Everyday life in Spain 1 – Urban Neighbours

Urban Spain

The guy who lives next door has a stinking cold. I know this because I can clearly hear his early morning sneezes from the other side of the wall. Last night I enjoyed his jazz collection, and I can occasionally make out what film he’s watching on his home cinema… thank god he put sound-proofing in last year, or, as one Spanish friend put it when describing how thin partition walls between neighbouring flats are in Spain, I’d be able to hear him fart…

Yes, the kind guy next door spent thousands of Euros having an extra layer of sound-absorbing wall put in on his side of the divide, so that we could live happily in relative isolation from each other… he is, of course, also not Spanish, because for the Spanish, living with the noise of the nieghbours – music, sneezes, farts and all – is just part of everyday life. The only exception to this rule is if you are lucky enough to find a building put up before 1923-ish, the approximate date when Spanish builders became cowboys, and apartment partition walls went from being several feet to just several inches wide.

Yet despite listening in on each others’ lives, neighbours in urban Spain hardly ever speak to each other. Neighbours are just people that happen to live in the same building as you, and though of course there are isolated cases of friendship – usually between the oldies or people with kids – it rarely goes further than that… with the important exception of the Spanish Olympic sport of complaining about the comunidad.

Definition time: The body of home owners or tenants in every block of flats/apartments in towns and cities around Spain, is called the comunidad. The comunidad is made up of the vecinos, neighbours, or those that occupy each flat, each of whom pay, wait for it, comunidad, a set monthly fee, around 100 euros in our case, for upkeep of the building and extras like central heating.

Confusing? Don’t worry, all you need to know is that the concept of comunidad, or shared responsibility for the building you live in, is what leads to the complaining, which in turn is the focus of most neighbourly interaction in urban Spain.

Central heating not working? Time for a good moan with a neighbour as you meet on the stairs. Porter not cleaning the foyer properly? Promised repairs to building electrics still haven’t started? Dodgy looking bloke moved in on the first floor? All provide an excellent excuse for a marathon complaining session with the woman from across the hall who, despite the obligatory passing ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’, has completely ignored your existence for the last 12 months.

So although I might not be painting a utopian picture of neighbourly love, where people pop round for sugar or stop by for a coffee, and despite the fact that most interaction comes down to moaning, I think the Spanish should be celebrated for their high levels of neighbourly tolerance. There are 100 apartments in our building, hundreds of people living on top of each other, and despite the early morning sneezes – which are kind of comforting in an other-humans-are-always-around kind of a way – we are all able to live almost as though we enjoyed a detached house experience of our very own.

24 Replies to “Everyday life in Spain 1 – Urban Neighbours”

  1. WARNING: Grubby story about thin walls ahead.
    My Madrid inlaws used to (emphasis on “used to”) get a lesbian friend to come and water their plants when they were away from home. Once on their return, their ninety year old neighbour accosted my suegra to complain about the visitor and the constant noise from her “maquinita”. Suegra insisted that she didn’t follow although she gave the game away by adding “me he casado virgen”. The neighbour told her not to play the idiot. These days the plants are just allowed to wilt in the summer.

  2. I think attending at least one meeting of the Comunidad is an essential part of Spanish culture immersion. I live in a building with only 9 apartments yet our comunidad meetings have been known to break records for the number of noisy simultaneous conversations/arguments taking place. There is an inverse relationship between this and the number of decisions that get taken. I can’t imagine what it must be like in a building with 100 owners, it could go on for days.

  3. The Spanish do seem to live in flats/apartments better than say the English. The big advantage in Spanish cities is that rubbish is taken away daily (and for a far smaller local tax than the UK council tax). The drawback can be the noise at midnight when the rubbish lorries do their rounds.

  4. @Ben. Oh for the tender tune of nothing but a nearby fart gently serendading the dawn of a new day! jeje. Last Sunday morning here, we had some girls continuing a night out with a house party at 730am and shouting from their balcony, while some other neighbours kept popping out of their balconies to shout abuse at the girls. The view of the building from the street must’ve been like something from “Celebrity Squares” quizshow with people popping in and out! 🙂

    @ MrMark, you’re right about that. I live on a corner junction, with two giant bins on each corner. The streets are one-way and the trucks only have the “pick up” arms on one side. So yep…. each truck can only empty 2 bins on each run! Actually, I believe that there’s a controversy in England these days about councils dropping down to one visit from the binmen per fortnight, so any Brits might find it ironic that here I have 4 visits nightly! :-0

  5. Our building was definitely built pre-1923 and the thick walls are a godsend – there are nearly 300 pisos. I don’t know a single neighbor’s name but that doesn’t stop me from saying hello. And god forbid should you get off the elevator without an “hasta luego” to the other occupants.

