In the past few decades, I’ve lived in approximately 8 cities in 6 countries on four continents.
That tally doesn’t include the hundreds of hostels, sofas and floors I called home for most of my early 20s. In the past decade alone- my more settled, grown-up 30s- I’ve lived in 3 cities in two countries and have averaged a new flat every year. Since moving to Shanghai back in February of 2009, I’ve already called three flats home. By June, that number will be bumped up to four, as our landlord is selling our flat as soon as our lease is up.
It’s a bit tiring.
If you were to look at my hypothetical apartment rental score sheet, you might think I was a fickle flake with no sense of permanence, no desire to be settled. A nomad who is still saving up for her first herd of yaks, who is still on the lookout for the perfect ger (hey, Mountain Equipment Co-op, I’m looking at you here!).
In your mind, you possibly imagine me surrounded by unopened boxes, still packed from the previous move. Hell, you probably think I have no boxes at all. Maybe a 20 liter backpack with three changes of underwear and a ballpoint pen. Scratch that- I have, at most, a hobo handkerchief satchel tied to the end of a rough stick.
I have come to realize over the course of my rather geographically unstable adulthood that, in spite of my rather ambitious travel CV, I am horribly, irreconcilably domesticated. My very core practically screams for a kitchen, a garden, a plump and furry cat and a fireplace with a cup of hot tea. I came out of the metaphorical closet on that one back in September with my other blog, which practically rolls around in the kitchen with a degree of glee matched only by a dog rolling in dead salmon by the river’s edge. If you are unfamiliar with such an occasion, trust me: dead salmon + dog + rolling around = bliss.
I currently own a wok, a smallish counter top oven, a rice cooker and a sturdy, clay-lined crock pot. I have houseplants that are still alive. I own a vacuum cleaner (a hand me down from a more stable expat friend, but still). I have two pairs of slippers (winter and summer editions), two full sets of bedding, and a closet full of clothes that will never be able to be compressed into a backpack.
Don’t even ask me about the number of shoes I currently own. Or, for that matter, about the heart breaking number of magnificent shoes I’ve had to abandon all over the world over the years.
I have also come to realize that, for whatever reason, my two biggest compulsions- impulsive, minimally-baggaged travel and emphatic domestic hermitude- effectively cancel each other out. If I indulge in one by, say, travelling around Myanmar or Cambodia or wherever for a month or two, my brain is preoccupied by conflicting impulses: Yay travel! Yay adventure! Boo instability! I miss my kitchen! Wahoo! I’m in Yangon! Waaah- I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything! Hey, wow, new places! I totally want to stay here forever! No, wait- I want to leave now!
And so on.
Ever since I stopped working at my full time job last June, I’ve found myself retreating more deeply into quiet domesticity. I don’t want to go out. I want to stay in, I want to cook, I want to bake cookies, I want to read and drink tea and be quiet. Shanghai (and by extension, all of China) is out there, all big and sprawling and noisy and overwhelming, but I don’t really want to engage with it. I don’t want to talk to people. I travel a lot for work- short stints around the country, staying in fancy hotels I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, taking taxis that I don’t have to pay for, spending the 36 or so hours that I’m there either in my hotel, in a taxi or locked in a small interview room with a stream of 30 or so kids filing in, one by one.
Parts of me are embarrassed by my retreat into solitude. After all, I live in China. I should be out exploring, tasting the delicacies, talking to the locals, etc, etc. Thousands of people sitting in their work cubicles back home, secretly perusing travel and lifestyle redesign websites, are collectively wrinkling their brows in scorn, dismayed that someone who has been given so many opportunities to do interesting things– adventurous things– just wants to drink tea at home, wrapped up in a warm duvet with a book.
And I suppose I do those interesting things to a certain degree- after all, my job kind of has me talking to locals all the time, for hours on end, and many of my meals and journeys are in unfamiliar territory. It’s just that when it’s your entire life (and has been for nearly two decades), sometimes a boring little routine starts to look tempting.
Back in the mid-2000s, when I had just moved to Istanbul from the wilds of Anatolia and had finally found my first unshared apartment at age 30, I used to sit at my living room table, looking out at the neighbours’ garden, making lists of what I wanted to do with my home, if and when I found somewhere more permanent. Every flat (or room or bed) that I’d had until then had been extremely temporary, with flatmates, room mates, other people’s furniture, other people’s books and art, other people’s leases, other people’s rules. I wanted a place I could stay as long as I wanted, where I could choose the furniture I loved and paint the walls how I pleased. I contemplated how I would fill my spice rack. I carefully filled my hypothetical bookshelf.
In spite of my deep seated craving for permanence, I left every flat I’d rented after a year, or sometimes less. I went through 4 flats in four years in Istanbul. Each was lovely (and flawed) in their own way but each needed to be left, for one reason or another: restlessness, a need for a change of scenery, a new job, poor impulse control, frustration. Cracked walls, dreadful plumbing, bitchy neighbours, freezing and unheatable winters, pervy landlords, impossible rent increases. Everything had to change with great regularity.
I still craved a core of stability but at the same time I continued to dismantle the scaffolding. Sometimes I’m quite certain I am my own worst enemy.
We have to be out in the next month or two so I will be flat hunting again. I woke up this morning having temporarily forgotten through my sleep foggy brain that everything would be in a state of upheaval soon enough. It was a bit like waking up after a terrible break up or after a brutal fight with a good friend that changes everything, when it suddenly dawns on you that everything is permanently altered in a small but crucial way. That chunks of your foundation have been chipped away at- again.
It’s just a flat and there are thousands more out there. I’m not afraid of change. I’ve done it a thousand times before and am constantly adapting every day anyway. I had just hoped that some things would remain constant for just a while longer, until I was actually ready to let them go.
Maybe the next flat won’t have cracked walls or draughty windows or a shower that takes 10 minutes to get hot water. I’m crossing my fingers.