The art of balance: an interview with our Product Manager
The Good Life – we all want it. And then there are some who actually make it happen. Verena, Swoon’s Product Manager and her partner, Dimitrij, are two such people.
We visit them in their North London home on a bright autumnal Monday. Trotting down a leafy street in the sun, I have high expectations of our morning together. It doesn’t disappoint.
Entering their flat up a narrow wooden staircase, I’m immediately struck by the homeliness of the place – there’s a little congregation of shoes at the top, and the smell of coffee beans wafts through the air. Here’s a couple who live a good life – something confirmed as soon as I walk into their spacious, airy living room dotted with solid wood furniture, art, ornaments and books. We settle around the coffee table and start to chat.
Verena, Dimitrij! You seem very happy and settled together. When did you meet?
D: It was 16 years ago on 29th September! We were 20ish.
V: We met in Austria in a club – in the old days, when you used to have to talk to people!
And you’ve been together ever since! When did you make the move to London?
D: In 2006. I wanted to go somewhere different, see something different. I thought New York, but Vee was still at university and fees there are high. We thought about Berlin but weren’t sure. So London was the perfect halfway point – and we’ve not regretted it!
V: I came to London on holiday when I was 12 and I was fascinated – I grew up in a tiny village in the Austrian mountains so London was very different. I immediately thought “okay, this is where I want to live one day!”.
There’s something to be said for following your dreams. Fast forward another 12 years, and Verena was moving to London with Dimitrij. A few years later, they found their happy place – this unique flat.
And when you saw this place, had you been looking for a while?
V: Dimitrij came on his own to view this flat!
D: We’d been looking for six months, with no success. The asking price was very low. I thought there must be something wrong with it, but I put an offer in 30 minutes after leaving and decided to find out what the problem was afterwards!
A risky strategy, but one that’s certainly paid off!
What was your first impression of it?
D: It was bright and airy, large, spacious. We’d seen one-bedroom places much more expensive than this. There were things we’d need to do – windows, carpets – but that would be a project for us. I could see it really coming together. Four other offers had already been made for it!
V: I hadn’t seen the flat, so he was worried! He showed me the pictures and I thought “If you’re sure about it…!”
D: I came in on a day like this, sunny and bright, it was near the tube – I couldn’t not put an offer in!
It’s beautiful – I can see why you love living here. What is your ultimate obsession?
V: Training! I’m obsessed with handstands – generally being upside down! I used to do circus training – aerial straps and hoops. I’d love to work in training, perhaps for a mental health charity. Training keeps me sane. I need to move all the time – even on holiday!
Were you very active growing up?
V: I was actually a lazy teenager. I did some horse-riding when I was young – but I’m now wondering why I never tried gymnastics on the horse! That can be my new passion!
Haha! We’d love to see that! What were your childhoods like?
D: Different! I grew up in Moscow and moved to Vienna when I was nine years old. I was always in a big city, but Vee was in a tiny place in the hills.
V: You always tell me about the food of your childhood!
D: Yes! I love food. I was a very chubby child! I exercise a lot now to stay slim. I try to balance the time I do it though, so I cycle or run to work. I used to swim semi-professionally – they sent me to become less chubby!
V: I used to play with my brother outside. Once, they dug up the area behind our house and uncovered bones and pots. We went there to play archaeologists and explorers, collecting the bones – it was one of the best things. I wanted to be an archeologist, which morphed into anthropologist, which then became studying Biology at university.
That sounds like a special and wholesome childhood. What was your first home like?
V: Quirky. The living room was upstairs with the bedrooms and the bathroom downstairs with the kitchen. It was built into a hill and we had a wine cellar that you could walk into. I shared a room with my brother until we were about 10, which was nice. It’s more fun. We had bunk-beds and we used to jump off them onto the sofa, to our mum’s annoyance.
I moved out when I was 18 to live with my best friend in Vienna. I grew up with her – she’s like my sister! We packed a van, drove to Vienna and went out partying! I loved decorating my room – I was a bit of a goth, so everything was black and red with candle-holders everywhere. I had stuff everywhere.
Would you fill your current home with lots of things if you could?
V: Yes, I would! One thing I’d love is to put hanging plants all across those railings (she points to the mezzanine) and have them trailing down across.
D: Well I wouldn’t mind, if you watered them!
We laugh – we’ve all had amnesia when it comes to watering our plants.
What items in your home have the most sentimental value to you?
D: Well, the drinks cabinet – I like a good drinks cabinet. It gives character to the place.
V: This is mine.
Verena pulls out a small, worn and very loved hand puppet, resembling a little bear. It was an emotional moment – this bear belonged to her late brother. We talk for a little while about family, and the couple address the old photos on the wall behind me.
D: We wanted to fill this wall with something special, and we have lots of old photos of our family.
V: There’s Dimitrij’s mum, my mother and brother, his grandfather as a child – this photo is about 70 or 80 years old. But we didn’t want to put Ivan up here.
Verena is talking about a large print of ‘Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan’ by Ilya Repin, a picture they have hanging in an ornate frame in Dimitrij’s mezzanine study area – a nod to his Russian heritage. It’s a haunting piece of art:
V: Some say the painting makes people go mad. There were some museum visitors who looked at it for too long and started to cut and rip it apart. The haunting look on Ivan the Terrible’s eyes as he realises what he’s done… it’s chilling.
It is quite! It’s striking, though. Where do you spend the most time at home?
D: In the living room, chatting or reading. It’s warm, spacious, great for socialising with food.
I ask Dimitrij what his ultimate obsession is, though I think I already know the answer. “Food!”, he says, without hesitation. “Both eating and cooking. Because I like eating, I learnt cooking. I used to arrive home from school early and I was always hungry, and my parents were at work, so I taught myself how to cook.”
