It is 1994, and after my first year in the MA program in French at one of Florida’s public universities, my English is good enough for me to attend classes in the English department. I had been eyeing classes in this department with envy because many of them include books and authors we never study in the French program, many of them French philosophers. It is the time of “French theory,” which, it turns out, in the States is being taught primarily in English departments, not in French or philosophy departments, as one would expect.
After three years of life in the US, I can’t shake off myself the smell of poverty. If there is something that defines poverty, it’s smell. In fact, I smell worse than ever—I stink. I live in a graduate student apartment complex twenty minutes away from campus, and my apartment has a stench that, for the life of me, I can’t identify. It is, clearly, a residual smell from the previous occupant, and it clings onto all my clothes, my hair, my skin. When I open the apartment door it hits me like an animal waiting for me—no, not a loving pet, but some wild monster lurking in a corner. (A year and half later, while living in a student dorm, this time in France, I would open a drawer with notebooks from Florida, and the odor would jump at me from the sheets of paper, grabbing me by the throat.) I wish I could move out, but there is a waiting list for student apartments, and I can’t afford to rent a place that is not part of the university.
I have no transportation, and so I walk under the burning Florida sun, with my skin constantly clammy from the humidity. I walk and I walk, with a few homeless people and the odd foreign, “ethnic” graduate student as my only companions. With rare exceptions, my classmates come to class in brightly colored, fancy cars, brands I am not familiar with because I don’t know anything about cars and can only distinguish them by color.
I feel like an alien among my fellow graduate students. In Communist Romania, a country where one needed connections to buy a book, and where the only available forms of entertainment were reading and drinking, all my friends were voracious readers, and it was shameful not to be familiar with the latest published translation. Here, by contrast, the students only read the books they study in class. Actually, as I find out, after I begin attending classes in the English department, many of them are also voracious readers of magazines. Little by little, I begin to socialize with a group of graduate students in the English department, thanks to my new boyfriend, who is doing a PhD in English.
One day we are at his place—a nice apartment in our small town’s downtown, paid for by his father. Also there is a newcomer, a nymphette from the East Coast, let’s call her Z, who doesn’t tire of narrating her amorous adventures in various locales around the globe. I, who have never travelled anywhere—except, of course, to come to the United States—listen with fascination. I make an effort to imagine the many places she’d seen, trying to invent their smells, the streets full of roaming pedestrians, the dishes she’d tasted, but her stories are very frustrating because they are all focused on the men she’d had sex with and their countless manly skills. Nothing about the places themselves. Eventually, the discussion turns to our teaching responsibilities (we are all teaching assistants) and the methods we use. Z declares that she asks her students to do Marxist interpretations of articles from The Cosmopolitan. The more she talks the more fascinated with her I become. Having arrived from a country where all my life I heard the words “dialectic materialism,” “the engine of history,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and other similar phrases, I can’t quite put together the ethos of Marxism (whose principles included something called “socialist morals,” and behavior that had to accord with them) with this girl—or should I say woman (it took me many years to realize that in this country females are offended when they are referred to as “girls” because they perceive it as “sexist,” even when the word is used by other females).
I could bet my life that Z hasn’t read a word of Marx, and a week or so later, I arrange a pretext to pay her a visit with my boyfriend. Well, she too lives in a nice apartment—definitely not covered with her $1,000 per month student income. The apartment is sparsely furnished, but all the available shelves are full of glossy magazines, and on closer inspection, I see that almost all of them are issues of The Cosmopolitan, with a few copies of Vogue among them. There isn’t a single book in the entire apartment. I wonder what Marx would think of this young woman, whose entire life reads like a sex travelogue, and whose intellectual pursuits revolve around The Cosmopolitan. I confess I am a little jealous. How could I not be jealous of someone who has found a way not only of reading the only thing she is clearly interested in, these glossy magazines with articles about feminine beauty, but also of making the English department pay for it and of convincing her students that they are studying “Marxism”? How could I not be jealous of her when I, working in the French department, am being obligated to teach by applying the latest methodology in language acquisition, which requires wholesale rejection of critical thinking—a point that is emphasized over and over in our pedagogic training—in favor of the immersion experience. I am being expected literally to jump up and down in class in order to teach through role playing, which forbids the teaching of grammar in an analytical way.
It also turns out that Z isn’t the only one with a passion for Marxism. The instructor in my new class in the English department—a very charming young man—gives us a list of things we can all do to “subvert the system.” As I recall, this included the suggestion that we buy a Che Guevara T-shirt for the modest price of seventy dollars. Some of my classmates point out that they don’t have enough money to subvert the system, and, very quickly, the instructor comes up with something else: working class forms of entertainment. It is the first time I hear the expression “working class” since leaving Communist Romania, and the expression bounces off the walls of my English classroom in a strange way, almost like a mésalliance. The working-class type of entertainment my instructor is so fond of is bowling, and he invites us to go bowling with him on weekends at the university club. After all these years, my memory is not very reliable, and I remember vaguely that I only went once. What I do remember very clearly is the instructor’s insistence that what we were indulging in was “working class.”
Now, I can’t claim I did a survey of all my classmates’ backgrounds, but those that I did get to know came mostly from the homes of professionals, business people, university teachers, university administrators, and so on. Judging from their cars, pretty much all of them were far from “working class.” As far as I could tell, I was the only one. My parents’ combined incomes amounted to less than one hundred dollars per month. And yet, neither my parents nor I, nor anyone I knew, ever went bowling. Well, you’re probably saying, but he wasn’t talking about Romania. Different country, different pastimes. Correct. But even in an Anglo-Saxon context, I bet you won’t find a working-class person proudly asserting their working-class credentials in the form of bowling. Or any form. I think I know something about the “working class” because, until several decades ago, in Romania, about 85% of the population consisted of peasants and factory workers, and almost all of my friends came from such families. One thing a working-class person would never do is profess having any kind of pride in his or her social status. Only someone from the middle- or upper-class would project such romantic ideas about this “Noble Savage” of our times onto the suffocating walls of one’s office.
I did experience being “working class” in the New World too. My first job as a newly arrived immigrant was at McDonald’s, where I was being paid $4.25 per hour—that is, when I was being paid. At some point, I was told that the punching clock where I had to clock in and out was broken, and that I had to enter my working hours by hand. Well, for a few weeks the records with my working hours kept being lost, and so I worked almost for free for about two months. During this time, I was close to starving, and so I asked my manager if I could have some of the hamburgers that they, according to the restaurant’s policy, had to throw away after a few hours. I was informed that if I wanted a burger, I had to pay for it.
Eventually, I got tired of working for free and found another “gig” at Wendy’s. It was while working at Wendy’s that I began to study for the GRE, hoping that I could be admitted into the MA program in French at the closest public university, the only university where I could afford to apply. Since I couldn’t spare even one dollar for anything, instead of buying a manual to study for the test, I went for a whole summer to a Waldenbooks, where, armed with a pencil and an eraser, I would hide among the shelves and study for the test. As an unexpected side effect of my surreptitious studying, I ended up being hired as a bookseller.
And this has been my life story ever since. One side effect after another.
Alta Ifland is a Romanian-born American writer who has a PhD in French and currently lives in Northern California. Her novel, The Wife Who Wasn’t, and her translation (with Eireene Nealand) of Marguerite Duras’s film script, Le Camion/The Darkroom, are coming out in Spring 2021. www.altaifland.com