by Veronika Puškašová
May this be an ode to all things old: architecture, lands, people, manners and habits, like talking to strangers in public. The Central Library in The Hague is one of my all time favorite places to do so. It carries -or used to, before its renovation- this old time charm that only manifests after something or someone has lived at least one lifetime.
There used to be this massive chandelier hanging from the ceiling on the ground floor of the cafeteria that looked like a tarantula spider and underneath it sat a group of knitting women. This group would gather there religiously every Sunday. Instead of visiting a church, these ladies would sit around a table sipping tea and discussing gossip. How magical you can sip on both, simultaneously. The scene looked as if the spider was about to devour them any time soon and the women were lulling it to harmlessness with the repetitive motion of looping fabric onto a metal hook turning it into a wearable piece.
I would go there to focus on whatever I needed to get done, but I would always get easily distracted with all the life happening around me. There used to be an old lady reading her daily newspaper with a magnifying glass. Across from her, a large steaming espresso machine, resembling the Titanic.
A cup of coffee too can make one travel, either forward in time to a moment that isn’t dreadful 6am or backwards, slowing time down to make the world revolve around the little plate underneath the coffee cup. I have always thought of it as a pretty but useless accessory. Now I know one’s life must be filled with a bountiful of those eye candy pretty things that serve no purpose.
This year, they finished the renovations on the library. It looks different now. Ironically, the library has less books now and more computers. The only thing that remained is the regulars. The year is new but the good old things remain. A year too grows old. So I moved from the last year in Slovakia to the new year in the Netherlands.
With it, I moved into the new me with new resolutions looking for the old patterns in the new places. I started out this year wanting to take up running because I can feel my spine curve as if to fit in a grave at 25 years old. Another resolution is to talk more to strangers in public rather than on dating apps. Where I’m from, which is a tiny village in rural Slovakia, there’s so few people that everyone greets each other no matter the time of day.
There is a village shop that opens at most four times a week and I’ve come to believe that the shopkeeper only runs it to keep herself up to date with the village gossip. This is where the olds and regulars return to in my homeland instead of a library. Time in both moves at its own pace.
On my last visit to the Hague public library, I walked in slightly disappointed by the white walls and empty space aesthetic it has been given. Contrary to popular opinion, I like maximalist places. I like walls covered top to bottom with memories hoarded over time. It takes a lifetime to collect memories worth displaying on one’s walls.
So I walked into the sterile cafeteria of the library, ordered a soda and sat down at a table with the intention to read the winning title of the annual French Choix Goncourt. Before I could even open to my bookmarked page, my eyes landed on a man a few tables away from me. I had noticed him on my previous visits but never properly observed him like I allowed myself to do this time.
This roughly 75-year-old man, slouching above a table with a pair of tweezers got my undivided attention. He was fully absorbed in his activity of pulling little colorful tiles from a template and carefully crafting an image on a plate in front of him. He built a fortress around himself with three boxes filled with a collection of his previous work. I could spot a cat peeking out of one of the boxes and that alone charged me with enough courage to leave my table and walk to his.
He didn’t pay much attention to me as he had a more pressing matter to focus on: the head of Vincent van Gogh. I took the liberty to join him at his desk, at which point he offered me a windmill postcard made of blue and white pixels. I followed his hands, which resembled the branches of a tree, as they picked brown tiles and laid them down intuitively to make Vincent’s iconic hat.
“It’s called pixel art. Here is my business card. I’ve been doing this as a hobby for 15 years.” There were key chains, postcards of different format, magnets, I bet he could even make my portrait upon request.
It wasn’t so much the art itself that left me in awe but his devotion to it. A 15-year-long hobby that might have started as a frustration, but turned into an effortless routine now and oh so beautiful. He confessed he comes to the library every day. I didn’t ask, but I’m sure he orders the same drink and leaves at the same time every day too.
While I was browsing his treasure boxes, I thought of his life outside the library. He has an audience here, but is there anyone to watch him at home, to look at the pictures he crafted each day and listen to the stories he collected? I didn’t ask; I might be better off not knowing.
I picked two keychains, one windmill postcard to send to my mother and one cat postcard to keep for myself –the one I had laid my eyes on before I ever learnt his name. All this for €9 paid directly to his bank account via Tikkie. “He’s not so old,” I thought, chuckling to myself. I stood up with hands full of treasures and walked back to my table my soul full of joy.
I find pleasure in the daily routine of these strangers. I feel familiar with them at this point. We all gather here religiously, the Sunday Women’s Knitting Club, the lady with the magnifying glass, the retired photographer saving on gas, the old man that uses tweezers as his art tool and me, swiping tables left and right with my gaze. No dating app could compare.
No matter the design of the library, I leave it feeling rejuvenated every time. As if an hour of time in between its walls had allowed me to collect a lifetime of stories. I feel as if I have lived a bunch and it’s mostly my spine that shows it. I made a new New Year’s resolution: I want to fit in my grave old. I want to fit in it having lived a fulfilling life. Ideally, one full of stories like this one.