Home is…?

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Montreal’s Habitat, a legendary bit of architecture

 

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’ve moved around a fair bit — as every child in a military family knows well, like the author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — it’s sometimes challenging to decide where home really is.

I’ve now lived decades in the same one-bedroom apartment in the same building in the same suburban New York town, by far the longest I have ever lived anywhere.

When my adult midlife peers lament the final sale of their beloved childhood home, I think: “Huh.” Not me.

I’ve moved a lot and have lived in five countries. But it’s now been a long, long time since I last changed residences, absolutely worn out after changing my home location six times in seven years.

It takes time to settle in, to get to know a place and its rhythms.

And, sometimes — despite all your highest hopes and best intentions — it’s just a really poor fit.

I did not enjoy living in Montreal, even with the nicest apartment anywhere ever (fireplace, 15 foot ceilings, spacious rooms) — the winter was too cold and long and snowy and the professional possibilities far too limited. Plus incredibly high taxes and, then anyway, a disturbingly high crime rate. Our building was broken into a lot.

Same for my 1.5 years in small-town New Hampshire, before the Internet, with no family/friends/job and an exhausted/absent medical resident for a boyfriend.

 

My homes:

Vancouver

Born, lived to age two.

London

ages two to five, with my parents, while my father made films for the BBC.

 

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The Ex, an annual event in Toronto

 

Toronto, ages five to 30

— a gorgeous huge house with a big backyard. Parents divorced when I was seven.

— boarding school Grades 4-9 and summer camp (four of them) ages 8-17

— a downtown apartment shared with my mother.

— a second apartment in the same building, shared with my mother.

— an apartment with my father and his girlfriend.

— a house (owned), also living with with them, in a lovely neighborhood, facing a park.

— a ground-floor, back alley studio in a bad neighborhood, until a man tried to pull me out of the bathroom window while I was in the bath. Lived alone.

— a sorority house, for the summer. Shared space, very comforting!

— a top floor studio apartment near campus; alone.

— a top floor apartment in a downtown Victorian house; with boyfriend.

— the top two floors of a (rented) house; with boyfriend, then alone.

 

Cuernavaca, Mexico

— six months with my mother in a rented apartment, age 14

 

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Montreal has some amazing  buildings!

 

Montreal, Quebec

— one year, with my mother in a rented apartment in a downtown brownstone, age 12

— 1.5 years on the top floor of a luxury 1930s-era rental building in downtown while a Montreal Gazette reporter; alone.

 

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Now that’s my kind of delivery! The Marais, one morning…

 

Paris

— eight months in a tiny student dorm room in Cite Universitaire while on an EU-funded journalism fellowship.

 

Lebanon, New Hampshire

— two years in a rented apartment on the main floor of a farmhouse, with boyfriend-later-husband.

 

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A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

 

 

Tarrytown, New York

—  current residence; married, divorced, solo, now re-married.

 

I know people here now.

I run into D, the amiable Frenchman who helps choose stock for our local thrift shop and notice he’s still limping, months after he broke his ankle.

I chat with M, a hardware store sales associate I interviewed in 2009 for my retail book, and who works for a man whose great-grandfather started the company.

I say hello to Hassan, who hands me shards of ham and bits of candied pecans at his gourmet shop.

I bump into friends on the street and at the gym and the train station and the grocery store and at church.

When I return to Montreal and Toronto, I’m also delighted to spend time with old friends and to enjoy familiar foods and sights and sounds and all our shared cultural references that none of my American pals will ever get.

 

So I feel lucky that so many places have been my home. I feel as bien dans ma peau speaking French in Montreal and Paris as I do hablando en Mexico as I do ordering a bagel with a schmear here in New York. 

 

Will we move again?

When?

Where?

Why?

 

Where is home for you?

 

Dreaming of a house…

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1926, Maurice Vlaminck, lithograph; acquired at auction and now in our bedroom

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Blame it on journalism, an insecure business that lays people off every day and pays poorly.

Blame it on my insistence on living close to a major city, which spikes real estate prices; I lived for 18 months, (albeit pre-Internet and pretty broke), in a small rural town in 1988. It was a very poor fit, making me wary of being so far out again.

Blame it on a lifelong love for travel, blowing bucks on a trip to Paris instead of scrimping for a larger down-payment.

And, I admit, my aesthetic preferences for homes 100+ years old and my lack of carpentry/electrical skills also in play…

But I’ve never owned a house.

I re-arranged the artwork in our bedroom recently and noticed a subconscious pattern — a French lithograph from the 1920s; an anonymous oil found at a flea market and a watercolor bought at an antiques fair.

Each shows a house, surrounded by forest or land or near a river.

Not in a suburb.

Not in a city.

But a discrete dwelling with no immediate neighbors or nearby visual impediments.

A few other factors have made home ownership feel difficult-to-impossible — working freelance with a variable income makes mortgage lenders jumpy.

The serious responsibility of costly repairs — like a roof or boiler — is intimidating.

