Sunday, October 16, 2011

Chez Moi

I live in the cité scolaire. For lack of a better English equivalent, it's what we in America might call a campus, although I'm not sure that it's quite the same thing. It's a complex of academic, administrative, and residential buildings associated with one or more schools—in my case, four, which I believe makes it the biggest in the city. It's all concentrated into a fairly small geographic area (lots of concrete), and the whole block is surrounded by a tall fence dotted with both vehicle and pedestrian gates. As a non-student residing on the property, I have possession of a cluster of keys that includes not only the normal ones to my building and my room, but also a single large, magical key that will open any of the outer gates should I need it to. It makes me feel very powerful. (You can laugh, but in a world where I don't know how to do anything and am doing well to understand maybe 60% of what's said to me, I'm going to take what power I can get.)

I'm still trying to learn my way around, as everything kind of looks the some (a maze of boxy grey and white buildings with lots of windows surrounded by various parking lots and walkways and courtyards), but it's been a few days since I really got lost. And it's not like it's an enormous place, anyway.

My room is on the top floor (106 stairs from the ground...) of what seems to be a multipurpose building—I know there are classes held here, and I also know that there are other rooms/apartments elsewhere in the building, although I do not know who lives in them. In my corner of the fifth floor (that's the sixth floor for my fellow Americans), one of my several keys opens the door to a tiled hallway off of which there are four small rooms like tiny studio apartments, with a shower and toilet at the end of the hall that we all share. The latter have been described as “prison-like” by several people other than me, which makes me feel less ungrateful for perpetuating the label. Only my room and the one next to mine are occupied full-time (the other by the Spanish assistant); the other two are, as far as I understand the situation, used by people who work for the school in some capacity but live elsewhere and only stay here on occasion. I have not met them, nor do I know whether it's only two people or there's some kind of sharing going on, nor do I really understand the circumstances of their using the rooms. Perhaps they are teachers or staff members who live outside the city and spend the night here when they are going to be working especially late and/or early and don't want to commute. I don't know.

My room is more than adequate, although I wish there was carpet because the tile floor is very cold. (I'm still debating the merits of trying to bring an area rug back from Ikea on the bus and drag it across the cité and up six flights of stairs. I might just buy some more socks and wear multiple pairs.) I have a reasonably comfortable single bed, for which I was provided sheets and a duvet and pillow set, which I supplemented with a cheap fleece blanket. I also have dresser with two small shelves, a bedside table, a desk and chair, another small table, a wardrobe that's mostly shelves and not nearly enough clothes-hanging space, a squat refrigerator, a toaster oven with two burners on top, and a small sink in the corner. Everything is arranged around the walls so that although the room is crowded, there's plenty of space in the middle to move around. I don't really mind much that it's small; I like space, but I don't need it. I'm going to spend most of the time I'm here at the desk or on my bed anyway. It's a bright room, and it has everything I really need, so I'm content. My biggest complaint is not having nicer bathroom facilities, which is hardly a complaint at all. All in all, it's not so different from living in a dorm except that now I can cook and wash dishes in my room—so really, it's an improvement.

Living in the cité scolaire has its advantages. First and foremost, I don't pay either rent or utilities. I think that's usually the main upside to being offered housing by your school, along with avoiding the stress of having to find a place on your own. Even assistants who have to pay for their school-owned lodging pay only a token amount compared to what renting a room or an apartment in the city at large would cost. And when you make less than 800 euros a month, even if that's a generous salary for the job, not having to shell out half of it in order to have a roof over your head is a very nice thing. Another advantage is that I couldn't really be any closer to work. My commute consists of going down the stairs and taking a two-minute walk across the parking lot into the main school building. There may even be a way to get there without going outside, but I'm only just starting to figure out where my classrooms are and haven't fully explored all the passageways yet. I also have a card that allows me to eat in the cafeteria along with the students who board. The hours aren't terribly convenient, but the meals are decent and very cheap.

Disadvantages include the fact that having classes held in the same building where I live means being subjected to the ringing of bells every hour. It's not the electronic beep we had in my high school either, but the old-school kind of bell that makes a really loud, shrill, vibrating, ringing sound. There's also the constant proximity to students, whom I think most assistants will admit to being afraid of in the beginning—you don't know how to interact with them, and you constantly feel you're being stared at. I work at a school that has a lot of students enrolled in post-high-school diploma programs, many of whom are around my age, so I always imagine that I kind of look like I could be a student but A) don't blend in well enough to get away with it, and B) don't really want to be mistaken for a student anyway. Plus, I always seem to be moving against the crowd when trying to enter or leave my building between classes. It's really awkward.

I also live some distance from the city center, where most of the bars and restaurants and stores are. It's not a great distance—a twenty or thirty minute walk, depending on where you're heading and how fast you go—but it's not necessarily the best place to walk at night in a city with a drinking problem, and the buses stop running early. Even the "night" buses finish around 10:30 during the week and 12:30 on weekends. I'm not as far away as some people are, and since three other assistants live in the cité and another lives in a flat up the street, I can often come and go with at least one other person. And it's certainly not as inconvenient for me as for the assistants whose schools are in the suburbs or in small towns in the outlying area, who have nothing to do nearby and no way of getting into the city or back without the buses. And then, it's me: I'm on my own a lot, I look after myself, and, as with anywhere else I've lived, I refuse to be afraid of my own city. I've already walked home alone several times—once even before the buses stopped running, because I'd miscalculated and would have had to wait longer at the bus stop than it was going to take me to just walk—but I'm not sure that I'd want to do that any later (or any drunker) than I already have. I'm quite proud to say that I've pretty much gone wherever I've wanted at pretty much whatever hour I've pleased since I was sixteen years old—I'm the girl who walks other girls home—but I do try not to go out of my way to be stupid about it.

Then there's the isolation that comes with living at a school anywhere. At night, it gets very quiet here, and on weekends, when most of the students who board during the week go home, the whole complex is eerily deserted. For the first few days I was here, none of the other assistants were yet, and then there were a few days when the English assistants at one of the other schools in the cité had moved in but we didn't know about each other yet—we met trying to find our way into the school where our orientation was to be held two weeks ago and only then realized we had all come from the same cite. I'm a person who likes to be alone, who sometimes even goes out of my way to be alone, but to feel that alone, like you're the only person around for hours or days at a time, is a little oppressive even for me. I'm glad all of the assistants are now here and, so far, getting along. More on that later!

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