The joy of exams

29 May

 The thought of doing exams in a foreign language is enough to make the strongest of stomachs empty its contents; but the year abroad can’t be all jollies to Germany and exciting new experiences!

The first point I’d make, however, is that exams here actually make a lot more sense. Instead of trying to trip you up with an awkwardly worded question or asking about something that was mentioned in one lecture for three seconds, they give you the opportunity to show what you know. Many exams I’ve done have just given me a subject to write about and I’ve had to come up with my own ‘problematic’ to give my essay an angle. This makes exams a lot less stressful.

In the UK exams are not a test of knowledge; they are a test of speed. Can you write fifty essays in half an hour? Now solve a thousand quadratic equations in the next ten seconds. Remember, you have it easy, in my day we did twice as much in half the time and no one ever got an A! In France they give you a wee bit more time. In one exam I had four hours to write one essay. This gave me time to plan and think. I actually thought about what I wrote rather than just vomiting a string of words that might have something to do with the subject.

There is a generally more relaxed atmosphere in a French exam hall. At home I’ve always felt under intense suspicion; any coughs are clearly Morse code for an answer and being caught cheating equals a violent death. Here they seem to barely consider the idea that someone would cheat. I noticed one girl’s phone going off and saw it was placed in front of her, the teacher didn’t seem bothered. Bags are allowed to be left next to you, not miles away at the other end of the exam hall. Many subjects even let you use your own paper instead of providing the CIA approved anti-fraud paper that I presume we are given.

I don’t want you to think that French exams are all flowers and loveliness though. The standard contempt for students that French university administrations feel does show here. Imagine getting up on a Saturday for 8am to do 8 hours of exams. I managed to get through this without a coffee IV, but I’m not sure how. Some subjects don’t give you an exam period, you do your exams at the end of the semester. This means there’s no revision break, you have to juggle revision and classes; I genuinely missed my usual exam routine this year.

So it’s not a perfect system, but there are things we could learn from it. Although it’s not as bad at university as it was during A-Levels, I still think we should be given longer in exams. I don’t see the point in making students write sub-par essays because they don’t have enough time. We don’t learn anything and the marker has the joy of deciphering scrawl that doctors would take pride in. The lack of time has certainly made me panic in past exams and not do my best. So I’m hoping that I can take the generally more relaxed attitude towards exams that I’ve gained here and maybe even pass my final year. Fingers crossed!

Speaking French in France

26 May

 This sounds like something so obvious, it must be easy. You go to France, speak French all the time and come back fluent. Huzzah! Year abroad objective number one completed. Alas, it is not that simple.

 Before you go abroad you might read something about having to make an effort to absorb the language, it usually involves the phrase ‘active learner’. If you’re anything like me (sorry if you are) you scoff at the warning. I am living in France? That is surely effort enough! All my friends will be French! I’ll go to my French university classes! Anything I do will be educational because it will be in French! Well, as much as I hate to agree with handbooks, I have discovered they have a point.

Finding people to speak French with is not as easy as it seems. Yes, you carry out shop transactions and restaurant orders in French, but let’s face it, that’s not much past our GCSEs is it? Being fluent is about being about to talk about anything, not just ordering a croissant and glass of wine (the classic French breakfast). Your mum might think you’re fluent, but pretty much every French person will know you’re not; including the teachers who will be grading you when you return.

I thought I would make several best friends in Freshers’ Week in my flat. There are two things wrong with that thought. As discussed in another blog, university accommodation is slightly different here; so no ready-made French friends there. Freshers’ Week didn’t seem to exist either. Everyone started at a different time and as there is no real students’ union there were no mass events of drinking and enforced friend-making. Perhaps I should have had the confidence to speak to people in classes more. There are definitely times I should have been friendlier. But I was dealing with homesickness and as such I could barely blurt out ‘bonjour’, much less sound like someone you might want to be friends with.

So I made mistakes and the system didn’t make it easy. I suddenly realised a month had passed and I was not going to come back as thoroughly ‘French’ as all my friends and family had so eagerly anticipated. How did I rectify this? I got ‘Tandem’ partners, which is basically where you meet someone who speaks the language you want to learn to speak your language for a bit and then they speak theirs. This meant that I would have long conversations in French that went beyond ‘je voudrais un croissant s’il vous plait et un verre de vin’. It also helps you meet people who are sympathetic to the language learner’s plight.

