Gazing out windows in Santorini or Jerusalem: our writers describe their rooms in international cities.
The white wood frames of the half-open window contrast with the sun-dried mud walls. I sit on a toshak, or mattress, in a two-storey mud house in the village of Shakardarah, some 30 kilometres from the downtown core of the overpopulated and over-polluted city of Kabul.
Nilofar, my next-door neighbour, waves as she walks through the gated entrance of her house and removes her chaadar, a full-length semicircle of black fabric designed to cover her entire body. Trailing behind her are her younger brother and sister, Faisal and Farzana, who walked from their elementary school nearly 45 minutes away. Leaving their backpacks and changing out of their school uniforms, they run past the vegetable patches in their courtyard to play with other children outside their yard. They pick mulberries and gooseberries as they discuss the TV shows they will watch with their families when electricity is made available for three hours during the evening. My eyes wander through the window past the aggregation of lookalike mud houses to the wide open fields of concentrated mulberry bushes and walnut groves, and trees blossoming with giant, juicy peaches and oranges. Mountains tower over the fields and the rest of the land.
The delicious scent of Afghan tandoori bread mingles with the fresh breeze. Nilofar has started baking. The 16-year-old left school to help her mother raise her siblings and earn the daily bread and meat when her father passed away in the war. Fruit is laid out on the terrace-like roof of their mud house, drying out before the winter.
In the distance, a group of chaadari-clad women complain about overpriced materials at the bazaar as they tread the rocky pathway to their homes. Underneath the jutting rocks and what appears to be barren dry land, patches of green grass peak through.
My bed is under the window because I pushed it there. But before the sunlight can get in I have to unlock the heavy glass panel and roll up the metal blinds. Now the hot orange light sweeps in from the huge rising sun, sweeps away what was totally black but for the blinking red light on the ceiling. When the mechanic came he told us in Russian that it was okay: blinking means everything is good. This is the bomb shelter room. This is Jerusalem.
I button up the shirt of many colours my friend and travel partner Valeria bought me in Lebanon and notice a dry sprig of lavender the previous inhabitants of the dorm left hanging in the closet. I pull open the room’s first door (of wood), I push open the second door (of metal), I slink to the apartment’s kitchen to eat Rice Krispies imported from Greece. The massive window on the south wall is open. It’s 7:30 a.m., and the breeze is hot.
Simmon is up too, spreading his daily Nutella on a slice of bread. “Are you hearing the chanting through your window at, like, 2 a.m. every night?” he asks.
I nod and gaze out the window—seven floors down to the parking lot where we went one night to drop our 20-shekel flowers, to the little garden where sometimes men sit and play music, to the concrete wall with a façade in poor imitation of ancient stone.
“I asked my friend about it and he says it’s a prayer call, broadcast all over the city,” says Simmon. “Last night I stayed awake and listened to it… it’s actually kind of beautiful.”
The noise of students from dozens of countries filters up through the air. The smell of perfume, of garbage, of a thousand stray cats, of heat itself. I lean on the windowsill and look past the modern city, all the way to the city on a hill, Jerusalem, the real Jerusalem, the one people put on postcards, the one Seoren calls “Disneyland”. To the gold Dome of the Rock, the blue dome of the Holy Sepulchre, the smooth, tan, massive walls.
Colourful flowers bloomed everywhere, all over the village and even on the cliff facing the Aegean Sea.
I lived in a small room carved into a cave, a traditional house or hotel room on the island of Santorini. From the outside, the room had the iconic dome-shaped blue and white roof that you picture when you think of Santorini. The room housed two beds, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The room was decorated for comfort, with flowers, homemade soap, and photo frames. The interior walls were built in stone reminiscent of the inside of a cave. The theme was always blue and white: blue sky and ocean, white little churches with white crosses. Everything seemed clean and fresh.
Every morning when I stepped out of my room, the first thing I felt was the warm, salty winds coming from the sea. The women wore colourful bikinis and held ice cream cones topped with colourful scoops. The men wore shorts and drank bottled beer. People walked on the narrow sidewalks, shopping, chatting, and laughing. Donkeys carrying trinkets jingled by pedestrians. Dogs and cats lay in front of shops, eyes closed.
At dusk, tourists sat on the edge of the cliff to watch the sunset. At dinner, the air filled with the smell of grilled fish and octopus. When the sea finally swallowed the sun, tourists applauded. After that, the whole island became tranquil. Ships went back to harbour and waves lapped on the shores.
The sunshine streaming through my bedroom window seemed odd. So did the half-sleeved t-shirt I had on. I hadn’t been back home in over half a decade, so the fact that spring sticks around in Lahore until the very end of the year was something I’d forgotten.
What I still remembered was my old room.
The room was lined with identical twin beds that my sister and I had long outgrown. Pictures decorated the wall between scars of peeling paint. The photos framed my sister and me as babies, as toddlers, as preteens. They progressed until they eventually stopped, marking the time we moved to Canada when I was 13. The carpets and curtains had stayed the same, though, although both were a little less pink and little rougher.
