I have been asked to contribute some regular updates to this blog about the time I am spending in France as an exchange student. I am a student at IUSB, and I am studying this semester at L’Université du Sud Toulon-Var in southern France. There are a few aims that I hope to accomplish in this space. First, I would like to give a truthful, detailed, and I hope at times amusing account of what it is like to study overseas. Second, I would like to give some of the details of what it’s like living in another country. Third, I would like to provide helpful information for other students at IUSB who might be interested in studying abroad, but who might be afraid of some of the unknowns. I hope to be able to dispel some of those fears, and perhaps convince other students that they can and ought to study abroad. That said, there are some things that one encounters in another country that can be distressing, frustrating, or embarrassing, and I will not gloss over these. It is important to remember, however, that these little misunderstandings are part of what makes living in another country interesting. I should also mention that as a foreigner, the locals tend to cut you a lot of slack. Generally, they seem to realize that you’re clueless, and go out of their way to be nice and helpful.
To begin, I’d like to mention some of the cultural differences that I’ve encountered in my first two weeks here. In my next post, I hope to cover some of the specifically scholastic differences in student life. I’ve been in France several times before, but that was always in Paris, and as a tourist, so this is my first experience living among the natives on their own turf, so to speak. In the interest of balance, I’ll give some of the good, as well as some of the bad, though I’ll begin with the bad so that I can end on a high note.
I think that the most annoying thing for an American getting used to life in France is dealing with the French bureaucracy. Usually, you hear this name prefaced by “the legendary,” and with good reason. I pointed out to another exchange student, who is from Scotland, that the French have to put up with it too, but he replied that this may be true, but they’re used to it, since they have to deal with it from birth. Also, it probably explains why they smoke so much. In brief, things that you’re used to being able to do in the US in minutes can take days or weeks here, and will involve multiple visits to different offices across town to get things stamped and signed by officials. This difficulty is compounded by the French work-ethic, which is not that of Les Anglo-Saxons. It is not unusual to go to an office, only to find that it’s closed because everybody is out on their two-hour lunch, or to find that the office is closed today because it’s the 1300th anniversary of Charles Martel’s victory at the Battle of Tours or something. Also, you know how easy it is to add or drop courses in OneStart? You just go to the webpage, choose the course, and click “Enroll.” Not here. In France, you have to go to the advisor in your department with a signed paper copy of your course schedule. He or she will have to approve and stamp it. Then, you take the paper to Le bureau de scolarité to have it put in the system. I also had to open a French bank account, which has taken over a week and four visits to the bank to sign more papers, wait for approval from Marseille, and go to Toulon (a 30-minute bus ride away) in order to deposit money at the main branch. This can be very frustrating. The last time I opened a bank account in the US, it took about 15 minutes. That being said, they understand that you’re going through a bunch of bureaucratic red-tape, and they try to help you out. When I was getting my dorm room, I was missing a couple of the forms that I technically needed before moving in, but the nice people at the front desk just told me to bring it when I could, and gave me my key. In the US, I think that they would have just told me to get lost, but here, there seems to be a higher level of trust if you show that you’re willing to play by the rules.
Enough of the bad things, now for some of the good things. I flew in to Paris on Thursday the 15th of January, and took the train to Toulon on Monday the 19th. If any of you have taken the South-Shore or Amtrak, both of which do an admirable job in my view with their limited budgets, you would weep if you took the fast, efficient French trains. In France, they have high-speed trains, called the TGV (Train à Grand Vitesse), which travels at up to 200mph. This isn’t new technology either, the TGV has been running since the late 1970s. The trip from Paris to Toulon, which is about 525 miles, cost me 49€ ($56), and took about four hours. Efficiency like this doesn’t exist in the states.
If you like good food, you will think that you’ve died and gone to foodie heaven here. I recommend just walking in to any little restaurant on the main street in a little town and ordering whatever the plat du jour is. I did this last week, and had one of the best lunches of my life. The French are serious about food, and I think that we could learn something from them. There is some value in taking your time to enjoy the little details of life, to be in the moment, and to reject the American “gotta-have-it-now-faster-faster” lifestyle.
I am including a few pictures of my little walk around the old city of La Garde last Saturday. I hope that these also give some sense of how beautiful it is here, and that they will inspire other students to study abroad.