In the first episode of "A Landlady's Diary", Zara G. talks ot her life in London compared with her life as a child, and the decision to move to a large house and, having done so, to become a landlady.
In the summer of 2005 when my older daughter was 20 and the younger one, 19 years old, I decided for some bizarre reason to move from the 2 bedroom flat in which we had been living for all their lives, to a largish house.
I say bizarre, because when one needs more space and a garden is when the children are young and anyhow most people downsize when the children start going away to universities etc. I did the opposite.
I suppose the reason for doing this was because I had been brought up for most of my life in very large houses with massive outdoor spaces. The same was true of the school I went from the age of 6 to about 18, which was magical. The British built it, with an imposing portico with “IN” and “OUT” driveways with the crunching sound-producing gravel. The first time I returned to the country of my birth, after over 26 years of living in London, one thing that impressed me even more than I seemed to recall, was my old school. Imposing, elegant and with carefully coiffured lawns and shrubs, it was most impressive.
However, since moving to England I always had to do make do with living in small flats, with no outdoors space to speak of. There was a hankering in me to have large spaces with very little furniture and lots of light. The houses I had spent the first 22 years of my life were rambling with lots of places to get away from the other seven siblings. Most of the houses had two kitchens for example. One was referred to as the ‘dirty kitchen’ which was located outside the house and the other, which was described as the ‘clean kitchen’ was within the house.
This was so because in a family of 8 children, parents, servants, food played a key part in my mother’s life. Because whatever else is going on, people need nourishment; food is nourishment. The real cooking was done in the ‘dirty kitchen’ by the chef under the hawk-eyed supervision of my mother – a phenomenal cook.
Once the food was prepared the chef and his assistant, usually a 12–16 year old boy who was an aspiring cook and keen to learn, carefully transported it to the ‘clean kitchen’ where it was kept warm until such time as all 8 children had emerged from their various bedrooms for breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea and dinner. The poor servants, their job was never done.
The clean kitchen had a large pantry, which was generously stocked with the staple essentials. It makes me smile when I see my younger daughter cherish raggedy jute sacks that she seems so proud to display in spaces wherever she has lived, whether it be the digs at Keble, attic space in our current home and now in some commune in Montparnasse. My mother got a comforting feeling from having sackfuls of Basmati rice, coarse salt, flour, sugar, pulses and vermicelli hand made by my paternal grandmother. There is a most interesting anecdote about this vermicelli which I will tell you later on.
To get back to the subject of moving homes and how I ended up becoming a Landlady, it was, I suppose, a subconscious justification in my mind and in my own defence, in case challenged, that the fact that the house was too large, I could always take in students once the girls had left home.
That is exactly what I did; I registered with an organisation that came over and vetted the home to give it a category. Standard, Superior and Executive. With breakfast, breakfast with dinner or the with use of the kitchen. I avoided agreeing to the arrangement which meant that I had to provide dinner. I had done enough cooking in my life not to want to do any more.
For just over 4 years I have had students from all over the world, all ages, genders, sexual orientations and cultures. Food is the pivotal factor, it helps break the ice and around the kitchen table is where most meaningful and engaging conversations have taken place.
I have noticed that the majority of guests have had a strange relationship with food, which becomes obvious after a day or two. I hasten to add I am cursed with being extremely observant, so there is very little that I miss or do not notice. Students who eat like birds or too healthily in company and then you find that their rubbish bins in their bedroom are crammed full of wrappers – large quantities of chocolates have been consumed behind closed doors.
This is not confined to females; I have had some strange culinary tastes in some of the men who have stayed with me. Henry for example was one such person but more about it in the future.