Thursday, June 30, 2011

Romantic notions shattered by moisissure

The end of the dorm era has, at last, arrived. I'm nearly 28 years old, so about time, too. The contents of my room did apparently fit in luggage, save for items it wouldn't have made sense to bring, such as one gigantic if now twice pre-owned mini-fridge I was not entrepreneurial enough to try to sell. I watched as one by one, nice-seeming and nice-looking French 50-year-olds arrived in what I can only guess were nice cars to pick up their intellectually Supérieur 20-ish offspring and their stuff. This immediately brought back for me how it would go at the end of the year in college, when kids from the Midwest would just haul everything into the minivan, when the fools from carless NY families who at 17 had had romantic notions about getting to know other regions of the country had to figure out, at 21, how to get years' worth of stuff (and books!) back via an ATA flight. Where was my pickup? Over by the Gare de l'Est, effectively.

Not back home just yet though. I'm now in German university housing - a guest house and not a dorm - and the contrast between the two establishments could not be greater. Every possible cliché about the value placed on cleanliness in the two countries is supported by the way these two buildings are kept up. Here, there's a mix of near-continuous cleaning service and ubiquitous lists of instructions to keep your room and the common areas clean. (The staff, it seems, will clean but not "tidy.")

Meanwhile, back in Paree, an egg that had been dropped/thrown in the staircase still remained, weeks after the fact. That which is smeared on the walls of the communal bathrooms isn't going anywhere. Two of the most basic facts about keeping a bathroom functional - stocking it regularly with toilet paper and having a sink that actually runs water - were beyond the capacity of the powers that be. (Train restrooms and other public toilets began to seem pristine.) For reasons I will never understand, the janitor responsible for the kitchen would put only one of the two possible jumbo garbage bags in before the weekend, during which time the kitchen trash is not taken out, meaning that when he'd return on (optimistically) Monday, the kitchen would be basically a trash heap, however well-meaning the residents. The ideal of students cleaning up after themselves - always, with college students, an ideal at best - was rendered futile by the fact that so many people were sharing each kitchen that the moment one person/group finished up, the next needed and had already begun using the limited burners and counter-space, leaving a layer of grime beyond what a quick scrub on off-hours might fix. The showers were so moldy that, it was agreed, one left dirtier than one entered.

All came full circle when, when I asked about the check-out procedure, I was told, in the tone of someone scolding a child, to "nettoyez bien" my room - the standard instructions, and ostensibly there's a fee if you don't - and of course what was going through my mind was how, when I arrived, the room I'd been assigned contained the previous resident's (s'?) food and drink containers, towel, assorted other garbage, and, oh, used pad.

Also generally agreed upon by internationals: the dorm was disastrous by Western if not all-but-refugee-camp standards. As in, this was not, as might be suspected, a case of a bunch of entitled Americans, accustomed to air conditioning and cable television, large suites, plush beds, and a coffee shop serving iced soy lattes downstairs. The only Americans - the only grad students, period - who'd think to sign up for this kind of exchange (i.e. at ~30, living in a Parisian college dorm) are quite low-maintenance. Which made for a great group of people, actually, but which also meant that when anyone did complain, the complaints were pretty legit.

Overall, the semester was... a mix. I'd swing back and forth between thinking OMG free room in the center of Paris, with all the glamor that implies, all the proximity to primary sources and primo croissants it came through with... and thinking that the living conditions were a bit much to ask, even by grad-student-in-expensive-city standards. There's this notion - again, romantic - about grad students, held by society at large, as well as those who were once grad students themselves (although with this latter group, there's perhaps a touch of, 'if I had to do it...') that they should live in squalor, that any revulsion the grad student expresses about said squalor is a sign that the person's not cut out for a life of the mind. So I realize that the above description of Parisian dorm life will be met with a giant 'meh', and advice from the Dear Prudences of the world that if I wanted Paris and sanitary living conditions, I ought to have chosen a different career path and taken occasional vacations to hotels where, optimistically, filth would not be such an issue.


Miss Self-Important said...

