By Peter Schwartzstein
Two months into my Parisian adventure and my French has shown markedly little improvement. This is a cause for some concern. Dissertations are fast approaching, while exams are no longer just a distant, horrible footnote in the calendar. I have only myself to blame, I guess.
I had been warned that Sciences Po is notorious for its bloated workloads, but I had thought it wise to do all my courses in French regardless. As I’ve discovered all too painfully, however, conversational French is one thing, examining the inner workings of the French social justice system at 8am with only my school-boy language skills to help me is quite another.
Indeed the French university body as a whole seems to take a very un-Trinity-like approach to academics. As no doubt previous years of Erasmus students can attest, continental Europe’s penchant for 8 o’clock lectures has come as something of a shock (a misunderstanding with the course selection process has ensured that I have an unfortunate four per week), while shortage of space means lectures often only finish at an equally anti-social 9:15 in the evening.
Situated slap-bang in the centre of Paris like the city’s other celebrated universities, spatial constraints ensure that Sciences Po like many French colleges offers little in the way of facilities. No gym, no college bar, no playing fields, nothing beyond the lecture theatres themselves really. The Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) is exceptional in a number of ways though. As the traditional breeding ground of France’s administrators and political elites it has formulated its own particular academic approach, its own “méthodologie”.
This too has required a good deal of getting used to: every essay paragraph is meant to be of equal length, and every dissertation and exposé must conform to the standard structure. I’d thought the days of jumping through formulaic hoops were over. But regrettably many of those horror stories of French officiousness hold true. Even the seemingly simple task of setting up a bank account was grossly over-complicated by the minefield that is French bureaucracy. Trinity in comparison seems positively Teutonic in its efficiency.
All the same, in spite of of the academic hang-ups of a French University and the murder-inducing tedium of petty officialdom, one is left with the more than ample compensation of living in Paris. The seventh arrondissement alone boasts an embarrassment of cultural riches, while Paris’ most celebrated food market, the Grand Epicerie de Paris, practically serves as Sciences Po’s Buttery. Hard as I might try, there is no resisting its horrendously overpriced sandwiches and cakes. Indeed only the daily threat of strikes shatters the beauty of the Left Bank, and even they have become a somewhat charming reminder of French intransigence. As a Philosophy and Politics student I was under no compulsion to spend a year abroad. Only when I am truly swamped with dissertations do I regret it. Paris might not have a Pav, but it has sufficient cheap wine and late-night drinking sessions under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower to more than make up for it.