I couldn’t take Mette’s words out of my mind - ’Why do you insist on staying here? You lost your job, you don’t have a boyfriend anymore, you are running out of money and you don’t even speak well the language.’ I knew she was right and meant well. She was one of my best friends and she cared for me. Yet her words stung. I hopped on my bike and cycled aimlessly for hours until the answer popped into in my head.
Why did I want to stay?
Because life is not about your job, boyfriend and money, nor speaking the local language. I was surrounded by good friends, I lived in a beautiful city, I had settled down nicely, I was enjoying myself, I was happy. Yet I didn’t have the money to afford my studio’s rent and the bills. Living in the Netherlands was a dream come true. I had vivid memories of the exhilaration of arriving and moving in, the first wild weekends. I was not ready to let go off my dream. It was almost a year since my apartment was broken into for the second time, boyfriend replacing me with another girl and my employer asked me to leave. I now house-cleaned for two families and babysat occasionally. I was barely making ends meet. With my credit card maxed out and zero savings I needed a better plan - immediately!
It was late March, winter was over. I decided to sublet my studio temporaryly and camp in the garage or sleep in the car, whichever works out better. I didn’t think through all of the details yet I put the studio for rent. I was doing to set things up in the garage while waiting for prospective renters to call. The first caller was an Italian girl - she didn’t like the open plan of the studio and sharing the living area with me. A friend helped me put a make-shift wall a sliding door. In a nutshell, two rails were attached to the ceiling and the floor with nothing better but two-sided industrial strength tape, and a large sheet of plywood sliding through them as a wall/sliding door. Yes, it was not the best of architectural solutions, but budget was tight and time was short. Caller number two was a Neurology researcher from Sweden - he was looking not just for a room, but an office space too, and he liked cooking. My place did not fit the bill.
Frustrated with the futility of my plan, I headed out of town to visit friends for the weekend. No more than an hour into my getaway I got a phone call - a Spanish guy, Hector, wanted to see the place. ‘Sure, but I am in Groningen for the weekend (2h train ride away). Can you come on Monday?’. No, he couldn’t, he needed to leave his current place immediately and find a place as soon as possible. He sounded motivated and why wouldn’t he, I was renting my studio for 400 euros, while every other room in town was at least 500 and located in the city’s outskirts, while I offered prime location. I hopped on the next train to meet Hector.
He arrived right on time - well built, clean and nicely dressed, averaged guy, married. Hector inspected the space in less than a minute, heard my spiel about my sleeping in a room in the garage, but sharing the living area, kitchen and bathroom with him, and tells me ‘Great! I’ll take it. Here is the first month rent and deposit.’ I couldn’t believe it - what did just happen, can it be that quick and painless?! My stuff was still in the wardrobe, my sheets were on the bed, I haden’t even secured a tent for my garage living shenanigan, but Hector was placing cash in my hand and I couldn’t say no, so we had a deal. I gave him a set of keys, striped the bed and put on fresh sheets. He was ok with me emptying the wardrobe later, he wouldn’t need it right away anyway. He left to pick up and bring home his bags. My head was spinning, but there was no going back. I got a motivated renter with money. On the way back to Groningen - my weekend getaway, I wondered how stupid exactly that move was, but it was too late. I focused on seeing my friends and having a good time. After two breaking and enterings, things could hardly get much worse. Right?
I returned home early Monday morning. Hector greeted me with a smile, still in his dark blue pajama, smoking a cigarette in the tiny backyard between the house and the garage. A bit of a small talk and I would have been on my way to who knows where to get a tent and perhaps an air mattress...but Hectors asked me ‘Well, where exactly is your room in the garage, because, pardon my curiosity, I looked in the garage and there is no room there.” I exhaled caught red-handed. “You are right, Hector, there is no room in the garage, I’ll ‘make one up’” - I smiled nonchalantly. He raised his eyebrow: “How?“ Really? Did I owe him an answer? ‘I’ll figure it out’ - I said with a reassuring smile and tried to leave the scene, but he woudn’t let me go…’Does the garage have a key?’. Actually, no, the garage didn’t have a key…Good job, iliana! Safety was not considered a priority.
