I’ve literally been brought to my knees. I’m brushing dust and ants from behind the refrigerator, crawling between the little dining table and the edge of the sofa bed. I never thought my domestic duties would come to this but, well, it’s my place and nobody’s going to keep it clean but me (although I borrow my mom’s cleaning lady once a month).
My place. I started using that phrase to describe my condominium unit only last year, when the 44-square-meter, one-bedroom space I had been paying for (and will continue to pay for until 2018) was turned over to me. It was renovated, furnished, fixed up and finally made liveable. Since it was really meant to be a pad, an escape, a pied-à-terre, I have been shuttling between here and my mom’s house since last July. And it’s worth every cent of the monthly amortization that I have to work hard to keep up with.
Never had my own place
At age 50, I had never had my own place. That may sound pathetic in the West, but we all know that many single Filipinos—heck, even married ones, male and female—live with their folks until they’re gray.
My family has lived in the same compound since I was born, which is now divided into separate but connected living spaces for my brother, his married children, and my mother and me. There’s room at my mom’s house, everybody pretty much eats in my kuya’s house, and I really don’t have to pay for much beyond my own needs, except my mom’s monthly electric bill and groceries.
As far back as I can remember, though, I’ve dreamt of a place of my own—not out of necessity, but as a private space that was completely mine, and mine alone. I lapped up pictures of people’s wonderfully furnished little apartments. I was dead-set on a condo, because I liked the idea of locking it up and not worrying about security. I’m also not a big believer in paying rent, when the money could go into something that will eventually be mine. Still, because there was no urgency—other than a growing psychological need for private space—I took my time, diligently saved my money, and looked around.
The hunt itself got pretty absurd, especially as I was looking for a pet-friendly place; I wasn’t going anywhere without my dog Kikay. The fact is, unless you’re talking super high-end, there are few genuinely pet-friendly middle-range developments in Manila.
I remember calling one near my family house, and asking, “Are you pet-friendly?”
“Yes po!” replied the chirpy agent on the line. “So pwede ’yung aso?” “Ay, hindi po.” “Akala ko ba pet-friendly kayo?!!” Sheepish laughter. “Akala ko po tinatanong ninyo kung friendly ako.”
Then there was that other development that announced it allowed pets—but only fish. “Let me get this straight,” I snapped, utterly irked. “If I bring a one-ton butanding here and it flaps around your lobby, you won’t mind because, technically, that’s a fish?” Long pause. “Uhm … baka hindi rin po pwede.” (Note: I could afford only a one-bedroom unit. Where was the butanding supposed to sleep, aber?)
I finally found a lovely place that I could afford, near the family home, which allowed me to keep a dog, with no size limitations. (Another supposedly pet-friendly development in Makati has a maximum weight requirement for dogs of new tenants, so a friend of mine has to sneak her overweight bulldog in. The poor creature is on a perpetual diet.)
I like the term “pied-à-terre” because it’s defined in my phone dictionary as “a small apartment, house or room kept for occasional use.” I haven’t moved my entire life here, but I now do my best work here. (I’m writing this with my dog at my feet and a view of the Marikina River.) I keep a basic stock of food, casual clothes, toiletries; I have a bathing suit and sneakers—and dog food, of course.
I had huge doubts (read: terrified) at the beginning, especially when the monthly payments began, and the renovations coincided with the end of my treatment for cancer. In fact, my renovation budget went to the chemotherapy first, and when I collected medical insurance, that went straight back into the renovation fund. (It was touch and go, I tell you.) I had to ask, what am I doing? Is this a luxury I really can’t afford? But when things settled down, I figured, what the hell.
Pied-à-terre is French for “foot to the earth,” and it’s a perfect name for my place. That’s not just because I literally walk around barefoot, but with no other people to adjust or listen to, I’m pretty much alone with myself, and have no choice but to enjoy my own company and stay extremely grounded. On a basic level, I have gone bonkers shopping for brooms and mops, bathroom mats and organic pesticides. (I have a raging battle with ants, and I’m determined to win.) I have to cook (or more often, reheat) my own food, wash my own dishes and walk the dog, no matter what I’m writing, so it’s a good reminder of the more important things in life. (“Me,” Kikay says.)
On a deeper level, I can hear myself think here. I can laugh or cry when I want to. I stare out from the tiny balcony at dusk, or out my bedroom window with the view of the horizon above the city lights and the San Mateo mountains, and my mind clears up, and my soul remembers to be grateful. After all, when you hit midlife, aloneness becomes solitude, which can become a really good friend at this point.
I think everyone would benefit from a literal or figurative pied-à-terre, some place to escape when the world gets a little too noisy. If you can afford the former— whether it’s a place you rent or buy—here’s some unsolicited advice.
1) Make it yours, even in the smallest of ways. I have a big corkboard full of favorite photos in front of my desk. I stuck a big picture of an underwater scene in my bathroom. (Yes, my bathroom has to be delightful.) I’ve always wanted a low Japanese-style bed so I had one made from recycled wood. You can find ways to work around your budget, but make sure what you end up with is something you love, not just like, not just “OK lang.”
2) Don’t sweat the small stuff, unless that’s your thing. I was recovering from illness when much of the work started on my condo, so I asked my good friend, an architect, to take care of the things I really didn’t care much about, like doorknobs and kitchen shelves. (Basically, get somebody you know, can trust or who comes highly recommended, whether you’re getting a contractor or an all-around carpenter.)
3) Choose where to scrimp—and where to splurge. Of course I was on a budget, but I didn’t settle for the cheapest version of everything. I spent a little more for the essentials—like my bathroom, for instance.
4) Don’t panic about the money—but you can only do that by being prudent. I would love to summer in the Maldives, but that’s several months’ worth of payments. I make sure I have enough secured for a few installments so I have time to earn the rest without losing sleep. I stopped thinking of this as an indulgence when I realized I own this property. I can rent it or sell it, in a worst-case scenario. It will remain an asset, even after some depreciation.
5) Don’t feel obliged to entertain, unless you enjoy that, too. My closest friends have been here, but there won’t be any open house anytime soon. That’s why it’s called a private space.
6) If, like me, you have a pet, make sure the provision that allows you to keep one is in the written contract and not a mere verbal assurance. Don’t listen to agents who say that keeping a dog is something you can discuss later with the homeowners’ association. If it’s not in writing, your pet is not safe.
7) Fill the space with good vibes. I’ve got little images of my favorite saints and photographs of my dogs everywhere, keeping me company. I make time to meditate and pray. I watch funny movies. I talk to my space, bless it and thank it for allowing me to be completely myself. For that privilege, I’d go down on my knees any day.