STEP 1: House haunting
I’d never realised how hard it was to find a house.
Three years after settling down (after a fashion) in Brussels, it was time to (gulp) live alone. Atypically, for me, at least, I’d made a list of places I wanted to check out. Lists were made of attributes of the house that I wanted to spend a substantial amount of the time I was not spending in hotels.
As every child knows, there are three rules about house-hunting: location, location, location. For three years, we’d been living in a spectacular house (old landlord, don’t ask) in just a slightly-dodgy part of the city and I’d decided that this time I was going to be moddish, if not completely stylish, in the choice of houses.
There was only one problem; actually make it two – I needed to stay in the same commune (suburb) of the city I had been before, so that it made all the reams of paperwork easier on my busy self and 2) budget, budget, budget. While Brussels is not as expensive as London or Paris, it can get a bit tight for a single person wanting to live in something slightly bigger than a studio in a good part of town.
So, I ran a few searches on Immoweb and in end-May, decided to send out requests to house agencies/owners on properties I ostensibly could like.
Out of my indiscriminate mails (30-odd), I got 4 replies for the next week and decided to take the plunge.
Contestant number 1 was a 50 m2 house 20 metres away from the office (could be a good thing). So, I walked out at 2 PM one day and went to the apartment complex. The house was tiny and was shaped in just the way that made putting anything resembling normal sized furniture a nightmare.
I looked up at the house agent and gestured to the open-plan kitchen, “Yes, I see that you have all the appliances. However, where can I put a table?”
She pointed to a 0.5 m deep recess in the wall and mouthed, “Tabletop and barstools.”
By the time I’d visited the bedroom and she’d drawn a squiggly shape for where the bed should be, I’d given up.
We shook hands and I mentally pbbt-ed.
Contestant number 2 was near the woods and was lovely, dark and deep.
And I completely hated all “80 m2 of high-gloss hardwood floor with fully equipped kitchen, white marble bat-tub, reasonable price-“ness of it. For a reason that had nothing to do with its granite foyer, 24 hour security and peaceful neighbours.
Sigh, moving on to Contestant 3 that was touted as being near the ponds of Ixelles, a duplex with toe tingling goodness.
It was in a dodgy part of town and not really near the ponds. I was distinctly feeling uncomfortable as I drove up and down the main road trying to find parking (a normal Bruxellois pastime). 30′ later, I found parking and walked up to a maison de maître (A townhouse typically from Belgium or the Netherlands) and found the owner was MIA. After calling him and checking in to see when he would be back, I walked back to the car.
Till I felt someone following me. I clutched my purse tighter and walked faster. The person behind me kept up.
I slowed down; he modulated his pace.
I quickly turned into a corner and stopped, waiting for him to either go past or turn the corner. His footsteps slowed down and he slowly came into view. I started walking again, crossed the street, stopped and looked across at him.
It was a small teenage boy in a hoodie. And I was petrified.
He kind of looked embarrassed and he didn’t cross the street.
I nearly ran down to my car, tossed my purse into the boot and called the owner.
“Yes, I decided not to view the house. Sorry. There doesn’t seem to be much parking around here.”
Not to mention that your area seems to breed teenage delinquents like little nasty weeds.
I had another mail from a house agent – there was another hardwood floor wonder to visit. On to Contestant Number 4.
By the time I got to the massive apartment complex, I was laughing. This one was near a hospital and was surrounded by funeral homes and crematoriums.
I had a mental picture of explaining to my mother, “Yes, ma, I live next to 5 funeral homes and I regularly see dead bodies in an Ambulance.”
That conversation was bound to go well.
The house owner was surprised to see a girl given my last name and that he’d been emailing me as Monsieur Georges. Regardless, he took me upstairs to a flat that overlooked a tiny garden.
I tried to make small chat with him, “Sooo, this hospital seems convenient.”
He was ghoulishly happy, “Yes, it’s great. The pompiers have to switch off their sirens 500 m from the hospital, so we never hear them”
My smile had a fixed quality, “These hardwood floors are excellent.”
