Alberto's picture
Living Social In Brussels: co-living as a lifestyle for grown-ups

The Challenge: 

The Question: 

How do you build a support network when you are a migrant, in a city where you don't know anyone?

The Problem: 

How do you build a support network when you are a migrant, in a city where you don't know anyone?

The Solution: 

Sharing a living space makes practical and economic sense, and with luck and care enables intimacy.

Channels: 

Four years ago, as we were planning our move to Brussels, Nadia and I decided to look for flatmates. Most of our friends and family members were rather puzzled: not many couples decide to share their apartment, though they can afford not to. We, however, thought it completely logical. Nadia is Swedish and I am Italian: at the time we lived in Strasbourg, France. That made us a migrant nuclear family, completely cut off from the network of emotional and material support that our friends and families of origin could offer. We were simply too isolated in our Strasbourg apartment, nice though it was; and we decided to try something different. So, we rented a much bigger apartment than we needed and asked the Internet for someone to share it with.

Four years on, we think the experiment worked. For the last three years we have been living with Kasia and Pierre, a young couple of expatriates (Kasia is Polish, Pierre French). We really enjoy the co-habitation: the home feels more animated, and not a day goes by that we don't chat at least a little bit, over coffee or breakfast. We enjoy the big, airy living room overlooking the city. And, frankly, we appreciate that our lifestyle is really good value for money: thanks to the economies of scale implicit in family life, we pay a reasonable rent for a really nice space.

Along the way, we discovered that what makes our living together so enjoyable is that we are so different from each other. We come from four different countries; we are of different ages (Pierre, the youngest, is 19 years younger than me, the oldest); we have very different jobs (Kasia is a dental nurse, Pierre is the manager of a fashion boutique, whereas Nadia and I both belong to the "what is it that you do, again?" tribe); Nadia and I travel a lot, whereas Kasia and Pierre tend to be in town most of the time.

This works well on many levels. On a purely practical level, when we travel we love the thought that the home is not empty, and in the event of some misfortune (think plumbing failure) they can intervene; and I am sure they enjoy the privacy and the extra space. We pay for electricity, phone and the Internet, they pay for the cleaning services – less paperwork to do. We have an extra room, which normally serves as Nadia's and my office; but it doubles up as a guest room for the guests of all of us.

But there is more to co-habitation than practicality. Kasia and Pierre are lovely people: and, crucially, they are different people from Nadia and myself. We live out the city in different ways. We have different takes on almost everything, from French politics to Belgian beer. Comparing notes with them is always interesting, and I really value their insights and wisdom. Not that we spend all that much time together. I think our co-habitation unfolded in the right sequence: we started by a default attitude of rigorous mutual respect of each other's privacy and spaces. Then, over time, we grew closer, started to share the occasional meal, the occasional outing; we met each other's friends and families, lovely people to the last one. Guess what: we have built a sort of familial-like arrangement in a foreign city, among people who were originally complete strangers to one another.

It's working well. So well that, when a year ago our landlord announced that he was reclaiming his apartment and we would have to move out in the summer, we decided to stay together, and to look for a new place as a four-people household. Eventually, we got more ambitious and thought, what the hell, we might as well grow the family. If four people can live so well together in a larger apartment, how would it work with five, or six, or seven in an even larger one?

It works well, it turns out. We moved to a lovely loft, and were joined by a third couple (Belgian-Italian). Giovanni and Ilaria have since moved on for family reasons, but we enjoyed their company while we lived together. Their place has been claimed by Thomas, a young French engineer. 

We do this for totally egoistic reasons: we enjoy each other's company, we save money, we live in style. At the same time, we are aware that we are working our way through solving a global problem. Planet Earth has 230 million international migrants; intra-EU migrants like us are 8 million. Many of Europe's young people simply cannot afford to hold their ground: their work, education paths, and love lives lead them to migrate. When they do, they, like us, lose their supporting networks, and it is really hard to rebuild them. Living together, especially in diversity – the older with the younger, the sporty with the mobility-challenged, the academic with the blue-collar worker – becomes a platform for sharing our different abilities, and being able, as a household, to solve many different problems, both emotional and practical.

None of this is new. You have heard it all before – at social innovation conferences and workshops, for example, and typically by people who live in middle-class nuclear families. But we have decided to walk this particular talk; it will probably not be the right choice for everyone, but it is the right choice Nadia, Kasia, Pierre and myself; and I strongly believe it might be right for many others. I encourage you to at least consider it for yourself: as more of us make this choice, the real estate market will respond, giving us more spaces suited to our particular lifestyle (in Brussels, for example, is very difficult to find large apartments with 3 or more bathrooms!). So, who wants to join?

Comments

Curious how this could work for less resourceful newcomers

Noemi's picture

Hi @Alberto, nice to read you again on this topic.

So: together when you want to be, but apart when you want to be apart.
It seems like your group has found just the right balance between couple intimacy and social sharing of the space, which is something that would scare many of us grownups. There is something about growing mature that makes one more and more into their own ways, and less willing to take on 'adventurous' lifestyles. Maybe it's not obvious now how that pays off tenfold in the long term (i.e. family surrogates). 

Do you think this setup can work if not all of you were middle class (as precarious or as unstable as middle class can be)? If someone joins but they soon fall off because of too low earnings, will the rest be able to catch them?

Not in this case

Alberto's picture

Direct income support is not part of the package in our group – at least not at this stage. We do help each other financially, but this is mostly a consequence of the economies of scale that exist in family life. The other part is a willingness to cut each other slack; this all started with us accepting to sub-rent to recent migrants, who did not have jobs yet. We trusted them to make it happen, and they did. Later, when we grew from four to six, same thing again: one of the two new people did not have a job, but we took them in all the same. 

But in the long run, the deal is that you have to pull your weight. Maybe in the future we will have become so attached that we will change the deal. Who knows? Certainly this setup gives us a couple of shots before we have to give up completely. For example, we could sub-rent the extra room, and take the additional income from everyone's rent. Maybe the reduced privacy would be a sacrifice worth making to keep each other close, already now. Depends who you ask, I guess :-)

 

Love it!

Iriedawta's picture

Some case studies showcasing the benefits of shared living.

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