It was one of those phone calls when you know there’s something not right. This person shouldn’t be calling you at this time of day, or on your cell phone. You answer, and to make things worse, it’s your landlady, and after a moment of annoyance that she is calling you at work, you hear her saying right up front that she has bad news.
Pick one, goes your catastrophe-panicked brain:
a) The house has burnt down.
b) She has to raise the rent, or sell, and who knows who your landlord will be then.
c) She found your kitty run over in the street.
To be honest, for me the worst was c). So when she told me that she wanted to move into my place, to save money because she couldn’t make her mortgage payments, given the current state of the US economy and variable rate mortgages, and if she moved to my little cottage she could rent her (much bigger and nicer) place and make up the difference, I was almost relieved. My cat was all right, walking indifferently over the sudden rubble of my life.
I moved into this charming little cottage just slightly over two years ago from a place where I had lived for 12 years. The longest I had ever lived in one place in my entire life. I was forced out by someone rich enough to buy a wreck of a building with an address it almost didn’t deserve, had it not been home for 30 years to one of California’s best writers, my neighbor Leonard Gardner. If we had been in another country–France, say–there might have been demonstrations or petitions to try to save the ramshackle place for Leonard’s sake. But this was America, and Marin County on top of it, where the proprietor rules, is all- powerful, and I could fill this website with all the cliches surrounding the fat man with the cigar in his mouth.
But my landlady is not a fat man with a cigar, she is a single woman struggling to keep her business going when she should be retired somewhere warm and comfortable. Her business is suffering because the entire country is “suffering”–I’m not sure I like the emotional euphemism for a decrease in purchasing power. We all suffer not for financial reasons, which vary from one person to the next, and are always extremely relative compared to, say, our neighbors south of the border; no, if we are suffering it is because these financial constraints (ah, much better word) have been placed on us by society, and we are not free.
I have been a renter all my life, hating the lack of freedom contingent with the possibility that any afternoon a landlord can give me bad news, and I become emotionally homeless once again. I have sat in rooms at parties with people who have always owned, and felt the divide between us as if it were a class barrier, (which it is, in this country) as well as a chasm in experience. No one in this country rents if they can own; rent is for transient, struggling or bohemian individuals, or the very young, or the very old–a bit like public transportation.
I rapidly took the decision to leave California and the United States, after twenty-one years. For most of those twenty-one years I have been a guest here, in my assorted sublets and apartments and cottages. For most of those twenty-one years I have wished I were elsewhere, principally back in Europe. I have kept the French language as my second home, one I own, one that I can never have taken away from me, although the barrier at parties remains, that of not sharing a language and its attendant experience and view of the world.
In five days I will take my cat and board a plane for Charles de Gaulle, where I’ll change for Geneva, to start a new life in a neighboring town. It will be a homecoming of sorts, the exile’s return, although I will enter another sort of exile, from the English language this time. But only to a degree: English is everywhere, and will become my second home, while French will offer me shelter. I’ll be living in a place where the vast majority of people are renters; some of my friends have been living in the same apartments for thirty years. There is protection for renters, they are far less vulnerable than in the United States; landlords are corporations, insurance companies, businesses. There are no proprietary divides at dinner parties, only experiences that transcend the pull of capitalism. Not that I won’t miss California: the nature, the space, the sense of immense possibility and energy.
But one grows tired of moving, of being dependent on the whims of those who have money, or not enough of it but still own property. Ultimately, my landlady has done me a favor: she is helping me to survive my own life, as it were. She will stay behind to deal with the struggling economy and her mortgage. She has already begun to tear the cottage apart, remodelling to suit her whims. It’s what you do with your money.
I think, as the plane lifts off and I look out onto the bay covered in fog on Thursday, that I will feel a new freedom, even if at the moment I don’t have a roof over my head to call my own.