When in my First Year at University in Canterbury, the professor mentioned that it was possible for students to spend a year abroad studying in France. My eyes lit up. I knew that studying in France was what I wanted to do.
We, as a class, visited Lille, where we could study, to see if we liked it. It was a frosty December when we visited, only for a few days. I remember vividly our trip to the Universite Catholique de Lille, it was a majestic, Harry Potter-esque building, with a huge cathedral connected to the left-hand side. The complex towered above my eighteen-year-old self, and when we had been introduced to Professor and had the basics explained to us, we then had to speak French – to French people our age. I stuttered my words out, with my face going red, and my hands getting clammy and my self-belief clearly lacking. I realized there was definitely room for improvement. Personally, that was the turning point. As far as I know, the best way to learn a language is to surround yourself in the culture, in the language and to be able to become independent. These would become my aims for my year in France. It would be much longer than the usual two-week holiday with my parents, where I would impress the waiter with my knowledge of “ l’addition”, or the strange look when I asked for butter with my bread with our evening meal. Could I, handle living in a foreign land for a year? I was soon to find out.
After having a pleasant week in Belgium with my parents in the following August, they left me to fend for myself (well, that’s how it felt), in Lille. I suffered a few mishaps, such as being locked out my dorm without a key, but I survived. I was in luck when another student from Canterbury was living in the room beside me! What a coincidence, as we had many dorms to choose from, we ended up beside each other. We knew of each other beforehand in class, and had exchanged a few pleasantries in passing, on Facebook and in person, but nothing more than that. Without a doubt, we were both happy to see an ally in Northern France!
My accommodation was an old 19th Century Franciscan Monastery with a chapel included, where you would get woken up by the organ when there is mass two times a week – only in Latin. Furthermore, we have a ping pong room in the basement, a fridge-freezer in each bedroom, but almost no WiFi. This was particularly difficult at first, but the lack of internet was a blessing in disguise. It made all the residents in the dorm come out of their rooms, we played ping pong, instead of skyping our friends from home, and as a residence, we became friends. The place is full of students, the French were more subdued whereas the international students of many nationalities (from Austria to Venezuela) were much more outgoing and lively.
As with all the international students, we had to choose our modules to study. In England, it is all done with two clicks of the mouse, once a year. Well, this is not the case in France. In Lille, you went into a room with a pen and paper, with each subjects courses on the walls, where one creates a personal timetable, for the international officer to sign off. It took me around 4 hours to make sure there were no clashes, and that I had the sufficient amount of credits. In order to fulfill the amount of credits one does in Canterbury, I had a minimum of 26 hours of lectures in a normal week which fluctuates up to nearly 38 hours with added lectures and exams up to 4 hours in length each, of which all were in French. The modules I studied were wide-ranging, from a masters course in ‘the aesthetics of contemporary music’ to French Institutions of the fifth Republic.
The mode of teaching in France was, for me, old-fashioned. Most of my classes were very simple. An older male professor, with a word processed document would read this document, page by page, word for word, until the class is over writing a few words on the dusty blackboard. Some of my music professors brought a cassette player to class to play examples. There were no PowerPoint presentations to be seen. The teacher would then resume where he left off the following week. There would be a few questions, and then the homework would be set at the end of the lesson. No matter what, there would be a break of 10 minutes halfway during our class for a cigarette break. The break would be pursued subtly by the students, when they would all, one by one, put their pots of tobacco on the table and start rolling cigarettes. Then, to my amazement, the teacher would join in! On many occasions, I was the only one left in the classroom, as they all stood on the steps and I could see the cloud of smoke, along with their espresso’s, rising into the atmosphere.
However, some classes were not like this description. There were a few that had a much friendlier tone, and a more inclusive way of learning, talking and questioning the students, and used PowerPoint, and video technology. I found being at French university a great experience because I learnt a lot more techniques and methods of learning not just from class but from the students (native and international) themselves.
