The house in France hid behind a tall gate in a suburb of Lyon: Champagne-au-Mont-d’Or. With a name that promised champagne and gold mountains, I hadn’t known what to expect. Fresh flowers and gilded windows? Really, the house was modest, modern French. It was small and white and square and very clean. Everything in its place, and so on. I had never before lived that way.
Stuff was a comfort, always had been. I’d amassed nests of books, notebooks, sweaters–one in every color. I had never lived simply. Up until then I had had two rooms, a bright aqua childhood bedroom and a dorm room filled with colorful paraphernalia. The constant clutter, piled in boxes and pushed behind doors, meant I had always had choices: what to read, what to wear, what to look at.
Now I had a third bedroom, sparse and scrubbed clean, bright white with a small skylight. I had a yellow lamp, a twin bed, a small bookshelf that held, I noticed, a French translation of 50 Shades of Grey. I had a large suitcase that lay on the floor, stuffed with dresses and skirts I’d bought at the summer soldes, weighted down with a heavy leather-bound copy of Anna Karenina.
The room was not much of a solace. It was always too hot. I never got used to the absence of air conditioning, and would wake early most nights in a tangle of sweaty sheets. For another, I wasn’t to eat in my room. This wasn’t an instruction my host family felt they needed to impart, but something I intuited. At particularly stressful times throughout my stay, I wanted nothing more than to lounge in my small bed with a filched baguette and the jar of Nutella from the pantry. I knew, though, that my crumbs would find me out. I managed just a couple of covert summer apricots, wrapping the stones in old receipts from Carrefour.
The room and I developed a complicated relationship. It was where I fled to scribble madly about the day’s events, to cry when necessary, to stare up through the skylight, paralyzed with pain from the headaches the heat gave me. Where I went, in short, to cope with the occasional frustrations and troubles of being an exchange student.
But it was a last resort. Most days, I rather resented this little room, which on moody days I would compare to Jean Valjean’s cell.
Luckily, a house is more than a room; a family more than a house. The more time I spent with my host family, the less time I needed the escape. I stopped missing the piles of stuff I’d always had at my disposal. A rich freedom: to instead begin collecting moments, new words, photographs.
A camera, a battered notebook, a comfy pair of jeans. The objects I began to truly treasure had something in common now: they took me out, away from a world of introspection and solitude trapped between four walls. Home became portable. For the first time, I understood that.