There are 3 simple things that can ruin a shared living situation (excluding living with your family, where the brunt of these responsibilities lies on the shoulders of the parents and therefore creates less conflict): dirty dishes, food and utilities. If handled properly and maturely, those sharing a living space with a stranger, a friend or even a boyfriend can avoid petty fighting and stress and can live relatively relaxed and enjoyable lives under the same roof together. But sadly, the majority of people don’t set up clear boundaries or “rules of respect and expectations” when entering into a housing contract with someone else. They simple rely on good faith and assume that people will clean up after themselves, eat their own food and pay their half of the utilities.
I’ve lived in 7 different shared living situations since moving from my family home in NY at age 18. I first lived with my college roommate on campus for 2 years and then with her and her 2 friends off-campus 2 years later. They liked to share everything (clothes, food, drugs, responsibility…etc) and that ultimately lead to a giant fight over food, drugs, clothes, and responsibility. Dishes were thrown, voices were raised, fingers were pointed and food was labeled. It was hell and I was out less than a month after shit (or literally, plates) hit the fan.
My next shared living was with all boys. I decided this would be less dramatic, less socialist and stress free. Boys weren’t fueled by emotions, unless it was rage, and the little artist colony of boys I had stumbled upon was only releasing their suppressed rage out on their canvases, not on their roommates. I was safe.
My third living situation was in the basement of my sister’s house in DC. That was relatively stress free and I enjoyed my sister’s company. It didn’t feel like my space though and I respected my sister and her house rules so I left to gain more freedom with a bigger apartment closer to my job.
My fourth living situation was in a broken-down cape cod style cottage in Arlington. I was living with my good friend Lauren and my coworker Morgan and his big dog, Buck. The conditions of the house were a bit iffy but we painted it and loved it all the same. After only a short month there our landlord told us that we had to find a new place because he was renovating and selling. Due to a shady contract that we thought was year long but was actually monthly, we scrambled to find a new place to live.
My fifth living situation was with Lauren again. It was harmonious. We were level-headed. We had lived with people before. We knew what to expect and what we expected of each other. We had respect for each other and we treated our house as our sanctuary. It was the best and most stress free shared living situation to date. This was because we talked about things before moving in and left nothing, not even the subject of dirty dishes, untouched.
My sixth living situation was in Jujuy. I stayed with my little sister’s host family while I got accustomed to my new city, language and culture. I was there for 3 months and even though it was comfortable and a loving, family environment, I felt like a squatter, a drifter, a true vagabond. Since I knew the stay was temporary, it took me a while to get unpacked and settled in. Also, they wouldn’t accept rent from me or any form of compensation for their extreme generosity. The fed me every day, cleaned my clothes and made my bed. They helped me with the language, taught me how to knit and made sure I was always safe. I am still trying to repay their generosity with my own generosity in every way that I can.
My current shared living situation is with a 50-something year old woman who owns the house. At first, I was enamored by the house and it’s weird architecture, colors and artwork but I was also petrified of this woman and the lack of warm expressions on her stone-cold face. I wasn’t sure I could live with her, especially since I didn’t know her at all, but I also didn’t have many options. Now, after living with her for almost 6 months I’ve discovered that the house is a broken-down mess and this woman, while sometimes nice, is also judgmental(of my weight, diet and lifestyle) and is very weird about certain things allowed in her house. For example, she hates the smell of matches so I can’t use them to light the gas burners unless she isn’t there. She made a rule saying that I couldn’t cook between 4pm - 8pm because she didn’t like the house smelling like grilled meat after “lunch hours”. The list could go on… She calls her house a “giant tent” and every room is open, including hers, if I need or want to use it. The only television and phone are located in her bedroom as well as the internet connection so as much as I’d like to avoid being in there, I do sometimes have to enter. Even though she has openly invited me into her room, I don’t like accepting the invitation. It was just like accepting an invitation to smoke weed with my first off-campus roommates. At first I declined, telling them that I did not want to smoke something that I didn’t pay for (for the obvious reason of it coming back to bite me in the ass) they of course replied “this weed is free for us, we invite you to smoke it with us, don’t worry about it” and when the blowout happened at the end of the year with the plates flying, they threw that invitation back in my face, as I expected. And, as I expected, my invitation into the “tent” was also thrown back in my face, just recently. I don’t want to get into too many details, let’s just say that her invitation to share her things with me was her being generous, and not that I was, in fact, paying her an exorbitant amount of money to live there and was essentially paying for everything I was using anyway. Her “tent” philosophy meant that everything in the house was open for everyone to use, including her friends that are frequently over at the house. When I made a clear line in the sand as to what was mine and what was hers, she went ballistic and I was again proven right. Her “generosity” was not genuine and the fact that I wasn’t equally as generous with certain things meant that she wanted to revoke her generosity so that I would be punished for my lack of generosity. I never actually invited her into my “tent” but I was generous all the same, bringing her gifts from my travels and having my friends and family bring or send things from the US that I knew she needed or would enjoy. But when people are upset they always focus on the bad, never the good in people. They argue irrationally and with intense emotions, versus analyzing both sides and talking like adults. Fighting with this woman who is a mother of 2 boys my age, but feeling like I was fighting with a 19 year old made me realize something: I need to live alone. After 7 shared living situations I finally want my own house and I want to live there by myself. The only way for me to be truly free and happy where I am living is to be in control of the situation and to be able to call it my own. I’m working on both of these things as we speak but for now I will move onto shared living situation number 8 and hope it is painless, until I can make my dream of owning a house here (and then again, in the US) come true.
More details to come about buying a house as an expatriot. I know for some this sounds shocking, but I swear it’s a good idea.