I made coffee, we sat down and I told him what the reality of my situation was. As I wrapped up sharing my story I realized I was talking to a complete stranger, someone I just met and let live in my studio. And it was too late to back up. He had paid his share of the rent and I couldn’t afford not having him. He listened quietly. I caught myself anticipating his reaction. There must be some reaction to the insane plan I just laid out to him. He let a cigarette puff out and said with confidence: ’I’m a civil engineer. I know how to build houses. Let me help you.’ ‘That would be nice.’ - is all I could muster. I headed to the hardware store to buy paint and a few other things. By the time I got back, he was half way through rearranging the stuff in the garage opening a large space next to where my car would be parked. We swept and vacuumed, taking out buckets of gravel, dust and crumbling ceiling material. We sprayed with insect repellent sprayed, connected an extension cord, put a bright light bulb - the things you need to make a place livable. By the time we got ready for painting, it was the middle of the afternoon and his pajama was not dark blue anymore. It looked grayish, all covered with dust. So was his hair. I smiled - this stranger I just let in my home was spending his day putting my mad plan in action. We stopped for a little bit of a break, a friend of his passed by to see him, and brought pizza. How thoughtful, he must have told her to do so. I was deeply humbled. We ate, had some beer, then painted two of the walls forming the corner of my new ‘room’. We hanged old thick curtains to make-up the other two walls and that was it. I threw an area run on the cement floor, and my bedroom was ready. We moved my sofa in, and there you go…life could resume!
Hector left me to handle the rest of it - moving my clothes into boxes, taking them to the garage and setting one as a nightstand. We made dinner together - I made salad and he cooked pasta - his specialty. As we ate we talked about life, our families, his wife, my sister, our parents. We laughed and it all felt so normal. As if we have met after many years apart. I still occasionally reminded myself that I do not know that man. But I also did know him - for about 48 hours already.
The next two weeks went smoothly. And then came the rain - it rained for 6 days straight. The garage roof started leaking here and there, luckily it didn’t drip on me. There wasn’t enough room to move the sofa in any other direction, so I just patched the ceiling with plastic. Not only it rained hard for days, but it got cold too. One early morning I hopped in the shower to warm up. When I got out Hector was sitting by the dining table looking serious. ‘iliana, that’s enough. We are moving the sofa back in, you are not going to sleep in the garage anymore. You can sleep in the living area and I’ll be on the other side of the wall.“ - he said with a voice that would not take ‘no’ for an answer. I suggested we wait out for another day or two, perhaps weather would get better, but he shook his head and didn’t want to hear it. I moved back into the studio.
Most mornings we would have coffee together planning our days, then each of us went about their days. As if an unspoken agreement existed to give each other plenty of space. And there was peace and balance in that dance of care for each other. I thought he would be helping me financially with the rent, but he was helping me in more ways than just with money. I had met an amazing person. Gradually Hector introduced me to his Mom, wife, aunt, brother, all via Skype. I felt like part of his family. We talked about everything - our job hunts, the past, the future, life, romance, shared dreams over wine.
When his wife Suzana came to visit, the first thing she said was ’Hector has told me so much about you. Thanks you so much for taking care of him’. I was moved - it was more like the other way around - he was taking care of me. Well, there was no need to explain. I thanked her for the kinds words, and for trusting me and him to share a room more or less, with a sliding wall-door in the middle.
During the first nights sleeping in the garage, I couldn’t help it, but think of the irony of life - some years ago I was traveling and staying at Hiltons and Maryots class hotels, getting turn-down service with chocolate on my pillow and room service coffee and OJ in the morning. Now if rain wasn’t dripping on my face or a spider crawling on the wall next to me, I considered it a good night. But soon my thinking shifted to Hector - how blessed I was to have met someone so wonderful, with heart, integrity, and dreaming big. His wife was on a job assignment in Turkey, he was job hunting in the Netherlands, all in the pursuit of making enough money to be able to go home one day and build a house on his family land on Canary Islands.
They say that desperate times call for desperate measures. We certainly were desperate. Hector would occasionally call me crazy for doing what I did. I always replied that only crazy people reply to crazy rental arrangement ads. And then we would laugh. But we bonded over that desperation to make it in life, we both took a leap of fait to trust a stranger and help one another in a time of hardship.
I didn’t succeed staying in the Netherlands. Two months later I got a job in Australia, and Hector got employment by a Belgian company with a working site in Irak. We parted in pursuit of our next adventures, but we promised to stay in touch. For a long time I missed his ‘Good night, hermana!’ from across the make-shift wall. That’s how I met my brother.
PS. These evens happened in the Spring of 2011. Hector now splits his time between work projects in Irak and living in Spain. Susana moved from Turkey to Belgium, and then to Canary Island, where she is raising their two sons. They did buy a four-unit apartment building near the beach.
23 Sept 2016