Opposite, Above and Beyond: Ponderments from a Balcony

From my fourth floor apartment’s balcony I have a spectacular view of… someone else’s balcony. In our particular part of town, the apartment blocks are packed together so snugly that, should one choose to sit on the balcony and soak up some sun (for the seventeen minutes a day when it isn’t eclipsed by other apartment blocks), one can enjoy highly entertaining, picturesque scenes of people hanging out their washing, taking in their washing, or (if you’re lucky) having a fag. What’s more, the mirrored glass of the apartments opposite allows us to observe these same fascinating happenings on the balconies above, beside and below ours.

BalconyIn the evenings, when lights are switched on, we can watch the goings on in other people’s living rooms. There are so many to choose from, it’s a bit like having split-screen television where you can watch several programmes at once. Incidentally – that’s what most people are doing of course – watching television. Occasionally we see people sitting around and eating together, or children running about. We saw a couple having a big argument once. It’s all a bit Rear Window

Growing up in Kent in the 1980s, I didn’t know anyone who lived in a property with a balcony. Balconies seemed impossibly exciting and romantic: a part of the house that is outside? That’s virtually Narnia! Balconies spoke to me of fairy tale and romance – dramatic escapes and passionate serenades, stately homes or Romeo and Juliet. After a wonderful summer holiday in Spain in 1985, balconies came to be associated in my mind with sunshine and views over the Mediterranean, and that kind of joyous, penetrating warmth that soaks right into your British bones and melts your cold, tight muscles. Balconies should be slightly tatty, with cracked marble floors and a layer of sun-bleached paint peeling away in the heat; they should be covered with ivy or attractive climbing plants such as, perhaps, wisteria or, in hotter climates, bougainvillea. They should, in my mind, be a place to sit and contemplate, to drink tea or a  G&T, perhaps – a place of peace and perspective… Not a noisy, voyeuristic, dust-clad misery-shelf that represents a terrifying health-and-safety hazard for our accident-prone cat.

We used to grow plants on our balcony, but they didn’t last long. We went away for a few days in the scorching summer months and they got cooked in their pots. Like a husband left alone with a tempting sheaf of takeaway menus, plants in pots are incapable of looking after themselves. We tried growing tomatoes, but they couldn’t cope with the unnatural combination of intense heat and little direct sunlight, and the total yield of our six plants was just one small red fruit. It was so pitiful I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. It sat on the windowsill in the kitchen until it puckered, withered and died. Oh, how I long for a little bit of earth!

Balcony2On the balconies of the building opposite, maids and cleaners have sneaky cigarettes and tearful telephone conversations with their families back home; they beat rugs, sweep the floor and wipe the dust from the balcony railings. When one lives in the desert, wiping the dust from the balcony railings is a task akin to the painting of the Fourth Bridge. I gave up on it long ago. “Where there’s dust, there’s peace,” my Mum always says. And peace would be lovely – but it’s horribly noisy on our balcony: the incessant churning of the generators on the building site opposite, the angry beeping of cars stuck in traffic, the screeching of tyres or revving of powerful engines. As I write this, at 6.26pm, the sun is setting, the traffic is growling and stagnating, and the call to prayer can be heard from the nearby mosque, its resonant, mystical notes soaring above the noise and the heat and the dust.

As I sat here yesterday, a scrap of paper fell onto the balcony, dropped or discarded from a balcony above. It appeared to be some sort of list written in Arabic. In my mind it was something cryptic and exciting but it probably just said: milk, eggs, washing powder. This happens all the time – bits of other people’s lives falling into ours. It’s usually disgusting bits of other people’s lives, like cigarette butts and chewing gum, but occasionally there’s something more interesting – a torn photograph and, last week, a nail file…

There aren’t many birds in this part of town. Regular readers will know that birdsong is one of the things I miss most about home. But sometimes a passing laughing dove will flap at the window, or a common myna will alight on the railing, whistling shrilly, as if to taunt the cat. She sits, rigid, on the other side of the French window, doing a silent, snarly face, opening and closing her jaw, as if she’s biting down on its jugular in her little, tigery imagination. But, because we’re so divorced from nature here (and because I’m a sentimental fool), a brief visit from a pigeon can feel ridiculously symbolic. Like a dove with an olive branch, these rare, feathery messengers tell me that there is life, there is nature, there is hope… somewhere beyond the tower blocks…

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60 Comments

  1. Rick

    As we are all coming to expect (and indeed eagerly look forward to every week), another beautifully observed piece of writing, with the sadly familiar bitter sweet twist.

