Rediscovering London

Staying put for a long time can be difficult. I find that I get comfortable and forget to explore my surroundings. Luckily, two of my close friends came to visit me in London (one after the other) so I got the opportunity to rediscover the city that I live in.

First, my friend from Toronto came to visit. Because she had never been to London, I took her to some tourist attractions that I hadn’t been on myself since I was quite young.

Unfortunately, being a tourist isn’t cheap, but it was fun nonetheless.

Here’s a shot from the London Eye:

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And one of Westminster through the rain:

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Big Ben

My friend visited for a week and she still didn’t get to see everything she wanted to. That just shows that when you’re travelling, you have to plan out your time beforehand. Of course, getting everything done gets hard when it’s raining and all you want to do is sleep in! Nonetheless, we made it to Westminster, Covent Gaden, Oxford Circus, Picadilli Circus, Soho, and Chinatown. We even managed to go to Cardiff for a night. Talk about exhausting!

Before I could relax, my other friend, who goes to U of T and is doing a semester abroad in Dublin, came to visit for the weekend.

She had been to London before, so she was more interested in seeing the parts of the city that are less touristy. But we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop by Platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross station…

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Off to Hogwarts I go!

Quite hilariously, there’s a man who wraps a scarf around you and then waves it around for a photo. How does one obtain this job? Must look into it.

Following our Harry Potter excursion, we got into the spirit of Valentine’s Day and got our own love lock in Covent Garden for charity.

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Kat and I

At some point or other (my memory is just jumbled), we took a cute stroll down Carnaby street, stopping in some shops along the way…

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Not sure what this is for but it’s awesome

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Rule Britania

These past few weeks have been absolutely exhausting but so much fun! It’s always great to see familiar faces, and I got to introduce old friends to new.

Now if only I could catch up on sleep… but with school work and play rehearsals, that doesn’t seem likely. Ah well.

Til next time,

Veronika

The Arts in Berlin: An Attempt to Scratch the Surface

One blog post simply cannot even come close to describing the art scene here in Berlin. Berlin has tons of museums, theatres, galleries, concert halls, classical events, performances, street art, concerts, special exhibitions … the list is literally endless. To cover and to see it all would be impossible no matter how long someone stays in Berlin, mostly due to the fact that this scene is always changing, always evolving. With this blog I will briefly discuss three events and how they relate to my personal experience with what I have seen in here so far in relation to the arts.

The Berlinale logo and I

The Berlinale logo and I

Action on the Red Carpet

Action on the Red Carpet

Firstly, this past week was the start of the famous Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival. Like TIFF, Toronto’s International Film Festival, the Berlinale is one of the world’s leading film festivals in the world. Yesterday I went to see the action live on the Red Carpet with a really good friend of mine who is from Poland. I never saw such a spectacle in real life; usually just on TV back home. To actually see the actors and directors roll up in fancy cars all dressed up was quite the experience. It took place at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, one of the most important and major intersection hubs within the city of Berlin. This week we plan to get tickets and see the screening of one of the films. I am really looking forward to seeing further what a film festival is all about! I have never done such a thing before.

Stars rolling up

Stars rolling up

Next. Musical street performers … they are all over the city. From performing live at open-air markets on the weekend, to simply on the side of the street, to playing in parks, to dancing within the subway stations, to even strolling through the public trains, changing cars as they go along- they are everywhere. What is amazing about such performances in Berlin, is the diversity of what they do. I have seen solo singers perform wonderful works. There have been bands ranging from three to about eight members. Those who are really talented, make a LOT of money. I saw once a guitar case filled with what must have easily been at least 300 Euros.

Musical group at Mauerpark, an open-air Sunday market

Musical group at Mauerpark, an open-air Sunday market

A trio band performig in the Tiergarten

A trio band performig in the Tiergarten

There are guitarists, musicians who play every type of brass instrument you can think of, harmonica players, drummers, pianists, and even some foreign instruments which I have never seen before in my life. In particular, I enjoy how they mix genres and try to create new, funky sounds. It is hard to describe with mere words, but these street performers create new alternative music which is edgy and always exciting. One must simply hear it with their own ears. Most of these performers look well off, as if they do it often for money or just for fun because it’s what they love to do. Yet some, I can tell, are less fortunate, and it’s all they’ve got. Quite a few homeless people trying to make ends meet, performing what they can.

