Category Archives: life, the universe and everything else

Cose che mi vengono in mente e non stanno bene in nessuna categoria, ma in qualche modo c’entrano

Lifestyle innovation in Brussels: new space, new people

Almost exactly three years ago, as we were planning our move to Brussels, Nadia and I decided to look for flatmates. Most of our friends and family members were rather puzzled: not many couples decide to share their apartment, though they can afford not to. We, however, thought it completely logical. Nadia is Swedish and I am Italian: at the time we lived in Strasbourg, France. That made us a migrant nuclear family, completely cut off from the network of emotional and material support that our friends and families of origin could offer. We were simply too isolated in our Strasbourg apartment, nice though it was; and we decided to try something different. So, we rented a much bigger apartment than we needed and asked the Internet for someone to share it with.

Three years on, we think the experiment worked. For the last two years we have been living with Kasia and Pierre, a young couple of expatriates (Kasia is Polish, Pierre French). We really enjoy the co-habitation: the home feels more animated, and not a day goes by that we don’t chat at least a little bit, over coffee or breakfast. We enjoy the big, airy living room overlooking the city. And, frankly, we appreciate that our lifestyle is really good value for money: thanks to the economies of scale implicit in family life, we pay a reasonable rent for a really nice space.

Along the way, we discovered that what makes our living together so enjoyable is that we are so different from each other. We come from four different countries; we are of different ages (Pierre, the youngest, is 19 years younger than me, the oldest); we have very different jobs (Kasia is a dental nurse, Pierre is the manager of a fashion boutique, whereas Nadia and I both belong to the “what is it that you do, again?” tribe); Nadia and I travel a lot, whereas Kasia and Pierre tend to be in town most of the time. This works well on many levels. On a purely practical level, when we travel we love the thought that the home is not empty, and in the event of some misfortune (think plumbing failure) they can intervene; and I am sure they enjoy the privacy and the extra space. We pay for electricity, phone and the Internet, they pay for the cleaning services – less paperwork to do. We have an extra room, which normally serves as Nadia’s and my office; but it doubles up as a guest room for the guests of all four of us.

But there is more to co-habitation than practicality. Kasia and Pierre are lovely people: and, crucially, they are different people from Nadia and myself. We live out the city in different ways. We have different takes on almost everything, from French politics to Belgian beer. Comparing notes with them is always interesting, and I really value their insights and wisdom. Not that we spend all that much time together. I think our co-habitation unfolded in the right sequence: we started by a default attitude of rigorous mutual respect of each other’s privacy and spaces. Then, over time, we grew closer, started to share the occasional meal, the occasional outing; we met each other’s friends and families, lovely people to the last one.

It’s working well. So well that, when a month ago our landlord announced that he was reclaiming his apartment and we would have to move out in the summer, we decided to stay together, and to look for a new place as a four-people household. More than that: we are even considering expanding. If four people can live so well together in a larger apartment, how would it work with five, or six, or seven in an even larger one?

If you wonder about this, too, get in touch. We are considering including in the household one or more friendly, respectful people of any age, gender, nationality or walk of life. Of course, we do need to find the right space, so that we have common areas for conviviality but also adequate private areas for privacy! If you see yourself in this picture, come over for coffee and let’s talk. Worst case scenario, we’ll have had coffee in good company! And if you know of a large apartment (at least 3 rooms and 2 bathrooms, ideally more) in Brussels (ideally Saint-Gilles, Ixelles, Etterbeek, Anderlecht, Forest or Uccle) that we could rent, we will be grateful it you let us know. Lifestyle innovation needs space.

We do this for totally egoistic reasons: we enjoy each other’s company, we save money, we live in style. At the same time, we are aware that we are working our way through solving a global problem. Planet Earth has 230 million international migrants; intra-EU migrants like us are 8 million. Many of Europe’s young people simply cannot afford to hold their ground: their work, education paths, and love lives lead them to migrate. When they do, they, like us, lose their supporting networks, and it is really hard to rebuild them. Living together, especially in diversity – the older with the younger, the sporty with the mobility-challenged, the academic with the blue-collar worker – becomes a platform for sharing our different abilities, and being able, as a household, to solve many different problems, both emotional and practical.

None of this is new. You have heard it all before – at social innovation conferences and workshops, for example, and typically by people who live in middle-class nuclear families. But we have decided to walk this particular talk; it will probably not be the right choice for everyone, but it is the right choice Nadia, Kasia, Pierre and myself; and I strongly believe it might be right for many others. So, who wants to join?

Striking in the 2010s and the sadness of it all

So, I walked the streets of Brussels today – public transport is down because of La Grève, The Strike. Belgian trade unions are on the warpath because of the new government’s yet-to-be-introduced austerity policies, including a rise of the retirement age from 65 to 67 by 2030. As I walked past the small groups of striking workers manning the picketing lines I could not help feeling sad.

Sadness is not a sentiment normally associated with strikes. Strikers are supposed to be angry; people caught in the fallout of the strikes, like me hiking across the city, are supposed to be annoyed.  So why am I sad at this strike?

In part it is the sheer loneliness of the tableaux vivants I saw as I walked. In the gray winter morning, Belgian strikers huddled around  brasiers to keep warm. They looked present-shocked and lost in a world that they don’t understand. They looked very homogenous: white, middle- to late-middle aged.

But mostly it is this: I think these workers have absolutely no chance in hell to succeed. The demand for welfare (state-provided education, health care, pensions) keeps growing; so far, we have met it by increased government budgets, but they now stand around 40-45% of GDP in most European countries, and it seems politically impossible to further increase taxation. An aging population means that fewer active workers are supporting more pensioners. Persistently high unemployment means fewer people are saving anything at all for their retirement. Persistently low interest rates mean that, even if you do have a job and you have been saving, your pension will be smaller than you planned. And that’s assuming your pension fund managers, desperate for yield, are not buying into the next bubble; that climate change will not drown us all; and so on.

There is no way most countries are not going to raise legal retirement age. In fact, humanity seems on course to reverting to its historical default of old people being poor. The only achievable goal for the striking workers is to hold out a little longer. Manage to retire at current conditions; then join a Pensioners Party and defend the monthly check as long as they possibly can, hopefully dying of old age before defeat. They just might be able to save themselves; there is no way they can save their children. Unionized workers are getting ever older throughout Europe (already in 2010, 52% of the members of Italy’s CGIL – Europe’s largest union – were pensioners). With these numbers, trade unions can’t help taking sides in the generations war. And they will either lose it, or win it, but damn everybody else in the process: the young unemployed, the migrants, the homeless people taking their sleeping bags at Gare du Midi, even their own children.

What a contrast with the generous young people in Edgeryders and elsewhere, scrambling to fix the world’s problems. That includes providing for the elderly: they – we – are experimenting with living together in intergenerational communities like the unMonastery. Most of them have very little money; practically no one has any stability; and yet, so many are willing to show up and make a stand – for all, not just for themselves. Their example humbles me; I just have to step in and try to help. These Belgian workers on strike, on the other hand, are probably very decent human beings, but they are fighting the wrong fight and I will not stand with them.

In praise of middle age

I have two series of pictures to compare, the first one taken in March 2005, when I was 39, and the second one taken last week, at 47 (going on to 48 in a couple of months). Changes are clear, but they are not all negative. Body weight is almost unchanged, maybe up a couple of kilos but hard to tell in the statistical noise. I expected worse, and there are compensations. See you in 2021.