Balconies and Stairs

What gives a place that almost indescribable feeling of invitation, that ‘yes, this is a good place to be’? The Chinese call it Fengshui, the way of ensuring that the spirits of wind and water are favourably aligned. The Dutch call it geselleg, the Danes huggeligt, but even here the words are merely an effort to speak of what perhaps cannot be spoken. While it may be possible to come up with some architectural or spatial elements of what makes lived space feel welcoming and inviting, ultimately it is a question of feeling.

For me, stairs and balconies make a place, draw me in and entice me to stay a while. Inside, the best is an almost endless staircase that has a surprise at each level. In one home, wide wooden stairs marked the passage from room to room, for each one was at a different level. Up and up I would go: up from garage to lounge room (or perhaps a study or even a bedroom – it functions variously as each one of these), up to the kitchen and dining area where people met and ate and talked and argued, up to a bedroom, and up once more to the final level, with its bedroom and bathroom. Each time I needed anything, stairs were needed, often many. No choice here, even if one was weary, sick, or using a walking stick. Clothes to be washed: down to the garage. A meal to be cooked: yet more stairs. The toilet: up or down stairs. A book to be retrieved: whatever level it was shelved, for bookshelves populated every level. Stairs were the pivot, the core of the place, defining what it meant to be at home.

That place also boasted not one, but two balconies. The first, coming off the kitchen and communal space, was a simple cement affair. A narrow ledge, really, baked by the western sun in summer, smitten with rain in the winter. But in the evenings, it provided a quiet space when I was on my own. Here I could surreptitiously open a wine bottle and broach a packet of cigarettes and sit for hours. Why surreptitiously? If my teenage daughters, the youngest of whom was with me more often than not, knew what I did from time to time while I pondered the universe, they would kill me.

The other balcony actually came off that youngest daughter’s bedroom. A teenager at high school, she would invite her friends over, for a party perhaps, or after a long day at the beach in summer, or to talk endlessly about those things that interest teenage girls so much. This balcony looked out over a patch of trees, with their branches hanging low. Often a tawny frogmouth owl would sit close by, sleeping off and digesting the delectable catch from the previous night’s hunting – mice, cockroaches, what have you. Below it would leave its massive white droppings. But every now and then, a noise from the balcony would wake it momentarily. It would cast an angry glance at whatever had disturbed its slumber, only to close its eyes and drop off once again.

The place that followed was also blessed with stairs and balconies. Now it was a long, steep and winding staircase, taking one upward and outward. Once, the place had been quarters for servants who worked in the mansion next door. Originally, it had four simple rooms, two above the other two. A fireplace burned in each room down below and chimneys passed through the rooms above – providing warmth and dryness in winter. Later it had been extended outwards and upwards, and more stairs added. I would clamber up the first flight and find myself on a small landing, one door leading left to an oddly angled room that could be just about anything (it did service in more ways one can imagine); the other door on the right would take me into a grand bedroom and out onto the balcony. Yet the stairs led upward again, through a narrow space like a tunnel and bursting out it in a sudden impression of space and openness. Here was an attic, one that had been roughly carved out of the roof space, with views over the harbour and towards the mountains. Much wider and higher than the two floors beneath it, it felt like a platform on a narrower pedestal or column below. Of course, the openness of the attic and the windows generated that feeling of space, but that feeling struck every time I climbed the stairs.

Descent was another matter, risking twisted ankles, ruptures vertebrae or even a neck. One may as well have been descending a cliff face given their precipitousness. I had to place my foot gingerly sideways on each step, careful not the slip and bump on my arse all the way down. Why so narrow? Space and height had something to do with it, for the servants quarters were barely a room’s width across and the ceilings were high indeed. But I wondered whether the builder hadn’t been a Dutchman. Yes, a Dutchman, for in the Netherlands nearly all the stairs are as narrow. The reason – or so I have been told – is that the Dutch had to pay tax on the total floor space, including the width of the stairs. So in order to save a few cents, they made their stairs as narrow as possible, thereby cutting down the total space of a dwelling. And it was certainly a Dutchman who was a self-taught builder, for the stairs were never quite straight, the windows ill-fitting, the doors at wonky angles, the materials scrounged and not always appropriate.

A balcony there was too, one that opened out from the second floor through double doors. With ‘well-weathered’ timber – that is, rotten – as its floor and paint peeling from the railings, it was more like a crumbling ledge on a mountain side. Yet here you could sit for long hours and look over the street. Two old women would meet and talk with all the time in the world. Children would scurry past on the way to and from school. People would rush at 5pm to find a car park, since then the restrictions came to an end. Given the layout of the street, with its three-storey terraces and balconies overhanging the footpaths, the acoustics were brilliant. I could hear every word spoken, every argument, every screech at a child, every creak, groan and footfall. But I could also espy the ocean, past the top of the hill, and judge the conditions of the surf. For my daughters, this was the real benefit of the balcony. From this crow’s nest, they would determine whether the sea was worth a swim. A call to friends, a quick change and they were off.

My new place too has stairs and a balcony. In fact, since I live on the top of a rocky hill, the stairs are impossible to avoid. Worn sandstone stairs appear where a footpath towers above the street, or where a street suddenly comes to an end at a cliff-face, or through an overgrown park and beneath ancient fig trees. Much needed they are, since otherwise one would need ropes and mountain climbing gear to deal with the ledges and slopes. Or long runs of cracked cement stairs to the vantage point such as the Obelisk, a shipping beacon and vantage point for 180 degree views of the ocean, harbour and city. Whatever way I turn, whichever direction I go, I must descend and ascend stairs, to the railway station, to the pub, to the cathedral, to the beach, to my daughter’s place (she now lives at the home with the handmade Dutch stairs).

And my home now also has a balcony, or rather a sunroom, for the balcony was at some point filled in with windows. Here I can use my small binoculars to provide the shipping news, for it looks over the harbour. Every coal tanker, container ship, tug, or harbour dredging vessel passes by, in or out of the harbour. Each one I study, checking its name, country of origin, registration, size, and nature of the bridge. Soon enough I will be on one again, sailing to yet another port in the world. Of course, I can get to the port only by long flights of stairs.

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