It also occurred to me that I could continue to do the things I enjoy, France wasn’t Outer Mongolia after all! I made some forays into the Amnesty group in Strasbourg, but unfortunately the group I found weren’t as lovely as the Edinburgh University group and so I didn’t continue. To the chagrin of many neighbours I play the violin, so whilst I was here I decided to get lessons. This has turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to speak in French and learn to respond quickly without translating in my head first.

Without a doubt the greatest aid to my speaking skills came from moving flat. I now live in a flat share with three French students and speak a decent amount of French every day. It’s meant I’ve learnt everyday language that real French people use. It’s certainly been challenging at points and sometimes I’ve felt like I did during my first ever French lesson when the teacher was speaking French and not a word was familiar. But moments like that have thankfully become more and more unusual and my French has rapidly improved.

So, am I going to come back fluent? That depends who I’m speaking to. I’ve discovered fluency really is an objective thing. I don’t think I’ll be at the level I want to be (i.e. where French people think I’m French) unless I live here for a lot longer. However I do certainly feel more confident and sometimes surprise myself with what I can say. Going to other countries has made me realise how much I do know. In France I feel I can go into almost any situation and get through it, which isn’t something I’m going to sniff at. 

The standard blog about French food

4 Apr

As I am spending my year abroad in France it would be remiss of me not to write a blog about French cuisine. But the thing is, this year I’ve learnt that it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as ‘French cuisine’. Have I gone mad? How can this be true? Am I confused and really living in Germany?

When we look across the Channel we see France and think of it as an entire unit. Our stereotypes of the French demonstrate this. Everyone in France eats garlic, cheese and baguettes which then gets stuck in their twirly moustaches. But France is divided. Regions which have been suppressed for centuries have kept distinct identities of their own which are now being celebrated. When I have visited friends around the country I have been bombarded with local traditions, languages and delicacies.

The Alsace is a wonderful mix of German and French. It seems to me that they’ve taken the best of both cultures and I love it (except perhaps German efficiency, they could do with a dose of that). The food is essentially bacon, cheese and potatoes. Strasbourg is home of the tarte flambée, like a pizza with a thin base covered in crème fraiche and bacon. Everyone who has visited here has commented on how delicious the food is. The Alsace has a tradition of wine-making that dates back to the Romans, so they know their stuff there. Its sparkling wine (Cremant) even beat real Champagne in competitions!

Brittany is like a country of its own, its language barely resembling French would be more at home in the Welsh valleys. You can have an entire meal there based around the crepe; they are possibly geniuses for doing this. I almost wept with joy when I discovered their buttery salted caramel. The fact that they wash this all with cider pleases my West Country side immensely.

Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France. Here I discovered treats made from bright pink praline; I am still thinking about the brioche. I also discovered offal. Lots of offal. It’s a great place to learn obscure pieces of French vocabulary such as brains and tripe. The tipple of choice here is Beaujolais, a lovely light red wine.

So perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that French cuisine doesn’t exist. There are traditional dishes that you find everywhere. The croque monsieur (basically a ham and cheese toastie, but more delicious) is omnipresent. When I asked my French flatmate if he drank wine he gave me a look as if I’d asked him if he drank liquids. But when you go to France don’t get bogged down finding frogs’ legs and snails or even a croque monsieur. Discover the regional cuisine and your stomach will thank you (just be careful in Lyon or you might end up with a cow’s muzzle on your plate)!

