Thursday, 22 January 2009

Spot the difference

Since my last post about my ‘flat-o-curiosities’, my sister has arrived in the country. We had decided before she arrived that we were going to look for a new place together, so I have quickly found myself in the position of having to ‘pitch’ this tiny Whitechapel dive with its wacky wiring, silly shower and barren kitchen (sorry, I couldn’t find a suitable ‘k’ word to make that alliteration aeroplane fly) to the hapless fops on Gumtree.

As if my post below doesn’t make the place sound unbearable enough, I didn’t even mention that the neighbourhood Tom-cats are in continual competition with one another over whose particular interpretation of the infamous ‘eau de cat’ is the most covetable, staging their ‘scent-offs’ near our front door; there is no light in the kitchen apart from a tiny bulb behind the ancient yellow toaster, making it difficult to judge whether that little brown blob on the table is a delicious chocolate-coated peanut or a jaw-breaking, indefinable material that could in no way be interpreted as food; and our ‘backyard’ could be used as an example of what the world would look like six to eight years after humans have been wiped out*. And, to put the half-decomposed banana on top of the colossal compost heap, our next-door neighbours are squatters. Squatters who enjoy a good disco followed by a plate-throwing brawl at 3 in the morning.

Okay. All of these things haven’t really been that bad. I have been able to put up with all of this for 8 months, after all. I have even come to think of my little defective slice of Whitechapel as ‘quaint’ rather than what others might term ‘a hole’. My room also seems to be the most immune to the sounds of squabbling squatters, so usually I sleep right through.

But after I had written my advertisement talking about our ‘two bathrooms (1 shower), combined kitchen and living area and a backyard simply perfect for summer BBQs’, I started wondering whether and when to lie to the people who came knocking. I had to make up my mind quickly, as one of our first visitors – a Canadian girl – almost immediately asked the most difficult question to weasel my way out of: ‘How do you find the neighbours?’

The pause preceding my response should have given her a clear indication of ‘how we find the neighbours’ (‘We usually just knock on their door…’). She didn’t seem to notice my hesitation, however, so I quickly stammered something about how we don’t really know them that well and that they like to party on occasion, but it doesn’t really disturb me.

Before you say, ‘you squawking Lyre-bird, you!’, I actually told the truth to the people I thought were decent. This girl already seemed a little ‘off’, so I figured there was no harm in only sharing the tasty details of our neighbours and our interesting light-switch situation with people who were ‘quirky in a good way’. I thought that these ‘quirky in a good way’ people might look at this flat as I have come to: as a story they will tell for years to come.

At this stage I have found two potential candidates to pray for watery salvation from the moody shower-head and learn how to make-do with cake tins instead of pots, and it is only up to my flat-mates to decide which one they could bear to live with. By now I know that one wrong choice in the flat-mate department can sometimes prove worse than a painfully ineffective shower, lack of cooking utensils, noisy neighbours, dumpy backyard and cat pee combined. But both of these girls seem fine, so hopefully the bubbly Australian or the laid-back Brit won't prove to be as good at omitting off-putting details in their self-advertisements as I am on the 'flats offered' section of Gumtree.

I hope whoever succeeds doesn't retrospectively hate me forever. You see, I didn't tell them about the shower head. And to some, that is much, much worse than the occasional sounds of Italian profanities and shattering crockery at 3am...

*On a related note, my flat-mates tell me that a short walk from our front door there is an area used in the film 28 Days Later. No doctoring or special effects were needed. It already looked like it was torn apart by zombie-humans who had been infected with a potent virus that induces a murderous and destructive rage.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Flat lining

I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as ‘poor’. I have a job that pays above minimum wage, somewhere to live, I can eat out or buy new banana-print tights on occasion and as yet have never found myself in the position of having to ask my landlord whether he would accept charcoal drawings of cheese graters and ‘keep left’ signs in lieu of actual cash.

That said, one of the reasons I can afford to eat out and keep up with new trends in fruit fashion is because my flat is quite affordable (by London standards). And of course, as any real estate agent or flat-hunter will tell you, ‘affordable’ is usually code for ‘riddled with unique and curious problems no one knows how to explain, let alone solve’. Whereas I am now used to having a fridge in the hallway, flipping TV channels manually with a McDonald’s straw and think nothing of the tiny wooden block hammered into the kitchen wall with a picture of a completely-unknown-to-anyone-who-currently-lives-there brunette in a petite love-heart shaped golden frame perched on top, my flat can be an interesting place to newcomers.