Unique music in Berlin's Mitte district

Unique music in Berlin’s Mitte district

A drummer in the Prenzlauer Berg district

A drummer in the Prenzlauer Berg district

Interesting instrument

Interesting instrument

Guitarist playing at Mauerpark

Guitarist playing at Mauerpark

A guitar player under a bridge at Alexanderplatz

A guitar player under a bridge at Alexanderplatz

Finally, I would like to share my experience I had one night at the very famous Berliner Philharmonie. It is a concert hall, home to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  The building itself is known for its amazing acoustics and its distinct architecture. I was blown away by the interior of the concert hall!  It holds a few thousand people and it looks breathtaking. The orchestra played very well and there was a famous female violinist who had a few solo performances too. One portion of the entire show included a massive organ that was super loud- I felt pretty rattled afterwards. I am normally not exposed to classical music, so this entire evening for me was a new experience and I enjoyed it. I definitely plan to see more such events in the future while I am still in Berlin.

The Berliner Philharmonie, simply breathtaking

The Berliner Philharmonie, simply breathtaking

A dash of multiculturalism

Last Friday was Chinese New Year, and for the next two weeks, there are various public events in Paris to celebrate. The parade near the City Hall the past Sunday was truly a spectacle. At 2:30 p.m., the crowd gathered in front of l’Hotel de Ville surged as the parade moved through rue du Temple.

l'Hotel de Ville

The crowds at l’Hotel de Ville (City Hall)

Parade

Chinese New Year Parade at rue Beaubourg, near Pompidou

Thousands of people turned up on the cool Sunday afternoon, many of them youths and children, but also a surprising number of adults who went alone for a chance to see something they do not see often. The parade was composed of some 20 contingents of performers dressed in festive or iconic clothing, shouting Bonne Année. It was loud, it was busy, and it was a great deal of fun.

I found it interesting that the roads on which the parade passed were not closed off. While I waited at a street corner with my friends and countless others, we saw cars driving through the crowds at glacial speed 30 minutes before the parade was scheduled to pass.

Going to the Chinese New Year parade reminded me of a topic that I feel might be important to briefly address. Coming from one of the most multicultural and accepting cities, Europe may seem a bit homogeneous and unwelcoming. Eurocentrism and orientalism are just some of the terms that come to mind. The reality, of course, is quite complex, and I can only speak from my personal experience. In terms of population, Paris is a very diverse city, and with it comes some degree of cultural desensitization. It is also a large and busy city. People have treated me the same way as they would anyone else, often because they do not have the time to act any differently.

But there have been occasions where people came up to me on the street, speaking the few Chinese or Japanese words they know. And there have been occasions where people invoked negative racial stereotypes in throwaway comments. These occasions are far from the norm and do not occur often, but it has happened enough times to me and to my friends to warrant this discussion. If you are an exchange student who is also a visible minority, you may very well encounter similar situations.

It is up to the individual to decide if these actions are condescending or an awkward attempt to be welcoming. In many cases, I have been told that these people are simply curious. Their clumsy and culturally insensitive approaches can be attributed to the fact that they do not often interact with culturally different people. It may well be that a good way to deal with these situations is to believe in their lack of sinister undertones. Ultimately, these situations affect individuals differently and it would be absurd to tell everyone to just ignore and brush aside racially and culturally offensive behaviour. The individual exchange student will have to make his or her decision on possible exchange programs with this in mind.

Studentenwerk Berlin

studentenwerk_berlin

I will dedicate this blog to educating my readers about the Studentenwerk Berlin (in German, Studentenwerk can be translated into something like “student services”). This is a large organization that operates with all the major universities in Berlin, such as the Humboldt University, the Free University and the Technical University.

The Studentenwerk Berlin provides different services to all its students. They cover student health insurance. They offer psychological counseling for students who need help. Those students seeking accommodation can apply specifically for a student dorm. Assistance is provided for students with children or those who have learning or working barriers. The Studentenwerk can help students find jobs, serving as a link between possible employers and students. There is also help for those international students who are dealing with language barriers.

It was actually through the Studentenwerk that I was able to secure my accommodations during the duration of my studies. When I applied for this exchange, I received messages from them asking if I would like to stay in a student hall of residence. I did not want the extra trouble and stress of trying to find my own apartment before arriving here so I let them do it for me. The accommodations within the Studentenwerk are mostly old buildings which were renovated into student dorms and most of the students who occupy them are international students from all over the world. There are about a dozen and they can be found spread throughout the city. There are different styles of flats, such as a WG (WG or Wohngemeinschaft in German means “flat share” in English) and single room apartments.

