Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Je commence des cours en français!

The first few days of lessons were less daunting than I had expected. Apart from a minor administrative problem (one of my modules had been cancelled) which has now been resolved (I enrolled on another), things have gone reasonably smoothly. I actually find it easier to follow lectures than conversational French, for various reasons: firstly, lecturers tend to speak more slowly and clearly (I can think of a few exceptions from my Imperial days, the like of which I hope not to have to contend with here); secondly, conversations are not illustrated with helpful Powerpoint presentations or scribblings on a whiteboard; thirdly, lectures tend to follow a more predicable (if sometimes tedious) form, whilst conversation tend to be more spontaneous, and can be on any of an infinite number of subjects. I find concentrating for a full hour and a half on what someone is saying/writing/alluding to more difficult than understanding the actual language.

Good things about the School:
  • availability of cheap (~40p/cup) coffee in a café in the main entrance hall, dutifully staffed by a man called Eric, who is rather more patient with me now he knows I'm English.
  • availability of even cheaper (~25p/cup) coffee in the students' union bar (known as the foyer des élèves), and cost-price beer.
  • having a three-course meal at lunchtime for £2. With FREE olives!
  • Once one has waded through the bureacracy (or perhaps treading water is a more accurate analogy), things are rather better organised than I had preconceived.

Bad things about the School:

  • It's layout is very confusing
  • People smoke everywhere
  • It's a bit shabby
  • There's no clocks in any of the rooms
  • There is almost no vegetarian food - I have survived off a diet of chips, various salads, fruit, and more fruit. Once, they had Eggs Florentine as a main course, which was nice.

I have adjusted better to a full timetable of studying for the first time in over a year better than I thought. The first (and rather major) glitch came this morning, when there was a staying up too late/alarm clock/waking up problem which resulted in missing the first lecture of a new course. I gather I didn't miss much. I was most dreading the lecturer having said, "Listen carefully, as I'm only going to say this once, and it's really important," whilst I was in bed.

Well, I think I'm off to enjoy (or not) a rock concert at the foyer des élèves.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Walk in the Park

I apologise by the lack of posts recently... I was somewhat perturbed by some abusive anonymous posts. Now the culprit has been identified, I can continue safe in the knowledge that no-one of any important is reading my most private divulgences. However, if you're looking for passionate physical relations, consumption of mind-altering substances, and heavy music, this is probably not the post for you. But, oh dedicated (and rather small) following, sit tight, for I promise to get laid as soon as possible, and I might even have a shandy or two tonight, with Andy Williams on in the background.

On Sunday, Dan, Lieven and I went out to explore the locale. The 13e arondissement was buzzing with people selling their old crap in a neighbourhood bric-a-brac sale that covered several streets. There wasn't much of interest, apart from a couple of glasses that I picked up for 90c. I trust they will be well-used over the next twelve months. The street sale was spiced up a bit by the bizarre sight and sound of some traditional French musicians (see left).

We then experienced some culture at a local art gallery, which was basically someone's house. A pleasant lady explained the processes involved at great length; I expect we understood less than half of what she said between us, but we nodded and smiled encouragingly.

After lunch at a local café (where, after a misunderstanding, they took us to be stupid, and spoke at us loudly in English), we went to visit a few local parks, since it was Paris's Fete de Parcs et Jardins. The main thing the Square René le Gall and the Parc de Choisy had in common was the provision of concrete table tennis tables; I had heard the game has a good following here, but this is just silly!

Now what is going on here? I can only assume that someone didn't get what they wanted for Christmas and wanted to exact their revenge!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

A Night of Exploration

So, after a rather fragile Saturday, I didn't really feel up for a big night; Rupert and co. were going out to the Latin Quarter at about 9pm, but Dan and I were still cooking (yes, that's right - braving the awful kitchen!). In the end, Lieven came by, so we decided to head in the general direction of the Latin Quarter, and if we bumped into them, so much the better, if not, never mind.
The great thing about Paris (and in fact, every other major European city apart from London), is that you can head out for a leisurely walk at 11pm, safe in the knowledge that when you find somewhere nice to sit and chat, you'll be able to buy a beer. OK, it's pretty expensive, and they tend to serve it in thimbles (=25cl), but that comes with the territory, I suppose.
We saw quite a few interesting buildings: the Panthéon, which is a massive burial place for France's great men (and Marie Curie) throughout history; soon after we saw the Eiffel Tower at a distance, which was rather distastefully decorated like a Christmas tree with Kitsch flashing lights; we walked past the Sorbonne, on to Ile de la Cité, and Notre-Dame, which was impressively illuminated. We went around the island and back across Pont Neuf. By this point, we'd walked about 5km, and it was time to sit down for a beer; it was after 1am. Afterwards, we took a different route back, and arrived back at around 2.30am.
Next time, I must remember to take my camera, so that I can make these posts a little more colourful!