Being so busy your head might explode

29 Mar

Being so busy that my head might explode is not a problem I have only encountered on Erasmus. I tend to live in this state and whenever I try not to I get so bored I end up straight back at the head exploding stage. But, like most things in my life, Erasmus has definitely exacerbated the issue.
I’ve always been slightly afraid of ‘missing out’. The Blitz episode of How I Met Your Mother (which essentially deals with this fear) is a terrifying warning to me. Never leave early. Never say no. Take every opportunity. Every single one. Tired? What if this is the night I was destined to meet George Clooney? Work to do? What if I never get to taste Alsatian wine again? Early start? But this could be the event that everyone will talk about for years to come!
Erasmus of course exacerbates any kind of fear of missing out. When I think to myself, ‘this might be my last chance to do this’ it’s not actually irrational. University teaches you how quickly time can go, each year surpassing the last in shear speed. By your year abroad you are aware that you’ll be leaving before you’ve realised it. Discovering a new culture is about finding out how much there is to discover. I often feel overwhelmed at the sheer volume of places I want to see and food I have to try in the Alsace alone.
I’m really thankful I have this fear because without it my life would be fairly empty. It’s what got me to France and made me stay. However, it is an exhausting fear to have. Sometimes I look at my diary and immediately have to hide it again. It turns into a mass of arrows, crossings out and terrifyingly highlighted exam dates. I forget to factor in small things like revision and have to write messages to myself such as ‘leave this weekend free to revise’. However I tried this last December and ended up inviting a friend to stay (still not sure how I managed to pass those exams). Free space becomes a challenge to fill. I forget that I probably have a stomach ulcer forming that needs no encouragement to grow.
So logically I should now give some sage advice about pacing yourself and the fact you can always return. But honestly? Go crazy. Fill your weekends with wine trips and visits to friends around France. Cram revision in that hour between visiting the European Parliament and drinks with friends. Spend money you don’t have on interrailing. As long as you’re enjoying yourself that stomach ulcer will recede (which they definitely can do). Of course try to pass your exams, but in the process why not have some fun too?

When living in France becomes normal

13 Mar

What is ‘normal’ in life? There was a time when living in a medieval building was a goal, now it’s my reality. Every time I’ve gone back to Edinburgh, I’m reminded that ‘normal’ was once something completely different to what it is now and how quickly ‘normal’ can change.

When I first came to Strasbourg everything was terrifying. I remember staring at it from a tram, clutching my luggage and wondering if it was possible for me to live here for a year. Strasbourg was huge and everything was too different to take it. The streets, though picturesque, were labyrinthine. The university system was too complex for a mere mortal like myself. Speaking French on top of that? Not a chance. Now when I return from time away, the same tram ride reassures me. Strasbourg has become smaller and navigable. The picturesque streets are familiar enough to be comforting. Even speaking French seems possible, to my great surprise I often find myself doing it. The university system will always be too complex for mortals, but that’s just vaguely amusing. In short, Strasbourg has become typical.

Going back to Edinburgh has started to feel weird. The familiarity is both comforting and perturbing, as you’re reminded of something that seemed so far away it didn’t exist anymore. The thought of being back there for another year is tantalising, but unreal. It’s hard to reconcile your first love with your new one, a bit of you feels like you’re having an affair! Don’t tell Edinburgh, but I think I quite like Strasbourg…

As for ‘home’, with each year at university it’s become less and less that. I find myself having to specifically plan to spend a week there, otherwise I won’t go back for half a year. There was a time when I couldn’t spend seven weeks away, this year it could have easily been seven months. Of course it’s still lovely to go back, particularly to spend some quality time with my cat and a fridge fully stocked with Cheddar. But it certainly isn’t ‘normal’ anymore. You feel like an invader into your past life; you don’t quite fit into your room or your family’s daily routine.

University was always going to irrevocably change how I viewed ‘home’, but did I expect Erasmus to change how I view Edinburgh? I knew I would miss it and maybe part of me dared to hope that I would fall for another city. Feeling foreign in Edinburgh, a city I once wandered through with aplomb, is difficult. Yet although I might feel torn sometimes (doubtlessly also affected by being in a long distance relationship) I love the fact that life in a once foreign city is normal. But best of all? I get to be a Bristolian, an Edinbugger and a Strasbourgeois all at once and that’s pretty fortunate indeed!

Discovering just how British you are

19 Feb

I used to think I was a bit of a Francophile; more accustomed to the French way of life but accidentally dropped into England at birth. This year has certainly changed that. It’s not that I don’t like France any more, I still think it’s a fantastic country. The thing is, I’ve come to realise that I’m ridiculously British. I fit into so many stereotypes I feel very fortunate that I don’t like tea, if I did I would be nothing more than a caricature of a British person.

