Husband recently sent me a link to a review of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. This was slightly odd, as I have almost no interest in computer games. Thankfully, he wasn’t attempting to persuade me to join him on a virtual Viking crusade. He thought I’d find the first paragraph amusing. He was right.
Extract from “Assassin's Creed Valhalla's Ravensthorpe is my new favourite game town” by Alice Bell.
“What is a home? My yardstick is that home is anywhere I don’t feel weird opening the fridge and making myself a sandwich from its contents. If you are left alone somewhere and you find yourself thinking, “But what if I make a sarnie with that ham and it turns out it was special ham being saved for a special occasion??” then you are not anywhere that is home for you. Likewise, if anyone tells me to make myself at home, I immediately go and get the cheese out of their fridge and take a bite out of it, while maintaining eye contact, to establish dominance.”
After having a good old chuckle at the imagery, I found myself pondering what my own yardstick measures a home to be. I’ve led a reasonably nomadic lifestyle and lived in a lot of different places. But which of them reached the status of feeling like home?
Touring Theatre Life
When I worked as a touring wardrobe mistress, me and a large suitcase would pitch up at a different house every Sunday and do our best to make ourselves feel at home. Usually, I had one room to myself and the rest of the house was shared with the permanent inhabitant(s). I was very deliberate with how I used each of these passing pit-stops. I always unpacked every item from my suitcase and gave them temporary places to live for their fleeting stay. I tried to make the space within those four walls somewhere I was happy coming back to after a long day in the theatre.
No matter what I did though, I wouldn’t have called any of these places a home. The best landlords did a good job of making me feel welcome. My favourite hosts were the first people I stayed with as a touring wardrobe professional. They picked me and my hefty luggage up from the train station (big tick in the pro column) and when I politely declined the kind offer of a cup of tea, they asked if I’d prefer a gin and tonic. Yes, yes, I would. They also had a beautiful dog called Lucky and a lovely cat called Schrödinger. These were my kind of people. The following week’s digs were quite a contrast. I found myself sleeping in a room with a statue of Jesus above my bed (unnerving for an atheist) and sharing a house with a stern old lady who didn’t believe in modern heating systems, double glazing, or having hot water available past 7am. That was a chilly week.
The point is, I was a guest in someone else’s home. They set the rules and I did my best to follow them. Some were more relaxed than others. Some made more of an effort to make me feel at home. Some seemed to be aiming for the exact opposite. One landlady casually mentioned that she liked her own space as I stood in her kitchen making my morning brew. I had to admire her passive aggression.
These experiences have shown that for me, a house becomes a home when I stay in it for more than a week, when it doesn’t feature any judgmental deities in unnervingly intimate locations and when all inhabitants have equal say over the temperature.
Aside from these weekly haunts, my more fixed abodes have also been fleeting by some people’s standards. Since leaving my childhood home thirteen years ago, the longest I’ve lived in the same building is three years. I lived in three flats in four years in Edinburgh, one house, one flat and an annex in five years in Cambridge, and one flat for two and half years in Spain, with a few months in parent’s homes in Cumbria along the way. Some of these places definitely felt more homely than others.
My favourite Edinburgh home was a high-ceilinged beauty of a flat in Leith. Being on the third floor at the top of an ominously high set of stairs couldn’t put a dampener on my love for this spacious and spectacular flat. Considering the size of the place, the rent was extremely reasonable. My massive bedroom was bathed in natural light from the huge bay windows. I loved the exposed brick wall in the bathroom and the free-standing bath that made me feel like low budget royalty. It had my dream combination of gas hob and electric oven. The combined kitchen and living room were also generously roomy and had the biggest mirror I have ever seen in my life in one corner. This mirror was so big that it had gently curved under its own weight, which made my reflection slightly slenderer than it was in reality. I know it’s shallow, but it made me feel a bit better when I stumbled bleary-eyed into the kitchen desperate for carbs and caffeine first thing in the morning.
My fond feelings for this flat never wavered, unlike my affection for two of the people I shared it with. For the first six months I shared this flat with someone who was basically never there and didn’t pay the rent. I then accidentally replaced them with a surprisingly hairy, short fused, unpredictable, misogynist. He moved out after missing a month’s rent and getting shirty with our perfectly reasonable landlords when they enquired after his well-being. The bastards.
