My junior year of college was spent overseas, in Fribourg, Switzerland. I’ve written often about that year, because it was, without a doubt, the most pivotal year in my life. Our living arrangements were varied; many students lived with a family, or an elderly couple, or a widow.
I lived on the elegant Boulevard de Perolles, number 13. An elderly couple, whom I called Monsieur and Madame, leased a room for an American student. But my room wasn’t within their very well-appointed and tasteful apartment; it was en haut. To reach it, I entered the little elevator at ground level, pulled the wrought-iron gate shut, and pressed the number 4. The elevator inched to the fourth floor and stopped. Then I exited the elevator, and climbed another flight of stairs, to reach the upper floor of the apartment building. There was a dimly-lit corridor and a row of doors. One of those doors was mine.
My room was tiny. If I stood in the middle of the room with outstretched arms, I could almost touch both walls with my fingers. I had a narrow bed, a small desk and chair, and a brightly-painted armoire for all of my clothes, shoes, coat, and luggage. I did have a window, and a hot pot for boiling water. And it was exceptionally clean (after all, this was Switzerland). At the end of the corridor was a toilet (a WC, or water closet), and outside the WC was a cold-water sink. I was allowed to use the Monneys’ apartment once a day for a shower.
I had a neighbor en haut, and although I never knew her name (I called her “Madame”), she reminded me of Edith Piaf. A small, frail woman with a small, high-pitched voice, I seldom saw her, except in the rare instance we both were coming out of our rooms. But she always smiled and was very pleasant. She told me that her sister and brother-in-law had the apartment on the fourth floor, so I imagine that she, a widow or spinster, was allowed to live in this tiny room, and would take her meals with them. There was another
woman who lived down the corridor, and I was told her name was Lena. She and I never spoke. Indeed, if I saw her in the corridor, I would say, “Bonjour, Madame,” but she just grunted back at me. My friends and I conjured up all kinds of wild stories about her, but in truth, she was probably a never-married woman with little means, and no family. She kept to herself. Now try to imagine living in such a tiny space, not just for 10 months, but for the rest of your life. How did she keep clean? Occasionally, I’d
see her carrying a large bowl and filling it at the cold-water spigot. Did she heat the water or use it cold? What did she eat? Who did she speak with? A lonely, old, poor woman in a very rich and beautiful country, living en haut, in a closet.