Back before I dropped out of college, I spent an academic year at the Université de Paris VII – Diderot, where I studied Linguistique Française, made about two French friends, and basically dealt with the bullsh!t that it is to try to transfer credits back to your home university. I’ve lived what it’s like to be a student in Paris – from passing the Eiffel Tower every morning on the 6 train to walking into the wrong classroom on the first day of school. Oh, I’ve been there, and you’ll probably be there, too. Your experience will be nothing like that of the States, but that’s why you’re going right?
#1 Holiday Week
I only had university classes every Monday, Tuesday – partly because most courses at the University of Paris are one-time deals (no Monday/Wednesday/Friday business) and partly because I’m just an organizational genius. I mean, I’ve traveled with Eurail for heaven’s sake. Twice. But even for those people who aren’t extremely talented in basic adult motor skills like planning, even they barely have to try to make an awesome schedule because…France likes to have a holiday break every other week…not including the days when the university faculty was on strike.
One time we had the Monday after Easter off, which yeah that happens in the US too, but then we had two weeks off for spring vacation, and then the next two Tuesdays after that I didn’t have class either for some other reason that I definitely did not question. We even had a week off called “la semaine de lecture” which in English means “reading week.” Trust me, the last thing I was doing that week was reading. In fact, there was nothing to even read because,
#2 There’s no homework
Occasionally you’ll have a class that gives you a hand-out to do or a text to read, but there’s no “do exercises 2 and 3 on page 65 and on page 87 do numbers 1 through 5.” No, no, no, that’s way too organized for La Frahhhhhnce (just wait till you read about registration). Every Tuesday morning, my psychology professor came into class and asked “What did we talk about last week?” then talked about what we had talked about last week. Jean Piaget this, Jean Piaget that.
Taking a class that doesn’t give homework has it’s pros and cons. The pros being that you have more time to plan what club you’re going to go that night…The cons being that if you don’t study, you may fail every exam you take…
#3 The Moyenne
Grades in France can be a bit tricky because when you see you got a 10 out of 20 on a test, you’d think it means the logical 50%, also known as a big, fat F. Nope. Since grades are out of 20 (No “A, B+, C-”), they consider a 10 to be a C. Anything above a 15 or 16 is like whoa, you think you smart, huh?
Since all I had to do was get the moyenne (10) for my courses to transfer back to my American university as PASS, I made sure to at least get the moyenne and then got up outta thurr.
#4 Making French Friends (or better yet, Not Making French Friends)
Going to school in France isn’t like going to your typical American college, where you innocently ask someone for a piece of paper and become best friends by the end of the semester. In France, students ain’t there to make friends; They’re gettin’ their milieu and gettin’ out! They don’t need you for the three (not four) years they go to college! If that doesn’t make you jealous enough, they also only pay like $500 a year…and they’re all stylish. No, really.
Although I had made some nice French friends in my classes (like two), sometimes I would purposely go to the library, not to study, but with the hopes that someone would see my electrical converter for my laptop and ask me “Oh, where are you from!?”
That never happened.
#5 Graph paper
Just the other day I was offered normal, North American horizontal, lined paper, but how can I just turn my back on La France after becoming so accustomed to 234235235098 lines on one piece of paper. In France, they like lines. Not only do you have the normal North American lines, but you also have three extra mini lines intersected with large vertical lines…and it’s what everyone uses.
#6 Registration frustration
Looking up classes online with the schedule, professor, and what requirements it fulfills all right there on one web page – how 21st century! Don’t even think about it in Paris. When signing up in my université, all students had to go to this room with some of the class listings. There, if you’re lucky, you have all the necessary info on paper posters…for a few subjects like math, geography, or economics.
But if you’re like most students and try expanding your horizons with other subjects, you have to go to other buildings and find the room with the posters with the respective course listings…and then if you’re taking some really obscure classes, like English Grammar, whoaaaa those course listings are located five metro stops away on a different campus. Convenient, non?
So if that doesn’t frustrate you enough, you can try to register the same day, but wait, don’t go anytime between 12pm and 2pm cuz the staff will be taking their leisurely two-hour lunch break…and don’t bother going at all on Wednesday, cuz apparently that’s the day they all like to take an eight-hour lunch break. This does not include days where there are university strikes.
When you do find a convenient time to talk to one of the advisors (finding who can register you is a whole ‘nother blog), you better know what you want to ask and be ready to dish back a French tude. I think they like that.
In 75% of my courses, I probably didn’t even say a word, and that is not because my French was only beginner-intermediate at that point. Theory is very much appreciated in France, so much so that most French believe that you must master the basics before you start speaking in an intellectual discussion about the topic. Speaking about something you know nothing about is often seen as naive, unlike in the States, where a student-teacher discussion is an everyday thing.
Although lectures are totally not my thing, I must say that my favorite two classes I’ve ever taken in the history of my education were at the Université de Paris. Civilisation Américaine, where I was the undercover American in the classroom, and Linguistique Française, where I finally learned wtf a direct object, subject predicate, and gerund are.
#8 Study at Beaubourg
Your university library in Paris will most likely extremely beautiful, extremely ornate, and also extremely out-dated. Luckily, Paris’ famous contemporary art museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, also houses a famous contemporary library that trumps any library I’ve ever been too. I once spent a day at Beaubourg knocking out a research paper and they had it all: views of Paris, fast and free WiFi, a library café, and attractive Parisians. What more could you ask for?
CROUS, or Centre régional des oeuvres universitaires et scolaires, is key to being a broke twenty-something who goes to school in Paris. Since meal plans aren’t even a thing, you have to rely on the campus café, which is typically about 3x less the size of your American university and with 30x less the choice. Par contre, you’ve got cheese paninis, spinach and goat cheese quiches, croissants, and patisseries all at a broke college student budget of 4 to 7 euros.
Whatever you do, just don’t forget the Orangina.
[Photo Credit: La Sorbonne]