Category Archives: Belgium

On French Roommates, and The Universal Language of Housing Ads

The man looked at me with anticipation, slowly scratching his beer belly, which had the unfortunate effect of exposing said beer belly to my unwilling gaze.

“Well,” he belched. “You gonna take it?”

I hesitated, mentally calculating the speed with which I could bypass him (and a solid obstacle he constituted if I ever saw one), dash out the door of his apartment and run down the escape stairs (if my ride upstairs was any judge, the elevator was not a quick alternative).

I demurred. “Thanks for showing me around. I’ll get back to you soon.”

He sniffed. “Better not take your time! This deal is gonna go fast.”

Not as fast as I escaped out the door and heaved a sigh of relief only when I had marched myself safely to the metro station a lenghthy walk away.

I had just met the middle-aged male in question, and my shock resulted from the fact that he had just offered me the use of a couch in his living room for 190 euros a month (“You gotta pay your share of the utilities!”). In hindsight, I should have known better than to ignore the warning signs when I scoured the ‘appartager’ site to find myself a roommate, or a room.

Warning sign number 1: The profile. I should have been wary of a guy who advertised that he was only willing to host females… and I would have been if he had listed himself as a guy! A middle-aged man will never list himself as a middle-aged man on any room share site, because honestly, who wants to live with a middle-aged bachelor? Even the bachelor himself doesn’t.

Warning sign 2: Euphemisms in the ad. Code words. As in:

“beautiful apartment” – the apartment was beautiful. It was so beautiful he couldn’t spare even one room from it for me.

“lively neighborhood’ = any female under 70 will be accosted verbally if not physically at least once on her walk to the street corner, causing her to fear for her life.

“friendly neighbors” = the only time when your next-door neighbors aren’t involved in loud domestic disputes is when your other neighbor stumbles drunkenly over to invite you to a high decibel techno party he is holding on the other side of the wall

“bien communique”  (in French, literally well-communicated, supposedly to mean the place is easily accessible by public transport. Especially important in European countries where most people don’t have cars) = you will spend a lot of time communicating with the people at the bus stop while you while away the 127.5 minutes left until your next bus arrives.

“cozy room” = it’s not actually a bedroom, it’s a den. Think: no windows. But that’s OK, because, I quote, “When you open the door to the living room, it is actually quite light inside.”

“sunny” – This apartment is actually nice and has large windows facing south. If you live here, you’ll pay so much rent you won’t afford curtains.

“undergoing constant modernization” = there will be bulldozers in your room or if you’re lucky, just underneath your window. But not to worry! Thankfully, this being France, nobody will actually do any construction before 10 AM, after 4 PM, on a rainy day, on a sunny hot day, on a public holiday, on a day of solidarity with the ticket collector labor union of the former French republic’s strike, on the weekend ever.

Having experience my fair share of disappointments, I thought I had read into the ad my oppressor posted. But no, even I, who had been offered rooms to rent in dank, unfinished basements (“You might be able to convince the landlord to share the costs of putting in the walls”), with elderly ladies living in the memory of their past tenants (“Honey, please don’t stand on that rug. It was Emilie’s favorite place to stand and meow”), with a fraternity of boys camping out in a 3-bedroom apartment. Heck, I had even lived in (and enjoyed!) a 9 by 9 meter closet squished between a bathroom and kitchen in Brussels.

Hey, it wasn’t that bad. It had a window if not a view.

But to be offered the incredible deal of renting out a one-person IKEA roll-out chair for almost 200 euro/month really took the cake.

Out of fun, I tried to extract from the man how he foresaw making this deal work. I asked, “But the chair is in the living room.”

“No, that’s actually my office. I work there during the day.”

“Oh, so at night you would go to your bedroom”.

“No, actually, I watch TV in the main room in the evening. But don’t worry, I’m very respectful. I wouldn’t disturb you. I’m usually done watching by 11 PM anyway.”

To my question about storage space, he generously offered to section off a portion of his master bedroom closet.

To my question about a little nook/corner for a quiet place, he bristled. “You can always go to the kitchen, or bathroom! It’s plenty quiet in there.”

Somehow, I failed to take him up on his word that ‘this arrangement is great!” But no worries, I’m sure he found someone –  there were hundreds of young things willing to take the place. I mean, the flip-out IKEA chair.

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