My Spanish apartment has a balcony, all cramped red tiles and ironwork. It sits one story above the street, overlooking a rose-colored church and leafy trellises on the building across the street. Fueled by the anxiety of an international move during a pandemic, I agonized over this balcony, searched for it in dozens of dark apartments until we finally stumbled upon this place and no other would do.
Now we live in this simple building next to the rosy church and two busy plazas: a joy to the urban heart. Will I ever get tired of watching people coming and going below? No day or hour brings exactly the same scene, although each recalls the others.
In the morning, children’s voices—their sweet chatter elevated from the rest—drift through the balcony into my bedroom. I glimpse them trotting to and from school.
In the evening, I hear the sounds of their boisterous play—often fútbol—from the neighboring squares. They assign teams—"¡Brasil, Alemania, Italia, Argentina, Uruguay, España!"—like a geography class.
At night, the balcony lets in cool air and cigarette smoke. Despite the pandemic’s spike in Madrid, our neighborhood’s vibrant tapas culture stubbornly persists. Clapping, music, and conversations from the flamenco bar next door linger, drifting over my bed as I sleep.
One night, the dancers come out on the sidewalk to chat after the show, flowery-headed women and well-coiffed men. I rush to the balcony’s edge, a giddy observer. Dressed for bed in my oversized t-shirt, I’m conscious that I can be seen, too.
Our balcony is as much a public space as it is private. I’ll admit to fussing over aesthetics. Our first week in Spain, I pointed out every beautiful balcony I saw from the street. “Look at the lovely woman watering her flowers with a purple watering can!” I said for the seventh time, exhausting my companions. “Look how that vine has overtaken the railing. Look at that little table!”
Now, on our balcony’s modest square meterage, I’ve arranged four plants. I rushed out to buy them the day we moved in, much to A.’s chagrin. Our small green mark on the city’s facade.
It’s not all vanity. Green life is my imagined prerequisite to making this place a home. In Oakland, A. and I lived in a veritable jungle—the collision of two nature-lover’s respective botanical collections. Now my Spanish plants bring me leafy satisfaction.
The first, a pale, beady succulent that some call ‘burro’s tail,’ hangs from one of the fence’s ornate iron swoops. Next to it sits the rosemary, flanked by a squat bush known as fortune’s spindle. The last, my favorite, is a tower of sparsely-flowered jasmine. These plants frame my vision of the street as much as they inform passer-bys’ views of us inside.
There is a fifth plant, a pale English ivy, that hangs in the bedroom, above the balcony doors. In the evening, when we fling the doors open to take in the fresh night air, fragrant with cigarettes, A. moves the plant to a spot above our dresser. In the morning, when we part the heavy curtains and the sun streams through the glass, A. takes great care to hang the ivy back above the balcony, where it can thrive in the light. This is the nature of his love, as it can be seen from the balcony, as diligent as the sun’s daily ascent.
My second night in our apartment, I speak with my mother on the phone. One of my sisters is eighteen, preparing to apply to college. As a product of my family’s formula, she’s somewhat enigmatic: subtle as the rest of us are obvious, organization amidst our chaos, resolve to our sensitivity. What does she dream of? I wonder out loud.
“I asked her that recently,” my mom says. “She told me she has a vision of herself living in another country. Standing on a balcony, then walking out into the streets. It’s funny. I told her that that’s always been my vision for myself, too. Traveling. The woman on the balcony. When I saw the pictures from your apartment, it felt like you were living my life!”
Three minds converge: the woman on the balcony. Why is the humble balcony the collective setting of our dreams?
In my own fantasies, the balcony has often been synonymous with travel and discovery. The balcony is a type of privilege: access, a vantage point, a time and place in which sustained observation is possible and encouraged. A window into a place’s sights and scents and nature. Like travel—and paired with travel—it exposes us to new things to consider. It opens up our lives. The light floods in.
The balcony is also an invitation to partake in the shared experience of the neighborhood. Yesterday evening, I met the eyes of my neighbor, leaning against his balcony rail to smoke a cigarette. Together, we listened to the dog barking in the apartment overhead and watched the the sky darken to a dusky blue. We heard the dull clang as a woman dropped her keys in the street and saw the subsequent scramble to pick them up. People passed by below. My neighbor and I stood, neither together, nor fully alone. Two people facing the street at the same time.
Unlike most shared spaces, the balcony lets you participate from a distance. This is one of its critical distinctions. As a woman, travel—like your life itself—is a constant balancing act. Weighing your basic human desire for connection, discovery, and interactivity against the realities of an often hostile world. Making sure you never get too close.
The balcony holds the possibility of connectivity without commitment. Interaction from afar. At home and above it all, you can temporarily forgo the safety pro and con list. You can stop looking over your shoulder. Maybe, for this reason, the balcony holds unique appeal for women. It doesn't replace more involved exchanges, lest we forget to walk into the street. But it’s an invitation—a place from which we can begin, safely, to partake.
Perspective, connection: isn’t that what we all hope for from our travel? Tomorrow, A. and I will pack our bags and step outside into the early morning darkness, walking the first leg of our daily journey via foot, metro, and commuter rail to school. But right now, from my perch, I see the world both close and distant. The children in the street. The arched dome of the church. Sweet A., making dinner in the kitchen. My own messy bedside table. The many scenes unfolding outside—and within. It's a good start.