I live in a student WG with two other students. We have become good friends and I like it this way, as it enables me to have daily contact with fellow students. Nasr, one of my roommates, comes from Yemen and we communicate in German. Georgy is the other and he is an Australian native. We hang out quite often together and sometimes cook together. We live in a former East German-style apartment building. It is bare bones, but it serves its purpose and I could not be happier with my situation. There is a bathroom, a common kitchen, and we each have our own bedrooms. We have a student pub in the basement which is opened on the weekends and there is even a small gym which I frequently visit. It is not in the middle of the city, but for what I am paying (190 Euros per month) in comparison to other students I know, what I have is great.

Nasr and I eating Arabic food

Nasr and I eating Arabic food

Georgy and I enjoying Arabic food too

Georgy and I enjoying Arabic food too

Another service that the Studentenwerk Berlin operates is the Mensa (German word for university cafeteria). There are Mensas located all over the city close to the universities. A Mensa is provided to serve extremely cheap meals and snacks to all students and staff members. The food is pretty good and I can fill myself to the max with only 3 Euros. Little kiosks and mini-cafes are also located around campus and in some libraries for example where small foods and drinks can be purchased. Everything is paid electronically through a Mensa Card. It is kind of like the T-Card that we use back home. Students must load money onto their card at certain machines and then they can pay for their goods. Library services such as photocopying and printing are used with the Mensa Card as well, so it is very convenient.

My Mensa Card

My Mensa Card

Well, I have been checking the weather back home in Toronto and it looks quite cold lately. We finally had snow fall here and the temperature has dropped a bit, but I can’t complain. Wish me luck for the next two weeks- I got essays, presentations and tests that I need to write before the end of the first semester!

Prost!

One of the workout rooms that we have in the basement

One of the workout rooms that we have in the basement

Simple, but does the job

Simple, but it does the job

 

London Revisited

Hi again!

Veronika here, reporting from London.

I hope you all enjoyed your break (minus the ice storm if you were in Toronto) while I was slaving over my final essays. I finally handed them in a week ago, so I had a full five days to relax. Not optimal, but I guess it’s still something.

I’m back in London now as of Sunday and it’s been weird getting back into the swing of things. I expect I’ll be tired for about a week while I adjust to the pace of life here. But even so, I’m happy to be back! I missed the cafes, the pubs, and, of course, my friends here.

I’ve only been here for two days, so not much to report, but I did take a few snaps…

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St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

I just love the mix of architecture in London.

I also made it to the top floor of my university building and found out that it has quite a nice view (as well as a library I didn’t know about)!

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Gorgeous

London, you stunner. Guess I’ll be spending more time on the top floor in between classes.

But as much as I like where I live, I plan on travelling a lot more this semester. Ideally I’d like to go to Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam, and Paris. But I’ll see where life takes me – and I’ll be sure to blog about it.

Til next time,

– Veronika

 

 

Reflections from Home

Hi again (and for the last time this semester)!

I’m writing this from the Great White North, back home with Timmies in hand. It’s definitely good to be back for the holidays, even though this semester abroad has been incredible.

I’m happy to see my family and friends, to have a proper shower and heating, to have a break from cooking, and that I don’t have to walk everywhere.

That being said, I do miss my friends and flatmates in London and I’ll be happy to see them again come January. To each his/her own, but I’m glad that I chose to do a year abroad, rather than a semester. I still have so much more to explore in London and so many places to travel to.

Sadly, I still have four essays due beginning of January, which means I don’t get a proper break. I much prefer having my work due before the break, so those of you at U of T – you should feel lucky that you’re done (or will be soon)! I’ll be slaving away by the warm glow of my laptop.

I’m stuck between looking back on the good times I had this semester and looking forward to the times to come, which isn’t a bad place to be. If anyone reading this is considering doing an exchange in London, there are a few things I can tell you that might help your decision along.

1. London is a huge city. If you leave your room, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t be bored. However, it can be intimidating at times. You should consider it if a fast paced life is what you’re looking for.

2. You’ll be surrounded by people constantly. People on the street, people in cafés, people everywhere!

3. It’s incredibly expensive, but it is possible to find good student deals. The UK is much more accommodating to students and student life.

4. You’ll pretty much always be busy.

5. As with anything, it’s what you make of it. If you make an effort to meet new people and explore, you should have an amazing time.

That’s all the advice I have for now. It really just depends what you’re looking for in an exchange. London was the right choice for me, but you should decide what you want to get out of studying abroad.

Well, I should get back to my essays. Words, words, words. (Some Shakespeare for you Lit students).

