We British are often accused of being obsessed with the weather. Yet I have to say that the people I’ve met here – local and foreigner alike – make us beleaguered Brits look positively disinterested.
For three years I’ve toyed with the idea of moving into a courtyard home. Oh, the romance of it. Having our very own red door. The private yard complete with ancient date tree. Living cheek by jowl with our Chinese neighbors (who dote on Elsa, naturally).
The universal response to any mention of this dream, however, is to invite a screwed up face, an audible sucking of teeth and a response ringing with finality: “But it’s so cold in the winter.”
I know the winters are cold. Elsa and I have lived here through four of them now. And each year we boil in our overheated flat, whose centrally regulated heating system I am unable to turn off or down.
When Elsa was younger, I paid more attention to these cautionary words. I didn’t want to worry about her freezing in the night. It would have been a pain dashing to an outside loo constantly in the toilet training stage. And it couldn’t be good for her to breathe in the mounds of coal dust we would produce in an attempt to keep warm.
But now at nearly 4, Elsa is a lot hardier, in full control of her bladder, and many of the courtyards have been converted to electrical heating. And I’m fed up with opening windows when there’s snow outside. So this spring I have resolved to listen no more to tales of winter woe. I will not be deterred! Let the hunt for the hutong home begin.
In fact, Elsa and I have already checked out two potential courtyard houses. The first was in a quiet hutong close to the laid-back cafes and boutique-style shops of nearby Nanluogu Xiang. Conscious of my fairly modest budget, I’d breezily assured the agent that I’d happily do up a run-down place. In fact I preferred run-down, I assured him – it had more charm.
He took me at my word. Charm there was in abundance, at least in the outside space. The enormous shared yard boasted rusty bicycles, bird cages hanging from the trees, mangy cats slinking through the undergrowth and even a patch of garden (yes, real earth, in Beijing!) for Elsa to dig in. Perfect. But inside, we found draughty high ceilings, a poky, squalid bathroom, and a kitchen that was little more than a lean-to shed.
Despite my confident assurances, I’m not actually that handy in the home improvement area. I freeze like a rabbit caught in headlights when entering DIY stores like B&Q. Swallowing my pride, I admitted that this was perhaps a project too far.
The agent was most understanding, and the next courtyard house we saw could not have been more different. Each room had been tastefully decorated, with pleasing neutral wall paint, and classy dark stone floor tiles. Amazingly, the bathroom didn’t need any renovation beyond putting in a tub, for which there was ample space. The kitchen too was roomy and clean. And to top it all, adorning the siheyuan walls were landscape scenes richly painted in gold, blues and greens: quality work by a local university professor, the owner proudly told me.
So why wasn’t I thrilled? Partly because the house was clearly out of my budget. I’d known that before agreeing to view it, hoping to negotiate hard. It was obvious, though, that this place was worth the asking price, or very near it. But the flatness I felt was about more than that.
Somehow, the perfection had destroyed the romance. Ducking out through the freshly painted, pristine red door, we passed through a narrow alley. I glanced at the nearest neighbour’s house. Faded curtains hung at the window and broken plant pots fell in a tumble around the door. I felt a little empathetic tug.
To my long-suffering agent I explained, in true “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” fashion, that the first courtyard home had required too much work. But the second had needed too little. I was looking for one that was just right. Sarah Cooper