When the lights go out

April 08, 2014

All over Europe, but not only

The night owl of Istanbul’s cat life.

I’ve always had a crush on big and busy cities.

When I was a kid, I remember telling my parents that I didn’t enjoy the quietness of the bedroom when I went to sleep; hearing the life happening outside, cars going by, people talking, these made me feel comfortable. My parent’s place was just plain silent, and I was told that I was going to learn to enjoy the quietness when I “grew older”.

In my teenage years, I discovered what was then the subtle art of street photography. My weekends were spent roaming around the rural but lively streets of Oporto, carrying my crappy camera around my arm and heading into the busiest markets and the squares flooded with tourists, searching for the crowds and the unknown faces, all in the name of a good photo to print and keep. And at the end of the evening, I’d happily go home for dinner.

These busy spots were my true addiction. The busier, the better! Feeling small in the middle of a crowd, soaking in the undistinguishable sounds of people talking and shouting to each other, the fast walking pace of people rushing somewhere — there was comfort in this chaos, especially when you’re at enough peace with your inner self to fully appreciate it from a distance.

Fast forward a few years, and you’ll find me backpacking around Europe for a few weeks. When you’re backpacking, you always end up having more free time than you ever think you’ll have, especially if you happen to stay in the same place for more than a couple of days. And I guess it was mostly because I didn’t have anywhere in particular to go or to rush to, I then realized there was a certain time of the day that was giving me more peace than roaming around the busy hotspots of Rome, Barcelona or Ljubljana:

It was when these busy markets and squares — often crammed with sales’s people, farmers, jewelry makers and street artists — were just about to close down for the night, packing and settling down for the quietness.

Some people would go home, some try and negotiate last minute sales. The busy squares would go empty, finding only a handful of lovers sitting down in the steps in each other’s arms, while the temperatures began to cool down rapidly.

In Istanbul at 9pm, the woman selling fruit would pack up for the day and chat with the old man with a patchy beard selling home-made bread on the other side of the square — probably the first time they saw each other that day in the middle of the sea of people standing between them for the entire day.

At 4am in that same city, you could find me heavily drunk and lost, trying to make my way back to the hostel. The Taksim Square was surprisingly empty (or maybe not so surprisingly for a Thursday) but with a few other people holding cigarettes and beer, making lively and drunk conversation with friends that I could almost understand what it was about, even with my 6 word vocabulary of Turkish. Some things are universal. The alcohol allowed me to have a deep conversation with a mean looking cat that was spreading out the garbage bags along the street, for kicks and food.

6h30pm in Oporto, in the Bolhão market, the women would pack up and count their pennies by the constant horrible smell of fresh fish. They would complain about how little money they made that day, even though they were wearing a smile that constantly (and very easily) turned to an epic and frightening laughter when someone opened their mouths to say something, anything at all.

Trying to rest for the night outside Barcelona’s train station, 2 or 3am, who’s counting. It’s too cold to sleep and I realize my sleeping bag is much shorter than me, sleeping is out of the question. The pavement is crowded with strangers in more sleeping bags, a sight unknown to me until then.

No commuters, no rushing our.

We drink what we can, we meet whoever we can meet. I lend my jacket to a freezing Czech girl who we spotted silently crying way at the back of the alley — her possessions were all stolen and she can’t make the El Camino de Santiago no more. In the morning she returns my jacket, thanks me, and we go our separate ways. The commuters begin to rush inside the station, the police wakes everyone up and kicks us out of the damn pavement. The expected chaos begins to settle in again, and the night never happened.

9pm on a rainy Sunday night in Covent Garden, London. Street artists are now packing up their gear, some still with their makeup on, some practically half naked already, despite the rain. The small carts of handmade artifacts are barely lit now, lightning goes very low to announce that they’re closed, and the atmosphere it creates is that of a pop-up romantic restaurant in open air. The woman singing opera in the lower level of the market soothes her throat with a glass of milk, packs the suitcase that clearly doesn’t contain nearly enough coins to pay for an evening meal, and vanishes into the night.

The streets around the Pantheon in Rome were so lively at 3am, but no one was moving. Dozens of late night travelers sitting down in the concrete ground, watching fire spitting competitions and singing-along with performers that should have gone home by then — they were making me forget about the 8am train I had to catch.

At the peak of each one of these moments, I almost don’t grab my camera, and sometimes I actually don’t. What’s there to shoot, anyway, one can argue. How do you shoot the stillness of a place that is now living of its memory, only to be restarted the following day? More than grabbing a shot, you grab a feeling of contemplation that stays with you. What happens after, that’s the sweet spot we should be paying more attention to.

When the lights go out the world is no different, and yet, it usually becomes such a beautiful one.

Profile picture

Written by Ricardo Magalhães who works for the Internet. By day, a front-end web developer with a passion for typography and design. By night, he sleeps. Follow me on Mastodon.