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April 6, 2011 | by  | in Online Only |
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Fuck Yeah I’m in France – Getting Educated

Before I left New Zealand to embark on my new life in La Rochelle, a former exchange student gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received since I first decided to live in France for a while.

“Psssh, don’t worry about your schoolwork. Exchange is for parties and travelling around Europe, not for schoolwork.”

And although I have, at times, taken that advice quite literally – choosing to miss a final exam if it falls within the same week I plan to be in Spain – it is impossible to avoid acquiring at least some sort of education, whether it occurs in, or outside of, the classroom.

Enrolment: Enrolling at the university, like many other aspects of French bureaucracy, is, in no uncertain terms, chiant. I arrived in France on the 4th January, having been informed that university would start on the 5th January. But unlike in New Zealand, when all faculties and courses start the semester on the same day, La Rochelle prefers to stagger their starting dates over the first few months of the year. The 5th was simply the date for languages and management; my courses in history and law didn’t start until the following fortnight; our French for foreigners course kicked off late January; another friend studying literature wasn’t beginning until March because her professor was away, and one science student has no classes until May, after the rest of us will have finished our exams.

This penchant for the arbitrary, we soon found, permeates every aspect of the university. We couldn’t even enrol for the first two months, because the enrolments supervisor had decided to go on holiday, just in time for the beginning of the semester. This same woman is also charged with the important task of emailing students their timetables each week, because the time, day and location of classes changes AT RANDOM every single week.

Degrees: Of course, this complete bordel makes a little more sense when you understand that the French university system works quite differently to New Zealand’s. The first thing you realise is just how much freedom of choice we have in New Zealand. The Bachelor of Arts does not exist in France – you must choose to study languages, or social sciences, or literature. Double degrees are very uncommon here – telling someone I study politics, law and French is always met with a lost look. Timetables are largely pre-determined – students generally take the same courses with the same group of students throughout their degree, with the exception of some optional courses. Students spend way longer at university – students can expect to have 20-28 hours of classes per week.

So, with all that in mind, changing the timetables at random seems less of a hassle when all of the students are in the same classes, have the same free periods and, with the number of courses they have per week, chances are they will be at the university for most of the day anyway.

Going to class: If France is a nation of style, power-points are SO last season. They are simply not used by lecturers. Although this means students actually have to go to class, it also means that every two-hour lecture is spent frantically taking notes. One of my greatest regrets about not yet being fluent in French is that it is impossible to be able to instantly ascertain what information is and isn’t necessary, which results in my brain going into panic-mode and writing down every detail I can understand, realising later that “I was reading in the paper the other day…” will probably not be covered in the exam.

This is not helped by the fact that one of my lecturers speaks largely “in brackets” – an hour of lecturing will be made up of an introduction; one or two sentences of useful information; thirty-five minutes of rambling, stream-of-consciousness speech; finished with the actual point he’s trying to make, delivered in five succinct sentences. Obviously quite easily distracted, he once left the room for five minutes to retrieve his cellphone because it had a picture of Socrates on it, who we were discussing at the time. After passing the phone around the entire lecture theatre he launched into yet another tangent on why Socrates is always depicted with a beard. (Symbol of wisdom, in case you were wondering).

The second major difference at university in France is an issue of punctuality. Most classes start ten minutes after they’re meant to, or whenever the professor decides it’s time to show up. Sometimes they just don’t. However, pay careful attention: this leisurely approach to the timetable is not a freedom that is also extended to students. I learnt this the hard way when, arriving five minutes late to class one morning I tried to slip in quietly at the back of the lecture theatre, as I would do in New Zealand. Not bothering to focus on what the lecturer was saying until I could sit down and take notes, I didn’t realise he’d departed from his current topic until I heard students laughing. And, sure enough, turning slowly to look to the front of the class, I see my lecturer sarcastically waving me in, “Yeah, yeah, go on, go on. Did you have to kiss goodbye to your mum and dad?” Putain de merde! After smiling awkwardly and quickly taking my seat, I vowed never to go to class again if I was even a minute late – I now wait until the half-time break instead.
Organic education: As part of my application for this exchange programme, I was asked what I would do if I wasn’t doing well in my courses on exchange. My answer then remains the same now; I wouldn’t be too worried because the most important things I can take from the exchange are the language and culture, which I’m surrounded by every day. Outside of the simple fact that I can now understand and speak a lot more French than I could before, my knowledge of gros mots and other slang has also impressively increased. In terms of French culture, aside from stereotypically drinking coffee and wine, buying croissants from the daily markets, and inhaling a ton of second-hand smoke, even getting your head around how university works here gives you a great insight into the French way of life.

On top of being immersed daily in all things French, being on exchange has also given me a much more international education as well. As an exchange student you inevitably spend a lot of time with other exchange students; as a result I can now say ‘Get out of my house now, slut’ in Portugese; speak like a porn star in Spanish, and I know that the Chinese use a small piece of sticky-tape to rip the top layer off a piece of paper instead of using twink. In return, I recently sung ‘Ahakama’, the Maori vowel song, at a open mic night in a tiny town in the French wine and castle region of Dordogne; have carefully explained that ‘Morepork’ is a type of bird named after the sound it makes, and therefore its name cannot be translated as un peu plus de porc (a little more pork), and have told a shocked and disgusted Belgian that yes, our national dish probably is fish and chips.

So although I may be failing some of my classes because going to Italy’s that much more exciting than sitting a test, I can certainly leave France knowing that I’ve learnt a lot more than my Academic Transcript will ever represent.

For more gros mots and other exciting tales of life in France, follow my blog www.frenchletter.tumblr.com

Glossary of Gros Mots: (swear words)

Bordel: A mess/shambles, brothel. One of the first words I learnt in France, it was used in reference to the university.
Chiant: Annoying, literally ‘shitting’. Also see: Tu me fait chier: You’re pissing me off, literally ‘you make me shit’, which is probably one of the most graphically satisfying insults ever.
Putain de merde: Fuck, literally ‘prostitute of shit’.

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  1. Vic OE says:

    Want to do an exchange to France? Find out how at http://www.victoria.ac.nz/exchange to learn about the Vic OE programme!

    Hey Molly, sorry to hear you’re having such a frustrating time with your courses :( If you’re concerned about how things will credit back to your Vic degree, please email us at exchangestudents@vuw.ac.nz. Also, have you been in touch with Peter about how you’re finding La Rochelle? He’ll be visiting VUW in May so I can have a chat to him then as well.

    Wishing you all the very best,

    Clare & Fiona (Vic OE)

  2. Molly says:

    Hey Clare & Fiona,
    Despite the sometimes frustrating (and sometimes downright bizarre) aspects of university life, I’m thoroughly enjoying my courses and all their… peculiarities.
    Peter is aware of the less efficient aspects of the university, and has been really helpful in explaining how things work (or don’t).
    At the end of the the day, I’m in France, La Rochelle is beautiful, so c’est la vie!
    Thanks for your concern though!
    Molly.

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