The white Ikea wardrobe


Sharing space, whether with parents, children, flatmates, colleagues, or a loved partner, is always a tricky business. There is much ground for conflict: who sits in the corner chair, who decides what goes on the wall, who can move the furniture around.

When we moved into this apartment, Philip and I had a basic agreement that he would own the bedroom and I would own the study. The living-room would be collective space. Concretely speaking, it means I would make all decisions on the furniture and decorations of the study (and also be the primary user) while he would decorate the bedroom, and uses it as home office or reading space when he’s not at work.

But since he started working as a teacher in 2014, he’s had to wake up early, and dress up. The wardrobe where his shirts and pants hang is close to my side of the bed, and he doesn’t want to disturb me at 6am. Also, the shirts started to get too many. We talked about it, and decided to place another wardrobe in the study.

The wardrobe is about 1m75 of height by 80cm of width, and deep about 60cm. The main body stands about 5 cm above ground, supported by the side and back planks, and is flat at the top. It is made of wood aggregate painted white. Two doors open at the middle, with long pieces of rectangular wood placed at an angle of about 90 degrees, to open and close. The wardrobe comes from Ikea, and Philip went out to buy it on a week-end at the beginning of this year. It came in separate pieces, and he put it together in this room with his friend Wayne. We had to get rid of an old style low dresser to make room for it, an odd, beautiful but impractical piece we’d picked up on the street in St Kilda.

The study doubles as Philip’s dressing room now, but I sometimes wake up as early as 4h45, and start working rightaway. When I do, his dressing place and my office clash, creating mild tensions over breakfast. Nothing unsuperable though.

The box of cachous


I can’t remember precisely when I started eating cachous, but I remember this: it’s the last year of Middle School, and I’m sitting at the back of the classroom next to my friend Radu. We’re talking about all sorts of topics – chess, people, history – while sucking on cachous, regularly refilling from the little yellow box. The teacher catches us speaking, and asks: ‘Can you repeat what I just said’. I comply. The class has a passing frisson – it looks like the rebellious good student at the back of the class just go the teacher off balance. I smile, and when the teacher turns her back, I pop in another cachou, and resume my conversation with Radu.

It’s a small light circular yellow metal box, about the width of a small lemon. The lid twists around the base, revealing a black rectangular hole with rounded angles on the side, about 1.5 cm long by .6 mm high. Inside the box are myriads of small black liquorice lollies, with very strong flavour. They fall off through the rounded hole. In the middle of the lid, the brand ‘Lajaunie’ appears in white font on a black rectangular band, capped by the word ‘cachou’ in fancy black shaded font, and a signature below, while on the periphery, following the curve of the box, is the location: ‘Toulouse – France’. The back bears a series of ingredients, written very small, the weight of the box (6g), a barcode, a recycling symbol of a person throwing an unidentified black object into a large woven basket, and the slogan ‘un goût inimitable, parfume l’haleine, procure une saine et agréable fraicheur’ – ‘an unimitable taste, perfumes your breath, gives a healthy and enjoyable freshness’.

Cachou boxes look medicinal from up close, but like Coca Cola, marketing successfully glamourised them into pop-food. In the 80s, cachou Lajaunie had a come-back through a very popular ad campaign. The short clip showed the profile of a buxom woman in half-shadow, shaking a box of cachous in front of her while humming the tune ‘cachou cachou, Lajaunie, Lajaunie, han han’ in a breathy, sensual tone. Sales went up fast, and cachou Lajaunie moved from the top shelves of provincial pharmacies to the candy shelves in mainstream supermarkets.

Cachous are one of the rare things I miss from France, and cannot find in Australia. On each of my visits to the home-country, I brought back boxes – and asked friends visiting France to bring me some. Each of these boxes contains an almost infinite number of black liquorice squares – and I often go weeks without having any – so that they accumulated over time: I now have about eight in the house, piling up inside my study drawer. Fortunately, there is no by-date on the lid or the back of the little yellow box. I assume these liquorice lollies are not perishable. At least I will treat them that way.

The tube of goldfish granules


One great pleasure of living in a couple is that you’re not responsible for the entire operations of the house. I enjoy pet-fish, but were they to rely on me for their survival, the poor creatures would certainly not survive.

