As a student of modern languages, it’s a requirement of my degree that I spend my third year studying abroad. For the first five months, I’ve chosen to study in Pau, in the south of France. So far, it has been a fantastic experience, but certainly rather different from what I had expected.
I had visions of living with French students, who if they weren’t beret-wearing strikers would certainly be intellectual and shruggy. This didn’t really pan out, and I am in fact living in student halls, where there are very few French students at all, but rather a concentration of overseas students. Consequently I speak rather less French than I intended to and experience a different side of French life than I had planned.
To avoid this coming across as ridiculously moany from somebody who is living in the south of France, in a palm tree ridden city close to both the mountains and the coast, let me first say that I am having a blast. The weather is phenomenal, the city beautiful and I am almost always euphoric. However, I have found some quibbles and certainly some huge discrepancies between the student lifestyle en Angleterre.
From a purely academic standpoint the experience is already sharply different. Gone are the days of smart boards, slide shows or even OHPs. French students pay a tenth of our tuition fees, and it shows. The library for instance is the size of Mooch and boasts perhaps five computers; a far cry from Hallward’s 24 hour, electronic check out, four stories with a café. Not only is the setting entirely different but the teaching itself is instantly dissimilar. Lectures are dictations, with lecturers reading notes complete with punctuation and paragraphing. While this is useful for those trying to concentrate in their second language, presumably it is irritating for the native students, who could get the same results from a hand-out.
One-to-one teaching was also something of a shock for those of us who grew up in Blair’s Britain with its try-your-best, get-as-far-as-you-can, constructive criticism approach. In the UK we have “method marks” and an appreciation that if you try for something more complicated but get it slightly wrong, it’s better than choosing the simplest response. The French seem to be less focused on positive criticism and instead offer sarcasm or shock. Gone are the days of “good try, but not quite”, welcome to being asked to repeat things for your teacher’s amusement. While I fervently hope this is not the case in primary or secondary schools, would it perhaps explain an element of the French psyche?! It would be extremely unusual for us to correct a tourist’s pronunciation or grammar when they asked for directions, but the French are happy to do this, and often in the most scornful way possible. Maybe it just annoys them that French is less frequently studied than English?
Student halls have been a further lifestyle change. Representative of our differing national attitudes to university, French halls aren’t seen as an opportunity to make friends, but as a place of study. Most students live at home anyway, with only overseas students and a few post-grads in halls. Everyone’s door is closed and interaction is limited to Bonjour’s on the stairs. Without the 40% first year, university is seen less as the time of your life, but as a necessary means to an end. There is a 10pm curfew seven days a week and no social area, whether a bar, TV room or dining room, is offered. According to our contracts, if more than four people are going to be in the kitchens, we are supposed to make an appointment with reception. Prelashing, and even chilling out with a movie, becomes increasingly challenging! However, a month’s rent is equivalent to just over what I was paying per week in first year.
The lack of drinking culture results in a deficiency of all the student-aimed services which all English university cities offer. Endless takeaways and taxis are absent, but perhaps more alarmingly so is the array of societies and teams which are expected at UK unis. French students, it seems, do not go to university to have a good time, drink or even meet people! The upside of this, is that they are not hated by the local community. So far I have been shushed by bouncers, taxi drivers and barmen, an unheard of occurrence in England. The English Erasmus students have all experienced problems in adjusting to a situation where we can’t do what we want, be as loud as we want and generally aren’t the focus of attention. There is stereotypical sitting in cafés, but there are French people who partake in “le binge-drinking”, just very rarely students and more often young professionals. While I wasn’t expecting Wednesday socials and a local Oceana, the lack of nightlife provisions have been something of a shock!
Having spent many years as a Francophile trying to challenge the stereotypes, I have been somewhat disconcerted to arrive in France and find so many of them to be true. I have missed over a fortnight’s classes and a flight due to strikes, visited the beret section of H&M and become hopelessly entangled in red-tape fighting bureaucracy. What I wasn’t expecting was the anti-social aspects of French university life, where the majority don’t go out, or even spend much time on campus. But then I wasn’t expecting to be able to do less work than I’ve done pre-secondary school, buy 5 litres of wine for €6 or taking a module in surfing either.