Katie, studying abroad at Sciences Po, Paris, France
As I write this, I am not actually in Paris. I am in the main square in Lille, sitting outside Mc Donald’s in the rain and basking in the glow of their free Wi-Fi. Study abroad lesson No.1: Mc Donald’s has reliable Wi-Fi. I am here because I am on mid-term break, and the bus tickets here were 3,50 Euro for the round trip. Study abroad lesson No.2: Take every (cheap) opportunity. As scary as it seems that I am already half way through my first semester, it also seems like I’ve been here forever and thankfully, it’s starting to feel like home. I don’t really have a plan for this blog post, so unless a plan arises as I am writing it will just be a jumble of thoughts and experiences, which can broadly be categorised into ‘things I didn’t expect to happen’ and ‘things people warned me would happen but that I still didn’t expect to happen’. Study abroad lesson 3: Whatever happens, just roll with it.
Starting chronologically, term at Sciences Po began mid-August with their welcome week for lost foreign exchange students. Seeing as I fulfilled all these categories I signed up, and it was GREAT. I would 100% recommend it, despite having to pay for it. It was here that I made my first friends in Paris, and everyone really went out of their way to talk to everyone else. Study abroad lesson 4: ‘You speak English too?!’ is a perfectly adequate conversation starter. Everyone was running around trying to open bank accounts and start phone plans, but thankfully the welcome week gave us the opportunity to ask for help navigating French paperwork. Lesson 5: the French LOVE paperwork. Anything that could be simplified, quite simply, isn’t. In France it is inevitable you will get trapped in the infinite puzzle of needing a French address to open a bank account > needing a bank account to have a French address > needing a French phone number to have an address and a bank account > needing an address and a bank account to open a phone plan. What’s more, each one of these will involve visiting at least 3 different offices and then waiting 4 weeks for the outcome, which will then have to be stamped by the first office and returned to the second. It was all a bit of a mess but we’ve made it out alive.
The welcome week also introduced us to the very precise way to write essays and compose presentations that Sciences Po expects, although we had little idea of the tidal wave of work that was to come. And my goodness was it a tidal wave. I can honestly say that I have never worked as hard as I have this term. Yes, I was warned ‘they work you hard at Sciences Po’ but I didn’t expect them to work us THIS hard. The combination of continual assessment with mid-term and end-of-term exams to mean that you are constantly under pressure to do ALL the readings you’re assigned AND prepare for that presentation on Tuesday AND be revising for the mid-term in a few weeks… They also strictly mark attendance, meaning if you miss more than two classes of a module you automatically fail. Gulp. Lesson number…6? : I quickly realised that taking more than the recommended credit amount was a massive mistake and was drowning in Rousseau and Diderot, so am failing a class through non-attendance. I haven’t told BASc about this yet. If you’re reading this, admin, I am purposefully failing a class through non-attendance. Sorry. Having said this my classes are all really interesting, and actually having to do the readings means I always know what’s going on. I shall be an expert on the French revolution by the time I’m done OUI OUI!
On top of academics, Sciences Po offer sports and arts classes, so I signed up for yoga and climbing. Yoga is wonderful and hilarious because it’s all in French; I generally understand which part of my body he’s referring to, but not what I’m meant to be doing with it. As yoga is abstract at the best of times, it gets interesting as I put my head under my leg or wrap my left elbow around my right ear or whatever. However climbing is my bae, so it was a bit of a shock to discover that the classes are just, well, classes. Sciences Po climbing runs for 1.5 hours a week and then we all go home. It’s like PE lesson. Whilst the classes offer a great opportunity to meet new people, for a climb-a-holic such as myself I couldn’t help wonder; where was the training? Where was the psyche? Do they not neck snakebites at the SU and pile onto a bus to go to a dubious club with a sticky dancefloor?! Malhereusement, non. Alors, I realised that to find climbers I would have to head out into the French climbing scene, the prospect of which was a little terrifying because it was um, French. So I did, and it’s great. Study abroad lesson no. whatever: Go outside of your comfort zone. I’ve made friends with real French people who speak real French to me, humour me when I don’t understand and are eager to improve their English. It’s also taught me how far one can get with extravagant hand-gesturing and facial expressions; smiling is an international signal for ‘friends’ and also for ‘I have no idea what you’re saying but I have the best intentions for this conversation’, so that’s good.
A final thing I will write about is my homestay. The one thing I said when I applied for study abroad is that I would never, EVER, live in a homestay. But here I am, living in a homestay. My fam are a lovely, loud, enthusiastic, family of 5 sometimes 6 or 7 or 12, depending on how many people they’ve got over, who made me feel welcome without being overbearing and gave me my own space whilst welcoming me into theirs. Although it was strange at first, living in a homestay has allowed me to experience French family life and get a better understanding of French culture, which really does involve a lot of baguettes and cheese. Study abroad lesson no. potato: it is OK to keep cheese in the freezer.
Thus in a whirlwind of bad (improving) French, hard work, climbing and cheese I have arrived at mid-term break. This term has honestly been crazy. Yes there have been days that were hard, days when nothing like N O T H I N G goes right and I just want to give up and go home. I was warned that study abroad would be difficult at first, and it’s true. But everyone feels the same, so we moan over wine console each other with um, cheese, and realise actually maybe this French thing isn’t so hard after all. Then there’s the days that are GREAT. Like MAD GREAT. Like, PROPER BON. When you look back on what you’ve achieved and realise France is amazing and Paris is amazing and all the people I’ve met are so love and I love everyone and I never EVER want to leave it makes me realise why study abroad is said to be so awesome. Because it IS. Hopefully I’ve pulled through the worst and everything is heading UP from now on! Wheeeeeeeee maximum excite!
Happy study abroad tout le monde!
(photo credit Hattie Hughes)