Our house is really homey. When I come back to it after a day away it feels so good to turn on a few lamps, get the kettle going, and settle in to our favorite nooks. After two years, this flat is home. We have history here now: we’ve spent two Christmases in this place, with two little spindly needle-raining trees. We’ve had visits from family and friends, each one a wonderful blessing. And this is the home we brought Harriet to, just about five hours after she was born. It is now decorated not just with our bits of stuff, but with our memories.
When we moved in I couldn’t have anticipated that I’d feel like this. It didn’t strike us as home, just at first. Those early weeks were sort of an adventure of discovery of the personality of this place. Since I don’t think I ever have, I’ll tell you the truth about this place, as a stranger to its delights might see it. Here are a few of its quirks:
There is one outlet in every room excepting the bathroom (which has none) and the kitchen (which has four). The thing about the kitchen is, if you use all four, you blow a fuse. You also blow a fuse if you use the left front burner on the cooker in conjunction with either (A) any other burner, or (B) both the kettle and the oven. For a year it was the back right burner until this broke down completely and had to be replaced. Since then, it is the left front burner. There are dim wall lamps (circa 1970) in every room except over the dining area, which has none.
However, we don’t have that many things that need to be plugged in anymore. If the fuse blows the undisguised fuse box and all of its wires are conveniently located right above the front door. Not having a light over the dining area makes dinner candles into functional art and the dim lighting throughout is supplemented by the 12 inches of bubble glass that top all exterior walls.
The kitchen has hot water, about a litre at a time, heated by a white tank that hangs out over the sink. After you have put two inches of hot water in the sink, you have to wait 3-5 minutes for the water to heat again, or wash in cold. The bathroom sink and shower water are heated by another tank. It heats during the night and provides just enough hot water for two showers in the morning. If we want to use more hot water to bathe the kids (or have a wash later in the day) we can either (A) heat kettles in the kitchen and carry them to the bathtub or (B) turn a booster switch in the kitchen that reheats the tank. Reheating the tank is expensive and takes two hours, so we try not to do it that often.
But we are definitely more conscious of water use this way. Also the bathroom sink (like the kitchen) has hot and cold water that flow from different faucets, so if the kids were used to warm water for washing hands they could burn themselves on the hot tap (“You could get warm,” a native friend said to me. “You turn them both on and just swish your hands back and forth really fast.”) Since there is usually only cold water available, they just use that faucet and there’s no problem.
At first it felt like a flat in miniature. The refrigerator is about 2′ x 3′, the freezer smaller yet. The “cooker” is four tiny burners above a broiler above a teeny little oven (too narrow for a muffin tin). The door of the mini-oven opens sideways so it can sit right on the ground. I am often checking cakes and sliding in dishes in a low crouching position. Hot steam comes billowing out when you first open the door and often boiling hot water runs out of the bottom of the oven. I still don’t know why this happens (except that our kitchen clearly slants backwards), but I have learned to both expect and ignore it. The sink is too small to wash the larger pots and pans, mixing bowls, cutting boards, and the highchair tray. These can be washed using creative diagonal arrangements or in midair. The apartment itself: for non-sleeping space we have a living room, a mini-kitchen, and a dining area inside the front door.
However, we have found that this is all we really need. I’ve learned the peculiarities of temperature to be expected from the oven and we rarely waste food in our refrigerator. I can say that I know and use everything in the fridge and that it is easy to keep clean.
The floors are scuffed linoleum and most of the walls are crumbling cinderblock. The furniture is college-dorm issue. The vacuum cleaner we have used until recently and the coin laundry facilities are down three flights and a hundred yards away. The bubble glass stuff and the gaps around the doors and windows make it extremely cold and drafty most of the year (but the huge metal radiators in nearly every room take on a new beauty). It is dank and damp and mold is growing despite our best efforts. I regularly see the exterminator’s van in front of the building. I don’t know why: I don’t want to know.
But we have a beautiful balcony garden, blooming just now with petunias and geraniums and lobelias. We can even enjoy our type of garden in the rain!
I’ve mostly told you the more difficult things. And most of us have had the experience of living in a place that is, perhaps considerably, less than Ideal. But the truth is, we really haven’t minded that much. We’ve laughed about the quirky things and found ways to work with them and haven’t noticed them too much after a while. We’ve been happy here. And, however nice the new flat, it won’t be familiar. I think we’ll miss this place for a while.