    • Thank you! I hope it’s not too sad to read. Hopefully we will be moving in the summer to somewhere a bit more peaceful. Who knows – we may even get a little bit of earth!

  2. skavop

    I’m sure lots of your readers will file away for future use your mum’s saying, “Where there’s dust, there’s peace”.

  3. Absolutely loved this post 😀 YOur all-original split screen TV must be so much more fun than real TV! Sending you the bird song from the finches arguing for the seeds on our mini, forged iron balcony and the starlings hanging out in the poplar trees….

    • Thank you! The gift of virtual bird song is much appreciated. Fancy doing a similar post? I’d love to compare our balcony views / ponderments 🙂

      • Sounds like a great idea, as my view is totally different to yours. But if I do it, you have to promise not to hit the Prozac 😉

      • 😀 It’s therapy! I’ve got very good at vicarious pleasure…

      • Just to let you know: my balcony is on view on my blog. Hide the Prozac and go and have a peek 🙂

      • So beautifully written – and a gorgeous picture! Am jealous of your birdlife 😦

      • I’d like to see some of the real life you have going on in front of your place, too – I just get the oldies wandering up and down with their gardening paraphernalia 🙂 Guess that the grass is always greener, huh?

      • In your case it quite literally is – we have no grass here at all!!

  4. Lovely bitter sweet piece! I love balconies, in fact I think I’m obsessed with balconies. Even when they are sad, dusty little things suspended above the commotion of traffic. As long as they are there, life is bearable. I now know that one of things I could never do (again) is live in a flat with no balcony.

    • Very true – I’m sure the apartment would be a lot more claustrophobic without it! Thanks so much for reading 🙂

  5. I was about to do some cleaning but I decided to take your mum’s advice instead. Thanks for making my Saturday! 🙂

    • 😀 Good for you! Another one of Mum’s favourites is, ‘A tidy woman is a boring woman.’ We should be positively proud of our untidy homes as it shows we have far better things to do with our time than dusting… 😉

      • Rick

        An even better one of her’s, (which may have come from somewhere else originally) is, “a clean house is a sign of a wasted life”.

      • I’m particularly fond of that one. I might get some of these on t-shirts… Or embroidered on wall hangings for the apartment 🙂

  6. Chris W

    You’re in danger of being upstaged by your Mother…

  7. Well written! It does sound like a stark place, nature-wise. I’m going to start using some of your mum’s sayings.

    • Very wise 😀 Maybe she should be writing a blog, come to think of it…

      • Yep, on how to make procrastinating housewives feel really good about themselves!

  8. You manage to make me grateful for my cold, damp and dreary rural Wiltshire! I too let the dust lie today in favour of more interesting pursuits… Great post – love your blog 🙂

  9. Thanks to your mother I can now claim to have a peaceful house…ultra, in fact.
    You sound like a bird in a cage yourself in that part of the split screen you inhabit.
    Roll on a bit of earth coming your way.

    • Yes indeed – my house is thick with peace 🙂 Hopefully moving in a few months – I’m hoping and praying we can afford somewhere with a tiny garden…

  10. Great post. I felt as though I was sat on your balcony.

    • You are most welcome to do so. I shall put a beer in the fridge.

      • As soon as i get rid of this man flu I will book a flight. Is it hot there, because it is freezing here

      • It is very pleasant – mid to high 20s 🙂 Get well soon!

  11. Thanks so much for this window to your world. As a yankee from the states, I can hear your British accent through your writing and it brings a smile to my face. It sounds like you need some cacti, which might be the only thing that could grow in that dry heat.

    • Cacti are a great idea – I could have a whole balcony-garden of them! Thanks so much for dropping in! 🙂

  12. Alex

    See if you can watch a BBC production ‘wild Arabia’. Friday’s episode focused on the gulf’s marine life. I was surprised and wish I’d known about the diversity of existence down deep, Of course it issued an obvious warning, but there was an optimistic message too, fish were learning to survive and live amongst oil rigs, where there is life, there is hope, perhaps.

