Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike's Notes - Flatmates

A colleague recently commented that our additional salary differential partially is to compensate us for the loss of privacy during our Baghdad assignments.  He and I are probably both in our fifties, and he noted that we had gone a long time since we last had to share our living space with a stranger.  When I heard that Embassy employees would be required to double up in what had been designed as one-bedroom apartments, I wondered how that would work.  I imagined being consigned to the living room and having to put up with my roommate arriving and departing from his bedroom.  As it turned out, the one-bedroom apartments have been converted to two-bedroom ones by walling off the living room area.  We are left with a fairly small foyer area that holds a square table that basically can accommodate two people, a coat closet, the kitchen, and bathroom in common.  In describing the people who share the same apartment, I prefer the British "flatmates" rather than "roommates" which I think is misleading since we don't actually share a room.


The living arrangements are actually not so strange or inconvenient normally.  Before my arrival, I was amused to receive a questionnaire that asked the kind of questions that my children had to fill out when applying for their college dorm rooms.  Did I prefer a colder setting for the air conditioning?  Was I neat?  A morning person?  Did I cook with strong spices?  How did I rank the importance of each of these factors?  In fact, the General Services Office (GSO) appears to do a fairly good job of matching people up, seeming to put people together of the same rank and employment category.  There are stories of roommate conflicts, however, including one widely circulated story of two women who had a physical altercation and were quickly returned to the U.S., but these are rare.  (The fight evidently started when one woman drank from the other's bottle of water.)


In fact, a few flatmates are close friends and socialize with each other, but most flatmates coexist with very little interaction.  In the first category often seems to be people who like to cook, and so they include their flatmate along with others for dinner parties.  But more common is the story of an acquaintance, who said he was on a different schedule from his new flatmate.  After not seeing or meeting him for the first two weeks after the flatmate arrived, my acquaintance stopped by his flatmate's office to introduce himself.  My roommate also rises earlier than I do, so, while we are on cordial terms, we actually speak to each other very rarely.  When I return to the apartment, his bedroom door is closed and I don't know if he is in.  I enter my own bedroom and I might hear the door open and close as he arrives later.  He's often out in the evenings or weekends (since he seems to do a lot of running), and, while I'm more often in, I'm in the bedroom with the door closed.


Just like with college roommates, the areas of interaction, and possible friction, have to do with use and care of the common areas.  Although my roommate and I both seem basically to shower in the mornings, since he rises earlier than I do, we don't seem to have a problem sharing the bathroom.  In ten months, I have had only about three occasions when I wanted to use the bathroom and wasn't able to because my flatmate was.  We're both fairly neat people, so we informally take turns cleaning the bathroom and occasionally will run a vacuum cleaner over the carpeting in the foyer.  My flatmate doesn't use the kitchen at all, so I can store whatever incidental items that I want without any worries, and wash the dishes that I use, perhaps not immediately but enough to usually keep the kitchen fairly orderly.  He also hasn't brought much with him, so he told me that I could store excess belongings in the common area closets.  Other than that, however, our common areas are unfortunately quite bare.  I was in someone else's apartment, one that had a table cloth on the table and kitchen magnets on the refrigerator.  The decorative touches seemed to make the apartment more of a home.


My flatmate and I do seem to have a different attitude toward security.  He surprised me with an e-mail one day noting that I had left the apartment door unlocked.  He also mentioned that he had returned to the apartment several times to find the door had been left ajar.  He said that was the reason why he had started to leave his bedroom door always locked, and asked me to be sure to keep the apartment door locked and to shut it behind me.  I replied that I had not been aware of the problem, and that he should have advised me when it first became an issue for him.  So there we are.  He's probably in his forties and I'm in my fifties, but we have to deal with such issues, like college roommates after all.


While the loss of privacy is probably minimal, it is there.  When I returned from my last break, my flatmate was away on his.  I found I luxuriated in the knowledge of being purely in my own space, at "home."  I didn't have to wonder whether he might hear the TV or my music if I played it late at night.  On his return, I was disappointed when he told me that he had extended an extra month, so that he would be departing Iraq on the same day rather than a month before me.  I know he feels the same way.  I was just boiling water for green tea in the kitchen when he returned, after 10:00 at night.  He grimaced slightly when he saw me, and then gruffly greeted me.  I said hello, and he swiftly retreated to his room.