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The Gumtree ad was enticing, but only in the way that turnips might seem enticing to a starving person, or a holiday at a caravan park to someone who’d never stayed at a resort. My eyes scanned the details: 90 pounds a week, renting a room in a shared house (‘we are six friendly Eastern Europeans’) with a ‘powerful’ washing machine. Yes, I thought, that’s just what I need – a good front loader.

The ad was hazy on the exact location, but mentioned Royal Albert was the closest stop on the Docklands Light Rail. ‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘Royal Albert must have something to do with the Royal Albert Hall, which is probably in central London.’ My fantastical logic wasn’t so much the result of sleep-deprivation as it was of an optimistic blindness to the facts. This was itself due to an urgent desire only fully comprehended by those who have lived in a refugee camp or 18-bed mixed dorm to find somewhere to live.

I’d been staying in a hostel for over a month, and wanted out. The tipping point was the smell. Each night I was engulfed anew by the dorm’s hot sour breath. Worse than the initial revulsion was the realisation of how quickly I became accustomed to the odour of cheap chemicals and bodies stewing on stale sheets, because I couldn’t smell a thing by the time I awoke at 6am to get ready for work.

This, too, was a trial. Taking my morning shower was a complicated operation that required military precision if I wanted to avoid turning on the lights and waking up the entire dorm. Plastic bags of clothes and shower items were organised the night before, torch positioned; after an unfortunate incident I had an OCD-like habit of checking and re-checking I had my room key before the door locked behind me. Most mornings the dorm resembled an army barracks that had hosted a bucks’ night, and so navigating in the dark was neither pleasant nor easy.

But despite the drunkenness and shambolic disarray, I detected a different vibe to London hostels. The carefree exuberance that characterised backpackers’ in other European cities was replaced by an anxious buzz of industrious activity as an endless stream of people from across the EU and further afield struggled to establish themselves. In the common room, phone calls were made; ads were placed and answered, and job leads discussed at the bar. It wasn’t unusual, in the early hours of the morning, to hear someone scream at the loud Australians (why was it always Australians?) to shut the hell up as they had a job interview the next day. Sometimes people slumped on their beds and cried.

A room of my own again: that was the dream. Balancing my laptop on my knee and twisting my neck to keep my phone in place, I rang the number on the Gumtree ad and arranged a viewing. It was only when consulting the tube map that I discovered Royal Albert was in fact way out east, almost in Zone 4. The Transport for London website advised it was ‘a good location to view the take-off and landing of aeroplanes from London City Airport.’ Well, at least that’s something, I thought. On the journey there I found out more: the address was in the borough of Newham, which Google informed me was the second most deprived in England. I tried to remain positive as I switched from the tube to the Docklands Light Rail. This was the area supposedly revitalised by the Olympics, wasn’t it? Approaching Royal Albert, the scenery had that familiar low-rise bleakness common to industrial wastelands and the immediate vicinity of airports – a factory outlet here, a field used for illegal dumping there – and the rain made the browns dirtier and the greys more washed out. Glumly I navigated roundabouts and roads with no footpaths to get to the address.

The house, when I found it, was all outer suburban light brown brick, cracked pavers and dingy window panes. Feeling utterly depressed, I rang the doorbell twice and got no answer. I phoned; still no answer. I was just about to leave when the door opened. Bogdan sleepily apologised. A Bulgarian security guard with a boxer’s nose, he worked night shifts and slept during the day. Charming and proprietorial, he led me inside.

‘It’s very good possibilities for the renovation,’ said Bogdan with a sweep of his arm. At the foot of the stairs I noticed a thigh-high leopard print gumboot, which he nudged away with his foot. ‘Anastasia’s,’ he muttered. ‘We go up!’

In real estate parlance, the room was ‘cozy’. ‘Have a look around,’ said Bogdan, but there was barely enough space for both of us in there and I could see everything standing in one spot. I self-consciously made a show of testing the bed, and enquired about power points. As he showed me around the rest of the house, I became unnerved by the silence. There were no shops around, no high street. Bogdan assured me there was a shortcut to the supermarket through the park, and said the other tenants didn’t own cars either. He pointed out their rooms: there was a Latvian student in that one, a Polish couple next to her, a young Estonian girl over there. He shook his head ruefully. ‘She is staying in her room all the time. Very strange, you know?’

As he showed me the upstairs bathroom I couldn’t help peeking into the half-open door next to it. A mirror fit for a showgirl was attached to a dressing table weighed down by bottles of perfume and jars of lotion.

‘Who lives there? An apothecary?’

‘This is my room,’ said Bogdan with a smile, and shut the door.

Downstairs he explained the cleaning rota, and we chatted. I told him I’d be out of work once Winter Wonderland finished. He was about to start a business importing gym equipment; perhaps I’d consider being his secretary? At the door we shook hands, and he advised me to see what else was out there before making a decision.

For a while I walked around the streets. Aside from the Cockney drunk sitting outside the off-license, the only accents I heard were Russian. Sure, the room small for the price, and the location wasn’t great, but Bogdan did seem nice. And this place needed people like me. With growing enthusiasm, I imagined myself at the forefront of a demographic shift – just as fellow Antipodean working holiday-makers were beginning to creep into the suburbs of North West London, migrating away from their traditional home-away-from-home in the southwest, I could be part of a new wave pioneering the gentrification of Newham!

Reality kicked in on the DLR. Experience taught me I’d have to pay my dues and see a handful of rooms before I found the right one. I just wanted to be done with the colossal chore of finding somewhere to live. Trudging back to the hostel, I was as relieved as an impatient virgin to have got the first one out of the way.

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