Living with Other People

I built my house 13 years ago, and for most of that time have had either lodgers or have hosted international students.  Living with other people perpetually in your space can be a challenge,  (just think about some members of your family!) but  it also has given me a steady income stream.  Occasionally I was surviving way below the poverty line, so that income meant that I was able to continue living in our home. I did come close at one stage to taking my son and moving back in with my parents and renting the house out.  The complication with that would be that I would then have jeopardised my eligibility for a government paid parenting allowance, given that I am a solo parent and for many years was ‘under-employed’.

Fortunately my house is big and there is room for everyone.  I tend to spend a lot of time in my office, which is at the front of the house.  Whenever my celebrancy clients visit, they come in the front door and make an abrupt turn into the office.  This means that they do not see the unwashed dishes or general household detritus, nor are they disturbed by TV or whatever.  My son has the attic room upstairs.  This is quite large and there are a couple of beds up there, plus trundles and these days I never quite know how many teenagers are going to be sleeping up there after a big  night out.  Our house seems to be a convenient crash pad, especially as it is only 4 kms from the CBD.  That leaves the other two downstairs bedrooms for the lodgers.

Our HouseThis picture is a couple of years old but this is Avalon, temporary home to many.

The very first lodger arrived shortly after we moved into the house.  At that stage, it was very new – not much in the way of furniture or furnishings and no garden to speak of.  David was a taxi driver, and as I was so naive about the accommodation business, I did not ask him the right questions – like

