Daru is a schoolmaster in a one-room school in Algeria. The school is located on a hillside somewhere in the mountains. We learn from Balducci that it is 3 kilometers from El Ameur. The school is not in a city or even a village; students come from surrounding villages to attend school. Daru's supplies have to be brought in by trucks. There is one outbuilding: a shed in which he keeps chickens and stores his coal.
As the story begins, an early snow has fallen. Daru has heated the room he lives in, which is built onto the side of the school. In the schoolroom, he has drawn a map of France, with the four major rivers drawn in different colors of chalk.