And, with no children, no real justifiable need for extra space, like multiple bedrooms or bathrooms.

There’s also no “Canadian dream” of home ownership and — unlike the U.S. whose policies make mortgage interest a tax deduction, making home ownership more appealing — Canadian banks usually insist upon a 30 percent down payment, not the 1 percent “liar loans” that got so many American home-buyers into terrible trouble in 2008.

And houses aren’t cheap!

The ones that are would require so much time, energy and renovation my heart sinks at the prospect — and we go off on vacation instead.

I lived in a house at 19, at home with my father and his girlfriend, later wife. It was white brick, two story, probably built in the 1920s or 30s, on a busy Toronto corner and facing a park.

I lived in a house in downtown Toronto, the top floor of a narrow Victorian home, then in a sorority house for a summer and then, my last Toronto home, rented the top two floors of a small house even as I lived alone.

But since then, I’ve shared hallways and a laundry room and adjacent walls — through which I can hear our neighbors’ laughter and conversations — in a six-story co-op (owned) apartment building in a suburb of New York City.

I like our life here — there’s a pool and Hudson River views and nice landscaping and I don’t have to shovel snow or clear gutters or mow a lawn.

But I long, deeply, for a private place where I can crank up my music really loud.

Where there isn’t a long tedious list of “house rules” and restrictions on everything from bird-feeders (verboten) to grilling outdoors.

Where we could easily host multiple friends, finally able to reciprocate their house-owning hospitality to us.

Which we could rent out and leave if we want to.

We’re thinking of a road trip to Nova Scotia — and found this, a 3 bedroom with 2 acres and ocean view, built in 1815.

And went a little mad with desire until I read that it’s the rainiest place in Canada except for the very rainy B.C. coast.

My father has owned many houses — including a great Georgian pile near Galway City in Ireland, built in 1789; a massive Victorian in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia and an elegant early Victorian in a small town in Ontario.

He just bought his latest, built in 1810, in another small Ontario town.

 

Do you live in a house?

Do you own it?

What’s it like?

House Lust, The Subject of Meghan Daum's New Book

ELIZABETH, NJ - JUNE 20:  Members of the publi...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

She’s been writing funny and revealing stuff about her life for a long time — once famously confessing in The New Yorker that she couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan; that piece became the title of her book of essays,“My Misspent Youth.”

Her new book “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House” has a title that sums it up.

It’s the American Dream. (That’s one of those phrases Americans — and their realtors — take for granted. There is no corresponding Korean or French or Canadian “dream” of owning your own home, preferably a little colonial with a lawn and a backyard. Other countries don’t allow mortgage interest as a tax deduction.)

Writes Virginia Postrel:

The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV’s low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and “For Sale” signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today’s neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.

Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn’t a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.

Whether because of alienation or ambition, Ms. Daum’s family, when she was growing up (first in Austin, Texas, and then in New Jersey), shared “a chronic, lulling sensation of being aboard a train that was perpetually two stops away from the destination we had in mind for ourselves.” That feeling manifested itself in a “perpetual curiosity about what possibilities for happiness might lie at the destination of a moving van.” The result was a childhood filled with weekend trips to visit open houses, dinner-time conversations about relocation and, in Ms. Daum’s teenage years, her mother’s sudden move to her own home: “four walls whose color scheme required approval from no one. It wasn’t another man she wanted but another life.” (Ms. Daum’s parents did not divorce.)

I’ve been living in the same one bedroom apartment since 1989. Will I ever own a house? Not anywhere near I live now — a nasty little shoebox with .25 of an acre on a busy street would run me $500,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes. I’m hoping to buy one, or at least rent one, in France in retirement, and living in 1,000 square feet (about the size of an affordable house in my town) allows me the extra cash to fly to France in the meantime.

My Dad has been scouting houses in coastal Maine, trying to figure out what to do with his. I know a house is a major dream for millions of people and you need a space with room(s) for kids and their toys and pets and activities. We lived in a house when I was little, and when I was in high school, but, other than my rental on the top two floors of a Toronto house, and our rented apartment in an old house in rural New Hampshire, it’s been apartment living since then for me.

There are some amazing houses in my town, one, a huge shingled Queen Anne painted the pale pink of strawberry ice cream with green shutters and several with wisteria trees snaking up across their verandahs and eaves. There are one or two I would love to live in, but could never afford them.

I really love our apartment. I’ve re-painted it a bunch of times, especially since attending interior design school. We have astonishing views northwest up the Hudson and I have hawks and geese and crows swooshing so low over my top-floor balcony I can hear the wind through their wings. I love the light and quiet and feel blessed to own my own home. Its small-ish size and manageable mortgage makes me feel safe, even while working in an industry shuddering through insane and terrifying changes.

I basically see a house as a money pit, something that endlessly needs upgrades and repairs, mugging you financially when you can least afford it — new boiler! new roof! new driveway!

How about you? Do you love your house?