  • do you work at night and sleep during the day;
  • are you a very light sleeper who complains constantly about the weekend chatter of little boys and their friends;
  • are you more sensitive to mattress quality than the princess and the pea (yes, I bought him a new mattress);
  • are you also a client of social security and doing a bit of financial juggling on the side; and
  • do you have a gambling and therefore a cash flow problem?
We crept around the house every weekend for a year before I bit the bullet and asked David to move out.  It was such a relief to be ourselves on weekends without shushing all the time.  He left me a legacy though.  To help cover up our concrete floors, he gave me a Persian Rug that his girlfriend was throwing out.  Too late I discovered that it was infested with moths and they also ate the edges of another much-loved rug that I had.  At least he had paid up all the money that he owed me.
Next, two women arrived within a week or so of each other.  The first, Sarah, had a four-year-old daughter and told me that she was a vegetarian.  Sometimes the daughter lived with her father and sometimes she stayed with us.  Mother and daughter took over the attic room, as at that stage, young Donald was in a downstairs room, close to mine.  The day she moved in, I was surprised to see Sarah heat and eat four meat pies – surprised in relation to the quantity and also because I thought that meat pies were a strange choice for a vegetarian.
Her behaviour became stranger and more erratic and I got phone calls asking for her under a different name.  Eventually Sarah explained.  She suffered from multiple personality disorder and I never did find out how many women were living upstairs.  One was a teenager and talked on the phone all the time, curled up in a corner of the lounge.  Another couldn’t drive and that was a problem if she surfaced whilst the previous personality was driving the car.  One presumably was a vegetarian but others weren’t.  The only person who was more confused than me was the little girl.  One day I heard her ask ‘Am I Mary 1 or Mary 2?’ which made me very sad.
Another issue that made me sad was that one of the personalities took my bound copy of my thesis, written for my Masters Degree.  I didn’t actually have proof of this, but nobody else had the opportunity and I knew that a couple of the personalities would have been interested in the topic.  I asked her about it of course, but whichever personality was around at the time denied all knowledge of it.  It was a perplexing problem and I had to ask her to leave as well.  For my own sanity.  I gave her plenty of time to find alternative accommodation but she left quickly and  I discovered after a while that she had gone to a women’s refuge and said that she was escaping from an abusive situation.
I was asked by a mutual friend to take on the other woman who arrived at the same time, also with a small daughter.  This child was around two years.  The first night, I was woken at around 3:00 am by Dorinda who begged me to take her to hospital as she was having a heart attack.  I checked her out and noted her symptoms and soon concluded that this young woman who was in her mid twenties was in fact having a panic attack, not a heart attack.  It took me a couple of hours to calm her down and send her back to bed.  I soon discovered that she was a manic depressive, not managing her medication very well and was generally away with the pixies.  I found that I was taking over the care of the little girl who was sadly neglected as Dorinda was in a perpetual emotional and mental fog.
The little girl’s father soon started visiting as well and staying more and more nights in their bedroom.  Not happy with that, and even less happy when I realised that he was accessing my computer and the internet when I was out.  I asked her to find alternative accommodation as well.  It was only after they went that I realised that a key text book that I required for my Microsoft Certification Course was also missing.  The boyfriend was also studying IT. I could not afford to replace this book and without it could not sit the exams.
After this, I thought that I would provide home hosting for international students who were in Australia to undertake English studies.  I contacted an English college and they were very pleased to have me on their books as we live so close to the city and were on a direct bus route to the college.    There followed many students, from Germany, Japan, Korea, France, Brazil, Switzerland and China.  Their ages ranged from 16 to 50 or thereabouts.
 Some were attending high school in Australia and then I assumed the role of parent in the eyes of the school, and had to ensure that they attended regularly in the required uniform and with all homework completed.  I also had to sort out broken hearts, homesickness and cultural misunderstandings.  Sadly some of the Australian kids were not as welcoming as they could have been and the international visitors were often very lonely.
I had to provide accommodation with at least a bed, a desk, a wardrobe and a desk lamp and all meals.  This was a challenge for some of my guests who were not used to Australian food and the fact that we did not have rice as a staple component of most meals.  Some of the short termers (adults) were more demanding.  They required fresh juice daily and came with a list of preferred foods i.e. only chicken breast, no other part of the chicken, only home-made vinaigrette – nothing out of a bottle, etc.  This was not the deal at all.  It was not a hotel, but some of them came from affluent circumstances and were used to having domestic staff at their beck and call.  The Europeans were the most autocratic with their demands, but for outright wealth some of the Chinese and Korean guests topped the class.
Others politely ate whatever I put in front of them and explored their packed lunches with I think a mixture of amazement and bewilderment.  I would experiment with sandwich filllings, combining foods that they would never have thought of on their own.  I baked each week and so put in home-made cakes and biscuits and also of course some fruit.  Two German teenagers who arrived together told me that they had never had anything other than bread and cheese for their lunches and that their parents had never made lunch for them.  They liked exploring their lunch bags each day, though still came home and had big bowls of cereal on walking through the door in the evening.
One Japanese high school student who was a real sweetie, sat up all night on her last night with us, writing letters to my son and myself, expressing with the aid of her dictionary how much she had loved her stay with us.   She said in her letter to me that all her life she had wanted a mum-made lunch and with us that was what she’d had.  She was so shy when she first arrived, asking my permission to go outside, or to do anything really.
 Gradually, she gained more and more confidence and wormed her way into our hearts.
Food was a major interest for her, and everywhere we went, out would come the camera and she would take a photo of what she was about to eat.  I took her to the Central Market for breakfast with the family (a weekly ritual) and pointed out that there were Japanese and Korean stalls.  I thought that she might be homesick for some familiar food.  What did she order?  A cooked breakfast with the lot – bacon, eggs, tomatoes, sausages, mushrooms, toast, etc. all of course recorded for posterity.  The only time that the camera didn’t come out, she was probably too gobsmacked.  I served up a salad, made with some vegies from my Dad’s garden and in her lettuce she found a green caterpillar.  It was a story that she took home with her to the family in Japan.
She was 16 then and is now about 28, and we are still in contact.  The day before she flew out, we took her down to the local beach and managed to entice her into the water for the first time.  She was probably afraid of sharks or something but she had stayed firmly on the sand until then.  She, my son and I all cried when we had to take her to the airport the next day.

