Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you’re doing, I wish you a happy and healthy New Year. See you again in 2010.
Archive for December, 2009
Tags: Expat, Flatmates, flatting, Housing Abroad, living abroad, Personal, Thoughts, Travel
Auckland, New Zealand
When is flat hunting not flat hunting? When it’s an identity crisis. Once I decided to move out of the hostel, I began looking for a room to rent. More than just a place to store my stuff, I wanted a home and a home life that would contribute to and facilitate my experience in Auckland. Since I wasn’t unhappy at the backpacker’s per se, I had the luxury of time. I was prepared to be picky.
When selecting a flat, there are four key elements to consider: price, location, physical space, and flatmates, in no particular order. I’ve lived in spectacular neighborhoods, but paid such a high premium for that privilege that I couldn’t afford to leave my bedroom. I’ve lived in an apartment where I had my own bathroom and balcony, but so despised my flatmate I couldn’t stand to be there when she was home. In her presence, the house wilted like a flower deprived of sunlight and water.
Since I had already been living in Auckland for a few weeks, I held the advantage of having a sense of the personality and highlights of the various neighborhoods. I narrowed my search down to two: Parnell, the self-proclaimed “Creative Quarter” and Grey Lynn. Both are young, affordable, and accessible, and boast an assortment of bars, cafes, shops, restaurants and parks.
Although they are equidistant from my office, Parnell and Grey Lynn are on opposite sides of the map. Parnell has a French market, Grey Lynn a Woolworths. Parnell is trendy, Grey Lynn bohemian. Parnell has hipsters, Grey Lynn feral hippies. Parnell has a website, Grey Lynn does not. I could see myself living happily in either.
Through Trademe, I found candidates in both neighborhoods. The house in Grey Lynn was cozy; and by cozy, I mean small. However, it possessed that lovely broken in feeling of your favorite pair of jeans. The flat occupied the back half of a split house, and was tidy, quiet, and warm, decorated in deep reds, dark woods, and creamy whites. The front door opened onto a luscious garden with fruit trees, fresh herbs, and wild flowers. The house may have been crowded, but thanks to an abundance of windows, it was neither dark nor stuffy.
On the other hand, the house in Parnell was multi-storied, with a huge garage-cum-man-cave in the basement, a spacious common room with a large, flat-screen TV, an ample kitchen, and two full-baths. The available bedroom was no bigger than the one in the Grey Lynn flat, but it came furnished. The price was slightly higher, but still safely within my budget. So far, cat’s game.
The final round was between the flatmates. The Grey Lynn flat was shared by two thirty-something Kiwis, Jane and Alex. Jane was a buyer for a well-known New Zealand mid-range clothing line. This struck me as odd, as Jane was dressed from top to bottom in black, including her hair, which was dyed black, and the clips in her hair. Alex, who reminded me vaguely of a tattooed Buddy Holly, worked the overnight shift at an airline. As Jane was rushing off to meet friends for dinner, Alex emerged from his room to prepare himself breakfast. “This is Alex,” said Jane, “he’s somewhat of a vampire.” “A corporate vampire,” clarified Alex. A Goth and a vampire: I worried the brightness of my wardrobe might turn them to dust.
Yet for as apparently different as we were, we shared a great deal in common. We were all vegetarians, with an interest in healthy living and spirituality. Jane and I discovered that we had been in the same yoga class the night before. After she left, Alex and I became engrossed in an intense conversation about religion and philosophy. Even if we don’t live together, I thought, I hope we can be friends.
In the Parnell flat were one American and two Kiwis, who were all, well, normal: just your average beer loving, meat-eating, pub-crawling, social twenty-something young professionals. There was nothing offensive or special about them, except that the girl had the most obnoxious laugh I had ever heard. Even though I didn’t particularly identify with them, they were comfortingly mainstream and familiar.
The two flats were so unalike that on a Venn diagram of their interests, you would need a magnifying glass to see the overlapping part. In high school, the Parnell flat would have mocked the Grey Lynn flat, and the Grey Lynn flat would have judged the Parnell flat. I felt like the new girl in school trying to decide where to sit at lunch. I thought about a poster I bought as a kid that said, “What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular.” More importantly, I thought about what having that poster said about me as a person. With that in mind, I made my decision: I wanted the flat in Parnell.
I pictured myself in Parnell on the weekends, perusing art galleries and stationery stores, and taking my MacBook to the Chocolate Boutique Café, where I would write witty blog entries while sipping frothy cappuccinos served by surly waiters. My flatmates and I would stumble home together after a night out on the piss, and join each other for brunch the following morning. Now I imagine myself there, feeling relatively deprived, out of place, and incurably hung over. I am just not that girl. Fortunately, the cool kids had the good sense to send me where I belong. They gave the room to someone else, and I moved into the flat in Grey Lynn.
Perhaps I had been hasty in leaving the hostel. My first paycheck went to three-week’s bond and two-week’s rent; I couldn’t afford a bed, bedding, or bedroom furniture. I borrowed an air mattress, which I inflated nightly as if it were a pair of Reebok Pumps. I didn’t sleep for weeks. Eventually, I was able to buy a bed and a couple of sets of plastic drawers, and Jane gave me her old desk. By some miracle, all of my worldly possessions fit into my tiny room. Better still, I fit perfectly into the flat.
Just as you should buy clothes suited to the life you have, you should choose a flat suited to the lifestyle you lead. One of the reasons I wanted to live with locals was to benefit from their insider knowledge. The question was, knowledge of what? Thanks to Jane and Alex, I know where to find the best vegetarian restaurants, organic markets, and bulk food shops. We exchange books, ideas, recipes, and discuss our ambitions for the future. For the first time, I feel encouraged and enabled in my choices.
The other day, we had a flat meeting to discuss what to do about the plague of flies that has descended upon our house. This is the environmentalist’s dilemma: chemical pesticide or carnivorous plant? There is now a Venus Fly Trap on our kitchen window sill. I might wish that the flat weren’t so cramped, damp, or moldy, but I am so glad the other one turned me away.
Recently, I faced a similar conflict when trying to decide what to do for New Year’s Eve. At first, I agreed to volunteer with two friends at Rhythm and Vines (a three-day music festival on a vineyard in Gisborne). No sooner had we received confirmation from the volunteer coordinator than the emails began to fly. “I can’t believe how much they are charging for camping!!!” “Check out this other festival!!! “Let’s just go to the beach?!?” Suddenly, I remembered how much I hate New Year’s Eve, crowds, electronic music, and exclamation marks.
In the diversion created by my friends, I snuck off and made alternative plans. I signed up for a ten-day silent meditation retreat that I’d been interested in attending for over a year. While my friends will be working in the VIP tent, I’ll be learning to practice Vipassana. When I told my mother, she rolled her eyes. When I told my coworkers, they averted their eyes. When I told my flatmates, they didn’t bat an eye – they’ve both completed the same course.