The Secret Second Life of Balconies
Too cold to sit outside, but no need to waste that space
German apartments are often small compared to the average American one. Besides, more people live in houses in America and have more room. Because space is at a premium, Germans know exactly how many square meters their place has and scratch their chins in wonder when they hear a description like three-bedroom apartment. Such vague classification would never satisfy. Just how big are those bedrooms, pray tell? And is it a live-in kitchen (sorry, that’s my best translation for Wohnküche)? How many square meters is the living room?
Clearly this bedroom-yardstick thing is wholly insufficient.
A smaller apartment also means that the refrigerators must be sized accordingly. Kitchen cabinetry is designed to include a special niche for the fridge to create a uniform front. We wouldn’t want an unseemly refrigerator messing up the look of our kitchen, would we? This also precludes buying a larger refrigerator since it wouldn’t fit into that niche. It would have to stand to the side, all on its own, looking very awkward.
I’m reminded of this when I visit the States and stroll over to the fridge to get some milk. I swing the door open and yikes. There’s a whole grocery store in there! The entire contents of my German refrigerator would easily fit into this door. How anybody finds anything in there is a mystery, although come to think of it, they often don’t. Every few weeks you have to go on a sort of treasure hunt, discovering moldy half-and-half in the back, last month’s leftover string beans which have since taken a life of their own, and then there’s the blue cheese experiment: We’ll just assume that the blue on this cheese is not the edible kind.
In the States I remember reading about kids playing in junkyards and getting trapped inside old refrigerators, the kind that still latched, and suffocating. This couldn’t happen here, since no kid could squeeze into these tiny fridges if they tried. Besides, there are no junkyards where you can just go dump whatever’s left over from the garage sale. Space is at a premium here in every sense, so garbage is carefully sorted. When Jim Croce sings about “junkyard dogs,” Germans just shake their heads in bewilderment. “Was ist das, ein junkyard Hund?”
That’s why as much as I hate to say good-bye to summer, I welcome the new refrigerator space that’s just a couple of months down the road. I’m talking about my balcony. As soon as it’s near freezing, it’s the perfect place for that leftover soup.
I had forgotten that this is not done back home until my niece Sarah came to visit. She was looking absent-mindedly out the balcony door and suddenly pointed and exclaimed.
“There’s soup on the balcony!” She was shocked.
At first I thought, well, of course, I put it there. Then I recalled that for her this was weird, so I laughed and explained about the tiny refrigerator. She nodded, but I had the feeling she thought it was, well, weird.
That’s all right. The tiny living space has also made a German out of me when it comes to the pantry. Each shelf is labelled and outfitted with just the right size closeable plastic box that snaps shut with a pleasing, audible click to maximize space. When my mother was visiting, I asked her to please go get the flour from the pantry. She opened the door, stopped and took a deep breath.
“Oh. Gosh, well, yes, I wanted to reorganize my pantry, too.”
The other alternative is to do what our neighbor Herr Stier does: He relocated the entire contents of his pantry to cabinets on the balcony. This way he gets the best of both worlds, all year round.