Splashing in the shallows

There came a time when I found the home hosting to be too exhausting.  With some wonderful exceptions, most would not do anything around the house – not helping with kitchen duties or anything else.  I had the impression that they had never done this at home and why should they start now?  Being cook, housekeeper and nursemaid got to be a bit tiring.  The crunch came for me when my mother died after an acute period of illness.  I had a Swiss girl (20) and a Chinese girl (18) staying at that time.  When I came home from the hospital that day, I explained that my mother had died and that in the coming week I would have to organise the funeral and that the household operations would be chaotic.  Both were wide-eyed, but neither offered any condolences or made any offer of help, which I assumed was due to lack of sophistication and cultural naivety.
On the day of the funeral, I said that I had no idea when I would be home, but that there were a selection of home-cooked frozen meals in the freezer and that they should make their selection and put them in the microwave/oven.  When I returned home at around 8:30 pm, they were both sitting around pathetically hungry.  Neither had eaten and I had the impression that neither wanted to take responsibility for initiating the process of creating the evening meal as it should be up to someone else.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but made moves to extricate myself from that contractual hosting relationship shortly after that.
To add some balance to this story, a German couple, in Australia as English students, stayed with me for many months and became a part of our family.  They did help in the kitchen and in many other areas and as he came from the building trades, he was always looking for things to fix or do around the house.  He could not sit still, but had to be making himself useful.  He even did some kitchen alterations for me, and quite quickly.  I had been quoted over $3000 to do the work and was told that it would be very complicated.  It took him two days and with minimal material cost.  They returned to Germany but not being happy with the employment situation over there, decided to migrate to Australia.  They have now bought their own house here and are still good friends.
I next simply advertised for lodgers – people who would rent a furnished room but were responsible for their own food arrangements.  Initially, I placed an advertisement in the paper but soon found that a lot of weirdos would get your phone number from the paper and I got a spate of heavy breathers and similar such callers.  Switching to real estate portals or even Gumtree brought much better results.  Each year, Adelaide also hosts various festivals and sometimes I would advise the festival organisers that I had accommodation available.  I always advertised a short-term rental.  If the scenario worked out well, and the lodger wanted to stay longer then I could say yes to that.  Having short-termers though meant that we didn’t have to put up with funny habits for too long.
Staying with us on this basis, we have had two comedians, a lighting technician and an event coordinator, all associated with different festivals.  We have had a hotel manager who had just come from a relationship breakdown and ended up renting one of the rooms for three years and hardly ever slept there, after his heart healed and he found a new relationship.  He never prepared a meal or even made a cup of coffee.  No hassles with that one!  There was a trainee pilot for 6 weeks, an IT Project Manager who flew in from OS for a contract, a LIthuanian backpacker who left us a CD of his favourite Lithuanian songs, and an Iranian man who left after I discovered him at home with a young lady.  She had obviously spent the night with him.  I have no objections to people having a private life, but was disturbed by the fact that she looked to be under the age of consent and even then, seemed young for her age.  When he went, he left behind an antique rocking chair that he was supposed to be renovating.  It has been stripped but is still sitting at my place awaiting the french polishing.  He was doing this as a favour for a friend, a person who no doubt is now very sad at having lost their chair.
On occasions, friends have availed themselves of a short-term place to stay and that has been good too.  Other short-termers have become friends and the connections to our house now reach around the world.
I don’t advertise any more.  I am constantly being asked if I will take on more people who need accommodation.  I have just had a Uni student leave (with some relief on my part), but still have an Irish couple who are very easy and are returning home to Ireland in December.  They have been spending some time in Australia because they can get work here but were unemployed in Ireland.
So, in December, it will be just young Donald, the cats and myself and I think that for a while, this will be good.  I am employed now and earn a reasonable income.  Running the household takes a fair chunk of that income but then having ‘guests’ does come with costs as well.  My water consumption has gone through the roof recently with lots of very long showers and endless cycles through my water-guzzling top-loading washing machine.  When young people sit up all night watching their plasma TV and using various other electrical devices, then the power bill goes through the roof also.  Then there are the breakages that occur, the things that wear out from multiple use, etc. etc.
It seems also that I am still the only one who understands the function of a mop or broom as I am the only one that uses them, whilst the house guests all enjoy their weekends and the Australian sunshine.  If I am going to spend all weekend cleaning, I would prefer it to address what I  have created rather than others.  Probably our guests feel that in return for their weekly rent, which includes outgoings such as electricity, broadband and other utilities, then they should have the freedom to come and go without any other responsibility.    In part also the onus falls on me for not asking for enough help.  It is mentioned in their handbook that gives all the details about the house and the environs but with the busy lives that we all lead, we don’t actually connect very much and I haven’;t pursued it.  When one person is in, the other is out, etc.  Also, in spite of the fact that we have a large house with a couple of living areas, 90% of the lodgers have spent their time in their room when at home and not using the kitchen or the bathroom.  They don’t ever sit out on the back deck or read a book in the garden.  I often wonder if they feel that they need to shut themselves away to retain some private space; and whether my influence is too invasive through the rest of the house.
Whatever, we will wing it alone for a while and it will be so good to have our own space.  I have almost finished the house.  Over the years I have installed solar panels, installed an additional carport and also some rainwater tanks; I have put down flooring and installed light fittings in most rooms and also some window treatments.  I have even bought some new furniture to replace the second hand stuff that I have dragged around for decades.  I have installed an automatic irrigation system and established the garden.  I am about to build a front fence.  In short, I am on the downhill run.
I will have room for the occasional visitor, can streak to the kitchen in the middle of the night for a drink and make as much noise as I want to.  I won’t have to feel apologetic if I have left some dirty dishes in my sink or as is more often the case, my son has.  I think that it will be about time.