Fish require a regular supply of food. In this case, it comes in the form of a plastic tube, about ten centimetre high, with a grass-green lid on top. One side of the tube bears a pictures of three goldfish swimming downwards on a light blue backdrop, with the words ‘Marine Master, Goldfish Granules, For Coldwater Fish, 100g net. The other side has more detailed instructions in small black print, as well as a bar code, an email address ( and the company’s physical address in New Zealand (VitaPet Corporation Limited, 1-9 Bell Road South, Lower Hutt) and Australia (VitaPet Corporation Pty Ltd, 126 Jedda Road, Prestons, NSW 2170).

My partner bought the tube, and usually feeds the fish. When he’s away, he reminds me to  give them a pinch of granules, once a day. They come out of a circular hole at the top of the tube, covered by the lid: very small cylinders, hard and dark-red, each about a milimeter across. I’m not sure how long a tube lasts, or how much it costs, and yet I notice it everyday.

The box of earplugs


I haven’t been able to sleep without earplugs since I was 18. If, by accident, one of them drops out when I’m about to fall asleep, I suddenly panic and fumble everywhere until I find it, place it back inside my ear, and block off the world outside.

Earplugs changed my life. When I was fifteen, my dad had another child. We didn’t live together – my parents were divorced, I stayed with my mother in Strasbourg, and went to see my father in Paris every other week-end. I shared a room with that little boy when I went – and he woke up screaming every night, three, four, five, six times. I was a teenager then, and the stress of a fortnightly plane commute, clashing value systems between my parents, competitive schools, and now the dreaded screams of a baby, made me develop serious insomnia. I became hyper-sensitive to noises in the night – and even when I got back to a room of my own, started spending long sterile hours awake, anticipating the sudden moment when silence would be torn apart.

Then I started dating Aurelie – and her mother wore earplugs every night. Until then, I’d only seen earplugs in comics, and I only half believed in their existence. There was something ridiculous and shameful about them. But if my girlfriend’s mother used them, maybe I could. She gave me the first box – and I was hooked. At last, I was physically protected from nightly sonic invasion, and my body was able to relax.

In France, I bought earplugs, or boules quiès, at the pharmacy. They came in a rectangular white box of eight, packed in two rows of four, little balls of hard pink wax covered in white cotton. The brand is not available in Australia, but I’ve happily shifted my preference to pink silicon earplugs.

These come in small rectangular packs of transparent plastic, with a semi-circular flap on one of the long sides, and an attached lid which opens vertically. Each pack contains two rows of three small cylinders made of pink sillicon, about one centimeter tall. Fresh earplugs are slightly sticky, and highly malleable. The trick is to press them in your fingers, elongate them slight, and place them on top of the ear canal – without pushing in too much. They not only considerably considerably reduce outside noises, but also provide the same feeling of comfort and security as a well-wrapped doona: a soft presence inside your ear, protecting you from nightly shadows and fears. You can use a pair for one or two weeks, but they get dirty with time, lose their stickiness, and fall off more and more frequently.

I buy my earplugs at the pharmacy for about 10$ a box. It’s a $120 budget for the year, or about 30 cents a day. These earplugs are essential to my sleep, and I’m about as addicted to them as I am to morning espresso. When I went to China for six months, I carried six boxes with me – and the sheer thought of even one night without earplugs causes me waves of anxiety. But they’re easy to procure, and as far as I know, quite innocuous – so for the foreseeable future, I will indulge happily, and keep a steady supply of earplugs in my bedroom.

The fish-tank


When I was a kid, we had a goldfish. My mother took care of it, regularly changing the water in the tank. But one day, she poured in hot water instead of cold, and when she put the fish back in, it very quickly stewed to death. I don’t have any direct recollection of this happening: it’s one of those mythical family stories shared over the table, with only loose and doubtful connection to factual truth.

