A Sabbatical In Leipzig
The railing on my balcony is a well-turned wrought iron thing painted a green so dark that from a distance one might think it black. From over the edge of the railing I have hung three grey plastic flowerpots containing three red geraniums. These flowers are thriving because I water them lightly every second day. I remember to water the geraniums whenever I have taken my coffee from the pewter cup. After I finish my coffee in the kitchen I fill a milk jug with water and come out here and water the flowers, then look a while up and down the road to see who is out and if I recognize them. Strangers pass. There is enough room to unfold a small chair and table on this balcony, but I prefer to simply stand for a few minutes each morning and look out. I have not owned a balcony before and I take some pleasure still from standing out here and looking around.
To the right, on the street below my balcony, run two rows of six sycamore trees sheltering a single bench. Four old streetlights stand at either end, their heads disappearing up into rustling foliage. In the summer evenings when I sit there, having returned from my day, I watch the shifting leaf-shadows bathe in the pools of sodium-coloured light around me.
A group of young chattering workmen in dark T-shirts and dust-white work pants have gathered down there now and they are leaning against the wall on this side of the sycamore trees. They have coffees in their hands. These men will soon remove the many pieces of scaffolding mounded in their trucks parked a little further up Solokoetxe and no doubt clang an arrangement of scaffolding around the building next door.
I have not owned a balcony before and
I take some pleasure still from standing out here and looking around.
Back to my left, the road turns up into Kalea Sorkunde, which is a street on an incline that leads on to a park and beyond to the church hospital. One day, soon after I settled here, I wandered a few hundred yards up the Sorkunde and came upon a music school, a substantial two-storey building fronting onto the narrow carriageway. That morning, as I passed underneath an open window, I could hear a tuba and a clarinet playing some sort of duet. The two students playing these instruments were obviously getting to know the music, because every now and then the tune would break down, they’d mutter something to each other, then some moments later start up again and play for a while, then break down, then they played uninterruptedly for almost two whole minutes. I leaned back against the wall as the music poured out over my head and I realized I was enjoying this music because it lacked mastery, and this lack of mastery contained for me drama and tension that seemed to colour deeply what I could possibly sense around me at that time. A dog began barking farther up the hill, a bell pealed from the church, a truck rattled past and on a small pitched roof to the top of a building back down the street two men, who’d clambered off a tower of scaffolding a few moments before, had begun scorching bitumen onto the roof felt with a flamethrower. I looked at the younger of the two roofers. He was without a safety harness and he stood with what I thought was a disproportionate calmness on the edge of the roof – the blue-red flame arrowing out in front of him – and I imagined him slipping and falling to the ground and the flame spinning in the air. Then the music broke down into parps and peeps once more. As I wandered down the hill the music then gathered stertorously back up again behind me, and as I returned past the scaffolding the roofers had clambered from, I thought of a pastel work I saw in the Grassi on the evening of Catherine’s retirement. The work was called 'The Chocolate Girl' and had been composed by a French artist called Liotard. That part of the gallery was quiet that evening, and all I could think about while gazing at the pale pastel granules making up this image of a young lady dressed in a pink-and-white bonnet and dark frock – she carrying a cup of chocolate and a tall glass of water on a tray from left to right across the frame of the image – was the description of entropy in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I thought then if this image were to disintegrate and if the coloured grains of pastel were carried off, dispersing and gathering and dispersing and gathering in giant vectoring winds across the entropic cosmos, to some alien interface similar in size and material to the one holding the grains of pastel I looked at that day in the Grassi, arranged so expertly by this Liotard almost 300 years before, and if these same grains were to land on this interface in this far distant place in exactly the form with which they were arranged before me then, then it would be in front of this second version of this handsome pastel work that I would find Catherine, she gazing and probably contemplating, like me, on how such a work could possibly come into being.
He stood with what I thought was a disproportionate calmness on the edge of the roof –
the blue-red flame arrowing out in front of him – and I imagined him
slipping and falling to the ground and the flame spinning in the air.
After I leave my place today, I will wander all the way down Solokoetxe, almost to where it meets the river, and turn right onto the end of La Ronda, where this small café I frequent called La Gernikesa sits alongside a tobacco shop, and it is at this café that I will sip my last coffee of the day. There is a wooden bench to the front of the café and I sit here most days from just before nine to up on nearly eleven. If the weather is very warm I might sit there until twelve, watching the sun slide around the busy corner. People go past, usually people as old as me, and sometimes older, and we nod to each other. Some of them, who enter for a morning coffee or a beer, often give me a smile and a thumbs-up. A lady I see each day leaves her cigar on a notch carved out of the ledge beside me as she steps in for her coffee. The smell of the cigar is pleasant, though I have no interest in smoking it myself. Most days I am joined by a man called Jorge, who must be only in his early sixties, but who cannot talk. He has a hole in his throat on account of a poorly executed procedure for throat cancer, I suspect, a procedure carried out, I suspect, in the hospital back up at the top of the hill overlooking the city. He wrote his name out for me one morning on a slip of paper he’d taken from his pocket. It was crumpled and covered over in words and I thought that this must be how he communicates with those who don’t understand his sign language. We sit together on this bench each day for a while and wordlessly point out strange and/or amusing and/or incidental things happening on the street before us. And Jorge, a large man, with black hair, and what would be called a sickly pallor, either grunts or smiles or chuckles. Up to the hour of nine o’clock, especially on weekdays, the corner becomes its most busy and its most affectionate. Schoolchildren with their parents descend Solokoetxe or emerge from La Ronda, or up from the La Ribera to the right, and they all gather at the traffic lights. Here children of a certain age are kissed goodbye, or younger children are brought by the hand across the street to the primary school on the other side of the river. You can see the beginnings of friendships at this junction, shy waves out from between the legs of parents and the first looks of what might become confidence between friends. I feel sometimes like I am witnessing the beginnings of types of trust that will last lifetimes. Then these people swarm over and disappear around the rear of the church until another coagulation of children and parents gathers up around the lights. These people loiter for a while, then surge across the carriageway again.