a new york real estate nightmare avoided but still afraid in Sweden

When fear overtakes me, whether in the darkest night or suddenly in a ray of sunshine, when fear enters our safe corner of the Swedish welfare state, it brings images of a white house in Port Jervis, New York.

Our house.  The house where our daughter spent her first year.  The house with the giant red couch and the new porch with the view of the swaying tall trees.  The house with the original woodwork and the attic that could be an art studio and the old barber shop in the cellar.

The house with the bats and the bugs.   The house with one amazing set of neighbors and nothing else for miles.  The house far from all our family and friends.

In my nightmares, we do not sell and do not move to Daddyland.  We get stuck.  And I stop, because I cannot go any further.

Well, now our wonderful Victorian in the cute little river town is back on the market – and has been for more than eight months!

This is your chance to get out of the big city, enjoy the forest, the rivers, the cool breezes (just do not have your first child in town with a doctor you do not like and with no network and only one car and with lead paint on the ceiling of your porch).

I guess it didn’t work out for our buyers … who were good, hardworking people moving up from the Bronx.

I would feel worse for them – talk about bad timing, buying a house in the country two hours from your job just when the housing market blows up and gas prices skyrocket – if they had not ripped out our garden, dug up the Japanese maple we planted when NK was born and put up drywall in every room and then painted everything white.


At least no one has called me, telling me that we still own it, that we have to go back.

Still, however, I won’t be able to sleep tonight … too scared.   (this is our picture, not a current one)


making friends with the ghosts in the walls

Maybe it is the season, but I started thinking of ghosts the other day.

Ghosts haunt our summer cottage. We heard them though never saw them.

We hope they like us.

It is easy to be a ghost in our cottage, built in 1896 in a clearing off a river on the border with Norrland, and with only a handful of owners and occupants. Each seems to have passed on the house more or less intact, meaning furnished. So there are handmade rocking chairs and phone books from the 1950s with my children’s great-grandfather’s name and phone number listed. There are Archie comic books from the 80s (Matt Dillon posters!) and two numbered cast iron wood stoves built into the walls. Plus, we have all the original paperwork, handwritten deeds and tax papers.

It keeps a ghost comfortable, and gives us a real sense of place, even if we only bought the place in June, and now face a winter away from our uninsulated cottage.

We had much the same situation back in Port Jervis, New York, our gritty railroad city on the Delaware River. We bought an older house with an attic full of old hangers and an ironing board from Sears in the 1920s and high school yearbooks from the 1930s, complete with plays written by the kids who grew up in the Victorian house on the city’s grandest street. At our closing, the lawyer for the seller told us he used to get his hair cut in our basement, which explained the extra door, the too-nice wood cabinets, and the dangerous, built-in space heater.

But that family left bad vibes, abandoning the house essentially for life on Long Island, as far as I could tell, renting it for decades with no upkeep. Its context came out of that neglect.. And that haunted us, even without any ghosts – the dead rats in the ceilings, the bat infestation in the attic, the lead paint chipping and peeling and seeping into our daughter’s blood.

Our Swedish cottage in the clearing surrounded by pine and apple and birch trees has a more humble (no water in what was once poor countryside versus big Victorian in a thriving (now decaying) railroad hub) feeling. In our Swedish cottage, we felt all summer the accumulation of quiet years and fires in the stoves and of lives lived simply, even if they were not simple.

I think I like our ghosts already.

still scared we won’t sell our house – even after we sold it

We sold our house in Port Jervis, New York in September, 2007, weeks before the bottom dropped out of the real estate market.

We even made $2,000!

We sold it to the very last person to come look at it, on an unannounced visit with the house dirty and laundry hung everywhere.

The house is now worth maybe $30,000 less than we sold it for.

It was the crappy house on the nicest street in a gritty little river town on the edge of the NYC train line at the gateway to the Catskills and Poconos.  It was an 1891 Victorian with the most beautiful curves in the attic and the remnants of a barber shop in the basement.   Sitting on the front porch in the spring or autumn and watching the wind in the tall trees was glorious.  We bought it thinking we would stay for years and renovate it to glory.  It had bats and rats and lead paint, which, at the end, was seeping into our daughter’s blood.  It was freezing, with no driveway until we massaged a plan through the zoning board two weeks after NK was born.

The house had been a rental for decades.  Then it sat on the market for years.  A single teacher bought it.  She moved to Florida.  The house sat o the market for another year.  Then we bought it.  And sold it almost two years later after “only” six months on the market.

To this day, I get reverse panic attacks about selling that house, filled with terror that we would still be stuck in Port Jervis, not tucked away safely in our tiny corner apartment facing rocks and trees in Sweden.

How did we sell that house?!?!

How did we get so lucky?  How did we find this safety?


lost corners and boxes within boxes

The compact living education continues.  For we thought we had used our miniscule square footage wisely.  You know, the office in Norah’s play room, Norah’s bed in our bedroom, eating in the living room, two dressers crammed into one very small corner, all that.

But we were wrong.  We were wasteful.  We were living as if we were still wandering aimlessly through extra rooms in our Victorian in upstate New York looking for dead bats and exposed wire.

With baby #2 on the way, we are in the beginning of the wonderful yet intimidating “nesting.” This weekend we cleaned, reorganized, redecorated.

And found corners lost to nothing.  We got rid of a large plant, a kitchen table, a couple lamps.  We moved the desk into the kitchen (it actually makes the kitchen larger, don’t ask me how).  We moved all the toys into NK’s room, where I used boxes within boxes to organize balls, puppets, blocks, knick knacks.  We now have a tiny coffee table that can be moved in and out to maximize our new IKEA rug.  We now have a dresser/changing table in the living room.

So I am just hoping that guests don’t go rooting through my sock drawer …

But it all feels good, like we gained half an apartment, that we can actually make it work with two kids in this tiny space, which only looks big on video calls if the camera is in the right angle.