Archive for December, 2009

Happy Holidays

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.

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Three Soybeans in a Pod: Matching Your Home Life to Your Lifestyle

Auckland, New Zealand

Venus Fly Trap

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.

Halfway House: Starting Over in a New City – Again

Auckland, New Zealand

Except for that time in high school when I got kicked out of a party for talking about the hostess behind her back (she was totally asking for it), I avoid conflict.  While altercations of all kinds make me uneasy, I particularly abhor domestic quarrels.  I would rather listen to an amateur hip-hop DJ practice his set at 1am or clean up after someone else’s 10-person dinner party than confront a flatmate.  You can imagine how disconcerted I was when my new roommate yelled at me less than a week after I moved in – over a frying pan.

For a nomadic pseudo-hippie, I have an absurd amount of stuff.   If money were no object, I would happily board a plane with just a good book, an empty suitcase and a credit card.  If I were less hygienic or sartorially inclined, I would emulate my parents, who spent an entire summer in Europe with little more than a toothbrush and two pairs of underwear.  Alas, I am too high-maintenance and too low budget to travel light.

When I left Wellington, I left nothing behind.  The trunk of the rental car looked like a bag lady’s shopping cart.  Batteries, a Rubik’s cube, secondhand bunny ears, and an art smock were among the items that made the trip not just from Wellington to Auckland, but from Argentina to New Zealand.  I have no excuse; I’m just that ridiculous.

There was simply no way my belongings were going to fit into a bedroom already containing five bunk beds and the personal affects of ten tourists.  I figured that booking a room in a full-serviced student apartment would be better than staying at a backpacker’s hostel, especially since I had no idea how long it would take for me to find my own place.  Before leaving for Auckland, I reserved a double apartment for my friend and I.  She only lasted two nights.

That they were still standing was the only redeemable aspect of the apartment building, a grey high-rise tower located in the heart of the University of Auckland’s city campus. The entire building smelled like an unsettling combination of Thanksgiving dinner and the dentist.  There was no hallway, dining area, or living room, but there was a hot water kettle crawling with fire ants. The kitchen and bathroom were so close together I could open the fridge while sitting on the toilet.  As we stood in the doorway, I was hesitant to even hazard a sarcastic comment or look my friend in the eye.  Marriages have ended over less.

Forty-eight hours after we moved in, my friend moved out (she would have left sooner had we not paid in advance), and I was relocated to a different apartment. The first thing my roommate, a twenty-year old Korean girl, did when she met me was to tell me that the chopsticks were hers.  The second thing was to ask me how long I was planning on staying. When she returned from the library, she was carrying a handful of “roommate wanted” posters collected from the bulletin board.

One morning, I decided to make toast for breakfast.  As the apartment had no toaster, I grabbed the nearest frying pan and heated my bread on the two hot plates that passed for a stove.  A few hours later, I heard a knock on my bedroom door.  “I’m not happy,” announced my roommate. “You used my frying pan and now it’s scratched.” She was so angry and serious I felt that I should at least try to defend myself or express remorse. But when I opened my mouth, all that came out was, “I’m leaving in a few days.  Get over it.” I packed up all of my stuff, called the taxi company, requested a van – yes, just for one person, and moved into a hostel.

I’ve never been fond of staying in a backpacker’s when you’re not actually a backpacker. They are typically dirty, crowded, noisy, smelly, and distracting.  You have a better chance of spotting a unicorn than finding peace, quiet, and privacy.  Forget about a good night’s sleep.  People get drunk and eat the chocolate cake you baked for your friend’s birthday and were naïve enough to leave in the communal fridge, use the computer to upload pictures to Facebook, and have sex on the bottom bunk.  And even though there are always interesting people with funny accents around, making real friends is practically impossible when the last people you see before you go to sleep are never the same people you see when you wake up in the morning.

Yet this time, I was actually looking forward to moving into a hostel.  The truth is, when you’re fresh off the airplane, unemployed, and have no friends, furniture, or agenda, there is no place better for you than a good hostel.  Luckily, I discovered a great one – clean, bright, cheap, and not a bunk bed in sight.  The best part about it was the enormous, secure-luggage storage area in the basement.  The excellent location, large garden, spacious lounges, and ample kitchen so well equipped an episode of Iron Chef could easily have been filmed there were just bonuses.

Hostels, I’ve discovered, are a lot like dormitories during Freshmen welcome week in college – everyone is friendly and outgoing, every night is a party, and there’s always someone to look out for you. But eventually, classes start and you no longer appreciate returning from the library and discovering that you’ve been sexiled by your roommate and the guy she met earlier that night in the communal bathroom.  For a while, I truly enjoyed living in the hostel.  I didn’t have to pay bills, make the bed, or clean my room.  I never ate a meal alone, even if I wanted to.  And I even found a cute Dutch kid to take me out on the weekends.

All that changed when I got a job.  I soon became annoyed with laying my clothes out at night and getting dressed in the dark, so as not to wake my sleeping roommates at 6am.  As my Canadian friend sipped boxed wine from a tin mug and stared at me with sympathy and horror while I packed my lunch for the next day, I realized the hostel and I had grown apart.

For me, hostels make excellent halfway houses – a place where you can stay while you secure employment and housing, and where you can begin to build a support network and integrate into society.  Of course, if you have no intention of or desire to lead a conventional life, there is no need or even benefit to leaving the hostel.  There are a lot of costs associated with moving into a flat, and they are hardly worth assuming if you are merely passing through.  But once it became clear to me that I was going to stick around Auckland for a while, it also became clear to me that it was time to move out.  Fortunately, the hostel had wireless Internet, so I could hunt for a flat while everyone else played drinking games.


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