Postcards from Abroad: Paris

In the latest instalment of Postcards from Abroad, Robert MacCarthy struggles with French bureaucracy and enjoys the romance of ParisAh Paris, the city of love. Upon hearing its name, romantic images bountifully unspool from the most sex-starved corners of our minds. Charming avenues stream from imposing boulevards and trickle down quaint alleyways. Ornate moustaches unfurl beneath the upturned noses of stand-offish locals, offended to their core by the twang of American accents failing to pronounce “bonjour.” But is all this overwrought romanticism reality?As a third year law student studying in Paris, I have been plunged headfirst into what you might call the real Parisian mode de vie. From the offset, reality tends to come crashing down fairly hard, particularly so when dealing with French administration.Upon my arrival I was greeted by a bureaucratic system that appeared to take an almost perverse amount of pleasure in being as officious as possible. Registration for courses must be done solely through paperwork, which must be stamped by every administrative officer under the sun, accompanied by an infinite amount of personal identification. Comparatively, the French would surely see UCD’s user-friendly online system as a terrifying Bladerunner-esque dystopia.One particular instance stands out. Having queued for what felt like hours, I found myself sitting in a co-ordinator’s office, attempting to explain en Français that I would like to join a French language class.The man, clearly bored with my mixture of hand gestures and poorly conjugated verbs, informed me that it was impossible for him to add me to “the system,” punctuating his disinterest by pointing at his computer. Upon looking at the screen I noticed that “the system” was literally just a Microsoft spreadsheet. Any chance of sticking my name on the end there mate? “Non.”Universities in France are virtually free to all, the fees being nominal compared to the ever-increasing amount demanded in Ireland. As a result, third-level education is not a consumer-driven process. A particularly apt synopsis I heard while out here was that “in French universities, you are not a client, you are a student.”In France, once you accept that people of all backgrounds should be capable of going to university, you have to accept certain consequences. Your university won’t bend over backwards for you. You may not necessarily have the same scale of amenities or student societies you might otherwise have had were you paying more. Perhaps that’s fair.Personally, despite the challenge of trying to learn through French, I found the quality of the lecturing to be particularly high. To call the system imperfect may be accurate and there are many areas where I would prefer Ireland’s approach, but to call it inferior would be disingenuous, hey, you might even say it’d be downright bourgeois. Of course, as any student will tell you, there’s more to life than university. I live in the 18th arrondissement of Paris by Montemarte, a fairly groovy part of the city that is home to the Sacré Coeur, the Moulin Rouge and a hive of sex shops. I know; I ought to wash my Irish Catholic eyes out with vinegar. My landlord genuinely described the area as “ooh la la.” How painfully French, indeed.If my advice is worth anything, I’d suggest avoiding student accommodation out here. Though certainly cheaper, the government-built apartment blocks for students tend to be located well outside the city and so you’re unlikely to get any real feel for Paris.Rent is, unsurprisingly, very high in central Paris but you can claw a chunk of that back through the CAF (Caisse d'Allocations familiales) student accommodation grant from the French government. Easier said than done, French administration being the miasma of hate that it is, but it helps.So, what do I live on? Suffice it to say I am now officially eurotrash, with both cheese and wine being staples of my diet. When you can get a bottle of red for €1.50 in a supermarket, you’d be mad not to exploit it.Admittedly, at that price the stuff tastes like, looks like and possibly is nail varnish, but with everything else out here costing an arm and a leg, if you shop conservatively you’re practically beating austerity.Going out is a different beast entirely. Your bottle of wine that was such good value in the shop is eye-wateringly pricey in the club. A pint of beer in a pub usually costs anywhere between €7 and the price of a small family home in Leitrim.It’s best to gather round with friends at your apartment for drinks before heading out. If you do as the French do and call pre-drinks “aperitifs” you feel far less pathetic.Naturally, over time, you develop your own relationship with the city. It’ll irritate you and it’ll make you feel foolish, but you can’t help falling a little bit in love as you stroll through such iconic streets. Such extremes of emotion. Such highs and lows. Well then, is that not true romance?