Freshers' Party at ENSTA

I think it has taken me at least 24 hours to recover from Friday night's party at l'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Techniques Avancées. ENSTA is much bigger than Télécom Paris, and it seems a lot cooler too! The students appeared to have commandeered much of the main building, covering all the walls with colourful home-made drapes, and turning class rooms into discos. Drinks were quite cheap (you could get spirits for 2 or 3 tokens, and 11 tokens cost E8,00), and it was packed!
I went with Dan, Lieven, Rupert, Tom and Joffre, and we met up with all Joffre's Spanish friends at Cité Université, where we had a rather average dinner, followed by wine on one of the university's lawns. We were rather amused to be moved on by a security guard at 10.30pm, from when it apparently became interdit to sit on that particular lawn. So we moved onto the park behind the university buildings and continued to drink our wine. The gathering was rather eclectic, and half a dozen nationalities were represented, prevalent amongst which was Spanish. Conversations were mostly conducted in French, a rule which was being enforced rather vigorously by Spanish Mark. Just after 11pm, we caught the bus to the ENSTA, in the south-west of the city.
I don't remember a huge amount about the party, apart from Lieven's idea that we should all go to the Eiffel Tower afterwards (which was dismissed due to extreme tiredness, I think), and bumping into Thierry, the President of the BDE (students' union) and his mate, who was trying to convince Dan and I to go to rugby training on Monday!
The party finished at about 5am, which was slightly inconvenient, as we had to wait until about 5.45 for the first Metro!
The next day, when I awoke at 4.30pm I felt shit, and deserved to, since I had the best part of a bottle of "Eurowine" (the cheapest I could find!), in addition to several spirits and a beer or two. Once I had had a couple of aspirin and a shower, I went shopping at Italie 2, the local shopping centre, where I bought some toys: a mouse, and a microphone for the computer. I have heard about this cheap international 'phone service called Skype that I am currently trying to get to work.

Friday, September 23, 2005

A Night in the Latin Quarter

Exciting events of the day (yesterday):
  • buying a toaster and a coffee machine for less than £20!
  • Having a drink on Place d'Italie (and taking out the requisite second mortgage)
  • meeting some more people in the Maisel - Joffre (from Barcelona) and Tom (from Zurich)
  • Having dinner atthe City University, and taking a look round the different Maisons there
  • Going to the Latin Quarter with loads of Spanish guys
  • Having a mostly-French-speaking evening. Pretty exhausting!
  • Walking home from the Latin Quarter; also exhausting .

Exciting events of the day (today):

  • Buying a loaf
  • Using my new coffee machine for the first time
  • Sorting out e-mails
  • Erm...

I'm going out to have dinner at the University again today (very impressive dining hall), then on to a party at Ecole National Supérieure de Techniques Avancées (ENSTA), which should take me well into the morning.

Excuse the brevity of today's post. I'm fed up of looking at a computer screen!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

