We lived in the first block of the cooperative housing project, in the third entrance, on the sixth floor. I had the large room that opened up onto the balcony. My sister had the little one with privacy.
The neighborhood was built in the 1920s. There were four large blocks and six small, rectangular green yards, some with swings and sandboxes. Though the ceilings of the apartments were low, you had a view on all sides, no dark backyards, no side wings on the buildings, no separate entrances for those you didn’t want to bump into.
A house. I wanted to live in a house like my best friend Antonia. The tracks ran right behind her garden. Every quarter of an hour the trains to France roared by. Antonia had a room on the top floor of her house, and anyone who needed her would have to shout up the stairs. There were two bathrooms and a basement we went to when we felt like giving ourselves a fright.
I wanted to live in a house because my mother, my stepfather, and my sister were constantly standing on the balcony in front of my room and peeking in whenever they felt like it; because the small bathroom was the only one, and you were always being disturbed at the most important moment; because the walls were so thin you could hear the neighbors arguing, hear the television, the clatter of dishes in the kitchen.
Because I wanted to be someone who lived in a house and not be the one, of whom the mother of a friend once said, “She can behave as well as she wants, you immediately hear her lower-class dialect.”
I saved up and, at some point, emptied out my drawer full of change in front of my mother. That evening she and my stepfather sat down with me to do the math, explaining what a house would cost and what their budget was. Before that, I hadn’t understood that there was a gap that couldn’t be bridged by saving.
The rent at the cooperative was so low that my mother and stepfather could share a full- time job – as caregivers. They had no inheritance to fall back on. They both came from poor backgrounds – which they took pains not to show.
We almost never went on vacation, but we did shop at Coops or Migros. Denner, the discount store, was for “the others.” Confusing. Usually “the others” were those who lived in houses or went to America on vacation.
My mother acquired a cooperative certificate when she moved in. She never gave it up. It is her shield against a market that allows those who are already wealthy to amass immense capital with real estate. A market in which a landlord’s minimum requirements for potential tenants are the right job, the right salary, and the right surname (as Swiss as possible) – and even that does not guarantee anything either. Most likely, my mother would not call herself an owner. But neither was she a tenant, someone whose rent you could speculate with, whose rental agreement you could terminate.
The laundry room was on the ground floor of each entrance. There were two washing machines for twelve apartments and countless clotheslines full of laundry running across the room. There was also a washing schedule. Woe to those who disregarded it.
My family did not trust the dryer.
While hanging up laundry, through the narrow windows you could see the legs of people passing by. The room smelled of other people’s detergent.
My mother said, “You can live in the cooperative when you grow up, less than a minute away from us. We’ll just put you on the waiting list.”
There is hardly a more efficient way to send your child out into the big wide world.
My mother wants to grow old in the cooperative. She has a lifelong right of residence. Maybe she will reach a hundred in this house, like our neighbor on the third floor. She did not trust the dryer either. She was over ninety, but she still hung up her laundry downstairs.
I had the big room with the balcony. There were geraniums hanging off the railing, like almost everywhere else. When I couldn’t sleep, I would read under the covers so I wouldn’t get caught. Sometimes I drew houses on blank pages.
None of them looked like you’d want to move there.
Yael Inokai was born in 1989 in Basel. She studied philosophy in Basel and Vienna and screenwriting at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin. For her second novel, Mahlstrom, she received the 2018 Swiss Literature Prize.
Translation: Antje Eiger and Dina Charnin