What do travel writers do when they can't travel? Review their own houses – in the style of Traveller's usual hotel reviews. Desperate times...
There's a distinct and welcome touch of hominess to my current accommodation – an atmosphere due largely to the fact that this is someone's home. Surprisingly, however, it's not mine. Due to unforeseen circumstances (ahem), I, along with my partner and our 20-month-old son, had to flee Italy a few months ago and head back to Australia, where we've since been sheltering in place in Sydney's leafy northern suburbs, at my parents-in-law's house. It's a rambling beast of a property, with what real estate agents would describe as a "leafy outlook", plus all of the comforts of home, including the requirement to clean and tidy those comforts if you would like them to stay that way.
You know those parts of the city that your boomer parents and their friends all live in and yet you, a freelance writer, and your community-service lawyer partner have not a hope in hell of ever breaking into? Yeah. One of those.
None of the furniture here matches, an on-trend aesthetic that's due less to careful planning and an interior designer's sharp eye for eclectic decoration, and more to the fact that it was all bought at different times over the last 30 or so years. In some ways this is the perfect hotel for families, given the security gates that have been rigged up to stop curious little hands from tearing the kitchen apart, and the upstairs rumpus area set aside for stamping and yelling. On the other hand, my father-in-law has an actual collection of samurai swords.
The house comes equipped with an impressive library of more than 1000 books, though it will help if you share the owners' interests in Roman history, Greek mythology, and food. There's an extensive mini-bar as well, which works on an honesty system: if you truly, honestly need a drink, you just go and get one. In true B&B style there are also games on offer, which include doing the Good Weekend quiz, trying to stop your toddler son from soaking you with the garden hose, and avoiding controversial topics of dinner conversation such as how necessary the current lockdown laws are, and whether cumin is pronounced "cue-min" or "cummin". (It's obviously cue-min.)
If only I could get the staff to attend to the bed linen I left on the floor two weeks ago, it would be ideal.
There's a unique strangeness to sleeping in your adult partner's teenage bedroom. The bed is too small and you feel like you probably shouldn't be sleeping in it anyway, at least not with the door closed. The bookshelves are filled with university law texts and tomes on philosophy that make you question whether your partner's stories about being cool are actually true. The cupboards are inconveniently filled with someone else's clothes from another era, and there's a gigantic Mongolian morin khuur – a two-stringed lute – taking up too much space on a shelf. I'm also pretty sure there's a huntsman spider living under the bed.
On the bright side, there are some immediate benefits to staying in a real house: I know exactly where the light switches are (on the wall near the door); the shower doesn't require a PhD to turn on (there's a hot tap and a cold); and I don't need a pillow menu because I just have my own pillow.
Here's an interesting thing for you to ponder in lockdown: how far out of date is too far out of date when it comes to food? There's a jar of Lao Gan Ma chilli paste in the cupboard here that expired eight years ago – eight YEARS – and people are still eating it. There's a wedge of guanciale (Italian cured pork) in the meat-keeper that's now two years out of date. I threw it in the bin a few weeks ago – because, obviously – and then I noticed the other day that it was back there. There's also a kefir drink that my father-in-law insists on drinking that he calls "Mr Ploppy" that I'd happily never see or smell again.
Aged ingredients aside, however, the food at this property is spectacular, graced as the kitchen is with three extremely talented cooks (and, occasionally, me). Every night here is a journey to another country through the food we find on our plates, from Japanese yakitori to Indian aloo gobi to Moroccan lamb tagine to NY-style Reuben sandwiches made from scratch.
There's always something bubbling away on the stove. There's always something warming in the oven. There's wine in the cellar and whisky on the shelf. If I don't leave here about 20 kilograms heavier it won't be through want of trying (or it means I've gotten sick from the Lao Gan Ma).
Err… Have you read the news? We don't step out anywhere, except to the oval down the road every now and then for a bit of exercise. Fortunately, given this isn't our own home (which would be a pokey apartment in the inner west), we have a garden for our kid to frolic in, and a swing out the front for him to play on. There's also childcare provided, willingly and graciously, a perk you couldn't even put a price on.
Once you subtract the obvious downsides of adults living with their parents, and parents having to put up with the newly developed quirks of their adult children, this is pretty much the perfect hotel. If only I could get the staff to attend to the bed linen I left on the floor two weeks ago, it would be ideal.
Rooms start at $0 per night, which you have to agree offers impressive value.
The food, the wine, the space, the hominess, the comfort, the company, the childcare, the price.
That Lao Gan Ma really has to go. Same with the guanciale.
Our rating out of five
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