It is a nerve-wracking experience to buy a property for the first time. We both have had our share. When it came to buying a property together, it was one of indecision.
I searched in the Roman city of Utrecht for 5 months alone, online and offline in my broken Dutch, until I narrowed down to 12 properties. The monument house was not on the list. It was too big, too expensive, and not the right shape. But it was the only one Robert was interested in.
The Dutch monument house measured 8 meter by 8 meter – a squarish curiosity that looked small from a distance but hid a spacious basement, generous ground floor, a middle floor of three bedrooms, bathroom, and toilet, and a quirky attic. I thought it was too dark, unsafe (steep staircase), and small inside. But Robert felt a calling. We visited three times before we made an offer in 2005.
Located next to a peaceful lock that runs into the Amsterdam Rijn Canal, which flows into the famous Rhine, the house is part of a row of turn-of-the-century houses built by the Dutch National Water Board for its employees to manage the lock. The monument status meant that we could claim expenses spent on upkeeping the house. In this case, we wanted to restore it to its original spendour. If I were to bring up the old pictures of the house, you wouldn’t recognize it.
On a cold winter’s day in January 2006, we signed the contract and obtained the keys. The previous owners had painted the window frames red (not the uniformly dark green it should be). The ceilings were lowered to window level (beneath the top frame). Despite the inner window between the kitchen and the living room, it was still dark. The upstairs was carpeted and the walls were adorned with colourful dinosaurs and other fairytale creatures. The back garden was fully exposed to the elements, including smokers who walked by and interrupted our conversation in mid-sentence. There was no security in the back as we were outside the communal gate. Anybody could walk in. The noise from the side street and beyond carried over the apple tree.
For the first 5 months, Robert lived alone, busily stripping out the old pinewood floors, inner doors, and ceilings. There was not a square inch of surface that he did not touch. In the afternoons he would go teach at the music school near the western coast. Once a week, I’d visit him from Bussum. Each time, I’d get a shock.
Something was always different. Once the ceiling was missing. Another time, the floor was gone. By the second month, we both felt the cashflow draining from a future that had no end in sight.
The ground floor seemed to take forever, and the euros was going out the door at an alarming rate.
“Let’s rent out a room,” I said.
This meant renovating the middle floor, one that we had agreed to leave untouched. And so the dust started to rise, from the ground floor upwards. Robert carved a little kitchenette from the master bedroom so that he could knock out the downstairs kitchen. Before long, the renovation had become a grand affair.
We found Brendan from northern England. He only needed a room for four days a week because of his commute. We were surprised that he took pictures of the as-yet-unfinished house. The skip in the front was not a pretty sight. Yet he seemed very pleased to have found a place that was within cycling distance of his office.
Renovating a house follows Pareto’s rule: the first 20% of effort is expended on 80% of what you see. The remaining 80% of effort is on the nitty gritty details, the 20% you don’t notice. It’s that remaining 20% you don’t notice that makes you feel uncomfortable.
For the next few years, we lived in a house that never felt truly finished.
The cordless power drill showed up at breakfast. A few loose screws accompanied our daily existence. The corners were not smoothed. The door handles fell off. We could not sit firmly on the toilet seat. It wobbled.
By mid-May, nearly done with my second year at Utrecht Conservatory, I was eager to move into the house and contribute to what I thought would be the final touches. By then we had two housemates — Brendan from northern England and German from Barcelona. It was the only way we could afford it, with Robert’s not-quite full-time teaching salary and my negative salary as a full-time student.
At the end of June 2006, we gave a week’s notice to our friends and held a house warming party. Over 70 people came, mostly musicians. We were all curious how the acoustics sounded.
In early July, we launched the Monument House Concert Series with a violin guitar concert by Duo 46. One of the two photographers took photos of not only the performers but also members of the audience.
Besides committing to two house concerts per year, we organized events such as yoga, Chinese banquet, self-expression workshops, impromptu concerts, piano recitals, and numerous barbecues. Looking back, it was a house full of action and activities, with guests visiting to stay or play.
Barely a year after settling into the monument house, Robert started a new hobby: brewing his own beer. To serve his beer, he designed the Monument House Glass Mug, good for cold and hot drinks. He experimented with grains and other ingredients until he started to plant and harvest his own hops.
Once the monument house was more or less renovated, we decided to do something about the back garden. “Let’s rip out the apple tree, the fence, and the shed and replace all that with a garden house,” I said. “An atelier,” said he.
We wanted to enjoy the garden with the privacy and security afforded by a structure that blocked the side traffic and bitter north wind. We also wanted a place that we could play music without disturbing our neighbours. We were naive to think that we could build a sound proof space. It was a formiddable task that required creative design and clever financing.
I had another year (my 4th and final year) to go. 2007-2008 became the most challenging year — the garden house, the trip to the USA — duo for export benefit concert, and my chamber opera premiere. Once we hired the builders, there was no turning back.
When the structure of the garden house was nearly complete, Robert and his student Onno dug out the back garden and located the sewer. [To be continued]