Oh happy days! I’ve finally ventured beyond the borders of my host country like a good study abroad student that I am, and I’m excited to update you daily on my Belgian adventures.
Though I have a tendency to announce ambitions projects and then not follow through on them all, I am hoping to also put together a guide for each city I visit with a breakdown of my itinerary, so that y’all can follow in my footsteps one day. [Please hold me to this].
After I’ve spent a month telling you about sales and trips to beautiful cities, it is finally time to talk about the actual reason I’m here – classes, and all the ways in which they are completely different from what we’re used to in the States. So buckle up and get ready to learn.
I never thought I would say this as I struggled to pull together four 10-20 page final papers in early December, but I miss take-home writing assignments. This semester, I won’t have the opportunity to flaunt my superior bullshitting skills by restating the same argument in six different ways without the professor realizing that I’ve only introduced one semi-original idea in the whole paper. Because the concept of excessively long research papers doesn’t seem to exist in the French university system.
Peter Gumbel, the author of an (apparently) controversial book about the French education system, describes the French teaching style as “sit down and shut up.” Although his analysis focuses primarily on the secondary education system, it’s not totally inaccurate when it comes to university. I am enrolled in seven courses here: two conférences de méthode (seminars), three cours magistraux (large lectures of 40-100 students depending on the course level), a French class, and a history class. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll ignore the history class because it takes place in a public university unrelated to Sciences Po and operates according to different rules.
So, you know how I said in my veryfirst post that I was looking forward to my second month in France when I’ve settled into a more predictable routine? As of yesterday, it’s officially been a month since I arrived in Bordeaux, and I’m here to tell you that there is no such thing as a study abroad routine.
To be sure, I finally have a finalized class schedule after two and a half weeks of battling the bureaucracy, sleeping through 8 a.m. classes I wanted to take, and trying to accrue enough credits. However, the university system here always has a curveball to throw with frequent last-minute changes and unexplained course cancellations. So far, I’ve shown up to a lecture only to find out it was cancelled, had two classes relocated to different rooms at the last minute and another randomly rescheduled for earlier in the day. Consistency, evidently, is not key in France.
Following the advice of every study abroad student before me, I did find two cafés where I routinely do my work. However, even with something as sacred as a French food establishment, I’ve run into unexpected difficulties. For example, one café—a self-professed study spot for college students—uniquely serves brunch (no, you can’t just have a coffee, Madame) on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and does not allow computers to be used, yes, even if you order brunch. In fact, the concept of studying on the weekends is largely nonexistent here. Perhaps because it truly is necessary to take the day to recover from all the bars you visited the night before. Some cafés are also closed on Mondays (why? who knows!), which is the only day of the week where I don’t have classes and I am not recovering from a party. So, I pretty much live at the university (8 a.m.-7 p.m.) Tuesday through Thursday, then proceed to go out on Thursday because it is the single most popular party day here and struggle in my Friday 8 a.m., spend the weekend afternoons unsuccessfully trying to get work done in my bed, and finally give up and sleep through Monday.
In short, I love it here and I will be very offended in September when I am forced to attend classes between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. instead of receiving a two-hour lunch break, as is the natural order of the universe here. I honestly cannot believe that a month has already passed since I broke the lock on my bathroom door, and I like to think that I’ve since learned enough French to successfully extricate myself from a similar situation should it recur.
After a week of procrastinating (and talking about fashion instead), I have finally decided to write about my trip to Toulouse, Albi, and Cordes-sur-Ciel and share some amazing photos. OK, full disclosure, the WiFi at my host family’s decided to stop working so I have no access to procrastination-enabling materials at the moment.
I initially wanted to write a mini-guide to the three locations, but seeing as we made the trip in the dead of January and our visit to Cordes-sur-Ciel fell on a Sunday, virtually everything was closed. [As a side note, nothing is ever open on Sundays in this country except cafés where you can brunch strictly between 11am and 4pm and where you absolutely cannot use your laptop—trust me, I tried this Sunday and was reprimanded by a waitress.] So, instead, I will just share the marvelous views and some cool facts about each place.
Toulouse Toulouse AKA la Ville Rose (“Pink City”) is the capital of the Occitanie region of France—map below for the geographically challenged, myself included—and the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country after Paris, Lyon, and Marseille.
