Before I came to Paris, I would not have been able to define chambre de bonne. Now, I’m surprised when people don’t know what I am talking about when I say I live in one. As I pondered this the other day, I realized that if fellow Francophiles haven’t heard the term, it’s probably unlikely that friends and family back home have any idea where I live now, room-wise. Allow me to explain!
Many families who employ au pairs live in apartment building that have tiny apartments on the top floor of the building available for rent. The rooms are normally very tiny (think 10-15 meters squared), with sloped ceilings, a sink, and maybe a shower and toilet, although many of them have shared showers and toilets on the same floor. There is usually a separate entrance in the same building as the more expensive apartments. Sometimes, the entrance is labeled “Service” and usually there is no elevator for this part of the building. Originally, these rooms were rented to maids, but nowadays these rooms host people like me who work as au pairs, as well as other non-au pairs looking to save on rent in a very expensive city.
Some days, I find my room very romantic. I think about how many other people have lived in it since the building was built back in the day. What were their stories? I see a swath of sky through the skylight that sometimes transports me to Montana, it’s so large and unobstructed. I take pleasure in the fact that I climbed seven stories to get inside, which never fails to raise my heartrate and has definitely tightened my derrière. I am helping to occupy every last millimeter of space in this building instead of letting it go to waste. For such a tiny room, there is an awful lot of storage for my precious junk. At the end of the day, I have a roof over my head, a warm bed, and a lock on the door. That last sentence becomes more and more meaningful each day as I exit the metro in this posh neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower and notice the people sleeping in makeshift beds of cardboard boxes.
Other days, the romance is nowhere to be found. Every step up the stairs is torture, especially because the wall of the stairs is the wall of the elevator for the fancier apartments right next to the Service area – why can’t they just rip a hole in the wall and let me take the elevator too?! I notice all the dirt, and the shared bathroom is disgusting. I wonder how long it’s been since my carpet was properly vacuumed since I don’t have space for a vacuum cleaner and can only use a rubber broom for cleaning. The 3 minutes of hot water in my shower aren’t enough to even wet all my hair. The sink that shocks me 10% of the times I put my hand under the water (can someone please explain this?!) is not charming, and neither are the walls made of painted-over tape. I can’t decide which is worse, hitting my head on the window opener that hangs right over my pillow if I don’t prop it up right, or the ominous drop of water falling onto my head from that same window during a rainstorm.
Despite my grievances, I know that it could be worse, and I try to remind myself this fact daily. I grew up in a wonderful house, complete with a hot water heater bigger than a microwave and lots of big, open rooms surrounded by trees. At 18 I went to college and lived in new, cushy dorms and off-campus houses. It was my choice to move to a society with very old buildings, so now it’s time to get comfortable! One of my favorite parts of walking around Paris is looking at all of the old buildings. If I look at them, I should be able to live in them too. My new lifestyle has made me appreciate space, hot water, and high ceilings more than before, and I hope I can eventually move into at least a studio, but really, you can get used to anything.