How I furnished my house for nothing
Bar stools, unused Ikea furniture, Casio keyboards: Australia is a scavenger’s paradise
I was at the beach when I got the call from my friend, S.
“I’ve just spotted two very nice chrome-and-leather bar stools that might work in your new house.”
“Just tell me where.”
“By the bushes at the top of my road.”
By the time I got there, the two bar stools had been reduced to one, standing alone in the shade of a fig tree, as though it were waiting for a bus. Underneath the inches of grime, it was – as S had promised – in perfectly good nick. I rescued it, hosed it down, and it now sits in the nook under my kitchen counter, the perfect spot for a sneaky glass of wine at the end of a day’s scavenging.
You don’t need a big budget to furnish a house in Australia. In fact, you don’t need any budget at all. You just need a friend like S, a car with a very big boot, and a little patience.
S and her husband R and their four lovely children returned to Ireland last weekend, and left us (my family and I are living in Sydney for 10 months) the entire contents of her house, from her children’s Lego to her L-shaped sofa – all in exchange for a derisory sum of money and a bottle of wine. When I was standing by the car, creaking under its eighth load, I asked her how we could ever properly repay her. “Pay it forward,” she said.
Paying it forward
“Paying it forward” is a particularly Australian notion, even though they would probably consider the phrase a horrifying Americanism. The following day, we were driving back from the beach when we spotted another pile of furniture neatly stacked, like the bar stools, by the side of the road.
This time, under the battered director’s chairs and the dusty suitcases – everyone here seems to upgrade their suitcases at least once a season – we found a set of mini drawers for a child’s bedroom. We popped the boot and in they went.
We managed to drive another hundred yards before we spotted the chairs.
By the time we got home, we had acquired four, apparently never-used Ikea Vilmar chairs, a pink Pillow Pet, a wood-framed kitchen whiteboard, a large-size fishing net and – our prize find – a full-size Casio keyboard in perfect working order, on which my seven- year-old is now learning to play My Heart Will Go On (well, there’s no such thing as a completely free lunch).
A caramel-coloured leather sofa got rejected only because it wouldn’t fit and I wasn’t sure about the shade and, yes, I was getting fussy about what I’d take for free. So much for my quest to unburden myself of the tyranny of stuff.
Australia, for better or worse
I’m not going to write 10 months’ worth of columns about how everything is better in Australia. Some things are indisputably better: the beaches, the public transport, the clothes pegs and the banana bread. There is lots more sunshine, but it does get properly cold in winter. I think Australians probably do cheerful better.
But there are some things at which – as far as I can see, one week in – it still can’t compete with Ireland. Chocolate, for one. Proximity to family. Newspapers and radio. Household insulation. The charm of the undersell. And then there’s the undercurrent of everyday sexism here that I don’t think exists in Ireland any more: in the mobile phone shop the other day, for instance, the assistant suggested entirely straight-faced that I should take the contract home and show it to my husband before I signed it.
But Australia definitely does “paying it forward” better. Twice a year, in Sydney, the local councils hold a clean-up night during which householders leave their unwanted furniture and other goods out for their neighbours – or the newly arrived and sofaless – to take away.
The rest of the year, people leave other stuff, like the stools, out on spec. There’s no shame in it – you see families browsing the offerings like they were picking up a few bits in Ikea.
Why don’t we do this in Ireland? Are we worried that someone coming home drunk from the pub might decide someone’s abandoned leather sofa is a good place to fall asleep, or to relocate to the middle of a busy road? We have online freecycling sites, of course, but there’s something appealingly uncomplicated about leaving it on the footpath where, if it doesn’t disappear in a week, you’re supposed to dispose of it yourself.
In keeping with my promise to S, I intend to pay it forward. If you know someone who’s planning to arrive in Sydney next summer and who is likely to find themselves in need of a household full of almost-new and reclaimed furniture – and one slightly shabby Casio keyboard – get in touch.