Tectonic Plates

Things are beginning to settle.

I wait for a while, fingers resting on the keyboard, letting the words sink in. Beginning to settle. Things are. 

It’s taken me a long time to identify it, this unfamiliar feeling of everything eventually falling into place, and to realize it’s not something to be afraid of. And now I am, I guess, at peace. I never saw it coming.

I took Friday off to wait for our furniture deliveries. As it always seems to happen when I plan things in advance, I overslept and woke up panicked I’d missed the mattress people, the thought of yet another night on a blow up bed bringing tears to my eyes.

London traffic finally on my side, they were an hour or so late, plenty of time to brew a cup of coffee and tinker with the remote control. I’ve been working in Broadcasting for years now but this is our first TV set since we moved to London, and I’m pushing myself to turn it on every once in a while, if only to then numbly stare at it for a few minutes’ worth of commercials, just enjoying the fact that it’s ours.

It’s what will be defining our relationship for a while now, I think. A collection of objects we jointly own, under a roof we bought together. Our mattress. Our remote control. Our kitchen sink. It does make one feel a bit profane, this living-life-permanently-high-on-furniture-shopping-euphoria, but I’ve decided to just embrace it, like I have all embarrassing phases we’ve gone through so far.

Our mattress, by the way, is a thing of wonder.

The delivery guys eventually squeezed it through the narrow hallway, fitted it into the bed frame, tore the plastic wrapper off and there it was, an island of white in the middle of a room I still wake up confused in, before I remember it’s ours, really ours, and grin to the ceiling like a silly weirdo.

Hours later, the bed was made, the shelves were freshly waxed and filled with books, and I was again sitting in front of the TV screen, watching people cook dinner for strangers for a thousand pounds prize. There’s little left to worry about. Our guest bedroom is still sporting the one-table-lamp-and-no-other-furniture-to-speak-of look, but I’m keeping it that way on purpose, the thought of a decorating project at hand whenever I’m feeling down making me feel all tingly inside. Because apart from that little room, everywhere else is liveable, guest friendly, and slowly becoming beautiful. My work is done, or more done than not, and contrary to what you’d normally expect from me, that doesn’t sadden me in the least.

I’ll admit it, it’s strange, not having things to stress about. It takes practice, being carefree, and I sometimes find myself looking for things to fix or worry over, just to get that familiar high back. It only lasts a minute or two, and then I’m back to my peaceful, happy, I guess, state of affairs.

So don’t say I didn’t warn you: my life these days, it’s pretty boring.

We spend most nights in, making friends with our kitchen appliances, setting and clearing our dinner table, then bumping our controllers into one another as we shoot zombies, aliens and each other on our new TV. Hardly blogging material, I know. But things, if of little consequence, are happening.

London feels like spring and for the first time ever this time of year, I don’t crave for Romania’s snows. Instead, I put on a skirt and stuff my scarf in my handbag. I don’t read much, I don’t talk much, I don’t listen to music. It’s quiet and it smells like something you can’t really pinpoint, something good.

We’re meeting in Waterloo Station tonight, to test a game V’s been working on live on the big screens. Games and dinner in the city on a Monday night, what else can a girl wish for. Well, pumpkins. V doesn’t know it, of course, but I plan to drag him into a Tesco on our way back, to buy some carving pumpkins. This weekend, there will be bowls of candy on our coffee table. We’ve got lots of children in the neighborhood and are expecting Trick-or-Treaters, an exciting and somewhat scary first for us strangers to Halloween. Then, there’s a house-warming party in the making. And plans to drive to a nearby Christmas fair one of these weekends. And that’s it, that’s really it because finally, things are beginning to settle.

Home Away From Home

I once read something about this airport, where on New Year’s Eve they auctioned off the mountain of unclaimed suitcases they’d collected over the year.

People would gather in one of their plastic surfaced waiting areas, chatty and perfectly composed, sipping champagne out of plastic flutes, resting their evening wear in lively coloured plastic chairs, inspecting each and every suitcase with expert eyes, as they were making their way down the plasticky baggage carousel.

Nothing was opened. You’d bid based on the shine of the leather, the agglomeration of scratches scarring the fabric, the amount of care original owners had taken to make their luggage stand out. Bright ribbons, stickers, “Put it back, it’s mine!” tags. Eventually you’d pick one and take it home with you, a piece of someone else’s life you’d have to break open with a dangerous tool, a screw driver or a heavy chisel, as family and friends cheered you on, champagne bubbles in the air.

*

I’ve been unpacking for days.

There’s little element of surprise, as I’d labeled every box in so much detail that they might as well all be transparent or each come with attached Excel inventory lists several pages long.

But there’s something absolutely delicious in unwrapping and introducing each and every trinket you’ve ever owned to your new home.

