A place to call home?
It doesn’t hit me until I’m standing in the hallway of a three-story, five-bed house in the Annex, flanked by an assortment of the house’s current roommates and two other twenty-something girls. These girls could be my twins, except they have one thing I don’t – a Canadian credit score.
And so it begins. That’s hurdle number one and, in all honesty, maybe not even the largest in the veritable Hunger Games that is the search for a rental in Toronto. I have memories of flat hunting back in the U.K. and none come even close to the time, energy, and money that I’ve already put into trying to find somewhere to live. (Spoiler alert: I’m still looking.) I remember piling into a taxi on a bitterly windy day in Edinburgh, some five and a half years ago, the three of us making frantic calls to parents as we raced down to the letting agent to sign the documents for our first flat. I remember the process being somewhat tedious and competitive, sure, but nothing like here. Or maybe it just seems easier in hindsight, cast with the favourable glow of times gone by.
Some days, I see one place. Some days, I see three. I see basements and high-rises, I see condos and beautiful little houses on leafy green streets. On average, I spend about forty minutes getting to and from one viewing. Of that, I’m inside the apartment for maybe five minutes – occasionally a little longer, much often less. I see good places and I see bad places. I see places that look like they’re owned by the Addams family. I see places I fall in love with straight away and suffer the heartbreak as heavy as any when I don’t get it. I construct Ikea flatpack in my mind as I fall asleep and think longingly of the day I can actually unpack.
I learn a few things along the way. I learn how to get rid of potential flatmates who want me to lie to their parents. I learn that “420 friendly” means “everything in this house smells of weed”. I learn that a den is a nice word for a walk-in wardrobe with a curtain that’s going for $1000 a month (plus utilities, of course). I become skeptical of anything that’s below $600 a month. I learn what areas to avoid and to search every address on the bed bug reporting website.
And then, comes a breakthrough. A thirteenth floor one bedroom, available for the whole of September. I cross my fingers and, a few days later, it’s mine. And I can breathe a little.
I move out of the hostel. I have a night to fill before I can get my keys and Toronto is full to the brim – incoming students, Labour Day weekend, whatever it might be. I book an Airbnb and deposit the majority of my stuff with a generous friend in the city. (Note: this will become important.)
I pick up the keys to the Airbnb from friendly door-staff and trek up stairs with a few, smaller bags in tow. I’m already sweating from my cab ride across town and my backpack is etching marks into my shoulders. I turn the key in the lock and push the door.
I try again. And again. And again. My hands are raw and the key won’t budge any further. The building staff take a look. The super takes a look. The maintenance guy takes a look.
“Going to need a locksmith for that,” he says with a shrug. “Sometimes, they just go.”
I sit in an empty hallway for a while and stare at the wall.
Back downstairs, deposit the keys, text my host. (You see now, why it’s so important that I dropped most of my things with a friend?) Find a coffee shop, find a hotel. But every coffee shop in the near vicinity is filled to the brim with cosplay-clad figures for the Fan Expo nearby.
Onto the streetcar, back to the hostel. At least there’s wifi, there’s a seat for me for as long as I need it. Every hostel booked. Airbnb promptly shuttles me over a refund and an offer to help me find somewhere new.
I book myself into the cheapest available hotel for that night – which just happens to be right around the corner and one of the fanciest hotels in the city. It’s 1pm. Check-in is at 2pm. I smile. I reckon I deserve this one.
(In a few weeks’ time, I’ll look at my credit card statement and wince, but what’s done is done.)
I treat myself to a bubble bath, a glass of red wine, and starfish across a king-size bed in a monogrammed bathrobe. For a moment, I’ll pretend – just until the morning when I drag my bags over marbled floors and out of the hotel, scuffed trainers squeaking on the splendour. The staff don’t comment – I suspect they’ve decided I’d done an abrupt runner on a poorer-half, and I’m happy to leave them to their assumptions.
And so, up, up, up, to my thirteenth floor. I push past the part of my brain that wants to scream about the unlucky number. It’s a bed, and a home, with a kitchen and a bathroom that is entirely mine, for the next four weeks. I unpack, I buy groceries, I stare out over the skyline as night falls and the lights of the CN Tower etch into the darkness.
That was two weeks ago. In another two weeks, I’ll once again have nowhere to live. I’m exhausted. I’m disheartened. I think, more than once, whether this was all a mistake. But my body roots itself into the ground and disagrees. Difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Difficult means you keep going. And with every day, this city feels more and more like home, roots sinking in between the concrete and weaving into the fabric of the land.
On Monday, I’ll have been here a month. It feels so much longer, every week stretching for months in my mind. I sit, tonight, a soft breeze coming in through the window into the stagnant heat of my bedroom. The CN Tower glows a reassuring blue in the distance, the shapes of the financial district spreading off to the east. Down below, closer by, I see figures in windows, I see cyclists zipping through dark streets under the cover of the trees.
The flatpack will have to wait. The photos I brought from home remain tucked in an envelope in a drawer. Home is much more than four walls, anyway.