    • Hi Alex, Yes – I watched an episode of Wild Arabia on the iPlayer last week – loved it! Who’d have thought there was such an extraordinary wealth of wildlife out here. I shall definitely try to get to those Oman / Yemen mountains – absolutely beautiful! Thank you for reading and commenting!

  13. loved the stories you can read from watching the goings on on those balconies. Who knows maybe that piece of paper was not a shopping list at all? maybe a Filipino maid is locked away by her employer who has taken her passport and keeps her hostage, a cleaning slave, so the paper is her cry for help? and loved the analogy of the plants and the husbands left behind with take-away menus. Sounds just like mine… 😉

    • Oh crumbs – I hope it wasn’t a cry for help… I’ll keep my eyes peeled for further dropped clues or messages in bottles! 😀

  14. My mother always says that boring women have tidy homes, and I add, or a cleaner. 🙂
    I’ve lived in flats with a completely pointless balcony – too small to serve any purpose at all except leaning over to spy on the street. It would have been fine but the street was too boring to deserve such study!

    When we lived in Perpignan we had a series of balconies and my cats would do a death leap from one to the other. It’s a windy city and one day, one of them got blown off and landed on the pavement. Luckily we lived on the first floor but it was pretty high up all the same. 🙂 She was a bit miffed but that was all.

    • Oh heavens, the poor little cat! I’m too terrified to let mine on the balcony. She frequently falls off the sofa / the bed when distracted by something – and we’re on the fourth floor…! I suppose the balcony would be useful if a member of the family smoked. Maybe I’ll take up smoking to give it more of a purpose… 🙂

  15. I love balconies and feel I am slightly obsessed with them. However, there does need to be some sort of view doesn’t there? Other people in their undies doesn’t really cut it. Just had a look at MultifariousMeanderings’ balcony….wow! Great view! Tres jealous!

    • Tres jealous aussi! There does indeed need to be some sort of view… And people in undies is certainly not the sort of wildlife I’m after…

  16. Your balcony sounds like a little bit of “no mans land”

  17. My balcony experience is limited to the holiday type, with swimsuits draped over the railings to dry, and I’m trying to imagine life with a tiny balcony as my only bit of oputside space. No wonder you long to move and pray for a garden.

    It’s interesting that until I found your blog I always thought of Dubai as exotically different and therefore attractive, but here you describe somewhere more like one of the outer circles of Dante’s Inferno. 🙂

    • Hello Perpetua! Oh, it’s certainly not all bad out here – it has its charms… And being able to dry a damp swimsuit on the balcony railings is one of them! 🙂

  18. Loved the whole blog – especially the husband and takeaway menu bit! So true! I used to live in an apartment with a balcony once – it overlooked a tennis court but sadly Roger Federer never came to play there! Sigh!!!

    • Still – that’s something interesting to watch. I’m currently watching the window cleaners being blown about by the wind in their little window-cleaning cage, suspended a LONG WAY off the ground…

  19. Congratulations! You are the featured blog on my blog! Fame and fortune awaits!

    • Wowee – thank you so much! What a lovely idea to have a featured blog… I shall investigate doing something similar… So chuffed – thank you! 🙂

      • Chuffed. Never heard that one. I’ve been away from Britain too long!

    • Am going to start a Featured Blog thing today… Only right and proper that you should be my first one! 🙂

  20. You do have a real way with words.
    We lived in an apt in Paris… with windows open in the summer it was a bit like having eighteen or so roommates. Sneezing, coughing, conversations, sometimes even streams of urine and flushing toilets were all shared. If I’m completely honest, after growing up mostly an only child, I liked it.
    cheers…..wendy

    • The sense of community could be nice I suppose, if you all knew each other… Somehow it all seems a bit more Bohemian and romantic with Paris as the backdrop!

  21. PJ

    I love the phrase “dust-clad misery-shelf”, I have one of those, it’s where I put bills.

  22. Loved this piece. Of course it made me hopelessly jealous – I listened to the nightingale recording several times! We should encourage other expats to write balcony pieces – it could be a sort of series of connected pieces giving us an idea of the different views and perspectives being enjoyed right now all over the world… 🙂

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Lucy Strange

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