Saturday, December 03, 2011

List of the Month - more 'swings and roundabouts'

I've now been in my new pad for two weeks, and - despite the hassles of having no Internet connection for much of that time, while I have found myself with rather a lot of work I have to do online - I have almost knocked it into a liveable condition. I need to go out and buy some bookshelves, so that I can start to unpack some of the dozen or so crates of books, CDs, and DVDs that are still crowding my living room and office. And I need to do a lot of cleaning. But I've made more progress towards unpacking and settling in than I did in two months after my last move.

Since this is the dominant obsession of my life at the moment, I'm afraid the year-end 'List of the Month' is going to be a rather tediously domestic rundown of the pros and cons of my new environment. Overall, I'm very happy to have moved - but it has not been an unmixed blessing.

The pros and cons of my new apartment

The pros

More space
It's actually, if anything, just a smidge smaller than my previous apartment, but the space is better used. The old place had a couple of short corridors and a rather pointless alcove (supposedly a 'dining area', but too small for that) off the side of the living room, which were basically wasted space: barely a quarter of the 75 sq m area was given over to the living room. Here, thanks to a much smaller bedroom (no loss), the living room is very nearly half of the total area.

More light
I'm on the corner of the building, so I have windows in every room (except the bathroom). Many Chinese apartments seem to be built in a strip right through the middle of the building, with the windows at front and back devoted to the main bedrooms, and, sometimes, the kitchen. At least the living room in my old place had a small skylight window through to the kitchen, but the kitchen didn't get very much light from one small window behind the fridge/freezer - so, much of the apartment was wretchedly dingy.

No neighbours
Being on the corner, I only have shared walls in the kitchen and bathroom, and no noise ever seems to penetrate through there. I think one of the adjacent apartments is currently empty, and the other is rented by a childless young couple who live very quietly. Downstairs is a commercial space; upstairs, who knows? I never hear any noise from anywhere else in the building (well, apart from the corridor outside the front door sometimes) - which is a very welcome change from the awful hawk-and-spit of the old guy downstairs at 6.30 every morning, or the jet-engine whine of the plumbing as his wife spent 20 or 30 minutes watering her plants before going to bed late each night, or the really bad piano practice of the neighbour's kid that would plague my late-afternoon/early evening downtime every day at the old place.

'Wood effect' floors throughout
OK, it's only lino, but it is so much nicer - quieter, warmer, easier to clean - than the ceramic tiled floors that Chinese apartments generally favour. The mock-wood flooring is usually a 'luxury' reserved for the main bedrooms.

High level of equipment
OK, two or three of the light fittings don't work due to dodgy wiring; that's inevitable in a Chinese apartment. But the light fittings are - amazingly for China! - not hideously ugly, and most of them do work fine. Some of the equipment is foreign: a Bosch washing-machine and a Siemens fridge/freezer. The shower-heater and the toilet are Chinese, but they seem to work very well (it is quite a revelation to be able to heat twice the amount of water in half the time - I may suffer for this in my electricity usage; or perhaps it really is more efficient??).

Kitchen workspace
Chinese kitchens typically have only 18"-24" of usable counter top. I hardly know what to do with 7 feet of it! I may have to, er, start cooking seriously again....

A terrace
This was the main thing that sold me on the place, and encouraged me to commit to a rather higher rent than the apartment on its own would really justify, and rather higher than I can really afford.

A nicer walk back from my regular bar(s)
It is just a smidge further - but only a matter of minutes, and the time just seems to fly by. I had been getting a bit stale on a walk that I've been doing several times a week for years now.

A funky neighbourhood
I've always liked the area immediately outside the North Second Ringroad: it's relatively untouched by the crazed modernization drives that have torn the heart out of so much of the rest of the city; still mostly older apartment buildings, lots of small shops and restaurants, a relaxed pace of life, a sense of community. I lived on this same street before, but in a bit of a dead area: newer apartment developments and big government/SOE office buildings - I had to walk 5 or 10 minutes to get to a restaurant or supermarket. But here, the street is teeming with life right outside my door.

An English-speaking landlord
His English isn't wonderful, but it's serviceable enough that it obviates the need for me to resort to friends to mediate for me, and this makes the relationship much less stressful for both of us. He's a younger guy than my previous two landlords, and - though I am wary that perhaps we are just in a honeymoon period - he does seem genuinely helpful and conscientious too. His wife is also delightful, and speaks even better English. I really feel they might become friends, rather than just the people who will try to steal my deposit in a year or two.

Too good to be true? Well, yes....

The cons

No storage space
The last place didn't have all that much, but the new place has NONE (apart from in the bedroom). I'll either have to spend a small fortune on cupboards and shelves, or resign myself to living out of boxes indefinitely.

Less privacy
I'm on a low floor, so more light also means more possibility of neighbours spying on me. It's probably not too much of a concern, since there aren't any other buildings all that close, telescopes are not common here (although one of the recording studio entrepreneurs I used to work for kept a pair of binoculars on his balcony...), and most Chinese have terrible eyesight anyway. But I feel I have to be more circumspect than before about walking around my apartment half-naked.

Street noise
I'm not bothered by neighbour noise at all any more (I'm sure I might be, if there were anyone living in the apartment upstairs, but it's probably empty), but I am looking out on to a rather busy street. It's usually fairly quiet at night; and I'm finding that a familiar array of background sounds soon becomes oddly soothing - provided they are not too loud or strident. The automated announcements on passing buses are a real pain-in-the-arse, though; they, more than anything else, make it pretty much impossible to sleep in beyond 7am (not that I often do, anyway; but sometimes, a lie-in would be welcome). And there's currently some road maintenance going on, which involves heavy plant rumbling up and down outside between 11pm and 2am every night. Hopefully this will not go on too long. Hopefully...

Only one eye-level cupboard in the kitchen
Rather than two in the last place. I have lots of under-the-counter cupboards, so this shouldn't be a terrible problem, but... I have inadequate space (none, really!) for food storage. I'm probably going to have to use one of my bookshelves... or start colonising some of that vast expanse of counter space.

No balcony
The terrace comes at the cost of a balcony. Balconies in Chinese apartments are usually enclosed, and so are not much fun for sitting out on, but... they do provide valuable storage space for boxes, suitcases, etc. And they are an essential space for drying your clothes. I suppose I'm going to have to try to hang wet clothes up in my bathroom now - and maybe put a heater in there. Drying clothes outside is just not an option in Beijing: they'd soon be more dirty and smelly than they were when you put them in the wash! And for the next two or three months, they'd be freezing on the washing-line.

No drainage on the terrace
Mosquitoes breeding in the mini lake covering the east side of the terrace are going to be a problem in the summer. I fear it's possible my office could flood, if we get a heavy snow and then a rapid melt over the winter. I think I'm going to have to buy an electric pump of some sort to address the problem of the solitary drainage hole being above the level of the floor.

The smelliest drains in the world
The stink in my bathroom is absolutely foul. Even my landlord is embarrassed by it. The building management have been informed, but they seem to think there's nothing to be done about it. This is just what you get for being near the bottom of a 14-storey block with Chinese plumbing.

The daily dice-with-death
Although, in general, my walk towards bars/restaurants is now rather pleasanter, it does entail crossing the 2nd Ringroad service road every time. Coming back later in the evening, this is usually pretty quiet; but when I'm heading out during the day or the early evening, it can often take two or three minutes before there's enough of a gap in the homicidal traffic for me to scoot across.

So, like I said, overall it's a major improvement. But there are problems.

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