This summer, I decided that I was going to live with strangers. As much as I love my mother's cooking, I knew that I couldn't handle another summer at home. It was time for a change. So, after sending out the requisite cover letters and resumes, I bought my ticket to London. With some pride, I informed my parents ever-inquisitive friends that no, I did not have prearranged housing--I would find a place when I arrived.
Hoping to avoid a hostel, I secured myself temporary accommodation in the vacated flat of some very distant relatives. These were wealthy people, so I figured I'd be spending my first week in style. Indeed, physical comfort abounded in their central London flat, but the place lacked one essential ingredient: people to talk to. Without so much as a television set, I found myself wandering around the flat in complete silence. They say that solitude is bliss, but with no one to talk to, I didn't quite know what to do with myself. Needless to say, I was desperate to find a better-populated housing arrangement.
I combed through the classified ads (or "adverts," as the British call them), searched the student listings at the University of London, and surfed through every accommodations Web site I could find. As a last resort, I even tried sending out a request through the inter-office email classifieds ("URGENT: summer intern seeks housing"). To my surprise and delight, a fellow employee responded to my email, offering a lovely room just within my price range. I made an appointment to see the room the next day. That morning, I woke up with a pounding headache and a queasy stomach. No, it was not the result of a glorious night on the town; it was simply my bad luck. But I figured it was no problem; I'd just call them up and reschedule. So, later that afternoon, feeling much better, I phoned to ask if I could drop by and check the place out. "Oh, I'm sorry," replied the owner of the house, "the room is gone. But I hope you're feeling better." Yeah. I was feeling better.
Meanwhile, an unidentified caller left a message on my answering machine (or "answerphone" in Brit-speak). The voice sounded vaguely familiar, and I soon realized that the phone number matched the number of a flat I'd visited several days before: it was Mike from Bayswater. A lively area in central London, full of shops, pubs, restaurants and tourists, Bayswater is perhaps best known as neighbor to Notting Hill. In other words, this flat was in a desirable location. Location, it turned out, was just about the only thing the flat had going for it.
For one thing, Mike informed me that, if I chose to move in, I was going to be sharing a room with him. While less than desirable, this is not quite as sketchy as it sounds. For several years, the Bayswater flat had been populated by an ever-changing stream of American and Canadian students working in London. Inexplicably, the pool of students who chose to spend their free time by earning pounds rather than dollars was overwhelmingly female. Thus, in all the flat's known history, Mike had been its only male resident. It was a two-bedroom flat, with two beds in each room. Somebody had to share with the boy.
Despite the sleeping arrangements, and despite the flat's grungy kitchen and vomit-green bathroom, complete with the traditional European showerhead-on-a-hose, I reluctantly agreed to move in. Having more than overstayed my welcome at the temporary flat, I was ready to go just about anyplace. Three days later, I shoved my suitcases into one of London's finest black cabs, and I was off to Bayswater to live with Mike, Linda and Joanna. Luckily for me, Joanna had a last-minute change of heart and decided that she didn't mind co-habitating (in the most innocent sense), which left me sharing a bunk bed with pinkhaired Linda. Pink-haired Linda, who was (thankfully) meticulously neat, who had to sleep with the door open because of her allergies, and who came home grumpily one day from a job interview, startled that her potential employer had asked her to dye her hair back to its natural color. "I mean, I would take out my nose-ring for a job, but this is discrimination! My hair's clean. It's well-groomed!"
Ah, at last I was living with strangers. For a couple of weeks, anyway.
Once I overcame my initial repulsion, I discovered that the flat wasn't so bad. Mike, Joanna and Linda weren't exactly my type of people, but they were friendly and considerate roommates. The commute was short, all the household appliances worked, and I learned the joys of fivechannel British television programming.
It was the bunk bed, I think, that did me in. As much as I may have learned from sharing a kitchen and living room with people I didn't know, there were some lessons I simply did not care to learn. Though I had managed to avoid Mike's room, I finally decided that a fulfilling summer experience did not require mastery of the art of falling asleep while the bed shakes back and forth. It may be fine for summer-camp or the first year of college, but I've already served my time in the bunk.
Around the time when I could stand the bed-shaking no more, word-of-mouth got around to my ears, and I discovered that a single room (with a double bed!) had opened up in a clean and cozy flat. Once again, I packed up my bags. This time, however, I did not move in with strangers. I moved in with two Harvard students, who, like me, are spending their summers at career-related internships.
After my determination to experience something new and different, this ending to my saga may sound like rather a copout: adversity struck and like a whimpering coward I fled back to familiarity. Perhaps so. Perhaps I am nothing more than a thin-blooded weakling, unable to stand up to the challenge of strangeness. I prefer to think that I just really enjoy a good night's sleep.
Sara M. Jablon '00 is a literature concentrator in Dunster House.
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