The day he moved out was up there with the more awkward experiences of my life. Husband was visiting me and we spent the day out and about so we wouldn’t be in the way while my soon-to-be-ex-flatmate moved his stuff out (and so we'd avoid being roped in to help). When we returned to the flat, my landlord was stood in a half empty room with my departing flatmate’s keys in his hand looking thoroughly confused. Had he left all this stuff behind deliberately? Was this some bizarre kind of protest? Was he planning on coming back? We had no idea, so my landlord took the keys and left. About ten minutes later the doorbell rang and my flatmate announced over the intercom that he’d forgotten his keys when he last left the flat with an armful of boxes. He wasn’t delighted when he went back to the room he was in the middle of leaving and found his keys were gone. I gave him the spare keys Husband used during his visits so he could finish moving out and he stomped off into the street once again. Another ten minutes later my landlord came back in even more of a grump. Piccadilly Circus had nothing on my flat that day. My landlord had received an angry text message informing him that my hard to get rid of flatmate couldn’t move out now because he’d taken his keys. My landlord had therefore legged it back to the flat to give him the keys and get him out our lives. I reassured him that the situation was mostly under control and that our mutual inconvenience had a set of keys that I would get back from him as soon as he was finished clearing his stuff out. Satisfied with my explanation, my landlord left again. Yet another ten minutes later, my finally former flatmate left for the last time with no sets of keys and the last box of his stuff. Husband and I said a polite goodbye while doing our best impressions of the ‘this is fine’ dog. Awkward indeed.
Once he’d left, I found a flatmate worthy of my favourite flat and we spent a blissful year living there together. The most vivid memory I have of sharing this flat with this particular flatmate was the time she stayed up all night making tasty treats for a chocolate competition. She was a pastry chef and an excellent one at that. I came into the kitchen the next morning to find every surface covered in chocolate and my flatmate slightly panicked, suitcase in hand, frantically trying to explain that she didn’t have time to clean the kitchen without missing the train to the competition. I told her not to worry about it and that I would heroically clean up the chocolate bombsite she’d created. It was the most fun I’ve ever had cleaning up someone else’s mess.
The time I spent sharing that flat with three very different people really brought home to me that it’s not just bricks and mortar that make a home a safe and secure place to be. My love for the flat improved the troublesome times with taxing flatmates. However, it wasn’t until I found the right person to share the flat with that I truly felt at home there. My final cohabitant of that flat is still my best friend and we affectionately refer to each other as Flatmate even though we haven’t lived together for years.
After Edinburgh, I moved to Cambridge. The three places I lived in there were all quite different from one another. Husband and I started out sharing a three-bedroom house with a friend from school. We then had our first place to ourselves. This was a slightly bizarre flat that we rented from Cambridge University. The whole place looked like it hadn’t been redecorated since the 80s, but I don’t mind the vintage look. The living room was full of mismatched old wooden furniture and had eight (yes, eight) large lounge chairs like you’d see in an old folks’ home or a waiting room rather than a sofa. The kitchen was all beige and had a backdoor with a very large gap at the bottom that led straight onto a small back lawn. Slugs would often make their way under this gap and all over the kitchen. One morning, we found one on the kitchen worktop, in the middle of the chopping board. That was grim. It also had a long gravel drive leading up to the flat, which I enjoyed trying to ride my bike over when I was coming back from work in Cambridge town centre. The contrast between the tarmac and the gravel was pretty stark and you really had to pedal hard to finish the last few metres of the journey.
The incident that lives on in Husband’s memory from living in that flat was the night I came home completely off my face on cheap wine and rudely awoke him from a gentle slumber. I was working on a pantomime at the time and after two weeks of frantic rehearsals we’d finally opened to the public. The night of the first performance is called press night and traditionally involves a party after the show and the next day off work. Needless to say, all the people that have been working on the show tend to blow off some steam and take advantage of whatever free alcohol is on offer. I was no different. I happily took any glass of free wine that came within grabbing distance and was about as drunk as I’d ever been by 11:30pm. As my colleagues headed off to a club, I told the two techies that were keeping an eye on me that I was going home and confidently headed towards my bike that was parked outside the theatre. I was baffled when they insisted on putting me in a taxi. I calmly (in my mind anyway) informed the driver that I wasn’t that drunk and I definitely wouldn’t throw up in his car. I was half right.
