l’auberge espagnole

I went to see l’auberge espagnole tonight. It’s a Spanish-French co-production, set in Paris and Barcelona, that concerns the travails of a young man off from France to Spain to study economics for a year. He ends of living in a shared apartment with a multinational bunch of roommates, and, as you might expect, chaos ensues.

One of the things I miss most about my early- to mid-twenties — besides the carefree headiness, casual drug use, chaotic romance, and desperate confusion of it all — is having roommates.

The roommate-roommate relationship is a unique one. You are not quite friends, not quite family, but much more than strangers. Because you are sharing a confined space, with lots of household politics, there’s a necessary structure and formality. But despite this, even though (and perhaps because) you aren’t friends, per se, a quirky intimacy can develop, enhanced by sharing every grunt, sob, laugh and gasp coming through the inevitably paper-thin walls.

My first shared house was 640 Reid Street in Peterborough. I was fresh from an aborted year at university, and ready to take on the world (well, not really). The house was owned by John, a polymath who’d somehow concocted a scheme to purchase a house at an early age. In this sense, the house wasn’t actually shared — we were boarders in John’s rooms — but because we were all mostly the same age, or at least of the same generation, the effect was less draconian than this might otherwise mean. High in the attic of 640 Reid Street were Colin and Mary, two students who, from my 19 year old southern Ontario boy perspective, seemed incredibly worldly, well-spoken and brilliant. I was very intimidated by them at first, but this wore off after a while. On the second floor was my room, along with Simon, an anarchist paralegal group home worker, and Mark, a geography student and surveyor. John had a room downstairs. As I wrote about last year in a piece about Yann Martel, we each took turns cooking dinner during the week. Every night we sat around the big table in the dining room, a table which, though not quite the Algonquin Round Table, was certainly more intriguing than the dining hall at Champlain College where I’d spent a year. We all got along fairly well at 640 Reid Street, but after a year various romantic and domestic caterwaulings meant that it was time for most of us to go our separate ways.

My next stop was 107 Hazlitt Street. Otherwise known as “that destroyed house” (see Stephen Good), Simon, my hall-mate from 640 Reid Street, and I moved there in May of 1987, along with two cats acquired during the move, Antigone and Wolfgang. Other than being destroyed, 107 Hazlitt was a great house, on the edge of a vast tract of park land. Being in “East City,” across the Otonabee River from the rest of Peterborough, gave the neighbourhood a sort of dashing Left Bank spirit (even though our neighbours were mostly 50 year olds who worked for General Electric). Simon, being an anarchist, a minimalist, and having been born in Smooth Rock Falls, was easy to get along with, and the summer was very pleasant. The end of our tenure came suddenly when the partially insane owner of the house returned from Springfield, MA, and insisted that we leave immediately. So we did.

After 107 Hazlitt, I spent a brief time living at 540 Aylmer Street with Sarah, the sister of a friend of mine who I’d only just met. She was much more of an adult than I was used to having as a roommate, and had things like soup pots and oven mits and frilly curtains to her name. We got along, but then again we never really saw each other as I was a sort of absentee roommate. Antigone and Wolfgang ran away, and when the mirrored ceiling above her bed collapsed one day and she needed to take over my room during the renovations, I moved on.

The next stop was 241 Dublin Street, in the fall of 1987. This apartment is the one that came closest to the aforementioned l’auberge espagnole in spirit. My roommates were Simon (for the third time), and two women, Brenda and Linda. I actually had to “interview” for the roommate position; I remember this event well for Brenda’s question: “I’m a lesbian, I sleep with women… is that going to be a problem?” In my 21 year old naivete, the best I could come up with for a response was “Well, I sleep with women too, so that’s great.”

241 Dublin Street was an apartment on the second floor of a commercial building. At the back on the first floor was the venerable Ed’s Music Workshop, a guitar shop founded by luthier Ed Dick, but by the time we got there run by Don Skuce, Ed’s apprentice. At the front of the first floor was Ground Zero, a silk screen printer run by a ragtag partnership the members of which were always arguing with each other (and because my bed was right above their office, I knew every detail of every argument). There was a staircase in the middle of the living room that led to the large, flat roof, and during the summer that was the perfect place to go up to get away from it all.

Because 241 Dublin had served an interconnected series of roommates going back many years, there were always “alumni” dropping by for dinner, or for the weekend, so things were never boring. Among these former residents of Dublin St. are several friends I know to this day: Barbara Jean (a former resident of my room, who I didn’t meet until years later; her high school boyfriend used to visit us, for reasons I can no longer recall), Constance (who I can call friend only through familiarity and connections; we’ve only actually met two or three times; she lives in Wolfville now), Richard (read and listen here), Tim (former resident of my room as well, and boyfriend of my good friend Yvonne, currently resident in Dartmouth, then living in Saskatoon, who visited enough to become friends with many in Peterborough; Tim met Yvonne because Yvonne’s sister Lori used to live at Dublin St.).

We had a good year together at Dublin St., but in May of 1988 all but Brenda moved on (she stayed for at least another year, with another cast of characters).

