Illustration by Sapphire Demirsoz for Varsity

In my first year at university, I shared a bathroom and kitchenette with over twenty people. Experiences ranged from blocked plugholes (combated by badly printed “DESGUSTANG” memes taped to the bathroom door) to passive aggressive fridge notes about stolen peanut butter cups; from unknown substances in the bath, to late night fire alarms caused by an attempt to cook a Burns Night haggis on a hotplate. The familiar smell of room 320’s Lynx wafted out of the shared shower at 10am every morning, mixing with the stench of leftover pizza from the night before.

Naturally, I was itching to move into a house with friends. Little did I know the experience I was in for. Searching for a place to live brings out the absolute worst in people. While this is slightly less of a problem at Cambridge – most students live in college or college-owned accommodation – the process of choosing who to live with can often be cut throat. How do you tell someone to their face that you don’t want to live with them? Or even, how do you receive that news? And what do you do after?

Fortunately for me, I was not faced with that dilemma. I survived house hunting, and the first couple of months were idyllic in our little house of four. We held wholesome dinner parties, we watched The Apprentice together, and had organised house meetings. Everything was going perfectly. And then the honeymoon period came to an end. A hob left on, a secret pet (a lizard!), men we didn’t know left in the house while their partner went to work – you could cut the tension with an unwashed, communal knife. To make matters worse, one flatmate constantly complained that the rest of us were boring for wanting to hand in work on time. Our priorities were clearly very different, and that had worked – until it became a point of conflict.

We were at an impasse. We could confront each other, which, if you are all measured and communicative people, is very productive. But 90% of the time, you don’t encounter these people all under the same roof. So the only option that remained was to harbour resentment (everyone’s favourite pastime, of course).

This isn’t to say I was completely exempt from any blame. I’m sure my behaviour also antagonised my housemates in one way or another. It’s also not to say that I didn’t have good experiences with my flatmates. I felt so lucky to have the friends that I did get on with in the room next door to me. There’s nothing quite like the solidarity and emotional support we provided each other. It was just a shame that a lot of this emotional support was necessary because of our living situation. Even my closest friendships in the house were strained, because every waking moment spent there was focused on trying to handle rising tensions, trying to rationalise our anxiety and stress surrounding it, and trying to talk about something, anything, that wasn’t The House.

A hob left on, a secret pet lizard

Now we’re away from it, we talk about how we feel we’ve suddenly decompressed. Our friendship is normal again, and our conversations are no longer filled with puzzling over our housemate frying eggs at 2am and setting the fire alarm off, or how to get rid of the lizard.

Granted, I lived with a nightmarish house, so maybe I’m slightly jaded from the whole experience, but Save the Student’s 2018 ‘National Student Accommodation Survey’ implies that this is a very common problem. It lists ‘noisy housemates’ and ‘housemates stealing food’ as the first and third worst problems in student housing respectively.

The nature of confrontation, and how that clashed with the dynamics of my friendship group, made me question how different a good friend is from a good flatmate. I had some of the best friends I could ask for, and cherished some for the mess that they were, but I didn’t really want to live in their filth. In others, I admired their brutal honesty and organisation, but when the house became a military operation, my appreciation for that quality began to diminish.

If I could repeat the last two years, and decide to do it again, I genuinely don’t think I would. It’s easy to say that the solution to these problems is “everyone be a better flatmate”, and “empathise and communicate”, but that isn’t always realistic. I wonder if it makes more sense to live with people you don’t know. Lots of people use ‘find-a-flatmate’ pages when things don’t go to plan, but I am interested to see if it would work to use these as a first port of call. You could establish a relationship with a group of people solely based off how realistically clean you are, your opinions on guests staying, budgets, and daily routines.


Mountain View

Battling the winter blues

It’s true that this doesn’t guarantee you will be living with the perfect people, but at least if problems arose there wouldn’t be a whole friendship riding on the confrontation. If it didn’t work out, there would be no love lost. I think I would give up the experience of having a best friend in the room next door to avoid the anxiety of it all. I’d happily walk further down the road to see a friend in exchange for a more functional household.

Perhaps this is too pessimistic a view, and you never know unless you try. The grass is always greener on the other side I suppose, but one thing is certain: if you find a friend you can live with, keep them close.