I got into the flat and promptly through my guts and several glasses of wine up into the toilet. I woke up with my cheek pressed against the toilet seat sometime later and headed to bed, where, according to Husband, I spent the night alternating between snoring like rhinoceros with a blocked nose and apologising for throwing up all over the bathroom. The next morning was horrible and this whole experience is a significant contributing factor in my decision to never drink wine again. Husband wandered in with a cup of tea at some point and told me he’d given up trying to shut me up and decided to sleep in the spare room, which was not as warm as he would have liked. He still married me after that though so it can’t have been that bad.
Despite the slugs and one particularly vicious hangover, I enjoyed living in that flat. Though my favourite place we called home in Cambridge was a little annex in a small village outside of the city centre. Our annex was off the utility room of the main house, where our landlords lived, and comprised of a big downstairs kitchen/living/dining area, a dinky little bathroom, and two rooms upstairs in the roof space, one of which was our bedroom, the other was my sewing room. We lived there for three years but I was away working with one theatre company or another for quite a bit of those three years. I was away so much that I’m always a bit surprised when I recall how long we lived there for. It certainly didn’t feel like I spent three years of my life there.
It was towards the end of our time in that annex that I started to crave having a real place to call home. Being away so often made it difficult to invest in any kind of life at home. Husband and I were used to a long-distance relationship thanks to our time at different universities, but I still missed him terribly while I was away. We also really wanted to get a dog, but this was totally impractical with me being away so often and him being at work all day. I ended up disliking many aspects of working in theatre, especially the amount of time I had to spend away from home. I’m not the most outgoing of people and I often craved the comfort and safety of my own space. I didn’t have this when I was touring. I was in someone else’s house or someone else’s theatre and simply wanted somewhere to call mine.
After one more tour and one more pantomime, I moved to Spain with Husband for his new job. It might seem like an odd choice to move to another country to finally spend some time in a place I could call home. But it sort of worked.
We moved into a two-bedroom flat in a town to the west of Madrid. The kitchen had a bright red worktop and an entrance at each end so you could run in one end and out the other like in a Benny Hill sketch. It had a tiny balcony, just big enough for two people to have a cocktail on or watch thunderstorms from. The bedroom and the room I used as a sewing room had enormous wardrobes for storing all the fans and coolers we needed during the Madrid summers. The living room had massive French windows that led onto the tiny balcony and a sofa that soon became home to our first dog. I spent a lot of time in that flat. More time than I’ve spent in any other place I’ve lived since leaving home at eighteen years old.
There were stressful things about living in Spain, especially given our lack of natural aptitude for languages. We had a wonderful time taking advantage of our location and exploring much of the amazing countryside, cuisine, and culture Spain has to offer. But we were always fish out of water. Albeit happy fish, not too far from the water’s edge. Simple things, like going to the supermarket, took a little bit more energy than usual. I was often worried that some language would come up that I wouldn't understand, or I’d accidentally commit some terrible faux pas. The flat was my safe space. No matter how much of a tit I made of myself in the outside world, I could come back to that flat, cuddle my dog and tell Husband the embarrassing story of my day and I would feel that much better. That little flat in a foreign country felt like home. It was our little bubble away from the madness of the world.
I liked knowing I didn’t have to leave it after a few weeks to go touring again. I liked knowing I wouldn’t have to find a replacement flatmate after six months (assuming Husband wasn’t secretly planning on divorcing me). I liked that I wasn’t forced to sleep under a statue of a religious figure. I liked that the only conflict I had about the temperature was with the Madrid climate, not the person I shared the flat with. I liked that it had a dog in it. Even after three months in very strict lockdown, when we only left the flat to acquire food or so that the dog could do her business, I still liked the place. I’m not sure I would have felt the same about some of the other places we’ve lived.
A lot of us have been spending more time than we’d like in our homes. You may even be getting sick of the sight of the place and desperate for a change of scene. Some people have seen even less of their homes as they work harder than ever to save lives and keep our broken world from completely falling apart. Some people aren't safe in their own homes. Some people don’t even have a home to call their own. Our relationships with where we live can be complicated and many things about our living situations can be out of our control.
Aside from the odd difficulty with a few flatmates, I’ve had a pretty smooth ride on my journey to discovering what I would like my home to provide. After all that house moving, I’ve concluded that I’d like to be in my home more often than I’m out of it and that it should be a place of calm in a confusing world. I’d like to share it with people with similar desires for their average core temperature, and I’d like some say in the choice of ornaments. I don’t think that should be too much to ask from a home.
Although, if someone wanders in and takes a bite out of my cheese while maintaining eye contact with me, I will ask them to leave.