Despite the unusual circumstances of our flight from Hazlitt St. the previous year, I ended up back in that house in the summer of 1988, this time sharing the house with my friend Stephen. Unlike Simon, Stephen was neither an anarchist nor a minimalist, but he was (and is) creative, intelligent, and more socially adept than almost anyone I know. We had great parties that summer, and managed to undestroy the house back towards partial livability. I had a dog — a young lab/spaniel cross named Penny — who was prone to eating Stephen’s Birkenstocks and running away, sometimes for several days at a time. We ate a lot of chick peas, and listened to a lot of Sade. That fall, with winter coming on, we realized we needed another roommate, so Stephen, socially skilled as he was, simply went out and got one: one day he showed up with a woman named Mary Clare, and she moved in that afternoon.

Over the next several months, Mary Clare and I grew closer, and eventually started “going out.” Despite our attempts to not have this sea change throw the house politics out of whack — we were so naive — Stephen didn’t react well, and we reacted poorly back, and by Christmas, with the insane owner back barking at our heels, things disintegrated, and we were forced to go our separate ways, Mary Clare and I to a little house up the river and Stephen, well, I can’t remember where Stephen went (we patched things up that next summer, and have been friends ever since).

After three years of living with roommates, it was something of a shock, in January of 1989, to be living with just one other person, who was also the woman I was dating. We made a good stab at it, but in the end a combination of a long cold winter, a house with a septic tank that backed up every other day, and a relationship that wasn’t as strong as we thought, that experiment ended as quickly as it started, so quickly I can’t even remember the name of the street we lived on.

Next stop, in March of 1989, was a room in Jill’s apartment. Jill was going out with Colin (formerly of “Colin and Mary;” see above), and it was through Colin that I met her (ironic side note: Jill herself, many years before, had been a resident of the attic of 640 Reid Street). This was the first bona fide apartment I ever lived in — it had closets, a balcony, a buzzer, and everything! Jill was older and wiser than me, and I was a little taken aback. But she made terrific allowances for my mildly (some might say mostly) crazy dog, my weird hours, and my hither and thither girlfriend Mary Clare (our break up hadn’t quite taken the first try out), and though I was a political neophyte, she included me in her conversations about the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the like.

Although I enjoyed my time in Jill’s place, after a couple of months it became apparent that dog plus small city apartment was not going to work, so I found a small apartment on my own, out in the country, and Penny and I moved out on our own for the first time. I was lonely.

I spent a year in my country apartment, and then in May of 1990, moved back into the city to assume tenancy of what was and is perhaps the greatest cheap apartment I’ve ever lived in, at 451 Water Street (my friend Stephen — see above — lives there to this day). The apartment was the former home of my good friends George and Leslie and their son Stefan, and so I had already spent many fine times there by the time I took it over from them. 451 Water is a second floor, two-bedroom apartment in a 1950s solid brick building on the cusp of downtown Peterborough. It’s got a huge living room and dining room, a wonderful sun room facing the street, a bathroom in two parts (bath in one, toilet in the other). And the rent, in 1990, was $340 a month. Because I was back in the city, I was slightly less lonely, as there was always someone or another dropping by. But I still missed having roommates.

In the late summer of 1990, I moved out of 451 Water St., and moved to El Paso, Texas for two months (long story), then from El Paso to Montreal (where I lived in two small, delightful apartments). By the spring of 1991, however, I was really lonely, living in Montreal with neither work nor prospects, so I bolted back to Peterborough for my last time living with roommates.

I moved back to Peterborough into a house on George Street North that I shared with Richard (see above, 241 Dublin St.) and Tim (see above, ibid.), Diane and their young daughter Casia. My “room,” such as it was, was entered by going through the closet door at the end of the second floor hallway and climbing a ladder to a small cubbyhole gnawed out of the attic. The summer of 1991 was a really great one on many fronts: Tim and Diane and Richard and I got along really well, and took on projects like repainting the living room with great gusto. Tim and I launched a brief career as singer/songwriters (Tim’s still at it). I had a great job — my “dream job” — working in the composing room of the Peterborough Examiner. And the “girl next door” was a 29 year woman named Catherine Miller.

By the spring of 1992, much had changed. Tim and Diane were on the way to splitting up. Catherine and I, conversely, were hooked up. And Richard was getting ready to move to Halifax to follow his own lady love. Catherine and I moved to a nice little apartment on Hunter Street. And so my life as a roommate came to an end.

If you took the highlight reel of my six years of on and off living in shared houses and apartments, you would end up with something pretty close to what played out in l’auberge espagnole. The movie captures the intensity, the tension, the intimacy. And the uniqueness. Perhaps better than anyone ever has on film.

By the time I got to 241 Dublin Street in the fall of 1987, I was head over heels into an incredibly complicated relationship. That summer my roommates spent many nights distracting me from this swirling chaos, playing canasta and gin rummy, listening to a 33-1/3 rpm recording of The Girl from Ipanema, and talking endlessly about everything. It was a priceless summer. I miss those days.