The next goldfish entered my life in 2007. Philip and I were living in a 25 m2 one-bedroom apartment in Belleville. One day, when I got back home, he asked me: ‘Did you notice anything different in the house lately?’ I looked around, puzzled ‘No’, I replied, ‘is there something?’. Then he pointed at the kitchen bar, where a new fish tank was sitting. ‘Did you just get this, how fantastic, I didn’t notice.’ He laughed: ‘it’s been around for three days, I thought it was time I told you.’ I took a serious liking to that fish, but it died of leaking paint from an Eiffel tower we placed in the water. Our next fish died of a similar fate, caused by a golden statue of St Theresa purchased in her hometown of Lisieux. A house-sitting guest replaced our third fish with one almost identical while we were away. And eventually, we gave that fourth fish to a local friend when we left for Australia, and never heard any more about it.

Our current fish are themselves hand-me-downs. Philip got them from a couple moving to Sydney who offered a free tank and three fish on twitter, about four years ago. The tank is a large rectangle, roughly 50 cm long, 20 cm deep and 25 cm high. The glass panels that form it are held together by angles of rigid black plastic glued to the glass with translucid white putty. A semi-circular air pump stands in one of the corners, spouting out a constant stream of little bubbles. A small glass bottle full of water holds it down (it was picked up from an Italian cafe during a trip to Rome in 2011, and originally contained non-alcoholic sparkly bitters), and a long transparent thin tube goes down from the top of the pump to a vibrating blue rectangle on the floor, bearing the words ‘AirTech 2K0AU’ in silver capitals, and plugged into a powerboard.

The fish tank floor is covered in a layer of small black and white gravel. The fish swim around two plastic plants, one with red-veined leaves, the other a round, mossy green bush. Originally, there were three fish in the tank – one of them, with big bulbous eyes (I have now forgotten its name), started floating sideways about a year ago, and eventually, Philip decided to take it out of the tank, and let it die in a separate pool of water. Two remain: a flat pink-white one called Kate, and a slightly rounder red-orange one called ‘Sashimi’, with a wide spreading thin tail. Both names were chosen by their previous owners.

The sheep-teddy cushion

Teddy-sheep cushion

I dated Giuseppe for nine months. He was an Italian man from a wealthy Southern family, literary translator, finishing a PhD on Proust at the University of Florence, and living half his life in Paris. His schedule was that of an independent intellectual – getting to sleep at two, three, four AM, waking up at noon, and often working in bed. He shared an apartment with a rotating group of Italian expats in the fifth district of Paris, next to the Jardin des Plantes – but would often stay with me for days at a time in my little one-bedroom in Belleville. One morning, he asked me for a cushion to support his back while he worked on his thesis in bed.

The Tati store outside metro Barbès is a Paris landmark for bargain clothes, meringue-style wedding gowns and plastic slippers. Four times a week, I passed it on my way to the Sorbonne centre for Arts and Humanities at Porte de Clignancourt, where I taught undergraduate linguistics and English grammar classes. I normally rushed down metal stairs from line 2 (overground) to line 4 (underground), catching a glimpse of the Tati store through metal bars on the way, but sometimes, I would get out for a walk around the Barbès area.

I bought the sheep-teddy-cushion at Tati for three euros. It’s rectangular in shape, about the size of an A4 sheet, covered in curly white acrylic mock wool, with four dangling legs, a felt sheep head with plastic black eyes, black thread embroidery marking the nose and mouth, and a small rectangular tail covered in the same acrylic wool. The fabric is shiny, casting silvery reflections, as if each curl was coated in plastic. A rounded piece of thick rope is sewn into the neck, probably to carry the cushion around, or hang it somewhere, as I now have.

When I brought the teddy-sheep home, Giuseppe exclaimed ‘it’s fantastic’, as if this was precisely the cushion he’d been picturing in his mind. I was not surprised. Our relationship was largely literary, and this sheep had its own literary echoes in my mind. It was the sheep thrown overboard by a revengeful Panurge in a famous scene by Rabelais, leading an idiotic herd of blind followers to their death, and it was La Fontaine’s poor Robin Mouton, whose unavenged death exposes the cowardice of his wooly companions, dispersing when they see but the shadow of a wolf.

The sheep is now hanging over my head, behind the white futon where I do most of my work at home. A soft  decorative memory from my Parisian past, and a gentle reminder of my literary ambitions.

