They arm you with an Amazon forest worth of paperwork. They dress you in a battle suit of advice. They send you off telling you what to expect then you enter the war which is you against France. You, defending your fore father Erasmus versus the country of bread and wine that is France.
As with all new phases of your life, no amount of advice can prepare you for the unknown. So stop stressing. Stop trying to have every piece of documentation printed twice because no matter how hard you try to be prepared for this country, there will always be something lacking. You can never please some people. You are better off diving into the unknown and tackling each obstacle at a time.
I was designated the pretty little town of Aix-en-Provence to spend my Erasmus semester. After a lot of emails and expensive phone calls to France I had secured myself French student accommodation.
I knew I would have a bedroom to myself with a bathroom and would be sharing a communal kitchen. I was prepared to have to purchase a duvet and pillow. I was not prepared to realise that my bathroom would resemble that of a train style bathroom cubicle, so small it would be enough to lead anyone with claustrophobia to a panic attack.
I was not prepared to enter the kitchen and discover that a hundred students were expected to share four hot plates. Full stop. No oven, no microwave. No pots, pans, forks or knives.
This was a huge shock to the system as with all my other experience of student accommodation in Ireland provided me with such equipment. How I survived four months here without an oven and only a frying pan will forever astound me.
I was also not expecting the anti-social nature of French student accommodation. There are 100 rooms of my floor. Yet, I can say without hesitation that it is the same five people I encounter each night in the communal kitchen. Do the others not eat? I expect to discover 95 skeletal corpses behind their doors, which are bolted shut and probably collecting dust as they never leave their rooms.
There is not even a communal room for socializing.
Attending French University has only deepened my appreciation of my university in Galway. There is no atmosphere is Aix-Marseille University of Arts. The building is literally falling apart. One of the few times it rained here, some of the ceiling “broke” and let in the rain. Yes, there are holes in the ceiling here.
The faculty is not very pretty- a dull grey decorated by graffiti. The bathrooms are unisex and while there is a canteen, it is basic and does not compare to my go to campus café in Galway- I’ll be home before long, Smokey’s!
The college administration is a disaster. To choose my modules here I had to physically run around the six floors of the college to look at the notice boards for each discipline. Have they not heard of online subscription in France yet?
Another shocker was that most of my classes here are 3 to 4 hours with a ten minute break. I recall learning that according to psychologists one cannot concentration successfully on a subject for longer than a 40 minute period. Each 40 minute period should be broken up by a relaxing break. Someone needs to enlighten the French to this fact. Fast, before we all fall asleep from boredom.
If I had known how undemanding college would be I would have tried to get a job here. That way, I could have earned money and had an opportunity to improve my French. However, I can say that I did make the most of my window, more like glasshouse, of free time by traveling to new French towns each weekend.
So in this sense, I did cultivate my mind- as well as my stomach and wardrobe!
I would have never guessed that the months of September and November here in Aix would bring me back to a certain period of my teenage years of drinking in the park. Yes, being the cheapskates that students are, our nights entailed of a trip to the supermarket to purchase our two euro bottles of rose which we drank in the dark of the night in the park. And this was not just a habit of the “drunken Irish” but of the French too. So much for French classiness.
France is a nation drowned in stereotypes. Many of the stereotypes proved to be true. Yes, the towns are dotted with bakeries and a baguette is also an extension of your outfit. Yes, the French eat their dinner at 9pm and it is advisable to do a grocery shop on Saturday evening because everything closes on a Sunday-god help you if you need a pharmacy.
Do not bring heels and fancy going out clothes to France because “casual” is the word for French fashion. For once in your life girls, take advantage that you do not need to wear make-up, kill your feet in platforms and catch your cold in skimpy dresses.
Now I know you are probably regretting ever commencing to read such a pessimistic article. You are either thinking what an ungrateful young girl or have decided that you, yourself, will never step foot in France, let alone do an Erasmus.
This is not my intention. Do avail of Erasmus if you can. Do travel to France.
There is many a day when I stroll through the town of Aix, exhausted from encountering yet another administrational problem and hating France, to be blown away by the utter beauty of this little provincial town.
I have learned here how to love myself, that it is important to treat yourself. Buying yourself flowers in the market and an almond croissant in the boulangerie shouldn’t be deemed “weird” or “indulgent”. Why deny yourself of life’s pleasures?
We have no control over the difficulties that life throws at us. We do have control over the moments of happiness that life offers, so why not avail of this control?
My time here has been marked by ups and downs. I have learned a lot and know that I will only look back at my time here in Aix with fondness when I am far from her streets.