  6. The flip side to the Spanish urban living model would be a private home out in the country or in an American suburb. Out in the boonies you can have all the privacy your heart desires. Unfortunately, there is nothing to do outside of your little pot of home-sweet-home gold at the end of the asphalt rainbow of highways that make up your commute. I am a city person and I wouldn’t trade my noisy, inner-city apartment for anything, especially a McMansion in suburbia where you need to drive a car to do anything. My Seattle apartment was noisier than the place I have here in Valencia and both are una tira de peidra from dozens of cafes, stores, and everything else you might need. Although my building is really quiet, my cool neighborhood would be well worth the occasional sounds of a neighbor’s digestive system auditory end product or the gentle hum of a lesbian plant waterer zilching herself senseless next door (if I understood that comment correctly).

  7. As a New Yorker who’s moved to the suburbs of DC, I wholeheartedly agree with leftbanker. I miss the conveniences of true urban living, despite all that it brings. Enjoy it while you can because I used to say, never me.

  8. Its wierd how noise bugs the hell out of me at home but doesnt when I’m in say Barcelona or Madrid. I stayed in a flat in Barcelona over the summer and the guy showering in the flat above was my alarm clock and I would happily spend four or five hours each evening sipping beer within feet of a major road junction across from the Mercado St Antoni.

    Staying in Pl Santa Cruz iMadrid I was unruffled by the early evening the roadworks, an all night student party on the floor below and the regular sirens when the bomberos turned out….

    We have a pigeon that roosts and coos quietly on our chimney at home it drives me barmy – maybe if it had a football rattle ans a siren I could ignore it!!

  9. I’ve always been the noisy neighbor in the building, parties, loud motorcycles, a rock band IN my apartment. Now when I visit my inlaws I am extra careful not to be too loud because I can hear the neighbors on the other side of the twin house. Of course my three little kids probably make more noise than I ever did.

  10. My former neighbors in Madrid were a German expat family, husband, wife and two little kids. I’m not sure what the parents did for a living but they had a nanny and it seems like they, the parents, were away during the week, because I only heard them on the weekends. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, without fail, around 8 a.m., I would wake up to the sound of the mother singing songs and the children laughing and screaming. I only heard them on the weekends. I guess the parents wanted to make up for lost quality time during the week or something.

  11. El Presidente de Comunidad.
    We have a comunindad at our holiday home close to marina dor, Valencia. I attended a meeting once & once only? Lots of raised voices, hand raising & lots of decisions(my wife is Spanish so she translated most of what was said). A new comunidad Presidente was elected. However nothing was followed up changed or improved. We did manage to see the funny side of it, even if we did lose a night out of our holiday.

  12. I gave up on Comunidad meetings long ago – or more precisely, I always try to make sure I am out of the country whenever one is scheduled!

  13. Yes, the piso before this one was in Lavapies… and I sort of miss aspects of it, and not others. I miss the old Madrid streets and those beautiful facades, but overall I’m not sad to be in a more modern (1970s) area now.

  14. Well I think things really depend on the building itself and the neighbourhood. As Ben said the building that we live in at the moment has 100 apartments organised in two separate “escaleras”, so apart from the people in our floor, who we know a little bit, and the lady that lives in the first floor straight below us, and holds any of our clean clothes when Ben or me accidentally drop them down the “patio” while hanging them up in the line, the rest of the neighbours are people who we only relate to by a “hola / adios” when we meet them in the lift or “gracias” when someone holds the door in the “portal” for you as you come in.

    However my experience in the building I used to live in with my parents was very different. There were three “portales”, with 48 flats, and a small garden, where all the children used to play and everybody crossed to get to the street. Then I knew all the children, all of my adoult neighbours and who lived where. I would drop by my neighbours often to ask for a bit of sugar or a couple of eggs or just for a chat and my parents meet some of the neighbour couples for coffee every now and again. So there was a sense of community that certainly there isn’t in this building. The reasons could be the amount of neighbours, the lack of garden, and also the fact that most of them are occupied by older people without children.