I'm impressed that you did this, but you're unknowingly undermining all my excuses against spending time abroad as a grad student--but I'm married! an adult! I can't just live out of a suitcase in a dingy room somewhere in Europe! What about my dignity? Let's hope your success doesn't get around to my advisor, lest I be pressured to imitate it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Huh. I guess one way to look at it is, if you're going to do this, better before you have kids. But yes, it's odd to be married and live in a dorm. Still - would Europe for you mean a dorm? Having seen a bit of the spectrum of what suitcase-living academic life in Europe can mean, I'd say go for it if it's something like this German guest-house, and if your husband could visit a lot, but not if you're going to be sharing a bathroom with a hundred (or so it seemed) scat-happy 19-year-olds, and if he can't. Of course, I know your university also sends people to the exchange I was on, so if that's the one you're thinking of, I guess you now have a better sense of what that's like day-to-day?

Overall, though, I left with the impression that these grad-student-abroad set-ups ought to happen either early on in grad school (i.e. when fewer of us are married, when regardless of relationship status we're not as concerned about adulthood/dignity), and/or, esp. if the living conditions will be that dingy, for shorter lengths of time. It was a bit different for me, because when you're getting a degree in French, and have never lived for very long in France, and need sources that are only at libraries there, this is something that just kind of has to happen.

Anonymous said...

I'm in my mid-30s, and I still periodically stay in dorm rooms in London (I've also done it at Oxford, once in a Jesuit college, which was. . . strange). I've never stayed for more than a few weeks, though, and always during the summer, which means the place is oriented toward non-native students and scholars. (Downside: this sometimes means your floor will be filled with foreign high school students.) Some dorms permit couples, too, during the summer, and many are actually pretty nice.

These days I'd probably just rent a place if I were going for more than a week, but I wouldn't rule out the dorms. I've got friends in their 40s who still stay in the fancier, better-appointed ones.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What you're describing is what I'd always kind of imagined the exchange I went on would be - small rooms, (very) young neighbors. It certainly rules out the kind of people who need ten suitcases to go away for a weekend, but could potentially be just fine. This, though, is for most people for the whole academic year, and is just so filthy and non-maintained that even the subset of adults who'd be non-complainers in a dorm got kinda angsty. This isn't even getting into the way conditions deteriorated when they decided to gut-renovate (i.e. drilling, welding) the rooms adjacent to occupied ones starting early in the morning, or the tendency of the construction workers to swing open closed shades unannounced when the occupant (ahem) was just trying to get dressed, or the leniency with which kids' setting off the fire alarm many times repeatedly as a prank in the middle of the night is apparently treated, given that this seems to happen a lot. (I was only there for it once.) Long story short, I still have some glimmer of hope that a dorm could work for an adult, and your comment is reassuring, as I'm assuming conditions, if also austere, are more than a bit better than what I've described at other such places. (And yes, this was one of the top schools in France, but presumably not the board of health doing the rating!)

Miss Self-Important said...

Europe for me whatever would always be the cheapest option possible, so hovel perhaps. I can't imagine any good reason I would be coerced into going to Europe except for language practice or British archives, so it would be more short-term.

But I see lots of incoming grad students fresh from their "year or two" of wandering and itinerant work in France or Germany with language fluency under their belts and begin to worry, given my own language un-fluency. Obviously, I can't undo my pre-grad school life decisions (nor would I voluntarily exchange them for a European hovel), but I do wonder about the paths of people who are no longer in a great position to live abroad here and there now and then during grad school and pick up this and that language and rifle through this and that archive for the sake of scholarly rigor. This seems to require being unusually unrooted, although not so unusual among the many single dudes who populate my program.

The language-orientedness of your degree makes your situation different from mine, obviously, since I could just stick to British and American sources, but what am I supposed to do if Rousseau is also really important and my one semester reading works of physiciens atomiques failed to instill even basic French knowledge? Ugh, dread.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think academia generally, perhaps more than work generally, demands "being unusually unrooted," with the need to go abroad periodically being just one example. There's also the better-known issue, namely where one gets a job after graduation. Anyway, there do seem to be different tracks for women who can give or take marriage/kids, and those who cannot. With men, there's of course the fact that unrootedness through one's 20s, 30s, etc. doesn't get in the way of eventual fatherhood, but also the assumption, a holdover from another era, that if a male academic is married, this merely adds to the impression that he's a serious person, and in no way detracts from his ability to drop everything and spend 3 years abroad in the optimal provincial archive. A female academic is more likely to need to prove that her number one priority is not, ala heroines of 19th C novels, making a proper match.