Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An Experiment In Urban Living

Mons proper
We're approaching the one month mark of living in our new house. I had blogged about the house hunting process but never followed up with the house that we actually chose. Our options couldn't have been more different, from rural to suburban and urban, modern to historic and somewhere in between, we looked at them all. And in the end, we chose a historic row house in the center of Mons. Yes, we decided to give urban living a try.

From the earliest days of our relationship Glenn and I had talked about buying an old row house in Washington D.C. and through do-it-ourselves renovations, turning it into our dream home. Living in a somewhat suburban neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia the idea of historic urban living excited us. (They always say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence). The idea of being able to walk to everything and relying on public transportation for those things that weren't pedestrian accessible had a lure for us. Of course this was before we had a child so schools weren't an issue. But life in the Navy is unpredictable with Uncle Sam deciding the course for us and our D.C. renovation never materialized. Fast forward several years and we are parents who have experienced three moves in four years--two of them being overseas. Life never ends up the way we think it will. Or does it?

Upon arriving in Belgium we realized that for the first time in our recent moves, we would be able to choose the house we wanted to live in. The prospect was both exciting and scary. We looked at suburban homes and rural village houses but in the end decided to take the plunge and try out urban living. After all, from the onset we knew the house would only be a temporary stepping stone and in all likelihood, would be our only opportunity to live in an urban environment for the foreseeable future. (Yes, as much as I shudder at the thought, a cookie cutter house in a pristine subdivision in the northern Virginia suburbs is likely to be our next address). But for the next three years we are urban dwellers experiencing all of the conveniences and inconveniences that go along with it.

One of our three over sized bedrooms

So how is it going? First the pros: Our house is in an awesome location one block off of the main pedestrian street in Mons and two blocks from the Grand Place. Twice a week we can walk to local markets selling everything from fruits and vegetables to fish, meats, cheese, and flowers. The local bakery, which is literally at the bottom of our hill, sells freshly baked croissants and French bread for mere pennies. The train station and bus stop are two blocks in the other direction meaning commuting is a breeze. And then there is the house itself. It was built in the 18th century but under went a major renovation five years ago meaning we have modern utilities with traditional charm. With its high ceilings, wooden floors and large windows, it feels so much larger than it actually is. The kitchen, while small, is well laid out and for the first time in his life, Sidney has an actual backyard complete with grass and an area to play. Keeping with the character of so many European homes, the house has zero closets but we do have a large attic and basement which while creepy, provide us with plenty of storage. In these respects we feel as though we lucked out.

City Hall is right around the corner
But of course there is a downside. While we are fortunate to have secured garage parking, it is located a block away up a narrow cobblestoned street. On the surface this doesn't sound bad but when it is raining (yes, it rains a bit here in Belgium) or I am coming home from the grocery store, not being able to park at the house is inconvenient. Our street is a narrow one way road but there is on street parking on one side (and it is even free for residents) but securing a spot is often a hit or miss proposition. Yes, Sidney does finally have a yard meaning he is no longer relegated to playing in the street. Our backyard is walled in making it a safe place for Sidney to play unsupervised but it is small. In choosing any one of the rural houses he would have had acres of green grass to play in; here he has a small patch. And then there is the front of the house. We literally have two steps and then we are on the
narrow sidewalk and the street. Sitting in the living room I can hear the clatter of footsteps on the cobblestone sidewalk. Often if a large vehicle is parked on the opposite side of the street our sidewalk becomes a part of the road and we could reach out the window and touch the passing vehicle if we desired. There is certainly no playing in the front of the house going on here. But the hardest thing by far for me to adjust to is sharing walls and having neighbors in such close proximity. Sandwiched between two other row houses we have neighbors on both sides of us. Neither is exceptionally noisy but we do hear them on occasion. Music, the sound of the vacuum cleaner, and an occasional item falling to the floor are all clearly audible to us. So if we can hear them, they can hear us. I find myself cringing when Sidney throws an early morning tantrum or is exceptionally loud in the evening. They haven't said anything to us but sometimes I fear that our noise is disturbing them. In all of our thinking about urban living, this is something we never even considered.

So how is our urban living experiment going? One month in I dare say that the pros outweigh the cons though. I love being able to walk out our door and be steps away from a cafe on the square. Falling asleep to the sound of the cathedral bells tolling is enchanting (and reminds me a bit of being back at Mount Holyoke). Our house is filled with charm and I have visions of being able to fill my small yard with flowers bought at the local Sunday flower market. Sure trudging up the hill to the car each morning is less than ideal but we are in good company since we join our neighbors in the daily procession of kids, book bags, and coffee mugs. I've become an expert at efficiently and expeditiously off loading my groceries while live parking on our usually quiet street. We've all learned to look both ways before stepping out the front door and to make sure we have everything we need before we leave since returning is a production. And in a short period of time I've come to not even hear the ambient noise of the city around us. So are we urban converts? Only time will tell but if we continue to enjoy it as much as we are, the Virginia suburbs might never become our reality. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

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