Last 30 days in Paris

Seine

View of Conciergerie and Pont Notre Dame from Pont d’Arcole

I spent much of my exchange leaving Paris. Without realizing it, Paris had become a fixed landmark to which I return from visiting unfamiliar European countries. The novelty of studying in Paris may wear off until only the daily minutiae remains, but the exchange experience is singular and exceptional. I may have become complacent and take Paris for granted, but something would inevitably happen or catch my eye, and the months would pull back to present me with the Paris that I had seen when I landed back in August. It is beautiful, quirky, rude, charming, and full of culture. The weather also helps. With temperatures going to the mid-twenties, Paris feels reborn.

Interior of Orsay Museum - seen from the 5th level observatory deck.

Interior of Orsay Museum – seen from the 5th level observatory deck.

Due to early onset of nostalgia, I decided to visit and re-visit all the sites I love best, and those I would regret should I return home without fresh memories. I spent the past weekend at the Musée d’Orsay for the exhibitions on Van Gogh and Gustave Doré. As a student, showing my student card allowed me to enter the museum for free and bypass much of the tourist lines. For those interested, one of Sciences Po’s lecture courses this semester is actually held in Musée d’Orsay. A similar class was held in the Louvre last semester. I was not fortunate enough to enroll in these classes, but it must have been surreal to learn art history and art theory with the original art work less than a meter in front of you.

Musée d’Orsay is a 10 minute walk from Sciences Po, and has the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works. Paintings from Monet, Renoir, Degas and countless others in the 19th and 20th centuries are displayed in the permanent collections of the museum. The 5 euro audio guide is fantastic for those who want to learn a bit more about the history behind some of the artworks. The museum itself is located in a converted train station, and absolutely beautiful. Sadly, Musée d’Orsay does not allow photography of the artworks. I was able to take a picture of the interior main hall of the museum, but it was incredibly difficult to restrain myself from taking photos of some of my favourite impressionist paintings.

Orsay is a relatively smaller and more intimate museum, nothing like the daunting grandeur of the Louvre. Even so, I easily spent 6 hours moving from painting to painting. As the museum closes and I was politely herded outside, I encountered a sizeable group of protesters gathered at the front squares of the museum demanding the government for income equality and housing subsidies. It is an incongruous sight. But Paris is good at this – balancing its rich cultural history with the modern demands of big cities. It is one of its many charms.

Of mornings, classes, and sports

Paris

Notre Dame

The semester officially started for me on a dark and chilly Monday when I struggled to get out of bed at 6am. For the first time in my entire schooling career, I have not one, but two classes at 8am in the morning. At this time of the year, the sun rises in Paris at around 8:30am. I walked to Sciences Po along curiously silent streets, accompanied by rows of darkened storefronts. Above ground, Paris is quiet. There are far less cars on the streets than in Toronto at the same time. And there seemed to be a silent solidarity of misery amongst the few darkly dressed pedestrians that I encountered.

I am pleased to announce that my 8am classes are interesting, although one of them requires getting up early on Saturday for supplemental field trips. However, when a professor offers to take the whole class on a walking tour of Paris to get to know the city better, one simply does not refuse.

The first week of second semester, in many ways, is similar to the one I experienced back in September. And I have neglected to blog about one of the features of this opening week. Sciences Po offers a variety of sports classes, ranging from the conventional tennis, volleyball, and dance classes to martial arts, fencing, and a few slightly less common fields such as polo and pétanque. During the first week of each semester, all sports classes are open for trial. Students can attend as many classes as they desire with absolutely no restrictions or fees. But, if you want to take a sports class for the rest of the semester, you would have to pay additional fees. And though students do not receive any actual grades, missing more than two classes will still result in a “fail” on your transcript.

All of these classes happen outside of Sciences Po, in various facilities throughout the city that host regular classes of their respective sports. This allows you to explore a new part of the city, but it does create inefficiencies. How many people would actually take the metro for 50 minutes just to get to an one hour skating class?

I tried out a class on canne de combat, which is a type of martial arts originated in France around the 19th Century when the bourgeoisie sought to defend themselves from the less savoury elements of the city with their walking canes. As a class for the totally lost, fumbling beginners, it was surprisingly fun. Sadly, as I have only attended one class, I cannot offer any observations of how canne de combat reflect the national psyche and cultural identity of France, or even of Paris. Perhaps at the end of this semester, I will be able to provide a more insightful reflection.

Until next time!