Food is clearly a huge part of his life, from a boy with a big appetite to a master chef. I want to hear more about the couple’s repertoire in the kitchen.
Do you cook together?
D: We’re a little competitive when it comes to cooking. We enjoy making different things, and Vee swears she makes a better Shepherd’s Pie than I do!
V: I love to cook goulash! It’s what I cook best, I think.
D: I think I prefer to cook a roast – it’s what works best for a group. Everyone gets a bit of each thing.
V: I really love to bake. I buy bananas and let them go off a bit so I have an excuse to make banana bread! And cheesecake – it’s great to make. People say “oh, it’s so light!” and I laugh because it has about a thousand calories – cream cheese, mascarpone, double cream, chocolate ganache…
All this talk of tasty treats is making me hungry. It’s lucky, then, that the pair bought some delicious pastries to welcome us to their home. If there’s one thing they know, it’s how to put on a good spread – another nod to their food obsession. I reach for a huge almond croissant and we continue to chat:
V: I used to bake quite a lot for Swoon things. I think I’ll make something for the Halloween party.
Are you a big Halloween fan? Is that because of your goth days?, I joke.
V: Haha, no! I just really love to dress up – that’s why I like it! I’ve been one of The Shining twins, I wore a blonde wig and silver jumpsuit for the last Swoon Christmas party and the last costume party Dimitrij and I went to together had a Hawaiian theme – that was fun.
D: Yes – you always force me to dress up as something!
V: Well if you don’t want to dress up, it’s your loss!
We laugh. A lot. It’s a recurring reaction in this house. They’re hilarious when making fun of each other – it’s a playful relationship and I can see why 16 years seem to have flown by. They’re clearly very happy.
Verena points to something special she’d like to show me – an impressive stack of Austrian lifestyle magazines.
V: Every time I go home, I buy one! They’re very cheesy – about cooking, making things for the home, gardening, and even brewing – that’s something for you, Dimitrij! (One of Dimitrij’s hobbies is making his own craft beer – he has a set in an alcove behind the spare room). I have 21 on this bookshelf, but more in a box somewhere!
Vee smiles at the thought of home and we head back to the sofa. She takes a seat on a huge, button-tufted, wing-back yellow armchair.
That chair is huge, and it looks so cosy!
V: I never sit in it, but it’s so comfy! My mum was harassing me – buy a chair, buy a chair! So I did.
Does your mum ever visit you here?
V: Yes! Sometimes we buy her flights as her birthday present. This year, we took her for afternoon tea at the Ritz – she loved it. We were so late – we were waiting for her at the station, and she was waiting for us at the Ritz!
Oh no! Crossed wires – we’ve all been there. What do you do on a typical Saturday?
V: I go training! I train with a group in the park in Islington.
D: First, we have breakfast and a coffee. That coffee machine is the best part of our home.
V: The heart of the home!
D: The resurrector!
They’re a comedy duo.
V: Then after training, we’ll go for lunch and then usually also go for dinner in the evening. Food is an important part of our weekend. There’s a pub in Highgate Village, where the menu changes monthly. They also have good beer, so sometimes we stay until closing at 2am! Once they put the shutters down but kept everyone in for a big lock-in!
D: We’ve had a great time there.
V: Most of our spare time does revolve around food (they look at each other and laugh).
D: We always go on holiday to places where the food is good!
Oh yes – haven’t you just come back from Sardinia?
V: Yes! There you get a lot of interesting meats – horse, donkey and goat. There’s this one restaurant in Cagliari where for 25 euros you get a whole lobster, bottomless wine, coffee, everything.
Wow – that sounds too good to be true! Good eating experiences are clearly important to you…
V: Yes! We’d never go on holiday anywhere with bad food. Food is also a big part of social life in Austria and Russia. There, when you meet up with friends, you almost always eat. You eat together and then drink, too.
D: The Russians would never drink without eating. It’s all about having little nibbles with all your vodka! It’s to keep you going if you’re doing vodka shots all night. There’s always something to eat. Nobody just drinks.
V: Even as teenagers, we booked a restaurant for birthday celebrations. Then after eating, we drink…
Through the course of our chat, I’ve been amazed at how vital a role food plays in their lives – cooking, eating and socialising. And, at the same time, they’re very fit and exercise almost daily. Training – mastering handstand equilibrium in particular – is Verena’s obsession, while Dimitrij is taken by food.
I wonder, then, if this is a couple who has found the art of balance – the key to a good life. Food meets exercise, books meet art, old meets new and a harmonious balance in their relationship is evident.
Verena and Dimitrij have it all figured out – and I want to pick their brains. What spurred them on along their way?
The best piece of advice you’ve been given?
V: It’s not something someone told me directly, but the Marie Curie quote really resounds with me – ”Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood”.
D: My grandma always said “No matter what, always remain human”.
V: My grandma was also an inspiration. She never judged anyone. She was the most tolerant person I’ve met.
That is wonderful advice for everyone. And after 16 years together, you must’ve learnt a lot from each other. What’s your advice for a happy relationship?
D: Never give in! Always argue your case for as long as possible. Break her down!
V: Hahaha. Hilarious. I’d say don’t take each other too seriously. Argue – it’s healthy!
Their sense of togetherness, harmony and comedy is palpable. This flat is home to a couple who doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Instead, they believe in enjoying what life has to offer – balancing all their obsessions in perfect measure.
Spending the morning with Verena and Dimitrij, seeing them in their own environment, has been a truly life-affirming experience. There is a positive energy to this home. It’s contagious.
Get to know our other magnificent humans and their homes here.