Thursday, October 14, 2010

House Hunting

From time to time, quite often actually, I think about moving house. I flick through the real estate ads and try to find a house closer to school, with fewer roads to cross and bounded by quiet streets. Or I dream about living on a hillside somewhere damp and fertile, somewhere with a view. I check out houses in country towns or on their outskirts; and occasionally I even go to inspections, and imagine living here, or here, or here.

Earlier this year, my partner and I so thoroughly investigated one country town that we even checked out the primary school, the yoga studio, and the train times to the city; and dragged our kids and a friend to inspect a romantic-looking cottage. Perhaps fortunately, the house backed into a mine; it was dark and poky and stank of cigarette smoke; the bathtub was not plumbed; the lounge was lit only by a candle chandelier; and the 'orchard' was a single tired quince tree standing in a field.

It wasn't quite what I wanted – but what, really, was I looking for? The thing is, there's nothing wrong with where we live, and so much that is right. Sure, the traffic's heavy, but other than that, it's perfect. My husband can cycle to work downtown in twenty minutes. We are serviced by ample public transport. We have a supermarket at each end of our street, and an organic market a mile down the road. We can buy anything we need, from almost any country on earth; we can buy many things made locally. We can walk or ride to the library, the pool, the kinder, the school, the gym and most of our friend's houses. We have a hundred restaurants or coffee shops nearby; half a dozen bookshops; a dozen op shops; and several ethical clothing studios where garments are made on site.

Our neighbourhood is dotted with guerrilla street art: brightly coloured pole warmers; a life-size stencil of Red Riding Hood feeding the wolf; snatches of poetry scribbled onto walls; trompe l'oeil gardens painted onto brick; and up a nearby laneway, a large blue dinosaur.

Our across-the-road neighbours give me lemons and the kids cuddles; the guys at our veggie shop laugh at my jokes. Our Lebanese pastry shop is decorated by pictures drawn by my daughters and the guys there wave as we walk by every day. My four-year-old buys pita bread by herself while I stand around outside; she chats with the owners who have watched her grow up. The men at the hardware store give free advice and carry stuff to the car when I cannot wrangle it into the pram; the ladies at the Italian wholesalers admire my toddler's cheeks and offer bread and olives for her to snack on. The waiters at our favourite coffee shop kneel to chat with my children before taking our order. This is our neighbourhood; in a quiet way we are recognised, and we belong.

And our house is wonderful. We chose it for the block – small for our city, but large for our suburb – and have been working on the garden ever since. Now our study is shaded by a ten foot high tamarillo tree, its leaves like elephant ears cooling the room. We have a dozen fruit trees, and in the pantry lies a sack of almonds that we picked. My girls spend summer afternoons on the trampoline nibbling on grapes from the vine that insinuates itself through the netting; I come home, wheeling my bike down the path, and pause to snack on figs plucked from overhanging branches. We have just acquired four chickens, who happily scratch and peck at the bottom of the garden under the old pear tree – and right now the tree is covered with blossom like a bridal veil. In just over a week, the crab apple will bloom and the air will be filled with drifting petals.

We live in a bountiful garden only five miles from the CBD among shops and services many can only dream of. Why, oh why, would I look to move?

I suspect two things are going on.

For one, we live in a deeply consumerist society. The constant message is that we never have enough. If we have three t-shirts, why not four? If our jeans are unfashionable, why not buy a new pair? If our house is a mile from school down a busy road, why not move? Forget travelling the long way – just upgrade, update, renew! Make it bigger, better, more convenient! Amen!

Yet while a new house might be closer to school, it will be further away from everything else; any imagined convenience, and its transforming power, is an illusion. And as for moving to a house in the country – well, living in an Australian town is like living in a spread-out suburb; living on a hillside means a twenty mile drive to school. Two weeks ago I spent the day in a fashionable town where the traffic noise was louder than where I live, and we couldn't cross the road for the cars. If I want peace and quiet, I'm better off sitting in my own kitchen, where during the day I can hear the wind sing through the sheoak and listen to the chuckle of happy hens.

I wonder too whether, if a house is like a skin, then perhaps I am trying on different skins, different ways of being. There are days when I'm uncomfortable in my skin. I'm tired and grumpy and fed up with the drudgery of being home with kids. I'd like to work again, and be paid for it; I'd like a little less vomit and a little more dignity.

I suspect that I look at houses because, at some deep level, I imagine that if I lived elsewhere then things might be different. If the walk to school were easier, or the house a little smaller or arranged a little better, or the street a little quieter, then perhaps I'd feel more at home – in my skin and in the world.

But whatever constitutes this idea of home, I reckon that the dream of finding it in a different house is just that: a dream. Our suburb is terrific; our house is comfortable; our garden getting better all the time. There is no perfect house, or perfect life, waiting for me to slot in to. Instead, this is my house, this is my life.

And when I pull my eyes from the real estate guide and draw a deep breath, when I look around and notice the delicate stars of jasmine flowers clustered on the fence, when I realise that the pear tree is in full bloom and the almond's heavy with nuts; when my four-year-old walks around with a chicken under her arm and my two-year-old finds an egg, then I have to admit that, from where I'm sitting, it's a damn sight more than good enough.

Right here in my own backyard, for all its messiness and imperfection, we have life in abundance already.


  1. Bewdy Al,your suburb is my suburb too and there is much to enjoy as you have expressed so beautifully. Perhaps the ideal place to contemplate other lives is from the comfort of our own little oases dotted throughout the vibrant,welcoming and at times threatening grid of a big city.
    PS Riding Hood has been superseded by Tecnoskeleton Man and have you come across Screen Diva wielding a bloody axe?

  2. I was so disappointed by Red Riding Hood's passing - never even got a photo. Yet to notice Screen Diva... I'll keep my eyes peeled!


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