A new year, a new adventure

Happy 2014, and a wonderful new semester to all U of T students! I offer my condolences for the deep freeze that seems to have gripped Eastern Canada. We’ve noticed here in France! In a true display of schadenfreude, everyone has been asking recently me how cold it is in Toronto.

Since there were no blog posts over the winter holiday, I’ll give an update on how I spent my Christmas and New Years. December was pretty much a month of travel once exams were done. Besides London, and Milan (which I blogged about in my last post), I visited the famous Christmas markets at Strasbourg.

Strasbourg

Strasbourg – Christmas Decorations

Strasbourg

Strasbourg – Christmas Decorations at night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spent Christmas eve in Frankfurt.

Frankfurt

Frankfurt – Christmas Eve at Romer Square to hear the bell toll with hundreds of Germans

Frankfurt

Frankfurt – I also had my first taste of the hearty German portion. I don’t think I have ever seen this much food served for one meal before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas day in Heidelberg.

Heidelberg

Heidelberg – It was raining for the whole day I was there, but it was still an amazing trip.

Heidelberg

Heidelberg – the view of the town from Heidelberg Castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last four days of 2013 in Berlin.

Berlin

Berlin – I have so many photos of Berlin I wasn’t sure how to even choose. So, have a photo of my favourite group of museums on Museum Island. The Neues Museum with the beautiful Nefertiti, and the Pergamon Museum. The Old National Gallery was unfortunately closed on the day of my visit.

Berlin

Berlin – the Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt was still going strong past Christmas. This is probably the best Christmas market I have been to (even compared with those in Strasbourg and Frankfurt), with the most interesting and diverse stalls and lively but orderly atmosphere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And back in Paris just in time for New Year’s eve.

One disappointment in the amazing last 11 days of 2013 was the lack of official fireworks in Paris to herald the arrival of 2014. The light show at the Eiffel Tower was amazing (and I have heard good things about the one at Champs Elysées as well), but there is something to be missed about the noise and fanfare of city-wide fireworks.

—–

The new semester at Sciences Po starts on January 20th, but our course enrolment was today. I have written about course enrolment before, but it just goes to show that one can never be completely prepared with student exchanges. At 2pm Paris time, one hour before the official registration starts, the Sciences Po website crashes (the consensus seems to point to overcapacity from too many people trying to log in at once). Panicked posts start appearing on the Sciences Po exchange group on Facebook. The general level of hysteria among exchange students rises as Sciences Po administration admits that they have no idea when the website will be back up.

3pm, the time of course registration, comes and passes with the website down to all. Now there are posts from students who are waiting in airports, with flights in an hour, frantically looking for alternate options. While I track the general going-ons on social media, I have been refreshing the course enrolment page constantly, because the website can be fixed at any time, and all the courses would be fair-game. I was rewarded for my perseverance when at 3:11pm, the website loads for me, and I immediately went in and enrolled in courses. Woe be the students who decided to take a break and came back to discover most of the courses were full.

To be honest, besides the anxiety caused by the malfunctioning website, course enrolment seems to be a lot smoother for most students in the second semester. There was no posts from students who weren’t able to enrol in even one course. And Sciences Po administration seems to have learned from the pitfalls of last semester and blocked off some seats for each class, and released some after every few hours so students who were late still have some courses from which to choose. Now, if UofT professors would kindly reply to my emails about pre-approving courses, that would be great.

All said, I am incredibly excited about the start of the second half of my exchange in Paris. I’ll try to do the blog, and the city justice. Until next time!

On winter holidays and exams

Though Christmas is not yet upon us, the streets of Paris have been recently given a very festive uplift. Lights now hang over most streets. Many shops have also busted out their Christmas lights.

Boulevard Saint-Germain near Sciences Po

Boulevard Saint-Germain, near Sciences Po

But before Christmas travels and celebrations can even happen, one has to get through exams at Sciences Po. For most exchange students, classes have ended this week. The official exam period starts on the week of December 9th and continues until the few days before Christmas. As an exchange student, many of your classes will have in-class exams, or just a final assignment instead of an exam. So a large part of your December can be devoted to travels and other non-academic aspects of your exchange experience. But in the spirit of all the exams we have to get through before the holiday season, I will briefly describe the general forms of evaluations at Sciences Po.

Exams at Sciences Po are not very different from those at U of T. You have the typical essay exams and multiple choice exams. There are, of course, also those non-exams that come in the form of essays and presentations. I have noticed that all my assigned essays have not asked for more than 2500 words (this is a marked contrast to my first essay ever at U of T, which was for HIS103 and already passed 3000 words).

