KUALA LUMPUR, March 6 — “I refer of course to the soaring wonder of the age known as the Eiffel Tower. Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent, and gloriously pointless all at the same time.” ― Bill Bryson, At Home
You can’t see the Eiffel Tower from our rented apartment in Montparnasse but that’s okay, a quick turn round the corner and the striking landmark looms. It’s a beautiful reminder of how our temporary domesticity is framed by a subtle sense of wonder.
Made from iron at a time when every major architectural structure was moving irreversibly to steel, it’s a testament of the iron will (pun intended) of the gentleman who built it, the engineer Gustave Eiffel. He fended off criticisms that the finished tower would ruin Paris by proclaiming, “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way?”
Of course La Tour Eiffel was built, in time to serve as the entrance arch to the World’s Fair in 1889. For a structure that serves no discernible practical purpose, it has become one of the most recognisable icons in the world and subsequently a top tourist destination.
We are tourists ourselves, escaping the insanity of gossipy relatives during the Lunar New Year celebrations by hiding away in the French capital. It’s a bleak season when strangers who supposedly share the same blood as you invade your homes, and every year, the same inane series of interrogation ensues. Different aunties, the same questions: You know the drill.
It feels like an intrusion, not unlike the defilement of a sacred site.
Yet why do we care so much for our homes? Why is it not merely a place to return in the evenings and exit the following day to head for our offices and our jobs? We are hardly home Mondays through Fridays; a home could simply be a bed to rest our weary bodies.
The weekends are made for shopping malls and movies in the cinema, surely, and not for being cooped up in one’s torpid living room. And we always look forward to our vacations, travel in distant countries: more time away from our homes.
Why not just live in a box then?
In our case, this is possibly because our boxes are already full to the brim with an incredible assortment of useless things. There is clutter scattered in their little taunting piles everywhere — upon bookshelves, on the sofa, on the kitchen counter top, on the dining table (which, alas, also doubles as my workspace), and don’t let me even start on our storeroom!
Wall-to-wall stuff — from suitcases in various sizes to plastic containers each containing only a few items to rubbish we never knew we bought and ought to have thrown away ages ago.
Where is our lovely, comfy home? Is it still here beneath all these mounds of washed but unfolded laundry? We can only hope.
A house is four walls and a roof, a basic inhabitable structure. It could be made of bricks, its supporting skeleton from steel or iron like the Eiffel Tower. It could be made from wood or straw. (Mind the wolves.) It could be grand or plain.
A home is more.
A home needs tidying, for one thing. It’s a chore but we do pick up after ourselves. We are fortunate enough to have a cleaner come in once a week but I’m terrified of her. She’s here to clean and not to tidy after our mess; at least this is what I tell myself. So I often do a round of placing things back in their proper place so the cleaner will have an easier time of doing her job.
Our home is where we spend the best hours of our lives. Not on a plane to Peru or in an indie café serving artisanal single origin coffee. We are in separate rooms, doing our own very ordinary things yet we instinctively know exactly what the other is up to. It’s comforting and warms our souls, for lack of a better metaphor. It’s our home.
Perhaps this is why, now when we travel, we seek out spaces that remind us of home. An apartment allows more breathing space than a hotel room (and if we stay for more than a few days, is also more affordable). We make our messes and we clean up after ourselves.
It doesn’t matter whether we have a view of the Eiffel Tower or the Petronas Twin Towers from our balcony or not. Even if we had no view, so long as we have a little place of our own, to spend the hours of our lives in, is it not also grandiose in its way?
“...and it occurred to me, with the forcefulness of a thought experienced in 360 degrees, that that’s really what history mostly is: masses of people doing ordinary things.” ― Bill Bryson, At Home
At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2010)
* Kenny wonders why there is a nest of folded-up plastic bags in his kitchen. Read more of his domestic conundrums at http://lifeforbeginners.com