I have the unfortunate habit of staring for long periods of time at strangers I find interesting. Conditions in early childhood encouraged the practice. My bedroom was at the very top of the house facing a busy park and a bus stop. From there I could observe ladies in leggings and ear muffs making their way to the shops and groups of children trying in vain to retrieve shuttlecocks they had misfired into trees.
Sometimes I would sit for so long by the window that I could see the ladies return with their Dunnes Stores shopping bags. It always gave me satisfaction to note the details, like that they’d removed their ear muffs and bought a stick of French bread or two packets of toilet paper.
Some people are interested in living life but I am surprisingly content just to look at it. When I was young, I used to find it fascinating to watch my sister play with her playmobil. She’d set up her toy ambulance, or farmhouse or schoolroom and assign names to each of the playmobil figurines, which she recorded in a special little book which I have preserved for posterity.
She became a scientist; I studied Psychology.
I don’t watch much television because my parents are always watching the Bavarian news or German documentaries about the Pope. When I get the chance though I love to watch people watching television.
My favourite person to watch is my mother.
When she has time, my mother watches sentimental German films, which feature families that seem to making a wholesome livelihood milking cows and running hotels in the Alps, but inwardly battling with deep-seated problems like long-lost loves and corruption in the bovine trade.
In the last thirty minutes of such dramas, my mother’s face changes. As conflicts reach their climax, and true thoughts are expressed, her lips begin to move a little, her eyes grow bigger and she can’t stop the tears that begin to roll one-by-one down her cheeks.
When I turn to look at her, she gets embarrassed and flashes me a sheepish smile. I pretend I haven’t noticed even though she should really know by now that her indiscriminate display of empathy is among the billions of things I admire about her and that her compassion for villagers in complicated love triangles is endearing.
My father’s expression becomes exceptionally benign when he watches trains bounding through glorious British countryside and stuffy antique shows where soft-spoken elderly males evaluate the worth of a 1786 gold-plated pocket watch.
In a domestic context, my bad habit doesn’t get me into too much trouble. Apart from the odd bus passenger sitting on the top deck, whose eye I catch as he’s looking out the window into my bedroom, I seem to keep my creeping quite covert.
It’s different when you’re on the luas though, or taking the bus. That’s a riskier business altogether. There you have to be careful. You see, I find observing people on public transport an indescribabe, insatiable delight. I frequently select my seat on the basis of maximum viewing potential.
The other day a south Dublin boy with a voice several decibels louder than the roar of the engine was making arrangements with his friend on the phone.
“Get us a mixer for tonishe will you”, he yelled. “I’ve got lieke three bottles of vodka but I toshally forgot the OJ in Londis. Ish’s going to be SUCH a laugh tonishe…. Definitely. You’re a star…Definitely. Such a laugh.”
He was speaking with such affectation and lack of self-consciousness that a man at the front of the bus turned around in disgust and stared at him for the duration of his entire conversation, and then again when his friend Lola rang back.
Unfortunately the man who turned had spotted me giggling into my scarf and tried to catch my eye. I didn’t want to catch his eye in case he thought I was only laughing because I wanted to share a special moment with him alone.
Once I was coming home on the last Luas and a group of drunk youngsters were amusing me with their unfathomable babble.
I was the tiniest bit tipsy so my subtlety was at an all-time low. I was caught.
“How are you tonight?” the one sporting a pink shirt with an upturned collar asked me.
“Very well”, I beamed.
“ Where are you from”, he asked.
“Is that in Australia?”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“I’ve been there. It’s a beautiful place”
“It is! I love it there”
“People from there are so sound”
“I know, they so are! – Sorry, this is my stop”
“BYE darling! See you in Bavaria!”
When I got home, I turned off the bedroom light. As I was closing the curtains, I took a steely glance out at the quiet street below. I saw a couple kissing by the park railings. And I watched a man cycling by, singing to himself.