18 October 2012

The not-so-sweet life of a student in France.

Don't get me wrong when I say that the life of an Erasmus student isn't sweet; I love it because people practically throw money at you to go and piss about in foreign countries for a whole year, you don't wake up before 11am and your classes are all finished by 7pm so there's still time for food and drinks with the other Erasmus nutters afterwards and all the while the sun's still shining (most of the time).

However, as with all things in life, the sweet must come with the sour; the sour being the French university system and la bureaucratie. I'd heard rumours about how mind-numbingly tedious the insertion process can be and just how much hair you'd lose trying to find somebody to sign your bloody fiche pedagogique so you can actually sit the exams of the courses you're already registered on, but I thought they were just that. Rumours.

But no, there's no smoke without a fire, and we got chucked right into the middle of the flames, trying desperately to keep a hold of our home universities' apron strings in the process. The first thing I encountered when arriving at French university is that, when you take your arrival form to get signed, they don't do it there and then (like common sense would tell you to do) and you have to pick it up in a week's time. In the meantime, take these five other forms to fill in and bring them back at specified dates.

Next, you have to go to classes. Oh wait, no, sorry, it's not as simple as that. I mean you have to spend hours a day hunting around this labyrinth of a university, of which the only method of navigation is to use the graffiti and political propaganda as a sort of guide to remind you where you are, in order to find out the hours and classrooms of the modules you have chosen. You then have to make a rough draft of YOUR OWN TIMETABLE (first-world problems) to see if any of these modules clash with one another. If they do, you have to go and find other modules, note down their times and rooms, and see if they clash and so on and so forth until you have something that is sort of, a little bit, all right.

Smooth sailing from now on, yes? No. Of course not. This is France. Once you've managed to arrive at your classes, you're presented with the worry that there seems to be more people than places (which will happen in 99.999% of cases) and so, since you've already been here a month and know that queueing does not exist in Europe like it does in Britain, you put on your best stiff upper lip and break The Golden Rule of Queueing: you push in. You race to get a seat as far from the door as possible in the hope that that will mean you almost definitely won't be thrown back out, tail between your legs, and have to go looking for yet another class, but this is not the case. You must meet yet further requirements to be able to stay in this class:
  • priority is given to students who are staying for just one semester (strike one, I'm alright, I can stay)
  •  you must be 100% sure that this class is suited to the level of language that you possess (strike two? I don't know, I've not had any classes yet...)
  • you must have registered online on Gigue. (GIGUE?! What in the blue hell is this Gigue?! Nobody told us foreigners about this, I demand a rematch)
Thankfully, for me, Gigue seems to have only been relevant to my Spanish class, which I managed to find and register for and am therefore now immune to eviction from the Big Brother House (I honestly do feel like this is one big joke and somebody is watching me and putting up more red tape wherever I decide to walk until I'm in a tiny little square and can't go anywhere else so they just set fire to me - like on The Sims). 

There are possibly hundreds of other examples I could give of how frustratingly and unnecessarily complicated the French university system is, but really it's just more of the same old sign-this-paper, try-this-phone-number bureaucratic shit. And it's not just in institutions either. When preparing to come to France, I thought the stereotype of French bureaucracy only applied to things to do with the government and customs and banking, but this mentality leaks into everyday life as well. Again, I have encountered hundreds of examples and I've only been here a month and a half, but put it this way; if you go to GĂ©ant Casino or Carrefour and you're looking for a jar of haricots blancs, don't ask the woman on the meat section because she'll just tell you that she can't help you, it's not her section and will walk away from you, leaving you forever haricot blanc-less. Stereotypes come about for a reason, and remember kids, you're always wrong in the eyes of a French bureaucrat, even if you're right.


I thought that, as a 21 year-old hard ass from the North-East of England, having braved the bleak horizon of unemployment and low investments in my local area, nothing would prove too much of a problem, but the arse end of September and the dawning of October have really tested my patience (of which I have very little to begin with). I come from a long line of tough Geordie women who let neither man nor mishap stand in the way of what they want to do and thankfully, this has helped me. If I didn't have the Lockey gene, I don't know if I'd still have a full head of hair after the shit-storm of paperwork, heures de permanence and red tape I have just endured for the past two and a half weeks. I'd like to take this brief moment to thank my Nana Pat, all of her sisters, my Auntie Andrea and my mother, Bev, for always telling me to do what I want, don't let anybody stand in my way and to stick it to the man. NIQUE LA POLICE! VIVE LA REVOLUTION!


  1. I could have written this myself. Oh, France. (It gets better, right? RIGHT?)