It earns its nickname from the color of the terracotta bricks used to construct the majority of the buildings. To be quite honest, the bricks aren’t really rose-colored at all, they’re more of a reddish-brown with a sliiiiight pink hue. The material differs notably from the white stone we typically imagine when we think of old French buildings. Such stone was used in Paris and Bordeaux, but it was too expensive to import all the way from the Pyrénées to use for the construction of Toulouse. Thanks to such geographical constraints, you can easily spot the former residencies of incredibly wealthy merchants because they are constructed at least in part using the overpriced white stone. If there’s one thing you need to understand about French history, it’s that the bourgeois class loved to show off. Continue reading →
When planning my spring semester, I was very sad to miss out on the European Christmas market galore and essentially resigned myself to spend gloomy January in anticipation of Mardi Gras. As it turns out, there was another exciting and incredibly dangerous winter event in store for me in France – les soldes d’hiver. Les soldes d’hiver are the annual French winter sales that begin in early January and continue for six (!!!) weeks until the end of February. Think Black Friday but for six consecutive weeks (without the stampede, mostly). These sales are actually regulated by the government, which sets the dates when French stores are legally allowed to have sales — twice a year, in the winter and summer.
This year, the soldes began on January 10, which I discovered on January 9 after I attempted to purchase a sweater at Zara where I was informed that I could not actually buy anything since the sales would begin the next day and it would be pretty stupid to pay full price now. It turns out many French people use the preceding few days to strategically scout their favorite stores and pre-select items they wish to buy, so they wouldn’t have to wait in massive fitting room lines when the sales began.
Lacking self control as I do, I decided to use this opportunity to upgrade and Frenchify my wardrobe (and acquire two additional sweaters because the French do not heat the buildings nearly enough, and wearing my coat to class got annoying quickly). So, in no particular order below, you will find my trendy purchases:
Shoes. I will not lie, I used to judge the #basic girls wearing white Adidas all the time. Now, I am become one (although I boughts Pumas, because wearing Adidas shoes is one step too close to true Slavdom than I’m willing to take). In any case, the French take this trend to a whole new level. I once counted 20 pairs of white/light colored sneakers in my tram car. And they don’t seem to care at all for the impact of the incessant rain on the quality of their shoes. So embracing the trend, I shelled out 55€ (marked down from nearly 90€, which was a victory!) for these shiny new sneakers. Bonus points for the lacquered exterior to prevent soaking my feet and facilitate easy cleaning when I inevitably land in a puddle while running across tram tracks. Also check out the incredibly extra golden laces that match the buttons on my very French coat (acquired prior to departure).Continue reading →
As of tonight, I’ve officially lived in Bordeaux for two weeks, and my tribulations are piling high. But in my moments of despair, I remind myself that none of the courses I’m taking will factor into my GPA and that I live in an actual UNESCO World Heritage site (Port de la Lune, Bordeaux). Nonetheless, I’d like to use this small anniversary to commemorate some of my most memorable epic fails from the last 14 days.
Bathroom Troubles. No, not the kind you think. Upon finally landing in Bordeaux, I was greeted by my incredibly lovely host family (I am sure to be singing further praises in future posts) who picked me up from the airport and drove me to their, and now my, home. All was well, except for the mild stress of suddenly needing to speak French all the time and forgetting how to say ‘door’ and ‘car’ for a brief moment. Fast forward to 2 a.m. local time when I somehow managed to lock myself in the bathroom and promptly break the lock. I am including a visual aid here to demonstrate the high level of skill required to break something as simple and self-explanatory as the lock on my host family’s bathroom door.
My host father ultimately had to break down the door to liberate me after I spent about ten minutes silently struggling in the bathroom in order not to wake the family up. I was only discovered because my host mother had to use the bathroom herself; else, I would have continued to suffer for fear of imposing and destroying the family’s property on my first night. Hilariously enough, I had no idea how to say lock in French or to explain what had occurred, so Caroline and I spent several minutes communicating through the door as I explained that “the round thing has separated from the door and I cannot leave.” I am happy to report that the lock has since been replaced and the door repaired, and that I never to go to the bathroom without my phone now, just in case. Fun fact about French bathrooms: there isla toilette, where you find the toilet and potentially a sink and then there is la salle de bain where you shower and brush your teeth. The French word for lock is le verrou by the way. I will never forget that now.
Since I was about 7, I have taken planes to different parts of the world at least once a year. So I consider myself to be somewhat of an air travel expert, equipped to handle the particular set of challenges that my 5’8 height (legs too long for economy class, anyone?) and severe flying anxiety bring. While I’d much prefer to take a train everywhere–OK, maybe not an American train, our infrastructure is a mess,– living thousands of miles and an ocean away from most of the rest of the world (and most of my relatives) has forced me to bite the bullet and learn to deal. As I’m sitting in Gatwick airport now, cursing my 7-hour layover, I decided I’d share some of my coping strategies for ensuring both physical and mental comforts to the extent that it is possible to enjoy anything while being trapped in a crowded metal box thousands of feet in the air. Did I mention that I’m terrified of flying?