“Here, this is where you’ll be sitting. A comfortable enough little surface, don’t you think? There’s natural light, plenty of other trinkets to make friends with and a bird’s eye view of the living room.”

I repeat the ritual with every object I unpack, working at getting myself used to the new state of things. This is our living room. This is where we’ll be sitting. This light, it’s ours.

Who knew happiness, very much like heartbreak, takes time getting used to. I sit on a cushion on our living room floor, listening. We haven’t got a sofa yet, a proper mattress, shelves for my books.

Our happiness though, it’s growing leaves and flowers.

 

 

Collection of Walls

bit·ter·sweet
adj.

1. Bitter and sweet at the same time
2. Producing or expressing a mixture of pain and pleasure

Seventy-four boxes.

It’s strange how you can put a number on pretty much everything after all.

Layers we’ve worn, objects we’ve touched, things we figured we’d need one day but never did.

It took me six days to pack them all, physical traces we’ve left since we moved to this country, and once I was done and our living room became a a scale model of a cardboard sky-scraper-ed city I barely managed to Gulliver my way through from one surface to the next, well, I squeezed into an armchair and looked at it. A mountain of things wrapped to survive an Armageddon. I wished we could just drop them by the curb after midnight, and set on our way attachment free, hands in pockets and all. We’d keep our pockets, I decided. They’d come in handy when we started collecting new things.

We moved everything into storage instead. A few nights in a row, back and forth to a box infested, yellow painted hangar. We did it after dark, what with our so called lives keeping us busy until late, and it felt like an adventure of sorts, finding our way along the yellow, deserted corridors, burdened by boxes and armed with nothing but flashlights and the key to our lock.

And then last night we drove back to an empty apartment. No cardboard metropolis, no trace of life, and it suddenly felt like something was ending.

Sometimes I’m truly terrified of how you can’t really un-erase anything.

I find comfort in mistakes crossed out with a million crooked lines. I don’t care if it messes up the page, or that people will figure out I’m not perfect. I want to see them there. To draw arrows from them and scribble bright coloured explanations between the lines. Erasers scare me.

As I was scrubbing down our soon to be other people’s flat yesterday, I felt like I was erasing a part of our life.

There’s a whiter patch on the kitchen wall, where our Pairing Wine With Food print used to hang. A confetti sized red nail polish spot on the floor by my side of the bed, the aftermath of a manicure tragedy. Forgotten fingerprints on surfaces I was too tired to reach last night. But most of what “us, here” used to mean is gone.

I took the morning off today to meet the cleaners, leave the keys and say goodbye.

I shut the door and started down the poorly lit corridor. I smelled coffee. People rushing up and down their rooms looking for misplaced car keys. I remembered how I’d loved that door, the first red door I’d ever had my own key for. Poppy red, and how the colour always made me smile. There must be nice people living behind that door, I imagined our neighbors thinking as they passed it by. They must have wonderful lives.

I grabbed a latte and toast at a coffee place on the street corner. People were queuing for takeaway, their caffeine orders ready to jump off the tips of their tongues. I sat by the window and warmed my hands on the flimsy paper cup. The street was an explosion of colour and movement, and I couldn’t help thinking how I’d been so miserable these past couple of weeks, dragging my feet up and down this very street. Like a ridiculous, hopeless moron.

I have a wonderful life.

How to Break a Human

What follows is a slightly longer entry on my buying-a-home-in-London drama. If it’s not your cup of tea I won’t mind if you skip it.


Once upon a time

About two years ago, V and I decided to buy a place in London. We’d saved a bit of money, we both had good, stable jobs, and we were planning to start a family. It seemed like the natural thing to do.

We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I mean, this is London we’re talking about.

We knew there were lots of boxes to tick (affordable, nice safe neighborhood, feasible commute to work) and plenty of compromises to make.

We knew we’d be fighting endless bidding wars with dozens of other prospective buyers and that we’d end up paying more than we were prepared to.

We knew it would take forever to find a place, because there simply aren’t that many places, and we can’t possibly do viewings 24/7, what with life needing to be lived as well.

So in many ways, we were terrified. But then, this would be our home, our first, wonderful home together, and we were ready to go through whatever it took to get it.

In with the new

To begin with, we started looking at newly built properties. Mainly because we were hoping to find something that didn’t need a lot of work done, what with us being pretty much penniless once we’d pay the deposit, and determined to start trying for kids straight away.  So new builds seemed to check those boxes from the get-go.

Remember when I said there weren’t many properties for sale in London? Well, out of that handful of places which are for sale, only a fraction of about 2% are newly built.

