Three Weeks in Limbo

The outskirts of Chambéry


I am in France! For the last three weeks I’ve been occupied with getting acclimated to my new city and preparing for my work as an English teaching assistant. I had forgotten how much I love this country and language. I had forgotten that everyone looks beautiful, I had forgotten that everyone smokes, and I had forgotten that every single toilet is different.

Unfortunately, I had also forgotten about the bureaucracy. France has a cultivated and rich tradition of administrative entanglement. The paperwork is simultaneously nightmarish and impressive. Over the past few weeks I’ve had to accomplish a series of tasks: find a temporary place to stay, get a cell phone, find a permanent place to stay, open a bank account, register with my school, get a bus pass, and finalize my working visa with the French government (to name a few). To complete these tasks I’ve had to furnish a multitude of proofs, circumnavigate catch-22s, schedule and reschedule meetings, message and call, message again and call again, seek the help of others, exaggerate my helplessness, and smile.  



Finding housing has proven to be the greatest challenge. Teaching assistants are required to organize their own housing, and there are many different options. There was a possibility that I could live at my school (they have housing for students as well), but I didn’t receive a response from the school before I departed—so I arrived in Chambéry relatively unprepared. The first night I stayed in the cheapest hotel that I could find (still expensive), just to give me a little bit of flexibility. The next day a girl named Perrine accepted my Couchsurfing request, so I hauled all of my luggage over to her place—I’ll describe my experience there later on. I only planned to stay for the weekend, but once I told Perrine and her roommates about my situation they welcomed me to stay until I found a permanent place.


My hosts' chicken


Once I set up camp in their living room, I started wholeheartedly searching for an apartment. I continued searching for two weeks. As it turns out, there is a shortage of real estate in Chambéry. Even the most undesirable of accommodations will fetch at least three hundred euros a month. Something approximating nice will cost around five hundred. I wanted to share an apartment or house with French people. It’s cheaper, I could practice my French, and I could make some easy friends. For two weeks I scoured close to a dozen different sources: websites, agencies, university postings, and friends of friends. After incessant calls and messages, I received dismally few responses. Again and again, promising opportunities fell through. I became discouraged.

Taking a photo while biking


This period of instability would have been even more distressing if it weren’t for my hosts. Perrine lives in a colocation with four other young people: Amel, Antonin, Jean, and Léo (colocation doesn’t have a great English translation, so I’ve chosen to use the French word—or its abbreviation—throughout: it is a name for a living situation with multiple roommates, flat mates, or housemates. It commonly connotes conviviality and community). In one of the most vulnerable periods in my life, I have experienced profound hospitality. From the moment I arrived they not only put a roof over my head, but they invited me in on their meals, conversations, and plans. Antonin and Léo took me hiking (although we got rained out). Amel introduced me to all of her friends and brought me to her English class. Jean included me in all of his game nights and movie nights. Perrine took me climbing. In particular, Amel was immensely helpful in assisting me with my paperwork and housing search, and she was a constant source of encouragement. I also just returned from a three-day backpacking trip with Antonin and Léo through the Chartreuse mountain range—although I’ll save that for another post.



The coloc quickly became more than just the place where I slept—it is now where my closest friends in Chambéry live. Although installing myself in this city has been a slow process in other regards, I am tremendously fortunate to have established the roots of friendship so rapidly. I have no doubt that they will remain close for the duration of my stay in Chambéry—and long after.



Eventually my housing search started to yield results. I secured a visit to an apartment about ten minutes from the center of the city. It is a coloc with two other guys: one Asian student and a French man who I suspect is around thirty or thirty-five. I met them both, along with the landlord, during my visit. I saw the room being offered and the amenities of the apartment. My impression: it seemed to have neither spectacular advantages nor significant drawbacks. It was attractive because it existed and because it was available—which is more than I could say about any other option I had pursued. I told the landlord that I was interested and that I would decide within the next couple of days. In the meantime, I was still waiting for responses and seeking other leads.

Several days later, there were no new options. After three weeks in limbo, with my job about to start, I decided that it was time to make a decision and get settled. Exactly one week ago I accepted the offer, signed the papers, and moved in. The relief that comes from transitioning out of virtual homelessness in a foreign country is difficult to qualify; for the first time in the better part of a month, I was able to unpack my suitcases. I could organize my belongings. I had privacy. I felt secure.



Over the past week I’ve made this apartment my home. It is quite nice! So are my new flat mates, Xiao and Cédric. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the coloc had Wi-Fi: I was told it didn’t. There haven’t been any nasty surprises yet, and the bathroom is pretty normal (you never know in France). As I explore the neighborhood, I’m also realizing how practical the location is. The bus stop is right in front of my door, there are multiple grocery stores nearby, my favorite restaurant is only a couple minutes away, and the old coloc is right up the hill.


A party at the coloc


I am getting established with my job. A couple of weeks ago, all of the foreign language assistants in the area of Grenoble (about two-hundred and forty) congregated for two days of training. We met our colleagues, we were guided through the impending administrative obligations, and we attended workshops on pedagogical strategies for assistants.


So-called training


Last week I started at Lycée Louis Armand as the English teaching assistant for the entire school (there is also one Spanish assistant and one Italian assistant). The English faculty has been welcoming, and the students have been surprisingly agreeable. Although French classrooms are known for being a bit more rowdy, my students have been engaged and interested—for now, at least, I’m novel. I am enjoying my work, and I feel confident in my ability to do it well.

After three weeks of uncertainty, I am finding equilibrium. I have a home, I have friends, and I am fulfilling the purpose for which I am here. It is no longer the beginning.