…Makes for a really funny story and some great character building, right? Life as an Erasmus student in Paris flying by and it’s time to face some facts of how different the reality is to my expectations. Here’s a not so brief explanation of what I wish I knew before I started. Feel free to skip if living abroad isn’t in your interests in the near future.
Every day is a seemingly endless cycle of turning up to an office and hoping it’s open (regardless of the stated office hours). Every class has a limited capacity for concentration, especially regarding 3 hour lectures during which the lecturer delightfully ‘forgets’ to offer a 5 minute break. Forget everything that you already know about functioning university systems. Note to self; be entirely more appreciative of Powerpoint when back in Birmingham.
I wish I had known:
- The incomprehensible nightmare that is class registration. I’m not sure that I’ll ever grow tired of complaining about this system
- How remarkably different people’s support systems can be. My personal tutor couldn’t even provide the correct starting date for my classes. He also once cheerfully said “that problem does seem very frustrating but it’s not technically my department so I can’t do anything to help”. At least he speaks English!
- Certain necessary skills to survive academically were just seemingly overlooked in previous education. I am still unsure as to how many sous-parties are necessary for a essay.
- Be prepared to explain any element of my exchange to any member of staff, regardless of whether their job title implies they should know what’s going on.
- How much of a literal labyrinth one of my main buildings (a converted flour mill) actually is. Each of the 5 floors cannot necessarily be accessed from all available staircases – not great for someone who is perpetually running late.
- I have never signed so many different documents in my life. Never.
Nothing on earth (that I have encountered so far) comes close to the arduous task of finding accommodation in Paris. The choice is limited; fighting for a shoebox studio, attempting to organise a colocation (flatshare) with unknown students or running the risk of murder by renting a room in a stranger’s home. I have ended up with a hybrid of the second and third choices, and as long as the building doesn’t burn down, I don’t plan on subjecting myself to this pain again for the sake of a little more space or a slightly cheaper rent.
Several more things I wish I had known:
- Arranging a flat viewing is like a french version of the Hunger Games, with baguettes and tenant dossiers. My friend Fran recently found a new studio, after over a month of constant stress. Her experience? “You may call up mere minutes after an advert is posted to discover that unless you can view within the next 10, it is unavailable. You may turn up to a viewing, having travelled and rearranged your day, to discover it has already been taken without anyone informing you. You may find that unless you can pay your deposit immediately, they aren’t interested. This is assuming anyone replies to you at all.” The search was briefly interrupted when some bastard stole her deposit. Luckily, her new place is fab.
- Even if you can survive the viewing process to find a suitable place, it isn’t the same power balance I was used to. You aren’t just viewing the room – the landlord is judging you. Your dossier of necessary information (an endless list of documents I never seemed to acquire) is like an application for the hardest job ever, with a very depressing success rate.
- If you happen to find a place in a slightly less ‘contractually clear’ situation, like myself (think, the lack of a firm contract and an unclear rental status in the eyes of the building or bank), then other logical steps are blocked. No helpful documentation for a bank account. No possible application for CAF (some mythical subsidy from the government towards rent. Have yet to find a student whose application was processed or who received the payments within their year abroad time frame, given how ridiculous the process is).
- Living with strangers isn’t always a dream come true.
I’m just going to go ahead and confirm it; every stereotype you may have heard about Parisians being rude is very true, in my experience so far. Luckily, Paris is also full of non-Parisians who happen to be lovely. I think the fact that I say please, thank you and smile at people is generally a huge neon sign that I’m not Parisian in the slightest sense.
I also have found it hard to accept that I’m not having the year-long holiday I expected or hoped for. Some people genuinely seem to be having the time of their life, travelling all around Europe each weekend or doing tequila shots in a karaoke bar every evening of every week. I guess I need to realise that everyone sees situations differently, regardless of how similar they may look on paper. Perhaps they have a better outlook on the whole experience. It should be motivation to make the most of this situation, before I’m back in Birmingham, lost in a final year rush.
Some final tips I would have wanted? Learn the word for a corkscrew. Don’t waste time avoiding the metro card application form. Try not to stress over a system that clearly isn’t designed to work. Accept that some people just really don’t want to help…
I’m still vaguely convinced that somehow I’m part of a sitcom and somewhere there is an audience laughing at my pain. At least I never know what to expect. 112 days remain of this experience; plenty of opportunities for lots more croissants.