For the lucky few who land themselves in certain French courses, you might have a Grand Oral exam. The exam is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a typical written exam, you will be given some materials and a few minutes to prepare (there are also cases where you will be given the topic a week beforehand) before you head in to the room and give a 10 minute presentation followed by a discussion with the jury (which could just be your professor). This sort of examination is more common in the masters level at Sciences Po, but certain undergrad professors like to challenge their students. For those who get to experience this uniquely Sciences Po tradition, Bon Courage!

The most distressing fact for assessments at Sciences Po is that you do not know how you are doing in a course until you see your transcript. Professors at Sciences Po are not obligated to, in fact they are encouraged not to, reveal your mark for any of your assignments and tests, because these marks will not reflect your final mark. You can imagine how this may present some difficulties in identifying gaps in your knowledge or the amount of time you should allocate to any subject.

This scuffle over grades stems from the fact that Sciences Po is one of those schools that subscribe quite ardently to the concept of bell-curving and grade distribution. There is a cap on the number of students that can be in a particular grade-range. And to be honest, this is something that deeply bothers me as a student. At U of T, I try to avoid courses where the first thing the professor mentions is that only a certain number of students will receive an arbitrary grade without even knowing the intellectual composition of the class.

This system is fully and strictly in place at Sciences Po, though the professors here are better at diplomatically explaining it. I can overlook the grade distribution because of the many other positive aspects of my exchange. And if you do not really care for how you do on exchange as long as you pass your courses, this will not be a big issue. But if you do care about your academic performance whether for scholarships or for graduate school, you should keep this in mind prior to making your decision.

Sojourns to Spain

Reading break travelling is a widespread phenomenon at Sciences Po. Though I usually spend that week catching up on readings back in Toronto, it is almost a pathological need in Paris to visit the half dozen countries on my travel list. Spain seems as good a destination as any. A word of advice, the few days you leave before or after the trip for ‘studying’? They won’t be very productive days.

An hour and a half flight gets you from Paris to Barcelona.

La Rambla - Barcelona

La Rambla – Barcelona

Stepping off the plane, I was hit with the most pleasant humid warmth. Even at midnight, Barcelona was about 22 degrees Celsius. It was a much welcomed change from Paris’ perpetual rain and chill. Contrary to what I had first believed, Paris is not a very sunny city. Rain is a very familiar companion now that the weather has cooled.

Stumbled upon a Saint’s festival celebration at Placa de Sant Jaume – Barcelona

 

The three cities I visited: Barcelona, Seville and Madrid were exceedingly lovely. The food was amazing. I have never had that much delicious food for such a relatively (relative to Paris at least) inexpensive price. I went to a sangria and paella-making class that gave us unlimited sangria and fresh made-on-the-spot paella taught by a chef all for 20 euros. I would recommend this to anyone who visits Barcelona. The street performances, in Madrid especially, can be somewhat bewildering. I have seen men with faux baby bodies making cat noises, but I have also heard truly talented operatic singers performing along Calle Mayor. The architecture, without a doubt, is beautiful. From La Sagrada Familia to Plaza de Espana, Spain is a feast for the eyes and the camera lens.

The awe-inspiring Plaza de Espana - Seville

The awe-inspiring Plaza de Espana – Seville

Alcazar

Seville is beautiful, but a large portion of the population simply did not speak English or French…- Alcazar, Seville

If I could redo this trip, I would try to learn more Spanish (a language with which I had no previous knowledge). French won’t get you very far in Spain, even if Catalan seems to be a mix of French and Spanish to me. Success with English also varies depending on your location. I had thought to learn the few greetings and gratitudes in Spanish, but it is never ideal not to be able to communicate with the locals properly. I was unprepared when I found myself lost at the Seville train station at night, not seeing the promised shuttle to the hostel and unable to ask for directions from the train station help desk. After half an hour of hand gestures and a few completely made-up words that sounded vaguely Spanish, I decided to bite the cost of roaming charges and called for help with my phone.

Gran Via

Walking down Gran Via – Madrid

Madrid also saw my biggest tactical error: not checking the weather of the city beforehand. I had assumed that Madrid, due to its southern location, would be considerably warmer than Paris (think Barcelona). And consequently, packed only short-sleeves with a very light jacket. Big mistake! I spent my stay in Madrid doing some desperate shopping for warm clothes.