He didn’t seem to notice the non-sequitur as he prattled on about the excellent parks, playgrounds, parking and funeral homes that could take care of my non-scheduled emergencies.
I shook his hands, assured him I’d call him in some days and walked away thinking, “Fat chance.”
By now I was seriously getting fed up but I still had Contestant Number 5 scheduled for Saturday.
I showed up on time for the meeting, by which time the agent had called me twice already.
The area was better this time – no teenage delinquents, no funeral homes, near the office and bang opposite – wait for it, an Indian restaurant and the church I go to. It was also 100 m from the Embassy of India for any of my non-scheduled passport related emergencies.
A very earnest looking Greek boy was waiting outside the house.
“It’s the first viewing for this house.”
“I see.” I added in my head evilly, “Is it also the first time you have ever had a client?”
He opened the door into a living room and dining room that was around 3.5 m wide. I narrowed my eyes, giving my best house vulture look.
“This is narrow.” I said rather obviously.
The boy was, by now, looking terrified. “I worked here for 2 years and I love this place”
Well, it might be good enough for terrified looking Greek boys, but it ain’t good enough for smart, suave and just-oh-slightly naive Indian girls.
I walked into the kitchen and then walked down a flight of concrete steps that were two steps away from plunging to my death.
They were that scary.
Continuing in my vein of obvious statements, I pointed out to Apollo with me, “This is a concrete floor. Are you planning to do something about it?”
He was in a apoplectic seizure and said in a small voice, “Carpets?”
I walked up the stairs, sat down. And on the sofa, I realised it. I’d fallen in love with the flat. In spite of the concrete steps from hell, the peeling floor downstairs, the glass floor/skylight that looked down to the bedroom, the tiny fridge and hot plate, I felt a connection to the flat I’d never felt with any of the other contestants.
I looked at Apollo and said, “Can I put nails in the walls?”
Said he, “As long as you don’t knock a wall down.”
“Heheh. No, I will let you know in two days.”
I will gloss over my last viewing, where the house owner looked at my very modest heels and informed me it was a bad idea to scuff his floors with my shoes and asked me to oil the bathroom floor every six months.
I called Apollo up and said yes.
I had my home.
STEP 2: Signing the dotted line
Three weeks later, I was at the house agents to sign the papers.
After signing 100 papers in triplicate, the main man (also a Greek I shall now deem Zeus) looked up at me and said. “Great. Let me write the address down for you.”
He wrote it down. I took the paper from him and zoned into the pin code.
“That can’t be right. It’s 1050 Ixelles, not 1000 Brussels” (Big difference. Ixelles means a 2 hour and 3 week wait to renew your papers. Brussels implies 5 hours and 2 months)
He laughed, “No, it’s Brussels.”
“Excuse me! It’s Vleurgat, and your ad said 1050 Ixelles.”
He opened the website, said, “Whoops”, and changed the pin code.
And there was nothing I could do.
STEP 3: Obsessing about details
I wanted a bookshelf. And I didn’t want it from Ikea. EVERYONE did Ikea. I wanted something with character.
I went to websites, and more websites, haunted expat forums in a bid to stave off Ikea and even visited sites designed to enhance standard Ikea crap. In short, I had turned into an OCD version of myself.
After dragging around 50 kilos down the big shelves at Zaventem, I was exhausted. I promptly called Pooja (from Amsterdam, no less) to come and have a fun weekend assembling furniture.
She obeyed my summons, weirdly enough. We spent two days carting all my stuff around, setting up the shelves and having a rather great time.
My OCD was still not done. I was still on the lookout for odds and ends, and I bought out the African crafts market to fill the house up. In the middle, I accumulated a Macbook Air, Samsung 40′ TV and a Blu-ray player.
And I curl up in my bed at night, reading from my Kindle. Life is just so good. 🙂
Pictures coming up below. Yes, because I do love this place SO much.