What does it mean, to live in a room?
Renee Griffin | Thursday, September 8, 2016
The month is January, the city is London and the building is Notre Dame’s Conway Hall. Flat 301 houses 10 girls, split between two quads and a double, with beds thrown into high lofts to make space for the few possessions that fit into the overfilled suitcases brought across the Atlantic.
Fast forward to May, and it’s back to a house on a quiet street in Lake Zurich, Illinois, with plenty of room for a family of five, a dog and the stuff that’s accumulated over 20 years of living there.
Then three weeks later it’s a small room in a plain house in a lower-middle class neighborhood in south central Los Angeles, just past the outskirts of USC’s campus, where the houses squeezed onto the lots on either side blast music with Spanish lyrics at all hours.
After two and a half months there, the summer is almost over and it’s an apartment in South Bend, Indiana, a few steps away from the edge of Notre Dame’s campus, becoming more and more comfortable as décor is put up on the walls and friends fill the space that seems so much larger than the dorm rooms of Farley Hall.
These places really don’t have much in common, except that I’ve lived in each of them in 2016. I was spurred to consider them when reading a piece by Georges Perec assigned in my creative nonfiction class; in it, he asks the following:
“What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? What does taking possession of a place mean? And from when does somewhere become truly yours?”
These questions are hard to answer, especially for college students. In dorm life, your room is not even yours alone; there’s a roommate or two or three, who can sometimes make the space feel more like home, and sometimes less so.
Similarly, the flat I lived in in London has been occupied by scores of Notre Dame students over the years, so while it was “mine” for a single semester, I don’t think I ever “took possession of it,” as Perec says. I was always glad to return to that flat after an exhausting weekend in Spain or Malta or Switzerland, but my presence there was inevitably temporary.
My little room in Los Angeles felt even less like my own. I was subletting from a USC student and didn’t bring a single piece of my own furniture, since I was only there for 10 weeks. I ordered a cheap mattress off Amazon and did not grow fond of it. Plus, Los Angeles is so unlike any other city that I’ve spent time in, with its lack of public transportation and sprawling size, that I never got used to it.
Already, though, I feel more “in possession” of my room in my simple Irish Flats apartment than I did in Los Angeles, and maybe even in London. That could be because it’s the first time I’ll live in the same room for more than a semester since sophomore year, when I lived in a quad in Farley.
Or it could be because the answer to Perec’s question is that we don’t live in rooms at all. We sleep in them, we decorate them, we hang out in them, but the real living is done elsewhere — perhaps in the city the room is located in, or, in this case, the one-of-a-kind campus the room is right next to.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.