not sure how that works with the enormous number of non-polite tourists milling about Amsterdam, but whatever.) I tried my best to play along, but I can’t resist a window cat :)

The custom was emphasized to me again when I would sit on the deck of my rented boathouse and watch boats go by along the canals. Everyone in the tour boats would stare and wave and photograph us, but the occupants of the smaller, local boats stared straight ahead, politely pretending that we didn’t exist in order to give us our privacy. People can and do get used to anything.

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2 Kirstin November 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Wow! haha, I’ll have to keep this in mind when I’m out. I had no idea. I guess that explains the office near my house with a whole wall made of glass facing the sidewalk and a bunch of workstations with people facing the street. If everybody’s taught to ignore each other, then yeah, I guess that works out fine. I figured it would be distracting. I wonder if the same occurs for noises, if my neighbors that share Darwin’s bedroom wall are politely pretending that they can’t hear his screaming at 2am?

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