End of Day 2

Well, I was having a good day until the blogger software decided to go down for routine maintenance when I tried to upload what I had just spent quarter of an hour writing!
This morning, I went to an introduction to the School, given by various members of staff. I met all the other international exchange placement students for the first time. There were quite large contingents of Spaniards and Italians, who sat in big long rows, there was a handful of Germans, a couple of Swiss and Belgians, and other nationalities such as Czech, Polish and American were also represented, in addition to a few North Africans.
The day went ok, considering I was listening to people talking (often about fairly boring bureacracy) in French all day. I'm sad to say we formed a bit of an Anglophone club: I had lunch with Dan a Belgian guy called Leeven (spelling?) who said his English was better than his French. The restaurant was basically a massive canteen; when I asked if they had anything vegetarian, I accepted the offer of an omelette, not realising I'd have to wait ten minutes for them to cook it for me! It was all very nice though, and I understand it's quite reasonably priced, although I don't quite understand the method of payment, which required cash and a card...
In the evening, Dan, Leeven and I met up with a Swiss guy called Patrick, and another Imperial guy, Rupert, and found a very nice and inexpensive Pizzeria, just a few minutes walk from the Maisel (students' house); I think we might go back there! Wine is much more sensibly priced than beer in bars and restaurants - we had a litre of drinkable house red for about E10.
Later, ew went to the "students' union" bar, known as the "forum". Apparently, Wednesday is beer night, which means that non-members get drinks at members' rates, and members get them even cheaper. We were drinking pretty strong Belgian bottled beer for most of the evening, and all at around a quid a pint! We played a spot of babyfoot in the games room, which also contained a pool table and pinball machines. I met a couple of interesting guys, including Pierre, the barman from French Guyana, who seemed to have a hand in organising the poetry night to which we were exposed. All rather bizarre!
The day went quite well in that I have acheived a number of useful practical things, but still don't feel I have entirely thrown myself into Parisian life, linguistically or curturally. There's time yet...

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Arrival of an Englishman in Paris

So I've finally arrived! I got to the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Télécommunications (Télécom Paris) at 8.30am, before the reception of the Maisel (Maison des Eleves) opened. I sat in a café killing time, and making the most of being in a country where one is allowed (and it is socially acceptable) to order a beer at that time in the morning.

The journey was a pretty ordinary affair; I decided to take the coach from Portmouth to London, stopping for a lovely dinner with Lucy in a Spanish place near Victoria Coach Station. At 9pm I then proceeded towards Dover, when I slept until we climbed the plateau which forms the backbone of the White Cliffs. The last time I had sailed from Dover was the last time I went to Paris, for three days with a school trip in 1999.
I had a couple of pints of Murphy's on the ferry with the guy who sat next to me on the coach, a 24-year-old Japanese student of transport studies called So. This broke the ice, and we learnt quite a bit about each other. The journey was eventless until arrival at 6.45am in Euroline's Coach Station in Bagnolet, a bland suburb of Paris which reminded me of White City.
At this point, I was tired, hungry, felt shit, and had no idea where to go. A rather surreal god-send was that this underground coach-park had a café which was open at this hour. I ordered a coffee and a panini, and set about working out how to get to my hall of residence! Eventually, the bloke in the café came to my rescue. I worked out a route, said my goodbyes and exchanged details with So (who had since found me and joined me for a coffee), and made my way to Corvisart Metro.
Having survived the Metro in rush-hour, the walk up the hill to the School, and the beer in the café, I checked in. This was a rather tedious, but fairly harmless process. After filling in countless forms, I was relieved to find that I did actually have a room in this foreign city, and even more relieved to find that (given it's on the 8th floor) there's a lift. When I arrived at my room, I bumped into Dan, a guy from Imperial who's also studying at Télécom Paris, who's staying in the room next door!
Through the day, we explored the local area, and did our best to outwit the bureaucrats who found more and more hurdles for us to overcome. Attempting to take out a French bank account, for example, was one of the most surreal experiences... in order to actually get into the branch, Dan and I had to make our way through something resembling a spaceship's air-lock, presumably designed to prevent crime. We then went down into this pokey office, where two clerks were serving customers. When it was our turn, the clerk frequently had to come out from behind the desk, walk past us, and up the stairs to speak to the Manager. Eventually, he told us to come back next Thursday at 10am with a whole host of documents to speak to the Manager.
Almost as bizarre was our attempt to get a Proof of Residence letter from the "Maisel" (Hall) management. We asked a lady whom we had interrupted from one of many courses of a lunch which appeared to consist solely of yoghurt in different containers. She asked us to write our names and room numbers down and come back later. We did so; nothing had been done, so the guy at the desk got us to fill in another form, put down our names and room numbers and come back later. At no point was it ever made clear to us when we were to come back; on enquiring, it turned out that all these forms had to be stamped. It appeared that the man who stamps the forms is based in the adjoining office, obviously too important to be in public view, and too busy to be disturbed to stamp the forms of the likes of us.
The room is nice, big, slightly old-fashioned, and, broadly speaking, clean. I know it much better now that I have filled in my inventory, discovering French words I never knew I wanted to know. The only problem with the Hall is that the kitchen is ridiculously far away, and there are no cupboards in it; I get the impression it doesn't get much use!