Most people might find that off-putting, but no, not me. For more than seven months, I spent every lunch break, tube ride and free moment I had searching the guts of the internet for brand new, expensive as hell, super duper London flats and houses. I began stalking the building companies, phoning them at all hours and dropping by their show homes every weekend, trying to get my name on waiting lists and waving my mortgage agreement at them like a victory flag. See? They’re giving me money! And I’m ready to throw it all at you in a flash, this mountain of money I’ll be paying back for decades, just stay the word and it’s yours.

But everybody can get a mortgage these days, I was nothing special. So I got myself on a million waiting lists, and waited, my crumpled mortgage agreement forgotten at the back of a drawer.

When a newly built development gets launched, they first let the investors know. That happens weeks, months before everything is released for sale to people like me, the waiting list losers. Investors get the first pick, usually pick the best places, and usually pay cash. At that point, the development may not even be built, just a bunch of flags on a muddy patch of land and a tiny sales office.

It’s with the investors’ money that the first building phases get funded, and by the time us waiting list losers learn the properties are available to buy, most of them have already been purchased off plan, by cash paying investors or the building company’s friends and relatives. Fair enough, I mean, more than half the people I know in this city are looking to buy a place. If I were a builder, and had houses on sale, I’d be nice and let my friends know first, right? Anyhow.

By the time the rest of us, who cannot fork out half a million pounds in cash overnight and are not related to any of the sellers, finally get the green light, there’s a couple hundred people fighting to the death over half a dozen houses or flats. It’s supposed to work on a first come first served basis but really, when there’s three things on offer and three hundred people each wanting a piece, there’s no such thing as first come first served, is there.

Bliss

When we finally found a flat we liked, we were on top of the world. It had been 9 months of searching, waiting and growing bitter.

And then there was this flat, in an area we liked, and there were only two left in the building, and who cared it was £50,000 more expensive than we were prepared to spend, and that it was on the top floor and not newly built per se but in a converted office building, and pretty much glued to the rail line with trains passing by your window every half hour? I mean, who cared, really? It was huge, we’d finally have a proper nursery and, humanity!, a study! We’d be able to ride our bikes around the living room if we wanted to, and more importantly, we didn’t need to be getting ourselves on any waiting lists, we could just decide, then and there, pay our £2,000 reservation fee and that was that, three months later we’d be moving into our new home.

So we did, pay that fee I mean, and for a while, we were happy.

Woe

You know how you get a letter in the mail, from the company selling you your new flat, and you think, yay-oh-yay, it’s probably time we went and picked out tiling and carpeting, it’s finally happening tripple-yay, and then you open it and you find your £2,000 check and a three line letter saying they’re no longer selling the building for reasons they can’t disclose, and here’s your money and bye bye. And then you go online and you find out they’re bastards and are not selling because they’re waiting for the market to pick up so that they sell for more profit.

What, that’s never happened to you? Oh well, let me tell you then. It sucks.

It sucks so much that you want to go by their sales office and make a Romanian swear-words scene, but you don’t, because they really don’t need more stuff about nasty Romanians in the Daily Mail, and you get it, you can’t make anyone sell you their stuff if they don’t want to, but somehow that doesn’t make it suck any less.

Not old, vintage

It was at that point that we started looking at old houses and flats as well.

Maybe new wasn’t for us. Clearly we weren’t agile, sneaky, rich and tough enough to win this fight against sellers, investors and hundreds of equally desperate unfortunates. So extending our house hunting targets to include older builds couldn’t hurt, right?

Right.

Shopping for older builds in London works like this: You spend each and every afternoon and weekend going to viewings and open houses. You book a time slot, which contrary to what you may think, does not ensure you’ll be viewing the property at your own pace for 10 or so minutes. Nope, there will be 12 of you booked into the same 15 minutes time slot and you’ll be bumping into each other down narrow corridors and stair cases, you won’t get to ask many questions and you’ll never get to see a room twice. You’ll not get to see the property twice either, mainly because by the time you’ve made your way from the door to the parking lot, there’s already half a dozen offers on the table and the bidding process is well on its way.

Oh, the bidding. It truly is a thing of wonder.

You get about 6 seconds or so to come to a decision and put in an offer. Once you do that, the estate agents will, without fail, call you back and tell you that your offer has been matched and that you need to come back with your best offer. Your offer will always be matched, it’s a fact of life in the property market. I’m more sure that your offer will be matched than of the fact that the sun will be up tomorrow as well, just like today, all round and shiny and bad for your skin.

You will never, at any point, even if you win the bidding process, get any details about the other bids, or any confirmation that they even existed. It’s a trusting game, this bidding business, what’s not to like about it.

Of course, we’ve lost this game more times than I can count.

And it’s hard to believe how this process has changed us. We’d devised this set of rules on which to base our decisions, and those rules evolved from what we thought was common sense to begin with, to absolute insanity towards the end.

