The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

The year of the balcony: how a pandemic and music brought neighbours together

Pre-pandemic, journalist, singer and author Hadani Ditmars was travelling for book research in Iraq and teaching at King's College in London. Since the lockdown, she has been at home in Vancouver, spending much of her time inside, writing about the human costs of sectarian strife, and about cultural resistance in war zones. The air on her balcony has provided needed escape and relief. And, as it turns out, much more.

'When historians look back on 2020, they might call it — among many other things — the year of the balcony'

Hadani Ditmars is a writer, photojournalist and performing artist in Vancouver. (Submitted by Hadani Ditmars)

Hadani Ditmars, special to CBC Radio

For the longest time I didn't even know his name.

He lived across the lane and we met every evening, like clockwork, at 7 p.m. to cheer our front-line workers. We never spoke, but I'd see him standing there with his parents every night, and we'd wave to each other from our balconies. He had the cutest little bowl-cut hairdo, and often sported teddy bear trousers.

One night I brought out my African drum to keep rhythm to the clapping, and he brought out his dad's drumsticks and kept the beat on their railing. I admit there was a big age difference — he wasn't quite three years old — but we really enjoyed each other's company, and he responded to my drumming. In the midst of pandemic isolation, my first love of making music with children was having a comeback, albeit from a very safe distance.

During the day, I toiled away in my apartment, working on a book chapter about the ruined old city of Mosul in Iraq, trying not to get too depressed by the news. I would look forward to our nightly intergenerational jam sessions. We soon had a kind of call-and-response percussion thing going that blended in nicely with the neighbourhood pots and pans.

In the midst of pandemic isolation, my first love of making music with children was having a comeback, albeit from a very safe distance.- Hadani Ditmars

Before long I was talking with his parents, a lovely young couple from Switzerland, who also had a seven-month-old baby. I learned that my toddler musician pal's name was Elio — from the Greek word for the sun — his father told me. Our musical meetings were a bright point in my day. No matter how awful the daily news, seeing Elio banging away on the balcony with such enthusiasm would lighten my heart.

The nightly ritual soon became an opportunity for me to practise some long-neglected songs — both a capella and on my guitar — and my balcony became a place for both performance and community connection. In this city, where so many of us are socially isolated at the best of times, it took a pandemic to encourage both.

Gradually, I got to know some of my other lane neighbours as well. The lady who always played her television too loudly turned out to play a mean saucepan. And the middle-aged couple across from me introduced themselves and asked if I could play Alicia Keys's tribute to front-line workers, Good Job. I could not, but I was delighted to be having a conversation of sorts with them for the first time since I moved into my apartment eight years ago.

After several nights of singing rumba flamenca and Romancero gitano songs accompanied by my Spanish guitar, I learned — as I noticed them expertly keeping rhythm with palmitas — that the family across the lane was from Spain. One night, even the millennial dude on the lane with the palm tree and hammock came out with a beer, and a friend, and gave me a thumbs up as I sang Leonard Cohen's So Long, Marianne.

Each morning I would try to think of an appropriate song to play, and then quickly brush up on the words and chords. Using the same little iPhone mic I'd used a few months earlier to record displaced people in Iraq, I began to record my songs, accompanied by an eclectic neighbourhood rhythm section. I posted them on Facebook and tagged front-line worker friends around the world. A doctor I know in Cuba sent a happy face and a gracias back. An Afghan medic hearted one of my videos. My little balcony, crammed with an earnest victory garden in pots, and a Venezuelan hammock, became a kind of portal.

One evening, after I sang a Zarah Leander cabaret song from the '30s, my upstairs neighbour from Frankfurt, who'd been self-isolating for weeks, opened her window and yelled down her appreciation. Amazingly, this was followed by two fledgling tomato plants carefully lowered down in a paper bag by rope and an actual phone call the following night, when she told me how much she missed her parents in Germany.

My little balcony, crammed with an earnest victory garden in pots, and a Venezuelan hammock, became a kind of portal.- Hadani Ditmars

Each song I sang took me back to the place where I'd first sung it: that old gypsy tune I'd picked up in Sarajevo, and played in Le Marais in Paris; a Garcia Lorca poem from Granada; a Joni Mitchell song I learned at age 12. All these memories flooded back and blended with my neighbours' cheers and cries and pot banging and, of course, with Elio's drumming on his balcony.

One day, while going through some old files, I magically found an old sticker book, full of drawings of rabbits, bears and foxes, and immediately thought of Elio. A meeting was arranged with the whole family in the laneway after the front-line tribute, and I presented it to him — from a safe distance. He was delighted, and his parents grateful for a toddler-occupying indoor activity.

In many places I've lived in — I thought of the Lebanese village in the Bekaa Valley — where meeting neighbours for coffee and cigarettes was a daily ritual and such a connection would be inconsequential. In Vancouver this was huge.

Each song I sang took me back to the place where I'd first sung it.- Hadani Ditmars

Elio was too shy to say anything, but the next afternoon he waved to me from his balcony. 

"He played with the sticker book all morning," his father told me. Elio then ran inside to retrieve the book and held up a page he'd decorated. "Well done Elio!" I smiled and clapped.

Later that night, after a lonely day of writing about war zones and learning about the deaths of loved ones on Facebook, I wondered if I was up to a song. But I dutifully tuned my guitar and decided to sing Gracias a la Vida.

At the end, I caught Elio's eye on the balcony. He put down his drumsticks and started applauding. "Thank you," he shouted with all of his two-and-three-quarters might. "Thank you!"

Thank you, Elio.

Author, journalist, and photographer Hadani Ditmars has reported from Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq, often examining the human costs of sectarian strife as well as cultural resistance to war, occupation and embargo.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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