Some burlesque performers from Seattle are booked to play a venue in my London neighbourhood for few months this winter and a friend asked for tips on where they should stay.
My first instinct was to answer "give up all hope," but that isn't very friendly.
The truth is that England in general, and London in particular, features the smallest and proportionately most expensive personal living spaces of any city in Europe. This means that affordable housing is scarce, sublets are either nonexistent or marked up, and nobody has room to let acquaintances crash.
600 square foot apartments are advertised as "generously sized." Rooms an American would consider small for storage space are listed as large doubles. This is true regardless of income: if you watch home design shows, bedrooms are given short shrift. Even in million dollar mansions, the rooms intended for children are never larger than 8 x 6, and that would be considered a "good" size. The occasional master bedroom might stretch to 12 x 12, but it would be expected to do double duty for other household purposes. The notion of space is simply different here.
My friend Ayun started her writing career with the East Village Inky, a zine describing life in small spaces in New York City. The first time I visited her, I marvelled at the compact nature of her apartment. Back then I paid a pittance to occupy a 2,100 square foot house in Portland perceived by myself and all of my friends as a modestly sized bungalow - possibly not quite large enough to suit a family of four.
Now I live in a place that is smaller than Ayun's flat, and twice as expensive - and it feels enormous, because by London standards, it is. Local friends come to visit and marvel not at how little I possess, but rather, by how much. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an open plan living/kitchen room: what abundance! The fact that it is all crammed into a little over 900 square feet is immaterial, because here, it is the number of rooms that matter, not how big they are.
Life in the middle of a city is a cacophony of sound and pressure, a jostling and overwhelming experience. To have a space of your own to withdraw to, a door to close against the madness, is the ultimate luxury.
But what about the children, shouldn't they have more space? I would argue no. Babies don't need their own rooms at all; toddlers just need a toy box. Middling kids should have a retreat. Teenagers require privacy. Families should have a place to cook, eat, and talk together. None of those mandates translate to specific architectural requirements.
At various times in my life as a parent I have had no more than a single bed in a borrowed room. I've lived on a boat, in a hunting shack, owned a bungalow, rented a three story Victorian terrace house. I've slogged through corporate apartments, hotel rooms, all manner of temporary and irritating accommodation, dragging my children along with me. Now we have landed in a modern efficiency apartment in the middle of a historic city. Some of the places we've lived have been better than others, and I certainly have strong opinions about style and design.
But the fundamental, true fact is that my children thrived or suffered because of the actions of the people they knew, not because of the pitch of the roof over their heads.
Now when I look at housing costs in places like Portland and Seattle I am amazed at how little people pay, but also, that they feel they need such huge properties. I still own the 2,100 square foot bungalow, and rent it to friends. During a recent visit several people commented on the quirky nature of the house, on how it might perhaps not be large enough for more than two people.
Throughout the fifteen years I've owned it, and the ten years since I moved away, I have thought of that house as home. Looking at it again, and listening to my friends talk about space as some kind of essential birthright, I just thought about London. I thought about my tiny little apartment surrounded by miles and miles of tiny little apartments. In my mind, I started to call London home.
Home is where we live. Not the buildings we live in.