“You don’t like the place? Don’t buy it!” became more of a “You don’t like the place? Has it got a roof/walls/survivable amounts of asbestos? Bid £60,000 over the asking price!”

“You don’t like the area? Don’t buy it!” turned into “Only got raped once on your way to the viewing? Lovely area, you’ll fit right in!”

And let’s not forget, “Is it too expensive? Don’t buy it!” of course became “No such thing as too expensive, this is crazy town London!”

The one

And then, one day, we found it.

Our home.

A beautiful two bedroom flat, light and airy, freshly redone and on the most adorable street. We clicked with the vendor straight away, and made an offer the same afternoon. We did go through the bidding war through the estate agency again, but the vendor had really liked us and intervened and in the end, we managed to get the place for a price we were both very comfortable with. Still £20,000 over the asking price, but hey, who’s counting.

Boy, were we happy.

Everything started happening really quickly. We hired a property surveyor, and everything was fine. Our solicitor initiated the land registry searches, and everything was fine. Our bank came back with our final mortgage offer, and everything was fine. It seemed we were days away from exchanging contracts and moving in, and everything, absolutely everything, was fine. We even gave our two months notice at our place and I started hoarding decorating ideas on Pinterest and walking up and down furniture aisles on lunch break, mentally placing tables and chairs around what would soon be our very own, absolutely beautiful living room.

When we hit the first bump, I didn’t even notice. I was too happy picking fabrics and organizing my everything in labeled cardboard boxes. And then my solicitor started calling me frantically every ten minutes and it hit me: maybe everything wasn’t fine after all.

There’s this lovely thing called property lease. Without going into too much detail, our vintage flat’s lease had been written out 30 odd years ago. Since then, things like legal terms and such had been updated, and this exciting little paper called a deed of variation needed to be made now, in order to cover all those out of date lease issues. Sounds simple enough, right?

Here’s a short summary of how things unfolded.

Week 1: Vendor’s solicitors say they are unable to sort out the deed. (lie)

Week 2: Vendor’s solicitors say the building’s managing company refuse to sign the deed. (lie, they had never mentioned the deed to the managing company, in fact, had never been in contact with them altogether)

Week 3: Vendor’s solicitors say the building’s insurer refuse to sign the deed. (lie, they signed straight away once we contacted them directly)

Week 4: Vendor’s solicitors say everyone is happy with the deed and that they will come back to us with the final document asap. (lie)

Week 5: Vendor’s solicitors don’t pick up or return calls for an entire week.

Week 6: I transfer most of my savings into my solicitor’s account to prepare for contract exchange. In less than 2 weeks we need to leave our current flat with nowhere else to go. The deed of variation is finally signed by all parties but the building’s managing company, who refuse to sign it and then go on holiday.

This brings us to present time. We are ten days away from involuntary homelessness. Six days really, because weekends don’t count. Nothing can happen over a weekend that can save us. But things do happen, even on weekends, things that make me go crazy with worry and hopelessness.

I’ve been packing everything with such fervor that I’ve got paper cuts up to my elbows and touching the sticky part of so many yards of packing tape has turned my fingertips raw and unfit for typing. I dream about bubble wrap, but really it’s all part of this bigger dream in which we’ve got nowhere to go and all we’ve got is mountains of labeled boxes and bubbles everywhere. I’ve lost eight pounds in ten days, which would be great, really, had I intended to lose eight pounds in ten days.

Then earlier this week I was frantically looking for some paperwork to fill in for our solicitor. It was urgent, like all things are these days, and I was sure I’d seen it somewhere, so I turned our living room upside down, I even opened some of the boxes I’d taped just the night before, I checked under the armchair pillows, behind the few books still on shelves, even in the oven, I drove to my office to check my locker and then drove back going over every possible hiding place in my mind, raided the bedroom and the insides of every bag, backpack and suitcase in sight, and hours, hours later I finally sank to the floor and sobbed, really sobbed for twenty minutes or so, all the while aware that I was losing my mind. I’d never had those papers, I realized. They’d always been in an email, never printed out.

And yes, I know. There are so many much worse things people are going through these days. Trust me, I know. In fact, it’s probably the only thought that keeps me somewhat sane right now. But I’m struggling, and it’s the kind of struggling that not only was I not prepared for, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to end any time soon.

So this is it, my home hunting adventure so far. For what it’s worth, we’ll hopefully know something by tomorrow, and then I’ll be embarking on my homeless adventure, which I’m sure will be super duper blogging material as well. So at least there’s that. The glass may be half empty, but at least there’s a glass. Until there isn’t one, because it’ll have to be wrapped in bubbles and put into storage.