Letters to home: Far from bored in Bordeaux

Hannah Harman-Conlon provides Trinity News with an insight into her la vie en rose on Erasmus in France


“There was, however, the sneaking feeling as I boarded the plane that I needed this. I needed this push out of my comfort zone, this lovely bubble I had created for myself.”

I must admit that at the end of August when Erasmus was looming I wasn’t looking forward to it. Frankly, I didn’t really want to go. The summer had been idyllic, spent moseying about Dublin and working in a bar. I was more than happy to stay in my bubble and return to Trinity for Michaelmas term. Erasmus is a fresh start, a blank page. It’s the chance to relive Freshers’ Week in a completely different country; slightly older, possibly wiser.

It is an unparallelled opportunity to meet people from the around the world and to make close friendships through another language. It is also a year in which you are plunged into an entirely new culture which will, however familiar it may seem, present you with more than a handful of stomach-churning awkward moments. I wasn’t that keen on a blank page when I was halfway through a book I was quite enjoying, if you’ll forgive the metaphor.

There was, however, the sneaking feeling as I boarded the plane that I needed this. I needed this push out of my comfort zone, this lovely bubble I had created for myself. A part of me was craving the challenge of making jokes in an entirely different language, wearing a beret and not looking like an eejit, saying “putain!” like a pro when I missed the bus. There were, of course, some lessons to learn when I arrived.

Secure accomodation before you move

The first, and most brutal, was that you should sort out accommodation before you go. The housing crisis currently unfolding in the Dublin housing market means that generally anywhere you pick in Europe will work out cheaper than our inflated capital (excluding the Scandinavian countries, of course). A quick glance at comparative sites such as Expatisan shows that Bordeaux is on average 47% cheaper to live in than our fair capital, with rent up to 52% cheaper.

As well as that, the Caisse d’Allocation Familiale (CAF) is a government grant available for both French and international students. It reimburses students for rents paid depending on individual financial circumstances, the amount of rent and the type of apartment being rented. However, the recent influx of Parisians due to the shortened journey time on the TGV between Paris and Bordeaux combined with its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 has resulted in rocketing property prices, squeezing the renting sector.

If Trinity students are thinking about bypassing the State-owned student accommodation service CROUS route and looking in the private rental sector, it is highly advised to contact previous Trinity students who have spent the year there. The French property market is certainly not for the faint-hearted if you can’t tell the difference between a T1 and a T3 and have no clue what a ‘coloc’ is (it’s a flatmate. You’re welcome).

Adjust to changes in academic life


Secondly, be prepared for a huge change academically. The French academic system in Sciences Po and in general is archaic in many ways – expect a lot of old, white males standing at the top of the room talking to you about what a lot of other even older, white males did, and philosophised about or theorised, frequently without a Powerpoint.

However it can be satisfyingly challenging in terms of the sheer amount of information amassed and divulged during lectures taught by pretty fascinating lecturers. Try and let go of any academic ego you may have and get used to the fact that even if you have already studied some of the material being covered, which you probably will have, its a lot harder and will take longer to grasp even simple concepts in another language.

If Erasmus counts for a percentage of your final degree (as opposed to passing a mere 45 ECTS), there will be weekly essays to write for seminars or TDs as they’re known (short for Travaux Dirigé) and oral examinations through French. This can be quite overwhelming at first but can ultimately have the desired effect of pushing you to a level where you can write academically and express yourself concisely in French.

Get involved

Anything that pushes you to speak French (even academically) is one step closer to plucking up the courage to speak to your French classmates, probably in class. The starkest difference between student life in Trinity and French universities in general is the weaker presence of societies. The activity of our student body is quite exceptional. Although there are societies, or “assocs” as the cool kids call them, they are nowhere near as active as our own in Trinity and don’t seem to interest the majority of the student body.

However, team sports are popular, if a little competitive, and offer another way to make friends. If you’re not so sporty, yoga or dance classes of various genres are a great alternative to meet people and keep fit while on Erasmus (because you’re coming to a place where fresh baguettes cost under a euro- you’re going to need all the exercise you can get).

Embrace the vibrant nightlife


Nonetheless, there really is no fear when it comes to socialising and nightlife on Erasmus. While societies don’t play a major role in university social life, nights out are a constant. The Erasmus Student Network, a non-profit organisation around since 1990, is present in every Erasmus location with committed staff who organise all the typical Erasmus nights out you could dream of; the obligatory flag parties, costume parties and even a moustache party for Movember. For all those who prefer to socialise sober, there are also days weekend trips and surf camps arranged.

Most host universities in France have their own Erasmus societies that aim to integrate Erasmus students into mainstream college life through mixers with French students. Expect Halloween parties (so thoroughly foreign given that Halloween doesn’t really exist in France), beer pong competitions and trips to Christmas markets, to name but a few. It is worth going along to these events because, given the lack of “assocs”, they really are the best way to meet local students who are interested in Erasmus students. French students go on Erasmus during their second year of university so it’s easy to meet fellow third year students at these events who are eager to practise their newly improved English and who may even be willing to speak to you en francais.

Budgeting will be easier


In terms of living the student life, it’s a lot easier to live (and live well) in Bordeaux. The Gironde region is renowned worldwide for its calibre of wines, riddled with ancient châteaux on every hillside. It is also the home to a very decent bottle of red wine for €1.80 available in just about every off-licence and supermarket.

Eating out is also cheaper here; coffees cost about €1.50 for an allongé (that’s an Americano to you) and God help you if you order a café au lait (no French person ever says that; it’s a crème, if you please) because that will set you back a whopping €2. Following the French diet in general works out cheaper; glasses of wine at €4 in a nice brasserie, cigarettes for breakfast at a mere €6 euro (if you’re really committing to the French lifestyle), as well as crêpes for €3.50 and baguettes for under a euro (you have been warned). Transport is cheaper too as the monthly student travelcard that works on all forms of public transport is just €30 (including trams that start at half four in the morning so there’s no need for costly taxis after a night out).

Beyond the practicalities and banalities of everyday life, Bordeaux is an incredible place to spend a year. Apart from the beautiful, perfectly preserved sixteenth-century buildings on the banks of the Garonne river, it’s not surprising that all the snobby Parisians are flocking here in droves.

It is France’s best-kept secret, a small city of 250,000 people that boasts multiple arts festival (at least one on each month on average – the Festival des Arts Internationaux à Bordeaux in October, the International Film Festival in November, the Student-centred Arts festival ‘Campulsations’ as well as a constant flow of fêtes celebrating wine), multiple bars playing hot jazz every night of the week (Le Chat Qui Pêche and CanCan are personal favourites) and very, very cool clubs (Darwin, iBoat and La Dame to name but a few). It’s a student town that teeters on the brink of hipsterdom without being annoying, thoroughly French with an international outlook.

Yet as great as Bordeaux is, where you go on Erasmus is of little importance compared to your mentality. You will have fun anywhere you go as long as you commit to this year. That means going to every party you’re invited to and getting lost a hundred times along the way because all the ruelles look the same, asking questions in class when you don’t understand something even though the lecturer said it fifty times and making chit-chat on the tram (because every bordelais loves small talk).

No matter how much red lipstick or berets you wear, you will still be the silly foreigner who can’t figure out how to validate her ticket on the tram and doesn’t quite get the banter with the vegetable sellers at the local marche. And then, one day, you’ll understand a joke in French your French friend just made, and you’ll laugh along and realise that it was all worth leaving the bubble for.