Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A Year of Living Homelessly

‘Homeless’ is how I have been describing my current state, albeit not the young frequently seemingly healthy panhandlers outside coffee shops. I am fortunately in reasonable physical shape for a male in his late sixties, arthritic joints excepted, non-smoking, married and of fairly sound mind but currently without a home, admittedly out of choice and not necessity. In fairness, perhaps my wife Alison’s depiction, “home-free” is more apt, as we sold our house, which had been home for about 31 years, last December. Since then we have traveled though South-East Asia and Australia for 4 months and upon our return to Toronto in April, we have been house-sitting in Toronto and nearby cottage country. This mobile life-style has many advantages, the main one being the complete sense of freedom it has given us, and we hope to replicate, at least for the next year or so.

 Downsizing from a three-story house with five bedrooms and four bathrooms to a 10’ by 17’ climate controlled storage unit, (not that we are living in it, as yet), took some effort and adjusting, not the least of which was what to do with all the years of accumulated STUFF that had anchored us physically and emotionally. Reasons for selling, beyond the obvious size consideration, were in part the feeling that the seemingly inexorable rise in house prices fueled by the press as measured by numerous house-porn articles, and the crescendo of cocktail party speculative chatter, had to at some point abate. More importantly, it was the growing realization that over that last twenty years, as avid bicycle tourists, Alison and I had been quite content to travel our planet for months at a time with four rather small saddle bags and on returning home, experiencing the startling contrast of being burdened by a house needing constant attention, a house full of possessions that had less and less meaning over time.

 Craigslist was of limited help in the unburdening process: some old electronics and a set of snow tires on rims sold rather expeditiously. Books, household gadgets and the usual array of dust collectors, of which we had tons, often duplicates, became objects of give-away parties, where we invited friends with the understanding that they had to take some item as a token of their appreciation of being fed and/or wined and dined. Despite heroic efforts, the countless items hidden in plain sight or in drawers and cupboards necessitated endless trips to the nearest Goodwill store where I became a recognized habitué. A few antiques were accepted by a consignment store and numerous pieces of furniture(which were surplus to our needs, as we only kept items to eventually fill a one-bedroom apartment), went near gratis to friends or to the Furniture Bank, which gives a tax donation for the “value” of the item. The value of the said items seems to equal what they charge to remove them.

 Since our return about six months ago we have lived comfortably in homes and cottages graciously offered to us by friends and acquaintances. Having no fixed address, other than our mail going to a friend’s home does have some challenges. For decades, we had had email accounts with our cable provider Rogers, but they could not provide email service without a fixed physical location, so we switched to web-based Gmail. Similarly, our land-line numbers were transported to cellphones. As a consequence, I joined the 21st century with an unlimited data plan smart phone, which costs less than a land-line and allows me not only to stay in touch wherever I am, but as a bonus, to be connected to the internet as well.

Beyond practical considerations, I am often asked if we miss having a place of our own, or not sleeping in my own bed. The answer is an overwhelming no! There are the obvious things that I do not miss: paying for a mortgage, utilities, insurance, permits, cable, internet, property and utility taxes etc. that go with owning property. I also have no fond memories of all the maintenance and related issues that go with being a proud home owner: fixing roofs, driveway, painting, leaky basements and the myriad of small things that seem to require time, skills or reasonably priced and reliable tradesmen, all in short supply. I have also got used to not having to face the relationship testing discussions like “when are we going to do such and such?” Then there are the perennial issues of updating appliances, kitchens, bathrooms, gardens etc. and the furnishings to go with them, to give us the sense of well-being and approval of our peers. The homes that we stayed in varied in size and design, proud testaments to their owners. Each house provided some novel features and new neighborhoods to enjoy and explore, like luxury B&Bs, on the road of our travels.

 Ironically, as we become experienced, and appreciated house-sitters, with excellent references, I now take pride in doing some repairs in the homes we stay in: fixing doors, leaking taps, chipped sinks, and with a bit of judicious use of force and logic, even making good a massive garage door, not to mention watering gardens, looking after pets, driving the owners to the airport and stocking the fridge with food on their return. We also enjoy replacing ancient clock radios, dull knives and semi-working toasters and kettles that their owners just never got around to doing, a behavior pattern that are reminders of my own past procrastinations.

 Having a storage unit full of possessions is a mixed blessing. Our mover Tony did such a fabulous job of stacking our belongings like a giant Rubik’s cube, that short of unpacking the whole unit, we are denied access beyond the first layer of boxes and a few seasonal clothes and items that we had the foresight to keep handy. It has been nearly a year since our move and we have slowly forgotten the contents of the countless boxes, and have done perfectly well without them. We are constantly dismayed by all the stuff that we still own but have not used and are happy to do without. We are content with our modest traveling possessions and are extremely reluctant to buy anything but consumables lest we add to our hoard and duplicate something we already own.

Still, there have been some adjustments. We discovered quite early in our house-sitting moves that we could not enjoy drinking coffee from a random selection of fine bone china or beer mugs, so we each succumbed to purchasing Dollar Store mugs of pleasing size and shape. Likewise, we are now proud owners of a brand new can opener, carrot peeler and an ultra-sharp ceramic knife, as well as a large plastic salad bowl and a garage sale purchase of delicately carved set of wooden servers from South Africa to go with it – all of which now travel with us from house to house as part of our house-sitting essentials. .

We are off on a six month adventure to Ecuador, Peru, Australia and Guatemala and looking forward to house-sitting, perhaps your home next April, so do keep a list of the things that may need fixing. The anticipation of traveling in cooler and wetter climes has also prompted me to buy a couple of long sleeved shirts and a fleecy from my favorite Goodwill store, which after our travels will be donated to some worthy cause.


Julia Gluck said...

Dare I admit that I have been house-sat? And that I have bought more of those cute little radios, another electric kettle, and that I am about to take a trip to our storage unit and get rid of more things? We miss you already and look forward to sharing your adventures through the blog. We'll have a bed waiting for you when you return...

rollingbicycletours said...

Now that you have self-identified, I can state that we loved the sitting gig at your place: great location, long views of the city, an outdoor pool; best of all, your warm welcome.

Paul said...

well now I must be in acquisition mode since I wonder about the range of stuff available for purchase at Goodwill? but I have been spurred by your comments to attempt winnowing down my stuff .... enjoy your travels and let us know how you avoid (mere) tourism; of course you don't know (exactly) where you're going, but do take us with you via this blog - salut and bon voyage!

Laura Jacob said...

I didn't know that you were fixing stuff for people too. Cool!
Good blog!