stereotypes, reputations, simplicity

Bee's picture
Sat, 02/19/2011 - 21:00 -- Bee

Six years of life in Europe has served one main purpose: to convince me that national stereotypes and historical reputations are deserved.

Certainly not all - and generally not the worst of those available - and of course individual people have an array of personal idiosyncrasies. But very general points like England has shoddy housing are more accurate than I could have believed possible.

Cold, draughty, mouldy houses? Check! Infestations of vermin? Inefficient builders? Carpets in places where carpets do not belong, like kitchens and bathrooms? Oh yes. And more! Plus the drama plays out in miniature: the smallest personal dwelling spaces of any country in Europe.

Now that I am officially British I feel entitled to criticise. Though, like a Brit, my primary complaint is that properties are so expensive. I wouldn't mind living in a slum, if the rates reflected the quality of the accommodation.

I remember a time when I thought my New York friends (with children) paying premium prices for limited square footage were insane. England forced me to think of those apartments with envy. Why? Compared to London they are bigger, cheaper, better insulated, and without exception, feature lashings of hot water on demand.

When I decided to move to London the big question was where to live: keep (or upgrade) my boat? Share a flat? Rent? Buy? I had ignored the property market when it was misbehaving, because I don't think real estate is an appropriate speculative investment. But in my humble opinion it makes sense to buy when the amount you spend on rent matches or exceeds the amount you might pay a landlord. So, despite the idiocy of the mortgage products (did you know that people here generally take variable rate deals, renewable every five years? That a very high percentage opt for interest-only payments? True facts) it seemed like buying was the most practical choice.

But what to buy? Whereas once I would have chosen for aesthetic reasons or to obtain a "bargain" this time my concerns were strictly pragmatic. I wanted windows that opened and closed. New plumbing. Mixing taps!

These elements are not guaranteed according to price. Paying more means very little, and in fact could be worse - because the gorgeous old houses are (rightly) protected by preservation rules. Translation: you might never be able to install a modern kitchen. Call me cowardly and fastidious, but I didn't want to spend a fortune wrangling with planning permissions in order to live in a construction site. Here in the UK I know people who have spent millions, and years, but still live in crap.

London is technically one of the most expensive cities in the world, but like any other place has its own twisted internal logic. I need to live within short cycling distance of either Kings Cross or Liverpool Street train stations, I had to consider stamp duty threshold (translation: tax rate), and I wanted an energy efficient home.

Of course everyone else like me wants, if not the same things, at least the same location at the same price. Factor in little details like the notion that there are only seller agents, never buyer agents, the selection of properties was best described as nonexistent. Dozens upon dozens of inquiries solicited only three call-backs. Interesting, eh?

So I was thrilled beyond belief when I finally found an affordable flat best described as simple and new.

Then I waited for seven tedious months for the zoning to be amended. Reflecting each morning that it would have been vastly more painful if I had been trying to acquire a Georgian terrace, or convert an old warehouse.

I moved in the last week of September, and all these months later remain entranced by the mod cons. Doors that shut with a solid thunk - and stay shut! Wood floors that proceed on a flat plane, without splinters or sloping or buckling! Windows, glorious windows: huge, functional, letting in light and air! Cupboards, a fridge that stays cold, a cooker that actually cooks! And of course, best of all, hot water, whenever I wish, in both kitchen and bath.

Though the most interesting thing has been the reaction of friends. Those reared in Germany and Sweden just nod: the amenities and presentation are in their minds a minimum standard.

Americans are dismissive, even rude, mainly because they are shocked at the size - easily half what I would have considered necessary in Seattle or Portland.

My British friends are the only people who can appreciate what I have accomplished, and their reaction has been the most puzzling. My agent informed me that the flat is fancy: quite possibly the last word I would have chosen. But she, and the others, are not reacting to the looks of the place. It is honestly just a plain square space filled with my accumulated junk.

No, they - like me - appreciate the excellence of the central heating.

First citizenship, now this. What next? Will I finally succumb and acquire a British accent?

I hope not. I like my tortured idioms.