Happy Holidays everyone!

Talk to you next year…

– Veronika

It’s only just begun…

I have finished my first semester at Sciences Po today. How time flies!

I remember my first day in Paris in all its minute details, but the four months of my exchange seems to have fast-forwarded without my noticing. A year-long exchange is really only 9 months, and the time passes deceptively quickly. I am aghast to realize that many things were left undone (such as attending an opera performance at the Palais Garnier) because I believed I had plenty of time. Regardless of lingering regrets for time misspent, my first semester abroad in Paris was a joyous experience that I foresee will only improve.

Les Mis

Queen’s Theatre

The past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit London and fulfil one of my long-time dreams – watching the West End Les Misérables production. To all theatre-loving students out there, TKTS is the official discount ticket store for all your West End musical, dance and plays. For anyone watching Les Mis, I would recommend avoiding the holiday seasons and Fridays and Saturdays if you want to be able to buy discount tickets. I had splurged on a stalls ticket about eight rows from the stage, and had an altogether amazing three hours there. Since I had made a resolution to actually read the original French version of Les Mis, the West End production was a wonderful motivator. It is not the most holiday-spirited musical out there, but if the chance presents itself, I would highly recommend it (those in Toronto, there is a wonderful production at the Princess of Wales Theatre until February!)

Como

Water of Lake Como – photo taken from Varenna

My London visit was followed by a visit to Milan, and Lake Como. Mostly visited by people during the summer, the little villages on the shores of Lake Como are mostly deserted in December. This may be off putting for some (and it does get quite eerie at times) but it is the perfect time to take photos. There is barely anyone around, and the view is just as breath-taking. From the hectic city-life in Paris and London, Lake Como is a highly recommended place to slow down and unwind. A word of advice, it was warm when I visited the lake, but the sun starts setting around 4pm, and it gets a little nippy afterwards. Plan to arrive early, and leave early.

Lago di Como

Lago di Como

This will be my last post in 2013. Good luck to everyone who still have exams, have a great holiday season and a happy new year!

Grace

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.

Berlin Perspectives

With this blog, I would like to share more about my school life here in Berlin.

The Humboldt University is a massive institution located in the heart of Berlin. There are different campuses across the city, but the main one is in the city centre. There are 11 faculties into which the university is divided. There are about 30,000 students enrolled, with about 4,500 being international students. They have departments for every sort of administration and university-related issue you could think of, such as an international office, kind of like our Centre for International Experience.

One program the international students are offered here is called Berlin Perspectives. It is very unique and involves different aspects. The courses are taught in English in the area of history/politics/social sciences and literature/urban/culture studies. They are aimed at those students who feel their German is not yet good enough to be taking the normal courses offered, which are of course all in German. I myself do fine in full-German lectures, but the courses offered here and the entire program in general just seemed so interesting to me.

Beautiful view from one of my classes

Beautiful view from one of my classes.

Along with these special courses, there are two other aspects which Berlin Perspectives involves. Every student first must take a language course at the Language Centre. This course, which usually entails a fee, is given to us for free. These obligatory language courses are 4 hours per week and it really encourages us to improve on our German skills. A very good incentive.

The other aspect is a mentoring program. We are all paired up in groups with a senior mentor. With our mentor, there are different objectives meant to be completed. For example, we met early on in the semester in the main library with the sole purpose of learning how the system works. From getting internet on our laptops, to logging onto the school computers, to finding books, to taking out books, to using the printers, to checking university email. Such a lesson proved so useful for me and it helped me get a good start to the year. Another topic we covered was how to give presentations in a German-university setting. We went over what the professors look for and some tips that would prove handy. We still need to do two cultural events with our mentor. I think we will go to a classical concert and then to a museum. I am looking forward to it.

The courses offered are Berlin-specific, which is great, since we all live here. Many of the courses incorporate excursions to different parts of the city, which allows us to gain a first-hand experience of what we learned in class. For example, so far I have been to a former East German prison, four museums, a monument, and a district in Berlin. I am seeing parts of this amazing city that I normally never would have been to on my own.

Classic street car I found roaming the streets in East Berlin

Classic street car I found while roaming the streets in East Berlin.

All I can say, is that if any international student is considering studying in Berlin and at the Humboldt University, this Berlin Perspectives program is golden! Even if you just take one of the offered courses, the mentoring program and free language course is included. Plus it is an amazing way to meet English-speaking students who come from all over the world.

This weekend I will be heading off to Hamburg, Germany’s second biggest city. I am sure there will much to share with my next blog!

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