chez moi: a room with a view

I had been in Cannes for a month without a home.

That sounds dramatic.

I had the essential–a place to sleep–for which I was grateful, but the two-week AirBnb stay I’d planned had stretched into a month as I waited to move in to my studio. The host, (one of the nicest people I’ve met in France or otherwise), hooked me up with the place, rented out by an acquaintance. When we found out it wouldn’t be ready until mid-November, he graciously agreed to led me stay until that date.

I was comfortable there, but it felt a bit like sharing a hostel, with various people coming and going, bumping elbows in the kitchen and waiting for the bathroom. For the good of everyone, I was ready to get out of there and give the family some privacy before the next AirBnb guest surely showed up.

Last Friday night, my new landlord came to pick me up. She helped me drag my suitcases, several bags of damp laundry, my teaching supplies, and a box of food out to her car. It seemed like a lot and I wondered how I had ever maneuvered it all by myself. I do find that as soon as I unpack, my stuff has a tendency to multiply exponentially.

I popped back into the house to grab one last load, the fragile stuff: my carton of eggs, a llama-shaped mug, and a bottle of chilled rosé I propped between my feet. It was then that I apologized, sheepish, for the bazar that was my packing job.

She laughed and told me not to worry: she remembered being in my shoes.

But she was concerned: “aren’t you cold?”

I was wearing shorts and sandals. It was fifty degrees and raining. But I’d spent the day cleaning and packing, and anyway, I was nothing but relieved.

It had been weeks since I’d seen my new place, and that was only a glimpse, but it didn’t really matter what it looked like. I was looking forward to the solitude: my first time ever living completely alone. Long showers. My own kitchen. Phone calls late into the night. I wanted to fill the fridge with kale and cover the countertops with fresh fruit and buy a bouquet of flowers every week, especially during the winter.

We dragged my luggage up the stairs and into my new chez moi. Wood furniture, floor-to-ceiling wardrobe, a comfy bed, and a cheerfully-tiled kitchen with all the necessities.

The landlord pointed out a small window in the bathroom. It overlooked the adjoining roof.

“You’ll want to remember to close this,” she said.

“Oh?”

Gravely she warned me that I could come home to cats in my room. Apparently there exists a neighborhood gang of furry friends that lack respect for personal property. img_3425

All technicalities taken care of, the first thing I did was FaceTime my mom for a tour. The second thing I did was organize my closet, finally assigning coats and dresses a permanent space: a luxury.

The next morning, I awoke to soft sunlight streaming through the windows. I opened them and could hear Disneyish birdsong. The sun lit up the cozy whites and browns of the studio but even better was the view, which I hadn’t yet seen. There was the Mediterranean. Just glimpses, but enough to tell. It glittered silver under the sun, framed by the magenta bougainvillea climbing around the shutters.

It felt good to be home.

a room of one’s own

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.