Smoke without fire

Annual relocation is a recurrent theme of student life. Mine, for 4 years, was characterised by christening the fire alarm.

There was first year, when my sausages caused a couple of hundred students to evacuate. I was almost proud of that one.

First, it was midday, which rather broke the almost-nightly tradition of intoxicated students falling asleep whilst heating post-nightclub fish fingers.

Secondly, I was watching over my food as it cooked. Not something I did often, and again, not something many other perpetrators could claim.

Finally, and most importantly, my sausages were not even remotely burnt. Our oven was simply prone to issuing black smoke at every given opportunity. Something I later explained, unrepentant, to two disapproving members of the uni’s fire response squad. Between mouthfuls of my perfectly browned brunch.

I agreed with their wry suggestion that our disinclination to scrape off the charred remains of a million student meals might be inhibiting our ability to cook in peace.

It was. And would. For months to come.

During second year, I spent a memorable day at a Christian conference in Manchester, seated amongst a thousand strangers, the lingering scent of carbonised toast emanating from my clothes, my hair, my every pore. That time, the smoke alarm had been justified.

And then final year. Our ill-placed staircase acted as a chimney, funnelling steam from cooker to second-storey alarm with efficiency to rival… well, anything highly efficient really. Its piercing shriek dominated that year: a soundtrack to our lives.

Whenever a neighbours’ alarm sounded instead, it was guaranteed to produce smug satisfaction on my part. After which it would only be a matter of hours before, once again, boiling broccoli would result in incessant wailing (the alarm, not me) and penance would be paid.

But, in between exuding molecules of burnt toast and juggling the necessity of bacon with my steadily-corroding eardrums, was my third year abroad.

Ali (younger, far-more-competent sibling) and I had touched down in Nicosia, Cyprus. She for a couple of weeks holiday, under the guise of assisting transportation of all things packed ‘just in case’; I to spend a year living in the sun, under the guise of studying on Erasmus.

And this year, I was in luck.

For my apartment, hastily found, hastily agreed on with people I’d just met, hastily signed for in a contract written entirely in a language I knew precisely 2 words of… didn’t have a smoke alarm.

Prioritised instead was an ancient aquarium, mounted to the wall of the oversized living room. It may once have contained living creatures; now it housed little beyond extensive algae and a suspected fish carcass. Fortunately, the glass was too murky to confirm this. Unfortunately, it was also too murky to categorically deny it. Either way, it made for the ideal instrument over which to sling bedding whilst it dried.

The rest of the flat was equally incongruous. At least at first glance.

Two bathrooms between three initially appeared excessive. However, the reality -that toilet paper couldn’t be flushed – meant that we deeply appreciated the resulting dilution of bin-occupied goods.

Then there was the abandoned, antiquated exercise bike, which I  took onto the deserted rooftop terrace for lessons in heat exhaustion and sweat control. Occasionally. Working out in 30 degree direct sunlight rarely seemed a good idea.

But the apartment’s highlight was the bedroom to be occupied by Benni. The bearded, 26 year old, German MA student slept beneath a full-wall mural dedicated to Disney’s finest characters. It was to become famous amongst the Erasmus, and the grand finale of every interior tour we gave.

The Disney Room
The Disney Room

Oh, and of course, the irony wasn’t lost on me. That a law student, entering her third year of uni, was nominated sole tenant signatory to a year-long contract for a 3-person flat, in a language unbeknown to her.

But the dubious translation, presented afterwards, eliminated any inhibition I’d held.

Rent, it stated, amounted to €600. Between us. For the entire year.

Clearly that version, rather than the Greek, reflected the lack of smoke alarm.