Strangers in a Strange Land

Twenty-four years ago, six months after M and I married, we moved from Austin to Germany. Needless to say, 9/10s of our friends advised against this step. That we lived to tell that tale is testament to our strong bonds (or deep inertia). When we moved back to the U.S. two years later, I let my passport expire. Been there, done that I thought, dusting my hands of the whole endeavour and moving right along to other life-changing experiences like … pregnancy and parenthood.

I’d never even been to Europe before we moved to Germany. In college, I’d been so terrified by the idea of setting foot in a country where I didn’t speak the language I considered only Australia for a semester abroad (I ended up going to UGA instead).

When we got to Frankfurt, I had three phrases: please, thank you and where is the bathroom? I immediately started taking classes at the free community school. One day, after walking home from class past the junkies who shot up in the wasteland between school and our apartment, I discovered, hanging from our doorknob, a laminated square of paper labeled Haus Ordnung (House Order). The purpose of this document was opaque, though eventually I figured out maintenance of the apartment building’s common spaces rotated from apartment to apartment each week. Once a week, the stairwells and entryway were to be swept and mopped (preferably on hands and knees with a bucket and a scrub brush); once a resident finished their turn, they hung the Haus Ordnung on the door of the apartment above theirs.

Spain of course is a whole ‘nother animal. No haus ordnung here — here, keeping the stairwells clean is one of the responsibilities of a building’s porter. And they really are clean. Yesterday, not only was there no mud tracked into our building, the embellishments on the door to our actual apartment were completely dust-free.

One problem; two approaches to solving it. Which begs the question: do apartment stairways and landings get cleaned in the U.S.? Whose job is that? If you can draw conclusions from COVID times, it might be that as a culture we want neither to band together for the common good nor to pay to make sure that common good gets taken care of.

Which creates a hell of an impasse, so to speak.

I’ve taken lots of photographs of apartment building lobbies since we moved here. This makes sense: because of COVID restrictions, the neither-here-nor-there of entrances and lobbies are as close a glimpse of private Spanish life as I’m going to get (plus, it’s easier to take pictures of doors than people).

Most lobbies and entryways have similar features, whether they’re from the 1870s or the 1970s. There’s a chandelier — ornate jewels dripping crystals in older buildings, tawdry imitations in the newer ones. There’s a green plant, sometimes real, occasionally plastic. And always, tile — from traditional multi-colored arabesques to chunky earth tones that scream out the 1970s.

Apartment lobbies are in-between, transitional spaces that borrow details from home but aren’t home. Meant to be travelled through quickly, in normal times, they don’t bear much thinking about.

But here we are, in completely not-normal, liminal times. The old pre-COVID life is behind us. New ways lie ahead, but what will they look like?

For now, we’re stuck in that way station (that apartment lobby complete with faux-plant?) in between. Familiar — but not.

A space to be moved through.