Archivio tag: famiglia

Living social in Brussels: growing the family

“Wait a minute: is this a co-living space?” I was asked this question a few weeks ago by designer Ezio Manzini, who was in town to present a recent book of his and had come over for dinner. We were standing in the courtyard of our new home, just a week or so into the moving. All I could do was stare at him. To me that was just home, but he was right: we do live in a co-living space. How did that happen? We are hardly commune material.

Here is the back story: a few years ago, Nadia and I tried the life of a migrant nuclear family, and hated it. Upon moving to Brussels in 2012, we decided to rent a larger apartment than we needed, and look for flatmates. Eventually a young couple, Kasia and Pierre (expats, like us), moved in with us, and we really enjoyed their company. When our landlord reclaimed his flat, we decided to stay together, and went about looking for a new home that could accommodate the four of us. And then we thought, wait a minute. This is working out quite well, so maybe we should consider growing the family: find an even bigger place, and look for two extra housemates.

So, I wrote a post on this blog, telling the full story of why we enjoy so much living with Kasia and Pierre. And then two wonderful things happened.

The first one was that we bumped into a creative real estate agent, Isabelle Sandbergen. We needed that, because, guess what: the real estate market does not serve people with non-traditional familial constellations. It is heavily geared towards the nuclear family or the swinging single; you can find large dwellings if you are prepared to pay a high rent, but they typically do not accommodate the need to mix socialisation and privacy; for example, at least in Brussels, they tend not to have enough bathrooms. Good luck finding anything with three or four bathrooms. Isabelle called us on an intuition: the same landlord, she said, was renting out two newly renovated lofts facing each other. They were individually too small for us, but how about we take both? They were separated by a simple fence, but that could be taken down to allow unimpeded access to both lofts for everybody. And we would have a very nice, huge private court on top of two open spaces (one kitchen-living, one office), four bedrooms, two bathrooms, two toilets and some extras. Were we interested? We were. We signed the contract after a week from that call.

Living room and courtyard

The second wonderful thing was finding two more great flatmates. They are both Italian, and both lived abroad before moving in with us: Giovanni in London, Ilaria here in Brussels. Ilaria lived here for a long time, and is practically a local; Giovanni is a total newcomer. She works in the Eurospace; he is currently focusing on a startup company. Ilaria planted a herbal garden in the courtyard, and Giovanni’s tiramisu became the everyone’s favourite treat. There’s even more diversity in the home. How did we find them? In the usual way, through the Internet. When they showed up, they told us they had been inspired by my post, so they had at least an idea of what to expect. This reassured us they were likely to have the flexibility necessary for Living Social in Brussels; and flexibility we are going to need, a lot of it, because the journey is fascinating but there are no maps for it.

With six people, you might think we could get tired of the crowd. But the opposite is true: we have different lifestyles, plenty of space (about 200 square meters, plus the courtyard and a huge hallway) and we end up not seeing much of each other – not enough, in my opinion. In fact, I am trying to make a point of organising “family dinners” with the six of us at least once a month, because they are great fun but do not happen without somebody passing word around to save the date – though sharing a meal in smaller numbers, three or four, is far more common.

Ezio told me that his group at Politecnico di Milano was involved in designing some co-living spaces, but he had never been in one that actually worked. He was fascinated in discovering that real life had somehow overtaken R&D, and that we – not knowing that co-living is very difficult to do successfully – had gone out and simply done it. We do not think of what we do as design, but we are aware we need to learn how to live together and enjoy each other’s company over the long run. So, we experiment: we use plenty of hacks like shared documents, an online calendar, spreadsheets for shared expenses and so on; we try stuff, keep what works, discard what does not. It’s a lot like life.

Thank you for all your messages of sympathy, and for sharing our posts on the various social media: you helped Ilaria and Giovanni find us, and so enriched our life. And if you find yourselves in Brussels, come over for coffee, or a glass of wine!

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?