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.