Isabel, studying at Sciences Po, Paris, France
“Dieu a inventé le Parisien pour que les étrangers ne puissent rien comprendre aux Français*” wrote Alexandre Dumas, and I think he has a point. Arriving to live in Paris for the first time as a British person can be quite a jarring experience. Being such close neighbours, the French and the British have battled for centuries over pretty much everything, resulting in a sort of cultural superiority feud which is ingrained in both countries’ identities. This means that coming here on study abroad, particularly at the beginning is a real adjustment.
I guess what I am trying to say is that Paris may not seem like a long way from London, but it is! I genuinely enjoy my little life in Paris but I wanted to make my post here an honest review of Parisian living for the study abroad student, so here goes…
I live in a little studio by myself in the 1st Arrondissement just north of the Seine. In Paris, it is very common to live alone and this year is the first time I have ever lived by myself. This along with living in a foreign country has presented me with a dual set of challenges. There are certain benefits to this lifestyle, of course, but I would be lying if I told you I didn’t hate it sometimes. So, if I could do it over again, I would do this differently and I would advise future abroaders to as well!
My location is perfect for the Parisian tourist but maybe not the Parisian student! My walk into class every day takes me past some of the most iconic sites in Paris (the Louvre, through the Jardin des Tuileries, over the river… all with views of the Eiffel Tower and Musée d’Orsay)… I have come to appreciate the ordered beauty of Paris over these months, but I must say I don’t think I will ever be one of those people who are completely besotted. When I first arrived, I was amazed that some people idealise Paris so much; the Paris of love, romance and history. Of course, this vision of Paris does exist in a small way in day-to-day life, but for the most part it’s fantasy. I could never idolise Paris like this; I see too many of its flaws to be overwhelmed by its beauty. I am very much a Londoner. I have a theory that a person can only truly love either Paris or London, the two cities are just too different; one practicality and grandeur, the other art and intricate beauty. But perhaps this sort of scepticism is what it takes to become Parisian, I have certainly found myself wearing black more often!
Sciences Po is like UCL in the sense that to study there you have to get used to a new city as well as a new university. And I’m afraid I do think that the Parisian attitude can make living here as a foreigner quite difficult. Basically, Parisians don’t have time for weakness and they don’t beat around the bush! Get used to being chastised, tutted at and ignored! The good news is though that once you learn you can give as good as you get, people respond to you in a different way. My ingrained British politeness is still there though and I don’t think I’ll take this particular piece of the Parisian attitude back home with me! However, this does mean that when you make any headway with Parisian living at all it feels like a huge accomplishment. I remember the first compliment I got on my French put me on cloud nine for an entire day… actually scratch that… an entire week… I would also advise people not to engage with French bureaucracy; trying to get a bank account was awful (just use the app Revolut instead… it’s a life saver!)
Studying at Sciences Po has been great. Some of the lectures here are amazing, although Sciences Po does have a more traditional view on teaching than UCL. Sciences Po as a university is fantastic, as class sizes are generally small you get a sort of personalised experience you don’t get at bigger universities. I would say that for anyone coming here they should definitely take some modules in French, in my experience they’re far better taught and more interesting than the ones in English. The lecturers are so used to exchange students that the language gap is no problem at all and they appreciate you trying to work in their language. Some exchange students I have met only take courses in English and I think lecturers on these courses find this attitude frustrating, whereas in the French courses lecturers are at least sympathetic. At Sciences Po, they do expect you to work though! Get used to having way more assignments than you would have at UCL. For me the sheer volume of work was hard to adjust to, but I would say the levels they expect are less academic. The welcome week is a must for learning how to do your work “The French Way”. Also, it’s where I met a great set of people who I hung out with for the whole term (I highly recommend it!)
So, I think it is time for me to finish… I really could go on but I think I have covered what I wanted to say! My time at Sciences Po has been an interesting one for me, the experience has been great, but I’m not going to lie to you and say that it’s not really, really hard sometimes as well… I have had all the obvious great Paris experiences but what I wanted from this post was to give a truthful review of my time in Paris (besides being a cliché would be such a faux-pas!) I’ll end by saying that even though it is hard, it doesn’t mean it isn’t seriously worth it!
Good luck to all future Parisian study abroaders and I hope my post has helped you somehow. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
*(roughly translated: “God invented the Parisian so that foreigners could understand nothing of the French”)