I reconnected recently with someone I met when I first came to Hungary nearly 7 years ago. We had coffee, caught up, had a great natter. They came around to see my flat. They commented, in passing, that it was quite big. It is.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard that. It is a lot of space for one person. I have friends who have bigger flats but they also have partners and dogs and/or kids. I have a stuffed moose. I thought about it. Later. After my friend had left. And I noticed a pattern.
I lived in San Diego in a tiny studio apartment, so small that I could literally reach the kitchen sink from my bed. I didn’t need space then, because the beach was less than one hundred metres from my front door.
I lived in a Alaska in a one-roomed log cabin that had a single bed, a rocking chair, a recliner, and a table with four chairs. I didn’t need space then, because I had an unfenced wilderness on my doorstep.
I house-shared, flat-shared, and had roommates on and off for close on 20 years and back in those days, my room was all the space I needed because the world was outside just waiting to be discovered. It hasn’t gone anywhere – it’s still there – with parts still waiting to be discovered but I have grown.
Now I live in a city. A capital city. A city with 1.6 million people. And I need space. When I was searching for this space, the various estate agents helping me were aghast at my shopping list. I wanted at least four rooms plus a kitchen (flats here are advertised with number of rooms vs the one-bedroom/two-bedroom thing I see elsewhere). They repeatedly asked why. What for? Why would I want to pay the additional common cost (monthly payment made here for upkeep based on the size of the flat) on rooms I wouldn’t be using all the time? My explanation was both simple and confusing – I just needed space.
Yes, there are days when I live in my office and my kitchen, only passing through the living room and never venturing into the spare room. But the space is there. The freedom to move around is there. I even chose my flat because the view from the front windows doesn’t look out onto another building but on to a perpendicular street that stretches quite a distance, which in and of itself creates an illusion of space.
If my front door opened out on to a forest or a beach or the naked countryside, I wouldn’t care how small a space it hid behind it. But it doesn’t. Edwin Way Teale (the Pulitzer-Prize-winning naturalist) reputedly said: Time and space – time to be alone, space to move about – these may well become the great scarcities of tomorrow. How right he was. For the estate agents, my space was a luxury; for me, it was a necessity.
Back in the seventeenth/eighteen centuries, Ireland had about 6000 stately homes – today about 600 are left. That was a different era. Today, if you drive around Ireland, taking the back roads, you’ll see one massive house after the next. During the boom, huge houses were built. Not quite stately homes, but houses with gated entrances and long avenues. I used to think that these were a chronic waste of space – who needs six bedrooms and three living rooms – but on reflection, perhaps their owners were simply marking our their space, too.