A couple of connections:

1. The light in the upstairs bathroom has married the light in the downstairs toilet, and clearly wears the pants in the relationship because whatever it does, the downstairs light emulates like an obedient puppy. The light is on in the downstairs toilet when you walk into it, and you innocently sit down with your copy of Fruit Fashion – Fall 2008. Just as you are sinking your teeth into a fascinating article on the social advantages of a papaya-flavoured scratch-n-sniff cardigan, the light snaps off and you are encased in sudden blackness. This never fails to elicit a little scream, and since the light-switch is too far away to reach from your porcelain perch, you have to forego your riveting read and reach for the paper.

This has startled quite a few visitors, who naturally assume that the bulb just happened to blow out while they were marvelling at your choice of bathroom literature (not that the light above them is the switchy equivalent of a 1950s housewife following her husband’s every whim).

Three flights of stairs separate this light-switch couple, and I have always wondered why it shouldn’t work in reverse: why the comings and goings of the bulb downstairs have no impact on her husband up top. It would be entertaining to re-wire this fault so that she could sit on the bathroom throne barking orders for once. A light going off when you’re in the shower could provide a good two minutes’ entertainment for bored flatmates on a Tuesday evening. Which leads me to my next marriage in the flat, between the:

2. Kitchen tap and the shower. This is not unusual in itself. Practically everyone has experienced the sharp sting of hot water needles when a toilet flushes or an urge to scream ‘stop using the f*%king water, you pillock!’ when you find yourself sprayed with tiny ice-cubes. What may be unusual about this long-distance pipe relationship is that whenever anyone uses the tap in the kitchen, the shower completely ceases to function.

You have worked up a good lather in your hair and suddenly the stream dries up. Since the kitchen is three floors down you can’t really call out, so instead you stand there, hands clasped in front of you (almost in prayer), eyes fixed with a pathetically sad expression upon the tiny holes in the shower-head and mind envisioning soap suds bubbling up through kitchen mugs and luxurious hot watery waves washing over potato-skin encrusted baking trays. ‘They have to be nearly done,’ you think. ‘I’m pretty sure all that’s left is two spoons and the apple peeler.’ And then the real taunting begins.

A ring of water beads appear under the shower head, and they pulse one or two times before spurting out a few lines of watery salvation. Hallelujah! Your eyebrows relax and the stream returns. But then there’s the glass they forgot about in their bedroom, and the vase they just emptied that dead rose out of and wouldn’t it be a perfect time to scrub my bike chain and wash down the vacuum cleaner? And now after all that work I’m pretty thirsty, but what’s this? The kettle’s empty! Ah, easily solved. Drink up, my stainless steel friend. There’s plenty more where that came from. Oh, and would you look at that! The filtered water jug could use a refill too. Come to think of it, my orchid could do with a little splash. What the heck? Why don’t I just leave the tap on and invite the neighbourhood cats around to have a different drinking experience?

After all of this you feel a bit bipolar, a bit confused (that a shower-head could add or detract so much to your day-to-day happiness) and just the slightest bit homicidal. You start making all sorts of showery resolutions: I will always tell people when I’m about to jump in, and I will hang a tea-cosy over the tap so everyone knows that now is not the time to make friends with thirsty felines. You have also planned out exactly what you are going to say to your tap-happy flat-mate, down to the very last expletive.

But instead when you go downstairs you end up sheepishly enquiring about what’s on TV, then shoot a death-stare at the gleaming dishes and smiling orchid (as if they themselves were to blame) and watch Never Mind the Buzzcocks until Simon Amstell makes you forget about the whole debacle.

3. Apart from these two connections, anyone I invite over for dinner may be perplexed by my modified recipe book. A problem that has followed me from flat to London flat has been the dearth of basic kitchen tools. Here in Whitechapel, instead of 1 cup of Arborio rice or 350g butternut pumpkin, my modified recipe calls for ‘That mug with ‘Hoff’ on it about ¾ full of rice’ and ‘about 7/8 of that green plastic bowl full of pumpkin’. 320° becomes Gas Mark 9, and ‘placed into a large pot and covered tightly with lid’ becomes ‘placed in cake tin, covered with foil and fingers crossed the ingredients don’t overflow.’

You may ask why I have not just gone out and bought the muffin trays and mortars and pestles our kitchen so desperately needs, but there are two very good reasons why I have yet to get them:

(a) When I have money left over at the end of the month, I prefer to blow it on mango brooches or coconut-themed gloves (white and soft on the inside, brown and hairy on the outside!), and,

(b) When a previous flat-mate left, he took all of the kitchen implements he had bought with him, and the current flat-mates have resented him for it ever since. Apparently all they were left with was a napkin dispenser and one rusty sieve. Naturally when I move I will want to take my mortars and pestles with me, so I refuse to buy them in the first place to save myself the loud conversations regarding my cheese-gratery greed and odd fascination with fruit fashion that I fear so much after I leave.