At the beginning of Michaelmas term, as Freshers flood in to Oxford, another group of students leave the city with no less enthusiasm: third year language students starting their year abroad. Having just completed a heady two years of literature studies and grammar tests, they head off to the relevant corners of the world to immerse themselves in the culture of their respective languages and to pick up a dodgy accent just in time for their oral exams.
I am one of them, and so Oxford was understandably the last thing on my mind as I headed to the Eurostar last week, feeling rather smug with my one-way ticket in hand, and lugging a suitcase at least twice my weight in which I had tried (and inevitably failed) to pack my whole life for a year. Having sacrificed a few grammar books to make space for more useful things, such as more shoes, I felt ready to discover a world that I knew only from old novels and a few childhood holidays.
Arriving in Paris two hours later, I immediately regretted stuffing a dictionary into my luggage ‘just in case’ when I realised that the metro, unlike the London Underground, is equipped neither with lifts nor escalators. It took all my strength to drag my bags to the school in central Paris where I will be living and working as a language assistant for the next seven months: this is how most students choose to spend the year, as it is undoubtedly the easiest way to find a job abroad.
When I finally reached my destination (looking rather unattractively sweaty and red-faced) I approached the receptionist to announce my arrival. Although I generally refrain from using generalisations, I must say that this woman embodied the stereotypical view of the French as rather unhelpful. My greeting was met with a surly look and the silent proffering of a set of keys, and only after a bit of gentle persuasion did I manage to get some sketchy directions to my room. Fortunately, the vast majority of French people I have since met have been lovely, even if they often speak too fast for me to catch every word.
The first job that you are faced with when moving abroad is to drag yourself away from the new and exciting sights and instead complete a lot of mind-numbingly boring administrative tasks. In the months before my departure, I had received endless bits of paper from different organisations, all requiring signatures, official stamps and proof of ID to comply with various nonsensical regulations.
Fortunately, unlike the majority of students, I haven’t had to find my own accommodation – that’s when the red tape becomes a real horror story.
With a week to go before starting work, I was then free to make the most of my time in Paris. My priority this year, like most other language students, is to make some French friends so that I can get to grips with the spoken lingo. This is easier said than done when you are in a city where you know literally no one. A couple of nights in, I summoned the courage to venture to a bar alone in the hope of meeting, if not some potential friends, some temporary speaking-partners.
Having found a place where the crowd was young and the drinks cheap (but still about twice as much as you’d pay in England), I stationed myself at the bar with a pint – or rather ‘une pinte’ – and tried to look as friendly and open to conversation as possible. Obviously this didn’t work, so I eventually bit the bullet, marched over to the nearest group of French students and introduced myself. I soon realised that reading the complete works of Flaubert doesn’t really prepare you for a conversation about the ignorance of the English when it comes to fine wine, but it nevertheless ended up being a successful night – so ‘successful’ in fact that we didn’t manage to coordinate swapping phone numbers…
Since taking that initial step to shamelessly introduce myself to anyone and everyone who speaks French, it’s become a lot easier to approach people. Of course I still feel like an idiot most of the time, but when times get tough it’s quite easy be consoled by remembering that yes, I am in Paris, the unofficial world capital of culture, fashion and bohemian spirit – that usually succeeds to fill me with a warm, fuzzy sense of self-satisfaction.
How would I sum up my first impressions? Well, I’ve been buying all of the things I forgot to pack, have had a million forms to fill in, and am now desperately trying to make new friends in dodgy bars… perhaps it’s not a million miles from Freshers’ week in Oxford after all.