The green banker’s lamp

The green banker's lamp

I can’t remember exactly when I bought my first banker’s lamp, but I had one when I lived in Dublin, in 1999-2000, and I have never lived without one since.

The lamp is round and heavy. The base resembles a Chinese Stupa, starting with a heavy golden dome surmounted by a golden spintop and finishing in a golden sphere. From that little golden sphere, at an angle of about 160 degrees, juts out a thin curved metallic arm which, in turn, supports a horizontal golden two-pronged fork holding an articulated, curved green glass top that hides an electric bulb, and projects a greenish aura when the lamp is lit up.

I remember first seeing a green banker’s lamp in a film by Visconti, ‘The damned’. I saw the movie at a small independent art cinema called ‘Accatone’ in the fifth district of Paris when I was in preparatory class, in 1997. The film explores the fall of a wealthy German industrial family corrupted by its dealings with the Nazi regime. In a famous scene, the young son of the family dresses up as cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich and sings ‘Einen  richtigen mann‘ at his grand-father’s birthday party, draping a long dark boa round his neck. The gay subplot, the lavish aestheticism of a central-European bourgeois decor, the slow camera work – that film had everything to fascinate young closeted me. About halfway through the movie, we see the library of that German family, with a rich leather covered desk, and a green banker’s lamp. I can’t remember what happens in the scene, but I clearly picture that beautiful, desirable, green banker’s lamp, and ever since, I’ve wanted to own one.

Two years later, I got into Ecole Normale Superieure, and started receiving a monthly salary. I guess that must have been the time I bought my first lamp – or maybe it was a year later, when I got to Dublin, moved into my first share-house, and had a gigantic room of my own to fill with beautiful objects. What I do remember is the big surprise I felt when I found out that banker’s lamps were affordable – no more than twenty or thirty dollars. Through this first encounter in film the object had come to signify ultimate luxury – and I have used them as my primary source of lighting for over fifteen years, bathing myself in metaphorical splendour.

I have been a serial owner of banker’s lamps. Beauty breaks – and so do they. Fortunately, they’ve become generic enough that no loss is a tragedy. When I migrated, I packed my latest lamp in the 1m3 box I shipped over from Paris. It had a French plug, and I had an adaptor for it. I broke it in 2009, in my St Kilda apartment, dropping it on the floor accidentally, where the glass smashed. The lamp I have now is the first I bought in Australia. And to blend in Antipodean cuteness with that symbol of Continental opulence, I attached a clip-on koala to the stem.

An exhaustive description of the things in my house


I live in the middle of Melbourne, on the corner of Swanston and Collins Street, in a building called the Capitol Theatre Building. My windows look out on Presgrave place, facing North North-West, with a view to the back of the Century building, Bourke Street Mall, and the former Daimaru building with a ‘Me Bank’ sign at the top. I have no neighbours up, down, or to the right: my apartment is one of six built at the back of the building, right on top of the Capitol Theatre. The ceiling is 3.5 meters high, with broad beams of concrete separating three main sections: the kitchen and living area, directly behind the entrance door; a bedroom and bathroom straight ahead; and turning back, a smaller study with tall, sloping down windows above eye level.

I have lived in this apartment for five years now. My partner and I bought it one year after migrating to Australia. To the extent that future uncertainties allow, I believe that I will spend the rest of my life here.

Recently, I heard two different speakers praise the light life of a nomad: both presented possessions as a dangerous weight, and warding off things as ethical achievement. They were good speakers, but I was not convinced. I like weight, and layers accumulated over time, both material and spiritual. And I see carefully balanced weight as a superior form of ethical achievement to pure lightness.

For that reason, I’ve decided to start a project for the Chinese Year of the Goat: I will propose an exhaustive description of the things in my house, what they look like, what they mean, and how they came to be here. I hope, through this work, to reach a better connection with my own inner life, to better understand what possession means, and – maybe – to paint an original portrait of the twenty first century migrant. The writing will be fragmentary, and published on this blog, with photographs, when time allows, about once or twice a week, for a year. At the end of the project, if the result is worthy of further attention, I will try to produce a book, and place this insight into my life among the possessions of other people.