There’s a balcony on the seventh floor of my building that has four clocks hanging on the wall. They’re proper vintage and they match the decorative wood panels that give the room—and what is a balcony if not an extra room—a sauna-like feel. I can’t really see it that well but I imagine all of the clocks are telling different times. Not in a stock exchange way, with New York, London, Moscow and Hong Kong times, just in a random way, like you see in antique clock shops. Or maybe the clocks are perfectly in sync, ticking the seconds away in unison. Maybe they were collected and banished from the different rooms of the flat after one of the tenants developed insomnia. Maybe one of the clocks is actually a wall barometer – I remember us having one growing up, a device whose purpose in a household was beyond me. Whatever the devices are, the owners put them for a reason that’s at least part aesthetic.
Folk living in houses and cottages with a bit of land have a lot more ways of showing the world their take on beauty. There’s little that surprises me but many things that make me smile. Nativity scenes that are on all year long, lawn deer and garden gnomes, old cartwheels, and clay pots hanging for their dear life from wooden poles. The store-bought versions get old quite quickly, and nothing beats a nice collection of wood carvings. Moonlighting for a shady landscaping firm in my youth, I’ve seen people put faux Ancient Greek statues in their backyards too, but no matter how posh the house, the marble rarely matched the fir trees and the overall Baltic backdrop.
In the sleeping districts, like the one I live in, most of us only have our windows, windowsills, and balconies to serve as displays. A downstairs neighbour has a proud collection of cacti on their windowsill – seven little green men guarding the abode’s peace. Another one has two mock crows sitting on the railing of his balcony – it’s been years, yet I still find myself double-checking if those things are real. And if I can be fooled, the actual birds he’s trying to deter are a tad smarter. For me, this trick doesn’t work with fake felines though – I can always tell a plush toy from a flesh-and-blood kitty. Seeing someone’s pet basking in the sun brings me more joy than any arts’n’crafts display, and of those there are many. It’s not that I’m against those wooden mannequins for drawing or crochet bunnies – in a world where the display of every coffee shop looks the same, every bit of individuality makes a difference. That’s one of the things I enjoy about old residential neighbourhoods like mine – there’s always a bit of weirdness hiding in plain sight.
Not all weirdness is good, but I accept weirdness over Nordic minimalism. Still, the sight of flower beds under the first-floor balconies is a bit unholy. The flowers are usually beautiful, and the little petunia gardens are neat, but I can’t overlook the fact that it’s essentially a land grab. I wish those little gardens were more of a community thing, but it’s usually someone’s private initiative, the little patch of land serving as an extension of their home territory. People tending those little oases of colour are protective of them to the extreme. You can sense them peeking through the blinds as you pass mere inches from their treasured blossoms. Most of these plots are equipped with a “No Dogs” sign – one of those ugly metal squares depicting not a friendly pooch but a silhouette of a defecating dog. A criminal dog. A four-legged trespasser. And those who don’t trust the dog owners’ ability to interpret symbols, add barbed wire at shin height. Once you notice that, the blooming beauty fades into the background.
There are three new buildings under construction in my neighbourhood. The crafty real estate developer managed to squeeze them in between all that unrenovated and unpolished Soviet-era housing. I wonder what the new transplants will bring to the borough in terms of their window displays. Will their balconies be practical storage spaces with a permanently perched road bike and an ironing board? Or will they break the IKEA-dictated rules of homemaking and populate their windowsills with something kooky for all of us to see? And no, a dream-catcher won’t do.