300 Square Feet
“My God, can you believe these girls live like this?!” The repairmen were toying with my hot water tank and joking together in French, a language they clearly did not realize I spoke fluently, as I sat cross-legged in my ludicrous apartment. What was I doing here? France, being the home of existentialism, had brought on a few of these contemplative moments.
What I was doing there was living out a fate I had eagerly sealed months earlier. I was moving to Paris, and my attempt at house hunting, though it began earnestly, had deteriorated into chaos. Is the Chateau de Versailles for sale? Can you live in the Eiffel Tower? Where did Madeleine live? These were the confessions of my search history. Defeated, I resigned myself from the hunt. I hadn’t realized the traces my frenzy left littered across the Internet until I got an unexpected message from a stranger asking to sign a lease together. In a decision directly and exclusively linked to desperation, I said yes. I had a Parisian apartment, and I was elated.
The fact that the apartment measured 300 square feet seemed like a small detail. Small was right. It turns out that I had a deeply flawed understanding of Imperial units of measurement when I imagined that the living arrangement between myself and three strangers would be anywhere near normal. In Canada, a prison cell must legally measure at least 75 square feet. With 300 between the four of us, we just scraped our way into the slammer.
My cellmates were Clara, Em, and Laura. Clara had Sanskrit tattoos and worshipped Nietzsche, Em dreamed of opening a bed and breakfast on a llama farm in Oregon, and Laura was on her way to becoming a top international lawyer. We shared nothing and suddenly everything. We were given two keys, and told that it was either “illegal” or “300 euros” (lost in translation) to make copies.
I fancied myself an adult, and yet I was paying exorbitantly to share a pullout sofa: regular behavior was not destined to ensue. We fought constantly. “We often disagreed and our conversations weren’t always peaceful,” recalls Clara; “it happened a lot,” adds Laura. Yelling matches about life, politics, and justice, resonated through our 300 sq feet. We got noise complaints, and we got more noise complaints. Once, I asked Laura (Christian) whether I (Not) would be going to Hell. I think it was the only time our apartment was quiet. It seemed as though, having lost our space and our privacy, we also lost our shame.
Our apartment was a disaster and we broke everything. Against my better judgment, we largely ignored the fact that we were causing regular power outages. When a certain fuse associated with our hot water tank blew, it was time to call Romain. This was a last resort, since the mere mention of summoning our French landlord seemed to amplify the pandemonium of our communal living. The apartment had become something of a social experiment about life without privacy. Everything about the space was occupied, and stained.
The lease ended, and I was eager to head home to Toronto and stretch. At my parents’ house for Christmas, I wondered about our extra bedrooms and square feet. In our small apartment, walls were transparent and so were ours. That little place won’t be easily shaken; I think it tainted us as much as we did it. I got an email from poor Romain after we moved out: “Dear Darby,” it read, “the apartment was really really dirty…. I have never seen my flat like that….”. I’m sorry, Romain, but you don’t know the half of it.