I’ve lived in it my entire life—25 years so far—but I could not give you proper directions or navigate it myself farther than my usual routes. I don’t know street names, just vaguely which buildings are where.
The boulevard I live on is loud well into the night, cars and trucks and ambulances driving by well past midnight. My neighbours stomp around and shout at each other well past 2 am. At night the boulevard is dark, illuminated by amber yellow streetlights. It looks really pretty when it’s raining or snowing, the fall visible only around each bulb.
A few nights before writing down this story—story? Memoir? Personal essay?—I woke up at 4 am. It was eerily quiet, the boulevard completely silent. It snowed during the night, despite it being the last days of March and the prior days having been wonderfully warm. I looked out my window and saw a city that looked almost abandoned. A white cat, dyed yellow by the streetlights, passed by. Around 5 am birds sang their beautiful morning song, and cars resumed their constant stream.
My boulevard is in a neighbourhood close to the edge of the city. Along it are linden trees, as old as my big sister—31 so far—and were planted at the same time when my apartment building was built. I live in a former communist country. Everywhere around my home are tall blocks of concrete, ugly depressing brutalism. By my apartment building is a small garden. My father is the only one who looks after it, as nobody else can be bothered to care how it looks. It’s easier if someone else does it while you can continue sitting on your ass and complaining that nothing is done right.
Not all of the city is brutalist, though. In the city centre, half an hour to an hour away from my home, are the old palaces and townhouses. They are in the art nouveau style, beautiful, colourful and with whimsical decorations of flowers, nymphs and swirls. They used to be the houses of rich people: lawyers, doctors, architects, bankers, back in the interbellic era. After the communist regime settled in and they were confiscated, they were repurposed into apartment buildings for the elites, shops, hotels, hospitals and schools. My high school was one, pale pink and white, with dirty marble floors and window sills with chipped paint. My classrooms were former bedrooms and drawing rooms.
My favourite building is sky blue and pure white, which was once the house of a lawyer. The ground floor has shops and hair salons. The upper floors are apartments, with messy lace curtains and clothes put out to dry on rusted balconies.
Going to high school and then to university always took a long time. My home and my neighbourhood is far from everything else. My father would drive me when he could—he worked for years as a constructor, being sent to villages in the middle of nowhere for weeks on end—and I always arrived first, waiting for ten minutes alone in the classroom. When my father couldn’t, my mother would accompany me to the bus or tramway. You could not trust the schedule, so we would always arrive early and tediously wait as cars drove by and wind whipped us. We’d have to take two separate buses to arrive at our destination: one up until the train station, then one to the city centre. Other people on the bus and tramway, particularly old people, would shove and curse us out for being in their much more important way. I despise public transport.
I never got to explore my own city. Go to school, get back home. Go to the market, get back home. Go to the grocery store, get back home. Go to the doctor, get back home. Everything was far away, and lingering somewhere for no good reason meant arriving home even later.
My family is of modest means. Both of my parents came from villages, as do most older people in my country. They were both extremely poor, could not afford luxuries like me and my big sister: many clothes, many books, going to university, eating something different everyday.
They were both born a few years after the communist regime came. During the regime, peasants’ homes and farms and properties were taken by the state. Houses were demolished and apartment buildings were erected instead. The garden by my house sometimes struggles to bloom, and my father said it is because underneath is someone’s old dirt yard. My parents met, married, had my sister and moved to the city. My father told me stories of how he, as a small child, thought The City, any city, was the coolest place on Earth, where all the rich and educated people lived. He has lived in the city for over 30 years now and spends a lot of time complaining about it.
Seeing anything new, anything other than concrete and big ugly blocks that obstruct the view, feels like a special occasion. When my father is driving us somewhere and we take a shortcut on smaller, narrower, less circulated alleys, I take in the new streets and houses. Some people still have houses, small clusters or even just a lonely one in between apartment buildings. The people above can look down and see what they’re doing in their yard. My father says that had the communist regime existed for another decade, they would have been demolished and replaced with blocks too.
The houses are off white, or cream yellow, or coral pink, sometimes dusty green or sky blue. They have forged iron gates and stone fences, or plain sheets of metal gates. Some have ivy creeping up them, forming natural terraces. The curtains in the windows are always drawn and old, with lace flower patterns. Sometimes there’s orchids on the sills, nestled between the glass and the curtains.
On the hill, as we call it, live the rich people. We pass it on my way back from high school, then university, and now probably on my way back from work too. The hill is covered in houses and gardens, everybody with their own comfortable yards and driveways. My father talked with another constructor once, who was fixing potholes in the streets winding on the hills. The man could name the profession of every homeowner: doctor, lawyer, doctor, lawyer, doctor, banker.
My parents dream of having a house—by the periphery or even in a nearby village. My mother daydreams of how she would decorate it and what she would plant in the garden, undisturbed by annoying neighbours.
At the time of writing, I am starting my first real job. It is half an hour away by car, and the traffic is made worse by construction in the city centre. My father retired and offered to drive me the first few weeks, until spring and warmth properly set in. I remember thinking in high school that I may be able to see more of the city since I am in it rather than in my neighbourhood in the middle of nowhere. I also thought about that at university. I never had the time for it, always commuting, always busy with studying and working on my degrees. My job is a 9 to 5, so it is doubtful I’ll see much of the city this time either, other than what glimpses I catch through the car windows.