The hotel room window in Sofia, Bulgaria, looked out on an area surrounded by the backs of apartment buildings. One morning, I heard a slow, dull, rhythmic thump! thump! that went on and on. When I looked out the window, I saw a heavyset older woman – sometimes referred to as a babushka (technically the name for the head kerchief she wore). She had draped a rug over the railing of her small balcony and was beating it, hence the thumping.
Another way to clean rugs… in Helsinki there is a long, narrow public beach around the corner from the harbor, away from the ships (several) and any pollution (I saw none) where families go sunning and swimming and kids run around playing. Where the beach sand meets the grass, there are wooden poles on tall legs, sort of like the old hitching posts you see in Westerns where cowboys would tie up their horses before heading into the saloon. These ‘hitching posts’ on the Helsinki beach are drying racks for the rugs many women bring to the seaside to wash after the winter. The water looked perfectly clean for this purpose and these racks solved the problem of having water dripping on the floor after washing a rug. It also meant that rug-washing did not have to keep you away from a nice day at the beach with friends and family. Brilliant!
Another curious feature of Helsinki harbor was the seagulls. Sure, every harbor has seagulls but not ones like these. They looked like they had been washed in Clorox or chalk or something. Or maybe they got washed along with the rugs. In any event, they were unnaturally clean, their white feathers looking like something from a soap advert. Who knew seagulls could look so spiffy?
In London several years ago, I was walking along the South Bank, on my way to meet a friend for lunch. I noticed what looked like a man standing at the edge of a rooftop not far away. I stopped to get a better look. The figure did not move. For a brief moment, I thought that maybe I was looking at a jumper. Stock-still, hands tight to his sides, appearing to look straight ahead, rather than down. Then I noticed that despite a breeze, the figure’s clothing was not moving. Well, turned out this was a statue, it had no clothes and it was not the only one. A hair-raising art installation in 2007 by Antony Gormley, the artist who created the Angel of the North, a giant rusted steel statue (a man’s body with airplane wings) that looks down onto Newcastle from a nearby hilltop (and which is also visible from the highway and the train). According to a London newspaper article online, there were 30 of these ‘jumper’ guys. They have since become known as ‘silent witnesses’. What the article didn’t say – something a London cabbie told me – there were several calls to the emergency number (999 in the UK, the equivalent of 911 in the US) by folks who thought the figure was a jumper. I wonder if the artist anticipated that reaction. These figures moved around to other locations over the next few years. When I was in Oxford last year, I noticed one of the figures atop a building overlooking Broad Street, as I waited for a walking tour to begin. These guys sure got around!