I arrived in Nice with a suitcase five kilograms overweight, a love of croissants ready to be nurtured and brimming with enthusiasm for my year in France. However France was not what I expected it to be – my new university was baffling, the weather was better than I imagined and the French were ruder than I expected.
Third-level education in France
Sophia Antipolis (the partner University for my Erasmus in English literature and French) is a public university in Nice much like Trinity is in Dublin. However I’ve already noticed many differences between French and Irish higher level education. For starters, the student tuition fees differ vastly between the two colleges. French students pay €220 a year, which pales in comparison to the near €3,000 that students pay in Trinity. Due to these low fees, the mentality of many French students regarding education is quite different from students at home.
The French equivalent of the Leaving Certificate is called the Baccalauréat, where students either fail or pass (ie. achieve 10/20 or above). What’s more, the marking system for the Baccalauréate hasn’t changed since its creation in the year 1830. Any student who has passed the Baccalauréat can go into third-level education in France. Because of this, many third-level French institutions are heavily oversubscribed and the fail (and dropout) rate is extremely high in first year in university in France. There is, however, another tier of education in France that goes by the name of ‘grand école’ (private universities) and this is where the French leaders of tomorrow attend. Entry into a ‘grand école’ is notoriously difficult and requires an additional two years of study following the Bacculearéat.
University in Nice feels an awful lot more like secondary school did at home – tutorials are held in classrooms where the students face the ‘teacher’ and a sizeable portion of class time is spent ensuring that the students stay quiet and attentive. Class sizes run on the larger size, with anywhere between 14 to 25 people in a class. This means that student contribution, although encouraged, is often impossible. Tutorials in France are normally two hours long (during which you may not get any break), which was quite mentally draining at the beginning. I’ve adapted to the longer format but I still prefer the 50 minutes we have for English and French tutorials in Trinity; brain power tends to ebb away come the 90 minute mark.
Negotiating life in France
Many students are apathetic regarding college and treat it as they would secondary school – a perfunctory habit, not necessarily somewhere they relish attending. This is amplified by the lack of societies and general campus life in France. Most students live at home throughout college in France, and they tend to pick the college closest to them which means that university in France is purely functional in the sense that students attend classes and lectures and the return home. Libraries close at 7pm and by 7.30pm you won’t see a soul on campus.
A word of warning to any students who are going on Erasmus to France: be prepared for horrendous bureaucracy. Many people warned me about this before I left Dublin but I took no notice of their warnings, thinking that they were only being hyper-critical. It’s been two weeks since the beginning of college and there are still queues of 30 or 40 students waiting to get their student cards at reception. The International Office takes a lunch break (a custom that was truly bizarre coming from Ireland), every day from midday until 2pm and they frequently stop seeing students from half past eleven onwards, taking what I have named ‘a pre-lunch break’. In my experience, the majority of Francophones working in administration in Sophia Antipolis are unapologetically unhelpful when it comes to opening and closing hours. I’ve tried four times to open a bank account and every time I’ve been thwarted because the bank has either been closed or too busy. On one occasion, they just decided to stop seeing people forty five minutes before their lunch break.
The French student body
Think of every stereotype about French people – they smoke a lot, they’re very well dressed and they’re very opinionated and not shy about voicing said opinions. So far, they have all proved true. It baffles me how they smoke so much in France; smoking outside the Arts Block is nothing compared to smoking in the courtyard at college. The French group together, either smoking, rolling cigarettes or looking for a lighter and they chat rapidly in a French slang called ‘verlan’ which translates as ‘backwards’. To speak in this mind boggling slang you have to reverse the second and first syllables of a word (la femme would become la meuf for example), which is a challenge in itself.
Difficult as it may be to converse with my peers in French, going out with them can be a lot more enjoyable than home. The French like house parties which they call ‘soirées’, where they bring wine over to someone’s house and all sit and chat. Drinking wine on the beach at night is also a long-standing tradition in Nice. Considering you can buy a bottle of wine for €2.65, getting drunk is an affordable pastime in France. The French are more relaxed in general about going out at night and they like to take their time no matter what they do.
It can be pretty daunting talking to French students – they’re all well-dressed and masters of the blank stare. However, if Erasmus has taught me anything, it’s to talk to everyone and anyone and not to hold back. Although it’s certainly difficult when French is neither your first nor second language, as with any language, you just have to plough on through conversations. Often this means using lots of vague hand gestures that can look like interpretive dance and nodding vigorously when you don’t actually have a clue what’s happening because you’re too exhausted to make yourself understood.
In spite of the differences and difficulties I’ve encountered, my time in France has been enjoyable and always character building. Although things are very different here, I wouldn’t change anything because it’s allowed me to reflect on and appreciate Ireland more and more whilst always maintaining my love of the French language. Erasmus can seem daunting at first , but I would encourage everyone to apply if they can because you’ll learn more things than you can imagine living outside of Ireland.