The window of my room looked out onto our verandah and then the street; both had all sorts of trees. And because of the accommodating climate, the plants ranged from evergreens to banana trees. They was heterogeneity of plants, but their green was almost brown. There were cracks and folds in my field of view because of the spotted glass. The city looked tired.
The street outside my bedroom window had a timetable of its own. It filled up five times a day with the melodic sound of azan, the call to prayer. It was crowded with children when they left for school in the morning, and later in the evening, when they came out to play cricket. And it almost always smelled of either fried potatoes or popcorn. The scent wafted up through the window as the bicycle vendors, blasting catchy tunes on a crackling radio, made their way by.
Rising above the thundering streetcar tracks, Grandmother’s khrushchyovka is toasty and tight, with no air conditioning and no relief from the dry July heat. A khrushchyovka is a cramped, poorly planned apartment in a five-storey dwelling with no distinguishing features on its flat concrete panel exterior. They are named after Nikita Khrushchev, a Soviet leader in power during the Cold War.
The building has no elevator, and the staircase smells of cigarette smoke and urine.
The khrushchyovka’s two long narrow rooms resemble a streetcar. Printed rugs hang on the walls above three sofa-beds inside the streetcar for reasons unknown.
Every surface in the khrushchyovka is covered: the worn parquet floor concealed by a textured beige rug, the floors in the cramped kitchen and the bathroom lined with smooth pea-soup flower-print linoleum, the walls hidden by daffodil-print wallpaper, and every table, desk, cabinet, or shelf coated with hand-crocheted white doilies.
Gold-filigreed icons with droopy-eyed saints hang above narrow doorways and tables. Moth balls and lavender scent the stuffy air.
Opening the windows and the glass-cased balcony to the outside offers an escape from the stuffiness. The beige sheers hanging over the windows billow in the gusts of dusty air from the quiet courtyard—the children who usually make noise nap now under the watchful eyes of their grandmothers. A sprawling chestnut tree beneath the balcony reaches its candles of white frothy blossoms to the burning sun.
In the cooler night air, feral cats wail their amorous ballads, and crickets chirp their metallic song, lulling me to sleep.
HAILSHAM, UNITED KINGDOM
During my time studying in England I had two rooms in the student residence, both of them equally unpleasant. The program was billed as “Your Year at the Castle”, and given the cost of tuition, I expected a single room in a gorgeous castle, overlooking a moat. But that’s not what happened.
Classes did take place in a castle, but students’ living quarters were elsewhere. The student residence was a two-storey, factory-looking, barracks-feeling building impressive in its ugliness. It had previously been used as office space for the castle administration, but was then converted into student housing. Mind you, its photograph is difficult to find on the main advertising brochures.
My first room was a shared one on the ground floor of the building. Both my Korean-French roommate and I had a bed, a desk, a chair, a dresser, and (I think) a nightstand. The two joined windows looked out onto a field of green where, beginning in early March, sheep could be seen copulating at all hours of the day.
The second room was a single on the second floor. I had the same furnishings, plus an additional desk I mainly used for storage. My next-door neighbours on both sides of the wall were all guys. The neighbour to the left could be heard complaining almost regularly through the paper-thin walls, “Mom, I don’t know how to do this essay!! I need, like, HELP!” On my right there was some serious shisha-smoking going on, which usually led to the fire alarm going off at odd times in the late night and early morning, so that sleepy, zombie-eyed students in their pyjamas (or else wrapped in bedsheets or towels) could be observed congregating on the lawn directly behind the student residence like they were part of some bizarre ritual.
The radiators were lazy, and I often felt like the little match girl. At night, the sense of being in a lunatic asylum was in the air as noises quarrelsome, vociferous, and barbaric shook my walls and whistled past my door. You don’t need amphetamines to know what life was like in the 1960s England. All you’ve got to do is enroll in the Bader International Study Centre.
Birds sing and vendors chatter about all kinds of vegetables at their “better than others” prices. Mysore’s dreamy breeze is refreshing. Waking up to realize you forgot to order milk for the day isn’t.
Mysore is situated next to Bangalore. My townhouse faces a one-way road flooded with the sound of scooters and bikes rushing to find a parking spot. My room faces the backyard, where I planted the seed of a jackfruit, hoping to see it all grown up when I visit again in a couple of years. No alarm wakes you up like a vendor walking past your yelling about his produce. You always have to look twice before getting out of bed; you wouldn’t want to accidentally step on the millions of ants that reside in the village.
The neighbour’s dog, Bheema, barks at the mailmen and scooters passing by. (I guess some things are the same everywhere.)
Outside the window, kids laugh and manoeuver around goats and the much-respected pedestrian cows.
The monsoon rains pitter-patter pleasantly on my window. The temperature drops as night falls and a little fog fills up my room. Downstairs, my grandfather plucks the veena, a string instrument—his evening ritual. A fan creaks continuously. An educated guess tells me tomorrow will begin with another vendor figuring he’s got a better marketing pitch than the previous one.