In some classes, I was the only non-French student. In these classes, the setting was always school classroom format. I used to sit at the back, with my phone recording the class, and me writing down words I didn’t understand, of which I’d research later. International students in my class would do the same and we would talk about our views on the class and the difficulties we had and then we would overcome the problem areas together. Sometimes I would mimic and listen to the class on the way home, but sometimes I’d put my earphones and relax a little after a long 12-hour day of lectures.
In the first year of University, I had 12 hours of lectures, so the workload was much higher, and the fatigue that one suffers, particularly because of the high concentration levels to understand the language and to fit in. At first, there was a lot more guessing of words, but as I developed my language specific to the subjects (as well as daily life) I was studying, as well as broadening my language skills formally while talking to the teacher, as well as talking informally to other students. I had certainly improved.
The French were, at times, grumpy, unhelpful, and slow. However, the French aren’t that bad. They laugh at our amazement of fresh bread and how everything’s shut on a Sunday. They constantly made jokes about “Us” (The English) nearly losing Scotland in the recent referendum, and we laughed at the American students wanting to constantly go on day trips to Dunkerque for the ‘sea, sand and sun’, me and the locals felt obligated to tell them that it is next to a port, nuclear power station and a chemical factory. It was difficult to start talking to the French, particularly in the residence and in class they seemed a little distance. But once the ice was broken, it became much easier. But, it was always easier to talk to the international students, as we shared a lot more in common and we could share our experiences, linguistically and culturally and broaden our awareness. On reflection, I wish I had been bolder in talking to French students and gaining more French friends, rather than international. This would be the key change I make if I were to do it again.
Culturally, Lille was a thriving hub of the arts and culture. I went to many music concerts such as Yann Tiersen, and La Roux, as well as attending exhibitions at the numerous art galleries, such as La Piscine in Roubaix, to the Louvre-Lens. I spent most of my time walking around the city, getting a metro day pass, and visiting the local markets in Wazemmes, and visiting all the churches in the suburbs. The food was typical of the region, but it failed to convince me sometimes. My obligatory Ham and Cheese Baguette from the boulangerie was excellent, the Lille Specialties of Moules Frites with strong Cheese Sauce, was not appealing. Me and some friends regularly went to Flunch, hardly the height of French Cuisine.
I cannot go without talking about the biggest culture shock for me, and the French People, and that was the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. I lived in a city that was only an hour away from Paris, and the Manhunt to come in the following days, deeply affected Lille. The mass patrolling of Policemen with Machine guns, in the streets and shopping centres was constant. It continued throughout my time there. All the shop windows were covered with “Je Suis Charlie”. The posters were taken down, after a month or two, but Lille, like France remained scarred by the events.
In conclusion, during my year abroad, there was never been a dull moment, from bumping into the French President, Francois Hollande, to seeing the finish of Paris-Roubaix, an international cycle race. But, the smallest things were the best. I created a French Bank Account, I battled against French bureaucracy to get student housing benefit, which took a total of 7 months to arrive. I managed to get a decent haircut and have small talk in French in France with a hairdresser. It was clear to me, I was part of French society. I could talk about the local news as I read the free newspaper daily, I could talk about the football results as I went to the matches, and I could talk about how much better the people of Lille were, compared to the local rivals, Lens. I enjoyed my experience at French University, I developed independence as a language learner, and learned to laugh and relax, and speak coherently gained new confidence. This was my aim, and I achieved it. But most importantly, I had fun. I even sounded like I’d learnt French from Lille with a touch of ch’ti accent, according to the locals. I have gained experience for the future with a more in-depth knowledge of France and the culture and made contacts from around the world.
After my year abroad in Lille, I feel more European, and more globalized because of my time in a different country. It was difficult to adapt back to England, and I was almost disappointed to be back. However, it inspired me to do more journeys akin to Lille, and I plan to travel, work and live in different countries in years to come.