The intercom buzzed.
‘Hello, is Alex there?’
‘Uh no he is not, sorry’
They hang up and I am surprised to be standing there at all.
I had walked past this busy street thousands of times and not once did I ever stop to think that people lived here. This was the city city. It didn’t get more urban than this. Tall, foreboding steel gates marked the entrance. I heard French voices wafting in and out of the building.
Finally my longtime French friend and her French boyfriend spot me from a distance. Alex (who lives in the building) calls out to me.
‘Are you ready for my house? We are ten people living there….like your house, but instead of three, we are ten’.
‘You must be exaggerating’ I respond, ‘I live in a three-bedroom house’.
‘So is ours’, he said. And so it was. Eight people sharing two rooms, and one couple in another room. They still paid between $160-$250 each including bills.
It wasn’t particularly big. The rooms were as big as the smallest room in my house. Rules were hung up on the wall explicitly stating that they could have no guests or parties, that people must leave before 10pm etc.
Representatives come around to check on the place unannounced (something that sounds extremely shifty, as most landlords need to give two weeks’ notice). It seemed extreme to me. Whoever they were, they owned the whole building and had other students living in similar situations.
We sat around chatting with the French guys and the Argentinian girls. The topic turned to the privilege of living in a city like Sydney. They spoke of how much safer Sydney is than Europe or Argentina.
‘Not anymore for me’ piped up one of the Argentinian girls.
‘I got robbed today in the Chinese markets’.
This was very uncommon and I hadn’t heard of it happening until now.
‘I had my zipper undone because I think Australia is safe and I am relaxed now’.
‘Not like Argentina’, the local Buenos Aires girl offered up.
‘No, in Argentina you have to be very careful…they steal everything, your bag, your necklace from around your neck, even while they’re on a moto. Never wear gold or expensive things…never take your iPhone out or wear headphones because they’ll know you have it and take it’.
‘Yeah they even steal your hair!’ the BA girl offered.
‘WHAT?!’ exclaimed the girl from Cordoba and me simultaneously, mouths agape.
‘Yeah it happened to someone I knew, they can cut off your hair in a ponytail. They love the blonde girls with long hair’.
‘This can’t be common, I didn’t know about it’, reassured the other girl from the South.
I asked them if they had ever experienced danger or theft.
‘Oh no, not really. I had two of my phones stolen, but it’s no big deal’
I clutched my iPhone in a moment of panic..
‘In Argentina we say we are lucky because we are alive and these are just material things and we are not hurt’.
Good point and all, but I was still clutching my iPhone for dear, ironic life.
The other thing that struck me as interesting was how they communicated with one another. The Argentinian girls spoke Spanish between them and the French guys spoke French to each other, even though neither groups could speak the other language. They only spoke English to each other and to me.
I understood everyone in the room and found the dynamic so strange. They actually struggled to speak English to each other and I picked up on so many errors. The problem with this living arrangement is there are no English native speakers there to correct their pronunciation and teach them how to master the language. I cannot stress how important it is to live with native speakers when you live overseas and are trying to learn the language.
As a result of this situation, it didn’t feel like there was much conviviality or life in the house. How can there be with such a big barrier of communication and with angry landlords coming to check that people are adhering to the ‘rules’? If you are an international student or a foreigner coming to Sydney, I highly recommend searching far and wide for affordable accommodation. I know it exists and in far more relaxed circumstances.
I came to leave and felt my dear friend let out a slight and subtle sigh of relief that she was coming back home with me…