Despite the few downs, I loved my time in Spain. It was definitely well worth the sleepless nights spent studying for midterms the week after. I am of the belief that people should shape their exchange experience in any way they desire, but please keep in mind the opportunity to travel. An hour flight from Paris will take you to at least 6 different countries. The same cannot be said for Toronto. Wherever you go for your exchange, maximize your experience. Don’t hesitate to fly out and travel.

A Survival Guide to French Bureaucracy

The exchange experience is not only about getting to know a brand new culture, travelling, and generally having the best time of your life. It is also about dealing with the complexities of a different culture, the paperwork and the ways things are done in a different country. When I extended my health card back in Toronto for my stay in Paris, the lady at the counter remarked off-handedly that the French love their paperwork. It was almost a premonition to what was about to come.

As an exchange student, you will need to deal with the French bureaucracy in 3 major cases: student registration at Sciences Po, residence permit (for the Non-Europeans) and CAF (the French government’s housing subsidy). And that perception of a slow and cumbersome French bureaucracy? It is mostly true.

There isn’t really a way to escape the bureaucracy. But there are ways to make your life easier, and some things that I would have done differently were I to be given a second chance.

1. Be prepared and have contingency plans.

If you thought course registration at U of T was stressful, think again. All exchange students at Sciences Po register for courses at the same time. To give you the context, all third-year Sciences Po students either go on a full-year exchange or a full-year internship. That means there is a full year worth of exchange students coming to Sciences Po and choosing courses at the exact same moment. I managed to get 4 of my 5 desired courses, but there were many students who had empty schedules by the end of course registration. The key is to know that English courses fill up much more quickly than French ones, to try to enrol in the most interesting-sounding courses first, and to watch the course enrolment demo video very carefully in the days before.

2. Follow the instructions very very carefully. 

Staying on the topic of course registration, people who were not able to enrol in their preferred courses can send a request to the administration. The course request procedure is very particular, and the steps have to be followed to the letter for your request to be processed in a timely matter. When the Sciences Po admin say to only send them the form once and not to contact them otherwise, they mean it. I know students who emailed and phoned and generally tried to reach the administration every other hour. They were often the ones who had their problems resolved later than others. Of course, no one likes that feeling of panic and helplessness, but it is important to keep in mind that Sciences Po (and Paris at large) has a very particular way in which certain things are carried out, and it is highly unlikely for them to change their ways upon your request.

In many other cases, such as for your residence permit (carte de sejour) or CAF, you may not be able to go to the different offices and hand in your documents personally. Many things have to be done through mail, and it is generally the case that French government branches will not process your file if you did not send in all your documents following their exact requirements.

3. Do everything as soon as you can.

For the Canadians and other non-Europeans out there, please do not wait until a few days before your visa expires to apply for your carte de sejour. You will end up like one of my friends who is now stuck in France during reading break because her visa has expired. Getting your carte de sejour (residence permit) is quite tedious. I will not go into detail here, but should anyone have any questions, feel free to ask. If you qualify for the housing subsidy from the French government (aka CAF), keep in mind that they do not subsidize your rent retroactively. That means if you apply for CAF in November, you will not be subsidized for the months of September and October.

4. Keep copies of all your documents, no matter how insignificant and irrelevant they may seem.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the number of documents you will encounter throughout all the administrative processes inevitably means something will be missed. I had forgotten to save a copy of my online CAF application form, which was apparently needed for the paper part of the application. To my dismay there was no way to access the form after I exited the CAF website. It took the better part of an hour and a 40 cent per minute phone call to the CAF office for a staff member to agree to mail me a paper version of the form.

5. Expect yourself to be unprepared. 

I had thought I would be prepared and made countless electronic and paper copies of all my important documents stashed in various compartments of my luggage. But during my carte de sejour application, I was told that the visa-sized photos I shelled out $19 for back in Canada did not conform to the standard glossiness for the permit (I did not even realize there were different levels of glossiness for photos). Luckily there was a photo-booth one floor up and I was able to have my photos taken for 5 euros (this says a lot for being over-prepared). But this did mean lining up again and re-submitting my documents for inspection.

6. Have patience, and a healthy dose of optimism. 

I realize that things may seem a bit grim and tedious, but the way I found most effective to combat bureaucratic stress was to believe that things will work out. Deal with these necessary bureaucratic nightmares, but don’t lose sight of all the fun and excitement of the exchange experience. I remember copious amounts of Nutella and a dinner out with friends after a cold and miserable 8 hours spent trying to submit my titre de sejour application in person. And sometimes, French bureaucracy will work just right and pleasantly surprise you with their efficiency

Sciences Po – the ‘academic’ part of the exchange

While frosh week and related shenanigans took place on the other side of the Atlantic, the academic term started at Sciences Po on September 2nd.

