You may have noticed that I’ve been out of action for the last two weeks (or not).  This is because I’ve just undertaken the thrilling task of relocating within the UK, and now reside in the heaving metropolis of London.  From the three days of flat-hunting insanity to the two weeks of packing (distilled into my personal special, the Last-Minute Stress-a-Thon), followed by the Big Move itself on the M1 in a leaky, creaky rental van, it’s been non-stop adventure.

When I first moved to the UK from Texas last year, my company rented me a furnished apartment in my new town, and I crossed the Atlantic with three suitcases to start my new life.  I packed up the entire contents of my own lovingly decorated (via IKEA and Pier 1) Texas apartment into a 10’x10′ storage unit, and conveniently left the bills with my mom.  Then, I had her ship me four massive boxes of kitchenware, cold medication, books-that-I-cannot-live-without, clothing, and those random things that make a home feel slightly more like your own. 

The latter category included things like a hand-made green afghan, photographs, a vintage lunchbox, playing cards, naughty fridge magnets, my favorite grey flannel bedsheets, mix CDs, a vanilla reed diffuser, a pink knit hat from my best friend, my Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, veladoras (for those of you not from the Southwest, these are massive candles with Catholic Saints on them that you buy at the grocery store for a buck), a leopard-print scarf, Tom Ford’s “Black Orchid” perfume, and a teddy bear dressed as a bumble bee.  These are all things I could realistically live without, and yet they are important to me.

I have been accused, and rightly so, of being a packrat.  That massive storage unit in Texas is jam-packed not only with furniture, but with 90% of my wardrobe, shoes, purses, jewelry, DVDs, artwork, decor, CDs, appliances, dishes and many, many hundreds of books.  I would argue, however, that I am less a packrat and more of a turtle.  I want to travel the world, but carry my home on my back.  I want to create that feeling of “home” with me wherever I go, and I endeavor to do it by surrounding myself with beloved possessions that are infused with personal meaning and history, or stuff it just makes me feel cozy to look at.

So, when I moved into my first UK flat, there was definitely trepidation there.  Not only had I never laid eyes on the place, but also it was a furnished apartment, which meant there was someone else’s stuff in it, like living in a hotel for a year.  Thankfully, this apartment was managed by a property agent, and while I never would have picked the furniture for myself, it was standard, innocuous, IKEA flatpack: plain white dishes; ungarnished cutlery; pine bed, bureau, and wardrobe; white walls, tan carpet.  In short, it was a boring, blank slate, and nice enough. 

Over the course of the year, I set about making it something of a home for myself.  I bought a red clock.  I hung a dragonfly windchime from the window.  I bought myself the bedding, cooking utensils, shower curtain, hair straighteners, microwave, and additional three pieces of furniture I needed to feel comfortable (seriously, I am not a monk, and the 10% of my wardrobe I did bring over was not going to fit in a single thin bureau and standing wardrobe.  Honey, please).  Although it was a “fully” furnished rental flat, I spent an additional thousand dollars making it my flat, because I needed to.  I even successfully mastered the appliances.  Within a few months, it felt like mine, and this is an important atmosphere to create when you are thousands of miles from your family and friends.

Leaving this flat, even with the ketchup-red, uncomfortable sofa and busted coffee table, was nearly as sad as leaving my Texas apartment.  I would be moving into a new flat, and would have to set about the homemaking process again (not to mention another round of sparring with the telecomm companies).  Compounding my frustration were the frantic, screwball antics that abounded when signing for my new apartment, so I didn’t have a proper inventory of what was already furnished and what I would need to procure OR leave behind.  Without the chance to conduct an anal retentive stock of the flat’s accoutrements, I did the natural packturtle thing and brought everything I’ve acquired over the last year with me.  And so, just over a week ago, I arrived, and had my first opportunity to fully explore my new apartment.  My spacious, brilliantly located apartment that is accounting for over 33% of my pre-tax income.

Well.  It has some good pieces of furniture, and I’m very happy with the couch and bed.  I got it at a bit of a discount, because it hasn’t been renovated in a number of years, but I can deal with the dated appliances and bathroom suite.  It has some excellent storage space, and 90% of me believes I am going to truly love it when I finally get myself and my possessions organized and spend another couple hundred bucks fixing up the lighting.  It is, in the most fundamental and important of ways, a great flat, and I could see myself living here for several years, provided I don’t starve to death trying to pay rent.

But this brings me again to the issue of stuff, and the very peculiarity of this issue when you move into a furnished flat that has been inhabited by a number of people over a number of years.  It becomes this bizarre amalgram of discarded possessions that other people didn’t care about enough to take with them, but which you are not permitted to discard – I will only be allowed to add to it when I eventually leave, a broken flower pot and misshapen spoon as evidence of my inhabitance.  It is like living with the ghosts of a frat house.

Although the apartment was tidy when I moved in, there are mostly empty bottles of washing up liquid in the kitchen, and a half-used box of facial tissue in the bathroom.  There is a rusted toaster on the counter, and a 1970s coffee maker in the cabinet.  I could replace these, of course, but would have to leave them behind upon my departure.  A hole in the wall of the living room I previously failed to notice is an abandoned fireplace, and I’ve shoved a drawer unit in front of it.  A stack of eight encyclopedias and one copy of What Color Is Your Parachute line the bedroom shelves.  None of this is overwhelming, but it gives me a feeling of impermanence, like staying in the guest cottage of your friend’s grandmother’s house, tracing your fingers on the dusty 20″ screen television and reading the spines of the 40-year-old decorative books.

This sensation was compounded when I opened the cabinets of the kitchen.  It is rife with bombed-out looking fry pans, a wok that was clearly put away dirty three years ago, a kitchen jumble drawer full of pens, rubber bands, loose bendy straws, mystery keys, and kitchen sink piping.  It is very different from moving into your new apartment in America, all freshly painted walls and new flooring, a true empty canvas waiting for you to make your mark.  The cutlery is unmatching and jumbled, and the dishware chipped and random.  I’ve pulled out a few pieces that I think I will use, and relegated the rest to a box.  I can’t use it, because it is marred and splintered and dirty by past use, and it will never feel like mine.  Instead, I’ve bought another set of new dishes, glasses, and pans.

Maybe this obsession with materials is un-zen of me, but it’s what I need to do to create a space of comfort.  What do you need to make a house a home?  And has anyone else spent as much to fix up a furnished apartment?