Postcards from Abroad: Paris


Image credit: Marie Whelan

The evening before the semester began, sitting in my new home and contemplating my decision to study at La Sorbonne, I was interrupted by a phone call from my parents. With the constant hype and well-wishes of every person that I encountered for months prior to my departure, that was the first time I had felt slightly nervous (especially when I realised that the only pre-departure preparation I had done was watching obscure French films). When I remarked to my parents that I couldn’t wait until I could go home to visit, it was the most genuine thing I uttered that day.

Long before I arrived in France, I had been warned by people who lamented “la bureaucratie Française”, and whom I naively believed to be overdramatic. I think the fact that you need to register for a library card in addition to your student card alone is just one notable example of French administration doing nothing by halves. A student travel card is obtained with relative ease in Dublin with a flash of your student ID. Here, you face a lengthy application form and several accompanying documents to be attached and then posted to their headquarters. I arrived with a folder of official documents and their replicas, which after a month of university work, is still the heaviest folder I possess. I assure you that isn’t just a reflection of my deteriorating work ethic.

Language-wise, there are certain things the classroom teaches you which don’t translate very smoothly to the reality of communicating abroad. Things such as being engrossed in conversation and anticipating perfectly enunciated and grammatically correct sentences. For example, you expect to hear: “Tu n’as pas fait…” which years of education has given you the ability to decipher and instead you just barely catch: “T’as pas fait…” These don’t appear to be so different, but if you think we speak quickly in Ireland, the French language is almost constructed to permit as many words per minute as possible in the most lyrical way. Yes, that sentence is long on purpose to emphasise the point. Basically, when it takes you five minutes to realise you’ve accidentally stumbled into the wrong history lecture (Napoléon instead of Le Concert Européen is quite the mistake), you realise that whilst you may have the vocabulary, you’ll need to adapt to the speed.

I have yet to encounter the archetype of the rude Parisian, en fait, I often struggle to measure up to their standards of politeness. As a friend of mine who also lives here theorised: “They can’t find anything else to fault the city on so they resort to saying the inhabitants are rude!” However, my constant efforts to speak their language may be the reason for the friendliness I have encountered. In the process of opening my bank account, the man even remarked: “Tu parles très bien Français” while I thought to myself: “That might be because I recited my opening monologue to myself while I was in the queue”. As I soon came to learn, when you begin a conversation with complex French, you inevitably give the people you are speaking to high expectations, which places a lot of pressure on the quality of your improvisation. However, these situations are sink or swim and I feel like I am keeping my head above water.

It would be impossible to discuss Paris and neglect to mention the immense cultural wealth of the city (I mean wealth literally; they seem to have unlimited funds for artistic events). You can barely turn around without beholding magnificent architecture or being swathed in layers of historical significance. Walking daily through the maze that is La Sorbonne, the 13th century building never becomes any less awe-inspiring, which compensates for my having double the amount of contact hours here as I have in UCD. This as well as the fact that most museums, historical sites and art galleries are free for anyone of 25 years or under means there is no excuse to return to Ireland being anything but completely unbearable to listen to.

In living here for a month now I’ve come to view it as the absolute dream that it is. Not only have I made friends from France but also from all around the globe. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t stop to appreciate my surroundings or check another must-see famous feature off of my list. I’m now a far cry (and there were a few tears at the debut) from where I was when I arrived. Now I’m certain that I can survive, and hopefully thrive here, and that is the most genuine thing I’ve said today.