For those unfamiliar with the school, the Institut d’etudes politiques de Paris (Sciences Po for short) is one of the leading universities in Europe in the fields of political science and international relations. It was founded in 1872 as a reaction to France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and from a desire to change the French political and ideological landscape. The university, I was told during the Welcome Day, was created to teach future politicians and diplomats how to make decisions and how to lead.

Whether or not the school succeeded in doing so is up for debate. But what it does mean for an exchange student studying here is some truly multi-disciplinary courses taught by practitioners and academics of the field. It is very difficult to find a course in Sciences Po that is strictly in its given discipline. And that perhaps explains, partially, why it is so difficult to get that 300 level economics transfer credit. Your economics course is not just economic theory; it also incorporates elements of history, politics and philosophy.

This is a field day for international relations students who, by the structure of the IR program at U of T, have to take courses (that may or may not integrate nicely) from the economics, history and political science departments. You have an advantage here over other students, who might have been confused by that throwaway reference to the Wars of Devolution in your Public International Law class.

Campus:

Sciences Po map

Map of Sciences Po campus courtesy of Sciences Po’s website. The buildings in red are school buildings. (For undergrad students, your main classes will be in buildings A, B, H and J)

Sciences Po is located in the centre of Paris. It is a 15 minute walk from the Louvre and a 30 minute walk from the Eiffel Tower.

The school is very different from U of T, not just in terms of the overall size (Sciences Po is much smaller), but also in how decentralized and integrated the campus is.

(Aside: interestingly, Sciences Po gives 15 minutes in between consecutive classes, while U of T gives only 10…You will never have to sprint down the street to get to your next class on time at Sciences Po.) 

Walking to school is an exercise in colour-coordination and pulling off that seemingly-effortless elegance. This may seem incredibly clichéd, but when you have to walk past speciality Haute Couture stores and other finely-dressed Parisians (even your classmates!) on your way to class, you will be hard-pressed to continue dressing like a slob.

A comparison of the physical sizes of the two universities:

UofT

U of T St. George campus (courtesy of google maps)

Sciences Po campus

The much smaller Sciences Po campus (courtesy of google maps). You can barely see the school buildings behind the giant Sciences Po label.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Academics:

Sciences Po employs an unique methodology that is difficult to explain. Perhaps you have encountered it elsewhere, but this was my first time encountering this particular format, and it caught me by surprise.

A proper ‘Sciences Po’ essay or exposé needs to have a problématique. The problématique is the central paradoxical question that your essay is trying to answer. The essay/presentation body is structured in two parts divided in a coherent manner (either thematically or chronologically). Then each of these two parts, is further divided into two sub-parts.

My TA provided a sample outline:

  • Introduction (historical context, define the terms of the assignment, problématique)
  • Part 1: Thematic argument 1
  •      1A: introduction to the specific argument, background, context
  •      1B: main argument 1
  • Part 2: Thematic argument 2
  •      2A: main argument 2
  •      2B: implications of the arguments
  • Conclusion (thesis)

Professors, especially of classes taught in French, are a stickler for this format. But don’t worry if this all seems awfully vague, everything becomes a bit clearer after you watch a few of the presentations by the local students.

A few things on classes at Sciences Po:

Attendance is mandatory. All courses (except lectures) take attendance. Missing more than two classes results in automatic failure. Suffice it to say, do not miss class.

Do not be late for class either! Depending on how strict your prof is, arriving 5 minutes after the start of class can be considered late. Accumulating enough “lates” will equate to an absence.

Follow the rules. In the words of my French Opera prof, the rules are not there for you to circumvent, no matter how cleverly you can do so. They are there to measure how you excel given the constraint of the rules. Your talent is demonstrated by your ability to follow the rules, like everyone else, while still presenting your own take on a given topic. It’s a different mindset than the one I am used to, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do right?

Like most buildings in France, Sciences Po is not air-conditioned. Summer can be extremely stifling, but given how quickly the weather has cooled, that should not be a problem. Whether or not the buildings have some sort of heater for the winter remains to be seen.

Until next time,

(Heading to Belgium this weekend. Anyone Europe-bound at the time?)

Grace