Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Star-Crossed Balconies

By Beth Green

Photo by JP
At the age of nine, when I wasn’t making up elaborate (and slightly shocking) stories about what Barbie and Ken were up to, I’d devote hours to drawing my dream house. I pestered my father until he gave me a half-unused notebook of graph paper. Then I would carefully sharpen all my hoarded Faber-Castell colored pencils, and set about drawing elaborate, fantastical floor plans. These dreamy blueprints encompassed private filming rooms for the movie studio I was sure to one day run, stables full of horses

I’d one day learn how to ride, swimming pools shaped like mythical beasts, ballrooms fit for the princess I imagined myself to be, and, in every bedroom, a white-railed balcony.

For where would Juliet have been without her balcony?

When I was 18, I finally moved into my own place, a two-bedroom apartment in Moscow, Idaho, which I shared with a roommate, a couch-surfer, and a friendly ghost who liked turning my CD player on randomly at night when I was home alone and scaring the bejeezus out of me. We had a bathtub, a purple carpet, but, alas, no balcony. The building itself was a handsome marvel of western, small-town America. Built of red-brick, the former hotel housed some of the town’s best bars and restaurants and dozens of apartments.

After a year there, for a few months I lived in a tiny studio apartment tucked under a common metal stairwell in Bend, Oregon. In the evenings I looked out the windows at the tenants’ car lot and the ankles of my upstairs neighbors coming down the stairs, and dreamed that one day, I could rise in the world.

Photo by JimBap
Later that year I moved to Spain, a country whose streets are studded with handsome, dignified half-moon balconies complete with elegant wrought-iron railings and pots of bright and trailing flowers. I’d walk down the roads of my neighborhood during the siesta and gaze up at the green shutters above me. Occasionally, an old woman would peer down while hanging up her laundry. I’d glimpse TVs flickering in the living rooms beyond, sleepy cats flicking their tails through the bars of the balconies. But did I get one? No, I somehow managed to find an apartment—perhaps the only one in the city?—without a balcón.

After university I transitioned to working in Florida, in a retirement community where I’d often tell people how to find me: “Don’t worry, I’ll be the youngest person in the room.”

The architecture here matched the terrain—flat. The movers and shakers there had, not towers, but estates--one-level suburban palaces coiled around the turquoise shallows of their swimming pool and embraced by green swaths of imported grass. The residents were protected by 12-foot-high gates, which in turn were surrounded by strip-malls. A balcony here translated into a terrace, a patio,or a sun-room. I rented a unit in a converted motel by the beach and fed stray cats on the cracked concrete path, pretending it was my own Mediterranean suite.

Travel called me again, and I answered, starting all over in the Czech Republic. If Spain is meant to have balconies, then Prague is meant to have spires on its buildings, but they don’t lack for balconies either. My “flat”—as I took to calling the plain old American “apartment”—was in a building more than 150 years old. Each day when I walked down my neighborhood streets, I’d gaze up and notice some new detail—a plaster cherub, a particularly arched window—that I hadn’t seen before, even after several years of passing by. My building had squeaky wooden floors, an ample kitchen, double-paned glass windows, and quirky neighbors, but, again, I lacked a balcony.

Original oil, Ford Madox Brown, 1870
Four and a half years following in China found me living in an ivory tower separated from the crowded streets by key-card entry and uniformed guards, in a haphazardly-split 1980s-built unit in a building too short to warrant a permit for an elevator (you need six floors or more, too bad if you’re in apartment 501), in an ageing beauty queen of housing estates, where taxi drivers never needed more than the name of the development to bring me to my door.

And still, no balcony.

This week, I’m setting up a new home in Cebu City, Philippines. I’ve looked at a multitude of places to rent. A two bedroom, brand-new townhouse. A three-bedroom faded-glory affair on a back street above a shipping company. An upmarket studio slightly more homey than a hotel room. A minuscule “two-bedroom” apartment that took out the kitchen to provide the extra bedroom. But all of them, every single one, has got a balcony. Whichever apartment I choose, I get to be Juliet. I get to have a balcony.

My boyfriend’s getting a memo in the morning: Time to start rehearsals. “Tis the East…


  1. Oh, Beth, I'm with you. When I was growing up, we had a porch that circled two sides of the house. I used to roller skate on it. I've had patios, and screened porches, and decks, and balconies. Now I have a space, part terrace, part balcony, where I can sit hidden from the hubbub of Roman traffic. I have a lamp for reading in the dark and a fan to keep me cool in August heat. I'm even thinking of a kerosene heater for the winter. Enjoy your balcony, Juliet.

  2. Patricia, that sounds like a slice of heaven right there! Do you write out there as well, or just muse?