    Glossary:

    Escalera – Staircase. Large buildings often have separate staircases to access to different parts of the building. In our case: Escalera Derecha and Escalera Izquierda (Right and Left staircase).

    Patio – We have some windows facing the street and some others facing an interior area, like an open square of 6×6 meters that goes all the way down until the first floor, where there is a terrace.

    Portal – The doorway in to a building and the area in the ground floor where the lifts are.

  15. I still have a third experience in between the two I’ve already described. The house in Lavapies. There is a Spanish film called “La Comunidad”, well our building was more or less like that one. Old building where lots of repairs need to be done. People don’t have much money to spare into the repairs. Some families had lived in the building for three or more generations and there were some neighbours that didn’t speak to others due to problems between their grand parents. And finally, there were a few very nosy ones!!!

    (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0255067/)

  16. I totally agree on how people can live among total strangers for years. Neighbourgs are total strangers in urban Spain, you say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and that is all.

    It is totally different in suburbia, specially in the new developments made for the growing high & middle classes of young families in most Spanish capitals. Such suburbian housing developments often have private swimming pools, gym, tennis or paddel court, gardens… and most of the neighbours are couples with kids.
    This is a totally different kind of environment, and relationship with neighbourgs are more common.

  17. Parubin is right about friendly suburban housing developments. The duplex type complexes with pools and security guards are a contradiction. From the outside they look elitist and anti-social but inside people are really friendly, especially compared to the old style blocks. Maybe it’s because they are relatively new, full of young families and padel championships. Years down the line when the residents are cranky and old, with 30 year old ‘kids’ who haven’t left home yet, then they might end up being as awful inside as they look from the outside…for me the jury is out.

  18. I agree as well. My brother in law and his family live in one of these, and in the summer they have a great time with the neighbours and the kids around the pool, and everyone knows each other and chats away all afternoon, watching over each other’s kids etc… much nicer than the urban model. Have to say I don’t really like the idea of living in one of those places, but you never know!

  19. I’ve always liked the old, noisy and often small urban appartments right in the center, near everything the city has to offer.
    But then again, having a 18-month-old daughter and yet another one coming very soon, I’m having no other option than to move to a development in the outskirts of town. More space for a cheaper price, and lots of safe areas for kids to play and run around.
    That’s life… what are you going to do about it!! Raising a family in the city center can be mission imposible, especially if both, father and mother have to leave home every morning for work.

  20. Funny note!

    (I know this is an older entry but I am only just catching up on your blog, sorry)

    Sound-proofing was not the best in my recently built block of flats in Madrid either: whenever I was the bathroom, I could hear… the clicking sound of one of my neighbours switching the light on!

    I am so glad they were all relatively discreet, this could have been a nightmare otherwise.

    When I finally moved out of Spain and into yet another block of flats, I first wondered about the complete absence of noise around me. What a relief when I would meet the neighbours in the lift for example: “ah, so you are still here, good!”

  21. I too am just catching up on your blog and I do have something to contribute here. I live in a very European historical building in New York City and it reminds me of these flats in Spain that you’re describing. The walls are two inches thick and I believe I may have caught a cold from my neighbor. She in turn must be disgusted by me whenever I get sick. To our right we have the musicians whose taste in music is incredible. Oddly, our alarm clocks are actually now in sync, meaning that at the exact same time in the morning we both wake up to BBC worldwide, which then switches to NPR. It’s bizarre. So bizarre actually, that I changed mine to go off a minute later. It doesn’t matter because the lady upstairs’ high heeled shoes wake me up on her way out before the alarm sounds, except for wednesdays when the recycling truck seems to pull into the bedroom at dawn to do its crushing right there. To our left, a Spanish woman just moved in! I’m learning all sorts of bizarre phrases from when she yells at her mother on the phone. I’m actually excited about this, though it’ll get annoying quite quickly. There is a park right near us and we can hear all of the kids playing and the ice cream trucks too. I’ve gotten used to it though. We also have a community and every once in a while we’ll drop by to say hi to the neighbors, but I really don’t want to have a conversation with them or see them because they know too much. I am friendly with the older woman below me. She’s lived there forever and she likes the fact that my husband helps her bring her groceries up the stairs when he sees her struggling. She helps with my heat when it doesn’t work and showed me how to set the place up to maximize space. I’m going to see the film that Marina mentions above. I have a feeling I’d love it.

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