Generation Erasmus: 'University in Nice is not what I expected at all'
Mia Colleran on settling in and getting to grips with the demands of a French university
Mia Colleran: 'University is quite difficult to navigate as an Erasmus student'.
My whole concept of the passing of time is forever changing while on Erasmus. Some days it feels like I just woke up and already the day is gone. Other days I stare out the window wondering why time is dragging and reminding myself that I only have two weeks until I’m home in green, familiar, Ireland.
Homesickness is a universal topic among Erasmus students that crops up sooner or later in any friendship. I’ve come to realise that there are two different types of homesickness: the kind that makes the 2,000 km distance between here and home seem like 200,000 km, and then there’s what I like to call ‘home-fondness’.
Home-fondness is when you quietly laugh at how different things are in Nice/wherever you are on Erasmus and fondly remember that at least at home, things make sense.
Tip number 1: If you’re missing the beautiful Irish accent listen to your favourite radio station from home over the internet or stream a TV you would watch at home. It’s all about the little comforts.
Last week we had a small storm complete with lashing rain and ominous grey clouds in Nice. I was sitting in my French comparative literature class, listening to the rumbling thunder when, in a familiar Irish fashion, the rain began to pelt against the windows.
All the French students in my class gazed out the window and the teacher made a few remarks about the weather such as ‘J’espère que vous avez tous des parapluies !’ (‘I hope you all have umbrellas!’).
I couldn’t help laughing at the teachers concerned attitude – at home we have heavy downpours every second day, we take rain in our stride, but when it rains in Nice the students retreat to sheltered areas to smoke and grumble about the weather.
University in Nice is not what I expected at all. I’m studying English Literature and French which is an interesting combination because I have the opportunity to study English literature as a second language rather than a first language as I study it back in Dublin. I expected the course content to be different; however I wasn’t expecting the entire approach to literature to be as divergent as it’s turning out to be.
The French have quite a systematic way of teaching literature. Everything is very much focused on the ‘problematic’ (ie. they take one question and allow that question to guide their whole answer). Essays must have three points and must be very clearly structured and they tend to be more stylistically analytical rather than philosophically probing.
Tip number 2: University is quite difficult to navigate as an Erasmus student. Don’t make life any harder for yourself – find a native student in every one of your classes and keep running important dates (projects, exams) and questions by them to make sure you’ve understood things correctly.
Often you don’t fully understand what’s for homework or else you don’t understand what’s happening in classes. It’s all quite ‘sink or swim’ – you either run to keep up with all the native speakers or you take a moment and seriously question your choice to go on Erasmus. Then you remind yourself that 80% of the time you are in fact having the time of your life, whether anyone understands you or not.
Tutorials are often two hours long here and some are even combined with an hour-long lecture which means that you often end these classes looking like Mr Bean when he used matchsticks to keep his eyes open. Concentrating intensely on classes taught in your third language can be like mental gymnastics … it ever leaves your head hurting in ways and places it’s never hurt before!
Tip number 3: Cut yourself some slack – it’s ok that you only understand half of what everyone is saying. Don’t forget that this is the second (if not the third or fourth) language that you’re studying through. Keep looking up words you don’t understand and ask people to explain when they use complicated phrases. Someday in the not too distant future it will all sink in and you will be speaking like a pro.
I’m currently going through a phase where my Irish, English and French are all gelling into one hybrid language that no one but my Irish roommate can understand me. Surprisingly, I find myself conversing as Gaeilge more and more (on the bus, in the bank, in the supermarket etc).
I can’t count the amount of times that I’ve been able to secretly communicate in Irish while on my Erasmus – it’s been great! Whenever French bureaucracy gets too much, it’s so easy to rant about it in Irish and offend no one but my 6th Year Irish teacher.
Contrary to what I sometimes believe, my French has improved greatly. It’s not so much my vocabulary that has widened, but rather my confidence in the language has grown. If you give French the time, I generally find that it will give you something back (sadly that can still mean little more than a snigger from a Francophone).
Taking exams though French is challenging and I’ve become very inventive in how I describe words that I don’t know the French for in exams. In my most recent exam a greenhouse became a large room outside of a house with windows and plants inside of it (I’ve looked it up since and the word is la serre).
Nice is starting to feel like home. My roommate and friends have become a little family and the baker in the bakery recognises me when I come in (far too often). I already know the cheapest places to do my food shopping and the best place to buy ice cream in all of Nice.
I know never to go to the bank at half one on a weekday (they close at two and take a pre-lunch break beforehand), to always look out for hooligans on motorbikes, no matter where you are in Nice and to never ask French professors too many questions in class (trust me on that one).
Slowly this new life is becoming familiar to me.