I always knew I’d live in a beautiful home. While this has probably everything to do with being the daughter of two architects, I don’t necessarily define the beauty of a home by any given design or architectural standards. In my adult life, I’ve inhabited three incredibly different rental apartments in two countries, yet all of these homes have been deeply beautiful to me.
As a tenant, I always found that decorating rental apartments is a constant compromise between the soul of the home and your own. While it surely is an act of love towards the home, it is also a melancholic, fleeting investment in an apartment that will never be yours but will most likely be the backdrop for a few defining moments in your life.
This is a tribute to all three apartments I’ve called home, and to the ways they are beautiful in my eyes.
Sometimes undeservingly, Milan has the reputation of a grey and soul-crushing metropolis, and a pretty unsafe one at that — especially around the Loreto area. As we would soon come to realize, the neighborhood of NoLo was a complex and unnerving tangle of social contradictions, like any neighborhood rising from its ashes and morphing into a creative hub. As new cafes popped up, and Moncler began choosing NoLo’s abandoned warehouses as backdrops for their fashion shows, cars were still vandalized at night, passers-by robbed, and shady corners hosted drug dealers and groups of loud revelers.
When we first visited the apartment in via Popoli Uniti, we knew nothing about the neighborhood. The street looked nice and safe, and it was a five-minute walk to both the subway and tram number 1. We fell in love, and the one-bedroom soon became our first home together. It was nested in a building that had once been a farmstead, had been totally renovated, and had every visitor go oooh! and aaah!, but most interestingly, are we really in Milan?
The home came furnished and decorated in a shabby chic style that was possibly the polar opposite of my own taste. We didn’t let that discourage us, and we didn’t try too hard to eradicate the style, either. It just went well with the old soul of the apartment, with its brass finishings, the beamed ceiling, and a view over a lush garden that is one of the hidden wonders of Milan.
We did our best to incorporate our minimalistic, modern preferences (with huge help from my mother, who enjoys decorating more than anything in the world), by shopping at our preferred low-cost furniture places and picking out what felt right. Slowly, it became a cozy home that we could call ours; an old sturdy building that made us feel safe, and from which you could hear the rumble of trains in the distance, a detail we always liked. And when we were the ones on a train headed to Milano Centrale — ah, the joy of looking out of the window and seeing our courtyard zip by! ‘I live there’ was a thought that made us happy.
When we decided to leave the apartment, I got emotional. Even though we never invested much in our furniture (it was a rental, after all), selling to strangers what made our home so ours really felt like closing a chapter and jumping into the unknown.
And that, folks, is how I ended up shedding tears over an Ikea desk.
2. Lisbon — take one
The unknown had a name, or at least some approximate GPS coordinates. We were headed to Lisbon, and despite having spent my Erasmus there in 2012, my knowledge of the city was rusty. Plus, as I would soon discover, the city I had roamed as an adventurous twenty-year-old was long gone. Gone are the decadent houses around Avenida da Liberdade, (mostly) gone are the shady alleyways around Martim Moniz, gone are some of the abandoned houses whose half-shattered windows grimaced to the sky. Most of all, gone are the affordable rental prices I seemed to remember.
Hello, gentrification. The contradictions we had seen and experienced in NoLo are a reality in Lisbon, too, and they bite hard. The city retains much of its fascinating, decadent grandeur, but foreign purchasing power is eroding it from the inside, seeping through old buildings and converting them into luxury vacation rentals. It is a silent change, but a substantial one for people whose minimum salary is stuck at impossibly low levels.
When we set out to look for a house, we were lucky to secure an apartment in the most perfect location to explore the city without ever stepping into tourist routes. Perched between the ugliest mall, Amoreiras, and the quaint little neighborhood of Campo de Ourique, our next apartment appeared small and cozy. The main features were a stone wall and an instance of gaiola pombalina, a detail of the quintessentially Portuguese, anti-seismic wooden structure.
My mother helped us pick out yet another set of Ikea furniture, and a truck crossed the whole Iberian peninsula carrying the belongings we had decided to take with us — including a round coffee table, which was a gift from my partner and seemed to fit in our new home just fine. I liked how the objects that followed us seemed to possess an ability to adapt to our new life abroad.
Then COVID-19 hit, and it made us fall out of love with our cute little house. Sure, we will always cherish the hundreds of breakfasts we had looking out of our huge windows, guessing which airline each landing plane belonged to — a distant reminiscence of when we used to see trains from the window of our NoLo apartment. We will always think the big, airy bedroom is to die for, and that the location of the apartment is pretty much unbeatable.
But fifty-something square meters and one desk were not enough for two people working from home (and two playful cats). Plus, over time, the house started to show some weaknesses that are fairly typical in Portuguese buildings. Lack of heating and damp weather made the walls moldy, and we could actually feel slight breezes in the wintertime, with no windows open. Ants began creeping up from the neighbor’s backyard and became a real problem, especially with cat food around.
When COVID-19 brought a lot of vacation homes back to the long-term rental market, which in turn caused the market to experience the lowest rental prices I’d seen since moving to Lisbon, we knew it was time.
So, as soon as the pandemic slowed down for the summer, we set out to look for our next apartment.
3. Lisbon — take two
We knew this time we wanted outside space. However, we also needed the space to be safe for our ingenuous cats. After two years in Lisbon, we were also savvy in terms of details that could make everyday life unpleasant at the very least (no heating, small kitchen space, moldy closets, to name a few). Lastly, we knew we didn’t want to move away from the area, which to us was still perfect.
When we found our third apartment, it was love at first sight. We were familiar with the Príncipe Real neighborhood, especially with the handful of steep streets that descend from Rua da Escola Politécnica down to São Bento and the Parliament. Stunning views, impressive azulejos work, and the crown jewel of the neighborhood — Praça das Flores, possibly our favorite square in the whole city. The area feels a bit less lively than Campo de Ourique, the streets quieter, and most people we cross paths with are not Portuguese — they’re digital nomads, mainly British and French, pushing strollers or sitting in the shade with a Nannarella ice-cream cone in their hands.
The apartment is fifteen minutes from our previous home, it is on the third floor, and it has a terrace. This is the main reason we went for it, but certainly not the only one. It has abundant light coming in and plenty of room, especially in the kitchen. But what I love is that first look you get when you open the door—you walk right into a big living-room with huge windows over the terrace. Actually, the terrace and the living-room are one big visual entity. You can’t see one without seeing the other, and this counterpoint between inside and outside makes the space very interesting. We brought most of our furniture over from the previous apartment, and again, it seemed to transform and adapt to the rules of the new space.
And so it begins. Old rituals in old homes get rewritten by new rituals, in new spaces. There’s always a tad of melancholy in leaving an apartment behind, but such is life for many millennials like us — a sequence of fast-paced, well-defined chapters, with their own beginnings and their own closures.
We now love to sit on the terrace, have breakfast, and listen to the rattling sound of trams and the screams of seagulls in the distance. This is our home, and there’s nothing quite like feeling at home in a beautiful place.