I have found myself discussing the Queen and the royal family on several occasions. This hasn’t been because a French person has asked me something about them. No, I have just been involved in conversations with British friends about the royals. As someone who generally leans to the left, I should be a raging republican. I’ve really tried to be one, but I’m just not. I don’t think they should get money from the tax-payer or have any real political power, but I’m not against the existence of a monarchy.

I like nothing more than a good Cheddar, a Victoria sponge and some Cadbury’s. French cheese is great and I won’t say no to some decent croissants and patisserie. However I do genuinely miss many British foods. Sometimes you just want a nice piece of cake or some cheese on toast. I never realised that squash (or ‘diluting juice’ for my Scottish readers) was so uniquely British, you cannot find it anywhere here. Out of all the things he got me for Valentine’s, I think my boyfriend got the greatest response when he handed me a bottle of Irn Bru.

As this blog has previously documented, I find queuing a very important and necessary part of life. Alas, the French do not share this view. In all fairness, it doesn’t always lead to the madness I experienced at the Modern Art Gallery. Yet it can still send me into a rage as I am trying to leave a tram only to be pushed past by people getting on. The rule is simple: people get off before you try to get on. I don’t see why, when people don’t queue for the bus and push past each other, they can’t at least smile and say ‘excuse me’. It also doesn’t seem to be accepted that older or disabled people or people with young children get priority for seats. I have moved a few times and been greeted with exclaims of surprise that I did such a thing. It’s funny how things that seem so natural to me are completely alien to the French.

If I was on the Erasmus X Factor right now I would say something about the roller coaster ride of self-discovery that is Erasmus and then dedicate it to a dead/ill relative. Of course any kind of travelling or new experience is going to lead to you learning something about yourself. But a shower-epiphany (if Euripedes was in the twenty-first century) can do the same thing. Erasmus just makes everything seem to happen at a greater pace and more often. I’m not sure how thrilled I am to discover my apparent patriotism, especially as it is a quality generally associated with BNP members. Yet it certainly has told me more about what I value and, most importantly, the foods I need to live on a daily basis. I shall leave you to ponder the importance of squash in your life.

A Valentine’s Message

14 Feb

Something that gives me hope in the world is the sheer volume of people who are currently in a long distance relationship.  I think there’s something wonderful about the idea that so many people are willing to make a relationship work despite the obvious difficulties of being so far apart. I’m not going to write about all the issues that come with a long-distance relationship; I think many of them are obvious and some are individual to the relationship. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts on a few of the positive aspects.

I suppose I should divulge that today I received a lovely bunch of roses from my beloved, which could render this blog more sickly sweet than it ought to be. But there is something wonderful about having flowers delivered to you, especially in a foreign country. I’m not entirely sure of the wizardry it involves on my boyfriend’s part and I don’t want to know. The romance of the unexpected delivery brightens your day and is something you probably wouldn’t get if you lived within walking distance of one another.

When it is the most practical option to meet in Paris, in February, a girl can’t complain. It’s not my fault that it is the obvious meeting place when I live in Strasbourg and he lives in Edinburgh. The year abroad makes romantic trips away a necessity. I suppose you could argue that takes away the romance, but I would argue it just makes me feel lucky to be in such a position! I get to see my boyfriend and one of the most amazing cities in the world. It’s a hard life.

Someone I know pointed out the fact that you have an unbeatable support system in your partner. Of course it’s not ideal that they are so far away, but Skype and BBM mean it is still relatively easy to be soothed in any moments of crisis. It is tough moving abroad and negotiating a new life in a new language. Having someone who is always there to listen to your rants about French administration stops you having those rants to anyone in French administration!

The year abroad is one of those crazy things you do that you can’t quite believe you’re doing. A long-distance relationship is much the same; wonderful, frustrating and ultimately worth it. The idea of going for it seems mad, but it is possible no matter what situation you are in. If someone told me I would manage to hold down a relationship that spans from Scotland to France I wouldn’t have believed them. It has certainly changed my experience of the year abroad; there have been moments when it has undoubtedly made it harder. But honestly, it’s something I wouldn’t change for the world.