Yesterday, as I was painting a scene from my childhood, I had a revelation. My most cherished memories from that time of my life are located in gardens: my grandmother’s garden in southern Romania, where I grew up, the garden of Tarasov family in the Danube Delta, where I spent holidays with my family each summer and where the said painting was inspired from, the garden of Anca, my friend from the Delta, and I am sure I could find a few more.
What is it about gardens that makes them so special to me? This is what I was asking myself last night, as I was falling asleep. What follows is the explanation I came with, and, too lazy to make notes, I only hoped it would not vanish until the morning. It did not.
Gardens are nature, and nature is sense pleasing. There is a bit for each sense in a good garden: the delicate image and texture of flowers, their delightful scents, the buzz of insects, the singing of birds, the rustle of leaves in the trees, the deliciousness of self-grown fruits and vegetables. What a heavenly abundance a garden is. Oh! Heaven is a garden, too.
What separates a garden from the wild, virgin nature is the fence. The human intervention. The garden is domesticated. The garden is safe. And it is exactly this combination of safe and natural that makes it so appealing to me.
I now understand why I have always had such fascination for the Islamic art. I thought it was the intricate decoration, its symmetry and colour, when, in fact, what amazed my eye was the representation of the garden. On buildings, ceramics, or tapestry, there it is: the garden, with its abundance of vegetal and animal shapes. The Persian carpet’s aim was to bring the garden inside the home. The garden itself is a creation of the Arab world, and a very hedonistic one at that, with flora, fauna, but also swirling waterways and melodic fountains. Who said heaven was a place on earth must have referred to such a garden. I understood that while strolling through the Generalife Gardens of Alhambra, the Moorish fortress in Andalusia.
What about parks? Certain parks are called gardens, and that for a very good reason. Whoever walked through Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, Villa Borghese in Rome, or my favourite, Tapada das Necessidades in Lisbon would agree. And for sure there are more. Visiting most parks, however, is to me a more depressing experience than visiting my storage room. Both are crowded, messy, weird, which is why I avoid them.
As I grew older and led a more urban existence, first in Romania, then in The Netherlands, I substituted the garden with its city equivalent – the balcony or, even better, the rooftop terrace.
One does not see many people on balconies in Bucharest. In summer, it is too hot, in winter, it is too cold. The balcony becomes a storage space, fully shelved, fully packed, hermetically closed by windows, reclaimed from the outside world once and for all. If there are blinds, they are lowered. If there are shutters, they are shut. Romanian city dwellers could not care less about nature. For that, they go to the countryside on the weekend, to the mountains or the sea.
My initiation to the balcony lifestyle happened in Amsterdam. My first home here came with a terrace, where I sat to drink, eat, sunbathe, read, all while watching the trees on top of which it seemed I was floating, the planes on their approach to Schiphol, and indulging into the sounds of domestic life coming from the neighbouring windows, balconies, terraces. This was a new kind of nature for me to enjoy – the urban nature.
How I missed this terrace when I changed apartments. The second home, while better located, only came with a so-called French balcony, a euphemism for a window with balustrade.
Now, at my third home in Amsterdam, I can again enjoy the perks of having a balcony, from where I can see the trees changing colour throughout the seasons, the sky changing colour throughout the days, and think the kind of thoughts only nature is able to provide, urban nature included.
It is fair to say I remember the places in which I have lived so far more by the view they provided – from their windows or, better yet, from their balconies – rather than the quality of their interior. Because the view sets the mood, and, if it makes an impression to any of my senses, the mood is easily turned to memory. And so, it stays with me. It persists. It is not forgotten.
When I travel, I appreciate a good view just as much, maybe even more so. The stay is short, so it must compensate through intensity. And while it feels wonderful to walk the streets of a new city, make new discoveries, take beautiful photos, visit the surroundings, the day starts and ends at home, be it a rental apartment or a hotel room. And at home we have the balcony, the window, the view.
No wonder that is where my most persistent travel memories reside, stronger than those I make on the street, at the restaurant, at the museum, on the nearby beach. Perhaps they are only equaled in intensity by those made on the road, moving from one place to another, an activity which also allows for views and contemplation.
But my balcony moments remain special. I remember each of them precisely. The view, the sounds, the feeling of being there.
Palermo. The balcony with views all the way to the sea. The fresh smell of my clothes drying in the Sicilian sun, the masts of the vessels glittering in the distance, the sounds of the people crowding the streets at night and keeping me awake for hours.
Lisbon. The balcony with views to the river. The pink sky at sunrise, the pastel houses with terracotta rooftops, which I could also see from the shower. The flickering lights of the planes flying over the 25 de Abril Bridge at dusk and later, when the night falls, those from the windows across the river, a thousands tiny dots like some sort of terrestrial stars.
Seville. The rooftop terrace, azotea. Again laundry drying in the sun, me lying in the sun, late breakfasts and late night drinks, the sounds of the bells from Santa Ana church and those of convivial Sevillians with no interest in sleeping.
Athens. The balcony on the hill. A cup of coffee in my hands and the city spreading at my feet like a white molecule, hill after hill, all the way to the sea. The water tanks shining like silver. The white canopies at balconies. The olive trees, the orange trees, the honey-coloured Acropolis at night.
Crete. The balcony floating over the sea. The moments before sunrise when the island appears like a dark animal spreading its members on the shore, exhausted after a long swim, perhaps the survivor of a shipwreck. The breakfast with Cretan pastries, fat yoghurt, and honey. The sunrise, the sunset. The disturbing feeling that you are not staying long enough. Because you don’t want to leave. Because life has a whole new meaning now when you live it one day at a time, like the sun does.
I could go on, but I stop here.
It feels good to live in a city where the balcony gets what the balcony deserves – appreciation, company even. No bigger sun worshippers than northern Europeans, and the Dutch are quite eager at that. If there is no balcony, legs or bellies or both are displayed on window sills from the first rays of sunshine of the year up until the last ones. No sunny second is wasted here and, as a sun worshipper myself, I am absolutely delighted.
Impossible not to notice then, during my travels to sunnier lands, that not many people sit on balconies there. Perhaps the sun is too strong and the beach is too close. But we, the visitors, love those balconies. We sit on them in the morning to sip coffee, we might even skip a meal just to remain there and finish that bottle of wine, infatuated with the view, the joy of travel, and fully assured that there will be no cloud in view tomorrow either. Or the day after tomorrow. No cloud for the whole week.
When we walk along the streets, we look up at those empty balconies and imagine living in each and every one of them. Sometimes we think for ourselves, other times we can no longer hold it and we burst out to our companions: “God, how I wish I lived in a house with a balcony like that!” We imagine a perfect existence there, as if that balcony alone has the magic power to dissolve problems or at least to make some happy memories for us.