I’m on my fourth week in Paris and life still hasn’t settled down. There are no half measures on your year abroad. Either you’ll be holed up in your room feeling extreme solitude and fighting back the tears in your tutorials because you understand nothing, or out in incredible clubs playing music you never knew could be that good, spontaneously and inexplicably invited to Parisian lock-ins or meeting semi-famous French actors in cafés. All of the above have happened to me so far.
Currently I have a clear and basic divide for every 24 hours I spend here. During the day I bumble along avoiding facing the reality of work or getting any of my paperwork signed off because a dragon lives in the Sorbonne’s Erasmus office. Then night falls and I’m off to explore a different arrondissement, trying to strike up conversations with the locals (one of whom inevitably always insists on practicing their English while the others quickly lose interest in you) with Erasmus friends (who always speak English, too). Essentially, I still feel a bit like I’m on holiday except I have a French bank card and don’t have to worry about racking up data roaming costs as I pray for Google maps to load when I’ve missed the last metro.
But it’s not all partying and can’t remain that way either. I will have to face up to the reality of studying soon enough. And for the first time in my life (I’m a nerd) I really don’t want to. The reason for this is my extreme aversion to the French university system, which I will go into in some detail because perhaps there’s one second year out there who was as oblivious to how it works as I was.
Firstly, forget discussion. Yes, we’ve all had the awkward 9am tutorial where no one has read the novel and someone who’s Wikipedia-ed the plot reticently offers a comment only to regret it when the tutor asks for a page number. You’ll be longing for those when you’re watching the sun rise from your 8am tutorial as your prof talks imperceptibly into his handwritten notes and doesn’t stop for 2 hours. The French students dutifully take up their role as 1950s typists, clattering away on their keyboards, producing an exact copy of what the prof is reading. Meanwhile you look at your excruciatingly blank lined paper which, even if you had managed to take some notes, would still scream ‘ERASMUS’ thanks to the ubiquitous French preference for squared paper. I still haven’t worked out why we don’t just get a photocopy of the teacher’s essay; it would save us all having to leave the house when the sun still hasn’t risen and all your senses tell you that the men in the cafés should be drinking beer and not coffee.
Prepare yourself, too, for the kamikaze process of signing up for an exposé (or commentaire). The tutor hands out a list of titles and while you’re still working out whether you’d rather do one complicated thing about a book you’ve never read, or another, the prof begins reading for the list and it’s a test of speed as the hands shoot up for the easiest topics. Any sign of hesitation and the tutor will prioritise the unwavering, stick straight arms ahead of you. Prepare yourself also for the intimidating task of actually giving your exposé to a class of bored French students. Some tutors don’t require you to do these orally but some do. It may be a blessing though that I’ve seen most students either browsing Facebook or attending to their emails, or even taking a nap, during their camarades presentations – hopefully they won’t be listening as I orally butcher the rules of French grammar and prove that I’ve completely misunderstood the point of most of the classes.
Having said all this, most of these problems can be solved by asking questions. Your classmates might look unfriendly but as soon as you jabber at them, apologising profusely, and ask if they will send you their notes because you didn’t understand, on the whole they will be very happy to help and be willing to answer any other questions you may have. And then you might even be able to convince them to be your friend. That’s the dream.