Swimming in another fish tank


Living in another person’s house is a bit like wearing someone else’s clothes. It’s an interesting journey of discovery – but after a while you just want your own comfortable jumper back.

We have just enjoyed our first week of “airbnb”, living in someone else’s world in Vienna. We arrived at street level after a quick drive from Bratislava airport on Saturday evening. Four of us crushed into a disturbingly small lift, which inched far too slowly up to the apartments at the top of the building.  We were welcomed by Kathi, who it turned out, following facebook forensics, was the same age as my wife. But I am jumping ahead.

The apartment was spread over two floors – three bedrooms downstairs, and one upstairs, along with an expansive living area. Shelves of decked balconies overlooked the city. Unlike a holiday apartment, the whole place was replete with her things. We say “her” – she lived there with a partner, but we assumed that the thousands of artefacts crowded on surfaces and hiding in the cupboards were mainly hers.

Kathi gave us a quick tour of the rooms. She pointed out random things, such as the herbs growing in pots on the balcony, some of which, she unhelpfully explained, were edible. Then she showed us some useful things, like how to operate the electric blinds and windows. She singled out one which had the habit of randomly opening itself, like a recalcitrant child.

“Use anything in the kitchen”, she offered breezily. We were hungry and enquired where the nearest food shop was. “Everything will be closed by now”, she explained, adding that the nearest shop which would be open on Sunday was 15 minutes‘ walk away. Realising our predicament she opened the fridge. The top shelf was stuffed with pickles, sauces and curries (we were later intrigued to find a jar of Sainsbury’s mango chutney).

“There is some almond milk” she offered, “and a natural yoghurt”. It deduced that Kathi was a vegan. Another shape on the picture was coloured in.

The almond milk in coffee was interesting – forming something of an emulsion, but tasting fine. Later, as we explored the kitchen, we discovered her drawer of tea-bags, her drawer of pasta, her drawer of oils and condiments. This last one contained recognisable bottles of olive oil and soy sauce, and less familiar containers labelled with long, difficult German words we didn’t have the energy to translate. On a high shelf was a vast array of unidentified and indecipherable herbs and spices – some of which may well have been edible.

And so it went on as we explored our new habitat. A base level of familiar objects, some with different shapes and labels, and a range of unfamiliar additions. In the ubiquitous western-civilisation corner – the tube of toothpaste, the packet of porridge oats, the duvets, the mugs, the saucepans and the TV remote. In the slightly more esoteric corner, a large selection of vinyl LPs in well-worn sleeves, piles of art books on the floor, and a wide selection of burners and aromatic essences.

Alongside the electric blinds, we had some other “usage” challenges. There was a whole cupboard full of DVDs – but we could never get these to show on the TV. The fridge beeped apologetically whenever we left the door open for more than a minute, squeaking “close me, close me” like some character in Alice in wonderland. Three of us tried – and failed – to raise the industrial sized parasol. The code-lock on the front door was as temperamental as a tired toddler.

Wherever we are, we all like a little bit of territory, whether that is our deckchair by the pool, or our half of the arm-rest on the plane. Amongst all of the resident clutter, it was hard to find spaces to claim as our own. We slowly established and occupied some surfaces for ourselves – the table in the living area, an area in the kitchen, some shelves in the fridge. It was all rather reminiscent of students sharing a flat. It was tempting to write our initials on the cow’s milk.

Elsewhere, we butted up rather uncomfortably against our absent hosts. In our bedroom, there were two sets of drawers, in each of which the top drawer had been cleared for us. The other drawers were stuffed with their socks, pants, shirts and blouses. Call me prudish, but I wasn’t too comfortable with my smalls sharing the same chest of drawers as another bloke.  There was one hanging rail with their clothes, and a few spare hangers for ours.

The contents of the desk in our bedroom had been pushed to the back, but she had left behind a passport, credit cards and a pair of glasses. We kept our glasses elsewhere. And there was an overall aroma of “other people”. As we lay on their bed, we wondered whether they slept on the same sides as we did. It all felt a little bit weird. It was an uncomfortable alliance –  living in someone else’s world, sleeping in someone else’s bed.

Add to this the confusion as to what would be okay for us to use. The towels by the bed were clearly for us, but what about the gowns hanging on the hooks? As we settled in, we made porridge with their oats, cooked with their spices, evaporated their incense and played a side of their David Bowie “Changes” LP. But we didn’t use their shower gel or eat their Pringles. In the absence of clear rules, it’s funny where we draw our unconscious lines between ourselves and other people.

It was interesting to sift through the archaeology of other people’s lives and deduce their habits and personalities, without snooping of course. We pieced together the evidence from their record collection, their books, their photos, the various notes stuck on the fridge. Mainly in German code of course, which added to the intrigue. We deduced that they were artistic, studious, hard-working and family-focussed – as well as the aforementioned vegan. They had Catholic and Buddhist artefacts. They were definitely collectors and quite untidy. And they are comfortable to have strangers living in their home amongst their stuff.

We followed up our answers on facebook – Kathi was a film producer in her spare time, and yes, the same age as my wife. We met her for 10 minutes but we feel we know her better than that.

And so, after a week it was time to leave the big sister house. Packing to leave a holiday flat or a hotel is easy – you pretty much take everything home apart from the utensils, linen and fixtures. Here we had to carefully separate out our possessions from theirs, where the lines had been blurred. Our nail clippers, her nail scissors. My shirt, his shirt. Our schnapps is now her schnapps.

I guess we all build our world as an extension of ourselves. An expression of ourselves, our tastes, our needs, our statements. If we live with a partner or a family, we we learn to compromise and blend our tastes and preferences together. Parachuting into another person’s house, and taking their place, is an interesting social experiment.

But it was lovely to get home, amongst our own things, our own extensions, our own clutter Our house is far from perfect, some of our possessions might not be as good as some of theirs. But it is our home and they are our belongings.

Having occupied someone else’s space for a week, we have no desire at all to rent out our own. You won’t find our house on Airbnb. But I am tempted to bring my record collection down from the attic, and buy a record-player. And that warning voice on our fridge-freezer would come in quite handy.

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