Up, Down and Further Underground

I arrived at the Backerei a good 15 minutes later than the time that I said I would be there, but no matter, because Maxime was not there either. That was good, unpunctuality in meetings is one of the things that I miss the most from home, where I would set up a meeting with my friends at 6 and everybody would send out a message at 6.30 saying that they were about to leave their house and that they would be a bit late. It was just like that, perfectly imperfect.

I weighed the option of waiting outside until I would eventually get a message back from Maxime saying that he was ready to meet me, but it is too late in the year to wait outside in the drizzle instead of bathing in the afternoon sunlight, so I decided against it.

There is always this small kick in my stomach when I have to force myself to enter unfamiliar and non- impersonal spaces on my own that is uncomfortable to say the least. You can draw your own conclusions about me based on this statement. If, however, you guessed that this must have been exactly the feeling I felt while I was sinking in my seat on that airplane that evening on September 4th, when I took off from SKG airport to come to Austria for my volunteership, I would pat you on the back and, in a very teacherly manner, reward you with a star-shaped sticker, because you would be undeniably right. The feeling is always the same, the intensity varies, but the kick is ever-present.

This time it was strong. The consecutive lockdowns have left me with few social skills and a fear of coming out of my shell, but walking through the door all those thoughts were interrupted, dissolved, evaporated into steam on my glasses as temperature change claimed my vision. And also because the cafeteria area of the Backerei is wonderfully cluttered, and could easily pass for one of the many student hangout spots back home in Thessaloniki, which made my shoulders immediately relax.

A man walked up to me and said something, I was still trying to take in the welcoming wormhole I had apparently just stepped through, but I managed to say that I was looking for Maxime. He confessed that he did not know what Maxime was up to, but urged me to take a seat in the front room a wait. It’s just like a doctor’s appointment, I thought, and also said so out loud because I found the thought funny, and with that, I took a seat next to the library corner in the far end of the room that seemed to be extra comforting, even though the space already felt familiarly cozy.

I looked around, occasionally people walked in and out and there was chatter coming from the next room. The bookshelves were full of mismatched, clearly pre-loved books. There were plants, an old jukebox that probably wouldn’t play any more and raw elements everywhere. It all looked significantly different from all spaces I had happened in since September. It was not pristine, it was textured. It was authentic, a place where objects seemingly chose their own posts, rather than being arranged by a well-meaning, yet ignorant as to the object’s desired placement human.

When Maxime showed up, I had already swept the entire visible area with my eyes more thoroughly than the thoroughest of spring cleanings and was eager to sweep further in as well. Therefore I was delighted when he offered me a tour of the place, almost immediately after we said our hellos.

He seemed to be well practiced in the art of guiding one around the building and so we glid through doors and corridors, right and left, up and down fluidly like a flood from floor to floor. My head was swimming with information rushing in, my eyes jumped from surface to surface taking in every detail available.

Here are the offices and here are is the art studio, and here is a shower room that leads to another office where someone makes speakers out of old suitcases. Behind that door there is a room where somebody is living, probably. There, on the top of that staircase, is a creepy door that probably leads to some topsy-turvy dimension, and across, that is, behind us, is a door that is not particularly memorable, but behind it are some spare, unhinged doors and a kingdom of dust in an attic.

We stayed a while in the attic. There was a mass of old and dusty wooden furniture appendages piled up high, lining a small path. We followed the path while we were being showered with the last glittering light of the day that was slipping through big and small holes in the sloping roof and thus we were lead to a clearing where an old ornate dresser stood, centered and illuminated from a side window as though it was an ancient occult object of narrative importance that would change our lives forever the moment we touched it. I touched it. To my disappointment, there was no orchestral music playing in the background as I inched closer to it and nothing happened. It also seemed mostly empty.

Behind it lay a plain old trunk that delivered the intrigue the dresser did not. It was filled with old school notebooks from the 60s, where an unknown young child had scribbled notes in perfect and unintelligible cursive.

We went on. If left to my own devices I am certain that I would have stayed poking around in that attic until it ate me away and I was nothing but a pile of forgotten dry bones trying to pry open some sealed crate or locked drawer.

There were balconies with beautiful views and a mishmash of empty flowerpots that I imagined would be the perfect locations for drinking a sunset lemonade. Underneath there were bathroom tiled walls that were not belonging to bathrooms, bathrooms without bathroom tiles and a fridge with a busted light that was filled with all sorts of packaged meat for anyone’s taking. Underneath those where the guts of the Backerei, accessible through a steep rusty ladder underneath a hatch and resembling a lot an underground gymnastics mini-studio/ bike tire graveyard.

It was beautiful. And I was disappointed in myself for not exploring it earlier in my volunteership. It flared my imagination up more than the spring here has flared up my allergies.

When I was small I used to sneak into rooms I was not supposed to sneak in and snoop around all the dusty exhibits I was not allowed to be around because my asthma would take the better of me. My love for my grandma’s old pantry or my parents’ house storage room was drenched in tragic irony, and disapproved by the adults dictating my life back then. But being here alone, with my nearest relative miles away and led enthusiastically into this never-ending rabbit hole of unknown wonders, I was filled with immeasurable child-like joy that I had not felt in years.

My visit in the Backerei stroke a very tender cord and I would honestly describe it as one of the most interesting bits of my whole experience here. I can’t wait to visit again.

Foteini Tyrovouzi