A group of Valenciennes-based teaching assistants had organized a group excursion to IKEA on Saturday afternoon. They ranged in age from twenty to thirty-three (me) and were predominantly from Europe—UK, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Austria, Italy—but there were a few Americans, Canadians and an Aussie. I had met most of them already at our training sessions in Lille, but not the sexy, young, obviously gay Ryan Gosling lookalike in a green hoodie sitting across from me on the train to IKEA. We hit it off, and within five minutes of being in the store, we were sharing a cart and planning his exodus from the house of the evil prof he was staying with. Clearly, he would stay at my place and sleep on my couch until he found a place. Luckily, he was a little guy, so he’d easily fit in my tiny apartment and could sleep comfortably on my mini sofa.
There was no standard protocol for how each school handled their teaching assistant’s lodging situation. Some stayed with students or the heads of the Anglais departments at their assigned school until they found a place, some were left completely to fend for themselves, others were given free housing on school grounds or in a nearby building. (Yes, rent-free! We all pretty much hated those assistants.)
Jeff told me horror stories about staying with Sophie, the head of the English department at his school which was located about a half hour train ride from Valenciennes in the more industrial town of Maubeuge. Instead of taking the 23-year-old under her wing, she basically expected him to sort out his shit and get out of her house as soon as possible. She was a less-than-gracious host—making gourmet meals for herself and her husband while serving Jeff leftovers at the same table, complaining about him on the phone within earshot by saying that she didn’t know she’d be stuck with some ungrateful American as part of her responsibilities as head of the English department. I wondered why she even let Jeff stay with her in the first place when she could’ve easily had him stay with the family of one of her students, but maybe the thought of having to do that much extra work had been overwhelming at the time, so she thought it would be easier for him to stay with her than having to organize a place for him. Or maybe, in fairness, she just got fed up with him surfing her internet to find other gay men in the region.
The evening after our IKEA afternoon, Sophie dropped off Jeff at my house and literally threw his last suitcase into the street, slammed shut the trunk and sped away. We laughed and lugged his suitcases up the narrow stairs to my place. And so began our companionship. Jeff’s French was superior to mine, but he wasn’t as brave as I was, so we complemented each other—I would talk to strangers in jumbled French; they would get confused; Jeff would swoop in to clear up the miscommunication. And then we’d try to figure out if the guy was gay or straight. Usually gay because we were usually at Paradis de la Bieres--the gay-friendly beer paradise (!!) near the train station.
A few days after he left his prof’s house, Jeff found a flat overlooking the train station and Paradis, so I had my apartment to myself. This was the first time I had ever lived alone. Without family. Without roommates. Without a husband. Without a boyfriend. My place.
I hung the aubergine light-blocking curtains I had purchased at IKEA. I decorated the strange gauze-over-chicken-wire walls with maps of the city, the region, the country, the continent—all the places I could reach by train. I found a wonky red ladder-back chair and a small side table outside a nearby apartment building on bulk trash day and added them to my décor. Postcards and photos from family and friends made a worthy collage above my marble fireplace mantel. I tore paper strips of red, yellow, orange, and blue from advertising flyers and brochures to make faux paper flames to go in my faux fireplace. I grocery shopped, on foot, for me only and made food that I wanted to eat, mostly salads consisting of mâche (lamb’s lettuce), beets, almonds, raisins or prunes, goat cheese on toast points, tomatoes, black pepper. I watched French TV like it was homework but took breaks to watch the occasional episode of Ally McBeal (from a DVD that came in a four-pack of toilet paper I had bought at the supermarché). I smoked cigarettes out my window and drank wine from teacups or Coca Light from spaghetti sauce jars. I listened to The Killers, Patty Griffin, Wilco, Andrew Bird, Fiona Apple, and Gillian Welch. I took baths every evening. At night, I turned up the heat as high as I wanted. I slept with my books and my computer in bed with me, so I could go to bed reading and wake up writing. I was in love with France.