Four is the magic number: four people, four walls
The pitfalls of living together are already numerous. But when strangers from different cultures suddenly become flatmates, harmony at home can go out of the window. Is this really the case? We found out on a visit to an unusual flatshare.
The doorbell says “5th floor”. This refers to the flat on the fifth floor of an apartment building on St.Gallen’s Rorschacherstrasse. The accommodation is rented out to FHS St.Gallen exchange students from all over the world each semester. This semester, the anonymous writing describes a community of four people from four different countries, who didn’t know each other until they started sharing the same living space at the start of February 2019: Rawisara Udomsri from Thailand, Miki Kinoshita from Japan, Juan Mateo Najera from Spain and Jiwan Woo from South Korea.
Their temporary home is reached via steep, creaking steps in a narrow stairwell. At first glance, the rooms appear cool and impersonal. Their doors bear the numbers one to four. A fire extinguisher is the only bit of colour in sight. The small living room is dark and sparsely furnished: a small two-seater sofa, a blanket, a coffee table, an empty shelf rack, an old television. Vacuum cleaner and cleaning utensils are close at hand, ready to spring into action. There are no personal items to be seen.
The spirit of shared living
The obvious heart of the apartment, where everything happens, is the kitchen. Though untidy, it’s very inviting. The spirit of shared living can be felt in every corner of the small room. A disproportionately large table is still covered with leftovers from breakfast, and an iPad. All of the other shelves and racks are also stacked with food and ingredients. In the kitchen, the inhabitants are cooking, studying, drinking beer and putting the world to rights. They also have the occasional party. But the neighbours have never complained about the noise, the landlord tells us with a wink.
An impressively large bag of Thai jasmine rice, two rice cookers in a confined space, crispy fish with chilli from Thailand, and a bottle of oyster sauce give the impression that the people who live here aren’t regular visitors to Switzerland’s mainstream supermarkets.
Will the cultural differences make themselves felt in everyday life as well? The four exchange students take a long time to think before answering, almost as though the question were unclear. Or nonsense even. Finally, Juan says: “Much less than expected.” Their different roots are most evident in the different eating habits, which confirm clichés that seem almost outdated in this day and age: the Spaniards eat late and prefer ham, while the three women like to eat a lot of rice. Not insurmountable differences, then. It’s obvious that the four of them make a strong team. They seem at ease with one another, and their laughter is contagious. The initial cold impression of the fifth floor has completely evaporated.
Rule number one: there are no rules
Even if the flatmates do like spending time together as a group, the don’t put any special time aside to do so. Living together is pragmatic, spontaneous and uncomplicated: whenever they want some company, they sit in the kitchen. If there’s nobody there, they knock on someone’s door. If they want to be alone, they don’t open the door. Does this make privacy a scarce commodity? They shake their heads, almost incredulously. After all, it is precisely because they like to spend time with others that they chose to live in shared accommodation in the first place. The four musketeers have not regretted their decision so far. There are no arguments about who does the dishes, no fighting for the last yoghurt. That’s something they are very grateful for, especially since the experiences reported by other exchange students are often less harmonious. There are no rules, plans or shopping lists. Everyone contributes to the household budget, and they split the cost of smaller essentials such as oil, bin bags and cleaning materials. They put the money in a paper envelope, which they keep in a kitchen drawer. If decisions have to be made, the group usually reaches a consensus quickly. There seems no point asking whether they have a special decision-making process.
From strangers to friends
All four of them have lived in shared accommodation before, but not all of their experiences have been positive, whether they have lived with people from different cultures or their own. Maybe the secret behind the harmony in this flatshare on the fifth floor lies precisely in the fact that neither of them knew each other nor chose each other before becoming friends.