On Russian Balconies

On a recent visit to Istanbul I stayed in an apartment looking out on the Bosphorus. Every morning I’d get up and see the sun sparkling on the surface of the water as birds circled languidly overhead. At night it was even better, as the thumping techno from the pleasure boats and the call of the Muezzin intermingled. It was very different from my usual mode of accommodation when I travel: cheap hotels, dirt, and the lingering possibility of sudden, violent death.

In many ways it was the culmination of a quest that began years ago in my hometown of Dunfermline in Scotland. Over there, you don’t see too many balconies. It’s too windy and wet. Yet I remember one house that had a huge balcony on the second floor. I used to walk past, wishing I lived there. I didn’t care that it was useless, that if I sat up there the wind would probably pick me up and drop me in the North Sea. I only saw the ideal of open living, close to the sky.

Years later in Moscow, I was surprised to discover that many apartments had balconies. I remember my first, in the north of the city. Intensely excited, I opened the door and stepped out, only to inhale the fumes from thousands of Zhigulis charging down Leningradskoye Schosse. The noise was incredible. A month later, and it was below zero out there. The door remained shut until I left.

Here the gap between the dream and the reality was even greater than in Scotland, but still, Soviet builders had fostered the illusion of open living, close to the sky. A few years later I was living in Moscow’s old German Quarter. From my window I could see a chemist’s that had been frequented by Peter the Great, and a market shaped like a flying saucer (one day the roof collapsed.) Beneath me, homeless alcoholics hung about, swigging the samogon they bought from my neighbor. He also kept pigeons. The sky was filled with birds.

Ideal for a balcony! Except when I stepped outside it trembled beneath my feet, as if ready to disintegrate. I retreated inside, and never set foot on it again.

Another flat was in Central Moscow, and from my window I could see the tower of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That balcony was even shakier, and tiny to boot: barely big enough for one person standing. Death awaited six stories below. I chose life.

All these balconies were a nice idea, but impractical; and the execution was terrible. Welcome to Russia. Perhaps my problem was that I was fixated on the idea of a chair, blue sky, and the warm sun. The Russians I knew were wiser. They were pragmatic people, accustomed to re-purposing and re-inventing the many things in their lives that didn’t work or didn’t make sense. One landlord viewed my balcony as a good place to deposit the remains of a dead toilet after it exploded. It is probably still there to this day: RIP, O my porcelain throne. Many friends used theirs for storage, as Americans do their massive garages.

Meanwhile, in a city where living space is scarce, a balcony paradoxically represents privacy. People can briefly escape their claustrophobic home environments in this semi- public area open to the elements, and smoke, or drink tea, or simply stare at the clouds. I’ve no idea how many acts of love take place on Russian balconies, but I’d imagine the figure is substantial. In the era of communal apartments, nocturnal fumbling frequently took place on the steps outside. A balcony is a major improvement.

You can live on a balcony too. A good friend of mine shared one room with his wife, son and daughter. Fortunately for them, they had a covered balcony, so when the boy turned sixteen he moved out there and slept on the narrow strip of concrete five floors up. I’m not sure what he did in the winter, though. Did he move back inside? Or bring a heater outside?

So that was it for Russian balconies. But in Istanbul, after years of experiencing so many mutations of the concept, I finally arrived at my Platonic ideal: warm, light, and beautiful. Voyager, seek no more! Ye shall know fulfillment.

And yet… perhaps not. In Texas, they don’t have many balconies but rather a related sub-species, known as a “deck”. My neighbor has a beautiful one, a raised wooden platform under an awning outside her backdoor. She has tables, chairs, even fans overhead. Of course she hardly ever uses it because most of the time it’s far too hot, while in the cooler, autumn months, swarms of hungry mosquitoes descend in search of bloody nourishment.

Even so, as I stare at my own dismal slab of concrete, barely big enough for two chairs, never mind a table, well… I think of that useless balcony in Scotland so many years ago. And it’s still there, calling to me, making promises of what could be, in an ideal world; but if my toilet ever blows up I’ll know where to put it until the garbage man comes.

14/11/2012 RIA-N

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