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James Blackburn

Université de Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris VI) 2011-12

My aim is to tell you about my year in Paris, at the UPMC itself and give some advice as to how to approach all aspects of the Erasmus year, according to where I encountered difficulties.

The city

Paris itself is an incredible city. One moment you could be walking along a street, and suddenly a grand boulevard opens up in front of you and sweeps up to a spectacular piece of architecture, a national monument, or usually the Eiffel Tower. Or you may decide to get up at the crack of dawn and collect some items from the boulangerie and visit you local marché to buy some ingredients taken straight from the field to the heart of the city. And sometimes, if you feel like it, you can just walk out onto the street and be a flâneur for the day, taking the city as it comes. I arrived in Paris in late August, and only had a few days to settle in before the start of term, which in France is quite early (the first Monday of September).

I will come to the course and university in a moment, but first a little about living in the city. Paris is amazing and depressing in equal measure. It sort of has a split personality, and despite my opening amble, it can be difficult on a day-to-day basis. Firstly, there is the cost of renting an apartment which, as you can imagine, is astronomical. I had a place sorted in the May before the start of the year with Central Paris Rentals for a reasonable amount of money, but when I later emailed to confirm that all was well about a month before the start of the year, they seemed to have “forgotten” about us and could no longer accommodate me as planned. The full-scale panic this brought about resulted in an expensive apartment, which turned out to have a small family of mice living alongside us. So the lesson is, get written confirmation (on actual paper, with signature) and make sure that the landlord takes a deposit.

Aside from that, there were only a few minor issues encountered during the year. One was that my location near Place Maubert in the 5th arrondissement meant that the food shops in the area were quite small, and in order to get any of the things you wanted, you had to walk for 30 minutes in each direction to a shop of reasonable size. Everyday life in Paris is not easy, and you have to be prepared to allot more time to doing the things that in England would be done almost without thinking. The same goes for paperwork, which lives up to its reputation as being stifling in France (not least at the University, which I will come to in a moment).

Les Parisiens are another of those aspects of Paris which seem to be a double-edged sword. They can appear arrogant, self-centred and devoid of compassion; and many of them are exactly that. What do you expect though, when Paris is the place where people come to make a fortune, lose a fortune or to make a name for themselves. Parisians are very determined and ambitious people, and in a way you come to admire them and loathe them in equal measure. I definitely feel as though their confidence has rubbed off on me though, and just hope that their manners haven’t as well!

The University

The Université de Pierre et Marie Curie, or UPMC, is on a scale unlike any British university I have ever come across. It is at once both smaller and larger than Warwick. This is in the sense that it has more students but is on a much smaller site, with the buildings stacked between 6 and 8 floors high. It also lacks much of a social element: there is no SU, no bars or nightlife. In order to find these, students must go into the less-than-salubrious areas surrounding the Jussieu campus. It was difficult to make contact at the university, partly as a result of the above, but mostly because the French students already have a sufficient group of friends, and so they weren’t actively looking for new ones; although saying that, I did make a few acquaintances throughout the year, which made the classes a little easier despite their length (2 hours for lectures, 3 or 4 hours for small classes).

I would like to recommend that Warwick students take the language classes offered by the university, but I was unfortunately unable to take these because when I was organising the administrative side of things at the start of the year, I somehow ended up with the night classes from 6:30 to 8:30, or sometimes 9:30 and didn’t want to have to experience the horrors of the Maison Pédagogique any more times than were necessary! The language classes clashed with these evening lectures, and so I was unable to go to them, or go out with the Internationaux de l’UPMC (the Erasmus/International student group) for the entirety of the first term.

Academically speaking, the year was a mixture of highs and lows. Getting to grips with the Maths was fine in a sense, but the exam were (speaking personally) marked quite harshly, and learning by rote seemed to be the only way to get any marks on questions about theorems and definitions from the courses. There were some fascinating lectures, particularly in the Histoire des Mathématiques module, which I suggest Warwick students consider taking. The recommended reading and many of the quotes come from Jeremy Gray, the History of Maths lecturer at Warwick, which made for quite interesting discussions during the classes!

The university campus and facilities definitely need some improvement from my experience of them. I never did find the actual Mathematics department on the Jussieu campus (I don’t think there was one), which made it difficult to feel like you belonged. The campus itself was undergoing a major upgrade while I was there, which made the place seem like a temporary facility, but it definitely needs it, to make it into a true reflection of the beautiful surroundings it finds itself in, at the very heart of Paris.

The conclusion

I wouldn’t like my ropey experience to put people off doing the Erasmus year, or indeed, doing it in Paris. The university is improving, and I imagine it will be so much better when they have finished renovating the campus.

In case I haven’t made it clear before I finish this: DEFINITELY DO AN ERASMUS YEAR if you can. I haven’t mentioned language issues because I don’t believe you should fear them: if you struggle to understand something, just give a Gallic shrug, smile and get on with it. There really is so little to lose and so much to gain:

• A massive confidence boost from everything you have achieved, and overcoming adversities
• If you do get a bad experience, think of it this way: when you return to Warwick, you will appreciate it so much more, and it will inevitably mean you go for your degree with even more zeal than before.
• The fact you can put on your CV, with confidence, that you are fluent in a foreign language and have lived abroad.

So don’t put it off or think twice, just go for it, and enjoy it!