The other day I read something about balconies and terraces in Spain and their history. I can’t find the article now for the life of me, but the gist was that back in the old days, Spanish city apartments were built with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street — not just for ventilation, but also to let in the world when you wanted.
The balconies outside those windows were just the width of the window opening. But they could give a couple of nature-starved city-dwellers enough room to stand shoulder to shoulder. From such a balcony, you could survey your strip of street, or chat with your neighbors, or peer upward to catch a glimpse of swallows wheeling against the blue sky.
A hundred years on, you can always tell Airbnbs by the way they’ve wedged two picturesque but uncomfortable IKEA cafe chairs out on their balconies. The balconies in real domiciles hold drying racks and bicycles and the rest of the detritus of modern apartment living. They’re also, as our luck would have it, perfect perches from which to stand and applaud Spain’s essential workers.
Apartments were built with balconies all through the Franco years, up until the 1980s. After that, the thinking seemed to be that people wanted living space more than they wanted breathing space — lots of the balconies in older buildings had been enclosed to add a little more square footage to the apartments they were attached to. It was also probably safer, and cheaper, to building an apartment building sans balconies. But — needs must when the devil drives: in these strange Días de Cuarentena people employ their windows as balconies, opening them as wide as they can, and hanging out them as far as they can without putting themselves in danger.
We know a family with three small children with no balcony, and they’ve resorted to running the children up and down the stairwell. We probably feel worse for them than we do for anybody else we know in the city. (There is no room in our consciousness for those who live in the suburbs with their yards and pools.)
Every day, I thank God we have not only a balcony, but also a terrace big enough for a table for four and two lounge chairs. On a normal day, when it’s not raining, we all periodically head out there to stare pensively up and down the street. Warm days, someone in an apartment lower down sets out a birdcage, and the street is full of his parakeet’s trilling and chirping. You can’t believe how loud a parakeet is when there’s no sound of cars to muffle its singing.
Yesterday was Easter Sunday. Way back on March 14, the day the Estado de Alarma began, we actually imagined we’d be walking around freely by now. What on earth did we know then? Yesterday, churchbells rang periodically throughout the day, and the ones just past noon were so long and loud that they felt like a summons. The longer they lasted, the more people came out on their balconies and flung open their windows. At the end of the clamor, the guy who has become the barrio’s deejay played the Spanish national anthem, like he does every night after the applause, and I wondered what the people across the way were thinking as I, a foreigner, a stranger, found myself feeling mingled love, and pride, and grief.
Back in normal times, I had no idea how Spain’s national anthem went. Nor the name of the prime minister. My Spanish vocabulary has increased in interesting ways: I’ve learned words like el brote (the outbreak) and tos (cough), as well as apoyar (to support) and mascarilla (mask).
In ways large and small, I am — we are — changing.